July 30, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Water on the Planetary Science Brain

Hydrocephaly is a physical brain ailment;
Hydrobioscopy is a philosophical brain malady


What scientists thought might be water on Mars turns out to be clay. While it’s good that scientists corrected their mistake, the story points to a common brain malady in planetary science that sends researchers on fruitless quests to find life. (Hydrobioscopy is our term for a focus on water as a biological signal, ignoring the fact that water is a necessary but vastly insufficient ingredient for life.)

Study: York U planetary scientist puts Mars lake theory on ice with new study that offers alternate explanation (University of York). When radar reflections from the Mars Express orbiter in 2018 matched the signature for liquid water at the edge of Mars’ south polar cap, some scientists got excited. Others wondered how liquid could exist on a planet where it should sublimate quickly into the planet’s thin atmosphere.

For years scientists have been debating what might lay under the Martian planet’s south polar cap after bright radar reflections were discovered and initially attributed to water. But now, a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters, led by planetary scientists from Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, puts that theory to rest and demonstrates for the first time that another material is most likely the answer.

Research led by Isaac Smith, Canada Research Chair and assistant professor of Earth and Space Science at Lassonde School of Engineering and research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, uses multiple lines of evidence to show that smectites, a common type of clay, can explain all of the observations, putting the Mars lake theory on ice.

A “lake” of briny water was inferred to exist under Mars’ north polar cap. It’s probably just clay.

The paper in Geophysical Research Letters by I.B. Smith et al., “A Solid Interpretation of Bright Radar Reflectors Under the Mars South Polar Ice” (GRL, 15 July 2021, DOI: 10.1029/2021GL093618) says that clay is a sufficient material to account for the observations. The water interpretation is problematic, because “the amount of dissolved salt and heat required to maintain liquid water at this location is difficult to reconcile with what we know about Mars.”

Clays, not water, are likely source of Mars ‘lakes’ (NASA). This press release from NASA points to another time when hydrobioscopy led planetary scientists astray. Remember the streaks on some crater slopes that were interpreted as flows of water leaking out from the subsurface? Notice the tendency to jump to biological conclusions; the first sentence in the article is, “Where there’s water, there’s life.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time an exciting water-related hypothesis set off a flurry of investigations. In 2015, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found what looked like streaks of damp sand running down slopes, a phenomenon called “recurring slope lineae.” But repeated observations using the spacecraft’s HiRISE – or High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment – camera have since revealed this is more likely the result of sand flows. A paper released earlier this year found many recurring slope lineae after a global dust storm on Mars in 2018. The finding suggested that dust settling on slopes triggers sand flows, which, in turn, expose the darker subsurface materials that give the lineae their distinctive coloration.

Mars’ bright south pole reflections may be clay – not water (Cornell Chronicle). This report about Cornell scientist Dan Lalich, second author of the paper, reveals the mental expectations of those afflicted with hydrobioscopy:

“Unfortunately, that’s a bit of a downer,” he said, “because lakes below the ice cap would have been very exciting. We believe the smectite hypothesis is more likely and it’s more consistent with other observations.”

Overcoming Downers with Uppers

Those with water on the planetary science brain keep their hopes up in spite of repeated disappointments.

Earthly rocks point way to water hidden on Mars (Pennsylvania State University). Scientists maintain their excitement at thoughts of water becoming life by evidence that Mars used to have water. Hydrated iron minerals like hematite contain hydroxyl ions (OH) which may indicate they formed in waters in ages past.

A combination of a once-debunked 19th-century identification of a water-carrying iron mineral and the fact that these rocks are extremely common on Earth, suggests the existence of a substantial water reservoir on Mars, according to a team of geoscientists.

Grad student Si Athena Chen speaks excitedly in a short video clip comparing red and yellow rocks on Earth which contain hydrated iron oxides with those on Mars. Because some hematite is low in iron but high in hydroxyl groups, it might indicate a special form of the mineral that in sufficient quantities could indicate that Mars had water when the minerals formed.

The researchers recently proposed in the journal Geology “that hydrohematite is common in low-temperature occurrences of iron oxide on Earth, and by extension it may inventory large quantities of water in apparently arid planetary environments, such as the surface of Mars.”

It may be true that Mars had water in the past. But is this alone a sufficient reason to leap to conclusions about life?

Mars is called the red planet because of its color, which comes from iron compounds in the Martian dirt. According to the researchers, the presence of hydrohematite on Mars would provide additional evidence that Mars was once a watery planet, and water is the one compound necessary for all life forms on Earth.

Nevertheless, “the existence of hydrohematite on Mars is still speculative,” the article admits.

Clays found in Martian crater hint that the planet was once habitable (New Scientist). Jonathan O’Callaghan leaps like an Olympic high jumper to the conclusion that water is an indicator of life. The evidence? Glauconitic clays in Gale Crater, found by the Opportunity Rover, indicate that water may have been present.

However, the presence of mineral remnants of glauconitic clays is a promising sign. Their presence on Mars suggests that stable conditions – with temperatures around -3 to 15°C and water with a neutral pH – may have existed on Mars in Gale Crater, possibly for up to a million years.

This quote indicates that hydrobioscopy is often accompanied by an elevated perhapsimaybecouldness index.

With its hellish temperatures and poisonous clouds, Venus is one of the most inhospitable bodies in the solar system. (Magellan mission global radar map)

Lack of water rules out life on Venus: study (Phys.org). It’s a downer that Venus can’t have life without water. This downer, however, can be alleviated by taking an upper that Venus might have had water in the past. Scientists from Queen’s University in Belfast offer relief from the pain of finding that phosphine doesn’t exist in the toxic clouds on Venus, as reported last year. That was supposed to be an indicator of life, but the claim was recently called into question (see Evolution News).

Chris McKay gloomily reports that Venus has less than 1/100th the amount of water in its atmosphere that would be required for life. But he keeps the dream alive: “There could’ve been a time when Venus was earth-like,” he said. How sad, though, they perished in the hell that describes the Venus we know. McKay turns his attention to the prospects at Jupiter. His measurements of water content in the cloud tops were “much more optimistic” there, he says.

Rare meteorite could hold secrets to life on Earth (Phys.org). A meteorite fell to Earth. It has minerals in it. “It is a stony meteorite, rich in water and organic matter, which has retained its chemistry from the formation of the solar system.” Once again, though, the “water” is in the form of hydroxyl ions, not liquid, and “organic” compounds are simply carbon compounds, not necessarily from life.

Dr. Queenie Chan from Royal Holloway, University of London added: “The teams preliminary analyses confirm that Winchcombe contains a wide range of organic material! Studying the meteorite only weeks after the fall, before any significant terrestrial contamination, means that we really are peering back in time at the ingredients present at the birth of the solar system, and learning about how they came together to make planets like the Earth.”

Several comments below the article complain about the click-bait, and the teasing about life when the facts have nothing to do with life. “Scientists are set to uncover the secrets of a rare meteorite and possibly the origins of oceans and life on Earth, thanks to Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) funding.” Yes; always keep an eye on the funding.

Saturn's moon Enceladus with "Tiger Stripes" fissures where geysers erupt

Saturn’s moon Enceladus with “Tiger Stripes” fissures where geysers erupt

Icequakes likely rumble along geyser-spitting fractures in Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus (American Geophysical Union). This sounds like an article about quakes at Enceladus, but it’s actually another diagnosis of hydrobioscopy, or water on the brain of planetary science. There are two indications:

Tidal stresses may be causing constant icequakes on Saturn’s sixth largest moon Enceladus, a world of interest in the search for life beyond Earth, according to a new study. A better understanding of seismic activity could reveal what’s under the moon’s icy crust and provide clues to the habitability of its ocean.

The other indicator is even more explicit. Notice the characteristic excitement and perhapsimaybecouldness index that accompany severe hydrobioscopy:

“[Moons like] these are places that are exciting because they might have life,” said Kira Olsen, a geophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She said that since life is thought to have first developed in our oceans, liquid oceans under the ice of other worlds could be a good place to search for life. The icy crust of Enceladus might also protect the water below from radiation, making it more habitable.

If pigs had wings, they say.

We remind our readers that equating water with life is like finding iron on Mars and leaping to the suggest that it must have skyscrapers and railroads. That’s about a comparable distance in complexity between H2O and a living cell. Planetary science seems to be stuck in the mindset of Percival Lowell, who imagined civilizations on Mars from flawed observations of imagined linear structures that were interpreted as canals.

Those afflicted with severe hydrobioscopy appear to be uniformly of the materialist mindset. Notice that not one of them ever even dreams of the reasoning, “Water on Mars suggests that God created life there, too.” No; it’s always the miracle of emergence: ‘Since life emerged on the earth, water on Mars/Venus/Jupiter/Enceladus indicates that life may have emerged there, too.’ Hydrobioscopy is an emergency condition that requires surgical replacement of the old nature with a new heart. Free heart surgery is available for the asking.


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Categories: Physics, Solar System

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