Thursday, July 23, 2020

corrections to comet article

RASC Toronto Centre was contacted (at the eleventh hour mind you) by CTV News to provide information about comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). Good to hear that they are reaching out to an official source, subject matters experts, for correct, accurate, and reliable information. Unfortunately, they put a spin on it that's awkward for RASC. So, it's time to do some more myth-busting...

The piece is in the SCI-TECH | News category on the CTV News web site. By Meredith MacLeod. Originally published on Wednesday 22 July 2020 at 10:03 PM EDT. It was updated the following day. RASC requested further updates but there was no reply.

Title. "Comet at its closest to Earth before heading out of sight for 6,000 years." OK. That's a bit of selling newspapers. But it does convey urgency, the time is nigh, get out there and have a look, it is fading. 'Cause if you miss it, you'll have to wait 6 millennia before you can see it again. Right. The author could have just said, "Comet at its closest to Earth and will continue to fade."

Opening volley. "Comet NEOWISE, a massive burning 'icy snowball,' will be closest to the Earth Wednesday night, before its orbit begins to take it out into the solar system."

Ugh. Burning? Really? Hopefully the reader will note in the mixed metaphor that the quotes are around icy snowball and will then realise an interviewee provided this description but the article author added "burning." Comets don't burn. This creates for me an image, like from a cheesy sci-fi B movie, of a flaming and smoking ball (hanging from a wire) flying through space. Comets sublimate. RASC told them that but they didn't say it. Does Ms MacLeod not understand sublimation? Is it not exciting enough? She does talk about this shortly... sorta.

Massive? No. That creates this an Earth-crushing, near-miss scenario in the mind of reader. MacLeod does quote NASA later and they reported it as "five kilometres wide." So, to keep this in perspective, the Earth is over 12700 km in diameter and the Moon is almost 3500. This comet is small. Also, a science writer should use "massive" when referring to mass or weight. This is a casual usage meant to allude to the size or dimension. The sky is not falling.

Also, scientists speculate that the dinosaur-killing object that hit the Earth at Chicxulub impactor basin was likely 170 km in size. 

I have my personal pet peeve triggered in this opener but she does correctly use the official, proper name for the comet two paragraphs later. It's not "comet NEOWISE." It's comet "C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)."

Heavenly. The fourth paragraph begins "The sun is responsible for the heavenly glow that has been visible from Earth with the naked eye for about 10 days." I took this from a spiritual context and immediately my guard went up. I didn't think it appropriate or relevant from a SCI-TECH contributor in a news media outlet. Comets are not about religion or pseudo-science. This is about solar system objects. The emphasis should be on science and facts.

Glow. "The solid, icy and rocky surface of the comet has got so hot that it has converted to gases, which glow bright and illuminate the debris that is falling off comet..." Grammar issues aside, I don't think this conveys things correctly. MacLeod suggests the comet material is producing its own light. Nope. The Sun emits light. Comets reflect light. They seem to glow to the viewer. Again, I wonder if the author is imagining an object heated to such an extra temperature that it produces a glow. This is not metal being welded. It is not like your stove-top element. It's a dirty snowball leaving a dust trail and an ion trail and sublimating due to solar heating. An ice cube from your freezer will slowly melt to water. A comet's ice phases immediately from solid ice to gas. See the wikipedia article on sublimation for more information.

Hot gases. "But as the comet continually moves further from the sun, it is cooling off, and those hot gases will dim." This further supports my suspicion that the author doesn't understand the processes happening on a comet. The gases are not hot. The gas is not glowing.

Chris Vaughan is cited in the article. Props to RASC Toronto Centre. Represent! But it's a double edged sword. A casual reader taking all this at face value might in turn think that RASC told MacLeod about comet properties. In fact Chris talked about sublimation in some detail.

Viewfinder. MacLeod refers to an Ontario photographer not knowing if he "captured the comet until he checked his Nikon’s viewfinder." Nope. He would not have been able to see it in the viewfinder, certainly not if he couldn't see it with the unaided eye; he saw it on the camera screen after shooting. Maybe even his computer screen. Minor point.

She then quotes the photographer. Ah. It is he who referred to the "heavenly" object above our "earthly" domain. Perfectly fine, of course. Here is a person marvelling at all of his god's extraordinary and wonderous creation. Indeed.

I know RASC referred MacLeod to photos captured by RASC TC members. Shame that one of those was not included even through the shot from Dundas, Ontario is nice.

A correction was made to the article noting that Halley's Comet, last seen in 1986, was not the last naked eye visible comet. But MacLeod does not quote which ones have been easily spotted in the last 30 years. Hale-Bopp? C/2011 L4 (Pan-STARRS)? That would do some level-setting. Yes, bright comets are rare, and you need to look at them whenever you get a chance. And, yes, they are quite unpredictable. Mmm, to be clear, their brightness is difficult to predict. But comets are common and frequently visit the inner solar system.

So. As usual, I feel betwixt and between. I want to convey astronomy and science information to all, share the joy and excitement of the natural world around us. RASC wants to do that. And this comet has been fantastic. But RASC wishes it could have had an editorial review of this article before the piece went out. It's clear Ms MacLeod was collating quickly, does not know a lot about the solar system, and was late for a deadline. We sadly received slapdash output with a facsimile of the truth.

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