Exposing PseudoAstronomy

June 9, 2010

Terry Nazon’s Astronomy: Just Plain Wrong


Introduction

I wanted to take a brief pause from writing lectures for the intro astronomy class I’m teaching (don’t worry guys, the one for tomorrow is already written!) and head down a different path for a few moments.

Some may consider me a glutton for punishment. Considering my recent run-in of being threatened by an astrologer, I’ve been following her a bit on Twitter to see what she’s up to in her astrological prognostications. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Get Your Astronomy Right!

Alright, I’ll say it to start off with to let everyone know where I stand: I do not “believe” in astrology. I trust the studies that have shown it no better than random guessing and that have shown it has no predictive power better than cold reading and self-reporting positive results for positive predictions. I don’t see any mechanism by which it could work, and none that have been proposed by astrologers actually have any physical validity unless they want to re-write the laws of physics.

That said, if you’re going to be an astrologer, AT LEAST GET YOUR ASTRONOMY RIGHT!!!

I honestly don’t know if this is common to most astrologers, or if it just happens to be Terry Nazon who is, well, I’ll be polite and just say apparently ignorant of astronomy and where stuff is in the sky. It’s a little hard to believe considering that astrology’s entire foundation is based on where stuff is in the sky, but, well, facts are facts.

I showed in my series on Nazon before (part 1, part 2, and part 3) that she is apparently fairly ignorant of where objects are in the actual sky, and this is seriously not a case where you just have to take my word for it. Go download any free astronomy sky-display software, look at a star chart yourself, or download a commercial or shareware software. You will be able to demonstrably see that what I stated in my previous series is accurate. (I’m not going to provide star charts this time unless asked for in Comments because I think it’s fairly redundant at this point … and because I need to write a homework set to hand out for tomorrow.)

What’s Going on This Time?

14 hours ago from the time of this writing, so I guess around 6AM MDT (mountain daylight time for those not in the US), Nazon tweeted, “Mercury enters Gemini it’s home placement. Expects things to start moving quickly….”

This intrigued me. I don’t know anything about Mercury’s “home placement,” but based on my experience on my previous series about Terry Nazon (part 1, part 2, and part 3), I wanted to check this. I was not disappointed. At the moment, Mercury is on the Aries side of Taurus, actually having just entered Taurus on June 5 (5 days ago as of writing this). It won’t be until very late in the day on June 25 (that’s in 15 days) that Mercury will enter Gemini. Interesting.

On Monday, so about 2 days ago, Nazon tweeted (and put on her Facebook page): “Mars the planet of action enters Virgo where it last transitied [sic] July 2008. Mars transit around the zodiac is about 2 1/2 yrs. The last time Mars was in Virgo Saturn had just begun it’s transit of Virgo too. Now the two meet up again as Saturn ends its transit through Virgo.”

Also interesting. I love conjunctions, they’re actually really cool to photograph. I showed a conjunction to my class yesterday of the five planets that the ancient civilizations knew about in a photo taken a few years ago. But anyway, back to the claim. I took a look, and yet again, Mars is not anywhere near Virgo. It’s on the Cancer side of Leo right now, though Virgo is on the other side, and Saturn is currently reasonably close to the Leo side of Virgo.

However, Mars moves through the sky much more slowly than Mercury. As a consequence, while Terry Nazon was about 2 weeks off for her Mercury prediction, she’s a full 40 days of for her Mars prognostication. Mars will not enter Virgo until July 19 (actually July 20 for about 1/3 of the world).

(As a side note, about a month later on August 12 there is a VERY cool conjunction between Mars, Venus, Saturn, a thin crescent moon, AND Mercury that will be visible early in the morning evening.)

About the other part of that claim — when Mars last transited (moved through) Virgo, it did so between August 8, 2008, and October 15, 2008. It started doing this reasonably close to Saturn, though that’s almost due to definition: Saturn’s orbit around the sun takes about 30 Earth years. From 1 Earth year to the next, or even 2 Earth years to the next two, Saturn is not going to move very far in the sky. So if Mars right now is near Saturn, then the last time Mars was in this location, it was also near Saturn. But, regardless, Nazon is yet again wrong on her dates.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps I’m picking on low-hanging fruit. But this really does bug me a fair bit. In a different way than all the 2012 doomsday-sayers and young-Earth creationists. Astrologers claim that what they are doing is science. They base what they do on the motions of the planets, sun, moon, stars, and sometimes asteroids. The very least they could do is to get those motions and positions correct!

And yet again, I’ll use the refrain: If Nazon’s easy-to-see astronomy claims of where objects are when are so demonstrably wrong (and other astrologers who may be wrong like her), why should ANYONE pay the $75 an e-mail or up to $330 an hour for one of her “readings?” Heck, send me an e-mail and I’ll at least tell you where stuff is in the sky when. And I won’t charge you nearly that much.

April 11, 2010

What Happens When All the Planets Line Up Against Us?


Introduction

This is a claim that has persisted for a long time, and though people who believe in the 2012 stuff have propagated it, it is not specifically a Planet X / 2012 claim: If all the planets (plus our moon) lined up opposite the sun, they would pull us out of orbit. As the “lolcatz” say, “Oh noez!”

Gravity

The force felt by an object due to gravity is a very simple mathematical function, codified by Newton’s Universal Law of Gravity:

In this equation, F is the force felt, G is the Gravitational Constant, M m are masses of the two objects in question, and r is the distance that separates them.

To figure out how much more or less two different objects will pull on the same object, we can simply remove one of the two masses, so the equation simplifies to F = G * m / r2.

The Math

To determine the relative forces, one simply needs to know the mass of the planets and sun, and the distances between Earth and those objects. This can be found in any basic astronomy textbook or online source. One then can simply plug in the numbers and figure out the forces.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the sun is on one side of this tug-of-war, and the moon, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and even Pluto are all on the other (Venus and the sun don’t count ’cause they would have to be on the sun’s side). Let’s calculate the force first due to the sun:

Object
Mass (1024 kg)
Distance from Sun (106 km)
Distance from Earth (106 km)
Relative Force
Sun 1,989,100 149.6 0.0059

Alright, now let’s do all the rest, remembering that for the planets, we’ll need to subtract out the distance between Earth and the sun from what are commonly quoted as the planets’ distances:

Object
Mass (1024 kg)
Distance from Sun (106 km)
Distance from Earth (106 km)
Relative Force
Moon 0.07349 0.3844 3.32·10-5
Mars 0.6419 227.9 78.32 6.98·10-9
Jupiter 1,899 778.6 629.0 3.20·10-7
Saturn 568.5 1434 1284 2.30·10-8
Uranus 86.83 2872 2723 7.82·10-10
Neptune 102.4 4495 4345 3.62·10-10
Pluto 0.00125 5906 5756 2.52·10-14
Ceres 0.00095 415 265.4 9.00·10-13

Final Thoughts

This is a really short post because it doesn’t need to be long. To be perfectly honest, I was actually surprised at how small the force of Jupiter actually is on Earth relative to the sun. If we add up the force from all of the other objects, we only get a force that is 0.566% as strong as the sun’s. And then if we take the moon out of the equation because that would be the first to move out of the alignment, then we have a force of only 0.000592% as strong as the sun’s.

If we look at Venus if it were also lined up, helping the sun, its force is 1.90·10-7, or about half as much as all the other planets (again, leaving out the moon), so it would cancel 54% of the effect of all those other objects (again leaving out the moon). The force from Mercury is only about 1/3 that of Mars.

So really, if anyone who makes this claim were to bother to spend about 10 minutes looking up the numbers and plugging them into an Excel equation (what I did), they would quickly see that this claim is simply and utterly nonsense. And this is besides the fact that the planets aren’t lining up any time soon on the other side of Earth to try to pull us out of orbit.

April 10, 2010

An Active Venus? — Another Pre-Emptive Creationism Post


Introduction

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Saturn’s rings, in a preemptive attempt to address some recent research that I thought some young-Earth creationists (YECs) may use to assert their views. I am somewhat surprised that the three main sources I read for creationist stuff have been silent on it. Swing and a miss on my part.

Let’s see if my fledgeling psychic powers are better-tuned for this one. This past week, several news outlets were running the story that the planet Venus may have active volcanism, revealed by the ESA spacecraft Venus Express (ESA press release, NASA press release, and Science journal article (the last one requires a paid subscription)). Seems like a possible story that a YEC may latch onto, so here’s another preemptive post explaining the science so if there is a YEC response, I can dive right into it without the background info needing to be repeated.

About Venus

There is some basic information about Venus that’s relevant to this discussion. First, as most people know, Venus is the second known planet from the sun, residing about 71% as far from the sun as Earth does. Conveniently, and importantly for this post, Venus has a diameter that is 94.9% Earth’s diameter. However, since its overall density is less, its mass is 81.5% that of Earth’s.

The surface of Venus is shrouded from Earth in visible light, hidden by clouds so thick that the temperature is around 465 °C, and hence you often hear that the surface is hot enough to melt lead. The atmosphere is nearly 100 times as massive as Earth’s exerting 92 bars of pressure on the surface that is the equivalent of being under about 1 km of water. Now you may have an idea why it’s hard to build a spacecraft to land on it and survive long enough to do anything useful.

The other thing about its surface is that it has been imaged, just not in visible light. The spacecraft Magellan mapped nearly 100% of Venus’s surface and determined its topography when it orbited in 1990 through 1994. Among other things, the data showed that Venus has many volcanoes, and it only has about 1000 craters.

Now you may be wondering, “Why is he talking about craters? Is it because he studies them and just thought it would be fun to mention?” Well, yeah, I do study them, but they are also the ONLY way to tell relative geologic ages in the solar system since we lack any way to absolutely determine the ages (such as through biological means on Earth and radiometric dating on Earth and the Moon). In contrast to Venus having only 1000 craters, and nearly all of them larger than 5 km in diameter, means that Venus’ surface is very young. In contrast, the planet Mars has about 45,000 craters that are larger than 5 km in diameter.

Based on a lot of modeling, current estimates of Venus’ surface cratering age shows it to be about 700 million years old. Yes, that may seem old, but compared to the moon, Mars, and Mercury – the other large, non-Earth bodies in the inner solar system – Venus has the youngest overall surface. And the last paper to really study the distribution of craters on Venus shows that they are completely random, so it’s not just that half the planet’s surface is 1 billion years old and the other half is 500 million, but the whole surface is about 700 million years old.

Catastrophic Eruptions

The next question one may logically ask is how an entire planet with a surface area 90% that of Earth’s (95%^2) can be resurfaced? From the geologic evidence of massive volcanoes across the planet, the general consensus is that it was volcanic eruptions.

Let’s look at Venus, Earth, and Mars. Mars is only 45% the diameter of Earth, and its mass is only 10%. The analogy I like to give is that if you take a little cupcake and a big cake out of the oven at the same time, which is going to cool faster? This is why Mars has long been termed “geologically dead,” though it does show some pittance of active geology today — but none from internal heat sources.

In contrast, Earth has a lot of internal heat, and we see that every day in the form of volcanoes and undersea vents. Our heat drives plate tectonics, making earthquakes that have also been in the news a lot lately with Haiti, Chili, and Mexico. So while Earth is internally molten, our lithosphere (the region below the crust and above the mantle) is thin enough and fractured enough to let some of that heat out.

The thinking is that Venus has a lot of internal heat like Earth, but, it has a thicker lithosphere. That lithosphere under normal circumstances is simply too thick to let heat escape, so the heat stays trapped inside.

Now here’s another analogy: Let’s say you’re going to spend another lonely night in your 1-bedroom apartment, and even the cat doesn’t want to have anything to do with you. You’re going to watch a cheesy movie and don’t want to cook, so you go to the freezer and look through your few dozen frozen microwaveable dinners that you bought in bulk at Costco. You choose one and read the directions for lack of anything better to do. The directions state quite clearly: “PUNCTURE WRAPPING BEFORE MICROWAVING.” From past experience, you know that if you don’t, the heat will build up and explode in what means 10 minutes of messy clean up. But if you do puncture the wrapping, the steam can escape and it’s all good.

This is the same – albeit simplified – thing that happens with planets. Since Earth can release its heat, it doesn’t “explode.” With Venus, the thought is that since the lithosphere is thicker, the heat builds up until the molten rock finally forces its way out. When it does, the lithosphere cracks and planet-wide, catastrophic volcanism ensues. And the last time this happened – based on the craters – was around 700 million years ago.

Fascinating … What Does This Have to Do with the Press Release?

Good question, I’m glad you asked. Let’s get back on-topic. With a last massive planetary resurfacing 700 million years ago, one question has been, “Is this going to happen again?” Another is, “How often does this happen?” And the most relevant to this discussion, “Is there still some dribble of volcanism today?”

It’s that last question that Venus Express may have found evidence to answer in the affirmative. From the NASA press release: “For the first time, scientists have detected clear signs of recent lava flows on the surface of Venus. The observations reveal that volcanoes on Venus appeared to erupt between a few hundred years to 2.5 million years ago. This suggests the planet may still be geologically active, making Venus one of the few worlds in our solar system that has been volcanically active within the last 3 million years.”

I’m guessing they had to add “one of the few” because of Earth and Io.

Anyway, going off of the press release (I don’t have access to the Science article right now — I’ll update this later if needed when I get ahold of it), the researchers were able to study the mineralogy on three of Venus’ volcanoes. The mineralogy matches that on recent volcanic eruptions from some volcanoes on Earth, like Hawai’i. On Earth, the rock’s reaction with oxygen quickly changes the mineralogy, and hence the research strongly suggests that the flows are young enough to not have been modified. They suggest anywhere from a few hundred to 2.5 million years old.

This may change the picture that I outlined above of the catastrophic volcanism. In perhaps the more controversial part of the press release to me, they suggest that this could indicate the volcanism on Venus has been gradual throughout time – in a kind of steady state situation where localized events happen to resurface the area and cover a few craters, die down, and then happen elsewhere, but not covering enough to maintain the 700-million-year-old crater surface age. It’s a possibility, but at least to me they will need to show more evidence before I find it more convincing than the catastrophic scenario.

What’s this to Do with Young-Earth Creationism?

Venus has come up in the YEC literature before. I wrote one of my first blog posts on, “ Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument).”

In this case, I am guessing that if some YEC person or institute chooses to use this to try to add evidence for their claims it will be along the lines of, “Since Venus has active volcanism today, it must have been created in the very recent past – 6000 years ago. Evolutionists/Darwinists/Evilutionists will have to completely change their thinking in order to reconcile an active Venus with an old-Earth.” Or something like that.

Final Thoughts

We’ll see if my budding psychic powers have been led astray again. I hope not, but we’ll see. Even if they have, hopefully I’ve given you enough information to find this press release interesting and have newfound interest in the field of planetary geology and geophysics.

March 28, 2010

When Encyclopedias Are Bad: A Closer Look at Conservapedia – “Mars”


Introduction

Last week, I wrote an article about how Conservapedia calls “black holes” and “dark matter” “liberal pseudoscience” in a very “huh?” moment. It still is confusing to me why they would waste mental energy on calling those things “liberal pseudoscience.” But I digress.

I thought I might take a closer look at some of their actual astronomy articles. Since I’ve been studying Mars for the last 4 years fairly in-depth, looking at their article on Mars seemed like a natural article to take a peek at.

I found what I expected – creationism and “problems for evolutionists” – but I also found what I didn’t expect – gross errors in information and zero references to back up most of what was stated.

The Good

I’ll start out by showing that I’m not completely out to “diss” Conservapedia. Their article has some good things. It correctly states that Mars is the 4th planet from the sun, for example. It gives the interesting factoid that researchers with missions on the planet will often adopt a “Mars day” work schedule that’s about a 25-hr day (as opposed to Earth’s 24-hr day). It talks correctly about what causes seasons on Mars. It even (mostly) correctly discusses the whole “face on Mars” issue.

The “Eh, That’s Wrong, But It’s Minor”

Let’s first deal with some assertions. Specifically, near the beginning, it states that Mars’ 26-month synodic period makes it a “particularly difficult object to explore, [sic]because opportunities to launch a rocket probe to Mars occur so far apart in time.” Rather, Mars is pretty much the easiest planet or planet-like object to get to by spacecraft, except for our moon. It’s close by, there’s NO WAY that the world’s space programs are funded enough to make craft to visit the planet more often than every ~1.5-2 years, and we can actually land on it and survive as opposed to the actual closest planet to us – Venus.

Towards the end, it discusses exploration of Mars. It states, “Mars has been the subject of more attempts to explore it, and more failures, than any other planet.” This is wrong. To-date, at least based on NASA’s Chronology of Venus Exploration and Chronology of Mars Exploration, Mars has had 40 missions, while Venus 43. Minor, but still a mistake.

Under their “Young Mars Creation Model” (see below for more on that), it states, “Discoveries by the Mars Excursion Rover Opportunity have led …” Unfortunately for Conservapedia, The MER craft acronym stands for, “Mars Exploration Rover,” not “Excursion.” Minor, but slightly humorous.

The Bad

Note: This section will not address the creationist stuff, look to the next for that.

I was reading through the page and the biggest thing to stand out was the following two paragraphs:

“Mars contains the largest of three major geologic features in the Solar System. The largest impact basin, the largest volcanoes and the largest canyon are all found on Mars and in a clear relationship to each other. This relationship provides the key to understanding Martian geology.

“Mars’ largest impact basin is called Hellas. As shown in the topography map, on exactly the other side of Mars from Hellas is Mount Alba Patera, the largest volcano by surface area. This antipodal juxtaposition suggests that the Hellas impact caused the eruptions of Alba Patera and the volcanoes of the Tharsis plateau to the south and southwest. To the east is found the gigantic rift valley called Valles Marineris.”

Alright, there are a few things here. First, a very minor one. “Alba Patera” is the name of the volcano, not “Mount Alba Patera.” When features were originally assigned names when we got the first good images back from spacecraft, “Mons” (singular) / “Montes” (plural) were given to very large and obvious mountains, “Patera” (singular) / “Paterae” (plural) were assigned to very large, irregularly shaped features, and “Tholus” (singular) / “Tholi” (plural) were assigned to “small” mountains or hills. Nothing has two designations. And later imagery revealed some of the montes, paterae, and tholi were volcanoes.

Moving on, I don’t want to concentrate on the whole Alba Patera is antipodal to Hellas Basin. Suffice to say, the ages don’t really work out. It’s possible, but it is no way a given that this is the case.

Rather, I want to focus on the other information given on Hellas: According to this article, Hellas Basin is the largest crater on Mars, and it’s the largest crater in the solar system. Wow.

In a word: NO.

First off, let’s put some numbers down. Hellas Basin< is very roughly 2200 km across and about 9 km deep (it’s difficult to measure the diameter because no one actually knows where the rim is, so you have different people making different estimates). For comparison, that’s just friggin’ big. It’s well over half the size of the United States.

But it’s not the biggest in the solar system, and it’s not even Mars’ largest.

Check out Utopia Planitia on Mars. It’s pretty much due north of Hellas, and it pre-dates Hellas by roughly 400 million years. It is also roughly 50% larger than Hellas, having a diameter of about 3300 km and being about 4-5 km deep on present-day Mars. Now that’s big. But to be fair, I suppose that Conservapedia’s article can be saved if we say that by “biggest” they mean “deepest.” Oh, and if you want to play around on Mars, looking at various features, I highly recommend Google Mars.

Anyway, Utopia is by far the largest impact basin on Mars. Or is it? The largest topographic feature on Mars is its crustal dichotomy – the north is low and flat and young (at least its visible surface), while the south is high and hilly and old. Again, check out Google Mars and zoom out. There have been many, many explanations proposed for this dichotomy, but the latest one to be shown to be viable is that of a really really big impact, very early in Mars’ history. Being a guy who studies craters, I like this idea, but I do think it has awhile to be shown somewhat conclusively. In this case, it is possible that even Utopia is just second place to an impact “basin” that covers nearly half the planet.

Moving on, though, we have the moon. Discovered on the lunar far side about 50 years ago resides the South Pole-Aitken Basin. This thing is also big. It’s about 2300 km in diameter – so bigger across than Hellas but not Utopia – but a whopping 13 km deep. So now, our goal of saving Conservapedia’s article by saying “biggest” means “deepest” doesn’t work, either. Oh, and there’s also Google Moon to have fun with.

The Creationist Take

In any normal article talking about Mars, I don’t think anyone would expect sections about young-Earth creationism. But, *gasp*, Conservapedia does.

It first shows up in the discussion about Mars’ magnetic field. There is none. There are pockets of crustal magnetism that locally are stronger than Earth’s, but there is no global magnetic field. In the section on Mars’ “magnetosphere,” it directly refers to Russell Humphreys, who is a creationist whose ideas I’ve discussed on this blog before.

It next comes up in the entire section on, “Problems for Uniformitarian Theories” (that’s code for old-Earth) that talks again about Mars’ magnetic field. Except, rather, it talks more about how Mercury’s magnetic field is an open question for astronomers rather than Mars’.

Finally, we get to the entire section, “Young Mars Creation Model.” I’m not entirely certain how anything that they discuss in the section actually supports their conclusion of: “This shows that, like Earth, Mars has evidence that it is only a few thousands of years old and not 4.6 billion years old.”

It does state, “The dating of [Hellas basin formation triggering Alba Patera’s volcanism] from craters places it at about the time of the Great Flood on Earth.” Of course, this is completely uncited. But being someone who actually studies craters on Mars and has the largest database of said craters in existence, I can unequivocally state that the craters on Mars’ present-day surface show it to be ancient – over 4 billion years old.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps I’m being unfair. After all, the editor of the page that put up the bulk of the information I talked about has no background in astronomy. Rather, he’s in charge of Conservapedia’s attempt to re-write the Bible. And in the spirit of Wikis, perhaps I should attempt to edit the page myself to make the corrections (fat chance …).

But rather, I think this serves as an example of two things. First, it’s another example of how Conservapedia should not by any stretch of the imagination be considered a good source for scientific information.

Second, it shows that encyclopedias in general should not be taken as gospel. Students should not use them as their source material. They may use them as a starting point, but they need to look at the references, evaluate them, and in the end find actual original source material.

February 15, 2010

Planet X and 2012 and Astrology: Exploring the Claims of Astrologer Terry Nazon on 2012, Part 1


Introduction

While I was supposed to be working today, I was looking at the upcoming Coast to Coast AM late-night George Noory -hosted radio show. Tonight, February 15, 2010, they’re having what has been termed an “Astrology Special” with three astrologers coming in. I went to each of their websites just to nose around, and I found a page on Terry Nazon’s site dedicated to “The Mayan Prophecy of 2012.”

I’m an astronomer. Astrology is to astronomy what alchemy is to chemistry (or, for those about to take the SATs: astrology:astronomy::alchemy:chemistry). And, I’ve written many, many posts on the non-event of Planet X and 2012 (Planet X, 2012, and Planet X and 2012 — yes, those are different). So, this particular woman has combined two things that I just couldn’t help myself to post a break-down.

To do this, I’m going to examine both her numbered claims (part 1 – long!) and then claims she makes in the expository text (part 2).

Note: Several times I link to a NASA website on eclipses in this post. Unfortunately, that server seems to be down as of the time I’m posting this. You can do a search on Google for it and find the cached version of the page in most cases, however.

Other Note: It appears as though Ms. Nazon was cancelled from the show before it went live on Feb. 15. I am not sure when this change happened, but it was no more than 2-3 days before the episode.

Numbered Claim 1

“On December 21, 2012 The Winter Solstice, the Earth and the Galactic Center align. The Galactic Center is also called the Milky Way. The Mayans called the Milky Way, The Sacred Tree, or the Great Mother. This alignment of the Earth and the Galactic Center only happens once every 26,000 years! The Galactic Center is at approximately 26°-27° Sagittarius.”

I’ve addressed this claim directly, twice, on my blog before both in my post “ Planet X and 2012: What The Sky Looks Like On December 21, 2012” and “ Planet X and 2012: The PseudoAstronomy (or Just Plain Wrong Astronomy) About a Galactic Alignment.”

In sum and substance, no, there is no alignment between Earth, the sun, and/or the galactic center in 2012, let alone on December 21, 2012. Now, there was an “alignment” between the sun and galactic equator on December 21, 1998. I personally don’t recall anything special then except maybe taking my last semester exam in 9th grade. For references on this, see the two posts above and/or any astronomy planetarium software.

As for where the galactic center is located on the sky, it is true that it is in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. It is located at the celestial coordinates 17 h 45m 40s RA, -29° 00′ 28.00″ DEC. So while she’s right about Sagittarius, she’s wrong about the galactic center’s location, off in declination (latitude on the sky) by the width of at least four sun / full moon diameters.

Numbered Claim 2

“Uranus squares Pluto at 7° – 8° of cardinal signs. This is the waxing square of the cycle that started in the mid 1960s, with the conjunction of these two planets in mid Virgo. December 21st, 2012 A.D., represents an extremely close conjunction of the Winter Solstice Sun with the crossing point of the Galactic Equator (Equator of the Milky Way) and the Ecliptic (path of the Sun), what that ancient Maya recognized as the Sacred Tree, or the Great Mother. This is an event that has been coming to resonance very slowly over thousands and thousands of years. It will come to resolution at exactly 11:11 am GMT.”

I find this claim interesting. I really can’t say anything about “Uranus squaring Pluto” as that has nothing to do with astronomy, but I find it interesting in that this claim directly backtracks from the previous! She’s changed “Galactic Center” to “Galactic Equator,” which is actually finally correct (almost). The problem with this is that which I pointed out above, and I invite you to go to the links to my previous posts on the alleged alignment.

Numbered Claim 3

“March 16th 2012, A lunar occultation of Pluto occurs today. This is the first anywhere on Earth since January 19th 1935. They will occur every month now from today upto [sic] August 17th 2013.”

Now is as good a time as any to point out that I’m just copying and pasting from Ms. Nazon’s website. If there are spelling mistakes, I am indicating that with the [sic] as is standard practice to indicate it is not a transcription error on my part.

Anyway, I looked into this. I’m not sure what software she’s using, but I was using Starry Night Pro. I started out in my default location of Boulder, CO (USA) and didn’t see any occultation. I then went to France, Iran, a few places in Russia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, the UK, Benin, Egypt, Venezuela, China, Australia, Chile … the closest I saw any approach was about 15′ of Pluto to the moon. That means it misses it about a quarter of a lunar diameter, and that was from the Falkland Islands. Finally I tried the south pole, and pluto gets within 6′ of the moon (0.1°). Close, but no cigar.

As far as I can tell, this claim is simply false, unless someone can give me a different location where this happens. (Again, I did this via simulation in Starry Night Pro.)

Now, what’s cool is that after March, the occultations do actually start to take place as seen from Earth, about every 27 days or so after that. Those of us at my latitude in Boulder, CO won’t be able to see this until January 10, 2013, at about 6:30 PM, though at that time they’ll be about 11° away from the sun. And, the occultations will stop around the August 2013 timeframe for those of us in the higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere.

And then this did occur back in January 19, 1935, again from the South Pole, and it just missed occulting Pluto on February 15, 1935.

So while this claim is partly/mostly correct, I’m not sure what the significance is supposed to be. It’s not like it happens on December 21, 2012.

Numbered Claim 4

“May 11th 2012 Saturn conjunct Spica (2nd time) [sic]”

I’d like to see her work on this claim. I checked several locations around the globe for this date, and the closest Saturn gets to the star Spica is several degrees (around 4). With the full moon being 0.5° across, that’s 8 full moons away.

However, I spoke with a friend of mine who practices astrology (yes, I do have friends, and yes, some of them have beliefs outside of my own). According to her, astrologers consider anything within about 5° to be a “conjunction” which is “considered to be mutually enhancing.” So, under that definition, yes, this will be a conjunction.

However, even if it is true … so what? (a) This isn’t December 21, 2012, and (b) what does a conjunction between Saturn and a star as seen from Earth have to do with anything?

Numbered Claim 5

“May 20th 2012 Annular Solar Eclipse at zero degrees Gemini. Central eclipse 23:53 GMT. Eclipse visible from southern USA, central America, central equatorial south America and Africa.”

A solar eclipse is a “rare” and beautiful thing that I hope to observe in August 2017, when totality will be centered pretty much directly over my parents’ house. It’ll be a partial eclipse from Boulder, but it will be occurring right around sunset so I’m not actually sure if I’ll be able to see it (or if I’ll still be in Boulder at that time).

The only thing un-rare about an eclipse is that they generally happen twice a year. And an annular eclipse – where the moon doesn’t quite cover the entire solar disk so you have an “annulus” of sun around it – isn’t the neat kind where you actually get totality. You can go to NASA’s eclipse website to view the eclipses for many decades into the past and future, both solar and lunar.

So, yes, there will be an annular solar eclipse on May 20, 2012. This is not rare. And the time of greatest eclipse will occur at 23:53:53 GMT (so she’s a minute off, rounding, though that’s really nit-picking). And it will be visible from China, Japan, the Pacific, and western United States.

Otherwise, the where on the sky part of this eclipse is completely wrong. The sun and moon will lie within the constellation Taurus (the bull), with the sun at about 20° declination and about 4 hrs right ascension (see the diagram below from Starry Night Pro, location set to Boulder, CO). Far, far away from Gemini. In fact, it’s much closer to Aries than it is to Gemini. 0 RA is in the constellation Pisces … even farther from Gemini. I’m actually surprised that Ms. Nazon made a mistake this large unless she was using the wrong dates or just was making it up – about it being in Gemini. As for Gemini being at 0 RA, well, that just simply doesn’t happen and won’t for several thousand years.

Skychart on May 20, 2012 Showing Solar Eclipse

Skychart on May 20, 2012 Showing Solar Eclipse

Note on reading these images: First, you can click on any of the star chart images in this post for a much larger version. Second, a guide to reading these — Constellation names are in blue. Star names are in yellow. Solar system object names are in pale red. White outlines are constellation boundaries as defined by the International Astronomical Union nearly a century ago. Red grids are effectively the latitude/longitude system that we use in astronomy (declination (DEC) and right ascention (RA)). A green line is the line of the ecliptic – what the sun appears to trace out in the sky over the course of a year.

Numbered Claim 6

“June 4th 2012 Partial lunar eclipse at 15 degrees Sagittarius. Central eclipse 12:03 GMT [sic]”

We experience what are called “eclipse seasons” on Earth. This is when the nodes of when the moon crosses the celestial equator when it’s a new or full moon recur 1-2 times before they move away. In simpler terms, we only get an eclipse when the moon, Earth, and sun directly line up. Since the moon is on an inclined orbit, this only happens twice per orbit. And those locations (“nodes”) move around Earth. If we have a full moon when the moon is on a node, we get a lunar eclipse. If it’s a new moon, it’s a solar eclipse. And because it happens twice per orbit, then if you have one kind of eclipse, chances are very good that 2 weeks later, you’ll get the other kind.

That’s the case here, for June 4, 2012. And it will be a partial lunar eclipse – again, not the most interesting kind, and the time of greatest eclipse will be approximately 11:04:20 GMT (she was an hour off). But I’ll take this opportunity again to ask, “So what?”

The only thing wrong with this claim is that Ms. Nazon again gets the constellation wrong – the moon will be in the constellation Ophiuchus (which I think is the bane of astrologers since, because of precession, there are now 13 “sun signs,” but Western astrologers only recognize the original 12). The moon will be about 13° away from the edge of the constellation Sagittarius for this eclipse … that’s nearly 8% of the way across the visible sky at the time. Again, a fairly big miss for someone who studies the sky.

Skychart on June 04, 2012 Showing Lunar Eclipse

Skychart on June 04, 2012 Showing Lunar Eclipse

Numbered Claim 7

“June 6th 2012 Transit of Venus across the disc of the Sun.”

Now this is cool. Once every 122 years and then again 8 years later, the planet Venus transits across the disk of the sun as seen from Earth. Historically, this has been very important for astronomy because it was the only way to directly measure the size of the solar system and the distance between us and the sun. I invite you to read a bit more about it on Wikipedia if you’re interested.

Anyway, yes, this does happen, and will happen, though unfortunately it won’t be visible from most of the US as it happens from 22:09 June 5 through 4:49 June 6 (GMT). About the best place for this one will be Indonesia or Japan.

While this has historic significance for astronomy, though, I again fail to see the significance of it in foretelling, well, anything that is supposed to happen on December 21, 2012.

Numbered Claim 8

“June 11th 2012 Jupiter enters Gemini.”

If she’s right … So?

But yet again, Ms. Nizan is wrong. I’ll again direct you to any number of for-free or commercial planetarium sky programs and tell you to go to that date and look at where Gemini is and look at where Jupiter is. On June 11, 2012, Jupiter is clearly on the ARES side of Taurus, not anywhere near Gemini. Maybe she got her year wrong — Jupiter enters Gemini on June 27, 2013.

Skychart on June 11, 2012 Showing Jupiter's Location

Skychart on June 11, 2012 Showing Jupiter's Location

Also, Jupiter orbits the sun once every ~12 years or so. That means that about once a year, it moves into a new constellation. About once every 12 years, it repeats the cycle! Gasp!

Numbered Claim 9

“July 15th 2012 Lunar grazing occultation of Jupiter (visible from the UK with a clear horizon ) 02-00 [sic] GMT.”

This claim is true and pretty cool. The moon will occult Jupiter for several minutes at this time as seen from the UK. But it’s just as significant – and even more common – as the lunar occultation of the planet Saturn that was visible from the US and other parts of the world in 1997.

While in analyzing these claims so far I’ve concentrated on showing some of their flaws, I will yet again ask: So what? What does an apparent alignment from an insignificant planet floating in a vast universe have to do with anything?

Numbered Claim 10

“Aug 14th 2012 Mars and Saturn conjunct Spica [sic]”

Not sure what Ms. Nazon has against periods, but she leaves them out a lot in this list. Anyway, Ms. Nazon seems big on conjunctions with Spica. And as I stated for her 4th claim, this is another one that is simply not true. A conjunction is when things come together and appear to be in the same spot. Unless you’re using a very loose definition of the word – perhaps she meant “close conjunction” instead of “conjunction” – then this is again demonstrably false (just go to planetarium software and look!!).

Yes, they’re reasonably close, with about 3.5 full moons separating Mars from Spica, and 5.5 separating Mars from Saturn. I’m really not sure I’d call this a conjunction, especially if you’re trying to link it to some cosmic energy vortex being activated because these objects are supposed to meet. But, I suppose under the 5° idea that astrologers seem to use (based on my friend), the three will be in a “conjunction.”

Numbered Claim 11

“August 22nd 2012 The Moon, Mars, and Saturn are conjunct [sic] Spica.”

Moving the ol’ clock forward on Starry Night software and … Nope! For those familiar with photography, you could easily use a 100mm lens to photograph this close conjunction. You need something with wider than a 5° field of view, as Saturn from the moon is nearly 6° apart — even under the 5° rule we can’t really consider this to be a conjunction.

Now, granted, this would make a neat photograph. And if I remember, I’ll probably try to capture it. But in the grand scheme of things, this really is not a very close conjunction – definitely not a once-in-26,000-years event.

Numbered Claim 12

“October 5th 2012 Saturn enters Scorpio.”

Okay, I’m not sure what Ms. Nazon is using. But Saturn is still pretty much smack dab in the middle of Virgo in October 2012 (see image below). Unlike Jupiter, Saturn takes longer – about 30 years – to orbit the sun once. So, it will enter a new constellation about once every 2.5 years. And 30 years later it repeats. So, is there supposed to be some significance I’m not getting in it staying in Virgo on October 5, 2012 allegedly entering Scorpius?

Skychart on October 05, 2012 Showing Saturn's Location

Skychart on October 05, 2012 Showing Saturn's Location

Numbered Claim 13

“November 13th 2012 Total Solar Eclipse at 22 degrees Scorpio 22-12 GMT visible from north-eastern Australia.”

Let’s see … May + 6 months = November … we have another potential eclipse! Which is what Ms. Nazon is predicting for NE Australia. And, lo!, yes there is an eclipse on November 13, 2012, visible from northern Australia and the southern Pacific.

But in what seems to be a running theme, this takes place in the constellation Libra (the scales), and the declination is about -18°, not 22°. For those who don’t know, Libra is a full 3 constellations away from Sagittarius, over 11% of the visible sky away from Sagittarius. It hasn’t been since about the year 1400 B.C. that the sun was in Sagittarius on November 13 — assuming we use our calendar instead of what was in use at the time.

Numbered Claim 14

“November 14th 2012 The Moon occults Mercury (daylight occultation visible from the UK with a telescope) .”

Yep, the moon occults Mercury, visible from the UK, at about 10AM on November 14, 2012. And it does it again May 9, 2013. Mercury never strays too far from the ecliptic, so the moon has a reasonable chance of occulting it once a month. So again, this is not a rare occurrence, nor does it have any physical significance.

Numbered Claim 15

“November 28th 2012 Penumbral lunar eclipse 7 degrees Gemini. Central eclipse 15:33 GMT [sic]”

Yep, 2 weeks after a solar eclipse, we have the possibility of a lunar one. And not a very good one at that – the moon may appear to dim a little, but it’s unlikely that it will appear to go very red. That’s what a penumbral eclipse is versus an umbral – the good kind! And if Earth’s shadow could stretch farther into space, just a few hours later we would see a Jovian eclipse with Earth’s shadow turning Jupiter red!

Anyway, I’m getting kinda sick of saying it and hopefully I don’t have to post yet another screenshot for you to believe me, but she got the constellation wrong again. This happens in Taurus, not Gemini. And I’m not sure where she’s getting her coordinates from — she either needs a new calculator, better tables, or better software. The moon will be at about 4 hrs RA and +20° DEC … not 7° in Gemini. In fact, the farthest south that Gemini gets is just under 10°. Now, Gemini does cross through the 7th hour RA, but there are 24 hours of RA, not 360, so saying anything about it being 7° is either being completely oblivious about what RA means or making up numbers.

And she’s again an hour off, with the greatest eclipse time being 14:34:07 GMT. This eclipse will be visible in Europe, East Africa, Asia, Australia, the Pacific, and North America.

Numbered Claim 16

“Uranus will enter Aries in 2011. The last time Uranus transited Aries was in 1927-1935 which we all know as The Great Depression.”

Okay, for some reason this claim was bolded on her site, along with #17 and 18. Perhaps it’s because she actually ties these into past events. Let’s look …

Uranus has a longer year than Saturn, about 84 Earth years. When running open house observing nights on campus, we refer to it as the “once in a lifetime” planet because unless you have an unusually long lifespan, you will never see Uranus in the same location in a constellation (excluding retrograde motion, but that’s a different story). You will never see it in the same place in its orbit (that’s more precise).

So now let’s go through this without looking up to see if she has the constellation right. 1927 + 84 = 2011, so yes, wherever Uranus was in 1927, it will be returning there around 2011. So that would be a correct analysis.

Now, about depressions. For those who don’t know, one of my hobbies is coin collecting. As such, I’ve tracked US inflation rates throughout history and come up with some beautiful graphs. Suffice to say, the US has gone through several “great” depressions – present one excluded because only history will tell if it’s a “great” one. The first was during the Revolutionary War, when inflation skyrocketed. Second was around the War of 1812 – about 40 years later. Third was during the Civil War, when America experienced the largest inflation rates in its history as a country (excluding just after its founding) — that was 50 years later. And then the Great Depression – about 70 years later. If you want to play it forward, we experienced depression-class inflation rates again during WWII (15 years later) and again during the Korean and Vietnam Wars (30-40 years later).

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see an 84-year pattern there.

United States Inflation Rates, 1776-2008

United States Inflation Rates, 1776-2008

Oh, and now let’s see if it’s actually in Aries (looks at Starry Night Pro …) Nope. Uranus is smack-dab in the middle of Pisces. It enters Aries in late 2018. And what would it entering in 2011 have to do with 2012?

Numbered Claim 17

“Neptune will enter Pisces its own sign in 2011. The last time this occured [sic] was 1847-1862 where it last transited during the time of the French Revolution.”

Just because I’m already looking at Starry Night for Uranus and Aries, let’s take a look at Neptune. Neptune takes even longer in its orbit – about 164 years. And in very late 2011 it moves into Aquarius, and finally in December 2023, it will move into Pisces. So, I am honestly curious now – Ms. Nazon, what are you using to make these claims? Are you just making them up? Are you using software that doesn’t account or over-accounts for precession? What’s going on here?

Anyway, about revolutions. Yes, 1847+164 = 2011. Now, I’m not a historian, so I did a quick look-see on Wikipedia … The French Revolution was 1789-1799, while there was a less severe one in 1848. But revolutions take place all the time. The Cuban revolution of the 1960s. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in the 1970s. You could even say the Civil Rights in the 1960s was its own kind of political revolution. Let’s not forget the Communist Revolutions in the mid-1900s in China, Vietnam, and Korea. Or Germany in the 1930s, Italy in the 1930s, the Russian Revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century … need I go on?

This – like the Great Depression link to Uranus – is an obvious example of retrodiction and anomaly hunting. She’s looked at the last time Neptune was in that place in the sky (NOT PISCES) and found something that would’ve made front-page headlines while ignoring any other occurrence of an event of that type that has happened since.

Numbered Claim 18

“Pluto has entered Capricorn, well, the last time Pluto entered Capricorn was 1762-1777 the American Colonial Revolution.”

I’ve heard this from several astrologers on Coast to Coast over the last few years, that Pluto is entering a place in the sky that it hasn’t been since the American Revolution. That’s because Pluto’s year is about 248 Earth years, so it takes quite awhile. The “only” problem is that, yet again, Pluto won’t be in Capricorn until about mid-2024. It’s still in Sagittarius until then.

Numbered Claim 19

“Venus will make a rare planetary loop above the Orion star system, a rare planetary passage over the disk of the Sun on June 6,2012.”

Let’s take this in reverse-order since there are actually two things here. Venus’ year, being an inferior planet relative to Earth (meaning that it’s closer to the sun than Earth), is shorter than ours and once or twice a year it will pass close to the sun. Unless it passes directly in front of it, as is actually the case in 2012, it will appear to pass above or below the disk. And as I already discussed in Claim #7. Double-dipping isn’t allowed.

As for “rare planetary loop,” this happens about once every 20 months – hardly a once-in-26,000-years. When Venus reaches its greatest elongation from the sun (its farthest distance) when it’s an evening star, it will appear to reverse directions in the sky and instead of traveling West-to-East, it will go retrograde and travel East-to-West. So, from Earth’s point of view, it will look like it stops and reverses direction, I suppose appearing as a “loop” in the sky.

This happens when it’s in Taurus in May 2012 (above Orion, yes). It will happen in the constellation Libra in October 2010. It happened in March in 2009 in the constellation Pisces, above Cetus and below Andromeda and Pegasus. In December 2013 it will happen in Sagittarius, just next to Capricornus. And in August of 2015 it will happen through Leo. In fact, just a month before that – on July 1, 2015, Venus and Jupiter actually will have a very close conjunction, appearing less than 0.5° apart in the sky. Too bad it’s during the day, though you may be able to catch them pretty close together just after sunset.

Numbered Claim 20

“We will be in an 11 year Sun Spot Cycle that is known to make us less compliant and more reactive over the slightest provocation.”

Please show your work. And, by the way, we’re always in an ~11-year sunspot cycle.

Final Thoughts, Part 1

Okay, there are two real take-away points from this analysis of Terry Nazon’s justification for why 2012 is meaningful astrologically or that it’s going to lead to something big that the Mayans supposedly predicted.

First take-away point is that she’s quite sloppy. Well over half of the specific claims that she made for where objects would be relative to constellations are demonstrably false – just use any planetarium software you like and you’ll see this.

Second point is really the main debunking point of astrology – what does any apparent alignment of an object with another object from Earth’s fleeting vantage point at that moment have to do with anything?

February 20, 2009

Latest Creationism Article, “Can Cosmic Collisions Create?” Is a Stack of Fringe Science Claims


Introduction

After writing for a few weeks on Planet X and 2012, I’m returning to my former bread & butter with debunking creationism articles – specifically young-Earth creationism (YEC). And today’s article by Brian Thomas, “Can Cosmic Collisions Create?,” is, to put it bluntly, a real piece of work.

And I mean that in a sarcastic, derogatory sense. I know my stated purpose for this blog is to just go for the science and test the claims and let them stand independent of who’s making them. But, after reading this article, I may resort to some stronger – though still at least PG – language. This is a family-friendly blog. 🙂

Choosing the Setting

Brian Thomas starts off his diatribe as most other Institute for Creation Research (ICR) articles do, with a paragraph or two introducing the topic. In this case, the title of the article is misleading. I assumed it would be talking about how YECs view events like the moon’s formation via a giant impact, Uranus’ tilt via a giant impact, general processes of solar system formation (accretion of small particles into larger ones), etc. as too serendipitous to be natural and requiring a supernatural hand (as in “God”).

But, that’s not really the case for the article. Brian decided to write the article about how astronomers resort to methodological naturalism in their science. In other words, we (since I’m an astronomer I can say “we”) are looking for a natural rather than a supernatural explanation for everything that we can observe. Otherwise, we can simply say, “God did it” and that would end all science. After all, if “God did it” then what’s the point in figuring out how it was done – we’re already starting with the answer. But that’s really a topic for a different post.

Regardless, Brian doesn’t set the stage for talking about collisions “creating” anything. And the rest of the article doesn’t go into that.

False Analogy in the Second Paragraph

I knew when I got to the second paragraph and Brian calls Eugenie Scott, the head of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a “militant evolutionary scientist” that this article was going to be an eye-roller. So, he’s starting out right in the third sentence with an ad hominem as well as a non sequitur set of logical fallacies: He’s calling Eugenie a supposedly derogatory name in order to discredit her, and being an evolutionary scientist – or even evolution for that matter – has nothing to do with astronomy.

But it’s really the end of the second paragraph that started to get me going: “Forensic scientists routinely and appropriately consider intelligent, non-natural causes when they reconstruct past events, and astronomers’ refusal to acknowledge the possibility of divine causation makes some of their theories appear silly.”

To call it what it is, this is a false analogy. We have proof that humans commit crimes. It’s a given. It’s a no-brainer. “Duh,” as some might say. And, we have very good evidence that, say, trees don’t commit crimes, or at least not with intent. Again, “Duh.” So it would be completely irrational for forensic scientists (people who use science to investigate crimes) to, say, in a murder investigation, consider anything but a human having a hand in the killing. But what does that have to do with astronomy? There is no proof/evidence/scientific justification behind saying, “God did it” – or “Aliens did it” – in astronomy. Hence, because we pretty much know that humans do not have the power and ability of the Q Continuum and we can’t go around forming solar systems, we resort to natural explanations (had to throw in the Star Trek reference).

I just don’t understand why Brian would even “go there” in this article – making that analogy either shows profound ignorance or desire to deceive. Since I don’t know Brian personally, I cannot speak to which it may be, but I will let you judge based upon the rest of this article.

Comet Quandaries

I really don’t want to get into comets again, as I’ve already addressed YEC claims with regards to comets in two posts (“Why Comets Are NOT Evidence for a Young Solar System” and “More Reasons Why Comets Do NOT Prove Creationism“).

But, I want to nit-pick his words (emphasis mine):

For example, coincidental gravitational events have been invoked to explain the origin of comets. In this scenario, objects in the unobserved “Oort cloud” collide in such a way that a small percentage of them are launched into space and eventually form orbits around the sun. The likelihood that chance-based near-misses coupled with precise hits created, stored, and set in orbit the various comets in this way is unreasonably small.

Again, for the general science of comets and why this claim is wrong, see those two posts. But let’s look at the first text I bolded. The origin of comets is different from the source of comets. Current theory is that all comets formed at the beginning of the solar system along with everything else. They just formed farther away from the sun and hence where more ice could solidify versus closer to the sun where ice would be vaporized. That’s the origin. The present-day source of comets is this region of the outer solar system, divided into the Kuiper Belt which starts around where Pluto is, and then the Oort Cloud farther out, that theorists think could extend out to 2 light-years (half-way to the nearest star). Origin ≠ Source.

The next piece of text shows very poor editing, a profound ignorance for the astronomy, or a deliberate attempt to deceive. Everything that is gravitationally bound to the solar system by definition orbits the sun. All of the comets – be they in the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud, or something else within the solar system are already on orbits around the sun. And what could he possibly mean by “launched into space?” Um, hello? — they’re already in space. By definition! They’re “launched into space” the same way that asteroids that happen to cross Earth’s orbit are “launched into space.” The way he’s worded it implies that there’s some base station that every-now-and then hurls them at us like we launch rockets.

And I note that while this may seem like an ad hominem attack, it’s not – I am addressing his claims, showing why they make no sense, and then stating three possible reasons why he made the claims in a non-false trichotomy.

Another Creationist Playground: Venus

My observation has been that if a YEC is going to talk about solar system astronomy in an attempt to support their claims, they will first go to comets, then either to Venus or magnetic fields. Brian does both, but first he does Venus:

Another random collision, according to Cardiff University’s Huw Davies, is supposedly responsible for the creation of Venus. Davies proposed that the second planet from the sun is the result of “a mega-collision between two large embryonic planets.” But many very specific parameters would have had to be involved in this random “little bang” to form Venus’ unique composition, its reverse spin, its orbit about the sun, and therefore its role in balancing the earth’s own orbit, which is vital to the survival of life here. Since when do collisions—especially mega-collisions—add purpose-oriented specificity to any system?

There are several things wrong with this paragraph. First off, Brian Thomas talks about only one of the hypotheses which has been presented to explain Venus’ orbital characteristics (mainly that it spins backwards, slowly, such that its day is longer than its year). Doing that is misleading at best. A more recent hypothesis than the giant impact has to do with a lot of math, basically the same kinds of tidal forces that causes oceanic tides on Earth from the sun and moon are responsible and quite capable of flipping Venus over via tidal interaction with the sun. Philosophically, this is more plausible to astronomers because it doesn’t invoke a serendipitous giant impact to flip Venus over. Not mentioning this as another valid scientific hypothesis is disingenuous – or shows ignorance – on Brian’s part.

Another – though minor – point is his reference to this as a “little bang.” To the causal reader, this draws an immediate connection to the “Big Bang” – the theory of the formation of the cosmos – which is something that YECs have successfully been able to draw doubt to the validity of among their followers. Hence, this is an example of “poisoning the well.”

Moving on, Brian states that Venus plays an important role in balancing Earth’s orbit and hence a serendipitous event somehow led to purpose-oriented specificity to the solar system. First, Venus really doesn’t have much of anything to do with Earth’s orbit and hence life. So that statement is pretty much wrong. Second, there are lots of random things that are later co-opted for a specific purpose. For example, I may go into the grocery store thinking I’m going to buy food to make Thai Basil Chicken. But, ground beef may be on sale that week for 50%-off. That’s a random event. I may then co-opt that random event and use it for a purpose – make a “hamburger soup” instead because it’s cheaper. It’s really the same concept – the solar system and the universe isn’t the way it is such that we can exist, rather we exist the way we do because the solar system and universe happen to be set up the way they are.

Martian Magnetics

Mars is thought to have had a rather strong magnetic field early in its history. We find highly magnetized regions of the planet’s crust that are consistent with this, but there is no global magnetic field now. The thinking is that the planet – because it’s half Earth’s diameter and less than 1/8th Earth’s mass – simply cooled off much faster than we did and so the molten metals in its core were no longer fluid enough to generate a magnetic field. That’s the consensus view of Mars’ magnetic history.

However, Brian chooses not to mention that, but rather something that I’ve honestly never heard of:

University of Toronto’s Jafar Arkani-Hamed proposed that a collection of hovering asteroids ignited and maintained an ancient magnetic field on Mars. Such a field would have been required for living cells to exist on that planet. But the possibility that these asteroids somehow avoided Mars’ moons and then hovered with just the right masses, trajectories, and distances to have pulled Martian electromagnetism into motion “for 500 million years” seems incredible. Mars rocks do show evidence that there once was a magnetic field. However, these asteroid conjectures seem merely to be extensions of a larger methodological naturalistic interpretation since the proposed asteroids and their exact specifications are ad hoc provisions with no direct evidence (and virtually no indirect evidence.)

Now, I have not read Arkani-Hamed’s paper, but on the surface it seems fairly implausible. Just as Brian says (see, sometimes I do agree with the creationists). There really isn’t any evidence for his hypothesis, as far as I know without reading the paper. But again, why wouldn’t Brian even mention the consensus view? Why does he resort to something on the fringe to try to make a point? Really, Brian is doing the same thing here as saying that creationists can explain everything by saying that God did it – that’s the consensus view – but then there’s one creationist that says, for this one thing, he doesn’t think God did it, but rather it was the Flying Spaghetti Monster (any pastaferians out there?).

In addition, throwing Mars’ moons in there really isn’t important because the consensus view is that they were captured asteroids, after Mars formed, and so it’s not necessary for them to have been in place when Arkani-Hamed’s asteroid swarm induced Mars’ magnetic field, and hence they really don’t cause a problem for it.

Brian then makes the obligatory argument of a decaying magnetic field being proof of a young solar system: “Incidentally, the observation that Mars’ magnetic field rapidly decayed would be consistent with a young universe in which systems break down. Magnetic fields observed in other planets are decaying at rates precisely predicted by one creation model.” I’m really not going to address this because it’s a classic YEC argument that I will address in a future blog post (though here’s a preview: It doesn’t hold up to the science!).

Final Thoughts

I think I got through that without too much name-calling. Rather, I question Brian’s sincerity. Obviously he is writing for a Young-Earth Creationist think-tank, the Institute for Creation Research. So obviously his stories will have a slant or bias towards that cause. But there’s such a thing as professional ethics, a code of conduct, or just basically telling the whole truth. As I’ve pointed out, at least for this story (and in past ones in other posts), Brian does not do this. In his skewed perspective, he omits information, goes out and finds cases of fringe ideas to point out how a non-God approach seems “out there,” resorts to many different logical fallacies, and just plain gets the science wrong either deliberately (which should violate the ethics laid down by his God) or through profound ignorance about what he’s writing (which would – or should – doom anyone in pretty much any other job). Perhaps now you may understand why I was frustrated more than usual when reading this article.

As for the actual science content, I really have nothing left to say. He’s just wrong pretty much on every count. Case closed.

October 23, 2008

Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument)


This entry is in specific response to the “Venus vs. Uniformitarianism” article from the Institute for Creation Research, written by David Coppedge.

This is meant to be a short post on the heels of my crater discussion from yesterday, and it actually fits in fairly nicely even though it’s about something completely different:  The planet Venus.

Venus is an interesting planet and has held peoples’ imaginations ever since it was realized that it was shrouded in clouds, hiding its surface from view.  At almost the same size as Earth, it was long thought of as Earth’s twin and it may hide a paradise beneath the atmosphere.  That view vanished in the 1960s when spacecraft showed it to be a planet with a surface temperature far above the boiling point of water, the clouds full of sulfuric acid, and the atmosphere so heavy that the surface pressure is the equivalent of being under 1 km of ocean on Earth.

But another highly unexpected observation was that Venus’ entire surface seemed to be the same age based off of the crater population (see, there is a link to my post yesterday!).  There are just under 1000 craters on Venus, and statistically they are distributed randomly over the planet, no region being older nor younger than another (to the accuracy of crater age dating).  And then, based off of the crater density, the surface age of Venus was estimated to be 500 million to 1 billion years old (the agreed-upon number today is about 700 million).

(Note that a pretty good, definitive paper on this is found in the Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 97, No. E10, from 1992 in an article by Roger Phillips et al. entitled “Impact Craters and Venus Resurfacing History.”)

The question is:  What would make the entire surface a single age, between 11-22% the estimated age of the solar system?  That brings us to the Institute for Creation Research article I cite at the beginning of this post.  David Coppedge uses Venus to say that it “poses a serious challenge to uniformitarian views,” (views that say geologic history has resulted from the action of continuous and uniform processes throughout time; in other words, the opposite of catastrophism).

This is actually true.  It’s very difficult to think of a uniformitarian process that would produce what we see on Venus today.  That’s actually why no one really does (hence, it is a straw man argument, an argument against something that the other side doesn’t actually say).  The prevailing view today is that Venus’ current surface is the result of a catastrophic release of magma from within the planet that broke through the crust and covered the planet in a geologically short period of time – hundreds or thousands of years.

The proposed mechanism is that without plate tectonics to release heat and energy, the build-up in the planet’s mantle eventually overpowered the strength of the crust, resulting in the catastrophic release.  It is possible that this is cyclical, occurring once every few hundred million or few billion years – we just don’t know because we (a) haven’t seen it and (b) we can only see the evidence from the last time.

Why this becomes important to creationists, and why it’s on the ICR website, is two-fold.  First, creationism relies upon catastrophic events to explain geologic features like the Grand Canyon (general appeal is to Noah’s Flood).

Second, which is the point of the last two paragraphs of the ICR article, is, “One idea never considered is that the missing 90% never occurred.”  So he is arguing for a young solar system based on the data showing that Venus’ surface is ~700 million years old.  There are many, many things wrong with this argument, but for the sake of my promised brevity, I will only address two.

The first should be obvious:  For creationist arguments, the goal is to get the age of the solar system down to 6000 years or so.  However, it shouldn’t take a math major to figure out that 700,000,000 is much greater than 6000 … by a factor of over 100,000.  The point of the article is more likely to try to make the reader second-guess the “millions of years” arguments rather than have the reader actually think of the timescales that are being suggested.

Second, and this is more subtle, he is still relying upon an argument from crater age dating.  This has been calibrated from the Moon.  So let’s say that the lunar timescale were off by, oh, a factor of 1,000,000 (what’s needed to get it to 6000 years).  Remember from my post yesterday that crater age dating is relative, and so that would mean that Venus’ age (since the article is suggesting that its surface age is the same age as the planet) is also younger by a factor of a million.

That would place Venus’ age at between 500 and 1000 years old.  Not even creationists think that Venus is that young – they can’t, because there are historic records dating back over 4000 years showing observations of Venus.  As you can see, if you actually think about these arguments logically, and carry them through to their conclusion, they become unrealistic unless there is some sort of “other” special happenstance.  You can’t pick and choose how far you want to take the evidence, as they do in this article.

Finally, I want to end with two comments on the last paragraph of the article.  First, “If it were not that Darwinian evolution requires vast ages …, many of the features observed by the space program would be considered young.”  This is not true.  Geologists had already figured out Earth was at least on the order of millions of years old before Darwin ever presented his theories on evolution.  Geology in terms of figuring out how old things are has absolutely nothing to do with biological evolution.  It has much more to do with basic physics, such as heat transfer, collision rates, gravitational perturbations, etc.  Nothing in space is dated based on an idea that evolution says something has to be old … this is an absolutely ridiculous claim showing naïveté, especially coming from someone who “works in the Cassini program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

Now that I have that out of my system … second, a more philosophical point:  “Should scientists be allowed to infer histories that are indistinguishable from myth?”  Speaking as a scientist, the idea that I can or can not formulate a history from on my observations based on the whim of whether someone else thinks I should or shouldn’t be allowed is very … irritating.  Who is he to say whether someone can or cannot think something?

Science works by lots of people coming up with lots of different possible explanations based on the observations.  They can then test those explanations by making predictions for further observations, and those observations should be able to rule out some of the explanations and still allow others.  Then the process repeats until (hopefully) one is left that explains all the observations.  If none do, then a new hypothesis must be built that can explain all the observations, and then be further tested.

The “catastrophism” idea for Venus is not presently testable due to financial and technological constraints.  However, there are ways that it can be.  One would be sending ground-penetrating radar to Venus to peer within its crust and determine heat flows.  Another would be to find fissures across the planet that could be outlets for the resurfacing material.  A third would be to actually date material on the surface and to dig down within the crust and date that material, as well.  The argument from the article – that the first 90% of Venus’ history never actually existed – is not testable at all, nor does it make sense in the context of the rest of the solar system (as discussed in my demonstration that Venus would need to be 500-1000 years old based on this article).

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