Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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.

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!).

February 20, 2009

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


Introduction

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.

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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