Methane culpa

By Phil Plait | May 20, 2008 10:16 pm

UPDATE: Paul McNamara at Network World has written a thoughtful piece based on this blog post. It’s worth reading.

Well, I blew it, and I suppose I should make it official.

In my second video answering questions from sixth graders, I said that Titan’s atmosphere is mostly methane.

Bzzzzzt. It’s mostly nitrogen (specifically, N2, like in Earth’s atmosphere). It’s only about 1% methane.

What kills me is I knew that, but somehow reading the question got me all bollixed up, and I said the wrong thing. Twice! It’s like a persistent slip-of-the-tongue, but it’s really just an idea that lodged in my brain when I answered the question. I can see now why people say wrong things when talking; it can just happen. However, they should also correct it when it’s found.

So here I am, saying I was wrong, and I apologize to the sixth graders at Saegert Sixth Grade Center. Even pros make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get a bad grade when you make mistakes! I can’t be used as an excuse to your teacher. :-)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science

Comments (30)

  1. Dallas

    I feel for you man, I was once giving a presentation for my science fair project (on pulmonary hypertension) at the Junior Sciences and Humanities Symposium in Baton Rouge, and I was one of the finalists competing for a trip to Orlando, and one of the judges asked me to go through the directional flow of blood through the heart. I was relieved, cause that was incredibly easy, but in my confidence I mixed up atria and ventricles and didn’t realize it, so I apparently looked like a total fool.

    I got sixth place (out of six), so no Orlando trip for me.

  2. Don’t worry Phil.

    Maybe you’ll be a REAL scientist one day, and they’ll give you a lab coat and everything. Then you’ll have letters after your name and you’ll finally be infullible like me.

  3. Hey, poop happens– even to the best of us.

    I’m loving the videos, regardless. Keep up the great work. :)


  4. riki

    You should always assume that you’re going to make mistakes. To assume otherwise would be a mistake.

  5. t8m8r

    That poo question and answer were supposed to be funny anyway. BA rocks!

  6. Sue Mitchell

    Nice to know you’re human like the rest of us. 😉

    As it’s you, we’ll pretend we didn’t notice. 😀

  7. Victor Bogado

    To err is human, to insist in the err is dumb as we say here in Brazil.

    I think that making mistake is natural and people should be less ashamed of it. Sure you’re a professional, but you’re induced by the question (that made an erroneous assumption) to a mistake. That is no problem, no one is right all the time, and when the mistake is found you correctly assumed your responsibilities and got out in public and corrected it.

    Of course it would have been worst if we were grading you, but a lower grade is the consequence of mistaking in an exam. Low grades are bad, but they are not the end of the world, they just mean that you must study harder for the next test.

  8. It’s OK, dude. It’s hard to answer questions like that when you’re ducking to avoid sniper fire.

  9. IN the words of MST3K:


  10. Perhaps you should post the link to this correction on the post where you show that video… That way this little error gets corrected rapidly 😉

    I loved those videos, Phil. Looking forward to the third one.

  11. Dagger

    In actuallity, your providing those 6th graders (and many others) with an invaluable lesson about how science works. Science makes mistakes. Science can change when better answers are found. I think those kids will be much richer in their quest for knowledge because of it. Kudos.

  12. Michelle

    Just proves we’re all human and it’s easy to get confuzzled. 😛

  13. Dave C

    The kid asked a really difficult question.

    And I am still wondering, what would it smell like? I am imagining some person walking in a spacesuit on Titan’s surface. She equalizes the pressure in her suit to the pressure of the atmosphere. Then she lets in to her suit just a little bit of Titan’s atmosphere. What will that smell like? And, how poisonous is this atmosphere anyway?

  14. Kirk

    Phil — you are in good company. Dan Quayle (VP under George the 1st) was unable to spell potato while he addressed an elementary school class. It was that pesky “e” that tripped him up.

  15. Tim G

    Here’s an M.I.T. professor forgetting Ohm’s Law. No one in the audience had enough confidence to correct him!

  16. Michael Lonergan

    Well, there you go. Now be kind to poor old Richard C. when he gets things wrong. After all, he just can’t help himself. :)

  17. IIRC, and it’s been a while since I looked at an organic chemistry text, a nitrogen atmosphere with a concentration of methane, in conjunction with natural electricity or other energy source is a good breeding ground for amino acids, etc. is it not?

  18. Kol

    I remember that one time when I made a mistake.

    Heheheh. Good time, that miniscule instant.

    I’d say this deserves a video response.

    What? I’m teaching my kids!

  19. Itzac

    I once argued back a point on an exam because I skipped a step on a problem that was supposed to take two steps but could trivially be simplified to one. I just need to show the prof that I could do it again on the spot. Of course that’s an edge case.

    Knowing that was the wrong button to press after the fact doesn’t unpress the button. It’s an important lesson to learn.

  20. Tim G

    I remember being one of perhaps two people who got a perfect score on a statistics exam. Written on mine was “see the last problem”. Part of the last problem involved drawing a sketch, on which I implied that 8/3 was less than one. The grader simply wrote that 8/3 is greater than one.

    In other story, in my AP Calculus class the teacher was handing out results of a school mandated standardized math test. Suddenly a girl sitting next to me exclaimed “Oh geez! I put your name where I should have put my name! I’m so stupid!” The teacher said “You know, I wasn’t going to bring that up.” She had a perfect score on that test by the way.

  21. Cusp

    The word is “bolloxed”

  22. MandyDax

    Ok, so we know Phil isn’t a politician, as he would have pointed to a hoaxer’s website and quoted it for truth. Phil isn’t a student in Florida, as he would have said, “It’s against my religion to say that Titan’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen; we believe that it is mostly methane.”

    Since we’re pointing out the worst silly mistakes we’ve made… when I was in third grade, I was in the school spelling bee, and I’d studied obscure words and hard-to-spell words like onomatopoeia. You can imagine how relieved I was when my first word to spell was sailboat! Whew! “Sailboat: S-A-L-E-B-O-A-T. Sailboat.” The word D’oh! comes to mind. >_>

  23. Pocket Nerd

    See, this is another example of why creationism is better than Godless science. Being a creationist means never, EVER having to admit a mistake, no matter how many people witness the error and no matter how conspicuously, obviously, painfully WRONG you are.

  24. Gary Ansorge

    I’ll note that in China, admitting to a mistake is considered socially unacceptable, especially if it’s a senior scientist doing the mistaking.
    In Arabia, there is a saying, attributed to the Quran, that ” a mistake admitted to is twice a mistake,,,”

    Makes it really difficult to be a social rebel in those cultures, because that implies the progenitors are wrong,,,

    I expect our history of rebellion against the status quo impels us to be constantly re-examining our assumptions and that makes it easier to admit to mistakes and subsequently learn from them. I always liked Edisons response when someone asked him about his 2000 wrong approaches to making a light bulb that he had learned 2000 different ways it wouldn’t work and one that did.

    Gary 7

  25. John H

    I don’t like to hit a guy while he is down :), but actually you made the same mistake in the first video when you were discussing life on other planets.

  26. t8m8r

    I think in SF methane is frequently mentioned with Titan. May be the lakes are methane?

  27. Grumpy

    When methane is on your mind, you’re bound to have brain farts.

  28. Phil,

    I share your pain my friend. I was once talking with a group of friends and was trying to refer to the distance between the earth and the sun, when I slipped rather Freudianly (there were some cute girls in bikinis there) and said “anatomical unit” instead. The worst part of it was that I myself didn’t catch it right away. Not until another friend said he thought I was exaggerating again! We all had a good laugh at that one.

  29. Beowulff

    You’ve missed an opportunity there. Use this next time:
    “I was only testing to see if you were paying attention.” You can thank me later 😉

  30. Linda

    I’ve just found an expression that suits this type of slip; and, since I make so many of them, I’ve adopted it.

    It’s CPI, or Complete Prostration of Intellect. I have CPI a LOT!


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