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Pretty Awful Astronomy on Astronomy Magazine

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Astronomy Magazine’s latest Collector’s Edition issue “50 Greatest Mysteries in the Universe” (ed: David J Eicher) is even more special than usual, unintentionally so given the width and breadth of its errors.

With mistakes ranging from excessive simplifications to incredible blunders, it is just too tempting to wonder about Mystery #51, namely “Does anybody do any proofreading at Astronomy Magazine?

Here’s a list of what I have spotted so far, starting from the biggest howlers:

Question 36: “Could a distant, dark body end life on Earth?”: (page 73):
“Among them are the Sun-like star Alpha Centauri”
Egregiously wrong. Alpha Centauri is not a single star. In this case, the text does not show the most elementary grasp of astronomical knowledge.

Question 31: “Does inflation theory govern the universe?”: (page 62):
Under caption titled “Minuscule Time”
“…compare 1 second to the 13.7-billion-year-age of the universe. Next, divide that 1 second into an equivalent number (13.7 billion) of parts…”
Egregiously wrong. The text mistakes “years” for “seconds”. This is quite worrying as it is trivial to understand that the correct “equivalent number of parts” is 31 million times larger: that is, 13.7 billion years times 365 days a year times 24 hours a day times 3600 seconds per hour.
The result is 4.32*1017, definitely not 13.7 billion.

Question 19: Can light escape from black holes?”: (page 41):
“1067 years, or more than one million times longer than the whole history of the universe to date”
Egregiously wrong. If the Universe has been around for 13.7 billion years, that’s 7.3*1056 times less than 1067. That number is 730 billion quadrillion quadrillion, not just “one million”.
Looks like whoever did the computations, misread 1056 into 106. Or worse.

Question 6 “How common are black holes?”: (page 18):
“Encountering a black hole of any type, your body […] would be pulled into a very long line of protons”
Wrong. If one were shielded against radiation, falling into a sufficiently large black hole would entail experiencing relatively weak gravity gradients.

Question 8 “Are we alone?”: (page 21):
“Viruses…’life’ – which for them amounts to cannibalizing cells”
Wrong. Only some viruses kill the host cells: many of them are more like non-lethal parasites (I am leaving aside the fact that cannibals eat their own species, and that’s not what viruses do).

Question 42: “What will happen to the Sun?”: (page 82):
“As the swollen Sun incinerates the solar system’s inner planets, its outer, icy worlds will melt and transform into oases of water…”
Mostly wrong. That is, true only under extraordinary conditions. Liquid water can exist only at pressures above Water’s Triple Point’s (661 Pa). And so it will only appear on those satellites and asteroids capable to maintain at least that much atmosphere.
How many will? Not many, perhaps just a handful or none at all.

Question 13 “Will asteroids threaten life on Earth?”: (page 30):
“The destructive power a rock carries to Earth is directly proportional to its size”
Oversimplistic. Roughly, the consequences of an asteroidal impact are directly proportional to its mass. But this leaves out other considerations, including the asteroid’s chemical make-up, density, shape, atmospheric entry angle, and more.

Question 6 “How common are black holes?”: (page 16):
“If you could throw a baseball at a velocity of 7miles per second, you could hurl it into space”
Oversimplistic. As the baseball would have to go through lots of air at first, the initial speed must be considerably larger, for a simple throw (even leave aside all considerations about heating by friction). This may look trivial, but considering the other errors in the magazine, one is left with the lingering doubt that the 7mi/s figure may have been not just a simplification.

Question 2 “How big is the universe?”: (page 10):
“…we live in a Universe that is at least 150 billion trillion miles across…”
Antiquated. The galaxies we observe as 10 billion light years away have obviously had 10 billion years to move away much further by now, and that is not all. By considering additional effects such as post-Big Bang inflation, and the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe, the actual value for the size of the Universe may be in the region of 160 billion light years

And finally…
Question 2 “How big is the universe?”: (page 10)
“Other universes might exist beyond our ability to detect them. Science begs off this question…”
Question 3 “How did the Big Bang happen?”: (page 12):
The often-asked question ‘What came before the Big Bang?’ is outside the realm of science”
Antiquated. For a more up-to-date view, check http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4974134.stm and Science magazine

All in all: plus 50 points for the magazine’s idea, but minus several million for being so careless with the stuff they are supposed to know more about…

Written by omnologos

2007/Aug/08 at 21:15:04

One Response

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  1. Indeed many points to ponder.

    Can a star be a dark body? I thought that stars radiated some form of E.M. energy. Dark bodies certainly distort other E.M. radiation patterns.

    An asteroid’s (or any other body’s) energy is related to its mass – or the size cubed.

    Many of the ‘icy’ planets consist of frozen gases (at STP), such as ammonia, methane and other hydrogen based compounds in liquid or solid form. So any liquid water will immediately react with the other melting compounds.

    Regarding the size of the universe, as Paul Gascoigne said, “I don’t make predictions and probably never will!”.

    The Plumber's Mate

    2007/Sep/04 at 14:45:16


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