“Milky Way’s monster black hole awoke 300 years ago”
Am I too sensitive, too picky about the quality of science news? You be the judge. I was trawling around the internet looking for interesting stuff when I came across a story put out by Agence France Presse, the French equivalent to the AP: http://news.yahoo.com/s/
Huh? Now, I’m no chrome-dome pocket protector toting slide rule jockey like some around here, but 300 years seems pretty recent for our knowledge of the stuff going on in the galactic center. Since we can’t see anything until the light arrives, that would place the center of our galaxy an uncomfortable 300 light years away. Upon further review we read:
“Located around 26,000 light years from Earth, the black hole, known as Sagittarius A-star (Sgr A*), is a monster with a mass four million times that of the Sun.”
Whew! That was close. Or not actually that close. You know what I mean. So the black hole at the galactic center is 26,000 light years away, but we know what was happening there 300 years ago? Wow! Our astronomers are just that good. Or maybe not. In the original story on the European Space Agency website (http://www.esa.int/esaSC/SEMV9Z3XQEF_index_0.html), we see the following sentence – in the 10th paragraph in the story:
“The galactic centre is about 26 000 light-years from Earth, meaning we see events as they occurred 26 000 years ago.”
That’s more like it. My beef is that the AFP reporter who picked up the story left that part out, and repeatedly refers to events that happened 300 years ago, blithely ignoring the fact that these events happened 26,000 years ago, but scientists cleverly figured out how to find out about a flare that happened 300 years before that. Now, see, I like that kind of stuff, where astronomers make indirect observations of one phenomenon by looking at other things and making smart connections. That gets me fired up, believe it or not – I guess I am pretty geeky about this kind of stuff.
That’s why it ticks me off so much when this kind of basic scientific illiteracy makes it into a major press release. It’s hard enough to get people to pay attention to science without screwing up something so elementary. And part of the problem lies with the scientists, who use phrases like “300 years ago” as a kind of shorthand. They know the galactic center is 26,000 light years away, but they have a tendency to say that whatever they can see is happening “now,” so they say something that happened a few centuries earlier happened 300 years ago, even though they know that’s not accurate.
Do scientists and science reporters think that people don’t get it, that they are incapable of understanding the time lags caused by the huge distances involved in astronomy? I’ve never met anyone who didn’t get that after a few seconds of thinking about it. I mean, if people are so dumb that they can’t get that simple fact, why write science news at all? Now, excuse me – my slide rule is stuck in my pocket protector, and I can’t find my chrome polish….�