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Thread: Astronomy discoveries that did not live up to their hype

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    Astronomy discoveries that did not live up to their hype

    Why do so many astronomy discoveries fail to live up to the hype? A detailed and disturbing report from Salon. The quest for fame increases the chance of error.

    https://www.salon.com/2021/01/24/why...-hype_partner/

    QUOTE: Charles Seife, a veteran science journalist who teaches science writing at New York University, has seen the hype machinery gradually ramp up over the course of his career. "In the past 20 to 30 years, scientists have gotten a little bit more comfortable — either through social media more recently, but even previous to that, pushed by publicity-hungry administrators — to hype their own results beyond what would ordinarily be seemly or accepted by peers," he says. The pressure is not just on the scientists, but on the journalists and the various intermediaries as well; just as scientists compete for funding and prestige, journalists compete for clicks and page-views.
    Last edited by Roger E. Moore; 2021-Jan-24 at 07:43 PM.
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    Today, I saw the news that astronomers have found a planet in our Milky Way similar to the Earth. But I find out about such a discovery once a month and that's it. Everything ends up after the announcement of the discovery. Very unuseful discoveries like this
    https://edition.cnn.com/2020/08/12/w...scn/index.html

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    Quote Originally Posted by cannongray View Post
    Today, I saw the news that astronomers have found a planet in our Milky Way similar to the Earth. But I find out about such a discovery once a month and that's it. Everything ends up after the announcement of the discovery. Very unuseful discoveries like this
    https://edition.cnn.com/2020/08/12/w...scn/index.html
    CNN is not a good place to get astronomy news. At best, if you see something there, try to find more about it at more serious astronomy news sites. They add their own layers of simplification and misunderstandings to science stories. Of course, I’m not singling out CNN on that. Regular news sites are all usually pretty poor at reporting technical subjects.

    You mentioned stories about Earth-like exoplanets. Typically, the original observation is about what is thought to be a terrestrial planet. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are all terrestrials. In general press news stories they usually change the word “terrestrial” to “Earthlike.” Then there are those identified as superearths that might be mini-Neptunes. The reality is there just isn’t that much detail that can be determined with exoplanets, so don’t get hung up on stories about the detection of so-called Earthlike worlds. Heck, it’s not easy even detecting Earth mass worlds with today’s hardware and techniques.

    And when astronomers find actual surprises, like galaxies that might prompt some rethinking of galaxy formation models, it could take years or decades before you hear about a resolution.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Roger E. Moore View Post

    QUOTE: Charles Seife, a veteran science journalist who teaches science writing at New York University, has seen the hype machinery gradually ramp up over the course of his career. "In the past 20 to 30 years, scientists have gotten a little bit more comfortable — either through social media more recently, but even previous to that, pushed by publicity-hungry administrators — to hype their own results beyond what would ordinarily be seemly or accepted by peers," he says. The pressure is not just on the scientists, but on the journalists and the various intermediaries as well; just as scientists compete for funding and prestige, journalists compete for clicks and page-views.
    Yes, I've seen it too. All areas of information dispersal are falling prey to the Clickbait Problem; publicity for publicity's sake is driven by sorting algorithms of search engines and media aggregators. It distorts reporting and research down to the level of a celebrity selfie. You have to have attention to get attention, and attention equals $$$ and power.
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Comet Kohoutek.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    Yes, I've seen it too. All areas of information dispersal are falling prey to the Clickbait Problem; publicity for publicity's sake is driven by sorting algorithms of search engines and media aggregators. It distorts reporting and research down to the level of a celebrity selfie. You have to have attention to get attention, and attention equals $$$ and power.
    Agreed. And it is true not just in astronomy; I think it is probably even more prevalent in disciplines that directly affect human lives or culture - such as medicine, diet and nutrition, and sociology.
    At night the stars put on a show for free (Carole King)

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    Here is a phrase I see a lot when scanning arXiv.org manuscripts to post here: smoking gun. It's eye-catching but doesn't always lead to a deep read of the paper, as it might still be a bit obtuse. As an example from today's selection:

    A Smoking Gun for Planetesimal Formation: Charge Driven Growth into a New Size Range

    https://arxiv.org/abs/2101.09124

    The struggle to stand out from all the other papers is very real. However, I found a paper today describing a potential giant planet or brown dwarf circling Vega, which is a big find, but it had a pedestrian title.

    A decade of radial-velocity monitoring of Vega and new limits on the presence of planets
    https://arxiv.org/abs/2101.08801
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    Here is a link to a list of 36 recent arXiv.org paper titles that include the phrase, "smoking gun" in a manner that appears to hype the paper.

    https://arxiv.org/search/?query=%22s..._first&size=50
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    Here is an example of a recent paper that I believe will not pan out: a suggestion that dark matter could destroy Earth. Woo-hoo!

    https://arxiv.org/abs/2012.09176
    Dark Matter, Destroyer of Worlds: Neutrino, Thermal, and Existential Signatures from Black Holes in the Sun and Earth
    Do good work. —Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom

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    Right, the first time I noticed this was as Superluminal points out "Comet Kohoutek", but it is getting pretty constant now. There is some story about something on the limit of our ability to know it, and the headline is about the most extreme possibility for what we don't know about it. Kohoutek was only a story about a comet that puffed up a bit when it crossed the orbit of Jupiter, and then didn't live up to the "brighter than a full Moon" predictions. So many stories now are about the biggest explosion since the big bang, or worse about the end of the universe coming soon.
    Forming opinions as we speak

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    Exoplanet "discoveries" before 1995 were pretty bad, particularly Peter van de Kamp's claim about various exoplanets including one around Barnard's Star.

    https://forum.cosmoquest.org/showthr...rning+barnards
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    I actually think the whole arXiv before peer review is a bad idea. Even among peer-reviewed papers there is, IMO, entirely too much garbage, and I think this has opened the floodgates. Even in my own narrow disciplines, and even limiting myself to stuff that has gone through peer-review, there is pretty close to too much stuff, and entirely too much chaff among the wheat. It is quantity instead of quality.

    Maybe humans need to relearn a little patience and a little less instant gratification.

    I would almost certainly skip over any paper with "smoking gun" in the title.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    Maybe humans need to relearn a little patience and a little less instant gratification.
    We know it has happened! Just ask any pyramid builders.
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Canals on Mars were in arXiv.org papers until the mid-1960s with the Mariner spacecraft.
    Do good work. —Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom

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    The media hype over the fluctuations in light from Boyajian's Star (KIC 8462852) is about dead now, was not an alien megastructure.

    https://forum.cosmoquest.org/showthr...-1-500-LY-Away
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    Did scientists find an alien protein inside a meteorite? Another fading announcement.

    https://forum.cosmoquest.org/showthr...iscussion-here
    Do good work. —Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    I actually think the whole arXiv before peer review is a bad idea. Even among peer-reviewed papers there is, IMO, entirely too much garbage, and I think this has opened the floodgates. Even in my own narrow disciplines, and even limiting myself to stuff that has gone through peer-review, there is pretty close to too much stuff, and entirely too much chaff among the wheat. It is quantity instead of quality.
    I have to differ. The acceptance rate (after whatever revision) for journal papers in astronomy is about 95%, so there isn't all that much chaff. People differ about whether to post before acceptance; I decided some years ago to post on submission when there is no reason to wait (especially when citizen science is involved so there may be interest from volunteers). Also, there is an equity facet - before the arXiv, preprints were distributed by mail to a limited list of major institutions' libraries, so they had a heads-up on what to expect in journals. (Refereed or not, some journals had nearly a year wait before publication at that point, so seeing these or not made a big difference in even modestly fast-moving subfields). I stipulate that peer review remains useful while imperfect - a referee rescued me from an elementary geometry error about 8 years ago and I remain grateful.

    The flood of papers (because the field has grown so much, not to mention norms for output) certainly drives creative titles, some of which will be incomprehensible to anyone who is spatially and temporally far from Western pop culture. Even if that quasar emission line profile has two bumps - Twin Peaks? (I will admit to having added to the list of Tolkien-derived acronyms, although TELPERION is at least a bit subtle in harking back to the First Age). Still, possibly the best footnote from a research paper I ever saw dates to pre-arxiv times, by Harley Thronson et al. in 1990:

    We are sorely tempted to describe our all-time favorite object this month, NGC 6240, as either a "Holy Grail" or a "Rosetta Stone" to emphasize to our colleagues that we only study fundamentally important galaxies. Unfortunately the Universe appears to be rapidly filling with such objects as judged by the references to these sources in the literature. As a consequence, we argue that NGC 6240 is still more significant and is, in fact, the eagerly sought and most rare Holy Grail of Rosetta Stones.

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    We are sorely tempted to describe our all-time favorite object this month, NGC 6240, as either a "Holy Grail" or a "Rosetta Stone" to emphasize to our colleagues that we only study fundamentally important galaxies. Unfortunately the Universe appears to be rapidly filling with such objects as judged by the references to these sources in the literature.
    This comment is true. Here are only a few examples.
    =====================

    Is the Spectrum of Gravitational Waves the "Holy Grail" of Inflation?
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1104.3581

    CH2D+, the Search for the Holy Grail
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1306.6795

    A Quantum Rosetta Stone for the Information Paradox
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1405.3655

    A "Rosetta Stone" for protoplanetary disks: The synergy of multi-wavelength observations
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1611.01798

    Massive stars in the Tarantula Nebula: A Rosetta Stone for Extragalactic Supergiant HII Regions
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1911.02047

    AB Aur, a Rosetta stone for studies of planet formation (I): chemical study of a planet-forming disk
    https://arxiv.org/abs/2008.00751

    The Holy Grail of Quantum Artificial Intelligence: Major Challenges in Accelerating the Machine Learning Pipeline
    https://arxiv.org/abs/2004.14035
    Do good work. —Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom

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    The abbreviation for Helium II reads as "He II", or "HeII" when rammed together. This allows you to get titles for papers on detecting He II in Active Galactic Nuclei such as:

    Active Galactic Nuclei from HeII: a more complete census of AGN in SDSS galaxies yields a new population of low-luminosity AGN in highly star-forming galaxies
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1612.04815
    Do good work. —Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom

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    A link to a list of three paper titles using the phrase, "Destroyer(s) of Worlds" to hype their reads.

    https://arxiv.org/search/?query=dest..._first&size=50
    Do good work. —Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom

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    The recent "WOW!" signal purportedly from Proxima Centauri is meeting a lot of pushback.

    https://forum.cosmoquest.org/showthr...her-WOW-signal
    Do good work. —Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom

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    Even the term "Wow! signal" is a little hype, despite being a legit reaction from the original analysis.
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Quote Originally Posted by Roger E. Moore View Post
    Canals on Mars were in arXiv.org papers until the mid-1960s with the Mariner spacecraft.
    This would be challenging, as arXiv.org does not predate the Internet. Canals on Mars were widely known -- at least among people who weren't too adoring of Percival Lowell -- to have started as a mis-translation of the Italian word for "channel," which doesn't have the connotation of deliberate intent as does the word "canal." Even so, Lowell's observations were not universally accepted as many observers didn't see them. Lowell made a similar series of mis-observations with regard to features on Venus. While the Mariner spacecraft definitely disproved the "canals on Mars" meme, it was moribund long before then.
    Information about American English usage here. Floating point issues? Please read this before posting.

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    Quote Originally Posted by swampyankee View Post
    This would be challenging, as arXiv.org does not predate the Internet. Canals on Mars were widely known -- at least among people who weren't too adoring of Percival Lowell -- to have started as a mis-translation of the Italian word for "channel," which doesn't have the connotation of deliberate intent as does the word "canal." Even so, Lowell's observations were not universally accepted as many observers didn't see them. Lowell made a similar series of mis-observations with regard to features on Venus. While the Mariner spacecraft definitely disproved the "canals on Mars" meme, it was moribund long before then.
    My error. I meant the NASA SAO website for looking up astronomy papers. Thank you for the fix!

    https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/

    Sample paper on Martian canals from 1966 - by Carl Sagan https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/19....117S/abstract
    Last edited by Roger E. Moore; 2021-Jan-28 at 07:17 PM.
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    Keep in mind that there is evidence that Planet Nine does not exist, based on the evidence provided for it. An alternate theory given last year is described below.

    Planet Nine Could Be a Mirage. Mysterious patterns in orbits of small bodies in the outer solar system could arise from the gravity of a massive disk of icy debris rather than an undiscovered giant world.
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/a...d-be-a-mirage/
    Do good work. —Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom

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    Quote Originally Posted by Roger E. Moore View Post
    Keep in mind that there is evidence that Planet Nine does not exist, based on the evidence provided for it. An alternate theory given last year is described below.

    Planet Nine Could Be a Mirage. Mysterious patterns in orbits of small bodies in the outer solar system could arise from the gravity of a massive disk of icy debris rather than an undiscovered giant world.
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/a...d-be-a-mirage/
    Butbutbut it's a BLACK HOLE!!! Real sciencey sounding papers (not peer reviewed) on the Internet say it's maybe not impossible!
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Quote Originally Posted by Roger E. Moore View Post
    Keep in mind that there is evidence that Planet Nine does not exist, based on the evidence provided for it. An alternate theory given last year is described below.

    Planet Nine Could Be a Mirage. Mysterious patterns in orbits of small bodies in the outer solar system could arise from the gravity of a massive disk of icy debris rather than an undiscovered giant world.
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/a...d-be-a-mirage/
    A big paper just came out saying that Planet Nine cannot be presumed to exist because of changes in the orbits of Trans-Neptunian Objects. See thread "Is Planet Nine almost certain, probable, possible or unlikely?" for the paper. This looks bad for the Planet 9 crowd.
    Do good work. —Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom

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