News & Politics

Comet Hits Jupiter, Times Acts Like Uranus

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A man who built his own telescope and takes images of the planets with it that would rival those taken by the best professional observatories only a few decades ago shocked the world last week with news that he’d spotted a major impact on Jupiter.

The Jupiter sucker-punch made for big news, and there was plenty of it as the media responded with comparisons to the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact of 1994, and questions about asteroids hitting the Earth, etc.

For the most part, the mainstream media didn’t embarrass themselves with their coverage, even if, as usual, they proved not to seem to know the first thing about telescopes, the people that use them, and how such discoveries are made.

Still, we really didn’t expect that the literally dumbest article written in the wake of the Jupiter impact would come from the New York Times.

First, consider how great this story is on its own merits: computer programmer Anthony
Wesley, the Australian discoverer, noticed Jupiter’s new scar in a
14.5-inch reflector telescope that he constructed himself.

Why do many of us who ply the night skies use instruments of our own creation? Because, as Wesley told Wired.com, telescopes you can purchase in a store simply aren’t up to the standards that serious amateurs demand.

Amen,
brother. So Wesley builds his machine, which features cooling equipment
and light-dampening features which are crucial to obtaining an image
stable enough for the high-magnification work he does with planets. And
with other recent advances that many amateurs are using, he’s able to
maintain a live video feed as the impact scar on Jupiter rotates into
view.

How’s that for amazing? So what does the Times seize on for its piece?

To
wit: That other amateur astronomers are excited about the discovery
because normally their lives are devoid of interest except when
something like the new Star Trek movie is in the theaters, and incredibly, they share their excitement with each other over the Internet.

We’re not making this up.
Wesley was practically a footnote at the end of the story, with the
rest being among the lamest science-related pieces we’ve ever seen in
the venerable rag. (And which, inexplicably, was printed in the Times‘ Style section.)

Is it really a revelation that amateur
astronomy, like practically every other interest group in the world, is
now heavily wired up so that “lonely” practitioners can share
information online and — gasp — plan meetups?

What is this, 1993?

As
with any story about a subculture that not everyone is familiar with,
telling a story about a guy like Wesley would take some introductory
material for the uninitiated. But usually, the Times is more
than happy to dive into the stronger stuff, and help its large audience
understand why Wesley and many others like him are doing such
interesting work with telescopes, imaging electronics, and computers.

On the other hand, maybe the Times folks really aren’t up on their telescopes at all. It took the paper’s “Lede Blog” three tries
to explain what part of a telescope is referred to when you call it a
“14.5-inch” or “8-inch” instrument (it refers to the size of the
telescope’s “objective,” the primary lens or mirror). As you can see in this photo, Wesley’s scope, despite a mirror only a little more than a foot in diameter, is actually pretty massive.

Like many others, Wesley has documented the construction of his fine telescope (name: “Nemesis”) on a website. And from it, we really can’t tell if he’s excited about the new Star Trek movie.