Astrologers, I’m Waiting

Here’s the story, folks. In early January, the BBC ran a live television program over 3 nights called Stargazing Live. It was a great show, hosted by hilarious comedian Dara O Briain and mega-brain particle physicist Professor Brian Cox. It was a kind of introduction to amateur astronomy, encouraging viewers to go outside and look up. It rated quite well, too, with 3.6 million viewers.

But during one segment, explaining the orbits of the planets, an off-the-cuff joke potentially got the presenters in hot water. After joking around by aligning all the planets in a line on their model solar system, Dara cleared the air and said “Let’s get this straight once and for all, astrology is rubbish” still laughing at Dara’s mucking around, Brian replied, “in the interests of balance, because we’re on the BBC, I should say that indeed Dara is right, astrology is nonsense!”

This passing joke – clearly an unscripted, throwaway line – went largely unnoticed by, well, everyone. Except, of course, astrologers. They were incensed at the vile attack on their pseudoscience. “I was furious with indignation,” writes ‘respected astrologer’ Angela Cornish. She wrote a very heated email to the British Astrological Association and The Advisory Panel on Astrological Education (APAE). You can read it here, along with a very detailed response from another astrologer, Deborah Houlding.

Why is Cornish so angry? She’s mad because Brian and Dara “had the audacity, on prime time TV, to try and discredit a subject they clearly know nothing about”. I’d have to say, though, that if “astrology is rubbish” is their attempt to discredit it, it’s a particularly piss-weak effort. I’ve made more of an effort to discredit astrology when I blogged here and called it a scam, and when I responded on Mamamia in the comments. Where’s my angry email, Angela?

What I love, though, is the conspiracy theory and media paranoia that Houlding suffers. She writes “[media outlets] are part of the desperate chase for promotion, seeking to profit from the exaggerated public attention that simplified horoscopic astrology attracts at this time of year”. Yes, she’s really suggesting that Dara’s comments were a deliberate plot to stir up controversy and increase viewers. Nevermind that, on a science program, they were simply stating the overwhelming scientific consensus. Deborah’s right in that every year TV stations and magazines trot out the same astrological claptrap – What Does Your Sign Say About This Year – and no doubt people eagerly pore over them to see if they will find True Love this year or strike it rich with Good Fortune. But to look at that clip in context and say it was motivated by that new-year astrological interest is imbecilic and ludicrous. “It is no mere coincidence … that Brian Cox made his outrageous and inflammatory remarks in a program which aired on the 3rd January,” she whines. The show aired in early January for a number of reasons, all of which were astronomical, not astrological. Uranus and Jupiter were in conjunction, there was a partial solar eclipse, and the Quadrantids meteor shower was at its peak. Even the BBC can’t change astronomic events just to take a vague stab at astrology.

To astrologers, the BBC has a clear agenda and Brian Cox is at center of it. Last year, during his excellent Wonders of the Solar System program also shown on the BBC, Cox was again talking about Jupiter:

Jupiter is so different to our planet – you know, a big ball of gas, half a billion kilometres away – it’s difficult to see how it could have anything to do with us at all. But despite the fact that astrology is a load of rubbish, Jupiter can, in fact, have a profound influence on our planet and it’s through a force that, well, surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together – gravity … Jupiter has the most powerful gravitational field of all the planets, and it’s the gas giant’s gravity that can directly influence the orbits of asteroids and other wandering space debris … it can deflect stuff onto a direct collision course with our planet.

That’s it – again, hardly worth making a fuss about. One little statement of scientific consensus – scientific fact – in a science program. But all this has got the astrologers so wound up, they’ve got a petition going. They’re trying to get as many believers as they can to click a button, or even write in to the BBC (with a copy-and-paste letter template) calling for ‘fair representation’ for astrology in the media. Again, I’m upset – where’s my petition?

Cos I’ll make it easy for all you astrologers. All you have to do is show me three scientific studies, in peer-reviewed scientific journals (proper science journals, not Astrologer’s Weekly), that prove comprehensively that astrology works. Three double-blind, randomized large-scale studies. If astrology is as good as you claim, that should be easy to do, right?

Astrologers, I’m waiting!

Brisbane Freight Depot Flooded

I just got these photos from our freight handlers. This is a freight depot in Brisbane, after it got flooded. I’m looking at these photos thinking there must be TVs, computers, important documents and all sorts of things now ruined by the water.

Astrology: Without Evidence, It’s a Scam

Ophiuchus constellation mapYou may have read, recently, that your astrological sign has changed. Or that there’s a new zodiac sign, and astrology’s all in a muddle. And while a lot of it is true, it’s certainly not new. It’s all because the Earth wobbles a little bit in its orbit, and the sun now rises in different constellations than it did two thousand years ago when astrology was first devised. Parke Kunkle, an astronomy teacher in Minneapolis, mentioned this in a newspaper and it quickly went viral, with people worried that they are now a different sign and now surely the world will end in 2012.

People will believe anything, it seems.

Let’s clear the air, shall we? Astrology is bunk. There has never, ever, been any credible scientific proof that it works. Yet blogger and social commentator Mia Freedman called upon author and astrologer, Yasmin Boland, to explain it all to her readers. Why Mia felt the need to propogate a myth I’ve no idea, but that’s what she did. And – I’ll give her credit – for the most part, Yasmin did a pretty good job explaining the science of why the sun no longer rises in same place as way back when. There’s a lot more to it, when you consider Milankovitch cycles and so on, but essentially she got it right. This video from NASA may help explain it. But what worries me is how Yasmin tries to justify astrology. Not only does she offer no evidence, she seems to dismiss the need for it with a shrug: “it just works”.

No, Yasmin, it doesn’t. What Yasmin means when she says “as horoscope fans will tell you, it just works” is that lots of people believe it, therefore it’s true. Lots of people believe in homeopathy, but that doesn’t mean water has memory. The reason lots of people believe in astrology? They read their ‘personality type’ for that particular sign, and are amazed that it works for them. Note that they know their star sign first, and then they read the profile for that. I wonder if you could find someone who didn’t know their star sign, and you got them to read all the personality types in the zodiac and pick which one matched them, would they pick the right one? I doubt it. People agree with their zodiac sign because the signs are deliberately ambiguous, vague and match most people. We all like to think that we’re friendly, kind, generous, lots of fun and intelligent. Most people are a little bit selfish, sometimes stubborn, sometimes care-free, and sometimes cranky. Everyone’s a little bit of every star sign. But when we know we’re a certain sign, and read what that sign’s ‘personality’ is like, we are more likely to believe it – it’s called confirmation bias. It’s clear from her conclusion that Yasmin has little interest in science or evidence. It’s riddled with so much common New Age rubbish that it almost reads like a cry for help. “The zodiac is one of life’s mysteries.” she writes. “Just as the Law of Attraction is”. Oh please. Law of Attraction? You can’t be serious. What she’s talking about, folks, is ‘The Secret’. The belief that “like attracts like’ – thinking positive thoughts (like “I will become rich and famous”) makes it happen. It’s the belief that just changing your thoughts and mental attitude to something, like losing weight, makes it mysteriously happen. And I shouldn’t need to point out, that there’s no credible evidence for it.

“No one has all the answers, least of all astrologers or scientists. Scientists regularly have to admit that the Universe is actually billion of years older or billion of light-years bigger than they thought,” says Yasmin, linking to a Google search for “universe older than previously thought”. And she’s right. Scientists are constantly finding new evidence, developing new theories and making new discoveries. That’s what makes it so amazing and brilliant. Science brings us closer, every day, to seeing the universe for how it really is. Through science, we can truly appreciate reality. As Phil Plait once said, “the universe is cool enough, without making crap up about it”. Yasmin finishes by saying that life’s mysteries are part of what makes life beautiful. I disagree completely. Life’s mysteries are what fuels us to keep exploring, to ask questions, to do experiments.

What makes life beautiful is not what we don’t know, but what we do know. I’ll leave you with an optimistic word from one of the 20th Century’s great scientists, Carl Sagan.

My first astrophotographs!

So last night, after a week of rain and clouds and wind and flooding, the evening cleared up and I decided to try some more stargazing. My usual spot, the local football ground, was wet and muddy and squishy underfoot – not ideal. Even worse, it was covered by a thick but rapidly moving blanket of cloud. I decided to try my luck elsewhere and head north, away from the clouds.

Before long I found a possibly suitable cricket ground, but before I was able to park and have a look around, I got a creepy feeling about the car following me. Turns out they were police, and they pulled me over to ask why I was driving slowly around a park late at night. They were impressed by my telescope (and my XKCD “Science: It Works, Bitches” T-shirt) and recommended a nearby National Park to try. They even very kindly gave me a police escort to it!

So from the carpark I had a good solid flat ground to set up my telescope and good dark sky to look at. The moon was very bright, which made viewing other objects a bit harder, but I was still able to get a good look at Jupiter and I knew the moon would be setting in an hour or two in anyway. I decided to make the most of it and get some photos of the moon.

I’m just starting out in astronomy and certainly not ready to spend big money on fancy equipment like digital SLR cameras just yet. Some people spend tens of thousands on So I’m using a Celestron Solar System Imager which is essentially just a webcam that fits in a telescope eyepiece. It’s good enough for bright objects like planets in our solar system. I ended up taking 3 photos of the barren, unforgiving moon but unfortunately I somehow managed to overwrite the best one. So I’m left with these two, which are alright in my opinion, but nothing great. The photo I deleted showed a much larger portion of the moon, with many more craters and the maria – or seas – visible.

Not to worry, though. There’ll be plenty more opportunities to come!

Stargazing

Many of you may already know, I’m an astronomy nut. I love space and everything to do with it.* I’ve watched Carl Sagan’s brilliant TV Series Cosmos dozens of times (and happy to watch some again with anyone interested). I’m half way through the first series of the Discovery Channel’s The Universe series. I’ve got The Teaching Company’s  Introduction to Astronomy DVD Course. And I just signed up last week to Swinburne Astronomy Online’s Short Course.

And yesterday, I bought my very own telescope.

My Meade LS-6 ACF telescope

They don’t make telescopes like they used to, eh? It’s a fully automatic whizz-bang thing, I basically press buttons and it zips around (slowly) and shows me what I asked for. It has slightly cheesy audio descriptions, which are actually kinda cool because they tell you what too look for, as well as how big and how far away the object is.

After a rocky start last night, where the dumb thing couldn’t even get a GPS lock, I took it out to the local football oval down the street and tried it again tonight. Despite nothing changing since yesterday, it now worked a treat and it was set up and auto-aligned within 10 minutes. Excellent!

Unfortunately, Melbourne’s far too bright a city. The light pollution is pretty bad and you could be excused for thinking the universe is mostly grey. There were plenty of stars about, though. But no planets! I was out at about midnight, but all the planets, asteroids and moons in our solar system were hiding below the horizon! Very inconvenient! But as I said, there were plenty of stars around so I still got to see some Globular Clusters (awesome name for a rock band but no, GCs are groups of stars all bunched up in each other’s gravity).

First object I looked at was M45, Pleiades. Roughly 440 light years from Earth, it’s an open globular cluster that’s also known as the Seven Sisters (for 7 of the brightest stars are very clearly visible with the naked eye). What I saw wasn’t quite like this image (no blue and I couldn’t see the dust clouds, just black space with very bright white dots) but I saw about 20 or 30 stars, as well as the very obvious 9 very bright stars. So that was pretty cool.

M45, Pleiades star cluster

Next I had a look at NGC 3532. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the very first thing the Hubble Space Telescope looked at when it was first launched, which seems fitting for my first night out with a scope! It didn’t work out too well for the Hubble telescope, which had a flawed mirror at the time, but for me I had no trouble looking at it and could see a good 20 or 30 stars. Was quite cool!

NGC 3532

And last of what I can remember, I had a look at Hyades.

Hyades

There were a bunch of other things, mainly globular clusters as there was too much light pollution to really see anything else. Definitely looking forward to getting out of Melbourne and into the middle of nowhere, to really get some dark sky viewing!

Please be aware, none of the photos here are my own. They are all sourced from the web, but most I have altered brightness or colours to try and better reflect what I saw. They’re pretty good as a rough guide to what I saw.

* Well, not EVERYTHING. I mean there’s way too much maths involved, for a start. And don’t get me started on dark energy…

Upcoming Movies

Ahh, ‘serendipity’. A word which is almost ALWAYS followed by it’s definition: finding good things when not looking for them.

Which is what happened when, on the weekend, I was forced to clean my house. Well, most of my house. In doing so, I discovered – or should that be, rediscovered – my Christmas present from last year! Movie vouchers! Trouble is, they expire…. on 31 December 2010! So I have about 3 weeks to go and see four movies. Or three weeks to see one movie, with three friends. Or two movies with two friends. The possibilities are, well, not endless.

So…. who wants to see a movie? Having a look at what’s out now gives:

Tron: Legacy (3D)

Computers, motorbike racing and tight, figure-hugging neon-blue suits…. what more could a geek like me want?

Listen to or download Marc Fennell’s review of Tron:Legacy here.

Red Hill

An Australian Western sounds corny, but from everything I’ve seen this could be one of the best Aussie films yet.

Megamind (3D or 2D)

Animated superhero comedy film, supposed to be really good.

Listen to or download Marc Fennell’s review of Megamind here.

Fair Game

Drama based on the true story of undercover CIA Agent Valerie Plame, who was outed by White House officials to discredit her husband during the Bush Administration.

Red

A Bruce Willis/Morgan Freeman action-comedy, sounds like an alright popcorn-movie.

So who wants to see a movie before December 31? Let me know which one you want to see, and when, and we’ll sort something out!