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September 19, 2005

Sometimes, I wonder how gullible people can be.

Yahoo!News, which will repeat anything it finds on the web as if it's true, published an article on September 12th about a "chaos cloud" headed toward Earth. This cloud, the article breathlessly exclaims,

...dissolves everything in its path, including comets, asteroids, planets and entire stars -- and it's headed directly toward Earth!

Oh no! Fear! Horror!

... skepticism? Disbelief? C'mon, folks! The source of this story is the Weekly World News. This is the same epic rag that brought us BatBoy, remember.

I can make this clearer: it's a joke. J O K E. The tabloid is satirical, not meant to be taken seriously, a, well, a joke. A joke.

I hope I've made myself clear.

Perhaps, just maybe, you weren't aware that the WWN is a joke newspaper (at least one friend of mine had never heard of it), so in that case you are marginally forgiven. But the next step to check the article's veracity would be to google the name of the scientist mentioned in the article, Dr. Albert Sherwinski. All you get are: references to the WWN article. Perhaps that might tip you off.

silly image of killer cloud What's funny about the article to me is that there is some (small) amount of actual science in it. It says that the cloud is made of particles emitted from a black hole in a process called Hawking radiation, and the particles come in electron-positron pairs. This is pretty close to being right: black holes do (theoretically) emit particles due to bizarre quantum mechanical effects, and some of these will be electrons, and others will be their anti-matter counterpart, called positrons. When they collide, they give off gamma rays, which can be dangerous, though you'd have to be practically on top of the black hole to be in trouble, and if you're that close you have other more immediate problems, like being really close to a black hole.

But the article's accuracy ends there. There is no such thing as a "chaos cloud", black holes don't emit enough radiation to be dangerous (if Hawking was even right at all about this topic), and certainly the black hole in the center of our Galaxy (which the article implies is the source of the cloud) won't be a big producer of this radiation: the bigger the hole, the less radiation it emits. The black hole in the center of the Milky Way is a monster. If it emits Hawking radiation, it would be incredibly difficult to detect.

And another thing: the article says Chandra detected the cloud, but in reality Chandra would be rather blind to the type of radiation emitted as electrons and positrons collide. They emit gamma rays, the kind of energy seen by satellites like INTEGRAL. Chandra detects X-rays, which are lower energy, and are not produced by the collision of electrons and positrons.

So the next time you see some headline screaming about the end of the world, just take a look at the byline. But talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy! When people start taking the Weekly World News seriously, it may really be the end of the world.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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