13 November 2014

Comet science

Amazing that scientists could send a lander on a 10-year journey across space to find - and actually land on - a teeny, tiny bit of rock.

Amazing in a quite different way that journalists can't make up their minds about how to report the simple things about the mission - the caption reads:

"This picture ... was taken ... during its descent from a distance of approximately 3 km from 2.5-mile-wide 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet."

3km = 1.86 miles; 2.5 miles = 4 km. Metric measurements are part of the language of science; and in this case their consistent use would arguably help the size comparison. And, hmm, this is a European Space Agency project, and metric is part of the language of all European nations, even (somewhat reluctantly) the UK.

This picture, from the same story, has a slightly different measurement -

Another pic has the caption "The comet pictured from a distance of about 4.8 miles (7.8km)." Hurrah, both measurements ... but generally speaking, if you're being so vague as to say "about", why use the spurious precision of decimal points, why not "about 5 miles (8 km)"?

Does it matter? Does anyone, apart from grumpy ex-editors with too much time on their hands, notice? Is there a bigger picture?

The BBC's story gives some "Mission facts" -

Philae lander
  • Travelled 6.4 billion km (four billion miles) to reach the comet
  • Journey took 10 years
  • Planning for the journey began 25 years ago
Comet 67P
  • More than four billion years old
  • Mass of 10 billion tonnes
  • Hurtling through space at 18km/s (40,000mph)
  • Shaped like a rubber duck
Radio signals take half an hour to reach Earth, and after a glitch in the touchdown, the lander is out of radio visibility for the moment,

Why is the information from this mission important? As the BBC says:

"Scientists are hoping 67P's surface materials will hold fresh insights into the origins of our Solar System more than 4.5 billion years ago.
One theory holds that comets were responsible for delivering water to the planets. Another idea is that they could have "seeded" the Earth with the chemistry needed to help kick-start life. Philae will test some of this thinking."

1 comment:

Kathleen Loomis said...

this bigger picture, unfortunately, is that many if not most journalists are uncomfortable with figures, having never studied math beyond the minimum requirements. (they're generally unfamiliar with science, too, but that's another rant)

so they don't know what to do with numbers other than write down the ones that are provided in the press release. you will see plenty of evidence of this failing if you are a faithful media reader/listener .