Bad Science Reporting at the AP: The Comet Lulin Edition

In a recent and very widely distributed AP article, Seth Borenstein manages to do a pretty good job of misunderstanding what's going on with Comet Lulin. In a relatively short column, he manages to generate confusion about the location of the comet, mangle the name of a fairly well-known star, and totally flunk with his explanation of the comet's tail. It's not the worst science writing I've ever seen, but it definitely falls well into "massive fail" territory.

I'm going to take a minute or two and correct the most glaring of his errors, but then I'd like to get into something more serious: why this sort of inaccurate science reporting is such a Bad Thing.

If you want to see the comet, Borenstein reports, here's how to find it:

The best opportunity is just before dawn one-third of the way up the southern sky. It should be near Saturn and two bright stars, Spica and Regula.

There are just a few minor problems with this description:

  1. There is no star named Regula. There is, however, a star named Regulus.
  2. Spica and Regulus aren't particularly near each other.
  3. At the moment, Saturn isn't particularly near either Spica or Regulus.
  4. Depending on when you look, and how you define "just before dawn", there's a good chance that you're not going to find the comet "one-third of the way up the southern sky".
  5. In the near future, there are a number of good opportunities to spot the comet that don't involve getting up before dawn.

Borenstein is obviously laboring with a handicap here: he doesn't seem to realize that comets move against the background stars. Planets do, too, but not as fast. This one's zipping through the solar system quickly enough that you're not going to find it in the same place two nights in a row. In fact, it's moving so quickly that you'll actually be able to see it move against the background stars if you watch it for long enough.

Lulin was near Spica back on February 16th (and wasn't too far from there on the 15th or 17th). It will be near Saturn on the 23rd and 24th, and it will be near Regulus on the 27th and 28th. It will never be near all three of those celestial objects on the same night, much less at the same time.

The movement against the background also means that the best time to spot the comet is going to change, too. A week or so ago, you had to get up early to see the comet. Right now, if it's clear, you should be able to get a look if you stay up until midnight. On the 24th, you'll be able to see the comet near Saturn almost any time after 9pm - and near dawn on the 24th and 25th, it'll be low in the western sky, not midway up in the south.

Not content to merely misdirect anyone who wants to try and spot the comet, Borenstein uses his dubious talents to describe what any viewer who manages - despite his efforts - to spot the comet will see.

And thanks to an optical illusion, from Earth it appears as if the comet's tail is in the front as the comet approaches Earth and the sun.

Wrong, wrong, wrongety-wrong, wrong. It looks like the comet's tail is in front of the comet because the comet's tail is, in fact, in front of the comet. That's not an optical illusion. It's one of those strange cases where what you see actually matches reality.

A comet's tail is the result of the solar wind pushing against the comet. Since the solar wind is moving outward from the sun, the tail of the comet will always point away from the sun. When Lulin was moving toward the sun, the tail was behind the comet. Now that Lulin is moving away from the sun, the tail is out in front. That's a bit of very basic knowledge about comets that's covered in middle-school science books. I know this for a fact, because I just looked for - and found - it in my daughter's textbook. (She's in 6th grade.)

In this instance, Borenstein seems to have managed to confuse the direction the tail points with the presence of an anti-tail. An anti-tail is a second tail that some comets (including this one) display. The anti-tail appears to point in the opposite direction from the tail, and it is an optical illusion that's caused by the geometry of the comet's orbit.

We've covered the worst of Borenstein's factual errors, but we haven't yet scratched the surface when it comes to the harm that this sort of thing does.

Comets are cool things. They're astronomy's equivalent of the cute little sea otters that get everyone excited about conservation, and the environment, and not spilling crude everywhere. They make people look up, go "Ooh!" and "Aah!", and maybe - just maybe - think about what's out there for a second or two.

This comet is probably not going to be visible to the naked eye in suburban or urban areas - and it might not be easy to spot even under dark skies. But it's the next best thing. This one's easy to spot with just about any pair of decent binoculars - and lots of folks have one or more of those lying around in a closet. I'm (at best) a novice at the whole amateur astronomy thing, and it took me about two minutes to find the comet last week - half asleep, without dark-adjusted eyes, in a light-polluted area, and with a fairly bright moon nearby.

If you give people half-decent instructions, they're going to be able to find it. If you give them half-assed guidance (like, for example, somewhere in the really big chunk of sky bounded by these three bright objects, and only if you get up insanely early), they're going to get frustrated really quickly, if they bother to look at all.

And it's not like it's hard to find decent directions. I punched "how to find comet lulin" into Google. The search came back with 104,000 hits. The second search result has a nice set of pdfs that will help you find the comet. (The first result had a link to that one.)

When it comes to learning about astronomy, there are plenty of people out there who don't remember their 6th-grade science (Mr. Borenstein and his editor are hardly alone in that regard). Most of them aren't likely to pick up a book about science, but at least a few of them are probably going to be interested enough to read the whole article. How hard would it be to provide them with accurate information? It doesn't take much - access to a kid's textbook would be enough.

Come on. You guys are the Associated flippin' Press. Couldn't you even try to get this one right?

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Budget cuts?

By S. Beckley (not verified) on 19 Feb 2009 #permalink

Really interesting article, I enjoyed reading it. This journo's misreporting because he didn't bother to understand is a bit like science via broken down telephone. Even I remember from school that a comet's tail always points away fromt he sun :)

Thank you for the accurate information.

Thanks - found your explanation while searching for the three stars the journalist mentioned.

Please go easy on the journalist - explain the facts and how to find them - s/he probably has pressing deadlines that her/his bosses prefer to keep than focusing on accuracy. I see that in my local paper of the editorial page proclaiming ridiculous things on which they have no knowledge nor check with the simplest of "experts" on the subject.

see (James McCanney's web site) for a real understanding of comets. Science has been claiming things about comets that the data doesn't support. The info in this blog on tails is a great example of that.

Just for grins, did you send this to the AP editor and reporter? So that they could, you know, print a correction/retraction and an apology to readers?

/snark, clearly wrong universe

The AP is apparently a bunch of idiots. On the internet, I've noticed most of the articles I see that are incorrect or inaccurate come from the AP.