Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form

May 13 2016 9:00 AM

A Map That Goes Medieval on Mars

I’ve always been something of a map dork. I remember sitting in the back of the car on long rides as a kid, poring over the foldout maps, the U.S. map, and the key map my folks had under the passenger’s seat. It was so much fun to look at the roads, the landmarks, the cities, and places I had never heard of before. … It’s easy to see now why so many great stories start with finding a secret map.

Sometimes it goes the other way, though: Our stories inspire maps. Eleanor Lutz is an artist who has a self-professed love of medieval maps. She created an amazing and really quite beautiful map of Mars in that historical style. A portion is shown above; but you really should see and peruse the bigger version. It’s lovely. I’ll note she has prints of the map for sale, too.

She titled it “Here Be Robots,” which I love. As many people have pointed out, Mars is the only planet we know of inhabited entirely by robots. She has the landing sites of a few of them labeled, too.

I love the layout and flow of the map; it does have that medieval style, but with a modern take—it’s Mars, after all, and it’s real. This map is based on observations made by humans from Earth over the centuries, and then the details filled in by a score of probes sent there in the past half-century.

There’s a story for you: the exploration of an alien world, close by but still terribly distant, full of wonder and bizarre terrain and things we still don’t understand. And apropos of the style of the map, Mars is like a monster guarding the bridge; half the missions sent there have resulted in failure.

Like Scylla and Charybdis, Mars is a dangerous stretch of water, apt to eat unwary travelers. If there were ever a warning to put on a map like this, “Here Be Dragons” would be appropriate.

And yet we pushed through, and we have sent spacecraft there successfully, one after another. Unlike those old fables that promote the fear of the unknown, when we keep our eyes open, our heads high, and our brains fully on alert, we can push through the ignorance and turn terra incognita into Mars cognita.

Lutz has more of her artwork at her blog, Tabletop Whale, and on Deviantart. Seriously, watch this animated graphic of human fetal development. Amazing!

May 12 2016 1:16 PM

Reminder: There’s Still Space Left for Science Luau 2016

Look, I know you like science: You’re reading my blog (QED). And I’m guessing you like gorgeous tropical beaches, amazing food, incredible scenery, active volcanoes, and being around other science-minded people.

So let me gently remind you that there are slots still available for Science Luau 2016, a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii with bonus added SCIENCE! My wife and I are doing this through our company Science Getaways, where we start with vacations you’d want to go on anyway and then add tons of science to them.

Our agenda for Science Luau 2016 includes swimming with manta rays, visiting a native Hawaiian dry forest filled with endangered wiliwili trees, and touring the active Kilauea volcano … after sunset you can see the sulfurous plume illuminated from below by the glowing red-hot lava in the Halema'uma'u crater.

Manta ray
Want to meet this creature? This photo was taken from the boat trip we'll be on.

Fair Wind Big Island Ocean Guides

Sometimes, along the highway lined with jagged volcanic rocks laid down by eruptions decades ago, you can see families of goats walking along eating the sparse invasive grass, too. You know how I feel about that.

There'll be plenty of down time, too, where you an just sit back and enjoy the tropical island. I'll be packing my solar telescope, so we'll be doing some Sun observing (seeing towering prominences and winding filaments on the Sun is pretty common). And, of course, since my wife and I are running the show, I'll be there the whole time if you want to ask questions about astronomy or just sit on the ocean's edge and talk about the Universe.

This will be a fantastic trip, with the extra advantage of being with other science enthusiasts; we’ve found that many people who meet on these trips become lifelong friends. It’s really quite lovely.

So come join us! Who wouldn’t want to experience science in paradise?

Marcella and Phil Plait at Kilauea
Your hosts—my wife, Marcella, and I—standing in front of the Halema'uma'u crater vent on Kilauea, where we'll be taking you for Science Luau 2016.

Phil Plait

May 12 2016 8:30 AM

Ken Ham Really Doesn’t Understand Science

In 2014, popular science communicator Bill Nye “debated” creationist Ken Ham in a live webcast on YouTube. The event went pretty much as expected; Nye presented levelheaded evidence that science works, that evolution is real, and the Universe is very old, while Ham used bad logic, cherry-picking, and blatant twisting of scientific claims.

At the time (and still today) I think Nye made the right decision to participate in the event. Ham runs the Answers in Genesis ministry, and also the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and is well-known for his outrageous statements. It might seem silly to elevate the debate by paying any attention at all to Ham, but that ignores the fact that polls consistently show that half of the American population believes in some form of creationism.

We ignore this at our own peril.

Debating creationists is slippery. When your opponent doesn’t have to adhere to facts or logic, it’s tricky to find traction. My friend Zach Weinersmith once wrote that it's not that most creationists are anti-evolution, it's that they're anti-some distorted version of it told to them by their pastors.

He’s completely correct. That became even clearer to me when, shortly after the debate, BuzzFeed posted an article called “22 Messages From Creationists to People Who Believe in Evolution”. It was clear from the questions asked that the creationists involved had no idea about how evolution—even science itself—worked. The questions were universally based on false premises, a distortion of the science that made it actually pretty easy to answer those supposedly “gotcha” queries.

So I did answer them, in a post titled “Answers for Creationists.” I politely, but firmly, answered the questions posed, with links to expert sources if anyone wanted to dig a little deeper. It became one of my most popular articles of all time.

But as Zach pointed out, while these questions have been answered countless times, they still get asked. Why? The answer is obvious: Because the people asking those questions are still getting their information from people like Ken Ham who refuse to listen to anything science has to say and who still propagate falsehoods.

And I know this for a fact. That’s because Ham took to Twitter recently, posting a series of tweets that are not just wrong, but completely wrong, again demonstrating not just a misunderstanding of the topic, but a deep—I daresay fundamental—lack of understanding of even the most basic facts about the science he’s trying to deny.

It’s enlightening to look over what he said, because, again, a lot of people listen to him. And, like my previous post about answering creationists’ questions, I address this not to Ham, but to those who might listen to him: Perhaps you’ve heard these claims, and wondered about them. Here’s what science has to say about them.

First up: a bad Moon rising.

Like most such claims, it’s based on a kernel of truth: The Moon is in fact receding from the Earth, by a rate of about 4 centimeters per year. That’s roughly at the same rate your fingernails grow. The motion is due to the way Earth’s gravity affects the Moon, through the tidal force.

This means that, in the past, the Moon was closer to the Earth. And this is where—if you believe Ham—you run into a problem. The rate at which the Moon recedes depends very strongly on its distance from the Earth. In the past, when it was closer, it would have receded even more quickly.

According to Ham’s thinking, that means the Moon must be younger than science would say, only a billion or so years old at the most. A relatively simple calculation shows that, given the faster recession in the past, the Moon would have been touching the Earth about a billion years ago.

But this is incorrect. The real problem here is a common one with claims like this: taking a trend and simply running it backward or forward as if nothing ever changes.

In this case, there are other factors that affect the Moon’s recession rate, and Ham ignores them. For example, the shape of the continents and shorelines on Earth has a large effect as well (because the tidal interaction depends strongly on the way the water and seabed on Earth interact). It turns out that we have an anomalously high rate of recession today; many studies show that in the past the rate was actually slower.

Yes, initially, right after the Moon formed, it receded very rapidly indeed. But as it receded, other factors came into play. The numbers as we see them now easily allow a 4.5 billion year old Moon, just as scientific theory predicts.

Moving on, a little closer to home:

Again, a nugget of truth: The Earth’s magnetic field is changing. It does this all the time; it’s generated deep inside the Earth by our very hot iron core. The inner core is solid, but the outer core is liquid. The heat from the inner core causes the molten iron to rise, cool, and sink again. The iron is so hot it’s ionized (electrons are stripped from their atoms), and when an ionized fluid moves, it can generate a magnetic field. Changes in the liquid outer core change the Earth’s magnetic field, which we can see. For example, the magnetic poles of the Earth wander and the field strength changes.

If the field is decreasing now, it must have been stronger in the past. Ham’s mistake here, again, is assuming that increase in the past just keeps on going up and up. But we know that’s not true; there’s copious evidence the field cycles—waxing and waning in strength, and even reversing polarity. And even if Ham were right, he simply asserts life couldn’t exist in a stronger magnetic field but offers no reason why that might be the case.

Next, Ham ventures out into the Universe:

When you look at the spiral of cream in your coffee cup after you stir it, the inner part does spin faster than the outer parts. But galaxies aren’t like that. The arms aren’t coherent structures that spin like cream in your mug o’ java; they’re more like traveling traffic jams.

Pity Ham hasn’t seen my episode of Crash Course Astronomy where I talk about exactly this:

By the way, scientists have known for nearly a century that spiral arms don’t and shouldn’t wind themselves up.

Now let’s see what Ham has to say about the entire Universe:

This is a little confused. First of all, the use of the word pagan is odd. That refers to a religion that’s not one of the world’s main religions. But the Big Bang, and science at large, is not a religion. It’s not even faith-based.

But then Ham compounds his mistake:

The Big Bang is not a belief or a religion. It’s actually a model of how the Universe began, or more accurately what happened in the teeniest tiniest fraction of a second after the Universe began. And it’s supported by a vast amount of observational and theoretical evidence. No faith is needed.

And I just happen to have covered that in Crash Course Astronomy as well!

And then we get to this statement by Ham:

(I assume he meant “clearly,” not “clearing.”)

This one is odd as well. All he’s really saying is that science contradicts a literal interpretation of the Bible. But we’ve known for a long time. If that’s his complaint, he better have a seat. Even if you just stick to Genesis, the contradictions make for a long, long list.

In this case, the Bible says the Earth was created before the Sun. Science says they actually formed around the same time, 4.56 billion years ago. The Sun may have started nuclear fusion in its core, becoming an actual star, a few million years before the Earth grew to become a planet … but it hardly matters, since Ham isn’t really trying to refute any actual scientific claim here.

Also, he is very confused about what the Big Bang model says. That’s all about how the Universe itself got its start nearly 14 billion years ago. But the Sun has nothing to do with that; it was born nearly 10 billion years later. I see this confusion by creationists quite a bit; I strongly suspect it has to do more with trying to scare believers using the term “Big Bang” than understanding what the model is actually telling us.

I could go on and on; digging back through Ham’s tweets provides endless material for this exercise. But the point is clear: Ham’s mistake here is not sticking with his religion, but instead trying to disprove science using science. Given his bias, and his basic misunderstanding of what science is and how it works, he’s doomed to fail.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I think that people have the right to believe what they want. But when that belief clearly contradicts what we know to be true due to our observations of the Universe, and someone is vocal about it, well, we’re going to have a problem.

Ham clearly feels that his religion is threatened by science. That’s true, because it is. But not all religion feels that way; in the same year Ham stood up and said all those wrong things to Bill Nye, Pope Francis stood up and declared that the Big Bang and evolution are no threat to Catholic beliefs.

Catholicism is followed by more than 1 billion people on our planet. If their leader feels science is no threat to them, then maybe there’s hope that other, more intractable religions will follow suit.

Clearly, though, Ham won’t. The fact that he’s repeating provably false statements literally decades after they’ve been shown to be wrong, and publicly displaying his profound lack of understanding of science, shows that all he will do is dig in further.

We have all the evidence we need for that.

Post script: The claims Ham made, and my rebuttals, are a drop in the bucket compared with what’s out there. If you want to read more, then I suggest checking the following sites:

May 11 2016 11:45 AM

Cassini Takes a Last Close Look at Epimetheus

That lumpy pierogi in the photo above is Saturn’s moon Epimetheus, taken by the Cassini spacecraft in December 2015. This is a pretty cool shot; instead of the sharp blackness of space behind the moon, you see the fuzzy grayness of Saturn’s atmosphere. There’s a bit of what I believe is Saturn’s narrow F ring in the shot as well. This is an unusual geometry, giving a different perspective on the moon.

This is one of the highest-resolution images of Epimetheus that Cassini has sent back to Earth; it passed a mere 2,700 kilometers from the moon during the series of photos it took. Epimetheus is only about 115 kilometers across along its widest point, so it’s not huge (our Moon is 3,470 kilometers wide).

But it has a story to tell. It doesn’t look as sharply defined as you might expect; it has lots of dust on its surface that flows along the weak gravity to settle in low spots. The craters all look shallow, too. Some of that is from this material filling in the crater floors, but shallow craters are typical in icy bodies, where the impact energy tends to spread out more than down.

Epimetheus is weird in another way, too: It shares almost exactly the same orbit as the much larger moon Janus. Not quite exactly though. One is on a slightly smaller orbit than the other, and goes around Saturn every so slightly faster. As they slowly approach, they pull on each other with their mutual gravity. This effect gets big enough when they’re a few tens of thousands of kilometers apart that the one in the outer orbit is pulled back, dropping it closer to Saturn, while the one in the lower orbit is pulled forward, lifting it into a higher orbit. When it’s all done, the two moons swap orbits! The difference is only about 100 kilometers, but it’s enough that the moons swap roles, starting the process all over again.

Sadly, this is the last close flyby of the Moon by Cassini. It’ll pass it at a decent distance many times in the next year or two (and once as close as 6,000 kilometers in January 2017) but never again this close. In September 2017 Cassini is scheduled to end its mission by plunging into Saturn’s thick atmosphere, burning up as it sends its last few bits of data back toward Earth. This will be done to prevent it from accidentally hitting some moon in the future once the fuel has run out for maneuvers.

It’s sad, to be sure, but it’s also reason to celebrate. Cassini will have spent an astonishing 13 years orbiting Saturn, dwarfing everything we’ve ever learned about the ringed planet from before the mission.

All good things, as they say. Even all great, fantastic, and inspiring things.

May 11 2016 8:30 AM

Huge New Bounty of Exoplanets Found, Including Nine in the Goldilocks Zone

Astronomers working with data from the Kepler space telescope have announced the verification of a stunning 1,284 new exoplanets, worlds orbiting other stars. Even better, nine of them are at the right distance from their host stars (the “Goldilocks zone”) to have liquid water on their surface; that is, they’re potentially (so kinda maybe) habitable.

I want to be very careful here. These planets have been verified using a statistical analysis, and each has been found to have a greater than 99 percent chance of being real. That’s very high confidence, but I’ll note that given how many were found, even a 99 percent chance means that some of them will likely turn out to be false positives. But that number will be low, and this new harvest is still huge, the largest single group of validated planets to date.

So how was this done?

Kepler orbits the Sun, on a path very similar to Earth’s orbit but just outside ours. During its main mission, it stared at a single spot in space, observing 150,000 stars all the time. It looked for slight dips in the light from each star, which could be due to the planet passing directly between the star and us (if this sounds familiar, it’s precisely what Mercury did a few days ago, transiting the Sun). Here’s a quick video showing how this works:

These transits only occur for planets whose orbits are nearly edge-on as seen from Earth, which means that for every one we see, there are probably quite a few we miss. So Kepler puts a lower limit on how many planets are out there.

Even so, quite a few have been found! Up until this latest release, more than 1,000 such transiting verified exoplanets had been dug up from the Kepler data.

The problem is that word: “verified.” How do you know what you’re seeing is an actual planet? A lot of astronomical sources can muck with the data, creating false positives: things that look like planets, but are spurious. For example, some stars are binary, two stars orbiting each other. Some of these are eclipsing binaries; we see their orbit edge-on, so each star passes in front of the other every orbit. If they’re far enough away they look like a single star that goes up and down in brightness, just like an exoplanet transit.

Some of those can be eliminated using various methods. But that still leaves a big passel of candidate planets—ones that might be real—that needs to be verified. Most of these stars are too faint to get reliable results from the ground (that’s why Kepler was launched into space!), so observatories on Earth can’t always follow up. And looking at thousands of stars for the length of time needed to confirm the planets would take years. Decades.

This is where the astronomers in the new study were clever. They took all the candidate planets in the catalog—7,470 “Kepler Objects of Interest”—and ran a statistical analysis on them. This included fitting a simple model to the transit plot, fitting various characteristics of the host star, and assigning predetermined probabilities that the transit is from some spurious source like an eclipsing binary.

Out of the 7,470 input stars, their software ran successfully on 7,056 (the remaining 414 had other problems that made the software results untrustworthy). Of these stars, they found that 1,935 had a 99 percent chance or greater of being real, live transiting exoplanets. Of those, 651 had previously been determined to be real in the Kepler database.

That left 1,284 possible exoplanets with a very high chance indeed of being real. As I said, a handful of these may yet turn out to be false positives, but the overwhelming majority are very likely to be real.

number of planets found by year
The number of planets found by year; light blue is from Kepler, dark blue is from other observatories, and orange is the new release.

NASA Ames/W. Stenzel; Princeton University/T. Morton

Even more interesting, the transit shape and duration can tell you a lot about the planet. The diameter of the planet can be found by seeing how much light it blocked from the star; for example, a planet 10 percent the width of the star will block 1 percent of its light (because the amount blocked is proportional to surface area, which scales as width squared; 0.1 x 0.1 = 0.01, or one percent). The time it takes to transit tells you the orbital period, and that in turn tells you how far the planet is from the star. Because we know how hot the star is, that also tells you how much light is falling on the planet.

Ah, and that’s where this gets interesting indeed. We can then calculate how much light (and heat) the planet receives compared with Earth. If the ratio of the light it receives compared with Earth’s is roughly equal to one, then we know that planet has a chance to be clement. It’s not a guarantee; a thick atmosphere might mean the planet is hotter than you’d expect, for example. But it’s a decent guidepost.

goldilocks planets
Known planets in the habitable (or "Goldilocks") zone of their host stars. Blue marks previously known worlds, orange is from the new Kepler release. Note the positions of Earth and Venus.

NASA Ames/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel

Nine such planets were found. All nine are larger than Earth, ranging from 1.12 to just under twice Earth’s diameter. There’s not much else we can say about them; they might have thick atmospheres, or none at all. They might be low density or high, or be totally different from Earth in some other manner. But the point is that they exist at all at the right distance from their star to possibly have liquid water on their surfaces. 

It’s a numbers game. The more planets we find like that, the more likely it is we find one that’s not just Earth-size, but Earth-like.

known planet sizes
Planets known by size. Along the top are the planets in our solar system; most planets fall between Earth and Neptune in diameter.

NASA Ames/W. Stenzel

And there’s treasure in the greater collection, too. For example, these new planets strongly support the previously determined fact that most planets orbiting stars are between the sizes of Earth and Neptune. At first, only Jupiter-size planets were found, because they were the easiest to see in the data. But as techniques improved, smaller planets were found. What’s weird is that in our own solar system, there are no planets in size between Earth and Neptune! For some reason, our home doesn’t have the most commonly found kind of planet. Is that significant, or coincidence?

Only more data will tell. Remember, the first confirmed exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star was only found about 25 years ago, and Kepler only looked at a small section of the sky. What will we find when we broaden the search to not just 150,000 stars, but 150 million? A billion?

All I know is that we’ll find a lot more planets. The one thing all these data tell us for sure is that planets are incredibly common, and probably outnumber the stars in the sky. The Universe is filled with planets, and we’ve just figured out how to find them. There are a lot more to come.

May 10 2016 1:18 PM

Transit Transit

OK, one more Mercury transit video. But trust me. You'll like this one.

Thierry Legault is a genius when it comes to solar and lunar transits. He's caught just about everything that orbits the Earth crossing the Sun, including the space station, Hubble, space shuttles, and more. So I knew he'd have something cool for the Mercury transit on Monday ... and he does. Watch:

So, so cool. He had to travel to Pennsylvania (he's from France) to get the geometry right; most places on Earth could see Mercury crossing the Sun but the International Space Station is only a few hundred kilometers above the Earth's surface, so he had to be in a very specific spot to catch it not just crossing the Sun, but doing so during the time window when Mercury was as well. And as a bonus he got the small airplane, too. Not a bad day's observing!

Linking to all the times I've talked about Legault's work would make this post very long, so instead just search my blog for his name, click the videos, sit back, and enjoy. Or go to his site and spend a little time there. Your brain will thank you.

May 10 2016 11:15 AM

Sic Transit Gloria Mercury

On Monday, Mercury passed directly between the Earth and the Sun, the last transit it will make until November 2019. Judging from my Twitter and Facebook feeds, it was watched by approximately eleventy bazillion people.

I got to watch it through my own small solar ‘scope, which was lovely (sorry, no pix; I still haven’t figured out how to get good shots with my phone or my DSLR). Seeing it with your own eyes through a properly protected telescope is amazing, but not possible for everyone.

Happily, it’s never cloudy for NASA. They were able to get pretty good views through the Solar Dynamics Observatory, orbiting the Earth high above the atmosphere. And the happier news is they made a really spiffy animation from the observations!

SDO sees the Sun at many different wavelengths, to capture the different ways our star emits energy. This in turn helps scientists understand how the Sun’s interior affects the surface, and how both affect the space around it. The Sun has a powerful and chaotic magnetic field that strongly affects the gas (really, plasma) on the surface. You can see that in several parts of the animations as huge, towering loops of magnetic field lines arc over the Sun. Mercury passed right over one from our view, though it was actually more than 65 million kilometers from the Sun at the time.

The Sun has an atmosphere, called the corona, and it glows in the far ultraviolet and X-rays. Just before ingress and just after egress, you can see Mercury silhouetted against the corona:

Mercury against the Sun's corona
Mercury seen against the Sun's corona (at a wavelength of 0.193 microns, in the far ultraviolet).

NASA/SDO, HMI, and AIA science teams

And as much as I like the nicely produced video above made by my friends at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, I think I actually prefer this one: It shows the Sun centered in the frame as Mercury slides past.

Why do I like that one better? The scale. Mercury is a mere 4,880 kilometers across, the Sun a mighty 1.4 million. Mercury is a little closer to us, so perspective makes it look a bit bigger, but the Sun still appears about 150 times wider in this video. It’s hard to get a grip on all this; is Mercury just small, or is the Sun vast?

Answer: yes.

And this is one of the many reasons I love events like these. It gives us a sense of the Universe, ties us to the sizes, the scales, the cycles of things. The Universe is lovely to watch, and you know what else? It’s fun, too.

May 10 2016 8:45 AM

When Science Reporting Goes Horribly, Horribly Wrong

I’m a big fan of comedian John Oliver’s show, Last Week Tonight. Unlike other satirical news programs, he tends to take one topic and do a deep dive, really getting into the nitty-gritty on why some particular thing is outrageously dumb.

On Sunday, he took on science. Specifically, how it’s done and far more importantly, how it’s reported. This is well worth your time.

Oh, it also sports some NSFW language. Fairly warned be thee, says I.

Oliver makes a lot of really good points in this segment, and as someone who stands at the gate between science research and public consumption of that research, I have opinions on this.

Lots and lots of opinions.

To be clear before I start, I agree with pretty much everything Oliver said in this segment. The problems he points out are legit, and if I have any beef, it’s that he should’ve had a one-hour special to cover more of this topic. But I’ll be happy to add in my $0.02.

First, despite being denigrated in so many media, I know people in the U.S. love science. Lots of polls show this, and the fact that there are entire networks on TV devoted to science kinda bears that out.

The problem, in many ways, is how science is communicated to the public. There are a lot of venues from which to consume science information, and not all of them are equal.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem per se with, for example, social media accounts that boil down a lot of stories to factoids. People consume a lot of info (maybe too much to really remember any of it, a problem all on its own) via Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Getting info quickly is part of society now, and likely isn’t going away.

The problem is when these accounts are just dead wrong, or don’t cite references, or don’t give any real information. A pretty picture or cool fact is great every now and again, especially if it inspires the reader to look up more information, but if you only eat Skittles (say) all the time, you’re going to run into some health issues.

But even that isn’t as pernicious as the examples given by Oliver in his segment. This is when things get bad. Science is by its nature an incremental process; it’s incredibly rare for sudden groundbreaking research to change the way we see the Universe. Generally, small steps are taken, usually not all in the same direction, until eventually (and hopefully) a bigger picture builds up.

But that’s not how media work. More and more they demand big, splashy results, something they can use to pop momentarily above the sound and fury of the noise on the ‘net. And that’s when you get grossly erroneous stories like the ones cited by Oliver.

Science is our best way of understanding the Universe. Thirty second segments on chat shows, not so much.

But even those tend to come and go. A far bigger issue in my opinion is death by a thousand cuts. Oliver covers this (starting at 13:02): When a small study shows that under extremely limited and narrow circumstances, coffee has some marginally potential benefits if consumed a certain way, that’s not really news. But it gets reported like it’s some huge advance, and that’s bad, because another study will inevitably come along and show that, under slightly (or wildly) different narrow circumstances coffee consumption has some potential marginal downsides, and then that gets reported as some big breakthrough.

The problem here is that this erodes public confidence in science. People don’t blame the media for their reporting, they blame science for not being able to make up its mind. That’s hugely unfair. And in the case of medicine and climate science, incredibly dangerous. When science is pushed out, charlatans and science deniers are all too happy to step in.

The media tend not to report the statistical significance of the study, the sample size, the lab conditions used. As Oliver points out, a lot of “news” shows don’t even talk about what kind of mammal was used in the study. It’s atrocious. But then, most news media venues downsized (read: eliminated) their science journalists years ago. The people covering science in a vast swath of American media really don’t have any experience in it, so the coverage is shaky. At best.

On top of this, the media and science talk different languages. When the World Health Organization listed cellphones as a possible Group 2B carcinogen, of course the media (and everyone reading it) freaked out. The point wasn’t that this made it “possibly carcinogenic to humans” with no actual causal link found, the point was it was listed at all.

And don’t even get me started on “theory” versus “hypothesis.”

Which brings me to where science is in all this. Heaven knows I see a lot of press releases that try to sexy up the science; some tie them to recent cultural events (oh my, when Star Wars came out last year did I see an uptick in cutesie releases) or wind up using clickbaity headlines.*

But even then that’s not usually the scientists’ fault. They’re just doing their research, and generally don’t have a lot of say over what happens once they talk to their local press information officers.

The good news is that I’m seeing more media-savvy scientists. I can’t speak for other fields, but in astronomy I see a lot of people who have done research and are getting time in front of a camera, or are writing their stories themselves. Professional organizations are creating their own news team. The American Astronomical Society has AASNova, summarizing recent research and written by professional astronomers. AstroBites is similar, written by graduate students. Many astronomy blogs are written by astronomers. Say.

I think a lot of scientists are on top of the idea that they need to understand how the media work to be able to get their message across. Certainly climate scientists are aware of this (the RealClimate site is written by professional climatologists).

This is a step in the right direction. It’s not a cure-all, of course, since I don’t think any such unicorn exists. If such a beast were real—if there were one thing I would change about how we consume information—it would take the form of people learning how to think critically about the news they get, assessing it logically. Is the medium biased? Who funds that particular outlet? Are you as a consumer biased, willing to believe something more readily because it aligns with your personal beliefs? What information are you being given that’s wrong, and what’s being left out?

That would be a wonderful thing. A lot of media outlets would vanish in a puff of logic were such conditions to prevail. And the world would be a far safer, healthier, and smarter place.

* And to be honest I don’t have an issue with clickbait headlines per se; the point of a headline is in part to accurately summarize an article in a few words to make it attractive to a reader. But the “You won’t believe what happens next” types of heds are irritating at least, and I’ve seen lots of headlines flatly contradict the article they’re headlining. Writers for many outlets don’t generally write their own headlines. I do, which is why they’re usually puns. You’re welcome.

May 9 2016 11:45 AM

The Highs and Lows of Mercury

Speaking of Mercury ...

The MESSENGER mission was a thing of wonder. It orbited Mercury for more than four years, taking copious observations of the smallest official planet in the solar system.

Its mission ended in 2015 (it had run out fuel, and could no longer correct its orbit from perturbations both by Mercury itself and the influence of the Sun), but its data live on, databased and available for analysis.

Images of the surface reveal a wealth of information, of course, but it’s more than just pretty pictures (even directly useful ones scientifically). By taking images from different viewing angles and different lighting conditions, elevation information can be determined. Taking two images and comparing them is much the same way our eyes and brains get depth information, and by combining this with different sun angles, the shadows cast give elevation information as well.

This vast amount of data—more than 100,000 images—was used to create this stunning topographical map of the entire planet’s surface:

That is very cool. And very important, too. Mercury is so close to the Sun that it’s difficult to observe from Earth (it’s the only planet Hubble has not and cannot observe, in fact). An early probe, Mariner 10, was sent there but mapped less than half the surface. MESSENGER arrived in 2011, and was the first to create maps of the full planet.

Elevation data came mostly from the Mercury Laser Altimeter. This pinged the planet with pulses of laser light, measuring how much time it took for the light to reach Mercury and bounce back to the spacecraft. If the pulse hit a hill versus a valley, it didn’t have to travel quite as far, so it would get back to the spacecraft in less time. The difference in time can be converted to a difference in distance because we know the speed of light to high accuracy. Elevation maps of the planet could be made with accuracy of under a meter.

But, due to MESSENGER’s orbit, it only mapped the northern and equatorial regions of the planet. This new map adds to that knowledge, creating a topo map of the whole thing.

That’s really important, because planets tend to have features that affect the whole body. The Moon’s Aitken Basin, for example, and Hellas Basin on Mars were from global impacts that affected the entire geological history of their respective targets. With an elevation map of Mercury, similar events can be explored.

This map reminds me of just how hard it is to define what “0” is. In this case, it’s the average over all the measurements taken, which was a monumental task. Calculating this is a problem even on Earth. We casually refer to sea level, but it’s not at all simple to define that! Sea level is different in different places (in part because the Earth’s gravity isn’t constant over its surface; plus water temperature, currents, and sea floor topography can change where the surface resides), and moreover it’s rising as polar ice melts.

Mercury doesn’t have those problems, of course. But it’s a tough planet to study, so having these maps will help. And even better: The European Space Agency and JAXA are gearing up to launch BepiColumbo next year, which will send two orbiters to the planet! When they arrive (six years later!) once again our knowledge of this tiny world will increase explosively.

Now to get my Mercury globe updated with this new info …

May 9 2016 7:00 AM

Reminder: How to Watch Monday’s Transit of Mercury

If you’re reading this between the times of 11:12 and 18:42 UTC (7:12 a.m. to 2:42 p.m. Eastern U.S. time) on Monday, then the transit of Mercury is occurring right now.

Get thee immediately to this page I wrote all about the transit to find out how to watch it live online, with your own equipment, or at a nearby astronomy club. This transit—when Mercury crosses the visible face of the Sun—happens pretty rarely; the next one won’t be until November 2019. So if you can, take this chance to take a look.

Remember: Never look at the Sun without proper protection! I have links to how to safely observe this on the other page. Go!