Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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.

September 9, 2015

Podcast Episode 140: Doomsmonth— September 2015

Doomsmonth: September.
What could it bring that hasn’t
Yet been wrought on Earth?

Are we all gonna die this month? You’ll need to listen to the episode to find out. I’ve heard lots of rumors floating around about various things causing our doom, and in this episode, I go through five of them and assess their validity and background.

The logical fallacies segment presents two logical fallacies: Correlation ≠ causation, and cherry picking. Otherwise there’s a bit of feedback from both Gavin and Graham, and that’s it for this nearly 40-minute episode.

August 5, 2015

Why I Called Richard Hoagland’s Radio Show Today, Why I Used a Pseudonym, and What We Learned


Warning: This is a long post. It references several other blog posts I’ve written, and two audio clips. That said …

Richard Hoagland has his own radio program now, “The Other Side of Midnight,” on Art Bell’s “Dark Matter Digital Network.” It’s a two-hour program that programmatically airs live, Monday through Friday, from 1AM until 3AM Mountain Time (hence it really airs Tuesday through Saturday in the US except Hawai’i). It is young, only in its third week, but already many patterns have emerged.

Readers of this blog and listeners to my podcast will know that I have critiqued many of Richard Hoagland’s claims in the past. Heck, the tree of episodes of my podcast even has a specific section for Richard Hoagland’s claims that I’ve addressed.

Last night / this morning, Richard had open lines calls. I made it through and was on for just about 13.5 minutes. Here’s why I called, why I was “Robert from Wisconsin,” and what we learned. Oh, and the reason why I’m outing myself here is that someone already e-mailed Richard and told him it was me.

Why Richard — Aren’t I Beating Up on Him?

Right off the bat, one might ask why Richard occupies a whole category of my astronomical interest in fringe claims. There really are two reasons, but first off, if you’re asking this question and you think I’m beating up on him, you should ask yourself, “Does Stuart have to justify why he focuses on any particular claimant or set of claims? Does he not have a right to do any he wants that interest him?”

In addition, I recommend you read this blog post: “Do Skeptics Hate the People They Debunk?”

That out of the way, there are, as I said, two reasons. First, Art Bell and Coast to Coast AM. And, Richard was one of the more frequent guests on said late-night paranormal program for nearly two decades. I spent a lot of time listening, and hence listening to Richard Hoagland. One is usually wont to focus on something that they hear more often than things they don’t.

Second, you can hardly swing a dead mouse in planetary science fringe claims and NOT hit a topic that Richard Hoagland has dipped into. He is prolific. And, I study planetary geology and, even more specifically, images and image analysis. Richard Hoagland focuses on claimed “geologic” features on other planets and moons and asteroids and comets, and he uses image analysis (faultily, I’d argue, but uses it nonetheless).

So, because of what I listen to, and because of his own prolific behavior in the fields that I focus on, Richard Hoagland rises to the top in terms of claimants that I tend to focus on.

Why Did I Call?

I called Richard’s radio program because I have often been encouraged to call into programs that he is on to ask him questions. This has been by fans of Richard, and/or by fans of my own material. Occasionally, it’s been in the form of “put up or shut up,” that I shouldn’t be arguing to no one, I should ask him specifically for explanations or justifications of his claims rather than just writing about them here or podcasting about them.

In addition, I’ve been encouraged by many people to “debate” Richard. That’s a separate topic entirely, but as a flavor, I wanted to see what would happen if I were to call, and attempt to just discuss one or two very specific topics with him, to get an idea of how a debate might play out. More on that in the “What I Learned” section of this post.

Why Was I “Robert from Wisconsin” Instead of “Stuart from Colorado”

I’ve never really known if Richard knows of me or not. Some people never “Google” themselves or never hear about people who speak of them. If I had called two shows earlier, I would have used my real name. But I didn’t, and here’s why:

John E Brandenburg was on Richard’s program the night of August 3/4, the show immediately prior to the one I called into. I have both written on this blog about Dr. Brandenburg and his claims and presentation, and I have podcasted about his main thesis, that Mars was nuked.

Back in March of this year, Dr. Brandenburg “presented” his ideas at a science conference. I documented it extensively on this blog because of issues I have of lending legitimacy to fringe ideas by “letting” them into science conferences. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario: If you let them present, they claim legitimacy (as Dr. Brandenburg has done extensively, for in every interview I’ve heard of his on more than 4 radio programs, he cites presentations at science conferences as lending legitimacy to his claims), or if you don’t let them in they claim censorship.

However, despite my documentation of his presentation at the March conference, his recitation of those events contradicts reality. And, his statements of the conference, made just under two weeks apart, contradict themselves.

Here’s Coast to Coast, July 27, 2015:

“I was most recently at the Lunar [and] Planetary Science Conference, the premier conference on planetary science. I presented the paper as a poster paper for two hours. I got a lot of people [who] came up and looked at it. And uh, other planetary scientists, and no one contradicted me. No one said, ‘Oh, you got this wrong,’ or ‘That’s because of this,’ or something like that. Finally, one fellow just said, ‘Did they do it to themselves, or did somebody else do it?’ And I hadn’t even mentioned the term ‘aliens’ or ‘civilization’ at all. But it was obvious to him that something had targeted Mars for absolute destruction.”

Versus Richard’s program, August 4, 2015:

“I went and presented this stuff at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston in this March, and I got a lotta– I presented as a poster, they-they let me present it as a poster, and, uh– The best and the brightest, I could tell, came to my poster and argued with me and uh, we went back and forth, and finally nobody had any other explanation for the pattern of data on Mars.”

To me those seem mutually exclusive (either no one contradicted him or said he was wrong, or people argued with him). And it flies in the face of what I documented a few days after the fact, where he set up and was at his “posters” for no more than 15 minutes and only spent half that time actually at his poster and talked to perhaps one dozen random stragglers.

Anyway … In response to that blog post, at the end of June of this year, I was asked by another radio host if I would do a debate with Dr. Brandenburg. Here was my response, in full:

Thank you for your invitation to debate Dr. Brandenburg, live. I am going to have to decline. While I stand by what I wrote and my opinion about his ideas, doing a live debate on this topic is not something that I can do. The reason is subject matter expertise.

For example, if we were to debate about the chronology of the Moon or Mars, especially from impact craters, I’d be all for it because that is my research area. If we were to debate on the “Face” or “Pyramids” on Mars, I could do that reasonably well because it is something that I have heavily researched over the years and know the topic and arguments well (though I know Richard Hoagland’s and Mike Bara’s arguments about it better than John Brandenburg’s). The same goes for Planet X, image analysis, the “true color” of Mars, and some other topics.

However, I am not a spectroscopist. I’m not a nuclear engineer. When I have addressed Dr. Brandenburg’s claims, I have had to do external research for each claim. The same goes for the two e-mail exchanges I have had with him. While I am still confident in my conclusions based on that research and what I know about related subjects (e.g., his implication about the age of Lyot crater and that being one of his favored nuke sites — it doesn’t work with the chronology he needs), this method is not conducive to a live debate, and therefore I decline.

If you are referring specifically to my points about how to behave at a scientific conference and Dr. Brandenburg’s presentation there, there is nothing to debate. What I stated is objective fact, and I have documentation for much of what I stated.

If you would like me for a different program to discuss something I named in the second paragraph or is aligned with my research (http://about.sjrdesign.net), then I’d be happy to discuss it further.

In that response, I clearly laid out that Dr. Brandenburg is not someone I’m comfortable debating live because of the subject matter expertise in that area, versus other things I could debate live. I think that’s pretty clear.

However, in the same interview on Richard Hoagland’s show, starting 1/3 of the way through the second hour, there was this exchange. (The audio is posted here.)

JEB: “I’ve had one, one uh Mars blogger go after me.”

RCH: “Who?”

JEB: “I challenged him– This guy named Stuart Robbins.”

RCH: “Oh! Yes! [grunts/groans]”

JEB: “Well I challenged him for– to a debate–”

RCH: [chair squeaks on floor]

JEB: “He won’t debate me.”

RCH: “He won’t debate you? Now that’s interesting. Because he has challenged uh Bara to a debate. [laughs]”

JEB: “Well. He should cha– he, you know, I– I’m– I’ve challenged him to a debate, he won’t debate me!”

RCH: “Uh, does he say why?

[Either the stream loops, or they just repeated verbatim the last two sentences.]

JEB: “Um. [pause] He-he– he basically told a third party he felt he didn’t have enough expertise.”

RCH: “Wait-wait-wait a minute. He doesn’t have enough expertise, but he can– [during this time, JEB was talking over/under RCH, here’s where JEB started to dominate]”

JEB: “[reconstructed: he has enough expertise to criticize my work] but he doesn’t have enough expertise to– He’s just a [unintelligible] troll.”

RCH: “Well yes, he is a troll. You know– is he–”

JEB: [again, here’s where JEB started to dominate over RCH since they were speaking at the same time] “and I so, anyway so, um–”

RCH: “John, John, hang on. Is this the same Stuart Robbins astronomer who is attached to the New Horizons mission in Boulder, at Southwest Research Institute?”

JEB: “Oh, of course he is!”

RCH: “That’s the guy.”

JEB: “Yes!”

RCH: “He mentioned me and Keith Laney in connection with our Pluto discussions the other morning. Out of all the people in all the gin joints et cetera, [JEB laughs] for some reason he brings up us because we’re discussing arcologies visible– John, you gotta look at these Pluto images! Everything we’ve seen at Cydonia that’s in ruin, horrible ruin, is in such better condition at Pluto, and the images are not the highest res!”

They called me a “troll.” Now let me make it clear, I’m not protesting that term. If what I do is their definition of “troll,” so be it. For the record, before last night, I had never communicated personally with Richard, and John has only initiated contact with me before. And my dictionary’s definition of “troll” with respect to the internet is: “make a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.” I’ve never had the aim of upsetting someone with my Exposing PseudoAstronomy work, nor eliciting an angry response, so I don’t think I fit the definition of “troll.” If Richard or John want to play scientist (uh oh, did I just troll?), then they need to recognize when something is aimed at them versus their claims, and they need to know how to take criticism of their ideas and come back with better evidence of those ideas, not just call someone an “idiot,” “hater,” or in this case “troll.”

But besides the name-calling, John completely misrepresented my response to the radio host in terms of why I declined a debate.

So the reason that I used a pseudonym when calling Richard this morning was that I didn’t want him to reject my call because of who I am, nor did I want him to enter the conversation with preconceived ideas. You might disagree with that reasoning. It was also 2AM my time and I was falling asleep. But I stand by using a pseudonym for the reasons explained above.

What I Talked About

Colorado is a one-party consent state, so I can legally post the full audio of my call without worrying about fair use of nearly 14 minutes of a radio broadcast. Here is the audio, in its 4.2 MB “glory.”

My intent was not to really argue with Richard. There was also no real point in going on and saying who I was and I’d like to debate him, that’s incredibly confrontational and I saw no reason for it. Instead, I wanted to ask him about two things specifically:

  1. Why does Richard keep calling things a “model” as opposed to putting his £1 down and saying whether he thinks something or another is true?
  2. Why has Richard not identified (or searched, if he has) his lunar “glass towers” in any imagery other than scanned Apollo photographs or small, JPG’d Chinese photographs of the moon?

Let me explain each …

#1 might seem trivial, and indeed, Richard tried to say exactly what I knew he would say but I didn’t get the chance to be specific: He said that he says “model” because it is a “model based on data” and subject to change based on more data. This is very scientific. And on its face, is the hallmark of someone following the scientific process.

However, as Richard tends to implement it, it is a crutch to fall back on when he is shown to be undeniably. For example, that comet Elenin was a spaceship was a “model” that Richard insisted, based on the “data” at the time, but Richard insisted that it was really true, and he used language such as “undeniable” and “proof.” He’s since generally refused to address it after Elenin broke up. Meanwhile, his latest and “greatest” stuff about archologies on Pluto are also a “model” that he insists is real based on the “data” that he has.

You might be asking where I’m going with this since it seems like he’s doing exactly what I said should be done. This is subtle, so stick with me (and you may disagree). A scientist will say that they have built a model based on the data, and they think it’s true because there is not contradictory data. As soon as some comes up, they change their model. Richard, on the other hand, seems to use the term “model” to mean “Absolute Fact” when he comes up with it and fervently insists it’s real (using additional words like “prove” and “undeniable”) – despite issues raised by other people about it – but then when it turns out to be false based on overwhelming evidence against it, he’ll explain it away by saying, “that was just a model, a scenario.”

You simply can’t have it both ways, but Richard seems to try.

#2. Moving on, the second point is something Expat has written more about than I, but I addressed in a very extensive blog post a year ago, “Is Camera Noise Evidence for Ancient Advanced Civilization on the Moon?” Unfortunately, at 2:20AM, I said “JPEG artifacts” instead of “camera noise” which I’m kicking myself for now.

But here was the point I was trying to get across: Inconsistency. Richard claims there are glass towers on the moon. His evidence A is Apollo photographs of the lunar sky that were in an album of Ken Johnston for decades and then he scanned at home. His evidence B is the Chinese images that I linked to in the blog post in the previous paragraph.

The question I was trying to get across is that he has these two missions’ data, but that the anomalies he’s seeing could be fairly easily explained by something mundane: Dirt on the photos or scanner for Apollo, and detector noise, optical effects, and compression artifacts for the Chinese images.

It’s not possible today to get literally original images of Apollo, they are stored in vaults that ain’t no one touchin’. The Chinese space program – like most government things in China, is very closed, and the at least claimed original, raw images from the spacecraft are not available in any public archive I’ve found.

So my attempted question was simple: Has he seen these features in ANY of the OTHER space missions’ digital images that you can get in at least what is claimed as original, raw format? E.g., any from Clementine, Lunar Prospector, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Kaguya, Chandrayaan-1, etc.?

Once I finally was able to sort of get the question out in mangled form (more on that in the next section of this post), Richard’s response was, how do we know that those official raw images are really real and unaltered? You can just have a computer do a levels clip to remove the glass towers.

But that’s where the inconsistency is: It appears as though Richard is arguing that official images that show what he wants them to show are real and original, but those that don’t show what he wants them to show are altered. It’s a tautology, a circular argument:

  1. How do you know if those features are real?
  2. If they are on an official image, does the image show those features?
  3. If not, then the image has been faked. If the image shows those features, then the image is real. Therefore, since the image is real, the features are real.

Or something very close to that. In other words, you can’t use the premise that the only real, unaltered images are ones that show your features of interest as the criteria for whether your features of interest are real. It’s also highly suspicious that the only images that Richard says he sees his features in are ones that really are more simply explained by some other process, rather than those images that scientists would actually use from other spacecraft.

Or, perhaps it’s the assumed major premise fallacy. Regardless, hopefully you have gotten my point, and it’s what I was trying to get across in my call.

What Did I Learn?

From listening to over two decades of Richard’s interviews, I knew the basics of what to expect, that Richard would (1) allow me very little time to speak, and (2) tend to go on unrelated tangents. I thought I was prepared.

If you listen to the audio, I encourage you to time how long I spoke versus Richard. I also encourage you to count how many times I attempted to ask my second question, and how many times Richard went on a tangent.

So one thing I learned is that I canNOT – even if offered – debate Richard on his own program without a fair moderator. Even when Richard is hosting a normal show with a single guest, Richard spends at least an equal time talking as the guest, if not more. That’s untenable in a debate, to be both a debater and the host. Let’s put it this way: He’s so passionate about his claims that he has demonstrated an inability to self-moderate and keep himself on-topic and to a time limit.

Another thing I learned was that if Richard wants to tell a story, he will tell it, regardless of what you’re trying to ask. Seriously, listen to the audio. Then see the above paragraph. I don’t think I’m being unfair in this statement.

This makes the third thing I learned, that it is very, VERY difficult to ask a question that’s longer than one sentence. Because I kept trying to set up my second question by giving the preamble that people have found holes with his Apollo and Chinese images (background) that he should look to images that are unambiguous with his critics (question/statement), he kept jumping on to try to explain tangents related to the background statement that really didn’t have anything to do with my question.

This is yet more reason why any debate would need to be very, very structured. Not only with an independent moderator, but also with topics prepared ahead of time such that the moderator would keep the debaters to them. Even when I made the side-comment about much of the Apollo photographs referenced by conspiracists being film positives rather than negatives, Richard went on a roughly 2-minute tangent (guessing here, I haven’t re-listened to time it). Those tangents add up and really don’t add anything to the conversation.

Another thing I learned is that Richard will use semantics to explain something or make a point, regardless of its validity. For example, “model.” For another example, when I was trying to ask my second question for the Nth time, Richard said that his critics are “idiots” who think that his glass structures on the moon that he sees in Apollo images could be dirt on the photos or scanner. I said that they have an “explanation” for it, and Richard said they didn’t. I said that’s semantics — they do have an actual explanation, he just may disagree with it, and it may be valid or invalid, but they do have an explanation. Richard again said that was wrong, and that he wasn’t playing semantics. He was. According to my dictionary, “explanation” is “a reason or justification given for an action or belief.” It says nothing about that being a valid action or belief.

Final Thoughts

That’s a lot of text, over 3300 words. And I may add a bit as the day progresses and I think of more things.

I’m not going to go through the call and dissect it bit-by-bit, there’s no real reason for that.

But, there you have it, why I called in (encouraged to do-so), why I used a pseudonym (he called me a troll and I didn’t want that to bias the call), and some of what I learned.

Oh, and add to Lessons Learned: I need to use my good microphone, and I need to have a drink of water next to me. My voice was higher than normal during the call.

April 23, 2015

How Do We Know How Old Stuff Is on the Moon?


While this movie is branded under “Exposing PseudoAstronomy” for legal reasons, it has less to do with popular misconceptions/conspiracies/hoaxes and more to do with real science. This is my third more modern, lots of CGI movie, and my second to explain a research paper that I wrote.

In the movie, I go through how the lunar crater chronology is the fundamental basis for how we estimate the ages of surface events across the solar system. I also explain how my work affects the lunar crater chronology and what can be done to better constrain it.

I’m still waiting for a young-Earth creationist to claim that because of a factor of 2 uncertainty, 4.5 billion becomes 6.019 thousand.

I also wrote a blog post about this for The Planetary Society. Because it was posted there over two weeks ago, I think it’s fair game to repost here. You can click on any of the images for larger versions, and all of them are screenshots from the YouTube movie.

Planetary Society Blog Post

Three years ago, I started a project to replicate work done by various groups in the 1970s and 1980s. When the project was completed, the result implied that much of what we think we know about when events happened in the solar system were wrong, needing to be shifted by up to 1 billion years. I presented this in a talk at the recent Lunar and Planetary Science Conference at 8:30 AM, when most people were learning about the latest results from Ceres.

The project started simply enough: I downloaded some of the amazing images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Wide-Angle Camera (WAC) that showed the Apollo and Luna landing sites. Then, I identified and measured the craters (my dissertation work included creating a massive global crater database of Mars, numbering about 640,000 craters).

The reason to do this is that craters are the only proxy we have for ages on solid surfaces in the solar system. We can determine the relative age of one surface to another (is it older or younger?) by looking at which has more craters: The surface with more craters will be older because, when you assume that craters will form randomly across the body, then the surface with more craters has had more time to accumulate them.

How to Use Craters to Understand Ages

Basic principle behind this work. (Background image © NASA/ASU; composite © S.J. Robbins.)

If we want to use craters for an absolute timeline – as in, actually put numbers on it – then we need some way to tie it to real ages. This was made possible only by the United States’ Apollo and the USSR’s Luna missions that returned rocks from the moon that could be radiometrically dated in labs on Earth.

With these radiometric ages, we then identify the craters on the surface those rocks were gathered and say that a surface with that many craters per unit area is that old.

That’s the lunar crater chronology: The spatial density of craters larger than a standard size versus radiometric age (we use 1 km as that standard size). This crater chronology is then scaled and used as a basis for the chronology across the rest of the solar system. When you hear someone say that something on the surface of Mars is X number of years old, chances are that’s based on the lunar samples from the 1960s and 70s and the crater counting done 40 years ago.

Apollo 15 Landing Site

Example landing site area, Apollo 15 (yellow star). Blue outlined areas indicate regions on which craters were identified, blue shaded areas were removed because they are a different type of impact crater, and blue circles are the craters mapped and measured. (Background image © NASA/ASU; data and composite © S.J. Robbins.)

And, that’s where my project came in. While the rock samples have continued to be analyzed over the decades, the craters were not. It’s easy to assume that the researchers back then did a great job, but by the same token, science is about replication and re-testing and we have developed new ways of doing things in the crater community since the Apollo era. A simple example is that the crater chronology requires a spatial density, and therefore you need to know the area of the surface on which you have identified craters. Over the past 40 years, we have better understood the shape of the moon and now have computers to allow for much more precise area calculations. This can result in changes by 10s of percent in some cases.

When I had finished my reanalysis, my results differed for many of the landing sites, in some cases by a factor of 2 from what the standard is in the field. I was surprised. I checked my work and couldn’t find any mistakes. So, I combed through the literature and looked to see what other people had published. I ended up finding a range of values, and only in one case was my result at the extreme low or high of all the published results. I showed my work to colleagues and none of them could find any issue with it. So, eventually I published it, early last year.

The Lunar Crater Chronologies

The new (blue) and old (red) chronologies and the data used to fit the model. The vertical axis shows the spatial density of impact craters larger than or equal to 1 km in diameter, and the horizontal axis shows the age of the surface from radiometric dating of collected rock samples. (© S.J. Robbins)

When I fit my crater data to the radiometric ages, my fit function showed a difference with the standard that has been used for three decades: Surfaces assigned a model age of about 3.5 to 3.7 billion years under the old chronology were older, by up to 200 million years. And, surfaces younger than about 3.4 billion years under the old chronology are younger, by up to about 1 billion years.

Differences Between the Lunar Crater Chronologies

The new and old chronologies in blue and red (top), and the difference between them in terms of model surface age. (© S.J. Robbins)

There are a lot of implications for this. One is that volcanism on the terrestrial planets may have extended to more recent times. This would imply that the planets’ cores stayed warmer longer. Another implication is that the large reservoirs of water thought to exist around 3 billion years ago may have existed for another 500 million years, with implications then for favorable environments for life.

But, something that I added near the end of my LPSC talk was the question, “Am I right?” The answer is an unsatisfying, “I don’t know.” I of course would not have published it if I thought I was wrong. But by the same token, this type of science is not about one person being right and another being wrong. It’s about developing a model to fit the data and for that model to be successively improved as it gets incrementally closer to explaining reality.

And, there are ways to improve the lunar chronology. One that I’m a big advocate of is more lunar exploration: We need more data, more samples gathered from known locations on the moon’s surface. We can then date those samples – either in situ or in labs on Earth – and along with crater measurements add more tie points to the lunar crater chronology function. Right now, there is a glaring gap in the sample collection, one that spans 2 to 3 billion years of lunar history. A single point in there could help differentiate between my model and the classic model. And more data would be even better.

Until we land robotic missions to send back samples from other planets or that can date samples there, the moon is still our key to ages across the solar system.

October 17, 2014

Podcast Episode 118: The Big Mars Hoax / The Two Moons Hoax

Two moons in the sky,
One of them is Mars, but it’s
Too weird to be true.

Finally, a new episode is out. As I slowly ease back into a hopefully regular release schedule (back down to 2x/month), I thought I’d tackle a relatively well known claim, but one that I still thought I could add something to. I got the inspiration for the episode while listening to back-episodes of The Reality Check podcast and they covered this topic.

However, as I said, I think I can still add a significant contribution to the topic, in my own unique format. Yes, I debunk it, but I do it by taking you through Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion, the Small Angle approximation, and show how you can easily estimate how large one object will appear relative to another. Then apply that to Mars.

I also go into a bit of history of the claim, and unlike many that I address on this blog and in the podcast, I don’t think there’s any malice to the people who promote the claim each year. My own Great Aunt Ester thought it was true and sent it to me back in 2009.

As I explain at the end of the episode, I’m still very busy these days, but the amount of busicity (for that neologism, pronounce it as “bizz-I-city” where the “I” is pronounced as the “i” in “it”) has fallen. So, we’ll see how things pan out over the next few weeks. I’m busily listening to old C2C episodes to get material for the Norway Spiral episode, promised at least 3 months ago.

May 1, 2014

Is Camera Noise Evidence for Ancient Advanced Civilization on the Moon?


Richard C. Hoagland. Yes, another post about some of his claims (not him). Things had been quiet from Mr. Hoagland for several months, apparently because of his latest work, spending 4 months attempting to show that the Chinese lunar mission, Chang’e 3 (嫦娥三号), and its rover Yutu (Jade Rabbit, 玉兔), had found evidence of the same thing he thinks he sees in Apollo photographs (that was likely dirt on his scanner): Ancient glass towers on the horizon.

Where to start? What to address? His “paper” on the subject, which you can find at his “Enterprise Mission dot com” website (sorry, I’m not going to link), is massive. And has 136 markup errors and 23 warnings according to the W3C markup validation service. It is nearly 14,000 words long, Richard says it has over 100 photographs, and if I were to print it from Safari would come out at 86 pages.

That is a long way of saying there’s no way I’m going to even come close to addressing it all, or even try to. There’s even so much I could write about the specific topic I want to talk about – image noise and sensor non-uniformity – that I’m only going to be able to talk about in broad brushstrokes, but hopefully it’s understandable.

What I’m Not Talking About

Richard has been making the circuit of the late-night paranormal shows, podcasts, etc. Tonight he was on Jimmy Church’s show, the one I was on two weeks ago. I think that, given that I heard his Coast to Coast interview, his “The Unexplained” interview, and “Fade to Black” interview, I have a reasonable idea of his argument (keep in mind, that’s about 5.5 non-commercial-hours of listening to Richard talk about this, so forgive me for not reading another 13,700 words).

I’m not going to talk about his numerology:

  • 19.5° … anything.
  • Landed at 19.5° … LONGITUDE, not latitude.
  • Landed at 44°N which was a message to the 44th President … Obama.

I’m not going to talk about his conspiracy and symbolism:

  • Obama made some mention of carrot seeds in a gift to the Pope, which was a hidden message about the Jade Rabbit lunar rover.
  • All his previous NASA conspiracy stuff coming in.
  • Disclosure is going to happen within a few months (I seem to recall him saying 2010 was the Year of Disclosure and then in 2011 when being called on it (a rare instance of being called out), he said it was, we just hadn’t noticed it).
  • Brookings Report

I’m not going to discuss his pareidolia, since that doesn’t really play much a role in this set of claims (to the extent it does with grids, that will be discussed).

And so, of the four things that comprise the vast majority of Richard Hoagland’s claims (numerology, conspiracy, pareidolia, shoddy image analysis), it will be the image analysis that I will delve into.

Why not this other stuff? Why isn’t that as important? Because none of it is actual objective evidence for anything. It is supposition, ancillary to the claimed photographic evidence that I’ll be discussing in the rest of this post. Since the photography is the only (or the most) objective part, that’s what’s important to examine.

The Images (One of Them)

Here is the hallmark image that Richard has been sending to radio hosts. And I have included the original caption.

Richard Hoagland's Lunar Glass Towers from Chang'e 3

“Equalized version” of another official Chang’e-3 lunar surface image, revealing another set of the Moon’s startling “glittering glass towers” standing only a few miles northeast of the the Chang’e-3 landing site. Careful examination of the image will reveal an amazingly coherent geometry to these ancient, heavily meteor-eroded glass structures … including, the surface placement of the still-glowing “colored blue and red panels” appearing at these structures’ base and to the extreme right — apparently energized colored panels “embedded in the ancient glass.”


Ah, noise. Most of us are familiar with audio noise. Turn speakers on, when they’re not connected to anything else, and put the gain up all the way. You will hear static. That’s random electrons being picked up by the circuitry and being amplified as, literally, noise.

The same thing happens with digital cameras. They work by converting photons (little packets of light) into energy, and recording how much energy is recorded. Some pixels are more sensitive than others. Some pixels are always on, some are always off. Usually, because of the manufacturing process, it’s entire rows and/or columns of pixels that will be slightly more sensitive than others. And there’s the statistical fluctuations that have to do with counting statistics.

When cameras get warm, the molecules have more energy (definition of heat), and are more likely to randomly emit an electron that will be recorded … as in, noise. That is why professional – and even enthusiast – astronomy CCDs are cooled, sometimes with liquid nitrogen. It reduces the noise. If your sensor is unevenly heated, that can cause uneven noise across it (more noise where it’s warmer). Just a degree temperature difference will do it.

All of those mean that ANY digital detector will have noise – I don’t care how good it is, how much you paid for it, how many pixels it has, if it’s color or B&W … whatever about it – it will have noise. The fact that it has a temperature above absolute zero means it will have noise.

Here is an excellent tutorial on image noise. If at this point you don’t know what I’m really talking about, please read it, or at least look at the images. There is a small link to a part 2 at the bottom. Going forward, I’m going to assume that you have a a reasonable grasp of noise. This is already a long post.

What Is “Equalization”?

“I just brightened up the images a little bit.” –RCH

This is a hallmark of much of Richard Hoagland’s types of claims. Brightening the image, increasing contrast, increasing saturation, etc.

Equalization itself can have innumerable types of algorithms, but the basic idea is this: Many photographs of a typical scene have a little bit of dark, a little bit of bright, and a lot in the middle. That’s not how you have to shoot a photo, but that’s typical (go to this post and look for “Histograms”). What Equalize does it want to put the same number of pixels at every brightness level.

So, in that example, it will move some of the slightly darker middle colors to be darker, and it will move slightly brighter middle colors lighter. That way, if your image has 256 pixels, and you’re in 8-bit mode so there are 256 levels of brightness, one pixel will have a brightness 0, one will have a brightness 1, one will have a brightness 2, and so on.

Inevitably, this has the effect of stretching at least some brightness levels in the image. More on that in a bit.

This can be good! You take a wedding photo and Equalize can help bring out detail in both the bride’s white dress and the groom’s black tux (if we’re talking about a Western-style heterosexual marriage). That’s because the image, as-shot, would have a lot of dark pixels and a lot of bright pixels, so Equalize will bring them more to the middle.

But this can also be bad or silly, as I show in the next section.

Stuart’s Example

Below is an image I took of the moon last year.

Example of Why Equalization Is Sometimes Stupid

An original image of the Moon showing what happens when you “Equalize” blackness and the structure of noise.

The top image shows my nice, well-exposed photograph of the moon.

Then I saved the image as a JPG. The middle row shows what happened when I pressed Photoshop’s “Equalization” option. The left column is from the original image, before I saved it. The right column shows what happened when I pressed Equalize on the JPG-saved image. The bottom row is what happened after I converted both to greyscale, just for completeness.

So, what is this showing? Noise! (The pixel noise I talked about before and the JPG compression artifacts, though I’m not going to talk about those JPG artifacts in this post.) As I talked about above, different rows and columns of pixels are very slightly more or less sensitive than others. It doesn’t matter how good your sensor is, it will still have imperfections.

Since this particular sensor is three-color (RGB pixels), then different rows and columns of colors have different sensitivities, hence the red/pink checkerboard feature. The green pixels in this sensor apparently had better noise properties than the red and blue.

Notice also that it’s brighter around the moon. As if it’s surrounded by tall glass structures! After all, all of this stuff is showing perfect rectalinear geometry.

But why did I say that using equalization on this is silly? It’s because it is. The moon was surrounded by black sky. If you go to the original image on my computer (please don’t hack me), the pixel values – the number of photons recorded – scaled between 0 and 255, is 0-2 in that dark area. That, dear reader, is noise.

What about close to the moon? It raises to 8-20. (The Moon itself is 150-230.) The 8-20 pixel brightnesses are both noise AND, more importantly in this case, scattered light. This gets to another thing about optics: I don’t care how good your optics are, what kind of special coatings it has … unless you are in a clean room with ZERO dust, and perhaps using the clearest of crystals as your optics, your optics are not perfect and they will scatter light. Meaning the light won’t just pass through as it should, a few photons will be deflected and go somewhere else.

What that means for this case is that the moon is a bright circle on this image. A few of those photons are going to scatter within the optics of my camera and the probably 15 different pieces of glass that form the lenses. Probably, they won’t scatter far. That’s why right next to the moon, it’s 8-20 photons. But just 10% of the image away, we’re back at the background level of 0-2.

This all gets back to Richard’s images. I can’t figure out exactly which image Richard used as his main one, but another he uses comes from here, the bottom one with the caption 嫦娥三号着陆器地形地貌相机拍摄的“玉兔”号月球车照片。(Chang’e 3 lander topography camera “rabbit” No. rover photos. –via Google Translate).

Here’s how Richard presents it:

RCH's Processing of a Chang'e 3 Image

There — from the institution which forms the foundation of China’s very 21st Century existence–
Was the ghostly … repetitive … glistening glass geometry of “an ancient, Mare Imbrium dome …”–
With the official “Chinese People’s Liberation Army” logo plastered right on top of it (below)!

When I look at the image, the pixel values in the sky on the left half are 0-5. The right half is 5-10. The lunar features being around 100-250. It’s the same on a higher-resolution image that “Dee” found and posted over on Expat’s Dork Mission blog. Again, noise. And, I think some scattered light.

The moon is dusty. And even if it weren’t, the scattered light in the right half makes sense, getting back-scatter from the sun coming from the right, scattered in all directions but a bit more back to the right, and into the camera lens on that side. Another explanation is that the right half of the sensor was very slightly warmer than the left half. That will also give you noise of this exact type.

And, if these are glass towers, one must also ask why they stop just above the horizon!? On Richard’s “Enhancement” via Equalization, he shows the lunar surface, and just above it is a black line, and then are his glass towers.

But back to Equalize, what happened? Well, about half the image is really dark, pixel brightness values between about 0 and 10. Half the image is middle to bright, with brightness values between about 100 and 255. Because Equalize demands that the same number of pixels be at every level of brightness, it has to make a lot of those dark pixels brighter. Since half-way between 0 and 255 is about 127, it barely has to do anything to the lunar surface part. It’ll make some of the pixels a little darker, and some of them a little brighter, but the most drastic change will be to the sky area because that’s half the image, and so that half the image now must be mapped instead from 0-10 brightness to about 0-127 brightness. (Since it’s a little less than half, it only gets mapped up to 90, but you get the idea.)

Richard Says it Could Be Noise, But It’s Not Because It’s Geometric and Not Below Horizon

Richard said words to that effect at about 9:04 PM on Jimmy’s radio program (just over 2 hrs into it). He said it could either be noise or glass structures. He said it’s not noise because it’s geometric and because it doesn’t show below the horizon (the surface of the moon).

I reject both of those as explanations for why it’s not noise. The geometry argument because of my example above with my image of the moon, and see that tutorial on banding noise. If he thinks that image noise is not geometric (the noise from the sensor and noise from JPG compression), he is either more ignorant or delusional than I thought or, well, not telling the truth. Sorry, it’s hard to listen to him for 3 hrs and write 2800 words and not get in a small ad hominem.

I reject the part about it not showing below the horizon as evidence it’s not noise because of … the numbers. Even Richard often says, “It’s about the numbers!” In this case, you are talking about pixel values of about 5-10 brightness. Let’s say that’s noise. Just give that to me for a moment. Now look at the actual lit part of the moon. Pixel values 100-250. Noise of 5-10 photons on top of 0 is HUGE. Noise of 5-10 photons on top of 100-250 is miniscule. In other words, I say that the noise is still there in the part below the horizon, you just don’t see it.

Again, I’ll refer to the tutorial I linked to, specifically the first two images. The top one shows the same noise level, but a large signal (like the lunar surface). The second one shows the same noise level, but a very small signal (like the sky, though I’d say there’s no signal, it’s all noise).

Other Relevant, Miscellaneous Statements

“The data are replicable” therefore the fact that he sees this in Apollo and the Chang’e 3 images means it’s real, it’s “stunning confirmation.”

Yes, it certainly does mean that image noise is real and banding noise is also a real type.

“The Chinese have gone to the Moon and sent back the message — ‘Hoagland was right.'”

This one in particular struck Expat from the Dork Mission blog. I kinda agree. I find it typical of a decent number of claims by conspiracists in general and (personally) I find it somewhat arrogant to think that THEY are the only ones who can decode these secret messages, and even that the encoders are speaking directly to them!

Other “Enterprise Mission scientists” agree with him.

That is not peer review, that is an echo chamber. There’s a reason that Richard Hoagland is making the circuit on the paranormal shows and not anything else with this stuff.

Since the images are still up on the various Chinese websites, even after Richard Hoagland’s disclosure last week, that means that they are admitting that this stuff is real.

No, it means that most of us laugh this off as not understanding anything about photographic noise. Those of us among the very small community of scientists who actually follow these kinds of topics.

Where Are These “Miles-High, Miles-Across” Features in Meter-Scale Orbital Photographs?

As with the lunar ziggurat saga, and even as Richard stated (just his example doesn’t qualify), science demands repetition of objective data. Richard has claimed that these features are massive, miles across and miles high and miles wide. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Narrow Angle Camera records images with pixel scales of around 0.5 meters. Wide-Angle Camera is ~60 meters per pixel. The Japanese Kaguya craft had a terrain camera that recorded images at ~10 meters per pixel. And that’s just in the last few years.

But, none of these craft show these features. Even Richard hasn’t pointed to any of these images that would allegedly show them.

And yet, Richard claims that they are shimmering, glittering, multi-colored, glassy … and miles across. Where are they in other imagery? Yes, you’re looking down from above, but glass refracts light (index of refraction is 1.5-2.0-ish) so we should see weird distortions. And, he says it glitters, so we should see specular reflections, especially off the parts that are “damaged” (as he put it) and haven’t been repaired yet by robots (which he said are there in the C2C interview).

So either they should be there in the other images, or they don’t exist. Or, massive conspiracy. *cough*

Final Thoughts

I wasn’t going to talk about this stuff. When I first listened to it on C2C last week, my almost knee-jerk response was, “This falls into the category of Not Even Wrong.” In other words, there is simply so little correct, so little grounding in reality, that (a) there’s no way to even start to address it all, and (b) there’s usually not any reason to.

As RationalWiki put it, a Not Even Wrong statement is not of the form “2 + 2 = 6,” but rather, “2 + zebra ÷ glockenspiel = homeopathy works!”

Then I saw how much press he was getting on these various shows. On “The Unexplained,” he made a comment to the effect that he can reach 2% of the population (US population? world population?) “without breaking a sweat.” And he’s right. Or at least close to it. If the audience numbers that I’ve heard reported for these various shows are correct, he’s probably easily reached over a million listeners at this point, or 1/3 of a percent of the US population.

I don’t believe for a Plank time that all those people believe what Richard says. I also, honestly, don’t think it’s incredibly important whether they do or not. But, the credulity that even entertaining this kind of “analysis” fosters transfers into other fields. Like medicine. Or believing in a soon-to-be apocalypse. And there, your choices, your belief in various “alternative” views, can kill you. Or, in cases of psychics, astrologers, and others, they can bankrupt you.

April 21, 2014

My Interview on “Fade to Black” from April 16


has been posted. I start after about 30 minutes, though the host, Jimmy Church, intros / prefaces the interview during the first half hour. You might as well just listen to the whole thing. :)

(And for some reason, my audio seems a bit quiet relative to the host’s (Jimmy Church) … sorry ’bout that).


My goal during the interview was to provide plausible, science-based explanations for, well, whatever we talked about, to show that the scientific explanation is at least as plausible as the conspiracy or pseudoscience one, and to be reasonable.

I think I sounded a bit like a broken record towards that effect, and I probably could’ve said it a bit less often. But, for those who aren’t going to listen, let me re-state it now in print: I would love for lots of the stuff common to paranormal radio programs to be true. I would love for there to be aliens visiting us and sharing or giving us advanced technology. For there to be bases on the moon, or other kinds of artifacts on Mars that provide evidence for ancient “high technology” beyond a reasonable doubt. But, the evidence that has been presented simply doesn’t meet that threshold, in my opinion.

If the best evidence for aliens is a mesa that at high-resolution looks like a natural eroded rock formation, or a few bright pixels that can be explained as a camera defect because it doesn’t show in other pictures of the site taken at the same time, then that simply does not meet my own personal threshold. It may meet yours. It obviously meets some peoples’. But, that is why the scientific community, as a whole, does not accept these things.

Would I Have a Conspiracist / “Alternative” Person on My Podcast?

No. I was asked this a little before the first hour (of the three-hour program). It was in the context of would I ask Bart Sibrel on the show. The answer, again, is no.

The reason that I gave is that the purpose of my podcast is not to be sensationalist, not to present a false balance or appearance of balance. It is a science-based podcast that addresses claims that are “out there” in general or promoted by specific persons. They are up against the entirety of science and evidence to-date. Ergo, a true balance would be to let them have, perhaps, a single second out of my normal ~half-hour show.

Ad hominems Versus Claims a Person Makes

I think it’s important that whenever one addresses this kind of stuff that they address the claims and not the person. Yes, sometimes it’s important to give context. But in the end, the claims should stand on their own. That’s also why, when I was asked around the 1hr 12min mark, about “what makes a hoaxer” and why they do what they do, I honestly replied that I didn’t know and tried not to speculate too much.

In the interview, I tried to do that. I realize it sounds, a few times, like we were bashing on Richard Hoagland. That was not my intent. The reason that Richard was the proponent of several of the claims we talked about is that he is simply one of the main proponents of space-based image-based claims out there, and he has a huge back-catalog of claims spanning at least 30 years. If you get into addressing fringe astronomy claims, you will with almost 100% certainty run into Richard C. Hoagland.

I hope that comes across that I was focused on his claims and not him, himself. If it doesn’t, I’ve restated it here for the record.

And, since the interview, at least one person has said that Richard should get a “right of reply.” Also for the record, I have no control and no say in that. That is up to the host, producer(s), and Richard himself. I know that Richard is friends with the producer (Keith Rowland), so that may play a factor. That is also why I tried to be particularly sensitive to addressing the claims and not the person.

What follows are some of my musings and observations after listening to my interview again, and perhaps some things I wish I would have stated differently. This is not comprehensive to the interview, so you will not be able to get a guide to it by reading this post, nor will you get a flavor for the tone/tenor or total content. For that, you need to listen to the 2.5 hrs I was on.

Planet X

We talked about this for about 20 minutes at the beginning. I referenced the WISE survey with respect to the latest all-sky survey of faint infrared surveys. Here is the press release / story / paper that I was referring to.

Also I mentioned the common claim that IRAS discovered it in 1983. Here’s the episode of my podcast (#54) where I addressed this claim. Oh, and IRAS = InfraRed Astronomical Survey.

Apollo Moon Hoax

Going into this, I should have been better prepared. Jimmy had interviewed Bart Sibrel, one of the major four proponents of the hoax conspiracy idea, and the only one who is still alive. It was one of the five interviews (that’s still 15 hrs) I had listened to in preparation for my interview on his show. And, it made me mad. I had posted this to the BellGab internet forum (Art Bell fans) after I listened:

Ug. I wish I knew about the show a month ago. Listening to Sibrel is painful, and every single one of these claims have been debunked.

The whole psychology stuff? Utterly unconvincing. Why do the astronauts punch or kick Sibrel? Because they’ve spent 40 years dealing with jerks like him accosting them in public about this stuff. Forty years later (well, maybe 35 at that time), you have Sibrel, a tall, relatively young guy, marching up to an older Aldrin and demanding he swear on a bible while calling him “a coward, and a liar, and a thief,” … what would you do, especially after having been lured there under false pretenses?

Or Armstrong looking depressed or upset at the news conference right after the landings … how would you feel if you just spent three days in a tin can, a day on the friggin’ moon (wow!), but then another three days in a tiny tin can. Your every move scrutinized, in the same clothing, having to urinate and defecate in small bags, eating crappy food, and then you finally get home and you’re dragged on stage to talk to a bunch of people when all you want is a shower and bed (and a real toilet)? I don’t know about you, but I don’t do well the first few days being in a HOTEL (I have issues sleeping in a new bed for the first 2-3 nights), let alone in a tiny capsule for a week. I’d be miserable.

Sorry Jimmy, your analogy of just coming off the Super Bowl win doesn’t hold in this case. It would if you then stuck all the players (before they’ve had a chance to shower or change clothes) in a tiny room for three days – give ’em a few bags of freeze-dried food and a few bags to “do their business” in – and THEN have them go talk with the press.

Sorry if I come across as P.O.’ed, but Sibrel and his ilk really tick me off by playing these one-sided games, giving you outright lies (yes, we could certainly read the original tapes if they were found), mis-statements (van Allen belts are NOT as dangerous as he portrays, or the stuff about lunar rocks from Antarctica), misdirection (see van Allen belts, or statements about why TV stations couldn’t read the raw feed, or even his statements about how many hours in space the Russians had (it’s quality, not quantity)), or these kinds of “well what would YOU do?” psychology things that leaves out the whole story.

Especially if you want to play that whole human psychology stuff, then actually put yourself in the WHOLE situation, with all the crap (literally) they had to deal with, how tired they would be after getting back, etc. As opposed to, “Hey, they are the first people to get back from the moon, they should be excited and want to tell everyone about it!” Remember, these are people, not robots.

I could go on, but I think I need to relax a bit, and that I’ve made my point. […]

Since I had posted that, very obviously I should have been prepared to discuss it. And I could discuss practically any aspect of the Moon Hoax stuff at any time, except for the van Allen Belts. Electricity and Magnetism (E&M) and I do not get along. I hated the three semesters I studied it in college, and I did not go into solar physics in grad school because of it. And, he asked me about the radiation.

In my tiny defense, there had been a bit of feedback in my headset up to the point when Jimmy asked the question. That disappeared. And it seemed as though he ended the question a word or two short (at 1:03:54, he says, “So, how do you say?” prefaced by talking about the radiation … to me, since the feedback cut out right about that time, and it really does seem as though there should be a few more words to that question). So, I was fumbling trying to pull up a link where I had discussed it before to get my talking points (not realizing I hadn’t actually done a blog post on it), all while also looking at my network transfer speeds and Skype to make sure I was still connected. But, I sounded like a flummoxed moron, and I think it was by far my worst moment during the interview.

For the record, here is my podcast episode (#5) when I discussed this. There’s also Clavius.org and Phil Plait who both debunk this.

Otherwise, I think I did reasonably okay in this discussion, and I think that my end point should be emphasized again: Conspiracy ideas are easy to make because you just need something that doesn’t make sense to you, and you can state a conspiracy in 5 seconds or less. Debunking them requires a huge amount of specialized knowledge in various fields and takes much longer than 5 seconds. Meanwhile, if I were to satisfactorily explain away every single claim but one, then you would still believe in the hoax because of that one claim. Instead, you should be thinking, “Wow, all of those were bologna, maybe that other one is, too, and Stuart just gave a crappy answer. I should investigate!” I said as much in what I thought was a shining come back for a few minutes around 1hr 17-20min.

What I find truly disingenuous of hoax proponents, though, is all this stuff has been pointed out to them so many times. And yet, they keep making the claims without acknowledging any of the refutations.

Finally, something I thought of after the show that I should have responded with when Jimmy kept coming back to the technology claim is this: It’s very easy to say, “But they didn’t have the technology!” But, that’s a very general and vague statement. What specific technology is needed? Can there be any substitutes? Now with that list, let’s see what they did have.

Scientists and the Status Quo

It is a frequent refrain by any non-mainstream person that scientists just want to uphold the consensus, they don’t want to find anything new, they don’t want to upset the apple cart, blah blah blah. I talked about this in the “Fear and Conspiracy” section of my last post on the lunar ziggurat, but I wrote an entire post on it in 2010, as well.

Do I Think Intelligent Life (Aliens) Have Visited Us, and/or Are “Out There?”

I think Jimmy was frustrated with my very qualified answer to this, starting around the 1hr 35min mark, so let me give a slightly more thought-out response.

For me, there is a difference between “think” and “believe,” the entire subject of another 2010 blog post. I don’t think there is any evidence for this. But, I want to believe that it is true. If I ignore my “thinking brain” part, I, like probably most people, have a desire to know if we’re alone or not. I believe the universe is too vast to not have other intelligent life out there. I’m not sure I believe there’s any reason for them to visit Earth at any point in our past versus any other of the countless billions of planets in the galaxy, but sure, it’s possible.

But then that concrete part of my brain kicks in when I’m asked this kind of question, and I try to look for evidence. And, I just don’t see any good evidence for it.

So yes, I want to believe, I would love for it to be true, but all of the evidence presented so far is not good enough, it does not meet the very high threshold that I hold for such a spectacular and important “thing.” And, some of that evidence has been discussed previously on this blog and/or my podcast.

Face on Mars and Other Stuff on Mars

We spent a lot of time on this, starting around 1hr 50min. I don’t really have too much to add, except that I did an in-depth two-part podcast series on the Face on Mars (part 1 || part 2). Jimmy also said that we would have to address “19.5°” at some point during the evening, which we didn’t get to — I did podcast and blog about it in the past.

We also talk about the layout of the “city” and other stuff in the Cydonia area; that is something that I have yet to blog or podcast about, but it is something I’m working on for some as-yet-undisclosed projects (undisclosed because I seem to disclose stuff and then it never gets done; this way perhaps I’ll finish something and then disclose it).

Bright Spot in Curiosity NAVCAM

Around 2hr 30min, for several minutes, we talked about this bit of news. That I blogged about here. As promised, about a half hour after we got off the air, I sent this e-mail to Jimmy with more examples of bright spots in the images:

Here are a couple images, most of them courtesy of the scientists who are actually discussing what this could be (as opposed to UFOlogists / anomaly hunters over on UFO Sightings Daily who first came up with this), via the Unmanned Spaceflight forum: http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com/index.php?showtopic=7825 . There’s a lot of discussion on there about what people think it may be — I suggest skimming through the thread (like posts 20 and 21 or 95).

First, here’s the original left/right where it only shows up in one: http://curiosityrover.com/imgpoint.php?name=NRB_449790582EDR_F0310000NCAM00262M_ versus http://curiosityrover.com/imgpoint.php?name=NLB_449790582EDR_F0310000NCAM00262M_ .

Second, here’s another left/right NAVCAM image that shows another one. Same camera was the only one to catch it, though if real (“real” = actual feature on Mars) it could be because of perspective/parallax: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=NRB_449700848EDR_F0301254NCAM00252M_&s=588 versus http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=NLB_449700848EDR_F0301254NCAM00252M_&s=588nor . When people talk about “the other one of the same site from a different day,” this is what they’re talking about — and no, it’s not the same site.

Here’s another pair of another bright spot in right but not in left: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/proj/msl/redops/ods/surface/sol/00568/opgs/edr/ncam/NRB_447920587EDR_F0291020NCAM00295M_.JPG vs http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/proj/msl/redops/ods/surface/sol/00568/opgs/edr/ncam/NLB_447920587EDR_F0291020NCAM00295M_.JPG

Next, here are two images that show a hot pixel with a HUGE amount of blooming, exact same spot on the two images, but they are completely different images of different places: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/msss/00582/mcam/0582MR0024340330400325E01_DXXX.jpg and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/msss/00580/mcam/0580MR0024070490400044E01_DXXX.jpg

And, here’s a lone cosmic ray hit (or whatever artifact is plaguing apparently the right NAVCAM more than the left): http://www.midnightplanets.com/web/MSL/image/00107/0107MR0682028000E1_DXXX.html (click the image to enlarge it, bright spot is vertically in the middle, horizontally on the right side).

Here’s one of the guys who built/engineered the cameras saying it might be a light leak: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/nasa-explains-martian-flash-its-not-what-you-think-n74931

Bottom-line: I’m not 100% sure it’s a cosmic ray. I think it’s likely. When most of us astronomers saw it, we immediately went to “cosmic ray” just as aliens people said “alien artifacts.” I do think it’s a bit coincidental to be right on that horizon line. But, I still think it’s more likely to be an imaging anomaly than spot lights or a city. I would love for it to be evidence of that. But, I don’t think it’s good enough when there are other explanations. And as I said, I think the process should be to figure out all the things it *could* be, what fits with all the evidence, and then decide what you think is most likely.


Here’s an article describing how the Prime Meridian (longitude 0°) is defined on Mars. And here’s Dava Sobel’s excellent book Longitude.


As I said, this is not comprehensive of what we talked about. But, it’s about all I wanted to follow-up on. If you listened to the interview and have a question, let me know, I can respond to you in the comments and/or append this post.

April 14, 2014

As We Approach the Era of the Blood Moon Tetrad, Here’s What You Need to Know


Coming out of the 2012 (Mayan apocalypse) non-event, many of us wondered what the next doomsday would be. At the time, I said in several interviews that I didn’t know. This “blood moons” thing, however, seems to have grasped the attention of many, and since it has another 18 months to play out, I anticipate it might grow considerably. I hope not, because it’s silly, but we’ll see.

For those just coming here from an internet search, and you haven’t followed this blog at all, a few months ago I put out a podcast episode that thoroughly addressed this issue. I suggest it as a starting point.

The purpose of this blog post is to briefly summarize those issues again, and to go over a few small things that I did not address in that episode. And to say, once again, there is absolutely nothing to worry about, the whole thing smacks of people for thousands of years fearing comets or eclipses because they didn’t understand them. This time, we understand them, but some people still irrationally fear them.

Edited to Add: Conspiracy Skeptic Karl Mamer interviewed me and got the interview up really fast. It’s an hour:15 about these issues.


Tetrad: Lunar eclipses can be penumbral (it just dims a bit), partial (only part of the moon is in total shadow), or total (full moon is in Earth’s shadow). They can happen in any order or combination, but when four lunar eclipses in a row are total, that’s called a “tetrad.”

Blood Moon: A spooky/scary -sounding name for a total lunar eclipse because the only light that can reach the moon is filtered through Earth’s atmosphere, leaving only long wavelengths of light, the red light. So, the moon appears dark and red. Yeah, scary.

Lunar Eclipses

Very briefly, the moon orbits Earth, and the plane of its orbit is tilted about 5.1° relative to Earth’s path around the sun. So, it crosses that path twice in its orbit (called nodes). Only on those points could an eclipse possibly occur. And, only when those points happen during a new or full moon do you actually get an eclipse.

When it happens during a new moon, that’s a solar eclipse. Full moon, it’s a lunar eclipse. If a part of the moon would see the sun partially eclipsed by Earth, that’s a penumbral eclipse and you just get a small dimming. If a part of the moon would see the sun totally eclipsed by Earth, then that part is totally eclipsed, called an umbral eclipse. When the whole moon is in an umbral eclipse, it’s a total eclipse.

Eclipse Seasons

Because of the way the moon’s orbit works and the nodes line up, if you have an eclipse, you will likely have the other kind (solar or lunar) 2 weeks earlier or later. And, then they go out of alignment. Six months later, they’re back in alignment, and so you’ll usually get another 2 or 3 eclipses, 2 weeks apart.

And, the whole thing repeats something like every 18.6 years.

Jewish Calendar and Holidays

The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, meaning that new moons start a new month and full moons are in the middle of the month.

Most Jewish holidays are tied to the Jewish calendar and happen on either the first of the month or on the middle day of the month.

Therefore, by definition, most Jewish holidays will happen during either a new moon or a full moon. Therefore, by definition, the likelihood of a lunar or solar eclipse happening exactly on a Jewish holiday is much, much higher than for holidays based on a solar calendar.

Aside: Who’s Behind the Phenomenon?

That would be Pastor Mark Biltz. He originated this back around 2008, and it got very little attention. That’s changed.

Biltz’s story is that he went to NASA’s website and saw that there were these eclipses and tetrads, he saw that some of the tetrads happened during Jewish holidays, in his mind he thought that some of those resulted in doom (more on that later).

When he relates the story, he makes a big deal about how the data all comes from NASA in an apparent argument from authority. While it’s true that you can get a whole bunch of eclipse data from NASA, Pastor Biltz apparently has some issues reading big bold text. For example, he claims that NASA posts eclipse data for the “past 5000 years.” Except, it’s for the past 4000 and next 1000.

It’s a minor issue, but it calls into question how good he is at reading even less obvious signs which is the entire basis for his claims. (And Pastor Biltz claimed that Christopher Columbus was Jewish – he insisted on it – despite the fact he was a Roman Catholic. Again, signs of poor scholarship and a willingness to warp something to fit his ideas.)

More to This Phenomena: How Often Do Lunar Eclipses Occur?

Pastor Biltz claims that NASA data shows that 3479 total lunar eclipses have happened in the past 5000 years. It’s actually past 4000 and next 1000, but, whatever. He says that this means you only get an average of 1 total lunar eclipse every 1.5 years (it’s 1.4, but moving on), but OMG we get 4 in the space of only 18 months this time!!!!

This sounds like it’s way over the average. Which it is. But, using an average is the wrong statistics for this on the short-term. Eclipse seasons and the way the orbits work out mean that you typically get these occurring in spurts. You get a lot of penumbral, then a few total. Or, 2-3 total, then 1 partial, 2 total, 5 penumbral. Before this April, we had 1 partial, 1 penumbral, 1 partial, and 2 penumbral. No total eclipses for 2.5 years!!!!

My point is that it’s fine to say that, on average, these happen once every 1.5 years over the long term. But, then going ahead and using that to say that a particular year, two years, or even decade is above or below “average” is an abuse of the statistics.

More to This Phenomena: How Often Do Tetrads Occur?

There’s no nice, simple formula predictor that gives you a way to figure this out. Happily, Universe Today has a nice table. It shows that during the 11th-13th, 17th-19th, 23rd-24th, and 28th-29th centuries, there are 0. 14th there were 6, 15th there were 4, 16th there were 6, and 20th there were 5. This century, we get a whopping 8, and next century we get 4.

So, they are not exceedingly rare, but, they’re not that common. This generation has or will see several. Our great-great-great-great grandparents saw none.

More to This Phenomena: How Often Do Tetradal (is that a word?) Eclipses Occur on (Major) Jewish Holidays?

Well, because tetrads are relatively rare, and they tend to precess through the months (because lunar eclipses precess through the months), it is somewhat more rare than tetrads. But again, by definition, it is likely that they will happen on Jewish holidays. Not necessarily major ones, but on Jewish holidays. This time, they just so happen to fall on major ones.

More to This Phenomena: What Happened Last Time?

So, the last time the tetrad happened during Passover, Sukkot, Passover, Sukkot, was April 24, 1967 – October 6, 1968. Pastor Biltz says the big thing that happened to Israel during that time was the 6-day war, which was June 5-10, 1967. So, during the “blood moon season,” but not during or even really near any eclipse (in fact, about as far as you could get – 3 months before and 3 months after the next/last one). And, based on an objective look at the history, Israel won. And Israel increased its land holdings significantly. I wouldn’t call that a “bad” thing for Israel.

What about before that? The previous tetrad also happened over two successive Passovers and Sukkots, and that was April 13, 1949 – September 26, 1950. What does Pastor Biltz point to as the major bad event concerning Israel that this Sign in the Heavens pointed to? Israel was founded. May 14, 1948. 11 months before the first eclipse in that tetrad.

Ummm … not a bad thing for Israel, and the fact that he has to search nearly a year to find something significant makes me, well, skeptical.

Retrodiction, Prediction, Cherry-Picking …

By this point, it should be very clear how I feel about this issue. But, let’s put it another way: You have a somewhat rare event, and you find something bad (or good) that happened during or within a year of that event, and say the two are related (correlation = causation fallacy). That is what Pastor Biltz has done. Nothing more, nothing less.

Why do I say this? Well, I took a simple internet search of “Timeline of Jewish History” and, nicely, Wikipedia has something on that. Yeah, some of you may not like Wikipedia, but regardless, you can still use it as a starting point. And, gasp!! pretty much every year, something important happens to Jews. Or, same thing with a timeline of Israeli history.

My point is that if your criteria is vague (“something” has/will happen) and you’re allowed to include events that happened practically within a year of the event that already lasts 18 months (so you have 42 months, or 3.5 years to find something), well, I’m unimpressed. Now, if something catastrophic that was a once-in-a-lifetime event happened exactly on the date that these tetrads started but only on the tetrads that coincided with the major Jewish holidays, then I might be more interested and look more closely.

But, let’s take a look at the last tetrad: May 4, 1985 – October 17, 1986. Biltz doesn’t say anything about that because the cycle happened +1 month from the Jewish holidays. Looking at those timelines of Jewish and Israeli history, the First Intifada started in 1987, just a year after the tetrad ended!

Or what about the importance of 1982, when Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula? Or 1956, the war which brought Israel into the Sinai in the first place?

And Yet, There’s More!

Pastor Biltz has many other bits and pieces that feed into this. For example, that 2015 is a Shemittah year, every 7 years when Jews are supposed to let their fields lie fallow. Oh, and all debts, except foreign ones, are remitted.

Biltz claims that the last one (Sept. 13, 2007 – Sept 29, 2008) finished just as the Dow fell 7%! And the one before that (Sept. ?, 2000 – Sept. 17, 2001) the Dow fell 7.1%! Not being able to carry this much further, he pointed to the one in 1994 (Sept. ?, 1993 – Sept. 5, 1994) when, not on the last day of the Shemittah, but sorta in the middle, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter with 21 fragments (it was actually many more than that, but hey, 21/3 = 7 so we get 7 again, so don’t let facts get in the way) in July 16-22, 1994.

Again, retrodiction.

Final(?) Thoughts

This is a really long post. And there’s a lot of stuff that Biltz and many others (such as John Hagee) have heaped onto this non-significant (but still neat!) astronomical event. I’ve tried in this post and the podcast to cover the major components and claims, and hopefully set some of you (who may have come here from an internet search for more information, or referred here by a friend) at ease.

Let me try to summarize more succinctly: The Jewish calendar is defined such that most holidays must happen during new or full moons, and lunar eclipses can only happen during full moons. Total lunar eclipses are called by fear-mongers “blood moons.” Yes, a tetrad is somewhat rare, and because elf the way things line up, it’s more rare that it will happen on the Jewish holidays, but not ridiculously rare because of the way the calendar is defined. But besides that, nothing bad happened the last two times. The time correlation that he and others have attempted to draw is flimsy and reeks of vague retrodiction to fit the story he/they want to tell. In fact, based on the events named, good stuff happened for the Jews and Israel.

So, I recommend that if you’re in a part of the world where you can enjoy this and the weather cooperates, go outside, take a look up, take your camera, and enjoy this not-everyday neat celestial event.

April 2, 2014

Podcast Episode 105: A Fission Origin for the Moon, Part 1

Could the Moon have formed
By budding off a young Earth?
Or, does that not work?

I know Graham’s not going to be happy, but I’m putting off the Pioneer Anomaly episode for at least another two. Instead, this is the first of a two-parter on the fission model of solar system object formation. You might be thinking that this is a repeat of Episode 53 (lunar formation, though I’m sure you know all the episode subjects by heart), but it’s not. I go much more in-depth into the historic context, evidence for it at the time, but subsequent problems and why no scientist accepts it today (though some pseudoscientists do, which is what I’ll be talking more about in Part 2).

Due to time constraints (lots of cleaning, a “for realz” job interview with USGS tomorrow, and various other things), there is only the main segment and a New News related to Episode 85 (blood moons) — if it’s visible from your location, don’t miss the total lunar eclipse in two weeks!!

Oh, and the Reality Remix interview should be posted on their website, and I’ll be posting it shortly. I suggest clicking on the link for non-Flash users, it might work significantly better.

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