Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bad Science Reporting 101: No they didn't plan on blowing up the Moon

I would have imagined that anyone with even a 5th grade education would know enough science to skeptical of the rather looney (pun intended) idea the United States planned to blow up the Moon to impress the Russians.  Alas, I had forgotten that a lack of scientific knowledge, along with a lack of skeptical inquiry into any absurd claim against the "Military-Industrial Complex" was a requirement for success in the humanities, including journalism.

You have likely read or seen news reports that "Project A119", also known as "A Study of Lunar Research Flights" was a newly discovered secret plan to "blow up" the Moon. Some of these come from allegedly credible sources, such a Brian Williams on MSNBC.  Other outlets include Forbes, a CBS affiliate, Yahoo News, and countless others.

The only problem is it's not quite true.  This story originated with the Daily Mail, an entertaining British tabloid better known for celebrity scandals than for accurate science stories.  And even there story came closer to the truth than some of the derivative articles. They note that "a missile carrying a small nuclear device was to be launched from an undisclosed location and travel 238,000 miles to the moon, where it would be detonated upon impact." and that the "planners decided it would have to be an atom bomb because a hydrogen bomb would have been too heavy for the missile." 

Good skeptical reporters would have stopped there and asked themselves if a single atom bomb could do any significant damage to the Moon, much less blow it up.  The answer is obviously no.  They would have then asked themselves who was involved with the project and would they have known that this would not destroy the Moon. The answer to this is many scientists, including a young Carl Sagan and physicist Leonard Reiffel (As noted in the Daily Mail article).  By 1959 the US had exploded countless atom bombs, including the more powerful hydrogen bombs.  They knew full well that this "a small nuclear device" would not do any real damage, that was not it's intention.  A decent reporter might even have done a simple Google search to see if the Daily Mail article contained anything new except the wildly inaccurate headline. It doesn't. This accurate Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article is from May of 2000.

So what happened?  Obviously the sensationalist Daily Mail took some very old, but semi-interesting, news that the US had contemplated exploding an atomic bomb on the Moon and letting the flash, not any destruction, scare the Soviets, and sexied it up by making it seem that it was an insane plot to destroy the Moon.  Utterly incompetent reporters, such as Brian Williams, too the story and ran with it, without even the slightest skepticism. It took me less than 30 seconds to find the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, yet either the entire combined staff of MSNBC has weaker "google fu" than I do, or else they deliberately ran a false story that will live forever on the internet, fueling anti-American paranoia.I don't know which possibility is worse.

I suspect it is the latter.  A typical headline is Yahoo News "U.S. 'planned to blow up Moon' with nuke during Cold War era to show Soviets might" yet the last sentence states "The scientists also registered concerns about contaminating the moon with radioactive material, Reiffel said." They wouldn't be worried about irradiating the Moon if they were trying to destroy it.


kallamis said...

Oh boy. 1 missile. To blow up the moon? We couldn't do it now with everything we have, unless we went up there, took them all down into very very deep caverns, and upper caverns, etc. And what then, we put pieces of it between 2 slices of toast. Where do these people come up with this stuff.

Dave Tackett said...

I know, but modern reporters are incredibly bad with science, and are not especially concerned with accuracy.

The real plan to explode an atomic bomb on the Moon and let the flash of light be seen, would have been relatively easy, though it probably would not have cowed the Soviets. As usual, a serious study came to the right result, in this case that it wasn't worth the risk.