Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Linear streak artifacts and "BioStation Alpha"

So now, an "armchair astronomer" has used a satellite imaging map to zoom in on what he thinks is a secret alien base camp on Mars.

The video, made by David Martines, can be viewed here.  At last check, it had been viewed over 850,000 times.  Martines is unequivocal; he calls the feature "BioStation Alpha," and thinks it is clearly of alien manufacture.  "It's over 700 feet long and 150 feet wide. It looks like it's a cylinder or made up of cylinders," Martines said.  "I'm just assuming that something lives in it or has lived in it."

Actual, non-armchair astronomers disagree.  "It looks like a linear streak artifact produced by a cosmic ray," said Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist at the University of Arizona.  "[W]ith space images that are taken outside our magnetosphere, such as those taken by orbiting telescopes, it's very common to see these cosmic ray hits.  You see them on optical images and a lot of the infrared images too."  The cylindrical appearance of the feature is because as you zoom in, the image pixillates, so the light streak is exploded into rows of "cylinders."

None of this, of course, is convincing the general public, which tends to look upon scientists as being either Dopey Out-of-Touch Pointy-Headed Pocket-Protector-Wearing Nerdlings or as Evil Super-Genius Conspirators Bent On Destroying Civilization.  Or possibly both at the same time.  So the "BioStation Alpha" story has gone viral, with people even speculating about which of the many alien races built it, how it's being used, whether the aliens have peaceful or malevolent intentions, and if this has anything to do with, god help us, December 21, 2012.

Even the normally reliable couldn't resist jumping on the bandwagon, with a headline that said, "Did an Amateur Astronomer Spot a Secret Mars Base?"  I clicked on the link, hoping that the entire article would be the single word, "NO" in 96-point font, but it wasn't.  They arranged the article in a rather sneaky fashion, putting Martines' testimonial about how he spotted "BioStation Alpha" right below a still image of the feature, then putting some ads, and then placing a full-size link to the YouTube video.  So you get to the video, which of course you have to watch.  If you then come back to the article, and scroll down even further, you finally get to Professor Pointy-Head's explanation about how cosmic rays + pixillation = Mars base -- but only after you've waded through all of the woo-woo stuff first.

The whole thing just makes me sigh heavily, because I just know that today I'm going to get about four hundred questions from very earnest students about how there is an alien staging platform on Mars.  And I'll have to go through the cosmic ray explanation, which they won't like because as explanations go it's not nearly as cool as an alien staging platform, and I'll get the "well, it could be an alien base, right?" question.  And at that point I'm going to take Ockham's Razor and slit my wrists with it.

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