Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 22, 2017

Podcast Episode 161: Water on Earth— Coriolis and Tides

Water on the Earth:
Do tides affect you? Does the
Coriolis, too?

Another short main segment, two common misconceptions about water: Coriolis and Tides. The episode was motivated when I recently heard George Noory make the statement, yet again, about, “Since we’re mostly water, and the moon causes tides in water, doesn’t the moon affect us, too?” Or something like that. Add to it some misconceptions I’ve had before about Coriolis, and we have an episode.

I added feedback to this episode, and there’s more feedback that’ll be in the next episode. This is also the episode for the first half of April. One of these days, I’ll get back on schedule.

Moon Over Water, Artistic Rendering

Moon Over Water, Artistic Rendering

April 3, 2017

Podcast Episode 160: Apollo Hoax: The US Flag Waving, and the Moon of No Return

Apollo Moon Hoax:
Why does the US flag wave?
And, why no return?

A return to a tried-and-true subject of skepticism: the Apollo Moon Hoax. In this shorter episode, I discuss two of the most common claims that you may hear: Why does the US flag appear to be waving in photographs, and if we went to the moon, why haven’t we been back?

There are no additional segments in this episode, and it is significantly shorter than my recent standard. This is also the episode for the second half of March.

Moon Hoax Poster

Moon Hoax Poster

March 5, 2017

Podcast Episode 158: Getting Beyond the Photograph: Image Tricks with Dr. Tod Lauer

To peer beneath the
Photograph and uncover
What may be hidden!

Sorry for the delay, but I have an interview that’s over an hour this time on image processing. In past episodes, I have talked about how you can’t get any more information out of an image than what is in a single pixel. Dr. Tod Lauer is an astronomer who has worked on all kinds of telscopes and instrument data and has developed numerous image processing techniques over his career. In this episode, we discuss some of those and how to correctly – versus incorrectly – apply them to image data to get to the best representation of the original object, or what the image was trying to capture.

There are no additional segments in this episode, but the interview runs nearly 1hr 15min. This is also the episode for the second half of February. I’m very much hoping/trying to get the first half of March’s episode out before I leave on a trip on March 19. It will either be an interview on what’s a planet, or a normal episode on Apollo Hoax miscellaneous claims I never did an episode about.

R136 Star Cluster by the Hubble Space Telescope

R136 Star Cluster by the Hubble Space Telescope

December 31, 2016

Podcast Episode 154: Impact Crater Pseudoscience Mishmash

Impact cratering
Is neat, but crazies like to
Abuse the science.

To end 2016, we have some crater-related pseudoscience. This is an episode where I talked about three different claims related to impact craters and how two of them misuse and abuse impact craters as a way to make their brand of pseudoscience make sense, in their own minds. The third claim falls under the “bad headlines” category and I get to address the Gambler’s Fallacy.

I’m still experimenting with a new microphone setup and you can hear the audio change tone noticeably part-way through. That’s when I moved my computer from off to the side so I was talking into the side of the microphone to more in front of me so I was talking into the top of the microphone. I also have a new laptop and figured out that the clicking/crackling that’s been in some recent episodes is when I stop recording, start again, and for a few seconds, every fraction of a second, the computer just records nothing for a much tinier fraction of a second. In this episode, I spent an extra half-hour editing all those out so there’s much less of it.

Artistic Rendering of Asteroid Impacting Earth

Artistic Rendering of Asteroid Impacting Earth

December 15, 2016

Podcast Episode 153: What Is Radiation?

“Radiation” is
As common in life as ’tis
In pseudoscience.

This is one of those basic science episodes where I tried to provide solid background to a typically misunderstood concept that is beloved by pseudoscientists: Radiation. I go through what radiation is and is not, different kinds of radiation, what it means to say that something is ionizing vs nonionizing, and the effects of thermal radiation. It’s a longer episode, clocking in at 51 minutes.

There are two additional short segments in this episode, the first being logical fallacies where I discussed the nautralistic fallacy, and the second being feedback where I finally addressed Graham’s feedback about the Catholic Church and a round vs flat planet.

"Caution: Radioactive" Sign

“Caution: Radioactive” Sign

August 16, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #10 — Crrow777 Thinks It’s ALL Fake


I really don’t want to give this one much time. “Crrow777” as he is known on YouTube, or just “Crrow” in interviews, is (from what I can tell) rising somewhat in the conspiracy world for reasons that I don’t understand. Among other things, he thinks the moon (Earth’s moon) is a hologram.

I have listened to some of his material, and I have heard several of the interviews he has given. I think he believes what he is saying. I don’t know beyond that what his mental state may be.

For this and other reasons, not the least of which is that the claims he makes are insane, I don’t want to feed the birds beyond what I need to to quickly debunk his foray into Pluto and New Horizons.

I have seen two additional Pluto videos on YouTube of his that go beyond the first one he posted. I’m only going to focus on that first one: “Crow Images vs NASA Images – Pluto is Only at Disneyland.” His videos typically get on the order of 10,000 views. This one has nearly 100,000 because it was picked up by various news outlets who did want to give him more attention.

The Claim

It really boils down to this: Because he can get from Earth (what he thinks) are better images of Jupiter and Jupiter’s moons than what NASA was showing of Pluto from New Horizons several days before encounter, New Horizons is fake.

The Explanation: Very Basic, Middle School Math

He’s wrong.

First off, in his first video, he is fully focused on saying that Jupiter in his camera and telescope is better than Pluto from the LORRI instrument on New Horizons. In his second video, he commits the logical fallacy of Moving the Goalpost and claims that what he really was talking about was Jupiter’s moons, not Jupiter.

Let’s do some really basic math. Jupiter was near the opposite side of the sun as Earth in mid-July, meaning it was around 900,000,000 km from us. Pluto was very roughly 5,000,000,000 km from us, or around 5.5x farther.

Jupiter’s radius is about 71,000 km (on average). Pluto’s radius is around 1190 km. So Jupiter is around 60x bigger in size.

Take 60x bigger and 5.5x farther from Earth, Pluto is going to look around 330x smaller than Jupiter.

Okay, but what about from New Horizons? The first images that he complains about and said were an “insult to your intelligence” were from late May, when New Horizons was about 50,000,000 km away from Pluto, or about 18x closer than we were to Jupiter. Except, he wasn’t showing you LORRI images. He was showing you MVIC images, which have a much worse pixel scale.

It’s the second animation he shows, about 3:45 into the video, which is from LORRI from April, when New Horizons was about 110,000,000 km, or 9x closer than we are to Jupiter.

So, simple math: Jupiter is 60x bigger, New Horizons was 9x closer, so Jupiter would STILL, if the optics were all the same, be about 6.5x bigger than what he’s doing in his back yard.

Except, the optics are not the same. I don’t know the field of view of his specific telescope. The build of the telescope changes the field of view, as does the camera size. LORRI has a field of view of 0.3° (about 60% the size of Earth’s full moon). It also has a 1024×1024 pixel detector, or 1 megapixels.

Crrow777 looks like he was using a dSLR camera, which typically has around 20 megapixels. That means that his resolving power – the ability to see a certain number of pixels across a feature – is going to be around 4-5x that of LORRI (take the square-root of the number of pixels, which is area, to get length).

So, not only is Jupiter going to still be 6.5x bigger if the telescopes are the same, but due to the number of pixels in his camera, it will be about 30x more pixels across than how New Horizons is seeing Pluto.

Other Stuff

He also complains that he has city lights and an atmosphere to deal with. But, he’s using techniques which help get around that, which those LORRI images he was showing were not using.

He also (around 4:30 in the video) just starts to rant about the images being an insult to peoples’ intelligence. I think his basic misunderstandings are an insult to peoples’ intelligence.

He also complains (5 min) that these are “high resolution” from NASA but as he defines “high resolution,” meaning you can “get down and resolve detail on these things,” then under his definition – which is different from the term as NASA was using it – they aren’t.

Except they are. We could resolve features on months out that we had never been able to resolve before. And days out, which are the ones he complains about at that time stamp, we were resolving surface features. It’s not “junk” (his term). All because he doesn’t understand something doesn’t mean the incredibly hard work and dedication by hundreds of people was all fake.

Final Thoughts

Okay, I’ve gotten myself angry at this point. I’ve said my bit, but I’ll say it again:

Just because you don’t know basic math, basic optics, and basic technology doesn’t mean that everything is a conspiracy. Instead of everyone lying, maybe it’s YOU who needs to actually do a little extra work and learn something instead of acting crazy.

Post Script

I took a look at his second video. Nothing really new in it except probably 80% of it is ranting and raving about The Masons and that nobody should trust The Government. One of the very few new things in it was ranting that there were better than 1 Mpx cameras available at the time New Horizons was built. This ignores two things: You have to go to the initial proposal – not when the craft was built and certainly not launched – and you have to look at what is tried and true technology that is capable of surviving the much harsher environment of space (temperature extremes and radiation). You can’t just go to the local camera store, buy a camera off the shelf, and fly it to Pluto. Ranting about should’ve-been-able-to-do-that shows you know absolutely nothing about how space missions work and how the technology on those missions is selected, built, and tested.

I also took a look at his third, rather short video, claiming that the colorized full-frame Pluto images was faked because if you invert the colors and increase the levels, you see a blockiness around the edge of the disk. Again: All because YOU don’t know anything about what’s going on doesn’t mean it’s a fraud.

This was a lossy JPG B&W image, with MUCH lower resolution color data overlaid on it, and then saved and exported again with lossy JPG compression. If he had BOTHERED TO READ THE CAPTION, he would know this.

June 23, 2015

Podcast Episode 134: Big Bang Denial

The Big Bang theory:
Tot’ly explains the cosmos?
Or, is it a dud?

This episode follows a big from the Black Hole Denial episode, but this time with another aspect of cosmology: The Big Bang. I was able to use a few old blog posts, too, that I wrote practically 7 years ago.

As mentioned, I’m now on a weird – though backdating – release schedule due to the piling on of work as the New Horizons craft nears Pluto. But I’m still trying to do 2 episodes/month, at least.

June 12, 2015

Are We on the Verge of Discovering an Earth-Like Exoplanet?

I announced awhile ago that I was on episode 347 of the Canadian, “The Reality Check” poscast where I talked about exoplanets and some hype — deserved or otherwise — about almost but never quite yet discovering Earth-sized exoplanets.

While they post a lot of links and other things on their website, they don’t post transcripts of what we actually talk about. Since I spent a solid many minutes writing and editing my segment’s text, I thought I’d post it here:

There’s lots of ways to talk about exoplanets, but I’m going to take the traditional approach and start with a very broad but brief overview of how we have found the few-thousand known extra-solar planets, or “exoplanets” for short. There are five main ways.

The most obvious is the most difficult: Direct Imaging. This is where you take your telescope and would look at a star and see the planet around it. This is almost impossible with current technology, and we have less than 20 exoplanets found this way. It’s so hard because the star is so bright relative to the planet and because most star systems are so far away. And obviously, if the planet is larger and farther away from the star, it’ll be easier to see.

The second main method has also only produced about 20 planets so far: Gravitational Microlensing. Einstein showed that large masses bend light, and we can see this in space when an object that’s far away passes behind a massive object that’s a lot closer. The light from the background object gets distorted and magnified, much like a lens … a lens caused by gravity. If the foreground object happens to be a star, and that star has a planet, then that planet can make a detectable contribution to the lensing, not only in amount, but in the exact shape of the lensing effect.

The earliest actual successful method was a special form of what’s called the Timing Method, specifically in this case, pulsar timing. Pulsars are incredibly dense stars called neutron stars, and we get a blast of radio waves every time one of its poles sweeps in the direction of Earth. These are so regular that any tiny perturbation can be detected and attributed to something weird, like a tiny planet tugging on it and so changing that regular spinning signal.

This is the same concept as the highly successful method that found the most exoplanets until a few years ago: Radial Velocity. The idea is that we normally think of a planet, like Earth, orbiting the sun. But it doesn’t really. It *and* the sun orbit a mutual gravitational point called the “barycenter” that is between the two. For Earth and the sun, that point is VERY close to the sun’s center, but it’s not quite in the center. That means that over the course of a year, as Earth goes around that point, the sun will, too (on the opposite side of that point). So, it will wobble very very slightly as it orbits the barycenter.

We can’t possibly observe this tiny tiny motion of other stars. BUT, we can use the light that star emits to do it by using the Doppler shift. That’s the phenomenon where if something is moving towards you, the waves it emits become compressed, and if it’s moving away from you, the waves get stretched out. The common example is a train whistle going from high to low pitch, but in astronomy, this is where the light is shifted to blue and then to red.

So, if the planet around another star is at its closest point to us, the star emits light and we see it all normal. As the planet starts to move away from us, the star starts to move very slightly toward Earth, and so its light will be very slightly blue-shifted. Then, the planet gets to its farthest point, and starts to move towards Earth, which means the star starts to move away, and we see its light red-shifted. This is an incredibly tiny effect, and the smaller the planet, the smaller the shift in the light. Or the pulsar timing change.

There was a lot of progress throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s in very high-resolution spectroscopy in order to get better and better at observing smaller and smaller planets. The easiest ones to observe are the largest because they make the biggest shift in the star’s light, and ones that are closest to their star are easier because you don’t have to observe as long. To observe a planet that has a 10-day orbit, you just have to observe that star for about a month from Earth to get decent statistics.

That’s why all the exoplanets discovered early on were what are called “Hot Jupiters,” since they were very large and very close to their stars.

The final method is the Transit Method. If a fly passes in front of a bright light, you can see a slight decrease in the light. If a bird passes in front of a light, you’ll see a larger decrease in the light. Same thing here: A planet passes in front of the star and temporarily blocks part of the light from the star that we would see at Earth. The big issue with this method is that you have to have the fortuitous geometry alignment where the planet’s orbit is just right so that it passes in front of its star as seen from Earth. The first one wasn’t detected until 1999, but a decade later, the dedicated spacecraft COROT and then Kepler were launched to look for these, monitoring the same fields of the sky, tens of thousands of stars, moment after moment, looking for those brief transits. In 2014, Kepler released over 800 planets discovered with this method, more than doubling the total number known, and that was on top of its other releases and, to-date, it’s found over 1000.

The transit method, despite the issue of geometry, is probably the best initial method. If you have the planet going in front of its star, then you know its alignment and you can follow-up with the radial velocity method and get the mass. Otherwise, the radial velocity method can only give you a minimum mass because you don’t know how the system is oriented, you only know that radial component of velocity, hence its name.

With the transit method, you can see how much light is blocked by the planet. Knowing the star’s type, you can get a pretty good estimate for the star’s size, and knowing how much light is blocked means you can get the cross-sectional area of the planet and hence its diameter. For example, Jupiter would block 1% of the sun’s light, and since area is the square of length, that means Jupiter is about 10% the sun’s diameter. Since the sun is a type G V star, we have a good model for its radius, though of course we know its radius very well because we’re in orbit of it. But that means not only can we get mass, but we can get size and density.

The transit method also lets us see if there’s a large atmosphere. If the light from the star instantly blinks down to the level when the planet passes in front of it, then any atmosphere really thin or nonexistent. If there’s a gradual decrease, then it’s extended. If its extended, we can follow-up with something like the Hubble Space Telescope and actually figure out what that atmosphere is made of by looking at what colors of light from the star are absorbed as it passes through the planet’s atmosphere.

And as with the radial velocity and timing methods, we know how long it takes to go around its parent star, and along with the star’s mass from what kind of star it is, we can get the distance of the planet from the star.

Okay, so much for a brief overview. But for me, I’ve left out a lot.

Moving on, it should be somewhat apparent that the bigger the planet, and the closer to its star, the easier it is to observe with pretty much ANY of these techniques, except direct imaging or microlensing where you want a big planet that’s far from its star. Big means big effect. Fast orbit means you don’t have to observe it for very long to show that it’s a regular, repeating signal best explained by a planet.

So, the question is then, can we detect an Earth-sized planet, and can we detect an Earth-like orbit? These are really two different questions and they depend on the technique you’re using. If we want to focus on a the two main methods – radial velocity and transit – then the unsatisfying answer to the second is that we do finally have good enough technology, it is just a matter of finding it. With the 2014 Kepler data release, there were over 100 exoplanets that are less than 1.25 Earth’s size. With the 2015 release, there are a total of 5 planets smaller than Earth or Venus, but they orbit their 11.2-billion-year-old star in just 3.6 to 9.7 days.

Even if we have observations for more than a year or two, for something as small as Earth, the level of signal relative to noise in the experiment is still pretty small, and you want a big signal relative to the noise. It’s best to build up multiple years’ worth of data to average out the noise to be able to really say that we have an Earth-like planet. For something like Jupiter, which orbits our sun in about 12 years, we’d need to observe at least two transits, meaning we’re just now approaching the time when we would have a long enough baseline of data with some ground-based surveys, but that’s also assuming we catch that planet for the few hours or days when it goes in front of its star versus the years and years that it doesn’t, and that we do this repeatedly and don’t chalk it up to sunspots.

This is why we really need long-term, dedicated surveys to just stare at the same place in space, constantly, measuring the light output of these stars to see if we can detect any sort of dimming, that’s repeated, from a likely planet.

But, even if we find an Earth-like planet in terms of mass and diameter and location in its solar system, that’s not enough to say it’s Earth-like in terms of atmosphere and surface gravity and overall long-term habitability. It’s just a first step. A first step we have yet to truly reach, but one that is reasonably within our grasp at this point.

But it’s from the existing planets we know of that we get some of the hype that hits the headlines every few months, like “astronomers estimate billions of Earth-like planets exist in our galaxy alone.” I’m not going to say that’s fantasy, but it’s loosely informed speculation based on extrapolating from a few thousand examples we now have from a very, VERY young field of astronomy.

Or, we’ll get articles where the first sentence says, “Astronomers have discovered two new alien worlds a bit larger than Earth circling a nearby star.” It’s in the next paragraph that we learn that “a bit larger than Earth” means 6.4 and 7.9 times our mass, and they orbit their star in just a few days.

So as always, this is a case where, when we see headlines, we need to be skeptical, NOT susceptible to the hype, and read deeper. But that said, it is entirely possible that any day now we will find an exoplanet that is at least like Earth in mass, size, and distance from its host star.

May 26, 2015

Podcast Episode 132 – In Search Of Planet X (Live from Denver ComicCon)

In Search: Planet X.
An overview of common
Ideas about it.

This episode is another recording of one of my live presentations, modeled a little after Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of” television series. It was presented in front of a live audience at the Denver ComicCon on May 24, 2015, to about 75-100 people. I was bordered on two sides by other sessions that had more people and a lot of laughter, so I played to that a little bit when there were opportune moments. I also suffered a minor A/V issue in the middle but recovered, so you’ll hear some fumbling there.

Unfortunately, there is also some popping that comes in about 10 minutes into the recording. I exploited all the filters that I know of in my Audacity toolkit, and they are less of an issue than they were, but they are definitely present.

I also need to announce that it is that time of year when work is going to get crazy, so episodes may come out a little less regularly, especially during July. I’m still going to keep to the two per month schedule, but they may not be out on exactly the first and sixteenth of the month.

And with that in mind, I have to head to the airport in 45 minutes for more work, after just being back home for 3.5 days. So …

April 4, 2015

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