Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 16, 2014

Podcast Episode 122: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and Rosetta Conspiracies


Conspiracies of
Comet 67P …
Few, but they are weird.

A timely and listener-requested episode! What’s not to love!? In the episode I talk about several of the conspiracies I’ve seen surrounding the Rosetta mission and Comet 67P. From artificiality (Hoagland makes a guest appearance) to singing so as to raise our consciousness to angelic levels when 2012 failed, I spend nearly a half hour going through 2 to 4 claims (depending on how you count them) that have been making the rounds. I also get to touch on image analysis.

There is also one New News segment this episode, and it refers to the death of the Venus Express mission around (oddly enough) Venus. The news relates to the episodes on uncertainty. Not sure what the connection is? Listen to the episode! The episode also comes in at just over 30 minutes, my target length.

November 18, 2014

Episode 120: James McCanney’s Views on Comets, Part 1


Comets: Are they weird,
Electrical phenom’na,
Or just dirty snow?

My first personal foray into electric universe claims (don’t forget part 1 and 2 intros via an interview with Tom Bridgman). I’ve wanted to talk about James McCanney’s ideas ever since I heard him on Coast to Coast AM, and doing so isn’t hard — he’s been on the show dozens of times over the last two decades. I’ve heard him talk about a lot of things, but I mostly remembered him sounding like a broken record talking about how comets “discharge the solar capacitor.”

I’ve been putting him off for awhile because I really really don’t like Electricity & Magnetism, so doing this was going to be a bit out of my comfort zone. It ended up not being that far out, thanks in part to generous help by Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy website and the 2012 Hoax website.

However, listening to Coast to Coast for clips took a very long time. Two straight days, listening at 1.7–2.5x speed. I took pages of notes, including numerous direct quotes. I mined these and wrote an incredibly lengthy episode that used 18 clips totaling nearly 15 minutes.

Then I decided to split it into two parts. This first part covers just his ideas about comets. This episode also has a Q&A (first time in many episodes) and Feedback.

February 18, 2014

Most Craters Look the Same


Introduction

This blog post is about minutia. But, it’s a topic near and dear to me because it’s been my research focus since late 2007: Impact craters.

On December 10, 2013, Robert Morningstar – brought back onto Coast to Coast after appearing on their JFK conspiracy episode – made a claim about impact craters that is simply, completely, 100%, wrong. But, it’s one that I’ve seen made before, so here we go with the minutia blog post.

The Claim

Morningstar made the statement starting at 32:32 into the third hour of the program, and the text below is quoted through 34:38.

I saw one thing that really intrigued me, it looked like a crater with a uh, arrowhead in it, and the crater was called “Weird Crater*.” …

What’s weird about Weird Crater* is that triangle, uh that I saw in the thumbnail, is formed by the impact of three meteors all of the same diameter.

{George Noory: Isn’t that strange.}

That is not a-really possible. And this is a really strange phenomenon on the moon, it’s called the “doublet craters.” Around– surrounding the moon, there are double craters, uh, that appear regularly — dot-dot, dot-dot, dot-dot — you know? And they’re both the same size. It’s not possible. What is possible is artillery [laughs] in my estimation, in my view. … That makes two craters of the same size. But, to think that three meteors in the same diameter could hit one zone, in one crater, uh and the doublet phenomenon, tells me that not everything is right with the interpretation of uh, of the selenologists.

*Note: According to the USGS index of IAU-approved names, there is no such crater. I looked through all crater names beginning with “W” and the closest I found was Wyld and Wildt. There is nothing that has “rd” together that starts with “W” so either he is making this up, or the crater is not officially named that so I cannot locate it to examine it. While this is somewhat interesting, it is not actually relevant to the rest of this, though.

Double Craters and Crater Clusters and Crater Chains

To say “he’s wrong” would make this blog post short. And these days, unlike what my high school English teachers remember, I am much more verbose than that.

First off, there are at least three theoretical reasons why you would expect “doublet” or triplet craters or even chains of impact craters (I’m just dealing with impact craters here, not other forms like chains of pit craters).

The first theoretical reason is that you have a binary or trinary asteroid that strikes a surface. Or a weak asteroid that was pulled apart from an earlier pass – or just before impact – by tidal forces and strikes the surface. This is expected, and we know that many smaller asteroids are very weak – the “rubble pile” model has come into favor these days that posits that many asteroids are actually re-assembled after previous breakups. This means that they will be pretty weakly held together, and a close pass by a larger gravitational body can rip it apart.

Which brings me to the first-part-b theoretical reason – more evidence than a reason – for why you expect to see chains of craters: Bodies are ripped apart soon before impact and strike the surface like a shot-gun. Don’t think this is possible? What if Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 had impacted a moon instead of Jupiter, and soon after its breakup rather than a few orbits later? You would get a crater chain. We see these all the time on satellites of the outer planets, such as in the example below from Ganymede.

Crater chain on Ganymede.

Crater chain on Ganymede.

The second reason we would expect it is the phenomenon of secondary craters: Craters formed from the ejecta blocks of a primary crater that go off and form their own craters. These most often occur in clusters and clumps and chains. One need look no further than the area around the young and large Copernicus crater on the moon to see examples of these.

Third is that it can easily happen by coincidence on older parts of the moon or any other object that’s already heavily cratered. I spent literally 10 seconds just now and found this region of the moon which shows several craters of very roughly the same size, some of them right next to each other.

So, right there, three reasons and plenty of examples of why you would expect – and we do see – craters appearing in pairs or groups right next to each other.

Craters of the Same Size

Another part of Morningstar’s claim is that the craters look to be the same size, which means they’re artillery fire. Sigh. This points to a profound ignorance of the cratering process in general. There’s not really a more polite way to say it.

We graph crater populations most often in what’s called a “size-frequency distribution,” which is basically a log-log plot that puts crater diameter on the x-axis and number of craters on the y-axis. It’s often binned in SQRT(2)*D diameter bins, such that one bin might go from 2-2.8 km, then 2.8-4 km, then 4-5.7 km, then 5.7-8 km, etc. The reason is that on this kind of plot, crater populations tend to follow a straight line, starting in the top left and going to the bottom right. Bill Hartmann, one of the founders of the field, has probably the easiest public-access explanation of this. Or, you can go to the intro of my thesis, section 1.4.3, pages 16-18.

What this means in simplest terms is that there are more small craters than large craters. Many, many more small than large craters. From my thesis work, there are about 11,000 craters larger than 20 km on Mars. 48,000 larger than 5 km. 78,000 larger than 3 km. 385,000 larger than 1 km. If you go just 50 meters smaller, there are another 40,000 craters on Mars, almost as many craters in that 0.95-1.00 km range as the entire number of craters >5 km put together. (No comparable database exists – yet – for the Moon.)

That boils down to, as I said, Morningstar is apparently ignorant of the cratering process and craters in general. Not only do you expect to find many craters of the same size (in the Mars case, nearly 50,000 just in a 50-meter-diameter spread), but it would be weird if they weren’t like that.

“Okay,” you may say, “but that’s observational. It could still be artillery fire because you’re just talking about what you have observed after that fire.”

Except that’s not the case: Asteroids form impact craters. Probably >90% of the impact craters in the inner solar system. So, we can look at their size-frequency distributions” and – hey! – they match those of craters. I’ll repeat: What we think causes impact craters (mainly asteroids) matches the size distribution of the craters themselves. As opposed to artillery.

Final Thoughts

Coast to Coast AM guests often say things that are just completely wrong. I often just shake my head. Earlier today, I was listening to an interview David Sereda gave, and almost literally nothing he said was true (I did a two-part podcast series on him — part 1 and part 2). In those cases, it’s so hard to know where to start, that I simply don’t.

I don’t know much more than the average skeptic about the JFK assassination conspiracy. So, when Morningstar spent just a few minutes out of a three-hour interview saying things that were completely wrong about craters, well, I pounced.

November 29, 2012

Mercurian Ice Confirms Noah’s Flood! (or something like that)


Introduction

It’s that time of the quarter where I profusely apologize for not posting a lot, and where I look back at the blog and worry that it’s just turning into an announcement place for my podcast, which I’m really hoping to avoid. Those things aside …

The issue of Science this week has a rather large number of articles that I find interesting, among them one on Saturn’s rings, the age of the Grand Canyon, and one that’s gotten a lot of press: confirmation of ice at Mercury’s poles.

For more on the actual discovery of Mercurian ice (or more, confirmation, since we were already pretty sure it was there), Phil Plait (“The Bad Astronomer”) has a good blog post up about it. I’m going to assume that you have the background of that for the rest of this post.

Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for someone to use this for their own pet pseudoscience.

How’d the Ice Get There?

We know for a fact that chunks of ice and chunks of rock fly about the solar system and crash into things. Look at nearly any solid body in the solar system and you see impact craters that are a testament to that fact. Look at the asteroids and comets we see today and there is a clear mechanism that still exists and impact cratering is an ongoing process.

In the inner solar system, it is estimated that very, very roughly 10ish% of all impacts are from comets. In the outer solar system, the fraction is likely much larger, but that’s a different topic.

Comets are made of ice and rock, and when they hit an object, some of the ice can be captured. If the environment is stable for ice (as in, it’s below the freezing point of water and there’s enough pressure to keep it from sublimating – turning directly from a solid to a gas), then the ice will remain. Paradoxically, while Mercury is the closest known planet to the sun, there are areas of its poles that are in permanent shadow and hence, ice can be stable if it’s buried under something.

So, the very simplified model is that a comet strikes, ice from the comet melts/vaporizes, some is trapped by the planet’s gravity and re-solidifies in a permanently shadowed region, it’s covered by other debris from the impact, and you have stable ice that isn’t going anywhere.

A smaller part of the story but that’s relevant to this particular pseudoscience is that some of the material that’s covering the polar ice is organic material. As in, “compounds composed of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements with chain or ring structures” according to one online definition (my last chemistry class was 10th grade …). We are NOT talking about dead plants and animals.

Where does organic material come from? It can obviously come from living things, but several studies in the past few years have shown that organic materials can seemingly easily form in space and be carried on asteroids or comets. It’s possible that that is one contribution to the seeding of life on Earth …

Noah’s Flood

… or at least, that’s if you’re a naturalistic secular heathen.

According to Mercury Ice Find Renews Old Riddle, organic material means that it’s former living things. Which means that organic material was delivered via panspermia (life was seeded / transferred here from space). Which means that if you’re a secular heathen, you must equate panspermia with abiogenesis, but then of course, “abiogenesis could not possibly explain the organic layer on the Mercury ice [because t]he primordial soup would be far too cold.” Or something like that — I didn’t quite follow the train of thought.

The only possible explanation that makes sense, according to Terry Hurlbut, who is also a frequent contributor to Conservapedia, is the “Hydroplate Theory” (and I only use the term “theory” here because that’s what he’s called it).

To those fortunate enough to not be well versed in this, let me try to briefly explain it. The hydroplate … I’m sorry, I can’t say it, so I’ll just use “idea” … the hydroplate idea was originated by Walt Brown in an attempt to explain Noah’s Flood’s implications across the solar system. In other words, we see lots of stuff across the solar system, Noah’s flood is one of the most catastrophic things in the Judeo-Christian Bible, ergo maybe it can explain lots of seemingly catastrophic things across the solar system.

Brown’s idea is that, originally, around 6000 years ago, today’s terrestrial ocean was very deep underground, about 10 miles (15 km) or so. Then God had a hissy fit decided to kill almost everyone and everything about 4400 years ago, and after Noah got all those animals in his ark, God cracked Earth’s crust and the water burst out. It apparently, somehow, was under so much pressure, that not only did it cover Earth, but it threw enormous amounts of water, rock, and mud – 1% of Earth’s weight! – into space. Besides doing other things, that water, rock, and mud that was thrown into space are comets and asteroids that we see today. The comets being in all sorts of crazy orbits is evidence for this.

So, the organics obviously came from Earth.

And: “Brown confirmed today that the Mercury ice confirms his theory. That means the Mercury ice confirms creation, not abiogenesis or panspermia, as the origin of life.” QED

Seriously?

Yes.

No, Seriously?

Yes. These people really believe this. I feel like I need that disclaimer that South Park used in their Scientology episode: “THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE.” Except in this case, “This is what some conservative, Biblical literalists actually believe.”

There are so many basic things wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to really start. I suppose I could just mention one and leave it at that, with full knowledge that Brown and his supporters have an open challenge to refute his idea and crow that no one ever has taken them up on it. No, I’m not interested in taking him up on it, either, if one of them happens to be reading this.

But moving on, one basic counter-argument against this is one of the arguments against a frequent Planet X: the asteroids today are, for the most part, dynamically stable in orbits that don’t intersect Earth. In other words, if you take Brown’s scenario, even if you have a now stable field of asteroids produced from this Flood event, either the aphelion or perihelion (farthest or closest) distance from the sun of the orbit would have to be Earth’s orbit, baring orbital interactions with other bodies.

Yes, there are a few thousand asteroids that cross Earth’s orbit, and some even do have orbital elements that I described. But millions of asteroids reside in the asteroid belt and do not come anywhere near Earth. And the asteroid belt shows families (groups) of asteroids that have dynamical lifetimes on the order of millions of years. They’re also all relatively in the same plane, but I guess Brown could say somehow that Earth shot them all out as a “belt” of material before shooting the would-be comets out in all directions.

To put it a third way: The vast majority of asteroids in the solar system, that Brown claims would have been produced in this event, have orbits that are not what they would need to be given his scenario, and in fact contradict it.

Final Thoughts

I’m somewhat sick (thanks Mom, Dad) and high on IBUprofen and Sudafed (the real stuff), so this post may have had a rather large “snark factor.”

And I’ll admit that sometimes Biblical literalists make some seemingly good arguments that are more difficult to tease apart, or subtle arguments that you have to think about for awhile, or very technical ones that require a specialist to get into.

But this is not one of them. This is grasping at straws. This is just, well, really “out there.” It’s about at the level of the lunar ziggurat, or a “psychic” claiming that they see the letter “P” but it could also be turned around to be a “b” or on its side to be a wheelbarrow and – oh look! someone used a shovel and a “P” can look like a shovel so I’m right!

Ice on Mercury was not an unexpected find confirmation because it was already discovered via radar from Earth about two decades ago. The detection from MESSENGER in orbit of Mercury is not insignificant, and it adds new constraints and new data to help refine models, but the “hydroplate ‘theory'” is not one of them.

November 8, 2011

Proof in Science versus the Media, Comets and Water, and Creationism


Introduction

How Earth got its water is an ongoing question in solar system evolution. A new study suggests comets are more likely to be the answer than previously thought. But could the answer simply be too hard for us to figure out; should we just not worry, and can we simply say that a loving God did it?

The Problem

When the solar system formed, there was a basic temperature gradient — it was hot in the center, where the sun was forming, and it got cooler as you went farther away from the nascent star. The location in the solar nebula that was about 100°C (212°F), is called the “Frost Line” where the water molecule would no longer be a volatile gas, but it would be a liquid and could be accreted to a forming object in an appreciable quantity. The frost line is about where the asteroid belt is.

Hence the problem: If liquid water could not form where Earth was, then how did Earth become the relatively water-rich world it is today?

A Solution?

For the last few decades, the favored solution has been delivery by comets. Comets are mostly water-ice, we know they impact objects, and we know that the impact rate was much higher in the very early solar system than it is today (in fact, I’m attending a workshop on the early solar system bombardment history in February where the focus will be on this).

A problem with this has to do with what’s called the deuterium/hydrogen ratio. Basically, water comes in two forms, “normal” water which is the familiar H2O (two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom), and HDO (one hydrogen, one deuterium, and one oxygen). The latter is known as “heavy water” and you may have heard about it in relation to nuclear fusion.

Deuterium is a heavy form of hydrogen. A normal hydrogen atom has one proton in the nucleus. Deuterium has one proton plus a neutron, making its mass about twice that of a normal hydrogen atom … hence “heavy water” when it’s incorporated into the water molecule. It’s still considered hydrogen because the number of protons is what determines what atom it is. (And for those who like the extra credit information, tritium would be one proton and two neutrons.)

Getting back to the problem, the deuterium/hydrogen ratio (abbr. as D/H) is the normal ratio of heavy water molecules to normal water molecules found on an object. Earth’s oceans have a D/H of about 1.56 x 10-4, or basically a bit more than 1 out of every 10,000 water molecules is heavy water. Comets, though, have been measured to be about (2.96±0.25)x10-4, or around 70% too high. Asteroids are too low at (1.4±0.1)x10-4.

So where did the water come from?

New Proof that Comets Watered the Earth

So proclaimed the title of an October 11, 2011 Time article. That’s right, “Proof.”

My problem with this statement is that we never have absolute “proof” in science. We have evidence that adds to the “conclusivity” (yes, I just made up a word) of a hypothesis. Proofs are in mathematics. Proofs never apply to real life. If you’re interested in this subject, I’ve written probably two relevant posts on it (post 1, post 2).

The article in question (Hartogh et al. 2011) is about a recent Nature Letter (a very short paper) that measured the D/H value in a comet named 103P/Hartley 2. The D/H measured in that comet came out to be (1.61±0.24)x10-4 … which overlaps with Earth. This particular comet was from a different part of the solar system than previous comets with a D/H measurement, which is part of why this is a new result and why it was hyped up a bit.

The effect of this work is to revitalize the comets delivering water hypothesis, clearing up one of the biggest problems with it: We now do have a potential source for water that matches a significant constraint.

If you’re interested in reading more about it, other than the title, I do suggest the Time article.

But I Thought Goddidit

This brings us to the Answers in Genesis’ “News to Note” from October 15, 2011, specifically the second item. They don’t necessarily dispute the basic science of the article, rather the “view:”

“Nevertheless, in an effort to avoid a biblical explanation for the origin of all things—in other words, God as Creator—many cling to this explanation despite its aberrant physics. While the isotope ratios in the comets and asteroids are of scientific interest, they tell us nothing about the origin of the solar system. …

“The Bible explains the origin of the water on Earth and the origin of the entire universe. And the time of this Creation, about six thousand years ago, does not exceed maximum comet lifespans or demand a hypothetical birthplace to replenish them. … [God] made the Earth with its generous supply of water, not as a hot molten world that would boil away its water. After providing the Earth with an atmosphere, dry land, and plant life, He created the solar system and the other stars. He specifies that He made the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day of Creation week. There is no way to blend the Genesis account of Creation with secular ideas of cosmology such as the big bang and the nebular hypothesis without calling God a liar.”

I really don’t think at this point that I need to go into detail about this and my position on it. It really is interesting to see, though, how these people are so willing to stick their heads in the sand and would be perfectly content in the Dark Ages of Europe a thousand years ago.

Final Thoughts

This was an interesting piece of science news, one that I knew some creationist somewhere was going to have an issue with, and one that I hoped the news media would not spin too broadly. I was right on the first, wrong on the second. With the latter point, these things are subtle, but using words like “proof” or “prove,” “hypothesis” versus “theory,” and “believe” versus “think” are words that shape significantly the public perception of science, how it works, and how “definitive” it is.

After over half a decade of fighting, the science-/evidence-based medicine crowd has succeeded in making that the term people use for what had been generally referred to “western” medicine. It’s a long battle, but maybe some day we’ll be able to get people to use some of these basic science terms correctly. At least when referring to science.

September 9, 2011

Podcast Episode 4 Is Up: Comet Elenin Special


With Episode 4 of my podcast, I have introduced the “bonus” episodes. Doing two podcasts a month doesn’t quite allow me the flexibility I wanted in order to address some “late-breaking” things, and so I’ve now put out the first bonus episode. These will be (hopefully) timely episodes about topics de jure. In this case, I put the episode out just before Comet Elenin makes its closest approach to the sun (perihelion).

I’ve avoided discussing Comet Elenin much on this blog because, well, to put it bluntly, it’s stupid. It’s as if the mentality of people has regressed by a few thousand years where they’re starting to fear comets as harbingers of doom again.

It’s difficult to actually put together a cohesive story about what these people believe (as is the case with most things I’ve addressed such as 2012, Planet X, and even the Apollo Moon hoax), so I picked and chose what I thought were some of the main claims out there. The first half is dedicated to those, while the second half is dedicated to my break-down of Richard Hoagland’s numerology about Elenin.

There should still be a regularly scheduled Sept. 16 episode out next week.

Edited to Add: As of 5PM GMT on September, 10, 2011, I have slightly updated the episode and a new version is up. It includes slightly more background information at the beginning and a “bottom-line,” “this is the SCIENCE,” note at the end before the one announcement.

August 31, 2011

Podcast Episode Three Is Up: Young-Earth Creationist Claims About Comets


I wanted to announce that the third episode of my Exposing PseudoAstronomy podcast has been posted now to both the website and the RSS feed. It’s my first foray into young-Earth creationism in the podcast … the first of many. But, no one likes the same topic over and over and over and over again in a row, so I’m not going to have the next ten be about the YEC claims. I’m mixing it up a bit.

This podcast episode is also a bit longer than the last two (first was ~13 minutes, second ~15, this one ~25). The actual main content part is somewhat longer because there was more to go over, and it goes until around 16 minutes. The remaining time is spent on the puzzler (solution to last episode and the new one for this episode) and a new segment: Listener feedback! If nothing else, I want to show you that I DO read your feedback even if I don’t respond to everyone.

Oh, and the new logo should be appearing as album art. If you’d like to provide feedback on it, feel free. It was rendered in a fully 3D environment (huzzah for a time-waster!).

August 30, 2011

Richard Hoagland’s Selective Numerology of Comet Elenin


Introduction

Comet Elenin has been in the “alternative” media a lot for the past few months for reasons that I cannot fathom other than to think that the state of mind of most people has regressed several thousand years. I haven’t done any posts on it because there’s simply nothing to “debunk” as there’s nothing marvelous to report about it.

Putting that aside, Coast to Coast AM‘s science advisor, Richard C. Hoagland, was on last night (August 29/30) for two hours espousing more about his hyperbolic geometry and its relation to Comet Elenin. Far from being doomy and gloomy, Hoagland seems to believe that Elenin is actually an advanced spaceship sent from a previous advanced society from Earth to us to help get us out of trouble.

His evidence? Numerology.

The Magical Statistical Thinking of Richard Hoagland

Before I start, I have to say, I am not making this up.

Now that that’s out of the way, Hoagland claims that the chances of Elenin approaching the inner solar system as-is is less than 1 in 230 million. Therefore it has to be artificial. How does he get to that number? This way:

  1. The Russian mathematician, Leonid Elenin, who discovered his now namesake comet, did so when the comet had a magnitude (brightness) of +19.5 (this is actually really faint). Hoagland says the brightest comet observed was in the 1960s and was -17 magnitude, while the faintest is Halley with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and it was at +28.2 magnitude. So with a range of 45.2 magnitudes, the chances of finding it at 19.5 is 1 in 45.2.
     
  2. The odds of Elenin visiting Earth on a particular day, in this case Sept. 10/11, is 1 in 365.
     
  3. The odds of it visiting on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, are 1 in 10.
     
  4. Elenin’s closest approach to Earth will be on a (unimportant to Richard) day but at 19:50 GMT (remember, 19.5 is a magical number to Richard). So that’s a 1 in 1440 chance (60 minutes times 24 hours in a day).

At this point, if we multiply these numbers together, we get a 1:237,571,200 chance. Wow!

Hoagland then makes a big deal about the comet being on a hyperbolic orbit (meaning that the eccentricity is >1.0 (e=0 is a circle, 0<e<1 is an ellipse, e>1 is a hyperbola)). He claims that this is the first comet ever found to be on a hyperbolic orbit.

But there's more that he then goes into:

  1. The comet has an orbital inclination of 1.84° to Earth. He takes the 360 degrees in a circle and divides by 1.84° to get 195 (remember, 19.5 is important to Richard).

Multiply that in and you get odds of 1:46,481,321,739. Wow!

Does Any of That Make Sense?

To put it succinctly, “no.” If you want the long version …

Point 1. Richard has to know with this point that he’s full of it. First, he’s wrong about comet C/1965 S1, AKA Ikeya-Seki. It reached magnitude -10, not -17. Because the magnitude scale is logarithmic, Richard is wrong by a factor of about 1000x in brightness. But besides this, comets are not discovered when they are at their brightest. They are usually discovered when they are around the position of Jupiter in the solar system and are somewhere in the upper teens on the magnitude scale. In the case of Ikeya-Seki, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, the comet was “first observed as a faint telescopic object on September 18, 1965.”

In terms of how faint a comet can be and still be visible, Hale-Bopp will pass from visibility in about a decade when it nears +30 magnitude, so Richard is probably right about his +28ish as the faintest. But then, why did he use integers in his math? Why didn’t he say that the chances of it being discovered at 19.5 was one in 452 instead of 45.2? You could really make anything up here.

But regardless, as I said, the majority of comets are detected in the teens of magnitude, so I’ll give this perhaps a generous realistic probability of 1 in 5.

But even then, so what?

Point 2. This whole thing with the odds of something happening on a particular day really bugs me. It’s the same issue I have with the Global Consciousness Project in terms of what constitutes a “significant event.” In this case, Hoagland is claiming that the odds of its closest approach to the sun on a particular important anniversary in the US are 1 in 365. True. But what about it happening on Christmas? Thanksgiving? V-Day? D-Day? Pearl Harbor Day? A presidential election? Mother’s Day? What about Bastille Day? Guy Fawkes Day? Boxing Day? Cinco de Mayo?

And why just its closest approach to the sun? What about when it crosses Earth’s distance inboud? Outbound? Closest approach to Earth inbound? Outbound? Crosses Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter?

This is the problem with a retrodiction — you can find almost anything significant somewhere in the world when you have a day and/or time as your constraint. I’m giving him even odds on this one, 1 in 1.

Point 3. I should probably combine the whole 10th anniversary thing with the previous point, but suffice to say, this is again nothing significant. If it were the fifth anniversary, he’d claim significance. Second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. And he’d continue to give the 1 in 1, 1 in 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. odds, despite these odds really not meaning anything because you could say, “What are the odds that out of a hundred anniversaries, it would be on the 10th? That’s 1 in 100, not 1 in 10!” So again, I’m giving him even odds on this one that he’d find something significant.

For those of you keeping score, we’re at 1:5, not 1:164,980.

Point 4. Yet again, the 19.5 number. Except, not. 19.5 hours GMT would be at 19:30, not 19:50. And, you could really choose any time zone around the world. So if Richard is allowing a ±20-minute window around 19.5 hours and we can choose any time zone, then this is a 2:3 chance, not 1:1440.

Point 5. There are a few things wrong with this. Well, two. First, 1.84 divided into (not by) 360 is 195.65217… . Rounding, this is 196, not 195. It’s also, well, 196, not 19.6. But besides this, his math is wrong because it “should” be 90/1.84. This is because if the comet were approaching from the “other” direction, it would still have that same angle relative to the plane of the solar system, so we’ve now cut our 360° circle in half to 180°. Second, if it were coming below the plane of the solar system, it would still be listed as having an inclination of 1.84°, so we’ve cut the circle in half again to 90°.

So it’s really a 1 in 48.9 chance that the inclination would be between 0 and 1.84°, a fairly insignificant inclination angle since most objects in the solar system orbit in roughly the same plane. You would have to multiply this into the probability distribution of inclination angles of known long-period comets to actually get the odds, and I’m not going to bother going through that math as I think we can agree at this point that it’s, again, an insignificant number.

So in the end, we have a roughly 1 in 5 chance that Elenin would have the level of significance that Hoagland places on it. Not 1 in 46 billion.

In addition to all this, though, Hoagland is wrong about this being the only comet on a hyperbolic trajectory. In fact, there are 259 known comets with hyperbolic orbits. And, while Elenin had an eccentricity of 1.0000621 early on, it was perturbed into that and is continuing to be perturbed such that when it exits the inner solar system should have an eccentricity of around 0.9991 (source).

Final Thoughts

I’m actually prepping a “bonus” episode of my podcast to come out on Sept. 10/11 to talk a bit about the Comet Elenin foolishness that’s going around the interwebz. But this was just too wrong to ignore as I was listening to Hoagland while doing work this morning. I hope that I’ve shown you that this particular brand of numerology is absolutely wrong and completely made up. Besides being magical thinking — he really just made up some of those numbers, completely ignored basic observational methods in others, and retrofitted to significance the rest.

It’s just wrong!

September 4, 2008

More Reasons Why Comets Do NOT Prove Creationism

Filed under: comets,creationism — Stuart Robbins @ 11:30 pm
Tags: , , , ,

This post is in regards to the Institute for Creation Research’s September 6, 2003 program about Comets. You can listen to the audio here.

Even though this episode of ICR radio was produced before my previous post on comets and creationism, I’ve opted to write about it second because the claims in it are more subtly incorrect.

The first comment on this episode is really more of a nit-pick (@ 4 min): The scientist on the program claims, “The famous Shoemaker-Levy [9] comet, which broke up into 9 pieces and crashed into the surface of Jupiter …”

Now this claim really isn’t used to try to prove creationism, but another purpose of this blog is to help propagate good astronomy when there is bad astronomy being stated. There are two problems with the above statement. The first is that the comet in question did not break into 9 pieces, but rather it broke into 21 main fragments, labeled A through W. Also, Jupiter really doesn’t have a “surface” in the traditional sense. It may have a rocky core, but we don’t know that for certain. What we do know is that its atmosphere is huge, extending at least 5 times Earth’s radius, and the comet fragments that crashed through the jovian atmosphere would have been crushed by the pressure well before they reached any “surface.”

About 6 min 30 sec into the broadcast, we get the first bit of real pseudo-astronomy: One of their scientists is talking about how comets tend to fragment, they lose some of their material during their orbit, and they’re somewhat fragile if they come really close to a large, massive object (like a planet or star). But he then states, “This has been a problem for evolutionists for a long time because comets just don’t last, and they certainly don’t last over the supposed age of the solar system.”

Again there’s that “evolutionist” label … somehow because I’m an astronomer who uses “real” science I’m now an evolutionist, too. Regardless of this snub, this is the same argument that I talked about in my previous post on comets: Comet nuclei were not all “launched” into close-Sun-passing orbits at the beginning of the solar system. They effectively “lie in wait” in the frigid outer regions until they collide amongst themselves or a passing massive body causes their orbits to change, bringing a few into the inner solar system. This effectively sets their internal “clocks” at a zero-age in terms of losing material, and so it really has nothing to do with “proving” the solar system was created a matter of a few thousand years ago. This is NOT “good evidence that the Universe isn’t billions of years old,” as the narrator states.

The next argument is closely related (about 7 min 45 sec in): Dr. Ross Humphreys is a physicist for the ICR and says, “There’s (sic) some comets called ‘short-period comets’ that come around so frequently that they could not have been in our solar system longer than 10,000 years. … Halley’s comet is acknowledged by scientists to not have been in the solar system longer than 90,000 years.” (emphasis mine)

So this is the same argument as above which I’ve already addressed. However, there’s a new wrinkle. This person claims that these comets aren’t even in the solar system until recently. This simply doesn’t make sense. People who do modeling have shown that it’s nearly impossible to have objects line up just right such that two bodies that were not gravitationally bound to begin with (a comet being “in” our solar system, in other words) can be captured. I believe their physicist meant to say “in the inner solar system,” which could be more correct. But this is a pretty obvious mistake to make, and if you’re going to make an argument from authority (the guy being a physicist) you would hope their authority knows that comets didn’t magically appear from beyond the solar system.

There are a few more misstatements and fallacious arguments in the next few minutes episode, but they are pretty much the same as those I have addressed below and in my other comet post (not believing in the Oort Cloud simply because they can’t see it). Oh, and apparently I’m now a “Big Bang Theorist” because I know about comets and agree with the evidence supporting the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. Maybe I could write a grant to NASA to study comets because I’m a Big Bang Theorist.

The last argument they make that I want to address is the claim the Kuiper Belt “can’t” be a source of short-period comets (about 10 min into the program). The evidence they point to is that the objects in the Kuiper Belt are generally redder in color than comets. They claim this means they’re two entirely different classes of objects, and that evolutionists (honestly, how the heck do they equate studying comets with being an evolutionist?) have tried all sorts of ways to get Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) to “lose” their red.

This is actually a fairly easy problem. Without getting into chemistry, spectroscopy, and physics, the basic idea is weathering. Even though there’s no air, water, etc. in space, there are particles that are constantly interacting with KBOs, and those particles mainly come from the solar wind. They have the ability to chemically alter the material they come into contact with, but only the very upper surface. When the objects are weathered, they become redder. Once a KBO is nudged into a sun-grazing orbit, however, the crust sublimates (turns from a solid directly into a gas). What is sublimating? The upper surface of the KBO … the surface that was weathered. So after a first-close-pass with the Sun, the object can easily lose that red color and look like an ordinary comet.



A final comment goes to the nature of science. On this program, as on the comet one I discussed below, the fall-back is something to the effect of, “Creationism has a much simpler answer than all this Oort Cloud, Kuiper Belt, and other stuff. It’s that the Solar System was created by God recently.”

That is faith. Plain and simple. It is NOT science. Science makes testable, potentially falsifiable hypotheses about the way things work. If you pass everything off to God as your explanation, that is perfectly legitimate faith, but it has nothing to do with science because it is not testable nor falsifiable. The explanations I have given may seem “materialistic,” but that is the nature of science; by definition, it does not accept faith-based explanations.

And I must add that, so far, the materialist explanation has worked perfectly fine for explaining the apparently unexplainable features of comets.

Why Comets Are NOT Evidence for a Young Solar System

Filed under: comets,creationism — Stuart Robbins @ 4:47 am
Tags: , , ,

This post is in regards to the Institute for Creation Research’s February 4, 2006 program about Comets.  You can listen to the audio here.

The beginning of this program is actually fairly decent, talking about how comets are “dirty icebergs” that orbit the Sun, and when they get too close, they begin to lose material because the Sun’s heat and wind both melt and erode material from its surface.  I don’t know precisely if the number “5%” of it gets removed, but that’s not a huge issue for me (is for them, and I’ll explain why).

The first real mistake in this piece comes at about 2 min 30 seconds in.  The host makes the point that, “Since matter is being stripped away from comets, how long do they survive in the solar system?”  Their expert, Dr. Falkner (not sure on that spelling), replies that most comets are only a few miles across and that each time they come close to the Sun, they may “lose a few feet off of that size.”

This contradicts what they said above about the 5% number.  Let’s say for argument that a comet is 1 mile in diameter (probably fairly small).  And a “few feet” amounts to a generous 10 feet.  If it loses 10 feet off its diameter every pass, it would need to go through about 528 passes of the Sun to disintegrate … not after “probably maybe 100 trips around the Sun it eventually dissipates.”  If comets have orbits of 100 years (as they then generalize), then that’s nearly 53,000 years!  NOT 10,000 years.

Then let’s examine the claim of 5%.  If a comet is again 1 mile in diameter, then it doesn’t simply have to approach the Sun 20 times (20*5 = 100) to die off.  5% is multiplicative.  So the first pass it would have 95% of its original material, but the next pass would reduce it to 90.25% of its original material (0.95*(1-0.5)).  This continues iteratively.  So the third pass would leave it with 85.7375% (0.9025*(1-0.05)), and so on.

But this is again a huge over-generalization, but they use it to say it’s evidence for recent creation.  Well, yes, IF you assume that all comets started orbiting the Sun on orbits that took them close to the Sun when the solar system was formed, IF you assume that all comets have 100-year orbits, IF you assume that all comets are only 1 mile in diameter and lose a few feet or 5% (which are NOT equivalent) of material after every orbit, then sure, this may be evidence for a recent creation.  But this is NOT the case.

And it’s not even the biggest mistake they make.  The host then says that, “Many evolutionists answer this question by hypothesizing that a large cloud of orbiting comets (dirty snowballs) exists in the outer reaches of the solar system.”  So there’s the association fallacy at work, I’m an “evolutionist” and therefore I’m wrong about other things simply by that association.

Well this claim that that’s what astronomers believe is mostly true.  They are referring specifically to the Oort Cloud, a very large (2-light-year-radius) cloud of comets that is believed to contain trillions of bodies in the outer reaches of the solar system, extending half-way to the nearest star (4.3 light-years away).  It is believed to be the source of long-period comets (comets that have a “year” of more than 250 Earth-years).  But there’s another region of comets interior to the Oort Cloud that starts just outside Neptune – the Kuiper Belt.  This is another region of space believed to have billions of comets that is the source for short-period comets (those with years less than 250 Earth years).  The Kuiper Belt was first observed in 1992 (when the first object was discovered in it).  The Oort Cloud remains the subject of theory simply because the objects in it are so far away and so small that they are too faint to be detected with current technology.  But it is still a falsifiable theory.

Now that you have a brief understanding for what these are, on with the ICR claims (at about 4 min in):  [host] “However, there is a small problem with the Oort Cloud Theory.”  [scientist] “All this sounds very complicated, but the bottom line is nobody’s ever seen the Oort Cloud.  We see what looks like an Oort Cloud around other systems, but we don’t see it in our own vicinity.  So I have my doubts that it exists …” [emphasis mine]

So let’s think about this for a bit.  “Nobody’s ever seen the Oort Cloud … so I have my doubts that it exists.”  Alright.  No one’s ever seen gravity, but we see its effects.  No one has ever seen a crater form on a planetary surface, but we have a very good idea of how it happens and we can model it.  No one has ever seen a star explode (this is a good thing) but we have good models that make predictions about what we should see after they explode, which have been observed.

The Oort Cloud is hypothetical, and it is not possible to actually observe it with our technology.  But, it is the best science-based explanation for long-period comets.  The Kuiper Belt was hypothetical, but it was later verified and we have now cataloged many hundreds of members of it.

And they even miss the point that even if the Oort Cloud does NOT exist, then (a) there’s no source for long-period comets, but (b) it STILL does not mean that the solar system was created 10000 years ago or less.  That’s because it’s actually fairly few comets that enter the inner solar system at any given time, the Belt has to be perturbed by a passing object to knock a comet into the inner solar system.  That takes time.  And so any object in the Kuiper Belt today could get knocked into an orbit that takes it close to the Sun and makes it a comet to us.  That starts the clock on that particular comet at 0.  So the fact that we still see comets today says ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about the solar system having been created recently.



The creation scientist then goes on to talk about some other stuff, but around 5 min 30 sec basically sums up the point of the broadcast episode:  “Comets are fragile.  During their orbits around the Sun, they shrink, or melt, some occasionally hit the Sun or Jupiter, and some comets leave the solar system all together.  Yet, there’s the continued presence today of hundreds of known comets … each and every comet is a witness to a supernatural, created solar system that is just thousands of years old, not billions.”

As I have hopefully convincingly shown, this is simply not true.  It is based on gross generalizations, assumptions, and outright disregard for the consensus of the structure of the solar system.

But, it’s difficult to argue with faith, when the announcer says (8 min 30 sec):  “As creationists, we know that comets, along with the rest of the Universe, were made by God on Day 4 of Creation Week.”

This is why I am not trying to convince you that creationism is or is not true.  I am simply illustrating that the scientific claims that creationism makes are flawed, not true, or outright denials of evidence.

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