Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 21, 2020

Did NASA Discover Proof of a Mirror Universe?


NO

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Mirror Universe Spock. ©CBS/Paramount

The Question

But, you wouldn’t know it if you’ve been reading tabloids over the last few days.  Even a site with a name like “New Scientist” is peddling this story, and they actually seem to be the originators of it.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was contacted – as one is wont to do – by Cristina Fernandez, one of the hosts of the award-winning podcast, “The Reality Check” (Cheque?), and she wanted to know if I would come on the show to talk about it (spoilers: Yes).  So I looked into the claim.  She provided me a link to a NY Post article claiming, “NASA Scientists Detect Evidence of Parallel Universe Where Time Runs Backward.”

The Search

I was intrigued, but my Skeptisense was tingling.  If for no other reason than I hadn’t heard of it.  The article was from May 19 and she contacted me May 20.  I consume a lot of media, and I have my fingers in astronomy news sources and I hadn’t heard anything about this, which would be odd for such a claim if it were real.

I went to the article and I only searched for one thing: A more original source.  They linked to the Daily Star as their source, which sounds like a tabloid and further raised the hairs on the back of my neck (which are long right now because of isolation and I can’t go get a haircut).  So, I went to that article, which is titled, “NASA Scientists Detect Parallel Universe ‘Next to Ours’ Where Time Runs Backwards.”  As of the time of this writing, it has over 1.2 million shares.  It’s from May 17, 2020.

I have a pretty sophisticated firewall program on my computer where I can block things on a per-application, per-domain, per-subdomain, per-port level.  It alerts me whenever an application is trying to contact something that I have not previously allowed.  When going to the Daily Star, it tried to draw content from The Daily Mail, a well known British tabloid that’s at the level of Weekly World News, “Mom Gives Birth to Alien Baby But Dad is Light-Years Away” kinda stuff.  That raised the Skeptisense further.

Looking through that article is difficult because every-other-paragraph is interrupted by links to get you to click on other websites.  I was again only looking for an original source.  It linked me to the New Scientist, an article entitled, “We May Have Spotted a Parallel Universe Going Backwards in Time.”  That article is from April 8, 2020.  Odd that there would be 6 weeks between the two.

And that’s actually where the trail ended, so far as news articles go for me.  The problem is that everyone reporting on this story in the last few days is linking to New Scientist.  The problem with that is New Scientist is behind a paywall, and no details are described in the public version.  No peer-reviewed paper, not even the original scientist’s name.

So, I went back to Daily Star.  There, and in the NY Post article, they quote Peter Gorham, an experimental particle physicist at U. Hawai’i, as saying, “‘Not everyone was comfortable with the hypothesis,’ he told New Scientist.”

Knowing how much the news likes to quote-mine, I didn’t take that as gospel for him responding to this latest idea, but it sounded like it’s his data that people are using for this.  A search on Google for his name, “tau neutrino,” and other key words yielded mostly things from the last few days and from 2018.

My next step was to look at one of the main resources astronomers use for finding papers: ADS.  ADS is the Astrophysics Data System, and it is an advanced search engine for searching relevant journal articles and it even searches through non-peer-reviewed stuff (more on that in a moment), including things like conference abstracts.  Searching for the guy yields nothing relevant in the last two years, which raised my Skeptisense further.

It appears as though the relevant peer-reviewed paper is from Physical Review Letters (a good journal in the field), “Observation of an Unusual Upward-Going Cosmic-Ray-like Event in the Third Flight of ANITA.”  That seems to be the paper that had the observation that everyone is talking about.

Basically, what they found is a tau neutrino (one of three types of neutrinos, where a neutrino is a fundamental particle with very tiny mass that rarely interacts with anything — there are gagillions streaming through your body now with no effect).  They could determine the direction of the tau neutrino, and it was coming up through the Earth, as opposed to down from space.

That’s weird.  It’s weird because tau neutrinos are the heaviest.  Those that we observe on Earth are usually formed by decay of heavier subatomic particles as they travel through Earth’s atmosphere, but they are blocked by Earth’s surface.  So how the tau neutrino could be detected coming up from Earth seemed a mystery.  (I’m not describing this very thoroughly for two reasons – first, I am not good at particle physics and so I’m just trying to give the briefest of overview, and second, it’s not hugely important for this story.)  The important part is that this is a case where the experts in the field say this is odd and very hard to explain, and that’s good enough for me.  The other important part is that, apparently, someone, somewhere, has explained this as the tau neutrino leaking from a parallel universe where time runs backwards.

Moving forward, the mystery is, why is this coming up now?  Did the author to whom this is attributed recently have a new paper out that explained the result in this weird way?

No.  Looking again through numerous articles in the popular press, all cited “a Cornell University paper describing the odd phenomenon.”  That’s a giant red flag to me that whomever wrote the original copy does not know what they are doing.  It’s a common statement by non-science writers who are trying to write science: Cornell University runs the very popular site for astronomers and physicists called arXiv.org, where the “X” is the Greek letter “chi,” so it’s pronounced “archive dot org.”  Clever, no?  They just proctor the site, they don’t “publish” anything and it’s not their paper.

So what I did was two things next, for I interpreted this to mean that there is some new non-peer-reviewed paper out (because people typically post to arXiv before peer-review) that made this claim based on the two-year-old result.

First, I went back to ADS and its link to the original Gorham et al. paper.  ADS provides a link to see every paper that cites it, including those from arXiv.  But, that also showed nothing obvious.  So maybe it hadn’t been indexed.  I headed over to arXiv and searched for anything by Gorham in the last year (though especially last month) and again found nothing.  Unfortunately, without any of these other articles citing any author other than Gorham, I can’t find whatever might have triggered the latest set of news stories.

The Conclusion

So, where are we?  We have a spate of recent articles in the last few days saying this is A Thing.  We have the original source news story behind a paywall, linking to further stories behind its paywall including the one where they say that all other explanations have been ruled out.

We have an original paper that showed an interesting result, but nothing new that references that result in the peer-review literature or even in the non-peer-reviewed science literature.

We also have numerous papers that provide possible explanations for the observation, including slight modifications to the Standard Model of physics, an interpretation that this could indicate dark matter, a search to try to duplicate the observations using another experiment, or even mundane explanations like layers of ice in Antarctica (where the experiment is done) can be weird reflectors and have thrown off the directionality conclusion.

What we don’t have is proof that NASA discovered a parallel universe where time runs backwards.

Post Script

After I did all the above research, CNET came out with their own take: “No, NASA Didn’t Find Evidence of a Parallel Universe Where Time Runs Backward.”  The author, Jackson Ryan, has the same take I do, though he doesn’t go through the same deep dive I did of trying to track it down.  It’s still worth reading as another follow-up, and he interviews some of the people who can put it in better perspective.  He also, twice, chides New Scientist about putting this behind a paywall and credits that for part of the issue surrounding this.

December 22, 2017

Podcast Episode 169: Modern Eclipse Lunacy, Part 3: Richard Hoagland’s Claims


Richard C. Hoagland:
Of course he has claims about
The solar eclipse.

In the final regular episode in the three-part Solar Eclipse of August 2017 series, several of the claims made by Richard Hoagland are addressed. Three types of claims are examined: Whether shadow bands indicate there are glass structures on the Moon, whether the Accutron watch readings indicate there is a hyperdimensional physics, and alleged disinformation.

This is – surprise, surprise – the last episode for 2017, the only episode for December. Just work/podcast balance realities. Of course, if I started selling ad space and had a Patreon like those OTHER podcasts … but this is free and ad-free and I’m keeping it that way.

Anywho, I also finally get to feedback in this episode, and I think I’m caught up on e-mails from 2017 except those of you who responded to my recent responses. Seems like whenever you clear the Inbox, people have a spidey sense of it because that’s when I get another flood of e-mail. Could just be confirmation bias.

Solar Eclipse from August 21, 2017 (©Stuart Robbins)

Solar Eclipse from August 21, 2017 (©Stuart Robbins)

October 1, 2017

Podcast Episode 165: Little Things in Space


Microgravity,
True or near vacuum pressures,
Temperature in space.

A long-planned episode that gets back to the roots of ferreting out misconceptions (though three tied together): Little Things in Space!!! This episode, if you couldn’t get it from the haiku, covers the concept of microgravity, vacuum, and temperature (what does temperature mean if there’s nothing there to experience it?). There are no additional segments.

Thermometers

Thermometers

May 6, 2017

Podcast Episode 162: Geocentrism, Take 2


Geocentrism
Is so wrong, even young-Earth
Creationists know!

Slightly longer segment this time, a bit of a mishmash between episodes 78 and 152, young-Earth creationists refuting geocentrism. I go through about five different arguments against geocentrism and also look at the language that young-Earth creationists use to argue against geocentrists.

I added feedback to this episode again, almost catching me up, covering several varied topics including potential future episodes. There’s also an announcement about the episode schedule.

Geocentrism Cartoon

Geocentrism Cartoon

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

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

September 26, 2016

Podcast Episode 148: (BONUS) X-Rays from Pluto


Does discovering
X-rays from Pluto change all
We know and hold dear?

First interview episode since The Return, an interview about the discovery of x-rays coming from the vicinity of Pluto. I talk with one of the main authors of the paper announcing the observation of x-rays from Pluto, and we discussed why the find is not severely unexpected, and while it’s interesting it is not something that is completely unexplained. In fact, there’s a very good, natural explanation.

As what was intended to be a 5-10 minute interview ended up running about 50 minutes. Hopefully it was worth it. Note that this was recorded really ad hoc, outside on a university campus, using both an iPod Touch and Samsung Galaxy S5. Interestingly, the iPod performed better relative to noise, but it had a low-end filter; the Samsung had a high-end filter. Therefore, I lined up the audio precisely and combined both so you get better audio, and I tried to lower the relative intensity of each recording if one was picking up the wind more than the other.

There are no additional segments in this episode.

I hope that you enjoy this episode.

Pluto

September 17, 2015

Podcast Episode 141: The Physics of the A=440 Hz Conspiracy


Four-four-zero Hertz:
The sound of angst and control?
Or a false ideal?

And now for something completely different: Music theory conspiracy. But with physics!!

I’ve heard this idea a few times on various conspiracy outlets, that there’s a big conspiracy about how all of modern music was designed by Nazis to make us angry and warlike and controllable. Or something like that. This is most often told by Dr. Leonard Horowitz (where Doctor = former dentist). I don’t go into the origin of this claim or Horowitz at all in the episode, so to quote very briefly from The Skeptic’s Dictionary:

Leonard Horowitz is a former dentist, anti-vaxxer, promoter of various “natural cures,” and self-publisher of books and pamphlets expressing such unfounded beliefs as that the AIDS and Ebola epidemics were intentionally caused by the U.S. government.

Yeah …

Anyway, this let me discuss music and some stuff that I’ve never gotten into on the podcast nor on this blog, so let me know what you think of the subject matter. It’s really something completely different, especially in comparison with recent months.

And as opposed to the recording quality. I had the microphone’s gain set too low and didn’t realize that until the end, and Audacity couldn’t increase the volume without it being really scratchy. Sorry. 😦

The logical fallacies segment also discusses something I’ve not been able to do before: The Natural Fallacy, or Argument from Nature.

July 23, 2015

Podcast Episode 137 – Why Earth Is Old, Without Radiometric Dating


Finding age of Earth
Does not require just Rad-
ioactiv’ty.

The next episode! It was actually recorded three weeks ago, but I was so busy with New Horizons that I never got time to edit and then post it. So, here we go, the different ways scientists got minimum ages for Earth – without using radioactivity as a technique.

Plus two feedbacks! For a half-hour fun-pack!

July 22, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #6: Data Download


Introduction

I know I’ve promised other parts to this series, but this one will be quick* and I want to get it out there because it feeds into a lot of varied and various conspiracies related to NASA’s New Horizons mission to the Pluto-Charon system, and I’ve even seen many misconceptions on normal science blogs / websites (not to be named): Where’s the data!?

Deep breath people: It’s coming. Slowly.

*I thought it would be quick, but it turned out to be nearly 2000 words. Oops…

The Slowness of Spacecraft Data Transfer

Every space mission – save for one very recent, experimental one – relays data via radio signal. In other words, light. The amount of power that the spacecraft can muster goes into figuring out the data rate it can sustain. Think of it a bit like this: If you have the Bat Signal, but you were using a flashlight, you’d be lucky if someone could just see the flashlight aimed up at the sky. There’s no way they could see details of a bat cut-out. But if you use a really really bright spotlight, you can see it farther, and you can even stick a detailed bat cutout over its front and you can make out that cutout.

Perhaps a bad analogy, but that’s kinda the idea here: If you have a very strong signal, then you can include a lot of detail really quickly. If you have a weak signal, then the data rate is slower. Oh– better analogy: bad wifi reception. You know you have low signal strength when it gets really slow.

Moving on, the New Horizons REX antenna does not have a huge amount of power. New Horizons launched with less plutonium for power than originally intended, and it needs power for running the spacecraft. It has so little power for the antenna that only the 70 meter dishes in NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) are big enough to receive the signal at Earth, which is a paltry 3 * 10-19 Watts. (Compare that with a 100 W light bulb.) To me, first off, it’s amazing that we can even receive that faint of a signal.

But once you get over that amazement, the DSN also has to be able to detect changes in that tiny signal. That’s how we get data. Like blinking your flashlight in Morse code, or putting the Bat Signal stencil up. If we have very little signal strength, we can’t change our signal very quickly, or the DSN may not be able to read it. Change more slowly, then they will.

For planning purposes, we were able to send data at 1296 bits per second. I’m old enough (sigh…) to remember dial-up modems in the 1990s. My family’s first modem was the dreaded 14.4 kbps modem which was painfully slow at pulling up AOL’s e-mail. Or Hamster Dance. But even that was over 10 times faster than New Horizons’ data rate. And, let’s convert it to real things, bytes. There are 8 bits to a byte. 1296 bits per second is only 162 bytes per second. I have a thumbdrive attached to my computer that holds 64 GB, or 64 gigabytes. It would take about 4572 hours, at the average New Horizons download rate, to fill that fairly modest thumb drive. That’s 190 days.

Keep in mind that the spacecraft is still taking data. Keep in mind that there are only 3 70m DSN dishes at the correct latitudes to see the spacecraft, ever, from Earth. Keep in mind that there are other missions out there that need the DSN to communicate with Earth. Keep in mind that 1296 is an average planning bit rate, and while the Canberra and Goldstone dishes get more like 2000 bps, Madrid tends to get less due to the elevation of the spacecraft above the horizon.

So, from the get-go, just from considering the data rate (power requirements on the spacecraft, distance to the spacecraft, and timetable of receiving stations on Earth), one should be able to see that it will take a painfully long time to get the data from the spacecraft.

While we could keep up with the data rate and did a large download a month before encounter (which is why data weren’t taken in late May), there’s no way we could get all the data during encounter very soon after it, which is why the craft flew with two 8 GB storage drives, and it filled up 60 Gb during encounter (see what I did there, switching between bit and byte?).

There’s Other Data Besides Images!

And that’s any kind of data. There aren’t just images and “pretty pictures” that many of us want. There is one B&W camera on the craft, but there’s also a color camera, two spectrometers, a dust counter, two plasma instruments, the antenna itself took data, and there’s basic spacecraft housekeeping and telemetry that says things like, “Yes, I really did fire my thrusters at this time when you wanted me to!”

Basic Download Plan

I can discuss this because the basics have been made public. It’s just not “sexy” like pretty pictures so it’s not that easily findable.

Leading up to encounter, data were prioritized as though we were going to lose the spacecraft at any time, so the most important, “Tier 1” science data were downloaded first. And, critical optical navigation images.

After encounter, the same thing happened, where compression algorithms were used on the data on-board the spacecraft and that lossy-compressed data were sent back to Earth to fulfill as many Tier 1 science goals as possible. That’s how – and why – in the last week we’ve already revolutionized what we know about Pluto. Those first high-res (0.4 km/px) images of the surface were planned out based on Hubble Space Telescope maps of the surface and the spacecraft timing and trajectory to get images that cover different brightness and color patches. (Which takes care of another, minor conspiracy that I’ve seen that claims we “knew” where to point the cameras because the Secret Space Program had leaked us information about what would be interesting.)

But now that we’re more than a week from closest approach, thoughts are turning to what to do next. Originally, a “browse” data set of all the lossy data (only the imagers and spectrometers store lossy-compressed in addition to lossless) were going to be returned first, along with the lossless data from other instruments. That would at least let us at least understand the surface at a lossy JPG quality and for the plasma folks to do their science.

But now people are discussing scrapping that and bringing down the lossless data instead, albeit many times slower because of the larger file sizes.

Planning, Fairness

But, believe it or not, planning of what’s downloaded when is made no more than a few weeks out (except for the closest approach weeks). Right now, we’re working on the late August / September load of commands and deciding what data to bring down in what order.

Each of the four science theme teams (geology geophysics & imaging (GGI), atmospheres, composition (COMP), and particles & plasma (P&P)) puts together a list of their top priorities based on what we’ve seen so far. The Pluto Encounter Planning (PEP) team then sits down and looks at how much they can bring down in what time and puts things in order. The sequencers then take that and try to make it happen in the test computers. Then we iterate. Then it gets reviewed. Extensively. Only then does it get uploaded to the spacecraft to execute.

But besides that priority list, it’s the Principle Investigator who decides how much data each science team gets. For example, while I’m on PEP (it’s what I was initially hired to do), I’ve been adopted by GGI. Wearing my GGI hat, I want images from the LORRI instrument. All the time, and only LORRI. I don’t care what the plasma instrument PEPSSI recorded. But by the same token, the P&P folks don’t care anything about images, they want to know what their instruments recorded as the craft passed through the Pluto system to see how the solar wind interacted with escaping particles from Pluto – or even if it did. (Which it did, as was released in a press conference last Friday.)

So Alan Stern has to make the decision of how to be “fair” to so many competing interests within the large – and broad – science team. So while COMP may want to have 5 DSN playback tracks in a row to bring back just one of their very large spectra data cubes, Alan has to make sure that GGI gets their images and P&P gets their data, too.

The Plan

The decision was made several months ago that after this initial batch of data – what we saw last week, what we see this week – that all of the “low speed” data will come down in August. That’s housekeeping & telemetry, that’s things like how many dark pixels are in any given LORRI image, it’s the two plasma instruments and data recorded by the antenna and dust counter, and that’s about it. After that, we get back to the imagers and spectrometers, per the balance discussed above.

And since it’s not sequenced, and it’s not public, I can’t tell you any more than that.

So we are, unfortunately, not going to see any new images for practically a month, beyond the two navigation images that should come down tomorrow and Friday.

Conspiracy!

Due to the nature of this blog, obviously this is going to fuel conspiracies: NASA’s hiding the data, NASA’s manipulating the data, NASA’s [whatevering] the data, etc.

It’s just not true.

I have known for years that these conspiracies about NASA somehow intercepting the data and manipulating it before even us naïve scientists can get our hands on it would be very difficult, but being on this mission has made me realize that it’s even more difficult to somehow support that conspiracy than I had thought.

Literally, as the data are received by the DSN – before it’s even completely downloaded – it’s on our processing servers and in the processing high-cadence pipeline. On Monday morning when we were supposed to get four new images, we were literally sitting in the GGI room hitting the refresh button and marveling over each new line of pixels that we were getting back in practically real-time. To use a religious analogy, it was every Christmas morning rolled into a one-hour marathon of hitting the refresh button.

And we were all there watching — over 20 of us. And other science team members kept coming in to look.

The idea of secretly having one or two people intercepting the data, “airbrushing” things in or out of it, and only then giving it from On High to the scientists just shows how out of touch from reality conspiracists are. (By the way, I use the term “airbrushing” here because that’s how many conspiracists still talk. Obviously, no one is physically airbrushing things anymore — and I doubt anyone younger than 30 even knows what a real airbrush is.)

To sustain the conspiracy, I can only see one of two choices: (1) Either all of us scientists are in on it, in which case it becomes ridiculously large and unsustainable and scientists suck at keeping secrets about exciting new things, or (2) somehow there’s super secret advanced tech that intercepts the spacecraft signal and at the speed of light “airbrushes” things out and retransmits it to the DSN to get into our processing pipeline. Because we know when stuff is supposed to appear on Earth. Because we write the sequence that does it.

Final Thoughts

Not that I expect this to convince any conspiracy theorist of their folly. The lack of image data for the next month, and the lossy JPG data we have now all contribute to the little anomalies that don’t immediately make sense, and the average conspiracist can easily spin into something that it’s not.

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