Astronomy Grab Bag
For year’s end, here’s a clean-out of astronomy articles—from planetary science to cosmology—to motivate further inquiry.
Venus volcanoes: Science Daily asked, “Have Venusian Volcanoes Been Caught in the Act?” but spent most of the article talking about how difficult it is to find a smoking gun.
Night lights: A beautiful set of 39 images of the Earth at night was posted on Space.com. The images were taken by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012. The data was mapped over NASA’s Blue Marble images of Earth to provide a realistic view of the planet.
A moon is born: With the triumphant title, “The Origin of the Moon,” Science Magazine merely updated the ongoing rounds of computer models that try to account for Earth’s unique large and life-enabling moon, each with its suite of misfits to observations. Highlighting the latest 3 models, Alex Halliday remarked, “Distinguishing among these three models is going to involve further simulation and debate.”
Martian floods: An article on PhysOrg has an intriguing headline for a dry planet unable to sustain liquid water: “Vast systems of ancient caverns on Mars may have captured enormous floodwaters.”
Moons from rings: A new bottom-up theory of moon formation from ring systems was tried in Science Magazine Nov. 30 by Crida and Charnoz, “Formation of Regular Satellites from Ancient Massive Rings in the Solar System.”
Kuiper belt comets: Nature claimed (Dec. 20) that small Kuiper belt objects (objects beyond Neptune) are abundant enough to be a source for short-period comets.
Tidal heating: Icarus has a paper entitled “Spatial patterns of tidal heating,” with models showing the heat is not evenly dispersed. Mikhael Beuthe claims his model works for Europa, Io and Titan, but the abstract did not mention if it would work for Enceladus.
Europa geysers: The prominent flanking ridges on Europa are examined in another paper on Icarus. Dombard and team rule out causes other than “a cryovolcanic model in which the growing ridge is underlain by a cryomagmatic sill that locally heats and thins the lithosphere.”
Pac-man and pac-woman: Another pac-man-like shape of heat distribution has been found on a Saturnian moon. Mimas was the first, and now Tethys has one. Joking away the mystery for the BBC News reporter, Carly Howett of Southwest Research Institute remarked, “The Saturn system – and even the Jupiter system – could turn out to be a veritable arcade of these characters.”
Oort cloud: Fouchard and team began a series in Icarus about the Oort Cloud. Part 1 deals with planetary perturbations.
From dust to dust: Astrobiology Magazine touted dust grains as the progenitors of planets (again). It’s not clear how astronomers could tell from a star light years away that “these dust grains are colliding with and adhering to each other, a process that will lead to their eventual formation into planets.” They might want to revisit the stickiness problem (dust grains don’t stick to each other) and realize that dust clumps lack the gravity to grow. Anyway, the reporter joyfully triumphed that “The researchers were fortunate to witness dust particles at a critical phase in their path to becoming a fully-grown planet in the protoplanetary disk.”
Star birth: On Dec. 6, Nature announced “A truly embryonic star,” claiming “The discovery of what may be the best example yet of a forming star caught in the moments just before birth.” One wonders what took so long.
Dark matters: The headline on Space.com says, “Dark Matter Mystery May Soon Be Solved,” the but the body of the article is less sanguine. One astronomer says, “If we don’t find it in this next round of experiments, I think everyone will be a bit discouraged.” The last part of the article is subtitled, “Keeping the dark matter hope alive.”
Dark energies: “Is dark energy static or dynamic?” Who cares? PhysOrg assumes somebody does, even though the hypothetical entity continues to defy description. If dynamic, whatever it is could evolve, the article posits. “While hypothesized dark energy can explain observations of the universe expanding at an accelerating rate, the specific properties of dark energy are still an enigma.” In another article on Science Daily, the BOSS survey looked at 48,000 quasars for its effects, whatever it is. Hopefully they cleaned all the known artifacts and distortions out of the signals. No one knows if they got the unknown ones out.
Galaxy upset: The title “Giant Black Hole Could Upset Galaxy Evolution Models” on a Science Daily article begs the question that the model was standing up in the first place. As for the record-setting black hole, “At 17 billion times the mass of the Sun, its mass is much greater than current models predict — in particular since the surrounding galaxy is comparatively small,” the article worried.
Early supernovae: In Nature last month (Nov. 6), Stephen Smartt said, “The discovery of two superluminous supernovae at large distances from Earth pushes the frontier of supernova studies to just 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang, and suggests that they may be common in the young Universe.” In fact, galaxies are found just 500 million years after the Big Bang, highlighting the problem of getting dense, clumpy structures from an expanding cloud of gas—the only thing the Big Bang could deliver—comparatively quickly in cosmological time. “Astronomers thrive in unexplored territory,” Smartt remarked.
Grand goal or grand claim: A Science Magazine article (“Embers of the Distant Past, Nov. 30) begins, “Modern cosmology has come a long way in fulfilling its grand goal of reconstructing the entire history of the universe.” Skeptics might want to compare this claim with the critical analysis in Dismantling the Big Bang by Williams and Hartnett, who find multiple imaginary leaps over insurmountable problems at every major step.
All for one: One thing cosmologists don’t lack is chutzpah. Penn State astronomers titled a press release last month (see also Science Daily), “The Beginning of Everything: New Paradigm Shift for the Infant Universe.” (Note: any paradigm shift implies the former paradigm is obsolete.) The press release features a new fad called “loop quantum cosmology.” The Penn State astromomers claim to take scientific knowledge even before the Planck era, all the way to the beginning – often claimed impossible by other astronomers.
Before the beginning: Speaking of chutzpah, Marcus Chown at New Scientist took readers where no man has gone before: before the beginning. In “Before the big bang: something or nothing” (Dec. 3, subscription required), his imagination danced where angels had never tread. After a brief survey of modern cosmology, concluding that the universe had a beginning, Chown entertained that the universe popped into existence with a quantum fluctuation. He seemed to sense, though, that the theologians would be at the doorstep, so he ended,
So the next question is surely: where did the laws of quantum theory come from? “We do not know,” admits [Alex] Vilenkin. “I consider that an entirely different question.” When it comes to the beginning of the universe, in many ways we’re still at the beginning.
That’s one way to escape the Kalam Cosmological Argument.* Just say “We do not know.”
*Kalam: Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore, the universe had a cause. Corollary: Since the Cause brought time, space and matter into existence, the Cause had to be eternal and exist outside of those entities. (See series of objections to the Kalam by William Lane Craig on YouTube.)
Marcus, we have a better position than ignorance. It’s called knowledge. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This answers to all the observations and gives purpose and meaning to existence. What’s your problem? If you’re more comfortable with ignorance emanating from people who admit they do not know, so be it. Human observation can only take one so far. It cannot in principle go before the beginning. Secular astronomy is therefore stuck with ignorance. The cause that was there before the beginning had to be without beginning. He is the only possible source of knowledge. Jesus, the Logos, who was in the beginning with God (John 1:1-3), said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Ignorance is not bliss. Choose truth; choose freedom.