Problems with Cosmos

Impossible Scene in Cosmos

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This is a still image from the Fox TV-series "Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey," season 1, episode 8, episode title "Sisters of the Sun," at time 35m,40s.

Some of the scenes from that episode were shot in Australia, possibly around February 16, 2014, when Neil deGrasse Tyson was in Sydney promoting the upcoming release of this science documentary series.

The website of the Sydney Observatory reports that while Neil was in Sydney, he hosted a special "after dark" tour of the Observatory on Sunday 16 February, which helps to pinpoint when he was there.

The scene shown in this picture purports to be one of those scenes shot in Australia, and obviously, from the famous landmarks shown, this is undoubtedly the case, but I say that the scene has been doctored in a most unscientific manner.

From the view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House (which is on the south side of the Harbour), it is obvious that the scene was shot from the north side of the Harbour from either Milson's Point or McMahon's point, and the camera is looking south towards Dawes Point in the foreground, and further left, towards the Opera House, which is toward the south-east of the camera's view.

This means that the Moon is in the southern part of the sky and slightly west of south. I say that this image of the Moon was shot in the northern hemisphere and was superimposed on the film.

- Firstly, the Moon is never in the southern part of the sky in the southern hemisphere. The Moon, in its apparent diurnal motion, traverses the sky along the ecliptic (within 5 of it), which is in the northern part of the sky in Australia and would therefore have been behind the camera.

- Secondly, if the scene was shot while Neil deGrasse Tyson was in Sydney, that was around the time of Full Moon or a day or two later, and the Moon in this scene is a crescent moon.

- From the shape of the crescent, which is like the rounded part of a capital "D" one would have to conclude if it was indeed a shot taken in the southern hemisphere, that it is the Waning Crescent, with only 2 or 3 days left before New Moon. But a Waning Crescent Moon in its last few days is only seen rising in the eastern sky shortly before dawn.

Everything else about the scene says that it was shot in the evening, not in the early dawn. Firstly, this was a trivial shoot -- it was just an "establishing shot" to show the locale of the scene. It is far more likely that the crew (or even a single photographer) would have shot such a scene in the evening before going to bed rather than wake up at 4 or 5 am and drag themselves out of bed, to shoot the scene while sleep deprived. Secondly, if it was shortly before dawn, the sky would be lighter. Thirdly, the rising Sun (which rises after a waning moon has risen) is always on the rounded side of the Waning Crescent, which means that the rounded side of the Waning Crescent Moon faces east. The rounded side of this crescent moon is facing west, which would mean that the Sun is about to rise in the west!

(The same, by the way, is also true after New Moon on the opposite side of the sky at sunset. A setting Sun (which sets before a waxing moon sets) is always on the rounded side of the Waxing Crescent, which means that the rounded side of the Waxing Crescent Moon faces west. In general, whether the Moon is waning or waxing, rising or setting, the Sun is always on that side of it that is fully rounded. The opposite side, which the Sun never "sees," is the side that is either pointy, in a crescent moon, straight-edged, in a half-moon, or bulging, but not fully rounded, in a gibbous moon.)

Other elements of the scene also suggest it was evening, not in the pre-dawn hours. The preceding frames show much movement on the harbour front, human activity in the water of the Harbour (small sail boats or wind surfers), a ferry is operating and the trains are running (one is crossing the bridge). But if it is evening with just a 2 or 3 day old Waxing Crescent Moon in the sky, then it would be in the western sky about to set shortly, and this Moon (although slightly west of south) is too far over to the south, and, most importantly, it would be in the shape of a "C", not a "D". It is however just the right shape for a 2 or 3 day old Waxing Crescent Moon in the northern hemisphere, which would indeed be in the south western part of the sky over there.

So this is just the kind of error that would be made by a northern hemisphere dweller with little knowledge of even basic astronomy, attempting to graft a moon onto this scene and doing it so hamfistedly that he created a scene that was astronomically impossible. Way to go for a producer of a science documentary series -- falsifying reality for the sake of ... what, throwing away your credibility and losing the trust of your audience? What were you thinking, Cosmos, that no one would ever notice and catch you out?

Update: A spokesman for Sydney Observatory, which overlooks Sydney Harbour, and which hosted an evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson during his visit to Australia, has confirmed that their astronomers have had a look at this webpage and support my conclusions. Quote: "We would not have been able to take such a photo."

Gizmodo Australia reported on 4th June that Neil deGrasse Tyson "discussed the many problems with the cinematic masterpiece, Gravity, sounding off in delightful detail on every single scientific inaccuracy in the film."

In light of this scene, methinks, was that the pot calling the kettle black?

With apologies to Shakespeare:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
Can it be the moon? But 'tis not the east!
O, thou intercontinental one, meddle not with the moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that she prove thy verity variable.