Leicester scientists quell cosmic Twitter storm

Posted by ap507 at May 29, 2014 11:05 AM |
Swift satellite team comment on Twitter rumours
Leicester scientists quell cosmic Twitter storm

© Spectrum Astro

At 10:30pm BST on Tuesday, the Swift satellite detected a possible explosion in the nearby Andromeda galaxy; an event which prompted a definite explosion on Twitter. Over 5 million #GRBm31 tweets were issued as speculation about the explosion erupted. If the rumours were true, a Gamma Ray Burst in Andromeda would have been big news.

Dr Kim Page explained: "GRBs are the most powerful explosions known, normally seen from distant parts of the universe. The nearest one we've seen was about 100 times further away than Andromeda. To see one so nearby would enable us to study these black-hole forming explosions in detail.”

But it was all a Twitter-storm in a teacup. The explosion was definitely not a GRB, and the Swift team never said it was. In fact, it was not even an explosion.

"You have to move quickly when studying celestial explosions," Dr Phil Evans explained. "If you wait too long, you'll miss it completely. We have to make statements based on preliminary data, which in this case, were mis-interpreted; as I realised when I got to work the next morning."

But, while the professionals understand the pitfalls of rapid analysis, social media commentators are free to speculate, and the "news" of a powerful explosion raced across Twitter. Fortunately, Drs Evans and Page were able to rapidly issue a correction to the professional community, and then also to those on social media.

"It was a bit manic," Dr Evans said, "but news of our correction spread just as quickly."

As did his blog post about the event, which has been viewed over 2,000 times within a day.

He added: “The reality of science is that the process of getting the nice results we usually announce is often complex. Thanks to Twitter, this time the public got to see some of the process, not just the final product."