Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 2, 2015

Podcast Episode 131 – Clip Show #3: Blood Moons, Ceres’ Bright Spots, MESSENGER’s Death, and Funding in Science Follow-Up


Blood moons, science cash,
And spacecraft conspiracies
Are topics du jour.

Clip Show #3 is a big catch-up on several miscellaneous topics: The latest lunar eclipse, Ceres’ mysterious bright spots, MESSENGER’s death plunge into Mercury, and a large follow-up to episode 126 which was my interview with Dr. Pamela Gay about funding in science. This episode also had a logical fallacy section – cherry picking and anomaly hunting – and a feedback/Q&A about whether NASA has created a Warp Drive, and finally my long-foreshadowed tribute to Leonard Nimoy, with how he or his characters influenced myself and you in some way.

There’s really not too much else to say about this episode. The next one will likely by about Big Bang Denial (along similar lines to episode 125 about Black Hole Denial and a future one about Dark Matter Denial). And, this Friday/Saturday, I should be back on “The Reality Check” podcast discussing exoplanets and that we’ve been on the cusp of detecting an Earth-like planet … for many years.

April 23, 2015

How Do We Know How Old Stuff Is on the Moon?


Introduction

While this movie is branded under “Exposing PseudoAstronomy” for legal reasons, it has less to do with popular misconceptions/conspiracies/hoaxes and more to do with real science. This is my third more modern, lots of CGI movie, and my second to explain a research paper that I wrote.

In the movie, I go through how the lunar crater chronology is the fundamental basis for how we estimate the ages of surface events across the solar system. I also explain how my work affects the lunar crater chronology and what can be done to better constrain it.

I’m still waiting for a young-Earth creationist to claim that because of a factor of 2 uncertainty, 4.5 billion becomes 6.019 thousand.

I also wrote a blog post about this for The Planetary Society. Because it was posted there over two weeks ago, I think it’s fair game to repost here. You can click on any of the images for larger versions, and all of them are screenshots from the YouTube movie.

Planetary Society Blog Post

Three years ago, I started a project to replicate work done by various groups in the 1970s and 1980s. When the project was completed, the result implied that much of what we think we know about when events happened in the solar system were wrong, needing to be shifted by up to 1 billion years. I presented this in a talk at the recent Lunar and Planetary Science Conference at 8:30 AM, when most people were learning about the latest results from Ceres.

The project started simply enough: I downloaded some of the amazing images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Wide-Angle Camera (WAC) that showed the Apollo and Luna landing sites. Then, I identified and measured the craters (my dissertation work included creating a massive global crater database of Mars, numbering about 640,000 craters).

The reason to do this is that craters are the only proxy we have for ages on solid surfaces in the solar system. We can determine the relative age of one surface to another (is it older or younger?) by looking at which has more craters: The surface with more craters will be older because, when you assume that craters will form randomly across the body, then the surface with more craters has had more time to accumulate them.

How to Use Craters to Understand Ages

Basic principle behind this work. (Background image © NASA/ASU; composite © S.J. Robbins.)

If we want to use craters for an absolute timeline – as in, actually put numbers on it – then we need some way to tie it to real ages. This was made possible only by the United States’ Apollo and the USSR’s Luna missions that returned rocks from the moon that could be radiometrically dated in labs on Earth.

With these radiometric ages, we then identify the craters on the surface those rocks were gathered and say that a surface with that many craters per unit area is that old.

That’s the lunar crater chronology: The spatial density of craters larger than a standard size versus radiometric age (we use 1 km as that standard size). This crater chronology is then scaled and used as a basis for the chronology across the rest of the solar system. When you hear someone say that something on the surface of Mars is X number of years old, chances are that’s based on the lunar samples from the 1960s and 70s and the crater counting done 40 years ago.

Apollo 15 Landing Site

Example landing site area, Apollo 15 (yellow star). Blue outlined areas indicate regions on which craters were identified, blue shaded areas were removed because they are a different type of impact crater, and blue circles are the craters mapped and measured. (Background image © NASA/ASU; data and composite © S.J. Robbins.)

And, that’s where my project came in. While the rock samples have continued to be analyzed over the decades, the craters were not. It’s easy to assume that the researchers back then did a great job, but by the same token, science is about replication and re-testing and we have developed new ways of doing things in the crater community since the Apollo era. A simple example is that the crater chronology requires a spatial density, and therefore you need to know the area of the surface on which you have identified craters. Over the past 40 years, we have better understood the shape of the moon and now have computers to allow for much more precise area calculations. This can result in changes by 10s of percent in some cases.

When I had finished my reanalysis, my results differed for many of the landing sites, in some cases by a factor of 2 from what the standard is in the field. I was surprised. I checked my work and couldn’t find any mistakes. So, I combed through the literature and looked to see what other people had published. I ended up finding a range of values, and only in one case was my result at the extreme low or high of all the published results. I showed my work to colleagues and none of them could find any issue with it. So, eventually I published it, early last year.

The Lunar Crater Chronologies

The new (blue) and old (red) chronologies and the data used to fit the model. The vertical axis shows the spatial density of impact craters larger than or equal to 1 km in diameter, and the horizontal axis shows the age of the surface from radiometric dating of collected rock samples. (© S.J. Robbins)

When I fit my crater data to the radiometric ages, my fit function showed a difference with the standard that has been used for three decades: Surfaces assigned a model age of about 3.5 to 3.7 billion years under the old chronology were older, by up to 200 million years. And, surfaces younger than about 3.4 billion years under the old chronology are younger, by up to about 1 billion years.

Differences Between the Lunar Crater Chronologies

The new and old chronologies in blue and red (top), and the difference between them in terms of model surface age. (© S.J. Robbins)

There are a lot of implications for this. One is that volcanism on the terrestrial planets may have extended to more recent times. This would imply that the planets’ cores stayed warmer longer. Another implication is that the large reservoirs of water thought to exist around 3 billion years ago may have existed for another 500 million years, with implications then for favorable environments for life.

But, something that I added near the end of my LPSC talk was the question, “Am I right?” The answer is an unsatisfying, “I don’t know.” I of course would not have published it if I thought I was wrong. But by the same token, this type of science is not about one person being right and another being wrong. It’s about developing a model to fit the data and for that model to be successively improved as it gets incrementally closer to explaining reality.

And, there are ways to improve the lunar chronology. One that I’m a big advocate of is more lunar exploration: We need more data, more samples gathered from known locations on the moon’s surface. We can then date those samples – either in situ or in labs on Earth – and along with crater measurements add more tie points to the lunar crater chronology function. Right now, there is a glaring gap in the sample collection, one that spans 2 to 3 billion years of lunar history. A single point in there could help differentiate between my model and the classic model. And more data would be even better.

Until we land robotic missions to send back samples from other planets or that can date samples there, the moon is still our key to ages across the solar system.

March 26, 2015

Science Conferences (#LPSC2015), Ivory Gates, and Who Gets In


Introduction

On this blog and in my podcast, I talk a lot about pseudoscience. I talk a lot about pseudoscientists. But I don’t think I’ve talked explicitly much about what really separates a pseudoscientist from a real scientist, nor have I talked about basic thresholds for being considered a real scientist.

Last week, I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), a conference that is the largest planetary science conference in the US, annually drawing over 1500 planetary (non-Earth-studying) scientists and receiving around 2000 abstract submissions.

Among those were at least two that bordered on pseudoscientific. I’m going to be interviewing the program committee chair in an upcoming podcast episode, so I’ll leave a discussion of what happens when they get those kinds of submissions to that interview.

But, in the meantime, I’m going to discuss what happened when one of these persons set up his presentation, in contrast with the standards of the field and conference, to illustrate how one should not behave if they want to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

Who Am I Talking About

In this particular case, I’m talking about John E. Brandenburg, a person whose claims about Mars being host to an intelligent civilization before they got nuked, I discussed in Episode 86 of my podcast. I also discussed his claims in the Feedback portion of Episode 93 and in the New News of Episode 121.

However, I want this blog post to stand on its own. Without any other background information, other than I’ve discussed his claims before, let’s take a look at just what he did at this conference.

Abstracts

Everyone speaking at LPSC is required to submit an abstract. The standard is two pages (which is fairly long for most conferences) that outlines what your work is and what you will be talking about. That way the program committee can decide if you will get a talk or a poster presentation (you don’t always get a talk, so by default you will get a poster) and the order of the session.

To give you an idea of what an abstract looks like, here’s one that I submitted to the most recent LPSC about progress on my work into studying the crater population of Saturn’s satellites. That is the standard template.

John Brandenburg submitted two abstracts, “Evidence for Large, Anomalous Nuclear Explosions on Mars in the Past” and “The NMS (New Mars Synthesis), Recent Data from Gale Crater and NWA 7034: Evidence for a Persistent Biologically Stabilized Greenhouse on Mars.”

So, there you go. I will note that these do not use the standard templates, and the copy-editing isn’t great, but not everything one spits out is going to be gold. There’s also the pet peeve of mine of using Excel for science graphs (see his first abstract), but again, others do it so Dr. Brandenburg hasn’t done anything yet that others don’t do.

Poster Session

LPSC 2015 Poster by John E. Brandenburg

LPSC 2015 Poster by John E. Brandenburg

I don’t know if he requested a talk, but he got a poster. He was scheduled for the first of two poster sessions, which was on Tuesday night. Each night has well over 600 poster presentations, where you set up your poster and then wait twiddling your fingers, hoping that people will at least read it and maybe even talk with you. I went through that for the abstract I linked to of mine, but on Thursday night. You can get an idea of what it looks like if you’re busy from some of the royalty-free images here.

The poster sessions are from 6:00P.M. until 9:00P.M. You are expected to be there the entire time. You are also expected to set up your poster before that time, and most people set up their poster the day before. For example, I set my Thursday poster up on Wednesday just after lunch. (The e-mailed instructions state, “Poster presenters are expected to be present at their poster on their assigned evening.”)

John Brandenburg began to set up his poster at about 7:55P.M. on Tuesday evening. It was a long, very tedious process, where he spent 45 minutes doing so, not completing his set up until 8:40P.M., only 20 minutes before the poster session ended and – to be honest – many people had already left for late-night drinks.

John Brandenburg Setting Up His Poster at LPSC in 2015

John Brandenburg Setting Up His Poster at LPSC in 2015

After he finished setting up, he left for a few minutes to get a beer from the cash bar.

His Poster

Let’s be fair: Not everyone has access to or money to spend on a poster printer. Those are the large-format printers that take paper spanning around 36″–44″ across and can print something of arbitrary length. LPSC allows up to 44″ by 44″.

But, as I said, some people can’t do that. Instead, some will effectively create a talk in presentation software (e.g., PowerPoint or Keynote) and then print that out on standard 8.5″x11″ sheets of paper and tack those up. It doesn’t look great, but it gets the point across.

That was John Brandenburg’s approach.

Among other things, I noted the following in terms of non-standard items:

  • Nothing was referenced. This is important in science for anything that is not new work. Considering he posted many images from other peoples’ papers, this is a big no-no.
  • One slide part showed “the” Face on Mars, another claimed face, and a “pyramid.”

John Brandenburg Highlighting the "Face" on Mars and Pyramids on Mars at LPSC 2015

John Brandenburg Highlighting the “Face” on Mars and Pyramids on Mars at LPSC 2015

Okay, so really two, but that first one (referencing) is a big issue for science if you want to be taken seriously and not tick people off (and came up when I engaged him — more on that later). And the second one, well, ditto.

The “Face” came up once, when I was eavesdropping on him talking with someone else: John was explaining blast site antipodes (the opposite point on the planet to some feature or event) and he then pointed to those photos and remarked, “And that’s to remind you of what’s there;” he added a knowing nod when saying that. The implication’s obvious, but he seemed unwilling to say it out loud, potentially for fear of seeming even crazier.

Rubber-Necking

Different people do poster sessions in different ways, but most people tend to walk through the aisles of posters and slowly skim over titles, perhaps pausing on one that seems interesting, maybe lingering a bit to read it, before moving on. Unless they are really interested, in which case they’ll stay and ask questions or generally engage the presenter, if the presenter is there.

While Dr. Brandenburg was getting his beer, I saw a few people walk by and effectively rubber-neck. I also saw their eyes go wide and then move on.

If They Don’t Come to You, Go to Them

I will admit at this point that I hid my name badge. There was a non-zero chance that Dr. Brandenburg would recognize my name based on my blog and podcast and e-mail exchanges we had. I didn’t want that to come up, I wanted to observe what happened without him knowing that a “skeptic” who had criticized his work before was there watching.

What I saw was that after Dr. Brandenburg came back with his beer, he waited a minute or two and then approached the two people standing across from him who were at their own posters. The friends I was with told me I should’ve written it down, and I wish I had, but what I remember from an hour later when I wrote down my notes was that he said, almost exactly: “It must be tough facing [or “being opposite?”] all this for the whole night.”  I really wish I had written it down then because this could be seen as really creepy – especially since at least one of those two people was a woman – though he really was referring to the posters he just put up and not something else.

For the next roughly 15 minutes (since that was all that was left of the poster session), when passers by would not engage him, he engaged people at surrounding posters, asking them about their work. That is reasonably fair, though a bit unconventional: The goal is to get people to come to your poster and talk about your work, especially when you only have 15 minutes left.

John Brandenburg's Discussion at LPSC 2015 that Mars was Nuked

John Brandenburg’s Discussion at LPSC 2015 that Mars was Nuked

One of the people he engaged was a friend of mine at her poster. I took the opportunity to slip around and take some photographs of his “poster” for future use, such as in this blog post. When I asked my friend later about what he talked about, she stated that he seemed surprised about some of her findings and remarked that it was, well, surprising. Unfazed, she told him “no” that it wasn’t surprising, most of the stuff she found was common and expected. It was another part that was surprising that she hadn’t yet mentioned to him.

This is not in itself a big issue: I have no idea what she’s doing. It’s not my field. But, it is very related to what Dr. Brandenburg claims his field is, and related to his second abstract. So this actually is a big issue: He tried to “talk the talk,” and he failed. He demonstrated ignorance of field that he should know if he’s talking about a very closely related one on his “poster.”

My friend also said that John seemed drunk, but she wasn’t sure if that was his personality. That did not surprise me. I wrote in a forum after listening to his interview on “Dark City” from February 2015: “Affect: For some reason, I find his constant laughs very off putting. I don’t know why. It has nothing to do with his arguments, but it makes it sound like he doesn’t take this seriously. I hear this in all of his interviews.”

Another commenter on the forum stated, in response: “I’d read the comment about his laughter before I listened to the show so was “analyzing” it as it occurred. It happened more frequently and for longer periods as the show continued. In my professional opinion, I think he started the interview with a 6 pack in front of him. By last call at the end of the show, he sounded like a someone who was regretfully set to go home after spending a few hours telling his ideas to the guy next to him at the bar.”

You, the reader might consider this gratuitous. Perhaps. but, it added to the general gestalt of Dr. Brandenburg’s presentation and interactions, and it adds to the general group of things not to do if you want to be taken seriously by the scientific community. I’ve seen people drunk at LPSC. I have never seen someone drunk who is presenting. I’m also not saying Dr. Brandenburg was drunk, rather it was the impression a few of us had, and a few of us who have listened to his various interviews have had.

Enter the Dragon’s Lair

I finally gave in while he was talking with some other people at his “posters” and joined them. He made his case, and the people seemed unconvinced.  At the end, the guy asked for a photo of his poster and John was happy to oblige and offered to be in it, too. From my perspective, I figured this was going in the “Crazy Times at LPSC” album, but of course my own views color that assumption.

John Brandenburg Claims Trinitie Is Wide-Spread on Mars, Using Unreferenced Figure that Only Shows Volcanic Glass

John Brandenburg Claims Trinitie Is Wide-Spread on Mars, Using Unreferenced Figure that Only Shows Volcanic Glass

The only engagement I gave was when John Brandenburg mentioned trinitite. I was prepared for that. It’s a recent addition to his claimed evidence for a nuclear blast on Mars, for trinitite “is the glassy residue left on the desert floor after the plutonium-based Trinity nuclear bomb test on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.” In other words, we’ve only seen it on Earth as a result from a nuclear blast. If we see it on Mars, that’d be interesting evidence for a nuclear blast, though we’d still need to do work to determine if there’s any other way to make it. That’s how science works.

I was prepared for the trinitite claim because in that recent interview on “Dark City,” he said that he had found it on Mars. So, when he brought it up from his “poster,” he presented a map showing it was all over the northern hemisphere of Mars near the north polar layered deposits. I jumped on that and asked what his source was.  He responded by reiterating what trinitite is (and that it’s only found at nuclear blast sites), and I told him no, I wanted to know what detected it and how.  He stuttered and didn’t remember but said it’s in his abstract — this is one reason why I said it’s important to provide references on your poster. Not only did that effectively stop the conversation because I couldn’t ask further, but it also allowed him to punt it back to the abstract and avoid questions.

The issue for me going into this was that trinitite is a very specific kind of glass, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up from orbit with the instruments we have around Mars today. First, the spectral signature of trinitite is very close to glass, so I would want to see how the researchers would have differentiated between them with orbiting probes. Second, if there had been trinitite discovered (and I did my homework and could not find any papers that mentioned Mars and trinitite), I would think I would be able to find it. Because, well, it’s only found on Earth near nuclear blast sites, so one would think it’d get a big press release.

After the poster session, I looked up his abstract and I found the reference. It’s a paper in “Geology” by Horgan and Bell from 2012, though he cited it as being from 2014 (as I said, sloppy abstracts).  The abstract of this paper is inconsistent with what Dr. Brandenburg says it says. Specifically, he claims (but the paper says otherwise) that the glass is only found there on Mars (they say it’s likely widespread), the glass is solid hunks of glass (versus just glass mixed into the regolith like we see all over Earth in volcanoes), and that it’s acid-etched glass and therefore trinitite (they say it’s iron-bearing glass and silica-enriched leached rinds on glass). So, his smoking gun has a common, mundane explanation. You don’t need a crazy explanation for a mundane (yet still new — not to belittle the authors’ work) observation when the mundane explanation will work (that it’s just volcanic glass that we see everywhere on Earth).

In a bit of fairness, John did say (direct quote) when introducing the claim of trinitite: “They” think it’s volcanic glass, “perfectly reasonable.  But, it also looks like trinitite.”

Closing

Over the last two years, LPSC has been a little trigger-happy about shutting down the poster session at 9:00 sharp. I remember being in there at my poster talking with people well past 9:30 before, but only in past years. This year, at 9:02, a volunteer told him he needed to take down his poster or they were going to take down everything that was left up.

In fairness to the volunteer, this was also in the instructions to presenters that was e-mailed out, that if posters were left after the end of the poster session, they would be “discarded.”

John responded, “What would you DO with it if you took it down?!”

He may have just been trying to be funny, but that capped off the encounter for me in terms of not following the instructions and seeming to think he’s special.

Hallmarks of a Pseudoscientist

John Brandenburg's LPSC 2015 Poster, Bastardizing Martian Chronology

John Brandenburg’s LPSC 2015 Poster, Bastardizing Martian Chronology

In his e-mails to me, John Brandenburg has clearly implied that he wants to and thinks he should be taken seriously. In those e-mail exchanges, however, he has failed to back up the majority of his claims, and he has failed to put together a cogent, cohesive story that does not conflict with well established other things (such as Martian chronology).

What I observed was more of the same at LPSC, and this illustrates a general failure to adhere to the standards of how a scientist should not only behave and present their information, but also present themselves.

As a short listed recap:

  • Arrival with an hour left in the poster session, way too long to set up, and only 15 minutes after getting a beer to present his work.
  • Drunk affect, if not actually drunk when you are supposed to be presenting.
  • Presenting known pseudoscience in an attempt to bolster your science claims (face and pyramids on Mars — sorry conspiracists reading this blog, it is: see here, here, here, or here).
  • Failure to demonstrate knowledge of the field you’re talking about.
  • Failure to reference others’ work you are using, especially when copying their images.
  • Making unsubstantiated other claims that are used in support of your claim, especially when your side-claim flies in the face of the generally accepted state of the field.

Final Thoughts

This has been a long post, but I hope that it gives you some insight into what (not) to do if you are going to be taken seriously at a scientific conference. Scientists really are open minded about new ideas (again, I know most people who aren’t skeptics or scientists reading this blog are going to think I’m crazy to say that, but we really are).

We scientists just demand better evidence than the average person because we know how easy it is to be fooled, how easy it is to let our own biases get in the way, and we know that the new ideas have to not only explain the observations better than the previous ideas but also have to mesh with everything else that may seem unrelated but still would be affected by that new idea. And write long, run-on sentences.

But, while we’re open to new ideas, we also have certain standards. And, we expect you to play by the same rules that we do.

John E. Brandenburg does not and he did not do that at LPSC last week.

I don’t know what will happen if he submits abstracts to LPSC next year, but I hope that the program committee takes note of how he behaved this year and will use that to make an informed decision next year. He now has a documented case (here) of abusing the privilege of presenting at a scientific conference.

And you, the reader, can see what that abuse is like. While these conferences are not meant to be gates closed to everyone but those “in the club,” they are still a privilege that one is granted to attend, it is not a right.

March 5, 2015

Martian Ocean News: “Who Said it First?,” Press Releases, and Correct by Association


Introduction

It’s a press office’s and officer’s job to make what they are writing about sound interesting, exciting, and get you to read it. That’s fairly undisputed. And, most press officers are not experts in the fields that they write press releases for. And, most of the people they talk to will tell them something, and the press officer will try to come up with an interesting angle that they think helps generate interest, often not realizing that they are changing the story.

One class of examples is when they spin something in such a way as to make it seem as though this is completely new, revolutionary, and never been done before. Even if it has. Many times. Over and over.

I speak, of course, of the news today from press release #15-032 that “NASA Research Suggests Mars Once Had More Water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean.”

Again

I wrote about this phenomenon two years ago in the post, “How Astronomers Are, According to Popular Press, Constantly Discovering the Same Thing.”

I should have rephrased that title to indicate that it’s not just according to the popular press, but according to NASA’s own press releases.

And, that’s an issue, even forgetting all the pseudoscience and even implications for normal people: It minimizes the many scientists’ work before this that found the exact same thing.

Mars Ocean

Now, I don’t want to minimize the latest work. It found the same thing, but it was by a completely different method. Previous work looked at mineralogy of rocks, other work looked at morphology (the way things look) of geologic features, others looked at simple elevation and roughness, and others (such as my former thesis advisor, four years ago) looked at the elevation of deltas and showed they were very similar, all implying an ancient ocean.

The work announced earlier today instead looked at the chemistry of the atmosphere and based on the ratios of heavy water (extra neutron in one of the hydrogen atoms) to normal water, they determined that a whole lotta water had been lost to space because the heavier water stays behind, and Martian ices today are HUGELY enriched relative to other sources in the solar system.

But, as someone pointed out to me moments after posting this, even the heavy water result is not new and unique, it’s been done before, as shown in this paper from 1988.

It’s really nice when completely independent ways of looking at things converge on very similar conclusions. That bolsters the strength of all of them and makes it more likely that that conclusion is the correct model.

Being First, Again

But then there’s the general population problem. Even completely non-astronomy friends of mine (argument from anecdote, perhaps) are starting to ask me, “Haven’t we already discovered this?” and they’re asking me how the latest work is new … again.

But beyond that, there’s the pseudoscience aspect, the people who come out of the woodwork to claim that they “did it first” and therefore they should receive the credit, and because they “thought of it first,” before it was officially announced (again) by this latest press release, their other work is real. (Hence the “argument by association” fallacy in the title of this blog post.)

Let’s look at an example, in case you don’t believe me. About the ocean on Mars. Back when I was in grad school, I had to give a talk for a class on the evolution of Mars’ hydrosphere — a literature review, really. That was Spring of 2006. My main source of information was a paper published in the planetary science journal Icarus by S.M. Clifford and T.J. Parker entitled, “The Evolution of the Martian Hydrosphere: Implications for the Fate of a Primordial Ocean and the Current State of the Northern Plains.” My second source of information was a paper published in the other main planetary science journal, the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets by M.H. Carr and J.W. Head, entitled, “Oceans on Mars: An Assessment of the Observational Evidence and Possible Fate.”

The copyright dates for these two papers were 2001 and 2003.

Just skimming through the references, there’s a paper from 1991 entitled, “Ancient Oceans, Ice Sheets, and the Hydrologic Cycle on Mars.” Another from 1998 testing the possibility of shorelines from topography data. Several by Michael Carr hypothesizing about Mars having been water-rich from the 1980s and many by Scott Clifford from the 1990s about the same thing. Most really specifically testing newer hypotheses about massive oceans are from the late 1990s when we first got topography information (meaning you could start to tell if features you thought were ocean shorelines were at the same elevation).

So, the scientific community was finding good evidence for oceans on Mars at least in the late 1990s, and pretty good circumstantial evidence in the 1980s. Massive floods in the 1970s. And evidence for lots of flowing water in the past pretty much since the first images came back in the 1960s. That’s a fact based on the literature review.

That fact is ignored (doing a literature review would require actual work) by people who want to say that they predicted the ocean, but they predicted it based on Mars being the moon of a now-exploded planet that is the asteroid belt. I speak, of course, of Mike Bara, who on his blog wrote a post this eve entitled, “NASA ‘Discovers’ Martian Ocean that Hoagland and Bara Predicted 14 Years Ago.”

Perhaps you understand now where I’m going with this.

Mr. Hoagland and Bara wrote a document in 2001 wherein they claimed Mars had oceans near the equator, that large volcanic complexes are remnant tidal bulges from when Mars was tidally locked with Planet V, and that the northern plains smooth because that’s where the water went after Planet V blew up.

To quote from Mike’s blog:

The fact is that this ocean was actually discovered and predicted by myself and Richard Hoagland over 14 years ago in our Mars Tidal Model paper published on http://www.enterprisemission.com.

While I’m gratified that NASA has finally admitted that Hoagland and me were correct all those years ago, I wish they’d get the details right. […] All of this is covered in our Mars Tidal Model paper that we published online in 2001 after it was rejected by scientific journals because there was “no scientific evidence” to support our ideas.

Hmm. We seem to have overcome that problem, haven’t we NASA…?

The conclusion you are supposed to draw is pretty clear, and Mike’s Facebook followers consider him vindicated.

The “only” problems are that Hoagland and Bara were not the first (as I demonstrated above), and none of the scientific research at all places the possible ancient global ocean anywhere that Hoagland or Bara want it until after Planet V would have exploded. That’s ignoring all the timing problems and everything else that’s pseudoscientific about the paper (that’s beyond the scope of this blog post).

But, because NASA has now “admitted” that Mars likely had a large ocean at some point in its past, you should infer that Mike Bara and Richard Hoagland were right. Uh huh …

Final Thoughts

The above is just one example of a pseudoscientician (I’m all for neologisms) uses this kind of “discovered for the first time! (again)” press release to advance their claims. There are other examples, as well, such as those who claim to have predicted or “stated as fact” these kinds of things many years ago through various divining methods — be it psychic gifts, talking to transcendent beings, or just good ol’-fashioned aliens — but I think my point is made.

This kind of press release does a disservice to the scientists who produced this result before, to the public who wonders why their tax money is spent finding the same thing again, and to pseudoscientists who use it to advance their own claims via association.

And that’s my opinion … until I discover something amazing for the first time, again, and want my own press release.

November 29, 2012

Mercurian Ice Confirms Noah’s Flood! (or something like that)


Introduction

It’s that time of the quarter where I profusely apologize for not posting a lot, and where I look back at the blog and worry that it’s just turning into an announcement place for my podcast, which I’m really hoping to avoid. Those things aside …

The issue of Science this week has a rather large number of articles that I find interesting, among them one on Saturn’s rings, the age of the Grand Canyon, and one that’s gotten a lot of press: confirmation of ice at Mercury’s poles.

For more on the actual discovery of Mercurian ice (or more, confirmation, since we were already pretty sure it was there), Phil Plait (“The Bad Astronomer”) has a good blog post up about it. I’m going to assume that you have the background of that for the rest of this post.

Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for someone to use this for their own pet pseudoscience.

How’d the Ice Get There?

We know for a fact that chunks of ice and chunks of rock fly about the solar system and crash into things. Look at nearly any solid body in the solar system and you see impact craters that are a testament to that fact. Look at the asteroids and comets we see today and there is a clear mechanism that still exists and impact cratering is an ongoing process.

In the inner solar system, it is estimated that very, very roughly 10ish% of all impacts are from comets. In the outer solar system, the fraction is likely much larger, but that’s a different topic.

Comets are made of ice and rock, and when they hit an object, some of the ice can be captured. If the environment is stable for ice (as in, it’s below the freezing point of water and there’s enough pressure to keep it from sublimating – turning directly from a solid to a gas), then the ice will remain. Paradoxically, while Mercury is the closest known planet to the sun, there are areas of its poles that are in permanent shadow and hence, ice can be stable if it’s buried under something.

So, the very simplified model is that a comet strikes, ice from the comet melts/vaporizes, some is trapped by the planet’s gravity and re-solidifies in a permanently shadowed region, it’s covered by other debris from the impact, and you have stable ice that isn’t going anywhere.

A smaller part of the story but that’s relevant to this particular pseudoscience is that some of the material that’s covering the polar ice is organic material. As in, “compounds composed of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements with chain or ring structures” according to one online definition (my last chemistry class was 10th grade …). We are NOT talking about dead plants and animals.

Where does organic material come from? It can obviously come from living things, but several studies in the past few years have shown that organic materials can seemingly easily form in space and be carried on asteroids or comets. It’s possible that that is one contribution to the seeding of life on Earth …

Noah’s Flood

… or at least, that’s if you’re a naturalistic secular heathen.

According to Mercury Ice Find Renews Old Riddle, organic material means that it’s former living things. Which means that organic material was delivered via panspermia (life was seeded / transferred here from space). Which means that if you’re a secular heathen, you must equate panspermia with abiogenesis, but then of course, “abiogenesis could not possibly explain the organic layer on the Mercury ice [because t]he primordial soup would be far too cold.” Or something like that — I didn’t quite follow the train of thought.

The only possible explanation that makes sense, according to Terry Hurlbut, who is also a frequent contributor to Conservapedia, is the “Hydroplate Theory” (and I only use the term “theory” here because that’s what he’s called it).

To those fortunate enough to not be well versed in this, let me try to briefly explain it. The hydroplate … I’m sorry, I can’t say it, so I’ll just use “idea” … the hydroplate idea was originated by Walt Brown in an attempt to explain Noah’s Flood’s implications across the solar system. In other words, we see lots of stuff across the solar system, Noah’s flood is one of the most catastrophic things in the Judeo-Christian Bible, ergo maybe it can explain lots of seemingly catastrophic things across the solar system.

Brown’s idea is that, originally, around 6000 years ago, today’s terrestrial ocean was very deep underground, about 10 miles (15 km) or so. Then God had a hissy fit decided to kill almost everyone and everything about 4400 years ago, and after Noah got all those animals in his ark, God cracked Earth’s crust and the water burst out. It apparently, somehow, was under so much pressure, that not only did it cover Earth, but it threw enormous amounts of water, rock, and mud – 1% of Earth’s weight! – into space. Besides doing other things, that water, rock, and mud that was thrown into space are comets and asteroids that we see today. The comets being in all sorts of crazy orbits is evidence for this.

So, the organics obviously came from Earth.

And: “Brown confirmed today that the Mercury ice confirms his theory. That means the Mercury ice confirms creation, not abiogenesis or panspermia, as the origin of life.” QED

Seriously?

Yes.

No, Seriously?

Yes. These people really believe this. I feel like I need that disclaimer that South Park used in their Scientology episode: “THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE.” Except in this case, “This is what some conservative, Biblical literalists actually believe.”

There are so many basic things wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to really start. I suppose I could just mention one and leave it at that, with full knowledge that Brown and his supporters have an open challenge to refute his idea and crow that no one ever has taken them up on it. No, I’m not interested in taking him up on it, either, if one of them happens to be reading this.

But moving on, one basic counter-argument against this is one of the arguments against a frequent Planet X: the asteroids today are, for the most part, dynamically stable in orbits that don’t intersect Earth. In other words, if you take Brown’s scenario, even if you have a now stable field of asteroids produced from this Flood event, either the aphelion or perihelion (farthest or closest) distance from the sun of the orbit would have to be Earth’s orbit, baring orbital interactions with other bodies.

Yes, there are a few thousand asteroids that cross Earth’s orbit, and some even do have orbital elements that I described. But millions of asteroids reside in the asteroid belt and do not come anywhere near Earth. And the asteroid belt shows families (groups) of asteroids that have dynamical lifetimes on the order of millions of years. They’re also all relatively in the same plane, but I guess Brown could say somehow that Earth shot them all out as a “belt” of material before shooting the would-be comets out in all directions.

To put it a third way: The vast majority of asteroids in the solar system, that Brown claims would have been produced in this event, have orbits that are not what they would need to be given his scenario, and in fact contradict it.

Final Thoughts

I’m somewhat sick (thanks Mom, Dad) and high on IBUprofen and Sudafed (the real stuff), so this post may have had a rather large “snark factor.”

And I’ll admit that sometimes Biblical literalists make some seemingly good arguments that are more difficult to tease apart, or subtle arguments that you have to think about for awhile, or very technical ones that require a specialist to get into.

But this is not one of them. This is grasping at straws. This is just, well, really “out there.” It’s about at the level of the lunar ziggurat, or a “psychic” claiming that they see the letter “P” but it could also be turned around to be a “b” or on its side to be a wheelbarrow and – oh look! someone used a shovel and a “P” can look like a shovel so I’m right!

Ice on Mercury was not an unexpected find confirmation because it was already discovered via radar from Earth about two decades ago. The detection from MESSENGER in orbit of Mercury is not insignificant, and it adds new constraints and new data to help refine models, but the “hydroplate ‘theory'” is not one of them.

June 29, 2012

An Interview with Me About Lunar and Martian Craters


Quick announcement ’cause I forgot to do it earlier and I forgot to mention it on the last podcast: Nancy Atkinson, a reporter of Universe Today (among other things), interviewed me last-minute last week about lunar and martian craters. The interview’s about 15 minutes long and was broadcast to both 365 Days of Astronomy podcast and the NLSI (NASA Lunar Science Institute) podcast.

Link to NLSI podcast page.

Link to 365 Days of Astronomy page.

The description, as Nancy wrote it:

Description: It’s a showdown! The Moon Vs. Mars. These are two very different planetary bodies. But there’s one thing they have very much in common: both are covered with craters. So how do the two compare in the crater department? With us to give us some blow by blow insight is Stuart Robbins, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Southwest Research Institute, and he also works with the CosmoQuest Moon Mappers citizen science project.

Bio: NLSI brings together leading lunar scientists from around the world to further NASA lunar science and exploration.

Stuart Robbins in a Planetary Geologist with a PhD in Astronomy. He works at the Southwest Research Institute and the University of Colorado, Boulder and is the science lead for the Moon Mappers project.

June 26, 2012

Podcast Episode 41: Craters and Creationism, Part 2


In a slightly delayed offering, episode 41 has been posted. Sorry to say that episodes over the next month may be delayed by a few days, as well, for I have several trips coming up and won’t have my equipment with me.

As the title suggests, this episodes details a few claims by creationists to try to argue that craters really show the solar system is only 6000 years old instead of the solar system being around 4.5 billion. It may get a bit technical at times — sorry.

June 16, 2012

Podcast Episode 40: Crater Age Dating Explained, Part 1


This is a bit of a longer episode. ‘Cause, this is what I do.

I give you a pretty detailed overview of how crater age dating works, the difference between absolute and relative age dating, how we can assign absolute ages to the relative ages of craters, how geologic mapping works and why it’s important for crater age dating, and then many of the known problems and caveats with the method.

Finally, there’s an open question about the puzzler: Is it worth doing? I wanted to do it initially to get interaction between me and the listeners. But participation has been around 1 for each. So if you have any opinion regarding the Puzzler, please let me know in the Comments to this post.

June 9, 2012

Podcast Episode 39: Young-Earth Creationist Attempted Refutations of Radiometric Dating


A slightly delayed episode is finally up. Part 2 of the series of 2 on radiometric dating, part 2 of the series of 4 (this month’s theme) on dating techniques. I talk about four of the main categories of claims that young-Earth creationist arguments fall into in their attempts to refute radiometric dating.

It’s also the first regularly formatted episode since #35, including the main segment, new news, Q&A, feedback, puzzler, and announcements.

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