Battling clickbait science

I was sorely tempted to headline this post “Alien megastructures discovered in Ballard,” but that would have meant sinking low into the sort of clickbait science that concerns Dr. James Davenport. Davenport, a research scientist at the University of Washington, gave a talk about the topic at the most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

Davenport described himself as a big fan of science, and noted that to be such one needs to be OK with failure.

Dr. James Davenport. UW photo.

“Being wrong is just nature telling you, no, try again. Come up with a better idea, a better explanation for how the universe is working,” Davenport said. “If you love science, you have to love the struggle and you have to love truth.”

Davenport believes that it’s important to communicate about science, but often that leads to misconceptions or outright lies. Sometimes the misinformation is silly stuff, like trying to pump up the hype about a lunar eclipse by calling it the super blood wolf coyote Moon. Sometimes it’s just wrong. An example is what now seems like the annual return of social media posts announcing that Mars is going to appear as large as a full Moon in the night sky. This particular hoax may date back to 2003, when Mars actually was closer to Earth than it had been in some 60 thousand years. The falsehood was based on a nugget of truth, and Mars was an especially good target for astronomers that summer, but if you looked up it was still just a bright red dot in the sky. When someone doesn’t see that giant Mars they might conclude that science is stupid.

“Little by little we chip away at your interest, your excitement, your enthusiasm, your belief, and your trust in science as an institution,” Davenport lamented.

Outrageous headlines

You’ve probably read many stories for which you found that the headline had little to do with the actual content. The purpose of the headline is to make you look. Davenport noted this phenomenon related to media coverage of Boyajian’s star, which brightens and dims in odd and unexpected ways. Scientists kicked around a lot of possible explanations for this observation. Maybe it’s a weird dust cloud or passing comets or debris from an asteroid collision. Someone even suggested a Dyson sphere or some other sort of “alien megastructure.” This grabbed the attention of the headline writers, and articles in Scientific American, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Discover magazine, and others featured headlines about the possible discovery of alien megastructures, though the articles essentially said, “probably not.”

“There’s real science here but oh, golly, we need to be careful about reporting it,” Davenport said. “We have an obligation as scientists to be really careful and I worry that we’re not.” The truth about Boyajian’s star has yet to be figured out.

Where’s the rigor?

Another challenge for science communication is that there are some sites out there that are not exactly rigorous. For example, Davenport shared the following tweet from a site called Physics and Astronomy Zone.

You probably know that Pluto has not been reinstated. The tweet links to an old article—from April Fool’s Day. Also attached to that article are a slew of links to “stories” about the gifts men really want, amazing rebates for seniors, alien DNA in marijuana, and lots of other nonsense. It’s pure clickbait.

“This is a machine to get you to click on things, to get your eyeballs on things, to get you to engage with things so they make a few pennies,” Davenport said. “They do that a million times a day.”

There’s a lot of churn there. @zonephysics has more than 900 thousand Twitter followers.

“This is a huge impact for nonsense,” Davenport said. “Where is the celebration of truth?”

Few legitimate scientists have nearly so many Twitter followers. Neil deGrasse Tyson has more than 13 million, and Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has more than 615 thousand. As of this writing Davenport has 2,917. Seattle Astronomy has 2,135.

What to do

Davenport figures there are three things we can do to battle against the spread of pseudo-science and downright rubbish:

  1. Communicate about science; don’t leave it to pseudoscientists spread misinformation
  2. Share and intervene. Point out bunk when you see it.
  3. Get the help of technology and tech companies to figure out how to weed out bad sources and find a way to remove the incentive for clickbait.

“We need other solutions besides just eyeball time equals dollars equals the only thing that matters on the Internet,” Davenport said. “We need tools that help us optimize for things beside just eyeball time. We need tools that help us figure out what’s the most efficient way to get knowledge across. What’s the most efficient way to help us identify bad actors who are spreading misinformation and intervening when people are trying to share that content.”

There’s some heavy lifting ahead.

“We need to do science outreach. We need help from everyone to spread truth and identify falsehoods. And we need the help of technology,” Davenport concluded. See below to watch his entire talk!

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. They’re taking a break in December and their next event will be held January 22, 2020.

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Book review: Moon: An Illustrated History

There have been a slew of books published about the Moon in the last year or so as we observed the 50th anniversary of the first human steps on the lunar surface. Among the more interestingly conceived and handsomely presented of those is Moon: An Illustrated History (Sterling, 2019) by astrobiologist and science communicator Dr. David Warmflash.

Moon: An Illustrated History is more than just the story of lunar exploration. It is essentially a collection of one hundred one-page essays about key moments in the history of the Moon, each accompanied by a marvelous illustration. The book lives up to its subtitle of From Ancient Myths to the Colonies of Tomorrow. It goes back 4.5 billion years to the Moon’s formation, and along the way takes many a look at how the Moon inspired science and scholarship and culture over the years.

Knowledge is power

Knowing a lot about the Moon can be important. It would have helped a group of Chinese court astronomers back in the 22nd century BCE, who were executed by emperor Chung K’ang because they didn’t predict the occurrence of a solar eclipse. Emperors needed to know these things; the mythology of the times gave great predictive power to unusual celestial events.

Warmflash explores a number of advancements in the development of lunar calendars, the first of which appeared some ten thousand years ago during the Mesolithic era. Later the Sumerians developed some incredibly complex calendars while trying to sync up the Moon and the Sun into a year.

It’s fascinating to read about the role the Moon has played in the building of knowledge over the centuries. Warmflash takes us back in history to the time the Greeks figured out why the Moon has phases and why there are eclipses. Other chapters explain how the Moon was key to calculating the size of the solar system and how it helped astronomers make an early confirmation of general relativity.

Fantastic illustrations

Some of Moon: An Illustrated History’s more interesting illustrations look at some of the great thinkers of the past. These include folks we in the west might not have heard about, such as the Arab mathematician Ibn al-Haytham and Indian astronomer Aryabhata. Others depict more familiar names, such as one imagining a chit-chat between Halley and Newton and another depicting a confab between Kepler and Emperor Rudolf II.

Aldrin on the Moon. Photo: NASA

The last forty of the book’s chapters cover the space age, beginning with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Many of these later chapters come along with some of the most iconic imagery of the space age, including the “Earthrise” photo shot by astronaut Bill Anders from Apollo 8 and Neil Armstrong’s portrait of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon that shows the photographer and the lunar module reflected in the subject’s mask. The articles are loaded with little tidbits about lunar exploration that you probably didn’t know.

The final few chapters turn an eye to the future of exploration and possible settlement of the Moon.

Strongly recommended

Each of the chapters of Moon: An Illustrated History is cross-referenced to others that take on similar topics, so the reader can easily follow a particular thread. It’s a well-done volume that would make a fine gift for any Moon-o-philes on your list. Warmflash says that the book is available in Seattle at Elliott Bay Book Company, the Queen Anne Book Company, Island Books on Mercer Island, Barnes and Noble, and possibly others. If you buy through Amazon by clicking the book cover above or the link in the first paragraph of this article, Seattle Astronomy receives a small fee that helps support our site. We appreciate that!

Finally, Warmflash notes that he, along with Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt and others, is featured in a documentary called Oregon’s Moon Country that will air December 16 on Oregon Public Broadcasting. You can stream online as well; details in the link above.

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Sun streak ends! Whither Mercury?

All good streaks must come to an end, like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Cal Ripken, Jr.’s consecutive games-played record of 2,632. This morning Seattle Astronomy‘s personal mark of successful astronomical observations of Sun-related events was snapped at a modest four when we failed to spot Mercury during its transit across the face of the Sun.

Waiting for Mercury
Conditions looked semi-hopeful shortly after sunrise that we’d see the Mercury Transit. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Hope of spotting Mercury remained alive until the bitter end. I arrived at Seattle’s Seacrest Park just before sunrise when the transit had already been under way and below our horizon for a couple of hours. We got a few glimpses of the Sun during the morning, most not enough to register even a glimmer of light through properly filtered optics. Then came proof that Mother Nature can be cruel and sadistic, especially to those who would practice astronomy in Seattle. With the transit slated to end at about 10:04 a.m. PST, the clouds parted a bit at about 10:02, setting off a mad scramble to point, focus, and look. I thought I caught the barest edge of Mercury leaving the disk of the Sun, but I couldn’t be sure. There were lots of clouds in the view. The Sun was there but Mercury, true to his fleet-of-foot reputation, was gone. I count it as a nice try.

Not everyone who came to our viewing event was skunked. Seattle-based Associated Press photographer Elaine Thompson caught this shot during a brief clearing:

It pays to be prepared! The day was not a total loss. Many folks enjoyed a look at the Mercury-free Sun after the transit, a nice woman named Liz brought some Top Pot donuts to share, and hanging around at the beach waiting to spot Mercury with some new friends was not a bad way to spend a Monday morning.

I’d successfully seen four recent Sun events: the August 2017 total eclipse of the Sun, the Mercury Transit in May 2016, a partial solar eclipse in 2014, and the transit of Venus in June 2012. Off to start a new streak.

There will not, however, be another Mercury transit until 2032, and not one visible from North America until 2049. See you down at Seacrest Park in thirty years!

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Mercury transit tomorrow!

The weather forecast is decidedly iffy for folks in Western Washington to view the transit of Mercury across the Sun on Monday morning, November 11. But a number of groups, including Seattle Astronomy, are planning to be out and waiting for breaks in the clouds in order to catch a glimpse of this relatively rare astronomical event.

Transit of Mercury
Our photo of the 2016 Mercury transit from Seattle. If you click on this photo to see the larger version you can see Mercury just to the left of the center of the disk of the Sun, and a sunspot cluster to the right. Taken with a Canon PowerShot A530 through an 8-inch Dob at 48 power. Photo by Greg Scheiderer.

Typically there are 13 Mercury transits visible in any given century, and there will be 14 of them during the 21st Century. We last had one visible from Seattle just over three years ago, in May of 2016. Tomorrow’s will be the last until 2032, but that one and the next won’t be visible from North America. Our next chance to see a Mercury Transit from Seattle will be in May of 2049.

Thus we’ll be down at Seacrest Park in West Seattle near the Water Taxi dock in hopes that we won’t have to wait 30 years or travel halfway around the globe to see Mercury in transit. We’re aware of a handful of other viewing opportunities tomorrow in the Northwest:

Watch our calendar page for others; we’ll add them if we hear about them for the rest of the day.

There are a couple of things to consider when viewing the transit. First, the requisite warning not to look at the Sun without eclipse glasses or a properly filtered telescope. Second, you’ll not likely see Mercury without some magnification; it’s pretty small. Third, don’t try to use eclipse glasses with a telescope or binoculars; the equipment itself must be properly filtered or severe eye damage will result.

Alan Boyle of Geekwire has a good article about the 2019 transit that includes some links for viewing the event online should our weather fail to cooperate.

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Astro Biz: 7 Moons wine

Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one periodically on Seattle Astronomy.

7 Moons Red Blend

Today’s Astro Biz is 7 Moons Red Blend wine from the 7 Moons Wine Company of Oakville, California. The red blend is a mixture of wine from seven different grape varietals: Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Cabernet, Malbec , and Grenache. The company also makes a “dark side” red blend, though its website does not point out how it differs from the standard, and sticklers will quibble with the use of dark side, as the far side of the Moon is often illuminated.

There’s a bit of fun involved as the company uses seven different corks, each depicting one of the Moon’s phases. They urge imbibers to collect all seven, though there’s no indication of any sort of prize for successfully doing so.

More info:

The case against a Mars colony

When there’s talk about people from planet Earth going to live somewhere else in the solar system, more often than not the envisioned destination is Mars. Daniel R. Adamo says we’re getting way ahead of ourselves on that scenario. Adamo, a co-founder of the Space Enterprise Institute who worked 60 space shuttle missions from the flight dynamics desk, gave a talk titled, “Questioning the Surface of Mars as the 21st Century’s Ultimate Pioneering Destination in Space” at the recent Pacific Northwest Aerospace Expo held at Portland State University.

“We’ve been brainwashed by information that is a hundred years old or more into thinking Mars is the place to go,” Adamo said. Everything from Percival Lowell’s erroneous conclusions that intelligent beings built canals on Mars to much of the science fiction of the 20th Century made the Red Planet an alluring celestial sphere for earthlings.

Daniel R. Adamo spoke about the prospects for colonizing Mars during a presentation at the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Expo Sept. 28, 2019 at Portland State University. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Mars is a socio-cultural destination,” Adamo said.

Adamo draws a distinction between exploration and pioneering of Mars, and he’s all for the former, though he contends robots remain best suited for discovery.

“If the aim is to explore as much as possible, telepresence from a moon of Mars is cheaper, more productive, and more safe than putting people on the surface,” he said. With a control center on Deimos, for example, people could operate rovers and such without the lenghty communication lag that makes that more of a challenge from Earth.

For those who would extract resources from Mars, Adamo points out that there’s nothing there we can’t get at home, and if there was some sort of useful new mystery ore it would still be safer to have robots do the mining.

Problems with colonizing Mars

For a colony on Mars to make sense, Adamo says a number of things have to happen. There has to be a reason to go. The colony needs an economy. And people need to be able to survive and thrive there. At present, he contends none of those things are true.

He noted that human migration has always happened for a reason, whether it was war, famine, pestilence, oppression, or some other condition that made people feel their backs were up against the wall. There’s also no credible threat to our survival here like an impending asteroid strike. There’s simply no reason to leave Earth and live somewhere else. If there was, Adamo says there’s been no way shown to sustain such a colony; there’s no business plan.

“Ultimately, you’d better return sustained profits because even if you’re just a colony you’d better send some resources to the mother country to justify all of those finished goods that they’re sending you that make quality of life possible,” he said. “You’re not going to be mooching off the taxpayers.”

Survivability is the biggest challenge Adamo sees to Mars colonization. Solar and cosmic radiation would force people to live under ground; it’s not the most appealing notion, but he contends regular work on the surface of Mars is not realistic if you want to live long. The biggest wild card he sees is gravity. It’s a complete unknown whether humans could procreate on Mars, where gravity is just 38 percent as strong as it is on Earth. Without children, you’re not going to put down multigenerational roots on another world.

Adamo isn’t suggesting that the notion of colonizing Mars be abandoned, but he says we need to know a lot more before making such a move. He suggests we might study the gravity question first from habitats in low-Earth orbit and later on small bodies such as near-Earth asteroids. Then we could learn how people adapt to lower gravity. He says pioneering on Mars should only be considered if it can be shown that we can thrive there economically and biologically.

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The Pacific Northwest Aerospace Expo was hosted by the Portland State Aerospace Society, an interdisciplinary student aerospace project at Portland State University. They plan to make the expo an annual event.

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Astro Biz: Blue Star Donuts

Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one periodically on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is Blue Star Donuts from Portland. Blue Star has eight locations in the Rose City and three more in Southern California. The company has been around since 2012.

We found Blue Star Donuts while walking around Portland during the first annual Pacific Northwest Aerospace Expo held at Portland State University last weekend. Watch for our recap of that event coming soon!

More info: