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Light Years Away

“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….�

11 comments to Light Years Away

  • amen! it always atounds and disgusts me how some journalists have such a disregard for the facts. Half the time, it seems like they don’t read the article they are writing about in the first place.

  • Fiziker

    I don’t think that this issue is all that important. People should know that what really happened in galactic core today will not reach us for tens of millennia. If you know that, saying the activity happened 300 years ago doesn’t make much of a difference than saying it happened 26,300 years ago because as far as the Earth is concerned it did happen 300 years ago. The activity would had no effect for 26,000 years after the event happened.

  • SJC

    Careful, careful! The twins paradox tells up that there is no such thing as absolute time.

    While yes, 26300 years ago if you were to teleport to the location in question, you would see the events, but teleportation doesn’t exist. The absolute time of an event can only be defined in our time frame, and as the post above says, it has little bearing on us.

    That’s not to say media’s treatment of science is anywhere near acceptable, but this fact isn’t a great example, because from different perspectives you get different results. Relativity’s a bitch.

  • esmitt

    The whole concept of a ‘now’ occuring here and there about the galaxy being dilated by distance is a difficult one to grasp for many people. The fact is that we could not detect it until 300 years ago. Distance is just a sidebar, but still interesting. Until we break this light barrier thingy, I’m happy to just dumb it down for most non-science folk.

    I’d call this a 2 out of 10 for silliness. Meteor impacts are usually a 9 out of 10.

  • akronnick

    Sir, you’re looking at ‘Now’ now. Everything that’s happening now is happenning now.

    But I wanted to look at then!

    We passed then.


    Just now.

    When will then be now?


  • irishjazz

    I have to admit I don’t quite get the problem here either. We talk about supernovas in the year they appeared without popping a gasket about the fact that they took place long before.

    As for scientific illiteracy, this it the tip of the iceberg. (Should I mention that 90% of the iceberg is underwater, or would that insinuate that this issue was a much higher percentage of the problem?)

  • wastrel

    I agree it /is/ something of a problem. It is wholly inaccurate to say it occurred 300 years ago. It is factually accurate to say it occurred 300 years before the light left the system that we can now observe.

    I disagree with the assumption that everyone reading any article in a mass published media should be assumed to know even the basics of astronomical physics.

    As science geeks, as I assume most readers of this blog are in at least some fashion, it is quite evident it would mean 26,300ish years that the event occurred, but it would take very little explanation to make sure everyone is on the same page.

  • Martinus

    Discovery News: Discovery Channel
    “Black Hole Woke for Feeding in 18th Century
    Irene Klotz, Discovery News

    April 17, 2008 — About 300 years ago, the black hole lurking in the heart of the Milky Way galaxy woke from hibernation and entered a feeding frenzy, triggering a cascade of X-rays that reverberated off nearby clouds. The energy released by the event was so intense, echoes remain etched in an interstellar cloud today.”


    The problem may not be just with the journalists: “By observing how this cloud lit up and faded over 10 years, we could trace back the black hole’s activity 300 years ago,” said co-investigator Katsuji Koyama, also of Kyoto University. “The black hole was a million times brighter three centuries ago. It must have unleashed an incredibly powerful flare.”

  • Fiziker

    Koyama is completely right in saying that. What does it matter if someone at the center of the galaxy where to have experienced the activity 26,300 years ago? We are not there, we are here, 26,000 light years away, where no one could have noticed anything until about 300 years ago.

  • Takshaka

    The wording may have been a little better had they said that it was observed 300 years ago as opposed to occurred 300 years ago. This would not confuse people so much and it would not be incorrect.

    On the idea about seeing back in time when we look into the night sky, it is really shocking the number of people who do not understand this sequence. I cannot remember a time when I did not understand this concept. I think that it was taught to me when I was in elementary school. However, over just the last month I think I have explained this concept to about 10 different people. The only people fail to grasp the concept are those who “believe” that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

  • ymberlenis


    ‘“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…’

    This is why it’s such a big issue – the point is not whether or not *when* it happened affects us, it’s that the reporter didn’t give a darn about clarity or accuracy. It’s all about the fact that “300 years” sounds so much more interesting, pertinent and sexy than “26,300 years.”

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