A prominent French physicist is apologizing after admitting that a viral “distant star” photo he shared on Twitter was not actually captured by the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) but was rather just a slice of chorizo pork sausage.
On July 31st, Etienne Klein, research director of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, tweeted the photo to his 90,000+ followers on Twitter and claimed that it was a new Webb telescope photo showing the closest star to our Sun.
“Picture of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun, located 4.2 light years away from us,” Klein wrote in the Tweet (as translated by Google). “It was taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. This level of detail… A new world is unveiled day after day.”
The tweet went viral and was retweeted thousands of times as people marveled at the imaging power of the Webb telescope, which has been wowing the world with never-before-possible space photos, including shots of the oldest galaxies ever observed.
In follow-up tweets, Klein revealed that what he had Tweeted was just a slice of Spanish sausage.
“Well, when it’s cocktail hour, cognitive bias seems to find plenty to enjoy… Beware of it,” Klein writes. “According to contemporary cosmology, no object related to Spanish charcuterie exists anywhere else other than on Earth.
“In view of some comments, I feel compelled to clarify that this tweet showing an alleged snapshot of Proxima Centauri was a form of amusement. Let us learn to be wary of arguments from authority as much as of the spontaneous eloquence of certain images…”
After receiving angry backlash to his tweet, however, the scientist apologized a few days later for spreading “fake news” that confused quite a number of people, stating that it was just a joke that was intended to warn his followers to be cautious about photos seen online.
“I came to present my apologies to those whom my hoax, which had nothing original about it, may have shocked,” he writes. “I simply wanted to urge caution with images that seem eloquent on their own. A scientist’s joke.”
Klein also tweeted Webb’s recent gorgeous photo of the Cartwheel Galaxy, assuring his followers that the photo was “real this time.”
“This is the first time I’ve made a joke when I’m more on this network as a figure of scientific authority,” the physicist later told the Paris-based news magazine The Point. “The good news is that some immediately understood the deception, but it also took two tweets to clarify,” explains the researcher.
“It also illustrates the fact that on this type of social network, fake news is always more successful than real news. I also think that if I hadn’t said it was a James-Webb photo, it wouldn’t have been so successful.”
The James Webb Space Telescope launched in December 2021 and officially began making scientific observations on July 12th, 2022. Now the largest optical telescope in space, it is using its unprecedented imaging capabilities to capture pioneering astronomical and cosmological images, including shots of atmospheres of exoplanets as well as the first stars and galaxies created at the beginning of the universe.