A black spot in science writing

I really don’t know why Esther Inglis-Arkell thinks that she is qualified to write about science, the examples I have seen so far show very clearly that she should spend her time doing something else. After her Cantor debacle she now screws up the history of the black drop effect. Let us examine her offering on the science fiction website io9 for accuracy.

We can see Venus pass in front of the sun once every one hundred and twenty years.

Actually it’s twice in one hundred and thirty years. In intervals of approximately one hundred and twenty and then eight years

Ever since it’s been observed, a strange thing has been happening.

Horrocks the first to observe a Venus transit in 1639 did not record the black drop effect.

Instead of appearing as a dark circle moving across the sun, Venus formed a tear drop shape that slowly oozed onto the solar disc. It took three hundred years for scientists to understand the Black Drop Effect.

It’s actually still contested as to whether we can explain it or not.

In 1769, James Cook was in Tahiti, trying his best to set up telescopes.

No mention of Charles Green the actual astronomer of the expedition or Joseph Banks who also took part in the observations.

His trip over was partially sponsored by the Royal Academy, for no lesser purpose than laying out the solar system itself.

They got the expedition organised real quick considering that the Royal Academy was only founded in 1768. Maybe she meant the Royal Academy of Music but they were first established in 1822. Perhaps she meant the French Royal Academy of Science? Oops Cook was English wasn’t he. The expedition to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus was organised by the Royal Society and paid for by the British Government.

People knew, roughly, the order of the known planets, but they had no way to know the actual mileage involved. How far were the planets from the sun?

People knew the order of the known planets exactly. They also knew the size of the planetary obits relative to the size of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. If one could determine the latter then one could automatically determine the size of all the other orbits.

One way of finding out was taking a look at how fast a planet crossed a known distance, like how fast Venus moved from on side of the sun to the other.

You actually need to determine the transit duration from two different points on the Earth in order to then, using parallax and trigonometry, determine the distance not of the planet, as half implied here, but of the Sun.

The problem was, a ‘transit of Venus,’ when Venus passes between the sun and the earth, happened rarely. An eight year period saw two of them, and then there were no more for another 120 years. The astronomers needed to make the most of their chances.

Didn’t she just tell us that there is only one transit in one hundred and twenty years?

Cook observed the transit, and made a drawing of it in his journal. Oddly, the journal showed not a black circle passing in front of a bright one, but a transit that looked like a drop of water falling from a surface. The black spot had a wide base for too long a time, as if it were water coalescing into a drop. Then it tapered off into a tail, and broke free, moving as a circle across the sun.

The black drop effect was well known to Cook, Banks and Green before they made their observations as it had been observed and recorded by many astronomers during the 1761 Venus transit.

This has been observed regularly since then. The Black Drop Effect has puzzled astronomers for centuries, and only recently have two astronomers figured it out.

Actually many observers in 2004 saw no black drop and as already stated the explanation reported by Inglis-Arkell is still not accepted by all astronomers.

I’m curious what subject Ms Inglis-Arkell will choose next to display her extensive ignorance.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science

13 responses to “A black spot in science writing

  1. Pingback: A black spot in science writing | Whewell's Ghost

  2. This is embarrassing considering that I’m as ingnorant as you can be when it comes to post-16th century science and even I would have avoided some of the mistakes listed here.

  3. ARaybold

    The poor quality of the referenced article pushes quite a few of the buttons on my curmudgeon console. It seems to me (a phrase that practically certifies me as a curmudgeon) that writing with precision, accuracy and consistency is a declining and increasingly unappreciated art, that ‘my’ opinions and (mis)apprehensions are not only as good as anyone’s but as good as facts, and that beyond there being no embarrassment in sloppy writing and thinking, it is extremely rude of you to make an issue of it.

    Given Dr. Les Perelman’s discovery, in 2005, that the scores of SAT essays were very highly correlated with their length, and the apparent ambivalence in higher education towards cheating and plagiarism, perhaps these developments not surprising. Is it possible (I admit that this is a stretch) that this development is not unconnected with an enthusiasm for postmodernism in the social sciences?

    Inglis-Arkell’s writing is a trivial case; the state of political discourse in the USA, which has been infected with all these problems and more, is not.

    In the interests of accuracy and fairness, I must say that I do not know if Inglis-Arkell herself holds any of the attitudes that I listed in my first paragraph, and nor do I know if Dr. Perelman’s findings hold for recent examinations. Furthermore, I assure you that I will be embarrassed if I find that I have made errors of fact or reasoning in this post.

  4. Regardless of the errors (I take your word for it that they are indeed errors) it seems unconstructive to jump to conclusions about the author’s background and attitudes. A quick web search suggests she should have studied enought to write something sensible on this topic if not on Cantor http://io9.com/5688931/esther-inglis+arkell-bio

  5. Pingback: “You can talk about it but can you do it?” « Naturae Simia

  6. Tony Angel

    She might have studied enough to write something sensible, but not studied long enough to remember to check her “facts”, which are, as pointed out, incorrect.

  7. I actually love and am entertained by her writing, being reminded just today how enjoyable that can be in io9, on “names to avoid in stories”. However, she dropped the ball badly on The Woodward Effect of late; so much so that it annoyed me enough to comment on it. The trick, dear Esther, is research.

  8. Gloone

    She has no interest in good science journalism. Frankly she’s an abhorrent person. She posts intentionally bullshit articles with bullshit headlines, in order to get more clicks (which I imagine is how she gets paid). Anybody who criticises one of her articles, she bans from io9 and deletes all of their messages. Pathetic and completely self-interested woman. Her claim to have a degree in physics is extremely dubious given that she’s more ignorant of basic physics than your average high schooler.

  9. ppubc

    I am studying Particle Physics at UBC, and I am appalled at Esther Inglis-Arkell’s mistakes.

  10. Wow! anoraks and geeks hating someone who can actually write with humour. Who’d a-thunk it?

    • I think I would put the errors as about 90% on EI-A’s shoulders and about 10% on RM’s. I can claim some knowledge of this subject having a PhD in astronomy and having observed the 2012 transit at Mauna Kea (and seen the black drop effect).

      1) Horrocks was unable to observe ingress (due to cloud) or egress (due to sunset) of Venus on the Sun’s disk. As he said in his book Venus in sole visa ” I then beheld a most agreeable spectacle, the object of my sanguine wishes, a spot of unusual magnitude and of a perfectly circular shape, which had already fully entered upon the Sun’s disk on the left”. So, Horrocks’ failure to see the black drop was not evidence of its absence.

      2) The drawing of the teardrop shape bears no resemblance to Cook’s original drawings, which can be seen at (among other web sites): http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2011/03/01/watch_planet_transit_2012_venus/

      3) The important duration in the Venus-Earth system is 243 years. 243 sidereal (Earth) years = 88757.3 days; 395 sidereal (Venus) years = 88756.9 earth days. During this cycle there are normally two pairs of transits, 8 years apart, but the interval between them varies: for the last three pairs of transits it has been 105.5 and 121.5 years but this changes over time. You can find the times for all transits from -2000 to +4000 on the NASA site devoted to it.

      4) I think that it would have been fairer for RM to say that most astronomers would accept Jay Pasachoff’s analysis that the black drop effect is mainly a combination of solar limb darkening and the point spread function of the optics – most casual observers are unaware of just how much darker the limb of the Sun is compared with the centre of the Sun’s disk (it is about 40% of the brightness in the visible region). It is also quite likely that there is some contribution from atmospheric scattering and from scattering and multiple reflections in the optics of the telescope for the historic measurements (interference-based anti-reflection coatings were first developed in the 1930’s).

  11. Pingback: If you’re going to blog about history of science then at least do the legwork. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  12. RM

    Somebody corrected some incredibly basic mistakes in one of her articles today and she just deleted the comments and left the article as it was. What a crone.

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