Archive for category Me being pedantic

Is it a meteor? Is it a plane? No it’s… a star

One thing The Mail normally does quite well are giant picture spreads – stories with lots of giant photos and maybe a couple of hundred words of text to explain them. Normally…

Image of rings of light in the sky, described by the Mail as "spiralling meteors"

Am I being pedantic? I don’t care; the “spiralling meteors” are not meteors, they’re stars! As the Earth turns, the stars seem to rotate around the Pole Star (the “stationary” speck of light in the centre of the image), and if you take a long exposure photograph of them they seem to draw circles in the sky. Now, there are meteors in this image but they are not spiralling and they are, err, a bit tricky to see, especially since The Mail has squished the images down to web resolution.

The image with 4 barely visible meteors highlighted

Edit: After I’ve complained about the Mail squashing the image too much, WordPress has gone and squashed it even further. Click on the images to view them unsquashed.

Can you see them? They’re more visible in the full size version, and they do not spiral. In fact, that’s how you tell a meteor from a star – the meteor moves so quickly that the rotation of the Earth has no effect on its apparent path, so it blazes in a straight line across the sky. All in all, this is a great star trail picture, but it’s not the best meteor picture ever, and the way The Mail has presented it means it’s not a meteor picture at all.

As the photographer Mark Humpage says on his website:

The bright moon made watching/capturing difficult this year and the very wide angle shot makes for a good composition but lesser meteor detail.

Incidentally, there are a lot of really good photos on Humpage’s website – not just of stars and satellites, but hurricanes, icebergs and aurorae too – and, unlike The Mail, he knows the difference between a star and a meteor. Enjoy!

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“If ancient folklore is to be believed”

Daily Express headline: RAIN TODAY COULD LAST FOR 40 DAYS

Actual story: “BRITAIN could be heading for a washout summer if ancient folklore is to be believed. Legend says that showers today, St Swithin’s Day, mean 40 days of rain to come.

Better headline: RAIN TODAY ALMOST CERTAINLY WON’T LAST FOR 40 DAYS

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Happy birthday Neptune?

Neptune

Happy birthday!

Just a quick post: according to The Observer, tomorrow (July 11) will be one Neptunian year since the discovery of the planet Neptune. Except…

One year on Neptune is 60,190 Earth days. Neptune was discovered on 23 September 1846, so Neptune’s first birthday will be 60,190 days after this date.

23 September 1846 + 60,190 days = July 10, 2011

Neptune’s birthday is today, not tomorrow! We’ll all be celebrating on the wrong day!

Never mind phone hacking, this is the real scandal.

Edit: The BBC is even more wrong, claiming Neptune’s birthday is July 12. The philistines!

Double edit: In fact, it looks like we’re all right! July 10 is one average Neptunian year after the date of discovery, July 11 is the day when Neptune will have made precisely one orbit around the solar system’s barycentre (i.e., its centre of mass when you take the Sun and all the planets into account), and July 12 is the day that Neptune will have made precisely one orbit around the Sun. (A figure of July 13 is floating around as well, most likely as a result of an Indian newspaper article which has taken timezones into account). Thanks to Up, Blogstronomy and the Wikipedia users on Talk:Neptune!

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A balanced and measured reponse to James Delingpole

Have you been enjoying the saga about the wind farms that might or might not kill whales? I do hope so. The aspect of it which I have particularly enjoyed is the sanctimonious and hypocritical rage of a vociferous lobby group of self-styled “skeptics.” (See here, here and here.) Though mostly based in Britain, they spell themselves in the American style to distinguish themselves from “sceptics” like me. That’s because, unlike proper sceptics* they – get this! – are card-carrying members of the Church of Climate Change.

I have been insulted by James Delingpole. I have officially made it!

Anyway, the reason James Delingpole claims “we” (I’m not sure why I’ve been lumped in with Ben Goldacre, but I’m honoured) are hypocritical is that we attacked him for using dodgy and distorted facts in this case, and didn’t attack all his other dodgy and distorted facts:

After all, whether or not wind farms harm cetaceans, we do know beyond all reasonable doubt that wind farms:

Despoil countryside, frighten horses, chop up birds, spontaneously combust, drive down property prices, madden those who live nearby with their subsonic humming, drive up electricity prices, promote rentseeking, make rich landowners richer (and everyone else poorer), ruin views, buy more electric sports cars for that dreadful Dale Vince character, require rare earth minerals which cause enormous environmental damage, destroy 3.7 real jobs for every fake “green” job they “create”, blight neighbourhoods, kill off tourism and ruin lives.

So isn’t it, you might argue, ever so slightly odd to get so het up over the issue as to whether or not they harm whales too?

So fair enough, let’s get het up over all of these:

    • Despoil countryside“. That’s kind of subjective, surely. If you think wind turbines look ugly, then yes, they despoil the countryside. But then, so does this. And this. And this. And this.
    • Frighten horses“. True to an extent; horses startle easily after all. However, there are plenty of places where wind farms and stables coexist, and careful design can eliminate the problems caused by flickering shadows worrying the animals.
    • Chop up birds“. Actually, the number of bird deaths associated with wind turbines is much smaller than the number of deaths caused birds flying into other buildings and stationary structures.
    • Spontaneously combust“. As far as I can tell from the limited stats available, wind turbine fires don’t appear to be any more common than any other type of fire. And at least wind turbines only produce smoke and pollution when they are in fact on fire; to paraphrase George Monbiot, wind power causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right.
    • Drive down property prices“. Yet again, so does coal and nuclear.
    • Madden those who live nearby with subsonic humming“. This is fair enough. That’s one point to Delingpole.
    • Drive up energy prices“. Actually, onshore wind costs as much per MW as coal power, and quite a bit less than nuclear power. Offshore wind is more expensive, but it also solves most of the above problems. Whoops, there goes that point.
    • Promote rentseeking, make rich landowners richer (and everyone else poorer), [...] buy more electric sports cars for that dreadful Dale Vince character.” Basically, this comes down to whether you’d rather it was coal power companies or wind power companies who were rich.
    • Ruin views“. No, James, you already did this one with “despoil countryside”. -1 point.
    • Require rare earth minerals which cause enormous environmental damage“. Now, this is a good point. Most of our rare earths at the moment come from China, which until very recently had very lax environmental controls, so the byproducts from mining them is causing environmental damage, and ideally I would rather our rare earths came from more eco-friendly sources. This isn’t just a problem with wind turbines though, it’s a problem with practically every piece of electronics in use today. Rare earth elements are used in making hard-drives, lasers, computer chips, medical images, headphones, guitar pickups and dynamos, not just wind turbines. Besides, once again, oil drilling, coal mining, uranium mining, peat cutting, even making the concrete for dams – all of these have environmental downsides as well. For this to be an argument against wind, you need to show that the damage caused by rare earths is worse than the damage caused by the above.
    • Destroy 3.7 real jobs for every green job they create“. Here’s what Full Fact had to say about that:

However the Verso Economics report was not actually seeking to address indirect benefits or jobs gained through investment in this sector. Further, the BBC reports a spokesman for the Scottish government arguing the report is “misleading”, saying it vastly underestimates the jobs created in the renewables sector and does not consider the impact of private investment. They argue that there is no negative impact on public services or public sector budgets from government support of renewables.
Whether or not these criticisms of the report ring true, there is another potential problem in using its findings to show a net loss of jobs across the UK. The original report does not address the entire UK ‘green’ jobs sector, but is focused on jobs created in the renewables sector in Scotland. Therefore, it is something of an extrapolation, and one in which it is difficult to have full confidence.

  • Blight neighbourhoods“. Pretty sure you’ve already done that one too.
  • Kill off tourism“. In fact, wind turbines have negligible effect on tourism.
  • Ruin lives“. Quite unlike climate change and global warming, which I’m sure has never ruined lives. OH WAIT.

* So let me get this straight. Fake sceptics are sceptical about the things they read, “proper sceptics” blindly regurgitate whatever they read in blogs or press releases into national newspapers without doing even the briefest of fact checks. Good to know.

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Planet? Moon? What’s the difference!?

This will be the last “supermoon” post, I hope. There’s just something about it which seems to make journalists become especially stupid. Perhaps the Victorian doctors who said the moon caused “lunacy” were onto something.

Anyway, here’s what has pride of place on the Mail‘s science page today:

Amazing pictures of lunar planet... the nearest it has been to Earth for 20 years

You know, lunar planet! That… moony planet?

Okay, Daily Mail Reporter, find your nearest 8 year old relative and ask them what the difference is between a “planet” and a “moon“. The answer may (not) surprise you!

The photos in the article are very nice looking, but the reason the moon looks so giant in them isn’t because of the “supermoon”. The trick is to take the photos of the moon when it’s very low on the horizon, grazing very distant buildings. Using a powerful zoom lens, you zoom in on the distant buildings, so they look normal sized and the moon looks gigantic. This isn’t something unique to supermoons, it can be done any day.

Like I said in last week’s post, the “supermoon” would never be as dramatic as the papers claimed – it was only 6% larger than usual, and this happens twice a month. Without a decent telescope and a camera, you probably wouldn’t notice the “supermoon” at all.

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Supermoon!

The moon from Majora's Mask

You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?

The question: Could ‘supermoon’ next week disrupt Earth’s weather?

The web was yesterday awash with apocalyptic warnings that the movement of the moon will trigger tidal waves, volcanic eruptions and even earthquakes next week.

The conspiracy theorists claim that on March 19, the moon will be closer to Earth than at any time since 1992 – just 221,567 miles away – and that its gravitational pull will bring chaos to Earth.

The answer:

But astronomers have dismissed the claims as pure nonsense.

Take us away, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Edit:

The Sun and Metro have both managed to be much worse than the Mail. The Sun has the headline “‘Disaster’ as Moon closes in” while Metro has “‘Supermoon’ may cause weather chaos for coastal Britain“. Bear in mind that the Moon comes almost this close twice a month – the only thing that makes this time “super” is that it happens to coincide with a full moon, and even then, that happens every 2 or 3 years. This will cause slightly higher tides, yes, but according to the NOAA, these happen 3 or 4 times per year (since they can be triggered by new moons and nearly-full moons too) and the change in the tide is only around 2%.

The Telegraph‘s coverage is better – there’s far less doom – though as much as I hate to be a party pooper, it’s going to be less dramatic than they make out. On average. the moon’s “angular diameter” – the amount of the sky it fills up – is 0.259 degrees. In other words, the moon would appear the same size as a five pence coin held 1.99 metres (6 feet 6 inches) away from your face. During the supermoon, its angular diameter is 0.274 degrees- the same as a five pence coin held 1.88 metres (6 feet 2 inches) away. That’s roughly a 6% increase in size – and this increase happens twice every month.

If you could compare the two side by side, you would see the difference – if you’ve got a small telescope or a decent pair of binoculars, then a supermoon should be a great opportunity to have a look up there – but otherwise, you probably couldn’t tell (the moon illusion causes the size of the moon to appear to vary by way more than 6% anyway). At any rate, the Telegraph‘s illustration is… a little exaggerated.

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Short and royally silly statistics

Being a monarch is four times more dangerous than being a soldier fighting on the front line! Charles and William are doomed!

Well… if you look at every European king and queen since the year 600, and assume that the regicide rate today is exactly the same as it was a thousand years ago, that is…

The Guardian‘s coverage is a bit better – at least they seem to know the difference between past and present!

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