Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 129: The Saga of Comet Hale-Bopp and its Fugacious Companion, Part 3


Great Comet Hale-Bopp,
Part 3: The cult members’ death
And continued bull.

Second in the three-part series: The saga of the great and powerful Comet Hale-Bopp and the conspiracy, mystery, intrigue, lies, schemes, hoaxes, and suicides that accompanied it. The idea came when I started listening to a new Art Bell set of interviews that I had obtained, and I realized early in the episode (November 14, 1996) that I was listening to THE interview that started the whole thing. I found another dozen or so interviews and decided to make an episode out of it that has blossomed into three episodes.

The three episodes are meant to be stand-alone in that they don’t need the others to be understandable. But, put them together and they tell the story in a lot more depth. This third part is all about the “meat” of the issue: The tragic suicide of the cult members of Heaven’s Gate. I devote the first half to them and the second half to a discussion of the continued pseudoscience related to Comet Hale-Bopp that persisted after their deaths.

The logical fallacy of the episode is the Straw Man.

Looking ahead, the next episode is an interview with Dave Draper on potentially pseudoscientific conference submissions and what the program committee of a conference does when they get work that appears to be pseudoscience.

Looking back, I was a guest panelist on episode 342 of The Reality Check podcast. It was fun, and I recommend checking them out.

And, finally, I plan to do a small tribute to Leonard Nimoy on the episode 131, due out on May 1. The tribute will be from you: If he or any of his characters affected you (especially as perhaps related to an interest in science or astronomy or critical thinking), please send in a few sentences. Or, record no more than 30—60 seconds and send the file to me.

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March 14, 2015

Podcast Episode 128: The Saga of Comet Hale-Bopp and its Fugacious Companion, Part 2


Great Comet Hale-Bopp,
Part 2: On remote viewing
The comet’s partner.

Second in the three-part series: The saga of the great and powerful Comet Hale-Bopp and the conspiracy, mystery, intrigue, lies, schemes, hoaxes, and suicides that accompanied it. The idea came when I started listening to a new Art Bell set of interviews that I had obtained, and I realized early in the episode (November 14, 1996) that I was listening to THE interview that started the whole thing. I found another dozen or so interviews and decided to make an episode out of it that has blossomed into three episodes.

The three episodes are meant to be stand-alone in that they don’t need the others to be understandable. But, put them together and they tell the story in a lot more depth. This second part is about one of the primary drivers behind the Hale-Bopp companion, Courtney Brown, and his remote viewing claims. While he provided the hoaxed photographs to Art Bell and Whitley Strieber (per Part 1), he claimed that all of his evidence for the companion was “good data” and based on remote viewing.

Part 3 will be on the Heaven’s Gate cult and aftermath and continued conspiracy, including a brief entry by Richard Hoagland.

I have decided that, while I may do my interview with Dave Draper on potentially pseudoscientific conference abstracts before Parts 2 or 3 are finished, I will wait to put it out, such that Parts 1-3 will be back-to-back-to-back.

While there was one logical fallacy in the episode (argument from authority), I instead used the segment to discuss part of the skeptical toolkit: The BS Meter. And, what should trigger it and what you should do about it. The bottom-line is that you should question any claim that sets off your BS meter, and even when something seems innocuous and small and not even part of what could have led to the anomalous result, you should still check it.

And, finally, I plan to do a small tribute to Leonard Nimoy, no earlier than April 1. The tribute will be from you: If he or any of his characters affected you (especially as perhaps related to an interest in science or astronomy or critical thinking), please send in a few sentences. Or, record no more than 30—60 seconds and send the file to me. I will read/play them either on episode 130 or 131.

Finally, this episode is coming out a bit early because I’m leaving for a week for a planetary science conference and won’t be able to do much of anything else while I’m there.

March 2, 2015

Podcast Episode 127: The Saga of Comet Hale-Bopp and its Fugacious Companion, Part 1


Great Comet Hale-Bopp,
Part 1: On the claimed photos
Of your companion.

I’ve been working on this episode for awhile: The saga of the great and powerful Comet Hale-Bopp and the conspiracy, mystery, intrigue, lies, schemes, hoaxes, and suicides that accompanied it. The idea came when I started listening to a new Art Bell set of interviews that I had obtained, and I realized early in the episode (November 14, 1996) that I was listening to THE interview that started the whole thing. I found another dozen or so interviews and decided to make an episode out of it. About three months and over 10,000 words of notes and transcripts later, this is the release of Part 1 of what will be a three-part series on Hale-Bopp.

The three episodes are meant to be stand-alone in that they don’t need the others to be understandable. But, put them together and they tell the story in a lot more depth. This first part is about the image – the “hard science” – claims about the companion. Next one will be on the remote viewing claims and aftermath, and the third will be on the Heaven’s Gate cult and aftermath and continued conspiracy, including a brief entry by Richard Hoagland.

I have decided that, while I may do my interview with Dave Draper on potentially pseudoscientific conference abstracts before Parts 2 or 3 are finished, I will wait to put it out, such that Parts 1-3 will be back-to-back-to-back.

There were two logical fallacies pointed out in this episode: Argument against authority, and correlation ≠ causation (cum hoc ergo propter hoc).

And, finally, I plan to do a small tribute to Leonard Nimoy, no earlier than April 1. The tribute will be from you: If he or any of his characters affected you (especially as perhaps related to an interest in science or astronomy or critical thinking), please send in a few sentences. Or, record no more than 30—60 seconds and send the file to me. I will read/play them either on episode 129, 130, or 131.

October 17, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

October 20, 2008

The Apollo Moon Hoax: “No Stars” Claim and an Explanation of Dynamic Range


All posts in this series:

Continuing my sporadic series on claims made by people who believe that the US never landed humans on the moon, I am going to address one of the simplest and yet most prolific claims:  There are no stars in the pictures of the moon.  After all, the sky is black and without an atmosphere we should be able to see stars … right?  WRONG

I am going to address this in three ways, first by proposing questions which demonstrate the lunacy (pun intended) of this claim when you actually think about it.  Second, I will address the reason why we don’t see stars in a qualitative way, and third I will explain dynamic range and why stars aren’t visible in a quantitative way.

Method 1 – Why This Doesn’t Make Sense

The claim effectively goes:  On the moon without an atmosphere in the way, the sky should be filled with stars.  Since there aren’t stars, it must be fake.  In fact, it must be a really bad fake because NASA knew that they wouldn’t be able to figure out where every star goes on their black backdrops for their sets because other people would realize they are in the wrong place, so they just eliminated the stars all together and made the backdrops completely black.

This shows one of the major problems with conspiracy theories of this scale – you have to grant the conspirators a huge amount of power, intelligence, and influence, yet they have to be so unbelievably dumb as to make simple mistakes that the conspiracy theorists can then point out.

When I do my planetarium show on the Apollo Moon Hoax (“Why We Did NOT Not Land on the Moon”), I have the operator bring up the star projector along with a 360° lunar panorama to “simulate” what the conspiracy theorists say it should be like if we’re on the moon.  And it’s a good simulation.  Why?  Because the stars should be in the same place as they are on Earth!  Even though the moon is 384,400 km from Earth, that’s pretty much nothing in relation to where we would see stars from the Apollo cameras.  Only if the astronauts were to do very precise astrometry with very long-focal length lenses (as in telescopes) would they be able to discern any deviation from where the stars would appear from Earth, and even then, it would only be for the very closest stars to our solar system.

So, the fact that we have great planetarium star projectors that simulate the positions of thousands of stars means that NASA should have easily been able to figure out where to put the stars.  And not just that, but if NASA couldn’t figure out where to put the stars – when they had 1 out of every 360 Americans working on the Apollo program in some manner – how would someone else be able to figure out that they were in the wrong place when the exact orientation and location of every single Apollo photograph is simply not available to them?

It simply doesn’t make sense for NASA to have purposely left the stars out.

Method 2 – A Qualitative Explanation of Dynamic Range

Dynamic range (discussed with numbers below in Method 3) is the ability to observe/record/detect a range of values.  For example, if you look at an oven thermometer, it probably has numbers for 100° to maybe 500°.  That’s the dynamic range of it, it can’t record anything below 100° nor about 500°.  Same thing with a car’s speedometer – its dynamic range is probably 0 mph to around 150 mph.  Any speed above 150 and it’s useless.

With cameras, it’s a little more complicated because you can control the “window” of dynamic range with things like shutter speed and aperture.  So let’s go back to the thermometer example – the one above has a range of 400°.  Let’s say I re-calibrated it such that it can now record between -100° and +300°.  Its dynamic range is still the same, but I’ve changed what temperatures it’s sensitive to in the same way changing the shutter speed of a camera will change what light levels can be captured before they’re too dim to be recorded or too bright to be completely washed out.

This is what happened with the stars:  The dynamic range of the camera film was too small to both properly expose the lunar surface and to record stars.  And since, for the most part, the astronauts went to the moon to explore the lunar surface and not do stellar astronomy, they didn’t take pictures of the stars …

… except they actually did (example photo on the right).  Conspiracy theorists never actually bring this up because it’s one of those incontrovertible pieces of evidence that we actually did go to the moon.  Ultraviolet light is blocked by our atmosphere and so it doesn’t reach the ground (for the most part), which is a good thing for life such as us.  To do UV astronomy, you have to go above Earth’s atmosphere, and so the Apollo 16 astronauts actually brought UV cameras to the moon.  They took photographs that were made available, and they were the first of their kind showing features in the far-UV spectrum.  Many years later, when space-based UV telescopes became operational, they confirmed that the Apollo 16 photographs were real because they showed the same things.

Method 3 – A Quantitative Explanation of Dynamic Range

This is a discussion of dynamic range with more numbers.  For ease of argument, let’s say that the dynamic range of the camera film used by Apollo is between 1 and 100.  If only 1 piece of light or less hits the film, the film records it as black.  If 100 pieces or more hit the film, it’s recorded as white.

Now let’s say that the moon reflects between 6000 and 20,000 pieces of light per second, while any one reasonably bright-looking star hits the moon with more like 1 piece of light per second.  (This is actually the approximate scaling between the two.)  This is not because of any atmospheric effects (Earth’s atmosphere transmits over 90% of visible light through it, and it wouldn’t selectively screen out star light from moon light, anyway), but simply because the stars are much fainter because they’re much farther away.

As you can see right away, we have a problem:  Our film can only record between 1 and 100 counts, but the moon reflects over 100 times that amount of light per second.  That’s why we have a variable shutter speed.  We can expose the film for less than 1 second.  In this case, if we expose the film for 1/250th of a second, then the film should only pick up between (6000/250 = ) 24 and (20,000/250 = ) 80 pieces of light in that picture.  Since 24 and 80 are both between 1 and 100, then we have properly exposed the moon, getting its brightness within the dynamic range of the camera.

Now let’s look at the stars.  In that 1/250th second photograph, there’s only a 1 in 250 chance that a piece of light will enter the camera and be recorded by the film.  It’s very unlikely.  And so, to the film, that star wouldn’t even be there – it wouldn’t be detected – because it’s below the dynamic range of the film.

Now let’s say you actually did want to photograph the stars.  With 1 piece of light per second, you would probably want to take a picture for around 50 seconds (to get it in the middle of your dynamic range).  But, if you take a picture for 50 seconds, the amount of reflected light off the moon would be over 300,000 counts, and this is way above our dynamic range limit of 100 counts.  So while that star may be properly exposed in 50 seconds, the moon itself would be over-exposed and appear all white.

That is why the dynamic range of the film is not good enough to see both stars and the moon’s surface in the same length of exposure


To summarize, the basic reason there are no stars in the Apollo photographs of the lunar surface and sky is because the cameras were set to expose the lunar surface properly, and those exposures are too short to record stars.

In fact, you can easily do this experiment yourself:  On a night when there’s a fairly full moon out, or even a half-full moon out, go outside and try to photograph it.  If you use an aperture somewhere around 4.5 to 6.3, you will likely need a shutter speed between 1/200 and 1/100 of a second to properly expose the moon.  Now look at your photos.  Do you see any stars?  The answer will be “no.”

Now try to photograph the stars.  You will likely need to expose for at least several seconds in order to see any stars in your picture.  Now go back to the moon and use the same exposure settings, aperture and shutter speed.  You may get stars in the field this time, but the moon will be a pure white ball, over-exposed.

This simple experiment, along with all the arguments above, should clearly show why the claim that there are no stars in the Apollo lunar photographs does not mean that the lunar landings were faked.

September 7, 2008

Apollo Moon Hoax: Huge, Deadly Temperature Variation Claims


All posts in this series:

This second installment on bashing the Apollo Moon Hoax deals with the various claims that the moon gets to about -200 °F in the shade and up to +200 °F in full sunlight. According to conspiracy theorists, this range is way too much and would have (a) rendered the film unusable (because it would have shattered in the cold or melted in the heat), and (b) been very dangerous to the astronauts, if not deadly.

In order to properly understand why this claim really doesn’t present insurmountable odds, you must first understand how heat is transferred. There are three ways that heat moves from one object to another:

  1. Radiation: Radiation is the least efficient process of transferring heat.  It involves exactly what it sounds like – radiation, or light-based energy (photons).  The photon is emitted from the heat source and is absorbed by the target.  The act of absorbing the photon – a packet of energy – adds to the energy of the target material, thus heating it up.

    The Sun heats all objects in the solar system mainly through radiative heat transfer.  This is also the same mechanism behind “heat lamps” – those hot red lights that are oh-so-common in cafeterias, keeping the french fries or the pizza warm.

    There’s another aspect to this that does not play a role in the other two heat transfer processes:  Some surfaces will absorb heat faster than others.  This is because objects that are whiter will absorb less radiation because they reflect more.  Objects that are blacker will absorb more radiation because they reflect less.  Astronomers call this “albedo.”  You may have noticed this effect if you’re outside in the summer and wear a white shirt vs. a black shirt – you’ll heat up much more quickly in black.
     

  2. Conduction:  Conduction is the process where heat is transferred by one object physically touching another object.  For example, when you place a pot of water on the stove to boil, the heating element of the stove physically touches the pot, heating it up, and the pot physically touches the water, heating that up.
  3. Convection:  Convection is the most efficient process of heat transfer.  It involves the physical mixing of material of two different temperatures, which distributes the heat.  An everyday example of this is adding ice to a glass of water and then stirring it around.  This stirring physically moves the ice and water to better distribute the heat than if the ice just sat there (conduction).

    Another good example is a pot of thick stew or chili on the stove.  I learned this lesson the hard way – while soup convects quite easily, chili only conducts.  In other words, in most soups, you generally get a good boil going and the liquid circulates throughout the pot, carrying and distributing the heat very well.  Thicker foods like chili, however, do not convect; the heat conducts up through the pot to the food on the bottom, and then it just stays there.  The bottom will continue to absorb heat, but because the food is so thick, these warmer parts of the food don’t move anywhere, they just sit there, slowly conducting heat away at a slower pace than the pot is conducting heat to it.  This results in burnt chili on the bottom and barely warm chili on top.

There’s one more piece of information that you need to remember when trying to understand this claim:  The moon lacks an atmosphere – there’s no air!  This may seem like a basic, obvious statement, but it really makes all the difference.

On Earth, the Sun heats the ground (because the air really absorbs very little radiation) through Radiation.  The ground, in contact with the air, then heats the air near the surface by Conduction.  Because air is like soup and not like chili, it easily Convects, warming the whole planet.  This is part of why there is comparatively very little difference between the day and night air temperatures on the planet, as opposed to, say, Mars.

The the moon, the first step is the same – the Sun heats the ground through Radiation.  And then it stops.  There is no atmosphere to speak of, and so there is absolutely no way for the heat to distribute throughout the moon other than through the slow process of conduction (which doesn’t heat more than a few meters deep, called the “skin depth”).  The region of space directly above the moon’s surface does not change temperature any real amount even though the surface below it goes through 400 °F temperature swings.

With this in mind, let’s place an Apollo astronaut on the surface, with a camera attached to his chest (I’m using male pronouns not out of any sexism, but because they were all men).  The solar radiation is heating the surface fairly well, since the lunar albedo is about 0.08 (it reflects only 8% of the radiation it receives, absorbing the other 92%).  The astronaut and the camera, however, has an albedo fairly close to 0.90 (new-fallen snow, reflecting 90% of the light it receives, absorbing 10%).

So right away, you can tell that the astronaut’s suit – in the absence of any cooling or insulation – will heat up more than 10x more slowly than the ground just through the solar radiation.  However, to be fair, there is a very small contribution from the lunar surface because it has a certain temperature and so radiates, as well.  But, this contribution is very small compared with the Sun.

Now, with an astronaut standing on the lunar surface, there’s an additional heat transfer process:  Conduction.  The ground physically touches the astronaut’s boots, allowing them to conduct heat, and so contributing to heating up the astronaut.  This is a smaller effect, though, than conspiracy theorists may have you believe.  After all, the saying goes, if you walk down a beach on the dry sand with the sun out, your feet quickly roast.  But, the lunar surface material – regolith (we don’t call it “soil” because soil implies an organic origin) – is very loosely consolidated.  In other words, it’s more like trying to conduct heat through flour as opposed to sand or asphalt.  And the heat that was transferred was generally shielded by the insulation in the astronauts’ boots, preventing this fairly slow process from transferring too much heat.

So at this point in the discussion, we have pretty well shielded from any excessive temperatures.

This brings up my third (I think third) point:  The astronauts AND the cameras had insulation around them.  This insulation – like a nice warm winter jacket – prevented a lot of heat from being transferred both into and out of the suits and camera housing.

But this brings up a fourth argument:  Even if the astronauts were not properly insulated from the cold temperatures, where would their heat go?  The process of getting too cold happens when heat is transferred from you to the environment.  But there was no environment on the moon to which the astronauts or their cameras could transfer the heat.  The only way they could do it was conduction back through the insulation in the astronauts’ boots to the lunar regolith, or through radiative heat transfer to empty space.  And with their insulation, neither of these played any significant role.

My fifth and final point deals with the timing of the missions.  NASA knew that the moon’s surface went through these temperature swings.  But, that doesn’t mean that as soon as a square meter of lunar surface rotates into the Sun’s light that it suddenly, immediately goes from -200 °F to +200 °F.  It takes time to absorb the radiation and heat up!  And that is why all of the lunar missions were planned for “dawn” on the moon, before the surface had heated up to the +200 °F temperatures, but after it had warmed a little from the -200 °F temperatures.  So even while the lunar surface does experience wide temperature swings throughout it’s nearly 700-hr day, the astronauts did not experience those extremes!

 


Finally, to summarize why this claim does not hold up under scrutiny:

  1. The astronauts and the cameras were covered in reflective material, limiting radiative heat transfer.
  2. The lunar regolith is loosely compacted, resulting in very slow conduction of heat from it to the astronauts’ boots.
  3. The astronauts and the cameras were covered in insulation, limiting heat transfer.
  4. There’s no atmosphere on the moon to conduct heat to or away from the astronauts and cameras.
  5. The EVAs (Extra-Vehicular Activities, or moonwalks) were all during lunar dawn, so the astronauts did not even experience the massive temperature swings that conspiracy theorists report.

September 6, 2008

The Apollo Moon Hoax: There Is a “Prop Rock” Labeled with a “C” (Updated)


Introduction

This was my first entry is what is becoming a large series on the Apollo Moon Hoax — the conspiracy theory that NASA faked the Apollo moon landings. This is/was one of my first blog posts, which was relatively unorganized compared with my present posts. It was originally made on September 6, 2008, but it has been re-organized as of June 26, 2009.

All posts in this series:

The Claim

In Apollo photograph AS16-107-17446 (Apollo 16, film roll 107, photo #17446), shown below, there is a large rock in the foreground. After the photograph had been duplicated many times by many people and sent out to the public, an apparent “C” was superimposed over the rock (shown below). Conspiracists claim that this is obvious evidence of a hoax because it’s a prop rock — they believe that the prop man forgot to turn the rock over because NASA took the time to label all the rocks to make sure they go where they’re supposed to.

Apollo Photo AS16-107-17446

Let’s Think Logically

Before I actually get into why this “C” is there, there are a few basic logical questions that one should ask when presented with this claim:

  1. Does anyone actually label props on sets? When Penn & Teller addressed this claim on their Showtime program (I won’t name it because I want to keep this blog at least G or PG), they asked their propman if he’s ever labeled sets. The answer was a resounding “No.” You may claim this is an argument from authority, but you should really ask movie producers if they label their props. Seriously.
  2. Even if Hollywood labels their props, why would NASA? Why would they risk accidentally putting a prop “label-side up?” After all, they must have had literally thousands of “prop rocks” to keep track of and make sure that they were put in their exact locations, which leads me to …
  3. … If NASA had hundreds or thousands of props to keep track of, why didn’t they set up their scenes ONCE, make certain that it looked alright (as in no props with the label facing up), and then do all of their filming? They should’ve checked everything and then filmed. Which leads to …
  4. … A major problem with this conspiracy theory, and many others, is that it lends the conspirators incredible power. After all, they must have been able to keep the lid on this for decades despite the half-million people involved in the project (1 out of ever 360 Americans, according to the 1970 US Census). And yet, with all this incredible power at their disposal, they miss something like a rock that’s flipped the wrong way?

Refuting This Claim the Standard Way

If you have managed to get this far and still believe this claim, then let’s actually get to what’s really going on. Have you ever scanned or photocopied something? If so, you know that any little piece of dirt, hair, dust, or whatever that gets between your original and your imaging device will show up in the copy. That is what happened in the case of the infamous “C” rock – a hair (such as an eyelash) or a small piece of lint got caught between the image and the imager when they were making copies of it. Plain and simple. In the original photograph (closeup shown below), there is no “C.”

Refuting This Claim My Way

That is the fairly standard way to explain/debunk this claim – it’s simply a hair in the copy and the original doesn’t show it. But there’s another way: The ONLY photograph that conspiracy theorists point to with the “C” rock is AS16-107-17446. The photograph taken just before it, AS16-107-17445, shows the bottom-half of #17446, including the rock in question. The rock is in the exact same position, orientation, etc. And yet … there is no “C” on it!

No hoax proponent has ever looked at photo #17445 and claimed that it has the “C” on the rock. In other words, their conspiracy “theory” is not internally consistent even in this one single claim. The photo is shown below, first in full, then in detail.

Apollo Photo AS16-107-17445
Apollo Photo AS16-107-17445 Detail (Pre-C Rock)

Why This Claim Is Not Consistent with Another Hoax Claim

Another hoax claim that I have not addressed as of the time of writing or updating this post is that photographs that NASA claims from Apollos 16 and 17 that were taken hours and miles apart show “identical” backgrounds. This would seem to imply that NASA had one set that they used for each mission. The next logical assumption is that they would set up the set once, check it over, and then do all their filming. But, that can’t possibly be true given the differences in Apollo photos AS16-107-17445 and AS16-107-17446.

Final Thoughts

In sum, there are three main reasons why this claim doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny: (1) It simply doesn’t make sense that a rock would be labeled and “accidentally” left label-side up, (2) It is very easily explained by a simple hair getting caught in the copying device, and (3) the claim is internally inconsistent because no hoax proponent has ever looked at other photographs of the same scene and claimed that there is a labeled rock or a cover-up.

This is, hence, another example of anomaly hunting to create a false dichotomy: There is something that appears anomalous in the Apollo footage (anomaly hunting), therefore the moon landings were faked (false dichotomy).

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