Visitor from the Stars

Scientists thought ‘Oumuamua was a comet when they spotted it last month.

Follow-up observations showed it was more like an asteroid: and going too fast to be from the solar system.

‘Oumuamua is from interstellar space. It’s the first object of its kind we’ve seen.

What scientists are learning about ‘Oumuamua tells us a bit about other planetary systems, and raises intriguing new questions.


Pan-STARRS and Serendipity

Suggestions that watching for incoming asteroids go back at least to the 1960s.

The idea started looking more important as we learned just how many asteroids whiz past each year.

That probably helped get systems like Pan-STARRS up and running. It’s a collection of astronomical cameras, telescopes, and computing equipment at Haleakala Observatory.

Pan-STARRS isn’t just an ‘asteroid spotter.’ Scientists use it to study objects they’ve already found, and expect it’ll help them discover variable stars in this and nearby galaxies.1

It also let them spot and study ‘Oumuamua. I’ll get back to that.

Pursuing Truth: or Not

‘Oumuamua isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before. To me, that’s fascinating.

Not everyone shares my interest in what we’re learning about this wonder-filled universe. I wouldn’t expect that.

But I wouldn’t mind running into fewer who seem downright hostile to pretty much everything learned since Copernicus. And Darwin.

The latter seems particularly distressing to real-life analogs of Mr. Squibbs. He’s the ‘are you satisfied?‘ chap in that cartoon.

I’ve explained why I think using our brains doesn’t offend God. Fairly often. Basically, I figure we should seek truth and God. Also that truth, all truth, points toward God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 27, 3135, 41, 74, 2500)

If we pay attention to this universe, we’ll learn things we didn’t know before. Sometimes we’ll learn that old assumptions weren’t accurate.

I like living in a world where much of the science I learned in high school is either outdated, or simply wrong.

We’ve got free will, so that’s not the only option. We can try ignoring what’s new, or live in a make-believe world. (July 23, 2017)

I enjoy flights of imagination, and think they have value. But I also think dealing with reality makes more sense that denying it.

Some Catholics seem as ardently opposed to what we’ve been learning over the last few centuries as tightly-wound disciples of Ussher. I assume they’re sincere, but am sure they are wrong.

Scientific discoveries don’t threaten faith. They’re opportunities for greater admiration of God and God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

Faith, the Catholic sort, embraces all truth. Not just the bits we we knew a few millennia back. (Catechism, 142155, 159)


‘Oumuamua: ‘First’ in Several Categories


(From ESO/M. Kornmesser, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Artwork: ‘Oumuamua is now fading from the view of telescopes”
(BBC News)

Bizarre shape of interstellar asteroid
Paul Rincon, BBC News (November 20, 2017)

An asteroid that visited us from interstellar space is one of the most elongated cosmic objects known to science, a study has shown.

“Discovered on 19 October, the object’s speed and trajectory strongly suggested it originated in a planetary system around another star.

“Astronomers have been scrambling to observe the unique space rock, known as ‘Oumuamua, before it fades from view.

“Their results so far suggest it is at least 10 times longer than it is wide.

“That ratio is more extreme than that of any asteroid or comet ever observed in our Solar System….”

ʻOumuamua is ‘first’ in several categories. It’s the first ‘comet’ re-designated as an asteroid, for starters.

Folks at Haleakala Observatory figured it was a comet when the Pan-STARRS team spotted it. Assuming it was a comet made sense at the time.

ʻOumuamua was crossing the ecliptic at a steep angle, fast. Comets from the Solar System’s distant fringes do that. Asteroids, not so much.

Astronomers standardized names — designations, actually — recently. Assuming it was a comet, they called it C/2017 U1.

A ‘next step’ was getting a closer look at C/2017 U1. And confirming that it was a comet.

Communication tech has improved a lot since my youth. That makes rapid response to objects like ʻOumuamua possible.

Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope had their system observe C/2017 U1 later the same day.

They couldn’t find any trace of stuff around C/2017 U1. It was already closer to our sun than Mars.

If C/2017 was a comet, it would have had a coma of gas and dust. It didn’t, so it was reclassified as an asteroid and renamed A/2017 U1.

More observations showed that A/2017 U1 had been coming in really fast: around 30 kilometers a second. It had already made its closest approach to our sun, and was on its way back to the stars.

Giving A/2017 U1 a Name, and a New Designation

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/IAU, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The object’s velocity and eccentric trajectory suggests it originated outside our Solar System”
(BBC News)

Astronomers figure ʻOumuamua was inbound at around 26.34 kilometers a second back in 1605. It was 2,300 Astronomical Units out at that point. That’s nearly a hundred times more distant than Neptune.

No known natural activity in the Solar System could give it that speed, that far out.

It didn’t come from our planetary system. More accurately, if it did — we’ll have to take a hard look at everything we’ve learned about physics since Newton’s day.

A/2017 U1 is now 1I: an object from interstellar space, the first of its kind we’ve spotted.

Folks at the International Astronomical Union haven’t finished working out a full set of rules for what to call stuff coming from outside the Solar System. I figure that’ll get fine-tuned as we learn more

The Pan-STARRS team picked 1I’s name: ʻOumuamua. It means “scout” in Hawaiian. Or maybe “messenger.” That language’s “ʻou” means “reach out for, with “mua” repeated for emphasis: since it’s the first of its kind we’ve seen.

ʻ, the first character, isn’t an apostrophe. It’s how my language’s Latin alphabet shows the phoneme ʻokina.2


Intriguing, and Puzzling, Data


(From ESO / K. Meech et al., via Sky and Telescope, used w/o permission.)
(‘Oumuamua’s brightness, measured in visible and near-infrared. Colored dots are from observations. The dotted line shows a light curve based on those observations: and assuming that ‘Oumuamua is a featureless ellipsoid, ten times as long as it is wide. The observations don’t match that ideal, so the object probably has dark and light patches. Or maybe pits and peaks.)

Meet ‘Oumuamua, the Interstellar Cigar
Kelly Beatty, Sky and Telescope (November 20, 2017)

Rapid-response observations by major observatories shows that the first-known interstellar visitor is 10 times longer than it is wide.

“In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 science-fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama, Earthlings discover and then investigate an interstellar ‘asteroid’ that turns out to be a huge alien spaceship shaped like a long cylinder.

“Life, it seems, sometimes imitates art….”

Nobody, including Sky and Telescope’s Kelly Beatty, has said ‘Oumuamua might be a spaceship. Or anything else artificial. Not that I’ve seen or heard.

I can see how someone might imagine it’s not natural, though.

Asteroids and comets we’ve studied generally aren’t spherical.

Most are lumpy, irregular. Sort of like a potato. Or, as someone said about Philae, a rubber duck.

But they’re not as long and narrow as ‘Oumuamua seems to be.

I almost immediately thought “ship” when seeing ‘Oumuamua’s length to width ratio. That’s partly because I read science fiction. Everything from the top-grade ‘hard science’ sort to delightfully improbable space opera.

I’ve also lived most of my life near Minnesota’s lake country. Not noticing small-to-mid-size watercraft around here takes doing. Some folks manage it, and that’s another topic.

No matter what pushes or pulls them, vehicles that move through water work better if we pay attention to hydrodynamics. We knew that long before someone coined the word.

Length to Width Ratio and Perceptions

We were building ships ten millennia back. Maybe longer. Boats, anyway.

Designs have changed a bit since then, but not the physical realities we deal with.

We’ve learned that if we’re interested in stability and don’t care about moving fast, we’re better off with something about as wide as it is long.

Coracles are a familiar example. Maybe not so familiar, today, in this part of the world, now that I think of it.

We’ll make boats and ships longer when we want to go faster, and think we’ve worked out ways to stay more-or-less upright. Sometimes we make mistakes.

It’s been a bit over three and a half centuries since the Vasa made its first short, and spectacularly unsuccessful, voyage. I see that pride of the Swedish navy as a good example of why executives should let engineers do their job, and that’s yet another topic.

The point is that ‘Oumuamua’s length to width ratio is about what we see in the longest of today’s large freighters. That doesn’t mean it’s artificial. When we started building spaceships we learned that the rules are different with no atmosphere.

Major puzzles include where ‘Oumuamua is from, why it’s so narrow and how it formed.

Not From Around Here

Astronomers tracked ‘Oumuamua as it passed between Earth and the orbit of Mars. That let us work out where it had been before the Pan-STARRS team discovered it.

It came in from Vega’s general direction.

That star is fairly close, about 26 light-years away. Quite a few folks know about it.

That probably explains why several news outlets used Vega when describing where ‘Oumuamua came from.

Some reporters also pointed out that Vega, along with pretty much everything else in this galaxy, is moving. When ‘Oumuamua was that far away, Vega was somewhere else.

I think Kelly Beatty had the right idea, saying ‘Oumuamua came from somewhere in or near today’s constellation Lyra.

That’s assuming that it didn’t make any course corrections before astronomers noticed it. Like I said, that’s a reasonable assumption.

We still don’t know where it’s from, or how long it’s been traveling. Maybe it came directly from a young star, while the star’s planets were settling into comparatively stable orbits.

That’s probably not the case, though. What we’ve been learning about how stars form tell us that something ‘Oumuamua’s size, from a young planetary system, would be mostly volatile gasses and ice. In other words, it’d be a comet. It’s not.

Then there’s its shape. Something that long and narrow, rotating very roughly once every eight hours, wouldn’t hold together. Not if it’s like many asteroids: more like a gravel pile than a single rock.

But if it’s a single more-or-less-solid piece, explaining how it formed gets very tricky.

Someone suggested it might be a whole lot of smaller pieces, barely touching each other, strung in a line.

That won’t work, unless something other than its shape explains ‘Oumuamua’s cyclic brightening and dimming.

If ‘Oumuamua is as long and narrow as it seems, with a roughly eight-hour ‘day,’ the pieces couldn’t stay connected. What we call centrifugal force would have broken it up long ago.

Informed Speculation


(From ESO/K. Meech et al., via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

The Honolulu Institute for Astronomy’s Karen Meech and other scientists have been studying ‘Oumuamua.

Many other scientists. This is a very intriguing set of puzzles.

We’ve got a pretty good idea what ‘Oumuamua is made of: the surface, anyway. Spectroscopic information, ‘Oumuamua’s color, is a pretty good match with fairly common sorts of asteroids: P- and D-type.3

Those don’t reflect much light. What they do reflect is reddish. Scientists figure their surfaces are mostly organic-rich and anhydrous silicates, and carbon.

“Organic” doesn’t mean “alive.” I’ve talked about that, vitalism and old movies, before. (September 9, 2016)

Knowing what’s on ‘Oumuamua’s surface tells us about how much light it reflects. Combining that with how its brightness varies gives us a rotation rate of very roughly eight hours and an approximate size and shape.

Like I said, its brightness varies a lot. Meech’s team figure the least-improbable shape and size is an ellipsoid about 400 meters long by maybe 50 meters wide.

That’s about a quarter-mile long, and a bit wider than the Titanic. We’ve built, and build, ships that size. But that’s not proof it’s artificial. Still, it’s an odd shape for an asteroid.

Other scientists using slightly different assumptions came up with about the same shape, but smaller: 180 by 30 by 30 meters, or 591 feet long by 98 feet across.

More speculation, and Looking Ahead

Someone on Meech’s team speculated that maybe when planet-size objects with molten cores collide, part of the cores could ‘freeze’ fast enough to be shaped like ‘Oumuamua.

Or maybe it got overly close to a supernova during its long journey.

Right now we have more questions than answers.

We gathered a fair amount of data while ‘Oumuamua was near Earth: only 30,000,000 kilometers, 19,000,000 miles away when Pan-STARRS first spotted it. And we know what direction it’s taking on its way out.

Some outfits, including Initiative for Interstellar Studies, are looking at our best options for sending a probe after it. We don’t, quite, have the technology today. Not if we want the probe to stay near ‘Oumuamua long enough for a thorough look.

A few years or decades from now? That’s hopeful. And yet again another topic.

Recapping, we’re nearly certain that ‘Oumuamua is from somewhere beyond the Solar System. We’ve got a pretty good idea of its heading as it entered and is leaving our neighborhood. Where it started out, and where it’s going? That’s another matter.

Again, I’m quite sure that it’s a natural object. I figure scientists will eventually learn a great deal about it.


Using my Imagination

Denouncing imagination, or stoutly denying that I ever had an original thought, seems like a waste of effort.

And fairly ridiculous. I might as well claim that God’s decision to make a physical reality was a mistake.

Which is pretty close to what some Christians seem to believe.

There’s an element of truth in seeing “spiritual” as better than “material.” (Catechism, 330)

But what we can see is “very good.” Genesis 1:2731 makes that clear enough. Or should. We’re not a mistake, either. (July 23, 2017; March 5, 2017)

All of which doesn’t explain that picture of a three-eyed whatsit apparently lecturing on astronomy. Or maybe asking for directions.

It’s from a 1930s pulp science fiction magazine, most likely replete with tales heavy on imagination and casual about facts.

Backing up a little, I think scientists are right. ‘Oumuamua is almost certainly a natural object. One with a very unusual shape, and not from the Solar System.

But let’s imagine that a probe launched a few decades from now catches up with ‘Oumuamua, sending back the first high-resolution images of the object.

Folks back on Earth see a quarter-mile long cylinder, coated with dust accumulated over uncounted ages.

A cluster of objects at one end look a great deal like rocket nozzles, each larger than the Florence Cathedral’s dome. A bowl only slightly smaller than the Astrodome sits at the end of a tower or mast near the cylinder’s midpoint.

It’s clearly artificial. Whoever built it used tech not far from what we developed just after the Industrial Age. And it is old. Very, very old indeed.

Then what?

Responses, Reasonable and Otherwise

My guess is that scientists would have ample funding for any research focused on ‘Oumuamua.

Some folks would start quirky religions around who they felt built it.

Others would call the whole thing a conspiracy, and the checkout-aisle press would have a field day.

Folks who embrace the Enlightenment’s silly side would assume that Thomas Paine was right.

I think the antics of some Christians encourage the notion that our faith will dry up and blow away in the light of whatever scientists are currently studying.

I don’t agree, but I’m a Catholic — and know something of our faith.

If I was writing a story using the idea that ‘Oumuamua is artificial, explaining its flight path might take the most work.

There aren’t any obviously-habitable worlds out in that direction. Not close, anyway.4

And that’s still another topic. An entertaining one.

Porky Pine and a Scientist-Monk

A bit more seriously, ‘first contact’ scenarios that were science fiction in my youth are getting serious attention today.

I’ve seen a few level-headed discussions of how we would and should respond to extraterrestrial contact.

One was written by a scientist-monk. Another appeared in a comic strip.

“…Frankly, if you think about it, any creatures on other planets, subject to the same laws of chemistry and physics as us, made of the same kinds of atoms, with an awareness and a will recognizably like ours would be at the very least our cousins in the cosmos. They would be so similar to us in all the essentials that I don’t think you’d even have the right to call them aliens.”
(“Brother Astronomer,” Chapter Three, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? — Brother Guy Consolmagno (2000))

“I been readin’ ’bout how maybe they is planets peopled by folks with ad-vanced brains. On the other hand, maybe we got the most brains…maybe our intellects is the universe’s most ad-vanced. Either way, it’s a mighty soberin’ thought.”
(Porky Pine, in Walt Kelly’s Pogo (June 20, 1959) via Wikiquote)

More, mostly how I see what we’re learning – – –

– – – and why I don’t fear new knowledge:


1 Science and thinking ahead:

2 A bit about language:

3 Asteroids and something new:

4 Looking toward Vega, and beyond:

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Happy Thanksgiving!


(“A Holiday Haven,” another installment in a tale of two turkeys.)

If you are in or from the United States, I hope you are having a good Thanksgiving Day. If not, I trust that you’re having a good November 24th. And 23rd, too, of course. Enjoy the weekend, while you’re at it. Within reason, of course.

Some folks write sober monographs for this holiday, thoroughly discussing the myriad reasons we have for being thankful.

Others present schmaltzy pieces on the same topic: about as deep as a rain puddle.

I have a great deal to be thankful for. We all do. Just existing is a whole lot better than the alternative. Add to that the hope we can have for something even better: and anything else is gravy.

I don’t think the two turkeys would appreciate that expression, and that’s another topic. Topics. About that duo — You may have seen them before, last month. (October 30, 2017)

Vaguely ‘holiday-related:’

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Disorders, Decisions

Whether you call it mental illness, lunacy, or insanity, being crazy isn’t fun. It’s not a lifestyle choice either. Not for most. Certainly not in my case. I’ll get back to that.

Folks started talking about “mental hygiene” after William Sweetser coined the phrase in the mid-1800s.

Folks promoting mental hygiene rubbed elbows with social hygiene advocates.

I figure many folks had basically good motives for supporting those ideas. I hope so, anyway.

But some of their methods were — dubious.

Eugenics and sterilization of the unfit developed serious image problems in the 20th century. That’s another topic, for another post.

Somewhere along the line “mental hygiene” got repackaged as “mental health.” I think it wasn’t just a new coat of paint on old ideas. We were learning more about how minds work, and sometimes don’t.

We were also learning what we can do: and what we shouldn’t.1

Solutions: Bedlam, Louis XIV, and the French Revolution

Crazy people have been part of societies for a very long time. Folks in different eras tried various approaches.

Some were better than others, I think.

Bedlam started as a priory in 1247. It had a different name and wasn’t a clinic or asylum of any sort.

One of its functions was to house the poor. The city of London got involved in managing the priory’s finances in the 1300s. Two centuries later, Henry VIII owned the place.

There’s probably quite a story behind the Lord Mayor of London asking for, and getting, control of Bedlam, its occupants and revenues. That deal was finalized in 1547.

Somewhere between 1377 and the 1700s, Bedlam started specializing in folks with mental problems.

Hogarth’s final installment of “A Rake’s Progress” isn’t entirely fanciful.

Friends and family could visit inmates — and were expected to bring food and other needed items.

I’m not sure why Bedlam’s management let the general public in. I’ve run into speculation that putting inmates on display helped them make money.

English sensibilities eventually changed, and using lunatics for public entertainment became unfashionable.

As I keep saying, we do learn. Slowly.

Meanwhile, in France, the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital has a shorter, but similar, story.

Louis XIV remodeled a Parisian gunpowder factory in 1656, making a hospice for the city’s poor. Part of the hospice was later used as a prison for prostitutes.

The mentally disabled, criminally insane and epileptics got housed there, too.

Given what folks knew at the time, and how European society worked, it may have been the best a secular leader could do.

Orders like the Brothers Hospitallers are another matter. I’ve discussed them, Bedlam, and good intentions, before. Briefly. (May 12, 2017)

The French Revolution wasn’t going smoothly in 1792. There was even talk of Royalists and foreigners invading Paris.

Journalist Jean-Paul Marat and others decided something had to be done.

So a bunch of French National Guardsmen and some fédérés forcibly removed folks from the old gunpowder factory and similar institutions, and killed them.

It made sense at the time, sort of. Marat and company figured the lunatics and other prisoners might support royalists. Killing them removed the perceived threat.

These days we call what happened the September Massacres. When we mention it at all.

France got Napoleon next, which may have been an improvement.

Some folks took another look at how their mentally ill neighbors were treated in the early 19th century. We’ve learned quite a bit since then.2 Including, I hope, a little wisdom.

Natural Causes

Hippocrates of Kos talked about diseases and other disorders folks deal with around the time Sophocles was writing his plays.

Talking about diseases isn’t why Hippocrates is famous — among history buffs, anyway. He gets credit for being the first in Western civilization to say diseases have natural causes.

The accepted belief then was that folks get sick or crazy because they’d offended some spirit, or run into a grumpy god.

Quite a few folks believed pretty much the same thing after Hippocrates wrote his medical texts.

Some still do, about two dozen centuries later. I see precious little difference between Zeus and the ‘angry God’ intermittently invoked after disasters. That’s yet another topic. (September 10, 2017; August 27, 2017)

Hippocrates was on the right track.

Not leaving milk out for the nisse isn’t why I get a cold. They’re more into practical jokes, now that I think of it. Sort of like kobolds or leprechauns. One of these days I’ll get back to European folklore and myth, but not today. (May 19, 2017)

Some Christians, Catholics included, act like they put their culture’s pre-Christian beliefs and new ideas into a blender.

Make that our culture’s. I strongly suspect that some of American Christianity’s weirder fringes are syncretic religions, and that’s yet again another topic.

I enjoy folklore, but I don’t ‘believe in’ it. Not in a religious sense. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 21112114)

And I sure don’t try to cure a cold by exorcising ‘demon mucous.’

Maybe that needs explanation. Recognizing natural causes doesn’t require ignoring other realities. But trying to exorcise my depression would be an exercise in futility, at best.

Satan, Insanity, and Murder

Thinking that Satan and demons are real is one thing. Seeing direct Satanic involvement in illnesses is another.

That’s why natural causes are ruled out before calling in an exorcist. (Catechism, 391395, 1237, 1673)

About exorcisms and exorcists — what’s in the movies is ‘Hollywood.’

The Church authorizes exorcisms, occasionally. It’s a well-established procedure, involving specialists. It’s emphatically not a do-it-yourself job, and that’s still another topic.

My depression and assorted psychiatric problems did not start when someone hexed me.

I’ve got glitchy neurochemistry to thank for that sort of thing. Also, almost certainly for the depression, triggering events. With a very different history I might have avoided decades of undiagnosed issues.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just as well that my depression and autism spectrum disorder(s) weren’t caught early. Lobotomies hadn’t quite gone out of fashion, for starters. Still, it wasn’t all bad news in the mid-20th century.

Quite a few folks had gotten past terms like “soulless mass of flesh possessed by the devil” by then. Some psychologists were discussing Asperger’s paper on “autistic psychopaths.” (April 9, 2017)

I’m taking medications that didn’t exist until recently. They don’t ‘cure’ my odd neurochemistry. But taking them makes dealing with it easier.

I didn’t enjoy learning that I have psychiatric/personality problems. But pretending they weren’t there didn’t make sense, and wouldn’t help. Taking reasonable steps to deal with the issues did. And does.

Since I think life and health are “precious gifts,” I have no qualms about taking my meds. (Catechism, 2288, 2278)

Mass Murders

I’ve seen a few op-ed pieces discussing a common factor in recent mass murders. It’s not the technology involved, or who the victims were.

Folks who decided to start killing had mental health problems.

Some of that may be 20-20 hindsight. But I think strictly sane people don’t wake up one morning and start the day by murdering folks in a church or school. Not generally.

Mass murder is hardly a new phenomenon. Separating fact, folklore, and rumor isn’t easy. Particularly for the days before Elizabeth Báthory. More about her later.

Quite a few Roman citizens died in 331 BC: apparently from disease. Maybe they did.

That’s what Livy hoped was the case. But he knew enough about his culture to record an another account of what happened. The apparently-unofficial story was that a servant with access to poison killed the citizens.

Then she made what we’d call a plea bargain, telling how she killed them in exchange for immunity. (“The History of Rome, Book 8,” Titus Livius, (B. O. Foster, Ph.D., Ed.))

I’m not convinced that the servant was a mass murderer in today’s sense. In that era and culture, her actions seem more like an assassin’s. Locusta’s career ended when her last patron, Nero, committed suicide.

Elizabeth Báthory killed several hundred young women before Hungarian authorities took notice. I suspect too many folks started talking about a shortage of peasant’s daughters in her area.

We’ve got pretty good documentation of her trial, thanks to her wealth and social position. That’s helped sort out reality and slightly more lurid details that got added later.

She was convicted, imprisoned, and died in 1614.

Fast-forwarding to December, 2012.

After killing his mother, a young man killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Then he killed himself.

I saw many opinions, and a few facts, in the news over the next few months.

Some folks focused on the weapon used. Others on video games he’d played.

He’d been home schooled, which prompted predictable responses. That’s a can of worms I’ll open another day.

Some news and opinion pieces focused on the impressive catalog of mental, emotional, and developmental problems the young man had.3

I don’t feel sorry for him: even though we both have autism spectrum disorder in our medical records. I don’t think that excuses bad behavior. But understanding what he was dealing with may help us understand what happened.

Decisions

I’m a mess. Far from “normal,” at any rate.

I spent my adolescence and decades of my adult life dealing with major depression. I still do. But very strong antidepressants let me think without fighting the machinery.

It’s a wonderful change of pace.

My other neural quirks — plural — quite likely started as soon as I had a central nervous system.

Two of my kids have very similar abilities and limitations. So did my father. I very strongly suspect that whatever it is, it’s genetic. At least in part.

I’m not entirely convinced that my non-depression glitches are autism spectrum disorder. But that’s the closest anyone’s come to finding a name for whatever it is.

It gives me and professionals something to work with, so I’m content.

We’ve learned a great deal since my birth. Infants and children who respond as I did are caught early. On the whole, I think that’s a good thing. I also think we’re still learning. And have a very great deal left to learn.

Getting back to antisocial behavior, I don’t think I’m a time bomb about to go off.

For one thing, I started cooperating with treatment immediately after being diagnosed. That was over 11 years ago.

Chucking everything I know about what’s right and wrong is possible, of course. In principle. So is deciding that I’ll ignore what I’m learning about how my brain works. I’ve got free will. (Catechism, 17301738)

But I know that would be a very bad idea. (Catechism, 10211022)

Perhaps just as important, I don’t want to ignore what I know is right. And that’s — more topics:


1 We’re learning, sometimes from our mistakes:

2 Dealing with disease and disorders:

3 Autism, assumptions, and attitudes:

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Antarctic ‘Hot’ Spots

Some scientists say there’ll be more carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere this year. They may be right.

I think the information’s interesting, and may be meaningful. But I’m pretty sure this isn’t a portent of doom.

Neither is a new and more detailed map of Antarctica’s bedrock temperatures.

I’ll be talking about that, the Halley VI base getting back in operation: and why I think we should keep learning about how Earth’s climate works.


Avoidable Tragedies

Humans cause some disasters, like what happened in Aberfan.

That plaque is in a memorial garden, where the town’s school used to be.

The last two lines are in Welsh, repeating the last two lines of English text.

“I’r rhai a garwn ac y galarwn o’u colli.”
(Plaque at the Aberfan Memorial Garden. From plaque at the Aberfan Memorial Garden, via Wikipedia.)

A 19th century coal mine near Aberfan was nationalized in 1947. Folks running England’s National Coal Board mine had miners pile debris above their town. Some piles were on springs or streams.

Aberfan is a rainy place. 6.5 inches, 170 millimeters, fell in the first three weeks of October, 1966; about half in the third week.

At 9:15 a.m., October 21, part of tip 7 liquefied and headed for town. Teachers had started taking attendance at Pantglas Junior School on Moy Road when slurry flowed over them.

That was 51 years ago last month. Of the roughly 5,000 folks calling Aberfan home, 144 died that morning: 28 adults and 116 children.

When surviving neighbors reached them, some children were still alive, protected by teachers and staff who had died trying to protect them. Others died with their protectors.

Giving credit where credit is due, their English rulers didn’t mistreat the Welsh. Much.

For example, the British government helped pay for the Aberfan cleanup — confiscating money from the Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund in the process. Over three decades later, someone decided that wasn’t right, and the money was returned.

Natural Disasters

Some disasters are natural: the sort of thing folks blamed on the gods, and sometimes still do.

About a millennium back, Europe’s scholars began reading what folks like Aristarchus and Hippocrates said.

Some, including Saints Albertus Magnus and Hildegard of Bingen, helped lay foundations of today’s science. Others got overly excited by Aristotle. The Church reminded us that God’s God, Aristotle’s not, in 1277. (October 6, 2017)

New ideas give some folks conniptions. That, and European politics, spawned ‘based on actual events’ stories about Copernicus and Galileo. (October 13, 2017; April 28, 2017; March 24, 2017)

Thinking that storms, earthquakes, and other disasters are “natural” got traction a few centuries back.

Older ideas are still in the mix, though. My culture’s legalese still describes a natural disaster outside human control as an “act of God.”

I figure God is large and in charge. I also think we affect of a growing portion of natural processes, but are not ‘lords of creation.’ I’ll get back to that.

God and Secondary Causes

I don’t see a problem with thinking God exists — and that most of what we experience are natural phenomena.

I’m a Catholic, so I think God is creating a universe that’s following knowable physical laws. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 268, 279, 299, 301, 302305)

If I pay attention and think, I’ll see some facet of God’s truth is in everything I can observe. (Catechism, 300310)

Natural processes, like fire and gravity, involve secondary causes: creatures changing in knowable ways, following laws written into this creation. (Catechism, 301308, 339)

Dealing with new information and reviewing old assumptions may be hard. But knowledge and faith get along fine. For Catholics who understand what we’re told.

Truth cannot contradict truth. Scientific discoveries are opportunities for greater admiration of God’s creation. We’re supposed to be curious. (Catechism, 159, 214217, 283, 294, 341)

The Blame Game

A few folks, at least, look for a scapegoat after disasters. Blaming the victim, or God, isn’t a new idea.1

Folks have sometimes done both.

Someone wrote “On the Evil Times of Edward II” after the Great Famine of 1315-17, but before the Black Death. Versions we have are rewrites of the lost original:

“…For tho God seih that the world was so over gart,
He sente a derthe on eorthe, and made hit ful smarte.
A busshel of whete was at foure shillinges or more,
And so men mihte han i-had a quarter noht yore I-gon….

“…And thanne gan bleiken here blé, that arst lowen so loude,
And to waxen al hand-tame that rathere weren so proude.
A mannes herte mihte blede for to here the crie
Off pore men that gradden, ‘Allas, for hungger I die…!’…”
(Symonye and Covetise, or On the Evil Times of Edward II)

“When God saw that the world was so over proud,
He sent a dearth on earth, and made it full hard.
A bushel of wheat was at four shillings or more,
Of which men might have had a quarter before….

“…And then they turned pale who had laughed so loud,
And they became all docile who before were so proud.
A man’s heart might bleed for to hear the cry
Of poor men who called out, ‘Alas! For hunger I die…!’…”
(Poem on the Evil Times of Edward II, c. 1321, via Wikipedia)

I figure there was a bit of truth in seeing generations before 1315 as “proud.”

Folks in Europe, at least, had been enjoying what we call the Medieval Warm Period, a few centuries of mild winters, warm summers, and good harvests. Nowhere near as many died of starvation, more children survived to become parents.

It was good times. Compared to what followed, anyway. But seeing the Little Ice Age as God smiting folks for building cathedrals seems a trifle unlikely.


Global Carbon Dioxide Prediction


(From Global Carbon Project, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

First CO2 rise in four years puts pressure on Paris targets
Matt McGrath, BBC News (November 17, 2017)

Global emissions of CO2 in 2017 are projected to rise for the first time in four years, dashing hopes that a peak might soon be reached.

“The main cause of the expected growth has been greater use of coal in China as its economy expanded.

“Researchers are uncertain if the rise in emissions is a one-off or the start of a new period of CO2 build-up.

“Scientists say that a global peak in CO2 before 2020 is needed to limit dangerous global warming this century….”

I see this as a ‘glass half full/half empty’ situation.

On the one hand, Carbon dioxide levels stayed steady for about three years. And, assuming that the graph’s data is accurate, the amount was leveling off for a few years before that.

That’s a good thing. Assuming that Earth’s carbon dioxide levels around the early 1700s are “normal.”

On the other, some scientists say it’ll be up a few percent this year. Once the final figures are in. And, predictably, if we don’t do something about it — something “dangerous” is gonna happen. Since it’s carbon dioxide, it’s “dangerous global warming.”

What surprised me a bit is that China was given credit for the projected increase. I had become accustomed to China’s significant pollution problems being soft-pedaled.

I suspect that attitude started fading a decade or so back.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics wouldn’t have helped maintain old habits. Quite a few reporters experienced Beijing’s smog. At least some of them cared about athletics.

Beijing’s pollution was between two and three times higher World Health Organization ‘safe’ limits at the time.

It’s not all bad news from China. The official line is that they’re trying to clean up their air, water, and land. I’m inclined to believe them. It’s in the leadership’s interests. Running a nation of sick folks isn’t an ideal situation.

It won’t be easy, since they also say they’ll keep making the transition through an industrial to a post-industrial economy.

As I said, I think there’s hope that China’s official line is more than just talk. The environmental situation there is still far from good. But it could be much worse, and monitoring technology makes independent verification easier these days.

Greenhouse Gasses: We’re Learning

I’m not sure why ‘global warming/climate change’ news focuses so much on carbon dioxide. Maybe it’s the easiest to describe.

I don’t have a news editor’s concerns, so I’ll go ahead and talk about carbon dioxide, CO2, and mention the other greenhouse gasses.

The other four of the top five, anyway.

CO2 is one of five main greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. The others are water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone.

I don’t think we’d be better off without them. Scientists figure our planet’s average surface temperature would be about -18° Centigrade, 0° Fahrenheit, if they weren’t there.

Earth’s current average surface temperature is 15° Centigrade, 59° Fahrenheit.

That’s higher than it was during the most recent glacial phase, but it’s still below average.

No surprises there. The last I heard, scientists figure we’re almost certainly in an interglacial period of the ice age that started about two and a half million years back. Those who aren’t funded by well-intentioned climate action outfits.

I think, and hope, that most folks try to be honest: scientists included. I also think that it’s very easy to let a desire to please, and stay employed, affect judgment. (April 28, 2017; October 16, 2016)

About pollutants and all that, I’m quite sure that 19th and early 20th century mistakes shouldn’t be repeated. Efforts like the Paris Agreement and Kyoto Protocol have a reasonable motive: maintaining our home.2

The trick will be learning what works and what doesn’t. And being willing to make sense.


Antarctic Hotspots


(From BAS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Hotspots are located under West Antarctica; in contrast, the East is broadly relatively cold”
(BBC News))

Antarctica’s warm underbelly revealed
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (November 17, 2017)

The advance party sent in to open up Britain’s mothballed Antarctic base have found no damage.This is the best map yet produced of the warmth coming up from the rocks underneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

“This ‘geothermal heat flux’ is key data required by scientists in order to model how the White Continent is going to react to climate change.

“If the rockbed’s temperature is raised, it makes it easier for the ice above to move….”

There’s interesting science going on here, including new data about “Antarctica’s warm underbelly.” We’ve known for some time that western Antarctica’s bedrock was warmer than the continent’s other half.

What’s new is how much we know about exactly where it’s warm, and where it’s not. That’s warm, not boiling hot. Except around active volcanoes, of course.

Despite the “climate change” reference, Jonathan Amos and BBC News aren’t touting this as a portent of doom and gloom to come.

I think learning about Antarctica is a good idea. We’ll probably learn more about how Earth’s climate works, and that’s important.

But I don’t fear a disaster-movie scenario. I just figure learning about the planet we call home makes sense.

Change Happens

I don’t ‘believe in’ climate change, global warming, or the coming ice age.

Not in the sense that I think any of that belongs at the top of my priorities, or will tell me why I’m here. (Catechism, I.13, 21122114)

On the other hand, I think Earth’s climate has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. It’d be downright odd if it somehow stopped changing at this particular moment.

It’s quite possible that we’ve influenced changes over the last few millennia.

That’s not a typo. Agriculture has been changing landscapes since before we invented writing.

We started getting more aware of our effect on the environment in the 19th century.

I think rapid changes in cities, caused by industrial and economic development, encouraged that awareness.

Top-priority concerns shifted from urban manure to combustion products around 1900. Folks had reason for concern.

How some have reacted has been less than reasonable, I think.

I’m not sure how many scientists took the ‘coming ice age’ seriously. The data was real enough. What got into the news was another matter.

Folks had noticed assorted drops in temperatures and speculated. That gave journalists something to write about from the 1920s to somewhere in the 1970s.3

Next we had global warming, with about as much basis in fact. That’s given way to the more safely-non-committal climate change. That slogan may last longer. Like I said, Earth’s climate keeps changing.

I think folks on all sides of the ‘climate’ fracas would would enjoy more success if they turned their hysteria down a few notches. They might at least get more respect from the rest of us.

My view is that we’re not all gonna die of whatever the crisis du jour is. And we should take care of our home. Within reason. More about that toward the end of this post.


Halley VI: Opening Soon at a New Location


(From BAS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“In good shape: Halley station is now being readied for the summer season”
(BBC News))

Antarctic base comes out of deep freeze
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (November 10, 2017)

The advance party sent in to open up Britain’s mothballed Antarctic base have found no damage.

“Halley station was closed in March and staff withdrawn because of uncertainty over the behaviour of cracks in the Brunt Ice Shelf – the flowing, floating platform on which it sits.

“The base was secured and left to the elements, with temperatures dipping down to around -50C….”

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) had architects design portable modules for Halley VI, the latest Halley station.

As “portable” as house-size structures can be, that is.

It makes sense, since Halley VI is on the Brunt Ice Shelf, not Antarctica’s mainland ice sheets.

Scientists noticed large cracks in the ice shelf a little less than a year ago. Odds were pretty good that the Brunt Ice Shelf wouldn’t break off from the mainland.

But folks running BAS didn’t want to risk leaving a crew of about 16 on drifting ice during Antarctica’s winter. So they decided to move the station farther ‘inland,’ and mothballed it for winter.

Decisions


(From BAS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Halley should be occupied year-round”
(BBC News))

“…Together with the Rothera base on the Antarctic Peninsula, Halley spearheads British activity on the White Continent.

“The station gathers important weather and climate data, and it played a critical role in the research that identified the ozone ‘hole’ in 1985.

“In recent years, Halley has also become a major centre for studying solar activity and the impacts this can have on Earth….”
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News (November 10, 2017))

As the BBC News caption says, Halley VI was designed for year-round occupation.

“…During a ‘normal’ winter, technical specialists keep the station and the scientific experiments running. The wintering team at Halley includes a chef, a doctor, mechanics, an electrician, several electronics engineers and a heating and ventilation engineer….”
(Halley VI Research Station, BAS)

The recent Antarctic winter wasn’t quite ‘normal,’ since an unusual crack had been opening on the Brunt Ice shelf. I think BAS made a prudent decision.

There’s a lot of research going on at Halley other than ‘climate’ observations. A riometer measures 30 megahertz radio ‘noise’ from our galaxy and magnetometers detect ultra-low-frequency waves from space near Earth.4

That last might have effects on our climate. It’s among many things I think we’ll be learning over the next few decades.


A “Newer Dread:” 1898

Before you start stockpiling oxygen cylinders or establish a doomsday cult, Check the date on that Evening Post Saturday Supplement.

It’s from July 30, 1898.

Knowing a little history, and science, helps me avoid jumping on the latest prediction of doom and gloom.

So does remembering a fair number of fizzled End Times Bible Prophecies and their secular analogs.

I haven’t tracked down the Cassell’s Magazine piece about Lord Kelvin’s prediction that “A Startling Scientific Prediction” describes.

Lord Kelvin was a whole lot smarter and sharper than his recent reputation suggests. (May 26, 2017)

He may have spoken with Mr. John Munroe of Cassell’s Magazine. It’s also likely enough that he talked about oxygen consumption and some nifty calculations.

How serious he was about “the speedy end of the human race?” That, I don’t know.

“…Lord Kelvin startled America by an estimate of the speedy end of the human race. We are, he calculates, using up our fuel at such a rate that it will all be consumed in five hundred years. … The newer dread is that we are using up our stores of oxygen faster than our stores of fuel. In four hundred years’ time — at our present rate … — there will be no more oxygen for us to breathe!…”
(“A Startling Scientific Prediction,” Saturday Supplement, Evening Post (July 30, 1898))

Lord Kelvin’s data was reasonably accurate, and so was his math.

If we’d known everything there is to know about Earth’s oxygen cycle and related phenomena in 1898, We’d have a real crisis on our hands.

We didn’t, and we don’t. Concerns, yes. Crisis, not so much. My opinion.

About our “speedy end,” we’ve learned that we’re not running out of oxygen. The oxygen cycle is bigger than he realized. More complex, too.

We’ve also learned more about what Lord Kelvin called “carbonic acid gas:” the stuff we call CO2. Several of the current popular crises center focus on it’ll cause global warming, flood our fair cities, and all that.

As I said before, I think everyone with an axe to grind on the subject could do themselves a favor by toning down their hysteria. There’s a real issue in play, but it’s hard to notice with all this angst flying about.

A Big Job

Folks get odd notions about “dominion” and how humans fit into this world.

Some apparently read bits of Genesis and decided that they owned Earth: and could plunder it at will. We’re still cleaning up the mess that left.

That notion faded during my youth.

Currently-fashionable ones make about as much sense.

One is that we’re helpless before the awesome might of Mother Nature.

Another has the virtue of showing some responsibility. I don’t, however, think that everything we do has terrible consequences for Earth’s delicate ecosystem: and that we know exactly how to make everything better.

About “dominion” and all that, I’m a Catholic. That means I must take the Bible seriously. Including this:

“Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.
“God created mankind in his image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
“God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth.”
(Genesis 1:2628)

“What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
“Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:56)

Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? “Image of God,” “dominion,” “little less than a god.” We’re hot stuff.

I do not see that as reason for smug self-satisfaction.

Yes, we’re powerful. We’re becoming more powerful, and — happily — learning to use that power wisely. Our power comes with scary responsibilities.

Part of our job is taking care of the world’s resources: for our reasoned use, and for future generations. (Genesis 2:58; Catechism, 339, 2402, 2415)

Studying this universe and developing new tools using that knowledge will help us do that job. If do it right. (Catechism, 22932295)

About the current climate ‘crisis’ — I’m pretty sure we know enough today to deliberately change Earth’s climate.

I am also quite sure that we do not know enough to do so safely. Not yet.

This is one case where conducting field tests without knowing what we’re doing would be a very bad idea.

The way I see it, we should keep doing what we’re doing: in the sort run. Reducing industrial pollution makes sense. So does learning more about long-term climate changes. In the long run — that’s another topic. One I don’t have time for this week.

More, mostly about being human and getting a grip:


1 Disasters and the blame game:

3 Earth’s long story; and learning wisdom, slowly:

2 Real issues, debatably reasonable responses:

4 Britain’s Antarctic research:

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