Exposing PseudoAstronomy

February 4, 2017

Podcast Episode 157: Special Cross-Over with The Reality Check, Astronomy Edition

Altern’tive Title:
Yes, Virginia, there really
Is a Canada.

An episode three months in the making, a cross-over with the crew of The Reality Check (Cheque?) podcast: Astronomy! I had wanted to have the group on this podcast because they had been so generous over the last few years having me on several times, but I couldn’t figure out a good angle. Then, someone (sorry, forget who, but it wasn’t me) suggested we just do a TRC-style show but with astronomy topics. The Reality Check, for those of you who do not know, is a weekly Canadian show that is now just under a half-hour that has four hosts and typically three completely random segments per show. It’s almost nine years old, and it’s kept with that basic format throughout its entire run.

For almost all the segments, I asked them to choose topics from various requests that I’ve gotten over the years. We also did a quiz, in TRC style, that gave me a new appreciation for those on the show who conduct those quizzes every few episode. It clocks in at a little over an hour, which is still short considering that my original audio was nearly 1 hour 50 minutes. Pat Roach, the producer of TRC, did the first cut at merging everyones’ audio and cutting out all the stutters and restarts, so a big thanks to him because I did very little after his first cut.

Totally Not Creepy Podcast Cross-Over Episode

Totally Not Creepy Podcast Cross-Over Episode

November 30, 2016

Podcast Episode 152: Modern Flat Earth Thought, Part 3 (Young-Earth Creationists Debunking Flat Earth)

Wow! Young-Earth Christians
Still get some science correct:
A flat Earth is wrong.

Finally out, the second episode for November 2016 just before December hits, is another flat Earth episode. In this one, I make a positive case for Earth being round rather than a negative case for it not being flat. It’s rare that I do these kinds of episodes, but I thought this one in particular would be interesting because I use a young-Earth creationism website to make the argument. As young-Earth creationists tend to reject a lot of modern science, I thought this an interesting pairing. Lots of different lines of evidence are made, including eclipses, ships at sea, parallax, and star visibility.

There are three additional short segments in this episode, the first being logical fallacies (where I went through, very briefly, the three that were talked about in the episode; this was completely unscripted, unlike normal), second being an announcement about why the episode was late (depressed about the US election, then got sick and you may be able to hear a stuffy nose in the episode), and third being feedback: No, I’m not going to debate a flat-Earth proponent.

And, no episode would be complete without microphone issues. I have a new computer I was using and it sounds like when I started doing the three smaller segments, every time I would pause the recording and then re-start, there was some static. Fun times.

Flat Earth Graphic

Flat Earth Graphic

August 18, 2016

Has Yahoo! Finally Hit Rock Bottom, with Horoscopes in its Science Feed?

Jerry Coyne reports today that Yahoo!’s science news feed is reporting on astrology. Not that it’s Taurus excrement, but an article with the headline, “Tonight’s full moon and upcoming lunar eclipse are going to bring about some CHANGE” is full of astrological bull crap.

Not only that, but the picture they use is of an annular solar eclipse. Notice that a “solar eclipse” does not equal a “lunar eclipse.” An annular solar eclipse is when the moon is near apogee (farthest point from Earth) so it appears smaller than the sun’s disk and therefore cannot completely cover it, leaving a ring of solar illumination around it.

Not only that, but the “eclipse” this month is not a lunar eclipse at all, and the one next month is a penumbral eclipse — unless you have a camera and are very carefully looking at the brightness, you will not notice any change.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the 250+ comments (as of the time of this writing) take Yahoo! to task over this.

Though I will let an astrologer have the last word. To the currently highest-rated comment, by “Tia” with 104 up-votes and two down-votes, and 15 replies, “gypsyshookar” (which I originally read as “gypsyhooker”) wrote:

“While I agree with you, as a very experienced and certified astrologer, we have it on our own authority that this qualifies astrologically as an eclipse with eclipse effects. However, it is NOT astronomy which focuses mainly on the observable physical phenomena of rocks in space. Astrology, on the other hand, is based on the observable correlation of life and events on Earth with the placement of the planets. FYI, astronomy is based on the earlier astrology and not the other way around. And before you pooh-pooh astrology, I suggest you take a course in it from an accredited astrologer such as myself, whose name is followed by something like BA,MCL, or better yet PhD. When scorned by a colleague for his belief in astrology, Sir Isaac Newton replied: “I have studied it, Sir. You have NOT.””

July 22, 2016

For Fun, Some Numerology About NASA, Courtesy of Richard Hoagland

I’ve mentioned before that Richard Hoagland’s claims can really be broken down in to four main categories: Numerology, Conspiracy, Pareidolia, and Shoddy Image Analysis.

In this post, I’m going to give you a small taste of the first one so that you can see just how silly it really is. This comes from his radio program from the morning of July 20, where he was discussing the anniversary of NASA’s Viking 1 lander on Mars, approximately 17 minutes into the broadcast (commercials removed):

… the 40th anniversary of the Viking mission, and the 47th anniversary of Apollo 11. And if you think NASA doesn’t do things ritualistically, 47, of course, is part of 19.47, and 40 is 1 more than 39; it’s canonically 40, you know, Old and New Testament, so the numbers, the numerology of NASA is well in operation because, obviously, it was not accidental that Viking was landed on the exact same anniversary date, July 20, as Apollo 11.

Let’s get the only factual statement about NASA out of the way in the above: Yes, NASA does like anniversaries, and it does like major US holidays. So does everyone. It’s a dream from public outreach’s point of view. That’s not unique to NASA. Moving on …

For the above to make any sense, you must realize that Richard loves the number 19.5 because it fits into his magical worldview. It’s really 19.47… (extra numbers after it), but he often rounds to 19.5.

So, what he’s done is removed the whole “19” part to claim that “47” is part of his system of numerology, therefore this particular anniversary of Apollo 11 is important. Of course, this makes absolutely no sense; it’s like me saying that I’m 25 years old, but I’m going to remove the “2” because the “5” lines up with how many knocks I do on a door, therefore 5 is important and syncs up with my age. It’s just stupid.

For “39,” you multiply 19.5 (remember, we rounded) by 2 to get 39. But to get the number to make any sense in Richard’s convoluted system, he had to add 1 because this is the 40th anniversary of Viking.

Now, granted, if you make up an entire numerological system and claim it’s significant, I suppose it may not be entirely fair for me to argue that he’s added yet another ad hoc rule to get to the numbers he wants. Why he didn’t say that the Apollo mission, 11, shows that “1” is important, evidenced by the repetition of the number “1” in it, therefore you can take the “1” from Apollo 11 and subtract it from the anniversary of Viking 1 (another 1!!!), which is 40-1, and you get 39. That makes much more sense than Richard’s ad hoc reason to subtract 1.

This isn’t the first time Richard has done this, though. Some of you may remember his infamous numerology of Comet Elenin in 2011 that proved by 1 in 46.5 BILLION chances that it wasn’t a spaceship.

If it weren’t so sad that people actually believe him, it’d be funny.

April 30, 2016

My Interview on “The Space Show” from Friday, April 29, 2016, Now Archived

Here’s the permanent link for the interview.

We discussed a very wide range of topics related to planetary astronomy and some other astronomy, and there was one caller. From the Higgs field, to Pluto and New Horizons, and craters on the moon to other space exploration.

Perhaps otherwise, it’s easiest just to copy the e-mail that the host, David Livingston, e-mailed me:

1. http://www.thespaceshow.com. You can find your program in the Recent Show section. Right now your show is currently the first one listed but it will move down a space with each show added.

2. The Space Show blog for listener and guest comments has been integrated with The Space Show archive for your show. Here, listeners can ask questions and post comments both during the live interview as well as on the archived program. As the guest, you can do the same. If there are interesting posts on the blog/comment section of the archives, I will be sure to call them to your attention. Your program will move down a line with each new program that is archived. Please note that one must have either a free Disqus account or access comments through one of their social media accounts as we do not permit anonymous posts.

3. The program is now podcasting.

4. Finally, the permanent URL on our website for your program for linking, quoting, etc. is: http://www.thespaceshow.com/show/29-apr-2016/broadcast-2692-dr.-stuart-robbins. Do not upload full audio or video shows to any website including YouTube & your own sites but you are certainly free to link the Space Show program on space relevant sites.

March 15, 2016

Neat Animation of Moon’s North Pole with LASER Altimetry – And Artifacts

I’ll be attending a µSymposium before the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this coming weekend, and I just got a reminder e-mail today. Included in that e-mail was a link to an animation that shows Shackleton crater, a crater that is ON the moon’s north pole. As such, its interior is in permanent shadow.

BUT!! The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument (LOLA) on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has plenty of data that allow it to be viewed: Click Me!.

I find this very neat — until the last decade, we could never see stuff in permanent shadow because we didn’t have the instrumentation. LOLA and LROC have allowed us to do that. And there are thousands of craters in permanent shadow on the moon that may hide water (which is what I’ll be presenting at the µSymposium).

For reference, the north pole of the moon is just about smack dab at the 10:30 position on the large crater’s rim. Just inside the rim, along a line from that small crater just outside the rim to the center of the crater.

But for pseudoscience, you may also notice that there are some artifacts in the data. There are radial streaks from the center of the frame (usually). There’s a prominent one diagonally from upper right to lower left on the upper wall of Shackleton itself. Others are more prominent towards the edges of the animation.

These are not lunar roads nor subways nor trollies nor anything else made by an ancient civilization. They are artifacts in the data itself. LOLA is very well calibrated, and the “average” (root-mean-square) uncertainty is under 5 meters in elevation data. But some tracks (orbits) are a bit off. And since LOLA is fundamentally measuring the time it takes light to bounce off the surface from a laser beam from the craft, it needs to know exactly where the craft was to get an accurate surface elevation.

And some are off by a bit. These manifest in this kind of product as ridges or troughs that are perfectly in a straight line, along the line of the orbital track. It’s something that scientists who use these data see and ignore because we know exactly what they are. But pseudoscientists will look at line artifacts like this, or at image seems in a mosaic, and claim things like they are artificial tram lines.

March 9, 2016

Awesome Movie of Yesterday’s Solar Eclipse from Japanese Satellite

Filed under: astronomy,moon,sun — Stuart Robbins @ 4:07 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I was just going to post this on Facebook but decided to do a two-line blog post instead.

For my second line: Go here and watch this 6-second movie of yesterday’s total solar eclipse sweep across the Pacific ocean, as seen by the Japanese “Himawari 8” satellite.

March 5, 2016

Do as I Say, Not as I Do to Find “Real” Image Anomalies

I finally submitted my first paper for peer-review in practically two years — roughly 350 hours in the last roughly 2 months to analyze the data and write and edit a paper on the craters on Pluto, Charon, Nix and Hydra. So now, in preparation for the big Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in two weeks, I have a few months of other, lunar, work to do in the next 12 days.

So, I’ve started to catch up with Richard Hoagland’s “The Other Side of Midnight” program. The “barely lovable” (as Art Bell has said) folks over at BellGab pointed me to a particular evening of January 30, 2016, where Richard had some of his imaging guys (yes, all guys) on talking about how to expose fakes. As in, people who fake anomalies in space images.

You can probably imagine that my eyebrows did more than rise just a bit.

I’m less than 20 minutes into the episode and already I’ve spotted some of the most ridiculous duplicity in what they are saying. Richard Hoagland and Will Farrar are saying over and over again that you have to go to the original data before you can say anything is real or not.

And they’ve pointed out some good examples, like the anomalies in Hale crater on Mars are all caused by the 3D projection and image compression done by the Mars Express images and it’s not there in the originals.

I’ll say it again: Richard stated on this program that doing any analysis on anything BUT the original images is completely useless. In fact, here’s one example, at about 16 minutes 15 seconds into the recording:

Will Farrar: “They’re going to claim they didn’t go out to get the thing…”

Richard Hoagland: “They didn’t go out and get, what? The original data?”

WF: “The raw. Yeah, the raw data, that’s–”

RH: “Well then it’s pointless! You blow them away on that basis alone! You can’t do science on second, third, fourth, fifth sources, you gotta go to the original. That’s the first rule!”

Another example, about 29 minutes 50 seconds into my recording, jumping off of Keith Laney saying that the first thing to do is get the raw data, Richard stated, “Yeah, that’s the first thing we all do! When we see something interesting – those of who who know how to do this ’cause we’ve been at this awhile – the first thing you do is go and find the NASA original. … Find the original. Do not go by what’s on the web. Never ever just go by what’s on the web, unless it is connected to original data step by step by step.”

I’m not 100% sure what he means by that last “unless…” part, unless it’s his way of giving himself an out. It’s hopelessly vague, for anyone could say that any product they make where they find an anomaly is from the original data and they can tell you the step-by-step process to get there. This was also at least the fifth time he talked about this, but the first time he gave himself the “unless,” so let’s proceed without it.

(Almost) everything that Richard has promulgated over the last few years is based on non-original images. To just mention just three, for examples:

(1) Everything he and others have done with Pluto and Charon has been done with third-generation data, at best. That is, raw data (1st) compressed on the craft, either lossy or lossless (2nd), and the posted lossy (a second layer of lossy) on public websites (3rd). The first batch of truly raw data will be released in April 2016, and it will only be what was on Earth as of encounter. Therefore, by Richard’s own rules, every analysis that he and others have done finding anomalies on Pluto and Charon is “pointless.”

(2) Everything he and others have done with Ceres and claims of cities and crashed spacecraft … see example 1 above. I’m not on the Dawn team, so I don’t know when their first or second batch of raw data will be publicly released. Therefore, by Richard’s own rules, every analysis that he and others have done finding anomalies on Ceres is “pointless.”

(3) His analysis of Chang’e 3 images claiming that there are giant glass structures on the moon was done with JPG-compressed images published on Chinese military websites. Not raw data. He claimed that this was proof that his analysis of Apollo images (which were 5th generation, at best, it’s been estimated) showing giant glass towers on the moon was real. Therefore, by Richard’s own rules, every analysis that he and others have done claiming from Apollo and Chang-e 3 images that there are giant glass cities on the moon is “pointless.”

Well … that was fun.

P.S. Around 15 minutes into the second hour of the program, Richard stated that you can’t possibly do any analysis on anything that’s only 30 pixels across. Well then, Expat’s deconstruction notwithstanding, Richard’s own statement completely disqualifies “Data’s Head” that he thinks he found in an image from Apollo on the moon that he claims shows an android’s head. It’s perhaps 15 pixels across, max.

January 10, 2016

Some Real Science: Lots of Grunt Work, Moon Craters

Over the last few days, I’ve been hunkering down due to the deadline for abstract submission to the premier planetary science conference, the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. It’s held annually in March in Houston, TX. Everyone is allowed to submit up to two first-author abstracts, and I have, for the last couple years, done two. This year’s not an exception. I’ll post about my New Horizons -related one later.

This post is about my abstract entitled, “Developing a Global Lunar Crater Database, Complete for Craters ≥1 km.” Because the file sizes have to be <1 MB, the figures are low resolution.

There are many, many different purposes to conferences, though the primary is “communication with colleagues.” Within that are many different things, like talking about your research and getting ideas. Another is to be able to show colleagues what you are doing so that, if your name happens to come in, say, a grant application, they might just recognize it.

For LPSC this year, my non-New Horizons abstract is in that category. I’m setting myself up for writing a grant later this year to build a lunar crater catalog that contains a lot of information about roughly 1 million craters on the moon. It’s been rejected for a couple years, and one of the underlying reasons is that I don’t know how many craters there are, therefore I can’t give a good, accurate work effort estimate to do all the information-gathering about each crater.

This abstract is meant to answer part of that. I’ve been leveraging bits and pieces of funding from different sources over the last year to do the initial mapping part — identifying the craters and locating them and measuring their diameters. For this abstract, I’ve roughly 28% of the moon done. For the March conference, I’m hoping to be closer to 50%, and by the time the grants are due this autumn, 100% so I know how many craters I have to do more stuff with.

Two more things I want to talk about in this slightly longer post. First is grunt work. Science is not easy. Science is rarely glamorous. Science is sitting down and 99% of what you do no one will ever know about because it’s only the results – not that big data-gathering process – that form the bulk of your paper. Methods sections are usually <25% of a paper because relatively few people care about that in comparison with your results.

And trust me, sitting down and drawing circles for hundreds of hours on end is NOT glamorous. But the results are cool.

Second is why we care – why are the results "cool." One reason is that it just looks cool — seeing all those dots that indicate a crater, and seeing all the patterns that emerge tell us a lot about the different history of those areas of the moon. The main one is ages (more craters = older). But we can also do things like better understand what's hit the moon in the past, and hence what is likely to hit Earth in the future. We can study different materials even, which is why the second figure is devoted to permanently shadowed regions where there might be water (areas that never see the sun act as cold traps for water molecules).

Anyway, this is turning out longer than I wanted, so to wrap it up … that's one thing that has been occupying a lot of my time over the last few days. One down, one to go.

September 23, 2015

A Piece of Lint Becomes a 10-Mile High Tower on the Moon


I subscribe to Expat’s “Dork Mission” blog in my RSS reader, and so I’m privy to people other than Richard Hoagland that he has made an hobby of watching and looking for perversions of rationality. One such set of claims is by a self-titled “civilian intelligence analyst,” Robert Morningstar.

Robert Morningstar (or M* as he occasionally signs things and I’ll use for short) was on Richard Hoagland’s radio program on September 3, and on the program he discussed many things, but there was one in particular that I’d seen Expat discuss before, but I’d never really investigated myself.

The claim is so bizarre that I wanted to share it with you.

The Claim: Big Ben on the Moon

Robert has made this claim for at least a year, that he has found what he terms “Big Ben” (named for the famous London landmark), but on the Moon. He found this while analyzing lunar photographs. The object is 10 miles high, according to his analysis.

It was only when I heard how he did his analysis and I looked at the photos he presents, myself, that I decided this blog post was worth it.

The Photo

First off, it’s difficult to know what photographs he used in terms of catalog numbers. Robert, like many in his field of anomaly hunting, does not provide documentation to allow independent analysis, rather he only presents the image in and of itself. This also means I can’t go find other versions of it that might be earlier generations, nor can I find the highest quality nor resolution.

Based on the fiducials (crosshairs) faintly visible in the photograph, I think this was Apollo. From searching through Expat’s blog, I found I was correct, it’s Apollo image AS17-M-2366.

To wit, here is the photograph that he claims hosts “Big Ben,” which I got at higher resolution than from Richard Hoagland’s site from another site where M* was interviewed:

AS17-M-2366 Early Scan

AS17-M-2366 Early Scan (click to embiggen)

If you don’t see much, that’s not surprising. What Robert is calling “Big Ben” is a small apparent bright protrusion from the upper-left of the moon’s limb. Here is the enlargement that he provided to Richard:

“Big Ben on the Moon” According to Robert Morningstar (click to embiggen)

He Analyzed a Photograph of His Computer Screen

Let that heading sink in a moment. What Robert did, as he stated on-air, and is evident from the obvious slightly rotated-from-vertical pixels in the second image, is he took the first photo (likely higher resolution than I have, but again I don’t know what the photo is so I can’t look), he likely enlarged it on his computer screen (if he didn’t, that doesn’t matter for this analysis), and he then took a digital camera and took a photograph of his computer screen.

It’s from that photograph of his computer screen that he then did any and all subsequent analysis.

This is one of those cases where I’m literally at a loss for words. It’s almost a situation of Not Even Wrong. To put it as succinctly and briefly as I can, he has introduced a substantial amount of completely unnecessary artifacts into the image that the idea that he thinks this is a proper way to analyze an image makes me question every single other claim he might ever make in the future.

Put another way, he has somewhat close-ish to original “pixels” in the original image (again, this is a somewhat early scan of an early copy of an Apollo photograph). Why would you then go and take a picture of your computer screen and analyze that picture?!


Beyond the ridiculousness of analyzing a photo of his computer screen that was showing a digital image, there is a big red flag that indicates this is simply a bit of contamination (lint, dust, etc.) on the scanner that was used to scan the print: Just under 600 pixels away, there is a very obvious piece of lint on the print, a bright bit that’s 1-pixel-wide that has a slight bend at the end:

Lint in AS17-M-2366

Lint in AS17-M-2366 (click to embiggen)

Lint. Just like “Big Ben.”

And, as others on Expat’s blog have pointed out, in the next frame of that sequence of photographs (AS17-M-2367), from that scan generation, the approximate same pattern of lint has moved off the limb of the moon by what would be ~1000 km:

Moving Lint in Apollo Photograph Scans

Moving Lint

And, in classic pseudoscientific fashion, M* does not look for other scans of the same photograph and show us that the feature is still there, nor does he present us with any images from a half dozen other spacecraft that have photographed the entire moon since Apollo and shown us that the feature is still present.

In fact, towards the former point, Arizona State University is in the process of scanning all the Apollo photographs at much higher resolution than had been done years ago by the Lunar & Planetary Institute (LPI). Here’s the link to AS17-M-2366 where you can download a 1.2 GB version of the image, or you can browse a 660 KB or 11 MB version.

You’ll note that, if you take a look, those pieces of lint are gone. Now I suspect that if confronted by this, Robert would just say that it’s been removed by The Powers that Be to hide it and give fodder to debunkers like me.

Final Thoughts

Here’s the problem: If your only evidence is one version of one photograph, and no other version of that photograph, the next photograph in the series that shows almost the exact same area, nor any other photograph of that area shows the feature, chances are your first photograph is the one that’s wrong, not every other one.

Given that, and given the above, here’s another reason why I don’t have a problem classifying M* as a pseudoscientist. This is a quote from him when he was on a radio program discussing “Big Ben:”

Now these debunkers, they claim that that’s dust on the film, or an anomaly in the emulsion. Again, I’m just showing you a picture that was taken by Apollo 17 — a picture that’s been in the archives for 42 years and I just happen to be the one that found it and recognized it, so I show it to you. And what do you think that looks like? I told you what I think it looks like, so I named it that. I named it “Big Ben on the Moon.”

In that, he completely avoids the content of the criticisms of his claim, and he goes even one more step backwards: He seems unable to even consider that it might not be on the original image: “a picture that’s been in the archives for 42 years.”

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a feature that looks like lint, only found in one version of one photograph, that looks like lint in other areas of the photograph, and compounded with “analysis” of that feature on a photograph of that image being displayed on a computer screen, does not extraordinary evidence make.

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