Saturday, February 11, 2017

Stop. That. Hype.

And so it happened again: when last night's penumnbral lunar eclipse coincided with the perigee of a faint comet (i.e. two less-than-stellar events for the public at large) all hell broke loose in the "science" and general media around the globe. The claim went that three "dazzling" (for everything in astronomy "dazzles", right? Except black holes perhaps. Which suck) sky phenomena were visible at the same time: a "snow moon", a lunar eclipse and a "mysterious green" comet. Oh yeah?
  • That "snow moon" term which suddenly invaded even German 'news' stories is of dubious provenance and in any case related to U.S. East coast folklore at best. Adopting it blindly around the globe makes no sense culturally, let alone geographically (Africans and Australians might agree). And why on Earth does each and every Moon need some fancy nickname nowadays?

  • Talking about three sky events makes no sense either as the lunar eclipse is an effect of said full moon. And regarding its relevance confusion abounded: some mixed it up with total eclipses, others claimed nothing would be seen at all - while in fact from past experience one could predict a quite distinct darkening so close to the umbra. Which was the case indeed, obvious - though not dramatic - even under bad conditions.

  • The worst mistake, however, was throwing the poor comet 45P/HMP into the mix, which has faded (in absolute brightness) since perihelion and lost most of its tail by now. Close to Earth it grew into a fuzzy blob half a degree in diameter but only of 7th magnitude: completely drowned out by the bright sky the full or nearly full moon causes. To advertise it in connection with a a full moon / non-total lunar eclipse was sheer madness.
Now you might say, so what, any astronomy in the media is good astronomy - but that is dead wrong. As one can read today in social media in reports by amateur astronomers talking to lay people the disappointment runs deep: "the media" or worse "the astronomers" predicted something exciting, and it didn't occur. In these times of - deserved or undeserved - widespread growing distrust in journalism even such small sins should be avoided. So please think first before promising things the sky won't or can't deliver - it'll hurt us all in the end ...

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