Roundoff error or bad science? You decide…

Roundoff error or bad science?  You decide...

I was a science geek as a kid. When I was in elementary school, I had a set of books on various scientific topics called the How and Why Wonder Books. There were dozens of them, and they ran the gamut (maybe a gamut and a half) of scientific subjects from the sixties, from dinosaurs to chemistry to astronomy. Sure, science was different back then. We had more planets (9), fewer elements (103) and simpler atoms (electrons in planetary orbit around protons and neutrons), and stuff was miles away instead of kilometers. But the books gave me a grounding in the sciences that eventually led me to a degree in computer science. (Disclaimer: Computer science is all math and programming. There is no science involved.)

I don’t know what kids who grow up to be journalists did with their time as kids. Probably had lives or some such nonsense. That’s fine, I suppose, if all you want to be is happy and loved. But if you’re going to take that route in life, don’t become a science reporter.

This weekend there will be a planetary conjunction of Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter. All this means is that you will be able to see the three planets in the same part of the sky. It doesn’t happen that often, so amateur and professional astronomers think it’s pretty cool. (Disclaimer: As kids, science geeks were not invited to the meetings where the coolness of stuff was being hashed out.)

I bring this up because an article I read from Reuters on the planetary conjunction contained the following statement:

“Typically, Venus, the second-closest planet to the sun, and Jupiter, which orbits beyond Mars, are tens of millions of miles apart. But they have been cycling together while moving ever closer to each other this month, joined by the innermost planet Mercury.”

This statement is technically correct (the best kind of correct), but it reveals either poor writing or poor research. The term “typically” typically means “most of the time”. Venus is about 67 million miles from the sun (give or take an elliptical orbit). Jupiter is about 483 million miles from the sun. At their closest approach, Venus and Jupiter are 416 million miles apart. At their furthest, 550 million miles apart. They are not “typically” “tens of millions of miles apart”. They are always at least 41 tens of millions of miles apart. And while they are moving “ever closer”, they will never be closer than about 1750 times the distance between the earth and the moon.

(Nifty science experiment: Next time there’ s a full moon, go outside and find a hill. Hold your hand up so that your thumb blocks the moon. According to Reuters science journalism, your thumb is now tens of inches closer to the moon, and as you walk up the hill, you are moving ever closer to the moon. Just like the Apollo astronauts!)

(Click on the picture to read the original article.)


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