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CNN is at it Again

(February 11, 1998)
Recent Hubble images of the ring of gas surrounding supernova 1987A show that the blast wave from the exploded star is finally starting to impact the ring, lighting it up. The last time Hubble took images of this object was just after the last servicing mission, and the news services managed to get a lot of the information wrong; see the May 14, 1997 entry below for those details.

It happened again this time. CNN's web page about the supernova has several errors in it:

  1. It has two pictures of the ring, sort of a "before and after" set. The before picture is on the right, while the after is on the left. This is backwards from tradition, implying they weren't sure which was which. The pictures are not labeled, either, leaving the reader befuddled as to what is being shown.

  2. A later paragraph says "A supernova occurs when a large star dies, first expelling layers of gas outward, then exploding into a huge ball of fire, scattering complex molecules formed deep inside stars far out into space." This is not correct; they mean "elements", not "molecules". A molecule is a binding of atoms together into a more complicated structure, and no molecule known can stay together inside the core of a supernova. Incidentally, the supernova event is the actual expulsion of the outer layers of the star, which is the actual fireball. CNN splits it into two events, which isn't really the case. Also there are two types of supernovae. A massive star is only one type; a low mass star can explode as a supernova as well.

  3. On the CNN page is an image (located next to the paragraph mentioned above) representing how the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) operates. STIS breaks up light from an object into its component colors, like a giant prism makes a rainbow. The image CNN shows is a computer image, like a cartoon, of how that works. Inexplicably, the image is labeled: "NASA's simulation of the nova in the coming decades." It's nothing of the sort. The icing on this particular cake is calling it a nova. A nova is a very different event than a supernova. Perhaps the terminology astronomers use for the two events is confusing; it's a holdover from many decades ago when the processes were not understood. Still, the word "nova" was never used at the press conference.

  4. Insult to injury: under "Related Stories", CNN has the listing: "Stars burst into life before Hubble's lens". Ahem. Hubble does not have a lens. It uses a series of mirrors. Ouch.

As always, I am happy when these types of events get press (especially when it's an object I have spent years studying!), but I really wish the news services could get these things right. Remember: if they are not getting this stuff right, what else are they getting wrong?

By the way, I am delighted to note that MSNBC got their facts right when they reported o this issue. All of them. They left that story up for a long time, in part because they found this web page and wanted to leave their good story up for longer than usual!



©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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THE BIRDCAGE: ARCHIVE OF OTHER BAD NEWS ITEMS