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.

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 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.

January 4, 2016

Richard Hoagland: As Slippery in 1998 as He Is Now

I suppose I might get called a “troll” for that kind of subject line, and I also am at risk for this post seeming to be an ad hominem, but I think it’s important to show how pseudoscientists argue when confronted by, well, any challenge to their claims. “Slippery” is the thought that came to mind yesterday while listening to an old Coast to Coast AM episode from May 26, 1998.

During the interview, Art Bell brought up one of Richard Hoagland’s critics, Ralph Greenberg, then and now a mathematics professor at the University of Washington. Prof. Greenberg heavily criticized Richard’s mathematical claims about the Cydonia region of Mars, something that I have done, as well. Basically showing that Richard was drawing lines that he claimed were significant and ignoring ones that weren’t.

Art said that Prof. Greenberg was sending him e-mail after e-mail and wanted to debate Richard Hoagland, on-air. What followed was many, many minutes of what really is best described as Richard being “slippery.” Richard ended up really arguing, in the end, that the math he claims to have found at Cydonia is meaningless because he’s moved beyond that, and Prof. Greenberg was still mired in the past and refused to consider any new arguments about things Richard was making. Which I classify as “slippery” – as well as, in hindsight knowing how things have played out over the subsequent 17 years, “disingenuous.”

Basically, Prof. Greenberg wanted to debate a specific claim. Richard wouldn’t even entertain that. Because he’s “moved beyond” it (despite clearly not). Whenever Art tried to bring it up in a different way, Richard kept saying different things to that effect, and he misrepresented Prof. Greenberg’s claims.

And, Richard does the same thing today. An excellent example is from 2010, when Richard claimed that an earthquake happened right at 19.5° on Earth. The actual center was at 18.5° N latitude, not 19.5°. When called out on that, Richard said, “I was thinking of geodetic latitude – not geographic – the latitudes change because the Earth is not a perfect sphere, it’s an oblate spheroid.”

Slippery. Why? Because it’s something that sounds plausible to almost anyone. It’s a term that seems like it could be correct. Problem is, as Expat pointed out at the time, this shifts his latitude by a mere 0.1°. Not 1.0°. And, if that were the case, everything else that he claims is at 19.5° (because that’s a magic number for him), he suddenly loses because he used geographic, not geodetic, latitude.

They are completely different kinds of examples, but I think that this illustrates well that while I may disagree with practically everything Richard Hoagland has said or done over the years, I must admit that he’s quick on his feet and clearly able to slip through peoples’ lines of defense, getting them to move on to a topic more favorable to him.

October 16, 2015

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

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

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

The logical fallacies segment discusses the Moving the Goalpost fallacy.

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

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

September 9, 2015

Podcast Episode 140: Doomsmonth— September 2015

Doomsmonth: September.
What could it bring that hasn’t
Yet been wrought on Earth?

Are we all gonna die this month? You’ll need to listen to the episode to find out. I’ve heard lots of rumors floating around about various things causing our doom, and in this episode, I go through five of them and assess their validity and background.

The logical fallacies segment presents two logical fallacies: Correlation ≠ causation, and cherry picking. Otherwise there’s a bit of feedback from both Gavin and Graham, and that’s it for this nearly 40-minute episode.

March 26, 2015

Science Conferences (#LPSC2015), Ivory Gates, and Who Gets In


On this blog and in my podcast, I talk a lot about pseudoscience. I talk a lot about pseudoscientists. But I don’t think I’ve talked explicitly much about what really separates a pseudoscientist from a real scientist, nor have I talked about basic thresholds for being considered a real scientist.

Last week, I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), a conference that is the largest planetary science conference in the US, annually drawing over 1500 planetary (non-Earth-studying) scientists and receiving around 2000 abstract submissions.

Among those were at least two that bordered on pseudoscientific. I’m going to be interviewing the program committee chair in an upcoming podcast episode, so I’ll leave a discussion of what happens when they get those kinds of submissions to that interview.

But, in the meantime, I’m going to discuss what happened when one of these persons set up his presentation, in contrast with the standards of the field and conference, to illustrate how one should not behave if they want to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

Who Am I Talking About

In this particular case, I’m talking about John E. Brandenburg, a person whose claims about Mars being host to an intelligent civilization before they got nuked, I discussed in Episode 86 of my podcast. I also discussed his claims in the Feedback portion of Episode 93 and in the New News of Episode 121.

However, I want this blog post to stand on its own. Without any other background information, other than I’ve discussed his claims before, let’s take a look at just what he did at this conference.


Everyone speaking at LPSC is required to submit an abstract. The standard is two pages (which is fairly long for most conferences) that outlines what your work is and what you will be talking about. That way the program committee can decide if you will get a talk or a poster presentation (you don’t always get a talk, so by default you will get a poster) and the order of the session.

To give you an idea of what an abstract looks like, here’s one that I submitted to the most recent LPSC about progress on my work into studying the crater population of Saturn’s satellites. That is the standard template.

John Brandenburg submitted two abstracts, “Evidence for Large, Anomalous Nuclear Explosions on Mars in the Past” and “The NMS (New Mars Synthesis), Recent Data from Gale Crater and NWA 7034: Evidence for a Persistent Biologically Stabilized Greenhouse on Mars.”

So, there you go. I will note that these do not use the standard templates, and the copy-editing isn’t great, but not everything one spits out is going to be gold. There’s also the pet peeve of mine of using Excel for science graphs (see his first abstract), but again, others do it so Dr. Brandenburg hasn’t done anything yet that others don’t do.

Poster Session

LPSC 2015 Poster by John E. Brandenburg

LPSC 2015 Poster by John E. Brandenburg

I don’t know if he requested a talk, but he got a poster. He was scheduled for the first of two poster sessions, which was on Tuesday night. Each night has well over 600 poster presentations, where you set up your poster and then wait twiddling your fingers, hoping that people will at least read it and maybe even talk with you. I went through that for the abstract I linked to of mine, but on Thursday night. You can get an idea of what it looks like if you’re busy from some of the royalty-free images here.

The poster sessions are from 6:00P.M. until 9:00P.M. You are expected to be there the entire time. You are also expected to set up your poster before that time, and most people set up their poster the day before. For example, I set my Thursday poster up on Wednesday just after lunch. (The e-mailed instructions state, “Poster presenters are expected to be present at their poster on their assigned evening.”)

John Brandenburg began to set up his poster at about 7:55P.M. on Tuesday evening. It was a long, very tedious process, where he spent 45 minutes doing so, not completing his set up until 8:40P.M., only 20 minutes before the poster session ended and – to be honest – many people had already left for late-night drinks.

John Brandenburg Setting Up His Poster at LPSC in 2015

John Brandenburg Setting Up His Poster at LPSC in 2015

After he finished setting up, he left for a few minutes to get a beer from the cash bar.

His Poster

Let’s be fair: Not everyone has access to or money to spend on a poster printer. Those are the large-format printers that take paper spanning around 36″–44″ across and can print something of arbitrary length. LPSC allows up to 44″ by 44″.

But, as I said, some people can’t do that. Instead, some will effectively create a talk in presentation software (e.g., PowerPoint or Keynote) and then print that out on standard 8.5″x11″ sheets of paper and tack those up. It doesn’t look great, but it gets the point across.

That was John Brandenburg’s approach.

Among other things, I noted the following in terms of non-standard items:

  • Nothing was referenced. This is important in science for anything that is not new work. Considering he posted many images from other peoples’ papers, this is a big no-no.
  • One slide part showed “the” Face on Mars, another claimed face, and a “pyramid.”

John Brandenburg Highlighting the "Face" on Mars and Pyramids on Mars at LPSC 2015

John Brandenburg Highlighting the “Face” on Mars and Pyramids on Mars at LPSC 2015

Okay, so really two, but that first one (referencing) is a big issue for science if you want to be taken seriously and not tick people off (and came up when I engaged him — more on that later). And the second one, well, ditto.

The “Face” came up once, when I was eavesdropping on him talking with someone else: John was explaining blast site antipodes (the opposite point on the planet to some feature or event) and he then pointed to those photos and remarked, “And that’s to remind you of what’s there;” he added a knowing nod when saying that. The implication’s obvious, but he seemed unwilling to say it out loud, potentially for fear of seeming even crazier.


Different people do poster sessions in different ways, but most people tend to walk through the aisles of posters and slowly skim over titles, perhaps pausing on one that seems interesting, maybe lingering a bit to read it, before moving on. Unless they are really interested, in which case they’ll stay and ask questions or generally engage the presenter, if the presenter is there.

While Dr. Brandenburg was getting his beer, I saw a few people walk by and effectively rubber-neck. I also saw their eyes go wide and then move on.

If They Don’t Come to You, Go to Them

I will admit at this point that I hid my name badge. There was a non-zero chance that Dr. Brandenburg would recognize my name based on my blog and podcast and e-mail exchanges we had. I didn’t want that to come up, I wanted to observe what happened without him knowing that a “skeptic” who had criticized his work before was there watching.

What I saw was that after Dr. Brandenburg came back with his beer, he waited a minute or two and then approached the two people standing across from him who were at their own posters. The friends I was with told me I should’ve written it down, and I wish I had, but what I remember from an hour later when I wrote down my notes was that he said, almost exactly: “It must be tough facing [or “being opposite?”] all this for the whole night.”  I really wish I had written it down then because this could be seen as really creepy – especially since at least one of those two people was a woman – though he really was referring to the posters he just put up and not something else.

For the next roughly 15 minutes (since that was all that was left of the poster session), when passers by would not engage him, he engaged people at surrounding posters, asking them about their work. That is reasonably fair, though a bit unconventional: The goal is to get people to come to your poster and talk about your work, especially when you only have 15 minutes left.

John Brandenburg's Discussion at LPSC 2015 that Mars was Nuked

John Brandenburg’s Discussion at LPSC 2015 that Mars was Nuked

One of the people he engaged was a friend of mine at her poster. I took the opportunity to slip around and take some photographs of his “poster” for future use, such as in this blog post. When I asked my friend later about what he talked about, she stated that he seemed surprised about some of her findings and remarked that it was, well, surprising. Unfazed, she told him “no” that it wasn’t surprising, most of the stuff she found was common and expected. It was another part that was surprising that she hadn’t yet mentioned to him.

This is not in itself a big issue: I have no idea what she’s doing. It’s not my field. But, it is very related to what Dr. Brandenburg claims his field is, and related to his second abstract. So this actually is a big issue: He tried to “talk the talk,” and he failed. He demonstrated ignorance of field that he should know if he’s talking about a very closely related one on his “poster.”

My friend also said that John seemed drunk, but she wasn’t sure if that was his personality. That did not surprise me. I wrote in a forum after listening to his interview on “Dark City” from February 2015: “Affect: For some reason, I find his constant laughs very off putting. I don’t know why. It has nothing to do with his arguments, but it makes it sound like he doesn’t take this seriously. I hear this in all of his interviews.”

Another commenter on the forum stated, in response: “I’d read the comment about his laughter before I listened to the show so was “analyzing” it as it occurred. It happened more frequently and for longer periods as the show continued. In my professional opinion, I think he started the interview with a 6 pack in front of him. By last call at the end of the show, he sounded like a someone who was regretfully set to go home after spending a few hours telling his ideas to the guy next to him at the bar.”

You, the reader might consider this gratuitous. Perhaps. but, it added to the general gestalt of Dr. Brandenburg’s presentation and interactions, and it adds to the general group of things not to do if you want to be taken seriously by the scientific community. I’ve seen people drunk at LPSC. I have never seen someone drunk who is presenting. I’m also not saying Dr. Brandenburg was drunk, rather it was the impression a few of us had, and a few of us who have listened to his various interviews have had.

Enter the Dragon’s Lair

I finally gave in while he was talking with some other people at his “posters” and joined them. He made his case, and the people seemed unconvinced.  At the end, the guy asked for a photo of his poster and John was happy to oblige and offered to be in it, too. From my perspective, I figured this was going in the “Crazy Times at LPSC” album, but of course my own views color that assumption.

John Brandenburg Claims Trinitie Is Wide-Spread on Mars, Using Unreferenced Figure that Only Shows Volcanic Glass

John Brandenburg Claims Trinitie Is Wide-Spread on Mars, Using Unreferenced Figure that Only Shows Volcanic Glass

The only engagement I gave was when John Brandenburg mentioned trinitite. I was prepared for that. It’s a recent addition to his claimed evidence for a nuclear blast on Mars, for trinitite “is the glassy residue left on the desert floor after the plutonium-based Trinity nuclear bomb test on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.” In other words, we’ve only seen it on Earth as a result from a nuclear blast. If we see it on Mars, that’d be interesting evidence for a nuclear blast, though we’d still need to do work to determine if there’s any other way to make it. That’s how science works.

I was prepared for the trinitite claim because in that recent interview on “Dark City,” he said that he had found it on Mars. So, when he brought it up from his “poster,” he presented a map showing it was all over the northern hemisphere of Mars near the north polar layered deposits. I jumped on that and asked what his source was.  He responded by reiterating what trinitite is (and that it’s only found at nuclear blast sites), and I told him no, I wanted to know what detected it and how.  He stuttered and didn’t remember but said it’s in his abstract — this is one reason why I said it’s important to provide references on your poster. Not only did that effectively stop the conversation because I couldn’t ask further, but it also allowed him to punt it back to the abstract and avoid questions.

The issue for me going into this was that trinitite is a very specific kind of glass, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up from orbit with the instruments we have around Mars today. First, the spectral signature of trinitite is very close to glass, so I would want to see how the researchers would have differentiated between them with orbiting probes. Second, if there had been trinitite discovered (and I did my homework and could not find any papers that mentioned Mars and trinitite), I would think I would be able to find it. Because, well, it’s only found on Earth near nuclear blast sites, so one would think it’d get a big press release.

After the poster session, I looked up his abstract and I found the reference. It’s a paper in “Geology” by Horgan and Bell from 2012, though he cited it as being from 2014 (as I said, sloppy abstracts).  The abstract of this paper is inconsistent with what Dr. Brandenburg says it says. Specifically, he claims (but the paper says otherwise) that the glass is only found there on Mars (they say it’s likely widespread), the glass is solid hunks of glass (versus just glass mixed into the regolith like we see all over Earth in volcanoes), and that it’s acid-etched glass and therefore trinitite (they say it’s iron-bearing glass and silica-enriched leached rinds on glass). So, his smoking gun has a common, mundane explanation. You don’t need a crazy explanation for a mundane (yet still new — not to belittle the authors’ work) observation when the mundane explanation will work (that it’s just volcanic glass that we see everywhere on Earth).

In a bit of fairness, John did say (direct quote) when introducing the claim of trinitite: “They” think it’s volcanic glass, “perfectly reasonable.  But, it also looks like trinitite.”


Over the last two years, LPSC has been a little trigger-happy about shutting down the poster session at 9:00 sharp. I remember being in there at my poster talking with people well past 9:30 before, but only in past years. This year, at 9:02, a volunteer told him he needed to take down his poster or they were going to take down everything that was left up.

In fairness to the volunteer, this was also in the instructions to presenters that was e-mailed out, that if posters were left after the end of the poster session, they would be “discarded.”

John responded, “What would you DO with it if you took it down?!”

He may have just been trying to be funny, but that capped off the encounter for me in terms of not following the instructions and seeming to think he’s special.

Hallmarks of a Pseudoscientist

John Brandenburg's LPSC 2015 Poster, Bastardizing Martian Chronology

John Brandenburg’s LPSC 2015 Poster, Bastardizing Martian Chronology

In his e-mails to me, John Brandenburg has clearly implied that he wants to and thinks he should be taken seriously. In those e-mail exchanges, however, he has failed to back up the majority of his claims, and he has failed to put together a cogent, cohesive story that does not conflict with well established other things (such as Martian chronology).

What I observed was more of the same at LPSC, and this illustrates a general failure to adhere to the standards of how a scientist should not only behave and present their information, but also present themselves.

As a short listed recap:

  • Arrival with an hour left in the poster session, way too long to set up, and only 15 minutes after getting a beer to present his work.
  • Drunk affect, if not actually drunk when you are supposed to be presenting.
  • Presenting known pseudoscience in an attempt to bolster your science claims (face and pyramids on Mars — sorry conspiracists reading this blog, it is: see here, here, here, or here).
  • Failure to demonstrate knowledge of the field you’re talking about.
  • Failure to reference others’ work you are using, especially when copying their images.
  • Making unsubstantiated other claims that are used in support of your claim, especially when your side-claim flies in the face of the generally accepted state of the field.

Final Thoughts

This has been a long post, but I hope that it gives you some insight into what (not) to do if you are going to be taken seriously at a scientific conference. Scientists really are open minded about new ideas (again, I know most people who aren’t skeptics or scientists reading this blog are going to think I’m crazy to say that, but we really are).

We scientists just demand better evidence than the average person because we know how easy it is to be fooled, how easy it is to let our own biases get in the way, and we know that the new ideas have to not only explain the observations better than the previous ideas but also have to mesh with everything else that may seem unrelated but still would be affected by that new idea. And write long, run-on sentences.

But, while we’re open to new ideas, we also have certain standards. And, we expect you to play by the same rules that we do.

John E. Brandenburg does not and he did not do that at LPSC last week.

I don’t know what will happen if he submits abstracts to LPSC next year, but I hope that the program committee takes note of how he behaved this year and will use that to make an informed decision next year. He now has a documented case (here) of abusing the privilege of presenting at a scientific conference.

And you, the reader, can see what that abuse is like. While these conferences are not meant to be gates closed to everyone but those “in the club,” they are still a privilege that one is granted to attend, it is not a right.

March 22, 2015

Should NASA Fund Old Missions In Operation, or New Missions in Development?


This was my seventh post to the JREF’s Swift blog, published last week. I wrote it while I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) and was reading the news and listening to the (perpetual) budget issues at NASA.

The Post

Last week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified before the Senate Subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget. In response to questions about the funding of Mars rover missions, The Planetary Society blog reported that Bolden stated the following:

“We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed, because I won’t be able to put something like InSight on Mars in 2016 … I have to make choices.”

This is an interesting statement and sentiment, and it’s one that I’ve wrestled with myself for several years. The question really boils down to this: Should NASA continue to fund proven missions well past their design lifetime that are still successfully operating, or should they “pull the plug” and move the funding (that they never originally budgeted for in the first place) to some other project, one that uses technology a decade newer? And, to make it more relevant to the JREF, if funding is pulled, will it spark a new conspiracy?

The context of this particular mission is that the Mars Exploration Rovers were twins – Spirit and Opportunity – with nominal lifetimes of 90 days. They landed on Mars a decade ago. Spirit died a few years ago, Opportunity is still functional and returning science information. It has gone through several extended missions, meaning that the money was never originally budgeted to pay for operations (mission control, planning, time on the deep space networks, and of course the scientists). Meaning that the money to fund them now eats into other previously planned programs.

Because the MERs landed on Mars a decade ago, the technology in them is at least a decade and a half old. Think about it: That was before the iPod, before most people had multi-CPU computers, and still well before digital cameras were mainstream. Contrast that with what one has available now to build a new mission, and you start to see some of the issues.

On the one hand, you have a still-operating mission. It’s there. On Mars. Still returning usable data. The cost to build it and launch it and make sure everything is working right is done, paid for, and will never have to be paid for again.

But, on the other hand, the money to keep it going prevents new missions, with better technology, with a new and different goal, from even getting off the ground and having the potential to do new science.

It’s easy to say, “Well, just increase NASA’s budget!” Easy to say, not so easy to get Congress to do. Delays and cost over-runs in both the James Webb Space Telescope and the Mars Curiosity rover both were not made up by Congress and so ate into other parts of the budget, such as basic scientific research funding (what I rely on to put food on the table).

If NASA were to simply “turn off” MER Opportunity, it would not be the first still-functional mission that NASA has effectively killed. There are several in recent times, but perhaps most interesting to me is the Apollo seismic network. The Apollo astronauts on later missions installed and activated seismic stations on the lunar surface to detect moonquakes. No, there are no buildings on the moon that we needed to warn, but rather whenever there was a quake – from something impacting to tides between it and Earth and the sun – the stations would pick it up and scientists on Earth would be able to use the data to slowly build up a picture of the interior of our nearest celestial neighbor. It’s a little like the way an ultrasound works, and it’s earthquake data on our own planet that lets us know about the interior structure of Earth.

When NASA ran out of funding for it after a few years after the Apollo program ended, they shut down the network, despite the fact that it was still returning good, usable data, and with each new quake we learned a little more about the structure of the moon’s interior. A consequence of this – besides a loss to basic scientific research – is that conspiracies about NASA finding the moon is hollow have become widespread among the astronomical pseudoscientific world. The thinking goes that they found it “rang like a bell” (which had more to do with the loosely packed surface material) and therefore either shut down the network so we wouldn’t know it was hollow, or they kept the network going but in secret.

Anyway, that bit of conspiracy aside, this really is a serious issue and serious question of where our monetary priorities should be. Assuming NASA’s budget is static and will not be changed to keep these long-lived missions operational, then what should a good administrator do? Should they keep the proven mission going? Or should they kill it and fund the new mission? Or, should they fund both and pull money from other parts of the budget, like education, or human spaceflight, or basic research?

I have my own opinion on this, but I’ll keep it to myself. I just know I wouldn’t want to be in Charley Bolden’s shoes when he makes that decision and has to not only answer to Congress, but to many scientists who will see their budgets cut, yet again.

Letter to the Editor

After the above post, I got an e-mail:

Stuart, what about the possibility of (for future missions, it’s probably too late to do something like this for Opportunity) turning operations for “expired but still viable” missions over to amateur (or private professional) research groups. After the official funded mission is over, could a bid process be set up to allow such groups (which would have their own private funding) to take over the control, data collection, and analysis from such “defunct” missions? Such a handoff would free NASA’s budget for contemporary / future missions, and also give other groups access to hardware / settings (Mars, for example) that their budgets would certainly not allow for. What are your thoughts in this regard?

Here was my response:

While this seems like a great idea on its face, you run into a lot of legal issues. In particular, ITAR-restricted information. That would put a stop to your scenario right away.

Beyond that, there are broader questions of how open the information would be once the data are gathered by an independent, private company. Though, one could of course argue that the company paid for it, therefore they should have the right to own it.

There are also some communications issues. The Deep Space Network is the only set of antennas that can record signals as faint as those sent by interplanetary craft. That’s a public (inter-governmental) group, so if the DSN brings down the data, are there licensing issues? I don’t know the answer to that, but it strikes me as a potential question.

Finally, you have “parts” of spacecraft that are still important and NASA (or other governments) still use even if they can’t fund all the other “parts.” For example, while MAVEN (around Mars now) has a suite of instruments for studding the atmosphere, they are only funded for one Earth year and must submit an extended mission request to operate beyond that. But even if that request is denied, the craft itself will still be kept active and act as a communications relay. It’s just that the science instruments won’t be collecting and transmitting data, and there won’t be money for scientists to analyze it.

It’s a very … perhaps “annoying” and “frustrating” … situation to be in, but unfortunately the solution isn’t as simple as just selling the craft to someone else.

March 5, 2015

Martian Ocean News: “Who Said it First?,” Press Releases, and Correct by Association


It’s a press office’s and officer’s job to make what they are writing about sound interesting, exciting, and get you to read it. That’s fairly undisputed. And, most press officers are not experts in the fields that they write press releases for. And, most of the people they talk to will tell them something, and the press officer will try to come up with an interesting angle that they think helps generate interest, often not realizing that they are changing the story.

One class of examples is when they spin something in such a way as to make it seem as though this is completely new, revolutionary, and never been done before. Even if it has. Many times. Over and over.

I speak, of course, of the news today from press release #15-032 that “NASA Research Suggests Mars Once Had More Water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean.”


I wrote about this phenomenon two years ago in the post, “How Astronomers Are, According to Popular Press, Constantly Discovering the Same Thing.”

I should have rephrased that title to indicate that it’s not just according to the popular press, but according to NASA’s own press releases.

And, that’s an issue, even forgetting all the pseudoscience and even implications for normal people: It minimizes the many scientists’ work before this that found the exact same thing.

Mars Ocean

Now, I don’t want to minimize the latest work. It found the same thing, but it was by a completely different method. Previous work looked at mineralogy of rocks, other work looked at morphology (the way things look) of geologic features, others looked at simple elevation and roughness, and others (such as my former thesis advisor, four years ago) looked at the elevation of deltas and showed they were very similar, all implying an ancient ocean.

The work announced earlier today instead looked at the chemistry of the atmosphere and based on the ratios of heavy water (extra neutron in one of the hydrogen atoms) to normal water, they determined that a whole lotta water had been lost to space because the heavier water stays behind, and Martian ices today are HUGELY enriched relative to other sources in the solar system.

But, as someone pointed out to me moments after posting this, even the heavy water result is not new and unique, it’s been done before, as shown in this paper from 1988.

It’s really nice when completely independent ways of looking at things converge on very similar conclusions. That bolsters the strength of all of them and makes it more likely that that conclusion is the correct model.

Being First, Again

But then there’s the general population problem. Even completely non-astronomy friends of mine (argument from anecdote, perhaps) are starting to ask me, “Haven’t we already discovered this?” and they’re asking me how the latest work is new … again.

But beyond that, there’s the pseudoscience aspect, the people who come out of the woodwork to claim that they “did it first” and therefore they should receive the credit, and because they “thought of it first,” before it was officially announced (again) by this latest press release, their other work is real. (Hence the “argument by association” fallacy in the title of this blog post.)

Let’s look at an example, in case you don’t believe me. About the ocean on Mars. Back when I was in grad school, I had to give a talk for a class on the evolution of Mars’ hydrosphere — a literature review, really. That was Spring of 2006. My main source of information was a paper published in the planetary science journal Icarus by S.M. Clifford and T.J. Parker entitled, “The Evolution of the Martian Hydrosphere: Implications for the Fate of a Primordial Ocean and the Current State of the Northern Plains.” My second source of information was a paper published in the other main planetary science journal, the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets by M.H. Carr and J.W. Head, entitled, “Oceans on Mars: An Assessment of the Observational Evidence and Possible Fate.”

The copyright dates for these two papers were 2001 and 2003.

Just skimming through the references, there’s a paper from 1991 entitled, “Ancient Oceans, Ice Sheets, and the Hydrologic Cycle on Mars.” Another from 1998 testing the possibility of shorelines from topography data. Several by Michael Carr hypothesizing about Mars having been water-rich from the 1980s and many by Scott Clifford from the 1990s about the same thing. Most really specifically testing newer hypotheses about massive oceans are from the late 1990s when we first got topography information (meaning you could start to tell if features you thought were ocean shorelines were at the same elevation).

So, the scientific community was finding good evidence for oceans on Mars at least in the late 1990s, and pretty good circumstantial evidence in the 1980s. Massive floods in the 1970s. And evidence for lots of flowing water in the past pretty much since the first images came back in the 1960s. That’s a fact based on the literature review.

That fact is ignored (doing a literature review would require actual work) by people who want to say that they predicted the ocean, but they predicted it based on Mars being the moon of a now-exploded planet that is the asteroid belt. I speak, of course, of Mike Bara, who on his blog wrote a post this eve entitled, “NASA ‘Discovers’ Martian Ocean that Hoagland and Bara Predicted 14 Years Ago.”

Perhaps you understand now where I’m going with this.

Mr. Hoagland and Bara wrote a document in 2001 wherein they claimed Mars had oceans near the equator, that large volcanic complexes are remnant tidal bulges from when Mars was tidally locked with Planet V, and that the northern plains smooth because that’s where the water went after Planet V blew up.

To quote from Mike’s blog:

The fact is that this ocean was actually discovered and predicted by myself and Richard Hoagland over 14 years ago in our Mars Tidal Model paper published on http://www.enterprisemission.com.

While I’m gratified that NASA has finally admitted that Hoagland and me were correct all those years ago, I wish they’d get the details right. […] All of this is covered in our Mars Tidal Model paper that we published online in 2001 after it was rejected by scientific journals because there was “no scientific evidence” to support our ideas.

Hmm. We seem to have overcome that problem, haven’t we NASA…?

The conclusion you are supposed to draw is pretty clear, and Mike’s Facebook followers consider him vindicated.

The “only” problems are that Hoagland and Bara were not the first (as I demonstrated above), and none of the scientific research at all places the possible ancient global ocean anywhere that Hoagland or Bara want it until after Planet V would have exploded. That’s ignoring all the timing problems and everything else that’s pseudoscientific about the paper (that’s beyond the scope of this blog post).

But, because NASA has now “admitted” that Mars likely had a large ocean at some point in its past, you should infer that Mike Bara and Richard Hoagland were right. Uh huh …

Final Thoughts

The above is just one example of a pseudoscientician (I’m all for neologisms) uses this kind of “discovered for the first time! (again)” press release to advance their claims. There are other examples, as well, such as those who claim to have predicted or “stated as fact” these kinds of things many years ago through various divining methods — be it psychic gifts, talking to transcendent beings, or just good ol’-fashioned aliens — but I think my point is made.

This kind of press release does a disservice to the scientists who produced this result before, to the public who wonders why their tax money is spent finding the same thing again, and to pseudoscientists who use it to advance their own claims via association.

And that’s my opinion … until I discover something amazing for the first time, again, and want my own press release.

December 30, 2014

My First Infographic: What Have Our Planetary Space Probes Photographed Since 1970?


This has been over two months in the making: I’m finally releasing my first infographic. It’s entitled, “Planets and Major Moons: Distribution of Non-Lander Spacecraft Photos Since 1970.” (Suitable for printing on A-size paper with a bit of top and bottom margin to spare.) The purpose is to show the number of images taken by different space probes of the planets (and major satellites), the percentage of the total images that were for each body, and for each body, the percentage taken by each different spacecraft.

PDF Version of Spacecraft Imagery Infographic (3.5 MB)
PNG Version of Spacecraft Imagery Infographic (4.7 MB)

Number of Images of Planets Taken by Spacecraft Infographic

Number of Images of Planets Taken by Spacecraft Infographic

Development Process

I’ve been wanting to create infographics for awhile. Really good ones are few and far between, especially for astronomy, but the good ones are often amazing works of art. I don’t pretend that this is an amazing work of art, but hopefully it’s not ugly.

To me, the key is to have a lot of information crammed into a small space in an easy-to-understand way that you don’t have to be an expert to interpret. In my work, I deal a lot with multi-dimensional datasets and so already I have to come up with ways of displaying a lot of information in as few figures as possible and yet still make them readable.

The Idea

An idea that I came up with is based on the claim that “NASA hides all its pictures!” (This is often, hypocritically, almost immediately followed up with NASA spacecraft imagery showing claimed UFOs and other pseudoscientific claims.)

And so, I wanted to investigate this: How many images really have been taken and are available publicly, for free, on the internet? After several days of research, I had the results, and I assembled them into the above infographic.

The Numbers

I was surprised by some of the numbers and I was not surprised by others. One thing that did not surprise me was that the outer planets have very few photographs (relatively speaking) of them, while most imagery has focused on Mars and the Moon (fully 86%).

But, I was not prepared for how very few photographs were taken by our early probes to the outer solar system. Pioneers 10 and 11 were the first craft to venture out, and yet, because of the (now) archaic method of imaging and slow bandwidth, they collectively took a mere 72 images of both Jupiter and Saturn. Compare that with the ongoing Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter around the moon, which has publicly released over 1.1 million images.

You can also see the marked effect of the Galileo high-gain antenna failure: Only 7.4% of the photos we have of Jupiter were taken by Galileo, despite it being an orbiter in the 1990s. Compare that with the Cassini orbiter of Saturn, which has returned nearly 50 times as many images, despite no dramatic change in technology between the two craft. This means that only 0.4% of our images of planets and moons are of Jupiter, while 1.9% are of Saturn.

You can also see the marked success of modern spacecraft and the huge volumes of images that (I repeat) are publicly available. The pie slices in the infographic are color-coded by approximate spacecraft operation era. Well over 90% of all images were taken after 1995, and the current suite of the latest NASA spacecraft (MESSENGER around Mercury, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter around the Moon, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter around Mars) account for a sizable fraction of the returned data for that body — especially MESSENGER, which accounts for 98.1% of all Mercury images.

What was I most surprised by? The Clementine mission to the moon. It returned and has publicly archived just shy of 1.5 million images of the lunar surface. I expected the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to have surpassed that. And, it still may, as it continues to operate and return data. We shall see.

Why the Conspiracy Theorists Are Wrong

As I said, one of the primary reasons I made this was to investigate the claim by conspiracy theorists that these space agencies hide photographs. The blame rests almost entirely on NASA by most conspiracists’ accounts. This infographic proves them wrong in two significant ways.

First, at least for the Moon, Mars, and Venus, sizable numbers of images have been taken by and publicly released by non-NASA sources. I specifically have data from the European Space Agency (SMART-1, Venus Express, and Mars Express), and Japanese Space Agency (SELENE / Kaguya). While both the Indian and Chinese space agencies have also sent spacecraft to the moon and Mars (Mars for the Indians with the recently-in-orbit “MOM” craft), and Russia has sent craft to Venus, Moon, and Mars, I could not find the public repositories – if they exist – for these missions. Therefore, I could not include them. But, a lack of those two does not affect the overall point, that non-NASA agencies have released photos of these bodies.

Second, as I’ve repeated throughout this post, these are the publicly released images. Not private. Public. To public archives. In the bottom-left corner, I have the sources for all of these numbers. (Please note that they were compiled in late October and may have increased a bit for ongoing missions — I’ll update periodically, as necessary.)

The total number of lunar images? About 3 million.

Mars? Around 1.6 million. Venus? Over 350,000. Mercury? Over 210,000.

It’s hard to claim that NASA hides lots of images when these numbers are staring you in the face.

What Conspiracists Could Still Claim

I think the only “out” at this point, given this information (and if they acknowledge this information), is for conspiracists to claim that NASA and other space agencies simply obfuscate the “interesting” stuff. I suppose that’s possible, though they’d need armies of people to do it on the millions of returned images. And they apparently do a pretty bad job considering all the images that conspiracists post, claiming that features within them are of alien-origin.

It’s amazing how the “powers that be” are so powerful, and yet so sloppy. Apparently.

What This Infographic Does Not Show

I had to decide to clip a lot of information. We’ve imaged a lot of asteroids and a lot of comets. Those are out. We have had landers on the three closest bodies (Moon, Mars, Venus). Those images were not included.

Also, I focused on visible-light images, mostly. There are some instruments that take more UV images, or far-IR images, or various other wavelengths, but this infographic focused on the visible or near-visible light camera data.

Pretty much the only exception to this is for the Magellan mission at Venus, which took radar swaths of the planet to “image” the surface. I included this because, in early test audiences, I did not have Venus at all, and they requested it. Then, I did not include Magellan, but the test audiences wondered what happened to it. Describing why that data was not present made things wordy and more cluttered, so I, in the end, simply included it and put a footnote explaining the Magellan data.

This also fails to show the volume of data as measured by or approximated by (for the older craft) pixel count. If I were doing this by amount of pixels returned, the Moon and Mars would be far larger in comparison, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would be much larger fractions of their respective bodies.

Final Thoughts

I’m releasing this under the Creative Commons license with attribution required, non-commercial distribution, and no derivative works (please see the CC stamp at the bottom of the infographic). This is so that I can at least have some semblance of version control (see release date at lower right).

I hope you find it useful and interesting. And at least somewhat purdy. If you like it, share it.

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