Signal to Noise

4 March 2013

My professional work focuses on two things: astrophysics and science communication. In astrophysics the challenge is often to distinguish the signal from the noise. That is, you sift through large amounts of observational data to find the useful bit of data that tells you something about the universe. Find the transit of a planet in the flickering of a star, find a simple relationship between a galaxy’s brightness and the mass of its central black hole. You have to sift through a great deal of information to get to the kernel of truth.

In science communication the opposite is true. Even in your own narrow field you review a topic to make sure your understanding is correct, and you have to synthesize a topic down to something that is understandable to people with no training in your field while still being meaningful and accurate. It’s something I’m still learning to do, and I don’t always do well. Communicating science takes time to do well, which is why I don’t post everyday.

But often that signal is overpowered by noise. Take for example a short video that has gone viral recently, seen below. It claims to show the motion of the solar system through space, and it has over 600,000 views on YouTube. It is also completely wrong on multiple points. Just to name a few:

  1. Jupiter is in the wrong place. The video has it located between Neptune and Pluto, when it is between Mars and Saturn.

  2. The video asserts the heliocentric model is wrong because the sun moves through space. Not true.

  3. It has the Sun moving along its axis (relative to what?), when this is not how the Sun moves in the galaxy.

  4. It visualizes the planets lagging behind the Sun, which is not accurate.

  5. It asserts the Sun drags planets along through space (in its wake), which is totally wrong.

  6. It confuses vortex (circular fluid motion) with helix (a spiral path).

  7. It makes wild claims about how spirals equate to life and asserts this leads to some new interpretation of physics.

In short, it is fringe theory science-babble wrapped in pretty animation. The majority of those viewers will watch it, accept it and move on. And with 600,000 views and climbing, the video has spread more misconceptions in a day than I or most other scientists could counter in a year. Pretty noise that overwhelms the signal.

So in the effort of helping people find the signal in the noise, if you’ve shared this video or given it a +1, make a post on your feed stating that it isn’t accurate, or share a post that outlines why it isn’t accurate. Help counter the idea that the solar system is a living spiral that scientists don’t really understand.

And if there are any animation people able to make beautiful animations like this, I’d love to work with you to make some videos that are beautiful and scientifically accurate.

More signal, less noise.