Sunday, August 2, 2015

Faith, Fear, and Flying Saucers

During the 1950s, space aliens in the movies came in two basic models.

Some were invaders — "Plan 9 from Outer Space," "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," and "Invaders from Mars."

The title character in "The Thing from Another World" acted like an invader. But I think the Thing's bad attitude might have come from being shot after the humans blew up his ship, and that's another topic.

Then there's Klaatu, in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," who stopped just short of walking on water.

Between Klaatu, movies like "Prometheus," and folks who believe space aliens are angels, I'm not surprised that some Christians don't like the idea that we may have neighbors on other planets.

As I keep saying, I don't believe that life exists elsewhere in this universe: or that it does not. We don't know, not yet.

If we meet folks whose ancestors developed on another planet, I think Brother Guy Consolmago is right: they'll be so much like us, basically, that they'll be more like cousins than "aliens." (July 31, 2015)

That doesn't mean I think that space aliens look like Michale Rennie.

Scala Naturae: The Ladder of Nature

Fast-forwarding from Plato's forms, Aristotle's taxonomy, and Medieval Neoplatonism — the scala naturae, or ladder of nature, is a pretty good illustration of what I'm trying to say.

Since then we've learned a great deal, so these days we divide living creatures into domains and kingdoms, two of which are plants and animals; but I think the "ladder" model is good enough for this.

Humans are animals, living creatures with a material body. But we're not just animals. We can reason and have free will. We can decide what we do or do not do. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1951, 1700-1706, 1730)

It's being rational creatures that makes us "in the image of God." Catechism, 1730)

We're not angels, and never will be. Angels, like us, are intelligent and have/had free will; but they don't have bodies. They're pure spirit, not material. (Catechism, 328-330)

As I said three weeks back, verb tense gets awkward when describing creatures who live/exist outside time, and that's yet another topic. (July 12, 2015)

Getting back to the "ladder," we're material creatures. In that way, we're like rocks, plants, and animals. We're also people: which makes us like angels and God.

If we meet folks who aren't human, intelligent creatures made from the stuff of this universe, they'll be on the same 'rung' of the ladder. That's the way I see it.

First Contact

Let's imagine that first contact with folks from another world happens within the next few years — and that it's not as ambiguous as the scenario in "Contact." (1997)

Just to make it interesting, I'm assuming that it's the space aliens who "discover" us, not the other way around.

A few days after their ship settles into orbit around our moon, landers touch down near most major cities, and the fun begins.

I'm pretty sure that no matter how cute and cuddly the space aliens looked, some folks here would panic.

Others would probably assume that the space aliens were benevolent missionaries, sent to save humanity from ourselves — or start worshiping them as gods. That would be a very bad idea. (Catechism, 2112-2114)

I'd be surprised — astounded — if con artists didn't start collecting donations for 'non-profit' groups with names like "Earth Defense League" and "Seekers of Celestial Enlightenment." (November 7, 2014)

The 'religion is against science' pony would be trotted out, and I talked about that on Friday. (July 31, 2015)

Predictions and Policies

Over the last few decades, contact with extraterrestrial civilizations has moved out of pulp science fiction and into serious debate.

I think the discussions are interesting, and may be useful. I also think the various proposed post-detection policies are funny.

Don't get me wrong: planning ahead is generally a good idea, and bureaucracies need rules and regulations.

But my guess is that if we get visitors, or pick up a signal from elsewhere, we'll be making up policies and protocols as we go: occasionally learning from our mistakes.

If we learn that we're not alone by finding physical evidence, like the alien analog of a 50-gallon oil drum: maybe some government or organization will 'manage' the knowledge for a while.

I'm pretty sure that a few folks will greet the aliens the way some other primates do when startled, frightened, or angry: by screaming and throwing stuff.1 Embarrassing as that might be for both sides, it could be a first step in establishing "meaningful dialog."

The good news, as I see it, is that some "impact assessments" reflect an understanding that we probably won't experience a replay of European colonization of the Americas.

On the other hand, quite a few "experts" don't seem to realize that space aliens may not be human: or have Western civilization's current preoccupations.

Sure, well-meaning space aliens might try forcing us to play nice: by their standards. That might include multilateral nuclear disarmament, universal adoption of chartreuse headbands, learning to write with our left hands: or something completely different.

Or maybe the newcomers would be more like Kūruš and Dārayava(h)uš, and leave us alone; as long as we didn't make trouble.

Right now, we don't know if we have neighbors in the universe: much less what they'd be like. I think many discussions of 'first contact' are like Rorschach test ink blots: telling us more about the participants, than the discussion topic.

That won't stop me from doing my own speculation, though.

Hands, Eyes, and Speculation

Most animals our size are bilaterally symmetrical: with two eyes, two pairs of limbs, and a tentacle inside the mouth. Maybe that's the only possible pattern, or maybe we're just one variation on a theme.

My guess is that mobility generally demands left/right symmetry. Animals with radial symmetry don't move much, or move slowly.

If nearly everybody in the universe has distinct left and right sides, that still leaves room for variety. A half-billion years, back, for example, critters caught in the Burgess Shale didn't look quite like anything alive today.

Yohoia and Leanchoilia were too small to have much in the way of a brain: and today's arthropods aren't particularly bright. But if things had been different: a half-billion years of development might end with critters like that having big brains to go along with their hands. (August 1, 2014)

If our neighbors' looked like another Burgess Shale critter, Opabinia, they might think we have too many arms: and too few eyes.

Non-human people who look more-or-less like us, with the same number and arrangement of eyes and limbs, might not think like we do, though.

If the space aliens had more in common, psychologically, with cats than chimps — that might explain why we haven't been contacted, actually.

Cats don't have pack or herd behavior. They're smart enough, and social in their own way: but cats don't "act collectively without centralized direction." (Wikipedia)

Humans do, although we can also act as individuals.

There's the matter of age, too. Our neighbors might have learned how to use fire and build computers within a few thousand years of our passing those milestones.

But if they invented wireless telegraphy when we were making the first Oldowan tools, and develop new tech about as fast as we do: by now they'll be using whatever we'll invent 2,600,000 years from now.

The difference between our 'ages' in that case would be less than 1/1000th Earth's age. This universe is huge and ancient, on a literally cosmic scale. (June 19, 2015; July 15, 2014)

There's the matter of intelligence, too. Maybe we're as smart as people can be: or not. I'm guessing "not," but like I said before, this is all speculation.

However: I think odds that we'll eventually find life, and maybe people, on other planets are looking better.

God's Decision, Not Mine

(From NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt, used w/o permission.)
(Comparison of the Kepler-186, Kepler-452, and Solar systems.The green area in each is the star's habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on an Earth-like planet.)

(From NASA Ames/W. Stenzel, used w/o permission.)
(From the seventh Kepler planet candidate catalog: Planets less than twice the size of Earth, orbiting in or near their stars' habitable zone. The dark green area shows an optimistic estimate for the habitable zone, the light green area is a more conservative estimate.)
"Twelve New Small Kepler Habitable Zone Candidates"
Michele Johnson, NASA (Last updated August 2, 2015)

"...Open yellow circles show new planet candidates in the seventh catalog. Open blue circles show candidates from previous catalogs. Filled-in circles represent candidates that have been confirmed as planets due to follow-up observations. Note that the new candidates tend to be around stars more similar to the sun, representing progress in finding planets that are similar to the Earth in size and temperature that orbit sun-like stars."
As I said Friday, Kepler-452b isn't the first roughly Earth-size planet found in its star's habitable zone. What makes it special is that its star is so much like our sun.

Kepler-186f, discovered last year, is roughly 11 percent wider than Earth. It may or may not be a rocky planet, like ours; and there's a 50 percent chance that it's tidally locked, with one side always facing its star.

Kepler-186 is smaller and cooler than our sun, and a BY Draconis variable — which doesn't make life on Kepler-186f an impossibility, as far as we know.

What's at least as exciting as "Earth 2.0" is HIP 11915b's discovery. This planet's orbit and mass are almost exactly the same as Jupiter's. HIP 11915 is a very close match to our star.

This is the first, and so far only, time we've found a planetary system that's similar to ours.

(From ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope, used w/o permission.)
(HIP 11915's position in our sky, marked by a red circle.)

As I keep saying, my faith doesn't depend on ignoring what we've learned over the last two dozen or so centuries — and thinking is not a sin. Using the brains God gave us is part of being human. (Wisdom 7:17; Catechism, 35, 159, 1730-1738)

Scientific discoveries are opportunities for "even greater admiration" of God's greatness. (Catechism, 283)

We're designed with a thirst for truth and for God — created by God from the stuff of this world — and made "in the image of God," creatures who are matter and spirit. With our senses and reason, we can observe the world's order and beauty: learning something of God in the process. (Genesis 1:26, 2:7; Catechism, 27, 31-35, 282-289, 355-361)

As for whether or not we have neighbors in the universe? I don't make that decision. God's God, I'm not; and I'm okay with that.

My take on:

1 Throwing stuff is a very human thing to do, but it's not uniquely human behavior. (Very) recently, scientists have started studying this behavior:

"Researches find poop-throwing by chimps is a sign of intelligence"
Bob Yirka, (November 30, 2011)

"A lot of people who have gone to the zoo have become the targets of feces thrown by apes or monkeys, and left no doubt wondering about the so-called intellectual capacity of a beast that would resort to such foul play. Now however, researchers studying such behavior have come to the conclusion that throwing feces, or any object really, is actually a sign of high ordered behavior. Bill Hopkins of Emory University and his colleagues have been studying the whole process behind throwing and the impact it has on brain development, and have published their results in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

"Hopkins and his team have focused their research on chimpanzees, mainly due they say, to the fact that chimps are our closet living relative and that they are the only other species besides humans that regularly throw things with a clear target in mind. He and his team have been watching chimps in action for several years and comparing their actions with scans of their brains to see if there were any correlations between those chimps that threw a lot, and those that didn’t or whether they’re accuracy held any deeper meaning. Surprisingly, they found that chimps that both threw more and were more likely to hit their targets showed heightened development in the motor cortex, and more connections between it and the Broca’s area, which they say is an important part of speech in humans. The better chimp throwers, in other words, had more highly developed left brain hemispheres, which is also, non-coincidently, where speech processing occurs in people.

"Such findings led the term to suggest that the ability to throw is, or was, a precursor to speech development in human beings.

"After making their discovery regarding the parts of the brain that appear to be involved in better throwing in chimps, the team tested the chimps and found that those that could throw better also appeared to be better communicators within their group, giving credence to their idea that speech and throwing are related. Interestingly, they also found that the better throwing chimps didn’t appear to posses any more physical prowess than other chimps, which the researchers suggest means that throwing didn’t develop as a means of hunting, but as a form of communication within groups, i.e. throwing stuff at someone else became a form of self expression, which is clearly evident to anyone who has ever been targeted by a chimp locked up in a zoo...."

"The neural and cognitive correlates of aimed throwing in chimpanzees: a magnetic resonance image and behavioural study on a unique form of social tool use"
William D. Hopkins, Jamie L. Russell, Jennifer A. Schaeffer; Philosophical Transactions B, The Royal Society (November 21, 2011)

"It has been hypothesized that neurological adaptations associated with evolutionary selection for throwing may have served as a precursor for the emergence of language and speech in early hominins. Although there are reports of individual differences in aimed throwing in wild and captive apes, to date there has not been a single study that has examined the potential neuroanatomical correlates of this very unique tool-use behaviour in non-human primates. In this study, we examined whether differences in the ratio of white (WM) to grey matter (GM) were evident in the homologue to Broca's area as well as the motor-hand area of the precentral gyrus (termed the KNOB) in chimpanzees that reliably throw compared with those that do not....

"...Visitors to the zoo are sometimes treated to the sight of chimpanzees throwing objects (often faeces or wet chow) at each other or at them. What most zoo visitors do not appreciate is the rarity with which throwing occurs in non-human animals. Save for a few unsystematic and anecdotal reports of throwing in monkeys and great apes [1–9], there is little evidence that throwing occurs in other animals [10]. Thus, throwing appears to have come under positive selection pressure in hominins. From an evolutionary standpoint, some have suggested that throwing may have offered many advantages to early hominins such as the ability to kill larger prey without putting oneself at risk of being wounded or killed [11]...."

Friday, July 31, 2015

Pluto, Earth 2.0, and Life in the Universe

Pluto may have nitrogen glaciers, and the planet's air pressure is much lower than scientists expected.

Kepler 452b, "Earth 2.0," isn't the first roughly Earth-size planet found in a star's habitable zone: but the star, Kepler 452, is remarkably similar to our sun.

Another planet, HIP 11915b, is the first we've found that's around Jupiter's size: and orbiting its star at about the same distance as Jupiter. This is the first other planetary system that 'looks like' our Solar system.

Scientists still haven't found life elsewhere in the universe: but the odds seem to be getting better that we will, eventually.
  1. Pluto's Probable Glaciers
  2. Kepler 452b: 'Earth 2.0?'
  3. HIP 11915b: An Extrasolar Jupiter
I put a quick look at New Horizons' current status, and an afterword about life, faith, and space aliens, toward the end of this post:
A 'science threatens faith' op-ed got my attention this week, so I wrote about beliefs, reasonable and otherwise, before getting around to the interesting stuff. Feel free to skip ahead to Pluto's Probable Glaciers, take a walk, or whatever suits your fancy.

Oh Ye of Brittle Faith

Since that's a snarky paraphrase of Matthew 8:26, I'd better explain a few things.

Back in my youth, the more loudly-Christian folks probably realized that Jesus isn't English. But the way they insisted that the only 'real' Bible was one using an archaic dialect of my language could easily give that impression.

They also seemed to believe the Almighty had decreed that the dress code and musical taste of a particular middle-class American subculture, from about 1945 to 1954, should forever be observed by all.

I didn't agree, but their rants and rigid faith helped me learn to love rock 'n roll — and become a Catholic. (May 3, 2015; August 26, 2012; August 20, 2012)

Many of these folks also seemed convinced that God created the universe in 4004 BC. I'll get back to that.

As a Catholic, I must take the Bible, Sacred Scripture, very seriously, and read it often. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 77-82, 101-133)

But I don't assume that folks knew everything there is to know when the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was assembled, more than two dozen centuries back.

Some Catholics may believe that a 17th century Calvinist must be right: but that's not what the Church teaches. Poetry isn't science, and ignorance is not a virtue. (July 17, 2015; March 29, 2015; October 10, 2014)

Imaginative "History"

I'm a Christian, a Catholic: one of those "superstitious and idolatrous" papists Ussher wrote about. (February 5, 2014)

More recent descriptions of our beliefs and history are occasionally — much more imaginative. (January 11, 2015)

Then there's grand old American tradition of believing that Catholics aren't — or weren't — allowed to own or read Bibles.

There's a very tiny bit of truth in that notion. Before Gutenberg's movable type made mass-produced books possible, very few Europeans could afford Bibles.

I talked about Bibles, medieval Europe, and the price of helicopters, a few years back. That remains one of this blog's most-visited posts. (January 27, 2009)

If you're waiting for a rant about folks who don't share my faith: you'll have a long wait. As a Catholic, must respect folks who don't believe what I do.1

That's not always easy, but remembering how long it took for me to become a Catholic helps.

Having grown up in the 1960s helps, too. I was one of 'those crazy kids' who thought seeing everyone as a neighbor made sense. I still do, and now have more understanding of why it's a good idea. (March 27, 2015; January 18, 2015)

Back then, I didn't think learning more about this fascinating universe was a bad idea; and I still don't.

Science, Truth, and God

Studying this astounding creation is more than allowed: it is part of being human. (Catechism, 159, 2293-2295)

Scientific discoveries are invitations " even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator...." (Catechism, 283, 341)

The Catholic Church's view of science shouldn't be surprising — We're told that truth is very important. (Catechism, Prologue, 27, 74, more under Truth in the index)

Faith, in the Catholic sense, is not reason: but it's not unreasonable.

Since I believe that the things of faith come from God, that God created the world, and is Truth — fearing knowledge of God's world would be illogical.

Truth cannot contradict truth. (Catechism, 156-159)

That's why I'm not bothered when we discover some new facet of reality.

Deliberately disbelieving facts isn't a good idea. At all. "Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience...." (Catechism, 1849)

Bottom line: Seeking truth and seeking God are compatible. So are faith and reason. I thought this was true before I became a Catholic, and still do.

More importantly, that's what the Church says. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35, 50, 154, 274, 1706)

Earth 2.0, Aristotle, and All That

I'll be talking about "Earth 2.0," Kepler 452b, later. It's a planet that might, maybe, support life.

One of the first "Earth 2.0" headlines I saw was by scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst, Jeff Schweitzer, who has a Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology.

He probably knows his field very well, and made some remarkable assumptions about Christianity:
"Earth 2.0: Bad News for God"
Jeff Schweitzer, Huffington Post (July 23, 2015)

"...Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation: the earth is the center of the universe, only humans were made in the image of god, and all life was created in six days. All life in all the heavens. In six days...."
I've known Christians who apparently agree with Dr. Schweitzer — that Christianity depends on believing that one of the Genesis creation narratives is literally true.

I don't, but like I said: I'm a Catholic.

Oddly enough, I've yet to encounter a Christian who insists that Earth is flat, based on Job 9:6-7. International long distance telephone service may have something to do with that. (October 10, 2014; October 3, 2014)

Dr. Schweitzer may have read Dante's "The Divine Comedy," and assumed that the poem's geocentric cosmology was a vital tenet of Christian faith.

As for the 'creation took six days' thing: I think it's hard to live in America and not hear that vehemently asserted.

Let's remember that Dante Alighieri was a poet, not a natural philosopher: although "The Divine Comedy" included references to science/natural philosophy of the early 1300s.

However, as Tennyson's imperfect knowledge of Victorian railroad technology in "Locksley Hall" shows,2 Poets focus on poetry and art: not science and technology. (July 18, 2014)

A few decades before Dante finished his poem, some European scholars had insisted that Earth had to be the only world like ours: because Aristotle said so.

Although the 219 Propositions of 1277 were later annulled, the principle of Proposition 27/219 is still valid. God's God, Aristotle's not. (February 23, 2014)

If Christianity depended on believing that Earth is only slightly over six millennia old, our faith would have begun crumbling shortly after 1778.

That's when Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, published "Les époques de la nature." He had carefully measured how fast iron cools, extrapolated from that data, and found that Earth was about 75,000 years old. He was wrong by several powers of ten.

Another scientist used similar methods in 1862, getting an age of Earth at somewhere between 20,000,000 and 400,000,000 years.

Since then, we've learned about heat from radioactive decay, convection currents in Earth's mantle: and some folks still insist that Ussher must be right.

Like I said, I'm a Catholic: and figure part of my job is admiring God's creation, not telling the Almighty how it should have been made. (March 29, 2015; September 19, 2014)

Predictably, Dr. Schweitzer's op-ed got a response:
Since looking for life in the universe may become 'political,' I'll repeat what I've said before. "Liberal" and "conservative" aren't the only possible positions, and thinking is not a sin:

Mapping Pluto

(From NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI, used w/o permission.)
("Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this sharper global view of Pluto. (The lower right edge of Pluto in this view currently lacks high-resolution color coverage.) The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away from Pluto, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers). That’s twice the resolution of the single-image view captured on July 13 and revealed at the approximate time of New Horizons’ July 14 closest approach."
(Tricia Talbert, NASA))

I posted the lower-resolution version of this image, released July 14, Two weeks ago. (July 17, 2015)

Some places on Pluto will probably have other names, after the IAU decides which ones they like. For now, here's a closer look at Pluto's landscape, northeast of Cthulhu Regio — that dark patch called The Whale earlier — from a previous post. (July 24, 2015)

(From NASA/JHU/APL/SWRI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The mission team says the ice appears to flow around the mountains and collect in craters"
(BBC News))

(From Mika McKinnon, NASA/JHUAPL; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
("Map of Pluto, with (informal) names for some of the largest surface features"
(Mika McKinnon, New Horizons Scientist, NASA/JHUAPL))

(From Mika McKinnon, NASA/JHUAPL; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A closer look at The Brass Knuckles.)

More about places on Pluto:

1. Pluto's Probable Glaciers

(From NASA/JHU-APL/SWRI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Just a small amount of heat from below could be enough to enable the very cold nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices to flow"
(BBC News))
"New Horizons: Pluto may have 'nitrogen glaciers' "
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (July 24, 2015)

"Pluto would appear to have glaciers of nitrogen ice, the latest pictures from the New Horizons probe suggest.

"Scientists believe they see evidence of surface material having flowed around mountains and even ponding in craters.

"The activity is certainly recent, they say, and may even be current.

"But the mission team cautions that it has received only 4-5% of the data gathered during 14 July's historic flyby of the dwarf planet, and any interpretations must carry caveats.

" 'Pluto has a very complicated story to tell; Pluto has a very interesting history, and there is a lot of work we need to do to understand this very complicated place,' said Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator...."
"Recent," in this case, means geologically recent. Washington University's William B. (Bill) McKinnon said that "recent" in this case is "no more than a few tens of millions of years."

That image shows the edge of Sputnik Planum, a large plain on the west half of Tombaugh Regio — Pluto's "heart."

Like the BBC News article says, if these are glaciers, they're frozen nitrogen. Water ice would be too hard, too brittle, to flow at Pluto's temperatures. Scientists figure that Sputnik Planum's ice is a mix of frozen nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane.

New Horizons will keep 'looking' at Pluto for several days. Then it'll be spun up, giving it stability without draining power for its thrusters. That gives the spacecraft more power for transmitting data back to Earth. It'll take about 16 months to send the uncompressed data back.

By then New Horizons should be heading for a Kuiper belt object: probably 2014 PN69 (in January 2019) or 2014 PN70 (in March 2019).

Plutonian Air Pressure: Dropping?

(From NASA/JHU-APL/SWRI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("New Horizons has sped past Pluto and is continuing to image the dwarf planet to study its tenuous atmosphere backlit by the Sun"
(BBC News))
"...This statement comes from measurements made by the probe as it was looking back at Pluto following the flyby.

"It could tell from the passage of sunlight and radiowaves through the Plutonian 'air' that the pressure was only about 10 microbars at the surface (1 microbar is about a millionth of the air pressure on Earth at sea level).

"The other key detection was of hazes in the atmosphere. These are likely the consequence of high-up methane being broken apart and processed by sunlight into simple hydrocarbons like ethylene and acetylene, which then fall, cool and condense to form a mist of ice particles.

"Some of this material will probably be further processed into more complex chemistry that rains on to the surface to give certain regions their characteristic reddish hue...."
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News)
Pluto's atmosphere is very thin, but was getting thicker: probably because frozen gas on its northern polar 'ice cap' was evaporating. (July 24, 2015)

That was last week. Last Friday, NASA announced that Pluto's atmosphere may be changing rapidly:
"New Horizons Reveals Pluto's Atmospheric Pressure Has Sharply Decreased"
Lillian Gipson, NASA (July 24, 2015, updated July 30, 2015)

"Pluto's atmosphere may be changing before our eyes. Measurements with NASA's New Horizons spacecraft have revealed that Pluto's atmosphere has an unexpectedly low surface pressure compared to that derived from previous observations. One explanation for the low pressure is that about half of Pluto's atmosphere may have recently frozen onto the planet's surface. If confirmed, it could indicate that further decreases in pressure may soon be in store.

"The pressure measurement is the first ever obtained for the surface of Pluto. It was made by REX, the spacecraft's radio experiment, about one hour after New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto on July 14. In a carefully-planned observation that had never before been attempted, two radio dishes on Earth--part of NASA's Deep Space Network-- beamed radio waves precisely timed to reach Pluto just as New Horizons passed behind the dwarf planet.

"The radio waves traveled through Pluto's atmosphere en route to the spacecraft and were bent, or refracted, by the atmospheric gases. The amount of bending -- which appears as a shift in the frequency of the radio waves -- revealed that the gas pressure at Pluto's surface was only 1/100-thousandth that of the pressure on the surface of Earth. That's about half the amount calculated from previous Earth-based observations.

" 'For the first time we have ground truth, measuring the surface pressure at Pluto, giving us an invaluable perspective on conditions at the surface of the planet,' said New Horizons researcher Ivan Linscott of Stanford University. 'This crucial measurement may be telling us that Pluto is undergoing long-anticipated global change.'

"New Horizons is expected to transmit a wider variety of REX measurements of Pluto’s atmospheric pressure in the next few weeks."
It's quite possible that Pluto's air pressure dropped sharply since the last Earth-based observation. Or maybe observing starlight as Pluto passes between the star and Earth shows one phenomenon, and observing radio signals sent through Pluto's atmosphere shows another.

Either way: we have more data now than we did before New Horizon's flyby, with much more coming. There's a great deal left to learn about Pluto.

2. Kepler 452b: 'Earth 2.0?'

(From ESO, used w/o permission.)
("The orbital period of Kepler 452b (shown in this artist's impression) is very similar to that of Earth"
(BBC News) )
" 'Earth 2.0' found in Nasa Kepler telescope haul"
Paul Rincon, BBC News (July 23, 2015)

"A haul of planets from Nasa's Kepler telescope includes a world sharing many characteristics with Earth.

"Kepler-452b orbits at a very similar distance from its star, though its radius is 60% larger.

"Mission scientists said they believed it was the most Earth-like planet yet.

"Such worlds are of interest to astronomers because they might be small and cool enough to host liquid water on their surface - and might therefore be hospitable to life.

"Nasa's science chief John Grunsfeld called the new world 'Earth 2.0' and the 'closest so far' to our home.

"It is around 1,400 light years away from Earth...."
This isn't the first time scientists spotted a planet that may support life as we know it, and Kepler-452b certainly isn't the closest. It is, however, remarkable in that it's orbiting a star that's a great deal like ours.

It's even at about the right distance from the star for our sort of life — and quite possibly a ball of rock and metal, like the planet we're living on.

Ten other somewhat-Earth-like planets are within 50 light-years of us. I've at least mentioned several of them in earlier posts:
These aren't Star Trek's "class M" planets, with surface gravity that's close to Earth's, and a shirtsleeve climate curiously similar to southern California's. We're learning that planets are far more varied than the our Solar System's selection.

So far we've found none quite like Earth, but there's a vast number of places we haven't studied yet. (November 7, 2014; June 27, 2014; May 16, 2014)

More about possibly-habitable planets:
One more item, a discovery announced yesterday:

3. HIP 11915b: An Extrasolar Jupiter

(From ESO/M. Kornmesser, used w/o permission.)
("An artist's rendering shows an exoplanet called HIP 11915b around the Sun-like star HIP 11915. Image credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser."
"HIP 11915b: Jupiter Twin Found Orbiting Sun-Like Star"
Megan Bedell, University of Chicago; Jorge Meléndez, Universidade de São Paulo; Richard Hook, ESO Public Information Officer; via (July 15, 2015)

"Using the HARPS planet-hunting instrument on the 3.6-m telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory, Chile, astronomers have discovered a Jupiter-mass exoplanet orbiting the Sun-like star HIP 11915 at almost exactly the same distance as Jupiter.

"Although many exoplanets similar to Jupiter have been found at a variety of distances from Sun-like stars, the newfound planet, HIP 11915b, in terms of both mass and distance from its host star, and in terms of the similarity between the host star and our Sun, is the most accurate analogue yet found for the Sun and Jupiter.

"HIP 11915 is not only similar in mass to the Sun, but is also about the same age. To further strengthen the similarities, the composition of the star is similar to the Sun's.

"The star is located in the constellation Cetus, about 200 light-years away. It is too faint to be seen without optical aid, but can be picked up with binoculars...."
This is at least as exciting as finding Kepler-452b.

As of yesterday, scientists have found 1,938 planets orbiting in 1,227 planetary systems other than ours. 485 of those planetary systems have more than one planet. (The Extrasolar Planet Encyclopedia)

"HIP" in HIP 11915 stands for Hipparcos, an ESA satellite launched in 1989. Hipparcos is the name of an ancient Greek natural philosopher — and stands for High Precision Parallax Collecting Satellite.

Abbreviations like HIP, BD, Gl, and SAO, tell astronomers which star catalog the designation number comes from.

Making things a bit more complicated, one star often appears in several catalogs: like Gliese 667, that's also called 142 G. Scorpii, CD−34°11626, GJ 667, HD 156384, HIP 84709, HR 6426, LHS 442/442/443, and SAO 20867.

Where was I? Acronyms, ancient natural philosophers, catalog numbers, HIP 11915b. Right.

I don't think HIP 11915b supports life. It's a gas giant, like Jupiter. Writers have imagined life existing in Jupiter's atmosphere, like the featured creature in Arthur C. Clarke's "A Meeting with Medusa."

I enjoy stories like that, but realize that Jupiter's atmosphere is almost certainly too turbulent to support life: no matter how exotic. (December 19, 2014)

Getting back to HIP 11915, it looks like there isn't another Jupiter-size planet orbiting the star closer than HIP 11915b. There could be Earth-size planets orbiting the star, maybe in the habitable zone. That's a lot of "could be" and "maybe."

There's been scientific speculation that Earth is habitable because Jupiter orbits where it does.

Most planets in the Solar System have orbits closer to Jupiter's orbital plane than our star's equatorial plane. Mercury is an exception.

It's very likely that Jupiter acts as a shield for the inner Solar System, attracting and getting hit by comets that would otherwise have struck Earth or another inner planet. It's possible that Jupiter also caused the Late Heavy Bombardment, some 4,100,000,000 to 3,800,000,000 years ago.

Or maybe the Late Heavy Bombardment didn't happen. The last time I checked, scientists still aren't all convinced that it's a real event, not a misinterpretation of data.

That doesn't mean that Ussher was right, after all. Scientists are, and have been for some time, convinced that Earth is about 4,540,000,000 years old: give or take 50,000,000. They're also quite sure that this universe started 13,798,000,000 years back; give or take 37,000,000.3

More about HIP 11915b and Jupiter:

Current Status

(From NASA/APL/Southwest Research Institute, used w/o permission.)
(New Horizons position at 1700 UTC/1200 Central Daylight Time. (CDT) (July 23, 2015))

As I said before, this is a blog, not a news service. These folks have been updating fairly often, if you're looking for current information:

"The Universe is .... Queerer than We Can Suppose"

Now and then I get to the end of a post, and have something to say that doesn't quite fit in. (April 24, 2015; April 17, 2015; August 29, 2014)

This is one of those times.

Dr. Schweitzer's "Earth 2.0: Bad News for God" op-ed reminded me of assumptions I run into about life, the universe, and all that.

An op-ed from last year, "Habitable Exoplanets are Bad News for Humanity," reflected — my opinion — Cold War angst and disenchantment with the 19th century's silly optimism about science, technology, and inevitable progress.

That gave me an opportunity to discuss the Fermi paradox, and the possibility that space aliens may not be human. (May 9, 2014)

I think Haldane was most likely right about at least one thing:
"I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."
(J. B. S. Haldane, Wikiquote)

The Martians Are Coming! The Martians Are Coming!

I don't believe that we're alone in the universe: or that we'll find life on other planets. So far, we don't know.

I'd be surprised if we find unequivocal evidence of extraterrestrial life in the next few months: but I'd be very surprised if we are standing on the only life-bearing world.

Finding any sort of life, the equivalent of pond scum or bacteria, would be a momentous discovery: and would probably upset some folks.

But let's imagine that we hit the jackpot later this year.

A spaceship — obviously not from Earth — arrives, and settles into orbit around Earth's moon.

In this hypothetical situation, I'm pretty sure that some folks would panic. Others would start waving 'beam me up' signs at the sky, and the usual gaggle of experts would have dignified conniptions.

On the faith front, folks like the regrettable Westboro (Kansas) Baptist Church would probably declare that God hates us and/or that doom is nigh. Others would write op-ed pieces like Dr. Schweitzer's: and some might feel that 'science was right all along,' and despair.

About despair, it's a really bad idea and we're not supposed to do it. (Catechism, 2091)

I don't think either the familiar "War of the Worlds" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" scenarios are likely, by the way. And that's another topic. Topics. (April 18, 2014; November 15, 2013)

Meanwhile, in this hypothetical 'space aliens have arrived' situation, I figure that the Pope would say something low-key and sensible about the events; and some monks, like Jesuit Guy Consolmagno, would join other scientists in collecting and analyzing data about the new arrival.

Some of the world's billion-plus Catholics would, I'm pretty sure, be much less calm.

Drawing a line through the last half-century's goofiness, some would probably set up their own little 'Catholic Church of Just Us Humans,' or decide that the aliens are some kind of government plot.

As I've said before: like any big group, we've got our share of crazies.

"...Our Cousins in the Cosmos...."

It's been some time since I quoted Brother Guy Consolmago's personal opinion about our neighbors in the universe, if any. (November 7, 2014)

This is one man's opinion, not official Church policy, but I think he makes sense:
"...Frankly, if you think about it, any creatures on other planets, subject to the same laws of chemistry and physics as us, made of the same kinds of atoms, with an awareness and a will recognizably like ours would be at the very least our cousins in the cosmos. They would be so similar to us in all the essentials that I don't think you'd even have the right to call them aliens."
("Brother Astronomer;" Chapter Three, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? — Brother Guy Consolmagno (2000))
Finally, if — and this is a very big if — we do share this universe with other folks: we may be working on the job outlined in Matthew 28:19 for a very long time. And that's yet another topic.

More about Pluto, a comet, and the universe:

1 Truth and respect are important:
" 'All men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it.'26 This duty derives from 'the very dignity of the human person.'27 It does not contradict a 'sincere respect' for different religions which frequently 'reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men,'28 nor the requirement of charity, which urges Christians 'to treat with love, prudence and patience those who are in error or ignorance with regard to the faith.'29"
(Catechism, 2104)
2 Tennyson wrote "...the ringing grooves of change..." in "Locksley Hall" before learning why railroads are called rail roads:
"...Tennyson himself later wrote that his striking, though peculiar, metaphor for change (both visual and aural) arose from a misperception during his own first journey by rail: 'When I went by the first train from Liverpool to Manchester (1830), I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line.'..."
("Lucy on the Earth in Stasis" Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections on Natural History. Stephen Jay Gould, Harmony Books (1995). Cited in " 'Ringing down the grooves of change:' Tennyson's mistaken railway analogy;" George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History Emeritus, Brown University; )
3 Some quantum phenomena are easier to explain if we're not in the only space-time continuum:

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Why Make a Universe?

(From NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); ESA/Hubble Collaboration; used w/o permission.)
"The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder's craft."
(Psalms 19:2)
Genesis 1:1-31 says that God created the universe, and us, and found everything "very good."

Psalms 19:2 says that the celestial light show declares the glory of God.

Who is this message being directed at?

Us, apparently.

St. Bonaventure said that God's creation communicates the Almighty's glory, St. Thomas Aquinas said that God's creates because the Almighty is good and loving, and I think they're right.1 (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 293)

God created the universe, and humanity, because God loves us and wants to adopt us. It's that simple. (John 3:17; Catechism, 27-30, 52, 1825)


Of course, it's not simple, too.

For one thing, we're starting to realize that we may have neighbors: other creatures like us, with bodies and free will, but not from Earth.

Then again, maybe we don't. Either way — as Porky Pine said — "it's a mighty sobering thought." (November 7, 2014; June 27, 2014)

We've learned a bit since the Psalms were written, about two dozen centuries back, give or take a quarter-millennium.

Living in a universe that's immensely bigger and older than Ussher's tidy little version of a Mesopotamian model upsets some folks.

I figure part of my job is appreciating God's creation: not telling the Almighty how it should be made. (March 29, 2015)

Scientific discoveries are invitations to "...even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator...." (Catechism, 283)

I've talked about faith, reason, science, and getting a grip, before. Often. (June 14, 2015; April 10, 2015; December 19, 2014)

"As a Grain from a Balance"

(From NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); ESA/Hubble Collaboration; used w/o permission.)
"4 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.

"But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.

"For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.

"And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?"
(Wisdom 11:22-25)
God isn't merely big and strong. God is "...infinite ... almighty and ineffable ... infinitely greater than all his works...." (Catechism, 202, 300)

What we're learning about the scale of this universe doesn't, I think, make God 'more infinite.' But I think it adds emphasis to verses like these:
"When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place -

"4What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?

"5Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor."
(Psalms 8:4-6)
I also think remembering who and what we are is important. And that's another topic.

More about faith and using my brain:

1 From the Catechism, about God, creation, and love:
"Scripture and Tradition never cease to teach and celebrate this fundamental truth: 'The world was made for the glory of God.'134 St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things 'not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it',135 for God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness: 'Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand.'136 The First Vatican Council explains:
"This one, true God, of his own goodness and 'almighty power', not for increasing his own beatitude, nor for attaining his perfection, but in order to manifest this perfection through the benefits which he bestows on creatures, with absolute freedom of counsel 'and from the beginning of time, made out of nothing both orders of creatures, the spiritual and the corporeal. . .'137
"The glory of God consists in the realization of this manifestation and communication of his goodness, for which the world was created. God made us 'to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace',138 for 'the glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man's life is the vision of God: if God's revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word's manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.'139 The ultimate purpose of creation is that God 'who is the creator of all things may at last become "all in all", thus simultaneously assuring his own glory and our beatitude.'140 "
(Catechism, 293-294)

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.