My big problem with astronomy

Pretty Galaxy

A Pretty Galaxy - the subject of erudite speculation by astronomers and mindless reporting by hacks. The circle marks the apparent location of a black hole called HLX-1. Don't believe the colours - the picture is 'data' and not a photograph. The galaxy - which is inferred to be spiral in shape even though we see it edge on - is called ESO 243-49

Recent stories in Wired and The Register illustrate perfectly everything I hate about popular astronomy. First of all, you can see these are both routine hacks by comparing them with the press release.

Don’t get me wrong: I am filled with admiration for astronomers: their instruments are astounding; the maths and physics of observing is inspiring; and of course the Universe is just breathtakingly beautiful. What irritates the pants off me is the ridiculous desire to ‘explain’ what they observe. What we end up with is a pretty picture and a fantastical, unverifiable ‘sciency’ tale. Frankly we would be better of with just the pretty picture and good old fashioned ‘fairy’ tale.

To explain what I mean I have reproduced extracts from the ‘Wired’ article below in blue with what the article should (IMHO) have said.

Wired: The Hubble space telescope has spotted a supermassive black hole floating on the outskirts of a large galaxy.
Actual: Scientists looking at data from the Hubble Space Telescope have inferred the existence of a black hole near a large galaxy.(How?)

Wired: The location is odd because black holes of this size generally form in the centers of galaxies, not at their edges. This suggests the black hole is the lone survivor of a now-disintegrated dwarf galaxy.
Actual: The location is odd because evidence indicates black holes of this size are generally  found near the centers of galaxies, not at their edges. Scientists don’t understand this.

Wired:The black hole — named HLX-1 — is 20,000 times more massive than the sun, and is situated 290 million light-years away at the edge of the spiral galaxy ESO 243-49.
Actual: The black hole — named HLX-1 — is estimated to be 20,000 times more massive than the Sun (how?), and is estimated to be 290 million light-years away at the edge of the spiral galaxy ESO 243-49

Wired: Hubble detected a great deal of energetic blue light coming from the black hole’s accretion disk — a massive collection of gas and dust that spirals into the black hole’s maw, generating x-rays. But scientists studying Hubble’s data also noticed the presence of cooler, red light, which shouldn’t have been there.
Actual: Hubble detected blue light  and red light. They inferred that the blue light came from an accretion disk. But they couldn’t understand the red light.

Wired: Astronomers suspect the red light indicates the existence of a cluster of young stars, roughly 200 million years old, orbiting around the black hole. These stars, in turn, are the key to explaining the chaotic history of the supermassive black hole.
Actual: Astronomers could explain the red light if there were young stars orbiting around the black hole. They even thought up a story about these unobserved stars that might actually exist.

Wired: HLX-1 was likely formed at the center of a dwarf galaxy that once orbited ESO 243-49. But in this dog-eat-dog universe of ours, large galaxies often swallow up their smaller brethren. When the dwarf galaxy came too close to ESO 243-49, the larger galaxy plucked away most of its stars, leaving behind the exposed central black hole. The force of the galaxies’ collision would have also triggered the formation of new stars, explaining the presence of a young stellar cluster around the black hole. The cluster’s age, 200 million years, gives a good estimate of when the merger occurred. HLX-1 may now be following the same fate as its parent galaxy, slowly getting sucked into ESO 243-49. But researchers don’t know the details of the black hole’s orbit, so it could also possibly form a stable orbit around the larger galaxy, circling as the isolated reminder of a vanished dwarf.
Actual: HLX-1 was likely formed when a space dragon called PTMD-X1 laid an egg, which grew into a blue headed X-ray dragon. Astronomers speculate that the dragon’s mother died when it was just 200 million years old  causing the youngster to cry tears which then turned into stars through a process astronomers call tear-star -formification. The blue colour of the stars shows the dragon was sad and astronomers hope that it is happier now and has made friends.

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One Response to “My big problem with astronomy”

  1. Vanessa Says:

    MIchael, you make some excellent points (and I laughed at the last paragraph).

    As a former journalist (covering scientific computing) I too cringe at the speculation and implied certainty. But it’s hard to get the tone exactly right while at the same time not coming across as boring. In my view, those “is estimated to be” type phrases that make the piece more truthful would be a turn-off from the point of view of the reader. If it were my article, I’d certainly aim to differentiate clearly between estimates and more certain measurements, and be careful about the speculative aspects. But I would hope to do that more subtly, while still, ideally, leaving room for the imagination (not an easy task).

    Incidentally, it appears to me that it’s some examples of astronomy journalism, rather than astronomy, that you have the big problem with. Ironically, “My big problem with some examples of astronomy journalism” wouldn’t have made half such a compelling headline for your blog piece as the one you chose 😉

    Anyway, thank you for this regular and much-enjoyed supply of food for thought 🙂

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