Friday, June 7, 2013

Planets, Space-Time Bubbles, and Turtle Shells

I'm focusing on what we're learning about creation again: planets circling other stars; our part of this galaxy; how this universe works; and how turtles got shells.
  1. Getting a Better Look at Kepler's Planets
  2. Bubbles of Space-Time
  3. Lots More Room in the Local Arm
  4. Another Photo of a New Planet
  5. The Turtle Shell Puzzle: Another Piece

Still Learning

I like living in a world where we're discovering new planets on a regular basis, and learning that we may not live in the only universe. (May 30, 2013)

The idea that folks didn't have all the answers a thousand years ago, or in 1800, doesn't bother me. My faith doesn't depend on knowing that Titan has hydrocarbon lakes, but it isn't threatened by truth, either:
As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, faith and reason get along just fine: and seeking truth is a good idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35, 2104)

1. Getting a Better Look at Kepler's Planets

"Planets Found by Kepler Spacecraft Likely Larger Than Thought"
Miriam Kramer, Space.com (June 4, 2013)

"A large number of worlds found by NASA's Kepler alien planet-hunting space telescope are probably significantly larger than scientists previously estimated, a new study suggests.

"The Kepler Space Telescope has spotted more than 2,700 potential exoplanets since its launch in 2009, and scientists using the Kitt Peak National Observatory Mayall 4-meter telescope have categorized the home stars of many of those planet candidates for the past three years. In particular, the researchers made detailed follow-up observations of 300 of the stars Kepler found likely to be harboring exoplanets.

" 'One of the main findings of this initial work is that our observations indicate that most of the stars we observed are slightly larger than previously thought and one quarter of them are at least 35 percent larger,' astronomer and leader of the study Mark Everett said in a statement. 'Therefore, any planets orbiting these stars must be larger and hotter as well. By implication, these new results reduce the number of candidate Earth-size planet analogues detected by Kepler.' [Gallery: A World of Kepler Planets]..."
The Kepler Space Telescope is what the National Optical Astronomy Observatory's David Silva calls a "discovery machine." Its main job in this case is to find planets.

Astronomers using other telescopes will follow up with observations and analysis to learn more about the newly-discovered planets, and the stars they circle.

I'm a little disappointed that the new data means there are fewer Earth-size planets in the current roster from Kepler. On the other hand, I like knowing more about Earth's 'neighborhood,' and we're discovering lots of new planets.

2. Bubbles of Space-Time

"Multiverse or Universe? Physicists Debate"
Marshall Honorof, Space.com (June 4, 2013)

"Whether you believe our universe is unique or one of many coexisting realities, there's a scientific model that backs up your views. Cosmologists on both sides debated the issue June 1 here at the 'Multiverse: One Universe or Many?' panel at the World Science Festival.

" 'Is the multiverse idea something that's implied by deficiencies in existing cosmological theories, or is it something some scientists need to help them explain certain unresolvable problems in existing theory?' journalist John Hockenberry asked, acting as moderator to scientists Andreas Albrecht, Alan Guth, Andrei Linde, and Neil Turok, who took the stage at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

"The possibility of a multiverse is raised by the theory of cosmic inflation. This idea posits that the universe grew exponentially in the first fraction of a second following the Big Bang, expanding even faster than the speed of light. Some versions of this theory suggest that certain areas of the universe expanded faster than others, creating separate bubbles of space-time that might have developed into their own universes. [5 Reasons We May Live in a Multiverse]..."
"Bubbles of space-time" reminded me of this old song:
"I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams,
They fade and die....
"
("I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," chorus, James Kendis, James Brockman, Nat Vincent (1919))
I've never seen the musical that "Bubbles" was written for, have seen "The Public Enemy," where it was used as theme music, and none of the above have much to do with cosmology, the study of this universe's development.

Making Sense

This is where I could write something morose about entropy, Ecclesiastes, and the futility of pretty much everything. Granted, this creation is a temporary affair: and that's almost another topic.

Or I could try a 'sophisticated' approach and say how silly Christianity is, since Christians (presumably) believe the world is a hollow dome submerged in a vast ocean: Genesis 1:6-7 and all that. I checked earlier this week: and ran into several apparently-serious discussions of this 'Biblical' belief.

Like I've said before, I can see why born-again atheists claim that Christians are Luddite dolts.

Christians apparently striving to prove the same thing just doesn't make sense. Not to me.

Blowing Bubbles and the Big Picture

Being the sort of person I am, reading "bubbles of space-time" started me thinking of an old sentimental tune and a Cagney gangster movie. Then I imagined the Almighty: blowing bubbles.



Not that there's much of a comparison between the song's dreams and what God does, and I've been over that already. (March 5, 2012)

3. Lots More Room in the Local Arm


(Robert Hurt, IPAC; Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF, via Space.com, used w/o permission)
"Old picture: Local Arm a small 'spur' of Milky Way...."


(Robert Hurt, IPAC; Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF, via Space.com, used w/o permission)
"...New picture: Local Arm probable major branch of Perseus Arm..."
"Milky Way's Local Arm Larger Than Previously Thought"
Miriam Kramer, Space.com (June 3, 2013)

"Our home in the Milky Way could be much larger than ever thought before, according to a new study.

"Astronomers using the National Science Foundation's Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) found that the area of the galaxy that holds Earth and the rest of the solar system is a prominent feature of the spiral galaxy.

"The solar system exists in a part of the galaxy known as the Local Arm. Until now, scientists thought that this particular part of the Milky Way was just a tiny spur between two large branches known as the Sagittarius and Perseus arms...."
The article gives a pretty good description of how parallax works, says that the Local Arm is probably around 16,000 light years wide, and probably won't make a bit of difference in how much your electric bill will be next month.

A few centuries or millennia from now, maps of stellar density in our part of this galaxy might be important for real estate developers and travel agencies: or whoever is interested in places people haven't moved into yet.

Then again, maybe by then our descendants will have decided that they know everything, and shouldn't ever check out what's 'over the next hill.' Somehow, I don't think that's likely: at all. There always seem to be a few curious folks.

4. Another Photo of a New Planet


(from ESO/J. Rameau, via Space.com, used w/o permission)
"Never-Before-Seen Alien Planet Imaged Directly in New Photo"
Miriam Kramer, Space.com (June 3, 2013)

"A newly discovered gaseous planet has been directly photographed orbiting a star about 300 light-years from Earth. Imaging alien planets is difficult, and this world may be the least massive planet directly observed outside of the solar system, scientists say.

"A sharp new photo released by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) today (June 3) depicts the suspected gas giant (called HD 95086 b) circling its young star (named HD 95086) in infrared light. The star has been removed from the image to allow the planet - shown as a bright blue dot at the bottom left of the picture - to shine through.

"HD 95086 b was sighted by ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile. Based on the planet's brightness, scientists estimate that it is only about four or five times more massive than Jupiter...."
Getting a photo of HD 95086 b is a big deal from the technical point of view. Being able to get an image, however fuzzy, of any planet that's not circling our star is still a big deal. (November 22, 2012)

From a researcher's point of view, that fuzzy dot represents an opportunity to study the light HD 95086 b reflects: which can tell us what's its surface or atmosphere is made of. Sooner or later, someone may find a planet with a mix of nitrogen and oxygen with traces of water vapor.

Discovering life elsewhere in the universe would be exciting. Meanwhile, I'm having fun trying to keep up with what's being discovered about everything else.

5. The Turtle Shell Puzzle: Another Piece

"How the turtle got its unique hard shell"
Melissa Hogenboom, BBC News (May 31, 2013)

"How the turtle shell evolved has puzzled scientists for years, but new research sheds light on how their hard shells were formed.

"Scientists say the ancient fossil skeleton of an extinct South African reptile has helped bridge a 30 to 55-million-year gap.

"This ancestor of the modern turtle, Eunotosaurus, is thought to be around 260 million years old.

"It had significant differences to a recently found fossil relative.

"Eunotosaurus was discovered over a century ago but new research in the journal Current Biology has only now analysed its differences to other turtle fossils...."
Nobody's going to use a turtle soup recipe that calls for fresh Eunotosaurus, so why bother about some critter that's been dead for 260,000,000 years?

It turns out that these early turtles illustrate a new-to-us step in how the turtle shell evolved. For folks who study how life develops, that's important.

Living in the Real World

Eventually, I hope that most folks will get over the silly notion that faith demands ignorance. Since that hasn't happened yet, here's why I'm okay with science.

Ever since the 19th century, some folks have realized that Earth has been around for a very long time: and that quite a bit has changed. Others didn't like the idea that God's creation is vast and ancient, and have been zealously ignoring facts ever since.

I figure that God is smarter, stronger, and more patient than I am: and think living in the real world makes sense.

Learning about God by studying what the Almighty has done makes sense, too: to me, anyway. (Catechism, 282-289)

Don't expect some weird 'turtle shells prove the existence of angels' claim, by the way: and that's another topic. Topics.

"An Evolutionary Novelty"

The Smithsonian Institution and Yale University's Dr Tyler Lyson says "Eunotosaurus is a good transitional fossil which bridges the morphological gap between turtles and other reptiles."

Looks like turtle shells didn't just pop into existence. The Eunotosaurus shell also narrows down the time during which species that preceded today's turtles developed the contemporary bony shell.

This is important, because turtles have been hard to explain.
"...Judith Cebra-Thomas, assistant professor from the department of biology at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, who was not involved with the study, said the research was very important in terms of understanding the turtle shell's evolution.

" 'The turtle shell is considered an evolutionary novelty, which means that there are no closely analogous structures in related animals.

" 'That leads to the notion that such things cannot occur through normal evolutionary processes. But, when you examine it in detail, you can see the series of steps, each of them explainable through small changes that gradually add up to the novel structure.' "
(Melissa Hogenboom, May 31, 2013)
The only 'Biblical' angle I can think of offhand that involves turtles is Ephesians 6:11-17: particularly Ephesians 6:15: "hold faith as a shield." Picturing myself using a turtle shell as a shield seems odd, so I'll skip that.

A bit more seriously, what happened with turtles seems to fit quite well with the modularity we're discovering in critters. I've mentioned interchangeable parts before. (March 22, 2013)

Variations on a Theme

Turtles are vertebrates: critters like us, with a skeleton inside, then muscles and organs, and finally skin with optional scales, feathers, or hair/fur. Turtles are a variation on that theme; with bone inside, then muscles and organs, and a combination of skin, scales, and bone on the outside.

Newly-discovered details in how Eunotosaurus bones worked are helping paleontologists piece together how turtles evolved into the unique creatures they are today.

Music, Poetry, and Turtle Shells

As to why God seems to like repeating the same patterns, like circles, spheres, and chemical 'machinery' in our cells: I don't know.

Maybe it's slightly equivalent to the rhythms and rhymes we like to put in music and poetry. That may not be a goofy comparison, though: we're made in the image of God, and that's yet another topic.

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