Archive for category Space and astronomy

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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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.


The Daily Mail is mooning us all

Here is how the Daily Mail sidebar describes the story about Nasa’s recent discovery of water and metals in a lunar crater:

Why the Moon really IS silvery: Scientists discover 6% of lunar surface is precious metalHere is the actual headline:

Why the Moon really IS silvery: Lunar surface contains traces of precious metal and is 6% water

See if you can spot the difference.

Incidentally, the Moon’s surface isn’t 6% water anyway – the experiment was done specifically in a crater which is always in shadow, precisely because water there would freeze, and wouldn’t boil away during the scaldingly hot lunar day. Finding the Cabeus crater is 6% water is not the same as finding the entire moon is 6% water.

At least the comments that try use this as “proof” that the Apollo landings never took place because Neil Armstrong et al never found any silver (even though they did) have been red-arrowed to “Worst rated” oblivion, as has someone who worries that taking the moon’s silver might “render crystal healing utterly useless”.


Pain in the asteroid


A ludicrously overdramatic diagram of an asteroid racing towards Earth from the Mail



Some time yesterday morning, a GIANT asteroid SKIMMED PAST the Earth. Of course, you were probably aware of this from the breathtaking meteor showers, massive tsunamis, devastating volcanoes and dreary Aerosmith ballads that ravaged the planet in its wake. The asteroid, TD54, was so GIANT in fact that it was NEARLY THE SIZE OF A DOUBLE-DECKER BUS, The Mail informs us, presumably with pants wet from fright. Not even reassurances from NASA that the asteroid a) could not possibly hit Earth, b) was small enough to burn up in our atmosphere and c) that this sort of thing happens literally every day prevent the Daily Mail calling this a “close call” and a “near miss”.

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Yes is no, hot is cold, Telegraph is a denialist cesspool

Is climate change simply caused by the Sun getting hotter? A scientific paper (paywalled) in Nature this week has looked at this question, measuring the connection between solar activity and warming. The conclusion they came to?

Over the three-year study period, the observed variations in the solar spectrum have caused roughly as much warming of Earth’s surface as have increases in carbon dioxide emissions, says [Professor Joanna] Haigh. But because solar activity is cyclic it should have no long-term impact on climate, regardless of whether similar spectral changes have occurred during previous solar cycles.

“If the climate were affected in the long term, the Sun should have produced a notable cooling in the first half of the twentieth century, which we know it didn’t,” she says.

So in other words, the Sun goes through warmer and cooler phases, but the planet keeps warming even during the cool phases. Interestingly, it turns out to be coolest when it’s most active – apparently because an active Sun uses its energy to make ultraviolet light (the type of light that causes suntans and skin cancer) instead of infrared light (the type of light that carries heat). Yet more proof that climate change is real and man-made.

How does The Telegraph spin it?

An increase in solar activity from the Sun actually cools the Earth, suggests new research that will renew the debate over the science behind climate change.

The research overturns traditional assumptions about the relationship between the sun and global warming.

Focused on a three-year snapshot of time between 2004 and 2007, the findings will be seized upon by those who believe that man’s role in rises in the earth’s temperature has been overstated.

Eventually, when you reach the sixth paragraph the article does eventually explain that “long term analysis suggests it actually provides further evidence that the heating of the planet is more than a natural, cyclical phenomenon“, but only after hinting to people that the data in fact says the very opposite – an interpretation that even the article itself eventually admits is false.

Sure enough, it looks like the vast majority of readers who’ve left comments stopped reading before that sixth paragraph. There were 207 comments on the article at the time of writing – of those whose position I could clearly discern, 101 were denialist while just 17 were from people were from people who’d read to the bottom of the article. A good chunk of the denialist comments seem to be arguing that climate scientists are so stupid that they didn’t realise the Sun existed until just now, and some of the rest are from people who’ve been confused by the article not explaining why a stronger sun is cooler, but among them are some real treats:

Climate change treaties is the start of World Government. After all, this is how the EU started .

A classic example of girly science.

You cant possibly agree with this,its against Marxist New Labour,Green,we hate mankind,and all the rest of those highly esteemed organisations who have spent our money proving we are to blame,you know,evil mankind!

And the most popular comment, with a +99 recommendation rating?

I think Global Warming shit should be really stopped right now. It’s SO annoying to see those politician telling me what to do and what not to do

Of course that doesn’t mean that everyone who read the article came out of it disbelieving in climate change – after all, denialists are more likely to have something to say on the subject than people who believe in climate change – but it’s still depressing. I’m just waiting for the inevitable Delingpole article now; I wonder whether it’ll turn out this study was carried out by the Bilderberg group or the Illuminati.


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‘More’ ‘quotes’

‘Meteorite’ lands on cricket pitch during county match says The Telegraph. Why is meteorite in quotes? Is The Telegraph so anti-science that it now refutes the very idea that there are bits of rock whizzing around over our heads?

Well, no. It’s not that bad.

When two spectators standing on the boundary at a cricket match saw an object hurtling down from the sky, their first instinct might have been to applaud.

However Jan Marszel, 51, and Richard Haynes, 52, were not witnessing a six, but an extremely rare meteor strike.

The rock, a few inches long and believed to be up to 4.5 billion years old, broke in two when it hit the ground in front of them close to the pitch.

That sounds pretty definitive, right? A meteorite*, 4.5 billion years old, landed on a cricket pitch.


The pair have kept the seemingly extraterrestrial pieces of rock for posterity and said they would be happy for experts to examine them.

Oh, no expert has looked at this rock yet, it might not be 4.5 billion years old,** it might not be rare, and there’s no guarantee that it’s extra terrestrial. Okay.

Dr Matthew Genge, a meteorite expert at Imperial College, London, said: “If this turns out to be a meteorite it’s very exciting and would be the first fall in the UK since 1992.

“Potentially it contains secrets as to the formation of our solar system.”

So how about this, Telegraph. Put the couple in touch with Dr. Genge, find out whether it is a meteorite or not, then publish.

Incidentally, they don’t say which match it was, but given that it was apparently a Sussex match with Panesar and Wright playing, it could well have been the recent Sussex v. Middlesex game which means a) this story’s been rushed into the papers and b) the match might have been carried on Sky (I can’t find their past listings, but it looks like they’re carrying a lot of county cricket at the moment) in which case this might be the first meteorite landing recorded on camera. Now that would be an interesting story.

* FYI, a meteor isn’t the rock, it’s the flash of light. Come on Telegraph, next you’ll be mixing up stalagmites and stalactites!

** If no expert has looked at the rock, where did they get the curious number 4.5 billion from? Surely they didn’t just go to the Wikipedia article on meteorites and spot the line “Chondrites are typically about 4.55 billion years old“, right?

Edit: The article – including the interview with Dr. Genge – originally came from the Brighton Argus, which includes a picture of the two discoverers holding the ‘meteorite’; which is very clearly not the meteorite in the picture in The Telegraph‘s article. Despite that, The Telegraph has captioned the photo “Meteorite: The rock, a few inches long and believed to be up to 4.5 billion years old, broke in two when it landed“. Misleading?

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