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Seeing What We Want to See: The Psychology of the Ashen Light

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The fabled “canals” of Mars (Chap. 1), the claim for whose existence is traditionally ascribed to a single mistranslated Italian word and the global deference to one well-respected observer’s insistence on what he saw through the telescope eyepiece, is hardly the only instance of mass delusion in the history of astronomy. Nor is it the only case in which spurious sightings drew astronomers to conclusions, later proven wrong, that were for some length of time taken as articles of faith. One such example involved a mathematical discrepancy, undiscovered physics, and a healthy dose of wishful thinking.

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    Yet some people refused to give up, convinced of the reliability of eyewitness reports of “Vulcan” transits in the historical record. Among these was Henry C. Courten, of Dowling College, New York, who studied photographic plates made of the sky near the Sun during the total solar eclipse of March 7, 1970. Courten claimed the detection of several objects on the plates that seemed to be on small, Sun-centered orbits. After dismissing a few of the candidates as photographic artifacts, Courten was left with the conclusion that at least seven of the objects were real. He came to believe in the existence of at least one intra-Mercurial planet with a diameter between 130 and 180 km, orbiting the Sun at a mean distance of some 15 million kilometers. The other objects were thought to be constituents of an asteroid belt interior to Mercury. None of Courten’s claims were subsequently verified. For a detailed account, see Seargent, D., 2011, Weird Astronomy: Tales of Unusual, Bizarre, and Other Hard to Explain Observations, New York: Springer, 68.

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Barentine, J.C. (2021). Seeing What We Want to See: The Psychology of the Ashen Light. In: Mystery of the Ashen Light of Venus. Astronomers' Universe. Springer, Cham.

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