Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 4, 2016

Face on Mars, Face on Hawaii – Pareidolia is Real, Get Over It

News this week that hasn’t been political has included information about Hawaii’s volcanoes finally spilling lava into the ocean again, for the first time in several years. And, a video of one of the calderas has been making the rounds, uploaded to Vimeo and shot by Mick Kalber.

Volcano in Hawaii, USA, Showing a Smiling Paredolia (Mick Kalber)

Volcano in Hawaii, USA, Showing a Smiling Paredolia (Mick Kalber)

One of the main ways this has become viral is pareidolia at work, with headlines such as “Hawaiian Volcano Smiles at Photographer” and such other whimsical things.

Obviously, the volcano, caldera, and lava are not smiling. It’s the human brain trying to make a familiar pattern out of randomness. Which it very happily does. Visually, it’s generic pareidolia. If it were audio noise and you thought you heard something (the ghost hunter’s infamous “EVP” or Electronic Voice Phenomenon), that would be audio pareidolia.

Everyone does it. And yet, there are still some noted pseudoscientists have consistently refused to believe that it’s real. After all, almost their entire repertoire of claims would be blasted away if they admitted that a bit of the right shade here and a bit of the right shade there and something random will appear to be something familiar.

The phenomenon of pareidolia is real. Get over it.

July 14, 2014

No, Yellowstone Is (Probably) Not About to Erupt

Filed under: doomsday,geology,skepticism,volcano — Stuart Robbins @ 10:51 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

This post falls under the pre-emptive part for bad media reporting in the charter of this blog. Many media sources are reporting that roads are melting in Yellowstone National Park, in this particular case, closing one of the more popular areas off.

The obvious implication for any “Earth Changes” conspiracy person is that the Yellowstone supervolcano (supervolcano being a term invented just a few years ago in a TV special) is gonna blow. Which means that most of North America will be completely uninhabitable after people within a several hundred kilometer radius die very, very quickly from the event. And worldwide severe weather changes because of the massive amounts of ash.

I want to nip that in the bud, so to speak. At issue is statistics and probability. The Yellowstone area is the site of a massive volcano (for Earth, with a caldera 10s of miles across. Just for the record, that would be a somewhat small volcano on Mars, where for example the Arsia Mons volcano has a caldera that is about 100 km in diameter (~65 miles). Last year, it was reported that the magma chamber under Yellowstone – which is responsible for all the thermal features – is twice as large as previously thought (which isn’t as dangerous as it seems).

The large “supervolcanic” eruptions took place 2.1 Mya, 1.3 Mya, and 0.64 May (millions of years ago). And OHMYGAWD if you take an average of 3 WE ARE OVERDUE FOR A MASSIVE ERUPTION AMIRIGHT!!!!!

Except there’s the rub. We have never observed a supervolcano erupt. I hate to bring in Ken Ham’s “Were you there?” thing, but this is really a case where it’s very difficult for volcanologists to understand how these erupt, the frequency with which they erupt, how to predict when/if they’ll erupt, and what the precursors are to an eruption. It should also be noted that Yellowstone has had smaller eruptions more recently than 640,000 years ago, such as flows that have been dated to 70,000 years old.

Anyway, Yellowstone is an active thermal feature. Hydrothermal because water is involved. It’s no secret that it could explode again. What is lesser known is that it may never explode again. We just don’t know. But what is also clear is that we have no way to predict it. And not knowing means that there’s a certain argument from ignorance fallacy that can be invoked — because scientists don’t know (or won’t tell us because of the conspiracy), then the doomsday guy making the definite claim can clearly know better and tell us what’s gonna happen. (FYI, that’s sarcasm.)

But why don’t the latest thermal melting of roads mean that it’s gonna erupt?

Because it happens frequently. Earthquakes happen there frequently. Sulfur dissolving away metal grates happens there frequently. Like, every year. And that whole video thing last year of bison all stampeding out of the park because they knew it was gonna erupt? That was a video of bison running INTO the park, but that didn’t stop conspiracy and doomsday websites.

I think that the only reason we’re hearing about this particular example is that it melted a road to a popular feature. Keep in mind that very little percentage of the park is a road. So if a capricious thermal feature is going to migrate around and warm a part of the ground to the melting point of asphalt, the likelihood of it being a road is very small. Meaning the likelihood of it being a popular road is even smaller. Meaning the likelihood of it being something that’s widely reported is even smaller.

So … is Yellowstone gonna blow? Maybe. But this latest event should NOT be construed as an increase in activity that indicates an imminent eruption.

February 2, 2014

Because Volcanoes Can Form Quickly Means … Jesus and Young Earth?


I have a vast number of young-Earth creationism articles to write about, but this one, just put out by creation.com, will be quick.


I remember learning about the Volcán de Parícutin in grade school: In 1943, a Mexican farmer was in his field and suddenly a fissure opened and a volcano literally rose to over 100 meters high over the next few days, destroying the field and neighboring villages (the villages of Parícutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro).

It was a story that I believed unquestioningly (as many children do), but then wondered if it was real later on, and then looked up the details.

In the first year, the volcano grew to 336 meters (1102 ft), and by 1952, it reached a final height of 424 meters (1391 ft) and has been dormant since. It likely was formed from a small branch of a much larger volcanic feature and magma chamber, and that branch has likely collapsed and the volcán will never erupt again.

Therefore Recent Creation

The entire thrust of Jonathan O’Brien’s article is that because this volcano formed in the space of a few years, it means that everything on Earth can form in just a few years and you don’t need “millions of years” (there’s an entire section of the article called “Millions of years not needed”) to form geologic features:

They assert that most geological features took many thousands or millions of years to form. Yet we know from actual eyewitness testimony that Mount Parícutin took only 9 years to form, from beginning to extinction, with most of its growth having occurred in the first year. With much larger forces at work in the earth’s crust, as occurred during the terrible year of the global Flood, even the largest geographical features we see in the world today would have formed in months, weeks or even days.

Straw Man and Technique Misuse

This is a straw man. Geologists don’t claim that “most geological features took many thousands or millions of years to form,” at least not the way that Mr. O’Brien is implying. Non-volcanic mountains? Yes. Some volcanoes? Yes. The Hawai’ian island chain? Yes.

But geologists have various ways of estimating how long different processes take. One way for volcanoes is to look at the layers of material and the kinds of plants and/or animals trapped within them. Another way is radiometric dating, such as Rb/Sr dating. With a half-life on the order of 50 billion years for rubidium-87, that means the technique is only usable on features that are 10s to 100s of thousands of years old, at a minimum, with current laboratory techniques.

I mention this because of the feedback to the article … of the five comments, four of them are mocking radiometric dating, along the lines of “Nic G.” from Australia: “Has any radiometric dating been carried out at the site? That’d make for some confronting results.”

This is a common tactic of creationists who try to show that radiometric dating methods are flawed: Misusing a technique with known constraints, and going outside those constraints. The most famous example (probably) is that of Mt. St. Helens, where a creationist got a sample of rock from the 1986 eruption and sent it to a lab and got ages of 340,000 to 2,800,000 years.

Final Thoughts

What’s somewhat reassuring is that I’ve addressed all this kind of stuff before on this blog. This is reassuring because it shows that there really are very, very few “new” arguments for young-Earth creationism, that they stick to a set script of explanations that have been debunked an innumerable amount of times in more ways than you can think of. Perhaps that’s the price for placing your belief system on text from 1500-5000 years ago that refuses to be updated.

November 16, 2012

Podcast Episode 55: Interview on Extraterrestrial Life with Dr. Brian Hynek

This nearly hour-long interview on a just-over one-hour episode is with the V-est of VIPs, my boss and former thesis advisor, Dr. Brian Hynek.

Brian is a professor in geological sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he studies Mars with a focus on understanding how and when Mars could have been habitable by life as we know it. This research program includes studying craters (me!), valley networks, other evidence for water, and traipsing around Earth for analogues for Mars, including studying extremophiles on active volcanoes.

The interview is mostly main-stream, covering a lot of the basics, but we get into some of the “PR Fails” of NASA, including the GFAJ-1 “arsenic” bacteria from two years ago and the ALH84001 Martian meteorite “nano-bacteria.” And, no discussion about Mars would be complete without a Hoagland name-drop once or twice.

Since this is an interview episode, and since it’s an hour long, only the Puzzler segment is present in addition to the main interview.

April 10, 2010

An Active Venus? — Another Pre-Emptive Creationism Post


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.

February 2, 2010

On the Importance of Scientists to Publish in the Scientific Literature AND Other Venues


This post isn’t actually about the process of peer review. It isn’t about the importance of press releases. It’s not about scientists going to conferences and hobnobbing with colleagues. Rather, it’s a tale of hope, joy, and crushing disappointment.

My Research

For very astute readers, you may have picked up bits and pieces of my current research, though I’ve never actually gone into any depth on this blog as that’s not the point of the blog. However, it forms the backdrop of this tale of woe:

My work has – for the past two years and for another year yet to come – been to create a new database of craters on Mars, statistically complete to diameters of about 1.5 kilometers. That’s about 170,000 craters larger than that size, though the database has around another 110,000 craters that are smaller in order to ensure statistical completeness. One of the goals of this database is to study a particular type of crater against the backdrop of other “less interesting” craters. The type I’m studying in particular are known as “lobed craters,” craters with “lobate debris aprons,” or “layered ejecta” craters. Everyone has their own pet term though the Mars Crater Consortium has tried to standardize nomenclature for them to be “layered ejecta.” The picture below illustrates a simple example of this type.

Single-Layered Ejecta Crater, Mars

Single-Layered Ejecta Crater, Mars

The basic idea is that this crater’s ejecta is very cohesive and does not look like typical ejecta that we observed on the moon for years before we went elsewhere in the solar system. Layered ejecta craters exist almost exclusively on Mars, though a few have been observed on some of the outer planet satellites, namely Ganymede and Europa.

The main hypothesis for their formation is that the impactor hit a surface that had solid volatiles in it (as in ice). The volatiles melted into the surface from the impact energy and caused the ejecta to act as a cohesive “mudslide,” giving the appearance we see today.

Moving Forward – The Discovery

Now, in my research, I’ve noticed that double-layered ejecta (craters surrounded by not just one, but 2 layers of this cohesive ejecta) seem to be concentrated around volcanic terrain on Mars. While I was busy cataloging and outlining these lobes a few weeks ago, I noticed that there was a marked increase of the double-layered ejecta in a certain region of the planet. But there wasn’t a volcano there, I thought.

I zoomed out on the map I was using and, lo!, I saw what appeared to be a volcano. In fact, the caldera of this thing was about 75 km by 90 km, or around 50% larger than the state of Delaware, several times larger than the caldera of the Yellowstone supervolcano. This size would put it easily in the top 25% of caldera sizes on the planet Mars.

Taking a step back, another, side-project that I’m working on is creating mosaics of the large volcanos of Mars and performing crater counts within them in order to develop a timeline for the “last gasps” of volcanism. I had a list of 24 volcanos that I had obtained from the USGS last summer, since they keep lists of things like that. And I knew that this new caldera I found was not on my list.

Checking Around

So my next step was of course to check all the lists of known volcanos that I could find for Mars. I re-checked USGS. I even checked Wikipedia. But this feature that looked like a caldera was not on them.

Unfortunately, my advisor was in Antarctica searching for meteorites, so I could not consult with him. Rather, I talked to the post-doc next door, who looked at it and agreed with me that it appeared to be a volcano. On a day when his officemate was there, another post-doc, I asked her, and she wasn’t as certain that it was a volcano, but said it was possible. She suggested I check with some other people outside of the university, but I wanted to wait until my advisor was back to check with him … after all, I didn’t want to make myself look like a fool in front of possible future colleagues.

Spreading the Possible Word

Meanwhile, I was getting excited. I mean, who wouldn’t? I tried not to get my hopes up, but from what I could tell, this thing sure looked like a volcano, not a crater (I knew what an impact crater looked like … I’d been circling them for years). And it wasn’t on any of the lists for Mars volcanos. So I mentioned it to a few people, including a comment on The Conspiracy Skeptic podcast episode from a week ago that some of you may have listened to.

Advisor Returns

My advisor got back to this continent this past weekend and we arranged a meeting for yesterday (Monday) to go over progress on what I’d done for the past 10 weeks while he was gone. I told him the first thing I wanted to talk about was this possible volcano to see what he thought. He seemed fairly excited, too, and I think had briefly looked at it and thought it looked promising.

I went into his office at 1 for our meeting and sit down on the couch, and I said that the first thing to talk about would be this possible volcano discovery. He said something to the effect of, “Yeah …” and handed me a paper, turned to a color picture, with big arrows pointed at my volcano.

The Reaction

I was not happy. Duh. But, as far as I could tell, I had taken the right steps. I’d identified a feature I thought was something interesting. I’d created a high-resolution image of it. I’d checked with a few people, and I’d looked at the standard lists.

The paper that this was tucked away in didn’t have a revealing title, so it’s also not as though I had something I could easily search for. At the time of writing this, I can’t actually find the paper in question, though I did just find an abstract for a conference from 2008 where they identify it. Sigh. The abstract is entitled, “New Evidence for a Magmatic Influence on the Origin of Valles Mariners.” Their paper from last year had a similar title. As you can see, nothing in the title about “volcano.”

Final Thoughts – The Moral

The point of discussing this in my blog is to point out the importance for scientists that, once they make a discovery, they need to not just publish in the standard scientific literature. They also need to make sure that it makes its way to other publications, such as standardized lists so that other people don’t get their hopes up on making a discovery others know of it and can easily find that information rather than doing a very exhaustive literature review. The USGS lists are meant to be used by people as a guide for this sort of thing. But, in my bitter opinion, this was a “science fail” by the authors in terms of publicizing their discovery.

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