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The Webfooted Astronomer - December 2001


From the President’s Pen . . . Bad Astronomy

By Mary Ingersoll

THERE’S something about bad astronomy. We see it everywhere. Remember a few years ago when a Seattle Times reporter wrote that member Dan Knight was doing “astrology” at the University of Washington?

Astronomer, teacher, lecturer and all-around space junkie, Dr. Phil Plait says, “I have been delighted to find that most people are very curious about the night sky, but unfortunately a lot of misinformation is spread about astronomy. Sometimes this information is just plain silly, but many times it makes just enough sense that people believe it. Sometimes the news media help spread these ideas (like the one that you can spin or stand an egg on end during the Vernal Equinox), sometimes it’s TV and sometimes it’s plain old word of mouth, but the misinformation does get around. I feel obliged to right these wrongs when I can.”

He’s gone after the mistakes and lies with his Web site at covering everything from “old wife’s tales” to television documentaries with exact computations and a great sense of humor.

Examples of bad astronomy on TV

Comets whooshing past an observatory in a chewing gum commercial.

Nuclear missiles are launched to vaporize an asteroid (seconds before impact) that could have destroyed the Earth.

The Hubble Space Telescope becomes a hero in “Doomsday Rock” when it is (within a few short minutes) repositioned to take live video images of an asteroid that will miss our planet by half a million miles. [Since when does the HST do video and tracking?]

The Home Shopping Network selling the Galileo 3-inch reflector ($100-$200) displays images from a (large) ground based telescope saying they are HST images. They compare them to photographic images taken from the Galileo in an effort to convince the buying public that you can get the same results from their $100 telescope that professionals get from the $6 billion Hubble. The sales representative also said “Pluto is no problem for this telescope.” Plait says: “Not only would it not be a problem, it would not be an issue.”

Movie Reviews

Red Planet: At night one of the astronauts on the surface of Mars attempts to contact the orbiting ship, but can’t reach it, and says “she must be on the dark side.” If it’s night, then he’s on the dark side too, isn’t he?

Space Cowboys: “IKON, the Russian satellite, is at a height of 1000 miles and losing altitude at 8000 meters per day.” The orbit of satellites decay because of the friction of the atmosphere. At 1000 miles it becomes a bit too thin to have this effect. The astronauts take the Space Shuttle to the IKON, an amazing feat, in that the Shuttle is unable to fly that high [standard orbiting altitude is 185 statute miles, and the highest it has ever flown was to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope at 385 miles above the Earth].

The Mummy Returns: Night after night a full moon looms in the sky.

Tomb Raider: “Here’s the basic plot: every 5000 years the planets align. The last time this happened a meteor fell to Earth. The metal from the meteorite was used to make a Mystical Device, which can Stop Time, Give Great Power, and Do Other Things that require capital letters for emphasis.” -Plait
Lara’s also got a telescope with a field of view that enables her to see the discs of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto beginning to align. She’s viewing from inside her house and the lights in the room don’t affect her vision in the least. [Wow! It must be a Galileo from the Home Shopping Network.]

Aside from the bad stuff Phil is more than happy to talk and write about the good stuff too. His Web site is filled with excellent information, including links to other great Web sites that will have you surfing for hours. His book “Bad Astronomy” will be released in March 2002. Dr. Phil Plait will be the guest speaker at our annual banquet, January 26, 2002, 6 p.m. Contact Judy Schroeder today to make your reservations.

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