Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 16, 2015

Podcast Episode 142: Who’s on First? Origin of Ideas in Science

With water on Mars,
Discovered again, we look
At who did what first.

It’s been a month, and this is back-dated by over two weeks, but I wanted to put out an episode about the pitfalls of trying to figure out and remember who did what first. In the episode, I gave five examples of how this kind of discussion is important, such as who founds entire fields of science (or mathematics), giving credit where it’s due and remembering past research, pseudoscientists taking credit for things, alleged alien contactees taking credit for things, and preserving institutional memory in science.

The logical fallacies segment discusses the Moving the Goalpost fallacy.

I also revisit the 440 Hz conspiracy by asking you to listen to three tones, strewn throughout the podcast, to see if you can tell the difference. Playing two right in a row last time was too easy for everyone who wrote in.

Finally, yes, this is back-dated, and no, I am really really busy these days and don’t expect this to improve. I will likely take November-dated episodes off, putting out another episode some time in the next 6-7 weeks that’s dated October 16, and then return with December episodes. Next week I go on trip #13 for the year and the following week is #14, in mid-November I head back East for #15 and in December I have a conference that will bring the total to 16 trips this year. Never again.

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.

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 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.

July 23, 2015

Podcast Episode 137 – Why Earth Is Old, Without Radiometric Dating

Finding age of Earth
Does not require just Rad-

The next episode! It was actually recorded three weeks ago, but I was so busy with New Horizons that I never got time to edit and then post it. So, here we go, the different ways scientists got minimum ages for Earth – without using radioactivity as a technique.

Plus two feedbacks! For a half-hour fun-pack!

July 9, 2015

Podcast Episode 136 – How Science Journalists Go from Scientists to the Public (#NewHorizons)

Media embeds
On New Horizons describe
Good commun’cation.

I was able to sit down with one of the public outreach and one of the science journalists who are embedded with NASA’s New Horizons mission. I had a very brief conversation with them about how they work to convey what we give them into something that the public can easily consume and get excited about.

It’s a very brief (bonus) episode, but I think it’s very topical, and it’s something that I’ve been curious about.

On a personal note, one of the people on the interview – Ron Cowen – is a man whose work I grew up reading on the pages of Science News. It was neat to finally meet him. And so’s not to be lopsided, the other person, David Aguilar, has been incredibly generous with his time when I’ve had questions or wanted to get involved with the public outreach efforts, making time to talk with me when he easily could (and sometimes, probably should) have told me that he was too busy.

July 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 135: How New Horizons Takes Photographs, Interview with Dr. John Spencer #NewHorizons

How New Horizons’
Imaging team works with the
Spacecraft photographs.

You asked for it, you got it: A podcast episode about the New Horizons spacecraft mission to Pluto. If I was going to do an episode, I wanted it to be something that you’re not going to get from NASA, not going to get from a random website about the mission or the cameras … something different and unique.

I think we did that with this episode, which is an interview with Dr. John Spencer who has been one of the primary mission planners, is co-deputy of the geology science team, and leads the search for hazards. We recorded this on June 01, but none of it is out of date other than speculation about new moons or rings – or any hazards – found. As you know from press releases, none have been found as this goes to press, though as this goes out, John Spencer and his team are actively working on the latest batch of data to be downlinked from the craft to search for more.

Anyway, the episode focuses on image processing – real image processing – and how we work with spacecraft data, and we touch a little bit on image-based conspiracies and how we’re at least going to try to not give conspiracy theorists their standard, easy ammunition (like painting over image anomalies to give a pure black area so they can claim “NASA is blacking out part of their images!!!”).

I’m hoping to bring you at least another one or two episodes about New Horizons, but we’ll see. There should be at least one more episode to come out in July despite me being home only 8 days of the month.

Disclaimer: While I am involved in the New Horizons mission, my podcast work (and anything branded under “Exposing PseudoAstronomy”) is completely separate from my work efforts. The views and opinions expressed on this episode are completely my own and don’t reflect NASA, other mission personnel, nor Southwest Research Institute.

June 23, 2015

Podcast Episode 134: Big Bang Denial

The Big Bang theory:
Tot’ly explains the cosmos?
Or, is it a dud?

This episode follows a big from the Black Hole Denial episode, but this time with another aspect of cosmology: The Big Bang. I was able to use a few old blog posts, too, that I wrote practically 7 years ago.

As mentioned, I’m now on a weird – though backdating – release schedule due to the piling on of work as the New Horizons craft nears Pluto. But I’m still trying to do 2 episodes/month, at least.

June 12, 2015

Are We on the Verge of Discovering an Earth-Like Exoplanet?

I announced awhile ago that I was on episode 347 of the Canadian, “The Reality Check” poscast where I talked about exoplanets and some hype — deserved or otherwise — about almost but never quite yet discovering Earth-sized exoplanets.

While they post a lot of links and other things on their website, they don’t post transcripts of what we actually talk about. Since I spent a solid many minutes writing and editing my segment’s text, I thought I’d post it here:

There’s lots of ways to talk about exoplanets, but I’m going to take the traditional approach and start with a very broad but brief overview of how we have found the few-thousand known extra-solar planets, or “exoplanets” for short. There are five main ways.

The most obvious is the most difficult: Direct Imaging. This is where you take your telescope and would look at a star and see the planet around it. This is almost impossible with current technology, and we have less than 20 exoplanets found this way. It’s so hard because the star is so bright relative to the planet and because most star systems are so far away. And obviously, if the planet is larger and farther away from the star, it’ll be easier to see.

The second main method has also only produced about 20 planets so far: Gravitational Microlensing. Einstein showed that large masses bend light, and we can see this in space when an object that’s far away passes behind a massive object that’s a lot closer. The light from the background object gets distorted and magnified, much like a lens … a lens caused by gravity. If the foreground object happens to be a star, and that star has a planet, then that planet can make a detectable contribution to the lensing, not only in amount, but in the exact shape of the lensing effect.

The earliest actual successful method was a special form of what’s called the Timing Method, specifically in this case, pulsar timing. Pulsars are incredibly dense stars called neutron stars, and we get a blast of radio waves every time one of its poles sweeps in the direction of Earth. These are so regular that any tiny perturbation can be detected and attributed to something weird, like a tiny planet tugging on it and so changing that regular spinning signal.

This is the same concept as the highly successful method that found the most exoplanets until a few years ago: Radial Velocity. The idea is that we normally think of a planet, like Earth, orbiting the sun. But it doesn’t really. It *and* the sun orbit a mutual gravitational point called the “barycenter” that is between the two. For Earth and the sun, that point is VERY close to the sun’s center, but it’s not quite in the center. That means that over the course of a year, as Earth goes around that point, the sun will, too (on the opposite side of that point). So, it will wobble very very slightly as it orbits the barycenter.

We can’t possibly observe this tiny tiny motion of other stars. BUT, we can use the light that star emits to do it by using the Doppler shift. That’s the phenomenon where if something is moving towards you, the waves it emits become compressed, and if it’s moving away from you, the waves get stretched out. The common example is a train whistle going from high to low pitch, but in astronomy, this is where the light is shifted to blue and then to red.

So, if the planet around another star is at its closest point to us, the star emits light and we see it all normal. As the planet starts to move away from us, the star starts to move very slightly toward Earth, and so its light will be very slightly blue-shifted. Then, the planet gets to its farthest point, and starts to move towards Earth, which means the star starts to move away, and we see its light red-shifted. This is an incredibly tiny effect, and the smaller the planet, the smaller the shift in the light. Or the pulsar timing change.

There was a lot of progress throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s in very high-resolution spectroscopy in order to get better and better at observing smaller and smaller planets. The easiest ones to observe are the largest because they make the biggest shift in the star’s light, and ones that are closest to their star are easier because you don’t have to observe as long. To observe a planet that has a 10-day orbit, you just have to observe that star for about a month from Earth to get decent statistics.

That’s why all the exoplanets discovered early on were what are called “Hot Jupiters,” since they were very large and very close to their stars.

The final method is the Transit Method. If a fly passes in front of a bright light, you can see a slight decrease in the light. If a bird passes in front of a light, you’ll see a larger decrease in the light. Same thing here: A planet passes in front of the star and temporarily blocks part of the light from the star that we would see at Earth. The big issue with this method is that you have to have the fortuitous geometry alignment where the planet’s orbit is just right so that it passes in front of its star as seen from Earth. The first one wasn’t detected until 1999, but a decade later, the dedicated spacecraft COROT and then Kepler were launched to look for these, monitoring the same fields of the sky, tens of thousands of stars, moment after moment, looking for those brief transits. In 2014, Kepler released over 800 planets discovered with this method, more than doubling the total number known, and that was on top of its other releases and, to-date, it’s found over 1000.

The transit method, despite the issue of geometry, is probably the best initial method. If you have the planet going in front of its star, then you know its alignment and you can follow-up with the radial velocity method and get the mass. Otherwise, the radial velocity method can only give you a minimum mass because you don’t know how the system is oriented, you only know that radial component of velocity, hence its name.

With the transit method, you can see how much light is blocked by the planet. Knowing the star’s type, you can get a pretty good estimate for the star’s size, and knowing how much light is blocked means you can get the cross-sectional area of the planet and hence its diameter. For example, Jupiter would block 1% of the sun’s light, and since area is the square of length, that means Jupiter is about 10% the sun’s diameter. Since the sun is a type G V star, we have a good model for its radius, though of course we know its radius very well because we’re in orbit of it. But that means not only can we get mass, but we can get size and density.

The transit method also lets us see if there’s a large atmosphere. If the light from the star instantly blinks down to the level when the planet passes in front of it, then any atmosphere really thin or nonexistent. If there’s a gradual decrease, then it’s extended. If its extended, we can follow-up with something like the Hubble Space Telescope and actually figure out what that atmosphere is made of by looking at what colors of light from the star are absorbed as it passes through the planet’s atmosphere.

And as with the radial velocity and timing methods, we know how long it takes to go around its parent star, and along with the star’s mass from what kind of star it is, we can get the distance of the planet from the star.

Okay, so much for a brief overview. But for me, I’ve left out a lot.

Moving on, it should be somewhat apparent that the bigger the planet, and the closer to its star, the easier it is to observe with pretty much ANY of these techniques, except direct imaging or microlensing where you want a big planet that’s far from its star. Big means big effect. Fast orbit means you don’t have to observe it for very long to show that it’s a regular, repeating signal best explained by a planet.

So, the question is then, can we detect an Earth-sized planet, and can we detect an Earth-like orbit? These are really two different questions and they depend on the technique you’re using. If we want to focus on a the two main methods – radial velocity and transit – then the unsatisfying answer to the second is that we do finally have good enough technology, it is just a matter of finding it. With the 2014 Kepler data release, there were over 100 exoplanets that are less than 1.25 Earth’s size. With the 2015 release, there are a total of 5 planets smaller than Earth or Venus, but they orbit their 11.2-billion-year-old star in just 3.6 to 9.7 days.

Even if we have observations for more than a year or two, for something as small as Earth, the level of signal relative to noise in the experiment is still pretty small, and you want a big signal relative to the noise. It’s best to build up multiple years’ worth of data to average out the noise to be able to really say that we have an Earth-like planet. For something like Jupiter, which orbits our sun in about 12 years, we’d need to observe at least two transits, meaning we’re just now approaching the time when we would have a long enough baseline of data with some ground-based surveys, but that’s also assuming we catch that planet for the few hours or days when it goes in front of its star versus the years and years that it doesn’t, and that we do this repeatedly and don’t chalk it up to sunspots.

This is why we really need long-term, dedicated surveys to just stare at the same place in space, constantly, measuring the light output of these stars to see if we can detect any sort of dimming, that’s repeated, from a likely planet.

But, even if we find an Earth-like planet in terms of mass and diameter and location in its solar system, that’s not enough to say it’s Earth-like in terms of atmosphere and surface gravity and overall long-term habitability. It’s just a first step. A first step we have yet to truly reach, but one that is reasonably within our grasp at this point.

But it’s from the existing planets we know of that we get some of the hype that hits the headlines every few months, like “astronomers estimate billions of Earth-like planets exist in our galaxy alone.” I’m not going to say that’s fantasy, but it’s loosely informed speculation based on extrapolating from a few thousand examples we now have from a very, VERY young field of astronomy.

Or, we’ll get articles where the first sentence says, “Astronomers have discovered two new alien worlds a bit larger than Earth circling a nearby star.” It’s in the next paragraph that we learn that “a bit larger than Earth” means 6.4 and 7.9 times our mass, and they orbit their star in just a few days.

So as always, this is a case where, when we see headlines, we need to be skeptical, NOT susceptible to the hype, and read deeper. But that said, it is entirely possible that any day now we will find an exoplanet that is at least like Earth in mass, size, and distance from its host star.

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