Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 7, 2011

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


Introduction

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

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

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

Mysterious Mercury

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

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

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

A High Density

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

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

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

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

Too Much Sulfur?

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

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

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

Magnetic Fields

Paragraphs five and six talks about the magnetosphere of Mercury:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

August 5, 2011

With Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, Is Newtonian Mechanics Irrelevant?


Introduction

I listen to a lot of paranormal and anti-science material. I do it to keep up with what “the other side” thinks and does. And get blog ideas. One such is the radio show / podcast is entitled “Dreamland” which “takes you to the edge of reality.” Or just past it altogether.

The show is run by Whitley Streiber with occasional guest hosts Anne Streiber (his wife), Jim Marrs (a huge conspiracy nut perhaps best known for his “work” on the JFK assassination), Marla Frees, and sometimes others.

Enough background — this post is about a side comment made by the Mrs. Streiber on the just-out Dreamland episode, “The God Theory.” In actuality, I had little issue with the bulk of the episode, it’s really Mrs. Streiber’s remark early on that got me and is the subject of this post. It also delves a bit into the nature of science.

The Remark

This statement starts around 1 min 35 sec into the episode.

Mrs. Streiber: “I know a tiny bit about quantum physics. I have a layman’s understanding of it which we’re all going to have to have eventually because the type of science most of us were taught in school – Newtonian – is not relevant anymore, it’s not the way the world works.”

Epsilon

I heard a talk given by the “Bad Astronomer,” Phil Plait, a few months ago, entitled something along the lines of, “The Final Epsilon.” Epsilon, actually epsilon (lower-case), is the Greek letter that looks like ε. In physics and math, ε is used to mean “a very little bit.” For example, I wrote a recipe that calls for 1 part butter, 4+ε parts peanut butter, and 8-ε parts powdered sugar. In other words, it needs a little bit more than 4 parts peanut butter, and a little less than 8 parts powdered sugar.

Dr. Plait’s thesis was effectively, in skepticism, what is our “final ε?” In science, we can never prove anything 100%. We can never disprove something 100%. Similarly, in modern scientific skepticism, we can never disprove someone’s claim 100%. Despite every debunked alleged psychic, we can never prove 100% that psychic powers are not possible.

The discussion during Dr. Plait’s talk was, though, at what point do we say for all practical purposes we have disproved something? After debunking dozens upon dozens of astrologers and their claims and their methods, even though scientifically I can’t say astrology is 100% Taurus (see what I did there?), I could say it’s 99.9999% bull. And if I’m so close, just 0.0001% away from absolute Truth, am I willing – for all practical purposes – to say that that is my ε and I have effectively proven it to be false?

Tying These Two Together

Now you might be thinking, “Gee, that’s fascinating and I love me some good calculus, but what does this have to do with whether Newton is okay or if I have to learn QM?” I’m glad you asked.

Another point that Phil mentioned in his talk is that the concept of the “final ε” is just as applicable to how we view the world through physics. Newton’s Law of Gravity works in our every-day world. It very accurately describes what will happen if I drop a screaming baby who won’t stop screaming in the middle of the night in the apartment above me bowling ball off a tall building. It very accurately describes the motion of the moon around Earth and through our sky. We use Newton’s laws to figure these things out and how a rocket will fly.

But Newton’s Law of Gravity is wrong to some extent. Einstein’s Relativity corrects that very small error – an error that is only measurable with incredibly accurate instruments and/or when around very massive objects. But that is not our everyday world.

In gravity, Einstein was Newton’s ε. And likely, in the future, someone else will be Einstein’s ε. That’s the nature of science. It progresses as we learn more and more about the universe around us and of which we are a part.

That brings me back to Mrs. Streiber’s remark, which by now you have hopefully figured out why I took issue with it. Yes, Quantum Mechanics provides a more accurate model of the world. And if you wanted to and had supercomputers many orders of magnitude more powerful than today’s best, you could describe a common every-day object as an ensemble of wave equations (seeing as it takes weeks to figure out how to derive even helium – an atom with two protons – in QM class in college, this is not a trivial problem!).

But, if you do that, you will find that beyond all meaningful measurements, classical physics comes up with the same answer. Yes, quantum mechanics is necessary to describe some things in physics, such as the energy spectrum produced by stars, or the photoelectric effect. But it is not used to figure out how to drive a car from home to work, why a volcano erupts, or why a pen can lay ink down on paper.

Final Thoughts

No, Mrs. Streiber, Newtonian mechanics is still relevant and for most practical purposes it is the way the world works. The ε in Newtonian physics is not as large as you think.

August 3, 2011

A Creationist Ramble About Water in Space


Introduction

Ah, back to my bread-and-butter, young-Earth creationism and the ramblings writings of Brian Thomas over at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). I actually have 4 of these posts in the queue to write about from recent stories posted there and at Creation.com, but I will try to intersperse some other stuff as a mental break for you.

This particular story, “Water Near Edge of Universe Bolsters Creation Cosmology” is really more of a rambling from our dear “science writer” over at ICR. As such, this will be a comparatively short blog entry.

The Article

Most of Mr. Thomas’ articles start with a paragraph or two of the science news that initiated his reaction, and then it goes into why an apparently literal, young-Earth interpretation of the Christian Bible is still valid. (I say “apparently literal” not to be flippant, but because there are many old-Earth creationists who also state their interpretation is literal.) This particular article, however, just goes right into it after the first sentence. The first paragraph states:

“A tremendous cloud of water vapor envelops a quasar [a giant actively feeding black hole] in distant space, according to new reports. Where did the water come from? A straightforward understanding of the biblical account of creation provides a possible answer and suggests that this may be the first of more such discoveries.”

His justification comes from Genesis 1:6, stating, “God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters” (I’m taking his word on that, I didn’t actually look it up). Of course, the logical conclusion is that the waters above the firmament means the waters around this quasar. Of course, he didn’t state this quite as succinctly as I:

“But physicist D. Russell Humphreys proposed in his landmark 1994 book Starlight and Time that waters above the firmament instead referred to a tremendously huge sphere of water, the remnants of which exist today outside all the stars in a bounded and expanded universe. … Perhaps the waters spoken of in Genesis 1:6 are these ‘waters that be above the heavens,’ presumably located “above” the stars.Is there any water near the edge of the universe that would illustrate this possibility? Actually, yes[, this quasar]. … This water was not found outside the stars, but associated with a quasar, so it is probably not direct evidence of any Psalm 148:4 “above the heavens” waters. However, it is a billion light-years farther away than the previous distance record for detected water, and less than two billion light-years from the outermost edge.”

As I stated, his is not quite as succinct as mine.

What’s Really Going on Here?

I’m not entirely sure. This is not a case of a creationist twisting the science to fit their biblical view. Rather, it almost seems the opposite – a creationist adapting the Bible to fit the new science discovery. I don’t have any problem with that.

But Wait, There’s More!

I knew it couldn’t be that good. Mr. Thomas had to end with something I was going to have issue with. In this case, it’s with something completely unrelated, the Pioneer anomaly:

“In fact, the Pioneer anomaly, an unexplained slowing of the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft on their way out of the solar system, is already well-explained by the overwhelming mass of a proposed sphere of water above the heavens.”

Except it’s not an anomaly anymore. It was figured out months ago, and paper after paper confirms the new interpretation. For quick background, the anomaly was that the twin Pioneer 10 and 11 craft, currently well outside the orbit of Pluto, are not where they should be. This was based on all measurements of effects from gravity, light pressure, heat generation, measurement errors, etc. Many people suggested various (real) scientific possibilities, such as we may not understand gravity as well as we thought (there may be extra terms that come into play at such large scales — a perfectly valid hypothesis), there may be an unknown body tugging them, etc.

The creationists, of course, put forth their own idea, with most saying that it was because the speed of light changes (this is required so as to not make a mean God that would create light in transit to us and make us pesky astronomers think that objects are billions of light-years away — an obvious problem for a 6000-year-old universe).

Except, here we have the article stating, “Pioneer Anomaly Solved By 1970s Computer Graphics Technique.” Basically, the uneven heat radiation from the craft can account for the very tiny difference in what was observed versus predicted. This is follow-up work from 2008 that almost solved it. Case pretty much closed. I’m surprised that Mr. Thomas, a science writer, didn’t know about this or choose to acknowledge it.

Edited to Add: Also, as Phil Plait (the “Bad Astronomer”) pointed out in the Comments section below, the second half of that sentence is sorely mistaken, as well. As I wrote above, the standard creationist model to explain the anomaly was a variable speed of light. It seems as though Mr. Thomas opted for a different one, the “unknown mass” I alluded to. The problem is that the mass tugging on the craft would need to be in a particular position to exert a net pull such as an unseen Kuiper Belt Object. The problem is that Mr. Thomas suggests that it’s a “sphere of water” encircling us, which would exert no net pull on the craft, thus not solving the supposed anomaly.

Final Thoughts

As I said in the third section, I really didn’t have too much of an issue with this article. It pulls in actual new science and shows how it can work fine within their belief system without denying nor modifying the science in question.

Also as I said, the creationists have put out quite a few astronomy/geophysics-related articles lately, and I’ll be posting about them hopefully shortly. And hopefully I’ll find something else short to talk about so it’s not just four articles in a row about the young-Earth creationists.

August 2, 2011

Planet X & 2012: The Myth of the Southern Approach


Introduction

To add yet another post to my lengthy series on the Planet X and/or 2012 phenomenon, I want to focus on one of the pervasive claims within the “Planet X is approaching but it’s a conspiracy and no one is allowed to know about it” community.

An aspect to the conspiracy theory is that Planet X is supposedly approaching from Earth’s south pole or “below the plane of the solar system.” Since “most of the telescopes” are in the northern hemisphere, no one in the northern hemisphere can see it, so astronomers aren’t really the bad guys – we’re just out of the loop, too.

The conspiracy goes on to claim there is a secret telescope that is built or is being built in Antarctica that is the only one that can see Planet X approaching. So, just some of the Privileged Few know about Planet X’s approach, they’re keeping it secret, and of course the Government is in on it.

In this post, I’m going to make short work of this claim and show why it is bunkum.

Your Horizon Line

Let’s assume that we have a fairly flat horizon. Most people probably have this if they walk outside. I don’t because I live a few miles from the Rocky Mountains. But let’s pretend that you’re walking outside now and you see a purely flat horizon. If you were to draw a line from due south to due north, that line would span 180° (half of a circle, which is 360°). That is important.

Now let’s say you are in the northern hemisphere, and your latitude happens to be 40° N. If you look straight up in the sky, astronomers would call that “latitude on the sky” (declination) 40° N. (Astronomers project Earth’s lines of latitude on the sky and we call them “declination.” Earth’s equator, 0° latitude, projected onto the sky is 0° declination.)

So if you’re looking straight up, you see declination 40° N. If you look due south on the horizon, that is going to be 1/4 of a circle, or 90° south of 40° N. Some quick math will tell you that if you project your southern horizon line onto the sky, that is 50° S. If you look due north, then we add 90° to 40°N. So 50° (we have 90-50=40° left to go) gets us to the North Celestial Pole (90° N), and then we go another 40° over the pole and we have declination 50° N on our northern horizon. This means that we can see the entire northern half of the sky from our location (from 0-90°), and we can see down to 50° S from our location.

Let’s take another position on Earth, say, the southern tip of Hawai’i, roughly 20° N. With our 180° field of view North-South, we can see down to 70° S declination and the entire northern hemisphere of the sky.

Now let’s place a telescope on the equator, 0° latitude. Your 180° field of view will show you the entire sky over the course of a few months, both north and south.

(Note: You can’t see the entire hemisphere of the sky at the same instant in time, you can only see half of it, unless you are on the north or south pole. You can see all of it over the course of a few months from your location as the sky appears to rotate above you.)

Why All the Math?

What I was trying to show you through some relatively straight-forward math and geometry is that the claim of, “Only a telescope at the south pole can see an object approaching from ‘below the plane of the solar system'” is completely wrong.

One needs only to be within a few degrees of the equator on Earth to see nearly the entire sky and any approaching object – be it from “above” or “below” the plane of the solar system.

There are professional optical telescope observatories scattered throughout the world. True, the majority are in the northern hemisphere in places such as Hawai’i (United States), Arizona (United States), or the Canary Islands (Spain). But there are also several world-class observatories in the southern hemisphere, not the least of which are the telescopes in Chile.

In fact, some telescopes were built with this in mind. The twin Gemini telescopes (appropriately named) are placed in Hawai’i and Chile for this very reason, and their site prominently states:

“The Gemini Observatory consists of twin 8.1-meter diameter optical/infrared telescopes located on two of the best observing sites on the planet. From their locations on mountains in Hawai’i and Chile, Gemini Observatory’s telescopes can collectively access the entire sky.”

Final Thoughts

This is not the most frequent claim made regarding the Planet X mythos that has been set up over the past few years, but it’s out there and I’ve heard it several times from different people. What the claim really boils down to is a complete lack of understanding of what you can see in the sky, coupled with conspiratorial thinking.

It’s unfortunate that this claim is out there because it is – quite frankly – silly when you really sit down to examine it. But, on the other hand, it’s easily shown to be wrong, which is always nice.

Oh, and that South Pole Telescope? It’s a radio telescope, so it wouldn’t be able to “see” Planet X approaching anyway.

August 1, 2011

My First Podcast Episode Is Out: The Dark Side of the Moon

Filed under: introduction,misconceptions,moon,podcast — Stuart Robbins @ 12:24 pm
Tags: , , ,

I have recorded and published my first podcast: The “Dark Side” of the Moon. I wrote about this topic back in December 2008 and thought it would be a fairly straight-forward and innocuous first episode for my podcast. Truth be told, I actually wrote and recorded this episode in February, 2009. I re-wrote and re-recorded it over the past few days.

The website for the podcast can be found here.

A direct link to the MP3 file of the episode is here.

And a link to the RSS feed that you can drag into iTunes or your podcasting software of choice is here.

The episode is a relatively short ~12.5 minutes, and the podcast episodes in general are going to be around this 10-12 minute length. The plan is for bimonthly episodes, so one released around the first of the month and one around the 15th. And of course, since I write the RSS feed by hand, it will state that those are the exact dates of release, even if I’m a day early or late (much as AstronomyCast has been back-dating their episodes now by several months).

The episode I’ve posted goes over the introduction to the podcast, a bit about the host, author, editor, webmaster, grip, sound mixer, talent scout, etc. (me), and then it delves into the misconception that is the “Dark Side” of the Moon (cue Pink Floyd). I then end the episode with a puzzler related to the topic discussed.

Let me know what you think. I realize it’s my first episode and so I expect some critique, but remember to be constructive. If you say, “it sucks,” that doesn’t help me. If you say, “You need a better quality microphone, I suggest [this brand and model],” that helps. If you say, “I recommend using a [such-and-such filter] on the audio post-recording to remove some of the static and ‘s’ hisses,” that helps.

Also, you’ll probably notice the website for the podcast is a bit bare-bones. At the very least, I would like to somehow add a way for people to dynamically leave comments on the site, but I’m a bit behind on the whole Web 2.0 tech stuff. If someone can point me to some scripts I can cannibalize that allows me to do it on my server and store things locally (I found two but they require storing stuff on third-party servers), please let me know.

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