[No Excuse Zone] Another Gross Error in Science Media

Earlier this year, from a warm hotel room in snowy northern Indiana, I mildly ranted about some laughably stupid errors that appeared in the pages of Discover magazine — factual mistakes that either of my children could ascertain with ease, and which bring discredit to the periodical that allowed them. At least they didn’t reprint those blunders in a promotional pamphlet sent to millions, as has National Geographic this month with a clearly mistaken transposition that is no less ridiculous.

The National Geographic Encyclopedia of Space looks to be a spectacularly illustrated and richly informative book, based on the slick pamphlet I just received and the outstanding standards of illustrative quality for which its affiliated magazine is known. It probably will join my library in the next couple years, sometime after it begins to show up in my favorite used bookstore. The promotional brochure — actually a foldout poster, claims “EVERYTHING you wanted to know about space is right here in this fascinating, complete reference!”

Complete with factual errors, eh?

You and I know that Earth spins about its axis such that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, for an observer bound to the surface. To do this, it must rotate from west to east. Simple stuff. Most solar planets do this, but not Venus (which spins slowly the opposite way) or Uranus (tipped almost perfectly sideways as seen from the sun, slightly retrograde spin).

According to the new encyclopedia’s article on Venus, the first two pages of which are reproduced prominently in this pamphlet/poster:

    “With an orbit [of] 227 Earth days, its year is also similar to our planet’s, although its spin is retrograde, or west to east, unlike any other planet except Uranus.”

[Italics are added for emphasis, the word “of” inserted by me where it was missing in the text.]

Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy! Factually wrong, too. Such is unbecoming of National Geographic…or is it?

It may seem a trivial error, but what does it say that such a goof should appear undetected in the book by writer and editor(s), then still undetected almost squarely in the middle of the sheet of glossy color paper promoting the book?

What other fundamental errors and examples of lazy usage fill the pages, yet undetected? Does National Geographic hire proofreaders from the pool of disgruntled bus mechanics at the local Greyhound garage? Or did they do something extraordinarily unrepresentative and happen to pick that single error to highlight in an advertisement sent to millions of people? Damn, I hope it was the latter.

Meanwhile, check out this interesting little discussion on Venus’ retrograde (east to west!) spin in PhysicsWeb and, if accessible, the Nature article to which it refers.


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