Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 2, 2012

Podcast Episode 46: Immanuel Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision”

The many times requested episode on Immanuel Velikovsky has arrived, and it’s arrived for the first anniversary of my podcast. Yup, the first episode, on the “dark side” of the moon, came out August 1, 2011. Hard to believe that it’s been a year.

This episode’s main segment is over 20 minutes long, and yet it’s an incredibly abridged episode discussing a distillation of his ideas from “Worlds in Collision,” his first book. I go over some of Velikovsky’s bio, the politics surrounding him when he introduced his book in 1950, and then a few of the lines of evidence he used plus several refutations of his argument.

This episode may seem a tad preachy at some points. It’s hard when talking about Velikovsky to address his evidence because there really is none for his claims, so I used it to discuss how one should and should not go about science, and how Velikovsky failed at it. Rather than using available observations and making his ideas, and then forming testable predictions from them, he instead threw out most branches of science and relied on scattered myths throughout the world for his evidence. Sorry, that ain’t how it’s done.

As the first anniversary episode, I go over some obligatory stats at the end. I’m relying on all of you to increase them for August 1, 2013. :)

January 16, 2012

Podcast Episode 19: John Lear (and Some of His Claims)

The long-delayed episode 19 is now posted: John Lear. John is the son of the famous inventor of the Lear Jet but just kinda threw out all credibility when he bought into … UFOs, aliens, cities on the Moon and Mars and Venus and Mercury and Pluto and Neptune etc., a soul catcher on the moon, the Kennedy conspiracy, 9/11 “truth,” crop circles, and many other things – those are just naming a few.

In the episode – which may be a Part 1 if people want more (comments people, feedback people!) – I talk about three of his claims: The atmosphere of Venus, the atmosphere of the moon, and lunar formation. I also spend a fair amount of time finally getting into details about pareidolia, including a short spelling lesson.

Also what bears announcing is that I now have a Facebook page for the podcast (and blog). And, I now have a Twitter account for the podcast/blog: @PseudoAstro .

June 28, 2011

The Magical Hyperbolic Tetrahedral Geometry of 19.5° Latitude


Hyperbolic Tetrahedral Geometry

"Hyperbolic Tetrahedral Geometry"

Take a tetrahedron (4-sided solid made of four equilateral triangles) and put it in a sphere such that each point of the pyramid touches the inside surface of the sphere. Draw a straight line through the center of the sphere such that one end of the line intersects a point of the pyramid; think of this line as the polar axis, and now orient it in your mind so that the line that goes through the pyramid point is down. Now draw a line around the circle’s equator. Now, if you take the angle between the equator, the center of the sphere, and one of the three non-pole points of the pyramid, you get 19.5°.

That’s the magic of Richard C. Hoagland’s hyperbolic geometry and all the claims of importance for the 19.5° latitude that I’m going to explore in this post.

Richard C. Hoagland’s Magical Thinking

Richard C. Hoagland says a lot of stuff. Almost everything he says sounds crazy. Over the decades, he has built up a vast conspiracy-laden mythology about the universe, how it supposedly works, and why things are the way they are.

To go into every single one of his claims, as I’ve said before in other posts about Hoagland (like here, here, or here), would be next to impossible. As in previous posts, the point in this is to go over a very specific claim.

The “19.5° is an important number” stems from his whole “hyperdimensional physics” mythos. Again, something I’m not going to go into. Partly because it’s incomprehensible, nonsensical, and made up. Suffice to say, “A tenet of these views holds that vast amounts of energy originating from dimensions we cannot perceive are available at latitudes 19.5° both south and north on the Sun and every planet in the solar system” (quote source).

In other words, Hoagland and fellow believers claim that it is at 19.5° latitude on every body in the solar system that we have the biggest/bestest/scarriest/craziest/powerfulest/whateverest feature. Let’s take a look, shall we?

What’s at 19.5° Latitude?

Taken from Hoagland’s own website, we have a short list proving that everything of importance in the solar system is at 19.5° latitude.  Note that everything in this table is directly copied from his website except for the comments, which I have simplified/shortened/clarified.

Object Feature Latitude Importance
Venus Alta Regio 19.5° N A Volcanic Region
Beta Regio 25.0° S A Volcanic Region
Earth Hawaiian Caldera 19.6° N Largest Shield Volcano (on Earth)
Moon Tsiolkovskii 19.6° S Unique Farside “mare-like” Lava
Mars Olympus Mons 19.3° N Largest Shield Volcano (on Mars)
Jupiter Great Red Spot 22.0° S Vast Atmospheric “Vorticular Upwelling”
Saturn North/South Equatorial Belts ±20.0° N/S Region of “Storms” Observed from Earth
Uranus Northern/Southern IR 1-2 K “Dip” ±20.0° N/S “Upwelling” Created by High-Altitude Clouds
Neptune Great Dark Spot 20.0° S Presumably Same as Jovian Counterpart*

*Hoagland calls this “Neptune Great Red Spot” but it has, since it was observed by Voyager 2 in 1989, disappeared.

Since Hoagland posted this (his page is ©1989), many other people have found other things on other planets that they claim enhances this idea. One such site, for example, indicates that the Pyramid of the Sun is at 19.6° N (on Earth). Other people claim, such as Will Hart, that all solar storms and susnspots originate from 19.5° latitude on the sun; another twist from this site about the sun is “sunspot activity and the region of peak temperatures is limited to 19.5 degreees north and south.” Others remark simply, “It is interesting how most planets in our solar system display phenomena at this latitude.” The list of claims goes on.

Dissecting the List, and Are These Features Important?

One of the first things you should notice from Hoagland’s list is that only one of the 9 things I pulled (the ones I didn’t are on Jupiter’s moon Io) is at 19.5°. Two more are within 0.1° of it. For a precise geometric phenomenon where huge amounts of energy are released, this isn’t very precise.

On Earth, Mauna Loa, Hawai’i, with a summit at 19.48° is a correct claim of the largest shield volcano presently on the planet. However, it’s really not that spectacular a volcano in terms of energetic potential. The Yellowstone caldera is about 34×45 miles (55×72 km) across. That’s just the caldera. It is at a latitude 44.4° N. The most recent known supervolcano eruption on Earth was in Lake Taupo, about 26,500 years ago, and its latitude is 38.82° S.

Additionally, the largest earthquakes – more releases of energy – since 1900 haven’t been anywhere near 19.5°. None of them.

As for structures on the Earth to harness this energy, one might consider the Pyramid of the Sun and say, “wow, that’s pretty neat that it’s at 19.5°.” But what about Egypt’s pyramids? Or South America’s? What about other architecture, say, Stonehenge? None of these are near 19.5°. This is what we call “cherry picking” to an extreme.

If we want to expand the notion of cherry picking, let’s go to the moon. Hoagland has found some random feature at 19.5° … err, 19.6° … latitude on the far side that has something to do with a volcanic feature. Except that the moon is covered in volcanic features. When you look at the moon, all those dark splotches on the near side are vast volcanic areas where ancient impacts allowed magma from deep below the crust to breach the surface and fill them. And these seas of volcanic material — maria (plural) — are not in any way centered around 19.5°. Nor are the smaller volcanic features that we observe today still strewn throughout them.

Or there’s Mars. Hoagland and his ilk claim that the vast Olympus Mons volcano – the tallest volcano in the solar system – is centered at 19.3° on Mars and is perfect evidence for this hyperbolic geometry. Except that it’s not. The caldera complex of Olympus Mons (there are at least 6 distinct calderas at the summit) range between latitudes 17.8° and 18.8° North. In addition to that, Olympus Mons is so vast with a diameter of around 650 km that the northern scarps start at around 23.5° N while the southern margin is around 13.5° N latitude. So with it spanning over 10°, it’s not that hard to hit it. Besides, Mars has 23 other major volcanoes, and Alba Patera, which is actually the most voluminous volcano in the solar system (as Mauna Loa is the most voluminous volcano on Earth), has a caldera centered at 40.3° N.

The claim of the sun having sunspots centered at 19.5° is also wrong, as can be seen on any given day.

We can also look at other features of interest. I’ll name only one for brevity since I think I’ve made my point by now. Saturn’s moon Enceladus was, in the last few years, shown to have active geysers spewing material from the interior of the moon. What’s their latitude? About 90° S — that’s right, the south pole. Not anywhere near 19.5° North nor South latitude.

Final Thoughts

This particular magical belief is only supported by very very careful cherry-picking. As clearly shown above, even in the features that these people claim shows 19.5° is special, more than half the time they’re just wrong, off the mark, or are being very generous with reporting their numbers. And still the features that are “correct” are not especially unique.

I don’t really think much else needs to be said on this topic. It’s just made up and features are found to fit it while ignoring everything else.

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.

February 20, 2009

Latest Creationism Article, “Can Cosmic Collisions Create?” Is a Stack of Fringe Science Claims


After writing for a few weeks on Planet X and 2012, I’m returning to my former bread & butter with debunking creationism articles – specifically young-Earth creationism (YEC). And today’s article by Brian Thomas, “Can Cosmic Collisions Create?,” is, to put it bluntly, a real piece of work.

And I mean that in a sarcastic, derogatory sense. I know my stated purpose for this blog is to just go for the science and test the claims and let them stand independent of who’s making them. But, after reading this article, I may resort to some stronger – though still at least PG – language. This is a family-friendly blog. :)

Choosing the Setting

Brian Thomas starts off his diatribe as most other Institute for Creation Research (ICR) articles do, with a paragraph or two introducing the topic. In this case, the title of the article is misleading. I assumed it would be talking about how YECs view events like the moon’s formation via a giant impact, Uranus’ tilt via a giant impact, general processes of solar system formation (accretion of small particles into larger ones), etc. as too serendipitous to be natural and requiring a supernatural hand (as in “God”).

But, that’s not really the case for the article. Brian decided to write the article about how astronomers resort to methodological naturalism in their science. In other words, we (since I’m an astronomer I can say “we”) are looking for a natural rather than a supernatural explanation for everything that we can observe. Otherwise, we can simply say, “God did it” and that would end all science. After all, if “God did it” then what’s the point in figuring out how it was done – we’re already starting with the answer. But that’s really a topic for a different post.

Regardless, Brian doesn’t set the stage for talking about collisions “creating” anything. And the rest of the article doesn’t go into that.

False Analogy in the Second Paragraph

I knew when I got to the second paragraph and Brian calls Eugenie Scott, the head of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a “militant evolutionary scientist” that this article was going to be an eye-roller. So, he’s starting out right in the third sentence with an ad hominem as well as a non sequitur set of logical fallacies: He’s calling Eugenie a supposedly derogatory name in order to discredit her, and being an evolutionary scientist – or even evolution for that matter – has nothing to do with astronomy.

But it’s really the end of the second paragraph that started to get me going: “Forensic scientists routinely and appropriately consider intelligent, non-natural causes when they reconstruct past events, and astronomers’ refusal to acknowledge the possibility of divine causation makes some of their theories appear silly.”

To call it what it is, this is a false analogy. We have proof that humans commit crimes. It’s a given. It’s a no-brainer. “Duh,” as some might say. And, we have very good evidence that, say, trees don’t commit crimes, or at least not with intent. Again, “Duh.” So it would be completely irrational for forensic scientists (people who use science to investigate crimes) to, say, in a murder investigation, consider anything but a human having a hand in the killing. But what does that have to do with astronomy? There is no proof/evidence/scientific justification behind saying, “God did it” – or “Aliens did it” – in astronomy. Hence, because we pretty much know that humans do not have the power and ability of the Q Continuum and we can’t go around forming solar systems, we resort to natural explanations (had to throw in the Star Trek reference).

I just don’t understand why Brian would even “go there” in this article – making that analogy either shows profound ignorance or desire to deceive. Since I don’t know Brian personally, I cannot speak to which it may be, but I will let you judge based upon the rest of this article.

Comet Quandaries

I really don’t want to get into comets again, as I’ve already addressed YEC claims with regards to comets in two posts (“Why Comets Are NOT Evidence for a Young Solar System” and “More Reasons Why Comets Do NOT Prove Creationism“).

But, I want to nit-pick his words (emphasis mine):

For example, coincidental gravitational events have been invoked to explain the origin of comets. In this scenario, objects in the unobserved “Oort cloud” collide in such a way that a small percentage of them are launched into space and eventually form orbits around the sun. The likelihood that chance-based near-misses coupled with precise hits created, stored, and set in orbit the various comets in this way is unreasonably small.

Again, for the general science of comets and why this claim is wrong, see those two posts. But let’s look at the first text I bolded. The origin of comets is different from the source of comets. Current theory is that all comets formed at the beginning of the solar system along with everything else. They just formed farther away from the sun and hence where more ice could solidify versus closer to the sun where ice would be vaporized. That’s the origin. The present-day source of comets is this region of the outer solar system, divided into the Kuiper Belt which starts around where Pluto is, and then the Oort Cloud farther out, that theorists think could extend out to 2 light-years (half-way to the nearest star). Origin ≠ Source.

The next piece of text shows very poor editing, a profound ignorance for the astronomy, or a deliberate attempt to deceive. Everything that is gravitationally bound to the solar system by definition orbits the sun. All of the comets – be they in the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud, or something else within the solar system are already on orbits around the sun. And what could he possibly mean by “launched into space?” Um, hello? — they’re already in space. By definition! They’re “launched into space” the same way that asteroids that happen to cross Earth’s orbit are “launched into space.” The way he’s worded it implies that there’s some base station that every-now-and then hurls them at us like we launch rockets.

And I note that while this may seem like an ad hominem attack, it’s not – I am addressing his claims, showing why they make no sense, and then stating three possible reasons why he made the claims in a non-false trichotomy.

Another Creationist Playground: Venus

My observation has been that if a YEC is going to talk about solar system astronomy in an attempt to support their claims, they will first go to comets, then either to Venus or magnetic fields. Brian does both, but first he does Venus:

Another random collision, according to Cardiff University’s Huw Davies, is supposedly responsible for the creation of Venus. Davies proposed that the second planet from the sun is the result of “a mega-collision between two large embryonic planets.” But many very specific parameters would have had to be involved in this random “little bang” to form Venus’ unique composition, its reverse spin, its orbit about the sun, and therefore its role in balancing the earth’s own orbit, which is vital to the survival of life here. Since when do collisions—especially mega-collisions—add purpose-oriented specificity to any system?

There are several things wrong with this paragraph. First off, Brian Thomas talks about only one of the hypotheses which has been presented to explain Venus’ orbital characteristics (mainly that it spins backwards, slowly, such that its day is longer than its year). Doing that is misleading at best. A more recent hypothesis than the giant impact has to do with a lot of math, basically the same kinds of tidal forces that causes oceanic tides on Earth from the sun and moon are responsible and quite capable of flipping Venus over via tidal interaction with the sun. Philosophically, this is more plausible to astronomers because it doesn’t invoke a serendipitous giant impact to flip Venus over. Not mentioning this as another valid scientific hypothesis is disingenuous – or shows ignorance – on Brian’s part.

Another – though minor – point is his reference to this as a “little bang.” To the causal reader, this draws an immediate connection to the “Big Bang” – the theory of the formation of the cosmos – which is something that YECs have successfully been able to draw doubt to the validity of among their followers. Hence, this is an example of “poisoning the well.”

Moving on, Brian states that Venus plays an important role in balancing Earth’s orbit and hence a serendipitous event somehow led to purpose-oriented specificity to the solar system. First, Venus really doesn’t have much of anything to do with Earth’s orbit and hence life. So that statement is pretty much wrong. Second, there are lots of random things that are later co-opted for a specific purpose. For example, I may go into the grocery store thinking I’m going to buy food to make Thai Basil Chicken. But, ground beef may be on sale that week for 50%-off. That’s a random event. I may then co-opt that random event and use it for a purpose – make a “hamburger soup” instead because it’s cheaper. It’s really the same concept – the solar system and the universe isn’t the way it is such that we can exist, rather we exist the way we do because the solar system and universe happen to be set up the way they are.

Martian Magnetics

Mars is thought to have had a rather strong magnetic field early in its history. We find highly magnetized regions of the planet’s crust that are consistent with this, but there is no global magnetic field now. The thinking is that the planet – because it’s half Earth’s diameter and less than 1/8th Earth’s mass – simply cooled off much faster than we did and so the molten metals in its core were no longer fluid enough to generate a magnetic field. That’s the consensus view of Mars’ magnetic history.

However, Brian chooses not to mention that, but rather something that I’ve honestly never heard of:

University of Toronto’s Jafar Arkani-Hamed proposed that a collection of hovering asteroids ignited and maintained an ancient magnetic field on Mars. Such a field would have been required for living cells to exist on that planet. But the possibility that these asteroids somehow avoided Mars’ moons and then hovered with just the right masses, trajectories, and distances to have pulled Martian electromagnetism into motion “for 500 million years” seems incredible. Mars rocks do show evidence that there once was a magnetic field. However, these asteroid conjectures seem merely to be extensions of a larger methodological naturalistic interpretation since the proposed asteroids and their exact specifications are ad hoc provisions with no direct evidence (and virtually no indirect evidence.)

Now, I have not read Arkani-Hamed’s paper, but on the surface it seems fairly implausible. Just as Brian says (see, sometimes I do agree with the creationists). There really isn’t any evidence for his hypothesis, as far as I know without reading the paper. But again, why wouldn’t Brian even mention the consensus view? Why does he resort to something on the fringe to try to make a point? Really, Brian is doing the same thing here as saying that creationists can explain everything by saying that God did it – that’s the consensus view – but then there’s one creationist that says, for this one thing, he doesn’t think God did it, but rather it was the Flying Spaghetti Monster (any pastaferians out there?).

In addition, throwing Mars’ moons in there really isn’t important because the consensus view is that they were captured asteroids, after Mars formed, and so it’s not necessary for them to have been in place when Arkani-Hamed’s asteroid swarm induced Mars’ magnetic field, and hence they really don’t cause a problem for it.

Brian then makes the obligatory argument of a decaying magnetic field being proof of a young solar system: “Incidentally, the observation that Mars’ magnetic field rapidly decayed would be consistent with a young universe in which systems break down. Magnetic fields observed in other planets are decaying at rates precisely predicted by one creation model.” I’m really not going to address this because it’s a classic YEC argument that I will address in a future blog post (though here’s a preview: It doesn’t hold up to the science!).

Final Thoughts

I think I got through that without too much name-calling. Rather, I question Brian’s sincerity. Obviously he is writing for a Young-Earth Creationist think-tank, the Institute for Creation Research. So obviously his stories will have a slant or bias towards that cause. But there’s such a thing as professional ethics, a code of conduct, or just basically telling the whole truth. As I’ve pointed out, at least for this story (and in past ones in other posts), Brian does not do this. In his skewed perspective, he omits information, goes out and finds cases of fringe ideas to point out how a non-God approach seems “out there,” resorts to many different logical fallacies, and just plain gets the science wrong either deliberately (which should violate the ethics laid down by his God) or through profound ignorance about what he’s writing (which would – or should – doom anyone in pretty much any other job). Perhaps now you may understand why I was frustrated more than usual when reading this article.

As for the actual science content, I really have nothing left to say. He’s just wrong pretty much on every count. Case closed.

October 23, 2008

Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument)

This entry is in specific response to the “Venus vs. Uniformitarianism” article from the Institute for Creation Research, written by David Coppedge.

This is meant to be a short post on the heels of my crater discussion from yesterday, and it actually fits in fairly nicely even though it’s about something completely different:  The planet Venus.

Venus is an interesting planet and has held peoples’ imaginations ever since it was realized that it was shrouded in clouds, hiding its surface from view.  At almost the same size as Earth, it was long thought of as Earth’s twin and it may hide a paradise beneath the atmosphere.  That view vanished in the 1960s when spacecraft showed it to be a planet with a surface temperature far above the boiling point of water, the clouds full of sulfuric acid, and the atmosphere so heavy that the surface pressure is the equivalent of being under 1 km of ocean on Earth.

But another highly unexpected observation was that Venus’ entire surface seemed to be the same age based off of the crater population (see, there is a link to my post yesterday!).  There are just under 1000 craters on Venus, and statistically they are distributed randomly over the planet, no region being older nor younger than another (to the accuracy of crater age dating).  And then, based off of the crater density, the surface age of Venus was estimated to be 500 million to 1 billion years old (the agreed-upon number today is about 700 million).

(Note that a pretty good, definitive paper on this is found in the Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 97, No. E10, from 1992 in an article by Roger Phillips et al. entitled “Impact Craters and Venus Resurfacing History.”)

The question is:  What would make the entire surface a single age, between 11-22% the estimated age of the solar system?  That brings us to the Institute for Creation Research article I cite at the beginning of this post.  David Coppedge uses Venus to say that it “poses a serious challenge to uniformitarian views,” (views that say geologic history has resulted from the action of continuous and uniform processes throughout time; in other words, the opposite of catastrophism).

This is actually true.  It’s very difficult to think of a uniformitarian process that would produce what we see on Venus today.  That’s actually why no one really does (hence, it is a straw man argument, an argument against something that the other side doesn’t actually say).  The prevailing view today is that Venus’ current surface is the result of a catastrophic release of magma from within the planet that broke through the crust and covered the planet in a geologically short period of time - hundreds or thousands of years.

The proposed mechanism is that without plate tectonics to release heat and energy, the build-up in the planet’s mantle eventually overpowered the strength of the crust, resulting in the catastrophic release.  It is possible that this is cyclical, occurring once every few hundred million or few billion years – we just don’t know because we (a) haven’t seen it and (b) we can only see the evidence from the last time.

Why this becomes important to creationists, and why it’s on the ICR website, is two-fold.  First, creationism relies upon catastrophic events to explain geologic features like the Grand Canyon (general appeal is to Noah’s Flood).

Second, which is the point of the last two paragraphs of the ICR article, is, “One idea never considered is that the missing 90% never occurred.”  So he is arguing for a young solar system based on the data showing that Venus’ surface is ~700 million years old.  There are many, many things wrong with this argument, but for the sake of my promised brevity, I will only address two.

The first should be obvious:  For creationist arguments, the goal is to get the age of the solar system down to 6000 years or so.  However, it shouldn’t take a math major to figure out that 700,000,000 is much greater than 6000 … by a factor of over 100,000.  The point of the article is more likely to try to make the reader second-guess the “millions of years” arguments rather than have the reader actually think of the timescales that are being suggested.

Second, and this is more subtle, he is still relying upon an argument from crater age dating.  This has been calibrated from the Moon.  So let’s say that the lunar timescale were off by, oh, a factor of 1,000,000 (what’s needed to get it to 6000 years).  Remember from my post yesterday that crater age dating is relative, and so that would mean that Venus’ age (since the article is suggesting that its surface age is the same age as the planet) is also younger by a factor of a million.

That would place Venus’ age at between 500 and 1000 years old.  Not even creationists think that Venus is that young – they can’t, because there are historic records dating back over 4000 years showing observations of Venus.  As you can see, if you actually think about these arguments logically, and carry them through to their conclusion, they become unrealistic unless there is some sort of “other” special happenstance.  You can’t pick and choose how far you want to take the evidence, as they do in this article.

Finally, I want to end with two comments on the last paragraph of the article.  First, “If it were not that Darwinian evolution requires vast ages …, many of the features observed by the space program would be considered young.”  This is not true.  Geologists had already figured out Earth was at least on the order of millions of years old before Darwin ever presented his theories on evolution.  Geology in terms of figuring out how old things are has absolutely nothing to do with biological evolution.  It has much more to do with basic physics, such as heat transfer, collision rates, gravitational perturbations, etc.  Nothing in space is dated based on an idea that evolution says something has to be old … this is an absolutely ridiculous claim showing naïveté, especially coming from someone who “works in the Cassini program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

Now that I have that out of my system … second, a more philosophical point:  “Should scientists be allowed to infer histories that are indistinguishable from myth?”  Speaking as a scientist, the idea that I can or can not formulate a history from on my observations based on the whim of whether someone else thinks I should or shouldn’t be allowed is very … irritating.  Who is he to say whether someone can or cannot think something?

Science works by lots of people coming up with lots of different possible explanations based on the observations.  They can then test those explanations by making predictions for further observations, and those observations should be able to rule out some of the explanations and still allow others.  Then the process repeats until (hopefully) one is left that explains all the observations.  If none do, then a new hypothesis must be built that can explain all the observations, and then be further tested.

The “catastrophism” idea for Venus is not presently testable due to financial and technological constraints.  However, there are ways that it can be.  One would be sending ground-penetrating radar to Venus to peer within its crust and determine heat flows.  Another would be to find fissures across the planet that could be outlets for the resurfacing material.  A third would be to actually date material on the surface and to dig down within the crust and date that material, as well.  The argument from the article – that the first 90% of Venus’ history never actually existed – is not testable at all, nor does it make sense in the context of the rest of the solar system (as discussed in my demonstration that Venus would need to be 500-1000 years old based on this article).

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