Friday, August 7, 2015

Organics on a Comet, and Earth's Early Magnetism

Scientists found evidence that Earth's magnetic field is more than a half-billion years older than we'd thought. As usual, that raises more questions.

The European Space Agency's Philae lander detected a "rich array" of organic compounds on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko 67P, including hydrogen cyanide (HCN). This is a big deal, since much of Earth's water came from comets: and HCN may have helped life begin on our world.
  1. Earth's Magnetic Field: 4,000,000,000 Years Old?
  2. Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko 67P: A "Rich Array" of Organics
Churyumov-Gerasimenko 67P's closest approach to the sun comes later this week:

(© ESA, from ESA, used w/o permission.)
("The orbit of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and its approximate location around perihelion, the closest the comet gets to the Sun. The positions of the planets are correct for 13 August 2015."
(rosetta, esa (July 13, 2015; updated August 7, 2015)))

My look at a comet, Earth's youth, and all that, comes after yet another 'why I prefer reality' review. It's pretty much what I've said before, so go ahead: skip down to Earth's Magnetic Field: 4,000,000,000 Years Old? or Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko 67P: A "Rich Array" of Organics, sort your socks, do whatever you like.

Beyond Anaximander's Cosmology

Someone asked me why I talk about "gods" and science in A Catholic Citizen in America. The person may have been puzzled at my interest in both spiritual and visible facets of reality.

That's understandable. Ever since the mid-19th century, a remarkable number folks seem convinced that a person can either be a Christian or be interested in science.

"Bible science," warping science trivia around Bible verses and vice versa, is as odd as the either/or position. My opinion. (July 5, 2011)

Some of my country's louder Christians seem determined to maintain the perception that faith and reason, religion and science, get along about as well as mongoose and cobra.

I think, and for their sakes hope, they're sincere: but I'm quite sure they're wrong.

I could follow Our Lord and believe that we live on a flat plate that's only a few millennia old, or in the middle of nested celestial spheres.

But my faith doesn't depend on ignorance of what we've learned since Plato fine-tuned Anaximander's cosmology. (July 31, 2015; September 26, 2014)

Last week's "Pluto, Earth 2.0, and Life in the Universe" prompted that question.My reply was brief: necessarily, since it appeared on my Twitter account. (@Aluwir)

The '25 words or less' version is that I like living in the real world. I kept thinking about the question, though, and how I could explain my interest in creation and in the Creator.

God, Faith, and Accepting Reality

My parents were nice, normal, mainstream Protestant folks; but I grew up in a town where a particularly virulent strain of anti-Catholicism was endemic.

I don't see the point in believing something's true and not acting as if it matters. I also don't see a point in believing something that makes sense Sunday morning, but not the rest of the week.

Radio rants against the 'whore of Babylon,' commies, and rock music, were punctuated by the latest End Times Bible Prophecy and vehement attacks on Satanic evils like evolution and long hair.

Venom-spitting radio preachers unintentionally helped me learn to love rock-n-roll, and left me with unanswered questions about religion, Christianity, and the Catholic Church.

Eventually I decided that religion wasn't necessarily a personality disorder, and that Christianity made sense.

Much later I became a Catholic.

As a Catholic, I must believe that faith isn't reason, and that faith is not against reason. I can know a few things about God by using human reason: but there's more to reality than that. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35, 50)

Faced with reality, I must decide whether or not I accept it. Acknowledging a newly-discovered facet of reality isn't always easy: but I think it's worth the effort.

"...Truth Cannot Contradict Truth..." — or — God's not a Schlemiel

(From John Martin, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Detail from John Martin's "Pandemonium," 1841.)

Seeking truth and seeking God are compatible — and turning my brain off isn't part of the process. (Catechism, 154, 274, 1706)

Well-intentioned folks occasionally warn me that I'll burn in everlasting hellfire because I don't agree with them about something. Generally the topic is the Catholic Church, or evolution. (July 25, 2014; March 15, 2015)

I'll be talking about a comet, organic molecules, and life's beginning; and don't want to clutter that up with an explanation of why reality doesn't offend me. I went over most of this last week. (July 31, 2015)

Truth is very important. (Catechism, Prologue, 27, 74, more under Truth in the index)

I believe that God creates everything: the physical realities that science studies; and the spiritual realities that faith pursues. Believing this, believing that God is is Truth, and fearing knowledge of God's world would be — illogical.

Pope Leo XIII discussed truth, faith, and getting a grip, more than a century ago. "Providentissimus Deus" means "Provident God," more or less, a hot topic in the late 19th century. Then as now, it looks like some folks were profoundly upset that the Bible isn't a science textbook, or that God's creation doesn't conform to their preferences.

Pope Leo carefully pointed out that since we believe that God creates everything, and isn't a schlemiel, if a newly-found facet of reality doesn't match our preconceived notions of what's true: that's our problem, not God's.

If we keep looking at the facts, use our brains, and don't assume that our preconceived notions are the only possible explanation, sooner or later we'll understand:
"...God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures - and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. ... Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth...."
("Providentissimus Deus,"1 Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])
That didn't stop some folks from insisting that God is offended when we use our brains, and others from asserting that God can't exist because we are learning about God's creation.

We have brains and free will. Each of us decides how we act and what we believe: or do not believe. Responsibilities come with that freedom, and that's another topic. (Catechism, 1731-1742)

Living in a Big World

Studying this astounding universe, and using that knowledge, is part of being human. Scientific discoveries are invitations " even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator...." (Catechism, 159, 283, 341, 2293-2295)

What we learn occasionally demands that we re-think old assumptions.

That's been happening quite a bit over the last few centuries.

Ussher's tidy little cosmology has been replaced by a view of reality that's literally cosmic in scale. I don't mind: and although I enjoy flights of fancy, I prefer living in the real world.

As for my interest in science and my faith — We've known that the universe is vast and ancient for thousands of years.
"4 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.

"But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.

"For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.

"And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you? "
(Wisdom 11:22-25)
Learning that it's a whole lot bigger and older that we thought a few generations back doesn't bother me. At all. (July 15, 2014)

Adam and Eve Aren't German

The small Minnesota town I live in isn't as exclusively German and Irish as it was a century ago, but a good many folks around here look like the couple in Albrecht Dürer's 1504 engraving. We wear more clothes, of course.

Scientists have learned a great deal about humanity's long story since Dürer's day: much of it in the last century.

Along the way many folks and most scientists dropped the assumption that looking European and being intelligent are pretty much the same thing.

I don't miss the 'good old days,' particularly since I'm nearly half-Irish, and that's another topic. (December 12, 2014; September 5, 2014)

As a Catholic, I must take Sacred Scripture seriously. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101-133)

But that emphatically does not mean I must believe a long-dead Calvinist was right about the moment of creation being nightfall before October 23, 4004 BC. (July 24, 2015)

As I keep saying, I think the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn't flat; Adam and Eve weren't German; poetry isn't science; and thinking is not a sin.

Believing that we are created in the image of God, male and female, means that each of us is a person: not something, but someone. We are made from the stuff of this world, and filled with God's 'breath:' matter and spirit, body and soul. (Genesis 2:7; Catechism, 355, 357, 362-368)

I read Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2:4-25 as an explanation of God's role in our existence: among other things.

As far as I'm concerned, all that's changed in the last few centuries is how much we know about the "clay" God used. (July 24, 2015; December 5, 2014)

Now, finally, what we're learning about this planet we call home, and the universe.

1. Earth's Magnetic Field: 4,000,000,000 Years Old?

(From Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The Earth's magnetic field deflects high energy protons from the Sun, as depicted in this artist's impression. Note that the relative sizes of the Earth and Sun, as well as the distances between the two bodies, are not to scale"
(BBC News))
"Earth magnetic shield is older than previously thought"
Yasmin Ali, BBC News (July 31, 2015)

"The Earth's magnetic field, which shields the atmosphere from harmful radiation, is at least four billion years old, according to scientists.

"This is 550 million years older than it was previously believed to be.

"Scientists at Rochester University in New York analysed crystals found in Western Australia.

"Data on our planet's magnetic field was found to be preserved in ancient crystals embedded in rock formations in the region...."
That's according to some scientists, with reservations. The Rochester University team studied one set of very old crystals. I'm pretty sure  they're right, that Earth had a measurable magnetic field 4,000,000,000 years back.

But we'll need more data before being certain that the field endured for the following 550,000,000 years. My guess is that it did: but that's just a guess.

Yasmin Ali's article discusses how the scientists analyzed the crystals, and what sort of follow-up research the new findings encourage.

Instead of repeating that, I'll take a quick look at what we've learned about Earth's magnetic field since Shakespeare's day.

A few centuries after natural philosophers like Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus studied natural phenomena, William Gilbert made a terrella: a spherical magnet, simulating Earth's magnetic properties. (Merriam-Webster)

Gilbert's terrella showed that his idea, that Earth acts like a giant magnet, was probably right. A magnetic compass, placed over Gilbert's terrella, pointed more-or-less north: just like a magnetic compass would at corresponding places on Earth.

Gilbert apparently was the first to say that Earth's core is iron. This may be why Georges-Louis Leclerc used iron as his test substance in the 1700s, but I haven't confirmed that. I talked about Leclerc, Earth's age, and getting a grip about beliefs, last week. (July 31, 2015)

His "De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellur," published in 1600, wasn't spot-on accurate about everything.

We've learned since then that the angle of the ecliptic and precession of the equinoxes aren't caused by magnetism, for example; and that electricity and magnetism aren't separate phenomena.

Hans Christian Ørsted noticed that electric currents create magnetic fields in 1820, which brings me back to Earth's magnetosphere.

Magnetospheres: There's a Lot Left to Learn

Earth's magnetic field keeps the solar wind, mostly electrons, protons and alpha particles streaming from our star, away from our atmosphere.

For the most part, at least. Auroroa in polar regions happen when particles from the sun turn parts of our atmosphere into a sort of glow stick — which are more like lightning bugs/fireflies, actually, and that's another topic.

Having a magnetic field may be why Earth supports life and Venus doesn't. At least, if something's living on Venus: it's not "life as we know it." Surface conditions there make the hot spots in Dante's Inferno seem like air conditioned comfort.

Then again, although Venus is losing its atmosphere to the solar wind, its mostly-carbon-dioxide blanket is a good deal thicker than our nitrogen-oxygen mix.

Air pressure at the Venusian surface is about 92 times Earth's sea level pressure, and doesn't drop to Earth-normal pressure and temperature until you get about 50 kilometers up.

I'm quite sure that Earth won't turn into another Venus when Earth's magnetic poles switch places. That happens every 100,000 to 1,000,000 years, more or less: and the last big shift happened long after our ancestors showed up.

We didn't have communications satellites then, but we've probably got a few millennia to get ready for the next big switch. Then again, maybe not. As I keep saying, we still have a lot left to learn. (October 24, 2014)

(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))

2. Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko 67P: A "Rich Array" of Organics

(From ESA/Rosetta/NavCam, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Churyumov-Gerasimenko 67P on July 14, 2015, an image from the Rosetta spacecraft's NavCam.)
"Comet yields 'rich array' of organics"
David Shukman, BBC News (July 30, 2015)

"The spacecraft which made a spectacular landing on a comet last year has discovered a rich array of carbon compounds.

"One leading scientist has even described the chemicals as 'a frozen primordial soup'.

"This supports the theory that comets may have seeded the early Earth with the ingredients for life.

"The findings came after the lander, known as Philae, touched down on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko 67P in November....

"...Prof Ian Wright of the Open University, who leads another instrument, Ptolemy, said the results were 'really interesting'.

" 'I see this cometary material that we're analysing as frozen primordial soup. It's the kind of stuff that if you had it, and warmed it up somehow, and put it in the right environment, with the right conditions, you may eventually get life forming out of it.

" 'What we may be looking at here is our abiological ancestral material - this is stuff that went into the mix to produce life.

" 'In many ways it's quite a humbling thing to be working on, because this is life before life happened.'..."
The Ptolemy experiment found polyoxymethylene — don't bother trying to remember these names, there will not be a pop quiz — a polymer of formaldehyde. It's organic, in the sense that the compound contains carbon.

Finding polyoxymethylene on a comet is a big deal, since carbohydrates like glucose, sucrose, and fructose are biologically important, and made from the same atoms.

Folks put sucrose on the kitchen table and formaldehyde in factories because the atoms are arranged differently, and don't affect living critters the same way.

COSAC (Cometary Sampling and Composition experiment), another instrument on the Philae lander, detected 16 compounds: including what BBC News calls methanenitrile.

In my dialect of English, that's hydrogen cyanide. Other names for HCN are formic anammonide, hydrocyanic acid, and prussic acid. It's derived from Prussian blue, which probably dates back to Berlin in the early 1700s, and that's another topic.

"...More Like a Hardware Shop..."

(From ESA.Risetta.NPS for Osiris Team/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The mission has revealed an intriguing landscape on Comet 67P"
(BBC News))
"...Prof Mark McCaughrean, the European Space Agency's senior science advisor, told BBC News: 'Imagine you want to build a house and you go to a forest, where there are trees, mud and rocks. You could make a house out of that, but it would be hard work.

" 'Well, we've now discovered the comet is more like a hardware shop - lots of pre-made building blocks, like door frames, bricks etc. It gives you a head start.

" 'One of the big questions, though, is this material made on the comet? Or is it made first in space and then incorporated into the comet? We don't know the answer to that yet.'..."
(David Shukman, BBC News)
We also don't know life began on Earth. Not yet.

Earth's changed quite a lot over the last 4,540,000,000 or so years, and critters have been recycling just about anything organic on our planet for at least 3,600,000,000 years. We've learned a great deal about Earth's story in the last few centuries: and have a great deal left to learn, including how life started.

Finding hydrogen cyanide on a comet is a very big deal, since the compound might be a precursor to amino acids and nucleic acids. Then again, it might not.

We've learned that up to half of Earth's water comes from interstellar space, where we've found surprisingly complex organic compounds. (December 5, 2014; October 3, 2014; July 11, 2014; October 18, 2013)

"Organic" doesn't mean "alive." I've talked about life, chemistry, and space vampires, before. (January 2, 2015; September 5, 2014)

More than you need to know:

Clay and Secondary Causes

Folks didn't know about magnetospheres and Ediacara biota when Genesis was first written, more than two dozen centuries ago. Two-dozen-plus centuries from now, I'd be astounded if we haven't discovered a few new facts about this universe.

Believing that God creates, and knowing that a fire's light and heat involve electron transitions, doesn't plunge me into a crisis of faith, plagued by doubts over Deuteronomy 5:4 and Acts 2:3.

I haven't heard of anyone insisting that salvation depends on belief in Johann Joachim Becher's teachings regarding Phlogiston, and that's another topic. (April 10, 2015)

Scientists are pretty sure that life on Earth started very roughly 1,000,000,000 years after this planet formed. What we don't know is how that happened, the physical processes involved. (Abiogenesis, Wikipedia)

From my viewpoint, the panspermia hypothesis, that life originated elsewhere and fell to Earth, isn't much of an explanation. If we got solid proof today that life on Earth started on Mars — that still wouldn't tell us how life itself started. (December 5, 2014)

Scientists have learned quite a bit, but the 'origin' question is still pretty much where it was in the 1920s, when Alexander Oparin and J. B. S. Haldane pointed out that chemical reactions probably led to the first critters. There's been a bit of progress, of course: including discussions of protocells.

Finally; about faith, science, and all that —

I don't have to believe that physical realities exist or that God exists.

Everything we observe reflects some facet of the Creator's truth, according to its nature. (Catechism, 300-310)

Fire, gravity, all natural processes, involve secondary causes: creatures changing in knowable ways, following laws woven into this creation. (Catechism, 301-308, 339)

Since I believe that God creates everything, and that God is not a liar: nothing we learn about this universe can threaten an informed faith.

More, mostly about:

1 A longer excerpt, and a link to Leo XIII's encyclical:
"...God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures - and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. If, then, apparent contradiction be met with, every effort should be made to remove it. Judicious theologians and commentators should be consulted as to what is the true or most probable meaning of the passage in discussion, and the hostile arguments should be carefully weighed. Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth...."
("Providentissimus Deus," Pope Leo XIII)
Full text, English translation:

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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.