Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 8, 2013

Podcast #60: The Face on Mars, Part 2


Face on Mars - from Mars Global Surveyor

Face on Mars – from Mars Global Surveyor

This episode is the second of two about the Face on Mars. In this second episode, I start out with a discussion revisiting the basic idea of pareidolia and why this feature is best explained by that psychological phenomenon. I then get into Mark Carlotto’s image analysis, other faces, and finally spend quite a bit of time on various conspiracies surrounding it.

I also have a very brief New News segment and a short carry-over puzzler. The next episode is going to be about whether or not claiming that “asteroids did it” is special pleading for explaining various anomalies in the solar system. If you have ideas for a puzzler, please let me know (e-mail) BEFORE Friday the 11th — I have to record the episode on Saturday because of travel.

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January 1, 2013

Podcast #59: The Face on Mars, Part 1


Face on Mars - from Mars Global Surveyor

Face on Mars – from Mars Global Surveyor

This episode is the first of two about the Face on Mars. In this first episode, I discuss a lot of the history of imaging the Face, the context of it and its location on Mars, and many of the claims related to the imaging of it. Get ready for some Coast to Coast clips — there are eight of them. This episode goes into significantly more detail than my post four years ago on the subject.

Part 2 will be about some of the more conspiratorial and related claims along with a few other faces thrown in. This episode as it was was already 40 minutes long, so I decided to split into two parts.

I also have a very brief New News segment, a short puzzler, and two announcements.

August 7, 2012

Richard C. Hoagland (et al.) on Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) “Curiosity” Landing Last Night


Introduction

I attended a party at work for the Mars Science Laboratory (hereafter “Curiosity”) landing last night, so I wasn’t anywhere near the radio. I have to say that I am honestly a bit surprised everything worked exactly (or as near exactly) as planned and we had a very successful landing. A HUGE kudos/congratulations to all of the engineers who put that landing system together, and now the science team can start to learn more about Mars’ surface geology than hopefully most other landers put together.

That said, as promised on the Exposing PseudoAstronomy facebook page last night, Richard C. Hoagland was on Coast to Coast AM last night all four hours, each hour with a different person, discussing the landing. And I promised a blog post.

Warning: This post has snark. A non-trivial amount of it.

Hour the First

This was the hour that Curiosity landed. There was very little pseudoscience during this. A bit of wrong facts (such as the sky crane using steel cables to lower Curiosity when it used nylon), and a bit of Richard’s usual stuff, and then just four minutes before the top of the hour, we got to typical Richard.

There were prior two quotes perhaps worth mentioning. First: “There are several clues coming out of no less an authority than the White House that this mission, Curiosity, might be where NASA finally unveils a hint of the real Mars.” We know “real Mars” to Hoagland means ancient technology and life.

Second, in response to a question about finding fossils on Mars: “I am hearing officials – high officials in NASA – talking about Curiosity maybe spotting fossils. Now that means, politically, … if our trend curve / other data is accurate, this could be the mission where NASA comes clean and starts talking about actually what’s there on Mars.” I love how he always cites “officials” or “high officials.” Nameless, or course, to protect their identity, which also makes it uncheckable.

The typical Richard came out starting about 36:25 into the hour after George asked Richard what was “next” for Curiosity. Richard explained that it was going to be exploring the huge mound in the center of Gale Crater, Mt. Sharp, and that it would take years for the rover to get up to the top. But then we had: “The object itself – the mountain itself – [start talking in conspiracy voice as though he’s talking to a 3-year-old] doesn’t quite look … uh … ¿natural? Mount Sharp, the very peak, looks in fact like an eroded tetrahedron, like somebody – someone built this thing. This is going to sound totally nuts to all my enemies out there …”

Yup, pretty much. Immediately following that was a dig at, I think, Phil Plait as he mentioned hair-pulling but that some doing the hair-pulling don’t have much hair to begin with. He continued: “There is no commonly accepted mechanism for the formation of Mount Sharp in the middle of this crater.”

Richard then proceeded to say that craters form when an asteroid strikes a surface, “blasting a huge hole in the surface of Mars. How do you get a mountain? covering the crater subsequently? Where’d the stuff come fro? to form the mountain?”

George: “It was brought there maybe.”

Richard: “Exactly! And some of the photographs that have been taken by MRO, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, that I have on the Coast website … they look down on incredibly geometric ruin-like structures photographed right in the path that Curiosity has to drive. … It is only the beginning.”

Apparently, Richard has no idea how craters larger than about 6 km on Mars form. At approximately that diameter and larger, craters are so large and create such a compressive force that the surface rebounds in the center and you get a central peak. Look at any reasonably fresh crater larger than 15 km on the Moon and you’ll see a central peak. Same with Mars (but the cut-off there is ~6 km as I mentioned). That explains a fair amount of Gale, but the rest of it – and why it was selected as the landing site – is what are thought to be sedimentary deposits. In other words, deposits made by water. Not a 50-mile-wide and 3-mile-high pyramid made by intelligent beings stupid enough to believe in your hyperdimensional physics, Richard.

Hour the Second

This hour was with John Brandenburg. This is not meant to be a poisoning of the well ad hominem nor non sequitur, but Brandenburg was introduced as having written books entitled, “Life and Death on Mars,” and “Beyond Einstein’s Unified Field.” He was further introduced as a plasma physicist and someone who was trying to “complete the work of Einstein” on unifying the fundamental forces mathematically. When one hears that, especially on a show like Coast to Coast, one’s B.S. detector should be tweaked.

Richard monopolized a lot of the time in the early part of this hour – and what I later found to be most of the show – and he reiterated his claim that the central mound in Gale Crater is a collapsed arcology. Some evidence, you might ask? Of course: “It’s got headlights! … Why, since you’re not driving at night, … why do you need headlights at night? They’re going into the structure where they don’t have any light!” Q.E.D. right?

He went on: “As we go through the morning I’m going to lay out more data points – carefully researched so I don’t sound like a total idiot, cause people can go and confirm this themselves; now, if they interpret the data the same way, that’s up to them, but the data is there … .”

That actually is a remarkably honest statement and it’s one of Richard’s many “outs” that he usually includes, and it’s also, incidentally, the way that creationists will often argue: It’s all about your worldview, we’re all looking at the same data! The problem with Richard is that he has his conspiracy/artifacts/life agenda, and the data – no matter what they are – will always support that from his vantage point.

He went on to say that the Obama administration is holding an “October Surprise.” I’m looking forward to November when George will come back and ask Richard why there wasn’t any no one holds Richard to this except for callers who don’t make it through and Facebook fans who get banned.

Anyway, after the bottom-of-the-hour-break, John explained that he believes Mars once had a thriving biosphere, that the climate changed dramatically with the formation of Lyot Crater (a crater that I have extensively studied and written three papers on …) that doomed the planet. Before that, it had an oxygen atmosphere and thriving biosphere according to him.

Well, real quick, in my papers I date Lyot Crater to about 3.3-3.7 billion years ago. There’s some VERY preliminary work I’m doing that might make it more like 2 billion years old, but that is in no way shape nor form an age that should be used at the moment.

On Earth, it took until something like 2.4 billion years before we had an oxygen atmosphere which was the pollution of the first bacterial life. This is a case where John Brandenburg can “believe” anything he wants, but it’s up to him to provide the evidence that supports his ideas and counters the established observations that disagree with his ideas.

Which get more strange. At 24:44 into hour 2: “There seems to have been a very large nuclear event. … One hypothesis I’ve put forth … [is] this was a natural nuclear reactor … and you can find a big radiation scar on Mars from the gamma ray spectrometer.” Okay, yes, natural nuclear reactors happened, it happened in Africa on Earth a long time ago. But there is NO evidence it happened on Mars. The Gamma Ray Spectrometer was designed to search for evidence of sub-surface hydrogen that is thought to be bound in water. Not search for nuclear blast sites. John cites several lines of “evidence” for his model that, honestly, are not evidence for anything he’s suggesting, but to get the whole story, of course you need to go buy his book.

No argument would be complete, though, without the argument from persecution, which comes at about 26 minutes into the episode when he said that he was denounced not only by the US but by the Soviets. I didn’t know he put forth his ideas prior to the 1990s.

But it gets better. The story continues when Richard comes back from listening to the NASA press conference and points out (first) that one of their lines of evidence for bombs going off is that some craters are in chains which look like bombing runs. Um, no. Craters occur in chains for at least three reasons: Pit craters (they are collapse features overlying voided lava tubes, so follow the lava tube), secondary craters (my specialty, ejecta thrown out from the formation of a primary crater), and craters formed by an object that was broken up by the gravity of the planet (think Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impact). Bombing runs would be the last thing any reputable scientist would suggest for the formation of a crater chain on Mars.

But it gets better. Richard points out that an instrument on Curiosity will be for investigating the radiation environment on Mars, but that because NASA keeps emphasizing “natural radiation,” they doth protest too much and so he thinks it’s code for, of course, radiation from whatever technology the ancient Martians had. It couldn’t be, possibly, because if they don’t say “natural radiation” some generic member of the public would wonder about it and ask why there’s radiation on Mars? (It’s because of a lack of atmosphere shielding it from NATURAL radiation from the sun and extra-solar system cosmic rays.) It’s why I keep trying to say “impact crater” instead of just “crater” (even though I fail) because “impact crater” is more specific. Even though it’s usually assumed. But no, it’s ’cause they’re using Curiosity to look for a way to date when the civil Mars war occurred that wiped everyone out.

The final “data point” we get from Richard in this hour that was supposed to feature Brandenburg in the first half and callers in the second half is that the White House christmas card from last year supposedly had, reflected in the blinds in the window, the logo for the Curiosity rover. Talk about pareidolia. And the fact that it was in the library, where no other White House christmas card has ever been photographed “before or since” (not sure how we’ve had a Christmas since 2011), is because they’re sending the message that Curiosity is going to uncover the ancient knowledge (represented by the books) of Mars.

2011 White House Christmas Card

2011 White House Christmas Card

How Richard puts this together is beyond me and likely would get him committed to many psychiatric institutes.

Hour the Third

It bears mentioning during this hour that Hoagland remarked about “typical NASA arrogance” when, during the press conference, the principle investigator for the mission was asked by a 10-year-old when “the kids” get to drive Curiosity on Mars. Hoagland stated that the PI had no sense of humor and bristled and said, “Well, there are 400 scientists ahead of her in line.” Richard’s response? Well, I already told you: “Typical NASA arrogance.” Hmm. How about “Basic fact and responding in a way that a child can understand.” As opposed to the reality, which is “never.” That would have been more of an arrogant response.

Most of this hour was relatively tame until around 24 minutes in. Robert Zubrin is, by most accounts a reasonably sane person and though he thinks that there are fossils on Mars, he doesn’t claim any of the pareidolia evidence that Sir Charles Schultz III does, he just thinks they’re there but we haven’t gathered evidence for them.

At 23:20, Richard interrupts, as he often does. In fact, there was a “debate” a few years ago between the two on Coast and Zubrin at one point effectively said, “Richard, if you’re not going to let me talk, if you keep interrupting me, I’m just going to hang up.”

Anyway, Richard claims that several NASA people have said that we might find fossils on Mars with Curiosity. I have not heard this. I would be very surprised if anyone connected with the team or a scientist or official at NASA stated that. I’d like to know who and when, Richard. If you skip over the one caller they took after that, to around 30 minutes in, Zubrin starts to question Richard’s statement. Then they start arguing. Hoagland believes they already know of fossils (and will disclose a few days before the US presidential election), Zubrin is more rational, which is always a big no-no on Coast.

They took one more call and Richard interrupted him.

Hour the Fourth

The guest this hour was Richard Hoagland. Oh, and some other guy who Richard didn’t really let talk. Something-something-something. (Looks up the name …) David Livingston.

David really didn’t bring anything to the table this hour because Richard kept talking. It was really just more of the same but Richard let his hair down a bit more and let himself talk more. Err, go more into his weird ideas. More conspiracy stuff, more “they know and this mission is going to let them talk about it and we have pictures of fossils” etc. etc. etc.

Final Thoughts

Can you tell I was a bit jaded by the end? Yeah …

Anyway, the only good thing to come out of it is, as usual, Hoagland kept saying throughout the night one of the only things that I fully support him on: The space program is awesome and the landing of Curiosity is a great accomplishment. More resources should be invested in space, and the landing of Curiosity has given the space program a very good and very needed P.R. boost.

January 23, 2009

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


Introduction

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

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

Basic Claims

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

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

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

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

My Responses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

January 21, 2009

Methane Discovery on Mars – The Creationist Reaction


Introduction

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

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

Answers in Genesis Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

Institute for Creation Research Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fellow Blogger’s Response

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

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

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

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

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

What Do These All Have In Common?

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

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

What Is My Reaction to Their Basic Points?

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

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

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

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

4. See #3. Again, I agree.

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

January 17, 2009

Life on Mars? Lots of Methane Means Cow Farts?


Introduction

Over the last week, there have been lots of headlines floating around. “Methane Could Signal Life on Mars,” claims InformationWeek. “Life on Mars is a Possibility,” says the Dispatch Online. “Methane on Mars. Does that Mean … Life?” asks the Christian Science Monitor. And “Gas ‘May Be Sign of Life’ on Mars,” adds the CBBC Newsround.

What’s the news? And why are people excited about gas that we’ve all smelled around farms? And why am I not thrilled and jumping up and down that we now have proof of life?

Why Methane Is Important

Methane is a molecule that is a gas under most circumstances. You need to get to temperatures like those of the outer planets’ moons to get methane to freeze. It’s a simple molecule, composed of one atom of carbon and four of hydrogen (CH4).

A discovery of methane on a body without much of an atmosphere is important because it does not last long. Methane will relatively quickly react with ultraviolet radiation and photo disintegrate into – I think – ethane – by losing a hydrogen atom (and then boding with another CH3 to form ethane, C2H6). It can also be destroyed in Mars’ atmosphere by other mechanisms.

What all that means is that in order for there to be methane present today in Mars’ atmosphere, there must be a very recent (as in within the last ~100 years) source of it. At least in the atmosphere.

Why this is interesting regardless is that it means that something likely created the methane recently. On Earth, the bulk of methane is produced by methanogenic bacteria (bacteria that release methane as a byproduct of metabolism). And, as the title of this post suggests, a lot of this is seriously from cows farting (or flatulating for my more refined readers). Methanogenic bacteria live in many mammalian gastrointenstinal tracts, including cows, but also humans. And that’s as far as I’ll go with that line of thought.

However, there are other sources of methane that do not involve life. Among them is the process of converting iron oxide (rust) into another group of minerals, and this releases methane in the process (along with using water, carbon dioxide, and a heat source).

So Does This Mean Cows Are Farting on Mars?

Not likely.

In all seriousness, this is an interesting discovery. It could indicate that there are or recently were methanogenic bacteria on Mars. If they’re not there now, then they could have been there in the very recent past, produced the methane, and it is now being released, slowly.

However, and I hate to agree with the folks over at Answers in Genesis on this one, the history of “life on Mars” is fraught with announcements and then retractions. And often, the media make a sensational headline, get people all worked up, and then don’t follow-up with the story when it turns out to be less interesting. Seriously, does anyone remember the media owning up to ALH84001 NOT having bacterial fossils?

Regardless of the source of the methane, however, this is an interesting discovery because Mars is effectively saying, “Hey, I’m still an active planet! I’m not telling you what is going on right now, but I’m dropping little teasers like this.” Methane is a teaser. Because it has a short lifetime in Mars’ atmosphere, it needs to have a very recent source. This indicates either active geology and/or active biology. Either one is interesting.

Final Thoughts

The reason that I’m not jumping on the “Life on Mars” bandwagon – unlike UFO people who say this is just prepping us for Obama disclosing the UFO presence on our planet, or the Hoagland crowd who say NASA knew all along – is that life on Mars should, in my opinion, be the last conclusion, reached only after all the other known possibilities are exhausted.

Why? Well, to quote a clichéd phrase from Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Life on Mars would be amazing – it would redefine humanity’s role in our li’l corner of the universe. But, it’s an extraordinary claim, and it needs more evidence than methane that could have other sources.

That’s why this is very interesting news, but most headlines are very premature. If you would like to read the actual real, original NASA press release, click here.

January 14, 2009

Pareidolia – The Face on Mars


Introduction

Way back in the earlier days of planetary exploration, there was a plucky little pair of spacecraft known as Viking 1 and 2 that photographed much of Mars between about 1976 and 1980. They returned thousands of photographs that provided the first global mosaics of the planet and are still sometimes used today (such as in my own research where there are gaps in the higher-resolution THEMIS coverage).

Among the regions photographed is Cydonia Mensae, named after a history city-state in Crete, that lies in the northern hemisphere. The region is very odd, geologically, lying on the border between very old regions and very young regions of the planet. Among the features in this odd region, however, is the infamous Face on Mars.

Pareidolia

Pareidolia is a fairly interesting facet of human psychology. Put very succinctly, it is the phenomenon where people find patterns where there are none. One of the most common, every-day examples is seeing things in clouds, like a duck or a car or your Aunt Beatrice.

Astronomy is really all about pareidolia – pattern recognition. Every single constellation is due to pareidolia (except triangulum, which is just a triangle of stars). Most of the common names of clusters and nebulae are due to pareidolia (North American nebula, Wild Duck cluster, or Coat Hanger Cluster, for example).

One of the features of pareidolia is that people will recognize a human face in almost anything. That’s the whole concept behind “smilies” that are in so many instant messages and internet forums these days. Two dots and an arc make a “very obvious” smiley face: : ). It can be made even more convincing by adding a line: : – ). Or a circle around it: ☺. Or, WordPress seems to actually insert the smiley for me unless I add spaces, so: :).

I go through this exercise as a prelude to the “face on Mars” because all it is is an example of pareidolia wrapped up in conspiracy and sacred cows.

Viking’s Face on Mars

Face on Mars from Viking

Face on Mars from Viking

The image on the right is the infamous face on Mars, as seen from Viking. It’s a feature that’s just about 70 pixels in height. It is also full of data drop-outs — that’s what all the black dots are. And that’s why this face appears to have a nostril. In fact, when I look at this image, I see the nostril there and my brain automatically thinks that it’s part of the image. But I ignore the other black dots. Again, just an example of really how pareidolia works.

Now, to nip this in the butt from the onset, it was NASA who first said this looked like a face. When it was released, people drew attention to the feature and pointed out that it looked like a face. However, it was dismissed as pareidolia by the Viking chief scientist, Gerry Soffen, who said it was a “[trick] of light and shadow.”

It was NOT later that someone else thought it did and NASA was all hush-hush about it. Among others, Richard Hoagland is probably the main proponent of this, and he sees it as evidence of a long-lost martian civilization. He also sees pyramids, ruined cities, tunnels, and other features on the planet. He also believes that there is an ancient civilization on the moon and that the Apollo astronauts were sent there to retrieve artifacts from it. This post is meant to talk about the face, though, and not meant to get into Hoagland’s beliefs (that could fill a book, and he has … I will likely address some of his ideas in future posts).

Newer, High-Resolution, Different Sun-Angle Images

As the heading of this section suggests, the face has been imaged again over the last 30 years. Craft such as the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Express have all photographed parts of the planet, including the “face,” and including a 3-D perspective simulation:

Face on Mars - from Mars Global Surveyor

Face on Mars - from Mars Global Surveyor

Face on Mars - from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Face on Mars - from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

3-D Projection of the Face on Mars - from Mars Express

3-D Projection of the Face on Mars - from Mars Express

From each of these, you can make out the features that gave rise to the original pareidolia effect of a face, but you can also now see that it’s really just a rock formation. It is not a well-carved human face. It was, as Soffen put it, just a trick of the shadows.

Accusations of “Processing” to Remove the “Face”

To be blunt, Hoagland has often accused NASA and others of either not processing images at all or processing them too much and removing “evidence” for his ideas. He has done this so many times in so many ways and writes so much about it (for example, here) that I really would rather not spend the time to go through every single one of his claims. Rather, I will give a brief overview of what “processing” images means in astronomy.

When most people take an image with a digital camera these days, they click the shutter, take the photo, plug it into their computer, and save it, maybe printing it or posting it on some social networking site. That’s really about it.

However, when astronomers take images, there is a standard procedure to take. First, the data from the camera has to be relayed to Earth. Because bandwidth is limited, it is often compressed. When it reaches Earth, image artifacts are removed in a known, set, mathematical way to remove things like bad pixels, an uneven sensitivity in the detector, dust on the camera lens, and other things.

If it’s a color image, then all of the different colors have to be processed in the above manner. Then they are each assigned a color and merged. VERY RARELY are images presented in “true color” – what the human eye would see. Often, one of the color channels is infrared (which we can’t see) or ultra-violet (which we can’t see) or the visible color filters do not match the color receptors in the human eye. They are usually combined to enhance certain colors or features to make them stand out better for later analysis. Usually, only when images are re-processed later for press releases are they done to approximate “true color.” They are also further compressed – usually shrunk in size and saved with lossy image JPG compression – before released.

With this in mind, any accusation that the original images that show the face were “unprocessed” and the latest ones are, or vice versa, is ridiculous. It’s simply not true, and setting up a straw man to argue from.

Final Thoughts

The “Face on Mars” is an excellent example of the pareidolia phenomenon. There are others in astronomy – and on Mars – which I will address in other postings, but this one is the classic. I hope that this post has shown you how the brain can be deceived as well as given you an overview of some of the conspiracy claims surrounding the “face” feature.

For more information on pareidolia, I highly recommend the “SGU 5×5” 6-minute podcast on the subject, “Skepticism 101 – Pareidolia” from Sept. 24, 2008 (note – link is for an MP3 file).

For more detailed information on standard astronomical image processing, I even more highly recommend a page from my photography site, “Creating Astrophotos.” It focuses more on images from telescopes than spacecraft, but the basic concepts and processes are the same.

October 23, 2008

NASA’s “Follow the Water,” Ice Detected by Phoenix on Mars, and Noah’s Flood


Since this is my first post in regards to an Answers in Genesis (AiG) article, I want to give a few brief comments on creationist articles that I pick to critique on this blog. In general, I plan to use materials from two main sources – the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and the Answers in Genesis (AiG). Both try to use astronomy to promote creationism, but they are different in the way they do it. From my observations, ICR radio is fairly preachy, giving quick snippets of just enough astronomy to raise questions and then saying that it supports creation. ICR articles, however, seem much more intent on putting forth half-truths and incomplete stories (like the solar neutrino problem) and then having the reader question the scientific standards on their own.

AiG, on the other hand, is the most extreme. They present the astronomy information, then quickly turn it around saying it either fits or does not fit with a literal interpretation of the Bible, and if it does fit they say it’s real, and if it doesn’t then they say there are problems with it and it must be false because it does not fit with a literal reading of the Bible.

Since I am attempting to keep this blog fairly neutral when it comes to religion, deities, and other related matters, I will not be talking about “God’s plan on Earth,” or whether the biblical worldview is supported by astronomy or not. Only when specific falsehoods, half-truths, misleading statements, or false assumptions are made will I address them in relation to astronomy.


This entry is in specific response to the “More Ice on Mars?” article from Answers in Genesis, written by Peter Galling on June 23, 2008.

This article discusses the recent findings of NASA’s Mars Phoenix lander, a mission to Mars that has been operating since May 2008, analyzing the Mars surface and shallow subsurface (within a meter of the surface). One of the major science goals was to find evidence of water-ice (as opposed to carbon dioxide ice (“dry ice”)). It successfully did that, digging trenches and finding white material that disappeared (sublimated – turning from a solid directly into a gas) within a few days of exposure. For more information on the Phoenix mission, visit the Phoenix Mars Mission Homepage.

What I want to address with this post is the middle of the article, as the first part mainly outlines my previous paragraph:

“If Nasa has indeed found … ice on Mars, it would not be a major surprise for young-earth creationists. … In fact, this particular icy discovery should cause a cold feeling for evolutionists, who would much prefer to find liquid water but instead have found only this scant evidence of subsurface ice.”

Alright, let’s pause here. That first sentence, I have no real comment on – I mainly quoted it for context. The second quoted sentence is very close to a straw man argument, the logical fallacy where you create a claim to argue against, though the claim isn’t actually made by the other side. I say it’s “almost” a straw man because it’s true that it would be an amazing discovery that planetary scientists and astrobiologists would delight over if liquid water were found on Mars. BUT, almost no one actually thinks that liquid water on Mars exists today.

In fact, it is not possible for liquid water to exist on Mars’ surface, as any professional planetary scientist knows. That’s because water requires two things to exist in a liquid form – the right temperature and the right pressure. First, the temperature is too cold, so any water would almost instantly freeze at Mars’ surface temperature. Second, the atmospheric pressure of Mars is very small, and any water that was exposed to the surface would almost instantly sublimate (turn directly into a gas).

What is possible is for liquid water to exist in some form beneath the Mars crust. There, the temperature would be higher and the pressure greater such that liquid water could exist. It could also be mixed with salts which would lower the freezing point, as well.

So yes, while we would “prefer” to find liquid water, no one thought that Mars Phoenix would find it.

Next, I will address this:

“[T]he very idea that liquid or frozen water on Mars is a ‘big thing’ comes straight from the evolutionary faith that where there’s water, life will follow. In fact, that’s the entire premise of today’s Martian landers.”

This is confusing correlation with causation, another logical fallacy (assuming that it’s an honest mistake). NASA – and astronomers – do not think that where there’s water there’s life. That’s a fairly ridiculous assumption that everywhere there’s water you’ll find life. What they do think is that water is a requirement for life. Every single form of life that we know of requires water to live. That is why NASA’s mantra these days is “Follow the Water.” If we want to try to find extraterrestrial life, then we should be looking where there are things that we think life requires … an energy source, water, and physical conditions that can sustain it (such as protection from high levels of radiation).

That is why we are trying to find where water ice is today, where liquid water may be today, and especially where liquid water may have once existed on the surface of Mars (when it was warmer and its atmosphere was heavier). It would be those places that would be most likely to have once harbored life as we know it and we have the greatest chance of finding it. It’s not because we think that wherever there’s water life will magically spring up.

Finally, that’s not the “entire premise” of all of the Mars landers today. Yes, it is the guiding premise, and it may even be the main mission statement. But, missions are generally only selected if they can serve multiple tasks and yield information to answer multiple questions.

For example, the science mission of Phoenix has three stated questions to answer: (1) Can the martian arctic support life? (2) What is the history of water at the landing site? and (3) How is the martian climate affected by polar dynamics. You’ll notice that only one of those deals with life, two of them with water, and the third one is completely different. Phoenix doesn’t even have instruments that could detect life (such as derivatives of the Viking lander experiments).

The last third of the AiG article discusses Noah’s Flood extending to Mars, making statements about biblical worldviews as a framework for understanding astronomy, and other religious statements that really don’t address much astronomy, hence I will not address them.

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