A recurring theme on this site is my surprise at the lack of basic science knowledge possessed by educated adults. An interested reader can find one example here.
Not being a worldly person, I’m limited to observing only the end products of the American education system and I certainly grant this may not (hope not) be the case everywhere.
The typical adult can be forgiven their lack of knowledge, I’m sure they’re busy doing what it is that they do and I expect they know enough of what they need to know to do what they do well enough.
But it is frustrating to find a lack of basic science facts slipping into articles in science (cough, cough) magazines such as Discover. I don’t recall when last I paid for my subscription to Discover, but I still receive it monthly and read it in the little room while attending to my sitting down business.
This month, I was dismayed by a comment made by Andrew Moseman in a short article titled “Bang Zoom-To The Stars” discussing future propulsion systems. The “Bang Zoom” piece was meant to compliment the larger article it was contained it, an interesting piece written by Tim Folger titled “The Planet Boom” which chronicled the success of Kepler and the challenges the head of the Kepler mission team William Borucki overcame to fund and engineer the project.
Moseman’s errant statement became an interruption to, and distraction from, the overall larger piece. Here is the statement from the short piece on propulsion systems:
Unfortunately, sending a spacecraft to even the closest star (Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light-years away) would take 70,000 years at the speed of today’s chemical rockets.
Catch it? My 13 year-old did, which is why I sent this letter to the Discover editors:
Please note that Andrew Moseman incorrectly stated that Alpha Centauri is the next closest star in his short “Bang Zoom – To The Stars” piece within the fascinating article by Tim Folger “The Planet Boom” in the May 2011 magazine.
Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Sun, it is in the constellation Alpha Centauri along with the stars Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. While it is accurate to state that Alpha Centauri is the closest star system, Proxima Centauri is the closest star in that system.
Please correct this commonly stated piece of misinformation for your readers.
Gardner, KS USA
To be fair, I spent several minutes trying to locate Andrew Moseman’s email address to notify him as well, but couldn’t locate an email within the time I was willing to allot for such a search. I did find Andrew’s personal blog, Popular Science articles, Discover blog and articles, Twitter feed and LinedIn page, but no actual way to send information to Andrew. I would imagine if such an avenue were easily discoverable, Andrew like many journos would be inundated with absurd rants (which the reader may have at this point concluded mine is especially given that I mistakenly said “constellation” above instead of “star system”).
A self proclaimed science author making a small error in a science article is not that big of a deal, but does illustrate to me how easy it is to not question popular ideas.
I do it too, in my rant “2035, 2350, Whatever it Takes”, I falsely quote Michael Keaton’s character in Mr. Mom as saying, “You know, 120, 121, whatever it takes?” which in the comments is corrected by Parrot commenter:
You do realize that the quote from Mr. Mom is “220… 221, whatever it takes” right? It seems you are guilty of the copy paste culture you seem to be railing against. In fact, this is the funniest thing I’ve seen this week. You blatantly did NOT research the supposed fact you were referencing, and have become worse than the 2035/2050 number game you insulted.
Which hilariously describes me as worse than the 2035/2050 number game that I insulted when the real numbers are 2035 and 2350, so Parrot commenter is guilty of it as well, and at this point I’m expecting Douglas Adams to rip this post off the Internets from the great beyond at an improbability factor of precisely 2 to the 60 billion against, 60 billion coincidentally is the number of planets in our galaxy as estimated by the Kepler team so far.
I’ll update if Discover Magazine’s editors get back to me with anything other than an auto-reply.