Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 22, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 5, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 30, 2016

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


Here’s the permanent link for the interview.

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

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

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

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

3. The program is now podcasting.

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

April 28, 2016

Interview Tomorrow: The Space Show

Filed under: astronomy,interview,skepticism — Stuart Robbins @ 5:23 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Tomorrow (morning, US time), I will be the guest on The Space Show. It’s my second appearance.

This is a live radio program and it is a call-in program. An agenda / line of questions has not been set; if I had to guess it’ll start out with (besides the introduction), a, “What have you been up to since we last spoke in mid-September?”

The program is 9:30-11:00AM, PDT. Here’s the link to listen live.

March 15, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 5, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well … that was fun.

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

January 27, 2016

Scientific Fields Are Never Solitary, in a Vacuum


One of the more annoying claims made by pseudoscientists is that because scientists are so specialized these days, that they cannot “see the forest for the trees” as the metaphor goes. But they, as outsiders, totally can and therefore show that all of science is wrong. Or something like that.

It is true that sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-…-sub fields do exist, and these days that’s a manifestation of really how far we’ve come in science. Back in the day (say, 400 years ago), we knew comparatively so little that someone could study for a few years and get a good understanding of the state of human scientific knowledge. These days, you need an advanced degree to understand a sub-field of science, such as physics:optics, or psychology:adolescent (the colon indicating the sub-field).

If you want to work in a field, you pretty much must specialize, otherwise you will never be out of school because you won’t know enough about that broader topic.

But we always have to incorporate other fields of study, even if we don’t realize we’re doing it. I’ve tried to point out in my podcast and blog how tugging at one string by a pseudoscientist unravels so many other strings in unrelated subjects that it completely disproves their point about being able to have a broad knowledge base from which to draw new connections.

But that’s a long-winded way to get to why I’m even talking about this. I’m home right now for a period of 10 days, between travel, and I’m using the time to convene a working group. A working group is sort of like a mini-workshop. Where a workshop, in science, tends to be a specialized conference convened where people give presentations meant more to explore a topic rather than to brag about their latest research.

Last May, I convened a workshop entitled, “Workshop on Issues in Crater Studies and the Dating of Planetary Surfaces.” Succinctly, it was intended as a step back from the minutia we deal with to look at the original problems we were trying to solve, how we tried to 50 years ago, why we did it the way we did then, and what we’re trying to do now with craters and what outstanding problems we still have. I was able to bring in several founders of the field (since it really got going in the 1950s and 60s), and we addressed a wide range of issues.

Among those was statistics. We’re doing statistics the way we did it in the 1970s, before we had computers and when people had to draw graphs in papers by hand. We realized that the field of statistics has changed considerably and the way we were doing things and are doing things is not necessarily completely correct, nor is it necessarily the best way.

So, I also had money to bring in three statisticians to the workshop to learn.

And this week, since five of us crater people who work in the Boulder area were at the workshop and are interested in bringing in this completely unrelated (but related) field of statistics into planetary geophysics, we’re holding a working group. The five of us, one of the statisticians who is local, and one of the statisticians who I flew in from Los Alamos.

And it’s fascinating. If nothing else (because I’m sure no one reading this cares about statistics of crater populations), I find it fascinating to watch the interaction between the statisticians and the planetary scientists. We know some of our issues, and we are completely steeped in our language to describe it. They know stats, and they are constantly bringing in similar problems in other fields that are solved certain ways to see if it can apply. It’s taken a year to almost get on the same page just with what we mean when we talk about different graphs.

And they sometimes come up with potential solutions, but then we say “no” because it completely misrepresents the physical situation.

Today, after working all morning and being brought back up to speed yesterday, one of the surprising things that we (planetary scientists) had to grasp was that we may need to start thinking about craters – at least the population of craters, the ensemble – in a completely different way: Rather than discrete objects which we observe (with a definite location and size), think of them as a probability, where each observation is actually a distribution (albeit narrow). If we can do that, then we can bring in a huge field of well established statistics to deal with some of our fundamental problems with how we work with craters. Like simple things … like how we really should be assigning uncertainty to our measurements and results.

And throughout this, there was the constant nagging question in the back of my head of how we’re going to convince the entire field that this is the proper way to go — if it’s the proper way to go. Fortunately in our working group we have one of the founders of the field, so if we can convince him, we can figure out how to write up the paper to convince others.

This is a long post … and it’s a lot of stream of consciousness. From it though, I want you to get a few things:

  1. Even in highly specialized disciplines, they must always be informed by and incorporate other disciplines, even in completely different fields (astronomy/geology:planetary-gephysics:surface-processes:impact-craters:crater-populations … meet mathematics:statistics:[huge list of stuff they’re bringing in]).
  2. Sometimes, to update a field of study and bring it in line with what’s known in others, you have to think of the problem in a completely new way, but one that remains informed by its roots and always in what we’re really trying to understand (as in, they can model whatever, but we constrain them by keeping it physically meaningful and realistic).
  3. There’s always inertia in a field of study, but there are always ways to bring about change if that change gets you to a more correct methodology or answer.

This post is also my way of updating you all on what I’ve been doing, partially, work-wise for the past few days and why the podcast still hasn’t come out with a new episode in over a month.

January 21, 2016

On the Hubbub Yesterday About a New Planet X


I’m assuming you’re living in a box if you didn’t see the headlines yesterday, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this blog. But … it was announced in many headlines, based on a paper appearing in the Astronomical Journal (yes, a real journal), that dynamic evidence of an unseen planet had been found in the outer solar system.

Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media got it wrong. I saw headlines such as, “Researchers Find Possible Ninth Planet Beyond Neptune.” That’s wrong.

And, of course, the pseudoscientists get it wrong, too, with some claiming that it proves hyperdimensional physics (whatever that means) and the fission model for planet formation (that planets are spat out of the sun in twins). You can probably guess who’s talking about that.

But here’s what really happened, for people are sending me lots of links (seriously, you can stop sending me links about this). We have a few observations of a few objects out beyond Neptune. I think the number of known, observed Kuiper Belt Objects is around 400. That’s not a lot when models suggest there should be billions to trillions of these objects.

But, based on those that we have observed, there are six in particular that have some similarities in the orbits. And an unseen planet, somewhere around 1-10 times the mass of Neptune, on an elliptical orbit that takes it as close as 7 times farther from the sun than Neptune (so 200 times farther than Earth) and as far as 600-1200 times the Earth-sun distance, could cause those similarities. The two astronomers who wrote the paper calculate there’s only a 1 in 15,000 chance that the similarities in those six objects’ orbits is random chance.

Color me skeptical.

Here’s the thing: I don’t like these dynamical arguments. They rely on many assumptions based on very few things being observed. These particular scientists are about as mainstream as you can get, but one of them, Mike Brown, is well known for being provocative to the point of stirring up upblic controversy to promote his work. For example, he wrote the book, “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.” It also might not be purely coincidental that the news came out the day after the New Horizons spacecraft’s tenth anniversary of launch.

The bottom-line is that this is not an observation of a body. This is dynamical arguments suggestive of a body based on numerous assumptions based on very few observations of a suspected population of bodies.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. And CalTech’s PR machine has been working over-time to pump this story out as much as they can, which also perturbs me.

January 10, 2016

Some Real Science: Lots of Grunt Work, Moon Craters


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 7, 2016

Revising History to Try to Sound Credible


At the risk of all my blog posts of 2016 – so far – seeming to be about certain individuals … here’s another one. John Brandenburg. For those who haven’t followed my blog or don’t remember this individual, see this post for the relevant information for this post. For his “science,” see this podcast.

One of the more unique things about Dr. Brandenburg among pseudoscientists is that one of his major claims of evidence that his ideas are correct is that he claims he presents at scientific conferences, and no one challenges him. I have heard him make that claim multiple times in practically every interview I have heard him give.

As I was mapping craters on the moon last night, I was listening to Coast to Coast AM from December 29, 2015. Dr. Brandenburg was on, and during the first hour, around 26 minutes in, he claimed that he was at the premier planetary science conference in 2015 and presented his results. See first link in this blog post. In that post, I documented his attendance (he was at his poster for 15 minutes) and VERY few people came by because he showed up almost at closing time and took over a half hour to slowly set up his presentations.

On C2CAM, however, he claimed that he presented his work, “held fort,” and “no one contradicted me.” And that “finally,” a scientist asked, “did they do it themselves?” (apparently referring to Dr. Brandenburg’s thesis that Mars was nuked).

Now, it is entirely possible that someone asked Dr. Brandenburg that during the very few minutes of conversation I did not hear. However, based on my observations, I sincerely doubt anyone was serious, if it happened at all. As for having “held fort” and “no one contradicted me,” if we want to go with the analogy of holding a fort against an attack, Dr. Brandenburg’s actual attendance record was closer to a snowball fight where people build forts, no one actually attacks, and John showed up just before everyone was going inside for hot cocoa because it was cold. As for no one contradicting him, perhaps it’s because they recognized pseudoscience when they see it, and because he showed up so late, he had literally less than a dozen people pass by and look at his work.

This isn’t the first time I’ve documented revisionist history, however, so far as Dr. Brandenburg’s recollection of his attendance at LPSC; see this post and search for “Brandenburg” and you’ll see what I mean.

Why am I writing about this? Well, in the faster and leaner attempt for this blog this year (also for me personally, which is why I need to get back to the elliptical), I’m going to be writing these short posts based on things I hear while listening to various podcasts and radio shows that I use for material for this blog and podcast, anyway.

If you make a claim, it’s fair game for investigation. If your claim contradicts a documented record, it’s fair game for me to point that out. If I’ve investigated your claims before, I may preferentially choose episodes of audio files to listen to where you speak.

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