I dragged my sorry butt out of bed this morning, fired up the communication links with the outside world, and immediately saw this:
So I started my day a bit on the ranty side:
Is FaceBook really this FREAKIN’ STUPID, or do they just assume that everyone else on the planet is?
This is not a headline – this is not a special event – this is not breaking news.
We’ve been able to see Mars in the evening sky “without a telescope” for weeks and it will continue to be there for weeks more. Then it will move to the pre-dawn sky, then back again, back & forth, EASILY visible to the naked eye somewhere in the night sky about 90% of the time. (Sometimes it goe…s around on the far side of the sun from us and is harder to see, but it’s still there.)
Hey, Mark Zuckerberg, tell your minions that not only is Mars visible tonight without a telescope, but moving around up there in the sky are also Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. They’re called “planets,” which is from the Greek “planētēs,” which means “wanderer” – because people figured out they were there and moving around and could be seen “without a telescope” way back BEFORE WE INVENTED THE FREAKIN’ WHEEL!
Maybe you could have Googled that.
Then I spent all day thinking about why I was ranty and so pissed off over this. And it wasn’t just FaceBook. I saw this on the television news and on a hundred different sites, many of them places that are pretty good at bringing science to the general public.
Why does this bug me?
I finally saw it. It’s because posts like this make it seem to the general public that events like this are extremely rare. If this is what you see all the time as someone who’s not familiar with astronomy, you’re being told the ability to view the planets, our solar system, nebula, double stars, asteroids, comets, and dozens of other objects is a rare, special, and difficult thing.
Promoted fallacy #1 – what if it’s cloudy tonight? Oops, well, I guess that we’ll just have to wait another decade or two or whatever it is.
Mars doesn’t somehow vanish or move off to somewhere we can’t see it. It will be visible in pretty much the same place at the same time for WEEKS! The shift from the evening sky to the morning sky and back takes months and months.
Promoted fallacy #2 – if we don’t see it tonight, we’ll need a telescope to see it. It says right there that tonight’s the night that we can see it without one.
Mars was 99.99% as bright on Friday and Saturday as it was tonight, and it will be 99.99% as bright on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday… Yes, it will fade a bit from its absolute brightest tonight, but the change will be gradual. Even at its dimmest, Mars is trivially easy to see with the naked eye, even from the bright lights of the city.
Promoted fallacy #3 – tonight a unique and special night because we don’t need a telescope to see things.
Get out away from the city and with the naked eye you can see millions of stars! In the summer evening sky you can see the Milky Way streaming across the sky actually looking like a streaming, churning river of light. In the winter evening sky you can see the brightest stars and the most distinct constellations. In a dark sky you can see with the naked eye the Andromeda Galaxy, which is over two and a half million light years away.
Promoted fallacy #4 – if I see Mars tonight like they say, then there’s nothing else to see. Not only is Mars only visible without a telescope tonight, but it’s the only planet visible to the naked eye.
Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all easily seen, even from the bright lights of the city. (Not to mention the International Space Station and other satellites and spacecraft, but let’s stick to the natural objects for the moment.) Venus in fact is at times the third brightest natural object in the sky, behind only the Sun and the Moon.
In their rush to grab a headline and manufacture some clickbait, sites like FaceBook are doing a grave disservice to the public. (Like that’s news, but we don’t need to go there tonight.) People need to know that there are amazing things that they can see every single clear night. They just need to know when and where to look, which is not a big deal at all these days since there’s this thing called “the Internet” where you can almost instantly find answers to questions like that.
I’m not PO’d because FaceBook wanted people to go look at Mars tonight. I’m PO’d because it didn’t bother to tell them that they can look tomorrow, and then look at Jupiter, and then see the ISS, and then see the constellations, and then see Saturn, and then see something new, different, and amazing every night.
It’s a big universe. Why do we reduce it to a clickbait headline?