Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 30, 2010

What’s a Theory? Dictionary versus Science

This is a short post so I’m going to dispense with the normal “Intro” and “Final Thoughts” sections. Back in December 2008 in one of my first posts, I talked about what a scientist means by “Theory” because it’s very different from the general public. The post is reasonably well-used with over 2,300 views (averaging somewhere around 5/day) and it gets a fair amount of hits from Google under the “define: [word]” category of searches.

The crux of that post was that the word “theory” in popular use is simply “vague idea of something” as opposed to the use by scientists being, “This has been elevated to the highest level of certainty possible in science, withstanding hundreds or thousands of attempts to disprove it.”

Recently, though, I’ve been seeing some blog posts and some posts on creationist sites that disagree with this, trying to back up a very fallacious idea that “theory” in science means what the general public uses it for. Unfortunately, when I decided to write this post, I could not readily locate an example, and for that I apologize. But I promise you that unless I was having some very realistic dreams across multiple nights, this is not a straw man argument.

However, the arguments that I have read generally go as follows: “Scientists claim that you can’t say ‘Evolution is JUST a Theory’ because ‘theory’ to them means the pinnacle of scientific certainty. However, the [insert definition number] in the [insert your favorite dictionary] says that ‘theory’ means ‘a supposition’ [or similar language]. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to say that evolution is just a theory or the Big Bang is just a theory.”

To say that this is a ridiculous argument is an understatement. It’s exactly what the British Chiropractor Association did to Simon Singh recently. Bot for those of you who don’t know that whole story, let’s have a different example: Sally says, “The star Sirius was really bright last night before it set.” Johnny knows that the word “star” can mean both a famous person (as in “movie star”) or a celestial object that is a giant ball of gas that when alive produces energy through fusion. Despite the context, Johnny chooses to think that Sally meant the up-and-coming movie star with the stage name “Sirius.” Admittedly, like many of my examples, this is a bit contrived, but it is pretty much the same thing.

So, in summary, it doesn’t matter what definitions 1-4 say a word means. In science, the word “theory” has a very set definition. Claiming that scientists mean something else when using it and trying to argue that the dictionary is proof of this is simply absurd, and in itself is a straw man argument.

April 28, 2010

Young-Earth Creationists Need to Have a Consistent View Things: Radiometric Dating and Noah’s Ark


One of the best and most reliable ways to determine the absolute ages of a material is through radiometric dating. Because of this, and because they show the age of things to be older than 6000 years, young-Earth creationists (YECs) have spent decades trying to show that it doesn’t work or just claiming that assumptions that scientists make are not true.

Their attempts at this include bringing samples of newly formed lava to a lab where they find an age of a few million years and then laugh saying that it only formed a decade ago. (Two issues there are that (1) the type of dating employed isn’t accurate for a sample younger than 500,000 years, and (2) they dated small minerals in the lava that did not melt in the original lava so actually were many millions of years old.)

Or they will claim that radiocarbon dating isn’t even used for dating dinosaur fossils … leaving out that radiocarbon dating can’t be applied to things that are more than ~50,000 years old.

Anyway, all that’s for another post. The purpose of this post is to point out that the point of science is to develop a model that can be applied to everything it attempts to describe. Gravity works the same on Earth as on the moon as in the center of a galaxy cluster. For the issue at-hand, YECs need to decide whether they believe in radiometric dating and its usable, or whether they don’t and so don’t use it.

Why Am I Talking About This?

In the news over the past week, yet another group of YECs have claimed to discover Noah’s Ark on top of Mt. Ararat in Turkey. There are many outlets for this story, but out of fun, I’ll link to the one over at FOX News. The relevance to radiometric dating? I’ll quote (emphasis mine):

“The group claims that carbon dating proves the relics are 4,800 years old, meaning they date to around the same time the ark was said to be afloat. Mt. Ararat has long been suspected as the final resting place of the craft by evangelicals and literalists hoping to validate biblical stories.”

Didja see that? Meanwhile, over at Answers in Genesis:

“All radiometric dating methods are based on assumptions about events that happened in the past. If the assumptions are accepted as true (as is typically done in the evolutionary dating processes), results can be biased toward a desired age. In the reported ages given in textbooks and other journals, these evolutionary assumptions have not been questioned, while results inconsistent with long ages have been censored.”

Or from an older Institute for Creation Research article:

“Creationists are not so much interested in debunking radiocarbon as we are in developing a proper understanding of it to answer many of our own questions regarding the past. At the present time it appears that the conventional radiocarbon dating technique is on relatively firm ground for dates which fall within the past 3,000 years. For periods of time prior to this, there are legitimate reasons to question the validity of the conventional results and seek for alternative interpretations.”

Or, a case of very special pleading from another ICR article:

“A ‘Back to Genesis’ way of thinking insists that the Flood of Noah’s day would have removed a great deal of the world’s carbon from the atmosphere and oceans, particularly as limestone (calcium carbonate) was precipitated. Once the Flood processes ceased, C-14 began a slow build-up to equilibrium with C-12—a build-up not yet complete. Thus carbon dating says nothing at all about millions of years, and often lacks accuracy even with historical specimens, denying as it does the truth of the great Flood. In reality, its measured disequilibrium points to just such a world-altering event, not many years ago.”

Final Thoughts

You can’t have it both ways. Or all four ways (I kinda lost count). Either (1) radiometric dating doesn’t work, (2) radiometric dating does work once you account for things that YECs have yet to really define, (3) it does work for the recent past to 3,000 years ago but not for anything before that, or (4) it works for everything made after the flood (as in the ark was built before the flood so can’t be dated with it).

What this all boils down to is the Inconsistency Fallacy, one I didn’t address in my series the last two months of 2009 on Logical Fallacies (but I do intend to return to that series later this year). The Inconsistency Fallacy is basically summarized as, “Multiple statements that contradict one another.” For example: “Statement A is true and B is true. Use one of these statements to prove the other is false.” Or, “Bill is younger than Jill, and Jill is younger than Charles. Charles is the oldest of the three.”

And that’s the case here. Either it’s valid, or it isn’t. You can’t use radiometric dating to claim the Bible is literally true to claim that radiometric dating doesn’t work.

April 25, 2010

In the News: David Coppedge Sues JPL for Religious Discrimination


This has been in the news quite a bit lately, even making some normal mainstream news sources. It’s definitely made the rounds of ALL the young-Earth creationist and Intelligent Design sources that I peruse on a near-daily basis.

Since it does somewhat cover the topics that I address on this website, I thought I would weigh in with my own thoughts on the issue.

The Lawsuit – What’s Known

The lawsuit in question is being brought against NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of David Coppedge by attorney William Becker, Jr., of The Becker Law Firm, in California Superior Court in Los Angeles, and besides against JPL in general, Coppedge’s direct supervisor, group supervisor, and Manager of IT Resources are all named.

The suit alleges that Coppedge was faced with religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation, general violations of his free speech, and wrongful demotion.

So far, everything about the case has come out of pro-ID or -YEC sources, Coppedge, or the attorney (and related court filings). JPL has yet to comment publicly, and I sincerely doubt they will since they state their policy is not to comment on pending litigation (and they have also stated that, at least as of the end of last week, they have not yet been served with the lawsuit).

The events in question allegedly came as a result of Coppedge handing out pro-ID materials to co-workers who expressed an interest in them. And everything else came as a result of that.

Regress: Some Background on David Coppedge

My run-ins with Coppedge are purely from his writings … on the Institute for Creation Research’s website. Yep, that’s right: Coppedge is a young-Earth creationist, at least based upon his writings. He has written several articles for the ICR, though I have only addressed two in this blog: “Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument)” and “Dating Planetary Surfaces with Craters – Why There Is No “Crisis in Crater Count Dating”.” From his writings, he has a very poor grasp of astronomy, despite the attempt of argument from authority by posting at the bottom of them, “David F. Coppedge works in the Cassini program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (The views expressed are his own.)” I address this more below.

Coppedge runs computers at JPL for the Cassini mission to Saturn. His expertise is in computers, not astronomy. And not evolution.

My Thoughts

First, I would like to point out that the Discovery Institute, the “think tank” behind Intelligent Design, has steadfastly maintained over the years that ID is not religion. I find it somewhat ironic that, for allegedly promoting pro-ID materials, he is suing for religious discrimination.

The DI’s claim that one of NASA’s mission statements is to examine the origins of life and so Coppedge was doing something within that is not valid in the objective sciences, in my opinion, because he was taking the religious route. Coppedge, as far as I can tell, is a young-Earth creationist. He was handing out ID materials. ID is religion (despite the protestations of the DI).

I also find it very interesting – and very telling – that no where in ANY of the Intelligent Design stories about this lawsuit do they mention Coppedge’s YEC leanings. Do a word search on their story’s page about the suit for “creation” and you won’t find it. And the DI has continued to exploit this lawsuit, writing near daily articles about it on their blog, Evolution News & Views.

Now that I have that off my chest, I want to look at what has been alleged by Coppedge. Remember that he was a supervisor, in charge as Lead Team System Administrator of ~200 computers involved in NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn. As a supervisor, though even I doubt he tried to use his role as supervisor, it is stated he distributed pro-ID materials.

This is something that I think, at the very least, should not have been done unless (a) he was specifically asked for them, and (b) he did so while he was not “on the clock.”

I bring up the first condition because there can be a very strong implied coercion – even if unintentional – for people to follow what “The Boss” says. I doubt my father remembers this, but when I was very young and spent one school year in the Cub Scouts, I asked him to bring in a sign-up sheet for whatever fundraiser I was doing at the time. At that time, he ran a research lab with several faculty, post-docs, techs, and graduate students. He refused to do so because he didn’t want people to feel obligated to sign up for something from “the boss’s son” even though he in no way would have tried to use his position.

The second condition is that, like it or not, the First Amendment guarantees as much a freedom of religion as a freedom from religion, and the government cannot in any way advocate for or against religion or use its capital in such an endeavor. If Coppedge used time when he was being paid with government money to spread this material, then I would consider that a reprimandable offense. Granted, if it was a “first time” thing, then if I were his boss I would just bring him into the office and mention there are issues here and he needs to do this on his own time and away from NASA buildings so that it doesn’t give the appearance in any way of a government-sponsored event.

Several of the reports on blogs and pro-ID and -YEC sites have emphasized that Coppedge has not been informed of who complained about him handing out material. They make this seem sinister and under-handed, but to me it makes perfect sense. Say you’re working in an office, and your supervisor does something you think is very bad, but you’re afraid that if you tell him about it he’ll fire you. Instead, you go to his boss and complain about it and ask that your identity be kept confidential in order to avoid reprisals. Even if your supervisor wouldn’t have fired you, it could still unconsciously have affected your job evaluations or future promotions if they knew it was you. Keeping your identity secret is the only way to prevent this, though in a lawsuit you would likely necessarily be called as a witness. In this sense, making a big deal about Coppedge not being “informed of the identities of his alleged accusers or even of the specifics of any of their complaints so that he might have the opportunity to rebut them” seems perfectly reasonable, in my opinion. (source for that particular quote)

My next point is, admittedly, perhaps a little more vindictive and has nothing to do with the merits or lack-there-of of this case. I think that Coppedge has used his position as an employee of NASA and position on the Cassini mission as an argument from authority for way too long and this lends an air of undeserved credibility to what he writes. It’s also a complete non sequitur authority because managing computers says nothing about someone’s knowledge of astronomy which also says nothing about that person’s knowledge of evolution.

Finally, I’d like to end with this repetition: All information so far has been from the plaintiff’s side (Coppedge’s). Almost all news articles available on the subject are from pro-ID or -YEC sources. As with any lawsuit, there are almost always two sides to every story, and I suspect that NASA’s is different. I suspect NASA will likely claim Coppedge used his position to push the materials on others. And/Or I suspect NASA will claim Coppedge has done this in the past, was warned, and after continuing to do so he was finally reprimanded pursuant to the Establishment Clause.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that Coppedge simply did obtain pro-ID materials that another employee requested and JPL over-reacted and did something that legitimately was unwarranted (though I honestly doubt it but that is my own bias). I think that as this case unfolds we will see that Coppedge is not quite the victim he has been made to seem.

April 19, 2010

Planet X and 2012 and Astrology: Exploring the Claims of Astrologer Terry Nazon on 2012, Part 3


Way back when, oh, about two months ago, I wrote a two-part series on astrologer Terry Nazon (part 1, part 2).

When I wrote the posts, I asked fellow blogger Johan Normark who writes the Archaeological Haecceities blog – and who has frequently written about 2012 and the Mayans – to do a guest post here. Johan is an archaeologist and so is much better-suited to address Ms. Nazon’s claims about Mayans. He was on travel at the time and said it would be a few months, but a few minutes ago I received word that he has written the post.

The post appears on his blog entitled, “Prophet of nonsense #12: Terry Nazon and ethnocentric astrology.” Johan has some interesting insights that I completely missed but agree with, especially in that Nazon is an obvious ethnocentrist. He has given me permission to copy it below, so the rest of this post is directly from his site:

Dr. Normark’s Post

While I was travelling in Thailand I got an email from Stuart Robbins who runs the blog Exposing Pseudoastronomy. He asked me to write a guest post on his blog as part 3 of his exposure of the astrologer Terry Nazon’s claims about the Maya. Part one and two are found at his website. I accepted the offer and I have just read what she has to say about the so-called Mayan prophecy of 2012. As you might expect from an astrologer, it is full of disinformation. Here follows some of it.

Puuc iconography

Her first claim is that “the ancient Maya were obsessed with watching the stars and making astrological predictions.” Obsessed is perhaps not the right word here. True, some Maya (a minority) were skilled sky watchers but they were far from obsessed, that is a word that better describe the 2012ers. Neither did they “go on the roofs at midnight, and through 2 crossed sticks X make their calculations. This symbol “X ” is found on many ancient Mayan buildings still, denoting places where the astrologers would go to watch the stars at night or early morning. “ This is her interpretation. First, they did not go on to the roofs of their buildings (this shows a lack of knowledge on how Maya buildings were designed). Few staircases lead up to the “roof”, maybe up to the top of a pyramid, but that is not the “roof”. Although “pecked crosses” were used for astronomical observations the symbol X she refers to on buildings is probably the common crosshatching we find on particularly Puuc architecture. This is believed to represent pop or the woven mat people sat on. It is a symbol of royalty in the Maya area. The four corners of a cross (such as the Kan cross) is otherwise a common theme in Maya iconography but it refers to the Maya cosmological model of a quadripartite cosmos with four corners and a center.

Next Nazon claims that the Maya astrologers “predicted the end to civilization as we know it in 2012, and their calendar actually ends on Dec. 21, 2012. According to others it’s Dec. 8, 2012.!”. No, they did not predict the end of civilization whatsoever and their calendar does not end in 2012. There are at least three inscriptions (at Yaxchilan, Tikal and Palenque) that indicate time periods in the distant future. She claims that “we know it has happened before in their Calendar long count on Aug. 12, 3114 B.C.” What has happened before? The end of civilization or their calendar? Neither option is applicable to the 3114 BC date. It concerns the beginning of the current Long Count but says nothing about the end of an earlier civilization. I have never seen the December 8 date before but it would not surprise me if such a correlation exists.

She speculates, like all other 2012ers, what this “end” means to us. Of course she brings up global warming (as if the Maya 2000 years ago knew that this problem would occur). As an astrologer she obviously focuses on the supposed alignments of planets that she believes will happen on December 21, 2012. However, if she had some critical thinking skills she would quickly see that such an alignment could not possibly occur on the alternative date she presents (December 8). One of these dates must be right but since such an alignment is nothing but pure fantasy in the first place I guess it does not really matter. In any case this alignment will change the seasons and “the length of months may change, years may change, and certain planetary cycles like Venus may change. Something new will have to replace the old calefndar [sic]”. Is it the Maya Long Count or our own calendar she talks about? We never see a reference to the Maya date of 13 Baktun, just the Gregorian date. It would have been illuminating if she had actually mentioned some of the logics behind the Maya Long Count. The Maya never predicted that a completely new calendar would replace the Long Count. It would simply go on and on and on.

More nonsense follows when she says that “The Mayans also correctly predicted the end of their own civilization. It ended when the Spanish Conquistadors invaded Mexico and South America, then fought bloody wars, killed or enslaved all the indigenous people. A clash of cultures ensued, and as the story goes the Mayans just disappeared.” How come roughly 7 million people today speak Maya languages and still have beliefs similar to those who lived before this conquest? They never predicted the end of their civilization and Nazon’s understanding of anthropology, archaeology, etc. is even shallower than her knowledge of astronomy. She is just as ethnocentric as the rest of the 2012ers. She also claims that “the Mayans were initially a very spiritual people, whose cities were settled and infiltrated by more warlike peoples. Eventually they gained power and created a warlike state. Through their spiritual rituals they got the spiritual message “sacrifice your Heart and your life” and well, they took it literally. In their use of ritualistic human sacrifice, they became entrenched in self mutilation, worshiping the dead, and all forms of ritualistic sacrifice.“ Well, this is the old idea that occupied some Mayanists 50 years ago. The warlike and more barbaric “Toltecs” were believed to have corrupted the peaceful and spiritual time worshipping Maya. It is completely outdated and simply reflects ethnocentrism again. Human sacrifice is found in the earliest Maya settlements as well, long before any “Mexicanization”. The Maya did not worship the “dead”. Their “religion” was that of ancestor veneration. Venerating ancestors is not synonymous with worshipping the dead.

There is even a supposed to be a “battle that brought down Chitzen Itza”. This “was started because a spanish conquistor [sic] soldier, stopped Mayan priests from brutally ripping the heart from the chest of a child.” One should perhaps know that by the time of the Spanish conquest Chichen Itza was mainly a pilgrimage site and it lacked political importance of its own. Chichen Itza’s political importance ended around 1050, fully 500 years before Nazon’s “battle”. What she refers to is a minor event but she has misinterpreted it as a Spanish conquest of Terminal Classic Chichen Itza.

More ethnocentric statements follows: “Looking at the planets in 2012 there is a very special alignment that occurs only every 26,000 years, and the outer planets and Venus will be making transits that in the past have lead to civil unrest. Remember 2012 is a US election year !” Of course, the whole Maya calendar was designed to end in a US election year. Once again the common theme among 2012ers is that the whole calendar is in fact related to USA and its evangelical believes in apocalypse and all sorts of related nonsense. I leave Nazon’s astrological interpretations that follow this statement to Stuart (he has already discussed them). I can only say that the Maya knew nothing of Uranus, Neptune or Pluto (and has not Pluto been ditched from the planet category?) Why not include some other dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt? Further, Nazon says that “we traditionally associate the planet Venus with love, marriage, harmony, beauty and luxury.” We? If she is talking about the Maya should she not say that the Maya associated Venus with danger and maybe warfare?

She claims that the Books of Chilam Balam refers to 2012. But “only very small references to 2012, are actually written down as so much of their written books were destroyed in an effort to purge the Mayans of their religious practices.” Not quite, The Books of Chilam Balam were written down at a later period (18th and 19th centuries) and they were written in Latin alphabet. Nazon confuses the 40 codices Diego de Landa and others burnt in 1562 with these books. She says that “there remains only one book on astrology by the Mayans, and one inscription that says during this Galactic Alignment of 2012, A God of War or a God of Creativity descends to the Earth. What we do know is that during every one of these transits sweeping social changes and social unrest has occured.” I am not sure which book she refers to but she believes the Books of Chilam Balam actually is just one book (but there are actually nine surviving manuscripts). If she believes it is a codex (which she never mentions in the text) there are four known codices. The inscription related to 2012 is the one at Tortuguero but it says nothing about a galactic alignment as this is a myth created by John Major Jenkins. She does not specify what transits have created sweeping social changes and social unrest. It would be nice to see some example.

I end with an astrologer’s dirtiest trick: to let the reader believe the predictions are related to him or her. Nazon says “it’s time to start thinking ahead as 2012 is only 3-4 years away! You were born for this moment in time!” Astrologists and other hoaxers try to fool you that you are chosen, there is no coincidence that you live right now. It can all be seen in the stars. Btw, did she predict my and Staurt’s critique? If so, should it not be found on her website? If she predicted it she could have corrected the information before we published our critique. I guess she didn’t. That makes me wonder how capable she is of predicting…

April 11, 2010

What Happens When All the Planets Line Up Against Us?


This is a claim that has persisted for a long time, and though people who believe in the 2012 stuff have propagated it, it is not specifically a Planet X / 2012 claim: If all the planets (plus our moon) lined up opposite the sun, they would pull us out of orbit. As the “lolcatz” say, “Oh noez!”


The force felt by an object due to gravity is a very simple mathematical function, codified by Newton’s Universal Law of Gravity:

In this equation, F is the force felt, G is the Gravitational Constant, M m are masses of the two objects in question, and r is the distance that separates them.

To figure out how much more or less two different objects will pull on the same object, we can simply remove one of the two masses, so the equation simplifies to F = G * m / r2.

The Math

To determine the relative forces, one simply needs to know the mass of the planets and sun, and the distances between Earth and those objects. This can be found in any basic astronomy textbook or online source. One then can simply plug in the numbers and figure out the forces.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the sun is on one side of this tug-of-war, and the moon, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and even Pluto are all on the other (Venus and the sun don’t count ’cause they would have to be on the sun’s side). Let’s calculate the force first due to the sun:

Mass (1024 kg)
Distance from Sun (106 km)
Distance from Earth (106 km)
Relative Force
Sun 1,989,100 149.6 0.0059

Alright, now let’s do all the rest, remembering that for the planets, we’ll need to subtract out the distance between Earth and the sun from what are commonly quoted as the planets’ distances:

Mass (1024 kg)
Distance from Sun (106 km)
Distance from Earth (106 km)
Relative Force
Moon 0.07349 0.3844 3.32·10-5
Mars 0.6419 227.9 78.32 6.98·10-9
Jupiter 1,899 778.6 629.0 3.20·10-7
Saturn 568.5 1434 1284 2.30·10-8
Uranus 86.83 2872 2723 7.82·10-10
Neptune 102.4 4495 4345 3.62·10-10
Pluto 0.00125 5906 5756 2.52·10-14
Ceres 0.00095 415 265.4 9.00·10-13

Final Thoughts

This is a really short post because it doesn’t need to be long. To be perfectly honest, I was actually surprised at how small the force of Jupiter actually is on Earth relative to the sun. If we add up the force from all of the other objects, we only get a force that is 0.566% as strong as the sun’s. And then if we take the moon out of the equation because that would be the first to move out of the alignment, then we have a force of only 0.000592% as strong as the sun’s.

If we look at Venus if it were also lined up, helping the sun, its force is 1.90·10-7, or about half as much as all the other planets (again, leaving out the moon), so it would cancel 54% of the effect of all those other objects (again leaving out the moon). The force from Mercury is only about 1/3 that of Mars.

So really, if anyone who makes this claim were to bother to spend about 10 minutes looking up the numbers and plugging them into an Excel equation (what I did), they would quickly see that this claim is simply and utterly nonsense. And this is besides the fact that the planets aren’t lining up any time soon on the other side of Earth to try to pull us out of orbit.

April 10, 2010

An Active Venus? — Another Pre-Emptive Creationism Post


A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Saturn’s rings, in a preemptive attempt to address some recent research that I thought some young-Earth creationists (YECs) may use to assert their views. I am somewhat surprised that the three main sources I read for creationist stuff have been silent on it. Swing and a miss on my part.

Let’s see if my fledgeling psychic powers are better-tuned for this one. This past week, several news outlets were running the story that the planet Venus may have active volcanism, revealed by the ESA spacecraft Venus Express (ESA press release, NASA press release, and Science journal article (the last one requires a paid subscription)). Seems like a possible story that a YEC may latch onto, so here’s another preemptive post explaining the science so if there is a YEC response, I can dive right into it without the background info needing to be repeated.

About Venus

There is some basic information about Venus that’s relevant to this discussion. First, as most people know, Venus is the second known planet from the sun, residing about 71% as far from the sun as Earth does. Conveniently, and importantly for this post, Venus has a diameter that is 94.9% Earth’s diameter. However, since its overall density is less, its mass is 81.5% that of Earth’s.

The surface of Venus is shrouded from Earth in visible light, hidden by clouds so thick that the temperature is around 465 °C, and hence you often hear that the surface is hot enough to melt lead. The atmosphere is nearly 100 times as massive as Earth’s exerting 92 bars of pressure on the surface that is the equivalent of being under about 1 km of water. Now you may have an idea why it’s hard to build a spacecraft to land on it and survive long enough to do anything useful.

The other thing about its surface is that it has been imaged, just not in visible light. The spacecraft Magellan mapped nearly 100% of Venus’s surface and determined its topography when it orbited in 1990 through 1994. Among other things, the data showed that Venus has many volcanoes, and it only has about 1000 craters.

Now you may be wondering, “Why is he talking about craters? Is it because he studies them and just thought it would be fun to mention?” Well, yeah, I do study them, but they are also the ONLY way to tell relative geologic ages in the solar system since we lack any way to absolutely determine the ages (such as through biological means on Earth and radiometric dating on Earth and the Moon). In contrast to Venus having only 1000 craters, and nearly all of them larger than 5 km in diameter, means that Venus’ surface is very young. In contrast, the planet Mars has about 45,000 craters that are larger than 5 km in diameter.

Based on a lot of modeling, current estimates of Venus’ surface cratering age shows it to be about 700 million years old. Yes, that may seem old, but compared to the moon, Mars, and Mercury – the other large, non-Earth bodies in the inner solar system – Venus has the youngest overall surface. And the last paper to really study the distribution of craters on Venus shows that they are completely random, so it’s not just that half the planet’s surface is 1 billion years old and the other half is 500 million, but the whole surface is about 700 million years old.

Catastrophic Eruptions

The next question one may logically ask is how an entire planet with a surface area 90% that of Earth’s (95%^2) can be resurfaced? From the geologic evidence of massive volcanoes across the planet, the general consensus is that it was volcanic eruptions.

Let’s look at Venus, Earth, and Mars. Mars is only 45% the diameter of Earth, and its mass is only 10%. The analogy I like to give is that if you take a little cupcake and a big cake out of the oven at the same time, which is going to cool faster? This is why Mars has long been termed “geologically dead,” though it does show some pittance of active geology today — but none from internal heat sources.

In contrast, Earth has a lot of internal heat, and we see that every day in the form of volcanoes and undersea vents. Our heat drives plate tectonics, making earthquakes that have also been in the news a lot lately with Haiti, Chili, and Mexico. So while Earth is internally molten, our lithosphere (the region below the crust and above the mantle) is thin enough and fractured enough to let some of that heat out.

The thinking is that Venus has a lot of internal heat like Earth, but, it has a thicker lithosphere. That lithosphere under normal circumstances is simply too thick to let heat escape, so the heat stays trapped inside.

Now here’s another analogy: Let’s say you’re going to spend another lonely night in your 1-bedroom apartment, and even the cat doesn’t want to have anything to do with you. You’re going to watch a cheesy movie and don’t want to cook, so you go to the freezer and look through your few dozen frozen microwaveable dinners that you bought in bulk at Costco. You choose one and read the directions for lack of anything better to do. The directions state quite clearly: “PUNCTURE WRAPPING BEFORE MICROWAVING.” From past experience, you know that if you don’t, the heat will build up and explode in what means 10 minutes of messy clean up. But if you do puncture the wrapping, the steam can escape and it’s all good.

This is the same – albeit simplified – thing that happens with planets. Since Earth can release its heat, it doesn’t “explode.” With Venus, the thought is that since the lithosphere is thicker, the heat builds up until the molten rock finally forces its way out. When it does, the lithosphere cracks and planet-wide, catastrophic volcanism ensues. And the last time this happened – based on the craters – was around 700 million years ago.

Fascinating … What Does This Have to Do with the Press Release?

Good question, I’m glad you asked. Let’s get back on-topic. With a last massive planetary resurfacing 700 million years ago, one question has been, “Is this going to happen again?” Another is, “How often does this happen?” And the most relevant to this discussion, “Is there still some dribble of volcanism today?”

It’s that last question that Venus Express may have found evidence to answer in the affirmative. From the NASA press release: “For the first time, scientists have detected clear signs of recent lava flows on the surface of Venus. The observations reveal that volcanoes on Venus appeared to erupt between a few hundred years to 2.5 million years ago. This suggests the planet may still be geologically active, making Venus one of the few worlds in our solar system that has been volcanically active within the last 3 million years.”

I’m guessing they had to add “one of the few” because of Earth and Io.

Anyway, going off of the press release (I don’t have access to the Science article right now — I’ll update this later if needed when I get ahold of it), the researchers were able to study the mineralogy on three of Venus’ volcanoes. The mineralogy matches that on recent volcanic eruptions from some volcanoes on Earth, like Hawai’i. On Earth, the rock’s reaction with oxygen quickly changes the mineralogy, and hence the research strongly suggests that the flows are young enough to not have been modified. They suggest anywhere from a few hundred to 2.5 million years old.

This may change the picture that I outlined above of the catastrophic volcanism. In perhaps the more controversial part of the press release to me, they suggest that this could indicate the volcanism on Venus has been gradual throughout time – in a kind of steady state situation where localized events happen to resurface the area and cover a few craters, die down, and then happen elsewhere, but not covering enough to maintain the 700-million-year-old crater surface age. It’s a possibility, but at least to me they will need to show more evidence before I find it more convincing than the catastrophic scenario.

What’s this to Do with Young-Earth Creationism?

Venus has come up in the YEC literature before. I wrote one of my first blog posts on, “ Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument).”

In this case, I am guessing that if some YEC person or institute chooses to use this to try to add evidence for their claims it will be along the lines of, “Since Venus has active volcanism today, it must have been created in the very recent past – 6000 years ago. Evolutionists/Darwinists/Evilutionists will have to completely change their thinking in order to reconcile an active Venus with an old-Earth.” Or something like that.

Final Thoughts

We’ll see if my budding psychic powers have been led astray again. I hope not, but we’ll see. Even if they have, hopefully I’ve given you enough information to find this press release interesting and have newfound interest in the field of planetary geology and geophysics.

April 1, 2010

Giving Up the Fight and Turning to the Light

Giving Up the Fight and Turning to the Light


Well folks, I’ve decided to give up the fight. No, not because some “Big Government” folks got to me, nor for the opposite reason that they stopped my paychecks commin’. Rather, I’ve decided to approach life with a much more open, spiritual mind.


Over the past few months, from listening to shows like Coast to Coast AM, Skeptiko, ID the Future, and Around the World with Ken Ham, I’ve decided that the world really must have some aspect to it that science just can’t explain.

There is just so much evidence of it. People have near-death experiences all the time, proving that consciousness is separate from the brain. Children are born with birthmarks and memories of previous lives, the birthmarks being the exact same locations where they were stabbed or shot by a bullet in those previous lives. Every culture around the world believes in ghosts. Everyone can’t just be imagining it!

And then there’s that Dogon tribe in Africa that knew about the companion star to Sirius way before astronomers did, proving they were contacted by ETs. Everyone and their cousin has seen a UFO that has to be proof of ETs or Secret Government Technology controlled by the Men in Black. And there are such convincing test cases – Betty and Barney Hill, and of course the über-clad case of Billy Meier – that it can’t possibly be just someone’s hoax. Horoscopes are in every news paper – even The Onion – and they’re among the most popular sections … people still pay over $500/hr to see astrologers, psychics, etc. They can’t all be wrong!

We just have to live in a beautiful, created universe by a loving creator. It was tailored just for us – Earth is perfect for us to live in and inhabit, and that Creator has provided us a wondrous solar system, galaxy, and universe to view and explore. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” indeed. Every culture around the world has some sort of flood story in its past – they can’t all be just imagining it, it can’t all be Yungian collective unconsciousness.

Final Thoughts

So, I have decided on this First day of April of the 2010th Year of Our Lord, to throw in the towel and embrace the unknown. After all, isn’t that why so-called skeptics don’t like it? Because they fear the unknown? They’re afraid to put themselves into God’s hands? They’re afraid to admit that there may be something more powerful out there than themselves, or that their science cannot explain?

Besides, with the world ending in just 3 years, at the end of 2012 since the Mayans were excellent astronomers and predicted this, why should I spend the last years of my life worrying about convincing people not to believe what everyone else on the planet does?

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