Monday, September 20, 2010

Astronomical Events

One of my astronomy professors had a cartoon on her door labeled "a beginner's guide to star gazing". The first panel showed a person looking downward shielding his eyes with his hand, and the caption said "wrong". The second panel showed the same person looking upward, and the caption said "right". Star gazing isn't rocket science -- anyone can do it. Even so, last month many people were fooled by an Internet hoax claiming that Mars would appear in the night sky as large as the Earth's moon, for one night only! While astronomers might lament the inability of the general public to recognize this claim as a hoax instantly, it may have been credible precisely because of the way astronomers and the media typically report celestial events.

For example, it has been widely reported that Jupiter will be closer tonight than it has been since 1963 or will be again until 2022. This is technically true, but it makes the opportunity of viewing Jupiter tonight seem like an all-or-nothing proposition -- if you miss it tonight, you'll have to wait 12 years before you can see it this good again. The reality is not nearly as urgent. Tomorrow night, Jupiter will be 0.003% further away than it will be tonight. Next week it will be 0.2% further away, and when the Earth swings by Jupiter again next year (28 October 2011), it will be 0.4% further away than it was this year. Even a trained eye would have a hard time detecting differences this small. Despite this reality, public observatories will be jam packed tonight while almost nobody will show up tomorrow.

Maybe we can understand this tendency of the media to hype astronomical events by considering another recent example -- the "International Observe the Moon Night" that took place over the weekend. This event was not fabricated by the media, it was created by astronomers to generate increased public interest in the Moon. For one night, several NASA centers partnered with local amateur astronomers to set up telescopes and open their doors to public viewings of the Moon. Prominent scientists gave lectures about the Moon that were streamed live online. There was nothing urgent happening on the Moon over the weekend. It was just a concerted effort by lunar scientists to engage the public, and it worked. Meanwhile, anyone can observe craters on the Moon at any time from their own back yard with a cheap pair of binoculars.

Maybe the lesson here is that the media understandably tends to focus on what is new or unique, so astronomers pitch celestial events as if they were Valentine's day or Mother's day -- a social construct reminding people to do what they could be doing all of the time (appreciating their partner/mother, or looking at the sky instead of watching reality television).