Any astronomer or stargazer will tell you that it’s been a long time since we’ve had a comet in the sky that deserved to be called “bright”. For the past half dozen years the brightest comets have been very disappointing affairs, appearing to the naked eye as little more than small, smudgy blobs in the sky, and even then were only visible without binoculars or a telescope from the dark countryside on a night with no Moon. Most comets that have drifted across the sky for the past decade or so have been so faint only the most dedicated comet observers and amateur astronomers have seen them. We’re long, long overdue a really impressive comet like the great twin-tailed comet Hale-Bopp which graced the heavens back in 1996/97. It’s disappointing and frustrating, and experienced astronomers and people with just a passing interest in the night sky have been growing more and more impatient for a decent – even a half-decent! – comet to appear in the sky…
So, naturally there was a lot of excitement when the websites of several British newspapers announced earlier this week that there would be a newly-discovered “bright” comet visible in the sky, bright enough in fact to be visible to the naked eye!
Thursday night, the features said, would be the best time to see Comet 168P-Hergenrother because that was when it would be at its closest point to Earth. The features helpfully gave the times and directions to look for the comet, and stated confidently that it would be visible to the naked eye.
Only one problem: it was all utter, utter rubbish.
Like so many of the stories written these days about astronomical events such as meteor showers, eclipses and the visibility of planets, the features on 168P contained so many misunderstandings, mistakes and ridiculous claims that they were essentially fantasy pieces.
Where to begin explaining just how ridiculous this press feeding frenzy was?
For a start the comet wasn’t “new” at all: comet-watchers have known about Comet 168P for a long time, and have been looking for it in the sky without success. Many comet experts believe it has actually disintegrated since its previous appearance, and don’t expect to see it again.
But the biggest problem with these online stories was that if it did reappear in the sky there was no way – NO WAY – comet 168Pm was EVER going to be visible to the naked eye.
Why? Quick astro science lesson. Astronomers describe the brightness of objects in the sky in terms of magnitude, a numerical scale which is more than a little confusing to non-astronomers (and many astronomers!) because it seems totally illogical. We’re used to thinking that a number with a positive value is greater/higher/hotter than a number with a negative value, i.e -10 degrees C is hotter than +10 degrees C, -10km is lower than +10km, etc. But the magnitude scale works the other way: the brightest objects have a negative magnitude value, so an object in the sky, such as a star or a planet, with a brightness or magnitude of -1 is actually brighter than one with a magnitude of +1! So, the brightest object in the sky is the Sun with a (literally) blindingly-bright magnitude of -26. The Full Moon shines at around magnitude -12, and Venus, the brightest planet in the sky, can reach magnitude -4 or so at its very brightest. The brightest star in the sky, glittering, flickering Sirius, has a magnitude of -1.46. Then things get progressively fainter. The stars of the Big Dipper are all roughly around magnitude +2, the same as the famous Pole Star (which many people are surprised to learn isn’t the brightest star in the sky…). The faintest object the naked eye can see in the night sky on a Moon-free night from somewhere with no light pollution is magnitude +6. Anything between magnitude +6 and around +9 or +10 needs a pair of binoculars, and fainter than that requires a telescope.
Comet 168P was predicted by comet experts to have a magnitude of +13. +13!!! So there was no way in this or any other universe that it was going to be visible to the naked eye.
Of course, the breathless media reports didn’t mention that. They just shouted out their “Bright! Naked eye!” predictions, which misled many people into believing there would be something exciting and impressive to see in the night sky. If the reporters had even the mostg basic knowledge of astronomy they would have seen that predicted magnitude estimate and known the naked eye predictions were rubbish.
…and that’s the problem.
Many of the reporters covering astronomy stories on websites and in newspapers have no knowledge of astronomy or the workings of the night sky whatsoever, and they know it. But instead of being professional, instead of taking just five minutes to contact someone who does have that knowledge, they just plough on and write absolute rubbish based on their misunderstanding of quickly-scanned NASA press releases or the websites of astronomy organisations they find when they search Google. The result? Utter nonsense appears online, which then gets Shared by people who trust a newspaper’s Science Reporter to give them accurate and honest information.
But even worse than that is the way that these stories now eat each other and reproduce, spreading across social media like a video of a snoring kitten. Again and again now we see one reporter’s nonsense quoted or lifted in its entirety by other lazy reporters who then post features which other lazy reporters use… and so on. The rubbish spreads out over the internet like a virus, and there’s no turning it back, no recalling it. This is what I mean…
Seriously, this has to stop, it’s getting ridiculous. While some reporters try very hard to report astronomical events honestly and accurately, others are writing utter nonsense and getting away with it.
Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, it’s possible that some of these reporters are being told by their Editors to cover astronomy stories, and are so busy they just do a quick Google search for info and go with the first info they find. That’s no excuse tho – it is still very lazy and unprofessional, and if they just bothered to email one of the many astronomers who post on Twitter or other social media platforms they would be given all the help they need to produce good, accurate, honest copy. That’s what reporters are supposed to do, isn’t it? That’s what they used to do, anyway…
But it’s quite clear now that some reporters are just happy to write nonsense about an astronomical event without any making attempt to research the facts behind it. I know this because I personally contacted a reporter involved in this week’s comet kerfuffle, offering to fact-check future copy, and have been totally ignored. I take that as proof that they have no interest in being factual and accurate and are happy to just keep writing features containing errors, without any interest in passing on accurate information to their readers – which is what they’re paid for, surely?
Let’s be clear here: these reporters are knowingly writing clickbait and have no interest whatsoever in being honest or accurate. And they need to stop.
Why does this matter?
Well, for one thing it causes a lot of frustration and disappointment for a lot of people. There’s a huge interest in astronomy and the night sky these days; people love seeing things happening “up there”. So when they read that there’s going to be a spectacular meteor shower, a stunning eclipse or a dazzling comet they naturally get excited and look forward to seeing it! Then it doesn’t happen and they are left disapointed and, quite rightly, angry too. But they don’t turn that anger on the reporter, they turn it on astronomers who they think provided the reporters with the information they used in their piece. And that leads to a lot of ill will. It also means that when a genuinely exciting event is due to occur, people let down in the past will think “Oh yeah? Like that meteor shower? I don’t believe you!” and dismiss it. Which is a great shame.
Worse still, it adds to the modern lack of respect for, and distrust of, scientists and “experts”. In this Trump era, when experts are mocked and derided, when people prefer to believe wittering TV celebrities and pouting “Social Media Influencers” who claim vaccines cause autism, the Moon landings never happened and the Earth is flat, we really don’t need lazy reporters making things worse by spreading nonsense about astronomical events too.
But on a very basic level it matters because it’s just wrong! Reporters are supposed to be professional, they shouldn’t post features containing errors! If a reporter posted a story on their paper’s website claiming that a dinosaur would be visible walking across London Bridge this coming Saturday teatime they would rightly be called out for it because it would be rubbish. If a reporter posted a feature predicting that money would fall from the sky tomorrow morning they would be called out on that too, because it would obviously be nonsense. But somehow it’s become totally acceptable – even amusing – for reporters to post features predicting how a meteor shower is going to “Light up the sky!”, how an eclipse will “dazzle onlookers!” and how a comet far too faint to be seen without a telescope will “blaze across the sky!”
This nonsense has to stop.
So, the next time you – yes, you – read one of these clickbait fantasies online, say something. Call the reporter out. Correct them. Don’t put up with it.
If more of us do that then maybe, just maybe, we can beat this.
Many thanks to fellow Twitter user Tiax Anderson for supplying me with this additional information, which I must admit I wasn’t aware of. It makes these stories even more ridiculous…