Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 20, 2008

A Post on Physics and Astronomical Terminology

Filed under: terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 2:28 pm
Tags: , , ,


There is a lot of terminology that is in popular culture and the media that are often used incorrectly, or they are implied to mean the incorrect thing. The purpose of this post is to address three of them, in order from used most often correctly to used least often correctly: Light-year, parsec, and quantum.


The Bad: People often mistake this for a unit of time or advancement. For example, “Buy our products! We’re light years ahead of the competition!” Unless they’re around another star, this phrase has no meaning.

The Good: A “light-year” is a unit of length, NOT a unit of time. It is defined as the distance that light will travel in 1 year in a vacuum (such as space). Light travels at 299,792,458 meters per second (186,282 miles per second).

It takes light about 1.5 seconds to reach the moon from Earth, and so for very close astronomical objects, we sometimes talk about “light-seconds” (the distance light travels in 1 second).

Light from the sun takes about 8.3 minutes to reach Earth, and so distances within the solar system are sometimes referred to as “light-minutes,” the distance light travels in 1 minute. This is important for communications with spacecraft, even those that are at Mars. At its closest, the round-trip light time for for a signal to be sent from Mars to Earth and then for Earth to send a signal back is about 8 minutes. At its farthest, the round-trip light time is about 40 minutes. Because of this, craft have to at least have some autonomy in their decision making ability.

Light from the closest star system – the Proxima, Alpha, and Beta Centauri stars – takes about 4.3 years to reach us, and hence we have a distance of 4.3 light-years. Distances within our galaxy are generally measured in light-years, with our galaxy being about 100,000 light-years in diameter.


The Bad: People often mistake this for a unit of time. The most famous example is from Star Wars, where Han Solo states that his ship is so good, it “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”

The Good: A parsec, like a light-year, is a unit of distance and NOT time. The definition of a parsec is a mathematical one that I am simply providing a link to rather than explain. It is approximately equal to 3.26 light-years, making the distance to the nearest star system about 1.3 parsecs away. Astronomers will often use parsec and light-year interchangeably for the near-by universe, out to about the closest galaxies. Beyond that, they generally use parsecs instead of light-years.


The Bad: After I took a 2-semester class in quantum mechanics in college, this became one of my biggest pet-peeves in advertising: “This product represents a quantum leap over the competition!” Or even news to describe something in (gasp!) science: “This is a quantum leap in our understanding of this phenomena!”

It sounds cool, and “quantum” is the catch-word of the day because it sounds sciency and technical and cool. And everybody’s doing it. It makes whatever it is being used to describe to be huge, major, and fantastic. But it’s not.

The Good: The “quantum” in quantum mechanics is really the basis of the whole theory: That there is no continuum of energy levels or states, but rather things come in discrete levels. A good analogy is to think of a trombone versus a flute (not an open-holed flute for you flautists). A trombone has a slide, and by moving the slide, you can create a seamless variation in pitch, going from low to high and back without hitting discrete notes. With a flute, however, you have keys, and though you can hit every pitch on the scale, the instrument is not designed to allow you to make notes that are in-between “real” notes.

The trombone represents the classical way of thinking about energy levels. The flute represents the quantum way. To extend the analogy, each note on the flute represents a different “quanta,” and making a jump – or leap – from one quanta to another (so from a C# to B, for example) is a “quantum leap.”

When you’re talking about energy levels of atoms, though, this leap in energy is very small. The largest single step is when an electron goes from the ground state (lowest energy level) in a hydrogen atom to the 1st energy level. This has an energy transition of 13.6 eV (a number that’s ground into any physicist’s mind over and over and over and over and …). An “eV” is an “electron-volt” It is a very small amount of energy, with 1 eV = 1.6·10-19 Joules. 1 Watt is 1 Joule/second. So, to power a 60 Watt bulb for 1 second, you would need around 1018 electrons around hydrogen atoms to go from the 1st state to the ground (to release the energy). This is about 0.01 milligrams of hydrogen, which isn’t much.

However, my point in spewing out all these numbers is to drive the idea that a “quantum” is an extremely small amount, and to state that something represents a “quantum leap” over what has been done before is, when using the true definition of the word, saying that the new thing has not changed any perceivable amount.

Final Thoughts

You may read this diatribe and think that it’s a rant about nothing. That may be, but my impression of blogs in general is that they are rants about nothing.

This post is really more about trying to bridge the gap between the popular usage of scientific-sounding words and what they really mean. Without clearly defined language, ideas cannot be successfully communicated, and even though I know that an advertiser’s “quantum leap” in their product that makes it “light-years ahead” of the competition is supposed to mean it’s fantastic, it’s really just reflecting ignorance on the part of the marketing firm.


November 14, 2008

Logical Analysis of the Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God


As I’ve stated before (like here or here), creationists often use a seeming leap of scientific faith to justify a “proof” for the existence of God from somewhere within the Big Bang theory. So far, I’ve argued against specific scientific claims that would seem (to their proponents) to show why we need something divine to justify our existence.

In this post, however, I’m going to examine this from a purely logical standpoint, critiquing what apparently is known as the “Cosmological Argument” for the existence of (a) G/god(s).

The Claim

The Cosmological Argument actually has its roots at least as far back as Plato and Aristotle, over 2300 years ago. The main premise is that everything (all effects) must have a cause.

There are many different ways of positing the argument, some involve 6 steps, some 4 steps, and some 3 steps (like the one below). They all pretty much say the same thing.

Therefore, I’m going to go with the easier 3-step one, and I am specifically taking my cues for the version of this argument from this person’s blog post:

(1) The universe exists, and there must be an explanation for why it exists.

(2) There are only three possible explanations for why the universe exists: (a) It has always existed. (b) It created itself. (c) It was created by something outside of itself.

(3) Explanation (a) has serious scientific and philosophical problems. Explanation (b) is absurd. Therefore, the universe was created by God.


Part 1: From a philosophical argument, there really doesn’t need to be an explanation for why something exists. It could just exist. I choose to take 2 steps at a time occasionally “just ’cause,” there really doesn’t need to be any specific reason. So right off the bat, we have a faulty major premise.

If you choose to interpret this from a cause-and-effect argument – the “effect” of the universe existing must have a cause – I would argue that this is not necessarily true. Science’s current concept of the “universe” is, by definition, “everything” and that includes space and time. Therefore, if time did not exist “before” the universe formed, how could there be a cause?

Some may argue that this itself is a logical fallacy of “Special Pleading,” meaning that in this one particular case I am arguing that the rules by which we live and are normally subject to don’t really apply in this special case. I would partially agree with this … however, I would also make the point that the formation of the cosmos is a special case, and the rules by which we live now were likely not in existence “before” the universe came into existence.

Part 2: I would agree that, logically, the three possible explanations for “why” the universe exists are likely correct, though I would point out that this could be a case of the “False Dichotomy” (or I guess “false trichotomy”) logical fallacy: Those three options may not actually be all the possible explanations. We may just not know, especially considering that we’re talking about something that happened “before” the creation of our universe. But let’s examine each of them, anyway:

Part 3: I would agree that, taken at its face, 2(a) does have some scientific problems. Evidence that I have talked about before does seem to show that the universe – at least as we now know it – had a definite beginning. However, that may not actually be the case. Stephen Hawking has posited the idea that the universe and time may be closed, but unbound. To get an idea about what this means, think of a sphere: You could walk along the surface of a sphere literally forever and never come to the edge of it. Therefore it’s closed (it’s a finite size) but unbound (the geometry has no edges, no beginning nor end).

To say that 2(b) is “absurd” is an ad hominem logical fallacy that just ridicules it without providing a reason why it would be false, rather just implying that its false by name-calling. Granted, this is akin to the “Grandfather” paradox of time travel, where it sometimes is put such that you can’t go back in time and kill your grandfather because then you never would have been born to go back in time and kill your grandfather. Another slight wrinkle on this that is less of a paradox and more of an incestual scenario is that you go back in time, kill your “grandfather,” and then end up “arranging things” [rated PG blog] such that you become your own real grandfather.

That seemingly shouldn’t be “allowed” to happen, but again, since we are dealing with the universe itself, there are possible ways that the universe could have caused its own formation. For example, some ideas are that there was a previous universe that went through a “Big Crunch” and then rebound, forming our own universe. In that sense, the previous “universe” was the parent of our own “universe.” However, I’m not sure if any actual theoretical cosmologists put stock in that scenario, so I’m willing to grant that 2(b) is unlikely, but not “absurd.”

The original post then simply states that 2(c) is the only logical conclusion, that something else must have created the universe. The person then commits two HUGE logical fallacies of a non-sequitur – that that “something” that created the universe must have been God (in other words, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the something that created it was “God”) – and the fallacy of the Unstated Major Premise – that “God” actually exists.

To give you an example of why this is an “absurd” argument, think of this scenario: I come across a bird in the forest, sitting on a tree. I have never seen another animal before, nor do I know how it could have been formed, so I follow an apparent line of logic to figure out how it formed: I reason that the bird must have a cause. The cause could be the bird (a) always existed, (b) created itself, or (c) something else created it. (a) is has problems, (b) is “absurd,” and so I reason that God created it. But to you, an outside observer, you realize that I just made a major leap of literally “faith” to go from “something” created it to “God” created it … when more likely it hatched from an egg that was created by its parents and (a) G/god(s) had nothing to do with it even if (s)he/it even exists.

Other Critiques

There are other possible scientific explanations for how our universe came into being. “Brane Theory” is one, that holds that multidimensional membranes somehow interacted to create the universe. Others involve the cyclical approach I mentioned above. Another is that we represent a “pocket” of inflation from another, different, larger universe. We don’t know, but to attribute something that we don’t know to (a) divine creator(s) is yet another logical fallacy, the God of the Gaps.

Another, major, weakness of this argument is … Who/What created God? If everything must have a cause, and the idea that nothing has “always” existed, then what created God? This is a special pleading case as well as an example of the Inconsistency logical fallacy, where they’re stating that the universe can’t not have a cause, but God can.

Further Reading

Much more intelligent philosophers than I have argued about the Cosmological Argument. I invite you to read some other sources (some pro, some con):

November 12, 2008

Misconception: Big Bang Describes the Formation of the Universe


One argument that many creationists use to say that God exists is that something must have started the Big Bang (if they even accept that the Big Bang occurred). Or, they claim that the Big Bang is too unlikely to have occurred.

But, besides creationists, many people have the misconception that the Big Bang is what astronomers and physicists say started the Universe, forming it and bringing it to what it is today.

Most of that is a misconception.

What’s The Deal?

What’s really going on is that the Big Bang is a theory (theory in the same sense that gravity is a theory) that mathematically describes what happened almost immediately after the Universe came into existence. It is the best theory that fits with observational evidence.

That “almost immediately” is known as the “Planck Time,” which is equivalent to about 5×10-44 seconds. This is the time it takes light to travel a “Planck Length,” which is equivalent to about 2×10-35 meters. In other words, this is a very small amount of time, but due to some very complicated mathematics that gives me a headache, our current understanding of physics says that we cannot know what happened before the universe was 1 Planck Time old.

And, the Big Bang does not try to describe that. What the Big Bang describes is how the the Universe grew and changed after 1 Planck Time, such as the separation of the four fundamental forces of nature, the creation of matter, and so-forth — you know, the little things.

It is generally believed that, based on what we can describe after 1 Planck Time, that the Universe was, at time=0, an infinitesimal point of infinite density that was an explosion of space and time into our present-day Universe. But, that extrapolation is not a formal part of the Big Bang Theory.

So What?

You may ask why I’ve decided to devote a post to this – admittedly – seemingly minor point. The reason is that, first off, it’s a misconception that’s out there and I want to set the record straight.

But the second reason is that it means that creationist arguments that say the Big Bang doesn’t say what started the Universe, or how it started the Universe means that scientists just don’t know and they’re afraid to say, “God Did It.” They also attack the Big Bang because it seems to take God out of the picture.

What they’re actually doing is making a Straw Man fallacy – they are setting up a false argument and tearing that down rather than focus on what science really says. This is similar to the following situation: I decide to throw a ball up in the air. It goes up, following a parabolic arc, and comes back down to my hand. Physics has an exact description of the shape of that trajectory and the time it takes. But, physics says nothing about why I decided to throw the ball up in the air.

Creationists, in this analogy, would try to argue that physics doesn’t properly describe how I threw the ball in the air, or why I threw it. They are simply arguing against something that that particular theory never set out to describe.

This is much like evolution: Creationists claim that evolution can’t explain the origin of life. But evolution doesn’t try to explain the origin of life, merely what happened to that life once it formed. Same types of arguments, same fallacy.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you readers who are at least dedicated to learning about science now have a little more understanding about the nature of the Big Bang Theory, what it actually does describe, and what it does not. The next time you hear someone equate “formation of the Universe” with “Big Bang,” you will know that actually they are not quite the same thing.

November 11, 2008

Humorous Homework Answers

Filed under: humor,Miscellaneous — Stuart Robbins @ 1:52 am
Tags: , ,

I thought I’d lighten the tone and include some responses I’ve gotten in past years on homework answers. Most of them speak for themselves, but there are some that I’ll append a small explanation to.

Pay close attention to spelling, as these were copied directly and sometimes the humor lies in the mis-spelling of just one word.

(1) The Big Bang occurred, because of a rule in Astronomy: If you squish it, it heats up.

(2) Since Stars are made mostly of Hydrogen and helium and so are we it is safe to say that humans are made of “star stuff.” Th chemical male up of th two are similar.

(3) Venus has phases because as it is following its orbital path, it is also traveling on an epicycle. This causes it to fluctuate on which side of the earth Venus is on. (Note to readers – the concept of “epicycles” was used to explain the motions of the planets when we had an Earth-centered solar system. That and the second sentence of this answer implies the person doesn’t realize the Sun is the center of the solar system.)

(4) The reason that Pluto doesn’t fit these classifications [of terrestrial or jovian planet] is because with respect to distance from the sun and temperature, it is a jovial planet.

(5) Pluto has no moons. (Apparently forgetting about the moon Charon which has been known of since the 1970s and is half as big as Pluto. Since this particular answer back in 2004, two more moons, Nix and Hydra, were discovered.)

(6) [Terrestrial planets] have an abundance of mental deep in their interiors.

(7) Most of the matter in the universe is in the sun, the largest body in the universe.

(8) The reason that the planets in our solar system aren’t made up of primarily hydrogen and helium even though the universe is made up of 98% hydrogen and helium, is because the universe was created by the collapse of the solar nebula and as the cloud squeezed the pressure created heat and formed all the other forms of matter that exist today during the process. (This person is confusing the solar system with the universe.)

(9) For one, the majority of the mass in the universe is located in our sun (made up mostly of hydrogen and helium). Furthermore, the largest planets are also mostly hydrogen and helium. Considering this, the Earth and moon (and other terrestrial planets) make up a small portion of the whole solar system.

(10) Earth is made up of medals and rocks and not primarily hydrogen and helium.

(11) Hydrogen and helium fuss together in the center of the sun creating new elements. (There are so many ways to interpret this answer …)

(12) Much of the asteroids and minor planets orbiting the sun appear to be debris from a past explosion that collided with the solar nebula.

(13) Hypothetically if the Sun all of a sudden stopped thermonuclear fusion the Sun would start to contract, because the outer layers would no longer be supported by the internal gas presser.

(14) I calculated the thermal speed of hydrogen to be 2405.08 and that of deuterium to be 2892215.569. However, I’m horrible at math and could be totally messing this up, especially as it is late at night since I have rehearsal until 11 every night (ah, the life of a theater major…but I digress).

(15) The spacecraft of the Pioneer 11 mission would have been sucked into the Cassini gap by the gravitational pull. So they wouldn’t have a spacecraft anymore.

(16) Titan is the second largest satellite in the atmosphere.

(17) In the universe the Earth is the fifth largest planet.

(18) The universe is about 10 times bigger than the Milky Way galaxy.

(19) The entire universe is infinitely large, containing trillions of universes.

(20) The sun is 109.75 times larger in dia[meter than Earth]. The milky way is 73.17 times larger than Earth in Diameter. (Somehow, our galaxy is smaller than the sun?)

(21a) The entire galaxy is another 10 times larger than the Milky Way.
(21b) The Galaxy is about 1,000 quadrillion kilometers aka 100,000 light-years. And then, the galaxy is even larger at about 1,000,000 light years.

(22) A solar day is four minutes longer than the cideral day. The Earth violates around itself and around the Sun. This violation around the Sun causes the earth to violate aproximately 1 more degree to complete a solar day.

(23) A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes directly infront of the moon.

(24) The Cornucopian principle is the removal of Earth from the position of great cosmic significance. (Confusing “Copernican” with “Cornucopian.”)

(25) Question: Name and describe all the different types of objects found in the solar system.
Answer: Extrasolar planets – planets that revolve around a star other than out sun.

(26) Next you find the sun, this is the largest object in our universe and accounts for 99.9% of the universe’s mass.

(27) Since the moon and Mars rotate so slowly, they have a very low escape speed. With such a low escape speed, gases can leave and not form an atmosphere. (Escape velocity has to do with mass, not rotation. Also, Venus rotates more slowly than either the moon or Mars, and it has an atmosphere so thick that it’s the equivalent of being under 1 km of water on Earth. Not only that, but Mars’ day is just an hour longer than Earth’s.)

(28) Mars is red because it is composed of materials that are red. (Take that, teacher!)

(29) Uranus was discovered by an amateur astronomer nerd William Herschel.

November 10, 2008

What Does it Mean to “Prove” the Big Bang? – De-Mything the “Myth” that It Has Not Been “Proven”


The Big Bang is one of the fundamental theories (and I do mean “theory” in a scientific sense) of modern cosmology. It describes what happened just after the universe formed, how primordial matter was made, and the growth of structures like galaxies and superclusters of galaxies.

Being so fundamental in nature, it is not surprising that people who want to try to use astronomy to support a religious creation mythology try to mythify it, or at least cast enough doubt and suspicion on its plausibility that their adherents will take their word for it. (This is not a straw man on my part, but it is discussed in the broadcast (below) for several minutes towards the end.)

This entry is based on refuting the “Myth that the Big Bang Has Been Proven” Institute for Creation Research radio broadcast, originally aired on December 11, 1999, and re-aired on June 22, 2002.

Background Information

I don’t really have enough room here (and you likely don’t want to read) to go into the whole theory of Big Bang Cosmology, nor to really discuss in-depth the Three Pillars of evidence for the Big Bang theory (expanding universe, cosmic microwave background radiation, amounts of the light elements; sometimes the growth of large-scale structures is tossed in as a Fourth). Rather, as is generally the case when I discuss an ICR radio episode, I will address the claims as they come.

Individual Claims

Claim: “It seems like every time we turn on the TV, read the newspaper, or listen to the news, we hear about the big bang.” (at the beginning of the broadcast, by the narrator).

Response: Right off the bat, here, we have a straw man argument – they’re arguing against something that simply isn’t true. Honestly, think about it: When was the last time you picked up a newspaper or turned on the TV (unless it was a sci-fi show) and they were discussing the Big Bang?

Claim: “8 to 20 billion years ago, the date is not quite certain, the universe began suddenly.” (about 1 min 5 sec, Danny Faulkner).

Response: I’ll begrudge them this that when the show was originally recorded 10 years ago, the date wasn’t really certain, and estimates ranged from about 10-20 billion years for the formation of the universe. However, the latest data from the WMAP satellite places the age at about 14.1 billion years for the age of the cosmos.

Claim: “One of the misconceptions of the Big Bang theory is that, since the universe is expanding, the theory must be true.” (~1:30, Narrator). Immediately following, “It turns out this isn’t true at all, it turns out the expansion of the universe was discovered before the Big Bang model was developed. In fact, the Big Bang model was developed to explain why the universe was expanding.” (Danny Faulkner)

Response: I’m trying to find the logical fallacy that is effectively, “you’re either ignorant of the field, or you’re lying.” I think I can again politely refer to this as a straw man fallacy because he’s arguing against something that we astronomers don’t actually say. It is true that the expanding universe is one of the Three Pillars of the Big Bang. In general, logically, if something is getting larger today, it must have been smaller in the past. Unless something happened further in the past to change this, then the logical assumption is that it would continue to shrink the further in the past you go, until it was an infinitesimally small thing. But, this is not the only line of evidence, as I very briefly mentioned in my Background Information above.

The second sentence of this claim is, to my knowledge, mostly correct. But that’s how science works: We think something operates one way (originally, the “Steady-State” model saying that the universe has pretty much always been like it is today). But, new evidence (expansion) shows that our thinking was incorrect. Hence, we need to revise our models, or come up with new ones. I’m honestly not sure why they emphasize this except in the sense that it’s a subtle ad hominem attack (effectively, “You crazy ‘evolutionary’ astronomers don’t know what you’re doing, you have to keep changing your theories”) as well as a small tu quoque fallacy (effectively, “My evidence may not be valid, but neither is yours.”).

Claim: “One scientific problem with the Big Bang is that no like process has ever been observed so, science is supposed to deal with observation … yet no one has ever seen an explosion like a Big Bang. So right away, that places the Big Bang outside the realm of science.” (~2:00, Jonathan Henry)

Response: Ah, my first use of the False Continuum fallacy by attempting to argue that astronomers are guilty of the Inconsistency logical fallacy. In other words, he is implying that astronomers are being inconsistent in that we can’t have seen a Big Bang, therefore it’s faith, just like we’re claiming religion is faith because we can’t see (a) G/god(s). But the false continuum is that there really isn’t a fuzzy line of “scientific faith” in the Big Bang – there are real consequences and real predictions that come from it.

Unlike creationism, from where there can be no scientific evidence, “proof,” nor predictions from, models of the Big Bang predicted the existence of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR, or sometimes CMB) – the discovery of which resulted in a 3-way Nobel Prize – as well as predictions about the relative abundance of hydrogen to helium, lithium, and beryllium, which have so far been observed to be consistent with the Big Bang model.

It’s true, we can’t “see” the Big Bang, nor can we see another Big Bang simply by definition. But we can observe its effects and check for their consistency with that model. And so far, they support the Big Bang.

Claim: “One of the … predictions … has been that all matter in the universe aught to be distributed evenly everywhere.” (~3:00, Jonathan Henry)

Response: Again, ignorance, a lie, or politely a straw man. No one argues this to be the case because it’s OBVIOUSLY not the case (the fact that you sit separate from your chair, the air, the planet, and the solar system is proof that this is not the case). It may have initially been that when the theory was first developed that this was a consequence. But, that was quickly modified because, as I said, it obviously is not the case. We explain the non-uniform distribution as being caused by tiny fluctuations in the universe at the earliest times. Over hundreds of thousands of years, these grew into much larger variations in density, which led to the large-scale structures that we see today.

Claim: Paraphrasing this claim from Russ Humphreys (~4:15) – The Hubble Space Telescope has observed galaxies that formed about 700,000 years after the Big Bang, but this can’t be because galaxies take longer than that to form.

Response: This is actually a pretty neat science result (NASA Press Release, a more recent one than the show was referring to). What it shows is that galaxies were actually already being formed earlier than had been previously assumed, but that was only under one model of galaxy formation – a “Top-Down” approach where larger galaxies form first. What this is evidence for is more of a “Bottom-Up” mechanism, where smaller things formed first, in this case dwarf galaxies. So this is another case where there is a “distortion” of the facts. (Another related article.)

Claim: “Dark matter is the brain child of the fertile imagination of the Big Bang theorist who, not seeing the amount of matter that their theory requires invent other matter that we can’t see. … Dark matter … is pure speculation.” (~4:45, Russ Humphreys)

Response: Again, ignorance, a lie, or politely a straw man. To my knowledge, the ideas behind dark matter originally had nothing to do with the Big Bang. The problem was that stars in the outer parts of spiral galaxies were moving too quickly. In order to get them to move as fast as they were, our current understanding of physics required that there be much more mass, otherwise the stars would escape the gravitational pull of the galaxy because there wasn’t enough material that we could see to hold them all in. The alternative – which still have many proponents – is that our Newtonian theories of gravity need to be revised, that they work on the scales of humans, planets, and solar systems, but there may be a small term in the equations that only becomes noticeable on the scale of galaxies. You may ask, “What does this have to do with the Big Bang?” Good question. I’d like to know that, too, since the original Big Bang theories have nothing to do with dark matter.

Now, we can look at the CMBR and determine that there is a significant mass component to the universe that we can’t see, which we refer to as dark matter. WMAP results put it at about 23% of all the energy-mass of the universe being composed of dark matter. To to very quickly re-cap, the idea of dark matter originated because stars were moving too quickly for galaxies to be only composed of matter we could see, and this was later verified to be a “dark matter” by observations of the CMBR … it is not required for the Big Bang theory, nor would its existence or lack of existence have anything to do with whether or not the Big Bang model is correct.

Claim: “According to evolutionary theory, huge gas clouds were produced by the Big Bang. Soon these gas clouds collapsed into stars, planets, and galaxies, which emitted microwave radiation. Because of the pockets and clumps of these galaxies, there should be corresponding pockets of radiation. Therefore the Big Bang theory would predict that cosmic radiation would be uneven throughout the universe.” (~5:30, Narrator)

Response: I honestly don’t know what to say to this. What the narrator stated is equivalent to saying, “Water is dry.” It’s just wrong. One would think that if they have any sense of intellectual honesty, they would at least check on their facts.

The idea behind the CMBR can really be summed up in about 3 sentences: After the universe formed, it was very hot, and light (photons) could not move without being absorbed and re-emitted by atoms, which meant that the universe was opaque (kinda like a star). As the universe continued to expand, it cooled down, and eventually light was finally able to stream freely without interacting with the atoms. This first light, from when the universe became transparent, is what we see as the CMBR.

Now, what the CMBR reflects are the fluctuations in density in the universe at that time. Hotter regions of the CMBR indicate denser regions, and cooler indicates more rarified regions. The reason that it is in the microwave has nothing to do with galaxies, stars, and planets emitting microwave radiation, it’s because the radiation comes from so far away (back in time) that the light has been stretched into the microwave wavelengths. If we existed billions of years ago, it would be higher-energy light, even to the point of visible, and the entire sky would literally glow with it.

For more information on the CMBR, visit the WMAP Overview.

Claim: Paraphrasing this claim from Russ Humphreys (~6:00) – The variations in the CMBR are 10x smaller than what scientists predicted, but this is now claimed as proof of the Big Bang.

Response: As I said above, this is the nature of science. I honestly don’t know if this claim is correct, but even if it is, it does not take away from the idea that the CMBR was directly predicted from the Big Bang theory. Different perturbations of that theory can be used when it’s not well-constrained by other data. Based upon the best available data at the time, astronomers may have predicted the variations would be larger than they found them to be.

That they were discovered to be smaller meant that they had new constraints on their models and could go back and revise them to better fit the data, which can then be used to make future predictions. This has nothing to do with showing that the Big Bang is wrong, just with revising the specifics, which is how science works. Creationism, on the other hand, hasn’t changed in hundreds of years because there is only one piece of “evidence,” the Bible.

Claim: Paraphrasing this claim from Otto Berg (~7:30) – The biggest problem with the Big Bang is how to account for the formation of life? How could life evolve from a dead cluster?

Response: This is a straw man. The origin of life has absolutely positively NOTHING to do with the Big Bang (nor, for that matter, does it have anything to do with evolution).

Claim: “All life has carbon in it … [but] it’s an extreme improbability that carbon would have formed … since [the universe] was only 25% helium. [For carbon] to form, it would require two helium atoms to combine at exactly the right velocity with enough energy but not too much energy, it would collide and form a beryllium atom, and that beryllium atom would combine with another helium atom – with the right velocity, not too much not too little – to form the carbon atom. If you think about the improbability about that carbon atom — it’s very improbable. All life has carbon.” (~8:30, Otto Berg)

Response: I’m not sure why a particle physicist doesn’t know this, but Big Bang Nucleosynthesis (the third pillar) does not produce carbon, or if it does, it’s very very little. The early universe was pretty much like a star – except the whole universe was a star. Protons and neutrons fused to hydrogen, or deuterium, and deuterium could fuse into helium. But these conditions did not last very long, and they only had time to really fuse about 23-24% into helium-3 and helium-4. A very little bit of lithium-7 was created, but only a negligible amount (if any) of carbon. So if nothing else, he’s actually correct, but it’s a non sequitur.

Today’s carbon formed in stars. Massive stars, generally more massive than the sun, can easily reach the temperatures and pressures required to make forming carbon not a statistical improbability. We’ve known this for decades, as it’s relatively basic nuclear physics. Where did the carbon in life today come from? Past generations of stars. Carl Sagan put it well: “We are star stuff.”

For more on the fusion processes in stars, you can see the Fusion beta page of my revised astronomy website (please note that the bulk of the site is not yet finished, but that page is reasonably complete and fairly extensive).

Final Thoughts

The Big Bang is far from a myth that young-Earth creationists may have you believe. Is it “Proven?” Or is it a “Fact?” No. But really nothing in science is. A “Fact” means that it is TRUTH, that it is known beyond all doubt. As I discussed in my LHC particle two months ago, that’s not how science works. It only takes one verified and inexplicable observation to destroy a theory.

But from a scientific standpoint, a “Theory” is as close to a “Fact” as we can get. The Big Bang Theory has been tested and revised over almost the last 100 years. It has withstood efforts to disprove it, and it still remains the foundation of modern cosmology.

November 9, 2008

Do *NOT* “Buy” Stars

Filed under: scams,terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 5:41 pm
Tags: , , , , ,


Christmas is coming and so I thought this would be a somewhat timely post (yes, I realize there are other winter holidays, and I myself am Jewish, but let’s be honest here – most presents are Christmas presents).  I am also experimenting with a slightly new format for each blog post, starting with this one, so please let me know what you think about it by posting in the Comments section.

The purpose of this blog post is:  Please, PLEASE, PLEASE, do NOT try to buy stars!



Many years ago, a company started up called the “International Star Registry” (ISR).  A few years later, a copycat company started, called “Buy the Stars” (BtS).  Over the years, a few others have cropped up, such as “Star Namer,” or “Star Deed,” but I’m mainly going to address the first two.  The basic premise behind these companies is that if you pay them a certain amount of money, they will officially register a star with your name on it, or any name on it that you want.


What’s Actually Going On

They’re taking your money and sending you a piece of paper that with a little experimentation you could make in Photoshop or Illustrator or your graphics program of choice.  Seriously.  That’s about it.

The only officially recognized group that can name celestial objects is the International Astronomical Union, a group of astronomers from all over the world.  They’re the ones who classify objects (like planets vs. dwarf planets) and who name objects.  They are the only group in the world that astronomers actually listen to in terms of what’s called what.

When you send either star registry company money, they will pick out a generally very faint star, one that very likely cannot be seen without the use of a telescope (usually fainter than the planet Pluto).  The faintness of the star is alluded to on both sites since neither of them actually answer the question of, “Can I see my star?”  Rather, BtS answers the question of, “Will I be able to see the constellation?” while ISR has a discussion of Visual Magnitude (the brightness scale astronomers use, where larger numbers are fainter objects).

The ISR will then compile it in their book, Your Place in the Cosmos, put it in their own database, and that’s the extent of the registration process.  However, they are at least reasonably forward about the officiality of their service, stating:

Q:  Will the scientific community recognize my star name?

A:  No.  We are a private company that provides Gift Packages.  Astronomers will not recognize your name because your name is published only in our Star catalog.  We periodically print a book called Your Place in the Cosmos © which lists the stars that we have named.

BtS is not as straight-forward, and in my own personal opinion, they are deceitful.  They do not tell you that your name will not be recognized; in answer to the question, “Do I really get a star named after me?” they state (emphasis mine):

BuyTheStars is an official star registration company and all records of stars named and sold are sent to the international star name and registry in Dallas, TX . Once you have purchased and named your star, the details are sent and permanently recorded in the database. Once this process has been completed, we verify the billing information provided to us and forward it to the international database in Dallas. Once completed, a certificate (and package) is sent out to you (or the addressee) detailing the stars [sic] location and new name. This name will be the new internationally recognized name for the star under the coordinates specified on the certificate. You can then be satisfied knowing that you (or the persons whom you named the star(s) after) will join the thousands who have already secured their place in the heavens.

Again, for clarity, this “internationally recognized name” is only recognized by their company.  It is not recognized by anyone who actually studies astronomy.

In addition, and this is more of an aside, you really should NOT buy stuff off of a website that does not know English grammar.  The apostrophe is missing in “detailing the stars location” in the text I quoted above.  In their “Why name a star with us?” page, they used the wrong homophone: “So, if your looking …” using “your” instead of “you’re.”  This may seem like a silly nit-pick, but seriously, if they write like a middle or high school student, why should you trust them with your money?


What’s the Harm?

This is often a question asked that’s more related to “alternative” medicine pseudoscience, like, “What’s the harm of homeopathy even if it’s just water like you say?”

The harm of “buying” these stars is two-fold.

(1)  They take your money.  The cheapest “package” on the ISR is $54.00, and the cheapest from BtS is $54.95 (at the time of writing this).  For an average family of 4, that’s half a week’s groceries, or maybe a tank of gas (as I’m writing this).  It’s also the cost of a nicely illustrated astronomy book, or maybe 2-3 paperbacks.  Or a trip to the zoo, or an amusement park.  Or a nice dinner out.  If you’re looking for a present for someone, please buy something that’s more meaningful.

(2)  Sentimentality from those who think they’re really getting a star named after them.  What I mean here is something like the following story:  Two people have been married for over 50 years, and one of them dies .  The one left is devastated, and hears from a friend that they can get a bright, shining star in the sky named after their loved one for all to see.  So they buy a package.  Later, perhaps, even a few years later, they go to a public planetarium or observatory and ask the projector operator or telescope operator to see “their” star.  What’s the operator supposed to do?  Tell them they wasted their money, they don’t actually have a star; or try to find the tiny faint object, indistinct from its neighbors; or lie to the person and point out a nice bright object and say, “Yep, that’s it, there’s ‘Fred.'”

My own personal experience with this rip-off is that my high school, a year after I graduated, “bought” three stars for students who had done well on some national test or something (I honestly don’t remember the exact reason).  That’s right, folks, public school funds, at least over $165 worth (the cost of 2 new textbooks), were spent on this.


Final Thoughts

Seriously, the bottom-line here is that this is a scam.  I’ll be very careful here, though – it is not a “scam” in the legal sense (though I think BtS comes very very close) because they do not actually promise that astronomers will recognize your purchase.  Rather, it is a “scam” in the sense that it is very misleading to the public, with people being led to think that it is now an official name that will is “recorded ‘forever’ in existence,” to quote another blogger on WordPress.

The only “official” way these are recognized is within their own company and their own products.  They take your money, enter something in a database, and send you a pretty piece of paper and maybe a booklet and a starchart with “your” star circled.  Please do NOT give them any more money, unless you want to pay for a pretty piece of paper.

But, you don’t need to take my word for it:

Blog at WordPress.com.