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Open Features: Sorry - You've Been Hoaxed

...A website called Weekly World News reported in 2002 that the sun was overheating and would blow up within 6 years, taking the earth and the rest of the solar system with it. They have also reported that scientists plan to blow up the moon, in order to stabilize the earth’s climate...

Wendy Ogbourne tells of some of the hoaxes which speed their way around the world in this electronic age,

In today’s world of internet and instant email communication, we receive much information that is accurate and true, but also much that has absolutely no basis in fact, and others that are pure and simple hoaxes.

This type of joke has of course been going on for many years, long before computers became part of our lives. In 1874, a New York newspaper published a feature saying that cracks had been discovered in the moon’s frame, and it was in danger of breaking into pieces, with disastrous consequences. It’s unknown whether the readers of the day fell for this one.

There have been many others. You may have heard of the Tunguska incident in 1908 when it is believed that a meteorite entered earth’s atmosphere, and exploded over Siberia, causing devastation over an area of 800 square miles. The Russian newspaper Pravda published a report that a large block of metal had been discovered at the site, which was thought to belong to an alien spacecraft. There was never any evidence to support this, but the story went round for some time, and scared many people.

In 1938, there was mass panic in New Jersey, USA, when a CBS broadcast of H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds went on air. Though this was never intended as a hoax, many people failed to realise that the story was a work of fiction and believed that we were being invaded by Martians.

Nowadays, it’s even easier to reach a mass audience, and even harder for us, the recipients of information, to be sure what is true and what is not.

Every year, in August, the Mars hoax does the rounds. This began in 2003, when Mars was at its closest to Earth for 60,000 years, and did in fact look very bright and spectacular. However, the claim that it would look as large as the full moon was pure nonsense. For Mars to look as big as the moon, you would need to look at it through a telescope which magnified it 75 times. If Mars really did look as big as the moon, we’d be in serious trouble.

A website called Weekly World News reported in 2002 that the sun was overheating and would blow up within 6 years, taking the earth and the rest of the solar system with it. They have also reported that scientists plan to blow up the moon, in order to stabilize the earth’s climate.

During the 1990s, when female astronauts began to join their male colleagues in space, reports circulated that scientific experiments were being conducted on the feasibility of sexual activity in spaceships. I don’t think I’ll elaborate on the details, but they have been categorically denied by NASA.

There was one memorable event which some people have suggested was nothing but a fake, and that was the moon landing in 1969. A whole conspiracy theory grew up, saying that NASA lied about the whole Apollo project and the moon landing in particular. Actually it would have been harder to fake the whole thing than to do it. There is plenty of concrete physical evidence that it did in fact happen. You can find all the proof on the internet if you are still unconvinced.

In January 2008, an asteroid named TU24 passed ‘close’ to earth. Maybe close in astronomical terms, but still 334,000 miles away. There was absolutely no threat to earth, and most people didn’t even realise it had happened. However that didn’t prevent some emails from circulating.

‘My friend, who I cannot identify, because of security issues, told me that NASA is about 50/50 as to whether this asteroid will impact earth.’ Or more dramatically - ‘OH MY GOD! THE ASTEROID IS HEADING RIGHT FOR US!!! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!’

To conclude, you may like this one, posted on 1st April 2008, which was a harmless bit of fun. Richard Branson announced that he had set up ‘Virgle’, a collaboration between Virgin and Google, to set up a colony on Mars. He asked for volunteers for the mission, and included a questionnaire for those interested to complete. Several online media outlets reported it as fact, before realising that it was in fact a hoax. After all, when Branson comes up with a crazy scheme, it may well be true.

The next time you get one of these emails, try http://www.hoax-slayer.com/ which aims to debug the latest hoaxes. It’s a useful site to know, not only for space related topics, but questionable information on health, financial and other scams.

© Wendy Ogbourne

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