I really believe that the correct way to talk to people about astronomy is to assume that they’re intelligent and interested and move on from there. Yes, explain things simply, but you don’t have to talk as if your audience has the attention span of a stupid goldfish. There are times when I wonder, though.
This started as a joke. The images below, taken by Spirit, are supposed to show a ‘human like’ form.
They don’t. As Rob says it’s a rock. I haven’t had a chance to look at the papers, but I think this was in the Sun this morning. Fair enough – an amusing story. And then I notice it on BBC news online as once of the most emailed articles. BBC News online? Everyone’s favourite internet news source, right? What to expect from them? Perhaps an interesting article using the article as an excuse to write about Spirit’s journey? Or a reflective piece commenting on our human need to see faces everywhere, linking to the excellent Mars Express images of the old face on Mars? Oh no…Here’s their article (currently one of the most emailed) in full with my comments.
BBC : Mystery image of ‘life on Mars’
Chris : There is no mystery. It’s a rock.
BBC : An image of a mysterious shape on the surface of Mars, taken by Nasa spacecraft Spirit, has reignited the debate about life on the Red Planet. A magnified version of the picture, posted on the internet, appears to some to show what resembles a human form among a crop of rocks.
Chris : There is no mystery. It’s a rock. By ‘reignited the debate’ they mean ‘some people on the internet get easily overexcited’.
BBC :While some bloggers have dismissed the image as a trick of light, others say it is evidence of an alien presence.
Chris : Is this supposed to be balanced reporting? It’s a rock.
BBC :The image is a recent Nasa posting of the Spirit’s landing in 2004.
Chris : Is this even English? I think the word ‘site’ is missing. It’s still a rock, though.
Update : The image was taken on sol 1367, more than three (Earth) years after Spirit landed on Mars. So even if it were life and the BBC sent a reporter to do the interview, they’d be in the wrong place.
BBC :When the robotic rover set down on 24 January 2004, its images disappointed space-watchers hoping for signs of extraterrestrial life.
Chris : What? Who are they? Who expected Spirit to take pictures of ‘extraterrestrial life’? This is just rubbish – Spirit is a robot geologist, looking for rocks to study. What’s that you can see in the picture? Yes, a rock!
BBC :Now they appear convinced that this image provides the evidence they have been trawling Nasa’s photo files for.
Chris : I’m glad ‘they’re’ convinced. How many of them are there? Will the BBC be giving them airtime? Do their views outweigh everyone with common sense?
BBC :The blown-up image seems to resemble a figure striding among the Martian rocks.
Chris : As long as the figure is only a couple of centimeters high.
BBC :The internet has been abuzz with postings offering theories. One said it was a garden gnome, another that it was the Virgin Mary. A third suggested Bigfoot, the hairy bipedal mountain beast that appears in various guises in a number of legends around the world.
Chris : And that’s supposed to be good enough to make a news story, is it?
BBC :But the consensus seemed to be that it bore a striking resemblance to the Little Mermaid statue in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. Poster “Madurobob” said it was a statue “obviously built by an ancient civilisation that later departed Mars and settled Denmark”.
Chris : The ‘internet’ as news source. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s article discussing where Elvis really is.
BBC :Badastronomy.com tried to apply some perspective: “A man? It’s a tiny rock only a few inches high. It’s only a few feet from the rover!”
Chris : And with that, we wake up and realise it was all a bad dream, right? I’m clinging to the hope that what they’re trying to do is write an amusing article, but somehow I doubt it. Every week there is at least one excellent press release from either Spirit and Opportunity, Mars Express or MRO. And this is what makes it onto the front page? Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps we get the journalism we deserve. Aggggggghhhhhhhhhhhh…..
Update : Weirdly, it’s not visible in the ‘science and nature’ index at all, although it’s still on the most emailed section. Perhaps they’re ashamed of it?