Archive for category Physics

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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The Supermoon did NOT cause the earthquake

Normally, scientists are meant to be circumspect and reserved about cause and effect. We’re supposed to deal in probabilities, statistics and uncertainties. However, on this occasion, I have absolutely no qualms in saying this: The Daily Mail is wrong. The “Supermoon” had nothing to do with the terrible earthquake off the coast of Japan today.

Ben Goldacre and Phil Plait have already produced some admirable rebuttals to the Mail‘s exploitative scaremongering; these are my thoughts, but I recommend reading the linked posts.

The powerful tsunami that today slammed into Japan’s eastern coast comes just two days after warnings that the movement of the moon could trigger unpredictable events on Earth.

Except none of these “warnings” come from scientists. The only people who took the “Supermoon” seriously were internet conspiracy theorists and the tabloids. And…

Astrologers predicted that on March 19 – a week tomorrow – the so-called ‘supermoon’ 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.

An astrologer is the not same thing as an astronomer. A warning from an astronomer should (generally) be taken seriously. A warning from an astrologer isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Others on the Internet have predicted it will cause further catastrophes such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

“Others on the Internet”? Of course, everything that was ever written on the internet MUST be true.*

* Fully aware of the hypocrisy, thank you very much.

However the ‘supermoon’ date is still eight days away. But those that adhere to this particular belief could claim that this was still close enough for there to be some kind of effect.

Ok, as everyone knows, the moon orbits once a month. Once every two weeks, it comes close to the Earth – this is the “perigee” of its orbit – and in between these perigees we have the furthest points: the “apogee”. This means that eight days before the perigee, it will be as far away as possible from the Earth; the exact opposite of a “supermoon”. Its gravity would be weaker, not stronger.

The energy needed to produce an earthquake builds slowly through stress and strain in the rocks where tectonic plates meet, over years or decades. A tiny change in the position of the moon – a change which, remember, happens twice a month – will have virtually no effect compared the constant force of billions of tons of rock pressing against each other.

Two days ago, in an interview with ABC radio discussing the potential impact of the March 19 supermoon, astrologer Richard Nolle, who first coined the term in 1979, said he was convinced that lunar perigees cause natural disasters on Earth.

‘Supermoons have a historical association with strong storms, very high tides, extreme tides and also earthquakes,’ he said.

The only one of those that is true is that “Supermoons” can cause high tides (and even then, it only changes the tidal range by a couple of percent). There is no association between “Supermoons” and storms or major earthquakes. And again, an astrologer is NOT an astronomer.

Natural disasters are unfortunately common. Earthquakes, storms and floods happen with depressing regularity – look hard enough and you can find disasters happening around any supermoon. What’s important is to the look at the disasters that weren’t linked to a supermoon. No scientific study has shown an increase in quakes or storms around supermoons.

What do the actual scientists say?

Dr David Harland, space historian and author, said: ‘It’s possible that the moon may be a kilometre or two closer to Earth than normal at a perigee, but it’s an utterly insignificant event.’

Professor George Helffrich, a seismologist at the University of Bristol was equally dismissive.

‘Complete nonsense. The moon has no significant effect on earthquake triggering.

‘If the moon triggers “big” earthquakes, it would trigger the many of millions of times more “small” earthquakes that happen daily. There is no time dependence of those; hence no moon effect.’

[…]

John S Whalley, geoscience programme manager at the University of Portsmouth, agreed there was no correlation.

‘There is no established correlation between variations in the orbit of the moon and either the number or magnitude of earthquakes.

‘It is all too easy, with hindsight, to link major earthquakes to variations in all sort of parameters.

‘The real test is to look at the vast numbers of earthquakes of all magnitudes that occur on a daily basis worldwide.

‘Any correlation with the lunar orbit would have to be established on the basis of this population of earthquakes, not on individual high magnitude events. In need hardly add that no such correlation has been established.’

I would end this post with another glib link to the SMBC comic, but frankly I don’t feel like this the right time for daft jokes. Nor is it the appropriate time for a newspaper with a readership of millions to be giving a platform to charlatans and conspiracy theorists, who seize on a terrible tragedy just to get a little bit of publicity for their pseudoscientific claims.

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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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Asteroid, doom, whatever, yawn

Devastating asteroid impacts are thankfully incredibly rare, with millions of years between impacts. One thing that’s not rare is the killer asteroid scare story.

Today’s Mail claims ‘Doomsday’ asteroid could slam into the Earth on April 13, 2036… but don’t worry, we’ll have seven years’ warning, ominously following that with “Warning comes days after another asteroid shot over the Pacific just 3,400 miles above the Earth’s surface

First of all, the asteroid that shot “just” 3,400 miles over the Pacific? That was Asteroid 2011 CQ1, and it was about the size of a washing machine. That’s not dangerous. At all. According to NASA, “there is likely to be nearly a billion objects of this size and larger in near-Earth space and one would expect one to strike Earth’s atmosphere every few weeks on average“. Far from being dangerously close, this asteroid was unusual in that it didn’t quite hit us – if it had, it would have burnt up harmlessly in the atmosphere and no-one bar a few astronomers would have noticed.

Anyway, the “”doomsday” asteroid” in question is Apophis, a name you’ll probably recognise from previous media frenzies in 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2005. Nothing has changed since then; in fact, the odds of collision are gradually getting longer (its position on the danger scale has dropped from 4 – a 1% chance of dangerous impact – to zero). We’ve got a fairly good idea of what the asteroid’s path looks like, but there’s a tiny bit of uncertainty we’ve still not cleared up and it’s possible that it might be on a path that will eventually hit Earth. Luckily for us, the odds that it’s on that path are just 1-in-250,000 (your odds of being killed by Apophis are roughly the same as the odds of being killed by rats or cave-in, apparently). We’re talking lottery odds here.

For a more detailed analysis, there’s a great post at Bad Astronomy – Repeat after me: Apophis is not a danger!

As Nick Ross used to say, don’t have nightmares.

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The Mail erupts

Headline: Icelandic volcano set to erupt dwarfing last year’s devastation, warn scientists

Scary! Except that according to the article itself:

  • Scientists don’t actually know whether the volcano, Bárdarbunga, will erupt, just that there has been an increase in earthquakes near it.
  • There are very few measuring devices in the area, which means seismologists don’t know whether those earthquakes are actually caused by the volcano or not.
  • No-one, apart from the Mail itself, is claiming that the eruption will be larger than Eyjafjallajökull, and they seem to be basing that solely on the fact that the volcano itself is bigger.

In conclusion, a volcano may or may not erupt, and it could or could not be bigger than another volcano. Things are always less terrifying when you know the uncertainties.

Edit: Sure enough, the scientist studying Bárdarbunga has said on Radio Five that his findings have been misquoted and exaggerated by the media and other Icelandic geologists agree that the danger has been overstated. What a surprise.

Double edit: Massive thanks to Alex Elliott in the comments for finding this article where the professor in question, Pall Einarsson, attacks the press for twisting his words and overhyping the scare. In the original interview, he claims to have said the exact opposite – that the earthquakes around Bárdarbunga were nothing unusual.

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Sham painful supernova

Everyone knows the old Mark Twain quote, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes“. Today we have a weirdly literal example of that.

A couple of days ago, the Australian news site news.com.au ran a story which claimed that the star Betelgeuse was going to go supernova in 2012, that its explosion would light up the sky, that it would burn so brightly that we’d have two suns, and that the explosion would tie in with the old 2012 Mayan prophecy BS.

Pretty quickly, astronomers like Phil Plait and Ian O’Neill wrote responses to the article, pointing out that while an exploding Betelgeuse would be spectacular, it would still be less bright than the moon (so no two suns), it would be too far away to have any effect on the planet, and we have no way of knowing whether Betelgeuse would explode tomorrow or in a million years.

Guess which line the British papers have gone for?

The Daily Mail runs with Earth ‘to get second sun’ as supernova turns night into day, complete with a still from Star Wars (because that’s a movie that had two suns in it!) while The Telegraph has ‘Second sun’ on its way. Both claim that “scientists” have predicted the 2012 supernova, but as far as I can tell, no-one’s done any such thing. The scientist quoted by news.com.au actually just made perfectly sensible comments about what supernovae are – the only connection to 2012 is randomly thrown in by the journalist who wrote the piece, Claire Connelly.

For a full debunking, either of the blogposts linked above is worth reading, as is news.com.au’s own apologetic follow-up, Betelgeuse ‘not likely to explode in 2012’.

Of course, it won’t be long before this story – devoid of context and rebuttals – gets pride of place on 2012 conspiracy sites, and then the whole vicious cycle will begin again.

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The Daily Mail claims we’re ALL immigrants. From SPACE

Diagram demonstrating left and right handed chiral isomers - two molecules, one a mirror image of the other, superposed on a pair of hands

The person on the right is an alien (Image from NASA, via Wikipedia)

Remember the arsenic-based bacteria that it turned out probably weren’t arsenic based at all? There’s echoes of that in today’s Daily Mail story: “Life on Earth DID begin in space, according to study of samples found on meteorites“.

“Life began in space” is a rather bold statement to make, and it doesn’t take long before the Mail back tracks:

A meteorite study has strengthened evidence that life on Earth began in space.

Many experts believe biological raw ingredients were carried to Earth in lumps of asteroid rock.

A key clue lies in the molecular structure of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and living organisms.

The molecules come in two mirror-image varieties, known as left and right-handed. But only left-handed amino acids are found in nature.

To be fair to The Mail, the rest of the article isn’t too bad – unsurprising really, since it’s basically just a shortened version of the NASA press release. But that headline!

Left and right-handedness here refers to something called chirality – a chiral molecule is one which, no matter how much you rotate it, cannot be superposed on its mirror image. Amino acids (shown in the picture above) are almost all chiral*, which leads to something rather interesting. You see, your body builds proteins by linking together long chains of amino acids to form very delicately folded structures. Because left-handed and right-handed amino acids are different shapes, you can’t simply swap one for the other without messing up the entire chain. Similarly, your digestive enzymes are very precisely shaped so that they can “grab onto” left-handed amino acids but not right-handed ones. As far as your body’s concerned, right-handed amino acids are more or less invisible.

Where this gets fascinating, though, is that all life on Earth uses left-handed amino acids to build proteins. Why evolution “picked” left-handed amino acids over right-handed isn’t certain. It could just have been that in the beginning both left-handed and right-handed amino acids existed, racing to form life, and the left-handed ones won. Or it could have that something called circularly polarised radiation either from the Sun or from distant dying stars destroyed some of the right-handed acids as soon as they formed, giving the left-handed acid a headstart.

NASA’s discovery – that meteors contain slightly more of the left-handed form of a specific amino acid than the right-handed form – suggests that the latter is true. But that’s all it suggests. It’s a shame; this a very interesting story on its own, and written up by anyone other than our anonymous friend Daily Mail Reporter it could have been fascinating to read and could have got readers a tiny bit more interested in science.

Instead, the Mail just nicks the press release, sticks a blatantly misleading headline on it and pumps it onto the internet in hurry to beat all the other newspapers. After all, a page hit is a page hit, regardless of whether the readers get through the whole thing or just scan three lines before releasing they’ve been misled.

* The one exception is the smallest amino acid, glycine, which is too simple to have a mirror image.

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Eyecatching

Paragraph one of a Daily Mail article about a comet:

Even competing against the electric glow of LA by night, it still manages to draw the eye.

Paragraph six of the same article:

At present it is classified as an 8.5 magnitude comet, meaning it is not visible with the naked eye, only through telescopes.

All credit to the Mail, besides that (and the extremely tenuous attempt to connect the comet to the missile that probably wasn’t a missile) it’s a pretty good article. Still, come on Mail, where are your editors when you need them?

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The Daily Express has 29 million imaginary friends

SUDDENLY, the nights are drawing in. The sky is filling with the smoky grey clots of churning vapour that herald the annual return of Boreas and his frigid kingdom of shade and bluster. Worst of all, men, women and children are forced to eat their tea in the dark because no-one has invented the light bulb yet.

From the darkness rises our saviour, St. Desmond, at the vanguard of the heroic Crusade for Change. Where the Daily Express leads, an army 29 million strong follows

Wait, 29 million? That sounds a bit much, surely? The turnout at the last general election was only 29.6 million – are you telling me as many people care about the Daily Express‘s “crusade” as care about national politics in general?

In fact, all that happened is that Santander carried out a survey, and 58% of those polled said that the government should look at the current Summer Time system. Not that they definitely agreed with the Express, just that they thought it might be worth checking. The Daily Express has then multiplied this figure by 50 million – a ballpark estimate of the population of England – and assumed that therefore 29 million people must be in favour.

Without being able to see the survey, there’s no way of knowing how representative of the British population this survey is. Already though, one thing seems clear; while the Express talks about 29 million Britons, it might be more accurate to say 29 million Englanders. Messing with British Summer Time is somewhat less popular in Scotland and the North of England, as the Daily Express itself secretly recognises.

Let’s look at some of the other findings of the study.

According to the study, 45 per cent will feel unusually depressed during the daylight-starved winter months.

Concerns are also mounting about children walking home in the dark and the danger of personal injury, with one in four people saying they feel more at risk as evenings draw in.

In addition, some 36 per cent – 17.7 million people – believe there is an increased chance of road traffic accidents, and one in four also insist they feel more at risk from burglary.

In other words, 3 in 4 do not feel more at risk, 64% of people did not say they believed there was an increased chance of road traffic accidents, and 3 in 4 do not feel at risk of burglary. Bringing seasonal affective disorder (winter depression) into this is a low blow – it appears to be caused not by clock changes, but just by the fact that there is less light overall during winter.

I’m not sure how much difference clock changes would have to some of those anyway. There is good evidence that “double summer time” reduces traffic accidents in England (but raises them in Scotland), but I couldn’t find any evidence about the others – there are some papers on whether clock changes can cause depression, but the conclusions look, well, inconclusive.

So, in the interests of improving the state of mathematics, I’m going to poll the entire world about whether the Daily Express needs remedial lessons on how to use statistics and surveys. That means potentially upwards of 6,877,939,067 voters, all weighing in. Lend us your opinion, have your say, and help my Crusade for Change!

(Hat tip to Exclarotive)

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UKIP spaces out

EU IS ON ANOTHER PLANET - Daily Express front page

No... pretty sure Europe's on Earth

The Daily Express has an EXCLUSIVE today: the EU is spending money on things! Well, when they say “Exclusive”, what they actually mean is that they just downloaded the draft EU budget for 2011 and searched for “space” and “films”.

As millions of Britons faced swingeing cuts, the draft EU budget reveals an extra £23million will be spent on space research next year, taking the annual total to £204million.

Taxpayers’ cash is also being funnelled into a £670million subsidy of pro-European documentaries and art-house films revelling in scenes of sex and violence.

All EU funded films do of course have to have at least one ultra-violent orgy scene, hence why sick depraved films like Tamara Drewe received a subsidy. Still, it’s the Express‘s stance on space travel that intrigues me, and by the Express‘s stance, I mean UKIP’s stance, since that’s where this story seems to have come from:

Nigel Farage, frontrunner to lead the UK Independence Party, last night described the draft budget as proof that Brussels had lost touch with reality. He said: “The idea of sending eurocrats into orbit has its charms but £23million extra for space research is bizarre.

“Will the first EU space rocket have gold-plated taps and marble flooring? It seems our eurocrats have finally got off the Brussels gravy train and boarded Starship Excess.”

The first European space rocket? That would be the Ariane 1, built back in the 1970s.* Not a gold tap or marble floor in sight.

So, is £204 million an outrageous sum to spend on space? By comparison, the UK spends £268 million per year on the UK Space Agency – probably frozen at the moment, but last year, that figure rose by £29 million – and contributes hundreds of millions more to ESA. Per person, the UK spent far more on space than the EU. Besides, if the EU withdrew support for ESA, all that would happen would be that member states would have to take the slack – the total British expenditure for space would not change significantly.

*The European Space Agency is not technically EU, but it is funded by them, and somehow I doubt the EU is going to start its own rocket program in parallel with Ariane.

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