Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"Endless Cycles?" Science, Analysis, and Getting a Grip

It may sound like I'm picking on Discovery News, but I'm not. At any rate, I'm not trying to. It's on my regular reading list, in fact.

But it's hard to ignore a howler like this. To be charitable, the article was labeled as "analysis:"
"Saturn's Rings Could Be the Shreds of a Giant Moon"
Ray Villard, Space News, Discovery News (October 10, 2010)

"Astrophysicist Robin Canup loves to smash things together.

"No, she hasn't joined the team on Mythbusters. Canup's smash-ups are strictly extraterrestrial. Her computer simulations crash a Mars-sized protoplanet into primeval Earth to recreate the birth of our moon. As if Pluto's not beaten up enough, she has also computationally slammed a companion Kuiper belt object into Pluto to spin off its three moons: Charon, Nix and Hydra.

"But the mother of all planetary bang-ups has been staring us right in the face all along, according to Canup. At last week's American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Science meeting in Pasadena, California, she proposed that Saturn's magnificent ring system is the result of a moon at least the size of the planet Mercury that plunged into the gas giant...."


The article as a whole is an interesting discussion of Saturn's rings and what we're learning about them. Essentially, it now looks like the rings of Saturn are old - billions of years old. Also, they're mostly ice. Water ice. There's maybe 10% rock, but that could be from more recent micrometeorite impacts: not the process that formed the rings.

The new idea - which explains why Saturn has spectacular rings while Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune don't - is that Saturn had another moon about the size of Titan very early on. So early that there was still a sizable gaseous disk around Saturn, which was thick enough to slow down the moon and eventually drop it into Saturn.

The impact would have produced a titanic (sorry about that) splash. Which would have thrown up material that became Saturn's rings.

There's more detail about the science of this idea in the article.


The reason that I'm writing about the article here instead of in another blog is the last paragraph. Maybe it's "analysis:"
"...It seems that the solar system’s most opulent planet could really be a cannibal, wearing a brilliant tiara made of the satellite-planet it swallowed. Such is life in a universe where creation, destruction and rebirth are an endless cycle."
(Discovery News)
That's almost poetic. And might be appropriate (sort of) in a Hindu analog of "Bible science." You know: cycles and all that sort of thing, as understood by groovy American dropouts in the sixties.

Getting a Grip

Just one problem. Two, actually.
There is nothing, either in the article or elsewhere that I've run into, suggesting that Saturn's rings are expected to form a moon like Titan. If they were, that'd be a cycle of creation, destruction and rebirth.
Today's science may or may not point to a discrete endpoint in the universe's future: but the last I heard, cosmologists were pretty sure that the universe as we can observe it had a discrete beginning.1

And I'm pretty sure that you can't have endless cycles, if there isn't one cycle to start with.

That "endless cycles" stuff makes fairly acceptable hyperbole, in my opinion, when applied to biological systems.

Like the "endless cycle" of eggs hatching into chickens that lay more eggs. That cycle wasn't around before there were chickens: unless you count what chickens developed from.2 And it will last only as long as that particular species of bird is around. Again, unless you count what chickens may give rise to. But on the scale of a human lifetime, it's still a pretty long series of cycles.

Don't Religious People Hate Science?

I'm a Catholic: and a convert, which makes me fairly hard-core about my faith.

I'm also interested in science. Which could be a problem, if I'd gotten involved in one of the painfully religious groups where folks are supposed to ignore most of the interesting stuff that's been discovered in the last few centuries.

Happily, the Catholic Church doesn't require Catholics to shut down our frontal cortices. For us, it's faith and reason. Which I've discussed a few times in this blog, and probably will again:
1 I've done micro-reviews on what cosmologists are learning about the observable universe, in another blog:Or, click cosmology in that blog's label cloud.

2 I've discussed evolution before:Bottom line? I'm a Catholic, so I don't have a problem living in a world that wasn't always exactly the way it was on the day I was born: and isn't likely to stay exactly the way it is now.

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

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.