Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 7, 2011

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


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?).

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