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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Comet of the Mapes

Come back with me now...back...back to the last century, when the Web was new and dewy. In those sepia-tinted days, a comet did appear, and it was called Hale-Bopp. And an amateur astronomer did take an image of it with his CCD rig, and he did find something unexpected: a Saturn-like object.

That's in that top photo. The very bright blob is Hale-Bopp, and the bright thing to the right, with the line through it, is a star. Except the "astronomer", Chuck Shramek, didn't see it on his star chart. This was due to the odd behavior of his astronomical software. That sort of thing might happen to anybody (I "discovered" Mars once in a similar fashion), but Shramek immediately leaped to the conclusion that it was a spaceship following the comet. Who wouldn't? See here if you want all the fun details. Nearly ten years and the page is still going strong.

Well, radio host Art Bell got hold of that, and there was a great disturbance in the Force, and the astronomical Usenet groups burned with the news for months. More responsible heads tried to explain the origin of the line through the object (diffraction spikes), and the fact that proper use of the star chart showed there was an ordinary star at that position, but some were determined to be unconvinced.

In particular, one fellow, whose name I did not note, claimed that just because the star was a star and not, in fact, a spaceship did not mean that there was no spacecraft accompanying the comet. After all, the aliens could be hiding behind the comet! There, what do you have to say about that, Mr. Smarty-Pants scientist?

I was agog. Leaving aside the incredible improbability of the whole thing for a moment, the only "evidence" for a spacecraft was the strange object. Once that was explained, there's no reason to believe in comet-tailgating spacecraft.
I thought I'd discovered the world's stupidest human being.

Apparently, I was wrong.

I owe that man an apology.

(The thing that really steams me about the whole Mapescapade is that this is a woman, several years older than I, who had a position of tremendous responsibility in a media giant, yet she seems not to have the brains God gave gravel. OK, OK, I can sort of accept that after months -- I think it was -- of careful research, she was unable to discern that there was something fishy about the print on the memo in question. But even now, after it's been explained to her and everyone else in gory detail -- multiple times, so the slower kids can catch up -- she still believes there's an AWOL following Comet Bush, and we'd all see it if those reactionary, close-minded blogologists weren't suppressing the Truth.)

(Also, for the sake of my title, I hope "Mapes" is pronounced "Mapes" and not, e.g., "May Pees", because I managed to get through the whole Miers contretemps without hearing about it on TV, and so for the longest time I thought her name was pronounced "Meers", and it was only when various wags started coming up with titles such as "Miers Deniers" that I twigged.)