Sunday, November 7, 2010

A hard blow for hope. Part I


These had been decades of prosperity. Some were starting to refer to them as "the golden age" of human progress in the entire recent history, going back several centuries into the past. And all of this thanks to a small star, not very different from our Sun, more than a hundred light years away. When one stopped to think about it, it seemed incredible how that little dot of light had exerted such a powerful influence in the course Humanity headed for. A dot among many, which a century earlier wouldn't have had even the slightest importance among the hundreds of thousands of its class in the whole of the night sky. But this dot, only this particular one, turned out to be special.

Everything started with an automated monitoring, one among several, of the brightness variations of a great number of stars in broad regions of the sky. Its aim, to detect the crossing of planets in front of them in case their orbits were aligned with our solar system. And this was one of the stars that fulfilled these conditions. It was among the ones that for a brief amount of time was partially covered by a gas giant in its orbit, and recorded as such. But unlike in others, this event would not repeat itself days or weeks later, not even in months. This planet had not migrated towards the inner regions of its system to remain exposed to temperatures able to melt metals because of the closeness to its star —it remained at a prudent distance since its formation. Almost fourteen terrestrial years were necessary for this distant sun to be eclipsed again by the giant, but by then the eyes of humanity were already completely turned towards this region of the sky.

While this colossus followed its path impassively, governed by the laws of celestial mechanics, changes in brightness and radial velocity of a much lower magnitude had started to attract attention. A few much smaller planets orbited the star in the inner regions of the system, with orbits between a few months and a couple of years long. Small rocky planets in the middle of what would be considered to be the habitable zone, exactly where you would hope to find a new Earth, and with masses that were not out of proportion. Bodies of this kind were starting to be found around other stars, becoming the first steps towards the answer of one of the great questions in history. When the sensitivity of spectrometers increased enough, the study of their atmospheres and composition came soon after, and it was then when the vision of the place of humanity's home world in the cosmos started to change forever. A decades-long search was being performed with the hope of knowing if life was possible in worlds different from ours, both in the Solar System and others, and after so much time it had at last been fruitful.

It turned out that not only one, but two of the worlds in that remote system bustled with life. The lines in their spectra were clear, unambiguously showing the ingredients that formed their atmospheres, but the interpretation of these compositions was at first disturbing: there was no way in which known or predicted geological or inorganic processes could support such a chemical imbalance. Despite the fact that the existence of extraterrestrial life was the simplest explanation for this phenomenon, finding it for the first time in history in such abundance and with that level of development was something so hard do accept by human mentality that years of verifications and discarding of alternate proposals were needed before claiming the discovery as definitive. But once done, and when the shock and incredible initial agitation were overcome, the news were accepted more as a confirmation than an unexpected finding. Just like the discovery of the first extrasolar planet in the last years of the previous century, this one had been preceded by decades of tales and stories in which it was taken for granted, waiting for improvements in the instrumentation to have the evidence on its side. Earth was not unique in the Universe.

This discovery, however, brought consequences that were still hard to assimilate. The relative closeness of the star, at just a blink of an eye in cosmic scales, together with the exuberance of its system, seemed to support the hypothesis that life was spread out all over the galaxy. Would it be possible that the closeness of two solar systems with life so prosperous was just an incredible statistical anomaly? It seemed unlikely. And that's how it was reflected in space developments in the years after. New orbital telescopes with greater capabilities were launched, carrying out a thorough scrutiny of the sky in search of other worlds full of evolutionary possibilities. Some candidates would be found in the course of time, but all of them were far from being so clear and conclusive. Meanwhile, improvements in the instrumentation and new interferometers permitted to continue studying that first system, in which the measurement of radial velocity, its light curve and even direct imaging made it possible to discover a couple of extra outer gas giants, and to refine the orbits and sizes of the planets already known.

While the space agencies took advantage of the renewed interest to obtain better and needed funding, and astrobiology got revolutionized thanks to this by studying the first known data of what was its true field, the amateur astronomers community grew enormously. Many were those who wanted to take a look at this star, and with an ever increasing number of people in possession of equipment as good as those of modest professional observatories just a decade before, the available data about this neighbouring system were abundant.

It was the best of these data, together with the last advances in the professional observation technologies, what would help solve one of the small mysteries that arose in this system. Sometimes there were detected what seemed to be transits of lone objects the size of planetary moons, which we were starting to be able to observe, but didn't correspond with any Doppler shift of the star in consequence. Among other things it was speculated that they might be small sunspots, but their crossings in front of the bright star were too short-lived, and they didn't have the variability expected of something like it. However, what could be measured was that the way in which they hid the light of their sun showed deviations of what would be expected if these bodies were spherical. Suspicions by the scientific community, to whom it was harder each time to be cautious before jumping to conclusions that could be described as exotic, increased over the years, as another characteristic shown by a subgroup of these objects was confirmed. In a way not explainable with gravitational interactions, their orbits had varied noticeably between a transit and the next.

Scientists were not wrong when they changed the way these objects were named. Gigantic structures, the origin of which could not be natural, were orbiting that system. And some kind of civilization was using them.

One could only speculate about the role those structures might play, but there was something clear. We were faced with a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence, and with a technological level more advanced than humans', visible on our instruments. The news touched something sensitive in the spirit of humanity, and questions multiplied. Would they know about our existence? It was not very probable. The last light that would have reached them from our system, from which it departed more than a century ago, would have barely started to show the intense changes our species would cause on the planet later on. Furthermore, it was impossible to see a transit of the Earth and the Sun from their position, so studying the characteristics of the abundant terrestrial life was more complicated, but maybe for their technological level these were not big challenges. However, despite all this, the fact that captivated more minds and appeared in many more headlines was something different —if they were not lost among the variations of background noise, our first radio, radar and television emissions would reach their system in just a few decades.

Would their hypothetic inhabitants be able to receive and interpret these signals? And that being the case, would there be an answer? Could we be receiving the first extraterrestrial transmission after a wait of less than two centuries? There were people who thought we could, and if the advances made to fight aging continued developing at this rate, some might get to live through it. And they wanted to see it. It was true that a discernible radio signal had never been received from that system, but humanity itself was ceasing to be detectable in those waves with the change to digital transmission languages. Something similar could have happened there. In the background, however, there was a more important matter. In the same way as we could only be seen as we were a century ago, the light arriving to us from that system had an identical delay. Who knew what the technological level of that civilization would be when they became aware of our presence. If they had developed interstellar travel, it was even possible that an encounter could take place in the future. In what position would we be? It was clear that they had a great lead over us, enough so that they would not find it hard at all to subjugate or eliminate us if it was considered convenient.

However that didn't intimidate us. Quite the opposite, space technology started to develop with a greater boost than the one initially provided by the discovery of extrasolar life. Maybe it was this kind of competition never oficially proclaimed, but present as a possibility in the thoughts of many people, what had been missing in the previous decades to make human beings spread among the Solar System. In a short period of time the number of missions and space stations increased, and the Moon was set foot on again, aiming to establish permanent colonies on it. But the most important of all was the degree of international collaboration that was being achieved in these projects. It seemed that the great discovery of a different civilization had another effect in human perception —self-consciously or not, we assumed the concept of humanity as 'our civilization', to which we all belonged without distinction. The clashes and old rivalries between powers were apparently being pushed into the background, in the face of the mutual progress our species was achieving in this insignificant corner of the Cosmos. And the advances were remarkable. Space colonization had repercussions with improvements in the living standards, while the pressure on the precious ecosystems on Earth started to diminish. Human beings set foot on Mars, and microbial life ended up being discovered in the red planet, so close but paradoxically never seen until then, strengthening the conviction that life was abundant all over the galaxy. More missions to search for it in any form were sent to Venus and the outer planets, as a display of the optimism resulting from having found it spread among the stars.

While humanity developed its own space structures in the form of habitats, power stations and solar sails, it kept its eyes on the sky. The star that started everything was constantly scrutinized to see what else could be learned from their inhabitants. Photometric techniques were already allowing to even obtain rudimentary maps of their planets' surfaces, and there was even a serious proposal to send a big space telescope to the place where the Sun's gravity focused the light of that distant system, which would enable us to analyze it with an unprecedented level of detail.

And the fact is that there was a lesson learnt while observing the movements of those beings. A lesson maybe more important than any other, and with an influence that was felt in many of the great events of those last years. A lesson that filled with hope a species that had lived in the uncertainty of the possibility of self-destruction in the previous century. To be able to see a much more advanced civilization prospering in another system was proof that the technological adolescence that several times was close to exterminate our culture could be overcome.

Our survival, and the expansion of our legacy throughout the Cosmos, were possible.


Further reading:

The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia

Eureka: Sistemas exoplanetarios

How lucky would Kepler have to be to see us?

The far future of exoplanet direct characterization

Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the possibility of detection of Earth's radio signals

La Orilla Cósmica: Velocidad de escape de la longevidad

La Orilla Cósmica: Salvar la Tierra colonizando el espacio

Entradas en La Orilla Cósmica sobre colonias y hábitats espaciales

La Orilla Cósmica: IKAROS y LIGHTSAIL (Velas solares)

Eureka: Mapas de otros mundos

The FOCAL Mision: To the Sun's Gravity Lens

Eureka: Cómo detectar vida más allá del Sistema Solar

Friday, June 4, 2010

The astronomical fraud of Alberto Geyer (@Solarview)

At the beginning of april this year, someone called Alberto Geyer, with username @solarview, added me on Twitter. I saw his account was about astronomy, but at first I didn't pay it much attention. However, a few days later I took a look at his profile out of curiosity, and I saw that he seemed to take pictures of Solar System objects. In some occasions he sent tweets to important users, like @NewHorizons2015, the probe that will arrive to Pluto that year, @CassiniSaturn, the one that orbits Saturn in these moments, @plutokiller, the astrophysicist Mike Brown who discovered Eris, etc., to show them, saying that with a new technique he achieved very good quality. So I clicked on one picture of Jupiter's moon Europa, that he had uploaded on Twitpic, and it looked good to me, but at the same time something arose my suspicions: I'd seen Hubble images that had less resolution of Jupiter's moons than this picture had.

It was at this point when I decided to visit his webpage, and I got disappointed. I saw that nearly all the photographs were either exaggerated amplifications of the noise in the image so that it looked like detail in the surface of the imaged bodies, or images taken by NASA probes the quality of which had been reduced afterwards. According to him, he took those images from Earth with his backyard telescope. My first impression: it was all a Photoshop hoax. I realized that among his tweets there were some replying to someone who didn't believe he got those results, and to whom he said to look at the raw images (the image with the unaltered data taken from the CCD, the camera used for astrophotography) posted on the web precisely for the unbelievers. Since it looked like it was a fraud, I decided to send him a message via Twitter that started an entire argument, of which some of my contacts were witnesses. In this conversation I tried to debunk his wrong assertions, while he systematically denied everything. Watching the conversation one could get an idea of the credibility of this Alberto Geyer, and it didn't speak well of him. I suppose that for this very reason, a few days later he deleted all his tweets regarding this issue and he continued his activities as if nothing had happened. Due to this, and after seeing his number of followers and admirers that think he really gets those images with honest means was still growing, I decided to write this post reproducing the entire conversation (which I saved at the time), adding explanations to clarify what happened while tweets followed one another. All the URLs of the original tweets are linked in the usernames, as well as the tweets being referred to when they are replies. Translations of the tweets in Spanish are in italics. Everything started like this:

DarkSapiens: @solarview Wow, took a look at your webpage and turns out it's all photoshopped… Nice trick, but misleading people is never good.

Solarview: @DarkSapiens What you saw is what is there!Take a moment to download the raw images on every each page.That was made available for doubters

DarkSapiens: @solarview I saw enough. Pluto is made amplifying the noise at such high levels that looks like detail. Any other blob would do the same.

Pluto. In which Alberto Geyer claims to have discovered a mountain 400 or 500 km in height. In the web itself there are published two sequences of screen captures (I y II) in which he shows his process. Starting from a little spot with a quite a lot of noise, he gets a pretty circle with what looks like a lot of surface detail. Detail that wasn't in the original image. And it is interesting to see that Geyer claims that the mountain can be seen from Earth in the unprocessed image, as something sticking out from the edge of the spot. A spot that is actually the combined light of Pluto and its moons Charon, Nix and Hydra, a point-like image and not the disk of the planet, that falls well below the resolution level.

We go on.

DarkSapiens: @solarview Mars has images of the mounts pasted on top of it to make it appear more detailed. And they're in wrong positions.

As can be seen here. The mounts being lit from the side while light arrives to the planet head on is also priceless.

DarkSapiens: @solarview Enceladus would be a bit more believable without the jets. It's even a shame someone has to say that.

Enceladus is already unbelievable. The jets, that were discovered by the Cassini precisely because this moon was between the Sun and the probe, are added lightly by Alberto Geyer in the image, and what's more, going in both directions (the real ones only come out from one side) and rotated with regard to their true position. Do you see those blue lines in the image? (Better in the original, in which by the way they look blue because it's in false color) That's the region from where they actually come out.

DarkSapiens: @solarview It's so obvious you took pictures from the space probes and reduced the quality. In some cases I even remember the original one.

DarkSapiens: @solarview Oh, and Mercury in full phase, something only achievable when it's BEHIND the Sun. Yeah right… :)

DarkSapiens: @solarview I may continue if you want :)

Solarview: @DarkSapiens Go On Sapiens!Keep visiting our website!You obviously never saw a CCD camera let alone look in the eyepiece of a telescope!

DarkSapiens: @solarview Your last phrase is dead wrong. I'll visit your web later and tweet the URLs with links to the original images for ppl to compare

Since I belong to a good astronomical association where several members do astrophotography, and I even have a modest telescope, it can be said that this claim bothered me. Especially because of him denying in this way something that I was showing him in great detail…

Solarview: @DarkSapiens O.K. Why don't u start with Io's eruptions.The ejecta is right there in the raw image.Io is third from Jupiter.

DarkSapiens: @solarview Io: moons out of focus in the raw image. And you used this

The image from Wikipedia should be inverted from left to right and rotated a bit to fit exactly with the details of the volcanoes seen in the surface of Io in his picture, but nothing more. To explain the out of focus thing we have to go to the raw image, from which the following is a portion (click to enlarge):

In it it can be seen how Jupiter is overexposed to bring out the fainter moons, but those don't have a point-like shape, but its shape is a strange curve with several details. You can also see that this curve is in the same orientation for the three moons in the image (Io is in the lower right). This can not be due to the Sun lighting them in an angle, since Jupiter is much further out from the Sun than Earth, and as seen from here it will lit them always face on. This curved shape is precisely due to the image being out of focus, creating the same pattern in all of them.

At this point I decide to announce in public what I am doing, while Alberto Geyer continues replying.

DarkSapiens: Desmontando el fraude que es @solarview. Hay gente para todo.

Debunking the fraud that is @solarview. There's people for everything.

Solarview: @DarkSapiens Even a baby can see the eruptions!With regard to Mercury,a day prior to superior conjunction is like a day prior to full moon.

DarkSapiens: @solarview Mercury prior to conjunction is so close to the sun that the Earth's atmosphere is brighter. You can't take a pic.

DarkSapiens: @solarview All moons are out of focus in that Jupiter image, what you saw are definitely not eruptions.

I will talk about the Mercury issue further on, with more data. Meanwhile, Alberto Geyer changes tactics, and starts treating me like if I was around 12 years old, probably trying to discredit me:

Solarview: @DarkSapiens Ask your father for a telescope,an 8" will do.Start with the moon.Then try spoting Mars.Saturn is a good target too.Then try...

DarkSapiens: @solarview Are those telescopes good enough? I'm in those pictures and have used them.

The Mercury topic continues:

Solarview: @DarkSapiens The image info(available on display) tells all.If I can't take an image,why is the raw image there with Mercury's full disc?!.

DarkSapiens: @solarview The Mercury raw image shows a double blob. It's your processing/manipulation what made it round.

The raw image from which he supposedly creates his Mercury image is below, and a zoom on it after that.

In the zoomed image it can be seen, however, that only one every four pixels are dark in what would apparently be what divides the blob in two, what made me think he uses a color CCD (specifically, I think he uses this one). It is interesting, because this kind of cameras are not recommended in astrophotography if you want to get a high level of detail (precisely what Alberto Geyer wants), because there is a loss of resolution by using contiguous pixels for different colors. The preferable method is to use a monochrome camera and take several shots with color filters, making use in this way of the maximum resolution in all channels. Nevertheless, judging by the moons of Mars here, it seems that for his "processings" he uses all pixels at once, with no color distinction, increasing the irregularity of the final product, so this issue doesn't seem to be important to him.

I concentrate now in the conditions to take the picture. To tell you the truth, it may not be completely impossible to capture an image of Mercury in superior conjunction (when it is just on the other side of the Sun), since the tilt of its orbit is different from ours and not every year this planet passes behind our star (like there are no transits every year). Mercury would still be very close to the Sun, but there are very experienced astrophotographers that manage to take pictures of the crescent Moon only a few hours from the new phase. I don't really know if the brightness of the Sun would hid Mercury, but maybe trying it when the first one is below the horizon it could be done (with the inconvenient that the atmospheric distortion would be very big at such low height, so not much detail will be got). But well, since when I write this post I have time at my disposal, I have the possibility of doing what he tells me in his tweets: check the image information. Raw images in FITS format have the so called "header" with all data about it. Among them you can find the following:

In the observation date you can see 2008-09-06, or 9/6 2008, at 19:07:30 local time (22:07:30 GMT). This can correspond either to June 9th or September 6th of that year. So, armed with any sky simulation software, one can check the positions of the planets at both dates. I tried to test with June 9th, from some place in Brazil (consistent both with his webpage and the difference between local time and GMT), and I saw how the shot would be done at nightfall, but oh! Mercury would be lower in the horizon than the Sun itself despite being quite close. Then I dug a little further… and to my surprise the planet is not in superior conjunction, but in inferior. With what consequence? No less than causing the face of Mercury visible from Earth to be the nocturnal one. The planet is between the Sun and us, and we don't see its light because its lit part is on the other side. It's impossible to take a picture of Mercury in these conditions. We try with the other date… and we don't have inferior conjunction either, but the planet is almost in its greatest elongation, the further from the Sun that it can be seen from Earth. Maybe the next image clarifies a bit all these positions:

As you can see in it, when an interior planet is in that position, we can only see half of the lit face. So if the image was taken in this second date (and this tweet points to this being the case), and Alberto Geyer's method did really reveal details of the bodies he observes, Mercury should appear with a half-moon look in the image. As I tell him, the round shape of the objects in their images is not there, but he forces it as part of the processing.

Meanwhile, in the Twitter conversation, he continues using as an argument that I don't know anything about astrophotography.

Solarview: @DarkSapiens U need your own telescope,a dark spot for observing and lots,I mean lots of hours imaging,many more hours processing 2 get there

Solarview: @DarkSapiens U need get started with astro-imaging.U obviously can't tell what's in focus or not before you comment on somebody else's work

DarkSapiens: @solarview All moons have the same curved shape as a result of being out of focus in that image. And if you take the full circle increasing>

DarkSapiens: @solarview > the cutoff, you end with moons much bigger than Earth compared to Jupiter.

I stop for a moment to explain this last comment from me. "Increase the cutoff" is the expression that stuck to my head using the astronomical image analysis software during the project in which I worked this year (of what I will talk in a future post), and it would consist of a way to increase the visibility of the image taking for the maximum luminosity value a slightly lower one than the value it had originally. You enhance the less bright areas while the ones already bright get saturated. In the Jupiter image, doing this you can see the full circular shape corresponding to the out of focus image of all its moons:

And if we continue forcing it, the uneven illumination in the out of focus zone is leveled until it forms a saturated circle from which every detail you could previously get has disappeared:

If we remember than the size of Jupiter is not bigger than in the first of these three images (close to the beginning of the post, where Jupiter is already saturated), we see than the resulting circles in this last one have approximately a fourth of its diameter. That is, if Alberto Geyer claims that those circles are the actual shape of the jovian moons, these have between 2 and 3 times the diameter of the Earth itself.

The discussion continues like this:

Solarview: @DarkSapiens Look Sapiens,there's a way to put an end to this discussion.I can send u the development procedure for any one of the imagesO.K

DarkSapiens: @solarview Let's see the Io one. I saw the sequence for Pluto and what you did was magnify the noise in the image and make the blob round.

Solarview: @DarkSapiens Eor dead wrong.I just imaged Pluto again and the mountain is looking better than never.I'll send the whole procedure via e-mail

Solarview: @DarkSapiens It's their real dimension.Maybe you don't know ,but Jupiter got closer to Earth on 08/14/10 than it was in many years.Go study!

Go study. Told to me that someone that seemingly just claimed that the moons of Jupiter, but not the planet, look bigger if both get closer to Earth. And by the way, if I have interpreted the date correctly as October 14th, 2008 (the only one that made sense, without being in the future nor needing a 14-month year), Jupiter was not as close from Earth as it could be (in opposition), but it was rather close to quadrature. The matter of Pluto has already been commented above.

I start to take more forceful measures.

DarkSapiens: @BadAstronomer @elakdawalla @plutokiller What do you think of this? Hard to make @solarview admit what he does is a fraud…

If only one of the three scientists to whom that tweet was directed had taken a look, Alberto Geyer would have seen himself under all their influence, orders of magnitud greater than mine. But with thousands of followers each, it was difficult that they could pay attention to this simple message.

DarkSapiens: @solarview I said big relative to Jupiter. The planet being closer has no effect on this.

Solarview: @DarkSapiens You obviously never took a shot a Jupiter!

No, I don't do astrophotography because I lack the means to. But I have seen many shots from some CIDAM member. Compare the size of the moons with that of Jupiter in this animation. I could also stress than to get good images of celestial planetary bodies a video is done for each frame, to then average the results and get rid as much as possible from the noise and atmospheric distortion. Just the opposite of what Alberto Geyer does.

Already seeing that his only answer is to deny the obvious, I decide to post links from his web together with the original images taken by the probes, as I warned I would do, so everybody can compare. Adding "@solarview" in the tweet, he would get the notice.

DarkSapiens: Busquen las diferencias! @solarview

Look for the differences!

Titan, the biggest moon of Saturn, taken from a false color image that combines certain wavelengths in the infrared with others in the ultraviolet. And he leaves the same colors even when they are very far from reality. At least he could had got an image in the visible range.

The asteroid Vesta from Hubble data. And I'm sure that instead of the image from the space telescope, he used the computer generated three-dimensional model as basis, losing even more credibility.

When he sees this, it seems that Geyer gets a bit nervous:

Solarview: @DarkSapiensDon't put words in my tweets Sapiens.If you have a problem with image processing advancements,keep it to yourself!
Solarview: @DarkSapiens No hay diferencias porque es el mismo objecto! 
There are no differences because it is the same object!
DarkSapiens: @solarview Which words?
Solarview: @DarkSapiensDe nuevo,busque la imagen original en SPACENOW y veras qui el objecto es el mismoPero si non crees sus ojos el problema es suyo 
Again, search for the original image in SPACENOW and you'll see that the object is the same. But if you don't believe your eyes the problem is yours.
Solarview: @DarkSapiens You know your own words.Why don't you send us yous best astrophotos?Let's sees the expert's work!

Now his tactics are to ask me to show astroimages made by me,  and I assume he's trying to discredit me by making me pass, again, for someone who has no idea of astrophotography. Due to the delay between the posting and reading of tweets, the conversation becomes a bit harder to follow. I continued linking to comparatives:

DarkSapiens: @solarview Do you mean the comparisons I'm posting? If I'm wrong it shouldn't be a problem I think.

DarkSapiens: @solarview …and it doesn't look the same from a probe than from Earth.

(That last tweet is in response to "there are no differences because it is the same object". They being the same object doesn't mean it has to look exactly the same from Earth than from a probe in its proximity)

Solarview: @DarkSapiens All you do is import pictures from other sources and pass it on to yet othersGo make your own images!Get going with astrophotos

Here either he doesn't understand why am I posting images from the probes or he tries to deviate attention. Of course I post images from other sources and not mine. If what I am trying to show is that the detail in his pictures comes from those images, what sense would it make to post pictures from another astrophotographer?

I, meanwhile, was still showing him reasons that supported my claims:

DarkSapiens: .@solarview BTW, for Titan you should have used a different image, not the IR + UV false color one…
DarkSapiens: .@solarview Oh, and I think you used Halley instead of Kleopatra :S vs
Solarview: @DarkSapiens If you take the trouble to download the Kleopatra raw image u'll see that it stands out even in the midle of the starfield

Being honest, I didn't download that image. I don't know if he refers to the asteroid stands out (a thing that, if it's only a point of light, wouldn't have much importance), or that its shape is visible. But a Google images search reveals it is hard to image. Its shape can be inferred by radar, but taking a picture using traditional means is complicated.

They look the same…
DarkSapiens: @solarview O más bien… no hay diferencias porque es la misma foto ;)
Or rather… there are no differences because it is the same picture ;)

The Iapetus image has even some of the smallest details taken from that image, that is only rotated. The second tweet is a better response to the "there are no differences because it is the same object" thing.

He continues with his argument of me not knowing about astroimaging:

Solarview: @DarkSapiens Porque non empiecas con un curso en astrophotografia.Tienes mucho que aprender.Donde estan su photos?

Why don't you start with a course in astrophotography. You have a lot to learn. Where are your pictures?
DarkSapiens: @solarview Me not taking astrophotos doesn't mean I don't know how they're done, poor excuse.
DarkSapiens: .@solarview I'm not "importing pictures", I'm just linking to the images you probably used, taken by Voyager, Galileo and Cassini probes.
Solarview: @DarkSapiens Then tell me what's a flat field,a bias, and a dark subtraction. Right off the bat. Don't consult your older friends.
Solarview: @DarkSapiens Don't acuse others without knowing .

Here, now it seems that he wants to put me to the test. Even knowing that it wouldn't make a big difference (one could perfectly look it up in the Internet in the time it takes to send a reply), I decide to be honest in my response and I reply by heart:

DarkSapiens: @solarview They're images taken for post-processing, in order to calibrate the picture and get rid of CCD or ambient issues.

DarkSapiens: @solarview You substract the Dark because if not, the background level could be not black thus affecting photometry and other things.

DarkSapiens: @solarview You take the bias image to get rid of a bias introduced by the CCD, again affecting photometry in each pixel.

Solarview: @DarkSapiens That was close.A serious astro-imager doesn't subtract these shots on a post processing.They're done at picture taking time.

Let's see. The darks and bias are images made with the camera covered so you only get the alterations and noise created by the instrumental, to precisely be able to eliminate it later from the photograph. They are separated images. I don't know how are you going to subtract them from the picture if this one is not taken yet. And once all images are taken, what influence would it have to make the processing (subtracting them) the same night or months after taken? They are computer files. When are they used is irrelevant. To know more about these shots I found some days ago this easy article (in Spanish), quite explanatory.

DarkSapiens: @solarview The darks are taken when you take the picture, but you can substract them later.

Solarview: @DarkSapiens Oh yeh?And what about the flat field?what is it for ?

DarkSapiens: @solarview Oh, didn't see the flat thing. You take it to get rid of uneven illumination caused by the telescope, lenses, filters, etc.

Solarview: @DarkSapiens Now that you just read the theory,go out there and try it out.After you show me your own work,not NASA's,come back and we talk

As it was probable to happen, he already knew I could easily read instead of explain by heart these things. And it seemed he was not going to admit in public that I did know about astrophotography. He continues using this as his main argument and he insists that I have to show him my work and not NASA's. I don't see any sense to this other than deviate the subject, since the only images we were talking about here were his, made from the ones by the space agency. What I could picture or not doesn't matter at all. And that's what I tell him:

DarkSapiens: .@solarview LOL, I wrote, not read. And if I'm saying you use NASA images, why should I show my photos if they have nothing to do here?

Solarview: @DarkSapiens Because you never took a shot at the heavens.That's why Get out and get a life.Quit the computer screen.Get experience.Goodbye

DarkSapiens: .@solarview Haha, I was with my astronomy association yesterday, btw. So you can't prove your images are not from NASA, then?

It is funny that in his last comment he treated me now as if I had never looked at the sky, when precisely the day before I had spent the night doing astronomical observation with my association. He never replied again to any of my questions. It is possible that to cut all contact he blocked me, and then as I describe in the beginning he deleted everything that referred to this conversation.

If you have continued reading until here this long post you may ask the question of why do I bother to do all this rebuttal work. First, I could refer to the name of this blog, and claim that as other bloggers uncover the lies of homeopathy, of lunar conspiracy theories, or every other fraud, here I was faced with one directly related with my main area of knowledge: astronomy. Even when my goal is to dedicate myself to it as a professional, I don't dedicate to it all the space I would like in this blog, and this could be also an opportunity to explain some concepts. Second, the reason to have saved all this conversation was to make it public and accessible, especially in case it was eliminated (as it can be checked clicking in the links for @solarview comments, these don't lead to much, although Google's cache saves two small fragments [UPDATE september 17th 2010: Well, at least it did when I wrote this post…]).

Another important trigger, and in fact what made me decide completely to write this post, was when I saw that apparently he hoped to be present as a speaker in the TEDx event organized in the Rio de Janeiro planetarium sending this video. Mysteriously, it stopped loading a few days ago (the ones from all the other candidates still work), but in it some parts of the procedure done to get the image of Io were shown, and you could see how it consisted just in saturating the image of the moon as I show above and increasing the contrast to round its shape more. Then the process jumps directly to an image already with the color in the NASA image included and in which you saw how messing a bit with Photoshop he starts getting more details from it, but it doesn't show what happens between one step and the other. [13/8/2010: UPDATE! Geyer has uploaded full on his website the video for the Io processing, that the one I mention before has as background. You can see what I mention in this paragraph, although he gets the color from nowhere actually, modifying at a guess the levels histogram many times. That is, where before there was only black and white, he adds color gradually until it looks to him sufficiently similar to the images… that he has seen from the NASA probes] In the video, Geyer, a man seemingly between thirty and forty years old, insists that his is a "cheap and effective" method for the research of the Solar System, that almost everyone could implement. Imagine if all this was true. It would be an authentic revolution.

But in the light of the evidence, I wonder: what is really his aim? His now disappeared video, despite having a huge lot of negative votes, has some 18 comments supporting and admiring him, even offering him funding to develop his project. The number of followers of his twitter has nearly doubled since he added me. Is it fame and admirers what he seeks? Being recognized by the people who doesn't have enough knowledge to realize that everything is a fraud? In his claims he seem to be convinced that his method is a big advance, and even wanting to share his "technique" with professionals. Could this be true? He must have manipulated the pictures to get the final result, data from Hubble telescope have allowed to construct approximate maps of Pluto and there's no sign of the gigantic mountain, that will be absent when New Horizons flies by the dwarf planet in 2015. Could he be convinced that what he does really works? Is it possible for levels of self-delusion of one person to reach those extremes?

Whatever the motivation, there are reasons for which something like this shouldn't be left without a categorical reply. The amateur astronomers community has been some time fighting to be recognized among professionals as a very good complement for research. And a lot is being achieved: from following and discovering asteroids to alerting of new supernovae, monitoring possible changes in Mars, Saturn and Jupiter (like the disappearing of one of his belts or even, today, of a new impact with some wanderer object), amateur astronomers are contributing with valuable observations. But amateurs like Alberto Geyer still make the level of distrust not to be low. I know other cases in which some amateur astronomer thinks he has a level of knowledge quite superior to the real one and he tries to explain to laypersons in the matter concepts that are erroneous, or who think to have made an important discovery that when it is dismissed by professionals as a false alarm, they adopt the role of misunderstood people.

But the most important, to my judgement, is the following: if people think it is so easy to study the Solar System in such a cheap way, why would they support the public investment in multimillion-dollar missions that wouldn't make such a big difference with what can be done for an extremely low fraction of its cost? If the spending in space exploration is perceived as something even less important than many people think, the fight for a needed increase in these budgets would have one more burden. And I have already talked about how important this investment is.

Adding any extra difficulty to the funding of these kind of projects is an action, at least to my judgement, quite reprehensible.

17/09/2010 UPDATE: Taking a look at the blog statistics I found that someone in the forums found Geyer's work and they were discussing it, and they linked to the Spanish version of this post on the issue. They are still debating about it there, and this motivated me to translate this post to English, something I had still left to do.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Thoughts about death

Several weeks ago I was having a conversation with someone and somehow we started talking about death. She told me that —since she didn't share the belief that you existed after it— death was something she was very scared of. And who wouldn't be. When you live, you think about the great amount of things you would like to do, all the places you would like to visit, everything you could learn along the years… You wish you had as much time as possible to do all this. Therefore, the perspective that you might cease to exist one day, that all those potential actions would suddenly vanish into nothingness with no chance to rectify so you have another opportunity to fulfill them, is something that, at least, can be disturbing. At first I agreed with her, and meanwhile I thought that this reminded me of the song Thoughts of a Dying Atheist, from Muse:

However, since the fist time I listened to that song, it seemed to me that something in it wasn't quite right. Was it possible that if you refused to believe in the afterlife –something for which there's no empirical evidence– fear was the only remaining reaction when faced to these thoughts? That certainly isn't what it causes on me, and I felt a bit uncomfortable listening to those lyrics. They seemed to imply that the way to go through those moments remaining calm is not to be an atheist, or something similar.

So, still in the conversation, I decided to recover a phrase I came up with when I was a kid, and has been my approach to the problem since then: 'once dead, it's impossible for you to care about it' And this is a key point. You won't be there to regret being unable to enjoy your existence. If you don't believe in the afterlife, it's consistent to conclude that you're not going to remain as a spectator, remembering all those things you won't in the entire eternity be able to do again. The only source of concern would be to think about the things you're not doing when you're still alive, the only possible suffering related to the period after your death would be to be scared of it when your existence hasn't yet finished. Therefore my recommendation would be to to make the most of the time you have by doing those things you've always wanted (or at least the ones allowed by your resources), and not to leave everything for later. In the case death was sudden, you don't even have the chance to worry about this.

The problem would be in the case of a slow death, being aware that the end is coming, having time to think about it. The longer the agony, the more time you spend bedridden by whatever causes your death –and it could just be your own old age– the more worry would mean not being able to enjoy those things you planned. I suppose it's in this scenario where Muse's song would be more meaningful, but it may actually not be death what causes that fear, but the disability itself. As I already told this person some time ago, to be left incapacitated (especially if it's some mental faculty) is something that I personally find more terrifying that the simple act of dying. The inability to do tasks and being fully or partially aware of this, seeing how you lose faculties and are not able to carry out certain activities no matter how hard you try, going blind, suffering brain damage, Alzheimer's disease, are among the things I could answer if someone asked me to tell something that would scare me. But not dying. You can suffer while you're alive, but there's nothing you could experience after your own death.

Yet aging until death is something lots of people will still have to suffer, so all this doesn't seem like a great consolation. Nevertheless, there's hope in that sense –this may not last much longer. Many people are working on it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Luck, wishes and shooting stars

It can't be said that I'm a superstitious person. In fact, those of you who know me know that the truth is just the opposite. All my experience tells me the good or bad fortune of someone in a certain moment is due to a collection of causes that can, or not, be tracked to a possible origin. In the second case, it is when one would talk of "randomness". Because of this, that the good or bad luck of someone was due to some kind of blessing or curse, that certain person or institution might have an intrinsic ability to attract beneficial events by some supernatural means, that because of breaking a mirror or walking under a ladder one would suffer some disgrace, or that rubbing a lottery ticket against someone's bald head would increase my probability of getting the prize is something that doesn't find a rational justification in my mind.

Why? It depends on what does one understand by "luck". When I say that something was lucky, I generally mean that it had a low probability of happening, and nevertheless it did. And to help something to happen, the best thing you could do is to act in some way increasing that little probability to a higher level. For this, obviously the act you do would have some kind of causal relation with the event you want to favour. How could it increase the probabilities of it happening if what we do doesn't have any relation to that event? For all I know, it has not been proved that rubbing a lottery ticket had increased above the statistical noise the frequency of one number being the winning one, nor that the breaking of a mirror had caused someone seven years of disgrace out of what would have happened by normal means, to continue with those examples. Not to mention that there are not plausible mechanisms for which these two things could affect in some way the result.

But however, it must have been thousands the times I've wished good luck to someone, as it can be shown, and if one thinks about it this can be contradictory with what I said above. How can saying "good luck" or "have very good luck" have something to do with the fortune of the person in what he or she were going to do from now on? The answer is easy —it has hardly any influence. Saying it doesn't automatically increase the possibilities of success as if by magic. Does this mean I consider it an empty expression? Something I tell people, knowing it doesn't have an effect, because it's a mere social convention? My response here is clear —not at all. When I say good luck to someone, what I'm actually doing is to express my most sincere wishes that the probability of success in what he or she were going to do was really higher than expected. I'm telling this person that I'd like him or her to manage to do that task. And I say it sincerely. In fact it's probable that showing my support with this expression I can cheer this person up, which could, exactly, rise the possibilities of him or her succeeding.

And having mentioned the topic of wishes, I'll take this opportunity to comment on a detail of me that's less known. And the thing is that I make wishes to shooting stars. It's not a joke, I've done it more than once. Before saying why, I'll stress to believe the things I believe I normally have solid reasons (susceptible of being dismissed by convincing arguments), and that I use to act consequently. Seeing all I've written in this text, one can follow the same reasoning to wonder why do I do that. It seems obvious that making a wish when a shooting star goes by is not going to make it become true, since it's hard, if not impossible, to find a causal relationship between both. Can it be that making the wish after contemplating the meteor cheers me up and that encourages me to achieve it? It's a possibility, but it seems something a bit farfetched. Furthermore, this rules out being able to wish something you don't have control over. No, these are not my reasons.

Falling star

But think for a moment: supposing these wishes did become true… what would you ask for? This is an interesting question. If given the chance, would I ask for the first thing that comes to my mind? I wouldn't consider it sensible. It may actually be some caprice, that in the long term causes more bad than good. Or that it was something relatively easy to get by other means, so the wish would have been wasted. No, it has to be something more important. Since I stopped to think about this, I consider it a quite interesting exercise. One starts to think about his priorities, that sometimes end up being reorganized. You think about what would you really want, or even in which ways could it be achieved. If conditions are right, a meteor shower can be a good occasion to consider these things, that can become an extra motivation to try to see more meteors. What better moment to spend with these kind of thoughts that lying down in the night, relaxed, contemplating the sky full of stars, and being amazed from time to time at how a tiny grain of dust with enough speed can create such a short lived but eye-catching sight? In my opinion, there's no other…