Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Annals of Egregious Science Reporting

I mentioned the alignment of planets in the morning sky a week or so ago. Now comes Jeffrey Kluger of Time Magazine to enlighten us. I can't help but think that he wrote this completely at his computer, never bothered to look out the window. Or at any sort of astronomical background, like a diagram of planetary orbits.

But first, a disclaimer from someone who has been looking out her east window in the morning. This arrangement is not as impressive as it has been made to seem, especially if you have mountains rising toward the east. The planets rise only a half-hour or so before the sun, and, for me, the mountains allow for the sky to lighten quite a bit before the planets get over them. So this has not been too impressive, even with binoculars. Maybe I'll get my telescope out tomorrow, but what I've seen so far does not inspire me to dig in the closet.

Kluger (is that really his name?) affects that breezy, humorous tone so necessary for a reporter who doesn't know what he's talking about. So I'll skip the first few paragraphs.
Beginning today and lasting for a few weeks, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Mars will be visible in the early morning sky, aligned roughly along the ecliptic — or the path the sun travels throughout the day. Uranus and Neptune, much fainter but there all the same, should be visible through binoculars.
Um, the reason I posted last week is that all this "began" some time ago. At the origin of the solar system several billion years ago, perhaps, or last week for the closing paths of the planets. Today they are all clustered most closely. Nothing about the view of the planets from Earth takes place quickly.
What's more, even this month's apparent planetary lineup is as much illusion as fact. In the same way a group of people scattered randomly across the room can appear to be aligned depending on your angle of sight, so too can planets that seem tidily arranged from one point of view turn out to be nothing of the kind when you look at them another way.
What he's trying to say here might have been helped by a diagram of where the planets are, and where we're looking at them from. Kluger assures us, on NASA's word, that this does not mean the end of the world or anything in particular, and then goes on:
That's not to say there aren't truly meaningful planetary alignments. Indeed, there was a whopper of one in the late 1970s, which was accurately forecast by an engineer named Jim Burke at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1966. Burke used no sorcery to make his prediction, but rather the hard science of orbital mechanics — calculating the speed and position of all of the planets, projecting forward, and discovering that Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were just 13 years away from forming a once-every-176-years conga line.
Burke must be a drinking buddy of Kluger's. This sort of calculation is done regularly by the people who prepare ephemerides - the tables of planetary motion, which now are available to everyone through software.

Too bad Time couldn't find a reporter on staff who could learn any of this.

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