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Astronomers versus Fake News!

Updated on February 13, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He wrote for IHPVA magazines and raced these vehicles with his father (who builds them).

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Back in 2011, an article from the now defunct Helium.com went viral with a dire warning to the public. The sensationalist article written by the late Terrance Aym (and based from on an article posted on the Russian news agency, Ria Novosti) told a lured and compelling account of a Russian scientist’s dire warning that a large asteroid was going to impact Earth in 2036.

While the astronomer, Leonid Sokolov (a real person), had announced the orbital path of the asteroid in question, Apophis (a real asteroid) and where it will be in 2036, he never concluded with certainty that Earth was in peril. In fact, he was seemingly flabbergasted when he heard that his announcement had been interpreted in such a fashion.

That reaction came during an interview with American astronomer and writer for the popular blog, Bad Astronomy, Bill Plait

While this is a story that came from the not-so-distant past, some of the events and sensationalism it created resonates to this day. If this story was written with a political slant, it would be recognized for what it was: “fake news.”

The term fake news in 2017 may have a lot to do with politics. The truth is that it’s a broad term that incorporates other facets of life in which a news story has been embellished, sensationalized, or out-right fabricated. This includes science.

The following article was originally published a few weeks after the Aym article and the original Novosti posting. Additionally, the article focused on a e-mail interview between Plait and Sokolov.

As a side note, the article was one of two rebuttals I wrote to the Aym article. Both were originally printed within a week of each other on Helium.

Why Re-post it?

With the exception of a few minor edits, the article has been reprinted with its original title. The importance of doing this is to illustrate the dangers that fake news can cause.

As mentioned, the Aym article went viral (but has seemingly gone off line along with Helium’s demise and with Aym’s untimely passing several years ago).

It created some fear and dread among its readers and it cast a misconception about the asteroid’s trajectory. Most importantly, it could’ve damaged the reputation of a scientist.

Without further ado, here is the story…

Astronomers refute news story of a killer asteroid hitting the Earth in 2036

Still from Youtube.com video
Still from Youtube.com video

A Russian scientist who was quoted in a news article claiming to have predicted the exact date an asteroid will impact Earth is now stating that he was misquoted by the news organization that filed the story.

The story titled “Russian astronomers predict Apophis-Earth collision in 2036” was originally written and released by the Russian news service Ria Novosti on January 26, 2011. It was immediately reported on a content site [Helium.com], which further sensationalized the story by giving it a sense of doom.

It stated in its first line that Russian astronomers may have pinpointed the date of April 13, 2036 (exactly seven years after its closest pass by Earth) as the day when the Apophis asteroid may slam into the Earth.

The two versions of the story created a buzz on the Internet with numerous news agencies and blogs picking up the story (including Huffington Post.) The problem, however, is that this story, and its flashy headline, has been deemed inaccurate and misleading by those who regularly chart asteroids and near-earth objects.

Several scientists around the globe, including those employed by NASA, have called the report inaccurate. One American astronomer, author, and TV host Bill Plait harshly criticized the report. He wrote about the original news story on his popular blog, Bad Astronomy, calling it “100% utter crap.”

Still, the harshest criticism for the article came from the Russian scientist who was quoted in the original article.

“100% utter crap.”

— Bill Plait for Bad Astronomy

The accusations emerged from an e-mail interview Plait had with Leonid Sokolov, a member of the International Astronomical Union and professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia. The interview appeared in the article written by Plait and published on Bad Astronomy.

“This is bad mass communication,” Dr. Sokolov wrote as a response to Plait’s inquiry about the original story. “The probability of Apophis collision in 2036 is very-very small, but not zero.”

Plait, who has written extensively about Apophis and other near Earth objects, echoed Sokolov’s sentiment. He wrote that the odds of Apophis hitting the Earth are “something like one in135, 000.”

Still, Plait and Sokolov point out that the possibility of it hitting the Earth exists, albeit, very slim. Apophis is expected to pass near Earth in 2029, possibly dipping below the orbits of several man-made satellites. According to Plait’s article, it will have to pass through a keyhole “a tiny region of space above Earth “ to have its orbit altered enough to hit Earth on next pass in 2036.

“We can’t know for sure if the rock will pass through the keyhole or not in 2029,” Plait wrote, “but we can apply statistics and calculate that minuscule 0.0007% chances. And maybe it’s better than 99.9993% chance it’ll miss.”

Another part of the story that was contested by Sokolov and Plait was the possibility of Apophis disintegrating.

The original article -- again, quoting Sokolov - reported that the Earth’s gravitational pull may cause Apophis to break up and possibly hit the earth as if it was shot by a giant shotgun.

Sokolov wrote in his e-mail: “In my talk I have spoken about scattering of possible trajectories of Apophis after approach in 2029 and possible approach in 2036, not disruption of asteroid!”

Are fake news about a pending disaster harmless or dangerous to the public?

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Plait also wrote about this scenario by stating it’s “not a totally crazy idea” if this particular asteroid was not solid (or piles of rubble held together by its own gravity).
“If they’re big enough, and pass close enough to Earth,” Plait wrote, “our gravity could pull them apart.”

However, he points out a problem of this happening.

“Apophis is only 250 meters across; this is on the small side for this to happen. So why would the article say it might fly apart?”

Apophis first came to astronomer’s attention when it was discovered by NASA in 2004. On December 23 of that year, a NASA report mentioned there was a 1in 233 chance that it will impact Earth in 2029. As a result, it was placed in the Torino scale rating of 2, and later, moved to 4 with an estimate of a 1in 62 chance.

Torino Impact Scale rates the probability or dangers of a near-earth object hitting Earth. The objects are rated from 1 to 10 with 10 being the “most probable.” Apophis was the first asteroid to be placed on this scale.

By 2009, the probability of it impacting the Earth decreased drastically.
“The odds are so low,” Plait wrote. “I worry more about Snooki getting her own three-movie contract.”

From NASA webpage on the asteroid.
From NASA webpage on the asteroid. | Source

© 2017 Dean Traylor

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    • Dean Traylor profile image
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      Dean Traylor 16 months ago from Southern California

      Actually, it wasn't the only article from that particular author to go viral. He wrote something about a potential disaster in the Gulf coast. After the Horizon oil rig exploded there was a belief that a fissure opened on the ocean floor that was seeping methane. He wrote that it could explode and incinerate the Gulf region. It was pure BS, but the article caught on and was even being referred on the radio and other forms of media. And, that started on Helium.

    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 16 months ago from Escondido, CA

      Interesting article Dean. It does bring to light that Fake News has been here awhile. I found it interesting that an article at Helium went viral while pondered here at HP. It was successfully debunked with this article.

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