Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 26, 2016

Podcast Episode 148: (BONUS) X-Rays from Pluto

Does discovering
X-rays from Pluto change all
We know and hold dear?

First interview episode since The Return, an interview about the discovery of x-rays coming from the vicinity of Pluto. I talk with one of the main authors of the paper announcing the observation of x-rays from Pluto, and we discussed why the find is not severely unexpected, and while it’s interesting it is not something that is completely unexplained. In fact, there’s a very good, natural explanation.

As what was intended to be a 5-10 minute interview ended up running about 50 minutes. Hopefully it was worth it. Note that this was recorded really ad hoc, outside on a university campus, using both an iPod Touch and Samsung Galaxy S5. Interestingly, the iPod performed better relative to noise, but it had a low-end filter; the Samsung had a high-end filter. Therefore, I lined up the audio precisely and combined both so you get better audio, and I tried to lower the relative intensity of each recording if one was picking up the wind more than the other.

There are no additional segments in this episode.

I hope that you enjoy this episode.


June 5, 2016

Astounding Evidence that Creationism Is a “Science Stopper” – Click Here to Find Out How, with Pluto and Friends!

Okay, so I’m not great at the click-bait headlines.

I was glancing through some of the young-Earth Creationist mainstream sites, as I do with some regularity, and I came across the Institute for Creation Research’s “Looking Back at Pluto” by Jason Lisle. Being involved with New Horizons (though this blog is completely separate from that work/employment), and given that Dr. Lisle graduated from the same school and program I did (but a summer before I got there), I had to click.

Jason goes through some of the interesting things we found at Pluto. In particular, he highlights: (1) The craterless (as far as we can tell) Sputnik Planum area (which he mistakes for Tombaugh Regio), (2) the polygonal terrain in Sputnik Planum that is likely due to convection, (3) giant ice mountains and cliffs and canyons, (4) potential cryovolcanoes, (5) dark red area at Charon’s north pole, and (6) some of its small satellites spin really fast.

For Realz scientists are studying these features, developing hypotheses to explain them, and testing those in the lab and/or with the data returned by New Horizons. And some of them just aren’t mysteries at all because Jason hasn’t done his homework.

For example, for point (1), going in we expected that Pluto may be devoid of many craters because its surface is constantly sublimating (turning from ice to gas) as material gets transported around the body from the summer pole to the winter pole. (Pluto, like Uranus, is tilted on its side so right now the north pole is in constant sunlight.) Jason also said that having the encounter hemisphere be the bright “heart” was “by providence,” but it was specifically planned years in advance based on the (now primitive) maps we had from the Hubble Space Telescope — that area displayed the largest ranges of brightness, so it was the area we wanted to see up-close the most. It’s not providence, it was planning exactly the way you would when doing Real Science.

Another example is point (6), where yes, we would expect satellites to not rotate really fast because tidal effects should slow down the spin rates over long periods of time. If I can replace gravity for magnetism for a moment, imagine holding a strong magnet in place, and several inches away have a bar magnet that is on a post that it can spin freely around but it can’t get closer to or farther from the magnet you’re holding. Spin the bar magnet. It’s going to slow its spin pretty quickly to align with the one you’re holding. That’s kinda sorta how moons tidally lock and slow their spin except the force is gravity rather than magnets.

Anyway, at least one of the moons spins on its axis, fully, in about half a day. Is it young? Maybe possibly but unlikely … but that particular moon also has giant craters on it, so it’s just – if not more – likely that it recently (as in within the last few million years) got whacked by a large piece of debris that simply spun it up, increasing its rotation rate.

I can’t discuss papers that have been submitted by other authors on the team, but there are very plausible, natural explanations for several of the other features Jason lists, that are currently undergoing peer review, with conclusions based upon the available evidence.

As for the attempt at click-bait title? Here’s how Jason ends his article:

These are perplexing problems for secular formation scenarios. However, Christians delight in seeing the Lord’s creativity continually revealed.

In other words, his brand of Christians just STOP at the observation, attribute it to their god, and move on. How is that not a science stopper?

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 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.

December 13, 2015

Podcast Episode 143: Round-Table Discussion with New Horizons Early Career Scientists

A round-table talk
‘Tween seven New Horizons
Scientists … ’bout stuff!

The missing episode!!! And the interview I’ve been promising for months between myself and six other early career scientists is finally posted. It took only 5% the time of New Horizons to reach Pluto, this podcast from the time it was recorded to the time it’s being posted. It also “only” took 6 hours to edit. Why? Because of needing to cut some things out, someone constantly knocking the table (I know who you are …), legitimate outtakes, and severe noise level differences.

Excuses aside, I’m glad that this is finally up, and I enjoyed actually listening to it (4x through during editing). It brought back memories from July and I think it gives insight into how us “grunts” or “minions” or, perhaps just “early career scientists” viewed the mission and what we did during that month of hectic excitement.

There are no other segments in this podcast episode, for the interview / round-table itself is 59 minutes 59.5 seconds. If you stay after the end music and how you can get in touch with the show / me, there is roughly 3.3 additional minutes of outtakes. These are not always rated G.

I hope that you enjoy this episode.

October 1, 2015

A New Interview and New Movie from New Horizons Data

Quick post before I get back to work (next podcast episode hopefully out this weekend).

First up, I was interviewed live for about 100 minutes on this past Sunday on David Livingston’s “The Space Show.” We spent the first half talking about my research (impact craters) and the second half about the education & public outreach that I do. Since it was live, and a call-in show, there was one call and many e-mailed questions that I responded to. There’s also an associated blog, so you can comment on the interview there if you wish.

Second, NASA has put out a press release about Charon (Pluto’s largest companion). There is a flyover animation of some of its many varied features, and I was the one who made the animation.

We have images of some areas of Charon from two different vantage points, as New Horizons flew by the body, and so we have a very, very early digital terrain / elevation model (DTM). I was able to use this in a non-exaggerated view of what it would be like to fly low through its massive canyon.

It looks a bit like an early 3D video game because of the somewhat low resolution, but I think it’s still pretty neat, and we should get better quality over the next few months as we better understand the surface and camera models.

September 18, 2015

NASA Releases of My Work, and Recent Interviews/Cohosts of/by Me


I’m allowed a bit of self-promotion on my own blog, right?

With that in mind, I’ve been really, really busy lately with work, but I’ve also been pretty busy with the public outreach stuff I do (e.g., this blog, the podcast, etc.). Over the past two months, I have been a guest on no less than four podcasts/shows. And, I have had three NASA releases of my work. And, over the next few weeks, I’ll be on two more shows.

This post is putting them all in one place and to give a little of my own commentary.

NASA Releases of My Work

In the last three weeks, I have had just as many releases of – or that have included some part of – my work, all dealing with graphics products.

New Horizons Flythrough Animation — First up was a release on the New Horizons blog of a ~23-second animation I produced that is a very-close-to-realistic fly through that shows what you may have seen if you were riding with New Horizons during the month of July. I say “very close” because it’s not exact, for reasons I discuss in that post. What might be scientifically perfect might be cinematically horrible, such as because we went from so far away to so close to the planetary body, it would look like you’re crashing and everything goes out of focus for a few seconds (since we don’t have the highest res stuff yet on the ground to fill that in).

1/3 Sphere of Pluto Showing Off Latest Images — This was the “cover photo” of a press release on September 10. By “cover photo,” I mean it was the glamor shot that was at the top of the press release and, since most news sources just copy press releases, it was the top photo on pretty much every news outlet I saw that carried the story. With that said, my name wasn’t on it. That’s okay, I know I made it and now you do, too. But this was really something that was made for the team by the team. Alan Stern, the PI of the mission, told one of the deputies of the Geology & Geophysics Investigation Science Theme Team (GGI STT) that he wanted this kind of product, and someone should make it. Three of us who had made these kinds of products before were e-mailed, we sent in some versions, and I think it was mainly because I was most in front of my computer that I was able to iterate enough and get something that Alan liked and he and NASA went with.

“Aerial Tour” of Pluto Encounter Hemisphere — This came out today and was featured as another blog post on the New Horizons website. I think that Alan is basically using the “blog” to showcase the work of us early career scientists, since so far, of the four posts up, by three authors, all three of us are in the first decade of our post-graduate work. Anyway, I suggest reading the release because it really summarizes everything I wanted to say about it. Other than a bit more background on how it came about:

During the encounter month of July, I was asked to create the flythrough movie, and I did, but then I was asked at the last minute to create a flythrough movie that then zoomed in and focused on a flyover of a specific geologic feature. Over-stressed and over-tired, I was not able to do it despite working on it for 12 hours straight. In the end, Alan went with something created from a screen capture from Google Earth. Admittedly pretty disappointing from my point of view. Then, see above — the 1/3 sphere of Pluto showing off the latest images. I thought that’s what Alan was initially asking for, and I came up with a new way of doing it in the 3D software (instead of flying the camera around, have the camera fixed and just rotate the sphere to keep the constant elevation — so much easier). I sent that off and was told they just wanted an image. So after I got the image finalized, I revisited the idea of flying over the most recent mosaic that we had, and, well, the rest you can see at the link!

Already Published Guest Appearances

Steve Warner’s “Dark City”— Here’s the direct link to this two-hour ten-minute interview. Steve’s show is available as a podcast, direct download, and it is broadcast on Art Bell’s “Dark Matter” network. I met Steve through the “BellGab” forum and I think it was he who directly messaged me first, back in January or February of this year, when he asked me for any tips or background information I could give him about Mars because he was going to interview John Brandenburg about his “Mars was nuked” idea. Since then, we had messaged on and off, and I dropped many subtle hints that I would be interested in coming on his show (subtle as in, “Steve, I would love to be on your show and talk about [x], when’s a good time?”).

Of the roughly eight “non-mainstream” themed shows I listen to, Steve, I think, is in the top two or three for what I view as fairness to the guest and to actual science. After listening to Coast to Coast AM for over a decade now with George Noory and hearing George give his trite “exactly!” “that’s right!” “of course!” and other phrases, it’s a very welcome change to hear someone actually question the guest if something they say doesn’t seem to make sense.

So I finally nagged enough and Steve had me on after a one-hour “pre-show” where we talked about various things and I think he was trying to get a feeling for whether it would work or not.

While it’s been pointed out to me that I did ramble and digress somewhat, I think that it was still interesting. We addressed a wide variety of subjects, and Steve pushed me in ways that I hadn’t been pushed before. For example, on the idea of who’s ideas should you pay attention to? Being an idealistic skeptic, I wanted to answer that every idea deserves a fair hearing, at least to the extent of “has this been debunked before, and/or does it have any plausibility whatsoever to look further into?” But being a scientist and realistic person, I wanted to answer that there comes a point where I really don’t care what some like, say, Deepak Chopra claims, I will NEVER pay attention to it and seriously investigate the claim as whether it could be realistic. Everything he’s said is such nonsense that it’s a waste of time and energy to devote to it.

It’s an extreme example of Chopra (and not used in the episode), but it becomes a problem when you realize that there could always be a tiny chance that the “armchair scientist” who doesn’t follow mainstream processes, doesn’t publish, doesn’t talk with people except paranormal radio hosts, etc., might stumble across a real thing. But because they have followed the general path and methods that most of us dismiss as pseudoscience, they won’t even be taken seriously.

Anyway, this is a lot longer than I intended to devote to each show, so let’s move on.

The Ottawa Skeptics’ “The Reality Check”— I was on Episode 363 where we discussed New Horizons, facts and fiction. For this and the next two, I gave a disclaimer at the beginning due to my position on the New Horizons science team. This was my third appearance on the show, and it was completely unscripted (except the disclaimer) on my end. The hosts peppered me with a few questions, some just about the mission and data itself, and others were about some of the pseudoscience and conspiracies that any regular readers here are well familiar with by now. Several questions were sent in by listeners.

Mike Bohler’s “A Skeptic’s Guide to Conspiracy”— Episode 56 was mine for this show, the first time I’d been on, though Mike has mentioned my work frequently in the past on his show. We discussed New Horizons again, though Mike took a completely different approach. His questions brought the discussion through from the beginning: What did we know about the Pluto system before, how did we know it, what was New Horizons designed to find out and how, ad what is it finding out? And then in contrast to that, how does some of the pseudoscience not fit in and why? It was enjoyable – and long – and very little material overlapped “The Reality Check” episode.

Karl Mamer’s “The Conspiracy Skeptic”— Doing my annual contractual duty as Astronomer Royale, I was on Karl’s show for about an hour. Note that the link is just to his website, which last I checked was not updated with this year’s episodes, so you’ll probably need to go to his RSS feed to get the episode. On the show we also discussed New Horizons and conspiracies related to it, but again, I don’t think there was much overlap of material between it and the other two interviews about the mission. Karl’s interviews tend to focus (at least with me) less on specifics and more on the gestalt of the claims and common themes of the claims and common mistakes in reasoning that lead to those pseudoscientific claims. It was on Karl’s show (that came out after Mike’s but was recorded before his) that I came up with the epiphany that I don’t think most of the claims I’ve addressed related to New Horizons were even “necessary” to the overall idea. Rather, I think for most, the person had the pseudoscience already in their mind, and the New Horizons mission just gave hem a jumping off point from which to take that conspiracy and run with it, just tailored to Pluto.

Upcoming Shows

On Sunday, September 27, live from noon until 1:30PM PDT (3-4:30 EDT), I will be on “The Space Show.” I think we will be talking about my science work (my real job).

The first weekend of October, I will be interviewed by “The Haunted Skeptic” who has a very nascent podcast which also airs on Art Bell’s network. I was put in touch with the host (Amy) through – oddly enough – the producer for Richard Hoagland’s radio program. I’m not sure what we’ll be talking about yet.

August 27, 2015

Podcast Episode 139: New Horizons Pluto Encounter Conspiracies, Part 2

New Horizons’ pass
Through the Pluto system: Lots
Of crazy ensued.

Part 2 of the Great Pluto / New Horizons Conspiracies podcast mini-series is now posted. This one is loosely tied together through the theme of anomaly hunting, and it has a special guest star of (faulty) image analysis.

To be fair, again, all of these I have written about in my 11-part series. However, I know some people never read blogs and only listen to podcasts, and vice versa. So, I’m double-dipping. I don’t care. Again.

And it’s late at night … again … so I’ll close this brief post out by saying that I was recently interviewed not only on Steve Warner’s “Dark City” podcast, which you can directly listen to at this link, but I was also on Episode 363 of “The Reality Check” podcast to discuss New Horizons — and there really is only a smidgen of overlap between that TRC episode and my podcast episodes on the subject. So don’t not listen because you think that you’ll be hearing the same thing.

August 20, 2015

Podcast Episode 138: New Horizons Pluto Encounter Conspiracies, Part 1

New Horizons’ pass
Through the Pluto system: Lots
Of crazy ensued.

FINALLY! It’s out! Only 3 weeks overdue! The “August 1” episode is about the New Horizons mission to Pluto and some of the conspiracies and pseudoscience and bad media reporting related to it.

To be fair, all of these I have written about in my 11-part series. However, I know some people never read blogs and only listen to podcasts, and vice versa. So, I’m double-dipping. I don’t care.🙂

And it’s late at night, so I’ll close this brief post out by saying that I was recently interviewed on Steve Warner’s “Dark City” podcast, which you can directly listen to at this link. If you liked it, make sure you tell Steve by contacting him through his website.

August 17, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #11 — Geometry Proves Aliens

This is the last planned post in this series of posts of pseudoscience related to the New Horizons Pluto flyby, until at least we get more images in a few weeks. This is also hopefully the last post that uses Richard Hoagland’s statements as an example of a style of claims made about New Horizons -related pseudoscience, at least for awhile. This particular one is NOT unique to claims that Mr. Hoagland has made about New Horizons and what the images show about the surface of Pluto and Charon; rather, he has made this particular claim about practically every solid body in the solar system: Geometry = artificial.

Let’s start looking at this claim as Richard makes it, for on its surface, it seems like it might make sense. Richard, whenever bringing this up, does not claim credit for it. Rather, he says that this comes from Carl Sagan (argument from authority), that when some of the first satellite photos of Earth were returned, Carl searched for any signs of intelligent life, and the only thing he could find was a dark logging road in Canada in contrast against white snow. That it was long and linear.

Hence came the maxim: Intelligence will reveal itself on a planetary surface by creating geometry. I have paraphrased it slightly, but unfortunately I don’t have the audio in front of me so I can’t state it exactly. But really, that’s the claim: If you see regular, repeating geometry, it requires life.

Now again, on its surface, this makes sense. People certainly make geometric patterns (it’s easier to drive on a straight road, for example, and we like to make square or angular buildings). We see nice geometric patterns in the animal and plant kingdom, too, including seemingly complex patterns such as spirals and the Fibonacci Sequence (which turns out to be an optimal pattern for leaves to get sunlight, and you see it (for example) in the patterns of seeds on a sunflower).

Life can and often does certainly create geometric patterns.

But so does non-life. The Grand Canyon is an excellent example of a fractal — an incredibly complex geometric shape. As do clouds, snowflakes, mountains, river deltas, and waterfalls. Valleys have a characteristic size given the environment, creating patterns of undulating waves. Sand dunes also have a characteristic wavelength and create undulating patterns. Individual mountains have nice, regular geometric shapes within the fractal pattern mentioned above. And so on.

In my particular field of study, we can look at impact craters. These are typically circles. Or ellipses. On Mars, there’s a certain type of crater that produces ejecta that looks like petals on a flower with nice broad, sinuous, regular perimeters. We also get craters forming all in a row, either from the impact or breaking up into a string of objects or ejecta from the crater itself producing them. These can have very regular, V-shaped ridges between them formed by overlapping ejecta curtains during formation. There’s also the famous “Meteor Crater” in Arizona which is practically a square: This was made by pre-existing faults that controlled the shape as the crater was formed, and we see these elsewhere, too. In fact, I was just in Arizona for a conference and you see plenty of flat-topped mesas which sharp, angular edges that form the drop-off of a cliff, controlled by veins of material with slightly different strengths.

These are all very regular “geometries.”

You do not need life to create “geometry.”

In fact, this kind of claim is so common in many fields of pseudoscience that it has a basic logical fallacy to describe it: The Single Cause Fallacy.

From its name and this blog post so far, you can probably guess what that is, but I’ll elaborate. It tends to go in this form:

  1. Item A can be caused by Thing B.
  2. I observe Item A.
  3. Therefore, Thing B was the cause.

This ignores the obvious: Many other things could be the cause of Item A, I just assumed that it was Thing B for whatever reason.

In this particular case, Richard and other people observe something that they have classified into the nebulous and ill-defined term “geometry.” And because life can give rise to geometric patterns, they conclude life made this “geometry.”

As opposed to a natural process that we see not only at home on Earth, with myriad examples, but all over the solar system, as well.

As opposed also to – in some cases that he and others have claimed – what really could be an intelligent cause: computer compression artifacts and/or electronic noise (think speaker static) in the camera detector.

My bet for some of the stuff shown across the internet is in that last category. My bet for all the rest is in that first category, that it’s simple, basic, geologic (and other natural) processes that can easily create regular geometric patterns.

While Richard is fond of quoting Carl Sagan when it helps him, he needs to remember other things that Carl also said: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Pictures of features that could very easily be described by known, does-not-require-intelligence-to-explain-them phenomena do not qualify as that extraordinary evidence.

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