Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 31, 2009

Planet X and 2012: Quotes from the Archaeology Experts About Mayan Prophecy


Quite conveniently, in the middle of writing this series of blog posts on Planet X and 2012, CNN today posted this article on the subject of 2012 and the lack of any approaching Doomsday. I will admit that I was pleasantly surprised that the article took a fairly incredulous view on the whole doomsday scenario, and it contained a lot of quotes from experts on the Mayans. I want to post them while this story’s still “hot.”

Other posts in this series:

Good Quotes

From David Stuart, director of the Mesoamerica Center at the University of Texas at Austin: “There’s going to be a whole generation of people who, when they think of the Maya, think of 2012, and to me that’s just criminal. … The whole year leading up to it is going to be just crazy, I’m sorry to say. I just think it’s sad, it really just frustrates me. People are really misunderstanding this really cool culture by focusing on this 2012 thing. It means more about us than it does about the Maya.”

From David Morrison of the “Ask an Astrobiologist” section of NASA’s Web site: “The purveyors of doom are promoting a hoax.”

From Anthony Aveni anthropology and Native American studies at Colgate University: “I think that the popular books… about what the Maya say is going to happen are really fabricated on the basis of very little evidence. … What you have here is a modern age influence [and] modern concepts trying to garb the ancient Maya in modern clothing, and it just doesn’t wash for me.”

From John Major Jenkins who describes himself as a self-taught independent Maya scholar: “The trendy doomsday people… should be treated for what they are: under-informed opportunists and alarmists who will move onto other things in 2013.”

Final Thoughts

Yes, this is a short post. If I come across other good quotes, I’ll add to it. But, I think this post is somewhat necessary because really, all you hear about 2012 and Mayans and doomsday and all that are from the people who are promoting it or from the occasional skeptic or astronomer who just says, “well that’s stupid” without going into too much detail. I wanted to provide independent views, ones from the archaeology community that I normally don’t really interface with.


January 30, 2009

Planet X and 2012: Proof Earth Is Not Experiencing a Pole Shift


Between my posts on the magnetic pole shift and geographic pole shift (since I left my notes on the latter in the office and so will have to write that post tomorrow), I’m going to address the claim that people make that our planet, right now is in the middle of a pole shift, that it’s already started to happen, and The Government doesn’t want you to know.

I’m going to show you why this is very obviously wrong, and what you can do yourself on any clear night to prove that this is wrong.

All posts in this series:

The Premise

This premise is NOT unique to this particular website, but it’s the one I’m using to illustrate the point for this post. The author clearly states, “Earth’s axis tilt has recently increased by an additional 26 degrees.” He also provides an illustration of what Earth’s orbit should be (top) and what it actually is (according to him) (bottom).


For background, we’ll actually use his first (top) diagram. Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5° relative to the ecliptic. The “ecliptic” is defined as the plane that Earth traces out when it orbits the sun. So the tilt can also be described as the tilt that Earth’s axis makes relative to the path it takes around the sun.

Now let’s define “axis.” Again, this may seem elementary, but it’s important we get all the definitions straight. There are two points on Earth – the North and South geographic poles – that are always* pointed at the exact same locations in space. If you were to draw a line between these two points and follow them to other stars, the North pole line would come fairly close to what’s popularly known as the “North Star,” or “Polaris.” This common name comes both from medieval Latin polaris meaning “heavenly,” from the original Latin polus meaning “end of an axis.” Fairly apropos.

That is very important here – the poles are always aimed at the same spot in space, regardless of the time of day, regardless of the season. And Polaris sits 66.5° above the ecliptic (90°-23.5°= 66.5°) – or just about (since it’s actually slightly off of the axis, but it’s close enough for our purposes here).

The rest of the planet rotates – spins – around an imaginary line that runs through the North and South geographic poles (those two stationary points relative to the stars). This means that everywhere else on Earth, the stars rise and set throughout the day and night as Earth rotates under them. At either pole, the same stars just move in direct East-to-West circles without any rising or setting.

* There is a ~26,000-year precession (wobble) of the pointing of Earth’s rotation axis. The axis stays the same relative to Earth, but it moves relative to the stars in a rather large circle. 13,000 years ago, the North Star would have been the very bright star Vega. However, this should NOT be confused with a pole shift. This process is very slow and steady, and it has nothing to do with the claims of the 2012 doomsdayers.

Why This Pole Shift Claim Is Demonstrably Wrong

I’ll admit, this is fairly low-hanging fruit. You don’t have to be an astrophysicist to figure out that these claims are wrong. And you should also be wary when the very first words on the guy’s website are, “Order your copy today” (of his book). You should also be careful when the guy’s Ph.D. is purely honorary and in the “the field of Energyinformative Sciences, from the Academy of Energyinformative Sciences.” Notice something missing? Yeah, anything related to astronomy, geology, or physics … not that a degree in those automatically makes all your ideas suddenly believable.

With that in mind, what would happen if the pole, well, shifted? Well, it would not look like this person’s diagram, partly because the plane of the ecliptic does not rotate with the axis of rotation. Earth’s orbit around the sun is independent from its rotation about its axis. But the major problem with the diagram is how he has drawn the day/night sides. Because the ecliptic would stay the same as it is now, the day/night shading should run vertically through the image.

What would the consequences of this be? This is where his claims are very easily demonstrably wrong in two very simple ways.

First, let’s look at this tilt and where the day/night line should be. If Earth has tilted an additional 26° as of now, it would be tilted 49.5° relative to the ecliptic. That means that all latitudes North of 49.5° N or South of 49.5° S would experience 24 hours of daylight during their summer solstices and 24 hours of night during their winter solstices. England, Norway, Canada, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, parts of Australia … I think they would have noticed this. I don’t think that governments could really cover something like that up.

Second, let’s look at the stars. He claims, “The star layout would only be a miniscule change which the average person would not notice.” This is factually wrong and very easy to see for yourself. Just go outside with a camera that can have a shutter speed of a minute or longer and a tripod. Aim it towards the North, and take a 1-5 minute picture (or longer if you’d like). What you will see is the stars making little arcs through the picture, but there will be one reasonably bright star that appears to not move at all. That star is Polaris. It may look something like the photo below, which was taken for about 30 minutes. The bright star towards the lower right corner is Polaris.

Sorry Southern Hemisphere folks, there is no pole star for you guys, but you can still accomplish the same effect and see stars moving around the Southern Celestial Pole.

What does this relatively stationary star show? It shows that Earth’s axis is still pointed towards Polaris. If it had tilted by 26° — even if it had tilted by 1° – that star would not stay in the same place, but it would move along with the others.

In addition, tens of thousands (or more) telescopes rely upon knowing exactly where Polaris is relative to the North Celestial Pole. Without it, they couldn’t keep keep track of objects, “go to” telescope systems wouldn’t work, and everyone who has any telescope that tracks the night sky would notice.

The Conspiracy

And so we get to the conspiracy”

“Why has no one mentioned the shift of the Earth’s Axis? Surely they would tell the public if something this major had occurred. Surely the scientists or meteorologists would have said something? Surely the media would have mentioned this?

“Wrong!!!! Global Panic! Economic Meltdown! Panic Hording!

“Meteorologists, Media CEO’s, astronomers, astrophysicists and other experts worldwide seem to have been silenced. A common gov’t control procedure in wartime or cataclysmic situations with severe penalties for those who fail to comply… Threats of Gitmo or being discredited & unemployed would be persuasive. Remember what happened to Bob Lazar for revealing Area 51 secrets? The gov’t destroyed him.

“The gov’t successfully persuaded thousands of workers & scientists to keep their silence when building the A-bomb in the 1940’s, so let that be an example of how it is possible to silence an entire industry of tens of thousands, if needed.”

Again, these claims are demonstrably wrong because anyone can check Earth’s polar alignment by going outside and looking for the North Star (or Southern Cross), and anyone can tell you that southern Argentina doesn’t experience 24-hr daylight around the summer solstice. And, being an astronomer, I can say that I certainly haven’t received my hush money, otherwise I’d be driving a nicer car (or have a nicer camera system, more likely … or maybe live in a nicer apartment).

Final Thoughts

This represents one of the more silly claims (remotely) related to the Planet X and 2012 doomsday scenario / conspiracy that’s out there. But it is related under the category of a “pole shift,” and so I have included it in this series. The idea that Earth is currently experiencing a pole shift is easily shown to be incorrect, and with that, I hope to lay this topic to rest – at least to those of you who have read this blog.

January 29, 2009

Planet X and 2012: The Pole Shift (Magnetic) Explained and Debunked


Continuing my series on Planet X and 2012, one of the main claims of what will actually happen is termed a “Pole Shift.” Sounds scary, huh? The Earth’s pole(s) … shifting!?

But what does it actually mean? Well, Earth actually has two sets of North and South Poles – the geographic and the magnetic. Most of the doomsdayers that I’ve heard seem to imply that they are talking about a geographic pole shift, but some also talk about a magnetic pole shift. Since both are completely different, and since they are significant enough topics by themselves, I am doing separate posts on them. This one addresses the magnetic pole.

All posts in this series:

Earth’s Magnetic Field

Most people have either seen in-person or in video a crane in a junkyard that, instead of a hook at one end, has a large metal plate. They have then seen that metal plate “activated” by something, and it becomes a strong magnet – strong enough to lift multi-ton cars. What you have just witnessed is called an “induced magnetic field.”

Induced magnetic fields are created by electricity moving in circles. It’s the principle behind all electromagnets (most medical imaging today relies upon it) and electric motors. It’s also what our planet’s magnetic field is created by.

Earth’s magnetic field is called a “magnetic dynamo” because it is produced by liquid metals moving around in Earth’s core. As these metals move, they induce currents, which create magnetic fields. Since the planet has a net rotation in one direction, the created magnetic field is built up and roughly aligned with that axis of rotation.

Earth’s magnetic field is in the form of a “dipole,” meaning that it has a “North” and “South,” or “positive” and “negative” side to it, much like a bar magnet. The field breaches Earth’s surface at the south magnetic pole, extends into space in what is known as the “magnetosphere,” and dives back into Earth at the north magnetic pole, as illustrated in the figure on the right.

Polar Wander

In 2001, Earth’s north magnetic pole was at coordinates 81.3° N by 110.8° W. But in 2004, three years later, it had moved to 82.3° N by 113.4° W. And a year later, in 2005, it was at 82.7° N by 114.4° W. Similarly, the south magnetic pole shifted, as well.

But, how could that happen? Earth’s magnetic field should be stationary, just like the geographic poles, right? Isn’t this evidence of something catastrophic happening?

In a word: No.

Earth’s magnetic poles appear to wander throughout time, and not just due to the continents drifting. “Polar wander” refers to it moving, while “true polar wander” refers to it moving relative to a fixed coordinate system that takes the continents’ movement into account. The field strength also is not constant with time, varying by location and by year. It also varies on much longer timescales, flipping over entirely (north becoming south and vice versa). The last time it flipped occurred approximately 780,000 years ago. (Evidence for this is found in the magnetic field of relatively fresh ocean crust, among other places.)

It is unknown at this time what causes Earth’s magnetic field to wander, vary, and occasionally flip. Modeling the field is very difficult, and all of the physics of it is not yet understood. The oft-portrayed simple magnetic field, as shown in the diagram above, is not correct. The field is much more complex, and it was featured in NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day in November of 2002, shown on the right. The magnetic field lines are a tangled mess and only when you average over them to you get the dipole magnet that most of us are familiar with.

What Happens When the Field Shifts?

Nothing of importance. As I explained in the above section, Earth’s magnetic field has been shifting at a rate of over 1° per year for many years, with data going back well over a century. And, alas for the doomsdayers, nothing bad has happened.

What Happens When the Field Flips?

This scenario – which we are almost certain will happen again since it has happened many many times in geologic history – is a little more dangerous, but that is mostly because we are an electronic society.

In terms of humans and biology, again, nothing of importance will happen. The magnetic field is relatively weak, and if you go in for an MRI you are exposed to fields many orders of magnitude larger than Earth’s. And nothing bad happens unless you’re wearing metal. Birds may be a little confused, but they existed prior to the reversal 780,000 years ago and seem to have gotten through it just fine, as anyone who lives in a city and deals with pigeons on a daily basis can attest.

In terms of what would happen to the field, it would not just shut off one day and then come back the next in the opposite direction. It won’t shut off at all. It will decrease in its strength while more magnetic field lines in the north start to turn “south,” and more in the south start to turn “north.” When more than half are the opposite of what they were, then the net effect will be that the field has flipped over.

So what will happen to us in a decreased magnetic field? Well, the main problem is that the magnetosphere will shrink. This “protective bubble” that shields us from the sun’s streaming charged particles will no longer extend as far into space. So, very high-orbit satellites will be exposed to more radiation, and consequently they will be more prone to failure, especially during any burst of solar activity, unless we have developed better ways to shield their electronics. Similarly, a burst of solar activity can induce magnetic fields in power lines (and railroad tracks) on Earth, causing surges that can short out the grid. This can (and likely will, as it already has in the past) cause blackouts, as happened in 1989 in Canada.

Does this mean the end of the world? No. It means we need to upgrade our power distribution systems around the world and keep them updated as opposed to how they’ve been languishing for decades. In fact, just today (January 28, 2009), the American Society of Civil Engineers released their 2009 annual report card, giving the US’s energy infrastructure a “D+” (the average grade was a “D”). They state:

Progress has been made in grid reinforcement since 2005 and substantial investment in generation, transmission and distribution is expected over the next two decades. Demand for electricity has grown by 25% since 1990. Public and government opposition and difficulty in the permitting processes are restricting much needed modernization. Projected electric utility investment needs could be as much as $1.5 trillion by 2030.

Now, contrast what I’ve explained the effects would be with what doomsday folks are saying, such as this article:

“As the shift approaches, things begin to go out of balance, and the magnetic field begins to fluctuate significantly over a very short period of time (about 3 – 6 months). This would be like a full moon getting bigger and bigger every day. What happens then is that people start to go crazy emotionally. This breaks down economical and social structures on the planet because it is only people who keep these structures together.”

A very quick analysis shows: We’ve got a false analogy (magnetic field changing has nothing to do and is nothing like the moon changing size), an assumed effect without any causation, and then a reducio ad absurdum when they just take the assumed effect to extreme levels.

What Would Cause This Magnetic Pole Shift That You’ve Said Won’t Happen in 2012?

Good question. The mechanisms proposed – that I’ve heard and read about – really amount to nothing but misunderstandings, numerology, or conjecture founded in superstition. They include: Earth’s rotation switching directions, Earth getting whopped by an asteroid, The sun’s magnetic field flipping ours, Planet X (Planet X seems to be able to do anything, as I’ll talk about in future posts), and some various mystical things.

I wish I could state, “needless to say, these (a) won’t happen and (b) even if they did can’t flip our magnetic field.” I can still say it if I chop off the “needless” part. The fact that when I just did a Google search to try to find folks’ mechanisms for this the first few pages were nearly all doomsday pages should tell you that these are very popular ideas in popular culture. So, I really do need to say: “These (a) won’t happen and (b) even if they did can’t flip our magnetic field.”

Without addressing each individual claim, I will broadly address the two categories of claims – a large external physical force, or a large external magnetic force. The basic reason why neither of these will happen in 2012 is that there is nothing that we know of that has enough force to affect Earth’s field on a global scale. Let’s say, for example, we get hit by an asteroid. An asteroid that’s huge – 100 km in radius (all of which have known been identified and have known orbits). Assuming the asteroid is the densest and heaviest – an iron-nickel asteroid (a composition which only 10% of asteroids are) – then it would have a mass of about 4.2·1015 kg. That’s a lot. But Earth has a mass that is 6.0·1024 kg … over 109 times more. It would be like a grain of dust hitting a car. NOTHING will happen to the Earth as a whole. Yes, it would be bad for us and for life, but the planet really wouldn’t care. Now, if another planet were to hit us, then Earth would be in trouble.

So what about a large external magnetic force? There’s nothing large enough that’s nearby. Sure, if we were to pass by a magnetar, we’ll be in trouble. Those have magnetic fields on the order of ~1015 times stronger than Earth’s. But the sun’s magnetic field really shows no evidence of affecting ours to the point of flipping it. There is no evidence at all – historic or validated theoretical – to show that the sun’s magnetic field, which is only up to ~10x stronger than Earth’s, can flip ours. After all, if it could, then it would every 11 years, since that’s how often the sun’s field flips.

So I’ve now given two ways that this really could happen – if a planet-mass object or an extraordinarily large magnetic field were to hit us or come near us, that could affect Earth’s rotation or magnetic field to the point where we would get a magnetic pole reversal (or, I guess a really big “shift”). However, we now again get to the question of evidence: There is none. We would know of a planet-sized (or larger) object that is close enough to come near us in 4 years (the end of 2012), or even 40 years. You can read my post on the Real Planet X for more information on that. Similarly, we would see effects of a gigantic magnetic field nearby that’s close enough to affect us in the near future, something we also do not see any evidence for.

Final Thoughts

Despite this post being over 1800 words – another long one – I still feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. That’s mainly because there are nearly as many variations of what’s “predicted” to happen with the magnetic pole shift as there are people making the predictions. In this post, I’ve tried more to focus on the background information – the state of the science – and then point out why many of the main predictions are not correct nor feasible when confronted with what we can actually observe. It’s impossible to get into every single claim because more crop up as soon as you debunk one (much like conspiracy theories).

Hence I have tried to give you the basic information to be able to figure out why the idea of 2012 somehow coinciding with an event that will cause a magnetic pole shift has no basis in reality. If you come across (or have) a claim that I haven’t addressed within this topic, please leave a comment!

January 28, 2009

What Would a Thermometer Say the Temperature of Space Is?


I just took my temperature and it read as 97.4 °F. A normal human body temperature. But the thermometer outside says it’s 6 °F. It also says it’s -14 °C. But being in the physical sciences discipline, I may want to say it’s really 259 K.

But what would that thermometer read in space? If the astronauts when they went to the moon took out a household thermometer, would it read around +200 °F, the reported surface temperature at noon? Or would it read millions of degrees because that’s the temperature of the particles from the sun that are streaming past it? Or, would it read nothing at all?

The Concept of a Temperature and Reliance on Material to Measure

The English word “temperature” originates from the Latin temperatura, which originally denoted a state of being tempered or mixed, later becoming synonymous with “temperament.” In the 1600s, it was co-opted to its present-day usage, which has a definition of, “the degree or intensity of heat present in a substance or object,” according to the built-in dictionary on my Mac. So in other words, “temperature” is really a measurement of “heat” … and we must define “heat.”

In physics, the concept of “heat” comes from objects that are in motion and, in that sense, it can be used synonymously with “kinetic energy” (the energy of motion). If all molecular/atomic motion in a substance were to stop, then we say that it has zero heat, consequently zero temperature, and we would say it has a measured temperature (if it could be measured) of 0 K.

“K” stands for “Kelvins,” and it is unique among temperature scales in that there is no “degrees Kelvin,” just “Kelvins.” Intervals of 1 K are equivalent to 1 °C, so the Kelvin scale can be thought of the Centigrade (Celsius) scale with a different zero-point. 0 K = -273.16 °C = -459.7 °F = 0 °R (where “°R” is “degrees Rankin, the same scale as Fahrenheit except with a different zero-point).

Okay, so now that we have a physical definition of temperature, what does it mean when we measure temperature? To measure temperature in a normal, every-day way with a thermometer is to allow the thermometer to interact with the substance it is measuring until the same amount of energy / heat / molecular motion is reached by the thermometer. Then we assume that the thermometer has a read-out which tells us what that corresponds to on a scale such as Celsius or Fahrenheit.

A key to this temperature measurement, however, is in the phrase, “allow the thermometer to interact with the substance it is measuring.” In space, this is not so easy.

How Heat Is Transferred

I covered this in my post “Apollo Moon Hoax – Huge, Deadly Temperature Variation Claims”. However, to review, there are three ways to transfer heat: Radiation, Conduction, and Convection.

  1. Radiation: Radiation is the least efficient process of transferring heat. It involves exactly what it sounds like – radiation, or light-based energy (photons). The photon is emitted from the heat source and is absorbed by the target. The act of absorbing the photon – a packet of energy – adds to the energy of the target material, thus heating it up.

    The Sun heats all objects in the solar system mainly through radiative heat transfer. This is also the same mechanism behind “heat lamps” – those hot red lights that are oh-so-common in cafeterias, keeping the french fries or the pizza warm.

    There’s another aspect to this that does not play a role in the other two heat transfer processes: Some surfaces will absorb heat faster than others. This is because objects that are whiter will absorb less radiation because they reflect more. Objects that are blacker will absorb more radiation because they reflect less. Astronomers call this “albedo.” You may have noticed this effect if you’re outside in the summer and wear a white shirt vs. a black shirt – you’ll heat up much more quickly in black.

  2. Conduction: Conduction is the process where heat is transferred by one object physically touching another object. For example, when you place a pot of water on the stove to boil, the heating element of the stove physically touches the pot, heating it up, and the pot physically touches the water, heating that up.
  3. Convection: Convection is the most efficient process of heat transfer. It involves the physical mixing of material of two different temperatures, which distributes the heat. An everyday example of this is adding ice to a glass of water and then stirring it around. This stirring physically moves the ice and water to better distribute the heat than if the ice just sat there (conduction).

    Another good example is a pot of thick stew or chili on the stove. I learned this lesson the hard way – while soup convects quite easily, chili only conducts. In other words, in most soups, you generally get a good boil going and the liquid circulates throughout the pot, carrying and distributing the heat very well. Thicker foods like chili, however, do not convect; the heat conducts up through the pot to the food on the bottom, and then it just stays there. The bottom will continue to absorb heat, but because the food is so thick, these warmer parts of the food don’t move anywhere, they just sit there, slowly conducting heat away at a slower pace than the pot is conducting heat to it. This results in burnt chili on the bottom and barely warm chili on top.

So What Does a Thermometer Measure?

A conventional thermometer reaches an equilibrium when the rate of heat radiated away is equal to the rate of heat absorbed through conduction. In all, every-day situations, a thermometer measures “temperature.” This is because the process of radiating heat away is much less efficient than conduction when you are surrounded by a material as dense as, say, the human tongue, a pot of water, or even air.

But now, let’s take that thermometer and put it in interplanetary space. In our solar system, the space between planets (hence, “interplanetary”) is not very dense. It’s less dense than the best vacuum that we can create on Earth. But, it does have material in it. There’s dust and gas, and there are streaming charged particles from the sun that we call the “solar wind.” So what would a thermometer measure?

The dust and gas is fairly cold unless the stray molecule gets hit by a cosmic ray or particle from the solar wind, which will heat it up (but then slowly radiate that heat away). The space between particles and molecules isn’t baryonic matter, and hence even if there’s something there, it can’t interact with the thermometer. The solar wind is very hot – each particle the same temperature as the chromosphere of the sun, several millions of degrees (or Kelvins – they’re fairly interchangeable when you’re talking about the general “millions”).

However, the time that it would take the material – the dust, gas, and solar wind – to conduct heat to the thermometer is longer than the time it takes the thermometer to radiate heat away. And so the thermometer would slowly decrease in the temperature that it records until it reaches 2.73 K, the temperature of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. There are enough photons left-over from that to keep the thermometer at least at 2.73 K, and maybe it will read a slightly warmer temperature if it gets hit by enough solar wind particles.

Then How Do Astronomers Say that a Dust Cloud Is Millions of Degrees?

Since conventional thermometers, for all intents and purposes, don’t work in space, astronomers have to use other means to estimate the temperature of objects. They do this by examining the light emitted, and the wavelength at which the most intensity of light is emitted will uniquely determine the temperature: Redder objects are cooler, bluer objects are hotter. If you’re interested in reading up on this, check out Wikipedia’s pages on Blackbody Radiation, the Planck Function, and Wein’s Law. I’m not going to go into the actual physics and mechanics on this post because that is not the purpose of this post.

Final Thoughts

You may ask, as on a few of my other posts, why I bother to talk about something that seems to be fairly insignificant, or splitting hairs. Well, as usual, my reply is that it’s because this is a commonly held misconception, that if you put a thermometer in space, it will tell you how cold the material around you is. The misconception stems from not understanding how heat is transferred between objects, and this itself leads to a host of other misconceptions, like what would happen to a human if they were put into space without a spacesuit, or why the Apollo astronauts were able to easily survive in the cold and then hot temperatures they encountered on the moon.

January 27, 2009

Planet X and 2012: The PseudoAstronomy (or Just Plain Wrong Astronomy) About a Galactic Alignment


One of the many “theories” behind the 2012 doomsday scenario – but one of the few that does not involve the “Planet X” (at least in sum and substance) is the idea that on December 21, 2012 (sound familiar?), the sun and/or solar system will come into alignment with the galactic plane or center of our galaxy and cause bad stuff to happen. There are several different proponents of this, including John Major Jenkins and Brent Miller, the latter also linking it with a Planet X (discussed in future posts).

Note that most of the numbers/values in this post come from the book, Galaxies in the Universe (an undergrad/grad text) by Linda Sparke and John Gallagher, © 2000.

All posts in this series:

A Crash Course in the Sun’s Orbit

We are on Earth. Earth orbits the sun (a star). The sun orbits the Milky Way, our galaxy. Just as Earth orbits within the solar system but still orbits the solar system’s center of mass, the sun orbits the Milky Way’s center of mass but is still inside the Milky Way (that’s a complicated way of saying that we are neither at the center of our galaxy nor at the edge).

As Monty Python’s song states, “The sun and you and me, plus all the stars that we can see, are moving at a million miles a day, … the galaxy we call the Milky Way. Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars, … we go ’round every 200 million years.” The numbers are reasonably accurate, though our orbital period is more recently calculated to be approximately 250 million years to make one complete ellipse around the center. Notice that I said “ellipse” for the orbit. This is correct, but to very good approximation, the stars out by us are mostly on nearly circular orbits.

Besides just orbiting in a single plane (as in like a flat piece of paper), stars also oscillate through the general gravitational plane of the galaxy. They generally stay within the “thin disk” that contains 95% of the stars, but this thin disk is on the order of about 1000 light-years thick (though, compared with the diameter of the galaxy being 100,000 light-years, this is still pretty thin). Our sun is one of those stars that does oscillate through the gravitational central plane of our galaxy.

The Sun’s Current Position and Velocity

Today, yesterday, and tomorrow, the sun does not lie in the galactic midplane, but it is about 35-70 light-years “above” it (since there’s no “up” in space, you could also say it lies below it). It is also currently still traveling “upwards” in the direction of the North Galactic Pole at a rate of 7-8 km/sec.

It is also not on a perfectly circular orbit relative to the plane of the galaxy, moving presently inward at a rate of 10-11 km/sec. Its rotational velocity around the center of the galaxy is about 200 km/sec.

I should also note that the center of our galaxy, the supergiant black hole known as Sag A* (pronounced “Sag A-star” or “Sagittarius A-star”), is the celestial coordinates 17 h 45m 40s RA, -29° 00′ 28.00″ DEC. What those actually mean is unimportant at the moment, just keep it in mind.

First of Two Ideas of the Galactic Center/Plane and its Relation to 2012

There are really two main premises of what will happen in or around 2012 in regards to the plane of the Milky Way. The first was popularized by John Major Jenkins back in 1998, and it deals with an apparent alignment, as viewed from Earth. To quote him:

Amazingly, the center of this cosmic cross, that is, right where the ecliptic crosses over the Milky Way, is exactly where the December solstice sun will be in A.D 2012. This alignment occurs only once every 25,800 years. [page XXXIX, italics are his]

The bottom line of my theory is that the ancient Maya chose the 2012 end-date because this is the date on which occurs a rare alignment of the solstice sun with the Galactic Center. [page XLI, italics are his]

The Long Count calendar is a galactic calendar because it pinpoints a rare alignment with our Milky Way Galaxy, due to occur in A.D. 2012 – a date written as in the Long Count. [page 105]

However, he gets the dates wrong, and corrects it in a later book published in 2002:

Early on in my research, I recognised that the solstice-galaxy alignment would occur around 1998 or 1999. This was based on precise astronomical concepts (e.g. galactic equator and solstice colure) and a rough estimate I made with EZCosmos astronomy software, confirmed by the calculations of European astronomer Jean Meeus and the US Naval Observatory. I’ll have more to say about this precise timing in chapter 21, but suffice it to say two things here. First, the fourteen-year error between 1998 and 2012 amounts to less than one-fifth of a degree – a tiny sliver of the width of the full moon and thus negligible, considering it is a forward calculation in precession of at least 2,000 years. Second, the sun itself is one-half a degree wide, so an alignment zone between 1980 and 2016 must be allowed, thus embracing the 2012 end-date. [page 12]

His math is a little wrong – 0.2° is actually 40% of the width of the full moon, not a tiny sliver, but I’ll forgive that for the sake of just presenting his argument.

Journalist Lawrence Joseph expanded upon this in his own book, Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation Into Civilization’s End. In a statement to USA Today, he said:

Part of the 2012 mystique stems from the stars. On the winter solstice in 2012, the sun will be aligned with the center of the Milky Way for the first time in about 26,000 years. This means that “whatever energy typically streams to Earth from the center of the Milky Way will indeed be disrupted on 12/21/12 at 11:11 p.m. Universal Time,” Joseph writes.

Why This Is Wrong

Jenkins’ premise is actually somewhat correct in the sense that, yes, the sun will be somewhat near the plane of the galaxy as seen from Earth around the winter solstice in 2012. But not anywhere near Sag A*. And there’s nothing mystical about the plane of the galaxy … in fact, the sun passes “through” it as seen from Earth once a year. It just so happens that for the last ~300 years through the next ~300 years, this will happen to coincide with mid-December – winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere and summer in the Southern. There is really NOTHING special about this other than New-Age woo and mysticism.

The Second of Two Ideas of the Galactic Center/Plane and its Relation to 2012

The second idea is that our solar system will actually pass through the plane of the galaxy on December 21, 2012 — instead of an apparent alignment, this version of the claim is that it is a physical alignment. I’m sure others believe it, but the person I have heard this from is Brent Miller of the Horizon Project. Now, just from a practical standpoint, I want to make this point: Brent and the folks at the Horizon Project claim to have incontrovertible proof that Earth will suffer considerably in 2012 due to various things. However, they don’t provide that information on their website (thehorizonproject.com). Rather, they want you to order their DVD for “only $24.95 each!” Now, capitalism is great and all that, but you would think that if they really want to help people survive this thing when they literally claim that up to half the world’s population will die within a day, then they’d be putting out as much free information as possible.

Note that the material and quotes in this section of the post come from Miller’s interview by George Noory on Coast-to-Coast AM from November 10, 2008.

Anyway … their idea is based on a few major false premises. Their scenario is that our galaxy has a central, massive black hole (this is true). Stars oscillate up and down through the plane of the galaxy (this is also true, as I explained in the beginning of this post). This black hole sends out gravity waves (this is predicted by Einstein, but has never been proven). These gravity waves radiate along the plane of the galaxy, creating a “dark rift” zone that is filled with asteroid-sized dust material (this is where it starts to get … incorrect would be the most polite term, or perhaps unproven and unlikely). In addition to being populated by this potentially dangerous material, it has “a very very large intense gravitational field to it, and it takes about 20 years for our planet and the solar system to pass through it.”

Miller makes many claims as to the effects that crossing through this “dark rift” would have on Earth, the bulk of which is called a “pole shift” that I will address in a future blog posting in this series on Planet X and 2012. For the purpose of this post, I am solely going to address his mechanism for doomsday, which is us passing through this “dark rift.”

Why This Is Wrong

First off, keep in mind that this is the entire mechanism for all of Miller’s doomsday predictions (that will be addressed in a future post, as the “pole shift” topic is quite extensive and has its own branch of pseudoscience surrounding it). Consequently, if I can show that his entire mechanism is flawed, then it should cast serious doubt upon his predictions.

And, I can do that fairly easily by referring to the data in the second section of this post: The sun right now is above the midplane of the galaxy by 35-70 light-years, and it’s still moving away from it. It is NOT, as Miller claims, currently in the middle of a 20-year process of moving through this midplane. It is far from it. And, if he has actual data (as in real science) to back up his claim of the sun’s position in the galaxy, then why doesn’t he publish it in the scientific literature? If nothing else, this should make someone seriously question his mechanism, and hence his claims. And ask for actual evidence that can be independently tested.

There’s another reason why this is wrong. The galactic midplane is not this abrupt region of increased gravity. This is a common misconception in astronomy, that galaxies are “solid” objects. All the midplane is is a non-pysical, mathematical 2-D plane where if you add all the gravity from the material below it and above it, then you get the largest possible value. Go a little above it, and there is more mass below you that will pull you back down (eventually). Go a little below it, and the reverse happens.

It is true that, simply by a “settling” of material over time, there is a greater density of stars and gas and dust the closer to this plane that you get. And there’s less as you get farther away.

A reasonable way to think of this is like a valley, or a gently sloped, shallow bowl. If you’re near the top of the valley or the rim of the bowl, then you are going to get pulled down towards the center. And then your momentum will carry you past the center, and you’ll climb back up the other side. And when your momentum runs out, you’ll fall back down towards the center, and this cycle will repeat.

What Miller wants to throw in there is effectively a brick wall … or perhaps a wall of molasses. In his scenario, when you get to the center, you hit that wall and will be affected by something that only exists in the center of the bowl (or valley). What I am saying is that the galaxy is not built that way, there’s no wall, no “dark rift” no “very very large intense gravitational field” to the central few hundred billion kilometers that’s filled with Planet Xs and asteroids and other dangers that will cause doomsday to happen in the neighborhood of 2012.

Final Thoughts

After reading over this post, I realize that some of the ideas are not laid out quite as extensively as I usually do. This is because I’ve only just touched the tip of the iceberg on these galactic crossing scenarios, doing case studies on two specific peoples’ claims, and explaining superficially why they are wrong while trying not to get into other aspects that I will cover on other posts (like the “pole shift”). In addition, these claims are just so incorrect – according to everything that we can observe – that it is somewhat difficult to figure out where exactly to start with the debunking.

If you feel that I have not explained myself clearly, would like more information, or care to argue the point, please leave a comment so I know what to address.

January 26, 2009

Planet X and 2012: Primer on the Mayan Calendar


One may ask why I chose for my second installment on Planet X to discuss the Mayan calendar. What could they possibly have in common?

Well, nothing. But, in popular culture, the two are often linked together. After Planet X was supposed to hit us in 2003, the date shifted to 2012, when in popular culture the Mayan calendar is supposed to end. About half of the various claims I’ve seen about Planet X in the past few years are linked to 2012 and the supposed doomsday that will occur in 2012, and so, to have something to refer back to when I address those claims, I want to do this post giving an overview of the Mayan calendar system and why it does not end in 2012.

All posts in this series:

An Overview

Being able to keep track of the passage of time is very important to our modern society. For one thing, computer networks and the internet would not function if we could not keep track of time. People could not get paid, students couldn’t take 1-hour classes, and you would never know when to show up for your airplane flight or bus trip. The concept of the passage of time is inexorably linked with modern existence.

It was also important to ancient civilizations. It told them when to plant crops. It allowed them to predict when winter was coming. They knew when to pray or practice other aspects of religion. Practically every ancient civilization had a calendar system, including the Mayans.

The Mayan calendar system was particularly accurate and complex for its time. It was adopted by other Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Aztecs and Toltec in lieu of their own.

The calendar is based on three different dating systems that are used in parallel: The Long Count, the Tzolkin (divine calendar), and the Haab (civil calendar). Of these, the Haab was the only one that actually related to the length of the year.

One could represent a date on the Mayan calendar as “, 3 Cimi 4 Zotz.” The initial 5 numbers represent the Long Count, the next number and word are the Tzolkin, and the next number and word are the Haab.

The Long Count

The Long Count is a mixed base-20/base-18 representation of a number, representing the number of days since the start of the Mayan era. This is similar to Julian Days (the number of days since the start of the Julian Calendar in 4713 BC).

The base unit is the kin (day), which is the last component of the Long Count (the fifth “decimal” in the example above). Going from right to left, the next four components are the uinal, tun, katun, baktun.

Once the kin ticked past 20, then the uinal number would increase by 1 (much like after 59 minutes and 59 seconds, our hour increases by 1). A tun was made of 18 uinals, or 360 kin (days). A katun was made of 20 tuns, 7,200 kin, or about 20 years. A baktun was made of 20 katuns, which is equal to 144,000 days, or approximately 394 years. A full cycle of 13 baktuns lasts 1,872,000 days, approximately 5125 years.

Note that kin, tun, and katun are numbered from 0 through 19, uinal are numbered 0 through 17, and baktun are numbered 1 through 13.

The Tzolkin (Divine Calendar)

The Tzolkin date system is based on a 260-day “year,” where years were not counted consecutively. Each date is a combination of two “week” lengths. A numbered week had 13 days, where days were numbered 1-13, while a named week had 20 days, and their names were: Ahau, Imix, Ik, Akbal, Kan, Chicchan, Cimi, Manik, Lamat, Muluc, Oc, Chuen, Eb, Ben, Ix, Men, Cib, Caban, Etznab, and Caunac.

Since there were 20 named “week-days,” and there are 20 kin in the Long Count, there is a synchrony or redundancy between the two. If, for example, the Long Count were, then it must be Kan, as well.

The Haab (Civil Calendar)

The Haab consisted of a 365-day year that was divided into 18 months of 20 days each, followed by 5 extra days (the Uayeb). The Haab years were not counted consecutively. The names of the months, in order, were Pop, Uo, Zip, Zotz, Tzec, Xul, Yaxkin, Mol, Chen, Yax, Zac, Ceh, Mac, Kankin, Muan, Pax, Kayab, and Cumku.

A number prefaced the name of the month, between 0 and 19, to indicate which day it was. The use of a 0th day is unique to the Mayan system. It also shows that they had developed the concept of zero centuries before Europe or Asia (a good book on zero is “The Nothing that Is”).

Although the civil year was 365 days, it is believed the Mayans did know that the year is closer to 365.242 days long since many of the month names are associated with seasons, though they would quickly be off within a few decades if this were not taken into account.

The Haab and Txolkin calendar years lined up only once every 18,980 days (52 years), and this is known as the “Calendar Round.” Each restart of the Calendar Round was a time of public panic where they thought the world may be coming to an end.

When Did the Calendar “Start?”

No one really knows. Logically, the first date of the Long Count should be, but because the baktun are numbered 1 through 13, the first date is actually written as

Authorities disagree on when the last actually was. Today, most of the world follows the Gregorian calendar system. In the Gregorian system, there are three possible dates for when last was: August 13, 3114 BC; August 11, 3114 BC; or October 15, 3374 BC. If you assume that the first two are most likely to be correct (since they agree best with each other), then the next time the Mayan calendar restarts (not “ends”) will be December 21 or 23, 2012. Gasp!!

Oh … but wait. That’s not true. If you actually do the math (I did it by using a Julian Date calculator and added 1,872,000 days to August 13, 3114 BC), you get it restarting on November 27, 2012. Or subtract two days if you believe the second date given.

So, Doomsday in 2012?


This was first popularized by a man named José Argüelles who has a Ph.D. in art history and aesthetics. His claim to doomsday fame came in 1987 with his book, Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology. Note that he was NOT, by any means the first to predict doomsday or even to really specify a time around 2012, but he was the first (at least in my research) who tied it in with the Mayan calendar … or at least his reading of the Mayan calendar.

There is no Mayanist scholar who agrees with Argüelles. There are many different criticisms aimed at him, with the basic one being that he merely takes the ancient tradition and wraps it in New Age terms that were completely unintended nor documented y the Mayans. Oh, and there’s that whole thing about not counting correctly. According to the mathematician Michael Finley:

“Since the 365 day Maya haab makes no provision for leap years, its starting date in the Gregorian Calendar advances by one day every four years. The beginning of Arguelles’ year is fixed to July 26. Thus his count of days departs from the haab as it was known to Maya scribes before the Spanish conquest. Arguelles claims that the Thirteen Moon Calendar is synchronized with the calendar round. Clearly, it is not.”

Argüelles has countered the criticism by simply re-stating his claims.

But … What About Doomsday in 2012?

As I stated above, there is simply no basis for the claims. It’s a pop culture phenomenon that has no basis in science, has no basis in reality, and has no basis in the cultural history which it claims to be based upon (so the false premise logical fallacy). Regardless, it has unfortunately taken on a life of its own.

To quote another Mayanist scholar, Sandra Noble:

“For the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle,” says Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies in Crystal River, Fla. To render Dec. 21, 2012, as a doomsday or moment of cosmic shifting, she says, is “a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.”

Final Thoughts

I hope this primer on how the Mayans counted days, “weeks,” “months,” “years,” and general cycles has been useful. If nothing else, I will likely refer to it in future posts about Planet X as most doomsday predictions with Planet X have tied it into Argüelles’ claims about the Mayan calendar.

January 25, 2009

Planet X and 2012: The Real and Historical Story of Planet X


This is the first post in what will become a series of posts over the next few days/weeks about the oft-portrayed mysterious, dangerous, possibly alien-harboring, Earth-destroying object touted as “Planet X.”

This being a blog about pseudo-astronomy, you should not be surprised to learn by reading it that there is no dangerous Planet X out there that’s going to cause a pole shift as Earth goes through the “dark rift” of our galaxy in 2012. However, in this first post, I’m going to describe what the real Planet X was in astronomy, a mystery that was created with the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, and didn’t end until we precisely calculated the mass of Neptune in 1993.

All posts in this series:

Finding Uranus

Until 1781, the solar system was known to consist of Earth, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, along with the moon, some other moons, and some unexplainable and unpredictable comets. That was it, and it wasn’t until William Herschel observed a ball-like object (not star-like) moving among the fixed background stars.

It took two years for Herschel to admit that he had really discovered the first planet in recorded history. But since it was discovered after Newton created Calculus and Kepler the Laws of Planetary Motion, various astronomers and mathematicians were able to observe it and predict its orbit based on its distance from the sun and the gravitational interactions with other planets.

The First Planet X

One of these people was Alexis Bouvard, who published tables of dates and coordinates that predicted where Uranus should be at a given time. These were based on the known laws of physics. But, Uranus refused to follow Bouvard’s tables.

In 1843, John Couch Adams (from Britain) calculated the orbit of a hypothesized eighth planet that could account for Uranus’ odd orbit. But no one really seemed to care about this undiscovered Planet X.

Two years later, a Frenchman by the name of Urbain Le Verrier did the same thing, but more precisely. Again, no one seemed to care. That was until Le Verrier sent his calculations to the Berlin Observatory’s astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle. A then-student at the observatory, Heinrich d’Arrest, convinced Galle to look for it.

That evening, September 23, 1846, Galle looked for this mysterious planet, responsible for Uranus’ weird orbit, and he found the planet within 1° of where Le Verrier thought it would be (for reference, the moon on the sky is 0.5°). This was within 12° of where Adams thought it should be.

At the time, there was no real debate that this object was a “planet,” as they had been looking for it and thought it was massive enough to account for Uranus’ orbit.

The Second Planet X

However, there were still some unexplained perturbations of Uranus’ orbit. These persisted for 70 years, to the time that Percival Lowell became interested in the problem and wanted to search for a now possible ninth planet at his observatory in New Mexico. I think that he was the one who really first coined the term, “Planet X.” Lowell searched for 12 years, 1905-1916, until he died, without finding it.

The search resumed in 1929 when the then-director of the observatory assigned the task to a young, 23-year-old Clyde Tombaugh. After a year of fruitless searching, Toubaugh found an object moving against the background of stars from two photographs he had taken in January of 1930. Pluto was discovered, Planet X, that was supposed to solve all the orbital problems.

A Third Planet X? — Nope, Just Fixing Neptune’s Mass

When Pluto was initially discovered, it was assumed to weigh in at several times Earth’s mass. However, estimates over subsequent decades were refined down, not up, and it was realized that Pluto could not account for Uranus’ orbit. The present-day mass estimate is about 20% Earth’s.

The search half-heartedly didn’t really continue for a mystery object that could explain planets’ orbits.

In 1989, the space probe Voyager 2 flew by Neptune. Calculations based on the orbital changes from that gravitational interaction were published in 1993 by Myles Standish, and they revised Neptune’s mass downward by 0.5%. This revised mass, when put into the calculations for the orbits of the outer planets, was then able to precisely account for Uranus’ orbit. No mystery object was needed, nor found, and as a result, nearly all astronomers today discount its existence.

Modern-Day “Planet Xs” (The Real Ones)

To be sure, I do not mean to imply that there are no more large objects out in the solar system. But “large” is always a relative term that needs to be qualified. The proton is gigantic relative to an electron. A sequoia tree is large relative to an oak. And Neptune is large relative to Pluto.

What I mean by “large” in this context is 100s to possibly 1000s of kilometers in diameter, icy bodies much like Pluto. These are the Kuiper Belt Objects, or at least the large members of the Kuiper Belt Objects. To-date, (January 2009), 4 are large enough such that the International Astronomical Union has termed them “Dwarf Planets” (Pluto, Eris, Makemake, Haumeamea). These objects are “large,” but they are smaller than our moon (our moon is 3,474 km in diameter). And, since density is related to volume which is the cube of a linear measurement, the actual mass of these objects is much smaller than that of a planet.

But, But, But … There Could Still Be Giant Things Out There!

Maybe. But they would have to be very far away from the 8 planets and inner Kuiper Belt Objects. Remember, even with the technology over 160 years ago, astronomers were able to calculate that Uranus, an object 19x farther away from the sun than Earth was being very slightly perturbed by an object 30x farther away from the sun than Earth. And these were both objects that weigh about a dozen times more than Earth – fairly small compared with what modern-day Planet Xers are claiming (that will be addressed in future posts).

Nothing in science is locked in stone, so-to-speak, and it’s impossible to prove a negative. However, keep in mind now that we can explain all the orbits of the planets with known, observed solar system objects. For there to be another object out there, it either has to be very small, or it has to be very far away. And when things are very far away, they take a very long time to move. Even a comet out by Jupiter heading towards us would take at least a year to get to Earth. And we could see it. The idea that there is a massive, planet-sized object that will hit or pass by Earth in just 4 years is ridiculous, unless you invoke the supernatural or physics that we don’t know about that can somehow shield even gravity.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have a historic basis for the present-day Planet X claims, as well as some preliminary information on why we “know” (as far as science can know anything) that there is no doomsday planet headed for us in 4 years, I will actually address the various fear-mongering premises that have been posited about Planet X, and how it is supposed to destroy Earth (or not?!), land ETs on Earth that want all our gold, or will cause a pole shift (another ridiculous idea that has its own problems), or whatever else people have invented throughout the past few decades.

January 23, 2009

Methane Discovery on Mars – The Conspiracy Theory (NASA Already Knows of Intelligent Life on Mars) Reaction


I have now made two posts of the recent confirmation/discovery of release of methane on Mars. In my first post, I discussed the basic discovery and its implications. In my second, I discussed the Creationist (specifically, young-Earth creationist) reaction to it. The purpose of this post is to discuss the reaction of the NASA conspiracy crowd – the one that thinks NASA has been hiding evidence of intelligent life already there.

This post is based on comments made during the second hour of the Coast-to-Coast AM radio show from January 15, 2009. They were made by Richard Hoagland and Robert Zubrin as well as a little by the host, George Noory.

Basic Claims

Note – I’m not going to be laying out all of the claims as quotes because the conversation lasted about a half hour during the program. Feel free to listen to the actual show if you doubt the veracity of my summary points.

Before I get to the claims, though, I think it’s important to give a brief background on each person: Hoagland’s position is that a technologically advanced civilization has been on Mars and NASA knows it, they’ve just been covering it up for decades, but Hoagland has discovered the proof. Zubrin is more someone who thinks we should go to Mars and we need to terraform it for human colonization, that it had at least microbial life at some point in the past, there is present-day subsurface liquid water, and he also holds some other fringe ideas about the planet, its origins, and astronomy in general. Noory is the host and while I cannot speak for what he truly believes, he has made Hoagland the general science advisor to the radio program and seems to affirm nearly everything Hoagland posits.

Now, for their claims, in no particular order, but ordered for easy reference to my responses:

  1. Hoagland believes that NASA wanted to announce that yes, this was definitive evidence for life, but that “politically, they couldn’t” – at least under the Bush administration.
  2. Hoagland claims that the announcement was “forced to be conservative because of the requirements of this stupid peer-review system.” According to his own secret sources, the original draft of the paper was much more “forthright” in its implications for biology. But, the journal Science – one of the most prestigious of professional science journals – apparently forced them to remove that in order to get the paper published. But, more data will be published later and we’ll get the real information later.
  3. The methane vents seasonally, which is just like life on Earth (hibernating in the winter).
  4. The methane is destroying the methane almost immediately, as opposed to lingering for a few hundred years and being destroyed by photodissociation. Hoagland thinks that this is all due to not only organisms making the methane, but then other organisms “eating” it – citing a comment by a chemist independent of the NASA announcement.
  5. We have to completely change our strategy for Mars – robots can’t look for this kind of life in part because it would be below the permafrost and we’d need actual human scientists to do the kind of work necessary to verify if life is there. Oh, and the next mission, Mars Science Laboratory, won’t get there until 2012 (“Isn’t that interesting?” – in reference to the “end” of the Mayan calendar).
  6. If future experiments show that the methane is made with Carbon-12 instead of Carbon-13 (where Carbon-13 has an extra neutron and life prefers Carbon-12 much more over 13), then “to any reasonable biologist anywhere on Earth, that will say, ‘it’s bugs down there.’ … But there will be hold-outs!”
  7. We may find Earth-like life on Mars that is far more simple, since the bacteria found here are much too complex to be the first cells (take that, Creationists – your straw man that single-celled life is too complex to have originated from a bunch of slime is just a straw man). Regardless, it may be a separate genesis from Earth or it could be the same as Earth – either one would be very interesting.
  8. The story broke through a London news source because they refused to “play the politics of America and Science,” because the journals “have an enormous strangle-hold on the information” and have embargoes on it such that authors cannot necessarily talk about results until the journal comes out with the article. This is despite the data being gained through tax-payer-funded missions, but because of the “blackmail” of the journals, which is “absurd,” they could not talk about them.

My Responses

1. This is part of Hoagland’s standard conspiracy claims, that NASA knows more than it’s letting on but whatever political or black-ops powers that be won’t let them do it. From an objective standpoint, you cannot read body language, you cannot read into the word “no,” etc., and Hoagland has no legitimate basis for claiming to be able to read peoples’ minds, and hence he cannot say whether or not NASA folks “wanted” to announce that this is life.

2. I covered a little of this in my post about the peer-review system that I made just prior to this post. The next sentence – about his own secret sources – is another part of standard conspiracy claims. “The official word says this, but my own super-duper-secret-sources says something completely different.” This is a double-standard, or the simple “inconsistency” logical fallacy. He refuses to accept a peer-review system of standard science, but he won’t let other people peer-review his own sources. He’s also using an argument from authority, saying that you should believe him because he has a secret authoritative source. I will address the specific part about journals and editing in #8.

3. Seasonal venting of methane could also be explained by needing the additional heat that summer provides for the chemical reactions to take place. It could also be due to heating of the immediate subsurface making any near-surface ice cap melt, allowing the methane to escape only seasonally. And this also assumes that the seasonal venting correlates with Mars’ summer. I don’t knkow if that’s the case, but I noted that they conveniently left that statement out of their discussion.

4. I don’t know about this part – whether or not it’s actually the case that’s been made. However, destruction of the methane could be explained just as easily by an abiotic chemical reaction than as yet a second form of life that uses it in its metabolic process(es).

5. I mostly agree with this statement. Robots are great, they’re much cheaper and less life-threatening than peopled missions. However, people can do much more than robots in terms of manual dexterity and just interpreting results.

6. I don’t know about this one, either. I’m not a biologist nor biochemist, nor do I play one on TV. I would assume that Hoagland’s assertion that life prefers Carbon-12 is correct. However, just as the chemistry in cells may prefer carbon-12 to 13, I’m certain that there are many other chemical reactions that prefer it, as well, and hence this possible future discovery could yet again have nothing to do with furthering the case that this methane was produced by a biological source.

7. Other than my pointing out that I agree with this statement by Zubrin, and my own commentary that it points out the straw man that creationists and IDers use all the time, I have no further comments on this point.

8. As far as I know, this account is factual in terms of it being a British news source that first broke the news and there was an embargo on the information release until Science put out the story. I disagree with the language Hoagland uses, but I personally agree with at least part of the sentiment, but I understand it. When a scientist writes a paper and submits it to a journal, if it is accepted then they are required to sign over all copyrights to the journal. In the past, this was a benefit to everyone because the professional journals were THE source for science news and individual authors would have a much more difficult time protecting their own copyright. But this is the 21st century. We have the internet. Information can literally be sent and received at speeds of less than a second around the globe. The traditional embargoes on information that journals once and currently hold is – in my opinion – out-dated. These are the same copyrights that don’t legally permit researchers to put copies of their articles on their own websites, or e-mail them to colleagues.

But, I understand why journals still think they can and need to do this. After all, who would buy their magazine if the information were released before the issue came out? And why would anyone buy the article later if they could just get it for free off of the original author’s website? It’s the economics of the publishing industry. I think they need to get a clue like the music and movie industries about living in an internet era, and so in that sense I do agree with Hoagland. But, as I said, I understand where they are coming from.

Final Thoughts

I remembered the discussion being much more conspiracy-like than it actually was when I sat down and took notes. Perhaps I was remembering a different episode and conversation. Regardless, I’ve now covered three different angles to this story, and I think that’ll be about it. I think it’s interesting and informative to see how people with different motivations spin the same information.

January 22, 2009

The Purpose of Peer-Review in Science


Many people outside of mainstream science – such a conspiracy theorists, psi researchers, UFOlogists, and others – seem to have a beef with the process of peer-review. And, some mainstream scientists do, too. The purpose of this post is really to address why we have peer-review, why it’s important, why science really does need it in order to meet its goals, and to be fair, address some of its weaknesses.

Why Am I Addressing This

It really never registered much to me that fringe researchers would knock the peer-review system. It kinda went in one ear and out the other. Then, I was listening to the December 22, 2008, episode of the podcast “Skeptiko” with Alex Tsakiris where he spends several minutes complaining about how mainstream scientists “do” science. One of his big complaints and something that he called “stupid” (that’s a quote) was the embargo on releasing early results. He thinks that results should be released as they come in.

I made the following observations on an online forum:

Alex really seems to have no grasp of how science is actually done. At about 20 minutes into his last podcast, he states, “I want to break the traditional science rule about not talking about results until they’re published because, well, first of all, I think it’s a stupid rule [and he laughs] …” Results usually aren’t announced early for several reasons, not the least of which is that it hasn’t passed any peer review yet.

For example, I could do some ground-breaking research for a year and get this great result and then talk about it, or I could pass it by peers first only to have them discover that I’ve not accounted for some small factor that will dramatically reduce the significance.

Another reason is that preliminary results are just that – preliminary. One of my research projects at the moment is to generate a complete global database of Mars craters to ~1.5 km in diameter. I’ve done that now for about 30% of the planet. I could go ahead and release results and get more papers out of it, or I could wait until the whole thing is finished and I have all the statistics in place to back up my conclusions. This is especially necessary because Mars is not all the same, and craters from different regions have different properties, so me releasing early results that make broad conclusions could easily turn out to be fallacious once the entire project is done.

And as usual, Alex just seems to not get it. His results are going the way he thinks they should, so he’s releasing them early and claiming at least a cautious victory “so far.” This is also partly why I’m not a giant fan of his “open source science” — you really DO need training in science before you can do it “properly” — learning to take into account all these things that you may not otherwise, normally, think of.

That was really about releasing results early, and a little about peer-review.

Then, I was listening to the January 15, 2009, episode of Coast-to-Coast AM with Richard Hoagland. Among other things, he made the following statement: “You follow your curiosity, which is what science is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be a club or a union or a pressure group that doesn’t want to get too far out of the box ’cause of what the other guys will think about you. … This concept of ‘peer review’ … is the thing which is killing science.”

It was with that line that I decided I should write this post.

Why We Have Peer-Review

Peer-review is important. The whole point of peer-review is so that your findings – your data and conclusions – are subjected to the review of your peers.

To use a reductio ad absurdum logic, if we didn’t have this process, then what anyone says is basically dogma with no chance of rebuttal. For example, if there weren’t a process of peer-review, I can say 2+2=1. You may say 2+2=5. And someone else may say 2+2=4. How would anyone know which is correct? The obvious answer in this contrived example is that everyone knows that 2+2=4. But how? Because you ask someone else, and they tell you? That’s peer-review.

In science, the purpose of peer-review is really just that. Your peers (other people who study what you study) look at your findings and make sure that in their opinion, you have followed the proper data gathering methods (so you took 2 apples and 2 oranges and laid them down as opposed to meditated and asked your spirit guide) and you reached the conclusions that are appropriate for the data you gathered (you then count all the pieces of fruit and come up with 4 instead of your spirit guide saying that 2+2 is really 7).

The purpose of peer-review is really nothing more than that, and it is nothing less than that.

Why Science Needs Peer-Review

It is often said that science is “self-correcting” over time. What this means is that if science has led to erroneous conclusions that did pass through the peers at the time, that ultimately the errors will be worked out because the process and data-collecting are repeated over and over again by others. A good example of this is gravity. Newton developed his Theory of Gravity. It was used for centuries. Repeated experiments showed it to be accurate.

But, some of them didn’t. Some showed slight deviations (like Mercury’s orbit). Then, another researcher came along (Einstein) and showed that Newton’s theory needed to be modified in order to account for ginormous masses and accelerations. Without the process of people reviewing predictions and measurements relevant to gravity, then we would not know that Newton didn’t have the whole picture. And even today, a century later, people are still testing Einstein’s theories, making more and more measurements to test them, subjecting them to the process of peer-review.

Hoagland’s Claims

I am not saying that these are representative of the general fringe community’s problems with peer-review, simply that they are what I have observed to be the general complaint. It’s fairly well-said by Richard Hoagland, this quote continuing from the one I ended with above:

“It’s not the peer review so much as the invisible, anonymous, peer-review. Basically, before a paper can get published, … you know you have to go through so many hurdles, and there’s so many chances for guys who have it ‘in for you,’ who don’t like you, or who don’t like the idea you’re trying to propose in a scientific publication, can basically … stick you in the back … and you never know!

“One of the tenants of the US Constitution … is that you have the right to confront your accuser. In the peer-review system, which has now been set up for science, … the scientist – which [sic] is basically on trial for an idea – because that’s what it is, by any other name it’s really a trial, is-is attacked by invisible accusers called ‘referees,’ who get a chance to shaft the idea, kill the idea, nix the paper, tell the editor of whatever journal, ‘Oh, this guy’s a total wacko …’ and you never have the opportunity to confront your accuser and demand that he be specific as to what he or she has found wrong with your idea.”

My Response to Hoagland

I don’t know what journals he’s talking about, but for all the ones I know of, his claims are wrong. Just as with the US court system, you have appeals in journals. If the first reviewer does not think your paper should get in, then you can ask the editor to get another opinion. You’re never sunk just because one reviewer doesn’t like you and/or your ideas.

As to the anonymity, while I personally don’t like it, it’s necessary. Without a referee having the ability to remain anonymous, they cannot always offer a candid opinion. They may be afraid of reprisals if they find errors (after all, grants are also awarded by peer-review). They may also not want to hurt someone’s feelings (as teenagers today are finding, it’s much easier to break up via Facebook or a txt message than in person — it’s the same with anonymity in peer-review). They may have their own work on the subject they think you should cite but don’t want to appear narcissistic in recommending it. In short, there are many very good reasons to remain anonymous to the author(s).

However, they are not anonymous to the editor or the editorial staff. If there are problems with a reviewer consistently shooting down ideas that they have an otherwise vested interest in, then the editors will see that and they will remove the reviewer.

I also want to point out something my officemate is fond of saying: “Science is not a democracy, it’s a meritocracy.” Not every idea deserves equal footing. If I come up with a new idea that explains the universe as being created by a giant potato with its all-seeing eyes (Dinosaurs fans, anyone?) then my new idea that I just made up should not deserve equal footing with the ones that are backed up by centuries of separate, independent evidence. The latter has earned its place, the former has not.

That is something that most fringe researchers seem to fail to grasp: Until they have indisputable evidence for their own ideas that cannot be otherwise easily explained by the current paradigm, then they should not necessarily be granted equal footing. Hoagland’s pareidollia of faces on Mars does not deserve an equal place next to descriptions of the martian atmosphere.

The Cons of Peer-Review

There are bad points to peer-review, though they really are only when there is an abuse of it. There is a faculty member back in my undergraduate institution who likes to tell the story of a young astronomer who submitted a paper about the value of the Hubble Constant (a measure of how rapidly the universe is expanding). The paper was sent to a reviewer who had his own ideas, and the young astronomer’s were not the same as his. So, he sat on the paper. He wrote a rebuttal to it. And he had the rebuttal published before he got to her paper.

That is an abuse of the system. I think that every scientist would admit that, and we strive to not be “that person.” After all, “that person” is now fairly blacklisted from polite astronomy society, and, as I’ve just done, people talk behind his back about him and how crummy he was.

In the vast sea of peer-review, however, there are just a few drops of “those people.” Most reviewer comments are helpful. They usually think of things you didn’t, and they only serve to make your results stronger.

Final Thoughts

The process of peer-review in science is an old one and one that is important to the essence of what science is and what it is supposed to do. If someone continuously complains about it, then the first thing you should do is to ask yourself what the motivation may be behind their ideas. Is it because they happened to get burned by one reviewer? Or is it perhaps because their ideas really don’t pass any scientific muster, they don’t fit with every other observation, and they require an extraordinary new premise to be true without sufficient evidence to back it up?

January 21, 2009

Methane Discovery on Mars – The Creationist Reaction


Last week, there was a NASA press release that large amounts of methane were observed being released into the martian atmosphere. I posted some initial information about it here.

In the week since this has been out, the general young-Earth creationist folks (YEC, something that I often equate on this blog to general “creationist”) have started to respond to the news in their own way. Let’s take a look (and though I quote heavily, I make my own analysis towards the end, so scroll down if you don’t want to read what they say) …

Answers in Genesis Response

From AiG’s January 17 “News to Note” article:

The specific news is that NASA has detected “large amounts” of methane, which on earth is primarily produced by both live and dead organisms. The methane was detected by telescopes on Hawaii, though five years ago the Mars Express Orbiter detected some methane in the Martian atmosphere. …

The Sun quotes British UFO enthusiast Nick Pope, who calls the find, “the most important discovery of all time” and declares it an “absolute certainty that there is life out there . . . . I am certain there is other life in the universe and, most likely, intelligent life.” Pope implicated the source of his certainty—evolutionary doctrine—when he said, “If it’s happened here on Earth, then why shouldn’t it happen anywhere? The implication is this is a universal law.”

Of course, don’t be surprised that we’re not holding our breath. For one thing, discoveries of “life” on Mars have a habit of fizzling (or, more accurately, remaining unproven speculations). A decade ago scientists went crazy over the idea that an Antarctic meteorite, thought to be from Mars, contained fossilized microbial life. Other scientists quickly tore the claim apart. In the years since, the same pattern—yes it’s life; no it isn’t—has followed numerous other claims originating in chemical discoveries on the Martian surface. The only certainty is that there’s, as of yet, no evidence of life on Mars definitive enough to convince all evolutionists, let alone creationists.

Nonetheless, plenty of evolutionists—scientists and laypersons alike—are emphatic that “we’re not alone” and believe it’s only a matter of time until Martian life turns up. Pope represents this view. There’s nothing scientific about it; it’s pure dogma, but quite expectable considering the predictions of the evolutionary worldview.

There’s always that slim possibility that Mars—or some other astronomical body—is harboring something that we’d call “life” on earth. No Bible verse declares absolutely that God didn’t, e.g., put microbes on Mars or viruses on Venus, although there are plenty of good arguments against the likelihood of that. But unless tomorrow’s astronauts actually find direct evidence of life on Mars, it doesn’t take much effort to chalk the indirect evidence up to evolutionism-fueled speculation.

Institute for Creation Research Response

ICR, in an article from January 19 (slightly behind AiG) entitled, “Methane on Mars: The Stuff of Life?” posts the following:

The central question facing the NASA scientists is what caused the methane. Little living microbes can produce it, but so can heat and pressure acting on non-living water and carbon dioxide. Even if bacteria were found on Mars, it would not necessarily indicate that the bacterial cells originated there. Though unlikely, some atmospheric microbial spore could escape earth’s gravity, survive in outer space, and then colonize Mars. Some bacteria have ingenious capacities that enable them to exist in ice, and others at thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, while still others have an array of unique protein systems that can extract fuel from odd chemicals. Some bacteria even contain many copies of their entire genome, ensuring genetic fidelity even after intense radiation. Microbes on Mars, though a long shot, could be consistent with a creation science model.

However, Martian microbes would add no direct support to the evolutionary concept that non-living matter generates life. Though re-packaged as “chemical evolution” in the early twentieth century, “spontaneous generation” was experimentally disproved by Louis Pasteur in the mid-1800s.

No kind of life has yet been discovered on Mars. Since both carbon dioxide and water are known to exist there, and a natural chemical reaction of these two can form methane, the most likely cause of the gas is geochemical, not biological. NASA found that some “ongoing process is releasing the gas,” an observation consistent with Mars being a young planet. If the methane is being formed not by microbes but as the result of residual planetary heat, then this would challenge long-age thinkers to explain why the planet is still warm and why it still has enough raw materials to eject tens of thousands of metric tons of methane annually, even after at least four billion years of purported existence. This youthful feature of Mars, if accurate, would be consistent with the biblical age of the world.

While it remains unclear whether the Mars methane is the product of microbes or just geochemistry, the timing of NASA’s announcement is rather curious. Since the original discovery of methane took place several years ago, why is this news being given such a big “release” in January 2009? Another curiously-timed NASA press release proclaimed in 1996 that a “Mars rock” showed evidence of microbial life. As creation scientists predicted, further investigation revealed that the rock’s features were entirely non-biological, but the initial announcement resulted in then-President Bill Clinton calling for additional NASA funding.

NASA makes it clear that “it will take future missions…to discover the origin of the Martian methane,” and that now there are specific places—methane-releasing vents—to explore. Could NASA’s methane report have anything to do with this week’s presidential inauguration and the start of a new budget cycle?

A Fellow Blogger’s Response

Finally, there’s a YEC blogger here who likes the astronomy stories. For full disclosure, I will admit that I’ve argued a little with him in the past, but I wanted to post his take on this story, as well:

It used to be looking for advanced forms of life on Mars, now it’s just looking for the ingredients of what evolutionists believed life came from. On January 15, 2009 NASA announced that scientists found evidence for life by discovering methane on Mars. …

The origin of the methane needs more investigation in order to determine if it’s really little micro organisms or not which generally means more missions which also means more funding. …

NASA of course is pro-evolution so the discovery has to fit into the old age model. Since there is a difficulty with Mars concerning non-living causes to maintain the methane over billions of years, and the popularity with looking for little green microbes, one would assume they are leaning towards the microbes. But as far as methane, rock, and water, we know as a scientific fact could never produce life.

Some have sounded the alarm about the timing of claiming evidence for life on Mars. They might be right, there is a similar incident back in 1996 with the discovery of the “Mars Rock” with the hype, motivated the Clinton administration to allocate more funding to NASA. As it turned out, the “Mars Rock” contained no life on it. But a question remains what worked with President Clinton, will it work with President Obama? Many in the scientific community are already lining up to put their agenda on President Obama’s desk so he can approve more funding.

What Do These All Have In Common?

Well, pretty much everything. I suppose that is not too surprising given that most mainstream news outlets all carried nearly identical stories that many YEC outlets would do the same, adding their own flavor (or flavour) to the news. Specifically, they all do the following things – though I should note that because I only copied parts of their text it may not be apparent from the large block quotes above:

  1. Announce the news and admit that it’s interesting.
  2. Point out that this is not new, rather it’s just the hoopla around it that’s new.
  3. Make a specific note that the methane could be completely abiotic and so not have anything to do with life.
  4. Say that it is much more likely to be abiotic than biotic in origin.
  5. Draw parallels to this announcement and an announcement of possible life just as Clinton took office in 1992, very strongly implying – if not outright saying – that the timing was planned to try to milk more money for NASA from the new Obama administration.
  6. Point out (in some way, either direct or implied) that us evolutionists want to find life elsewhere to justify our theories that water+rock -> life.
  7. Point out that us evolutionists require it to be from an active Mars (either chemically, thermally, and/or biologically) but the new data actually fits a YEC model better because they say Mars still is young and so could have left-over methane from formation. But the evolutionary worldview doesn’t allow that.
  8. Have the caveat that IF it really is later on figured out to be life that it’s not wholly inconsistent with a literal biblical wordlview.

What Is My Reaction to Their Basic Points?

I know you may find this surprising, but I do agree with some of their points. Though for possibly different reasons.

1. Yes, this is interesting news. I think I made that point in my initial post on this topic.

2. I forgot to make the point in my original post that, yeah, this actually is old news. Methane was detected years ago in Mars’ atmosphere, but from my reading it was not a definitive discovery that the general scientific community accepted due to the noise in the data. This new data basically confirmed the original detection beyond any measure of scientific doubt, so yes, there was something new contributed here.

3. I agree. And I made that point, too. And I was not happy that most mainstream media did not emphasize that it is very possible – if not probable – that the methane was produced by non-biological means.

4. See #3. Again, I agree.

5. I was, well, 9 or 10 when Clinton took office, so I really don’t know/remember the circumstances surrounding the timing of possible ET life announcements and Clinton’s oath of office. However, while I am not a conspiracy person, I do agree that the timing could have been planned to coincide with Obama’s taking office to try to emphasize NASA’s very very meager budget. Especially since Obama has made suggestions that he may cut NASA’s spending. I obviously can’t read minds (or can I … ?), so it’s really just an argument from ignorance either way you spin it.

6. This is a straw man. I’ve pointed this out before, I think in my post about the Big Bang NOT describing the formation of the cosmos that evolution has NOTHING to do with the origin of life. Completely unrelated, and to say that the evolutionist claim that nonliving matter can become life shows a complete lack of understanding of evolution. Just as I’m actually studying creationist claims before I debunk them, they should actually take the time to study astronomy (or evolution) claims before they try to argue against them.

7. Believe it or not, I agree. Because the scientific consensus is that Mars – like the other planets and the rest of the solar system – is about 4.5 billion years old, we have to come up with some other origin for the methane other than left-over from Mars’ formation. IF the scientific model were a YEC one, then this could easily be explained by that mechanism. But they miss the point here. There are dozens if not hundreds of separate, independent lines of evidence of how we know (as much as scientific certainty allows) the solar system is old. Small anomalies such as this do not automatically overturn all of those other things. They are either fit into the current model by some method (as in, a present-day or very recent-past active planet), dismissed as a trivial anomaly we cannot presently explain, or used to modify current theories to fit with the current observations. We don’t just throw everything else out because of this one discovery, especially when it can easily be fit into the current scientific consensus by simply having an active planet — which was never ruled out, it was simply that there was no evidence before that Mars was presently active.

8. I can’t say whether or not ET life is consistent with a YEC worldview. I know that the Pope’s chief astronomer last year said that ETs were all good, though I also know that many YECs say that ET life can’t exist because in the 6-day creation story, there is no reference to it (this is mainly from AiG, which should be obvious because they get all their Answers from (’cause they’re “in”) Genesis). But this is really beyond the realm of pseudo astronomy and hence I offer no personal opinion – mainly because I honestly have none.

Final Thoughts

I’m not surprised that the YEC outlets have been running with this story. It’s a significant science article that is bound to have literal bible readers wondering how it fits with their beliefs. I’m also not wholly surprised by their main points – I expected them to play up the part about the possible (if not probable) abiotic origins and chastise others for jumping so quickly on the ET life bandwagon.

That being said, I am a little surprised on the similarities between what was stated among the three sources I read. I would not be surprised if the blogger read ICR’s post before making his own (just based on the hugely similar arguments), but that’s just my own musing.

Anyway, it’s still interesting news, and different people have placed their own spin on it. The next one I will address in a soon-to-be-written post will be the conspiracy theory folks – Richard Hoagland’s take on the story.

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