The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for the ‘space’ Category

Secret Mars Base Discovered? Hmmm, No…

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 7, 2011

According to this story over at Space.com, there is an amateur astronomer claiming that he has discovered what he calls a “Base on Mars” in the following image that he downloaded from Google Mars…

All I can say is… are you kidding me?!  A grainy, fuzzy, and heavily pixelated image from Google Mars shows… what exactly?  Why couldn’t this be some kind of geological feature on Mars, or couldn’t some of the features be artifacts of the imaging process?  Why the rush to jump to “alien base on Mars” without any supporting evidence?  This sort of thing is on par with people using similar crappy-quality images to claim they’re looking at Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or seeing Jesus in the clouds.  Folks, it all boils down to that well documented phenomenon called pareidolia, because if there were decent high-resolution images available then it would be harder for people to see what they (consciously or not) want to see in the pictures.

Some more reasonable possibilities are suggested by some experts in the Space.com article:

“It looks like a linear streak artifact produced by a cosmic ray,” said Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona and the director of the Planetary Imaging Research Laboratory. McEwen is the principal investigator of the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a powerful telescope currently orbiting Mars.

Cosmic rays are extremely energetic particles emitted by the sun and other stars. For the most part, the Earth’s protective magnetosphere blocks them from hitting the planet’s surface, McEwen explained. “But with space images that are taken outside our magnetosphere, such as those taken by orbiting telescopes, it’s very common to see these cosmic ray hits. You see them on optical images and a lot of the infrared images too,” he told Life’s Little Mysteries. …

… The digital compression software that converts the image into a JPEG file then “sort of smears out the image, giving it that pixelated look,” McEwen said. What started as a clear streak in high-resolution turns into a streak that, in the armchair astronaut’s words, looks like it is “made up of cylinders.”

That, or this guy actually did discover an alien base on Mars.  I think you’d have to have a particularly dull Occam’s Razor to accept that conclusion, however.

 

Posted in aliens & UFOs, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Amaz!ng Meeting 9: TAM9 From Outer Space!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 21, 2011

I just wanted to let you all know that registration is now open for The Amaz!ng Meeting 9. This year’s theme is all things astronomy & space oriented, so the event is being called “TAM9 From Outer Space!” I’ll be attending again this year, and if you are make sure you find me.  This promises to be one of the best TAMs ever!  Check it out 🙂

Posted in skeptical community, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Alien Life in a Meteorite? Ummm, Not So Much

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 13, 2011

Last week the media was all abuzz about a story that a NASA scientist had discovered “definitive evidence” of alien life in a meteorite.  In fact, they apparently even had photos of the little critters…

Here’s the headline:

NASA scientist finds evidence of alien life

Aliens exist, and we have proof.

That astonishingly awesome claim comes from Dr. Richard B. Hoover, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, who says he has found conclusive evidence of alien life — fossils of bacteria found in an extremely rare class of meteorite called CI1 carbonaceous chondrites. (There are only nine such meteorites on planet Earth.) Hoover’s findings were published late Friday night in the Journal of Cosmology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

“I interpret it as indicating that life is more broadly distributed than restricted strictly to the planet earth,” Hoover, who has spent more than 10 years studying meteorites around the world, told FoxNews.com in an interview. “This field of study has just barely been touched — because quite frankly, a great many scientist [sic] would say that this is impossible.” …

The “field of study” to which Dr. Hoover is referring is astrobiology, and it is a legitimate scientific endeavor that attempts to study the question of life beyond Earth.  Unfortunately, Dr. Hoover is somewhat of a crank, and his claims are quite overblown, as evidenced by the ruthless criticism he and the “peer-reviewed” Journal of Cosmology received from the wider scientific community.  Here are just a few samples of how these trumped up claims of “alien life” simply wither under scrutiny…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in aliens & UFOs, scientific method, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Galaxy Zoo and Citizen Astronomy

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 7, 2011

A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to do some really awesome educational outreach work with Dr. Pamela Gay: skeptic, astronomer and co-host of the popular Astronomy Cast podcast (and one of the most awesome people I know).  During the outreach event, Pamela made use of a wonderful online tool called Galaxy Zoo to emphasize that in today’s age of the Internet, ordinary people can engage in “citizen astronomy” quite easily.  Since there are a limited number of professional astronomers in the world, and there is far too much astronomical data for them to comb through easily, what is needed is fresh eyes… lots of fresh eyes.

By allowing everyday citizens – teachers, students, and just plain old curious folks – to have access to the vast databases of galactic imagery (from the Hubble Space Telescope) and some simple protocols for classification, people can have a great impact on the science of astronomy.  In fact, sometimes this leads to some pretty amazing discoveries, such as the anomaly called Hanny’s Voorwerp…

The object, now referred to as a “voorwerp”, is about the size of our Milky Way galaxy and has a huge central hole over 16,000 light years across. The voorwerp is false colored green, a standard color to represent the presence of several luminous emission lines of glowing oxygen. It has been shown to be at the same distance from Earth as the adjacent galaxy, both about 650 million light-years away. Image source: Wikipedia

If you’re interested, check out Galaxy Zoo or any of the related “citizen astronomy” tools available at the Zooniverse Project, and pass it along! 🙂

Posted in education, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Asteroid Apophis to Hit Earth in 2036? Calm Down, the Sky is NOT Falling

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 9, 2011

In recent days, one of the more popular news stories flying around the Internet has to do with a supposed “doomsday” asteroid called Apophis. And, according to some idiotic journalists who seem to want to push a sensationalistic “news” story, this asteroid is going to hit the Earth in 2036 with devastating consequences – in short, they say this is going to happen…

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is, to use the scientifically-accurate phrase, a complete load of crap. That’s because the original story, which came via a Russian “news” outlet, has been completely and thoroughly refuted by NASA and scientists worldwide…

Will Apophis Hit Earth in 2036? NASA Rejects Russian Report

In 2004, NASA scientists announced that there was a chance that Apophis, an asteroid larger than two football fields, could smash into Earth in 2029. A few additional observations and some number-crunching later, astronomers noted that the chance of the planet-killer hitting Earth in 2029 was nearly zilch.

Now, reports out of Russia say that scientists there estimate Apophis will collide with Earth on April 13, 2036. These reports conflict on the probability of such a doomsday event, but the question remains: How scared should we be?

In answer to that question, I think we shouldn’t really be scared at all.  When you crunch the latest numbers, the probability that Apophis will actually impact the Earth in 2036 is about 1-in-250,000.  If you work that out to a percentage, it comes out to a 0.0004% chance the asteroid will hit Earth.  That’s a pretty slim chance, and certainly nothing to get all upset about, in my opinion.

Let’s think of it this way: compare the probability that Apophis will hit Earth in 2036 with the chances of other unfortunate events (as reported by Popular Science magazine)…

Lifetime odds of dying from:

Any accident: 1 in 36

A motor vehicle accident: 1 in 81

A firearm: 1 in 202

Poisoning: 1 in 344

A falling object (terrestrial): 1 in 4,873

Drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 10,455

Being caught in or between objects: 1 in 29,860

Suffocation by a plastic bag: 1 in 130,498

So that means that you are about twice as likely to die by being suffocated in a plastic bag as compared to the chances that this “killer” asteroid Apophis will wipe out planet Earth.  Stop and think about that for a moment… now, are you suddenly going to start demanding the recall of all plastic bags from society in order to protect humanity?  No?  Good.

Now, please don’t get me wrong – I think the issue of tracking & cataloging near-Earth objects (NEOs) is a very important one, precisely because we have solid evidence that NEOs such as asteroids & comet fragments can and do hit the Earth.  In fact, this happens all the time, but the regular impacts are from smaller objects; the big, “planet-killer” type objects are fewer in number so the chances of one coming our way is comparatively small.  But it could happen, and with the implications being what they are (i.e., the destruction of human civilization on Earth being among the worst-case scenarios) it would be prudent for us to invest at least some resources into these questions.  And we have invested such resources into NASA’s NEO Program.

So, in conclusion, is the sky falling with regards to Apophis?  No.

Should you go buying your own “asteroid apocalypse” bunker?  No.

Should we then turn a blind eye to the potential threat of NEOs?  No.

Should we invest a reasonable amount of money into researching this issue?  Yes.

Interestingly enough, one thing we really can do when Apophis makes its closest approach to Earth in 2036 is use the opportunity to learn more about asteroids and the early solar system.  In fact, some scientists already have plans to use Apophis as an amazing research opportunity!

If you’d like to know more about Apophis, and the related physics & astronomy behind it, I suggest taking a look at this entry over at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog.

Posted in doomsday, media woo, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Eclipses, Moon Myths & Lunacy

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 21, 2010

This winter solstice, the night of December 20th and early morning of the 21st, will bear witness to a full lunar eclipse. It seems to me that every time such an event takes place it brings forth all manner of myths & misconceptions regarding the moon and its supposed effects.  So, in the spirit of this evening lunar eclipse, I wanted to pass along to you all the straight science regarding some of the more loonie (pardon the pun) claims regarding the moon.

First, here is some scientifically reliable information regarding lunar eclipses…

Now, on to some of the myths regarding the moon: I want to share with you two good articles that examine many of the pseudoscientific claims regarding the moon, one from LiveScience.com and the other from the Skeptic’s Dictionary

Moon Myths: The Truth About Lunar Effects on You

The moon holds a mystical place in the history of human culture, so it’s no wonder that many myths — from werewolves to induced lunacy to epileptic seizures — have built up regarding its supposed effects on us.

“It must be a full moon,” is a phrase heard whenever crazy things happen and is said by researchers to be muttered commonly by late-night cops, psychiatry staff and emergency room personnel. …

Full moon and lunar effects

The full moon has been linked to crime, suicide, mental illness, disasters, accidents,  birthrates, fertility, and werewolves, among other things. Some people even buy and sell stocks according to phases of the moon, a method probably as successful as many others. Numerous studies have tried to find lunar effects. So far, the studies have failed to establish much of interest. Lunar effects that have been found have little or nothing to do with human behavior, e.g., the discovery of a slight effect of the moon on global temperature,* which in turn might have an effect on the growth of plants. Of course, there have been single studies here and there that have found correlations between various phases of the moon and this or that phenomenon, but nothing significant has been replicated sufficiently to warrant claiming a probable causal relationship. …


Posted in astrology, psychology, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Blurring of Science With Media Spin: NASA’s Announcement About “Arsenic-Based Life”

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 11, 2010

I have to say that last week I was pretty upset with NASA, because – if you recall – there was a lot of hay being made by NASA about a big scientific discovery they were going to announce.  In the process, there was a great deal of media spin & speculation on whether or not it was going to be an announcement of the discovery of “alien life” or something similar.

But when it came time for the announcement, it ended up being something quite less spectacular: it was about how a group of NASA scientists had uncovered a form of bacterial life which seems to have adapted itself to living in the harsh conditions of a lake laced with heavy concentrations of arsenic – the original NASA press release can be accessed here.

NASA has made a pretty big deal out of this discovery, but there are some problems with how they’ve rolled it out, in my opinion.  I am of the view that they’ve oversold this thing, with overly dramatic phrases (from the above press release) such as…

NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.

and…

This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth.

Upon hearing about this discovery, and not being a biochemist or evolutionary biologist myself, I decided to look past the spin being put on this by both NASA and the news media in general and go to people who know the field far better than me.  In a short amount of time, I found a great post by PZ Myers over at Pharyngula on the matter, wherein he states, among other things…

It’s not an arsenic-based life form

… I finally got the paper from Science, and I’m sorry to let you all down, but it’s none of the above. It’s an extremophile bacterium that can be coaxed into substiting arsenic for phosphorus in some of its basic biochemistry. It’s perfectly reasonable and interesting work in its own right, but it’s not radical, it’s not particularly surprising, and it’s especially not extraterrestrial. It’s the kind of thing that will get a sentence or three in biochemistry textbooks in the future. …

… So what does it all mean? It means that researchers have found that some earthly bacteria that live in literally poisonous environments are adapted to find the presence of arsenic dramatically less lethal, and that they can even incorporate arsenic into their routine, familiar chemistry. …

… This lake also happens to be on Earth, not Saturn, although maybe being in California gives them extra weirdness points, so I don’t know that it can even say much about extraterrestrial life. It does say that life can survive in a surprisingly broad range of conditions, but we already knew that. [emphasis added]

And, unfortunately, it seems that the story could get worse for NASA, because if you know anything about how the scientific community operates, you know that when someone makes a really bold claim (such as how the NASA researchers did) then other scientists are going to want to review the work & offer criticism.  Well, upon doing so, there has been some quite withering criticism coming from many DNA & biochemistry experts about the manner in which the NASA researchers conducted their work…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in aliens & UFOs, media woo, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

An Actual Geocentrism Conference? Are You Frakkin’ Kidding?!

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 25, 2010

You know, there are days when I think I’ve seen it all.  I think to myself: “there are some things which are just too stupid, crazy, and/or ‘out-there’ that nobody will attempt to believe & defend.”  And then something like this crosses my email inbox: an actual conference, titled “Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right”, which attempts to seriously argue for… get this… geocentrism. You know, geocentrism – the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe.  You know, geocentrism – the notion which has become, and deservedly so, synonymous with the Dark Ages & all manner of backward and nonsensical thinking.  You know, geocentrism – the completely defunct idea which even the modern Catholic Church itself has admitted as having no merit whatsoever!  Yeah, that geocentrism…

Actually, before I facepalm myself into a state of blissful unconsciousness over the incredible level of stupidity embodied by this conference, allow me to seriously address the entire question of geocentricity.  I wish to do so because of two reasons: 1) if these pseudoscientists are holding a conference, they are attempting to get more media attention and must thus be countered; and 2) it seems that a whopping 18% of people in the United States actually believe the Earth is the center of the universe (which is far too many)!  So here goes…

First off, I’m going to hit just a few major points in this post.  If you want a much more thorough treatment of this topic, go see Phil Plait’s post over at Bad Astronomy; and if you are interested in reading more about the history of geocentric models of the universe, I suggest you check out Wikipedia as a starter.

Now, let me begin by saying that if you don’t have any education at all in the topic of Earth & space science, astronomy, physics, and what-have-you that I can understand an almost blind acceptance of geocentrism for one simple reason: it certainly appears that everything in the sky moves around the Earth.  Look in the sky and you’ll see the Sun, Moon, planets, stars, etc all moving – from your frame of reference – around the Earth.

Of course, a little more thought, along with a deeper analysis of astronomical data, will show that the geocentrism as mentioned by these “Galileo Was Wrong” goofballs is totally bogus…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in astrology, creationism, physics denial/woo, religion, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

“Skeptics Under the Stars” Event in October!

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 19, 2010

If you happen to be in the upper Midwest in early October, I invite you to attend an event hosted by the Women Thinking Free Foundation: it’s called Skeptics Under the Stars! Here’s more information…


Skeptics Under the Stars!

Saturday, October 2nd

McIntyre’s Resort

N 6471 Milwaukee Road

Delavan, WI 53115

Come join the Women Thinking Free Foundation for a night of astronomy and outdoor camping.  After setting up camp at McIntyre’s Resort in Delavan, Wisconsin, we’ll have an outdoor BBQ with burgers, hot dogs and veggie burgers complemented by a talk by skeptical astronomer Dr. Pamela Gay of the popular Astronomy Cast podcast.  After dinner, we’ll make our way to the world-famous Yerkes Observatory for a private tour and chance to take a peek through their historic 40 inch refracting telescope!

After our stint at the observatory, we will head back to the campground for a late night of stargazing, more short talks by our illustrious, skeptical astronomer, and of course roasting marshmallows and generally having fun camping outdoors.

Timeline:

3-5pm – set up camp at McIntyre’s Resort

5-7:15pm – eat and talk with Dr. Pamela Gay

8-11pm – tour of Yerkes Observatory

11pm-???am – stargazing (weather permitting), food, and fun

Cost: $75/person + children under 10 free (so bring the kids!)

What is included in the trip cost:

Tour of Yerkes

Campground Costs

Burgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers for BBQ

Lighter Fluid & Charcoal

Snacks

Limited Beer and Wine

What to Bring:

Bug spray

Boots (if hiking)

Jacket/Rain gear

Tents

Sleeping bags/Blankets

Warm Clothes & Boots

Matches/Lighter

Flashlight

Pocket Knife

Telescopes (we have a couple already, but if you have your own, be sure to bring it!)

We’ll have some limited beer and wine until we run out, but you may want to BYOB if you plan on drinking into the night. Same goes for any other food or snacks you want to bring.

We understand that many people may not own all the needed supplies or may not have a car for traveling from Chicago. Please visit the message board at the Skeptics Under the Stars Facebook page if you need or have extra tents/sleeping bags or want to take part in a carpool. We don’t want to leave one skeptic behind just because you don’t own your own sleeping bag.

Additionally, some of us skeptics might want to head up to the campground early to enjoy some hiking and boating prior to the start of the official event. This can all be worked out at the message boards as well.

If you’re on Facebook, check out our event page. If you get lost or have a problem on the way up, make sure to take these phone numbers with you and don’t be shy in calling one of us.

Jamie Bernstein: 858-442-4415
Matt Lowry: 847-533-5717

If you have any other questions or problems, send us an email at marsmattus@yahoo.com and/or jamiebb@uchicago.edu

Posted in skeptical community, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Phil Plait’s “Bad Universe” Coming This Fall!

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 15, 2010

I am pleased to announce that “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait – author of the Bad Astronomy blog – will have his own television show this coming fall on the Discovery Channel called Bad Universe! Way to go, Phil!!! 🙂

I know that Phil’s been working on this for a long time, and it’s hard as hell to get skeptical & scientific shows on cable nowadays, so I want to do all I can to get people to tune in.  So with that, check out the sneak peak of Bad Universe

Coming this fall to Discovery, a new series that debunks all the junk about the Universe! Phil Plait is an astronomer on a mission to challenge the myths of the universe with scientific proof.

Posted in skeptical community, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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