Friday, February 28, 2014

Whale Fossils in a Desert, Ancient Zircons, and a Changing World

We're learning more about our universe: from whales beached in a desert, tiny crystals, and Earth's greatest mass extinction.
  1. Cerro Ballena's Whales
  2. Zircons in the Sands of Time
  3. Timeline: Earth's Formation, Atmospheric Oxygen, and Humans
  4. Earth's Anticlimactic Apocalypse: 252,000,000 Years Ago

God: Large and In Charge

(From Tim Eagan, via, used w/o permission.)

Although I knew someone who said that the sun goes around Earth, based on Joshua 10:12-13, I haven't been told that God planted trilobite and dinosaur fossils to 'test our faith.'

The notion that God would booby-trap creation with intellectual land mines doesn't make sense. Not if I assume that what Jesus said is true:
"Jesus said to him, 'I am the way and the truth 5 and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

"If you know me, then you will also know my Father. 6 From now on you do know him and have seen him.' "
(John 14:16-7)
From what's in John 1:1-5 and 14:8-12, I think it's safe to assume that God the Father and God the Son are on the same page. Bottom line? God doesn't lie, or falsify evidence. Truth cannot contradict truth, which is why faith and reason get along just fine. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

I also think arguing with the Almighty about how creation should have been designed is pointless. God is large and in charge. (Catechism, 268, 279, 300, 301, 302-305)

More of my take on truth and getting a grip:

Change Happens

This universe is good, but it's not perfect: yet. Change happens, and our decisions make a difference: for good or ill. (Catechism, 302-308, 1730-1742)

We live in a universe that's beautiful, ordered: and there for us to study. (Catechism, 31-36, 282-289, 299, 341)

We can learn a little about God by studying what God created. On the other hand, studying God's creation doesn't keep us from getting goofy ideas.

Nebular Hypothesis, Yes; 18th Century Last Judgment, No

Emanuel Swedenborg is one of the scientists who first developed the nebular hypotheses. He also, in 1758, said that the Last Judgment had happened: in 1757.

I've opined about relying on scientists and auto mechanics for theological insights before, and that's another topic. (January 31, 2014; August 19, 2010)

More-or-less-Christian 'End Times Biblical prophecies' and their secular analogs are part of American life: and, occasionally, death.

I suspect that most cultures have had folks with a doomsday frame of mind. I mentioned a short list of predicted apocalypses on Tuesday, along with two examples of folks who were sincerely, and lethally, convinced that the end was nigh. (February 25, 2014)

More of my take on doomsday declarations that didn't deliver:

Stewards of Creation

We are made in the image of God: male and female; with dominion over this world; and a frightening responsibility.

We are stewards of this wonderfully interdependent creation. We don't own the world, but we're in charge of its resources: for our use, and for all generations to come. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism, 339-346, 355-361, 373, 2402-2406, 2456)

That's why I think we need to keep learning about how the universe works: and learn the right lesson from Earth's anticlimactic apocalypse, the Permian-Triassic extinction event.

1. Cerro Ballena's Whales

(From Adam Metallo/Smithsonian Institution, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"Hundreds of fossils await unearthing and description at Cerro Ballena"
"Chile's stunning fossil whale graveyard explained"
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (February 25, 2014)

"It is one of the most astonishing fossil discoveries of recent years - a graveyard of whales found beside the Pan-American Highway in Chile.

"And now scientists think they can explain how so many of the animals came to be preserved in one location more than five million years ago.

"It was the result of not one but four separate mass strandings, they report in a Royal Society journal...."
Folks knew that this part of South America's Atacama Desert had whale fossils. Cerro Ballena, "Whale Hill," got its name from the fossilized whale bones sticking out from the rocks. That's Cerro Ballena (27° 02' 31.51" S, 70° 47' 42.18" W), near the coast in northern Chile, not Cerro La Ballena in Santiago's metropolitan area.

Excavation in a quarry near Caldera, Chile, stopped when paleontologists got permission to do their own digging in the 20 by 250 meter trench. They had two weeks before the quarry went back to folks providing material for the Pan American Highway.

The scientists photographed, mapped, scanned, and cataloged 40 skeletons: rorqual whales; sperm whales; seals; aquatic sloths; walrus-whales; and predatory bony fish. (Royal Society (February 2014))

Whales: In a Desert?!

The Atacama Desert is a remarkably dry place, and may be the oldest desert on Earth.

It's home to grasshoppers that look like pebbles, red scorpions, Darwin's leaf-eared mouse, and other animals that get along without much water: except along the coast, where seals and sea lions come ashore.

These days, Cerro Ballena is about a mile inland. In the late Tortonian and early Messinian, about 7,250,000 years back, scientists are reasonably sure it was a flat sandy area, just above high tide, at the end of an estuary.

Something, probably a toxic algal bloom, killed the assorted whales, aquatic sloths, and fish. A storm and high tide washed the bodies ashore, where they were out of reach of marine scavengers.


2. Zircons in the Sands of Time

(From John W. Valley/University of Wisconsin-Madison, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
"A 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal from the Jack Hills region of Australia is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters February 23, 2014." (Reuters)
"Crystal is 'oldest scrap of Earth crust' "
BBC News (February 24, 2014)

"A tiny 4.4-billion-year-old crystal has been confirmed as the oldest fragment of Earth's crust.

"The zircon was found in sandstone in the Jack Hills region of Western Australia.

"Scientists dated the crystal by studying its uranium and lead atoms. The former decays into the latter very slowly over time and can be used like a clock.

"The finding has been reported in the journal Nature Geoscience.

"Its implication is that Earth had formed a solid crust much sooner after its formation 4.6 billion years ago than was previously thought, and very quickly following the great collision with a Mars-sized body that is thought to have produced the Moon just a few tens of millions of years after that. Before this time, Earth would have been a seething ball of molten magma...."
Right now, we're reasonably sure that the Solar system, and Earth, are about the same age. The moon is a tad younger, and probably happened after a whacking great impact between Earth and roughly Mars-size planet. The Jack Hills zircons aren't much younger.

Current estimates, age (in years) of:
  • Jack Hills zircons
    • 4,400,000,000 roughly
  • Earth's moon
    • 4,520,000,000 more or less
  • Solar system
    • 4,560,000,000
These zircons are a big deal for folks trying to understand what happened in our planet's early years. They formed in Earth's solid crust: soon after a collision that melted Earth's outer layers.

"Soon" in this case was very roughly 100,000,000 years: a hundred times longer than we've been using fire.

Learning that there's More to Learn

Scientists have learned a great deal about Earth and other planets in the last few centuries. The best explanation we've got for Earth's early years is the nebular hypothesis.

The idea that our sun and its planets started as a rotating cloud if gas goes back to about 1735. At the time it was an interesting idea, without much evidence backing it up. Since then, we've collected a great deal of data about Earth and other planets, and observed nebulae in several stages of collapse.

As a working explanation, the nebular hypothesis will do until we develop something better: yet more topics.

More about these zircons:

3. Timeline: Earth's Formation, Atmospheric Oxygen, and Humans

(From Andree Valley/University of Wisconsin-Madison, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
"The timeline of the history of Earth, and places the formation of the Jack Hills zircon and a 'cool early Earth' at 4.4 billion years is seen in this graphic handout obtained by Reuters February 23, 2014."
"Rock around the clock: zircon crystal is oldest piece of Earth"
Will Dunham, Reuters (February 23, 2014)

"To put it mildly, this is one gem of a gem.

"Scientists using two different age-determining techniques have shown that a tiny zircon crystal found on a sheep ranch in western Australia is the oldest known piece of our planet, dating to 4.4 billion years ago....

"...John Valley, a University of Wisconsin geoscience professor who led the research, said the findings suggest that the early Earth was not as harsh a place as many scientists have thought.

"To determine the age of the zircon fragment, the scientists first used a widely accepted dating technique based on determining the radioactive decay of uranium to lead in a mineral sample...."
I've mentioned some items shown on that timeline:
Others, like the Late Bombardment, Late Heavy Bombardment, lunar cataclysm, or LHB, I haven't.

Most of what we know about the LHB comes from analyses of rocks brought back from our moon. For reasons that scientists are still discussing, our moon got hit with a remarkable number of asteroids, between about 3,800,000,000 and 4,100,000,000 years ago.

So did Earth, but most evidence left by the LHB on our planet is long gone: understandably, since Earth's surface gets recycled.

The process is fast, for organic matter; not so fast for continents and ocean floors. Recycling rocks involves plate tectonics, which is yet again another topic. (December 6, 2013; February 27, 2013)

Life on Earth started right after the LHB ended: unless critters lived before the LHB, and survived. I won't be surprised, either way.


Technical Stuff

"...But because some scientists hypothesized that this technique might give a false date due to possible movement of lead atoms within the crystal over time, the researchers turned to a second sophisticated method to verify the finding.

"They used a technique known as atom-probe tomography that was able to identify individual atoms of lead in the crystal and determine their mass, and confirmed that the zircon was indeed 4.4 billion years old.

"To put that age in perspective, the Earth itself formed 4.5 billion years ago as a ball of molten rock, meaning that its crust formed relatively soon thereafter, 100 million years later. The age of the crystal also means that the crust appeared just 160 million years after the very formation of the solar system...."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
The technical side of radiometric dating, which has nothing to do with online dating, fascinates me. Your experience may vary.

Life Began 4,300,000,000 Years Ago: Maybe

"...'One of the things that we're really interested in is: when did the Earth first become habitable for life? When did it cool off enough that life might have emerged?' Valley said in a telephone interview.

"The discovery that the zircon crystal, and thereby the formation of the crust, dates from 4.4 billion years ago suggests that the planet was perhaps capable of sustaining microbial life 4.3 billion years ago, Valley said.

" 'We have no evidence that life existed then. We have no evidence that it didn't. But there is no reason why life could not have existed on Earth 4.3 billion years ago,' he added...."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
I realize that absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. I stopped trying to convince zealots of any ilk a long time ago.

There's no evidence that life existed 4,300,000,000 years back: but it's remotely possible that it did, since apparently Earth was cool enough, and presumably had at least a little liquid water. We know that life began here at some point: since we're here.

Evidence and Beauty

Depending on who's talking, evidence of Earth's first life are 3,500,000,000 year old fossilized mats resembling stromatolites, 2,700,000,000 year old microfossils and chemical traces, or a 17th century Calvinist's book.

God might have designed the universe along the lines imagined by ancient Mesopotamians. But I'm willing to accept the idea that we have learned a little more about this creation over the last few millennia.

By the same token, I'm willing to accept the idea that God has the patience and wisdom to create and sustain a universe that's almost unimaginably ancient: and filled with beauty and wonders that we're only beginning to understand.

(From "The Three-Story Universe," © N. F. Gier, God, Reason, and the Evangelicals (1987), via Nick Gier, University of Idaho, used w/o permission.)

4. Earth's Anticlimactic Apocalypse: 252,000,000 Years Ago

(From William Foster, via LiveScience, used w/o permission.)
"Gastropods (snails) (Coelostylina werfensis and 'Polygyrina' gracilior) from the Early Triassic representing slow-moving, epifaunal grazers."
"Earth's Greatest Extinction Hardly Changed Ocean Ways of Life"
Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience (February 23, 2014)

"Earth's largest mass extinction had surprisingly little effect on the range of lifestyles seen on the planet's seafloor, despite the loss of more than 90 percent of marine species, researchers find.

"Understanding the impacts of this ancient extinction event may shed light on the damage climate change might now inflict on the planet, the scientists say.

"The end-Permian mass extinction, which occurred 252 million years ago, was the biggest die-off in the planet's history, and the largest of the five mass extinctions seen in the fossil record. The cataclysm killed as much as 95 percent of all species on Earth...."
"Epifaunal grazers?" In this context, "epifaunal" means critters living on an underwater surface: like a lake or ocean bottom; rocks; or, more recently, pilings. Mussels, crabs, starfish, and flounders are epifaunal animals.

I've posted about the Great Dying before. Briefly, something went horribly wrong about a quarter of a billion years back.

Active volcanoes in a nation-sized region spewed toxic gasses for a million years, rain as acid as undiluted lemon juice may have helped kill most of Earth's species: a process that may have taken only 20,000 years.

Bad News and Scorpions

The Great Dying was bad news for endangered species like fusulinids. Those odd critters were nearly extinct when the disaster began, and didn't survive.

Tabulate and rugose corals died out: but other corals are still with us.

We don't have recipes for fried trilobite, because those arthropods joined rugose corals in the roster of formerly-living types of animals in the Great Dying.

Trilobites had a good run though: thousands of species over a span of 300,000,000 years, give or take. That's impressive, but not even close to scorpions' 430,000,000 years: so far.

Goodby Rostroconchs, Hello Sea Lilies

"...The researchers deduced the probable lifestyle of each group, based on where it lived, how it fed and whether it was attached to the seafloor. They identified 29 lifestyles, or modes of life.

"The scientists discovered that on the global scale, just a single mode of life on the seafloor was irrevocably lost at the end of the Permian: a life spent stationary, unattached to and partly buried in the seafloor, and feeding on any pieces of food that would land on the ocean's bottom. This lifestyle was practiced by now-extinct mollusks known as rostroconchs.

"On the other hand, just one new mode of life emerged after the mass extinction: one spent erect on the seafloor with limited mobility and grazing on items suspended in the water. This lifestyle was practiced by the feathery-limbed mobile 'sea lilies,' or crinoids...."
(Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience)
Rostroconchs looked a bit like bivalves: mollusks with two-part shells, like oysters and clams.

The new critters, crionids, are still with us: although they've changed over the last quarter of a billion years.

(From berichard, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A feather star: yes, it's an animal.)

Getting a Grip about Change

The Permian-Triassic extinction event, or Great Dying, is the worst mass extinction ever. But I think there's a lesson in what didn't happen:
"...'We are not saying nothing happened," said study lead author William Foster, a paleontologist at Plymouth University in England. 'Rather, global oceans in the extinction's aftermath were a bit like a ship manned by a skeleton crew — all stations were operational, but manned by relatively few species.'

"The lack of change in the number of lifestyles could explain why so few new groups of marine organisms arose after the extinction, said paleoecologist Martin Aberhan, of the Leibniz Institute for Research on Evolution and Biodiversity in Berlin, who did not take part in the research.

" 'At the level of presence or absence of modes of life, there was virtually no change in the long run,' Aberhan told Live Science...."
(Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience)
I don't see a problem with deciding that particularly cute, cuddly, or fascinating critters be saved from extinction. Paying attention to Earth's plants and animals, and taking reasonable steps to ensure their welfare, is part of our job.

But I do not see a point in pretending that life on Earth should remain exactly as it was in 1950, 1825, 1700, or some other arbitrary point in our home's long history.

Change happens. That's the way this universe works. We're learning to control some aspects of this changing world: and must learn to use our knowledge wisely.

But I think that we are no more able to stop this world from changing, than King Cnut could command the tides. (February 27, 2013)

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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.