June 3, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Astronomers Wrestle with "Endless Mysteries"

Some of the biggest questions in the universe remain completely baffling to astronomers, a leading journal admitted.

Science Magazine (1 June 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6085 p. 1090, DOI: 10.1126/science.336.6085.1090-a) included a special feature this week: “Mysteries of Astronomy.”  Robert Coontz introduced the feature:

Endless mysteries lurk in the depths of space. To pare the list down to eight—now, there’s a challenge….  From the outset, the team decided that true mysteries must have staying power (as opposed to mere “questions” that researchers might resolve in the near future). Some of the finalists are obvious shoo-ins; others have received less of the popular limelight. The final selection spans the entire history of the universe on scales ranging from our sun and its planetary system to the entire cosmos. Each mystery is sure to be solved largely through astronomical observations—if it is solved: In at least one case, experts aren’t sure that a seemingly simple question will ever be answered.

The top eight mysteries selected by Science are:

  1. What is dark energy?  Adrian Cho began, “The nature of the “dark energy” that is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate is now perhaps the most profound mystery in cosmology and astrophysics. And it may remain forever so.”  (This is the “seemingly simple question” Coontz worried would never be answered.)
  2. How hot is dark matter?  Adrian Cho described the decades-old controversy about whether dark matter is hot (ordinary matter) or cold (unknown stuff).  They still don’t know what it is, but Cho believes “that could soon change.”
  3. Where are the missing baryons?  For laymen, baryons are atoms and ions, or “ordinary matter.”  But where the missing baryons are is no ordinary matter; astronomers can only account for less than half of what they expected to find.
  4. How do stars explode?  Supernova explosions have been animated by artists for years.  That doesn’t mean they are understood.  Yudhijit Bhattacharjee lamented, “Many details of what goes on inside a star when its fuel has been spent and it explodes into a giant fireball known as a supernova, as well as how that explosion unfolds, remain a mystery.”
  5. What re-ionized the universe?  According to consensus theory, a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, the universe became transparent when matter re-ionized.  TV programs explain this as just a matter of fact, but as for what caused it, Edwin Cartlidge admitted, “No one is sure.”
  6. What’s the source of the most energetic cosmic rays?  Daniel Clery wrote, “After a century of cosmic-ray research, the most energetic visitors from space remain stubbornly enigmatic and look set on keeping their secrets for years to come.”
  7. Why is the solar system so bizarre?  Richard A. Kerr described how each planet, when visited by spacecraft, turned out to be more puzzling than expected.  “As exoplanet hunters get beyond stamp-collecting planets solely by orbit and mass, they will have a far larger number of planetary outcomes to consider, beyond what our local neighborhood can offer,” he concluded his tour.  “Perhaps patterns will emerge from inchoate diversity.”
  8. Why is the sun’s corona so hot?  Every once in awhile, a new theory claims this mystery has been explained.  Apparently not; Richard A. Kerr surveyed leading theories, but it still made Science‘s Top 8 Mystery List.

See Space.com article for layman’s summary of these mysteries, and another Space.com entry in countdown format.

Entry #7, “Why is the solar system so bizarre?” deserves a closer look.  Kerr said that Pluto has been partially explained as a member of a previously undiscovered population of trans-Neptunian objects.  “The mysteries of the remaining eight planets,” i.e., all of them – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – “are proving more recalcitrant,” he said.  Before space probes, planetary scientists expected to find patterns that would support a general theory of planetary origins.  That hope has evaporated:

Looming over all the attempts to explain planetary diversity, however, is the chilling specter of random chance. Computer simulations show that the chaos of caroming planetesimals in our still-forming planetary system could just as easily have led to three or five terrestrial planets instead of four. Mercury may have largely formed with a thick rocky shell only to have it blown away by a chance collision with a still-forming planet nearly its own size. A rare big hit to Uranus might have not only knocked it on its side, where it spins to this day, but also shaken up its rocky core. If so, the more organized churnings of a shallow fluid shell could be generating its magnetic field, producing the observed tilt.

Ferreting out rare random events in the early days of the nascent solar system could be problematic, scientists concede. They may have to settle for working out many of the rules of the planet-making game without pinning down exactly how a particular planetary quirk came to be.

Thus the “inchoate diversity” of which he spoke (inchoate meaning unorganized, disordered).  Kerr left it to future astronomers to find a way out of that chilling specter of random chance.  “As exoplanet hunters get beyond stamp-collecting planets solely by orbit and mass, they will have a far larger number of planetary outcomes to consider, beyond what our local neighborhood can offer,” Kerr ended as optimistically as possible.  “Perhaps patterns will emerge from inchoate diversity.

What?  Science doesn’t have the answers?  These are BIG mysteries.  Some of them are the very questions for which TV animators for the Science Channel, NOVA and National Geographic offer solutions that are neat, simple, and wrong.  We deceive students by teaching simplistic, wrong answers without revealing that scientists have only partial answers, if any.  What distinguishes science, whose root means “knowledge,” from other methods of human inquiry that also have more questions than answers?

Batters get three strikes and are out.  Planetary scientists are zero for 8 as far as observations meeting predictions (even worse when moons like Io, Enceladus and Titan are included).  Astronomers and cosmologists are not batting any better.  In any other human endeavor, a zero score would be called utter incompetence.  Astronomers and planetologists are very good at describing  what is (i.e., stamp collecting), but NOT how it came to be.  Those two skills are completely different.  They can remain on as stamp collectors, but not as prophets.

Notice that planetary science is stuck with the Stuff Happens Law (the opposite of scientific explanation).   That’s what Kerr meant by the “chilling specter of random chance.”  If materialists are stuck with throwing up their hands and saying, “stuff happens” when asked why human beings won the cosmic lottery, they need to step off the pedestal of Knowledge and yield the platform to those who can state a positive case for design (reference: The Privileged Planet documentary).   It’s the planetary scientists – not the planets – that are being recalcitrant.

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  • Jon Saboe says:

    Proposed model for origin of ‘bizzarre’ Solar System:

    God created the Solar System as a creative genious with a large dose of whimsy.


    “Let’s make one planet spins on its side. When the materialists try to explain this, they’ll also discover that this planet has the only moons that orbit in circles, not elipses — and that any cosmic event that “tipped” this planet would have ruined its moon’s very precarious orbits.”

  • Buho says:

    Jon, right on.

    Why is this brush stroke just so in this painting? Artistic license that no materialistic account will ever come close to explaining.

  • Jon Saboe says:

    Buho — love the way you said that! Will probably steal it for future use! “artistic license” much more than just pragmatic information.

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