Slow News Day: Alien Skull On Mars

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This just came in from the Telegraph, apparently Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has spotted a random skull on the Martian surface. This is obviously the only interpretation… as we know what an alien looks like, don’t we? Big head, big eyes, pasty grey skin. Something like this? Or, more likely, like this? Or this? Wow, it could be any one of them.

However, it’s not quite that exciting.

It’s a rock, as you may have already guessed. And no, the Telegraph isn’t taking it seriously either. (Although The Sun’s microreport could be taken either way.)

Although the newspaper’s article resembles a badly conditioned April Fools gag, there is one glaring error, well two actually. No, three.

Firstly, Spirit is not a camera – it’s a whole robot with a camera attached (called the Panoramic Camera, or Pancam for short). If it was just a camera, could you imagine the movie location costs?

Second, I’m not sure why this was filed in “Science News”. It obviously needs to be filed under “It’s a Slow News Day, We’ll Report Anything”.

And thirdly, I seriously doubt this image got “space-gazers talking”. When I last looked at one of Opportunity’s panoramic shots, I could see all kinds of strange things in the Mars dirt. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d love poking around the shapes and shadows, thinking I could see skulls, flying hubcaps and mysterious plant-like features. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’m a “space-gazer”, but I’m not “talking”.

As it’s late, I’ve given up trying to find the source of the article (no links – come on Telegraph, if you’re gonna play blogging for the day, at least reference your lead!). Apparently some “UFO hunters” were being serious, but then joking, about this rock that looks like a skull. So, what the Telegraph is really trying to tell us is:

A stone. On Mars. Might look like a skull. Doesn’t really. Even ufologists don’t take it seriously. So it’s not really news. Move along.

I’m not suggesting the Telegraph isn’t a good newspaper, on the contrary, but really, what’s the point?

Why did I even bother to report on this? Oh yeah: It’s a stone that looks like a bunny skull. Now try explaining how a rabbit got up there…

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Every Reason Not To Worry About Doomsday In 2012

Image credits: Harold Edgerton (1964), NASA. Edit: Ian O'Neill

In today’s 365 Days of Astronomy, Cameron Hummels and Josh Schroeder from Columbia University, New York, discuss the 2012 doomsday hype. And it is awesome. The special thing about this podcast is that Cameron (who is working toward a PhD in astronomy) is clear, concise, and makes the whole crackpot 2012 doomsday scenario sound as petty as it really is.

In 10 minutes, the pair run through ancient prophecy, Mayan calendars, Planet X, galactic alignment and solar flares (to name a few) and carry out possibly one of the most comprehensive debunking efforts I have ever heard. They pretty much summed up all of my “No Doomsday in 2012″ articles with a huge helping of skeptical thinking, plus extras, pointing out that all the doomsday hype is driven by little more than a small group of irresponsible individuals wanting to make some fast money from people’s fear.

Congratulations Cameron Hummels and Josh Schroeder, you’ve just scored one huge point for rational thinking and produced a wonderful celebration of scientific endeavour!

Go to the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast page to listen in »

Show description:

An increasing number of people believe that December 21, 2012 will mark the end of the world. Proponents of this idea cite diverse astronomical reasons for an imminent apocalypse: the end of the Mayan long-count calendar; an alignment between the Solar System and the Milky Way; the solar sunspot cycle reaching an all-time high; the reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field; and a devastating collision with ‘Planet X’. Tune in to hear to the facts and controversy surrounding this purported impending disaster.

2012 Is Coming… And All I Got Was This Lousy Fridge Magnet

Screenshot from the Flash animation "The End of the World" by Fluid

Just when I was getting bored of the endless stream of 2012 doomsday hype (tripe), my interest was suddenly reinvigorated when I saw this advertisement:

2012 Calendar Magnet

$2.99 + shipping

Our calendar magnet is a real 2012 calendar. So you can have it on the refrigerator for 3 1/2 years! The calendar magnet is 4.25 inches wide and 5.5 inches long. It is also very clear and easy to read (looks better than the picture above, but is smaller). The shipping cost within the U.S. is $0.79 and for International orders $1.89.

No way. Oh yes. Yes, they did! The most well-known 2012 protagonist website is selling doomsday fridge magnets depicting an Earth plus comet barrelling towards it.

I had to triple-check, just in case this was the doomsday blogging equivalent to Punk’d. No, this is real: fridge magnets.
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Where is Planet X? Where is Nemesis?

Artists impression of the hypothetical star, Nemesis (Anynobody on Wikipedia)

Before Pluto was discovered, the world’s astronomers were captivated by the possibility of finding another massive planet beyond the orbit of Neptune. In 1930, Pluto was discovered lurking in what was considered to be the edge of the Solar System. However, it quickly became apparent that Pluto was tiny; it wasn’t the Planet X we were looking for. For the last 80 years, astronomers have been looking for a large planet that might go to some way of explaining interplanetary features such as the “Kuiper Cliff”, but Planet X has not been found. Unfortunately, the word “Planet X” has now become synonymous with conspiracy theories and doomsday, almost as notorious as the word “Nemesis”.

Nemesis is another unanswered question hanging over Solar System evolution: does the Sun have a binary twin? Is there a second, dim, hidden “sun” stalking it’s brighter counterpart from over a light year away? Some scientists have come forward to suggest that the existence of a hypothetical second sun — embodied as a brown dwarf or red dwarf — could explain some cyclical effects here on Earth (i.e. mass extinctions occurring with a strange regularity). Naturally, the discussion about Nemesis (like the discussion about the possibility of a massive Planet X) is purely academic, and only based on indirect observations and anecdotal evidence. Just because they might exist, doesn’t mean they do.

In a publication recently published to the arXiv database, one Italian researcher has dusted off this topic and asked a very basic question: Can we constrain the possible locations of Nemesis and/or Planet X if they did exist? His results are fascinating…
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The Striking Similarity Between Ghostbusters and 2012

It’s funny, because it’s true

world-of-psychic

It’s been one of those days, where I had a list of things to do and I didn’t tick off one item. That’s not to say I haven’t done anything. I wrote an article about the cosmos throwing a Molotov cocktail at us, wrote another article about something a lot more scary (creationism) and then watched some TV at lunch. To my delight, a childhood classic was on daytime TV while I was nursing a headache: Ghostbusters II, from 1989. Oh yes! I love this “work from home” thing.

Anyhow, I had all but forgotten about the film, so there were a lot of surprises and a lot of laughs. They sure made good comedies in the late 80’s (at a time when I was of single-digit age). As I’m sure you remember, we pick up five years after the Ghostbusters crossed-the-streams in the first film (back in the “old days” of 1984), destroying the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in a fireball of gloopy sugary joy, ridding New York of the Sumerian God: Gozer the Gozerian. Now, reality has set in and all the Ghostbuster crew have settled into regular jobs. However, I cracked up when watching Pete Venkman (played by the excellent Bill Murray) present his not-so-prime-time “World of the Psychic” TV show.

This served as a reminder that although we are facing the mother of all doomsday pseudo-science/profit-making/nonsensical prophecies (this time in the guise of the year 2012), we’ve heard it all before. And Ghostbusters 2 had this wonderful sketch I had to share…
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Same Message, Different Doomsday Vehicle

Warning: The following article contains criticism of a religious figure. Actually, it’s not really criticism, more pointing fun at a guy who should know better. If you feel the need to get angry in the comment boxes, feel free, but please use your CAPS LOCK sparingly, keep the language reasonable, cite any reference material and above all else, don’t blame the ancient Mayans for anything, they’ve been through enough.

Recognise it yet? Isaac's apartment floor painting depicting the destruction of New York in the TV show Heroes

Isaac's apartment floor painting depicting the destruction of New York in the TV show Heroes (source)

As a rule, I wanted to keep Astroengine.com away from religious debate, but once I became embroiled in the 2012 doomsday hysteria, religious views were bound to creep in. After all, 2012 is the latest date prophesied for Armageddon, End Times and Judgement Day, I was bound to start receiving emails and comments with a toasty religious flavour. That’s fine, everyone should have an opinion. Just because I don’t believe the year 2012 will bring anything of special religious/spiritual significance, that’s my view. I’m not religious and I’m not a religious specialist, it’s not my thing.

However, science is “my thing” so when I see authors banging on about the existence of Planet X, killer solar flares, geomagnetic shift and all the other wild and inventive ways the Universe won’t destroy the Earth, I do have a strong opinion. Now that “No Doomsday in 2012” has had over 1,000,000 hits (that’s a 1 with six zeros after it. I’m now in megahits), it would appear that 2012 is a doomsday theory that might not go away (place your bets on how many millions of hits that article will rack up in the next 3 years!).

However, having written about the key attributes of doomsday theories as presented by authors who use lies to sell a book or drive search engine traffic to their site (fear is a potent moneymaker after all), I know bullshit when I smell it. However, this time the doomsday prophecy doesn’t come from the misinterpretation of a Mesoamerican calendar, it comes from a popular American Christian evangelist. I have to say, I am impressed.

So, using my fool-proof “cheat sheet” on how to spot a doomsday fake, it wasn’t hard to cut through David Wilkerson’s dogma, revealing his “prophecy” for what it really is: rubbish.
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China Really Didn’t Fake It (Part Deux)

Left: The reflection in Zhai's visor shows a three-row array attached to the spacecraft. Right: The reflection from Zhai's wrist mirror shows the same array, only closer. They are not studio lights (CCTV)

Left: The reflection in Zhai's visor shows a three-row array attached to the spacecraft. Right: The reflection from Zhai's wrist mirror shows the same array, only closer. They are not studio lights (CCTV)

Remember all that conspiracy theory nonsense that was kicked up after the Chinese space walk last year? It would appear that people are still pointing fingers, accusing the Chinese space agency of being very handy with water tanks and computer animation, simulating Zhai Zhigang dangling above the (fake)Earth as he waves his flag in (fake)space. This is even after thorough analysis by the likes of professional sceptic* Phil Plait and myself (proto-professional sceptic), where the conclusion was reached that… um… China did indeed do the EVA. I’d also argue it would probably be even more difficult to pull off a stunt like the conspiracy being proposed than to get into space in the first place!

Anyhow, why am I repeating a chewed shoe of a conspiracy theory when we already know China successfully carried out a successful spacewalk on September 27th, 2008? An eagle-eyed reader of Astroengine has come forward with some additional evidence supporting one of my arguments against one of the conspiracy claims. Always nice to back up arguments with proof isn’t it?

*Yep, that is the proper spelling before you send me a message telling me otherwise. UK = “sceptic”, US = “skeptic”. So there.
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