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Chevron Corporation's (minor) Bad Astronomy

UPDATE: March 27, 2000 A triumph for Good Astronomy! After I sent an email to the Chevron Corporation, they updated the page on their newsletter discussed below. It looks good now. If you go to the links listed, the new version will come up. Hooray! March 23, 2000

In my years as the self-ordained role of Bad Astronomer, I have learned that Bad Astronomy can come from the oddest of sources. For example: Toy Car Collecting. Surprise! Those are the last three words I thought would ever appear on this site (besides maybe ``UFOs are real'' or ``I believe astrology''). Anyway, the Chevron corporation has a newsletter it sends out to toy car collectors, which are usually kids. The newsletter, titled ``The Chevron Cars Tribune'', has little tidbits about different things each week (since it's a newsletter, I decided to put this page in my News section).

The March 3, 2000 edition of the Tribune has a feature called ``Sun and Stars'', with some facts about astronomy. Written for kids, it admirably tries to describe the Sun's position in the hierarchy of things. Unfortunately, it falls prey to some fairly typical Bad Astronomy.

In the first paragraph, it says:

But did you know that the sun is actually just a star, similar to all of the other stars that light up our night sky. The sun is in fact the only star in our galaxy. All of the other stars in the sky are located in other galaxies.

This is the all-too-common confusion of ``galaxy'' with ``solar system''. The Sun is the only star in our solar system, which is comprised of the Sun, the planets, their moons, various asteroids and comets. A galaxy is a collection of millions, billions or even trillions of stars. So actually the galaxy has more than just one star in it!

The text goes on to say:

Those other galaxies might also have planets in them that ellipse around stars, just like our galaxy, which has nine planets that ellipse the sun.
This is more of a nitpick. ``Ellipse'' is not a verb; they mean the planets orbit the stars. The shape of the orbit is an ellipse.

Later, when it talks about the eventual fate of the Sun, this is said:

Eventually, the sun will run out of hydrogen and stop producing light and heat. But don't worry. The sun still has billions of years left before it will stop burning. When all of the hydrogen is gone, the sun will either stop burning, become a black hole, or explode into a supernova.
The first part is correct. However, the Sun will not explode or turn into a black hole. That only happens to much more massive stars; stars that are 8 or more times the mass of the Sun. Instead of exploding, our Sun will swell massively when it runs out of hydrogen fuel, turning into a red giant star. It will blow off a dense wind of gas, which forms a planetary nebula, and the Sun itself is doomed to shrink again, becoming a white dwarf, then cooling forever, taking many billions of years to grow dark.

Finally, they also say:

Falling stars are meteors, which are large clusters of interplanetary dust that enter our atmosphere at high speeds.
Here they are confusing a single meteor, which is a single piece of rock or other material hurtling through our atmosphere, with a meteor shower, which is a swarm of such meteors. Actually, this terminology confuses a lot of people!

I applaud the Chevron Corporation for trying to educate kids! The mistakes in the text were not big ones, and when they were notified the corrections were made, improving the text drastically.

My thanks to Bad Reader J. Armbrust for sending me a note about the newsletter!

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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