Not too long ago, a commenter asked about a “Goldilocks Planet” that had recently been discovered by Steven Vogt and his colleagues. The term refers to a planet that is thought to be close enough to its star to be warm, but not so close that it is unbearably hot. In other words, it is supposed to have a temperature that is “just right” for the existence of life.
Steven Vogt and his colleagues thought they had found such a planet in Gliese 581g. It is supposed to orbit a red dwarf (Gliese 581) with a period of 37 days. While this puts it very close to its star, Vogt and his team think it is hospitable to life because the red dwarf is cool compared to the sun.
In response to the commenter, I expressed my skepticism, not because I have a problem with the idea of extraterrestrial life, but because astronomers have been wrong in their assignment of “Goldilocks” status before. In addition, even if the planet is at the right distance from its star, there are a host of other conditions necessary for a planet to be hospitable to life.
Well, now there is another reason to be skeptical. The planet may not exist!
Suppose you wanted to get video from outer space, but you didn’t want to spend a whole lot of money. What would you do? For the cost of an iPhone (which was recovered), an HD video camera (also recovered), a parachute, some Styrofoam, tape, handwarmers, weights, and a balloon, these guys did it!
It is sad that parents are misinformed by those who are against vaccination. It is sadder still that children are not as healthy as a result. The saddest thing of all, however, is how innocent children suffer because of anti-vaccination misinformation. This year, we are witnessing the fruits of this misinformation: the suffering and death of innocent children.
According to the California Department of Public Health, there have been 4,461 cases of whooping cough (pertussis) reported throughout the state so far this year. The majority of those are confirmed cases, but 19% are considered probable cases, while 18% are merely suspected cases. This is the largest number of reported cases since 1955. At least 217 of these cases resulted in hospitalization, and 9 resulted in death!
What is causing this sudden surge of whooping cough? Well, there are actually two effects. First, like most contagious diseases, whooping cough goes through cycles of years when it is not very prevalent and years when it is very prevalent. This year is in the “very prevalent” part of the cycle. Second, over the past few years, there has been a significant reduction in the vaccination rate, due to misinformation promulgated by those who are against vaccinations.
Peer review is one of the most important concepts in scientific publishing. When I submit a scientific article to a serious scientific journal, it is generally reviewed by people who are experts in the relevant subject in order to determine whether or not the article is worthy of publication. These people are called “peer reviewers,” and it’s their job to determine whether or not there are any errors in the paper, whether or not the paper’s conclusions are reasonable based on the bulk of the data, whether or not the conclusions and/or data are novel or interesting enough to merit publication, etc. In short, the peer-review process is supposed to ensure that only “quality” scientific articles get published in the scientific literature.
I used the concept of peer review heavily when I wrote my award-winning science textbooks. Even though I have a PhD in nuclear chemistry, I don’t know everything there is to know about chemistry. Thus, in order to ensure that my chemistry text was accurate, I had other PhD chemists (and one high school teacher) review the book to catch errors so that I could correct them. As I started writing textbooks that were further and further from my field of expertise, I had to rely on peer review more heavily.
While the concept of peer review is an excellent one, the execution of it in modern science has been questioned in many different ways. Some scientists think that peer review tends to enforce orthodoxy, making it very difficult for new and revolutionary ideas to be published. Others see peer review as a way for the reviewers to keep people they don’t like from getting published. Others say that is a way for reviewers to punish their rivals.
Over the years, several studies have tried to address the validity of the peer-review process, and unfortunately, the results have not been very good.
Over the course of my scientific career, I have been drug, kicking and screaming all the way, to the conclusion that radioactive half-lives have probably not been constant over the course of earth’s history. Because of this, I have written about observations that indicate the half-lives of certain isotopes seem to depend on the distance between the earth and the sun. The essence of the story is that investigators have been measuring the activity of certain isotopes over several years, and there seems to be a periodic variation in their half-lives. The half-lives increase and decreased based on the season. In addition, when a solar flare was observed, a marked decrease in the half-life of one isotope was observed. As I stated in my previous post on this subject, I think the researchers have done a good job eliminating the possibility that the observed variations are due to some artifact of the experimental procedure.
So if the observed variations in half-lives are real, what is causing them? Well, the sun emits tiny particles called neutrinos as a result of the nuclear fusion that is powering it. The distance between the earth and sun would affect how many of those neutrinos hit the earth. The closer the earth is to the sun, the more neutrinos would hit the earth. In addition, the number of neutrinos hitting the earth increases during a solar flare. The observations indicate that in both cases (during solar flares and when the earth is closest to the sun), radioactive half-lives increasedecrease. In other words, radioactive decay slows downspeeds up when the sun is hitting the earth with more neutrinos. Based on this reasoning, some nuclear scientists have proposed that neutrinos coming from the sun are somehow inhibitingaccelerating radioactive decay. [ADDITION (5/10/17): A colleague informed me that I had the proposed neutrino effect backwards, so I corrected the wording, as indicated by the deletion marks and boldfaced type.]
The viability of that explanation was recently tested by a rather clever experiment, and the results of the test indicate that neutrinos are probably not responsible for the observed variation in half-lives.
One of my “top five” reasons for thinking that the earth is only thousands of years old comes from studying its magnetic field. As I wrote in the post I just linked, the young-earth theory of earth’s magnetic field (often called the ‘rapid-decay theory’) not only properly reproduces the magnetic fields of the planets, it actually predicted two of those magnetic fields before they were measured. When a theory can make predictions regarding unmeasured quantities and the subsequent measurements agree with the theory, there is strong evidence that the theory is true.
The young-earth theory of earth’s magnetic field not only correctly predicted the magnetic fields of two planets before they were measured, it has made other predictions that were later confirmed by measurement. As discussed in the previous post, it predicted that rocks from Mars should show that Mars at one time had a planetary magnetic field, even though it does not have one today. That was later confirmed. In addition, it predicted that Mercury’s magnetic field has decreased since it was last measured in 1975. MESSENGER, the latest spacecraft to visit Mercury, did a “quick and dirty” measurement of Mercury’s magnetic field in 2008, and the measurement confirmed this prediction, albeit with very large error bars. I eagerly await MESSENGER’S more precise measurement to see exactly how close the young-earth theory’s prediction is to the precisely-measured value.
In the meantime, some geologists have come up with even more evidence for the validity of the young-earth theory of earth’s magnetic field.
Marc Hauser is an evolutionary biologist on the faculty of Harvard College, which is (of course) a part of Harvard University. His research blends evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, and one of his areas of interest is the evolutionary origins of morality. In 2006, he wrote a book called Moral Minds: How Nature Designed a Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, and in it he argues that millions of years of natural selection have produced what he calls a “moral grammar.” Essentially, this moral grammar is a set of principles that are based on the causes of actions and their resulting consequences, and it allows us to build moral systems without reference to religion.
If you follow the news of science at all, you know that Marc Hauser took a leave of absence from Harvard, because the university began an investigation that eventually led to a declaration that Hauser was guilty of eight instances of scientific misconduct. While Harvard has yet to reveal the exact nature of the misconduct involved, it is related to both published and unpublished studies. One paper co-authored by Hauser has already been retracted, and there are widespread concerns about several other papers. According to the journal Science,
The disaster at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was horrendous. Let’s make no mistake about that. Because not enough attention was paid to safety and environmental concerns before the explosion, an estimated total of 4.9 million barrels of oil (210 million gallons)1 were dumped into the ocean. The oil killed wildlife and will probably negatively affect parts of the environment for years to come. With that said, however, I want to look at the disaster from a scientific perspective. If nothing else, such a perspective will give you a deeper appreciation for the wonderful creation God has given us.
The first thing you need to realize is how much oil seeps into the Gulf of Mexico naturally. Probably the best estimate done to date was published by the National Academies Press. It indicates that about 140,000 tons of oil (about a million barrels) leak into the Gulf of Mexico each year due to natural oil seeps.2 So the Deepwater Horizon disaster dumped as much oil as 5 years’ worth of natural seepage.
Now, of course, there are some big differences between the way the Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled oil into the gulf and the way the natural seeps do it. First, the natural seeps release oil into the gulf much more slowly. Second, they release oil into the gulf over a wider area so it is not as concentrated. Third, since no one is trying to stop them, there isn’t all the pollution associated with engineers doing everything they can to stop a leak. As a result, the natural oil seeps do not produce the environmental devastation that the Deepwater Horizon disaster did.
However, because oil seeps naturally into the ocean, you would expect that the ocean has a way to deal with it, and indeed it does. What we have seen already as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster tells us just how well the oceans have been designed to deal with oil pollution.
One of the foundational assumptions of the various radioactive dating techniques that attempt to measure the age of things is that the half-life of a radioactive isotope does not change significantly over the time period being measured. Even though we have been measuring half-lives for only about 100 years, those who want to believe that the earth is billions of years old are forced to assume that over those billions of years, the half-lives of various radioactive isotopes have not changed significantly. As I have pointed out before, this is a terrible extrapolation, and a careful scientist should avoid using it unless there are very good reasons to believe it is justified. As more and more data come in, it becomes more and more clear that there are very good reasons to believe it is not justified.
I previously discussed data that indicate radioactive half-lives are not constant, but over the past year and a half, some new information has come out that lends more strength to the claim. As I discussed previously, two independent labs noticed that the decay rate of certain isotopes were influenced by the distance between the earth and the sun. They produced a paper in 2008 reporting on their findings: the rate at which these isotopes decayed varied in perfect sequence with the changing of the distance between the earth and the sun1 Many in the scientific community blamed this on experimental errors such as environmental changes or problems with the detectors that were monitoring the isotopes. Studies published over the past year and a half, however, seem to have ruled out these possibilities and have lent even more credence to the idea that the sun influences radioactive decay rates.
Wallace Smith Broecker, known to friends and colleagues as “Wally Broecker,” has an earned PhD in geology from Columbia University. He is a professor in Columbia’s Earth and Environmental Sciences department and has published more than 450 journal articles in various earth science disciplines. He also has 10 books to his credit, including Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat–and How to Counter It.
While Dr. Broecker’s list of academic accomplishments is very impressive, he is best known among earth and atmospheric scientists as the man who coined the phrase “Global Warming.” In 1975, he authored a paper entitled, “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” 1 In that paper, he predicted how temperatures would rise due to increased carbon dioxide emissions.
Interestingly enough, he doesn’t like being called the “father of global warming.” In a recent interview in the journal Science, he says he offered a $200 reward to anyone in his class who could find an earlier reference to “global warming” so that someone else can be given that title. Unfortunately for him, no one could find an earlier reference.2
What I found fascinating about the interview, however, was his admission that the data really don’t support the idea that “global warming” will be a catastrophe.