Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 16, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #9 — Young-Earth Creationist Take, Part 2

Terry Hurlbut Advocating Walter Brown’s Hydroplate Nonsense

In my Part 1 of this lengthy series of probably 11 posts, I talked about the machinations of Terry Hurlbut, one of the primary editors of Conservapedia and (I think) the founder of the incredibly ad-rich Conservative News and Views website that espouses über-right wing ideals and young-Earth creationism. He said that Pluto is red therefore it’s rusty therefore it formed from material ejected from Earth during Noah’s Flood.

In a follow-up post, Terry followed the same protocol as before, grabbing onto one tiny finding, saying it’s impossible to explain with modern science, therefore Pluto was launched from Earth during the Flood.

In this case, the finding was carbon monoxide (CO) ice, found in the “heart” area now informally known as Tombaugh Regio. Terry explains this by saying that during the Flood, Pluto and Charon formed by material ejected from Earth, which heated as they contracted, burning the plant matter that was also ejected. The gases released from the burning plants included CO, which fell as “rain” onto the surface of Pluto in what he claims is a basin that is now Tombaugh Regio.

Okay, I know I try to avoid ad hominem attacks on this blog, but I had to fight my brain to type that last paragraph. It’s so ridiculous, that unless one actually is familiar with Terry’s writings on his own sites and elsewhere, one would think it’s a really bad Poe or Onion article.

Terry tries to emphasize in his article that neither NASA, SwRI, nor JHU/APL (the three institutions involved in the mission) have tried to explain the CO ice. Therefore, we don’t know now and therefore Terry’s idea is the only one out there.

The thing is, we don’t have all the data taken yet. The data we do have is lossy-compressed. And scientists by their nature are very cautious about publishing hypotheses about something without doing a lot of tests of those hypotheses. AND within the mission itself, there’s the situation that it’s better to put out obvious findings now and save the possible interpretations later once we have more time to look at the better data and talk with more people and amongst ourselves.

Put in that context, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that NASA would put out the press release about unambiguous findings of concentrations in one area of Pluto of CO (as in we found it, it’s in ice form, and it’s concentrated in one particular area) and have that be the press release, rather than add unnecessarily to it several possible models to explain it but “more data are needed, stay tuned several months until we get that data to test it.” That’s kinda a downer to close out a press release.

Institute for Creation Research Advocating Pluto’s a Comet

In a perhaps more mainstream young-Earth creationist venue, the Institute for Creation Research also has a take on the New Horizons mission. Jake Hebert wrote their article, “New Horizons, Pluto, and the Age of the Solar System.” It is a fascinating read if one looks at it from the standpoint of starting with one topic and twisting it into something completely different to argue against in a no less wrong way than most other creationist writings.

Here’s the train of thought:

  1. New Horizons went to Pluto.
  2. Secular scientists are going to tell a materialistic story without a deity about it but aren’t saying that so’s to avoid offending the taxpayer.
  3. That means we don’t understand how the solar system formed.
  4. New Horizons will yield information about Kuiper Belt Objects.
  5. These are comets.
  6. Insert everything that creationists have written about comets over the years that they think shows comets prove the universe (or at least the solar system) is less than 6000 years old.

Not only is it a strawman argument on their part, but by equating Pluto with comets means not only that everything THEY have written about comets over the years applies, but also everything that scientists – such as myself – have also written that thoroughly debunks their arguments applies.

For a taste of these, I refer you to my blog (post 1, post 2, or post 3) and/or my podcast (episode 3). Rehashing all those ideas here is gratuitous and a waste of space. And, there’s a reason why those are some of my earliest blog post and earliest podcast episode: They’re simple to debunk.

Answers in Genesis Telling You Half-, Leading Truths

Finally, another of the Big Three creationist institutions is Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. Danny Faulkner wrote their article on New Horizons, “Pluto’s Surface Is Young!”


Here is the first argument that Danny is making: Pluto has relatively few craters, therefore it must be young:

[S]cientists have found far fewer craters than they expected. […] Being far from the sun, Pluto ought to be very cold and hence not have experienced recent volcanism. Any primordial heat would have long ago dissipated, if the solar system were 4.5 billion years old. [… T]here ought not to be any significant geological activity sufficient to remove craters on Pluto’s surface. Compounding this problem for a 4.5-billion-year age for the solar system is the fact that Pluto is located in a particularly crowded part of the solar system. […] Therefore, Pluto ought to be undergoing impacts today at a higher rate than most other objects in other portions of the solar system. Planetary scientists who are committed to belief in a 4.5-billion-year-old solar system are at a complete loss to explain the lack of craters on Pluto.

Part of this is exactly the same argument (at least in part) that I debunked here, in my post about Venus, several years ago: “Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument).”

First, Pluto does not have ZERO craters. It has many; it’s just Tombaugh Regio that has no unambiguous craters in the region that we’ve seen with the lossy JPG artifacting covering it. That means it likely has no craters >10 km in diameter, meaning it could still have plenty that are smaller.

Second, the whole way we get our crater chronology starts from the moon (which Danny acknowledges, and he actually gives a reasonable overview of the subject). We do see heavily cratered areas of Pluto. So if we see some areas that have a huge number of craters relative to other areas, it just means that the one with few craters (or maybe none) is much younger. How much younger, though? If Danny wants to say that the heavily cratered areas are 6000 years old, does that mean that the “heart” region of Pluto was created yesterday? Again — see the Venus blog post.

To bypass some more of the quote and get to the last statement, this is common among creationists: God of the Gaps. Set up a scenario and say someone can’t explain something and then say GodDidIt. Except, we have plenty of ideas of why there may be no craters over some parts. One of the main ones has to do with the second argument (in three paragraphs): The atmosphere. It’s tiny, but it cycles. Pluto is tilted almost like Uranus, except more. So for 124 years we have one pole facing the sun, and for 124 years the other. During this time, it’s likely that the ices on the surface near the sunward pole sublimate (turn from solid to gas) and some get deposited on the pole that’s in night. This gives you a “surface” that is literally no more than a hundred years old.

In fact, going into this, I was warned that several models predicted that there may be very few craters on Pluto simply because of this process, of not only ices being deposited as many, many layers of frost, but also because when they sublimate, they are removing that surface that had been cratered! So some predictions going in were that Pluto may have a few very large, shallow craters, but nothing else. Obviously that’s not the case, Pluto is more interesting, but to say that we “are at a complete loss to explain the lack [not!] of craters on Pluto” is bullocks.

Here is the second argument that Danny made: Pluto is outgassing nitrogen, and therefore it’s young because it is a body of finite size and because there should be some activity that releases the nitrogen.

Yes, Pluto was found to be outgassing molecular nitrogen gas. Though “outgassing” is the wrong word here — perhaps an honest mistake, but it’s wrong nonetheless. It’s that nitrogen gas is escaping from the surface, not being outgassed from below the surface (that we know of). So this is a classic creationist argument: Take the current rate for something, multiply it by 4.5 billion years, and claim it’s impossible. They do that with Earth’s moon. But in this case, Danny didn’t even do that simple math, even if it is wrong (the current rate may not be what it was in the past). 500 tons per hour means very roughly 2*1019 kg over 4.5 billion years. Pluto is 1.3*1022 kg. That means it would have lost a mere 0.15% of its mass due to nitrogen escaping over 4.5 billion years if the current rate has been the rate for 4.5 billion years.

Not a problem.

The third argument has to do with the very tall, 3.3 km high mountains observed on Pluto, where Danny argues that if Pluto is warm enough to have geologic activity to account for those first two things, it can’t be cold enough to support ice mountains.

The mountains are interesting. I don’t even remember if there are solid ideas yet in the team as to how they may have formed, but this is yet another example where scientists look for something to explain an observation, and creationists leap to GodDidIt. Regardless, though, both of the prior two arguments can be explained at least in part by atmospheric processes rather than geologic, therefore this is moot.

Finally, he argues that Charon has fewer craters than expected, and a large chasm, therefore it’s young, too.

Problem if we take this approach: How can Charon be older than Pluto? If we’re using the metric of craters (and incorrectly per the standard young-Earth creationist), and Charon has more than Pluto, then Pluto is even younger than 6000 years old, right? What is he trying to say here, that Pluto formed a few minutes before Clyde Tombaugh discovered it?

I’m also not quite sure where he’s getting that Charon has fewer craters than expected. I don’t remember this being discussed, but it’s possible I missed it. A lot of the issue for Charon (and Pluto, for that matter) is our ability to identify craters in these images. Most imaging is with the sun almost directly overhead. Meaning we can’t pick out craters very easily. Especially when all we have is lossy, JPG-compressed images. Think of photographing the full moon of Earth and then compressing it to 100 kb to send to your grandmother who’s running Windows 95 with a 56k modem. Not easy.

Charon probably has more craters than Pluto (no atmosphere). But our ability to find them right now is significantly hindered. That in mind, I’ve already identified a few hundred. Same on Pluto.

August 15, 2015

Remember Pink Energy Beam of Power Promoted by Richard Hoagland? Camera Quirks to Blame

I wrote a post on December 2, 2012, talking about how Richard Hoagland claimed that there was a giant pink energy beam from a Mexican pyramid. I don’t remember exactly what Richard’s point was, but knowing him it probably had to do with “hyperdimensional physics.”

At the time, I spent many words showing how it could be faked in computer software and why I was (a) doubtful of it being genuine from the camera, and (b) of course dubious that it “meant” anything out of the ordinary. I also showed (c) that it had been tampered with between the original that was posted online and the version that Richard posted.

In the Comments to that post, it was pointed out to me that there could easily be another explanation: Rolling shutter. This is where, instead of a camera taking a single shot where each pixel is exposed at the same instant, the pixels are exposed in rows or columns and read out over a finite period of time.

This can produce really weird effects, such as this famous one of an airplane propeller.

It looks like, while my analysis was valid (the image was tampered with, one could easily reproduce the effect in computer software, and standard chain-of-custody questions were not answered), the culprit really was the rolling shutter effect.

Sharon Hill over at Doubtful News has published an identical effect (pink vertical beam) taken with the same kind of camera, but unambiguously in the middle of a city and caused by a distant beam of lightning.

Seems like case closed. I wonder if Richard Hoagland, Linda Moulton Howe, and others who promoted the 2012 picture will issue a retraction. Pretty sure I know the answer.

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.

July 26, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #8: Where Are the High-Res Pictures?

This will be another short post, but it’ll hopefully tide you over while I’m home for 3.5 days before headed back to Maryland for a New Horizons Science Team Meeting. First off, you should read my Part 6 post about how the data are being downloaded from the New Horizons probe to Earth.

With that said, Richard Hoagland has moved up in the world and has his own radio program on Art Bell’s network. Richard gets 10 hours per week (2 hrs per week night). I finally figured out my recording software and so was listening today to his Friday night / Saturday morning broadcast where he had on his significant other (Robin Falkov) and amateur image processor and image anomaly = intelligent artifact finder Keith Laney. But that’s somewhat beside the point, for this is the pseudoscience for this post:

  1. Richard Hoagland thinks that if he were managing the mission and the the probe might die tomorrow, he would send back the best pixel scale images first.
  2. Therefore, we must have done that.
  3. But, they are not being released.
  4. Therefore, “NASA” is hiding these 70-80 meter per pixel images because “NASA” is trying to figure out what all the buildings mean.

Spot anything wrong with that line of reasoning? How about steps 1 and 2, the basic premise.

Richard Hoagland is wrong.

From a fundamental standpoint, besides everything I wrote in that part 6 blog post. If you’re in charge of the mission, and you fear there is a small possibility that your probe might die, you would want to bring down the most representative data, and the data that will tell you the most about different things across the body rather than a tiny less-than-one-percent-of-the-surface-area image that would itself take many hours to downlink without lossy compression.

And – ¡gasp! – that’s what we did! We brought down images that give us the broadest possible view, and we brought down data from the other instruments that do the same. Remember: New Horizons doesn’t just have a black-and-white camera. It has seven other science instruments!

Besides that, more organizationally and methodically, there are literally hundreds of individual science questions/goals that we had for New Horizons’ data to answer. Every single observation made was linked to one or more of those goals. And, those goals were prioritized not only into four main tiers*, but within each tier they were prioritized, as well. Each was audited multiple times by many different mission scientists and very carefully worded and planned. And — guess what! — 70-80 m/px images of a tiny area of Pluto are not in the Tier 1 goals. So, when you want to prioritize your data downlink during that crucial few-days period after the closest approach, you’re going to bring down the data to answer the most Tier 1 goals/questions.

So … yeah. Richard is wrong in his conspiracy because his assumptions are wrong which he assumes are correct. Put another way: Richard thinks something, which (to him) makes it fact, and then he makes conclusions of conspiracy based on that “fact.” But his basic thinks is wrong, therefore everything else that came after that thinks is wrong.

*This is why after the “anomaly” during the July 4 weekend, the announcement was made that “No Tier 1 goals will be affected.” That’s because the data that would have been taken during those few days were not crucial to any of those goals/questions. One observation, for example, was a “family portrait” that would be the last time New Horizons could fit the entire system in a LORRI field of view. That was more for public outreach, so it was a 3.9.x goal, but it also would have helped determine orbits of outer satellites which means it doubled as a tier 2 goal.

July 23, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #7: Very Few Craters ‘Cause of Pluto’s Orbit

I swear this time, a very quick post. As with the last one, I’ve seen this claim not only on science forums but also pseudoscience forums and radio. The form goes like this: Pluto has surprisingly few craters because its orbit is inclined 17° relative to the plane of the solar system, where most impactors would be.

I’ve said it before (especially with respect to global warming deniers), and I’ll say it again here: Scientists, in general, are not stupid.

We take that into account. We also take the very low impact speeds into account. And the expected porosity of impactors. And potentially different impactor populations. In fact, Sarah Greenstreet’s thesis work was just published a few months ago, “Impact and cratering rates on Pluto,” that explicitly models a s— -load of different possible impactor populations and therefore possible crater populations, explicitly integrating the orbit of Pluto through time that – ¡gasp! – takes into account its orbital inclination. As an aside, I don’t know what “blogs” Richard Hoagland happens to be reading, but I can guarantee that scientists involved on the mission science team are not assuming that the impact rate and type at Pluto are the same for the inner solar system.

And besides that, it’s not entirely “surprising” that it has so few craters. This was predicted at least over a year ago to be a consequence of sublimating and refreezing of the atmosphere. What is surprising is the relatively few craters on Charon, though the one decent pixel scale image with favorable sun for mapping craters that we have so far does show many dozen.

Scientists unfortunately often forget that they know lots of stuff that other people don’t know, and things are taken for granted. I think, unfortunately, that when people have remarked about the “surprisingly few” craters observed on Pluto, that is taking into account Pluto’s orbital characteristics. It’s implicit, because it’s a “duh” point for those who tend to talk about it, and they forget to mention that this is implicit.

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 22, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #6: Data Download


I know I’ve promised other parts to this series, but this one will be quick* and I want to get it out there because it feeds into a lot of varied and various conspiracies related to NASA’s New Horizons mission to the Pluto-Charon system, and I’ve even seen many misconceptions on normal science blogs / websites (not to be named): Where’s the data!?

Deep breath people: It’s coming. Slowly.

*I thought it would be quick, but it turned out to be nearly 2000 words. Oops…

The Slowness of Spacecraft Data Transfer

Every space mission – save for one very recent, experimental one – relays data via radio signal. In other words, light. The amount of power that the spacecraft can muster goes into figuring out the data rate it can sustain. Think of it a bit like this: If you have the Bat Signal, but you were using a flashlight, you’d be lucky if someone could just see the flashlight aimed up at the sky. There’s no way they could see details of a bat cut-out. But if you use a really really bright spotlight, you can see it farther, and you can even stick a detailed bat cutout over its front and you can make out that cutout.

Perhaps a bad analogy, but that’s kinda the idea here: If you have a very strong signal, then you can include a lot of detail really quickly. If you have a weak signal, then the data rate is slower. Oh– better analogy: bad wifi reception. You know you have low signal strength when it gets really slow.

Moving on, the New Horizons REX antenna does not have a huge amount of power. New Horizons launched with less plutonium for power than originally intended, and it needs power for running the spacecraft. It has so little power for the antenna that only the 70 meter dishes in NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) are big enough to receive the signal at Earth, which is a paltry 3 * 10-19 Watts. (Compare that with a 100 W light bulb.) To me, first off, it’s amazing that we can even receive that faint of a signal.

But once you get over that amazement, the DSN also has to be able to detect changes in that tiny signal. That’s how we get data. Like blinking your flashlight in Morse code, or putting the Bat Signal stencil up. If we have very little signal strength, we can’t change our signal very quickly, or the DSN may not be able to read it. Change more slowly, then they will.

For planning purposes, we were able to send data at 1296 bits per second. I’m old enough (sigh…) to remember dial-up modems in the 1990s. My family’s first modem was the dreaded 14.4 kbps modem which was painfully slow at pulling up AOL’s e-mail. Or Hamster Dance. But even that was over 10 times faster than New Horizons’ data rate. And, let’s convert it to real things, bytes. There are 8 bits to a byte. 1296 bits per second is only 162 bytes per second. I have a thumbdrive attached to my computer that holds 64 GB, or 64 gigabytes. It would take about 4572 hours, at the average New Horizons download rate, to fill that fairly modest thumb drive. That’s 190 days.

Keep in mind that the spacecraft is still taking data. Keep in mind that there are only 3 70m DSN dishes at the correct latitudes to see the spacecraft, ever, from Earth. Keep in mind that there are other missions out there that need the DSN to communicate with Earth. Keep in mind that 1296 is an average planning bit rate, and while the Canberra and Goldstone dishes get more like 2000 bps, Madrid tends to get less due to the elevation of the spacecraft above the horizon.

So, from the get-go, just from considering the data rate (power requirements on the spacecraft, distance to the spacecraft, and timetable of receiving stations on Earth), one should be able to see that it will take a painfully long time to get the data from the spacecraft.

While we could keep up with the data rate and did a large download a month before encounter (which is why data weren’t taken in late May), there’s no way we could get all the data during encounter very soon after it, which is why the craft flew with two 8 GB storage drives, and it filled up 60 Gb during encounter (see what I did there, switching between bit and byte?).

There’s Other Data Besides Images!

And that’s any kind of data. There aren’t just images and “pretty pictures” that many of us want. There is one B&W camera on the craft, but there’s also a color camera, two spectrometers, a dust counter, two plasma instruments, the antenna itself took data, and there’s basic spacecraft housekeeping and telemetry that says things like, “Yes, I really did fire my thrusters at this time when you wanted me to!”

Basic Download Plan

I can discuss this because the basics have been made public. It’s just not “sexy” like pretty pictures so it’s not that easily findable.

Leading up to encounter, data were prioritized as though we were going to lose the spacecraft at any time, so the most important, “Tier 1” science data were downloaded first. And, critical optical navigation images.

After encounter, the same thing happened, where compression algorithms were used on the data on-board the spacecraft and that lossy-compressed data were sent back to Earth to fulfill as many Tier 1 science goals as possible. That’s how – and why – in the last week we’ve already revolutionized what we know about Pluto. Those first high-res (0.4 km/px) images of the surface were planned out based on Hubble Space Telescope maps of the surface and the spacecraft timing and trajectory to get images that cover different brightness and color patches. (Which takes care of another, minor conspiracy that I’ve seen that claims we “knew” where to point the cameras because the Secret Space Program had leaked us information about what would be interesting.)

But now that we’re more than a week from closest approach, thoughts are turning to what to do next. Originally, a “browse” data set of all the lossy data (only the imagers and spectrometers store lossy-compressed in addition to lossless) were going to be returned first, along with the lossless data from other instruments. That would at least let us at least understand the surface at a lossy JPG quality and for the plasma folks to do their science.

But now people are discussing scrapping that and bringing down the lossless data instead, albeit many times slower because of the larger file sizes.

Planning, Fairness

But, believe it or not, planning of what’s downloaded when is made no more than a few weeks out (except for the closest approach weeks). Right now, we’re working on the late August / September load of commands and deciding what data to bring down in what order.

Each of the four science theme teams (geology geophysics & imaging (GGI), atmospheres, composition (COMP), and particles & plasma (P&P)) puts together a list of their top priorities based on what we’ve seen so far. The Pluto Encounter Planning (PEP) team then sits down and looks at how much they can bring down in what time and puts things in order. The sequencers then take that and try to make it happen in the test computers. Then we iterate. Then it gets reviewed. Extensively. Only then does it get uploaded to the spacecraft to execute.

But besides that priority list, it’s the Principle Investigator who decides how much data each science team gets. For example, while I’m on PEP (it’s what I was initially hired to do), I’ve been adopted by GGI. Wearing my GGI hat, I want images from the LORRI instrument. All the time, and only LORRI. I don’t care what the plasma instrument PEPSSI recorded. But by the same token, the P&P folks don’t care anything about images, they want to know what their instruments recorded as the craft passed through the Pluto system to see how the solar wind interacted with escaping particles from Pluto – or even if it did. (Which it did, as was released in a press conference last Friday.)

So Alan Stern has to make the decision of how to be “fair” to so many competing interests within the large – and broad – science team. So while COMP may want to have 5 DSN playback tracks in a row to bring back just one of their very large spectra data cubes, Alan has to make sure that GGI gets their images and P&P gets their data, too.

The Plan

The decision was made several months ago that after this initial batch of data – what we saw last week, what we see this week – that all of the “low speed” data will come down in August. That’s housekeeping & telemetry, that’s things like how many dark pixels are in any given LORRI image, it’s the two plasma instruments and data recorded by the antenna and dust counter, and that’s about it. After that, we get back to the imagers and spectrometers, per the balance discussed above.

And since it’s not sequenced, and it’s not public, I can’t tell you any more than that.

So we are, unfortunately, not going to see any new images for practically a month, beyond the two navigation images that should come down tomorrow and Friday.


Due to the nature of this blog, obviously this is going to fuel conspiracies: NASA’s hiding the data, NASA’s manipulating the data, NASA’s [whatevering] the data, etc.

It’s just not true.

I have known for years that these conspiracies about NASA somehow intercepting the data and manipulating it before even us naïve scientists can get our hands on it would be very difficult, but being on this mission has made me realize that it’s even more difficult to somehow support that conspiracy than I had thought.

Literally, as the data are received by the DSN – before it’s even completely downloaded – it’s on our processing servers and in the processing high-cadence pipeline. On Monday morning when we were supposed to get four new images, we were literally sitting in the GGI room hitting the refresh button and marveling over each new line of pixels that we were getting back in practically real-time. To use a religious analogy, it was every Christmas morning rolled into a one-hour marathon of hitting the refresh button.

And we were all there watching — over 20 of us. And other science team members kept coming in to look.

The idea of secretly having one or two people intercepting the data, “airbrushing” things in or out of it, and only then giving it from On High to the scientists just shows how out of touch from reality conspiracists are. (By the way, I use the term “airbrushing” here because that’s how many conspiracists still talk. Obviously, no one is physically airbrushing things anymore — and I doubt anyone younger than 30 even knows what a real airbrush is.)

To sustain the conspiracy, I can only see one of two choices: (1) Either all of us scientists are in on it, in which case it becomes ridiculously large and unsustainable and scientists suck at keeping secrets about exciting new things, or (2) somehow there’s super secret advanced tech that intercepts the spacecraft signal and at the speed of light “airbrushes” things out and retransmits it to the DSN to get into our processing pipeline. Because we know when stuff is supposed to appear on Earth. Because we write the sequence that does it.

Final Thoughts

Not that I expect this to convince any conspiracy theorist of their folly. The lack of image data for the next month, and the lossy JPG data we have now all contribute to the little anomalies that don’t immediately make sense, and the average conspiracist can easily spin into something that it’s not.

July 21, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #5 — My Own Error

I’m going to shift a bit here, though the next two posts on this topic are already planned (though Sharon over at Doubtful News just pre-empted me tonight on the Crrow777 stuff that’s hit Newsweek). Instead of discussing pseudoscience that I’ve seen elsewhere, I’m going to discuss my own. Not pseudoscience, per se, but where science can go wrong when you have little sleep and are under extreme pressure to do things quickly.

But before I get specifically to this, I want to emphasize: News reports that there are “no craters on Pluto” are wrong. There are clearly impact craters. It’s that there are no unambiguously yet observed impact craters on Sputnik Planum. That out of the way:

I made a boo-boo. But, science is ultimately self-correcting because if it’s wrong, then when people try to duplicate it, they will get different results …

I generally study impact craters (among other things). One of my primary science areas of research for the Pluto-Charon system is to understand their crater populations to tease out what the impacts are like out there 40AU from home and what the geologic history of the bodies are. To do that, you have to map craters. I’m going to be focusing on that in the coming months (and currently) and I’m also going to be focusing on how our mapping changes as we start to get lossless data and higher pixel-scale data (not higher “resolution,” for “resolution” means number of pixels, while “pixel scale” refers to the length per pixel). This latter focus has been something I’ve been publishing on in the last year.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, images right now are being sent down lossy compressed. Meaning they are full of JPEG artifacts that wash out a lot of small features … like impact craters. So when mapping, I’m assigning a subjective confidence level that indicates how certain I am that a feature is a crater or not. Since we have repeat imagery, already, I’m going over each area multiple times, blindly, with the different images.

One area that’s hit the news is Sputnik Planum, on the “left” side of the bright albedo feature Tombaugh Regio. It’s bright, and it’s young, and we know it’s relatively young because it has no unambiguous impact craters in the images that we have so far. I’m very careful with that phrasing: unambiguous impact craters in the images that we have so far.

Except, I thought I found one. A rather large one. But I didn’t.

When I initially mapped it in the image that came down a week ago (the full-frame image that was unveiled the morning of the encounter), I gave it a confidence level of 4 out of 5. We had the lossy-compressed JPEG version of the image, and after we had attempted to remove some of the JPEG artifacts through Fourier Transform truncation and then deconvolved it with the point-spread function of the camera (the camera inherently blurs things a teeny bit), it looked like a crater, and I was pretty certain it was a crater. Since it was many pixels wide and the image had a pixel scale of 3.8 km/px, that is a significantly sized crater, at least 30 km in diameter.

Except, it wasn’t. We have since gotten a mosaic at 2.2 km/px of the planet, and we have gotten higher pixel scale images at 400 m/px that have not yet been released. In none of these is that very large, very obvious crater present.

What happened?

We made a tiny artifact bigger by image processing. It was a simple cosmic ray hit.

Here’s what happened:

  1. Cosmic ray hit the detector, meaning there was a very bright pixel with a lot of electrons in it.
  2. This detector has the annoying property that if you have a bright spot, a dark streak forms behind it. You can see this in all of the over-exposed hazards search images. So the bright pixel now had a dark streak behind it.
  3. This was lossy JPG compressed on the spacecraft by a severe amount. Heavy JPG compression can make things “ring” because it represents the data as a series of cosine waves.
  4. One of our basic image processors took that image and first deconvolved it, sharpening the ringing JPEG noise.
  5. He then looked at the image in frequency space and made a series of clips that when brought back into spatial space (what we’re used to) will dampen a lot of the obvious JPG blockiness and make for an image that is more aesthetic and helps to make out a lot more features because you don’t have the 8×8 grid of JPG blocks dominating.

This is perfectly reasonable to do, and so long as you understand the kinds of artifacts that it can introduce and don’t over-interpret it, you’re fine.

Unfortunately, it makes this particular kind of cosmic ray hit on this particular detector look like a very clear, very obvious impact crater. Despite my best efforts at not over-interpreting early images that clearly showed artifacts from the image processing, I over-interpreted this feature.

Fortunately, it never made it into a press release or a paper (though I will be talking about it in a paper I’ll be writing as a cautionary tale), but when doing stuff like this, I’m always reminded of how (and this is going to sound arrogant) I’m different from a pseudoscientist, and how working on skepticism for the past (nearly) decade has helped me to become a better scientist. Someone like Richard Hoagland, Mike Bara, Keith Laney, or the guy I talked about in the last blog post probably would not hesitate to make a big deal out of these kinds of features.

To be blunt, I’m a crater expert. I am considered to be an expert in mapping impact craters due to my experience at mapping over 1 million impact craters across 7 solar system bodies (so far). Yet, I made this significant mistake. What separates me from the pseudoscientist, though, is that when I was presenting this to people, I said that this looks very much like a certain crater, but we need to wait to see the uncompressed version of the image, and we need to wait for the higher-resolution maps before saying it’s certain. And if it isn’t, “it will be very interesting to figure out why it isn’t a crater.” I specifically said that in a team meeting on Sunday.

Many things right now are provisional simply because of the very lossy image compression. Features like craters are particularly difficult to tease out, unless they are very large and very obvious (as are many). Contrast that with the people trumpeting “geometric structures” on Pluto and Charon in these images. Of course there are “geometric structures” that were “artificially created” … all in the lossy JPG compression algorithm! I keep thinking I’m repeating myself with this — and I am — but people still keep making this claim.

But, I’m perfectly willing to be corrected. In fact, I have now written 1000 words about how and why I was wrong, and the exact reasons and process that led me to that erroneous conclusion: Based on better data, I can re-examine things and see what went on and if it’s real. Contrast that with what I listened to earlier today which was a discussion between Richard Hoagland, Keith Laney, and the host of Skywatchers Radio. This quote involves all three men, talking about the Norgay Montes image released last week, and where one stops and the other starts doesn’t really matter, for all three were complicit in this train of thought:

“Look around in that image. You will be amazed. The more you look, the more you’ll see. It’s pretty incredible. Blow the image up as much as possible and look at every little part of that image. There’s so much artificial stuff in there! Again, as denoted by the geometry.”


July 20, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby — The Pseudoscience Flows, Part 4

An eagle-eyed Facebooker on the Facebook page for my podcast (thanks Warwick!) pointed this ‘un out to me on the Before It’s News website. Something like the equivalent of the Daily Mail but with more of a UFO bent.

Apparently there are huge cities on Pluto.

This was one of the pseudosciences that I knew going in was going to be prevalent, though I expected it to be more explicit first from Richard Hoagland and Mike Bara who are more vocal about their pareidolia and reading into image artifacts.

The entire crux of this guy’s arguments is that he sees a blockiness in the released images. He claims that he knows and can prove they are not JPEG artifacts for two reasons:

(1) He’s using a TIFF image and not JPEG, and
(2) the blockiness runs at a diagonal and not parallel to the image edges.

For the second reason, I have two words and two punctuation symbols for you: “Rotate & crop.” To add a a few more words: Most released full-disk images have been rotated such that the north pole is “up” in the image. The spacecraft didn’t take them that way. We rotated them to be consistent. Therefore, the original blocky compression artifacts run parallel to the image edges, but now they run diagonal because it’s been rotated! Pretty simple. Yet it has eluded this conspiracist.

Similar elusion is of a simple fact that all because your current file format is one type, that does not mean the original file format was that type. To be more explicit, all because the NASA press release you got this image from happens to be a TIFF on the NASA website, that does not mean that the original image downlinked from the spacecraft was not lossy-compressed JPEG. Which it was. No image downlinked from the craft since July 12 has been lossless, they have all been lossy. Via a 10:1 ratio, meaning they are very lossy. All because I can take a JPEG and use any image software to re-save it as a TIFF does not mean that TIFF will not contain those original JPEG artifacts.

The JPEG blocks are 8 pixels on a side, and many of the released images have been up-sized (I don’t know why, I argued against that, but I have no influence over NASA’s nor APL’s graphics people).

He also assigns the wrong image credit, as “NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.” It’s “NASA/APL/SwRI.” That’s not hard to get right. It’s called reading the caption for the image that you take from NASA.

I’d say that this is one of the sillier conspiracies I’ve heard so far, but it’s really hard to choose. Especially with what’ll be parts 5 and 6.

Perhaps the best line from the video: “No one’s actually accused me of, uh, pixelation, yet, but I’m sure someone will. Uh, some— some spook, probably, some guy from MI6 will come on here … heh! Who knows? Or someone from NASA will try and debunk it. But we’ll see! We’ll see what they have to say.”

Ah…. if only I worked for NASA, or MI6. Maybe I’d drive a nicer car. But it doesn’t take someone from British Intelligence to tell the guy that IT’S JUST BEEN ROTATED!!!

P.S.: Also within the video are other various claims. Like a large hexagonal crater (no, that’s his mind trying to break a circle into line segments), and that NASA purposely brightened the image so that it washes out detail near the pole. No, that’s called the sub-solar point, which is where the sun is directly shining, so you can’t see any topography, only brightness differences of the actual material on the surface. It washes everything out.

July 18, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby — The Pseudoscience Flows, Part 3


I honestly haven’t seen this one that I remember — yet (I’m working on very little sleep and 14+ hour days right now) — but I suspect it’s only a matter of time from more conservative religious conspiracists: The naming scheme for Pluto and Charon. Some background is needed …


In planetary science, one might wonder why we care about naming things. It seems to be a remarkably human-centric thing, for why should we have to feel like we need to stick a name on everything?

The answer is ease of communication. If you say “Tycho crater” to just about any planetary scientist, they know the exact lunar crater you’re talking about. Same with “Copernicus crater,” or “Mare Imbrium.” The alternative is something like, “The big crater with bright rays near the bottom of the moon if the north is up.” Or something like that.

Other than historic objects, things these days on planetary surfaces generally only get named if there’s a reason for it: As in, it’s an interesting feature that we’re going to be talking about a lot. Not every feature on every body is named.

International Astronomical Union (IAU) Policy for Pluto System

Because Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld, and Charon is the Greek ferryman of the dead to the underworld, the International Astronomical Union — the only official naming body in the world for naming stuff in the solar system and beyond — decided that the theme of “underworld” is going to stick, at least for major features. Sometimes this varies, but more on that later.

There is a sizable component of conservative Christians who think that any naming, or any reference, to such is an affront to their god, that it is occultism, Satan worship, etc.

Another side-rule is that no name should be duplicated.


There are lots of “levels” of names. There’s the official IAU name. There are provisional, recommended names to the IAU. There are “for fun” names used within the science team. And there are “would be nice” names used by individual people.

As an example of the last item, there are many craters right now on Pluto and Charon named “Robbins” with a lot of numbers after it. For a friend, there are two “Banks” craters (one because I’m not sure if it’s real because of JPG compression artifacts). But that’s just for fun.

The more formal process, those other three levels I mentioned at the beginning of this section, varies somewhat. In the case with New Horizons and the Pluto-Charon system, a public website was launched months ago where people could both recommend and vote on names.

This was vetted by a very small group within the New Horizons science team, raking names by popularity, looking for gender and ethic biases, removing incredibly offensive names, and removing those used elsewhere (e.g., there’s a “Lonely Mountain” on Titan, so even though we’ve been referring to one on Pluto lately in the team, it cannot be recommended as an official name to the IAU, but this falls into the third category of “for fun” by the team).

So, the biggest stuff is going to get the most popular names from the list. And by “get,” I’m talking about that that second level, the recommended-to-the-IAU level. Which I think pre-approved “Tombaugh Reggio” before-hand. But beyond that, all names must be submitted to the IAU, and hence they are called “provisional names” until the IAU approves or rejects them.

The “Offending” Name(s)

Right off the bat, I figure that there will be some groups that are offended already by the “underworld” theme. But I read some very über-right-wing Christian / conservative websites. One of the beliefs among them is that anything “new age,” anything they perceive as pagan or “occult,” is Satanic, and therefore directly opposed to their version of a deity.

Enter Cthulhu (pronounced something like “coo-THOO-loo”). It was a deity created by H.P. Lovecraft. To quote from Wikipedia: “Lovecraft depicts Cthulhu as a gigantic entity worshiped by cultists. Cthulhu’s anatomy is described as part octopus, part man, and part dragon.”

Lovecraft himself is often viewed by these über-conservative Christians as an occultist/cultist himself, and the fact that a major low-reflectivity feature on Pluto that has been provisionally named after a “demonic” deity that Lovecraft dreamed up is likely going to not sit well with them.

However, my understanding is that it was selected because it was one of the most popular names in the voting.

Final Thoughts

Well, that’s it for now. Back to work. I expect to do at least two more of these, another about young-Earth creationists’ take on this and another about Crrow777’s take on this (he’s been getting a lot more press lately, so even though I really don’t want to give him more because question his mental fidelity).

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