Turbulent Moons

The many layers of Titan's atmosphereThere were quite a number of articles in the 31 January edition of the journal Nature that would be potential topics for a post from the ICR. These included the discovery of the bizarre underlying genetic mechanism (pdf) behind the two different social structures of the fire ant Solenopsis invicta, which has implications for the evolution of sex chromosomes; a review of a biography of Louis Agassiz, “a great science populariser who resisted Darwinism”; an obituary for Carl Woese (though we’ve already looked at that topic); and some rigid biomemetic polymers, a field which creationists adore. But the article that Jake Hebert – yes, him again – has written about is a feature called Caught in the act. “We may be seeing some of the Solar System’s most striking objects during rare moments of glory.” His own article is called Youthful Solar System Bodies Puzzle Evolutionary Scientists.

A feature story in a recent issue of the journal Nature described four solar system bodies that are puzzling to evolutionary scientists. Specifically, the article discussed the rings of Saturn, two of Saturn’s moons (Enceladus and Titan), and Jupiter’s moon Io. These four bodies all exhibit properties that cannot persist for billions of years.

The Nature article is free to view (though Hebert doesn’t link to it), and is a good read. You’ll certainly find much more detailed and nuanced information there than what Hebert provides.

The brightness of Saturn’s rings is puzzling because after billions of years, they should have been darkened by dust from comets and asteroids. Yet these rings are still brilliantly beautiful.

This first example provides a good place to point out how each of these items are really exceptions to the rule. Introducing the rings the Nature author, Maggie Mckee, says the following:

The rings’ particles are 90% water ice and should darken over time as they are struck by carbonaceous dust shed from comets and asteroids. “If you look at the rings of all the other planets — Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune — those rings are all very dark,” says Jeff Cuzzi, a planetary scientist at Ames. “That’s kind of what you’d expect from heavily polluted material.”

While the “evolutionists” explain why the listed features look young, perhaps Hebert should be devoting his time to explaining why other solar system bodies – dark rings, dead moons and the like – look old. Now, as for the rings: one possibility is that the rings really are young, the “rare moment of glory” explaination. The problem for Hebert is that “young” here really means “a couple of hundred million years.” This scenario would require a large body to have broken up to form the rings at that point, but this is unlikely.

There is an alternative option: if the rings (particularly the bright B ring) had a mass greater than a certain threshold there would be enough particles that the pollution of ages would be masked by the shear volume of fresh ice. This 2010 post by Stuart Robbins explains how this would work, and how all we have to work with is a minimum mass for the rings – at least until the end of the Cassini mission, which will be able to make the measurements more directly as it flies between the planet and the ring.

Likewise, watery geysers erupting from the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus suggest that the moon is giving off a great deal of heat, yet this heat should “die down” relatively quickly. A mechanism proposed by Australian planetary scientist Craig O’Neill can theoretically provide enough release of heat to sustain the geysers for only about ten million years—far fewer than billions of years.

This is a subtly different argument to Thomas’ “Enceladus should have run out of mass by now” screw-up from last year. What Hebert doesn’t tell you about O’Neill’s model is that it involves a cyclical build-up of heat from tectonic movements over a period of 100 million to 1 billion years, released over that ten million. But,

Episodic tectonic activity could also explain another discrepancy: why parts of the moon appear to be different ages, with some areas heavily pockmarked by craters and other, fresh-faced regions that have presumably been plastered over by newer crust. A similar patchwork of surfaces is seen on a few other moons, including Jupiter’s giant Ganymede and Uranus’s small moon Miranda. If these have also gone through cycles of activity, it would make Enceladus less of an outlier. At any given time, there would be a good chance that at least one of them would be passing through a lively period, says O’Neill.

I’m not sure, but it might also be possible for different parts of Enceladus to be erupting at different times. That may depend on how localised the cycling is, I suppose. How does Hebert explain these same features, I wonder? Confusing matters further is Mimas, a moon that orbits Saturn even closer to the planet and should theoretically be producing more heat than Enceladus, but is not. Cassini should be able to provide evidence in this case as well, but not as definitely.

Likewise, the extreme volcanic activity on Jupiter’s moon Io seems incapable of being sustained for extremely long periods of time.

This idea was the subject of a very early post here, and since then I have encountered a 2009 paper claiming that the amount of energy that Io is apparently producing is about the same as comes into the system from tidal heating. But the new argument is actually a bit different, claiming instead that the tidal heating itself is unsustainable. The solution again involves a cyclical process:

Ultimately, as energy is drained into internal heating, Io’s path could become more circular, causing the tidal forces to weaken and the moon to cool. Then, over the course of millions of years, Europa and Ganymede could push Io into a more eccentric orbit — one with several times its current eccentricity, says [David] Stevenson — and the process could begin again.

The fourth example (third in Hebert’s article but we’re skipping around a little) involves the complex atmosphere and surface of Titan, a topic we have seen before.

Secular researchers are also puzzled by the methane in Titan’s atmosphere. Because sunlight degrades methane, Titan’s atmospheric methane should have been depleted after only a few tens of millions of years. Yet methane is still present in Titan’s atmosphere.

It really is a lot more complex than that, and a leading explanation involves methane volcanoes. We really don’t know a lot about how Titan works – it’s a cold mystery far out there orbiting Saturn. Not knowing very much is a common theme here, as it happens: this is not a list of confirmed inexplicable solar system objects, but a laundry-list of a handful of cases where “it’s just an improbable event that we happen to be around to see” is a viable hypothesis.

Hebert goes on:

Economy of explanation, or parsimony, is an important principle in science. A single hypothesis that can simultaneously explain multiple phenomena is more likely to be correct than multiple hypotheses needed to explain those same phenomena. Of course, there is such a hypothesis that could easily explain all four of these astronomical “anomalies.” If the solar system were only thousands, rather than billions, of years old as implied by a straightforward reading of the Bible, then the continued brilliance of Saturn’s rings, the continued presence of methane in Titan’s atmosphere, and the continuing geological activity of Io and Enceladus would not be surprising—those would actually be expected.

Even assuming that young Earth creationism can explain the anomalies, it is not even close to being parsimonious. This is because it can only explain the anomalies, and not the underlying pattern of which they are exceptions. The solar system is littered with dead moons and faded rings – again, how does Hebert explain those?

He adds:

In fact, creation scientists and astronomers have been pointing out such youthful features of our solar system for many years. Yet not only have secular scientists refused to even consider the possibility of a young, created solar system, they have discriminated against creation scientists.

The first claim has a footnote which reads “For a good summary of such features, see Psarris, S. 2009. DVD. What You Aren’t Being Told About Astronomy, Volume 1: Our Created Solar System. Creation Astronomy Media.” The one for the second says:

For instance, many suspect that scientist David Coppedge’s employment at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was terminated due to his belief in and support of biblical creation. See: At Pro-Darwin Blogs, Knee-Jerk Responses to the David Coppedge Intelligent Design Case Validate Discrimination Claims. Evolution News & Views. Posted on evolutionnews.org November 7, 2012, accessed February 11, 2013.

The reaction to the recent ruling against Coppedge on this claim by the Intelligent Design Creationists was very entertaining to watch. In short, many people “suspecting” something doesn’t make it true, and Coppedge appears to have been let go because he refused to update his tech skills. Coppedge is no St. Stephen.

Hebert concludes by making the following logical chain:

  1. These solar system features are young.
  2. Therefore the universe/solar system as a whole is young.
  3. Therefore there hasn’t been enough time for evolution.
  4. Therefore the bible is right, and scientists “are simply unwilling to acknowledge their Creator’s authority over their lives.”

It’s a very round-about route, I have to say.


Technical problems are over – I’ll try to catch up on everything soon.

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3 thoughts on “Turbulent Moons

  1. I am 61 but my wisdom teeth appeared when I was about 20. Does this mean that I am really only 41?
    Surely parsimony would exclude the biblical explanation since it requires the intervention of a supernatural event or being to explain a natural phenomenon. Rather like my Pentecostal friend who is convinced the devil caused his foot to slip off the clutch pedal and back his car into a parking meter.

  2. ” Youthful Solar System Bodies Puzzle Evolutionary Scientists.”

    Difference between astronomy and biology puzzles creationary scientists.

  3. http://www.nature.com/news/planetary-science-caught-in-the-act-1.12324

    The ICR seem to be clutching at straws. “If the solar system were only thousands, rather than billions, of years old as implied by a straightforward reading of the Bible, then the continued brilliance of Saturn’s rings, the continued presence of methane in Titan’s atmosphere, and the continuing geological activity of Io and Enceladus would not be surprising—those would actually be expected”. But we KNOW – from immense amounts of physical and mathematical evidence – that the universe is over 13 bn years’ old. Thus three 6,000 year old moons in our solar system – on the YECs’ wishlist – are HIGHLY unlikely. Their explanation is both parsimonious and totally incorrect.

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