Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bad Astronomy, NBC style

Phil Plait will probably discuss this over at his Bad Astronomy blog, but I just have to mention it, having seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears.

First off, the big news: the most Earth-like exoplanet found so far has been detected orbiting a star in our cosmic neighborhood, a little more than 20 light years away. Phil Plait covers this news in depth on his site. I heard about it this morning on NPR, which for once didn't feel the need to sugarcoat and dumb down a science and/or technology story. (This has been an ongoing gripe for me: maybe they're trying to make these stories more "accessible", but instead they're making them into jokes that the average viewer will not take seriously. It's either a comment on how NPR views the comprehension ability of their listeners, or a comment on the attitude of NPR towards these stories in the first place.)

NBC covered this story at the end of the NBC Nightly News. This final segment is usually where they put human-interest pieces, puff pieces, even the occasional "this is serious but it doesn't fit in anywhere else" piece. I knew we were off to a bad start when the graphic for the story consisted of the text "In a galaxy far, far away..."

Errr, cute, but wrong. Yes, I get it, it's a Star Wars reference. But wrong. Not only is this exoplanet in the same galaxy as us, it's not even "far, far away" by any astronomical standard. Actually, in astronomical terms, it's "very, very close". As a guesstimate, I would say the star it is orbiting is closer to us than 99.9999% of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. (I may be missing one or two nines at the end. Maybe more.)

OK, so far so bad. The rest of the report seemed moderately error-free, although instead of delivering the goods information-wise it was busy with fancy graphics and getting reactions from little kids. Yes, yes, I believe the children are our future, etc. etc., but still...well, things were mostly OK until they got to the part that said that it would take you twenty and a half years to get there if you could figure out how to travel the speed of light - "186,000 miles per hour". The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second.

That's just unforgivable. It's easy enough to look these things up - preferably in a real information source, and not just on Wikipedia. This is a network news broadcast, for chrissakes. If they can't be bothered to be right about stuff that can easily be checked by any kid with a basic Science textbook, why should we trust them to be right about stuff that we can't check ourselves? I mean, it's one thing to take a news report that's already pretty much targeted at kids and throw up the "In a galaxy far, far away..." crap because you don't even know what a goddamn galaxy is and you figure there's no difference between science and science fiction anyway, but it's another to report information that is flat-out wrong.

So does TV make people stupid, or do stupid people simply determine what's on TV?


whimsicalnbrainpan said...

"So does TV make people stupid, or do stupid people simply determine what's on TV?"

The second one, most definitely!

Anonymous said...

So does TV make people stupid, or do stupid people simply determine what's on TV?

Yes and yes. It's a feedback loop.

My question was this: This planet supposedly has five times the mass of earth. Wouldn't that make the planet uninhabitable (or very difficult to inhabit) for us, even if the atmosphere were perfect for us?

And at five times the mass, how heavy would that make us on the planet. Would I weight 1,250 pounds, for example?

Bill @ BN

D.B. Echo said...

Actually, that last line is just something that occurred to me while watching daytime TV a few years ago. Regis, The View, Jerry Springer - they all seem to be pandering to a dumb demographic AND actively making them dumber.

I just looked up the data on a reliable source (Phil Plait's site) and it says that the planet is supposed to have 1.5 times Earth's radius. The formula for determining the weight of an object on a planet's surface (I think; like an idiot, I haven't looked any of this stuff up) is (GmM)/(r squared) where G is the universal gravitational constant, m is the mass of the object, M is the mass of the planet, and r is the distance between the two centers of mass - the radius of the planet, plus a few feet. So to determine a ratio of the gravitational force on the surface of one planet compared to another, we can divide (GmM)/(r squared)for one planet by (GmM)/(r squared) for the other. G and m (the mass of the object being weighed on both planets) will cancel out, since they're the same in both equations, and we will make things easy by calling the mass of the Earth 1 (so the mass of the new planet is 5) and the radius of the Earth 1 (so the radius of the new planet is 1.5). So our equation boils down to ((M/r squared))/(1/1) = (5/((1.5)*(1.5)))/1 = 5/2.25 = 2.222... So, assuming I didn't screw this up somewhere, you actually will weigh only a little more than twice what you do on Earth on the surface of this planet. Which seems weird.

...but Phil confirms it!

"The surface gravity is more than twice that of Earth’s (22 m/s/s versus 9.8 m/s/s on Earth)..."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the calcs.

So it would be like me carrying around a 300-sack of concrete? In other words, we'd all be immobilized.

Bill @ BN

D.B. Echo said...

It's certainly not an inviting vacation spot. You could, theoretically, walk around while carrying your own body weight on your shoulders, but the problem would be that every part of you would be 2.2 times heavier, including all your internal body fluids. Your blood would pool in your lower extremities; if your heart didn't fail while trying to drag it back up through your veins, you would still have wicked edemas unless you wore a pressure suit to force the blood and fluids back up. If you stood on your head you would probably have a good chance of having an aneurysm. Your bladder...yeah, don't go there.

On the other hand, any aliens there that picked up our early radio and TV broadcasts and are now well on their way to invade our planet will have an easy time of things once they get here, hopping around at half their weight at home. Our only hope to escape certain enslavement and/or extermination would be that their own version of muscular atrophy will kick in and be their undoing. Let's hope they failed to take that into account in their invasion plan!

Word verification word: mrznnjm. Perhaps the leader of the invasion force will be led by a Mr. Znnjm.

Anonymous said...

LOL. Yeah, these aliens have us cold ... unless they are very small. What if they only weigh 30-60 pounds each? Then we could keep them as very strong pets. Let's hope they mistook our size in their invasion plans.