Way back in 2003, something interesting happened. not earth-shattering, not life-changing, but interesting. On August 27th of that year, Mars ventured closer to Earth than every had before in all recorded history, about 56 million kilometers (just less than 35 million miles). An unusual event, surely, but in fact it was only a few hundred thousand miles closer than it normally gets every few decades. Compared to the average distance to Mars, thats just a fraction of a percent closer than at many, many other times.
In other words, it was a notable event, but hardly spectacular. Mars was bright that night, as it was weeks before and after. It was a tiny, bright dot of light in the constellation Aquarius. As I recall the actual moment of closest approach was in the wee hours before dawn, and I was with a group of people at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. I think we gave Mars around of applause as the special moment arrived, and then we all went home for an hour or two of sleep.
Mars did not appear as big and bright as the Full Moon. Not by a long, long shot. It appeared as a pinpoint of light, brighter than any of the stars in its general vicinity, but far fainter than the Full Moon. In fact, by my calculation, Mars was nearly 9000 times fainter than the Full Moon (which, by the way, was not in the sky at the time). I can’t give you a precise analogy, but you might imagine that such a comparison is a little like comparing a small flashlight to the landing light on a 747.
And as for size, there was no comparison. Mars appeared only as a bright pinpoint dot.
Now, someone with little knowledge of astronomy put together an overblown, sensational email complete with a handful of idle facts and a boatload of misinterpretations and distortions about what was really going to happen. We don’t know who sent out the original email, but it quickly went viral and spread far and wide. Unsuspecting recipients, excited to share what they thought was going to be a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime event, forwarded it on to all their friends, who in turn forwarded it on to their friends, and… well, you get the picture. The whole thing snowballed, as so many things do on the Internet do. But it didn’t stop when Mars failed to live up to the preposterous claims of the email. Instead, the next year someone rolled it out again. And then the next year. And the next. It is still bouncing around the Internet today, sometimes with the few facts deleted in favor of the moronic distortions. Variations, including the one I received this year, include Powerpoint presentations.
If you examine the original email closely, it contains some good facts, but it greatly over emphasizes their significance and rarity. The original email claimed that Mars would appear as big as the Full Moon, but few realize that it also said that you would have to have a 75 power telescope to see it that way. It did not mention that to the naked eye it would be just a small dot. Anyway, the whole thing points up that many of us are too trustful of what we read and what we see on the Internet, and it shows that the average American is woefully misinformed about astronomy and our place in the Universe. As an astronomy instructor, I encounter this all the time and it is pretty sad. In some ways, modern Americans don’t understand astronomy any better than our counterparts in the Middle Ages. We hold many misconceptions, believe many distortions, and pass on completely erroneous information, most of the time without questioning anything.
But you can help by setting folks straight about this Mars email. Let people know that it is misleading and in fact referred, if erroneously, to an event in 2003, not 2010. Remind them that there are places they can get good information, including
Why not pass on my own Powerpoint about the Mars hoax, and urge all your friends to forward it to all their friends. Maybe it will go viral, too. Let’s spread some real science rather than distortions and pseudoscience!
(Click here to download my small Powerpoint presentation: Mars_in_August