July 17, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Mystery Moon (and Meteorites, and Stars)

One would think astronomers would not be stumped in 2013 by common objects like the moon, meteors and stars.  But they are.  It’s driving them mad.

Moon madness:  The  lunacy begins with Earth’s moon.  Here is a body man has walked on, and he still doesn’t understand it.  National Geographic discussed “The moon’s mystery,” dispensing with all three of the most popular origin theories that were demolished by the Apollo program.  It also dispensed with the currently-leading theory of a glancing blow collision, showing that Apollo samples discredit the idea of another mass with different composition leaving no trace.  Variations of the model all have their weaknesses, so the answer must be in the futureware:

“The barn door is wide open, and now we have lots of ideas,” Asphaug said. “There probably will be another ‘aha’ moment in five years or so.”

But for now, the moon holds on to its mystery.

Natural History Magazine (5/13 issue, “Blue Moon” p. 7) corroborated the crisis, saying that the discovery that Earth and Moon share a similar composition works against the popular impact hypothesis: “Overall, the findings throw some big wrinkles into widely accepted theories of how wet the primordial Earth might have been, as well as just how the Moon was born.”

Speaking of the moon, Space.com posted a handy guide to Earth’s moon, staying pretty much out of origin theories, only mentioning the impact model in one sentence without listing the problems.  Most of the article focuses on facts about the lunar orbit and the moon’s composition.

Chondrule madness:  Chondrules are curious molten inclusions inside some meteorites that have defied explanation for decades.   “Blobs called chondrules in the fabric of rocks from space have long baffled scientists,” Richard A. Kerr wrote in Science Magazine.  “A new idea may shed light on their origins, but some experts have given up hope.”  He describes the pessimism at a recent conference:

How would you like your decades of research on a field’s central problem to be summed up by the statement that “these objects remain as enigmatic as ever”? That was part of the title of a session on the formation of chondrules at the 75th annual Meteoritical Society meeting last year.

For half a century, meteoriticists—scientists who study meteorites—have been trying to understand the origin of chondrules: once-molten, millimeter-size blobs of rock that a 19th century scientist called “drops of fiery rain.” Chondrules riddle 85% of the rocks that fall to Earth from the asteroid belt, so meteoriticists are deeply intrigued. And scientists have long presumed that the recipe for making the four rocky planets, including Earth, consisted largely or entirely of chondritic rock. They would like to know how their main ingredient came to be. Yet only two of last year’s 14 talks in that chondrule formation session directly addressed the topic, and both of them described a decades-old idea that has made little headway: chondrules splashing off colliding planetesimals.

There is no “unifying paradigm,” and “the field of possible formation mechanisms has hardly been narrowed in decades.”  John Wood gave it up years ago and took up oil painting.  His student lamented, “However [chondrules] formed, they formed beyond our experience. How do you ever prove it?”  The only new idea sounds like a hard sell:

But there may be reason for hope. A collaboration of astrophysicists and a meteoriticist has just floated a new mechanism: humongous “short circuits” in the still-forming solar system. All it has to do is run the gantlet of skeptical meteoriticists and astrophysicists.

Alan Boss puts this idea on “the bottom of the list.”  Others are similarly skeptical.  No model has worked.  Nobody was there to see what happened.  One optimist placed his faith in futureware: “Sooner or later, someone’s going to come up with a mechanism that solves it all.

Star madness:  One would think that stars, the most plentiful objects astronomers can see, would be understood by now.  In “How did the universe get its stars? An astronomical puzzle,” Space.com shared the dirty secret that most star formation theories rely on previous generations of stars; they have no idea how the first generation of stars formed.  It’s a controversial question, and it’s an important one, an astronomer remarked.  Without original stars, you have no heavy elements, which theory says formed in stellar interiors.  Once again, the solution was sloughed off to some hopeful day in the future.

We just thought you should know that textbooks bluff about these matters.  People need to know how real scientists feel.  They’re frustrated, some are worn out, some are ready to leave and take up oil painting.  At least that involves intelligent design.

Say, if the “barn door is wide open,” why not let the Biblical creationists in?  They have an answer: the universe was created on Day One, and the stars and moon on Day Four.  That’s they ‘aha’ moment they need, if they just weren’t so closed minded to intelligent causes.



  • Jon Saboe says:

    Perhaps it is THIS “barn door”:

    “We take the side of science IN SPITE of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, IN SPITE of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, IN SPITE of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

    It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our A PRIORI adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

    Richard Lewontin “The New York Review”, January 9, 1997, p. 31

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