Astro Blunders

Hmm. Seems Telescoper is assuming the mantle of dissecter of STFC politics. And as ever there are about eight hundred people quicker than me at feeding you the hot new piccies .  Better go for good ole astro-trivia….

In Bertie and the Aliens I told the story of a distinguished astronomer who didn’t know his constellations. This prompted an embarrassed confession by one “Perry Petia” caught out not knowing how to use his/her own Department’s telescope. I thought more of this sort of thing would be rather fun. So …. I would welcome entries in three categories :

(A) Personal confessions

(B) Blunders you have heard about, especially by well known astronomers

(C) Votes for best historical dead ends.

You may wish to post anonymously in this instance, and also may wish to protect the identity of the actors in Category B, as I did with Bertie. I leave this to your judgement. In Category B, well testified stories are best of course, but urban myths will do too as long as clearly marked as such.

I’ll kick off in reverse order.

(C) My favourite is the sad history of nebulium. For sixty years people thought the bright nebular emission lines came from a new element, but nobody could find it, after years of fruitless searching.

(B) I was once observing on the 24 inch on Mount Hopkins with John Huchra. We were manually moving the guider-TV around (ahh ! the good old days !) when the star disappeared in a kind of fat blank patch somewhere near the middle of the field. “What happened ?” says I. “Oh that.” says John. “Somebody I know kinda maybe pointed the guider at Jupiter. Hasn’t been the same since.”

(A) Not saying. Far too embarrassing. If a good stream gets going, will slip this in anonymously.

Right. Who’s up ?

36 Responses to Astro Blunders

  1. Steve W says:

    May we use initials to provide a false sense of anonymity?

    Yes, I hear you say.

    Well in the previous thread Mike Merrifield confessed to mistaking the Milky Way for a large cloud. I was told that GPE did the same at La Palma.

    I was once training a student (LC) to use the JKT. After 1 1/2 nights of leading by example, explaining RA, Dec, hour angle etc, I gave him the controls, and sat down to check my email. Within a minute I was disturbed by the sound of liquid nitrogen pouring out of the dewar, as the telescope had faithfully followed his instructions and slewed to observe a source at 5.1 airmasses.

  2. Rob Ivison says:

    a full list of personal confessions would risk swamping the wordpress storage disks. one that stands out as a potentially career-threatening disaster concerns a paper i’d hastily assembled to describe the discovery of orbital periods in symbiotic stars – those with Mira secondaries. note: we are politely ignoring the fact that working in this field was already career suicide.

    we expected orbital periods of ~10yr, and values of this sort were popping out of a simple analysis of a new stack of photometric data. i was sharing an office with derek ward-thompson at this point, and he was organising seminars at ROE. in the week i submitted the paper, the speaker was andrew collier-cameron, and i showed him the plots. his instant response was “have you checked it’s not a beat?”

    sure enough, combining the Mira pulsations with 365d gave the periods i’d been about to publish as orbital periods… argh! but disaster averted… narrowly.

  3. Patrick Moore tells a good story about a Cambridge astronomer ringing him in the 80s and in the early morning claiming to have discovered a naked eye supernova. After a quick trip to the garden Patrick was able to confirm possibly the world’s most recent independent discovery of the planet Jupiter. I’ve been trying to find out for years who that was.

    Personally, confirming the amount of ozone above the JCMT by detecting it instead of anything celestial is as bad as it gets, but that’s because it clouds over whenever I go near a telescope. I also once multiplied the age of the Universe by a factor of 10^6 on camera…

  4. Iain Steele says:

    I admit to having JCMT integrate for several hours to then discover nothing in the SCUBA images. Well how were we to know they were B1950 coordinates we had submitted to the queue..

  5. Chas says:

    This is not so much a blunder as a good example of science working well. Perhaps one for the AGN officionados:

    Does anyone remember the amazing discovery of periodic X-ray variability from the Seyfert galaxy NGC6814? I’m sure Andy does. Nobody had ever measured a real periodicity from an active galaxy before, and the short timescale (~ 3 hours) suggested something right at the heart of the central monster. This led to all manner of exotic explanations, such as the following paper postulating the capture of an orbiting star by the central black hole:

    Ultimately, though, it turned out to be a simple binary system within our own galaxy that just happened to lie within the field of view of the Ginga satellite:

    A nice example of a single observation ruling out an entire class of exotic theories. It very rarely happens the other way round…

  6. andyxl says:

    You mean exotic theories never rule out observations ? I should hope not too.

    Yes I remember this story. Didn’t do the perpetrators any harm I think..

  7. Megan says:

    Using the department’s telescope during my undergrad course, my lab partner and I got the blame for knocking the dome off it’s base. We blamed the plastic hinge that had been holding the thing together for many years while exposed to not-so-very-friendly weather conditions of Manchester. I’m surprised they let me near a telescope again.

    My Mum discovered a doughnut in space once. She was very excited, but rather disappointed when I focussed it and suggested she have another look…

  8. MikeW says:

    A convincing (and almost certainly real) periodic signal from an AGN was found last year: see . This time the chance of this being an unrelated foreground object are very slim,

  9. Added to the Astronomy Link List

  10. andyxl says:

    Oh but thats only QUASI periodic. We’ve all done that. In fact weren’t we on a paper together half claiming one Mike ? And these guys didn’t reference my N5548 claim. Grumble Grumble. Harrumph. But it is a lovely light curve…

    But we digress. More confessions ! I like this.

  11. telescoper says:


    My post about Keith Mason wasn’t meant to dismantle you…

    ..but while we’re on the subject of astronomical blunderers, I think I’d like to offer the 1991 “discovery” of two planets orbiting a pulsar (published in Nature in 1992) and subsequently retracted when the authors realised that the Earth moved too.


  12. Sarah says:

    When started my (instrumentation) PhD my lab skills were fairly elementary (read: non-existent) and I did a good job at breaking expensive bits of equipment and pleading with technical support people for replacements so I wouldn’t have to tell my supervisor. I also spent many hours testing a complex circuit without the power switched on – another fascinating thesis chapter. But then in instrumentation that all counts as solid research, no?

  13. mikew says:

    Is indeed a qpo we presume but I’ve seen far less convincing light curves for genuine binaries. Anyway perhaps back to blunders.

  14. Ageing Cynic says:

    A blunder by a well-known astronomer? How about promising £9M to restore a small part of the damage done to an already-underfunded grant line, then taking £3M back to pay for MoonLITE, coincidentally led from the astronomer\’s own former institution, despite the fact that every scientific assessment had said it was a waste of money, but skillfully avoiding any risk of peer review by paying for it under the meaningless catch-all buzz-banner of \”knowledge transfer?\”

  15. Michael Merrifield says:

    Seriously, AC? What is your source?

  16. Late one night when I was at Jodrell Bank, whilst driving down to the Defford telescope to switch a heater on (thick oil problem) an engineer told me this;
    When Jodrell was young, before the big dish, an enterprising post doc had put his array of dipoles in a big field through which a road ran. So he put the connecting cables on a kind of bridge over the road. Sir Bernard sees it and insists it is taken down as it’s not safe.Said post doc arrives on Monday to see people disconnecting his dipoles. “Stop,” he says, “You can’t do that.” They replied that Sir Bernard ordered them to do it. “When did you start disconnecting it?” asked the post doc. Friday came the reply. “But you can’t have done,” he said, I’ve been getting great results all week-end.”

  17. Astonished says:

    MoonLITE paid for by knowledge transfer funds? Please tell me this is not true. If true, it is wrong on all sorts of grounds: no peer review, apparent misuse of KT funds, and expenditure on a scientifically weak project at a time when much better projects are suffering.

  18. Paul Crowther says:

    Before anyone gets too carried away with gossip about
    the £9 Million freed up, courtesy of DIUS, the transcript of the evidence session from last Wednesday has just been released. In response to Q127 from Graham Stringer MP, Keith Mason answer was quite specific:

    We will reinvest it in exploitation grants. We have consulted again through our peer review system and £6 million will go directly into exploitation grants and £3 million into special schemes in universities to help technology transfer.

    Earlier comments no doubt reflect a lingering distrust with senior STFC management, but any such claims should be backed up with evidence to the contrary. Still, such concerns may be shared by members of the Select Ctte, as Phil Willis MP concluding the session with:

    Professor Keith Mason, we thank you very much for being our witness and for being so frank and transparent with us, we think.

  19. John Peacock says:

    Unlike Mike M. and GPE, I have yet to discover the Milky Way. However, on my first night at the AAT, I looked at the just-dark sky and was dismayed to notice two clouds that weren’t there at sundown. That’s right, the LMC and SMC.

    Jasper Wall tells me that, when he was at Parkes, the “Flamsteed Prize” was awarded anually for the best rediscovery of a well-known object. He claims to have won it for Saturn.

  20. MikeW says:

    Taking optical images with the INT WFC we were excited to discover a completely uncatalogued 9th mag object in the middle of the field. Whilst we were composing the IAU circular, the telescope operator asked calmly if were observing close to the ecliptic. His instinct was better than ours, we had just rediscovered Uranus. It still worries me that the chances of this happening (planet within a few arcmin of an arbitrary telescope pointing) feel – instinctively at least – to be remarkably low. So not really a blunder, more a fluke that we weren’t prepared for.

  21. telescoper says:


    The Committee thanked Keith Mason for being “transparent”. Does that mean that they saw right through him?


  22. Ageing Cynic says:

    There is an intriguing statement in a BNSC press release about MoonLITE, which says

    \”after considering the advice of the Science and Technology Facilities Council\’s (STFC) Science Board and Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee (PPAN), STFC has now given approval for a \’Phase A\’ technical study to establish the feasibility of the mission concept.\”

    An interesting choice of wording, isn\’t it? If PPAN had given their endorsement, you would have thought it would have said something like \”on the recommendation of…\”

    Also intriguing that this release was dated December 5 2008, whereas a standard grant entitled \”Mission PI support for MoonLITE Phase A\” was issued to MSSL with a start date of May 1 2008. Almost as if they had already made up their minds…

  23. andyxl says:

    Where is The Watcher when you need her/him ?

  24. Paul Crowther says:

    p.s. the share of the `bonus’ money that has gone to the Astronomy Grants Panel in the present round amounts to circa 6-8 extra PDRA’s.. they should know who they are by now since they originally had their grant declined in December, but hey presto, the bad news turned good within a month (odd that it took over 3 months for STFC to decide what to do with the extra cash).

    Naturally, AGP wanted all the money to go towards the grants line, but as Keith M noted at the witness session last week, advisory panels just advise.. actual decisions get taken by those at the top.

  25. Kav says:

    Paul, am I correct in thinking that you mean that money has now been pumped into the system such as some applicants who were below the funding cut-off are now above it and will be offered funding afterall? Essentially it had not entered the system before AGP made its recommendations and grants were announced in December?

    I enjoyed hearing that peer-review advises, and those at the top make the decisions. Of course that is how it is. The story of Jodrell and e-Merlin was particularly interesting.

    Andy, sorry to deviate from your blunders. I suppose that Watcher is busy working: doing important science, chairing committees, or managing people; whatever it is that she/he does in her/his real life.

  26. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi Kav — far be it from me to defend the powers that be, but it is surely absolutely right that peer review advises while senior management makes the decisions. By its nature, peer review takes a fairly narrow and short-term view, weighing up peer-group proposals that are on the table today. Ultimately, though, someone has to combine all this input, which may not even be internally consistent in its conclusions, and factor in non-scientific issues such as the political dimension and a strategic overview, in order to come to the final conclusion.

  27. andyxl says:

    Mike, you are right of course. Management has to manage. But I can’t help thinking of a senior and very influential medic at my own University, who once said to me “Andy, never agree to be on a committee that doesn’t have a budget”. Committee members do take their jobs more seriously if they are confident that their work makes a difference. PPARC had it about right with a layer of panels that really were only advisory, and a layer above them that had budgets; but the office retained the right to vary the decisions of even those bodies. Of course the other standard technique is to ask a committee to rank order projects, leaving the office to float the line. People understand that. But such committees get cross if their ordering is regularly altered.

  28. Paul Crowther says:


    yes – the money has gone some way to lessening the hit upon grants (imposed by the 25% cut in volume set out by STFC following CSR07) by pushing the red line further down the ordered list of grants submitted to AGP in Summer 2008. The remainder will go towards 2009 AGP applications (+ PP + NP) – pity those just `below the line’ in the 2007 round.

  29. Kav says:

    Mike you misunderstand me (understandably so given the brevity of my remark).

    I can accept that peer-review guides the situation and decisions are made from on top (though one would hope that final decisions are not too dissimilar to the expert advice).

    During the ongoing crisis it sometimes seemed as if peer-review was justifying everything. This may be unfair, but it was like a shield to hide behind.

    I am currently writing a post on my own blog as to why the e-Merlin bit and peer-review were interesting.

  30. Michael Merrifield says:

    Of course the other standard technique is to ask a committee to rank order projects, leaving the office to float the line. People understand that. But such committees get cross if their ordering is regularly altered.

    Maybe a bigger problem is that you have one committee ranking astronomy priorities, and another ranking central lab facilities, and then someone in senior management has to somehow interleave the lists; with such apples-and-oranges comparisons, there can be no peer-driven decision.

  31. Fitzsy says:

    Back on track…I know a relatively well known astronomer who had spent many a PATT allocation studying the Pleiades, yet couldn’t point them out (they can now!).

    Maybe not as embarrassing as a young PhD student who observed a spectacular switching-off of activity during photometry of comet Halley, and was mentally composing the IAU Circular when it was pointed out he’d not switched on the dome rotation. Ahem.

  32. Martin E. says:

    As a grad student I got the coordinates wrong for A0620-00 (Mon X-1, or “Elvis’s Nova” as I alone like to call it -I wuz robbed!) in the first IAU Circular on it, thanks to not converting decimal degrees to hms properly. Luckily X-ray telescopes had such a HUGE field of view back then that SAS-3 still picked it up, and it even was still in Monoceros.

  33. Andy A says:

    Disappointed to find that John P got to the Magellanic Cloud Prize before I did. 1985 I think, though memory fades.

  34. Stephen says:

    The other night, i managed to un-discover Saturn.

    I was looking for Comet Lulin, in high light pollution. My scope’s computer is useless in the cold, and besides, i didn’t have coordinates, just a rather poor finder chart. I was pretty sure i had Regulus. But to make doubly sure, i looked at Saturn.

    But someone had crossed out Saturn by drawing a line through it.

  35. […] Astro Blunders The e-Astronomer Good old blunders in astronomy, you could add your own. […]

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