LIGO/Virgo: Another First

Another gravitational wave observation gave scientists the best evidence yet about one aspect of merging stars.

On August 17, 2017, folks with the LIGO/Virgo collaboration observed three clusters of gravitational waves.

This time astronomers found an infrared, visible, and X-ray event near the gravitational wave source.

The August gravitational wave observation, GW170817, is the first one where astronomers found electromagnetic waves coming from the same spot. It’s a very big deal.

Something Different

Usually I’d have a great deal to say about what happened. This week’s ‘science news’ post will be different.

I had something on another topic ready to go. Then I somehow managed to wipe out about four dozen hours of work.

An unsatisfying half-hour later, I’d salvaged my notes, been extremely frustrated, and asked my son for help. Not necessarily in that order. He’s the family ‘tech guy,’ and told me what I figured I’d hear. There wasn’t a trace of the post left. Not even in system memory.

This was about two hours before I like to have the ‘Friday’ post ready. With nothing ready. Not. A. Thing.

On reflection, “extremely frustrated” is just part of my emotional response. Maybe I’ll find a reason to write about that. Or maybe not.

On the ‘up’ side, I had a nice supper with family, relaxed — slightly — and decided I’d talk a little about GW170817, neutron stars, and Norse mythology.

That seemed more reasonable than fretting about what I lost.

Besides, although I think what I wrote might have been interesting and maybe entertaining — it was hardly the most important thing in the universe.

Stepping back a little more, the universe itself is “like a grain from a balance.”

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.”
(Wisdom 11:2223)

I’m okay with that.

Magnetars and Sirach

That image doesn’t show GW170817.

It’s magnetar SGR 1745-2900, near our galaxy’s center.

Magnetars are neutron stars with very powerful magnetic fields.

Neutron stars are what’s left after a star with about 10 to 29 times the mass of ours begins running out of hydrogen. We’re pretty sure we know how they form.

GW170817 is a set of gravitational waves scientists detected in August. They’re almost certainly from a pair of neutron stars which merged.

‘All of the above’ are things we didn’t know existed a few centuries back. We’re still answering questions we had about them, quite often finding new questions in the process.1

I don’t mind living in a world where much of the science I learned in high school has been replaced by more detailed, exact data. And, quite often, with new understandings of how reality works.

I like it, but some folks apparently don’t. I’ve talked about that before.

I think Sirach puts the natural beauty and wonders surrounding us and the big picture in perspective.

“Behold the rainbow! Then bless its Maker, for majestic indeed is its splendor;
“It spans the heavens with its glory, this bow bent by the mighty hand of God.”
(Sirach 42:1112)

GW170817: Strong Evidence

(From NASA/ESA/N.Tanvir(U.Leicester) et al, via BBC Newss, used w/o permission.)

Gravitational waves: So many new toys to unwrap
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (October 17, 2017)

Whenever there’s a big science discovery, it’s always nice to get a historical perspective. And so here goes with the remarkable observation of gravitational waves emanating from the merger of two dead stars, or neutron stars, some 130 million light-years from Earth.

“It’s 50 years since the existence of these stellar remnants was confirmed (July 1967) by the mighty Northern Irish astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell. It’s more than 40 years since we realised neutron stars might occur in pairs, or binaries, as we call them….”

I talked about gravitational waves two weeks ago.

Also gravitational-wave astronomy, an international science network, a Nobel Prize in Physics, Empedocles, and Michelson interferometers, and the Alcubierre metric. (October 6, 2017)

Almost immediately after the LIGO/Virgo folks reported GW170817, Science published eight GW170817-related letters. Nature published six and a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters had 23.

GW170817 is a very big deal.

It gives scientists the strongest evidence they found so far that merging stars and short gamma-ray bursts are connected.

It also sets a limit on the difference between the speed of light and that of gravity.

Normally I’d say more about GW170817. This isn’t a normal ‘Friday’ post, and it’s already a few hours after I’d planned on having one ready. I’ll probably come back to the topic, eventually. Meanwhile, I put links to a few related Wikipedia pages below.2

Faith and Norse Mythology

If I felt that my faith depends on firmly believing something as literally true as the story of Auðumbla and Buri — I wouldn’t understand my faith.

As a Catholic, I see the Bible as the Word of God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101133)

I also realize that Sacred Scriptures weren’t written contemporary Euro-Americans.

Trying to understand them from a hardwired-literal Western viewpoint is an exercise in futility.

Happily, I’m Catholic. I have the Bible — plus Tradition and the Magisterium. (Catechism, 7495)

Tradition with a capital “T” isn’t trying to live as if 1967 never happened.

It’s certainly not imagining that much of what we’ve learned about the universe since Ptolemy’s day is a lie. Or that Mesopotamian scholars knew everything worth knowing about our world. (July 23, 2017; December 2, 2016)

It’s getting late, I’ve got tasks left to finish before sleep, so I’ll end with the usual allegedly-related posts:

1 Gravitational wave detection and astronomy:

2 A big deal:

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New Windows

(Adoration chapel windows in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.)

I’ve spent an hour at the adoration chapel almost every week for a few years now. Signing up seemed like a good idea at the time.

It still does. But this sort of spiritual practice doesn’t come naturally to me. That’s not a criticism of anything or anyone.

We’re “all one in Christ Jesus,” as Galatians 3:28 says. And we’re not all alike. This is a good thing, or should be. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 863, 18301831, 19341938)

One Faith, Many Cultures

Some of our liturgy hasn’t changed in two millennia, and won’t. Some has. Folks keep finding new ways to celebrate the sacraments. (Catechism, 12001210)

Change gives some folks conniptions. Not me. (June 4, 2017)

I think new cultures and changing times add to an already-rich heritage. (Catechism, 12001201)

I don’t live in 1st century Jerusalem or 11th century Esztergom. I live in 21st century Sauk Centre. Older families around here are mostly German or Irish. Most are Catholic. But our faith isn’t about who our ancestors are.

It’s what we believe. (Catechism, 142165)

Many Catholics speak my native language, American English. Many grew up speaking Portuguese, Swahili, Japanese, one of the Malayan languages, or another language.

The Catholic Church really is catholic: καθολικός, universal. We’re not tied to one era or culture. (June 4, 2017; July 24, 2016)

Divine Mercy Devotion in Sauk Centre

(The Eucharistic adoration chapel in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, 2014.)

Helena Kowalska grew up in Poland. Today we know her as Saint Faustina Kowalska. Folks around here heard about her Divine Mercy devotion a few decades back. It seemed like a good idea.

The devotion was okay for individuals and informal groups back then, but wasn’t approved for pubic devotions.

Sometimes being Catholic means waiting until folks at the Vatican have time and opportunity to evaluate what we think is a good idea. This was one of those times.

The good news for us was that private Divine Mercy devotions were okay. Local priests knew about it, we weren’t ‘being sneaky.’ We just understood that plans for public devotions would have to wait until we got official approval.

Folks around here, those I’ve talked to, had a pretty good idea what the hold-up was. We figured the Church would probably get around to sorting out a translation glitch, and that’s another topic.

‘Going public’ didn’t happen until a pope who spoke Polish read Faustina’s diary. Then she was canonized.

Public Divine Mercy devotions got official approval, too. That let folks get to work on plans they’d made.

When we got the green light, some of the local Divine Mercy folks set up a Eucharistic adoration chapel.

It was in a repurposed convent near St. Paul’s parish church.

That’s the ‘other’ parish in town.

Along with St. Alexius down the road, we’re a three-parish cluster. My household and I are attached to Our Lady of the Angels, just down the street.

I signed up for my hour when the chapel was in the old convent.

The room wasn’t overly large. I liked it, and wouldn’t have minded having the chapel stay there.

But change happens. An addition was built by St. Paul’s, parish offices were combined and moved there. It made sense. None of the local parishes are particularly huge.

Early plans for the addition had been very economical. The diocese told us to try again, and make it look good.

Being Catholic includes paying attention to legitimate authority, so that’s what we did. Now we have an addition that is functional — and looks good, too.

The new chapel is in the addition, much larger than the one I started in. I liked the old chapel. I like the new one, too.

I also enjoyed looking out into the deeps of God’s sky through the formerly-clear windows.

That ended on the second and third of October, week before last. The chapel’s stained glass windows were ready then. Eucharistic adoration moved elsewhere while they were being installed.

I was experiencing something like a cold, so I missed the first Wednesday I’d have had with the new windows. Venturing out seemed imprudent.

I was back this week. I liked windows I could see through, and like the new ones. Someone did a very good job with the stained glass. The colors are much richer than my photos show. The chapel looks brighter, too. I think it’s a good change.

A Requirement, and Many Options

Jesus has “the words of eternal life.” Peter said that. (John 6:68)

I’ve talked about the Eucharist before, and why I think Peter had the right idea. (November 20, 2016)

The Eucharist started at our Lord’s last meal before the crucifixion. Matthew 26:2628; Mark 14:2224; Luke 22:1920 and 1 Corinthians 11:2326 talk about it.

The Eucharist and Mass aren’t options for Catholics. They’re at the core of our faith. (21772183)

Eucharistic adoration is optional. Basically, it’s spending time with our Lord.

I’m glad I signed up. I think it’s a good idea. But regular Eucharistic adoration certainly doesn’t make me more pious than folks who haven’t made it part of their lives.

Quite a few folks who haven’t signed up for a regular time come in for a few minutes, or hours. Some are as old or older than I am, some probably took a little time off from work. Some may have been going from one job site to another. My hat’s off to them.

Again, Eucharistic adoration isn’t something all Catholics must do. It’s an optional part of our faith. We’ve accumulated many devotional practices over the millennia. I don’t think one person would have enough time to follow them all.

“…Whoever has Seen Me….”

I believe that Jesus is the Christ.

I don’t know if it would have been easier or harder two millennia back. Either way, I’d probably have been like Thomas.

I like things to make sense, and I like evidence. I also, happily, knew when to stop asking questions. That trait, at least, I have in common with St. Thomas. (April 16, 2017; October 28, 2016)

Thomas wasn’t the only one having a hard time understanding what our Lord was saying and doing.

“Philip said to him, ‘Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.’
“Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”?’…”
(John 14, 89)

Quite a bit happened right after that. Jesus was tortured, executed, buried — then stopped being dead. Thomas had a hard time believing the others. But he knew when to stop asking questions. (John 20:2728)

Our Lord finally convinced the surviving Apostles that they weren’t seeing a ghost (November 27, 2016)

Then he gave them — us — standing orders, said he’d be back, and left. (Matthew 28:1920; Acts 1:8)

If it had been anybody else, we’d have stopped getting ready for his return long ago.

But Jesus isn’t anybody else. And that’s another topic:


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Finding New Worlds

We could detect oxygen in Proxima Centauri b’s atmosphere. It’s a biosignature, but not proof of life.

Some extrasolar planets are like Earth, almost. Many are unlike anything in the Solar System.

I’ll be looking at recently-discovered worlds; some almost familiar, others wonderfully unexpected. Also an informal ‘top 10 best exoplanets’ list.

Lowell’s “Canals”

In a way, looking for life on other planets seemed much easier in 1951.

Many folks, scientists included, thought we should look for a planet like Earth.

Two other worlds in the Solar System, Mars and Venus, seemed promising.

Both are inside our star’s habitable zone.

Venus is nearly as massive as Earth. Mars has ice caps, and seasonal changes that reminded Earth-based astronomers of our planet’s temperate zone summer-winter vegetation cycle.

We’d learned that much by the time Mariner 4 reached Mars. Scientists hadn’t taken Lowell’s “canals” seriously, but we were pretty confident about finding some sort of life on the red planet.1

Then Mariner sent back back images of craters. Lots of craters.

No “canals,” no rivers. The probe’s instruments detected no planetary magnetic field. Surface air pressure was 4.1 to 7.0 millibars, 410 to 700 pascals.

That’s about 0.6% of sea level pressure here. It’s not a vacuum, but far from the Earth-like atmosphere 19th century observations suggested.

Hopes for finding life on Mars had gone from vegetation of some sort, to Lowell’s canal-building Martians, to variously-defined “simple” life, to ‘nothing there but craters and dust.’

We started getting a more complete picture of Mars after orbiters arrived. The planet isn’t nearly as Earth-like as we’d hoped, but the question of Martian life is still open.

We’re also learning that life isn’t nearly as finicky as we thought. I’ll get back to that.

Venus, Imagined

After observing a transit in 1761, Mikhail Lomonosov said Venus might have an atmosphere. Other astronomers had confirmed Venusian air by the 1930s.

Most figured the planet was nearly covered by clouds.

That was enough for science fiction writers and artists.

Pulp science fiction was in full bloom. Writers churned out stories about heroes and villains, exotic empires and mysterious wastelands. The genre’s science was more reality-based than realistic.

Artist Frank R. Paul imagined a tropical Venus with dinosaurs and “Munchkin villages.” (“Venus,” Tales of Future Past, David S. Zondy)

Edgar Rice Burroughs gave us rousing tales of Carson Napier’s adventures on Venus: called Amtor by its very-human natives. The adventures started when Napier made a wrong turn on his way to Mars and landed on Venus instead.

The Burroughs Amtor tales were filled with about as much stark scientific realism as his Barsoom adventures.

Barsoom, Amtor, and Science

I’m not sure why I see more discussion of Barsoom than Amtor.

Maybe it’s because science started catching up with imagination sooner for Mars than for Venus.

We’d found carbon dioxide in Venusian atmosphere by 1940.

Rupert Wildt used that data, plus other factors, and said Venusian surface temperatures were above water’s boiling point. Flyby and orbital missions confirmed it. The planet’s surface is over 450 °Centigrade. That’s hot enough to melt solder.

If Venus supports life, it’s not ‘life as we know it.’ Its atmosphere has sulfuric acid the way Earth’s has water.

Life not-as-we-know-it on Venus is possible, but not likely. The planet’s atmosphere is out of chemical equilibrium.

So is Earth’s. Our home’s atmosphere is about 20% oxygen. It’s a very reactive element. Critters like us need it, plants produce it. Without life, Earth’s atmosphere wouldn’t have nearly that much oxygen.

Oxygen is a biosignature, evidence of life. Scientists think any sort of chemical imbalance may be a biosignature. But not necessarily proof of life.

Probes also found a fair amount of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide in the upper Venusian atmosphere. Those substances react with each other.

Carbonyl sulfide is present too. It’s not easy to make in the lab, but some critters on Earth produce the chemical. The same could be true on Venus. Or not.

Volcanic activity is another source of carbonyl sulfide on Earth. Maybe that’s where it comes from on Venus.

Another oddity is a chlorine-rich layer just under the Venusian cloud deck.

My guess is that something other than exotic biochemistry is happening on Venus. But I also suspect that Earth’s biochemistry is just one of many varieties. I’ll get back to that, too. Our sort of life chemistry is nucleic acid/protein (O) in water.

The more we learned about Mars, the less like Earth it seemed. But thinking terrestrial life could survive there seemed plausible until the 1950s.

Lowellian Drama

(From Giovanni Schiaparelli, via Meyers Konversationslexikon/Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

(From Giovanni Schiaparelli, From NASA’s “On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet. 1958-1978, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Giovanni Schiaparelli’s maps of Mars, 1877 (top) and 1877-1886. (bottom))

Someone noticed Martian polar ice caps in the 1600s: Giovanni Domenico Cassini or maybe someone else.

Other astronomers noticed Martian seasonal changes in the 1700s.

Astronomical tech kept improving. Mapping Mars started in the 1800s. Fr. Pietro Angelo Secchi, at the Vatican Observatory, drew some of the first color maps of Mars.

Fr. Secchi described “channels”on the Martian surface in 1858. “Channels” in Italian is “canali.” “Canali” aren’t necessarily artificial. I don’t know if Lowell would have seen “canals” on Mars without that “canali” as inspiration.

Giovanni Schiaparelli mapped an extensive canali network 1877. We still use many of his names for Martian features: like Hellas, Tharsis, and Chryse.

Channels, natural and otherwise, usually have water in them on Earth.

Assuming that water filled the Martian channels seemed reasonable. At first.

William Wallace Campbell’s 1894 spectral analysis showed no water in the Martian atmosphere. (December 16, 2016)

Percival Lowell saw “canali.”

He was pretty sure they held water: and were canals, artificial channels. His “Mars” (1895), “Mars and Its Canals” (1906), and “Mars As the Abode of Life” (1908) said they were Martian engineering projects.

It makes a good story: citizens of dying world, uniting in a doomed struggle for survival.

“…On the earth the sea-bottoms still hold seas, on Mars they only nourish vegetation….
“…once fertile fields become deserts….
“…That it [a canal network] joins the surface from pole to pole and girdles it at the equator betrays a single purpose there at work. … Nations must have sunk their local patriotisms in a wider breadth of view and the planet be a unit to the general good….”
(“Mars as the abode of life,” Percival Lowell (1908))

Pareidolia and Percival Lowell

I think Percival Lowell was telling the truth, as he saw it.

From what I know of his work, it seems likely that he honestly believed he was seeing canals on Mars.

I also think he was mistaken.

We didn’t get a clear look at Mars until Mariner and other probes sent images from their flyby and orbital missions.

Astronomers had been viewing the planet from Earth’s surface, millions of miles away, through our turbulent atmosphere.2

The best human observer is still human. Sometimes we see things that aren’t there.

Arcimboldo’s odd paintings use pareidolia.

It’s what psychologists call our knack for unconsciously arranging jumbled data into something familiar.

We’re really good at seeing faces.

Sometimes we see faces when we’re looking at a pile of books or a piece of chicken. (August 13, 2017)

That’s one reason the Catholic Church has procedures for evaluating reports of miracles. We’ve been dealing with astonishing stories for millennia.

Some folks who report them honestly believe they witnessed a miracle, or think they might have. Some want others to think they did. A few saw something extraordinary happening. And that’s yet again another topic.

1. Alien Auroras?

(From From ESO/M. Kornmesser, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Artist’s concept of Proxima Centauri b.)

A ‘Pale Green Dot’: Why Proxima Centauri b May Have a Shiny Tint
Nola Taylor Redd, (October 9, 2017)

“A world orbiting the sun’s closest stellar neighbor may have a shiny green tint to it — and not necessarily because it’s covered in leafy plants.

“Researchers have found a way to characterize potential auroras on the nearby exoplanet Proxima Centauri b and found that, if the planet sports oxygen in its atmosphere, the auroras may give the atmosphere a greenish cast…..”

Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf. We didn’t know red dwarf stars existed until astronomers started using telescopes.

I haven’t confirmed this, but I think Robert Innes was first to spot one, in 1915.

Since then we’ve learned that the part of our galaxy we can see has more red dwarfs than stars like our sun.

Many are flare stars. We’re not entirely sure, but scientists think those red dwarfs have flares like our sun’s; and as powerful.

Harlow Shapley said Proxima Centauri was a flare star in 1951. Scientists looking through photographic plates taken since its discovery. Shapley was right.

Our star’s flares didn’t affect us much, apart from lighting up northern skies, until we started stringing telegraph lines.3 We eventually connected sparking telegraph equipment and aurora with solar ‘weather.’

Not Quite Earth-Like

We’ve found planets around many red dwarfs, including Gliese 667 Cc and the TRAPPIST-1 system. (June 2, 2017; December 23, 2016; September 2, 2016)

Some planets circling red dwarfs are like Earth. They’re about the same mass and diameter.

That very strongly suggests they’re made of rock and metal, like the Solar System’s inner worlds. Some even have atmospheres. We think the odds of finding life on one of those planets is pretty good. Or not.

On the one hand, some would be about the right temperature. Red dwarfs last much longer than stars like ours, so life could have plenty of time to develop.

On the other hand, many red dwarfs are flare stars. Stellar flares affect Earth, but not enough to bother life here.

Flares on red dwarfs are about as powerful as Sol’s. They’d have about the same effect on planets as far from the stars as Earth is from ours.

But a red dwarf’s habitable zone is tiny compared to the Solar System’s. A planet at the right distance to host life would almost certainly be tidally locked, with one face always facing its sun.

‘Sunlight’ would be twice as bright during a flare.

That might not make a big difference, but the radiation would. At this point we’re not sure if an Earth-like planet’s magnetic field could be strong enough to protect its atmosphere and any critters living there.4

Prospects for finding life on Proxima Centauri b look slim. Probably.

On the ‘up’ side, the planet’s aurora should be at least 100 times brighter that Earth’s. That’s bright enough to register on our instruments, here in the Solar System.

In a way, we’re now at the point we were three centuries back, when astronomers could see ice caps on Mars.

2. Stellar Grand Theft

(From NASA/ESA/Hubble, via Science Alert, used w/o permission.)
Peter Dockrill, Science Alert (October 9, 2017)

The Closest Star System to Earth Could Be Concealing a Dark, Long-Kept Secret
Interstellar theft is a thing.
Peter Dockrill, Science Alert (October 9, 2017)

“The nearest star system to our own could hold our best chance of finding a habitable, Earth-like exoplanet – but it may also be concealing a dark, long-kept secret.

“Alpha Centauri, located just 4.37 light-years from our own Solar System, is the closest thing we have to a neighbour in the galaxy, but it looks like one of its three stars could be a victim of theft on an interstellar scale….”

Don’t let expressions like “theft on an interstellar scale” fool you. There’s solid science going on here.

Our Solar System’s planetary orbits are pretty stable, and have been for the last several billion years, most likely.

We’ve learned a bit about gravity, planets, and orbital dynamics.

Scientists are pretty sure that orbits of Mercury, Venus, and Earth are stable.

Fairly stable, that is. Venus and Mercury almost certainly won’t collide during the next few billion years.

We’re nearly certain that the Solar System wasn’t nearly that stable at first.

What we’re learning about this universe makes a lot more sense if we assume that gravity and inertia have worked pretty much the same way for the last few billion years.

We think moon- and planet-size objects changed orbits fairly often when the Solar System was new. Sometimes they collided. That may be how we got our moon. (June 30, 2017; December 9, 2016; September 9, 2016)

Making the same assumptions about reality and physical laws let astronomers make sense of what they observe in our part of this galaxy.

The ‘interstellar theft’ paper published last month may or may not be on the right track. I think the idea looks plausible. Whether or not it’s accurate? That’s something we’ll be closer to knowing when scientists analyze more data.

That’s science.5

Intellectual rotgut like the recent Nibiru predictions is something else.6

I suspect it’s a high-proof mix of fermented tabloid science, my culture’s folklore and superstitions — with a dash of Bible verses. (September 29, 2017)

3. Extrasolar Planets: Some Truly Alien

(From Aldaron, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Best-fit size of WASP-19 b compared to Solar System’s Jupiter; as reported in the Open Exoplanet Catalogue in November 2015.)

The 10 best exoplanets we’ve discovered so far, ranked
Patrick Daniels, Digital Trends (October 1, 2017)

“Are you tired of the same old scenery? Do you look up at the sky and think, ‘Man I’m tired of all this blue!’ ? Has your wanderlust exhausted Earth’s options?…”

Gliese 3942b: Super-Earth Found Orbiting Nearby Star
Natali Anderson, Sci-News (September 25, 2017)

“Designated Gliese 3942b, the newfound alien world is about 7.1 times as massive as the Earth….”

An Atmosphere of Heavy Metals
Javier Barbuzano, Sky and Telescope (September 18, 2017)

“Researchers have found strong evidence of titanium oxide in the atmosphere of a hot giant planet, adding new insights to the complex motions of these planets’ extreme atmospheres.

“Astronomers might have observed one of the molecules that govern the atmospheric structure of a hot Jupiter….”

Puffed-Up Hot Jupiter Is Surprisingly Dark
Javier Barbuzano, Sky and Telescope (September 21, 2017)

“Researchers have found that a football-shaped, ultra-hot gas giant that’s being devoured by its host star is also one of the least reflective exoplanets ever found.

“Imagine a football-shaped planet covered in a fresh layer of asphalt and you might get close to what WASP-12b, a hot Jupiter 900 light-years away, would look like to a hypothetical space traveler. Add a faint red glow like that of a smoldering iron and you’re probably dead on….”

We didn’t start finding planets circling other stars until recently. But folks have wondered about other worlds for a very long time.

A few centuries ago we learned that Aristarchus of Samos was right. The stars are other suns. More about that near the end of this post.

During the 19th century, a few folks said they’d spotted planets circling other stars.

Most astronomers didn’t take the claims seriously. It wasn’t that they “believed in” a lack of extrasolar planets.

Those who had their heads on straight thought they couldn’t detect exoplanets with their technology. They were right.

Scientists didn’t “believe in” a planet circling Barnard’s star, either.

But Peter van de Kamp had pretty good evidence for a roughly Jupiter-mass planet orbiting the red dwarf.

That was in 1963.

It took a decade of painstaking work to show that it probably isn’t there. Follow-up observations with much better tech haven’t found anything.

Scientists are pretty sure the star doesn’t host any Jupiter-size planets in close orbits. Smaller worlds and planets in wide orbits are possible, but haven’t been detected.

We have, however, found more than three thousand other exoplanets, with more being confirmed as scientists work through growing databases.7

We’re also learning that the Solar System’s planets are a small sample of worlds we’ll find.

‘Earth 2.0,’ Almost

We haven’t, quite, found ‘Earth 2.0.’ But we have found quite a few almost like ours. Seven circle TRAPPIST-1.

TRAPPIST-1 is 39.5 light-years away. It’s close, but not the nearest planetary system. I’m reasonably sure we’ll send probes to Proxima Centauri and Epsilon Eridani first.

Patrick Daniels put his ’10 best’ list in reverse order, with #1 coming last.

I enjoyed his lighthearted look at some of the darkest, hottest, and strangest worlds we’ve found so far.

I doubt some of his names, like “The Dracula Planet” for TrES-2B, will get the IAU stamp of approval.

That’s the International Astronomical Union. It’s a professional outfit of PhD-plus astronomers. One of their functions is giving their official stamp of approval to names for astronomical objects and features.

I’ll acknowledge that it’s nice having somewhat-consistent names for all the worlds we’re finding. It’s arguably easier than remembering that the Charles V comet and Great Comet of 1556 are the same comet: C/1556 D1. (December 11, 2016)

Happily, the IAU doesn’t seem particularly pompous. Not yet.

Here’s the Patrick Daniels ‘top 10,’ with my not-as-colorful descriptions:

  • TrES-2b — The Dracula Planet
    Kepler-1b, a hot Jupiter, darkest known exoplanet
  • Kepler-36c/b — That’s no moon!
    Two planets in very small orbits
  • OGLE-2005-BLG-390 — Love the snow? This one is nicknamed ‘Hoth’
    About five times Earth’s mass, coldest known exoplanet
  • PSR B1257+12 system — A light show to die for
    A pulsar named Lich with three known planets: Draugr, Poltergeist and Phobetor
  • 55 Cancri e — An intergalactic prospector’s dream
    Eight times Earth’s mass, probably a ‘carbon planet’
  • Kepler-16b — Where your shadow will never be lonely
    Saturn-mass planet orbiting a binary star
  • Wasp 12 b — A crumbling planet being eaten by its sun
    A ‘hot Jupiter’ orbiting a sun-like star
  • Kepler-452b — Earth’s bigger, older cousin
    “Earth 2.0,” almost
  • Proxima B — Only a hop, skip, and four light years away
    A nearby terrestrial planet
  • Trappist-1 System — A fistfull of Earths
    Seven terrestrial planets
    (Source: Patrick Daniels, Digital Trends, Wikipedia)

Strange New Worlds

Gliese 3942b, WASP-19b and WASP-12b aren’t like any planets in the Solar System.

Gliese 3942b is a super-earth: a rocky world like Earth, but much more massive. We’ve found quite a few. Some might support life. Probably not Gliese 3942b, not life as we know it. It’s a hot world. Scientists figure lead wouldn’t melt on its surface: it would boil, fast.

WASP-19b and WASP-12b are hot Jupiters. We’re finding a fair number of these, too.

I think they’re more of a surprise than the super-earths. Jupiter and other big outer planets in the Solar System are just that: outer planets.

Models for planetary system development generally assumed that the Solar System was typical. It seemed reasonable.

We expected other systems to have comparatively small, rocky worlds close to the star, big hydrogen-rich planets out where it’s nice and cool.

That’s not what we’re finding.

Scientists could have assumed that they were wrong about everything and chucked the idea of understanding physical laws.

The notion that nothing makes sense, including the universe, may be fashionable. But most scientists still figure physical laws exist. That means we can learn how things work.

Instead of giving up, scientists took another look at how planets form. I talked about orbital dynamics earlier.

I don’t think we’ve got all the answers. I’m quite sure we don’t. But we’re solving some puzzles, finding intriguing new ones in the process.

Aristarchus was Right

Folks have wondered about how Earth fits into the universe for a very long time.

Mesopotamian cosmology was closely tied to their religious beliefs.

Mesopotamian literature is almost certainly the source for imagery like “the pillars of the earth” in 1 Samuel 2:8 and Job 9:6, and the dome of heaven in Psalms 150:1. (December 2, 2016)

Ancient Greeks had their religions, too.

Their philosophers considered theological issues. They also discussed the sort of realities we call “scientific.”

Some said we lived in a universe of nested spheres, with Earth in the center. Some figured Earth goes around our sun.

Philosophers came up with pretty good reasons for thinking their ideas were right.

With their technology, they couldn’t go much beyond making compelling arguments.

After we developed telescopes, and improved on the original designs, we realized that some of the ideas matched reality better than others.

We’ve learned that Aristarchus was right. The stars are other suns.

Aristotle said Earth is at the center of the universe, and is fundamentally different from the sun, planets, and stars.

Aristotle was a very smart man, and had good logic backing up his cosmology.

Folks like Ptolemy had tweaked it a bit, trying to make it fit observations. They did a pretty good job.

European scholars rediscovered Aristotle, starting around 1100. Many were huge fans of the Greek philosopher when speculation about other worlds was on the table.

Most academics of the 12th century figured Aristotle’s geocentric universe was on the right track.

Some Aristotelians said other worlds couldn’t exist: because Aristotle said so.

In 1277 the bishop of Paris got involved. He said discussion was okay, and that God decides how the universe works. Not Aristotle. (August 4, 2017; March 24, 2017; December 2, 2016)


Fast-forward to the 1500s. European politics was headed toward the Thirty Years’ War.

It was an inopportune time to declare unyielding allegiance to revolutionary ideas. Or refurbished old ideas in revolutionary wrapping, for that matter.

That got Giordano Bruno killed.

Copernicus had the good sense to say his heliocentric model was theory. He realized that “there will be babblers.”

Quite a few non-babbling folks, including a cardinal and a bishop, urged him to publish. (April 28, 2017)

Galileo insisted that folks accept his heliocentric ideas as incontrovertible fact.

Galileo was right, pretty much. But it would be centuries before astronomical tech let scientists find evidence backing up Copernican math. Almost.

Copernicus wasn’t spot-on accurate, but his heliocentric model matched reality better than Aristotle’s physics. (June 2, 2017)

Presenting Giordano Bruno as a heroic scientist, martyred by despotic forces of superstition and oppression, seems to have started in the 19th century. There’s a little truth to it.

As far as I can tell, Bruno was executed because he said his theology must be true. His personality apparently alienated folks, too.

I think killing someone for insisting on pantheism or pandeism is wrong. But I don’t think that makes him a martyr of science.8

Embracing All Truth

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:89; 63:23; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2)….”
(“Fides et Ratio,” Pope Saint John Paul II (September 14, 1998))

If you’ve seen my ‘science’ posts before, you know why I think science is a good idea, and think faith and reason should get along.

Some folks apparently believe that religion and science are at war, that someone can either be reasonable or Christian. Or at least think faith might be unreasonable.

I don’t see it that way. I’m a Catholic.

Using my brain isn’t an option for me. It’s a requirement. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 156159, 17621775, 17761779, 2293)

Faith is, or should be, my willing and conscious decision to embrace all of God’s truth. All of it, not just what we’d learned in Aristotle’s day. (Catechism, 142155)

Someone doesn’t have to be a scientist to be a Catholic. That’s just as well for me, since my academic training is mostly in history and literature.

But being a Catholic doesn’t interfere with being a scientist. (August 13, 2017; April 28, 2017)

I think God’s universe follows knowable physical laws. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 301305; “Gaudium et spes,” 5, 15, Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

Being curious, thinking, and studying the universe, is part of being human. The order and beauty we notice in the process is one way we can learn about God. (Catechism, 3132, 3536, 301, 303306, 311, 319, 1704, 22932296)

I’ve known Catholics whose devotion to ignoring what we’re learning about God’s creation is as fervent as the most rabid ‘creation science’ fundamentalist’s.

Happily, I realize that what they believe isn’t what the Church has been saying. And that’s yet another topic.


Percival Lowell assumed that Martians were similar to us in biology and psychology.

But I don’t think he or any scientist thought Martian princesses would look like Dejah Thoris of Helium. Or even that their society must include princesses.

If we have neighbors who aren’t from Earth we may eventually meet some who look almost exactly like humanity’s current model: at a distance and in dim light.

I think fictional aliens like Frank R. Paul’s “man from Venus” are slightly more plausible. Not in detail, but in not being too obviously human-like.

Even there, Paul’s aliens often had our body plan. Right down to being upright bipeds.

Maybe that is the only possible shape for creatures with bodies and free will.

I strongly suspect God is more inventive than pulp science fiction artists. But I won’t say that we must have neighbors: or that we can’t.

Again, I’m a Catholic. The 1277 rules were rescinded, but the principle still applies. God’s God, I’m not, and neither is any expert. Not even Aristotle.

Life and Learning

Like I said earlier, life isn’t nearly as finicky as we thought.

We’ve found critters on Earth’s ocean floor, clustered around hydrothermal vents. They’re thriving at temperatures that would kill us, even if we had enough oxygen.

Even critters living in conditions we find comfortable don’t all look like us. Insects, for example, have their skeletons on the outside.

Terrestrial life hasn’t always been as it is now.

Body plans for some Cambrian critters are like today’s models. Others, like the — thing — with five eyes and one tentacle: not so much.

About two thirds of Earth’s animals were sessile, attached to the seafloor, until about a quarter-billion years back.

Maybe animal-analogs invariably shift from mostly-sessile to the more mobile mode we’re used to. Or maybe not.

People, self-willed creatures with bodies, might be as incurably social and noisy as we are. Maybe that’s inextricably linked to intelligence.

Or maybe it’s just one possible option. (June 2, 2017; December 23, 2016)

It’s not up to me. This is God’s creation. God decides how it works. Part of our job is learning about it.

Terrestrial organisms share a common biochemistry, although details vary. Some bacteria are photosynthetic but not green, for example. Oxygen is toxic to some.

I don’t think there must be life on Venus because something’s maintaining a chemical imbalance in the atmosphere. But scientists aren’t ruling it out.

All terrestrial life uses water as a solvent. Some scientists think life not-as-we-know-it could use sulfuric acid instead.

Hydrogen sulfide is another possible water-substitute, and fairly common on Jupiter’s moon Io.9

We don’t know if any of the hypothetical life chemistries scientists are finding actually exist. But scientists have mathematical models saying they could.

It’s good to see other scientists following up on Boston University’s Isaac Asimov’s ’60s alternative biochemistries speculations:

  • Fluorosilicone in fluorosilicone
  • Fluorocarbon in sulfur
  • Nucleic acid/protein (O) in water
  • Nucleic acid/protein (N) in ammonia
  • Lipid in methane
  • Lipid in hydrogen
    (“View from a Height” Isaac Asimov (1963), Lancer Books (p. 63))

We’re third from the top in that list, nucleic acid/protein (O) in water.

If we find life on other worlds, I think it could easily be made of nucleic acids and proteins in water.

We could find nothing but life that’s biochemically like Earth’s.

But I wouldn’t count on it.

We’ve learned that other planets in the Solar System, even the ones a bit like Earth, aren’t quite like Earth.

We’ve learned that some worlds circling other stars are a bit like the Solar System’s. Others are not.

We’ve learned that Earth and this universe do not follow Aristotelian physics.

We may find life throughout this galaxy. Or not. Either way, I think we’ll keep learning that there’s more to learn.

And that’s still another topic:

1 Looking for life, early informed speculation:

2 Venus and Mars, imagined and real:

3 Lights in the sky:

4 Habitability and habitable zones, informed speculation:

5 Science:

6 Nonsense and bad ideas:

7 Exoplanets, a half-century of discovery:

8 History and science:

9 More informed speculation:

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Anxiety Optional

Today’s second reading from Philippians 4 says to have “no anxiety at all,” praise God, and “make your requests known to God.” Then we’ll have “the peace of God….”

“Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.
“Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
(Philippians 4:67)

I think that’s a good idea: but it’s not the whole picture.

I could take that snippet, find a few more ‘uplifting’ bits and pieces, and get something like the ‘prosperity gospel.’

There’s a little truth in it, which may help explain its popularity a few decades back.

I don’t think any idea would get much traction without a little truth mixed in with not-so-reasonable appeals.

In the short run, I think feel-good faith can be as much fun as Watt’s “factitious airs.”

Having a good time is fine. Ignoring long-term consequences isn’t. (July 7, 2017)

The ‘prosperity gospel’ isn’t physically addictive. But I think it’s not a good idea.

I realize that everyone seeks truth, or should. My search eventually led me to become a Catholic. I think I made the right decision, and I must believe that God will reach folks who are still looking. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 838848, 2091, 2104, 2467)

On strictly secular grounds, I think the ‘prosperity gospel’ is a bad idea for anyone who isn’t completely delusional.

A lifetime filled with nothing but a succession of pleasant surprises and satisfied desires might be theoretically possible. Make that hypothetically.

But I think an utterly stress-free life is unlikely, at best. Trouble happens. Adding a crisis of faith to stress resulting from one of life’s rough patches seems unreasonable.

I also think short-term appeal is a poor substitute for principles that work in the long run. Not that there’s anything wrong with short-term appeal. Enjoying pleasure is a good idea, within reason.

So is paying attention to principles that were making sense long before my civilization’s current iteration began.1

Those principles haven’t changed, and won’t. How we apply them must change. Faith doesn’t mean living in the past, or shouldn’t, and that’s another topic. (June 18, 2017; February 5, 2017; August 14, 2016)

Pleasure and Moderation

Some folks act as if they see pleasure as basically bad. The idea isn’t popular now, but I’ve run into a few folks who apparently take it seriously.

I figure they’re sincere, and think they’re wrong.

I see where they could get the idea that cherophobia is a virtue.

Following Jesus includes taking or carrying a cross. Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; and Luke 14, 27 talk about that.

There’s wisdom in remembering that doing what’s right and making self-centered choices don’t mix.

But “blessed are the miserable, for they shall spread misery” isn’t a beatitude.

I think that doing what’s right benefits me. Eventually.

Often not the way I expected or wanted. Some ‘doing what’s right’ most likely won’t have any obvious advantage until after the Last Judgment. My track record hasn’t been even close to perfect, and that’s yet another topic.

Anyway, I think enjoying life’s pleasures while expecting occasional problems makes sense. “Good things” are fine, in moderation. (Catechism, 1809)

“Human beings beget mischief as sparks fly upward.”
(Job 5:7)

“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and provide themselves with good things from their toil. Even this, I saw, is from the hand of God.
“For who can eat or drink apart from God?”
(Ecclesiastes 2:2425)

Noticing Emotions

Getting back to Philippians 4, I think prayer and thanksgiving are good ideas. (Catechism, 25582597)

Having “no anxiety at all” — that’s a good idea, too. Within reason.

That may take some explaining.

I believe Philippians 4, and the rest of the Bible.

Ignoring Sacred Scripture isn’t an option. But my faith isn’t just about ‘me, the Bible, and God.’ (Catechism, 7495, 101133)

It’s not all about emotions, either. It’s a matter of balance and thinking.

Emotions are part of being human. There’s nothing wrong with them, by themselves. Not until I decide what I’ll do. (Catechism, 17621770)

Sometimes emotions tell me that I should pay attention to something. My job is noticing feelings, thinking about what’s happening, and making a reasonable decision. (Catechism, 1767)

I’ve learned that my feelings are unreliable guides. Thinking before I act is a good idea.

On the other hand, not having or admitting emotions could be a serious problem.2 Humanity’s track record for handling emotions and decisions is not at all good, and that’s yet again another topic. (Catechism, 17071709)

Believing AND Using My Brain

Even extreme apostles of temperance like hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation had a little truth behind their beliefs.

I think the same goes for advocates who want to legalize or ban potentially-dangerous substances and tech.

That doesn’t make them right.

Drinking too much coffee can lead to psychosis or make it worse. Way too much. Avoiding a caffeine overdose makes sense. Banning coffee, not so much. (July 10, 2016)

I think folks who fervently embrace extremes are missing the big picture. I don’t doubt their sincerity. I even ‘feel like’ supporting their causes. Sometimes. Sometimes I don’t. Either way, I prefer making sense.

On the whole, I like being a Catholic. Now. But feelings aren’t why I joined. (July 30, 2017)

I’d have little use for a faith that stopped making sense when all the light and color drains from the world. (July 2, 2017)

I see faith as my willing and conscious decision to embrace all of God’s truth. All of it, not just the parts I like. (Catechism, 142155)

My decision commits my “whole being” to God, including my thoughts. But I didn’t stop thinking. I decided who’s in charge. Faith is making a “‘full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’….” (Catechism, 143, 154159; “Dei Verbum,” 5 (1965))

Basically, I decided that God is smarter than I am. When we have a difference of opinion, I’m the one who needs to learn. It’s a lesson I’m still learning. As Philippians 2:12 says, I’m ‘working out my salvation.’

Faith is easier when my emotions are in sync with my reason. So is acting like it matters. Emotions can act as signals, but “…conscience is a law of the mind….” I’ve got a brain. Part of my job is using it. (Catechism, 17771782)

I depend on God for my faith. (Catechism, 30, 142150, 156159, 274, 1706)

Good feelings make it easier, but aren’t at the core. I see them more as accessories.

Fretting and Facts

Anxiety, uneasiness about something that hasn’t happened yet, could be a useful signal: warning of trouble ahead.

Like any other emotion, anxiety isn’t bad by itself. It’s seen as a normal part of life.3

Sometimes anxiety won’t go away, or starts interfering with everyday activities.

Chronic anxiety, living in a perpetual panic, doesn’t make sense.

Not unless someone’s constantly faced with unavoidable peril. Even then, I think dialing down the emotional response would make sense. I’m pretty sure runaway emotions don’t encourage good decisions.

Chronic anxiety is also unhealthy, and can lead to other health problems. Sometimes it’s a symptom of another health issue.4 I don’t think ignoring out-of-control anxiety is a good idea.

Neither is encouraging it. Making myself miserable isn’t a virtue, and fretting won’t solve problems.

I’ve got plenty to fret about. But diving into the most sensational news coverage of death, disaster, woe and misfortune? That won’t help. Neither will fretting over folks reading sensational news.

I’m concerned about environmental issues and justice. I also think separating facts from opinions makes sense. (September 1, 2017; November 29, 2016)

So does remembering that good citizenship and neighbors matter. (October 2, 2017; September 10, 2017; July 24, 2016)

Trust, Praise, and Prescriptions

Decades of undiagnosed depression and life’s occasional rough patches gave me opportunities to think about health, faith, and making sense.

I think being healthy is better than the alternatives.

Life and health are “precious gifts” from God. Taking care of them, within reason, makes sense. (Catechism, 2288, 2278)

In my case, that includes correcting neural glitches with prescribed meds.

One of them is addictive: something I’d never touch otherwise. I knew this before starting. I think it was a reasonable decision. (July 7, 2017; July 2, 2017)

I don’t see taking reasonable care of my health as ‘not trusting God.’ It’s more like taking care of the brain and body God gave me.

I certainly don’t think God rewards good behavior with good health, and smites sinners with sickness. (August 21, 2016)

My faith comes with no guarantee of an untroubled life. We are told, however, that praising and trusting God make sense.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.”
(Psalms 23:4)

“You are my hope, Lord; my trust, GOD, from my youth.”
(Psalms 71:5)

“Praise the LORD, my soul; I will praise the LORD all my life, sing praise to my God while I live.”
(Psalms 146:2)

That works for me.

More, mostly about feelings and making sense:

1 I matter, but it’s not ‘all about me:’

2 Emotions, normal and otherwise:

3 Just plain anxiety:

4 Not-so-plain anxiety:

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