Credit where it’s due?

The Andromeda Galaxy in optical, IR and X-ray

Earlier this week, this amazing image of M31, the Andromeda galaxy, was splashed all over the media and the inernet. The image is a composite of optical, infrared and X-ray data, with the infrared image coming from the Herschel space telescope, launched in 2009. The picture has been featured and discussed in the media all week – rightly so, as it’s stunning. With Herschel, we can finally showcase far-infrared and submillimetre images that are just as beautiful as those produced at shorter wavelengths with Hubble, or VLT on the ground. Moreover, observing galaxies at these wavelengths at the level of detail enabled by Herschel is opening some big new windows onto the physics that governs the Universe, from right on our doorstep to billions of lightyears away. What I’m saying, if that wasn’t yet clear, is that this telescope is something to be very proud of.

The Daily Mail, however, decided to take a different approach – one that both misses the point, and is plain wrong. It sets the Herschel image side by side with an optical image of Andromeda, taken by British amateur astronomer Steve Loughran, and asks:

“One of these pictures was taken in a British back garden by an amateur using kit worth £10,000 – the other cost Nasa millions. But can you tell the difference?”

Mr. Loughran is clearly a very good astrophotographer, and his dedication is admirable. When I see images from amateur astronomers like Loughran’s and those of hundreds of stargazers around the world, I’m in awe of what they can accomplish with relatively simple equipment and lots of time and dedication. Many amateur astronomers actively participate in research; just this week a 10-year old girl in Canada discovered a new supernova. And while 10 thousand quid may be cheap compared with the cost of professional telescopes, if writing this blog were to cost me 10 grand I doubt I’d be doing it.

Their pictures deserve to be in the papers every day of the week – preferably in the spots usually reserved for topless 18-year olds, Simon Cowell or Cheryl Cole (sorry, nothing personal).

So while I don’t want to spoil the moment for Mr. Loughran, the comparison with the Herschel image is completely moot, and not a little irritating.

The Daily Mail would like to compare, in all seriousness, two telescopes that are designed to observe different things (optical vs. infrared), have completely different specifications, and, let’s not forget, one of them is in space. It’s like arguing whether pictures of people or X-rays of their bones are better – they’re simply two different things.

The comparison is not just moot, it’s also misguided. After all, the amazing quality of amateur telescopes, and even of digital cameras we now all own, is precisely the result of millions of pounds (/dollars/euros) spent on research, to understand the science behind imaging systems, develop ways to produce optics cheaply, and process the data into these nice images. And the images and knowledge to come out of “expensive” research are often what inspires many of these people to gaze at the stars in the first place.

The cost of Herschel, the Daily Mail writes, is “estimated to be in the tens of millions”. Actually, the total cost of Herschel including operations, is reported to be €1.1 billion. That’s a lot of money. This kind of expenditure in science is reserved for very special projects, and years of deliberation, committee meetings and review precede it. We don’t just spend a billion euro on any old crap.

Finally, and I’ve saved the best for last, the Daily Mail gets one of the most basic facts of the article wrong. Herschel is not a NASA mission; it’s one of the cornerstone missions of the European Space Agency. The telescope is named after Sir William Herschel, one of Britain’s all-time greatest scientists. The design and construction of one of Herschel’s three instruments, SPIRE, was led by a British university, Cardiff. British companies were involved in the contruction of the telescope. If ESA’s own website is weird and foreign, there’s always Wikipedia, Google.

If the über-patriotic tabloid press ever needed an excuse to blow the trumpet of British science, this would be a great opportunity. Buts its reporters don’t even know British science when it’s staring them in the face and singing God Save The Queen.

I don’t agree with many things that get written in the Daily Mail, and I respect that people have different opinions. But if a newspaper can’t even handle this level of factual accuracy, and is unable to issue a correction in a reasonable timeframe (and the mistake was pointed out by several people in the comments), surely it doesn’t deserve to call itself one?

It’s not that I don’t like what the Daily Mail have to say about funding in my area of science (and I was never involved in Herschel myself); science spending should be subjected to scrutiny and criticism so the best and most important projects get funded. To live in a world where the Daily Mail leads a credible debate whether to prioritise, say, dark energy or exoplanets research is pretty much a dream. Sadly, this article proves that we’re some way off that. Maybe as a first step it could send some of its reporters to fact-checking classes.

Image credit: infrared: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/J. Fritz, U. Gent; X-ray: ESA/XMM-Newton/EPIC/W. Pietsch, MPE; optical: R. Gendler

Hat-tip to Stuart and Dave for tweeting about the story


  1. I particularly like the fact that the first line of the
    article says : Nasa has invested billions of dollars in high-tech
    equipment to take detailed photographs of our solar system. True.
    But not much to do with Andromeda.


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