Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 29, 2014

The Deathbed Confession Phenomenon, and I’m Blogging at JREF’s Swift

As I continue to emerge from my seclusion from writing 5 grant proposals, a new development is that I am now included in the roster of bloggers on the James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) Swift blog. I’m not entirely sure how often I’ll be able to do it, but with 400-1000 -word posts and me already doing the weekly ATS 3-hour radio program Saturday nights, hopefully some time overlap can be arranged.

That said, my first post is about deathbed confessions, and why I find them unconvincing in terms of revealing anything outside the mainstream. I’m going to include the posts here in part because the Swift blog comments are closed. The posts here will not have been edited from what I send Sharon Hill (who does the actual posting) or have the images, so go there for the pretty pics.

Since this is my first Swift post, I wanted to give a brief introduction. I’m a self-termed “astro/geophysicist” with a Ph.D. in geophysics but a background more in astrophysics. Given my background, I tend to focus on pseudoscience and skepticism as applied to astronomy, geology, and physics. One regular activity of mine is that I’m a member of the studio of “ATS Live,” the premier three-hour live weekly show of the Above Top Secret website (one of the most popular conspiracy websites in the world); I’m the token skeptic.

On last weekend’s show (October 25, 2014), one of the topics we discussed was the deathbed confession of “Area 51 scientist,” Boyd Bushman. Within a few weeks of his death this past August, Mr. Bushman was recorded in numerous clips making various claims about how he worked on things such as antigravity, UFOs, and other classic pseudoscience claims related to what could be loosely termed, “new physics.”

I think this is an excellent example of why I find the “deathbed confession” phenomenon completely unconvincing, especially as related to paranormal-type claims.

People who want to believe tend to cite two reasons that deathbed confessions should be considered good evidence for their claims. First is the classic argument from authority, especially in the case of Boyd Bushman who’s reasonably well known in the UFO community and “was a retired Senior Scientist for Lockheed Martin.” He was awarded patents and defense contracts. Sounds impressive.

To be brief, the argument form authority is meaningless in terms of the veracity of the actual information; claims and information need to stand on their own and be verified regardless of the person who is making it. My favorite example is that Isaac Newton who (by most metrics) founded modern physics, believed in alchemy.

With this in mind, I don’t even need to start on the path of investigating Mr. Bushman’s claims of employment and background, which many people have called into question.

The second reason people tend to believe deathbed confessions is, “they have nothing to lose!” After all, the person making the deathbed confession is – barring something miraculous – dying. Being killed by the Men in Black at that point is no longer a threat because they’re about to die anyway.

While this certainly makes sense, there are plenty of other reasons why a deathbed confession would actually not be reliable. For one, at least for those who are older and close to death, senility can play a role. It is a normal part of aging, and for the record, Mr. Bushman was 78 when he died. I’m not claiming that senility played a role in this case, I’m merely raising it as a complicating factor of an older person’s testimony.

That aside, a deathbed confession can be a good time to solidify one’s reputation and use the deathbed confession phenomenon and the belief in its veracity to double-down on the claim to increase peoples’ belief in it.

The thinking could easily be, “People really believe that people are 100% honest on their deathbed, so I’m going to make sure I go out with a ‘bang’ and make my claims yet again. People who didn’t believe me before might this time because they’ll think I’m telling the truth ’cause I’m about to die.”

However, in addition to explaining why the common reasons to believe deathbed confession testimony are unconvincing, there’s a better reason why the testimony is not useful: They’re doing it wrong.

Let’s say I had a bunch of secrets of exotic physics and decided to do a deathbed confession. Here’s what I would say: “I’ve been working on antigravity and warp field physics for the last 50 years, in secret, with the US government.” Then, instead of showing photos of a spaceship or a blurry alien – if even that as opposed to just speaking to the camera – I would add: “And, here are the equations. Here is a diagram for how you build a device. Here is a working model. Here is exactly how you put everything together.”

In other words, it shouldn’t matter who I am, what my experience is, or what pretty (or ugly) picture I show. What I need to show is HOW to do it. Saying something doesn’t make it so. I need to give enough information for someone else to verify it and duplicate it. Otherwise, what’s the point? To show I’m smarter than everyone else and I’m just letting you know that before I die?

That’s why I find this whole deathbed confession thing unconvincing and, perhaps more importantly, unuseful: We have no more information than we had before. We have no way to verify any of the information claimed. No way to test or duplicate it. At *best*, we have another person claiming this stuff is real, and while he or she may be proven out with the passage of time, their “confession” contributed absolutely nothing to that advancement.

Until then, it’s no better than any other pseudoscientific claim.


July 18, 2013

#TAM2013 Day ±0 Review by the PseudoAstronomer

Thursday, the day of optional workshops and the evening welcome reception.

Cost for an all-workshop pass is +$100 from the normal ticket price, or it is included with the TAM experience. Or, a single workshop will run you $45. I don’t remember how much the evening stuff was, I think $40.

Early Morning

The day before the official events, there is no provided food other than at the welcome reception that evening. That was fine with me, I was too nervous to eat, giving the first workshop, 1A, “How Your Camera Lies to You.” You can read a description of it on this blog post.

Let me be clear, I’ve given presentations before. To well over 100 people. Both science talks at conferences and public talks. But, this was my second TAM, people had a choice of what to go to (this workshop or a blogging one), and people were actually paying and had the option not to pay and not to go. And it was at 8AM and anyone coming from out of town would likely be jet-lagged … if coming from the East or more than a few timezones West (Australia, New Zealand, etc.). I wasn’t sure if I would be awake.

I set three different alarms on two devices and woke up several times before them, including once due to a nightmare where nothing worked and everyone walked out and DJ Grothe (President of the JREF) had to refund everyone. Not a great way to start the day.

First Workshop Block

Obviously, I went to Workshop 1A. There’s video and photo proof! Or, evidence anyway.

Stuart Robbins and Bryan Bonner at TAM 2013, Workshop 1A

Stuart Robbins and Bryan Bonner at TAM 2013, Workshop 1A

The room had 352 chairs (2 macro columns, 16 rows, 11 columns each). I was hoping for at least 100 people, to have more than the blogging workshop (no offense, Skeptic Ink), and good reviews (pending…). I took a photo part-way through, and at 8:24AM, there were 164 people sitting or standing, 2 AV folks, and myself and Bryan presenting. The room looked much more full than that, but 164 people for an 8AM thing is not bad.

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Attendance

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Attendance

I think the workshop went well. I got compliments throughout the next few days, people seemed engaged, and they laughed at the correct times (no, we did not have a “LAUGH NOW” sign up, they did it on their own).

Bryan and I have ideas for a follow-up workshop for next year that wouldn’t require having seen the one this year. And I have other ideas for stuff I could present or do a panel on or … well, that’s a separate story. If you went to TAM, and you liked the workshop, please make sure that the JREF knows!

That’s not to say that everything was perfect. It almost wouldn’t be TAM if there weren’t A/V issues. Nothing on our end, but microphones were not working and I had to speak into Bryan’s chest once or twice to use his lapel mic. ‘Sok, we made it funny.

Second Workshop Block

I had friends presenting during the second workshop, but I was too exhausted (and wound up) to go to it and I needed to deposit all my demo stuff in my hotel room. Speaking of hotel room: I was on the 22nd floor again this year. Apparently, you can get a lower floor room just by asking. I plan to do that next year.

Anyway, I instead went to breakfast at the Coronado in the hotel with a few other folks (mostly Colorado folks, incl. the co-presenter, Bryan). I maintain my evaluation from last year: Coronado is SLOW and EXPENSIVE. I do NOT recommend it.

Oh, the options for this block were “Skepticism Around the Curriculum” and “Crowd-Sourcing Skepticism.”

Third Workshop Block

Options during this block were “Physicists, Metaphysicists and Frauds” and “Supporting Skepticism Around the World.”

I went to 3B due to the desire not to work in small groups and because 3B had huge names (Richard Saunders, Leo Igwe, and Sanal Edamaruku — a guy for whom James Randi started at least one standing ovation during his talk). DJ Grothe and Richard Saunders had to leave about 40 minutes into the workshop because of a Million Dollar Challenge development, and Senal came in an hour late. Otherwise, the entire workshop was really more a monologue with different actors — I’m not saying anyone was “playing” a part or that it was scripted, but it wasn’t even much of a dialogue like the panels later on during TAM, it was each person said their bit about skepticism activities and/or persecution in their part of the world, or a part they were interested in.

I’m not saying it was bad, and I’m not saying that any individual was bad. An effectively smaller version of this was what I thought was the best workshop last year. But, it wasn’t a workshop.

Fourth Workshop Block

Neither was 4A, “Science Based Medicine” (your other option was “Preserving Skeptic History” … I always hated history class, so I went to SBM). As last year, it was a few MDs talking about something they wanted to talk about for about 15 minutes and that was about it. If billed as a “lecture,” that would’ve been fine. But I think it’s false-advertising to be calling these things “workshops.”

Fifth Workshop Block

At this point, I was feeling the 3 hrs of sleep 3 days in a row and I really had to nap during this block. The options were, “How Rational Are You?” and “Skeptics in the Dojo: Taking on the Martial Arts.”

The fifth workshop block ended at 5:45, then it was dinner on your own for another hour.25.


The reception was 7:00-9:00, and this year, with my bf NOT driving through town, I stayed the whole time. I spoke with many people (several dozen?) and some were those who had attended and liked the workshop (yay!). I also got to meet Tom and Cecil of the Cognitive Dissonance podcast, probably my favorite of the 3 new ones I started listening to after my blog post a few months ago about what podcasts I listen to.

The food was free and decent (I went for the chicken and fruit), and I think the alcohol cost money (I don’t drink so that wasn’t an issue).

George Hrab introduced James Randi maybe an hour into the event, and Randi officially kicked off TAM to much applause and then people went back to talking and drinking and eating.

Evening Show: What THEY Don’t Want You To Know

The evening show this night (and all nights) was 9-11. Bryan and Baxter are Colorado skeptic staples, and they’ve been to every Skepticamp I’ve gone to except one in Fort Collins and the one last month in Colorado Springs. And I gave the workshop with Bryan. So, I’m kinda biased, but I’d put them probably first in terms of the three evening shows this year. And I’m saying that as someone who had seen pretty much ALL of the clips they showed.

If Bryan and Baxter are invited back – and they should be – I recommend going to their show.

After the Evening Show

You’d think that after very little sleep, getting up at 6:30AM, getting MAYBE a 1.5-2 -hour nap, and it being 11PM that I would go to bed straight-away. Alas, no. First option is the Del Mar lounge, which is the staple of TAM. The “watering hole” as it were. Or, perhaps, “alcoholing hole.” You might find TAMers there until the very late hours of the night, maybe even up ’til breakfast the next morning.

My alternative option was that the Colorado folks and a few others got a suite on the top floor, and there was booze and actually audible conversation there. And, it was a good place for me to bring the baked goods I brought (candied pecans, chocolate-mint fudge, and key lime meltaway cookies). I stayed up there probably until around 1AM.

Overall Comments

To follow-up on my comments from yesterday when I recommended that you arrive on Wednesday if you can, I’ll modify it to say that if you can’t arrive Wednesday, you need to arrive early Thursday and go to as much as you can. Well, at least the evening stuff. I honestly wish I could recommend the workshops more (other than my own of course, which was EXCELLENT).

To be blunt, and honest, and hopefully not to burn any bridges, I was not impressed/thrilled with the workshop options this year — nothing really “popped” out at me as a super-exciting must-go-to thing (mine being a clear exception in the positive direction, obviously). I also think that they should have been kinda – you know – interactive. When I was begging DJ to let me do a workshop and pitching different ideas to him, one of the two main things I remember was that DJ insisted that the workshop be interactive. That’s the difference between a talk and a workshop.

Bryan and I tried really hard to make our workshop interactive in at least some way. And there was some. It wasn’t a break-into-groups-and-do-something thing or hands-on origami folding, but there was back-and-forth and some audience participation. There was very little of that in any other workshop except I think 3A. There was NONE of it in the two others I went to, 3B and 4A, and those were by some of the biggest names in organized scientific skepticism. That bugs me. Not because I tried hard and did something that others didn’t, but because they didn’t and so their workshops were not as good as they could have been.

I think what TAM needs is to clearly state that there are some workshops and there are some lectures. Mine was a workshop. 3A was a workshop. 3B and 4A were lectures.

My other comment on the workshops is that they were shorter this year — 90 minutes instead of 120. That was hard for me and Bryan (or at least me) because we had SO MUCH CONTENT that we left out because we couldn’t fit it. But, as someone sitting in the audience, I think that this was a better timespan. I mean, my own attention span was lagging during some parts of my 90-minute workshop, and there comes a point where you just have to get up and stretch, or focus on something else for a few minutes.

#TAM2013 Day -1 Review by the PseudoAstronomer

Wednesday, the day before workshops and the welcome reception.

(Note: Last year I did a massive TAM 2012 review. I’m breaking it up into days this year.)

Getting There

I had a 9:30ish AM flight, meaning I had to leave my place around 6:30, meaning I got very little sleep. Not a good way to start things off.

I had called the South Point hotel to get a reservation for the 11AM shuttle. The next shuttle wouldn’t come until 12:30; the shuttles are at Terminal 1, and you cannot walk to it. My flight got into Terminal 3 at 10:20, and Frontier decided not to tell us that the baggage carousel was not working and didn’t switch to another one. Perhaps needless to say, I missed the shuttle.

Fortunately, I met two other TAMers on the interterminal shuttle, and we split cab fare to the hotel. The total was around $28. Check in went fine, and I got a late lunch in the hotel at the buffet (I didn’t get to try it last year). Wasn’t bad.


I really should have slept, but I didn’t. Checkin for TAM was going to be at 1PM, but due to computer issues, it started at 3PM. I spent time talking with the friendly atheists from the Richard Dawkins Foundation (I know them reasonably well since they’re from Colorado Springs and they and us (the Denver folks) go to similar events like Skepticamp).

They also set up around 4:30 to interview me (they interviewed around two dozen presenters and will be putting out videos later — I’ll link when I know where they are, or where mine is). The interview was to last ~15 min and be boiled down to ~5 min, but since I was the first and we did many takes, I was there for about an hour. All good. And then re-did on Sunday (that’ll be on the Day +3 post).

I then napped.


I had a cheap-o dinner at Steak ‘n Shake inside the casino. I took my milkshake to the venerable Del Mar lounge to talk with other TAM folks and pimp my workshop that would be starting in about 11 hours. I met two fans of my podcast (yay!) and convinced a few people to come to the workshop.

When the rest of the Colorado folks arrived around 10:30ish, Bryan and I sat down to go over the presentation for the workshop.

And then there was bed.


Not a bad start. Well, bad start with transportation, but once I got there, I had a good time and met new people (my second-main goal this year was to be more social).

I honestly recommend that if you’re going to TAM, you get there on Wednesday. It’s so much less pressure to go to stuff, you just get to ease into Vegas (something this country boy needs), and there are fewer people there so you can actually hear yourself talking to others.

And if you happen to be doing a workshop the next morning at 8AM, you can try to talk people into going.

February 18, 2013

I’m Goin’ to TAM 2013 (The Amaz!ng Meeting)



I wasn’t entirely certain based on last year’s experience (it was my first time, and I was pretty overwhelmed, but one’s first time is always kinda special in its own way). To repeat the relevant parts from my post summarizing my TAM experience last year:

I guess the bottom-line question at this point is, based on all the above, was TAM worth the time and the expense? … It’s honestly hard for me to give a giant, resounding, unconditional “yes” that I’ll spend at least $1100 next year to come to TAM. …

With all that said (written), will I go next year? As the Magic 8 Ball would say, “All signs point to ‘Yes.’”


I can’t honestly say that there aren’t some extenuating or special circumstances towards me going this year that a lot of people have helped make happen. Well, one, really … I’m presenting! I’ll be doing a workshop that has, as of this writing, been scheduled for first thing on Thursday morning, Workshop 1A, 8:00A.M. sharp. Someone needs to make sure I’m awake, please. Appropriately, I’m in the “Skeptical Education” track as opposed to the “Skeptical Activism” track.

The workshop title is: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From UFOs to Ghosts, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography.” I’ll be co-leading it with a veteran presenter, Bryan Bonner of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Society. Bryan was a professional photographer for many, many years (maybe still is? I’m actually not entirely sure what his day job is).

I already have a fairly fleshed out outline for the workshop, and I will be giving at least one short version of it at the Denver Skepticamp in April. But, there’s always room at this point for changes, additions, and deletions.

Rough Outline

To give you an idea at this point …

First third is going to be more of a (I hate to use the word, but …) lecture-style where Bryan and I are going to talk about how cameras and various forms of detectors (film, tape, CCD) work with an emphasis on – especially these days – how cameras cheat and lie about what they really imaged in order to be faster and cheaper that, in most cases, don’t matter, but can result in anomalies that someone will point to and say is Nibiru coming to get us.

The second third is going to be more interactive and focus on purposeful human manipulation. Bryan will talk about old darkroom tricks while I’ll focus more on the basics of image processing in a digital age. We’ll bring in examples of some of the more famous anomalies in images, such as some famous ghost images, UFO photos, and the Face on Mars.

The next third is going to be an in-depth image analysis that will be very interactive. The idea is that we’ll present some images and have you try to figure out what’s going on and how to tell if it’s been manipulated and, if so, how that may have happened … or at least how you can tell if it’s been manipulated. Cue the lunar ziggurat or Hoagland’s pink energy beam.

The fourth third is to leave a block of time at the end for any questions.


Something D.J. (JREF president) emphasized to me is that interactivity should be a major part of workshops at TAM. That’s the point of a “workshop” versus a talk or panel. And I honestly was disappointed last year that many of the workshops were NOT interactive and yet they were two hours long.

This year, we have 90 minutes as opposed to 120. But, I would like to know what you folks think would be good ways for us workshop presenters (myself and Bryan) to better make this interactive. Ideas at the moment are:

  • Obviously questions can be asked.
  • The audience trying to figure out what’s going on in the images.
  • Soliciting people who are going to the workshop to send in photos that we could choose from to analyze during the workshop.
  • iPod/Pad/Phone and/or Android “app” that covers the basics we’ll talk about, and/or a handout.

For that last bullet point, if anyone thinks this is a good idea, please also suggest a programmer who’d be interested in working on this for free. Yes, I’m a part-time freelancer/contractor, and I read the “Clients from Hell” blog, so don’t lecture me about expecting stuff for free being foolish. Ideally the person is already into science/skepticism/education/etc. and so understands that there is no budget for this and it’s community outreach.

Final Thoughts

All that said, I’m looking forward to this but I’m also pretty nervous. This is a big step up from doing a blog, or a podcast, or an interview, or a local talk. After this, I’ll be able to say I did a show in Vegas!

We’ll see what happens. And, over the next few months as TAM gets closer, I’ll be planning this out more and post more details.

So, if you’re planning on going to TAM, and you can manage to be awake at 8AM, please consider coming to Workshop 1A!

July 17, 2012

My TAM 2012 Experience – The Good, The Bad, The Looking-Forward-to-Next-Year


This is likely going to be a long post, almost a travel log, and I’m writing it both to organize my own thoughts and because some folks asked me to write it. So, here you go, my thoughts from my first TAM (“The Amaz!ng Meeting”) experience at TAM 2012. The theme this year was “The Future of Skepticism.”

I want to make it very clear at the beginning: Overall I enjoyed TAM. It may seem like I complain a lot below, but that’s the nature of most things — it’s much easier to point out what you think was wrong versus everything that was right. And I do realize that this is a JREF fund-raising event. I also want to very much thank DJ Grothe (JREF president), Randi, George Hrab, and all the organizers for the event as I do realize how much work goes into it.

A James Randi Sighting

A James Randi Sighting

Cost Associated

I’m a scientist used to having grants pay for his travel to conferences. I look at the expenses, I generally don’t pay too close attention, though I try to find cheap hotels (if not at a conference center) and cheap flights. Registration costs for the three main conferences I go to each year are $100 student now $215 professional (Lunar & Planetary science Conference), free (Lunar Science Forum), and free (Planetary Crater Consortium meeting). This was the first conference I’ve ever gone to where I’ve had to 100% pay my own way with no expectation of reimbursement. I was a bit sticker-shocked, but I have this section here so that people who have not gone have a vague idea of what to expect.

Required Costs:

Registration: $425 — base cost for early registration, non-student
Additional Registration: $100 — all workshop pass (not “required,” but the only events for one out of the four days of the conference)
Hotel: $341.60 — five nights at the hotel/casino (South Point), Wednesday through Sunday nights, conference rate; I tried to find a roommate but I was unsuccessful (though honestly didn’t try too hard)
Airfare*: $108.80 + $149.80 — between Denver, CO and Las Vegas, NV; both within the USA
Ground Transportation: None, as there was a free shuttle between the airport and hotel.

Total Required Costs: $1125.20

*Note: I followed this conference up immediately with a work conference, flying Denver -> Las Vegas, Las Vegas -> San José (California), and then San José -> Denver (with coincidentally a layover in Las Vegas). The cost may have been a bit different if I had gone directly back to Denver, but I listed the flight out of Vegas as the cost.

Incidental Costs (your mileage WILL vary):

Swag: $82 — I bought a DNA tie for my dad for $22, a Penn Jillette bacon/doughnut party t-shirt for $20 that went directly to the JREF, and two shirts for $40 (one gift of “Praise Bacon,” one “Europa Fishing” for me) where the money went directly to the JREF, too.
Food: $60-70 — I tried to keep track of this but it’s likely I missed a charge or two

Total Incidental Costs: $122

Note: You can easily get by for much less here by not buying any swag and bringing your own food or eating much more cheaply than I. Similarly, you could go much higher on this by getting more swag and buying more expensive food and any alcohol (I don’t drink so that was not a cost I had to deal with). More if you see a show — I was lucky and my significant other was driving through town, met me on Thursday, and took me to a show so this was not a cost for me. Oh … and much more if you end up gambling (I did not).

All told, this conference cost me roughly $1250 USD. Plus, of course, vacation time from work.

Wednesday — Pre-TAM

I definitely recommend arriving Wednesday. Even though there’s really nothing formal going on, many people do arrive on Wednesday and it’s good for meeting people. I held the meetup for my podcast and along with my begging of 6 people to come, I had a total of 10 across the course of a few hours.

On Wednesday night in the Del Mar “lounge” area, I got to meet several “big name” people in the skeptics movement, also in said lounge, including the three Novella brothers (“The Novellum”) and Evan of the SGU, D.J. Grothe and his would-be husband (though I didn’t officially meet Thomas until Sunday night), and a few others such as Joshie Berger.

I should probably note for those who have not been to Vegas before (I had not): Be prepared for rampant commercialism, lots of blinking and flashy lights, and a smell of cigarette smoke wafting everywhere. I was a bit unprepared.

Thursday — Workshops

As I wrote above, I bought the all-workshop pass. I’m honestly not certain I would do that again. I went to Workshops 1B (“From Witch-burning to God-men: Supporting Skepticism Around the World”), 2A (“Dr. Google”), 3A (“Astronomy for Skeptics: Investigating “Lights” in the Sky”), and 4A (“Investigative Methods for the Skeptic”).

1B was excellent and I learned a lot about the persecution of anyone who thinks critically in much of Africa.

2A was interesting and I’m glad I went, though it was less of a workshop than mini-lectures by four doctors about why Google isn’t good for finding medical information unless you know what to look for and what to ignore. Steve Novella ran 50% over his allotted 20 minutes, which honestly pissed me off and is generally a pet peeve of mine (it’s rude to the other speakers, rude to the audience, and is arrogant to think you’re so important that (a) you don’t have to follow the rules everyone else does, (b) let others speak, and (c) work to trim your talk to the allotted time like everyone else did). He also was the moderator so he didn’t cut himself off. Otherwise, I would have preferred more interaction (see my discussion about Day 3).

3A I was NOT going to go to, rather I was going to go to 3B (“The Future of Skepticism Online: Crowd-Sourced Activism”). I had been told previously that James McGaha (who gave 3A) was a bad speaker, but then the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Society (RMPS) folks convinced me to go anyway and see his approach to the subject. Instead of describing it here, I wrote a blog post describing just a few of the major issues with his presentation.

4A I thought was also an excellent workshop given by the RMPS guys, the hosts of MonsterTalk, and the hosts of the “Oh No Ross and Carrie” podcast. I catered it and got a “shout out” by Bryan and Baxter (the two RMPS guys) as one of the “excellent” experts they call on when confronted with claims they don’t have the expertise to address.

I went to the reception that was the official start of TAM at 7:00, but then left to go out as I mentioned above. I did not go to any of the late night shows that required a separate ticket purchase or other things.

Friday – Day 1

The official start of TAM was an included breakfast (which followed through Sunday) with a live recording of the SGU podcast for an hour. I was a bit surprised with how dirty the guys were when live – several penis and self-pleasuring (this is a PG blog …) references that I would be very surprised if they make it into the actual released show.

The official-official start was humorous and pleasant, as were the first two talks by Michael Shermer and Eugenie Scott (though Shermer had issues finding out where the “Play” button was on the presentation software). Which itself bears mention — the A/V at TAM was not good. It was surprising how often microphones were not working, slides were not working, and the large projectors showed a person’s head behind the podium instead of the slides they had said 5 seconds ago to leave up. I recognize they had four cameras going and three projectors plus microphones and a computer, but given the expense to attendees when compared with the conferences I normally go to with no A/V problems, I was surprised. Moving on …

I didn’t go to the next two talks, but instead became a temporary “groupie” of Eugenie Scott in the hallway and told her that it was she who really got me interested in the creationism stuff and back into skepticism in around 2004 after a brief interest around 1999 sparked by Phil Plait.

The next talk I went to was given by Dr. Karen Stollznow (fianceé of one of the two RMPS guys, so I know her well). I was honestly pleasantly surprised. Her talk title was, “Talking to Tomorrow – Prediction and Language,” and I thought it would be boring from the title — I always hated English class and my one goal in high school was to place out of it for college. Instead, Karen’s talk was about claimed mediums and ways to illustrate that they were con artists (e.g., the channeler and “the voice” speaking through them mispronouncing the same words). I would say her’s was one of the best talks, and I’m not just saying that ’cause I was her date the next day (more on that later).

“Free” (read: “included”) lunch was next and I was surprised with how good the food was for a hotel. I did not go to the fundraising lunch, though I saw the end of a recording of “Penn’s Sunday School” podcast.

I saw the next two talks, the interview with Randi being excellent, and the panel on “The Future of Skepticism” with yet another Colorado guy, Reed Esau, I also thought was pretty good.

I did not go to the next several talks, nor did I go to any of the separate-ticket-purchase-required evening events.

I almost went to a Sylvia Browne protest, but there was not room in the few cars so did not attend. I did get in the photo of the pre-rally, though.

Pre- Sylvia Browne Protest

Pre- Sylvia Browne Protest: Convicted Felon Sylvia Brown is a Horse’s Ass

I did go to Penn Jillette’s “Rock & Roll, Doughnut and Bacon Party 2: Bring the Stupid” party. It was in the hotel, it was free, it did require a ticket, and it was pretty neat at the beginning. Penn made no pretense about it having good music (it was him singing), but the shear number of doughnuts and amount of bacon – for free – was nice. I also got there early, was able to gift him some bacon-chocolate bark I made (with my professional and podcast business cards in the zip-top bag), and I was close enough to the stage to catch a t-shirt he threw (“Praise Bacon”) without even flashing my moobs. Well, to be completely honest, I co-caught it with Matthew Baxter, but it was a Large size (and he’s taller and larger than I) and he was gracious in letting me keep it. I left after two songs and bought the souvenir shirt, the $20 going to the JREF.

Doughnuts and Bacon at Penn Jillette's Doughnut and Bacon Party

Doughnuts and Bacon at Penn Jillette’s Doughnut and Bacon Party

Saturday – Day 2

I got up early for Day 2 and saw Ben Radford’s talk on 2012. I gave a summary of it here. I did not go to the next several talks because they did not interest me (and I really don’t understand why some of the presenters were even giving talks as I do not understand the reason for their celeb, but that’s all I’m going to say on this matter) except for the 9:00 panel on Skepticism and the Humanities. I regret not going to Jamy Ian Swiss’s talk, though. I did sit in for most of Pamela Gay’s talk and then left to meet people for the included lunch.

I went to most of the rest of the talks, skipping only Elisabeth Cornwell’s “Social Networks” one. During her talk, I went up to my room to change into something more presentable: I was going to the special speakers’ dinner at 6:30.

There were roughly eight of us in the Colorado contingent, and five of us were speakers in some capacity. The speakers’ dinner invites all speakers plus one guest each, so we were all able to go; I was Karen’s “plus one” though when she walked ahead of me with her fiancée, I ended up being Bryan Bonner’s “plus one” (one of the RMPS folks).

The dinner was one of the other highlights for me because, well, I got to gush to more people about how they influenced me and I looked up to them. I brought chocolate and was walking around attempting to network (thanks again to Reed Esau for introducing me to people). I talked with Eugenie Scott again, I spoke with Ben Radford about my issues with his talk in the morning (and he was amenable to the critiques) while explaining to him that I look up to him for his investigations, I spoke again with DJ Grothe about several things (surprised he remembered me from Wednesday) and I offered him my support (despite how relatively insignificant I am) with many of the claims of marginalizing women and sexual harassment at TAM.

(Note here I said “many,” not “all,” and I do not mean to marginalize any legitimate instances of sexual harassment, but I do think that much of the discussion that “went down” a few months ago was blown way out of proportion.)

Reed also put in many, many good words for me with DJ in an effort to get a talk/panel/workshop of some sort next year; DJ said to stay in touch, and I will be following up on that. I also spoke with Ray Hall, Rachael Dunlop, Brian Dunning, and others. With Ray Hall, I got some insight into potentially why my application to talk about 2012 astronomy doomsday stuff had been rejected (he was looking for solid data of influence, changed minds, reader/listenership, etc … none of this was asked on the application, though, which he acknowledged and said he would look at revising). He also said he had thought there would be more of the 2012 stuff at TAM this year and that was likely another reason my application was turned down.

Someone also had an extra ticket to the “A Carlin Home Companion” show, which I went to most of, and then I retired to bed for I was very sleep-deprived. I wish at this point that I hadn’t, though, because the Colorado group went to the Del Mar lounge afterwards and had a gay ol’ time with DJ Grothe and his domestic partner, among others, and I wish I had joined them.

Sunday – Day 3

On Sunday, I went to about half of the papers of which mine was not accepted. Some talks were good, some I was not impressed with. I was tweeted by one person who said one of the talks was so bad he was pretty upset that mine was rejected by comparison. I thanked him but chose not to make much of it and respect those people who did get Sunday morning talks. /me ≠ bitter. As I said, I greatly appreciate the time that people put into organizing this conference.

I went to the next panel on alt. med stuff that I thought was pretty good. I did not go to the next two talks, though I honestly do not remember what I was doing instead. Oh well. I swear I wasn’t drunk. Oh wait, now I remember. I went down to the casino lobby to use the one free wireless internet area because I had run out of the 1GB data plan on my iPad but only had two days before the next billing period so didn’t want to pay $20 for another GB. Since breakfast was the last included meal, I went for lunch in the lobby and then went to the remaining talks and panels.

Unfortunately, I missed most of the “Beware the Religio-Industrial Complex” talk because at 4:00 I went into a small room as someone who may be chosen to be a volunteer for a claimant for the Million-Dollar Challenge (MDC) that would take place starting at 7:30. I was the third to be tested by the claimant and put down as a “maybe” but was then passed over as he found 10 guys strong enough to do what he needed. This also meant I unfortunately missed the closing remarks and Reed Esau being given a prestigious JREF award for all his excellent work in getting Skepticamp created and going.

Reed Esau with James Randi and Reed's Award

Reed Esau with James Randi and Reed’s Award

I sat in workshop 5B, “Promoting Skepticism in Classroom Settings,” briefly before deciding that it was not what I had hoped, and it was less interactive than I hoped. Sorry, but when I hear the word “workshop” I usually think “audience involvement,” not “another lecture.”

I napped and then went to the Million Dollar Challenge. I did not go to the CosmoQuest meetup at 7 because I was still potentially an alternate for the MDC and because I did not have a ride. I went to the MDC and decided that I was glad I was not one of the volunteers selected. They sat up there on stage for 90 minutes doing nothing except for the ~8 minutes they were being tested. I sat in the audience and watched and listened and worked on processing my photos from the December 2010 total lunar eclipse.

December 2010 Lunar Eclipse

December 2010 Lunar Eclipse

There are numerous run-downs of the MDC, so I’m not really going to go into details of what the guy was claiming, how he was doing it, and the protocol established for testing. I’ll say it was a guy who was using applied kinesiology to try to prove that a chip he invented and embedded in a bracelet made your balance and strength better (his initial evidence: it increased his bench press by 20 lbs). There were going to be 20 trials where he had to determine if the band inside an opaque box held by a volunteer was a placebo band or his band. It was double-blinded. He needed to get 17 (or more) correct to pass, which had roughly a 0.1% chance of succeeding by chance alone.

His first trial took around 3 minutes and he got it wrong. I spoke with Banachek at length afterwards (he’s in charge of the MDC) and he said that the look on the guy’s face when he got it wrong was an “Oh sh-t” look, so he thinks the guy is a true believer rather than a knowing deceiver. All other trials took closer to 10 minutes.

The guy got pretty much exactly chance by the 10th try (4 hits, 6 misses), and when Volunteer #7, Rich Orman (another CO guy), was his fourth miss, speculation in the crowd turned from “how long before he’s out?” to, “what’s his rationalization going to be?” To his credit, he continued to try hard to figure out the remaining three (fortunately they all agreed to stop after 10) as opposed to just breezing through to get off the stage to go cry, which is what I would have done.

I thought the crowd was very generous, and I applauded more for him than for any other talk during TAM. It takes guts to stand up in front of hundreds of skeptics and do what he did. He was also gracious enough to take questions from the audience. He still, immediately, said that he believes in his product. The rationalization on why the test failed was that it was blinded and that the people did not know they were holding his band. AKA, they didn’t know they were supposed to experience the placebo effect. He pretty much said that his bands work by doing the placebo effect, which led most of us to think he doesn’t know what the placebo effect is. When asked how he developed it, his answer was the standard new-age / pseudoscience of, “I read” books and NASA sites and other things and put it all together. It should be noted that he did agree — like all MDC claimants — to the experimental protocol in advance.

I went to dinner with many of the Colorado folks afterwards and then went to the Del Mar lounge to try to talk with more of the famous folks. Miranda Hale introduced me to DJ’s partner and he introduced me to a few people. I ended up getting to sit down in a group with Jamy Swiss and Banachek and talk with them for probably close to an hour. DJ and Thomas had gone to bed by that point. I tried to leave to go to bed around 12:30, but it took me around an hour to cross the 20 feet of the lounge because I kept getting into conversations with other people.

Other Stuff

First, I need to state here that though I said above, “I didn’t go to” some talks, I went to about 70% of them. It may have sounded like I went to less, so I wanted to clarify. I’ll admit I have a difficult time sitting in one place for too long and concentrating on people giving lectures for hours in a row.

Next, I suppose I should specify that in previous parts of this post, by “Colorado group,” I meant middle/northern Colorado. There was another contingent from Colorado Springs, and they were generally managing the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science table. I stopped by them many times and hobnobbed.

Similarly, I was at the CosmoQuest (Pamela Gay’s) table a fair bit. Not for any significant amount of time, but I tried to stop by several times a day for a few minutes in case there were any questions on the immediate science we were doing.

Otherwise, there were lots of tables set up with numerous atheist and skeptic organizations. I perused them and bought some stuff (as I mentioned earlier under the cost of this conference). I was a bit surprised at the number of atheist booths. I realize that many skeptics are atheists, but there is a rather significant argument in the movement over how much each should embrace the other. Hence, I was a bit surprised.

I was also surprised – though I really shouldn’t have been – at how much the hotel/casino attempts to nickel and dime you. Need to withdraw money from an ATM? 5% fee. Need a corkscrew for a wine bottle? $5. Having a package delivered for you to the front desk? $5 handling fee. More pillows in your room? Up to 2 more that will be removed the next morning. Wireless? $13 per day per device except in the hotel lobby where all the gambling and smoke is. Power for the tables where people had their stuff set up? $90 per table.

In other “other stuff,” I handed out a lot of business cards for my podcast – probably over 100 – and I’m hoping at least a third of them are kept and the podcast tried out, word spreading, etc., but we’ll see. I also modified my cards for the next printing to include some additional information based on what I had wished I put down as I was handing them out and so had to write down on the back.

Exposing PseudoAstronomy Podcast Business Card v. 1.3b

Exposing PseudoAstronomy Podcast Business Card v. 1.3b

Exposing PseudoAstronomy Podcast Business Card v. 1.4

Exposing PseudoAstronomy Podcast Business Card v. 1.4

Final Thoughts

I guess the bottom-line question at this point is, based on all the above, was TAM worth the time and the expense? I’m sitting here in the Vegas airport writing this post and waiting for my delayed flight (slating this post to be published in a day or two to give the appearance of regular posting on my blog). It’s honestly hard for me to give a giant, resounding, unconditional “yes” that I’ll spend at least $1100 next year to come to TAM. The only way to reduce that cost is to share a hotel room with someone, and that would only cut it down to around $950. Possibly I could drive, as well, but it’s around 14 hours each way and not something I’d look forward to.

I would like to go next year. It was enjoyable, and I met people that I’d like to see again. Being able to talk one-on-one with some of the VIPs that I’ve come to respect (and know by voice) over the last few years was a great experience. I enjoyed many – but unfortunately, not all – of the talks that I went to. I also found the quality of the talks/workshops to be very inconsistent, and technical difficulties became a running joke along with the additional costs for nearly everything at the venue.

I think an improvement would actually be to run parallel talks even for the main ones so that people are more likely to find something they want to listen to the entire time. As I wrote above, there were several talks I had absolutely no interest in.

In talking with a few other people, I also think that there should have been a first-TAMers mixer, I think the MDC should have been closer to the beginning of the conference, and I was surprised there was no SGU informal meetup – at least for SGU fans / forum folks. There were also apparently some other mixers open to everyone, like an LGBT one, but the lack of formal advertisement for these meant that very few knew about them.

With all that said (written), will I go next year? As the Magic 8 Ball would say, “All signs point to ‘Yes.'”

July 14, 2012

Some Astronomical Errors at TAM 2012


As some of you know, I’m attending the James Randi Education Foundation’s annual skeptics meeting, “The Amazing Meeting” (TAM) this year for the first time. I’m excited to be here, meeting people I’ve grown to look up to for the past few years, getting thrown a shirt last night by Penn Jillette without even having to flash my moobs, gushing at idols, etc.

That said, in the absolute least bitter/arrogant way possible, and with all due respect, I’ve been amazed at the astronomy (and astronomy-related) mistakes that have made their way into talks at this conference.

Edited to Add (07/20/2012): I put an “Addendum” at the end of the post to explain a bit more about McGaha’s errors.

“Astronomy for Skeptics: Investigating ‘Lights’ in the Sky” Workshop

To be perfectly blunt, James McGaha’s workshop was bad. The workshop as a whole was scattered content-wise, not cohesive, and very little of the workshop focused on the advertised content. Besides this, roughly half of his informational statements were factually wrong.

After calming down after the workshop, I wrote down some of the main errors I remembered. Among them …

McGaha stated that the Maya didn’t have any math, they could only count, and that’s what the Long Count calendar was, just a count. True, that’s what the Long Count was, simply a count of days in multiples of 20 and 18 and 13. But the Maya – while not nearly as sophisticated as modern mathematicians despite what new-agers want to think – had a very complex mathematics system for their time. They could count, yes, but they could do things with those counts, and they could make astronomical predictions spanning hundreds of years with a good understanding of celestial cycles.

Technologically, McGaha claimed that all GPS compasses cannot actually tell direction via GPS, that they have a small magnetometer in them that must be calibrated every time. This may be true for some. Might be true for your cellphone, your tablet, and some GPS stand-alone devices. But I have a nice field GPS. It tells direction in part by simply seeing how I’ve walked the last few steps and thus taking a difference of the latitude and longitude in order to tell what direction I’m going. No calibration required. He also said that if you hold a battery close to it, it will throw the reading off. Um, no.

After he was finished doing demos with a two-inch device to a room of 300 people, he got into some photography stuff. Among many other things, McGaha consistently messed up “pixel scale” and “resolution” as well as focus and depth of field. I’m not going to get too much into the latter because I was busy with something else while he was going over it, but for the former … “pixel scale” is when you say something like how many pixels per unit of measure. Like, each pixel in a photo is 2 inches in real life of the object being imaged. Resolution, on the other hand, is how many pixels are there. A high-resolution photo is saying that it’s something like 26 megapixels versus 1.3. It may be the most out of focus, poorly imaged thing where you can’t separate two broad barn doors, but it’s still high resolution.

Later, McGaha tried to demonstrate the motions of the stars through the sky with some laser pointers. He got it wrong. He also had a graphic in his slide show trying to show how we define the coordinate system on the sky. His diagram was a bit wrong in how the celestial poles are defined (not from your local north/south, but exactly from Earth’s rotational axis projected onto the sky).

Finally, one of the last things that he talked about was how your eye tells color. He stated that your eye cannot figure out the color of a monochromatic light source directly, that it needs a comparison source to tell. That’s wrong. He also said that with a monochromatic light source, if you change the intensity, your eye will perceive a different color. Um, no. Take a 5mW and 25mW green laser pointer and your eye will see the same color, not different ones.

Ben Radford and 2012

This was a talk I went to because I wanted to see how a non-astronomer skeptic approached the topic. His half-hour talk was basically a run-down of previous failed doomsday predictions, the classes of doomsday prophetic ideas, some humorous clips and quotes from proponents of this particular one, and then a very very cursory (like, 5 minutes or so) overview of how this got started and the Mayan calendar.

There honestly (and unfortunately) wasn’t much meat to the talk, but when he did talk about the Maya, he made some mistakes. One was saying that the Long Count does end this year. This is wrong. It ends one of the 5125 parts of its cycle, but it ticks over to the next “one up digit” of it (like going from 9999 to 10,000). Another mistake was that Ben appeared not to know that this “next tick” may not be this year. It’s based on a correlation that may be wrong, and likely is based on the latest research. It could be easily off by any multiple of 52 years.

A third error in Ben’s talk was his statement that the “end date” only comes from one Mayan inscription. This was correct until a few months ago. Recently, archaeologists discovered another inscription from very roughly 1000 years ago that referred to it. Not a major issue, but it negated (or seriously minimized) his point, and for someone who is an investigator putting together a talk for a major skeptics conference, I was somewhat disappointed.

Ben also seemed to not realize that this meme did not start with recent movies and and books. It has a definite starting point in the 70s and a bit earlier with a few specific people (such as José Argüellas or John Major Jenkins or Zecharia Sitchen). He held up recent books, not the ones that started it.

Oh, and Ben, Tabasco sauce is not made in Mexico. It’s “produced by US-based McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana” — check Wikipedia.

I was okay with Ben not doing astronomy nor a summary of what people thought would happen. I was okay with the direction of his talk because, as I said, I wanted to see how a non-astronomer approached it. But factual errors and a lack of research from someone like Ben Radford was disappointing.

Final Thoughts

I realize this post may have sounded a bit annoyed and crotchety. But this is a skeptics conference where we’re pointing out where OTHER people are making mistakes. We should not be making our own.


Several people have asked me how McGaha got the motions of the sky wrong. Here’s a short, abridged list:

  • He didn’t know which way was north in the room even though he had just been demonstrating compasses for the past ten minutes.
  • Second, he was trying to show motions of the stars about the north celestial pole with laser pointers but instead of continuously rotating his hand to show them moving around the pole, he just rotated back and forth, effectively running time forwards and backwards. Having taught intro astro for people who don’t know astronomy, they WILL think that’s the actual motion if that’s how you demo it.
  • Third, he said that no matter where you are on Earth, no matter what time of year, the stars will always rise 23.5° relative to straight up from the horizon. This is very wrong. For example, at either pole, stars will never rise nor set, but they will move in a circle at the same elevation in your sky.

March 20, 2010

The “Youthful” Dynamics of Saturn’s Rings – A Preemptive Anti-Young-Earth Creationism Post


Several months ago, I posted on a young-Earth Creationism (YEC) article about uranium-238 radiometric dating of the solar system. In that article, I stated that I had one of my numerous psychic premonitions when I read the original science article that the creationists would use it somehow. But, I had no documentation backing that premonition up so I can’t apply for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s $1 Million prize. Darn.

In a much earlier post, nearly a year ago, I wrote a post on more YEC claims that the Saturnian system is young. I mentioned that they were indirectly using my own research in their claims.

Now, a year later, the science journal Icarus has its April special “Cassini at Saturn” edition out, and I happen to have a first-author paper in it. In addition, on Friday, the March 19, 2010 issue of the very prestigious journal Science has a 5-page article that kinda summarizes several of the papers in Icarus – including citing mine – that show that Saturn’s rings aren’t just boring slabs of particles orbiting away.

Call me “psychic,” but I have a feeling that some YECs will be using this in another of their attempts to propagate their version of a literal biblical worldview. This post is an attempt to summarize my own research on the rings and to show why the dynamics that we see are fully consistent with an old ring system.

Warning: This blog post rambles a bit more than usual. In it, I outline how models are created in astronomy, how that applies to the mass of Saturn’s rings, how the mass is linked to the age of the rings, and then my own research into the mass and hence age. It’s really a background post so that if/when the YECs pick up on this story I can just refer to it for background and just address the claims on that post.

How a Scientist Starts a Model

The entire purpose of physics is to mathematically produce a model that replicates the observable world. When a scientist starts out to create a model of a complicated system – say, Saturn’s rings – they will start with the simplest model possible and then add layers onto it in complexity.

Very early on, the rings were thought to be solid – thin disks that orbited Saturn. Later, that view changed to one where individual particles were thought to make up the rings. That’s the view we hold today.

In terms of the dynamics involved, in modeling the rings, one starts with a bunch of particles in orbit around a large central mass (the planet), and uses basic physics to describe how they would interact with each other. By adjusting parameters such as how big the particles are, how many there are, etc., you will get different results, and you can use the observable data to then constrain your model.

Some basic parameters that are still somewhat unknown about Saturn’s rings are the makeup of individual particles, their density, how “sticky” they are, how large they are, and how much material is actually there.

Old Voyager Results

Around the time I was born, the starship Voyager spacecraft (1 and 2) passed by Saturn. One of the many observations they made is called a “stellar occultation” through the rings. An “occultation” is when you block out a background object with a foreground one. In this case, a “stellar occultation” is when a star is blocked out, and this was by Saturn’s rings. The purpose was to measure how much light got through the rings in order to measure their “optical depth.” “Optical depth” is, well, how much light can get through something. An optical depth of 0 means that everything gets through.

Anyway, based on the Voyager measurements, which showed significant optical structure in the light that got through the rings, we had to complicate our models. And by “we” and “our” I mean the ring-studying community … I hadn’t quite entered kindergarden. The rings were still modeled as particles, but they were modeled like “granola bars” (in what is referred to as a “granola bar model”): Slabs of optically thick (no light gets through) clumps/aggregates of ring particles separated by optically thin (light gets through) gaps. In developing their models, the question now focussed on the width of those slabs and the width of the gaps between them.

It was from these models that values are still quoted today in terms of the height of the rings (“several yards” – though some places say “less than a mile”), the mass of the ring system (around the mass of the moon Mimas), and perhaps most importantly for this discussion, the age of the ring system.

The Copernican Principle

There’s a principle in astronomy that states, “We do not live in a unique time nor place until shown otherwise.” I’m not going to argue here whether that’s a good principle to live by and do research by, what its roots are, nor its “validity.” Regardless, it’s there and I personally think it’s fairly good to stick with for the time being because it forces us to do more work.

What came out of the Voyager results is that the ring system seemed “young.” “Young” here is in quotes because it means something on the order of 100 million years. That’s only 2.5% the age of the solar system, hence “young.” Part of the reason for this is that the “dynamical lifetime” of the rings of that mass is much less than the age of the solar system — the ring particles are slowly raining down on Saturn and in the future the ring system will be gone. But, that unsettles astronomers because of this principle that we don’t live in a unique time nor place.

It also makes different formation mechanisms much more difficult to justify statistically. In other words, it is much easier to justify, for example, two moons crashing together – or a moon and a large asteroid or comet crashing together – during the solar system’s formation or very soon afterwards when we know those kinds of collisions were common than it is to justify that happening recently, when the solar system is fairly well behaved.

My Work

I’m not going to discuss in detail my modeling of the ring system. If people are interested, they can e-mail me or post in the Comments asking for a copy of the 15-page paper. But I will give you the basic idea:

Cassini is a craft that’s been in orbit around Saturn since 2004. Besides many truly awe-inspiring pictures it’s taken, an instrument on it also performs stellar occultation measurements through Saturn’s rings. Over the course of nearly 6 years and well over 100 such observations, we have a much more detailed understanding of the optical thickness of the rings — how difficult it is for light to get through any given location in the rings as a distance from Saturn.

For my research, I performed what are called N-body simulations, where in the computer I created a mini saturnian ring section. I varied many different properties – including the ones I mentioned a few paragraphs ago – and I let the system evolve from an initially random state. I then simulated a Cassini observation through my little ring section.

I then compared the results of my simulated occultation to the real ones. From these results, I was able to further narrow-down some of the basic, fundamental properties of the rings. The most important one was that I was able to place a new, minimum mass constraint on the total mass of the ring system. This new constraint is about twice as large as the original one – about 2 times the mass of Saturn’s moon Mimas.

How Does Mass Relate to Age?

Directly, it doesn’t. But indirectly, it does, and I’ll explain here two examples of why.

One is the example that I explained above — if you have more material, then the dynamical lifetime is longer, and you can make the rings correspondingly older by the simple fact that they are still there today to be observed.

A second reason why is that of pollution. As the ring particles orbit Saturn, micrometeorite impactors rain down on the rings and will pollute them. Through various observations and modeling constraints (including mine), we know that the rings are more than 90% water-ice. This is really pure ice and raises the question of how something so old could be so fresh, especially with the pollution from other material.

The answer lies at least partially with the mass: If you have more material there to begin with, then you can more easily “hide” the pollution. For example, if a factory spits out sewage into a small lake, then after a day that lake will look pretty gross. But if that factory spits out the sewage into the ocean, it can do it for many, many years before the ocean is going to show any signs of being polluted. The same is true with the rings.

Hence, as a result of my paper and placing a new minimum mass constraint that’s larger than before, you can push the age of the rings further back in time. And my work is just a minimum estimate — if I had faster computers and more time and weren’t actually doing research on something completely different, then I could push the simulations to many more particles over a larger area and simulate even more massive rings to really try to nail down that mass. But, in 2017 or whenever they choose to kill off Cassini, it will fly between the planet and the rings and we will be able to directly measure the gravitational tug on the craft by the rings and should be able to answer that question. But I digress …

Anticipated YEC Responses

I don’t actually expect YECs to directly respond to my paper in particular. I think it approaches the problem too indirectly for them to take notice and think it’s worth writing about.

What I do expect is for them to respond to the Science article. It’s title is quote low-hanging fruit for the YECs: “An Evolving View of Saturn’s Dynamic Rings.” Wow. They have both “evolving” and “dynamic” in there. I expect that:

(1) Creationists will somehow try to link this to “darwinism” and that an old ring system “belief” is driven by some desire to provide “millions of years” for evolution to occur.

(2) Creationists will have issues with the Copernican Principle and argue that we do live in a specially created time and place where “the heavens declare the glory of God.”

(3) I expect the creationists will key in on the dynamical nature of the rings that we see today. This is not something that I talked about in this post much at all. Very briefly, it has to do with moving from the “granola bar model” to self-gravity wakes of material clumps that we have observed in simulations, theory, and observations that move around, exchange material, and produce bumps, ridges, spokes, and cusps in the rings that Cassini observes. If they do happen to address this, then I’ll discuss it more in my response post.

Final Thoughts

There you have it. I have a prediction out there. I’ve preemptively discussed my own research in this area and hopefully explained it in a reasonably clear way. Now let’s see if the YECs bite.

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