Wanted: A Little Common (Sky) Sense

The reporting of common sky events like bright meteors often gets completely mangled when no one bothers to check first with those who know something about the subject.

Doctor operating a jackhammer?
A television commercial for a popular heartburn medication suggests that your doctor isn't qualified to do your job — and vice versa.
AstraZeneca
A TV commercial that's currently airing shows a white-coated physician in the street trying, and failing miserably, to operate a jackhammer. The narrator says, "You wouldn't want your doctor doing your job, so why are you trying to do his?"

I thought of that this week when I read a report about how pilots who'd been fighting the Springer Fire in central Colorado were spooked on Wednesday, June 20th, by reports of a "meteor shower" in the area. In response, officials decided to ground two heavy air tankers and four single-engine craft for a couple of hours. My initial response was, "C'mon, really?"

A little digging turned up the specifics. At around 12:40 p.m. Mountain time, a dramatic daylight fireball was seen by many folks in Colorado, as well as in Wyoming, Nebraska, and New Mexico. The cause was probably a space rock a few inches to a few feet across, though veteran observer Chris Peterson says that with no smoke trail, no video, no radar, and no reports of sonic booms for this event, we'll never know for sure. Peterson estimates that the interplanetary intruder entered the atmosphere over northeastern Colorado, more than 150 miles from the fire zone — not to mention that it probably incinerated itself at least 40 or 50 miles up.

In any case, the multiple sightings (misinterpreted as multiple events), combined with one air-tanker crew reporting something in the sky near its plane, led officials to err on the side of caution. "It was a unique situation," says Richard Zuniga, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, during which "we rely on the pilots" to take the best course of action.

Make no mistake: I've got the greatest respect for firefighting teams. But Wednesday's situation underscores that officials in all kinds of decision-making positions — from firefighters to police dispatchers to news-media assignment desks — know little about what's going on in the sky and space above them. Peterson tried to channel accurate information to numerous news organizations, but, he laments, "It's not easy."

Space junk or fluke fragment?
Is this a piece of a satellite that fell to Earth from orbit — or, less dramatically, a chunk of metal flung off malfunctioning machinery? When found in December 2011, Boston-area television reporters really hoped it was space debris (but it wasn't).
Kathy Curran / CBS Boston
I know what he means: some months ago, several reporters in the Boston area called me to verify that a strange metal rod, having punched its way through a roof, was a chunk of space debris. Clearly it wasn't, but that didn't stop the reporters from going on air with the story anyway.

The broader point here this: I don't know much about fighting fires, so if my house starts burning I'll quickly call in the experts at the local fire station. In turn, I'd ask that they make an effort to call me if someone runs into their station claiming to have seen a meteorite hit the ground that was smoking (nope), sizzling (afraid not), or oozing something green (ha!) after it landed.

At last check, Sky & Telescope's online directory of clubs and organizations has nearly 1,800 entries in the U.S. and another 1,800 elsewhere in the world. That's a whole lot of local, knowledgeable folks willing to volunteer their services. Now, maybe you don't have a personal meteorite collection, but I'll wager someone in your club does. You know that a bright meteor's momentary flash looks nothing like the slow-motion track of a satellite passing overhead. And we've all come across folks who see Venus blazing in the evening sky and swear that it wasn't there the night before.

"Station scientist" Paul Gross
Weather forecasters often serve as the "station scientists" in their newsrooms. Here Paul Gross, a meteorologist at WDIV in Detroit, explains a recent astronomical finding.
WDIV
So let's try to inject a little more cosmic common sense into the local dialogue. One of the best ways is to reach out to radio and television meteorologists in your area. Think about it: those weather forecasters are likely the only ones in their newsrooms who've had any real scientific training. They are, literally, the station scientists. You can start by sending them a head's up for an upcoming meteor shower or a widely visible pass of the International Space Station. Once they realize you're a local resource for things astronomical, they'll be more receptive to enlisting your help for sky-related stories.

Who knows? You might even end up being interviewed on camera — in which case don't forget to comb your hair and wear a nice shirt!

21 thoughts on “Wanted: A Little Common (Sky) Sense

  1. john crawford

    While we are discussing comet sense (spelling intentional), how about movies, TV, the media, etc. depicting comets visibly moving across the sky in real time. Even science channels are guilty of this. Then, how about asteroid fields so dense that Mark Twain’s cat would find it hard to swing it’s way through (again the science channels are very guilty). If asteroid fields were that dense our outer solar system would never have got through them. A little common sense (and calculations) would show that from the average asteroid in the main belt you probably would be lucky to seen another asteroid of naked eye visibility. It’s not like flying through Saturn’s rings Folks!

  2. Peter WilsonPeter Wilson

    If we had common sense, we would not allow clear-cutting of our national forests in the first place, which results in clear-burning when the dense re-growth catches fire. If we had any sense, crews would be on the ground thinning the forests–removing the small trees and leaving the big ones, not the other way around–before the fires break out. If we had some sense, we would be preventing fires, not fighting them. We are trying to fix with technology and a lot of aviation fuel what the logging barons have destroyed with greed. There is no sense to forestry management except maximizing short term gain, and foisting the long-term losses on the tax-payers. With the goal in forestry being private profit and public liability, why consult astronomers over anything?

  3. Justin SJustin S

    One afternoon in the 1970’s, I pointed out the gibbous moon to a lady I was dating. "What’s it doing up there in the daytime?" she asked. She thought it only "came out" at night. She was no kid. She was 35.

    Just this spring, I dated a 66 yr old lady. I mentioned to her that a multi-planet exo-system had been discovered. Her reply was, "So they have a galaxy all their own!" she said. I just sighed and said yes.

    One could write a book about the general public’s appalling ignorance of fundamental science. But one would think that college educated news writers would be better. Oh wait, "Communications" is liberal arts. They don’t have to take mathematics or science classes.

  4. rocksnstarsTom Hoffelder

    Never underestimate the ignorance of the general public. And when it comes to astronomy, that’s a bunch of people. The good news is that ignorance can be cured. The bad news is that those suffering the disease have to want to be cured.

  5. Bruce Mayfield

    Sensible comments all. Have ya’ll observed this to be the case that, whatever your personal interests, experiences or expertise may be, when you hear some general news report describing this item that you already know the facts about, they almost invariably get it wrong. Is the accuracy of reporting really inversely proportional to the depth of your knowledge of something, or, as seems more logical, are they just usually wrong? This has led me to spend a lot less time watching general TV news reports.

  6. Mike W. Herberich

    Very interesting topic(s), very inciting views. I’d like to contribute from a different angle. But 1st to the grounding by the officials mentioned in the original article. This is easily explained and understood: would you as an official want to be made responsible to NOT have grounded your pilots, knowing there actually WAS a meteor shower (be sure: you WOULD be made responsible in case SOMETHING DID happen!) Or worse: your beloved child or spouse is flying one of the planes: wouldn’t you implore him/ her to rest grounded for at least an hour or so to be on the safe side? Never mind about the probability of a meteor hit? I would! The entire world could call me ridiculous (but surely would NOT, again, in case something actually DID happen! And they’d all applaud my wondrous foresight). IT goes to show that there never is a PURE rational/ factual side to ANYTHING that WE ALL do, say, think … EVER. We are all integral persons. Probabilities are NEVER 0, never 1, either. Now, …

  7. Mike W. Herberich

    … for Bruce’s expertise inverse proportionality and Tom’s ignorance cure, etc.; my angle: we ALL have fields in which we are experts, also others in which we are NO expert (to put it mildly!) Take any example (appropriate for you!), say, gardening (my excuses to all avid gardeners in advance, just a to be replaced in this "function"!): not only do I know NOTHING about it, but I’d appease myself/ rationalize that indisputable fact by denying gardening the right to be a "real" science: I’d call it thoroughly uninteresting, plus completely irrelevant to the world and its advance! Yet, of course, in the back of my mind I’d know it weren’t! THAT is how we all function, regardless of whether we do acknowledge it (which in most cases relevant to ourselves we do NOT!) or not. Only "cure": be as aware as much and as often as possible that we ARE like this! Justin, your date just couldn’t have cared less about astronomy (maybe she cared about YOU more at that moment).

  8. Kris

    Kelly,
    You gotta be kidding. I haven’t seen a TV ‘Weatherman’ yet who knows anything other than how to read weather info on a crib sheet. Have you seen any of LA’s TV weathermen and/or women in action. Universally, they have no idea they know so little. As to their explaining something scientific, such as meteorites, well…. forget it.

  9. Bruce

    Mike, I can use you’re very example to illustrate my point! Like you, I don’t have much interest in gardening. My wife does however; she’s even been through the Master Gardener program put on by the Ag Extension Service here in Texas. So one night we’re watching the local TV news and the “station scientist” meteorologist comes out with his “annual tomato formula” fertilizer recipe. “That’s not right,” my wife exclaims, “If you do that every year you’ll poison your soil with too much phosphorus!” Kelly, your one of my favorite teachers, but do you seriously think typical weather reporters are up to the challenge of accurate astronomical reporting? Meteorology and Astronomy share the sky as the field of study, but consider their reputations: Astronomers are famous for being able to make amazingly accurate predictions centuries or more into the future, while weather forecasts are proverbial for … somewhat less accuracy. My apogees to the subset of Meteorologists who are also S&T readers, for YOU what Beatty suggests makes perfect sense. S&T should be required reading for all sky prognosticators.

  10. Vinnie

    Jeepers, how uneducated can you get. And that’s coming from a guy who never went to public school.
    (Guess that’s why everyone should go to my site: skyhiastronomy.bravehost.com)

  11. Roger Halstead

    The general public (except in rare instances) is completely clueless about scientific and technical subjects, but if you stop to think so are the rest of us about most things outside our fields and dogma is at least as rampant in science as it is in religion. Making sure a new theory is actually correct in one thing, but hanging onto past theories and resisting change is still prevalent.

    Another thing we must remember is that science will never triumph over a belief system as far as the believer is concerned, so some things will never change even when you put the proof in front of them.

  12. Roger Halstead

    To Mike,

    I must be one of the few, as I do fly airplanes and a meteor shower would not ground me, nor would it cause me to ask loved ones to stay on the ground. After all, the odds of the meteor and a person trying to occupy the same space are the same whether in a plane or on the ground and those are very slim odds. The odds of it hitting something really important or being large enough to do some real damage are smaller still.

  13. Mike W. Herberich

    Roger, you actually said in a better way what I wanted to say and took it even further. My point was that even knowing all the facts (which we not always do, of all topics … besides: how "factual" is which fact exactly?) we rarely ever (re)act just purely based on facts. I’m impressed to hear you’re a pilot (which clearly makes you a more informed individual than your basic, "average" person … as for these topics, at least), and I am and was aware of what you explained about likeliness, etc.. Yet, were you my son or other next of kin (for example), I suspect my worries would take over and ignore that portion of myself who knows the facts. Besides: even looking at probabilities: one NOT being 0 exactly could not soothe me into complete carelessness over my beloved one’s life/ survival, could it. (Replace "the average person" for all "me"s and "my"s!)

  14. Grant Martin

    In the past, more stations hired actual meteorologists who were open to any information about astronomy that a knowledgeable member of a local astronomy club or astronomical society could give.

    Today, however, the weather readers at many stations aren’t informed enough to "know what they don’t know", and therefore don’t know when to call to get more info.

    Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to call your local stations, talk to their weather people (meteorologists or not), and offer your expertise — provided you DO know what you’re talking about.

    You are absolutely right, Kelly — we do need to do more to "get the word out." The public’s knowledge of astronomy is quite low. Part of the problem might be that astronomy is glossed over in the typical school’s curriculum since it "doesn’t have practical application". The plane-grounding fiasco in Colorado shows how wrong that idea is. You can bet that the fire grew significantly during the hours the planes were on the ground.

    Another example of why the public’s knowledge of astronomy is important is to understand the link between cosmic collisions and mass extinctions on earth, so that our politicians will be willing to pony up the money for detection and prevention. But that’s a topic for another story.

  15. Celtic Hunter

    What has happened to S&T? In time, it used to be a magazine designed for and by amateur astronomers. Now I get the sense it is being hi-jacked (at times) by entities with an agenda less for astronomy and more for their pet (political) protocol. I applaud Kelly Beatty for his determination to report what was/is known about this sighting. "The interplanetary intruder entered the atmosphere over northeastern Colorado, more than 150 miles from the fire zone – not to mention that it probably incinerated itself at least 40 or 50 miles up." A small ‘bolide’? Maybe. A meteor shower, none forecasted in the area.

    The grounding of valuable aerial resources in a huge forest fire (upon improbable speculation) is what I see as the government nanny state attitude in people like Mike Herberich. The risk of the forest fire is 100%. The bolide/meteor risk can be calculated at less than 0.001%. Mike, put the pipe full of medical Mary Jane down, go outside, fill your lungs with the fresh air, look up and see the splendid wonders of the night-time sky for yourself, not being told to do so by the protect-at-all-costs-so-no-one-is-responsible-nanny-state-attitude you seem to be transfixed in time with. You couldn’t even get your nanny-state diatribe accomplished in one thread. You are the poster child for Big-Brother-ism-control-at-all-costs.

    Time has come and sense is needed to stay focused on the great resource S&T was, is, and will continue to be if we amateur astronomers can re-direct our vision onto what brought us to our passion in the first place, that being an undaunted and avid avocation for all things Astronomy. Keep Looking Up. (JH)

  16. john crawford

    I agree with those who talk about ignorance outside of their own special areas of interests. One of my loves in astronomy is the asteroids. Yet even in the pages of astronomy magazines one sees the inaccuracy of the asteroid Juno. Although one of the ‘first four’ it is not of the largest four (about 15th in the main belt) nor one of the brightest four. Obviously it just got ‘lucky’ to be discovered so soon. Even Arthur C. Clarke made this mistake in the novelization of "2001: A Space Odyssey." My point is that we assume an article, report, whatever, is accurate when it is reported by an ‘expert.’ But just because it comes from an astronomer, doesn’t necessarily mean it is accurate if it is outside the specialty of the person. How much more so do we need to be cautious of what TV weathermen tell us.

  17. Phil

    Unfortunately, science doesn’t sell. Sensationalism /does/ sell. When your "news" anchors and "reporters" need to scream doom and gloom to attract viewers and advertisers, what do you think you’re going to end up with? Certainly not cold, sober, well-reasoned science! More unfortunately, the general public takes their cue (and "science" facts) from the infotainment industry. If they’ve been led to believe that a meteor shower is going to be shooting down planes like so much heavy flak, they "won’t take a chance" and will ground the fleet. Yeah, they’re ignorant, and maybe even stupid, but unless they’re punished for such, it will continue.

  18. Mike W. Herberich

    … a Celtic Hunter is what you are! Next to entirely misinterpreting me (which may be partly my fault for my choice of words) you’re drumming up a witch more than a Celtic Hunt! Calling my post a diatribe is more than a wrong choice of words. I am most likely the exact opposite of what you describe, as a person. I just played the part of the Advocatus Diaboli, trying to understand why people do "stupid" things like grounding planes in such a case. Wasn’t that obvious? In addition, you, seeming quite emotional, would probably be within the first candidates to act on emotion rather than on pure reason. Even without meteor danger, all pilots’ wives would hope for their husbands to remain on the ground for as long as possible. As "insane" as this may seem from purely astronomical/ probability reasons: love, angst, burden of an office (in the case of the persons responsible) and other feelings carry much more weight in most cases in real life … whether we all like it or not. …’sides: speaking of S&T quality: are you a shining example for that?

  19. Rick Endres

    …and every year we get that "e-mail forward" where Mars is going to be as big as the full moon in the sky during August.

    Right…if that ever happens, I’m heading for the hills…

  20. Rick Endres

    …and every year since 2003 (when Mars was in opposition in August)that "story" shows up on the web about how Mars will appear as big as the full moon in the night sky during August.

    Right…

    If Mars ever appears as big as the full moon, I’m heading for the hills…

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