Friday, October 31, 2014

Dinosaur Arms, and Ust'-Ishim Man's DNA

Paleontologists uncovered a huge pair of arms, plus assorted ribs and vertebrae, in the Gobi Desert 49 years back. Discoveries since 2006 supplied the missing pieces of Deinocheirus, the largest known theropod dinosaur.

Other scientists are filling in more of humanity's family history, with 45,000-year-old DNA.
  1. The "Beast with the Behemoth Arms" — And Feathers
    • Deinocheirus 'My, What Big Arms You Have'
    • Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, Iguanadon Thumbs, and All That
    • Dinosaur Hands, Collectors, and Poachers
  2. Ust'-Ishim Man's DNA: Part of Humanity's Story
    • Heritage: Norwegian, Irish, and Neanderthal
    • Science, the Importance of Being British, and Orphic Cubism: a Meander
    • The Human Journey Continues
    • "Interbreeding:" and Loving It
    • Fine-Tuning Knowledge of Humanity's History
Maybe you already know why I'm not upset that Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:4-9 tell two different creation stories. (February 23, 2014)

If that's the case, feel free to skip straight to The "Beast with the Behemoth Arms" — And Feathers, check out the Google Cultural Institute, take a coffee break, or whatever.

I take my faith very seriously. But that doesn't mean I'm afraid of "tampering with things man was not supposed to know."

"The Man Who Evolved"

(From Wonder Stories, via, used w/o permission.)
(Illustrations for Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved." (1931))

"The Man Who Evolved" is science fiction: sort of. Edmond Hamilton may or may not have known that dosing a human with heavy concentrations of cosmic rays would result in a very dead human: but scientists of the time did.

Some folks, exposed to tales like "The Man Who Evolved," and "Creature from the Black Lagoon" might grow up to be scientists: either because of, or despite, the melodrama.

Others — sometimes I think nobody could mistake rip-roaring tales for serious science. But sometimes I'm not so sure: particularly when I'm feeling grim, or enduring a cold.

Another thing — I'm human, so 20% of the oxygen and energy I'm using goes to my brain. That's a whacking great percentage of my body's energy budget.

The little dude with a big head in "The Man Who Evolved" presumably has a huge brain: but it's anyone's guess how it's getting oxygen. At least in "Donovan's Brain," the writers paid attention to a brain's metabolic needs.

I could assume that the human brain is 'too big' right now, and our species is doomed because we're too smart for our own good. Don't laugh: I've run into that attitude.

Or I could assume that God made a horrible mistake, and made our brains too big. That's wrong on several levels. For one thing, God doesn't make junk.

Faith, Reason, and the Ardent Mr. Squibbs

I keep running into the notion that faith and reason, science and religion, get along about as well as mongoose and cobra. I don't doubt that folks who feel that way are sincere. But I'm convinced that they're wrong.

On the 'up' side: assumptions that (evil) scientists are constantly "tampering with things man was not supposed to know" has given us movies like Son of Frankenstein" and "Splice:" and Mr. Squibbs, the bald chap in that picture.

Getting back to faith, reason, and all that.

As a Catholic, some things aren't options. I have to believe that: God created and is creating a good and ordered universe; we're made in the image of God, rational creatures — and stewards of the physical world. (Genesis 1:27-28, Psalms 19:2; Wisdom 7:17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1, 341, 373, 1730, 2375)

We are creatures made from the stuff of this world and in the image of God: beings of matter of spirit. (Catechism, 362)

The visible world is there for us to study. We're supposed to be curious about where we came from and where we're going. It's designed into us. This curiosity isn't idle. We're "called to a personal relationship with God," and can learn something of God by studying God's creation. (Catechism, 282-289, 299, 301)

Learning more about this universe, and using that knowledge to develop technologies, is part of our job. Ethics apply, of course. (Catechism, 2292-2296)

Humility is also a requirement. But humility, Catholic style, isn't pretending to be other than what I am. It's accepting reality: remembering that God's God, and I'm not. (August 10, 2014)
"HUMILITY: The virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer (2559). Voluntary humility can be described as 'poverty of spirit' (2546)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, H)
Sirach 3:17-27 gives pretty good advice about humility, pride, and knowledge. Someone like the ardent Mr. Squibbs might cherry-pick Biblical verses like this, and decide that curiosity is a sin:
"With what is too much for you meddle not, when shown things beyond human understanding."
(Sirach 3:22)
Curiosity is okay. Pride and stubbornness, not so much.


As a Catholic, I must take Sacred Scripture seriously. I'm "forcefully and specifically" exhorted to "to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures...." (Catechism, 101-133)

But it's not 'just me and the Bible.' We've got the Magisterium and Tradition (capital "T"), too. (October 2, 2008)

The next verses in Sirach talk about opinion, false reasoning, knowledge, and wisdom.
"Their own opinion has misled many, and false reasoning unbalanced their judgment.

"Where the pupil of the eye is missing, there is no light, and where there is no knowledge, there is no wisdom. "
(Sirach 3:23-24)
Seeking knowledge is fine. Expecting knowledge, technology, or anything else, to take God's place is not. (Catechism, 2113)

Pride: that's a problem. So is that word, in my native language, English. The English word "pride" can mean the arrogance that got Satan kicked out of God's presence: or a reasoned self-respect and awareness of our worth. (Catechism, 391, 1700, 1701-1709, 2094)
"PRIDE: One of the seven capital sins. Pride is undue self–esteem or self–love, which seeks attention and honor and sets oneself in competition with God (1866)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, P)
Stubbornness, hanging on to our opinions without reason, preferring my own will to God's, is a problem: a big one. (Catechism, 229, 1783)

That doesn't mean that diffidence is next to holiness. Fortitude is the virtue that helps us pursue good and resist temptation. (Catechism, 1808)

Time and Truth

I've discussed why I think Earth isn't flat; and am reasonably sure the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old. (October 10, 2014; October 3, 2014)

I'm sure that God could have created a universe that was perfect from the start: where time didn't exist, and nothing changed. That's not how this universe works.

God created, and is creating, a good and ordered physical world: a universe that's changing, in a "state of journeying" toward an ultimate perfection. Believing that is 'in the rules.' (Catechism, 282-308)

I must believe that God is infinite and eternal, almighty and ineffable; beyond our power to describe or understand. (Catechism, 202, 230)

I'm also obliged to believe that what everything we observe reflects some facet of the Creator's truth, according to its nature. (Catechism, 301-308)

All natural processes involve secondary causes: creatures acting in knowable ways, following laws woven into this creation. I believe that God creates everything, and that God is not a liar: so nothing we learn about this universe can threaten an informed faith.

As Leo XIII wrote, "truth cannot contradict truth." (Catechism, 159, 214-217; "Providentissimus Deus")

In a "State of Journeying"

Around 150 years back, some folks who didn't want God to exist started saying that faith isn't "scientific." Some still do. The way some frightfully faithful folks act lends a touch of credence to that notion.

Adding to the confusion, enthusiasm over scientific advances and technology from anesthesia to zeppelins sometimes got out of hand.

For example — phrases like "the magazine of prophetic fiction," at the top of that Wonder Stories cover, reflect the somewhat religious awe some folks had for human ingenuity.

Divinizing anything that's not God is idolatry, and a very bad idea. That doesn't make science, technology, or anything else, bad: the problem is mistaking a creature for God. (Catechism, 2112-2114)

I still run into folks who react — strongly — to the thought that orderly change happens.

I'm not surprised.

We've been hearing and reading that because orderly, rational, change happens: an orderly, rational God cannot exist.

I don't agree. Even if I did, I wouldn't try telling God what the Almighty can or cannot do.

I believe that God exists, is creating the universe, and is infinitely smarter than I am. I also believe that God is rational: and creates a rational, ordered, and beautiful, universe. (Catechism, 268-274, 279-314, 337-349)

This universe is changing.

It's supposed to. It's in a "state of journeying" toward perfection. (Catechism, 302)

We're learning more about how the universe, and life, has been changing.

This change is orderly: otherwise cosmologists, stellar physicists, paleontologists, and other scientists wouldn't be scientists. They'd be bookkeepers, collecting trivia about "random" events.

Arguing that orderly change means an orderly God cannot exist makes no sense to me. (January 31, 2014)

Far from being upset at what we've learned about this astounding universe since my youth: I'm continually impressed at this creation's awesome scale, and the unfolding drama that we're privileged to live in.
"The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: 'It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.'121"
(Catechism, 283) [emphasis mine]
I think some of the fuss about evolution comes from the distressing habit of describing phenomena which are complex or not fully understood "random." And that's a topic for another day.

1. The "Beast with the Behemoth Arms" — And Feathers

(From Yuong-Nam Lee/Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
"Deinocheirus mirificus, the largest known member of a group of bird-like dinosaurs, is shown in this reconstruction image released on October 21, 2014."
(And check out Guardian Tech's "Deinocheirus walking," on YouTube.)
"The beast with the behemoth arms: A dinosaur mystery is solved"
Will Dunham, Reuters (October 22, 2014)

"In July 1965, two gigantic fossilized dinosaur arms replete with menacing claws were unearthed in the remote southern Gobi desert of Mongolia. Measuring 8 feet (2.4 meters), they were the longest arms of any known bipedal creature in Earth's history.

"But nearly everything else was missing, leaving experts baffled about the nature of this beast with the behemoth arms. Half a century later, the mystery has been solved.

"Scientists said on Wednesday two almost complete skeletons of the bizarre 70-million-year-old creature, Deinocheirus mirificus (meaning 'unusual horrible hand'), show it boasted a combination of unorthodox traits, including the famous arms, never before seen in a single dinosaur...."
Although scientists "...accurately recognized [Deinocheirus] as a type of theropod...," as the Reuters article says, they weren't at all sure about what sort of theropod those arms came from. Since it didn't quite fit into groups like Megalosauridae, Coelurosauria, and Carnosauria, Halszka Osmólska and Ewa Roniewicz defined a new classification for the critter: Deinocheiridae

Theropods are a group of dinosaurs that walked on two feet. Some of their bones were air-filled, they had wishbones, brooded their eggs: and at least some had feathers. About 66,000,000 years back, some of them started flying. We call descendants of those theropods birds.

None of that matters in everyday life, unless you're a paleontologist: but I'm fascinated by this sort of thing. Your experience may vary.

Deinocheirus' head looks a bit horse-like, apart from having a beak, and fish were on its menu. That last is a near-certainty, since scientists found fish ribs and scales in a Deinocheirus stomach: or where the stomach had been. (Wikipedia)

Deinocheirus 'My, What Big Arms You Have'

(From Jordi Payà, FunkMonk (Michael B. H.); via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
('My, what big arms you have!' Deinocheirus arms at a museum.)
"...'Deinocheirus has remained one the most mysterious dinosaurs in the world. We found almost (complete) skeletons of Deinocheirus and know now how it looked, how big it was and what it ate,' said paleontologist Yuong-Nam Lee, director of Geological Museum at the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources in Daejeon, South Korea.

"University of Maryland paleontologist Thomas Holtz, who wrote a commentary accompanying the study in the journal Nature, said no one could have predicted its astonishing array of attributes.

" 'I've literally waited my whole life to see Deinocheirus finally unveiled,' Holtz said...."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
Another thing about Deinocheirus: it was big, roughly as large as the biggest predator in its part of the world: Tarbosaurus, a slightly scaled-down version of T-rex.

Deinocheirus is the largest-known ornithomimosaur, or "ostrich mimic." The smaller ones look a bit ostrich-like, this big fellow: not so much. For one thing, ostriches don't have that sail-like structure on their back.

Scientists aren't sure why Deinocheirus, Spinosaurus, and Dimetrodon had 'sails' — as I've said before, there's much more to learn. (September 19, 2014; September 12, 2014)

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, Iguanadon Thumbs, and All That

On the other hand, we've learned a great deal since the 1850s, when Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins started building the 'Crystal Palace dinosaurs.'

They're none too convincing these days, but at the time they were reasonable reconstructions: based on what had been discovered to date.

The most famous mistake is probably the Iguanadon's thumb, misplaced as a horn on the critter's nose. The Crystal Palace Iguanadon model was based on the 1822 'Mantell' fossil: which was missing quite a few pieces.

Paleontologist Sir Richard Owen, science adviser for the models, said "the horn [is] more than doubtful" in in 1854. (Wikipedia)

My guess is that Hawkins and Owen had to put the spike-like Iguanadon thumb somewhere: and it looked more like a horn than a thumb.

Dinosaur Hands, Collectors, and Poachers

(From FunkMonk (Michael B. H.), via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Another Deinocheirus reconstruction: with more feathers this time.)
"...Some bad luck almost prevented the unveiling. The two new skeletons were found in 2006 and 2009 at Gobi sites in Mongolia. Both suspiciously were missing their heads and other key parts. The scientists realized those had been poached by illegal fossil collectors, with parts sold off to private collectors.

"The missing parts from the 2009 excavation ended up with a collector in Germany but fortuitously were seen by Belgian paleontologist Pascal Godefroit, who recognized what they were and informed Lee and other scientists.

"Lee said the researchers persuaded the collector to donate the fossils because of their importance to science. The fossils were returned to Mongolia in May. But Lee said the 2006 fossils remain missing."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
Deinocheirus had "hands" in the sense that its forelimbs ended in a set of digits and claws that wouldn't have been much use for walking. But its hands only had three fingers, no thumbs, and weren't particularly flexible: not enough to grasp something.

Those huge claws wouldn't have been much use for killing prey, but might have made good defensive weapons. Or maybe Deinocheirus pulled branches down for munching, or dug for eggs, or something else. (Wikipedia)

One thing we do know about Deinocheirus is when it was active. The size of its sclerotic rings, compared to the eye socket, says that this animal was diurnal: active during the day, like we are. (Wikipedia)

"Sclerotic rings?" That's what anatomists, biologists, and assorted other scientists call rings of bone in the eyes of animals like birds, dinosaurs, and ichthyosaurs, but not mammals or crocodilians. They apparently help the eye keep its shape: particularly in critters that don't have spherical eyes. (Wikipedia)

More about Deinocheirus:

2. Ust'-Ishim Man's DNA: Part of Humanity's Story

(From Damian Peach, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Universal human: This reconstruction is of a different modern human from Romania 43,000 years ago. But it gives some clues as to what the Siberian man might have looked like. This population was not long out of Africa and genetically midway between Europeans and Asians"
(BBC News))
"DNA yields secrets of human pioneer"
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (October 22, 2014)

"DNA analysis of a 45,000-year-old human has helped scientists pinpoint when our ancestors interbred with Neanderthals.

"The genome sequence from a thigh bone found in Siberia shows the first episode of mixing occurred between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.

"The male hunter is one of the earliest modern humans discovered in Eurasia.

"The study in Nature journal also supports the finding that our species emerged from Africa some 60,000 years ago, before spreading around the world.

"The analysis raises the possibility that the human line first emerged millions of years earlier than current estimates...."
We'll probably never know what the "universal human" called his homeland; or the names "Ust'-Ishim man" had for land around the Irtysh River, where he died.

The Irtysh watershed has been in the Göktürks' khaganate, Kazakhstan, the Omsk Oblast of Siberia, and Genghis Khan's empire recently. What we'll call it 45,000 years from now — is another topic.

Speaking of names, BBC News calls Estonian-Swedish evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo Professor Svante Paabo. I suppose that's understandable, since "ä" isn't a character in the Latin-derived alphabet English uses.

I'm getting off-topic again. It's been 'one of those weeks.'

Heritage: Norwegian, Irish, and Neanderthal

(From Bence Viola, Max Planck Institute; via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
("Crossroads for humanity: The River Irtysh in Western Siberia where the bone was found. It comes from a time when the human race was about to embark on its journey to the rest of the world"
(BBC News))
"Genome sequence of a 45,000-year-old modern human from western Siberia"
Qiaomei Fu, ... Svante Pääbo; Nature (Published online October 22, 2014)

"...This individual derives from a population that lived before—or simultaneously with—the separation of the populations in western and eastern Eurasia and carries a similar amount of Neanderthal ancestry as present-day Eurasians. However, the genomic segments of Neanderthal ancestry are substantially longer than those observed in present-day individuals, indicating that Neanderthal gene flow into the ancestors of this individual occurred 7,000–13,000 years before he lived...."
The 'caveman' in the top picture is František Kupka's 'Neanderthal' reconstruction, from "L'Illustration & Illustrated London News" (1909). The I. L. N. was the world's first illustrated weekly news magazine: sort of like today's Time or Newsweek.

Illustrations like that have used as 'proof' of — quite a bit.

My best guess is that Kupka's picture is "extrapolation and invention" — mostly Marcellin Boule's notion of what Neanderthals looked like: hairy, gorilla-like, with opposable toes.

In his defense, Boule's Neanderthal skeleton was the first one analyzed - the remains of an old man, crippled with arthritis. We've learned a lot since then. (September 5, 2014)

If I thought intelligence depended on looking "Anglo-Teutonic," I'd be in a pickle. From the side, my head's somewhere between that English analog of das Herrenvolk and the "Irish Iberian."

No surprises there. Before crossing the Atlantic, half my ancestors came from Ireland and Scotland; as far back as we've got records, anyway. The other half are from Norway. That's very close to where Neanderthals lived, so the odds are that some of my ancestors are Neanderthals.

Science, the Importance of Being British, and Orphic Cubism: a Meander

František Kupka co-founded the early phases of the abstract art movement and Orphic cubism, was a talented artist, deserves recognition for much more than an appallingly inaccurate illustration: and I have got to wrench myself back on-topic.

Bigotry disguised as "science," hoaxes like the Piltdown Man and Archaeoraptor, 'prove' that science is a lie about as much as the televangelist meltdown in the 1980s and 90s 'proves' that religion is a scam.

I think academic journals getting caught publishing more than 120 ersatz research papers shows that the custom of paying professors on a piecework basis needs review. I think it also shows that it's getting increasingly hard to keep major SNAFUs 'decently' quiet. I can't say that I'm unhappy about the latter.

The Human Journey Continues

Getting back to Svante Pääbo's team and 45,000-year-old DNA, I'm reasonably sure that this is honest research.

For one thing, it's hard to imagine nationalist or ethnic jingoism being involved in research conducted by folks with names like Qiaomei Fu, Priya Moorjani, Flora Jay, Sergey M. Slepchenko, Philip L. F. Johnson, Ayinuer Aximu-Petri, Cesare de Filippo, and all the rest.

For another, although this research fine-tunes the dates for some events in humanity's history: there isn't anything radically new here. What's happened is that we're closer to pinpointing when my ancestors left Africa and started "interbreeding" with Neanderthals.

If I was tightly-wound about whatever 'racial purity' is called these days, I might be upset at the idea that I've got Neanderthal genes swimming in my pool.

"Interbreeding:" and Loving It

As it is, one of my foremothers said "he doesn't have family, he's Irish," the daughter of a respectable family married the Irishman anyway. (July 6, 2014)

A few generations later, my kids are German/Dutch/Norwegian/Irish/Scots-Irish. The wry mouth, Caimbeul,  that gave our clan its name faded a few generations back. (May 15, 2012)

The point of that family history is that folks don't necessarily have kids with the 'right sort.' I don't see a problem with it: but I became a Catholic, an outfit whose name means "universal."

News about Professor Svante Pääbo's paper discusses "interbreeding" of folks who looked a bit like me and Neanderthals.

I suppose it's not as pejorative as "miscegenation," but — I don't think we've gotten past Boule's Neanderthals yet. Not entirely.

Fine-Tuning Knowledge of Humanity's History

The BBC News article says that the Natural History Museum in London's Professor Chris Stringer used to think that folks who look like us first left Africa roughly 100,000 years ago.

Now that he's looked at the new research, he's changed his mind, and figures we left 60,000 years back.

Professor Stringer may be right about that: particularly since he's looking at when folks who looked a bit like me — or the fellow in that photo — left Africa.

The "universal human" pictured in this BBC News article seems to be a reconstruction of someone found in Peștera cu Oase, made by RN-DS Partnership for for BBC television's "Incredible Human Journey."

I think it's prudent to remember that we're the most recent folks to leave humanity's homeland. It's sort of like Columbus discovering the Americas: and meeting folks whose ancestors had arrived maybe 20,000 years previously.

One more excerpt, and I'm (nearly) done.
"...Prof Paabo also compared the DNA of the man living 45,000 years ago with those living today. He found that the man was genetically midway between Europeans and Asians - indicating he lived close to the time before our species separated into different racial groups.

"Prof Paabo was also able to estimate the rate at which human DNA has changed or mutated over the millennia. He found that it was slower than the rate suggested by fossil evidence and similar to what has been observed in families....

"...This raises the possibility that the very first species of the human line separated from apes 10 or 11 million years ago - rather than the five or six million years ago that genetic evidence had previously suggested.

"But he stressed in his research paper that much more analysis was needed before re-dating the emergence of the human line...."
(Pallab Ghosh, BBC News)
Again: I'm a Catholic, and understand my faith, so I'm not upset that God created humanity from the stuff of this world.

Even if I was, it wouldn't matter: God's God, I'm not.

In recent centuries we've learned a great deal more about the "clay" God used. (December 13, 2013)

Since I'm a Catholic, that's an invitation to "even greater admiration." (Catechism, 283)

More about this chapter in humanity's family history:
More of my take on using the brains God gave us:

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Neighbors, Love, and Upping the Ante

When a scholar of the law asked Jesus for the greatest Commandment, my Lord gave two:
"He said to him, 22 'You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

"This is the greatest and the first commandment.

"The second is like it: 23 You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

"24 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.' "
(Matthew 22:37-40)
Those two 'first' Commandments show up in Luke's Gospel, too. That time, the conversation's followed by the 'good Samaritan' story.

The Samaritan: An Unexpected 'Good Guy'

After two millennia, the shock of a Samaritan being the 'good guy' in this sort of story has worn off. Jews and Samaritans did not get along: at all.

These days, it'd be like telling a story in a redneck bar: where a coal miner, poor farmer, and truck driver wouldn't help the accident victim: but an east Asian immigrant did.

"Love your neighbor" wasn't a new idea:
"1 Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD."
(Leviticus 19:18)
Jesus raised the ante, by redefining "neighbor." No, that's not quite right. What Jesus did was remind us that humanity is a single — sadly dysfunctional — family. Again, that's not a new idea: Genesis 10:1-32, and all that.

Genesis?! What with odd notions about faith, poetry, and science that have been ricocheting off the walls for the last few centuries —

Reality and Reason: a Rant

I'm a Christian, a Catholic. As far as I'm concerned, God is large and in charge. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 268)

Since God's God, and I'm not: I don't try forcing reality into some box I made.

God made, and is making, everything. God makes us "in the image of God." (Catechism, 31, 279-301)

God gave us brains, and expects us to use them. (Catechism, 1730-1742)

God made us stewards of this creation. Stewards, not owners. We're in charge of this world, and responsible for its maintenance — to future generations and to God. No pressure. (Catechism, 373, 2415, 2456)

Ancient Mesopotamians didn't know everything about how the universe works. I'm okay with that. I'm also okay with the idea that God doesn't conform to what some Europeans wanted to be so, a few centuries back. (July 15, 2014)

We're supposed to be curious about this creation, it's order and beauty: learning more about how it works, and using that knowledge in our capacity as stewards. Science and technology are part of being human. (Catechism, 27, 31-35, 282-289, 355-361, 2292-2296)

Basic Principles - - -

Okay: I've had a cup of coffee, walked around a bit, and calmed down. Let's see, where was I? The greatest Commandment, the good Samaritan. Right.

The rules are simple, but not easy. (October 12, 2014)

The basic principles are:
Those principles made sense when Hammurabi's law code set up penalties for slander, theft, and other offenses.

They make sense today, and will when the Code of Hammurabi, United Nations Charter, and whatever comes next, are seen as roughly contemporary. (August 31, 2014)

How we apply those principles: that keeps changing.

I talked about positive law, human-made rules; and natural law, universal principles; two months back. (August 29, 2014)

Knowing what's right and what's not is important: so is acting as if that knowledge means something.

I'm responsible for what I can do as an individual, and as a member of my culture. (Catechism, 1928-1942)

I'd like to end world hunger, establish a lasting peace, and cure the common cold. That's not gonna happen. For starters, I don't have the connections or power to get any of that done. Helping the local Knights of Columbus council raise money for charities is about my limit.

Besides, when it comes to solving the big problems: things take time.

- - - and the Long Haul

Slavery became illegal in several countries — after 19 centuries of teaching that we should love God, love our neighbors, and see everybody as neighbors. Even more remarkably, a sizable number of folks in those countries started thinking that owning other people is wrong.

Maybe, after another 19 centuries of passing along these principles, we'll have an "international authority with the necessary competence and power" to resolve conflicts without war. (Catechism, 2307-2317; "Gaudium et Spes," 79 § 4)

And maybe, sometime around the 38th century, a sizable number of folks will think that's a good idea.

(From aaronsimscompany, via, used w/o permission.)

Meanwhile, we have work to do:

Friday, October 24, 2014

Earth's Wandering Poles, A Comet, a Wobbling Moon

Robot explorers observed a comet as it whizzed past Mars, there's something very odd about a moon of Saturn, and Earth's magnetic field will probably flip much sooner than predicted.

About Earth's magnetic poles switching places: I'm pretty sure we'll notice the event, but it won't be 'apocalyptic.'
  1. Racing Past Mars, Heading Sunward
  2. Wonky or Awash: Mimas, Moon of Saturn
  3. Magnetic Flip: Here We Go Again

"Beware the Ides of March;" "Hail, Macbeth;" and All That

I enjoy drama with mildly-melodramatic portents and omens, like the soothsayer's "beware the ides of March;" and the "boil, boil, toil and trouble" threesome's oddly specific remark about who couldn't kill Macbeth.

More specifically, I enjoy that sort of thing in plays, movies, and stories.

News with headlines like this? Not so much.
"Earth's magnetic field 'could flip in the space of 100 years', scientists warn"
(Rob Waugh, (October 21, 2014)

"...Earth's magnetic field can flip far faster than previously thought – unleashing a force which Mayan apocalypse believers thought might destroy our planet in 2012...."
Happily, not all news about the impending magnetic field flip lead with reminders of the "Mayan apocalypse." I've written about doomsday predictions before:
There's an element of truth to that article. When Earth's magnetic poles trade places, we'll probably notice some of the effects: but I don't fear for humanity's survival.

Geomagnetic Reversal: Been There, Done That

(From NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
("NASA computer simulation using the model of Glatzmaier and Roberts. The tubes represent magnetic field lines, blue when the field points towards the center and yellow when away. The rotation axis of the Earth is centered and vertical. The dense clusters of lines are within the Earth's core."

Earth's magnetic field is weakening a whole lot faster than scientists expected. Our planet's north and south magnetic poles will switch places "soon:" on the geologic time scale.

More-or-less-breathless journalism notwithstanding, magnetic poles switching places isn't anything new. Geomagnetic reversal generally happens every 100,000 to 1,000,000 years. ("Geomagnetic Reversals: Rates, Timescales, Preferred Paths, Statistical Models and Simulations," Catherine Constable, Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, Scripps Institution of Oceanography (September 30, 2001))

Sometimes the magnetic poles stay put for much longer, sometimes they're downright twitchy. The Laschamp event, 41,400 years back — give or take a couple thousand years — lasted centuries, not millennia.

That time, the temporarily-reversed field was was 75% weaker than today's norm: and the strength dropped to only 5% of the today's value during transition. We know there was more radiation reaching Earth's surface then, since scientists found beryllium 10 in a Greenland glacier.

But humans didn't have newspapers and the evening news then: and I'm getting ahead of myself.

Evidence and a Cosmic Coffee Cup

I explained why I think Earth is more than 6,018 years old two weeks ago, and why I'm sure Earth isn't flat the week before that. (October 10, 2014; October 3, 2014)

As a Catholic, I have to take the Bible, Sacred Scripture, very seriously. It's in the rules. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101-133)

But I'm not obliged to assume that the Bible is a science textbook: or written from the viewpoint of a metaphor-challenged contemporary American.

Since I'm a Catholic, I must believe that God created, and is creating, a good and ordered physical world: a universe that's changing, in a state of journeying toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 282-308)

I must also believe that God is infinite and eternal, almighty and ineffable: beyond our power to describe or understand. (Catechism, 202, 230)

If God had wanted to create a universe where Earth was a doughnut suspended over a cosmic coffee cup: that's the way it would be. But evidence very strongly suggests that this is not the case.

Moving on.

1. Racing Past Mars, Heading Sunward

(From Damian Peach, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Astrophotographer Damian Peach captures Siding Spring (green smudge at lower-centre) on approach to Mars (saturated star-like object)"
(BBC News))
"Comet Siding Spring skims past Mars"
BBC News (October 19, 2014)

"A recently discovered comet has whizzed past Mars, giving scientists a unique chance to study an object from the farthest reaches of the Solar System....

"The comet, known as Siding Spring, raced past Mars at 56km per second (125,000mph), missing it by 139,500 km.

"Rovers on the Martian surface and satellites were primed to catch the event on their cameras and instruments.

"Siding Spring comes from the Oort Cloud - a spherical region of space far beyond the planets....

"...'Siding Spring probably got knocked into the inner Solar System by the passage of a star near the Oort Cloud,' said Carey Lisse, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, US.

" 'So think about a comet that started to travel probably at the dawn of man and it's just now coming in.

" 'And the reason we can actually observe it is because we've built satellites and rovers and we've now got these outposts at Mars. That's pretty exciting.'..."
I read stories about "outposts at Mars" in my youth. Back then, most science fiction writers assumed that the outposts would house human beings: perhaps with a robot servant to add a bit of excitement.

That was then, this is now. Humans have walked on Earth's moon, but the vast bulk of exploration has been done by robots: including those Martian outposts.

Enough reminiscing.

The second image, from Nick Howes and others, shows Comet Siding Spring below and to the right of Mars. The comet's official name is C/2013 A1.

"C/2013 A1" is a tad awkward to remember, though, so astronomers call it Siding Spring. That's because Robert McNaught, who spotted it in January 2013, was at Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran, New South Wales, Australia.

Siding Spring's nucleus is small: roughly a kilometer, 3,300 feet, across. Those pictures show gas boiling off the nucleus as sunlight heats it, and dust that was embedded in the frozen gas.

Two astronomers, Estonian Ernst Öpik (1932) and Dutch Jan Oort (1950), said that long-period comets probably came from an orbiting cloud far beyond the known planets.

Since then, astronomers have worked out what shape the "Oort cloud" is, based on orbits of comets that take more that 200 years to circle our Sun.

It's still unexplored territory, though. Our knowledge of it comes from studying comets, after they drop into our part of the Solar System.

The Oort could seems to be debris left over from the Solar System's formation some 4,568,000,000 years back. Comets like Siding Spring are opportunities to learn more about that era: and our only chance to get samples, until we send probes into the Solar System's borderlands.

A Robot's Report from Mars

"Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission Status Report"
JPL/NASA press release (October 19, 2014)

"NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has sent home more data about Mars than all other missions combined, is also now providing data about a comet that buzzed The Red Planet today (Oct. 19)....

"...Following the critical period of dust flux, the orbiter is communicating at 1.5 megabits per second with NASA's Deep Space Network. It remained on Side A of its two redundant computers, and all subsystems are working as expected.

"Downlink of data has begun from today's comet observations by three instruments on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The full downlink may take days....

"...Objectives of the observing program are to attempt to image the comet nucleus, to study its surrounding coma of dust and gas, and to search for signatures of that material interacting with the Mars atmosphere. Observations of the comet will continue for another day or so, as the comet and Mars separate, with the comet reaching its closest approach to the sun in about a week, on Oct. 25...."
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other satellites were getting data about the Martian atmosphere, too. Scientists expect measurable heating, and maybe changes in Martian winds.

That's "measurable," not "catastrophic."

Folks have been edgy about comets long before we learned that they're not a weird sort of weather.

That illustration shows the impending destruction of Earth by a comet on June 13, 1857. The comet didn't show up.

Hally's Comet did swing by Earth in 1910, though. Our planet passed through the comet's tail: with the usual results:
"...The 1910 pass of Earth was especially close and, thanks to expansive newspaper coverage, eagerly anticipated by the general public. In fact, Earth's orbit carried it through the end of the comet's 24-million-mile-long tail for six hours on May 19, earning the story the day's banner headline in The New York Times.

"While most reporters of the day turned to astronomers to get the facts straight, the yellow press chose to pursue the story in more fanciful ways, helping to fuel the fears of the impressionable that the end of the world was nigh. Despite some published reports leading up to the event, the comet's tail did not contain poisonous gases, and there was never any danger of a celestial collision, either...."
("May 19, 1910: Halley's Comet Brushes Earth With Its Tail," By Tony Long, Wired (May 19, 2009))
Today's "yellow press" is the sort of "FBI CAPTURES BAT CHILD!" thing you'll see in supermarket checkouts: and it's as fanciful as ever. My opinion.

The old "shocking secrets revealed" schtick is still going strong, and so is an — imaginative? — approach to science.

Getting back to Comet Siding Spring, the NASA/JPL press release says that one of their goals is learning more about the Solar System's early days.

Eventually, I'm pretty sure we'll have probes exploring the Oort cloud, getting samples before they fall toward the sun. Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to seeing what scientists learn from Comet Siding Spring: after the download's done.

The next upgrade in long-distance service between Earth and Mars may include significantly faster service, and that's another topic. (August 1, 2014)

2. Wonky or Awash: Mimas, Moon of Saturn

(From , NASA/JPL, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The enormous Herschel Crater makes Mimas look rather like the Death Star space station from Star Wars"
(BBC News))
"Death Star moon may be 'wonky or watery' "
Jonathan Webb, BBC News (October 16, 2014)

"The internal structure of one of Saturn's moons is either wonky or awash with water, according to a new study.

"Mimas is nicknamed the Death Star because it resembles the infamous Star Wars space station.

"It has a tell-tale wobble that is twice as big as expected for a moon with a regular, solid structure.

"The researchers offer two explanations: either it has a vast ocean beneath its surface, or a rocky core with a weird shape resembling a rugby ball...."
I'm an American, and none too obsessed with sports, so I needed to look up "rugby ball," to see what one was shaped like.

If Jonathan Webb had simply written "prolate spheroid," I'd have known exactly what he meant.

I think he made the right choice, though. Most folks reading his article probably know what a rugby ball looks like.

Moons of the Outer Planets

Until the last decades of the 20th century, we didn't know much about moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and the other outer planets.

Astronomers could tell how far from their planet the moons were, had a pretty good idea of how big they were, and could make educated guesses about what they were made of: but that was about it.

Scientists were limited to facts, and what they could extrapolate from those facts. Writers and artists could stay 'in the box,' or let their imaginations off the leash: which they frequently did.

Then we started sending robot spaceships to the outer Solar System.

Some moons looked a bit like ours, crater-covered desolate spheres. Others are — different.

Hidden Oceans

We'd known that Saturn's moon Titan had an atmosphere since 1903. The Cassini-Huygens mission gave us maps of Titan's surface. Its lander sent back pictures of pale hills and dark streams.

But Titan is so cold that water is a mineral. Flowing hydrocarbons fill the moon's lakes and rivers.

Saturn's moon Enceladus, and Jupiter's Europa and Ganymede are another matter.

Scientists found strong evidence of liquid water on these moons. More accurately, in the moons.

Europa's subterranean (subeuropan??) ocean may have more than twice as much liquid water as Earth's ocean.

Liquid water doesn't necessarily mean life: but it's getting increasingly difficult to rule out that possibility.

I've wondered if the apparently-complex chemistry and layering of Ganymede's ocean might be near the top of possible homes for life on another world.

If we find life that started on another world, I'm pretty sure that it won't be quite like anything we've imagined. And that's yet another topic. (July 18, 2014; May 9, 2014)

Mimas Moves

"Libration" is what astronomers call the sort of wobbling Mimas does. It's a sort of rocking motion. This animation, given to Wikimedia Commons by Tomruen, shows Earth's moon librating during one orbit.

Mimas moves more than our moon. A point on its surface moves back and forth by as much as six kilometers: a sizable fraction of the moon's 396 kilometer diameter.

By measuring Mimas's motions, scientists can learn what sort of material is under its surface:
"...'Nature is essentially allowing us to do the same thing that a child does when she shakes a wrapped gift in hopes of figuring out what's hidden inside,' Dr Tajeddine said.

His team settled on two likely plot twists, wrapped beneath Mimas's icy crust.

Firstly, their calculations suggested that the wobbles could arise from a core that was squashed or elongated by 20-60km: a huge, central rugby ball of rock.

Alternatively, the moon could have a normal spherical core and crust, but separated by a 'global ocean'. That way, Dr Tajeddine explained, 'the shell can wobble more easily, because it's not attached to another mass'....
(Jonathan Webb, BBC News)
Cornell's Dr. Radwan Tajeddine thinks a subterranean (submimantean ??) sea is the most likely explanation for Mimas's wobble.

Now that there are at least two plausible explanations for its unusual wobble, scientists will be collecting data to see which one the evidence favors.

Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott pointed out what discovering another massive buried ocean could mean:
"...'If the ocean is really there, we're getting to the point where it's just completely standard for icy moons to have substantial bodies of water inside - and that could have interesting implications for how many of these things could support life.' "
(Jonathan Webb, BBC News (October 16, 2014))
We may eventually learn that Earth is a strange world: with its ocean on the outside.

3. Magnetic Flip: Here We Go Again

(From UC Berkeley, used w/o permission.)
("...This map shows how, starting about 789,000 years ago, the north pole wandered around Antarctica for several thousand years before flipping 786,000 years ago to the orientation we know today, with the pole somewhere in the Arctic."
(UC Berkeley))
"Earth's magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime"
Robert Sanders, Media Relations, UC Berkeley News Center (October 14, 2014)

"Imagine the world waking up one morning to discover that all compasses pointed south instead of north.

"It's not as bizarre as it sounds. Earth's magnetic field has flipped – though not overnight – many times throughout the planet's history. Its dipole magnetic field, like that of a bar magnet, remains about the same intensity for thousands to millions of years, but for incompletely known reasons it occasionally weakens and, presumably over a few thousand years, reverses direction.

"Now, a new study by a team of scientists from Italy, France, Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates that the last magnetic reversal 786,000 years ago actually happened very quickly, in less than 100 years – roughly a human lifetime...."
Very few of us live more than a hundred years, so it's easy to think of things like mountains and constellations as permanent fixtures.

At the moment, for example, Earth's north pole – rotational pole, not the magnetic one – points at the star Polaris, more or less. We started calling that star "Polaris" about half a millennia back, and as far as one of us is concerned, it's "constant as the northern star." ("Julius Caesar;" Act III, Scene 1; Shakespeare)

But that's changing. About two millennia back, natural philosophers noticed that the autumnal equinox was moving across the sky. There's still debate over whether Aristarchus of Samos or Hipparchus uncovered that phenomenon first, or someone else, and that's yet again another topic.

Since then, we've learned that Earth's north pole moves like a wobbling top. Astronomers call that movement axial precession. It takes Earth's axis about 26,000 years to precess all the way around.

Polaris was the north star in Shakespeare's day. "Constant as the northern star" still makes sense, since only about four centuries have elapsed since Shakespeare's day.

Back when Julius Caesar lived, there wasn't a bright 'pole star.' Earth's north pole pointed at a spot between Polaris and Thuban. On top of that, Polaris is a variable star: the closest Cepheid variable:
Polaris being our north star at the moment is interesting, to me at least, but doesn't have much to do with Earth's "north" magnetic pole.

"Mutation," "Cancer," and Media Relations

Scientists knew that Earth's magnetic field has flipped many times: but generally assumed that the turnover was a comparatively gradual process. Now there's evidence that the last flip happened "fast," over the course of a century.

That's the "science" in the article. Now, a few words about emotions and marketing.

Mr. Sanders uses emotionally-charged words like "mutation" and "cancer." I don't blame him. UC Berkeley Media Relations pays him, so he's obligated to make this bit of science news as juicy as possible.

My guess is that one of UC Berkeley Media Relations priorities is getting UC Berkeley's name into as many news services as possible.

Since readers of England's Daily Star and Daily Mirror, and America's The Globe and The National Enquirer, probably get more excited about "mutation" and "cancer" than the Brunhes–Matuyama reversal, Mr. Sanders' rhetoric makes sense. From a marketing point of view.

To his credit, he also pointed out that Earth's magnetic field flips are routine; and don't seem to have had much effect on terrestrial life:

J. Jonah Jameson and the Geologic Time Scale

"...The discovery comes as new evidence indicates that the intensity of Earth's magnetic field is decreasing 10 times faster than normal, leading some geophysicists to predict a reversal within a few thousand years.

"Though a magnetic reversal is a major planet-wide event driven by convection in Earth's iron core, there are no documented catastrophes associated with past reversals, despite much searching in the geologic and biologic record. Today, however, such a reversal could potentially wreak havoc with our electrical grid, generating currents that might take it down...."
(Robert Sanders, Media Relations, UC Berkeley News Center)
I agree: Earth's next magnetic field reversal could "potentially wreak havoc," with emphasis on "potentially." That's assuming that we do nothing while it's happening: aside from sitting around, worrying.

News media has picked up the "within a human lifetime" angle and run with it. But since I don't work for a real-world equivalent of J. Jonah Jameson, I can point out that Earth's next magnetic field reversal is just around the corner: on the geologic time scale.

On the human time scale "a reversal within a few thousand years" isn't exactly immediate.

Putting "A Few Thousand Years" in Perspective

Let's imagine a hypothetical situation, where natural philosophers realized that Earth's magnetic field would turn around in a few thousand years — during the reign of Enlil-nadin-ahi, last Kassite king of Babylon. That was about 3,170 years ago: so I could say it's "a few thousand years" back.

Shortly after becoming king, Enlil-nadin-ahi lost a war: which finished the Kassite dynasty.

Over the next century or so, civilization as Enlil-nadin-ahi knew it ended. We don't know exactly what happened. Some events of the crisis may have been woven into tales of the Trojan War: generations after the collapse.

Time passed. Greek philosophers discussed life, the universe, and everything. Romans built roads. Then Western civilization hit another rough patch, roughly 15 centuries back.

About 800 years ago, we started building cathedrals, weren't wiped out by the Black Death, and that brings me up to the present.

Remember those hypothetical natural philosophers and the Kassite king? It's now been "a few thousand years" since they lived.

If we'd had that sort of heads-up on Earth's impending magnetic field reversal — I think we'd have had time and opportunity to cobble together a few contingency plans. I think we'd be ready, even with a mere 2,000 years lead time.

Flip-Flop Fields and Seafloor Stripes

It's been about a hundred years since geologists noticed that some volcanic rocks were magnetized 'in reverse,' as if Earth's north magnetic pole had been where the southern one is now.

Scientists started making detailed maps of Earth's magnetic field in the 1950s and 1960s. That's when they discovered very regular magnetic strips on ocean floors.

Occam's razor suggested a simple explanation for those magnetic zebra stripes: seafloor spreading. Actually, it was two other chaps, Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews, who pointed out the seafloor spreading connection..

William of Ockham was a Franciscan friar who lived in England, about seven centuries back. One his major contributions was the principle of parsimony that's named after him, and that's still another topic.

Seafloor stripes, coupled with radiometric dating, give scientists information about Earth's magnetic field over the last 200,000,000 years: give or take ten million or so.

Any seafloor older than that has been resorbed back into Earth's interior, and I've talked about plate tectonics before. (October 10, 2014; September 19, 2014)

Field reversals get recorded in "frozen" ferrimagnetic minerals on land, too. Scientists have tracked Earth's magnetic field reversals at least as far back as the Kiaman reversal: 262,000,000 to 318,000,000 years ago.

Scientists thought that mass extinctions might be caused by these magnetic flips.

Someone worked out a worst-case scenario where Earth's magnetic field disappeared entirely, and stayed that way. If that happened, the idea was that Earth's atmosphere would get blown away by the solar wind and Earth would end up looking like Mars.

Magnetic flip-flops have been happening for at least a third of a billion years, and we're still here. Scientists found statistically significant increases of beryllium-10 deep in Greenland's ice sheet: but so far, it looks like Earth's biosphere stays in good working order, no matter where the magnetic poles are.

That's reality. And now, the news.

"...On the Brink..." — Scary Headline, Quiet Disclaimer

(From Getty images, via Express; used w/o permission.)
("The Earth's magnetic field could flip, warn scientists"
"North and South flip: Earth's magnetic field may be on brink of switching, warn scientists"
Levi Winchester, Express (October 11, 2014)

"EARTH could be on the brink of a magnetic flip - causing what we know as north and south to turn upside down and switch, according to scientists.

"Our planet's magnetic poles have flipped before - with the last time being 780,000 years ago, say geophysicists.

"But now it looks as though our magnetic field is set to switch again and according to new research, it could happen sooner than first thought.

"Scientists have warned this could affect power grids and communication devices across the world. Experts are even said to have alerted governments to a possible world blackout as a result.

"The earth's magnetic field is weakening ten times faster then previously believed - decreasing in strength by about five per cent a decade rather than five per cent a century.

"This weakening field indicates an impending flip in poles, with scientists estimating that this process could begin in less than 2,000 years...."
This article's headline and lead paragraphs have plenty of emotionally-laden phrases to get the reader's attention: "on brink," "warn," and "alerted governments to a possible world blackout."

That's why I make a habit of reading past the lead material and thinking, if I see something interesting in the news.

Credit where credit is due: Mr. Winchester does say that the next flip could begin "in less than 2,000 years."

Even better: his article quotes a scientist, giving Gary [A.] Glatzmaier's name, and where the quote comes from:
And, well 'below the fold,' there's this disclaimer:
"...Mr Glatzmaier himself acknowledges that there have been several false starts throughout history - adding that the field would need to weaken at its current rate for around 2,000 years before the process begins...."
(Levi Winchester, Express)
Like I said before, with that much time to prepare: I think we can deal with the situation when it comes.

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