The James Webb telescope did not take this picture of a slice of chorizo

8 Aug 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope. Image: Desiree Stover/NASA

French scientist Étienne Klein has apologised after sharing an image of chorizo and joking that it was a star as seen through the James Webb telescope.

Have you ever held a slice of chorizo in your hand and wondered how remarkably similar it looks to Proxima Centauri, the nearest-known star to our sun?

If you have, you might be one of many who fell for a recent joke by French scientist Étienne Klein, who tweeted an image of the delicious Spanish sausage last week and claimed it to be a picture of the star.

When Klein first shared the tweet on 31 July, claiming the image was captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, he wasn’t ready for just how many people would take his word for it and retweet with astonishment and wonder.

“Photo of Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the sun, located 4.2 light years from us. She was taken by the JWST [James Webb Space Telescope]. This level of detail … A new world is revealed day after day,” reads a Google translation of his original tweet in French.

In less than an hour, Klein clarified that the image was, in fact, a slice of chorizo placed against a black background. “Well, when it’s time for the aperitif, cognitive biases seem to have a field day … Beware of them. According to contemporary cosmology, no object belonging to Spanish charcuterie exists anywhere but on Earth,” he joked in a Twitter thread.

However, some people weren’t happy about the joke. Many replied to Klein and criticised him for not clarifying from the get-go, and he responded by saying it was for amusement.

“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.”

Klein is a well-known figure in the scientific community in France and has more than 96,000 followers on Twitter. As director of the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, he is seen as a credible source for scientific information – which may explain why some were annoyed by the joke.

Days later, Klein apologised and told French news outlet Le Point that his intention had been to educate people about fake news online. “I also think that if I hadn’t said it was a James Webb photo, it wouldn’t have been so successful,” he added.

Hoping to cartwheel away from the negative attention, he shared another image taken by the James Webb – this time, a genuine one.

The image of the Cartwheel Galaxy was recently shared by NASA as part of its series of image revelations from the world’s most powerful space telescope.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic