Thursday, May 30, 2013

Getting a Grip about Genesis, Gamma Ray Bursts, and (Maybe) a Multiverse

I decided to focus on science again for my 'in the news' post this week: a star that's going to explode; detailed information about this universe's early years; and the first topographic map of Titan.
  1. WR 104: Again
  2. Cosmic Microwave Background: Best Map So Far
  3. Mapping Titan

Genesis, an Elementary View

A fellow told that his eight year old daughter is very bright: after reading the first chapter of Genesis she said that six days of creation didn't make sense. The universe is lots older than that.

He may have hoped to start the folks he told ranting and raving about 'Bible truths' and the evils of science. Instead, his (Catholic) targets discussed God, metaphor, literary styles, and reality.

About the Bible: as a Catholic I have to take Sacred Scripture, the Word of God, very seriously. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101-133)

But fallout from a Victorian-era snit notwithstanding, I do not have to cultivate ignorance about this creation.

This is a pretty good 10-point list that outlines what the Church says about the Bible:
Although I believe what the Bible says, I don't look to Sacred Scriptures for all the answers:

Seeking Truth, Seeking God

I see no conflict between seeking truth and seeking God. I also accept the idea that creation is bigger and older than folks thought when this was written, 27 centuries back:
"Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, his maker: You question me about my children, or prescribe the work of my hands for me!

"It was I who made the earth and created mankind upon it; It was my hands that stretched out the heavens; I gave the order to all their host."
(Isaiah 45:11-12)
Living in a universe where we're still finding new horizons doesn't diminish the grandeur of creation, or my belief that God is infinite and eternal. (Catechism, 202)

Accepting Reality

I'm quite sure that God could have made a cozy little universe, a few thousand miles across and a few thousand years old. It's becoming increasingly obvious that the world we live in isn't like that: at all.

It seems prudent to take reality as it is.

Sadly, some Christians seem determined to prove that ignorance is a requirement for faith. Since I'm a Catholic, I recognize that we can learn about God by observing the beauty and order of creation. (Catechism, 32)

More of my take on faith, reason, and getting a grip:
Catholics aren't perfect, by the way. I've run into some of us who seem convinced that the world must be a few thousand years old: 'because the Bible says so.' One of these days I'll write about 'going native,' but that's another topic.

One more thing: normally I'd post this Friday morning. This week isn't normal, so I'm getting this out a day early.

1. WR 104: Again

Earth May Still Lie In Path Of Potential Gamma-Ray Burst (GRB), Say Astronomers"
Bruce Dorminey, Forbes (May 27, 2013)

"Fifteen years after its discovery, two astronomers say earth may still lie within the sights of a potentially lethal progenitor of a stellar gamma-ray burst (GRB).

"Although WR 104, a Wolf-Rayet star some 8000 light years distant, has thus far remained largely quiescent, it is ripe to undergo a core-collapse supernova of the sort that could generate a seconds-long burst of gamma-rays that, in turn, might potentially wipe out a quarter of earth's protective atmospheric ozone.

" 'We could see it go supernova anywhere from tomorrow to 500,000 years from now,' said Grant Hill, an astronomer at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. 'For all intents and purposes, the gamma-ray burst and optical photons from the supernova would arrive simultaneously.'

"The question of whether a GRB from WR 104 - which lies in the direction of our Milky Way's galactic center - would actually cross earth's path has been the subject of debate for years now. But Grant says that given the continuing uncertainty about the star's alignment with our own, such a scenario can't be ruled out...."
This isn't, quite, 'news:' although I suppose another astronomer saying 'we don't know' is enough to warrant another article. I've written about WR 104 fairly recently:
The bottom line is that WR 104 is 'close' by cosmic standards: only about 8,000 light years away. It's a double star. One of the pair will almost certainly explode 'soon,' again by cosmic standards: in the next few tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

Living With Uncertainty

If WR 104's north or south pole is pointed at us, we'll see a gamma ray burst: up 'close.' At the risk of sounding alarmist, that could be bad news:
"...But if such a GRB did hit earth's atmosphere, says Adrian Melott, a physicist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, it would likely cause a 50 percent increase in solar UVB radiation which would not only disrupt photosynthesis among marine and freshwater plankton, but also likely precipitate some sort of broader extinction event.

" 'You would first notice a 10-second blue flash in the upper atmosphere,' said Melott, 'but then the damage would be done.'"
(Bruce Dorminey, Forbes)
If WR 104 is aimed at us, and if the core-collapse supernova happened eight thousand years back, so that the radiation will reach us next week: we'd find out how much of Earth's plant and animal life got disrupted. We'd also have to start being very, very careful about sunburn. Particularly folks who look more or less like me.

There's no point in worrying about WR 104. Either it is pointed at us or it's not. There's probably a much greater risk that someone will lose control of a truck and crash into my house.

We live in a world where the unexpected happens. Learning to tell the difference between what we can prepare for, and what we can't, seems prudent.

Disasters: Handy Reminders

Assuming that God won't let bad things happen to good people may feel good, for a while: but that's not the way things work.

I could get morbid about Luke 12:18-20 and Luke 13:1-5, or ignore the reminders that we don't know when our life will end. A better idea, I think, would be to remember that we may go through our particular judgment at any time. (Catechism, 1021-1022)

It's sort of like being prepared for a pop quiz: with my eternal status at stake. 'No pressure.' (May 21, 2013)

Large and In Charge

Like I've said before, God is large and in charge:
  • God
    • Cares about His creation
      • From the smallest detail to the largest events
    • Does what He wants
      • Regardless of whether it fits our plans
      (Catechism, 303)
All creatures matter, and have a part in how the universe works. We've got a particularly critical job, and that's yet another topic. (Catechism, 306-308)

It's obvious that the universe, as it exists, isn't always a nice place. God decided to make this world "in a state of journeying," and that's yet again another topic. (Catechism, 309-314)

Finally, Jesus has some good advice:
  • Trust God
  • Don't be anxious about what we
    • Need
    • Want
    (Catechism, 305)

2. Cosmic Microwave Background: Best Map So Far

(from ESA and the Planck Collaboration, via, used w/o permission)
"This map shows the oldest light in our universe, as detected with the greatest precision yet by the Planck mission. The ancient light, called the cosmic microwave background, was imprinted on the sky when the universe was 370,000 years old. It shows tiny temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of slightly different densities, representing the seeds of all future structure: the stars and galaxies of today. Image released March 21, 2013.
CREDIT: ESA and the Planck Collaboration
"Exquisite Map of Cosmos Hints at Universe's Birth"
Clara Moskowitz, (May 24, 2013)

"A map of the universe based on its oldest light is giving astronomers hope that they may be able to answer some of the deepest questions of the cosmos, including how it got started.

"Scientists met this week at the University of California, Davis to pore over the treasure trove of data published two months ago from the European Planck spacecraft. The observatory measures what's called the cosmic microwave background - light spread across the sky that dates from soon after the Big Bang that kick-started the universe.

" 'We have the best map ever of the cosmic microwave background, and that shows us what the universe was like 370,000 years after the Big Bang,' said Charles Lawrence, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California who is the lead U.S. scientist on the Planck project. Lawrence and other researchers summed up the consequences of the meeting, called the Davis Cosmic Frontiers Conferences, in a call to reporters Friday (May 24)...."
This is another 'been there, done that' news item, sort of. The new map was released in late March. (April 2, 2013)

On the other hand, I don't mind reading about what researchers think about it, about two months later.

What's exciting about this new cosmic microwave background (CMB) map is its fine detail. For one thing, it looks like some odd features in the CMB are real.

Astronomers and cosmologists had a pretty good idea of what they'd find in the CMB. Some of what they expected to see is there: but some of what they're seeing doesn't fit the relatively simple models they've been using.

Observation confirming theory is nice: observation showing something unexpected is exciting, since it means we have more to learn.

Multiple Universes, Maybe

Reality may be a whole lot bigger than we thought it was:
"...getting to the bottom of the other anomalies in the Planck data may point to even more radical conclusions, such as the idea of multiple universes and bubble universes created by areas of the primordial universe that inflated at different rates.

"It turns out that collisions between these bubbles of space-time are one possible explanation for why inflation might not have proceeded uniformly in all directions.

" 'The fact that these anomalies not only exist but exist on the very largest scales gives us some hope that we may be actually able to say something in the future about a multiverse,' [astrophysicist Marc Kamionkowski of Johns Hopkins University] Kamionkowski said."
("New Map of Big Bang Light Hints at Exotic Physics," Clara Moskowitz, (March 21, 2013))
Physicists and cosmologists have known for quite a while that other universes - space-time continua that aren't connected to ours - might exist. This isn't the sort of goofiness that shows up in the movies, and I've been over that before. (April 2, 2013)

3. Mapping Titan

"Cassini Shapes First Global Topographic Map of Titan"
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology press release (May 15, 2013)
Jia-Rui Cook, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Michael Buckley, Johns Hopkins, Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland

"Scientists have created the first global topographic map of Saturn's moon Titan, giving researchers a valuable tool for learning more about one of the most Earth-like and interesting worlds in the solar system. The map was just published as part of a paper in the journal Icarus.

"Titan is Saturn's largest moon - with a radius of about 1,600 miles (2,574 kilometers), it's bigger than planet Mercury - and is the second-largest moon in the solar system. Scientists care about Titan because it's the only moon in the solar system known to have clouds, surface liquids and a mysterious, thick atmosphere. The cold atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, like Earth's, but the organic compound methane on Titan acts the way water vapor does on Earth, forming clouds and falling as rain and carving the surface with rivers. Organic chemicals, derived from methane, are present in Titan's atmosphere, lakes and rivers and may offer clues about the origins of life.

" 'Titan has so much interesting activity - like flowing liquids and moving sand dunes - but to understand these processes it's useful to know how the terrain slopes,' said Ralph Lorenz, a member of the Cassini radar team based at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., who led the map-design team. 'It's especially helpful to those studying hydrology and modeling Titan's climate and weather, who need to know whether there is high ground or low ground driving their models.'..."
Titan's atmosphere is murky, so the map was made with imaging radar. Saturn's largest moon seems to have two 'continents:' distinctly higher areas. I'm intrigued by the four roundish high points in an arc, about 45 degrees south of the equator: and more-or-less corresponding dents on the other side of the southern hemisphere:

(from NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/JHUAPL/Cornell/Weizman, used w/o permission)
"Global Topographic Map of Titan"
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (May 15, 2013)

"Using data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, scientists have created the first global topographic map of Saturn's moon Titan, giving researchers a 3-D tool for learning more about one of the most Earthlike and interesting worlds in the solar system. The map team used a mathematical process called splining -- effectively using smooth curved surfaces to 'join' the areas between grids of existing topography profiles obtained by Cassini's radar instrument. The estimations fit with current knowledge of the moon -- that its polar regions are 'lower' than areas around the equator, for example. But connecting those points allows scientists to add new layers to their studies of Titan's surface, especially those modeling how and where Titan's rivers flow, and the seasonal distribution of its methane rainfall.

"The radar data were collected between 2004 and 2011...."
"Earthlike" in this case doesn't mean what it did in Star Trek episodes. Nobody's going to walk on Titan without a spacesuit. It's not just the unbreathable air: it's cold there.

But we finally have another world to study that has weather, rain, rivers, and lakes: just like Earth, except it's methane and probably ethane instead of water. There's a lot to learn.

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

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.