The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been sending home some pretty spectacular photos lately, from cartwheeling galaxies to the “Cosmic Cliffs” of the Carina Nebula. So when French scientist Étienne Klein tweeted a photo of the JWST’s latest work, the Internet was excited to embrace it. Unfortunately, what was claimed to be the “distant star” Proxima Centauri up close, turned out to be something far more terrestrial.
The Webb chorizo photo incident
So how did this all go down? On July 31, Klein, a research director at France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, tweeted out the now infamous image showing a slice of chorizo on a black background, along with the following caption (which has been translated):
“Photo of Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun, located 4.2 light years from us. She was taken by the JWST. This level of detail… a new world is revealed day after day.”
Upon close inspection, the image is clearly nothing extraterrestrial, but at first glance, given Klein’s caption and job title, it’s easy to understand how some folks could be duped.
Good intentions, wrong audience
Now, before anyone goes accusing Klein of purposely spreading misinformation, it’s worth noting that his intentions were in fact the opposite. The tweet, he asserts, was meant as nothing more than a joke, one that was ironically intended to educate people about fake news online.
Despite this, the Internet did what it does best. And before long, Klein’s chorizo image had been liked 14k+ times and shared/retweeted thousands more. The image was also picked up and widely shared on other social platforms.
A few days after it took off, Klein publicly apologized, writing below the original tweet “I feel compelled to clarify that this tweet showing an alleged snapshot of Proxima Centauri was a form of amusement. Let’s learn to be wary of arguments from authority as much as the spontaneous eloquence of certain images.”
Klein goes on to write that, “according to contemporary cosmology, no object belonging to Spanish charcuterie exists anywhere but on Earth.” A few days later he tweeted another photo, this one actually captured by the JWST.
The moral of the story? Take everything on the Internet with a grain of salt, or maybe a slice of salted cured meat.