The Sciences

Bad Astronomy, circa 1910

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitMay 11, 2010 11:27 AM


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In April, I wrote about David Friedman of Ironic Sans, who has started a new blog called Sunday Magazine, where he scans in and talks about old New York Times Sunday Magazines from a century ago. It's a weirdly engaging thing to do, and gives us a slice of what life was like back then. This week he has another astronomy-related article: in the May 8, 1910 issue of the magazine, writer Mary Proctor debunks fears that Halley's Comet would destroy life on Earth.

I strongly urge you to read the whole article. It has a very familiar ring to it... because it reads very much like every single cosmic doomsday rumor ever since. It's all there: people making wild claims, exaggerated rumors of destruction with nebulous origins, scared schoolchildren, a complete lack of memory of the last time something like this happened, and so on. I went through this exact exercise in the months leading up to May 2003, when rumors spread over the net and on late night radio shows about Planet X wiping out life on Earth. And in 2000, when an alignment of the planets didn't wipe us out. And in 2008 when asteroid 2007TU24 missed us -- that one got so bad and so dumb I had to make a lengthy video debunking it. So at first I read the 1910 article about Halley with some amusement... but after a minute or two I'll admit it turned into, well, not despair exactly, but certainly frustration. There are many evils in human nature, but two of the most pernicious are willful ignorance and the desire of some to profit from that ignorance. People ignore science and reality until it comes up to bite them on the backside. In a lot of cases it's forgivable; children who haven't yet been taught science, people who've never been exposed to it, and so on. But the flip side is the purposeful downplaying of science, which we've seen quite glaringly in the past few decades. As to the people who try to profit off such ignorance -- doomsday video and book writers, politicians pushing their own agendas, and so on -- there is no circle of Hell deep enough for them. But ignorance and profiteering will always be with us, and they are sadly promulgated by that third great weakness: short memory spans. A lot of people were scared by the 2003 Planet X nonsense, and the May 2000 alignment of the planets before that. These things make the news right up until they don't happen... and then are forgotten within days. Who will remember December 2012 by the year 2015? I hate it, but I suppose I can think of it as job security. I may have felt frustration after reading that article, but I also felt my resolve strengthen. There are lots of people out there willing to fight the nonsense, and together we are mighty. Doomsday scares will always come and go -- some will even become major religions, no doubt -- and what this 1910 article says most clearly is that we must always be vigilant against them.

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