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Heaven's Gate and Bad Astronomy

By now, most everyone has heard the news that a group of people in California has committed mass suicide, claiming that it would enable them to meet a spaceship flying along with the comet Hale-Bopp. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have been receiving email and comments about this tragedy tying in with Bad Astronomy.

My feelings about this are complicated, and I am loath to try to write much about them before I have straightened things out for myself. Also, almost inevitably, more of the story will come out from California as well, and I hate to form a solid opinion before I have all the facts.

However, perhaps a short note is worthwhile here. I received an email from a Bad Reader basically laying the blame for all this on the people purveying the Bad Astronomy. These are the ones claiming (quite erroneously) to have seen a huge spaceship trailing along the comet in the sky. I'll note here that this whole thing started with one man, Chuck Shramek, who either grossly or deliberately misunderstood some images he took of the comet some months ago (you can read more about this on Wikipedia). I'll note also that had Shramek not started this, someone else probably would have. But Shramek's actions, in my opinion, were contemptible in that he went straight from his telescope to the fringe press before seeking advice from any experienced astronomers. His actions certainly seem to have indicated his motivations. Since Shramek's appearance, there have been hundreds of claims, both deliberately faked and honestly misinterpreted, of anomalous objects near Hale-Bopp. All of these-- all of them-- have been shown to be false.

And yet the claims persist. Even the fringe groups have their own fringe groups, and the more colorful UFO people still cling to their data, false as it is (I will go on record here as saying that many people that study UFO's are calm, rational people, but the ones that get the most coverage tend to be the most, well, unusual. That is why I say they are the fringe of the fringe).

So the question is: did the members of "Heaven's Gate" commit suicide because they believed these claims of a spaceship near Hale-Bopp? I have heard from several news sources that this is exactly why they did it, but I have not yet heard anyone say why they believed a spaceship was there. Did they believe Shramek? Or were they simply latching on to a form of "comet madness" that occurs every time a bright comet graces our skies? Certainly, the coming of the Christian Millennium was no help here.

I do not like to lay blame for one group's actions on another; that is, my initial reaction is to say that the pseudoscientific claimants are not responsible for the deaths in California. I do not blame movies and TV for violent behavior in children or adults, either. I feel that those tendencies are already there, and perhaps the movie was a catalyst -- but not the cause! -- of the action.

Is it not the same for the pseudoscience claims and the suicides? Can we really lay the blame on the former for the latter?

This is where my unsettled feelings begin. I must be honest-- I'm not sure how to answer that question. If people had never claimed to see a UFO near Hale-Bopp, would this have all come about? Perhaps they might have committed suicide anyway, finding some other reason. My initial reaction was that the comet coming so close to the year 2000 might have been enough to set those people off. Yet we had a very bright comet just last year, Comet Hyakutake. It was easily seen, received a lot of attention, and 1996 is still close to 2000. The members of "Heaven's Gate" lived through it. So why did they pick Hale-Bopp? It is brighter then Hyakutake ever got, and is getting even more press coverage. But then there is the claim of UFO's with Hale-Bopp that Hyakutake lacked.

It is coming out (which means it is not completely confirmed, in my opinion) that the group of people in California based their beliefs on an earlier group that thought a giant spaceship would take them away to a higher level of existence. If this is true, it means that this is not only "comet madness", but that the idea of a spaceship was needed in order for the suicides to occur. If true, then perhaps looking toward Bad Astronomy is not wholly uncalled for.

I will be following this story very closely, and will add more as it develops. Thank you for indulging me in something that is more emotional than strictly scientific. As always, your opinions are welcome. Feel free to email me.

For more info on this, here are some related links:

There are several pages about the supposed "object" following Hale-Bopp.

  • Chuck Shramek's web page is the one that started it all. Like it or not, this guy seems to have secured a footnote in history. He makes lots of statements in his pages, most of which are misleading, ridiculous or just plain wrong.

  • Dave Tholen is a professional astronomer at the University of Hawaii, and one of his images was doctored up by someone and used as "proof" of a companion to Hale-Bopp. His web page shows a detailed analysis of this criminal undertaking.

  • Stuart Goldman has a good article showing exactly why Shramek's claims are wrong. This web site is done by the same people who bring you the magazine "Sky and Telescope"

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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