Peter Dunsby thought he made a groundbreaking discovery. He noticed a bright object in the night sky, only visible for a few moments. Excited, he wanted to share his discovery with the world, so he Dunsby posted a note on the Astronomer’s Telegram. Unfortunately, as it turns out… Dunsby had re-discovered Mars.
Dunsby is a well-known cosmologist who has published extensively in the fields of cosmology and gravitation and is a key member of the South African National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme. But no one is spared of blunders, not even proficient scientists. Despite detailed maps of the night sky, planets move around quite a lot, and it’s easy to overlook even something as elementary as Mars.
The sad thing is, you can even feel the excitement in his words — he just wanted to share his finding with other astronomers, and encourage them to also look for it:
“The object was visible throughout the full duration of the observations and not seen when this field was observed previously (08 March 2018),” Dunsby wrote.
“The optical transient is the brightest star in the field. Further observations are strongly encouraged to establish the nature of this very bright optical transient.”
It didn’t take long for Dunsby to realize and admit his error — no later than 40 minutes after the original submission, he submitted the correction you see above. Astronomer’s Telegram took the chance to poke a little fun at Dunsby:
Lesson learned. Check check and triple check and then check some more!!
The Twitter-sphere was also understanding and supportive of Dunsby, but many couldn’t help poking even more fun:
“Well yeah, but how many people can say they discovered a planet?” tweeted PhD student from public policy research organisation RAND.
“Congratulations Peter, the new Emperor of Mars!” joked twitter user @The_Thracian.
“Genuinely the greatest discovery of the year. Exoplanets be damned. Now maybe we can terraform and colonize the ATel 11448 object, if we could only find a way to drive there. #Mars #Astronomy #Tesla #RocketMan,” wrote @themonkeymusic.
For the rest of us, this is a reassuring moment. If top astronomers can make blunders like this, then maybe we should feel as bad about our own shortcomings.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.