Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 30, 2011

Richard Hoagland’s Selective Numerology of Comet Elenin


Introduction

Comet Elenin has been in the “alternative” media a lot for the past few months for reasons that I cannot fathom other than to think that the state of mind of most people has regressed several thousand years. I haven’t done any posts on it because there’s simply nothing to “debunk” as there’s nothing marvelous to report about it.

Putting that aside, Coast to Coast AM‘s science advisor, Richard C. Hoagland, was on last night (August 29/30) for two hours espousing more about his hyperbolic geometry and its relation to Comet Elenin. Far from being doomy and gloomy, Hoagland seems to believe that Elenin is actually an advanced spaceship sent from a previous advanced society from Earth to us to help get us out of trouble.

His evidence? Numerology.

The Magical Statistical Thinking of Richard Hoagland

Before I start, I have to say, I am not making this up.

Now that that’s out of the way, Hoagland claims that the chances of Elenin approaching the inner solar system as-is is less than 1 in 230 million. Therefore it has to be artificial. How does he get to that number? This way:

  1. The Russian mathematician, Leonid Elenin, who discovered his now namesake comet, did so when the comet had a magnitude (brightness) of +19.5 (this is actually really faint). Hoagland says the brightest comet observed was in the 1960s and was -17 magnitude, while the faintest is Halley with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and it was at +28.2 magnitude. So with a range of 45.2 magnitudes, the chances of finding it at 19.5 is 1 in 45.2.
     
  2. The odds of Elenin visiting Earth on a particular day, in this case Sept. 10/11, is 1 in 365.
     
  3. The odds of it visiting on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, are 1 in 10.
     
  4. Elenin’s closest approach to Earth will be on a (unimportant to Richard) day but at 19:50 GMT (remember, 19.5 is a magical number to Richard). So that’s a 1 in 1440 chance (60 minutes times 24 hours in a day).

At this point, if we multiply these numbers together, we get a 1:237,571,200 chance. Wow!

Hoagland then makes a big deal about the comet being on a hyperbolic orbit (meaning that the eccentricity is >1.0 (e=0 is a circle, 0<e<1 is an ellipse, e>1 is a hyperbola)). He claims that this is the first comet ever found to be on a hyperbolic orbit.

But there's more that he then goes into:

  1. The comet has an orbital inclination of 1.84° to Earth. He takes the 360 degrees in a circle and divides by 1.84° to get 195 (remember, 19.5 is important to Richard).

Multiply that in and you get odds of 1:46,481,321,739. Wow!

Does Any of That Make Sense?

To put it succinctly, “no.” If you want the long version …

Point 1. Richard has to know with this point that he’s full of it. First, he’s wrong about comet C/1965 S1, AKA Ikeya-Seki. It reached magnitude -10, not -17. Because the magnitude scale is logarithmic, Richard is wrong by a factor of about 1000x in brightness. But besides this, comets are not discovered when they are at their brightest. They are usually discovered when they are around the position of Jupiter in the solar system and are somewhere in the upper teens on the magnitude scale. In the case of Ikeya-Seki, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, the comet was “first observed as a faint telescopic object on September 18, 1965.”

In terms of how faint a comet can be and still be visible, Hale-Bopp will pass from visibility in about a decade when it nears +30 magnitude, so Richard is probably right about his +28ish as the faintest. But then, why did he use integers in his math? Why didn’t he say that the chances of it being discovered at 19.5 was one in 452 instead of 45.2? You could really make anything up here.

But regardless, as I said, the majority of comets are detected in the teens of magnitude, so I’ll give this perhaps a generous realistic probability of 1 in 5.

But even then, so what?

Point 2. This whole thing with the odds of something happening on a particular day really bugs me. It’s the same issue I have with the Global Consciousness Project in terms of what constitutes a “significant event.” In this case, Hoagland is claiming that the odds of its closest approach to the sun on a particular important anniversary in the US are 1 in 365. True. But what about it happening on Christmas? Thanksgiving? V-Day? D-Day? Pearl Harbor Day? A presidential election? Mother’s Day? What about Bastille Day? Guy Fawkes Day? Boxing Day? Cinco de Mayo?

And why just its closest approach to the sun? What about when it crosses Earth’s distance inboud? Outbound? Closest approach to Earth inbound? Outbound? Crosses Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter?

This is the problem with a retrodiction — you can find almost anything significant somewhere in the world when you have a day and/or time as your constraint. I’m giving him even odds on this one, 1 in 1.

Point 3. I should probably combine the whole 10th anniversary thing with the previous point, but suffice to say, this is again nothing significant. If it were the fifth anniversary, he’d claim significance. Second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. And he’d continue to give the 1 in 1, 1 in 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. odds, despite these odds really not meaning anything because you could say, “What are the odds that out of a hundred anniversaries, it would be on the 10th? That’s 1 in 100, not 1 in 10!” So again, I’m giving him even odds on this one that he’d find something significant.

For those of you keeping score, we’re at 1:5, not 1:164,980.

Point 4. Yet again, the 19.5 number. Except, not. 19.5 hours GMT would be at 19:30, not 19:50. And, you could really choose any time zone around the world. So if Richard is allowing a ±20-minute window around 19.5 hours and we can choose any time zone, then this is a 2:3 chance, not 1:1440.

Point 5. There are a few things wrong with this. Well, two. First, 1.84 divided into (not by) 360 is 195.65217… . Rounding, this is 196, not 195. It’s also, well, 196, not 19.6. But besides this, his math is wrong because it “should” be 90/1.84. This is because if the comet were approaching from the “other” direction, it would still have that same angle relative to the plane of the solar system, so we’ve now cut our 360° circle in half to 180°. Second, if it were coming below the plane of the solar system, it would still be listed as having an inclination of 1.84°, so we’ve cut the circle in half again to 90°.

So it’s really a 1 in 48.9 chance that the inclination would be between 0 and 1.84°, a fairly insignificant inclination angle since most objects in the solar system orbit in roughly the same plane. You would have to multiply this into the probability distribution of inclination angles of known long-period comets to actually get the odds, and I’m not going to bother going through that math as I think we can agree at this point that it’s, again, an insignificant number.

So in the end, we have a roughly 1 in 5 chance that Elenin would have the level of significance that Hoagland places on it. Not 1 in 46 billion.

In addition to all this, though, Hoagland is wrong about this being the only comet on a hyperbolic trajectory. In fact, there are 259 known comets with hyperbolic orbits. And, while Elenin had an eccentricity of 1.0000621 early on, it was perturbed into that and is continuing to be perturbed such that when it exits the inner solar system should have an eccentricity of around 0.9991 (source).

Final Thoughts

I’m actually prepping a “bonus” episode of my podcast to come out on Sept. 10/11 to talk a bit about the Comet Elenin foolishness that’s going around the interwebz. But this was just too wrong to ignore as I was listening to Hoagland while doing work this morning. I hope that I’ve shown you that this particular brand of numerology is absolutely wrong and completely made up. Besides being magical thinking — he really just made up some of those numbers, completely ignored basic observational methods in others, and retrofitted to significance the rest.

It’s just wrong!

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