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Coast to Coast AM topics

July 5, 2004

Welcome to Bad Astronomy!

This page has images and links that George Noory and I will discuss on the Coast to Coast AM radio show on Tuesday night, July 5, 2004. I want to include a disclaimer before you read this page though: the discussion and conclusions below are mine alone. I sometimes make mistakes, and I am comfortable admitting them when I do. If anything on this page is wrong please let me know. I am summarizing claims of other people, and this can be a dangerous task, because it can lead to misinterpretations of what they are saying. I want to be as fair as I can to their claims.

If you are curious about the other times I have been on C2C, then you can read the pages I wrote for my appearances on November 15, 2003 and February 26, 204.


  • James McCanney's Nonsense
  • More about Hoagland
  • About the "Aussie Bloke" Hoax
  • Cassini at Saturn
  • More Mars Mania
  • What's up at NASA?

  • James McCanney's Nonsense

    image of James McCanney James McCanney is the latest in the crowd of people elbowing each other for room after the Nancy Lieder Planet X fiasco. His claims are every bit as silly as hers, but that hasn't stopped him, or even slowed him down. Why let actual facts get in the way of a really good conspiracy theory? He is a frequent guest on C2C, and to be honest, like I did with Hoagland, I avoided debunking his stuff because I don't want to give him any more attention than he already has. But he is on radio shows more and more, and it's time to show people where he is wrong (answer: everywhere). A web search on him revealed almost no skeptical looks at his claims, so I think the time has come.

    Here is the start page for my dissection of his silliness. I'm sure he'll be on C2C again soon, and I'm sure he'll be railing against me when he does. Keep my pages handy when he does and see who makes more sense (answer: me).

    More about Hoagland

    Speaking of Richard Hoagland, my pages about him have caused a bit of a stir. We were both interviewed for about it, and of course Hoagland said the article was unfair to him. I think it was far too fair, even giving him the last word! Pseudoscientists think any article that lets someone speak against them is unfair, I guess. Sorry, but you won't get adoring press from me, especially saying what he says (I still can't get over that he compares a couple of his critics to Hitler and Goebbels, and then has the audacity to say others are unfair to him). I don't give anyone a free ride; if I don't like what they say, I'll pipe up. If you don't believe me (and I don't ask you to simply believe anything I say, ever), then I'll mention that in my book I had a few choice words against some things Carl Sagan did, too. Arguments from self-appointed authorities mean little to me, whether the authorities are actually hailed by others, or are simply chest-thumpers.

    Shortly after I published my pages, Hoagland was on C2C and said many things that were simply not true (SOP for his claims). Rather than bore you here, those interested can read my annotated transcription of his appearance. But to be clear: I never agreed to debate him. Never. The producer of C2C and I talked about it, but I never agreed to it, and I'm glad I didn't. There's an old saying: Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig enjoys it.

    In fact, the topic of debating pseudoscientists has suffered through so much misunderstanding and downright abuse that I decided to make it its own page in the Misconceptions section. Read it here.

    About the "Aussie Bloke" hoax

    Sigh, it never ends. Whenever anyone posts a conspiracy theory about the end of the world, no matter how obvious a hoax it is, it sweeps the web.

    In this case, a guy calling himself "Aussie Bloke" sent an email to an ultra-conservative website saying that comets and meteors were on their way in, and it spelled doom and death for all. This was yet another in a long, long series of such claims, and, of course, they have all turned out to be wrong. Including this one.

    The first posting by Aussie Bloke from May, 2004, was what started the stir. He makes lots of claims in it, and the claims from Aussie Bloke are mixed in with the writer for the "Bush Country" website, making it somewhat confusing. However, here are a few of the things said, and why they are wrong:

    • "... by mid to late May and going on through 2005, the earth's orbit is potentially going to go through the tail of several comets and afterward be inundated by meteors causing worldwide calamity from not only the vapor, but the impact/s.
      Apparently, the vapor associated with these comet tails are extremely dangerous and flammable."

      First, the tails of comets are extremely thin. They resemble a high-grade lab vacuum! We can see comet tails because they're really big, so even the thinly dispersed material can appear bright. But poassing through a comet tail is no big deal. We passed through Comet Halley in 1910 with no ill effects (though some people made money selling "comet pills"). So no one could get poisoned by a comet tail. Also, even if the tail were pure hydrogen, it wouldn't be flammable. There's simply not enough material to ignite!

    • "As incredible as it sounds, two comets are on a collision course near earth, so near in fact, that one is expected to knock the other into (most likely) the western hemisphere, but it is unknown whether that will be into the ocean or on a landmass."

      First, no known comets are on a collision course with Earth! Any comet bright enough to be seen by astronomers and close to Earth would be seen by amateur astronomers, and they are a vocal lot. They can track orbits as well as professionals (maybe better in some cases), so if a comet were on its way to ruin our day, they'd make a fuss about it.

      Second, comets don't collide. The heads of comets (see the McCanney pages linked above) are very small, maybe a few miles across. Space is huge, vast, enormous! The odds of a collision are so small that analogies fail me. Two gnats in the Grand Canyon have a better chance of colliding.

    • [About a comet supposedly coming in toward the Earth]"Lastly, the next photo which shows the comet having a T shape to it. It seemed it was not even the same comet that was initially on the video."

      image of comet Here is the image to which he links (click it to get a bigger version). The T shape to it is not real, it's an effect commonly seen in astronomical digital images when a bright object is in the field. I wrote about this effect here, specifically about SOHO images. The reason I put that page up was exactly for things like this Aussie Bloke hoax. It didn't help much, unfortunately.

    Then things took a funny turn. Someone claiming to be Aussie Bloke started posting to a well-known, um, alternative website's forum. The problem is, posting there anonymously is easy, so there is no way to know if the person posting was the real Aussie Bloke or not, given of course that Aussie Bloke isn't real in the first place.

    And then Aussie Bloke admitted that he was an astronomer named Grant Gartrell. The problem was, it was a hoax, and the real Grant Gartrell was not amused. He is a retired astronomer who runs a blueberry farm in Australia!

    It's pretty much at this point that any semblance of sense in this story gets lost. I have a hard time keeping everything straight, but I have read several web pages about this with great amusement (a Google search on Aussie Bloke will yield lots of pages). At some point the town of Grovers Mill, NJ got mentioned, and when I read that I laughed out loud: it's the place where the martians landed in the radio version of " The War of the Worlds", the classic broadcast by Orson Wells.

    If you want to read more about this silliness, one good page with a synopsis can be found here. Amazingly, even after all this (including, still, no evidence of any incoming comets), some people still believe it. My work is never done.

    Cassini at Saturn

    Enough pseudoscience! There's real science to discuss!

    The Cassini spacecraft, after a nearly 8 year journey, is now in orbit around the ringed planet. What an accomplishment! The images being returned are fantastic, and you can see them for yourself at NASA's Cassini at Saturn webpage

    image of Saturn's moon Tethys On the air, I discussed one particular image from Saturn. It shows Tethys, one of the larger moons of Saturn. A section of the image is displayed here (click on it to get the full-resolution image from the NASA site). It may not look like much at first, but when I saw it I literally got a tingling in my stomach. The bright thick crescent of Tethys is the part that is lit by the Sun. But what's remarkable is that you can see the "dark" side of the moon too. That's because Tethys is also being lit by Saturn itself! Sunlight hits Saturn, is reflected off Saturn onto Tethys, and then that light in turn is reflected and seen by Cassini.

    On Earth, we see this as well. When the Moon is new (a think crescent shortly after sunset), you can commonly see the "dark" side of the Moon. This is called "Earthshine", because the dark part of the Moon is being lit by reflected Earth light (here's a gorgeous image of it).

    When I saw that image from Saturn, it immediately -- and literally -- brought the mission home to me. When that image of Tethys was taken, Saturn was over 900 million miles away from Earth... but it was like a postcard from home.

    I've said it before, and I'll say it again: real science is wonderful.

    More Mars mania

    On air, we talked about the odd martian rock called " Pot o' Gold". The Spirit rover detected hematite in it, which Opportunity has also detected on Mars. It can form with or without water, but it's looking pretty good for ancient water on Mars.

    image of Pot O' Gold The scientists studying rocks say they don't have any idea why Pot O' Gold is covered with those weird shapes. Actually, it's being discussed on the Bad Astronomy Bulletin Board right now. My first thought was that the rock looked like sand castles I have made by letting really wet sand dribble down between my fingers. You get that same lumpy look.

    I wonder though... I've seen other rocks like that. There is a type of meteorite called Imilac. It's a type of meteorite that is basically metal with clumps of greenish-yellow olivine crystals in it. In Imilac, the olivine burned away when the meteor moved through out air, leaving only the metal, which looks like a three-dimensional web around it.

    image of Imilac meteorite intact Here are two images of Imilac; one shows it in its pristine shape, and the other after the olivine has been burnt away by the fiery descent through our air. See the way the little metal thingies (sorry for the technical talk) stick out?
    image of Imilac meteorite burnt

    I am not suggesting Pot O' Gold is a meteorite. What I am suggesting is that it may have had softer parts that got eroded away by martian sand and wind, leaving that weird shaped thing sitting on the surface. I may be totally wrong here; I am not a geologist (but if I had to pick a third profession...). I may ask some geologist friends about this. It's a pretty neat looking rock one way or another.

    What's up at NASA?

    Recently, The President of the United States, in conjunction with NASA Chief Administrator, came up with a new Vision for Space Exploration. This new program focuses on returning to the Moon and getting to Mars. A Presidential Commission was set up to explore this idea, and they recommended a reorganization of NASA. NASA has responded to this, and has published a reorganization chart (you can also compare it to the old one).

    I have no idea where this will lead! The big effect on my job is that the Earth Science and Space Science divisions will merge into one big Office of Science. That strikes me as a pretty good idea, though in the short term it means a lot of confusion for those directly involved. I think in the long run, hving one science office will help collate all the vast amounts of science NASA does.

    I'm involved in Education and Public Outreach, and it's still not clear what will happen in that field when the dust settles at NASA. I'm sure there will be changes, and I'm also quite sure (it's a government organization, after all!) that there will be good things and bad things from it. But I also know that NASA is committed to education. The new organization will take some time to grow into itself, and we'll see how it goes from here.


    This is the same conclusion I have used the other pages I've written for my appearances on C2C, but you know what: I like it, and it still fits.

    I have said this before, but it bears repeating: the Universe is a marvelous place, filled with wonder, beauty, and objects that bend the mind almost to breaking. But as far as we can observe, the universe obeys a set of rules, which we call physics and mathematics. We have a pretty good grasp on the basics of these rules (which is why, for example, you can use the computer in front of you right now; it takes a lot of physics and math to make a computer). We do not understand all these rules, of course, but that does not mean we understand none of them. There are people out there (like McCanney and Hoagland) who want you to think that we need to overturn the very underpinnings of physics and science, but this is simply not true.

    The Universe is wonderful enough without having to make up nonsense about it.

    ©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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