Posted by: Rowan | November 16, 2008

Re-packaging the news

This is really irking me. Following on from my previous post about our first visible-light photos of another planet, I saw the same story emerge over the weekend in the mainstream media (DomPost Weekend to be precise).

Which naturally published the doctored / falsified version of the image. In fact the DomPost even saw fit to put the word “Star” next to the doctored / falsified part of the image.

Confused? Have a look at these two pictures … just point your mouse over the links to see each one in preview, or click through for the full image.

First the real picture.

And here’s the doctored one (from Granny Herald’s site and minus the “Star” caption – the story doesn’t seem to have made it to the DomPost site yet, unfortunately.)

See the white dot of a star that the ‘media’ have painted in in the centre? It completely changes the context of the picture and manages to submerge the whole significance of the story.

The doctored picture shows a star in visible light surrounded by a bunch of very bright dust (the same as this one does) and a faint planet. If that were the case, we should be finding planets like this as a matter of routine. It wouldn’t even be that hard to spot without the inset, if the doctored photo were the real thing. And I’d be curious about why the black space between the star and the dust is such an odd shape. That must be some kind of weird gravitational effect unknown to science so far.

Which it’s not, at all.

The real picture shows a visible light signal pushed to such extremes of resolution that the light from the star in the centre has had to be artificially removed so as not to overpower the image (high-tech: they put a wee bar across the centre of the ‘scope’s lens to block out the brightest bits). It shows what’s probably a planet just discernible against a sea of visible-light background noise. It’s what you’d expect to see when the resolution of visible light is pushed to the limits of today’s technology. Which it is. Which it has to be for doing things like spotting dim planets orbiting very bright stars.

Fomalhaut (the star in the centre) is the 18th brightest star in the skies and, unlike Granny appears to suggest in the caption of this image, it is visible with the naked eye. Including its intensity in the image would have completely drowned it, and Fomalhaut b – as the candidate planet is unimaginatively named, so far – would have gone unseen.

So the ‘news media’ stuck it back in for us. Thanks, guys. Brilliant. Brilliant misrepresentation of some truly brilliant science.

Now I know not everyone is going to get as hot under the collar as me about something like this, but the next time you have to listen to someone droning on about how the web has got so much crap on it and you can’t believe what you see there, feel free to use this story on them. Do it with vigour. And ask them if they believe everything they see in the newspapers.


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