Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Insanity Parade: Cosmic Pool Edition

Today we will be continuing our ongoing series about the various types of insanity and bizarre systems of belief that populate the internet. Today our insanity comes to us courtesy of the website Thule. Let's give them a big round of applause.

I don't want to take issue with the entire Thule site (although god knows someone could, if only from an aesthetic standpoint). I simply don't have the time it would take to challenge every half-assed idea here. This may surprise you since, based on the length of my posts, it might seem like I have a lot of spare time. This would be an illusion. I actually employ a team of several thousand hamsters with large testicles that, by a process of constantly scratching their nuts on keyboards, produce the bulk of my daily posts. It's a little like those monkeys on typewriters, but a lot more unsettling to watch. In any case, the Thule site includes a variety of articles ranging from the suggestion that "AIDS is germ warfare," to "Nazi/Canadian UFOs," to speculations about the ancient history of the solar system. It is this latter set of speculations that I want to focus on, and in particular on the article The Scars of Mars.

This article, by Donald W. Patten, would seem to have been originally published in the January 1991 issue of Catastrophism and Ancient History, which styles itself as an academic journal, though I am unable to determine if it is, or rather was, peer-reviewed. Not that peer-review is necessarily the key to quality, my own recent experiences tend to indicate that peer-review provides no sure fire guarantees. Still, it sure as shit doesn't hurt. Look at this blog, for example: it isn't peer-reviewed, and it sucks. And given that this post is devoted to bullshit logic, I think that'll be enough for me.

In understanding the name of this journal, it is worth saying a bit more about the "catastrophism" part of the title. In geology in the 19th century there were two major schools of thought regarding geologic changes. Adherents to the first, known as the Catastrophists, argued that most changes were the result of sudden, abrupt events. This school of thought, known as catastrophism, was at least in part an attempt to incorporate the biblical tale of the flood into a model of earth changes. The competing school, the gradualists, argued that earth changes occur as part of a lengthy evolutionary process of volcanism, erosion, and subduction. We would, today, add plate tectonics to this list. This approach, more commonly known as uniformitarianism eventually gained greater acceptance and displaced catastrophism as the dominant approach to explaining earth changes. The simple reason for this is that while uniformitarianism bases its theories on observable, measurable phenomena, the catastrophists were forced to speculate on unknown and rare events, data about which was difficult to collect if not totally nonexistent. Thus, uniformitarianism came to be favored on the basis of both empirical evidence, and parsimony. While modern geology has recognized the importance of catastrophes, for instance the K/T Boundary Event, it has largely clung to a predominantly uniformitarian model of earth changes. It has also taken a stance that, while catastrophes do happen, unusually compelling evidence or an unusually pressing theoretical need must be in place inorder to invoke them. Thus, we may conclude that whatever its peer-review status, the journal in question is likely to be on the fringes of geology. This does not mean that everything in it is automatically of poor quality, but it suggests that it isn't readily accepted by individuals with more expertise in geology than myself. It will come as no shock to you that some 4th graders have more expertise in geology than myself but that's the glory of the internet: I don't need an education, I just need a damned keyboard.

The article of interest attempts to propose a new theory to account for the crater patterning on the surface of the planet Mars, for the existence of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and for the presence of Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos. Please note that these are not features of the solar system for which we do not have fairly good theories; the author is instead trying (one would assume) to produce a more parsimonious explanation. Towards this end, the author begins by addressing two theories accounting for the origin of the asteroids. The first theory, that they once composed a planet that was subsequently destroyed by collision or by the tidal effects of Jupiter, has largely fallen out of favor with the astronomical community. The second theory is that the asteroids represent subplanetary or planetesimal material that collected in the same manner as other planetary bodies. Unlike the other terrestrial worlds (Mercury, Venus, Earth, & Mars), however, the orbits of these bodies were constantly scrambled by the nearby presence of the gas giant Jupiter, thus preventing them from forming into a single body. This second argument is currently the most popular theory accounting for the asteroids. It gets invited to all the best parties, it wears all the best clothes, and I hear it's dating other popular theories like "gravity," "relativity," and "evolution." What can I say? It's a healthy theory in the prime of its life.

The author correctly explains these rival accounts, but matters begin to go downhill (Come on, you knew it was going to go downhill) rapidly from here. The author goes on to say that:

Instilled into the psyche of most astronomers is the notion that Mars has been in its present orbit, like Jupiter, for billions of years and the asteroids do seem to be relatively young. In this essay we shall first discard the astronomer's notion that Mars has been in its current orbit for billions of years.

This is problematic on two levels. First, the dominant argument that the asteroids are planetesimals formed when the other planets were born argues that they are, in fact, some of the oldest bodies in the solar system, and not relatively young. Asteroids, like comets, are thought to present us with our best chance to learn about the early solar system for precisely this reason. Second, beginning any scientific research by casually abandoning something as significant as the orbit of an entire planet is at best questionable. Planets are large and a truly substantial amount of energy is required to alter their orbits. Thus, one must provide extraordinary evidence to justify an assertion that those orbits have changed radically. Certainly in the early solar system orbits were much less orderly, but that was a period in time considerably before what the present article considers.

Additionally, as the planetary society shows, the current orbits of the planets from Mercury to Jupiter enjoy considerable circularity and nest inside each other like babushka dolls. This trend continues into the outer solar system where, with the exception of Pluto, which may not actually be a proper planet at all, the planet orbits fit together quite neatly. The importance of this observation is this: any event that changed Mars' orbit would have had to very precisely alter it to conform to the orbits of the other planets. Further, for whatever period Mars had a different orbit, it would have taken considerable luck for its movement and mass not to perturb the orbits of the other inner planets, particularly if its orbit crossed the orbits of Earth or Venus. As it happens, the author is proposing just such an orbit with Mars spending a portion of each orbit inside the orbit of the Earth. For such to be the case for any length of time would necessarily result in changes in the orbit of the Earth as a consequence of gravitational attraction. Interestingly, the author actually argues that Mars might have had significant effects on the Earth, going so far in another paper as to claim that Earth's mountain ranges are the result of such close approaches. (One is left to wonder how he accounts for modern volcanoes and tectonic activity in the absence of such a wide-ranging planet) Yet, he makes no mention of the necessary perturbations that would occur in the Earth's own orbit, or the probable ejection of the Earth's moon, that would result saying only that:

Mars in its former orbit had the potential to interact catastrophically with the Earth-Moon system, since its perihelion was within Earth's orbit.

Thus, we can see, there are already considerable problems with this thesis. (It is worth noting that the author argues in a later paper that interactions with the Earth in conjunction with an impact we will discuss momentarily are actually responsible for circularizing Mars' orbit. It is the case, however, that close approaches by Mars, and by "close" I mean "near enough to deform the Earth's crust," would very likely gravitationally accelerate the moon enough to eject it from orbit entirely. The obvious presence of the moon is a strong indication that the Earth has not had any close encounters with massive objects since the time the moon was formed. This goes double for Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos, which are considerably less massive than our moon and proportionately easier to eject.)

The author, however, chooses to use this hypothetical orbit to argue that a collision with a smaller planetary body, dubbed "Astra," knocked Mars onto its present orbit much as the que ball knocks balls into pockets in billiards. (Heh. "Billiards." What am I, in the fucking Music Man? "That's 'Trouble' with a capital 'T,' which rhymes with 'P,' and that stands for 'Poorly constructed theory!'") The leftover fragments of Astra that did not collide with Mars (Astra having been fragmented before impact by its passage beyond Mars' Roche limit) either fell into orbit (i.e. Phobos and Deimos) or continued on altered trajectories, becoming our modern asteroids. That the orbit of Mars in this scenario seems to have been chosen simply to make such a sequence of events plausible does little to reassure me.

After describing his "13 levels of support," (They're even interdisciplinary! You have no idea how eager I was for him to whip out the literary theory there but, alas, no he succumbs to the hegemony of the so-called "physical" sciences. Oh, poo!) few of which actually constitute support, the author lays down his version of a research hypothesis:

If it can be demonstrated that Mars was the sole cause for Astra's fragmentation, then we can say, as a demand deduction, that Mars was in a former orbit with higher eccentricity and a more remote aphelion. Assuming this, and to accommodate the principle of conservation of energy and angular momentum, a second demand deduction is that the former perihelion of Mars was nearer to the Sun than the present perihelion.

Or, in other words: "If we can show that Mars, which we assume to have been on a different orbit, was the only cause for the breakup of a planet that nobody has ever proven existed in the first place, or even found a compelling reason to believe existed, then we can conclude that Mars was in the orbit we assumed it was in in order to make it collide with our mystery planet. Further, if this is true, and I don't see why it shouldn't be, then unless we want to completely rewrite physics, Mars' orbit MUST have been what I was assuming it was." Good lord, if I could get away with shit like this I'd never mess with a stats package ever again.

To attempt to derive support, the author observes that most craters on Mars are in a single hemisphere. This, he claims, supports a catastrophic origin. He also claims that the Tharsis bulge on the other side of the planet, which is approximately 8000 kilometers across and 10 kilometers high, is the result of shockwaves from the impact of Astra. (In the interests of honesty, I should note that he talks most extensively about the Tharsis bulge in part II of this article, located here. Of course, part II of this article is cited as having come from a 1985 issue of this journal, so either the guy posting this material on the web is an idiot, or these articles have been sucked into some kind of temporal distortion.) This would, in essence, be similar to what happens if you shove your fist deep into a ball of bread dough: the other side bulges out. Thus, the craters and the deformation of the planet in the Tharsis region on the opposite side are the result of a single tremendous impact event. Specifically, as his hypothetical Astra approached Mars it was torn apart by Mars' gravity. The resulting fragments radiated out from the point of breakup, with some striking the surface and some escaping to become asteroids, or to form Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos.

While parsimonious, in a way, these two bits of "evidence" are not really as independent as the author would like us to believe. Everyone, more or less, is familiar with the dark regions of the Earth's moon. These regions, called "maria," or "mare" were thought in ancient times to be seas. We have since learned that the maria are the remnant of vast volcanic outflows caused by large meteor impacts. These maria, however, have the side effect of obscuring any craters that may have already been on the surface. A crater full of lava, after all, doesn't look any different from any other surface covered over in lava. So, given that more conventional explanations for the Tharsis bulge involve some sort of volcanism, we can see a very logical explanation for the relative lack of craters here: they have largely been obscured by one of the most impressive tectonic events in the solar system. Thus, with the magic of lava, both the craters and the Tharsis bulge can be accounted for without the need to invent a new planetary body.

It is also worth noting that the author claims that this event occurred within the recent past, going so far as to say (in part II) that:

We suspect this fragmentation [of Astra] was a recent event in the solar system, and will be considered "ancient" only in terms of thousands not millions or billions of years.

This contradicts current research on Mars that suggests it has been geologically dead for considerably more than a few thousand years. In other words, in order for the Astra impact to have caused the Tharsis bulge and the volcanoes of the Tharsis region, the planet Mars would have to still have a molten core and a considerably greater quantity of sub-crustal magma than we believe it has had for some millions of years. Further, if such an enormous impact had happened the introduction of so much mechanical energy would very likely have kept it geologically active into modern times. Whoops.

Finally, to conclude my criticism of this theory, we need take note of the author's further contention that at the time of Astra's impact Mars already had a moon. The author states:

Two additional suspicions need also to be stated. One is that at the time of Astra's fragmentation Mars had an icy satellite somewhat like the satellites of Uranus in size, 500 to 800 miles in diameter, and composed of ice like some of the satellites of Jupiter. This "frosty" body we suggest, was also impacted to some extent by Astra fragments and we postulate that Astra had a high proportion of iridium which was deposited both on the crust of Mars and its ancient icy satellite. Thus the subsequent fragmenting or the "frosty" satellite may have had something to do with Mars' channels and may also account for the high iridium concentration in the sub-sea level deep ice deposits on Mars' antarctic bedrock.

What I love about the above, by the way, is that as this shitstorm progresses into part II he continues to refer to this moon as "Frosty." Here's a tip: if you're going to propose such a radically implausible theory, maybe you should not name your hypothetical moon after a vaguely-disturbing dessert available from the Wendy's chain of fast food restaurants.

Regardless, this moon, the orbital configuration of which the author proceeds to speculate on, allows him to account for Iridium deposits located on Mars' bedrock. It seems much simpler, of course, to simply suggest that the iridium, which tends to be concentrated in planetary cores but may be deposited on planetary surfaces by meteor impacts, was laid down by more run-of-the-mill impacts that occurred throughout Mars' history as a planet. That's, you know, where our available iridium largely came from. This, at least, doesn't require us to introduce a large iridium-rich impactor or an additional satellite. This is especially beneficial because while the author describes this moon as being largely composed of ice, there are no bodies anywhere in the inner solar system that match this description. Mars would have been the only world closer to the sun than Jupiter to play host to such a body, and it would have been all the more impressive a feat given the deleterious effects of the sun on volatile substances such as water.

Taken together this theory requires us to postulate a number of things:

(1) That Mars was previously on a highly elliptical orbit that somehow did not perturb the orbits of the Earth and Venus. (Again, the author claims elsewhere that Mars altered the radius of the Earth's orbit, but to do so without altering the orbital path is unlikely at best.)

(2) That despite this failure to perturb its orbit, Mars was able to cause significant disruptions in the surface features of the Earth, and all without ejecting the moon.

(3) That previously the asteroids were part of a much larger planetesimal on an even more eccentric orbit.

(4) That Mars previously had a moon completely unlike any now present in the inner solar system.

(5) That Mars' orbit was circularized by the Astra impact, and its subsequent encounters with the Earth, in a way that makes it impossible to tell from its current orbit that it was ever unusual.

That's not too bad, eh? We just have to invent two moon-sized bodies, one with a composition entirely unknown in the inner solar system, and assume an entire planet had a radically different orbit. Sounds parsimonious to me.

Or, you know, we could just assume that Mars has been on its current orbit for as long as the other planets, that its tectonic activity (when it was geologically active) accounts for the Tharsis bulge and the distribution of craters, that the iridium is a result of a lengthy period of meteor impacts, and that Mars, like Earth, received a share of water when it formed and, thus, did not need a huge "frosty" moon to give it ice. I leave it to you to decide.

So what bullshit analysis do I want to offer here at the end? Well, the real problem with this article isn't that it proposes a radical theory. Radical theories are good, particularly since every now and then they turn out to be correct. The problem is that the author is hellbent on finding a way to argue that Mars was, in the recent past, an Earth-orbit crossing body. I won't speculate on why this is, beyond observing that a common motivation for this sort of thing is a desire to account for certain tales in the Old Testament with actual historical events, but it clearly was the intent of this article. While an unconvincing piece, it does illustrate the dangers of deciding your conclusion before you do research. Any data can be twisted to support a given conclusion, especially if the conclusion is not, on the face of it, totally unreasonable. The Astra hypothesis is not, indeed, totally out of the question, especially given that the Earth's moon is thought to be the result of a titanic impact during the early days of the solar system. In fact, I am even rather intrigued by the suggestion that the hemisphere of craters and the Tharsis bulge might be the result of an impact, even if I see no compelling reason to believe this to be true. The problem isn't that there's no evidence, it's that there's so much evidence that contradicts the Astra theory, or is consistent with a much simpler explanation.

The job of science is not to provide reasonable explanations for events. Shit, I can come up with a dozen reasonable explanations for any given event, just like you can find a dozen different things that a cloud looks like. The job of science is to provide the most accurate, and simplest, explanation that it can. That's why it's so damned hard- it isn't enough to have a good explanation, it has to be shaved down to the bare minimum needed to do the job. By contrast, this article presents a theoretical Rube Goldberg machine that insists on explaining phenomena with the most complicated, convoluted set of events possible. While science is increasinly finding that the universe is a very complicated place, that only emphasizes that we don't need to go adding extra complexity just for shits and giggles. Science pursues simple, elegant explanations because at least that way we can avoid overkill. Maybe this is why I'm so suspicious of sociohistorical accounts and qualitative work. Yeah, context and history matter, but the more detail you include, the farther away from your goal you're getting. Maybe this is why I like statistics. The Astra theory isn't impossible it's just quite improbable. That's the beauty of statisical analysis: it doesn't tell us everything, and it definitely abstracts a lot, but it does give us a way to judge how good our guesses are. Given how easy it is to convince oneself that there must have been additional moons, and different orbits, and all manner of other things, this provides a reassuring way to judge more objectively between otherwise equally plausible explanations. I don't trust my judgement enough to dispense with math, do you really trust YOUR judgement that much?

This isn't to say that qualitative work is bad, or that research that attends to the historical context is unscientific. While qualitative research just isn't my bag, I DO think there is a very necessary place for it in social science. The relationship between qualitative and quantitative work is a little like the relationship between the infantry and the artillery. The infantry can get into an area, and get familiar with it in a way that troops manning big guns can't, but at the same time if you really want something blown up, those big guns are damned useful. The funny part about this, though, is that artillery can do a lot of damage, but it's clumsy. It needs the infantry to tell it where to fire, and how much, and for how long. Similarly, qualitative work can really get into a situation and get familiar with it, but when it's time to try and support some hypotheses, it's time to call in the big guns of quantitative analysis. Us quantoids, though, still need a little advice on where to shoot. Qualitative and quantitative work both have their vital roles to play.

It's just that we quantoids are fabulously attractive and a lot more fun to hang around with.

Well, that concludes this edition of "Insanity Parade." Join us next time when we discover a man who claims physics prohibits the astronauts from having gone to the moon, and then we talk to a high school physics student with a brain the size of a walnut who knows why he's wrong!


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