Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 14, 2014

No, Yellowstone Is (Probably) Not About to Erupt

Filed under: doomsday,geology,skepticism,volcano — Stuart Robbins @ 10:51 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

This post falls under the pre-emptive part for bad media reporting in the charter of this blog. Many media sources are reporting that roads are melting in Yellowstone National Park, in this particular case, closing one of the more popular areas off.

The obvious implication for any “Earth Changes” conspiracy person is that the Yellowstone supervolcano (supervolcano being a term invented just a few years ago in a TV special) is gonna blow. Which means that most of North America will be completely uninhabitable after people within a several hundred kilometer radius die very, very quickly from the event. And worldwide severe weather changes because of the massive amounts of ash.

I want to nip that in the bud, so to speak. At issue is statistics and probability. The Yellowstone area is the site of a massive volcano (for Earth, with a caldera 10s of miles across. Just for the record, that would be a somewhat small volcano on Mars, where for example the Arsia Mons volcano has a caldera that is about 100 km in diameter (~65 miles). Last year, it was reported that the magma chamber under Yellowstone – which is responsible for all the thermal features – is twice as large as previously thought (which isn’t as dangerous as it seems).

The large “supervolcanic” eruptions took place 2.1 Mya, 1.3 Mya, and 0.64 May (millions of years ago). And OHMYGAWD if you take an average of 3 WE ARE OVERDUE FOR A MASSIVE ERUPTION AMIRIGHT!!!!!

Except there’s the rub. We have never observed a supervolcano erupt. I hate to bring in Ken Ham’s “Were you there?” thing, but this is really a case where it’s very difficult for volcanologists to understand how these erupt, the frequency with which they erupt, how to predict when/if they’ll erupt, and what the precursors are to an eruption. It should also be noted that Yellowstone has had smaller eruptions more recently than 640,000 years ago, such as flows that have been dated to 70,000 years old.

Anyway, Yellowstone is an active thermal feature. Hydrothermal because water is involved. It’s no secret that it could explode again. What is lesser known is that it may never explode again. We just don’t know. But what is also clear is that we have no way to predict it. And not knowing means that there’s a certain argument from ignorance fallacy that can be invoked — because scientists don’t know (or won’t tell us because of the conspiracy), then the doomsday guy making the definite claim can clearly know better and tell us what’s gonna happen. (FYI, that’s sarcasm.)

But why don’t the latest thermal melting of roads mean that it’s gonna erupt?

Because it happens frequently. Earthquakes happen there frequently. Sulfur dissolving away metal grates happens there frequently. Like, every year. And that whole video thing last year of bison all stampeding out of the park because they knew it was gonna erupt? That was a video of bison running INTO the park, but that didn’t stop conspiracy and doomsday websites.

I think that the only reason we’re hearing about this particular example is that it melted a road to a popular feature. Keep in mind that very little percentage of the park is a road. So if a capricious thermal feature is going to migrate around and warm a part of the ground to the melting point of asphalt, the likelihood of it being a road is very small. Meaning the likelihood of it being a popular road is even smaller. Meaning the likelihood of it being something that’s widely reported is even smaller.

So … is Yellowstone gonna blow? Maybe. But this latest event should NOT be construed as an increase in activity that indicates an imminent eruption.

June 23, 2014

Podcast Episode 113: The Blue-Haze Limb of Mars


While the color of
Mars is red, some photos show
Blue on the limb. Why?

While I’ve already addressed the True Color of Mars (episode 74), one remaining – and unmentioned – twist is the blue haze limb that is sometimes visible as the upper atmosphere in color images taken from Earth orbit; this episode addresses those. And, it’s a completely different phenomenon than just a crappy understanding of image analysis. Real science ensues!!

Feedback makes up over half of this episode. I talk about Episodes 112 (why Russell Humphreys thinks that magnetic fields should decay to begin with and how he made his prediction), 109 (a follow-up interview of Marshall Masters from just a few days ago), and 111 (general feedback and criticisms of the Cydonia movie).

Finally, TAM is less than 2.5 weeks away, and I’d love to meet my adoring fans you folks who tolerate listening to me every now-and-then. Please let me know if you’re going AND interested in meeting up. Otherwise, I may have to spend all my time with a Hershey chocolate -lover, and we don’t want that now, do we?

And über-finally, I got a special e-mail while I was recording this episode. Listen to it all the way through to hear it. :)

Oh, and super-düper-finally, about the release schedule: Some of you may have noticed has been a bit off lately. The excuses are the usual, but ostensibly, the podcast is “supposed” to come out on the 1st, 11th, and 21st of the month. And that’s how I date them in the RSS feed. But, in the intro, I state that this is an episode for a certain third of the month, so that’s been the justification in my head for being able to get it out a little late. And looking at my upcoming schedule, I think that you can probably expect more of the same at least until September. They should be on or about the 1st, 11th, and 21st, but won’t necessarily be exactly on those dates.

May 31, 2014

Announcing Vodcast 1 and Podcast 111: The Cydonia Region of Mars


Anomalies do
Abound, but, are they really
That rare, unus’al?

Welp, this is it! My first new attempt to create a video that I’m reasonably proud of and shows things the way I’d like them to be shown. On YouTube: You can click this link. Or, there’s a link to the 720p version here. And, of course, the link to the shownotes for the podcast version.

The differences are: On YouTube, you can view up to 1080p (“Hi-Def”), while the version released to the podcast feed is 720p, fewer pixels. The podcast (audio, episode 111) itself is an audio extension of the movie, explaining some of the math (or “maths” for peeps “across the pond”) in more detail and discussing one or two deleted scenes — additional bits that weren’t central to the story so didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie.

As I say at the end, I really do want feedback on this. If negative, then make it constructive. If you’re a fan of Richard Hoagland’s work, and you disagree with the movie, then let me know WHY, not just that you disagree because I’m wrong. That gets us no where and is useless.

And, if you like the movie, then make sure to share it around. Delusions of grandeur don’t manifest on their own, gosh darnit!

March 22, 2014

Podcast Episode 104: Pyramids on Mars


Pyramids on Mars
Could be made by aliens
Or, just by nature.

I’ve wanted to do an episode on the pyramids on Mars for quite awhile, so, here ’tis. It’s also good to get this researched and put out because it will be a chapter in an eBook I’m working on (yet another project that hopefully will have a better ending than many of my others). So, if you have any suggestions for it, please let me know so that I can incorporate changes in this episode into the eBook chapter.

With that in mind, this is a very straight-forward episode with of course the obligatory C2C clips. It’s also brought to you by:

  • Fallacy of the Single Cause
  • Argument from Authority
  • Argument from Ignorance
  • Proving a Negative

All that said, I will be interviewed on the “Reality Remix” internet radio on Wednesday, Marcy 26, at 11:00PM EDT (March 27, 3AM UTC) … sorry for the late notice. I will try to record it and if I’m able and allowed, I will post a copy when it’s all said and done. To listen live, go to their website!

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.

February 2, 2014

Because Volcanoes Can Form Quickly Means … Jesus and Young Earth?


Introduction

I have a vast number of young-Earth creationism articles to write about, but this one, just put out by creation.com, will be quick.

Background

I remember learning about the Volcán de Parícutin in grade school: In 1943, a Mexican farmer was in his field and suddenly a fissure opened and a volcano literally rose to over 100 meters high over the next few days, destroying the field and neighboring villages (the villages of Parícutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro).

It was a story that I believed unquestioningly (as many children do), but then wondered if it was real later on, and then looked up the details.

In the first year, the volcano grew to 336 meters (1102 ft), and by 1952, it reached a final height of 424 meters (1391 ft) and has been dormant since. It likely was formed from a small branch of a much larger volcanic feature and magma chamber, and that branch has likely collapsed and the volcán will never erupt again.

Therefore Recent Creation

The entire thrust of Jonathan O’Brien’s article is that because this volcano formed in the space of a few years, it means that everything on Earth can form in just a few years and you don’t need “millions of years” (there’s an entire section of the article called “Millions of years not needed”) to form geologic features:

They assert that most geological features took many thousands or millions of years to form. Yet we know from actual eyewitness testimony that Mount Parícutin took only 9 years to form, from beginning to extinction, with most of its growth having occurred in the first year. With much larger forces at work in the earth’s crust, as occurred during the terrible year of the global Flood, even the largest geographical features we see in the world today would have formed in months, weeks or even days.

Straw Man and Technique Misuse

This is a straw man. Geologists don’t claim that “most geological features took many thousands or millions of years to form,” at least not the way that Mr. O’Brien is implying. Non-volcanic mountains? Yes. Some volcanoes? Yes. The Hawai’ian island chain? Yes.

But geologists have various ways of estimating how long different processes take. One way for volcanoes is to look at the layers of material and the kinds of plants and/or animals trapped within them. Another way is radiometric dating, such as Rb/Sr dating. With a half-life on the order of 50 billion years for rubidium-87, that means the technique is only usable on features that are 10s to 100s of thousands of years old, at a minimum, with current laboratory techniques.

I mention this because of the feedback to the article … of the five comments, four of them are mocking radiometric dating, along the lines of “Nic G.” from Australia: “Has any radiometric dating been carried out at the site? That’d make for some confronting results.”

This is a common tactic of creationists who try to show that radiometric dating methods are flawed: Misusing a technique with known constraints, and going outside those constraints. The most famous example (probably) is that of Mt. St. Helens, where a creationist got a sample of rock from the 1986 eruption and sent it to a lab and got ages of 340,000 to 2,800,000 years.

Final Thoughts

What’s somewhat reassuring is that I’ve addressed all this kind of stuff before on this blog. This is reassuring because it shows that there really are very, very few “new” arguments for young-Earth creationism, that they stick to a set script of explanations that have been debunked an innumerable amount of times in more ways than you can think of. Perhaps that’s the price for placing your belief system on text from 1500-5000 years ago that refuses to be updated.

October 5, 2013

Podcast Episode 88: Is Phobos Hollow?


Mars’ odd moon Phobos:
Is it hollow? Is it not?
Hoagland thinks he knows.

It’s a bit late (but back-dated), but as I ‘splained, I was co-leading a field trip to Yellowstone National Park. And then the government shut down. This episode is near the classic style with a basic dissection of the claim and the claimed evidence for Phobos being hollow.

The episode also has Q&A and feedback. The next episode has already been recorded and is an interview with Robin Canup about lunar formation models (she even has her own Wikipedia page!!!)

The episode after that is slated to be about the claim that alleged UFO-contactee Billy Meier knew about Jupiter’s rings before scientists did. I expect the comments on that post might fill up, but I’ll note now that NONE will be allowed through on this post unless someone has a suggestion for a puzzler on it.

September 12, 2013

Podcast Episode 86: Was Mars Murdered?


Xenon-129:
Is it evidence for Mars
Having been murdered?

This is another classic-form episode. I state the claim, go through background info, and when you understand the background information, the claim falls away. It’s also just a tad over 30 minutes, returning to my roughly average length.

I had to cut out extra parts this time because I’m a bit bogged down with work. I have about half a $million in grants due next Friday and I’m having a party the day after, so I’m a tad busy and also the next episode might be slightly delayed (like this).

The most important announcement I made is that I’ll be interviewing Robin Canup on October 4 for the 89th episode on October 11. It will be about lunar formation and remaining problems and whether (as Bob Novella I think wrongly claimed) the “Big Splash” model is dead because of various mineral abundances in different locations. We’ll see what she says. If you want to have input on what she says – or more, what I ask – feel free to recommend questions for me to ask her. Please keep them very narrowly focused on lunar formation: She’s a very busy person and I don’t know how much of her time I’ll be able to take.

July 7, 2013

An Ancient Crash-Landed Spacecraft on Mars?


Introduction

Mars Feature, ~13.3°N, 115.5°W

Mars Feature, ~13.3°N, 115.5°W

So claims the website “UFO Sightings Daily.” I was alerted to it by Sharon’s Doubtful News site.

I know I said my last post would be my last pre-TAM post, but given that my workshop is on image analysis and how to investigate image-based claims, well, this one was easy and I thought I’d write about it. And I’m going to assume for purposes here that you’ve gone to one of those two links and read a bit about this.

Investigating the Claim: Find Original Images

The first step to investigating a claim like this is to try to find the original image, or the location of the image on the planet. Fortunately, this is a feature on Mars, and the website has provided the coordinates: about 13.5°N and 115.5°W.

As an astro/geophysicist who got his Ph.D. studying images of Mars to study craters, I know of many different ways to find images of locations of Mars. My normal go-to website is Arizona State University’s Mars Global Data portal. It’s fairly exhaustive, letting you use a (admittedly small) map of the planet to find images from over half a dozen different image sources at a huge variety of resolutions. I do not use things like Google Earth because of the way it resamples and stretches images and I don’t like that it caches everything on your computer, taking up hard drive space, and it does not have all the latest data.

What I did was go to the “Webmap” of CTX data. CTX stands for “ConTeXt” Camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It has a very large, almost global coverage of the planet at a very good ~6 meters per pixel scale. Probably around 70-80% coverage at this time (it’s still in operation and returning data). It’s my go-to source for stuff like this and my work in general. After finding the area, here’s the most zoomed-in you get on that area.

The slanted rectangles are approximate image footprints. By clicking the mouse-arrow tool and then clicking on them, little thumbnails show up below the map. You can click on them to bring up the image on its own page. Of the two that might cover the area, it’s CTX image G01_018494_1930_XN_13N115W that has the feature in the upper third of the image.

You can use the Flash-based zoomer, or you can use any of the browse formats to get a smaller version (though larger than the thumbnail). This CTX image has a pixel scale of about 5.5 m/px, but it looks somewhat grainy. I would guess this is due to possibly photographing through a mild dust storm, or they didn’t expose the camera long enough. However, the feature itself is clearly visible.

MOC, THEMIS, Viking, and HRSC have also all taken photos of the feature, visible through the webmap interface, all with different resolutions. THEMIS took a color image, and HRSC has an image at 12.5 m/px.

If I had to guess, it’s that the THEMIS image is what’s used in the Google Maps version shown on the UFO site, and that Google has also just colored it a rusty orange.

Investigating the Claim: Positive or Negative Relief

Various persons on the UFO page and other places that this is being reported say that it’s a positive feature, meaning that it comes out at you like a hill. Others, like on the Ghost Theory site claim that it’s also positive relief, but that the shadows have been played with in the area.

Mars Object with Context and Craters Identified

Mars Object with Context and Craters Identified

Given that we can go to numerous original images and not ones that have been mosaicked together, we can look at the shadows of other features. To be scientific, you can use the sun angles given in the data on the ASU site for each individual image. Or, you can just look at the craters. Craters are negative features, going into the surface. Shadows will be on the side facing away from the sun, while highlights will be facing the sun. Using the shadows on the craters, we can clearly see that the shadows of this feature match, and so it is a negative relief feature.

Already, that negates claims made on these sites that it’s a space ship or a big rock. Despite the claim in the article: “This structure also does not go under the ground, but instead is laying on the surface of Mars.” As will be a bit of a theme during our TAM workshop (1A!!!!), when someone says “This is NOT [something],” that should be the first thing you check on.

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Crater?

The default for a hole in the ground on most solid solar system objects other than Earth is an impact crater. And you can get highly elliptical impact craters.

However, this does not look like an impact crater: (1) There is no raised rim, (2) there is no ejecta, (3) the walls are very steep, and (4) the floor looks flat (though no topography data is available). Taking these in order …

1. All impact craters start with a raised rim. These do erode over time, but it takes time. Looking at other craters in the same images, they all have raised rims but the floors look like they’re infilled (they’re not as deep as they should be … remember, I got my Ph.D. studying Mars’ crater population). Given that this is on a very young surface (lack of large craters), it’s very unlikely that such a rim would erode to literally nothing: The ground is flat, and then it drops down into this feature. Not an impact crater.

2. All craters eject material when they form. There is no evidence of ejecta – either present or fossilized – and again with the youth of the feature, this would be very surprising for an impact crater.

3-4. Impact craters that are small are bowl-shaped and have characteristic slopes to their walls. This looks much steeper than you’d get with an impact crater, more typical of what I’ll discus later. Similarly, all small craters are, as I said, bowl-shaped, and this lacks that bowl on the floor. This could be explained by infilling so, in itself, that’s not a reason to discount it being an impact crater. Given the other points, it’s fairly conclusive.

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Geologic Context

This is on the massive volcanic province of Mars known as the Tharsis region, or Tharsis bulge, or just Tharsis. Massive volcanos resurfaced large parts of it as recently as about 100 million years ago — yes, if the dinosaurs had telescopes and spacecraft in orbit, they would have seen active volcanoes on Mars.

Volcanic vents are fed by lava tubes. When lave tubes are evacuated, they are hollow. You can walk through some in Hawai’i. When they’re hollow, they can collapse. Again, check out Chain of Craters Road in Hawai’i.

When they collapse, you can get individual craters (“pit craters”), or if a large portion of the tube collapses, you get graben – a linear feature with a flat floor and very steep sides – typically steeper than an impact crater. (You can get graben other ways, but this is one of them.)

Mars Object with Broad Context

Mars Object with Broad Context (click image to embiggen)

With that in mind, look elsewhere in the CTX, HRSC, or THEMIS images. You will see graben. In fact, there’s a large, long one a few 10s miles/km north of the feature in question. In fact, between that graben and this feature, there’s another one that looks similar to this feature. In fact, this feature runs parallel to other nearby graben. In fact, there is a very shallow graben leading right into the west end of this feature, in the same direction as the long axis of this feature. In fact …

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Collapsed Lava Tube?

… that’s what this very likely is: A portion of a collapsed lava tube. It makes sense given the geologic setting. It makes sense given the orientation relative to other obvious graben in the area. It makes sense given that it’s unlikely to be an impact crater.

I think another possibility (less likely in my opinion) is that it’s a large volcanic vent – another type of crater, a “volcanic crater” (AKA caledera). The reason I think this is less likely is that I don’t see evidence of magma coming out of it – there isn’t anything radiating away. Topography data would help settle that, but given that the flows immediately north and south of it appear to continue as though it doesn’t exist, and then this feature is just right on top of them, I think it’s more likely to be the collapsed lava tube.

What It’s Not

Not a spaceship. Not a big rock. And yet, with the headline of, “Ancient Structure On Mars,” you get all sorts of commenters on the UFO website exercising their amazing powers of pareidolia:

“It even has windows along the sides! It could be a building but more likely it is a vehicle.”

“I sent an email with a photo showing what I believe are tracks, lines of holes in the sand, behind the object, (behind meaning at the fat end). It might be that wheels there are complex, not round but different from wheels on Earth, due to the soft sand. They might have deep knobs on the tires, or something like that.”

And from the original post itself: “Notice the evenness of the lines. The balance of the indents that go all the way down the sides. The back seems thinner a bit than the front…if it is the front. This structure shows lots of signs of being an a spaceship that has long since been abandoned on Mars.”

Final Thoughts

Well that was fun. Good to get the juices flowing and prolong my crappy sleep schedule.

The bottom-line here is that this appears to be a very natural, volcanic feature on Mars. To someone who’s a geologist or knows what they’re doing, anyway. I love that Google and other companies make these things available, that NASA is one of the most open space agencies in the world with releasing their image data, and that people love to pour over these images. It helps increase the interest in space exploration and you really do get cases of laypersons finding features that turn out to be major discoveries, like natural bridges on the Moon.

The downside is that this stuff also happens — people see something they don’t understand, and they leap to wild conclusions. And, with the internet, it can very quickly gain traction. An oft-quoted Mark Twain line is, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.”

I’m not accusing the UFO Sightings Daily website of lying. But, the quote can easily be adapted to replace “lie” with “misunderstanding” or even “paranormal claim.”

Also, as I’ve talked about before, it’s MUCH easier to spread a misunderstanding – or to have the misunderstanding – than to figure out what’s going on. I’ve spent >1800 words going through this claim. Granted, I could’ve probably cut it in half by just cutting to the chase, but it’s late and I’m being verbose and I wanted to do this logically and thoroughly explain my argument. Meanwhile, I’m sure the UFO folks are on to their next Mars pareidolia.

So why do this? Because the more people who are trained and armed with the tools to investigate stuff like this, the harder that misunderstanding is to propagate, and the faster people will be able to call them on it.

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.

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