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Thursday 28 August 2014

Seven Million Years Bad Luck ?

Some considerable time ago, I wrote a short post about much easier life would be if I were a professional pseudoscientist. I happened to mention my favourite "alternative" cosmology - the Space Mirror Mystery. This is the delightful notion that most of what we see in the Universe isn't real but is only a reflection is a huge cosmic mirror (or mirrors). While absolutely ingenious and hugely entertaining, the idea is about as bonkers as it's possible to get.

Much to my surprise, the instigator of this, um, creative idea responded to the post. Well, I couldn't help myself. Most of the website is free, but to access one particular file you have to pay $1001 :

"Hello Pradipta,

I see that you offer items for sale on your website. $1001 is quite a lot of money, what do I get for this ? Do you sell actual pieces of the space mirror ?"

The flat-out contradictory response (two months later and you still have to pay $1001) :

"Dear Rhys, 
There is no price for science. I think you have not understood the theory of space mirror mystery for cause of my bad English. I think if you understand the theory clearly, you may able to making a visual graphic effect and explain the truth to the astronomers. For the welfare of space science the theory needs your help."

No price apart from the $1001 ? Of all the requests for artwork I've had, this is the strangest.

What follows is a choice summary of the "debate" between myself and Pradipta Mohapatra (which you can read in full here) - but first, a short description of this wonderfully bizarre idea. Unfortunately, Pradipta's English is not very good... which makes it all the more entertaining*.

* This is a little cruel, and to be fair, his English is a lot better than my Odia (Oriya). Seriously, if anyone speaks Odia and is willing to help as a translator, get in touch !

From the website, the idea appears to be that the entire Universe is enclosed by a giant mirror about 300 million km wide surrounding the Sun. However, Pradipta assures me that this is not the case, and in a word document (actually just a series of images - bizarrely, since the website is quite well-designed, the text appears to have been typed on a typewriter and scanned in) it appears that there are at least two (possibly four) space mirrors. Are these supposed to be connected, part of a larger, spherical mirror ? I don't know. I assume so, otherwise we'd see nothing at all if we looked out of the plane of the Solar System.

Beyond the mirror there is nothing. Apparently, the commonly accepted distance, size and mass estimates of the Sun are all correct (as presumably are those of the Earth, Mercury and Venus - Mars isn't mentioned) but the giant outer planets have been overestimated. Jupiter, for example, is "really" only twice the size of the Earth (actually it's more like 11) and 153 million km from the Sun, which means at its closest approach to Earth it would be only about 4 million km away ! (actually, it's more like 780 million km from the Sun). But somehow we're being deceived because we're always seeing reflections in that pesky space mirror.

He also states that sunspots aren't real but are somehow caused by the mirror (your guess is as good as mine) and that, just for good measure, there is another Earthlike planet in the Solar System to which there is a "secret root [sic]" we can use to travel between it "and come back safely".

Ooo.... kay....

There are any number of possible ways to disprove this. I do this entirely for entertainment purposes, I am not in the least worried that anyone else might actually believe it (unlike the far more viral, in the literal sense, like Ebola - space vortex video). Some of the more obvious points that come to mind :

1) Dude, are you alright ?
2) If the stars were only reflections in the mirror, which is only twice the size of the Earth's orbit, then the constellations should look distorted as we move toward some (and away from others) throughout the year. They don't (interestingly, Copernicus had the same problem).
3) Those mushrooms look a bit funny.
4) We should see the Sun, Earth, Mercury, Mars, Venus and the Moon reflected in the mirror, but we don't.
5) You've had enough now. Put the bottle back.
6) We've sent spacecraft further away than 300 million km but they didn't hit any "space mirror".
7) I really don't think you're supposed to smoke that...
8) If the mirror encompasses the whole Solar System and nothing exists beyond it, it and everything in the Solar System would eventually heat up and become as hot as the Sun (since there is nowhere for the radiation to go).
9) Whoa, are you sure that stuff is legal ?
10) No explanation is given as to what stars, nebulae and galaxies are reflections of.

I raised some of those points with Pradipta. I never got any clear answers, or any answer at all as to the last point. Admittedly, he did promise answers provided we established the basis of the theory, but amazingly we never got that far. As fas as spacecraft not hitting the mirror goes, he had the following pearl of wisdom to impart :

"Remember that as light the power of remote reflects in mirror. One should keep in mind that targeting on the reflected picture, by a remote device we can get the desired result. Suppose you are watching a space film on a Television set and such film’s image also appears in a mirror opposite. Now you are bored and like to change over through the remote control of the television. You can do so either by directing directly on the television or by directing on image on the mirror.
Through remote space organizations have sent man less space vehicle to different space objects like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune ….etc. Cause of reflections on space mirror those men less space vehicles are going to the real space objects on real root. It may be noted here that since we are able only to see the real space objects situated within the radius of 150 million kilometers from earth and particularly we cannot see anything real space objects out of the above radius of the earth’s darken part, through remote we can never send man less space vehicles out of above distances.”

I think he's trying to say that the transmissions from the spacecraft are reflected off the mirror, which fools us into thinking that they're further away than they "really" are. Except, of course, that this is nonsense - spacecraft point their transmitters toward Earth, not ahead of themselves.

Yes, it's fiction, but it's one of the most accurate pieces of fiction ever.
I also asked exactly how wide the mirror was, but never got an answer. He insists that all of my questions are already answered on his website, but really, they're not. Really really. Honestly, I've spent considerable time looking, but they're not there. Which was why I asked them.

I also tried asking, "why do you think there's a space mirror at all ?" (as opposed to just about all of modern science), which began the discussion in earnest. He answers :

"The theory of space mirror mystery is completely based on a single rule, i.e. “Everything has a limited form or shape”. Can you explain me about any form or shape what have unlimited form or shape? If you unnecessarily try to do so I can easily defeat you by words."

I responded that I didn't understand why everything having a limited shape meant there should be a space mirror, but didn't get any further information about this. However, he continued with what would become the major sticking point for the discussion :

"As the inhabitant of the earth, our astronomers have measured that the size of sun is 3,00,000 times bigger than earth. If sun is 3,00,000 times bigger than earth, then from earth, we must find that an earth like size object would be completely disappeared at the place of sun. Am I wrong ?"

(he's talking here about the mass of the Sun, not its diameter)

"We are living within sun light. So before thinking anything, we should verify how far we could see the space objects within sunlight. It appears from earth, in mass sun is 3,00,000 times bigger than earth, then it also appear to me that an earthlike object would completely disappeared at sun’s distance. Am I wrong? If yes, let me answer at which distance earthlike object would be completely disappeared from earth."

Later, he emphasised this further :

"Unless/until our eyes objects, we are able to see the vast space. Whatever we see through our eyes, telescope enlarges the same. If anything objects our eyes we cannot see beyond that, neither telescope will help us through it."

"An object how bigger it may be, become smaller and smaller as it goes away and away from our eye sight, the thing appears us smaller and smaller till it disappears from our eye sight."

So it appears that he doesn't believe it's possible to see things if they're too far away. Well, while that's true as far as it goes (but watch out - we'll get back to this soon) this doesn't actually explain anything. If you can't see something that's too far away, you won't be able to see its reflection either. Specifically, he thinks that objects which appear to be extremely distant are the result of multiple reflections between the two mirrors (or two opposite sides of the same mirror). But this obviously doesn't help, because reflections get progressively smaller too. So if you can't see something 150 million kilometres away, you won't be able to see it if its reflection looks like it's 150 million kilometres away.

He also doesn't explain why we don't see multiple reflections of various objects.

Source for this is well worth reading.
Moreover, why the fact the Sun is big and far away specifically means that an Earth-sized planet would not be visible at the Sun's distance is pretty cryptic (Pradipta is insistent on this point and seems to think it's obvious). Nonetheless, I tried very hard to answer this.

As things get further away, they look smaller. We both agree on this, at least. This basic fact was best explained by the inimitable Father Ted :

The apparent size of an object depends on its true physical size and its distance from the observer. There's nothing very interesting or profound about this, it's just a basic property of perspective. We can quantify the apparent size of an object by its angular size - that is, what fraction of our field of view it takes up. This is geometry at its simplest.

If you were to stand in the center of a football stadium, you'd be able to turn a full 360 degrees and see the stadium all around you. Of course, you'd only have to look up, say, 20-30 degrees before you start looking at the sky. The Sun and the Moon are both about half a degree across, or roughly the size of a penny at arm's length. The smallest thing you can see is about 0.02 degrees... sort of.

More accurately, the smallest thing you can resolve is about 0.02 degrees. All that means is if something is too far away, you can't see it as anything more than a featureless point. For a penny, you'd have to move it about 28 metres away before you couldn't see any structure to it (please do try this at home). But, if it was a bright, sunny day, and the penny was a nice shiny new one, you could still see it glinting in the sunlight, even if it was much further away. It might be too small to resolve, but that doesn't mean it would be so small it would stop reflecting all light back toward you.

And that's the key point. Angular size never reaches zero. But - and this is crucial - Pradipta insists he's not merely talking about anything being too small to see with our eyes :

"I don’t ask you about any large enough telescope, what could detect a planet at any distance....
Completely disappear means zero. Neither the object would be visible to earth nor does any telescopic instrument help us to detect through it."

He also explicitly asked :

"Then my question is very clear “at which distance would the earth like object be completely disappeared from earth?”

I'd already tried explaining that things never completely disappear no matter how far away they are (that's impossible, as we'll see in a minute) but he didn't accept this. So for the sake of giving an answer, I calculated the distance at which it would become invisible to our eyes.

Well, just like moving a penny 28 metres away, if we move an Earth-size planet 43 million kilometres away we'll only see a point of light. As we move it further away, it will appear fainter and fainter. At about 1.3 billion kilometres, it will be as faint as the faintest star we can see with the naked eye. This is a fairly simple calculation - you can check my maths here, if you like that sort of thing. All it requires is the size and luminosity of the Sun, and the size and reflectivity of the Earth (surprisingly, Pradipta accepts the standard values for these).

A very simple sanity check indicates that this answer can't be too wide of the mark. We can certainly see Mercury with our eyes, even though it's much smaller than Earth and can be further away than the Sun is (though it can be pretty close to the visibility limit). Uranus, accepting standard values, is only a few times bigger than Earth, at least 1.6 billion kilometres distant, and just about visible to the naked eye.

But Pradipta was not happy with this answer for several reasons. First, he said it assumed "a constant lightening atmosphere". Of course, it didn't. We know that light decays in proportion to the square of the distance - so if you move twice as far away from the light source, the amount of energy received goes down by a factor of four. That's a critical part of the calculation. And then there was his continuous insistence that things can completely disappear - not merely fall below the resolution of our eyes, but actually reach an angular size of zero if they're far enough away :

"Friend, kindly observes the facts. Our existence has been started from sun and we know the distance between earth to sun is 150 million kilometers. So it is logically proved and clearly appeared if an earthlike object moves from our earth toward sun, would be completely zero at the sun‘s distance. This fact proves also the position of earth always zero everywhere at the distance of 150 million kilometers. So we can never see or detect any illuminated objects of sun beyond 150 million kilometers."

How, exactly, the fact that the Sun is big and far away is clear and logical proof that we wouldn't be able to see an Earth-size planet at that distance is, I'm afraid, something that quite escapes me.

Here's why things never disappear completely, no matter how far away they are. Suppose I'm looking at a large red stick, because why not.

Original image.
I could do some trigonometry to determine the distance or the angular size of the stick, but I just measured it. No maths was used in this at all.

Now let's move a bit further away.

Original image.

You'll probably want to open the links to see the images full size. I kept the stick and the observer the same screen size, just to be extra clear that what happens really happens and isn't some kind of CGI hocus-pocus.

Let's go even further !

You'll notice that the observer's lines of sight to the top and bottom of the stick form a triangle, with the stick being the third side. As we move the stick further away, the triangle gets longer and sharper - the angular size of the stick gets smaller and smaller, from 45 degrees at 2.4m distance to just 1 degree at 114.6m. The angle between the observer's two lines of sight is the angular size of the stick.

That's the crux of the matter - no matter how great the distance, we can always draw a triangle using the two lines of sight and the stick, and so the stick always has some angular size. Now it may be an incredibly thin, sharp triangle if the stick was a billion kilometres away, but there isn't some freaky limit beyond which triangles don't exist. The angular size can get arbitrarily small, but it can never, ever reach zero.

So if it's a choice between believing that all of science is wrong, or that triangles exist, I'll choose triangles, thanks.

Pradipta's response ?

"As per your images you have shown about triangles marking as ‘A’ as the viewer point of the observer and ‘B’ ‘C’ are the points of a stick of two meters length. If a match’s stick would be 2 inches length, mathematically you are also getting never ending answer because you are following wrong procedure and drawing the unending lines imaginary and blindly believe that everything can be discovered through telescopic instrument. Of course your mathematic is correct for a limited extend and telescopic instruments may function within such limitation."

Sigh. I posted a counter-response asking what the limit is at which the mathematics breaks down (and what exactly happens to stop triangles existing), but he said that would be his last reply. So I don't think he's coming back. Pity.

You may wonder why I even bothered debating such an outlandish idea. Well, several reasons (besides hilarity). Firstly, it appears that Pradipta genuinely believes his idea and isn't trying to scam anyone (I suspect the $1001 is a typo). Secondly, he was willing to debate in a sensible, polite and courteous manner with no name-calling or personal attacks. But mostly I was curious what pattern of thinking could have lead him to an idea so far removed from reality that it's fallen off the edge of the flat Earth. Interestingly, he thinks his ideas are entirely rational - there's no hint of any underlying religious motivation. And unlike the space vortex author, Pradipta does not have any links to ozone hole skeptics or other dangerous conspiracy theories (as far as I can tell), so the whole thing seems like a harmless enough piece of folly.

I've also been thinking a lot lately about the point at which science dismissing alternative models becomes unscientific and arrogant. I'll explore this in detail in the next post, but for now, I'll note only this : science is built on facts. Interpretation may be subjective, but facts aren't. It is an inherent part of the scientific method that if it disagrees with observation, it is wrong. Sometimes this can be harsh and unpleasant, but it's the only way to make progress.

Finally, Pradipta, if you're reading this, I sincerely thank you for the polite discussion. I think your idea is very clever, but absolutely and unequivocally wrong. I urge you to take some classes in basic mathematics (especially geometry) and astronomy. If you are open to listening to the facts, I think you will soon learn why there is not, and cannot, be a giant space mirror.

EDIT : An Unfortunate Postscript

Some time ago, Pradipta ended the discussion with the rather strange phrase :
"Whatever it may be? [no idea what this is referring to] Then you believe: Space mirror = Zero"
Yes ! That's right, I believe space mirror equals zero, i.e. it does not exist ! Tough to see any ambiguity in that statement to my mind. Well, I didn't deign to reply further, it just seemed a waste of time.
A few weeks later, Pradipta decided to send the following email to the astronomy staff at Cardiff University :

"Dear Sir,
I have no doubt about your intelligence.
As an advocate, I plead on behalf of entire world that nothing is real beyond 150 million kilometers except mere reflections. I strongly plead that as the inhabitant of earth and within sun light, we are able to see the real space objects within the radius of 150 million kilometers only. Since we get ourselves as zero at the distance of 150 million kilometers, space mirrors appear us on two points, viz, on the point of earth’s shadow and point of sun.
 On above rules, the theory of “SPACE MIRROR MYSTERY” is formed and we claim:
  • Item No-1 Sun is the only star of the solar system as well as the universe and it can be proved.
  • Item No-2 The space objects what we have observed within 300 million Kilometers from the sun are real space object and ahead of 300 million Kilometers are mere images of the space objects situated within 225million Kilometers to 300 million Kilometers from the sun. From calculation it appears that the real Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune & Pluto are 253, 264, 277, 288 & 292 million Kilometers respectively from sun.
  • Item No-3 In mass, the real Jupiter is two times bigger than earth but we observe the image Jupiter as twelve times bigger than earth and same real Saturn, Uranus & Neptune are smaller than earth.
  • Item No- 4 Sun has no spot. Cause of space mirror sun spots appear on sun
Above was strongly objected by Rhys Taylor, Astrophysicist, Astronomical Institute, Prague. I believe he is convinced at zero concepts after a long debate. Please read that debate between me and Rhys in the following link
Please read the debate carefully and change the geography of space science truthfully. You may also read the link
Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra
Note: Please share this to your astronomical colleagues if you appreciate."

Let me state this in terms so clear there can't be any doubt by anyone at all, ever : FUCK OFF PRADIPTA. Your assumption (for the second time) that my lack of response somehow equals my agreement is retarded. Stop it. At no point in any part of the discussion did I remotely entertain the notion of a space mirror; both of these posts couldn't be any frickin' clearer on this point. If you post them to a bunch of academics, it's going to be obvious to them that this is the case. Claiming that they state the exact opposite of what they say is to my mind rather a lot worse than a personal attack. It is is equivalent to claiming that I'm a Moon landing conspiracy theorist or a global warming denier; a line has been crossed beyond which I feel no obligation whatsoever to remain civil. Further discussion can serve no purpose. Any additional comments are subject to deletion entirely at my whim. Goodbye.


  1. Excellent article. I'm always glad to know there are people reaching out to the cranks. We are all that guy at some level.

    If you're up for it, I'd be interested in reading the results of you tackling this site:
    He seems to at least be not insane, but he claims to have found multiple inconsistencies with the standard model(!) which he can resolve with his theories. Seems like a quack trying to sell books, but at least he's marginally polite about it.

  2. When I have time, I will return to this and correct any errors in the text.

  3. My god—it's full of mirrors!

  4. Dear Rhys,
    Very recently, you have selected the name of space mirror mystery as your nutcase category. Since the theory was written by an advocate I have no opinion against an Astronomer. But I am very surprised that you have not yet convinced at zero concept.
    Remember, we get the first, real and natural zero from the sun and since light runs on straight way and since we get natural zero on the point of sun and on point of earth shadow hence our eyes (zero concepts) reflect on space mirrors.
    Sun supply light to it surrounding. If we compare, we find that just a point of light reflects our earth and if we search such light point or imaginary earth or earth like object, we must get zero at the distance of sun and particularly on the point of sun our eyes (zero concepts) reflects on space mirror. Our eyes reflects another space mirror on the point of earth’s shadow because our eyes find that at the distance of sun, the earth’s shadow or imaginary earth or earth like object become completely zero within light of sun. Above facts are very simple to understand about the space mirrors/zero concepts.
    Do not be confused. I know the angular size of any real thing cannot be zero at any place of our real universe. Prior you had said that the real earth would never be zero at the distance of sun and it is absolutely correct.
    Cause of space mirror we cannot see any real things beyond 150 million kilometers but we can see such beyond objects if we move such space mirrors practically. It is possible only for an astronaut who can move itself ahead to ahead practically.
    Have you seen mirage? Things beyond mirage become visible if we will go ahead and ahead.
    The future of astronomy depends upon you. If you are wrong, the development of astronomy will be squeezed and you cannot give us true astronomy for years.
    Yes, you have committed a mistake at observing space and present us a boundless universe although there is a rule that “everything has a limited form or shape”.
    In real our universe is very limited and we can prove that sun is only luminous body of our universe.
    Astronomy is the property of public. We should not waste it on wrong conception. We should relinquish the past deed. We have to face the truth forever.


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