Exposing PseudoAstronomy

June 14, 2014

Podcast Episode 112: Is Mercury’s Magnetic Field Decaying? Does that Prove Recent Creation?


Magnetic field of
Mercury: Has it decreased
Or just stayed the same?

For this episode, we return to an old stalwart of the blog: Young-Earth creationism, and I examine the relatively recent claim that Mercury’s magnetic field is decaying, therefore God.

It’s a bit of a nuanced topic, since, to understand it, we have to get into magnetic fields and how you measure them around planets. Hopefully my squishy water balloon analogies make sense.

It’s a bit of a shorter episode, three days late, but I’ve been pretty busy catching up with work that I let slide while I was working on the Cydonia movie.

Oh, and the logical fallacies in the episode are: Cherry picking, and quote-mining.

January 16, 2013

Podcast Episode 61: Special Pleading with Large Impacts


A complaint I’ve heard is that the invoking of giant asteroid impacts to explain some odd solar system features (Venus upside-down, Uranus on its side, etc.) is just special pleading and as crazy if not more so than the pseudoscience ideas, like Velikovsky. While I obviously have my own opinion about Velikovsky in particular, I wanted to take an episode to talk about why giant impacts are used to explain some things, and whether we have a real reason to do so or if it’s just our own way of making stuff up.

There isn’t a new puzzler, though the one from last episode – send in your favorite planetary pareidolia – is still going on.

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.

August 7, 2011

Mercury’s Uniqueness Revealed by MESSENGER: Does It Mean a Recent Creation?


Introduction

An interesting thing that happens when you’re defending your thesis and consequently not blogging for a few months is that other blogs can crop up that tend to cover similar material. In this case, there is a blog entitled, “Eye on the ICR” run by a high school student from New Zealand. Ah, if only we had blogs back when I was in high school … though I probably wouldn’t have been writing against creationism as my topic of choice.

Anyway, this New Zealander seems to take great delight in ripping to shreds the news postings by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) writers. Much as I do. Unfortunately, he’s posted his before me! (And I couldn’t find his name on the site, so throughout this post, he’s the “high school student.”)

Whatever … he’s still a high schooler, I’m a Ph.D. astronomer. Hopefully I can add something to the conversation he started. We’ll see.

Mysterious Mercury

This post is yet another about the “science” writer, Mr. Brian Thomas, and in this case his ICR article, “Messenger Spacecraft Confirms: Mercury Is Unique.” First off, the name “MESSENGER” is an acronym that stands for “MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging.” In other words, you need to capitalize it, unless you’re writing for the BBC which doesn’t seem to capitalize acronyms. Ah, we’re off to a good start.

After the title, Mr. Thomas does his normal routine of spending a paragraph or two (in this case one) giving some very brief background about the subject. It’s okay, something you’d get in a normal news article but which most third graders know.

Then we get to the line that those who are familiar with young-Earth creationist (YEC) writings know is the kicker: “Mercury possesses unique characteristics … clues point in the opposite direction to what astronomers expected.” Yes, that’s right, because something is not exactly as a model predicts, God did it. That’s basically what the remaining six paragraphs say.

A High Density

The third paragraph presents Mr. Thomas’ first problem-of-choice: Mercury’s high density and large core. The issue is that Mercury does have a high overall density. In fact, it is the second highest of any planet at 5.43 grams per cubic centimeter (water = 1); only Earth is more dense, at 5.52. But, Mr. Thomas quotes Spike Psarris from 2004 claiming, “according to naturalistic origins models, ‘Mercury can’t be anywhere near as dense as it actually is.'”

For my very loyal readers (hi Joe, Susan, Karl), you might remember that I discussed Spike Psarris twice (here and here) in ripping apart a 12-minute video segment he produced on why Jupiter needs God to have created it 6000 years ago.

In skepticism, we often give YECs and Intelligent Design (ID) proponents the proud title of the best examples of quote miners. In this case, a creationist (Brian Thomas) is quote mining another creationist (Spike Psarris). Spike does indeed say that in his 2004 article. But he actually goes on to explain that we have a perfectly reasonable natural model for how Mercury got as dense as it did. Granted, Spike in his own special way then tries to rip it to shreds through an argument from personal incredulity, but that’s somewhat beside the point for this post.

For those wondering, the “evilutionist” way of explaining this is that Mercury was involved in a massive collision early in its history that stripped away all of its crust and a large portion of its outer mantle, leaving behind the core of an originally much larger planet along with some mantle material. We know that these kinds of large collisions happened in the early solar system, there is an enormous amount of evidence for that, so it is perfectly plausible that this is what happened on Mercury. Despite what Spike says.

Too Much Sulfur?

Paragraph four of Mr. Thomas’ article states, “assuming that the planet formed naturally and close to the then-forming sun, lighter-weight elements like sulfur should have been ‘lost in space,’ … and yet Mercury has ‘high levels’ of sulfur.” Hmm. I guess that means evolution can’t be true and God created everything 6000 years ago.

As with pretty much the rest of this article – and I’ll just point it out here for the time-being – Mr. Thomas does not actually make an independent argument for a 6000-year-old universe created by God. He simply tries to cast doubt on his own – highly limited – understanding of planetary astronomy. Anyway, moving forward …

Yes, one of the interesting discoveries of MESSENGER is that it detected high levels of sulfur on Mercury. And yes, Mercury likely formed close to the sun, well inside the temperature line where we would expect lighter elements and molecules to be gaseous and not condense and be incorporated in large quantities into forming planets. Except, well, obviously they did. And there are numerous ways of getting them to these planets — remember I talked in the last section about lots of massive collisions? This is the way we think Earth got most of its water.

Magnetic Fields

Paragraphs five and six talks about the magnetosphere of Mercury:

In the Space.com Q&A, Solomon commented, “I’m now fascinated by the magnetosphere.” And it is small wonder that he is, because for many years the “dynamo theory” (which has since been shown to be false) was the only explanation offered for magnetic fields on rocky planets that are supposed to be billions of years old. However, this theory requires a molten magma core. And Mercury is so small — only slightly larger than the moon — that its core should have cooled into a solid millions of years ago. Therefore, it should not have a magnetic field at all … . And yet it does.

Messenger’s new magnetic measurements fail to explain why Mercury has a magnetic field. Instead, they add ammunition against a naturalistic origin for the planet. Scientists did not expect to discover that Mercury’s magnetic field is lopsided, but the 2011 Messenger data showed that it is stronger in the north than it is in the south. What natural process would cause that?

I actually want to disassemble the second part first, in that the “magnetic measurements fail to explain why Mercury has a magnetic field.” As a science writer, Mr. Thomas should know that measurements (data) do not explain anything. Data are data (“data” is the plural form of “datum”). They have no explanatory power in and of themselves, the data simply are what they are. It is how the data fit into models that will then support or refute them.

Further, on the lopsidedness of the field. I know I’ve said this before, but for new readers and returning ones who like the reminder: That’s what science is!! We want to find something we can’t immediately explain because that means that we can then go try to figure out why it is the way it is! It’s only YECs that don’t want anything that doesn’t fit with their own Goddidit model because that would mean that, gasp!, maybe goddidn’tdoit. In fact, Mr. Thomas, in what is obviously meant to imply that goddidit, asks the exact question that I’m sure that mission scientists are trying to answer: What process causes a lopsided magnetic field?

Okay, back to the first paragraph quoted above. I’m not even sure I really need to go into this too much. Suffice to say, yes, the fact Mercury has a strong magnetic field was a surprise when it was discovered, and it is actually one of the main questions that drove the MESSENGER instrument suite choices that will try to gather the data that will be used to test and further develop models to explain why it has an active magnetic field. Obviously, ongoing scientific research is just too much for Mr. Thomas to handle, though, because he clearly wants these observations to force us evolutionary astronomers (I still don’t understand what evolution has to do with astronomy) to throw up our hands and admit that his God did it.

Oh yeah, and the whole “dynamo theory which has since been shown to be false” is him blowing out his you-know-what. That’s about the only outright lie I came across in this article.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure what it takes to be a science writer with ICR. I actually looked over their site for a job description or any information related to jobs, and all I found were bible versus from the Book of Jobs. Go figure. Regardless, I don’t think the requirements can be much, especially any knowledge of science. In the next-to-last paragraph, Mr. Thomas clearly shows his ignorance: “If nature formed the planets from the same cloud of space debris, then why are they not uniform in constitution, orientation, and placement?”

I have explained to 6-year-olds why there are differences in objects in the solar system even though they formed from the same “cloud of space debris.” And they understood it. (One of the big reasons is that, as the sun heated up, it caused a temperature gradient in the cloud that resulted in significant compositional differences in the inner and outer solar system.)

Mr. Thomas, please, do your homework next time. And by that, I mean read something other than the bible or Spike Psarris. But, I suppose when you’re content with a god of the gaps outlook on everything in life, actually learning something new is not important.

Oh, and in all seriousness, check out the Eye on ICR blog if you like reading this kinda thing. A high school student willing to take on the ICR, even if it’s just in a blog, and point out their foolishness is pretty cool. When I was in high school, the only creationists I confronted were classmates (ah, I still remember 7th grade when I made a girl cry just by saying that we didn’t know why the Big Bang happened, but who created God?).

June 9, 2010

Terry Nazon’s Astronomy: Just Plain Wrong


Introduction

I wanted to take a brief pause from writing lectures for the intro astronomy class I’m teaching (don’t worry guys, the one for tomorrow is already written!) and head down a different path for a few moments.

Some may consider me a glutton for punishment. Considering my recent run-in of being threatened by an astrologer, I’ve been following her a bit on Twitter to see what she’s up to in her astrological prognostications. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Get Your Astronomy Right!

Alright, I’ll say it to start off with to let everyone know where I stand: I do not “believe” in astrology. I trust the studies that have shown it no better than random guessing and that have shown it has no predictive power better than cold reading and self-reporting positive results for positive predictions. I don’t see any mechanism by which it could work, and none that have been proposed by astrologers actually have any physical validity unless they want to re-write the laws of physics.

That said, if you’re going to be an astrologer, AT LEAST GET YOUR ASTRONOMY RIGHT!!!

I honestly don’t know if this is common to most astrologers, or if it just happens to be Terry Nazon who is, well, I’ll be polite and just say apparently ignorant of astronomy and where stuff is in the sky. It’s a little hard to believe considering that astrology’s entire foundation is based on where stuff is in the sky, but, well, facts are facts.

I showed in my series on Nazon before (part 1, part 2, and part 3) that she is apparently fairly ignorant of where objects are in the actual sky, and this is seriously not a case where you just have to take my word for it. Go download any free astronomy sky-display software, look at a star chart yourself, or download a commercial or shareware software. You will be able to demonstrably see that what I stated in my previous series is accurate. (I’m not going to provide star charts this time unless asked for in Comments because I think it’s fairly redundant at this point … and because I need to write a homework set to hand out for tomorrow.)

What’s Going on This Time?

14 hours ago from the time of this writing, so I guess around 6AM MDT (mountain daylight time for those not in the US), Nazon tweeted, “Mercury enters Gemini it’s home placement. Expects things to start moving quickly….”

This intrigued me. I don’t know anything about Mercury’s “home placement,” but based on my experience on my previous series about Terry Nazon (part 1, part 2, and part 3), I wanted to check this. I was not disappointed. At the moment, Mercury is on the Aries side of Taurus, actually having just entered Taurus on June 5 (5 days ago as of writing this). It won’t be until very late in the day on June 25 (that’s in 15 days) that Mercury will enter Gemini. Interesting.

On Monday, so about 2 days ago, Nazon tweeted (and put on her Facebook page): “Mars the planet of action enters Virgo where it last transitied [sic] July 2008. Mars transit around the zodiac is about 2 1/2 yrs. The last time Mars was in Virgo Saturn had just begun it’s transit of Virgo too. Now the two meet up again as Saturn ends its transit through Virgo.”

Also interesting. I love conjunctions, they’re actually really cool to photograph. I showed a conjunction to my class yesterday of the five planets that the ancient civilizations knew about in a photo taken a few years ago. But anyway, back to the claim. I took a look, and yet again, Mars is not anywhere near Virgo. It’s on the Cancer side of Leo right now, though Virgo is on the other side, and Saturn is currently reasonably close to the Leo side of Virgo.

However, Mars moves through the sky much more slowly than Mercury. As a consequence, while Terry Nazon was about 2 weeks off for her Mercury prediction, she’s a full 40 days of for her Mars prognostication. Mars will not enter Virgo until July 19 (actually July 20 for about 1/3 of the world).

(As a side note, about a month later on August 12 there is a VERY cool conjunction between Mars, Venus, Saturn, a thin crescent moon, AND Mercury that will be visible early in the morning evening.)

About the other part of that claim — when Mars last transited (moved through) Virgo, it did so between August 8, 2008, and October 15, 2008. It started doing this reasonably close to Saturn, though that’s almost due to definition: Saturn’s orbit around the sun takes about 30 Earth years. From 1 Earth year to the next, or even 2 Earth years to the next two, Saturn is not going to move very far in the sky. So if Mars right now is near Saturn, then the last time Mars was in this location, it was also near Saturn. But, regardless, Nazon is yet again wrong on her dates.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps I’m picking on low-hanging fruit. But this really does bug me a fair bit. In a different way than all the 2012 doomsday-sayers and young-Earth creationists. Astrologers claim that what they are doing is science. They base what they do on the motions of the planets, sun, moon, stars, and sometimes asteroids. The very least they could do is to get those motions and positions correct!

And yet again, I’ll use the refrain: If Nazon’s easy-to-see astronomy claims of where objects are when are so demonstrably wrong (and other astrologers who may be wrong like her), why should ANYONE pay the $75 an e-mail or up to $330 an hour for one of her “readings?” Heck, send me an e-mail and I’ll at least tell you where stuff is in the sky when. And I won’t charge you nearly that much.

April 11, 2010

What Happens When All the Planets Line Up Against Us?


Introduction

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!”

Gravity

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:

Object
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:

Object
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.

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