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Picture This!

February 10, 2000

There is a fine line between fact and fiction. SF GATE has erased that line.

A few months ago, a new planet was seen orbiting another star. It was detected first by its effect on the spectrum of the star, just like all the other extrasolar planets detected. But it was predicted to pass right in front of the star, and so a team of astronomers decided to look for it. Sure enough, the amount of light from the star dipped just when predicted! This was because the planet was blocking a bit of the star, just like the Moon blocks the Sun in a solar eclipse. In this case, the planet is much smaller than the star, so the light only dropped a little bit, about 1%. That's measurable, though (for more details about this event, read my Bitesize Snack about it!).

This event made a lot of press. Enter, the San Francisco Chronicle's website. They too had an article about this event, an article that is actually fairly accurate. However, they link to a picture as well. This picture is an artist's representation of the event as seen from a nearby planet, and even has the artist's signature in the bottom right corner (Lynette Cook was the artist, a gifted space artist). Yet the caption for the picture reads, ``Photographic proof their is a plant orbiting a nearby star.''

[Note (February 23, 2000): Some time after I put up this page (and wrote an email to SFGate), the caption was fixed. It now reads ``This rendering by Lynette Cook, an artist at the California Academy [sic] of Sciences, depicts the newly discovered "gas giant" planet passing in orbit across the face of its own sunlike star, nearly a billion billion miles from our solar system'', which is pretty much accurate (except for the typo).]

Ignoring for a moment the two glaring typographical errors, this is a bizarre statement. It's not a photograph. It's a drawing! No pictures were taken of this event; the whole thing was done by measuring the star's total light, not by taking an image. Second, we cannot get images like this of other stars! Stars are so far away they appear incredibly tiny; even the biggest are just barely able to appear as a disk using our most sophisticated imaging techniques. So this drawing, while probably a fairly accurate representation of what was going on at the star, is still just that: a drawing.

I don't know who wrote that caption, but it's been sitting on their website since November of 1999. I sent the SFGate a note about it; let's hope they fix it!

My thanks to Bad Reader Paul Hammond for alerting me to this.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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