Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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

February 16, 2015

Podcast Episode 126: The Facts and Misconceptions Behind Funding in Science, with Dr. Pamela Gay @starstryder

The sordid subject
Of the coin: How scientists
Are – and are not – paid.

This is another episode where I don’t focus on debunking a specific topic of astronomy, geology, or physics pseudoscience, but rather I focus on a topic of misconceptions related to science in general: How scientists are funded. This is done via an interview and bit of discussion with Dr. Pamela Gay, who cohosts the very famous “AstronomyCast” podcast and is the director of CosmoQuest.

The topics are varied, but it remains focused on some of the misconceptions of how research is funded and the real process behind it. It’s also a bit depressing, but I can’t always have light-hearted topics like Planet X isn’t coming to kill you.

Since this is an interview, it is a somewhat longer episode (54 minutes), there is no transcript, and there are no other segments.

The episodes for the next two months should be focused on Comet Hale-Bopp and have a brief interlude of another interview with the chair of the program committee for a major planetary science conference, and what they do when they get submissions that seem like pseudoscience.

January 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 123: The Science and Pseudoscience of Communicating with Aliens with @KarenStollznow

Karen Stollznow talks
‘Bout the issues of ET

I wanted to start the New Year off on a lighter and different kind of topic, so I interviewed linguist, Dr. Karen Stollznow, about alien communication. This was based a bit on her TAM 2014 talk, and we got into a lot of issues not only with how communication is portrayed in popular media, but how communication is problematic amongst people on our own planet, different language groups on our own planet, and different species on our own planet. We then discussed – within that context – some people who claim they are in contact with aliens and how linguistic analysis shows the claimed languages to be poorly constructed variations on what they already know.

This interview was only meant to be a half hour long, but even after editing, it is just under an hour. That editing included removing a headset issue and two phone calls from my mother (family emergency). I tried to find a possible natural break to get it to two 30-minute episodes, but I found none: the conversation flowed very well, I thought.

There are no other segments in this episode because it is just over an hour long. The next episode should be about black hole denial.

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.

December 16, 2014

Podcast Episode 122: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and Rosetta Conspiracies

Conspiracies of
Comet 67P …
Few, but they are weird.

A timely and listener-requested episode! What’s not to love!? In the episode I talk about several of the conspiracies I’ve seen surrounding the Rosetta mission and Comet 67P. From artificiality (Hoagland makes a guest appearance) to singing so as to raise our consciousness to angelic levels when 2012 failed, I spend nearly a half hour going through 2 to 4 claims (depending on how you count them) that have been making the rounds. I also get to touch on image analysis.

There is also one New News segment this episode, and it refers to the death of the Venus Express mission around (oddly enough) Venus. The news relates to the episodes on uncertainty. Not sure what the connection is? Listen to the episode! The episode also comes in at just over 30 minutes, my target length.

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.

May 1, 2012

Podcast Episode 33: Flat Earth

Filed under: astronomy,flat earth concept,podcast — Stuart Robbins @ 10:38 pm
Tags: , , , ,

This episode only has a ~12-minute main segment and then a short Q&A. You can stop at the 11 min 45 sec. point if that’s all you’re interested in. It’s the Feedback section that I spent around 8 minutes on, going into some detail on feedback from Episode 32 (Billy Meier UFO case), Episode 31 (Moon Hoax photos), and some general feedback for the show. The puzzler starts at about 22 minutes.

I’m not entirely sure what the next episode will be. I have a presentation to give at the local coin club Thursday, Skepticamp Denver all day Saturday (and still need to write that talk). And I have a lot of baking to do for that, too :). So, next episode will either be a recording of my Skepticamp talk, or it will be about pyramids and Orion’s belt.

October 8, 2011

Why Movies Need Scientist Advisors – Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Never played with the toys, never watched the cartoons, never read the comics, never had any interest in them. But tonight I watched the Transformers: Dark of the Moon movie. It was intriguing, impressive CGI, somewhat boring plot but it did have enough twists and good looking actors to keep me interested. I found it entertaining for what it was worth. I am perfectly happy suspending my disbelief to enjoy some mindless entertainment for a few hours, especially after a long work week that will continue after I wake up in the morning.

But that suspension of disbelief only goes so far, especially when they are stupid little things that the writers/directors/special effects people get just plain wrong. It’s stupid, really really stupid, to get these things wrong, especially when they wouldn’t have affected the plot in any way. It shows pure laziness on the part of these people, and it demonstrates that they unfortunately don’t seem to care enough about the intelligence of their audience to worry about checking things.

I’ll warn you up-front, this post is a bit of a rant. This post is also why I’m part of the US National Academy of Sciences “Science and Entertainment Exchange” program that pairs real scientists with real writers and directors to act as advisors in these cases (I’ve already been tapped twice for some interesting projects!).

With that said, let’s see what Michael Bay got wrong. (Note: SPOILER ALERT.)

Opening Sequences

The movie opens with some pretty nice archival footage mixed with modern actors dealing with the Apollo 11 launch and landings. Unfortunately, there are a few things wrong with the sequence of Apollo 11 on the moon. I’m actually fine with Buzz and Neil losing contact with the public to start their whole secret mission thing (even though that didn’t happen in real life). Again, suspension of disbelief for the sake of the movie. My problem, though, is two-fold.

First, there are stars in the background. It seems that every movie* special effects director wants to put stars in the sky from the moon. After all, it’s black sky so it must be night so there must be stars, right? And they are on the “dark side” of the moon … but that’s later on and I’ll get back to it. As I cover in this post, no stars were easily visible to the naked eye because it was daytime. If Earth didn’t have an atmosphere, we would have a black sky during the day and still not be able to see stars.

The second issue I have with the sequence is that the astronauts are clearly on the moon early in the morning, as evidenced by long shadows cast (could be late evening, but they actually did land during early morning). At 5 minutes 45 seconds into the movie, they “lose contact” to go on their secret mission, and the movie has a Walter Cronkite impersonator state, “We now have had confirmation of loss of signal from the Apollo 11. The Apollo 11 is at the moment on the far side of the moon.”

This statement is insane. First, it’s wrong historically. Second, we would not be able to have any contact with Apollo if it were on the far side – the side facing away from us – because there would be no way to get the signal from them to Earth. We would never have sent people there without any way to contact them. Third, they claim they’re on the far side, but then they pan out and you can clearly see Earth bright and somewhat high in the lunar sky from the astronauts’ location. If they were on the far side, you know, that whole side facing away from Earth, you would not be able to see Earth. ‘Cause you’re facing away and you have the rest of the moon between you and the planet.

Then there’s the issue of equating this with the dark side, but I’ll get to that in the next section. I’m not even going to get into the fact they have sound on the moon where there isn’t any atmosphere to propagate the sound, for that would be a third point and I said I only had to big issues with this sequence.

These are things they could have easily gotten right and it would not have in any way detracted from the movie.

*Yes, I know there are a few that get it right, like 2001. But let’s be fair here — the VAST majority get it wrong.

More Missions

Another short WRONG statement was about how all the other NASA missions collected more stuff from the cybertronian ship that they found on the moon. Historically this is simply wrong because the Apollo sites landed in different places all on the near side of the Moon. We have had orbital photographs of all the Apollo landing sites now for over two years, we know where they landed, and they were not in the same place.

If you want to somehow argue that Apollo were just the public ones and there were secret missions, well, think of how much of a noise (literally and figuratively) it made when Apollo was launched. Or the basic fact that the soviets were spying on us just as much as we on them and would have raised hell if we had a launch we didn’t tell them about it.

Again, this was a statement that did not need to be made at all because it didn’t add to the movie, it just took away.

Dark Side ≠ Far Side

Apparently the writers of this movie never read my blog, for I addressed this issue in one of my very first posts. I also addressed it in my first podcast episode.

At 58 minutes in, Sam (our hero) states that an engineer “may have messed with the code preventing [the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter] from mapping the far side of the moon, which is also the dark side.” Seriously? I mean, the movie was fine with the plot point that the guy was working for the Decepticons (yes, the bad guys are called “Decepticons”) and was killed after they didn’t need him and he did something to a satellite so that we couldn’t find the crashed spaceship. There was absolutely no need to add the WRONG clause about the dark side being the far side other than to show further willful ignorance.

Or a statement that we couldn’t map an entire half of the moon? I think someone would have figured out very early on that there was a problem with the software or hardware. This would not be a hidden thing. (And for the record, the Lunar Reconnaissance Oribter maps the entire lunar surface about once per month with its wide-angle camera.)

It’s also plainly wrong when we go back to that opening sequence where they (wrongly) state Apollo 11 is on the far side of the moon, but they show the astronauts in sunlight and casting shadows. Obviously, the far side is not the dark side.

Unfortunately, throughout the movie they make this mistake, compounding it by equating the two as opposed to just using them interchangeably. Using them interchangeably would still be wrong, it’s just less obvious and slightly more forgivable. For example, I could say at one time, “My favorite food is Doritos.” I could say another time, “My favorite food is ice cream.” Obviously one is not correct, but it’s somewhat forgivable hyperbole. Instead, the movie effectively says, “My favorite food is Doritos, which is ice cream.” Seriously, that’s what Sam’s statement is like.

Another time they equate these is during the meeting with the former Russian cosmonaut where he states that Luna 3 photographed the “dark side, the shadow side” and saw “nothing.” Duh. It’s in shadow. Night. Except the photos he’s holding up clearly show a late-afternoon or early-morning shot based on shadow lengths (morning/afternoon dependent upon which way is north). Then he said hat Lunar 4 did see the ship. It’s just … wrong! ANY astronomer would have told them to simply replace “dark” with “far.” Not that hard. Would not have taken away anything from the movie.

Final Thoughts

Okay, now that that rant is over, I feel a little better. The whole point of this post is that you can have a perfectly good movie that loses nothing by making sure that the basic science is right and not stupidly wrong. If you’re going to break science, do it intelligently and for a good reason. I am perfectly willing to suspend disbelief for the story (like in this case that we have intelligent, sentient machines locked in a long civil war that’s now playing out on Earth).

But when the writers show absolute laziness by making kindergarden mistakes with basic things like the dark versus far side of the moon, it detracts from the entire experience, shows that they are not being intelligent, and it shows that they don’t respect the intelligence of their audience. Even Leonard Nimoy’s voice could not overcome it.

To end with a quote of Isaac Asimov, “The most common mistake a science fiction writer makes is to downgrade science. Now, these days particularly, many science fiction writers have very little to do with science, and many science fiction stories have very little to do with science. But whether a science fiction story has science or not, it is impossible to write a good one if you are completely ignorant of science. You will make mistakes even when you think science isn’t involved. … There are other science fiction shows in which it is quite clear that the writers and the producer know nothing about science and don’t care and that shows, too, and it is impossible to be a self-respecting viewer and accept it.” (emphasis mine)

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