Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 21, 2020

Did NASA Discover Proof of a Mirror Universe?


NO

a427bb01b0797741cf388dc0461517da

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.

July 14, 2018

Podcast Episode 170: Interlude, and Another Podcast Endeavor


Where has the podcast
Gone? Qui’t is the sound. How can
I keep you list’nin’?

An interlude episode, you know, the one that happens in the game between going up against the little boss and the big boss where you do the side quest to get the special magic sword and silver arrows. Or something like that.

In this entirely ad lib episode, I discussed where I’ve been: Working and on travel. When you’re out of the house 24–27% of the year, it’s hard to put out a regular podcast. When you do enough work to place in the upper 15% of your division, it’s hard to have a life. But I’m trying … and in the meantime, two of the hosts of The Reality Check (cheque? chœk? … they’re Canadian) podcast – Pat roach and Christina Fernandez – and I have a new endeavor: “5 Minutes with an Astronomer.” The show is done in spurts, when I have a week or two of a few hours to sit down and record.

In fact, we recorded most of the first 28 episodes – all now released – in their basement while I was visiting the Great White North (Canadia). Pat does the vast majority of the work, so he deserves most of the credit and it’s his concept. The show is roughly 5 minutes – we do tend to go over a bit, but never more than 10 minutes – where we tackle any topic remotely related to astronomy. While I have a few notes written down for each episode, there is NO script, so that cuts down significantly on the time that I need to prepare.

In most episodes, I ask a critical thinking question based on the material. For example, after talking about what causes seasons, I ask my cohosts what they think would happen for something like Uranus, where the spin axis is pointed towards the sun for half its year. A hope is that this kind of show could be useful in classrooms.

Anyway, let us know what you think — comment here, there, e-mail, or whatever. If you like it, tell lots o’ folks and give it both a rating and review on your podcast portal of choice!

5 Minutes with an Astronomer

5 Minutes with an Astronomer

March 9, 2018

Even Science Reporters Are Circumventing Scientific Process


I study impact craters (those circle thingies on other planets, moons, asteroids, comets, etc.). A colleague recently pointed out a manuscript to me that demonstrated a new method to do something with craters. (I’m being purposely vague here to protect the situation.) It was an interesting manuscript, but it was submitted to an open archive (arxiv.org) where anyone can submit pretty much anything that seems sciencey. It has not been through the peer-review process.

Peer-review is not perfect. I’ve written about it before on this blog and discussed it on my podcast. But the purpose of peer-review is to weed out stuff that is obviously wrong. Things that may seem good to a general researcher, but to someone else who really knows the field, it clearly has issues. Other purposes of peer-review are to make sure the work is placed in proper context (usually by citing the reviewers’ works, but that’s a separate issue), making sure that the authors of the manuscript have explained themselves well, that their methods make sense, that they have explored alternative interpretations of their data, etc. In other words, do science “right.” Where “right” is in quotes because there is no formal set of rules by which one must play, but there are general guidelines and important pillars which people should uphold.

After it passes peer-review – if it passes peer-review – then it may be accepted by a journal and published. Some stuff that gets through peer-review is great. Some stuff is utter crap because the process isn’t perfect and because we don’t know everything, and the prevailing scientific opinion can shift with new information.

That is upended in today’s cut-throat world of journalism and a desire to be the first to publish about something that seems new and interesting.

I was contacted yesterday by a freelance reporter for the publication New Scientist. I’m not going to say the reporter’s name, but I have no qualms stating the publication. The reporter, coincidentally, wanted me to comment on the manuscript that had been submitted to arxiv.org. I refused. Here is what I wrote:

Thank you for writing. I am generally happy to comment about crater papers, and I would be happy to comment on this manuscript should it be accepted by the peer-review process. My concern at the moment is that the manuscript is only on an open server to which anyone can submit and it has not been vetted by researchers in the field beyond the authors themselves. The authors also used [specifics redacted] which have some significant omissions, and how that affects their results needs to be assessed by people who know all the ins and outs of their methods, which is not me.

I strongly recommend that you refrain from publishing about this work until it has made it through the peer-review process. It is easy to get excited about new techniques, but at the moment, it has not been vetted by other experts in the field, such that I think writing about it now is premature.

The reporter responded that I had a valid concern, he appreciated my advice, and he would discuss it with his editor.

Then just a few minutes ago, I heard from another friend in the field that she had been asked to comment for the story. She is taking a similar approach, which I greatly appreciate.

But this identifies, to me, a significant problem that those in both the scientific community and skeptic community have pointed out for years: Journalists don’t seem to care about vetting the science about which they write. Now, this could be an isolated example of an over-zealous reporter given the “OK” by their editor. Except it’s not. Too often we see articles about work just at the very edge of the field that offers great marvels and promises, only to hear nothing more from it because it was all based on extraordinarily preliminary efforts. Craters aren’t going to affect your daily life. But the issue here is a symptom of a greater problem. And I think that only if scientists and the reading public demand that reporters stop doing this will we see any sort of change.

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)

November 27, 2017

Podcast Episode 168: Common (and False) Fine-Tuned Universe Beliefs, Discussed


Fine-tuned Universe:
Not just for creationists
Anymore. Let’s see …

Fine-tuning of the universe to allow us to exist has tended to be a focused argument by young-Earth creationists, but it’s also used by other folks to generally argue that we are special. In this episode, I discuss four categories of claims that fit into this broad argument.

An exploration into four groups of fine-tuning arguments used by some to say that we are special: Solar outbursts, habitable zone, lunar origin and effects, and giant planets and impacts on Earth.

Fine-Tuning Image

Fine-Tuning Image

November 10, 2017

About Accepting and Rejecting Claims


I was contacted in the recent past by a listener inquiring about various claims that I’ve written (here) or spoken (podcast) about, and whether me not talking about certain things or choosing to ignore certain claims means that I agree with them. I explained my position via email, but in lieu of an on-time podcast episode (sorry … now a week late), I thought I’d explain my position here, too.

For me, to either accept a claim or to reject a claim means that you (or me, in this case, since I’m talking about me) would need to actively form an opinion about something and then state that opinion somewhere so others know about it. That latter part isn’t necessarily required, but it does constitute documentation of acceptance or rejection of said claim.

In this case, the opposite is also true: If I do not actively form an opinion about something, I have neither accepted nor rejected it. Is red wine or white wine better? For me, someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, I have no opinion in my own mind nor have I stated that opinion because I simply have not thought about it.

Could there be a knee-jerk reaction to something or could one accept or reject something by default before exploring it? Sure — Brian Dunning did an episode of Skeptoid about this maybe a year or so ago that, to exist in normal society, we can’t be a skeptic about everything. For example, I take it for granted that the electromagnetic force making me a solid object will keep me in my car, and I and my car won’t fall through the road. I take it for granted that my alarm clock will go off when I tell it to, that the operating system on my phone will just keep working, and I could go on with a myriad of other examples.

On the other side, I’ve gotten all sorts of “outside the mainstream” feedback for my Exposing PseudoAstronomy “brand.” For example, I had a woman e-mail me earlier this year claiming that chemtrails are crazy conspiracy, but that she had proof in a photograph that a certain cloud formation was actually the angelic Host of Heaven coming forth to Earth. I ignored the e-mail.

In ignoring that e-mail, does that mean that that woman should think that I accepted her position? Absolutely not – it would be pretty crazy to interpret a non-response as an acceptance of someone’s position. Should she assume that I don’t agree with her because I did not respond? She might, and my knee-jerk reaction is to disagree with that kind of message, but in fairness, I did not investigate and so I opted not to form a formal opinion on the matter. Do I consider it unlikely? Of course. But formally, I have neither accepted nor rejected her claim.

The same goes for many other kinds of messages I get from other individuals, as well: While I appreciate feedback, though am always behind in responding, if you send me a claim that you believe in, my failure to respond indicates neither acceptance nor rejection of that claim. However, if that claim is one that I have already looked into and have copious writings on in the past – for example, a young-Earth creationist claim, or Planet X, or much of Richard Hoagland’s material – then one can look to that material and likely infer my response.

But, to interpret a lack of response as me accepting your position is dishonest and could be considered libelous, depending on how far you go.

October 18, 2017

Podcast Episode 166: Stellar Evolution, Age of the Universe, and Young-Earth Creationism


Star evolution,
Age of the universe, and
Creationism.

Young-Earth Creationism strikes again and this time misuses error bars to argue that GodDidIt. The episode covers a science paper that discussed the age of a very old star which was derived to be a bit older than the universe. But, add in the appropriate error bars, and potentially a correction to its color, and there’s absolutely no issue whatsoever. But, try telling that to a creationist with an agenda. There’s only a very brief singular additional segment in this episode.

M15 from HST

The dazzling stars in Messier 15 look fresh and new in this image from the NASA/Hubble Space Telescope, but they are actually all roughly 13 billion years old, making them some of the most ancient objects in the Universe. Unlike another recent Hubble Picture of the Week, which featured the unusually sparse cluster Palomar 1, Messier 15 is rich and bright despite its age. Messier 15 is a globular cluster — a spherical conglomeration of old stars that formed together from the same cloud of gas, found in the outer reaches of the Milky Way in a region known as the halo and orbiting the Galactic Centre. This globular lies about 35 000 light-years from the Earth, in the constellation of Pegasus (The Flying Horse). Messier 15 is one of the densest globulars known, with the vast majority of the cluster’s mass concentrated in the core. Astronomers think that particularly dense globulars, like this one, underwent a process called core collapse, in which gravitational interactions between stars led to many members of the cluster migrating towards the centre. Messier 15 is also the first globular cluster known to harbour a planetary nebula, and it is still one of only four globulars known to do so. The planetary nebula, called Pease 1, can be seen in this image as a small blue blob to the lower left of the globular’s core. This picture was put together from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through yellow/orange (F606W, coloured blue) and near-infrared (F814W, coloured red) filters were combined. The total exposure times were 535 s and 615 s respectively and the field of view is 3.4 arcminutes across.

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

September 24, 2017

Podcast Episode 164: The World Didn’t End on September 23, 2017


Doomsday yet again!
The story of this one, though,
Has a surprise end.

A much shorter episode this time, announcing what you already know: We survived doomsday, again (yay!). But, the story of this particular doomsday claim may surprise you — it did me. But I could be wrong, so please let me know if you have additional information beyond what I found (listen to the episode for more of what I’m talking about).

Meanwhile, this is either a bonus episode or the episode for the second half of September. I haven’t decided yet because I’m not sure if I can get out another episode before the beginning of October. My 10-day vacation in Utah was great, but it requires a lot of catch-up at work.

There are no additional segments.

Gallifrey in the Skies of Earth (from Doctor Who episode S04E18)

Gallifrey in the Skies of Earth (from Doctor Who episode S04E18)

September 1, 2017

Podcast Episode 163: Modern Eclipse Lunacy, Part 1


Solar Eclipses:
Even in the modern day,
Lunacy exists.

Back and pumping out a 42-minute episode on some of the crazy surrounding the recent lunar eclipse, crazy that you’re not going to hear from other sources. This past eclipse on August 21, 2017, was perhaps one of the most-hyped and most-viewed solar eclipses in human history. As with any such mass-sighted event, pseudoscience is bound to rear its ugly head. In this episode, I address doom and gloom, earthquake predictions, astrologic predictions, Planet X predictions, and other topics related to the eclipse.

There’s one additional segment, and that’s about where I’ve been (literally).

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

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

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