Archives for posts with tag: NASA

I had the privilege of speaking at the First Friday’s at the Castle in CIT Blackrock Castle this weekend. My talk was “Hoaxes and Hysteria in Astronomy”, where I took a sceptical look at Astrology, UFO’s and the Moon Landing “Hoax” conspiracy theory.

I first spoke about astrology. To understand why astrology is wrong, you need to understand how it originated, and how astronomical discoveries since the 1500’s have completely overturned the basis of the belief system. It also gave me the opportunity to present Phil Plait’s frequently posted diagram:

Then I gave a potted history of UFO’s and our culture’s fascination with all things extraterrestrial. Part of it featured Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast that panicked half of America in 1938. Here is the first piece of the radio show. Even now, over 70 years later, it still works as a monumental piece of broadcasting.

Orson Welles later described why he did it:


While a great many people claim to have seen UFO’s, there has never been any hard evidence provided. UFO reports have been plagued by problems of mistaken identity, delusion and hoaxes. One of the best hoaxes was crop circles: initiated by two drinking buddies in the south of England.

I then spoke about the widespread perception that the moon landings of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a hoax and that NASA staged a cover-up of monumental proportions. There have been many rebuttals, most comprehensively done by the Mythbusters team.

Personally, I love Michell and Webb’s take on it.

At the end of the talk, I got around to my Baloney Detector Kit:

That last one, the “lone mavericks” suffering for their ideas, is particularly true. There have been far, far more wrong-headed lone mavericks” in history than the tiny number of people who have eventually been proven right.

Finally, if you have managed to read through to the end, here are some useful links should you wish to know more.

  1. : Phil Plait waxes lyrical about his wonderment of the universe, while regularly debunking the widespread misinformation.
  2. : If you hear a strange tale or you get an email that sounds fishy, check this website out. It will give you some food for thought.
  3. : The Skeptic’s Dictionary is a tremendous resource for people who want to understand the scientific view of modern delusions and weirdness.
  4. : The James Randi Educational Foundation has been fighting baloney for years. There are plenty of resources there for budding sceptics.
  5. : Brian Dunning has created a comprehensive list of ten-minute podcasts debunking all sorts of strange ideas. You name it, it’s probably there.

We run regular “Skeptics in the Castle” meetings in Blackrock Castle, where experts are invited to talk about the reality behind modern misconceptions, fads and strange beliefs. Check out our website We are also on Facebook and Twitter.

As people on Twitter might know, I have a thing about the Space Shuttle. I was my son’s age when the Shuttle first launched itself into space. I gasped with incomprehension when the Challenger exploded. Many times I rushed outside at just the right time to see it fly over. On a few rare occasions, I was one of the first people in Europe to see it just after launch: its jettisoned fuel tank descending below it.

They needed to be retired. The fleet was long past its use-by date. They were using technology from the dawn of the computer age. They were dangerous and ridiculously expensive. The International Space Station has been completed. There are now other ways to send crews and supplies to it. There was no rational reason to extend its lifetime.

Nevertheless, I am sorry to see it go. I would have loved to see a launch first hand, to hear the roar as it rose above the atmosphere in a matter of minutes. No matter what comes next, the Space Shuttle program will be missed, if only because we are reminded, in a very tangible way, that 30 years have now passed us by.

Here is a great video which quickly recounts entire program, its highs and its lows, from 1981 to 2011. Let’s hope that the next few decades will inspire us even more.

Tonight I am performing cutting-edge science. I am searching for planets revolving around stars some quadrillions of kilometres from here. My equipment? A laptop and an Internet connection. The cost? Just a bit of my time. The possible benefit? Contributing to discovery of entirely new worlds.

On December 16th, a new project – Planet Hunters – was put online. The aim is simple. You are given a whole series of light curves (graphs) from different stars, and your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to identify anything that might indicate a planet crossing in front of its parent star. It’s easy to learn. In a few minutes you can be searching for far-away planets like an expert.

Planet Hunters uses data from a satellite known as Kepler, whose job it is to study hundreds of thousands of stars over an extended period, looking for signs of planets crossing in front of their parent stars. Planets are very dim compared to stars, so they are almost impossible to detect visually. However if they happen to cross in front of a star, the light from that star decreases momentarily. This decrease can be picked up by powerful telescopes and it is these occurrences that Kepler is keeping a lookout for.

That’s where we citizen scientists come in. Many of these small drops in brightness are not easily detectable by computers. Humans are good pattern recognisers, so we can often see anomalies that a computer might not recognise. Searching through the light curves for transiting planets is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. The planet, the star and the Earth need to line up exactly, so only a small percentage of stars are likely to show anything of interest, even if they have planets revolving around them. If enough stars are sampled however, new planets will certainly be discovered. Some scientists reckon that Kepler will quadruple the number of exoplanets known to us. We currently know of 700 planets revolving around stars other than our sun.

What hit me about searching were the many different types of light curves available. Many stars are relatively uniform, but others show complex variations and rapid fluctuations. The picture below gives you an indication of some of the star patterns I came across today.

So far in my searches I have come across a few patterns that may indicate a planetary transit. The software permits you to tag and highlight possible candidates. The same pattern is shown simultaneously to other users, so that comparisons can be made and observation errors reduced. If many people are tagging the same feature, then it is likely that something interesting is going on. Having us “citizen scientists” involved is of huge benefit to the real scientists,who would otherwise need to sort through a deluge of data.

Here are my 4 best candidates from my searches so far. They may turn out to be nothing of importance, but in any case for a few hours searching it’s been a fascinating introduction to the world of planetary discovery.

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