Earth’s Moon: Heat, Stir – – –

We’ve learned quite a bit about Earth’s moon since the first Apollo landing, but we’re still not sure how it formed. But we’re a step or two closer to solving that puzzle.

A team of scientists think Earth and its moon got started as a synestia. It’s a new word for a new twist on the collision model.

Some other scientists think they maybe on the right track. Others aren’t so sure. Many apparently think the synestia model deserves a closer look.

Genesis, Aristotle and Physics

Figuring out how Earth’s moon formed wasn’t a problem for Aristotle.

Even if he thought our moon was more like Earth than the rest of the universe, he’d have said it had always been here.

Matter, as he explained in Book I of “Physics,” was eternal. Given the data he had, his cosmology made sense.

European theologians had a puzzle on their hands when they saw that part of “Physics.”

I gather that their problem was trying to understand how Genesis 1:1 and Aristotle’s assertion that this universe had always been here line up. His spheres and Mesopotamian cosmology not meshing wasn’t, apparently, so much of an issue.

Copernican heliocentrism gave a whole bunch of folks fits a few centuries later. I see those conniptions as more political than academic, and that’s another topic.

Time passed. Data from more precise observations backed up the basics of Copernican ideas, and showed that details of Copernican math didn’t quite match reality.

Most folks, on all sides of Europe’s turf wars, got used to Copernicus being closer to the mark than Aristotle. Charles Darwin published “Origin of Species” in 1859, which doesn’t have much to do with physics or Earth’s moon. C. Darwin’s son is another matter.

I’ve read, but not confirmed, that Édouard Roche published a fission hypotheses in 1873. I’ve also read that George Darwin came up with the idea.

Maybe Roche heard about what Sir William Thompson said at an 1871 meeting of the British Association in Edinburgh. Maybe Sir William read what someone else had written.1

I figure someone had the fission idea first. Probably in the 19th century, maybe earlier.

The fission models differed in details, but agreed that early Earth was spinning so fast that part of its crust got flung off, forming the moon.

Someone said maybe the Pacific Ocean is the patch where part of Earth’s crust had been. That was in 1925, which helps explain why it showed up in one of my high school science textbooks.

The fission hypothesis held on for decades. So did other ideas about our moon’s origin.

Darwin: George Darwin

George Darwin published his fission idea in 1898. Using Newtonian orbital mechanics, he figured our moon had started much closer to Earth and slowly moved outward.

G. Darwin was right about that. Laser ranging, using reflectors left during Apollo and Lunokhod missions in the 1960s and 70s, fit both his and Einstein’s math.

The other way around, actually. Darwin’s and Einstein’s math fit the new observations. Scientists don’t change reality with their equations. They just fine-tune our understanding of this universe.

Scientists kept collecting and analyzing new data and publishing their results. Analysis of samples collected during Apollo missions helped, and added new puzzles. That, I think, is par for the course in science.

G. Darwin’s fission explanation had at least one problem. He could trace our moon back to an orbit very close to Earth. But not to Earth’s surface. Even so, the math and logic matched observations better than many other ideas.

Lunar Origins, 1946 to 1975

The giant-impact model for our moon’s origin goes back at least to a 1946 paper by Harvard’s Reginald Aldworth Daly.

He combined G. Darwin’s fission idea with the ‘capture’ model. That model has our moon starting out as a largish asteroid, getting caught by Earth’s gravity.

It explained some things, like our moon being so big relative to Earth and having an orbit that’s closer to the ecliptic than to Earth’s equator. It didn’t explain others.

Someone thought of the giant-impact model first, I don’t know who. Maybe it was Harvard’s Reginald Aldoworth Daly. He figured G. Darwin was basically right.

Daly’s idea was that something about Mars-size hit Earth while the Solar System was young. The collision ended with a molten and vaporized mess, part which orbited Earth. That part became our moon.

The collision model didn’t get much traction. It came up again during a 1974 conference and a 1975 paper by William K. Hartmann and Donald R. Davis. Using data and analysis tools developed since Daly’s day, they showed how a collision could have formed our moon.2


(From Getty Images/Lynette Cook, via Sky & Telescope, used w/o permission.)
(“Artwork of a Mars-sized object colliding into the Earth early in solar system history….”
(Sky & Telescope))

Could a Giant Impact Have Vaporized Earth to Create the Moon?
Javier Barbuzano, Sky & Telescope (March 1, 2018)

In a new twist on the giant impact theory, a new idea posits that the Moon might have formed from the vaporized remains of Earth after an epic collision with another planet-sized body.

“From all the time and effort humans have put into observing and studying the Moon, there is an awful lot we still don’t know about it, particularly when it comes to how it formed.

“Most planetary scientists agree that our Moon was created when a planet-sized body hit Earth after it had almost completely formed. But they seem to disagree on nearly everything else. Now, a group of researchers has come up with an idea that upends that so-called ‘Big Splat’ theory: If the giant impact first completely obliterated Earth, the Moon might have formed from our planet’s vaporized remains….”

I probably wouldn’t have said that this variation on the giant-impact theme “upends” the “Big Splat” idea. We’re still looking at something big hitting Earth not long after the Solar System formed. Not long in terms of geological or cosmic time, that is.

What’s new is in the details. Until now, the giant-impact scenario was the planetary equivalent of a precision pool shot. The physics works well enough.

But getting today’s Earth and moon is tricky. Whatever hit Earth had to come in at very close to a particular angle and speed. The odds of that happening are — not high.

The long odds fit what we see in the Solar System. Earth is the only planet with a moon that’s such a big fraction of the planet’s size.

Except for Pluto, but we didn’t know about Charon, Nyx, Hydra and the rest until recently. Charon was spotted in 1978, there’s been a lively debate over what we should call objects like Pluto, and that’s yet another topic.

Older versions of the giant-impact idea worked better than G. Darwin’s fission model, but didn’t explain why Earth and our moon are so much alike, apart from the moon being short of volatile stuff.

Lack of volatiles — stuff with a low boiling point, like nitrogen and water — isn’t the only difference between Earth and our moon, of course.

The moon’s only about a quarter Earth’s diameter. Its magnetic field is tiny compared to Earth’s. Earlier giant-impact explanations for our moon’s origin accounted for those differences. But not Earth and Earth’s moon having nearly the same isotope ratios.

Isotopes are elements with a non-standard neutron count. A copper isotope, for example, is still copper. It’s got the normal number of protons in its nucleus. What makes it an isotope is having a not-normal number of neutrons.

We’ve been learning that different planets have different isotope ratios. ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory detected the isotope ratio of deuterium to light hydrogen in the atmosphere of Uranus, and I’m drifting off-topic.3

Isotopes and Disks

Earth and Earth’s moon have nearly the same isotope ratios.

That wouldn’t be odd if Earth and Earth’s moon started out as the same part of our star’s protoplanetary disk.

Many scientists figure planets like Jupiter and Saturn had disks of dust and gas as they were forming.

Those disks, scaled-down versions of our star’s protoplanetary disk, would have condensed into the Galilean moons.

“Condensed” isn’t quite the right word, but I think you get the idea.

If Earth had a — protolunar? — disk that became our moon, that’d explain both worlds having nearly the same isotope ratios. They’re made from the same batch of stuff.

A Filled Doughnut

But if Earth’s moon formed after a planetary collision, its ratio should be more like the smaller planet’s, less like Earth’s.

That’s what scientists learned when they started running simulations of the impact.

The synestia model starts with an impact, and leaves Earth and moon with pretty much the same ratios.

I don’t see it ‘upending’ the “Big Splat” idea. More like rethinking it — and coming up with something that’s still mostly “Splat,” with a bit of older fission ideas. It also may help explain why G. Darwin’s math wouldn’t quite bring our Moon back to Earth’s surface.

If the synestia model is right, our moon formed in the ‘doughnut’ part of a bismarck. (“Bismark?” That’s sort of like a bagel, but with a filled center.)


(From Simon Lock and Sarah Stewart, via Sky & Telescope, used w/o permission.)
(“The structure of a planet, a planet with a disk and a synestia, all of the same mass.”
(Sky & Telescope))

“Synestia” seems to be a new word. Folks like Simon Lock and Sarah Stewart used it in their 2017 Journal of Geophysical Research paper. It’s “a corotating inner region connected to a disk-like outer region.”

The word comes from “sún-,” ancient Greek for “together;” and “Hestia,” ancient Greek goddess of hearth, household and domestic life. We say it with an accent, so “sún” becomes “syn” and the “h” gets dropped.4

I suspect it’ll be a while before I ‘hear’ “synestia” instead of “synestria” when reading it. And start spelling it correctly. It may take longer before I stop remembering Sinestro, former Green Lantern, when doing any of the above. And that’s yet again another topic.

The earliest discussion of synestias I’ve found was Lock and Stewart’s 2017 paper.

Their math, and the idea that Earth and Earth’s moon might have formed as parts of a synestia, is new. But not entirely.

I’ve seen words and phrases like ‘radical,’ ‘crazy new’ and ‘debunk’ used in articles covering their synestia papers and responses to synestia models.

I’m not obliged to follow editorial policies or journalistic conventions, so I’ll opt for less drama and focus more on what natural philosophers and scientists have been doing since the 18th century.

Nebular Ideas

Emanuel Swedenborg’s 1734 “Principia” said that maybe Earth formed in a nebula.

Immanuel Kant read “Principia,” or maybe read about it.

He gave Swedenborg’s nebula idea some thought, and came up with his own.

Kant described how a gaseous cloud, a nebula, could be rotating, collapse and become a disk, eventually forming a star and planets. He published his ideas in 1755.

Pierre-Simon Laplace published his nebular ideas in 1796. Apparently without knowing about what Swedenborg and Kant had written. Scientists and others kept discussing nebular hypotheses, and that brings me to the 19th century.

James Clerk Maxwell said that planets couldn’t form from a rotating nebula, since the inner and outer parts would be spinning at different rates.

Sir David Brewster said Laplace was wrong because Earth’s moon would have gotten all of Earth’s water and air.

Brewster also said Sir Isaac Newton objected to nebular ideas for religious reasons. That was in his “More worlds than one: the creed of the philosopher and the hope of the Christian.” (1854)

Physics and cosmology failed, happily, to get hijacked by English politics, and that’s another topic. (March 9, 2018)

Thomas Chamberlin and Forest Moulton’s 1901 planetesimal theory, the James Jeans 1917 tidal model and Otto Schmidt 1944 accretion idea looked pretty good. So did William McCrea’s 1960 protoplanet theory and Michael Woolfson’s 1964 capture theory.

Then someone re-thought the Laplace model — which still didn’t quite match new data and what we’d known for centuries.5

I’m pretty sure we don’t have all the answers today. As Lock, one of first to work on synestia models, said of what they’d been doing — “this is almost a proof of concept.”

A Small Sample: So Far

(From Sarah Stewart, via Sky & Telescope, used w/o permission.)
(“This artist’s concept shows the hot, molten moon emerging from a synestia, a giant spinning donut of vaporized rock that formed when planet-sized objects collided….”
(Sky & Telescope))

“…So far, the synestia model has produced mixed reactions within the ranks of planetary scientists. Some of them welcome it as a potential fix for the limitations of the giant impact theory, but others remain skeptical.

“‘Many of us would like a more natural scenario that makes it more or less inevitable that the Moon will have essentially the same isotopic composition as the Earth,’ said planetary scientist Jay Melosh during a recent conversation with Sky & Telescope.

“In the future, the team plans to further refine certain aspects of the model that are currently poorly understood. ‘In some aspects this is almost a proof of concept,’ Lock says….”
(Javier Barbuzano, Sky & Telescope)

I’m not sure what Jay Melosh meant by “a more natural scenario.” Synestias don’t strike me as particularly supernatural, so he probably had something else in mind.

Based on the rest of the quote, maybe Melosh would be more comfortable with a ‘Newtonian mechanics’ approach.

I like Newton’s ‘clockwork universe’ determinism: the idea that if we had all data about the universe now, we could in principle, calculate everything that has happened and will happen.

Maybe there’s a physical reality where physics works on strictly Newtonian principles.

The one we’re in doesn’t work that way. Not if what we’ve been learning, particularly in the last century or so, is anywhere near accurate.

Maybe Melosh had something entirely different in mind. That’s likely enough, since he apparently wants a scenario where isotopic ratios in Earth and Earth’s moon are “more or less inevitable.” On the other hand, that seems to be how the synestia scenario works.

I think we’ve learned quite a bit about how planetary systems form, particularly considering that until recently we had only one example to study.

One more excerpt from Sky & Telescope:

“…So if Moon-forming events are more likely, then why don’t we see more large Moons around terrestrial planets? Our sample size might just be too small, Lock answers. ‘We might have to wait until we can study exomoons to be able to know how common large Moons are,’ Lock says….”
(Javier Barbuzano, Sky & Telescope)

I figure discussion, debate and reevaluation of synestias, accretion, and how Earth got its moon isn’t over. Not even close.

Other Planetary Systems

(From NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt, used w/o permission.)

Whatever happened in the early Solar System, the process left us with one rocky planet in the star’s habitable zone. And a huge rocky moon orbiting that planet.

The Solar System’s rocky planets are the ones closest to the sun. Next, going outward from the star, there’s an asteroid belt and a series of larger planets. The outer planets are mostly gas and ice.

It’s a nice, orderly arrangement: smallish, dense planets near the star; big, more-or-less fluffy ones out where it’s colder. Many scientists figured that other planetary systems, if they existed, would look like ours.

Then we started charting other planetary systems.

A few vaguely resemble the Solar System. Many don’t.

55 Cancri A about 41 light-years out, has at least five planets: Galileo, Brahe, Lipperhey, Janssen and Harriot.

Janssen, the one closest to its star, is about twice as massive as Earth: the first super-Earth found around a main-sequence star.

Its year lasts 0.7365 days, about 17 hours and 40 minutes. It’s very, very hot.

55 Cancri A’s other three inner worlds are almost certainly gas giants. Their orbits would fit inside Earth’s.

Dimidium, 51 Pegasi b, is the first exoplanet of any sort found around a main-sequence star. It’s at least half as massive as Jupiter, in an orbit smaller than Mercury’s. We dubbed worlds like that hot Jupiters.

We’ve been finding enough hot Jupiters, super-Earths and mini-Neptunes to start classifying these strange new worlds. And learning how they’re formed.

We still haven’t found “Earth 2.0,” but a few planetary systems do look a little like home. Almost.

The smallest of Kepler-11’s six known planets is about as massive as Earth, the biggest around Neptune’s heft. Like many we’ve found so far, the Kepler-11 system is more compact than ours.

Maybe that’s typical, and we’re in one of the galaxy’s oddballs. Or maybe we simply haven’t found the more spacious systems yet.

The Kepler-90 system has eight known planets. Some are around Earth’s size. Kepler-90h, the one in the system’s habitable zone, is a gas giant. It wouldn’t be habitable, but one of its moons might.

If it has moons, and if one of them is big enough and rocky. That’s a lot of “ifs.”

One or more of TRAPPIST-1’s worlds might harbor life. Maybe.6

Wondering What’s Over the Horizon

(From NASA-JPL/Caltech, via NPR, used w/o permission.)

Stars like TRAPPIST-1 are far more common than those resembling our sun.

It’s a very cool red dwarf with seven known planets. Each one rocky, several in or near the star’s habitable zone.

If the Kepler-11 and Kepler-90 systems are “compacts,” the TRAPPIST-1 system is a subcompact.

TRAPPPIST-1 is a near neighbor, on a cosmic scale: about 40 light-years away.

I don’t know how long it will take us to send probes that far. I think we will, eventually.

Not in my lifetime, probably not in yours. But I’d be astounded if we lose interest in this universe, and stop wondering what’s over the horizon.

I certainly don’t know if any planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 support life. Some scientists point out, correctly, that being the right size and temperature isn’t enough.

Flares on red dwarfs are as powerful as our star’s. Earth-like planets would be getting enormous jolts of ultraviolet and other radiation with each flare. That wouldn’t be good for terrestrial life.

On the other hand, scientists whose ancestors have been living on such a world might be discussing whether or not life could exist without those flares.

That’s assuming that we’ve got neighbors who are a bit like us. I’ll be talking about life, the universe and neighbors in another post.

The ‘Rare Earth’ Debate

Until a few decades ago, we didn’t know whether any stars besides our had planets.

Some explanations for how the Solar System formed, like the nebular hypothesis, suggested that planets were common.

Others made our Solar System seem highly unlikely: a statistical fluke in a vast and empty cosmos.

I don’t think we’ll ever find a world exactly like Earth. But the ‘rare Earth’ debate has shifted to whether or not we’ll find life elsewhere. Planets are common as leaves on trees.

Moons are almost certainly common too: at least moons orbiting gas giants, like those in our Solar System.

We still don’t know how common or rare oversize moons like Earth’s are. I think finding a planet with a ‘too-big’ moon almost as soon as our instruments could detect such things is suggestive that near-doubles like Earth and Earth’s moon aren’t uncommon.

Psalms, Wisdom and Getting a Grip

I don’t see a point in trying to believe Orlando Ferguson’s imaginative variation on the Flat Earth theme.

His 1893 “Map of the Square and Stationary Earth…” came, I’ve read, complete with “four hundred passages in the Bible that condemn the Globe Theory, or the Flying Earth….” (Library of Congress)

I’m a Christian, a Catholic, so I take the Bible quite seriously. Reading Sacred Scripture is among my more pleasant obligations. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101133)

About God, the universe and attitudes, I’ll repeat what I say pretty often: I think God is right.

“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:31)

I don’t think studying this universe threatens faith.

That’s because I think God creates everything: and that we can learn more about God by studying what God makes.

What we’ve been learning during the last few centuries didn’t fit what many assumed must be true.

Some figured that since Mesopotamian astrologers had been wrong about how the universe looks, religion can’t be true.

Nobody, to my knowledge, actually put it that way, but that sort of thinking gave us Victorian political squabbles and eventually post-60s “creation science.” (March 31, 2017; October 28, 2016)

I’m a Catholic, so I figure God God creates everything. Truths we discover in this universe will fit those in our faith. Faith and science get along. (Genesis 1:131, Catechism, 3132, 3536, 159, 319, 1704)

Sometimes what we learn doesn’t match our preconceptions. Our new knowledge and assumptions we’d filed under ‘religious truths’ don’t harmonize. Not obviously. Not right away. But as Pope Leo XIII said, “truth cannot contradict truth:”

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])

Given time and effort, we’ll see how truths we learn by studying this universe fit into truths we already knew.

Trying to keep up with what we’re learning about this vast and ancient universe won’t force me to take God seriously. But a lively interest in science can’t interfere with my thinking God is large and in charge:

“All your works give you thanks, LORD and your faithful bless you.
“Our God is in heaven and does whatever he wills.”
(Psalms 115:3)

“They speak of the glory of your reign and tell of your mighty works,
“Making known to the sons of men your mighty acts, the majestic glory of your rule.”
(Psalms 145:1012)

“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.
“For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for you would not fashion what you hate.
“How could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?”
(Wisdom 11:2225)

“The beauty of the heavens and the glory of the stars,
a shining ornament in the heights of God.
“By the LORD’s command the moon keeps its appointed place,
and does not fade as the stars keep watch.”
(Sirach 28:910)

New worlds in this “grain from a balance:”

1 The first few millennia:

2 Newer ideas:

3 Studying new worlds:

4 It’s Greek:

5 Adding to older ideas:

6 New worlds:

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An Exomoon, Science and Truth

Kepler-1625b, a gas giant more massive than Jupiter, may have a moon. A big one: nearly Neptune’s size.

Scientists still aren’t sure that the exomoon exists. If it does, they have another puzzle: figuring out how it formed.

I started talking about Kepler-1625b and gibberish published in academic journals. That reminded me of fake fossils, alchemists and honest mistakes. Also truth and perceptions, how I see the last half-century — and why paying attention makes sense.

“A Grain of Sand”

I think God’s right.

The reality we call home is “very good.”

It’s also vast: from our viewpoint.

I’m okay with that.

Even if I wasn’t, my opinion wouldn’t outweigh God’s. Not even if I started a crowdfunded letter-writing campaign.

And, although our lives are “like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,” God notices us — and is patient.

“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:31)

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
“the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.”
(Psalms 19:2)

“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.
“For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for you would not fashion what you hate.”
(Wisdom 11:2224)

“What are mortals? What are they worth?
What is good in them, and what is evil?
“The number of their days seems great
if it reaches a hundred years.
“Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,
so are these few years among the days of eternity.
“That is why the Lord is patient with them
and pours out his mercy on them.”
(Sirach 18:811)

Since I think “the firmament proclaims the works of his hands,” I figure God doesn’t mind if we take an interest in this universe. If we’re doing it right, what we learn will lead us toward God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 3135, 283, 341, 2500)

Maybe my breezy assertion that someone can notice this universe and take God seriously needs explaining. Maybe not, but I’ll do it anyway.

Knowable Physical Laws

I figure science and religion should both value truth. That doesn’t strike me as a conflict of interest. Neither does the belief common to both that truth exists.

Granted, the “sixth day” Geneses 1:31 isn’t “true” — from a metaphor-phobic contemporary Western viewpoint.

I figure it was written a few thousand years before Comte de Buffon’s experiments. I’ll get back to that, maybe.

Now, about God, the universe and getting a grip —

I think God weaves knowable physical laws into everything we can observe. Studying this universe helps us understand those laws. What we do with our knowledge is up to us. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 301305; “Gaudium et spes,” 5, 15, Second Vatican Council, Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

I’ve run across claims that science says God doesn’t exist. That’s an oversimplification, but I figure you’ve seen them too. I don’t agree.

Science studies this universe: the parts of creation we can see or measure with our instruments. We’re learning when and how we began, and how this universe works. That’s a good thing, and part of being human. Like anything else we do, we can misuse science. It’s our choice. (Catechism, 31, 158159, 282284, 22932294)

We can’t study God the same way we study a salamander or a star, because God isn’t “in” this universe.

The Almighty is “here” in every time and place, but not located in any particular spot. We can and should know what we can about God. But we won’t fully understand the infinite, ineffable Creator. (Catechism, 31, 202, 212, 300)

That hasn’t kept folks from making remarkable claims.

Someone could, in principle, say that God doesn’t exist because two and two equals four. Unless you’re talking about rabbits, and that’s not quite another topic.

That’d be daft, and I hope most folks wouldn’t take the ‘arithmetic disproves religion’ claim seriously. But a remarkable number think science and religion are at war, so maybe I’m overly-optimistic about common sense.

Dishonest scientists, flimflammers with a scientific facade and mountebanks with religious trimmings happen. But I don’t think the occasional scientific hoax means all scientists are con artists. The same goes for religion-themed malfeasance.

The problem isn’t science or religion. It’s us. We were “very good,” at first. We still are, basically. But something went wrong. (September 19, 2018)


Folks like Albertus Magnus studied alchemy because they wanted to learn more about the elements of this world.

Most of them, that is. A few too many started hawking elixirs and panaceas, which encouraged serious alchemists to start calling what they did chemistry.

Others may have believed they’d found an elixir of life. Their claim wouldn’t be true, but I don’t think they were lying either. (October 16, 2016)

I figure at least some slanted or simply wrong results, alchemical and otherwise, are honest mistakes: not deliberate hoaxes.

Kepler-1625b’s Exomoon: New Evidence and Analysis

(From Dan Durda, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Artwork: There’s nothing like this planet-moon pair in our Solar System”
(BBC News))

First ‘exomoon’ may have been found
Paul Rincon, BBC News (October 4, 2018)

Astronomers have announced the possible discovery of the first known moon outside our Solar System.

“This ‘exomoon’ is not like any in our cosmic neighbourhood: it’s the size of Neptune and orbits a planet the size of Jupiter – but with 10 times the mass.

“The object was spotted in data from Nasa’s Kepler spacecraft, and later observed using the Hubble telescope.

“Astronomers David Kipping and Alex Teachey have published their results in Science Advances journal.

“But they say that further observations are needed to understand the distant planetary system.

“‘We’ve tried our best to rule out other possibilities such as spacecraft anomalies, other planets in the system or stellar activity, but we’re unable to find any other single hypothesis which can explain all of the data we have,’ said Dr Kipping, from Columbia University in New York….”

Science Advances published Kipping and Teachey’s paper on October 3, 2018. That makes what they say “news.” Finding evidence that a moon orbits an exoplanet, not so much.

J1407b and WASP-12b may have moons. MOA-2011-BLG-262, too, but it may be a brown dwarf; not a planet.1

It’s not even the first time someone said that Kepler-1625b might have a moon.

Scientists spotted the exoplanet on May 10, 2016.

Data from the Kepler Mission showed that Kepler-1625 dimmed every 287 days. 287 and a third, actually. It stayed dimmer for 19 hours each time. The most likely explanation is that something about Jupiter’s size orbits Kepler-1625. And, maybe, that something not quite as big orbits the planet.2


Astronomers call something passing between us and a star a transit.

Transits let scientists measure how big an exoplanet is. Sometimes they can learn about the planet’s atmosphere, too.

On the ‘down’ side, transits happen only when an exoplanet’s orbit happens to take it almost exactly between its star and our Solar System. The odds are about one half of one percent that astronomers in some random planetary system could detect Earth this way.

Not that planetary systems are “random.” What I mean is that we’ve got about a half-percent chance of a planet’s orbital plane lining up with our Solar System, with the star picked out of a hat. Not that stars would fit in someone’s hat. That’s another figure of speech and another topic.

Where was I? Kepler-1625, exoplanets, exomoons, Kipping and Teachey, stars and hats. Right.

Scientists designed the Kepler spacecraft’s instruments to detect changes in a star’s brightness. Analyzing the changes would sort out the ones caused by transiting planets. Only a couple thousand of the 150,000 stars Kepler observed have confirmed planets. A few more thousand ‘possibles’ may be planets, or something else.3

Unlike anything in the Solar System

Scientists have measured Kepler-1625b’s transits four times so far.

The first three gave more information about Kepler-1625b, including what Kipping and Teachey called “hints” that the exoplanet had a moon. They asked for, and got, time on the Hubble Space Telescope for Kepler-1625b’s next transit. That happened on October 28 and 29, 2017.

We’ve got a great deal left to learn about Kepler-1625 and -1625b: including exactly how big, bright and far away the star is.

We know that it’s several thousand light-years out, in the general direction of Deneb. It’s almost certainly closer to Deneb than it is to us, but we’re not sure by how much.

The last time I checked, Wikipedia’s Kepler-1625 page started by saying it’s “approximately 4,000 light years away.”

The same page’s Observation data table gave 2,182 parsecs as the distance. That’s around 7,117 light-years.

My guess is that the first sentence’s distance came from a less-precise analysis. Or it could be a typo. Maybe someone updated the page’s data table later, but hasn’t changed the introduction yet. Or maybe not.

Scientists have good reasons for studying Kepler-1625b. It’s a gas giant orbiting at or near the inner edge of the star’s habitable zone. There’s nothing like it in our Solar System. We didn’t know planets like that existed until recently.4

It’s probably a gas giant, I should say. Any more massive than what’s likely from current observations, and it’d be a brown dwarf. And that’s yet another topic.

If Kepler-1625b has a Neptune-mass moon, which still isn’t certain, scientists will have another puzzle on their hands. That’s helped make the last few centuries exciting for some, disturbing for others. I get the impression that at least one new puzzle shows up for every one we solve.

The Moon That Shouldn’t Exist

We’ve gone from seeing one planetary system to finding thousands, with more being confirmed almost as fast as we can update the catalogs. Faster, sometimes.

Some planetary systems look like our Solar System. Most, so far, don’t. That’s helping scientists learn more about how planets form. (July 14, 2018; June 30, 2017)

What we’re learning explains most of what’s being found. Most, not all. Scientists still haven’t worked out the math for accretion disk physics, for example. But considering that we’ve found protoplanetary disks, accretion disks, and what look like newly-formed planetary systems, my guess is that the nebular hypothesis isn’t far from the mark.5

Then there’s Kepler-1625b’s not-yet-confirmed moon. According to current models, it shouldn’t exist.

Maybe it doesn’t.

Kipping and Teachey say they made allowances for hardware and math glitches. They also say they can’t be sure they didn’t miss one. And that they’d found “evidence in favor of the moon hypothesis” — not proof that the moon is there.

I figure we’ll learn a great deal from studying Kepler-1625’s planetary system. More, if scientists confirm that the planet has a moon that shouldn’t be there.

Data, Analysis and Noise

(From Alex Teachey, David M. Kipping; via Science Magazine, used w/o permission.)
(Five ways Teachey and Kipping adjusted to known errors, trends in this case, in Hubble data.)

Charts in Teachy and Kipping’s paper aren’t nearly as neat and clean as illustrations showing how transit photometry works.

Naturally enough, since they’re dealing with data from the real world, not simplified diagrams.

Other charts show how they handled oddities in Hubble data that “not yet been correlated to any physical parameter” in the space telescope’s observations.

Their paper’s attitude is pretty much the opposite of Lowell’s confident ‘Martian canal’ assertions, or Priestly’s diehard defense of phlogiston theory. I don’t blame them a bit for being cautious. If their analysis is right, Kepler-1625b’s moon is big. Very big.

“…One jarring aspect of the system is the sheer scale of it. … This Neptune-like moon orbits a planet with a size fully compatible with that of Jupiter at (11.4 ± 1.5) R⊕, but most likely a few times more massive….”
(Alex Teachey, David M. Kipping (October 3, 2018))

Folks studying Kepler-1625b are looking at subtle features in a weak and noisy signal. It’s sort of like listening to an AM radio station in it’s fringe area.

Only a little light from Kepler-1625 reaches our Solar System. The star’s light doesn’t change much, and there’s a lot of noise in the signal.

Observed changes in Kepler-1625’s brightness that aren’t obviously related to a planet, like sunspots.

Or something else orbiting the star: other planets, dust clouds, a clumpy asteroid belt or crowds of comets — or maybe a planet-size analog of our ISS.

That last isn’t, I think, likely.

But a few scientists who had been studying KIC 8462852, Tabby’s Star, said we shouldn’t ignore the possibility. Others have said maybe the KIC 8462852 object(s) is/are a big planet with really big rings. And maybe asteroid swarms. Or something else.

I like the ‘alien megastructure’ idea, and think the scientists who suggested it are right. Looking at the data makes sense. Dismissing explanations that fit the data doesn’t. (December 2, 2016)

Getting back to the challenges of observing Kepler-1625b, the telescope’s equipment adds still more noise. The problem isn’t unique to orbiting telescopes.

Folks at the Parkes, Australia, observatory picked up the same odd Fast Radio Burst at fairly regular intervals for 17 years. Someone eventually traced it to a microwave oven in the observatory’s break room. (July 28, 2017)

Gibberish Accepted and Published: Again

(From Mike Nayna, via The Atlantic, used w/o permission.)
(“James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian, the scholars behind the hoax”
(The Atlantic))

What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia
Yascha Mounk, The Atlantic (October 5, 2018)

“Over the past 12 months, three scholars—James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian—wrote 20 fake papers using fashionable jargon to argue for ridiculous conclusions, and tried to get them placed in high-profile journals in fields including gender studies, queer studies, and fat studies. Their success rate was remarkable: By the time they took their experiment public late on Tuesday, seven of their articles had been accepted for publication by ostensibly serious peer-reviewed journals. Seven more were still going through various stages of the review process. Only six had been rejected.

“We’ve been here before.

In the late 1990s, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, began a soon-to-be-infamous article by setting out some of his core beliefs….”

I don’t know about Sokal’s thoroughly-bogus paper expressing “his core beliefs.”

He sent “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies — apparently to see whether they’d swallow the gibberish. They did. Hook, line and sinker.

In fairness, Sokal is a physics professor. Social Text was a journal focusing on North American cultural studies. Maybe the editors figured that they wouldn’t understand what a physics professor said about physics — and saw that he used currently-cool buzzwords.

But I’ll agree with Yascha Mounk. “We’ve been here before.”

Gibberish getting accepted as scholarship and research isn’t new.

I wrote about allegedly-scientific research with results that couldn’t be replicated last year. The good news was that quite a few scientists had noticed and were correcting the problem by the time it hit the news. (April 28, 2017)

I figure that academia has the same problem as science and fast food franchises. They all employ humans.

Some of us aren’t entirely honest. Some are too confident for our own good. We’re all humans, which is good news and not-so-good news. (September 19, 2018)

This is where I could lament those long-lost days of yore, when scholars were clothed in truth and scientists were free from human failings.

I won’t. My memory’s too good. Bogus claims are far from new. More about that later.

What Mounk called “the sheer craziness of the papers” reminded me of attitudes and beliefs I saw while in academia. They didn’t seem reasonable then. They still don’t.

And I’m pretty sure the crazy ideas don’t seem unreasonable to folks who sincerely believe they’re true. Or relevant. Or inclusive. Or whatever buzzword is currently in vogue.

Sokal Squared, Physics and — Feminist Astrology?!

Non Sequitur’s Danae has a point, sort of. The laws of physics aren’t ‘democratic.’ We didn’t vote on whether we wanted gravity.

“…In the months after Sokal went public, Social Text was much ridiculed. But its influence—and that of the larger ‘deconstructivist’ mode of inquiry it propagated—continued to grow. Indeed, many academic departments that devote themselves to the study of particular ethnic, religious, and sexual groups are deeply inflected by some of Social Text’s core beliefs, including the radical subjectivity of knowledge.

“That’s why Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian set out to rerun the original hoax, only on a much larger scale. Call it Sokal Squared….

“…The sheer craziness of the papers the authors concocted makes this fact all the more shocking. One of their papers reads like a straightforward riff on the Sokal Hoax. Dismissing ‘western astronomy’ as sexist and imperialist, it makes a case for physics departments to study feminist astrology—or practice interpretative dance—instead….

“…Like just about everything else in this depressing national moment, Sokal Squared is already being used as ammunition in the great American culture war….”
(Yascha Mounk, The Atlantic (October 5, 2018)[emphasis mine])

I’ll be talking about what Mounk calls “Sokal Squared,” but not as a partisan in America’s “culture war.” I’m not a gung-ho supporter of either side.

Maybe that’s why I don’t quite see today’s America as a “depressing national moment.”

Part of the reason, anyway. I’d be considerably more morose if I wanted more of the last few decades — or felt that America must return to the 1950s.

We’re experiencing change on a scale that reminds me of the 1960s. It’s an edgy era.

I think that’s true of any time when folks experience rapid change.

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’…”
(Grace Hopper; quoted in “The Wit and Wisdom of Grace Hopper,” Philip Schieber, OCLC Newsletter (March/April 1987))

“Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.”
(Richard Hooker, quoted in Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” (1755))

I’m a very emotional man. Changes, particularly those affecting something I care about, can be unsettling. Even when they’re changes I like.

There’s nothing wrong with emotions. Experiencing them is part of being human. So is thinking, using reason. Feeling nervous may tell me that something needs my attention. But feelings aren’t good or bad by themselves. It’s what I decide to do that matters. (Catechism, 17621770)

Feeling uncomfortable is nearly inevitable if I pay any attention to current events. Letting those feelings take control is an option, but not a good one.

I see no problem with having well-defined beliefs and acting like they matter — if I remember that loving my neighbor also matters, and that everyone’s my neighbor. Even folks who disagree with me.

Feeling that anyone who doesn’t share my beliefs must be Satan incarnate, a Nazi, or an intolerant and intolerable bigot? That could be a problem. And yet again another topic.

“The Radical Subjectivity of Knowledge”

What’s true for me may not be true for you. Sometimes.

Take driving on the right-hand side of the road as an example. Right-hand driving is legal for me. That’s true for folks living in many countries. But it’s not true for places like Australia, Bhutan or Suriname.

Right- or left-hand traffic is a rule folks make up to make driving safer. It’s not on a par with scientific laws. But it matters.

I doubt that even the most dedicated denizen of academia’s outer limits would say ‘designated parking is subjective, do whatever you like.’

Not after the first undergrad parked in the faculty lot, at any rate.

Some truths are even more subjective than traffic and parking regulations. Like which movies and books are “good” in the sense of being worth seeing or reading.

I have a pretty good idea of what makes a book or movie “good.” That doesn’t make “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Ngaio Marsh mysteries “good” for everyone.

I figure that personal taste, social and legal rules, and scientific laws all reflect truth. But they don’t all reflect the same facet or layer of truth. (April 28, 2017)

Some “truths” are unique to an individual or a culture. Some are always true, no matter who I am, how I live or what I believe. No act of Congress could nullify the law of gravity or make Earth flat. That’s beyond even the United States Supreme Court’s authority.

The “truth is subjective” bandwagon might look good to folks fleeing “God agrees with me” zealots. But losing track of distinctions between personal taste and God’s unchanging laws isn’t a good idea.

About those unchanging laws: the ones involving me are simple. I should love God and my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

That’s it: simple, easy to remember. And incredibly hard to do.

I suspect that old-school zealots and today’s “subjective truth” scholars have more in common than their knack for annoying unbelievers. They’ve known and enjoyed success.

“…success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary.”
(Akiro the Wizard, “Conan the Barbarian” (1982))

Science and Faith — Pursuing Truth

The scholarly editors who published gibberish weren’t scientists. It’d be nice if scientists didn’t make mistakes like that, but they’ve occasionally blundered too.

I figure that’s because they’re human, not proof that science and scholarship are bad.

Liberal arts scholars and scientists share some traits. Or should.

When they’re doing their job, they pursue truth. I think that’s a good idea.

Valuing truth isn’t just my preference. It’s something I must do if I’m going to take my faith seriously.

Because I’m a Catholic, I must willingly accept and embrace truth: all truth, including truth we find in the natural world. (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 142150, 2500)

Folks can be “Catholic” without sharing my fascination with science. But I don’t see a point in ignoring the wonders surrounding us, including those we’re finding today.

Sometimes we find something that doesn’t fit what we thought was true. That’s been happening quite a bit lately.

Studying God’s Work

Benjamin Franklin and Pope Leo XIII said pretty much the same thing about truth:

“…truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))

“…Truth will be Truth tho’ it sometimes prove mortifying and distasteful.”
(Benjamin Franklin (1725))

What physical science and archaeology were showing us in Pope Leo XIII’s day made some folk uneasy.

Particularly what we were learning about evolution. Our new knowledge didn’t fit what many had thought was true.

Leo XIII pointed out that God is “Creator and Ruler of all things” and “Author of the Scriptures.” If we don’t understand how new knowledge fits what’s in the Bible, we’ve got a new puzzle to solve. And we will solve it, eventually. Without chucking our faith.

Some folks, including some Catholics, disapprove of evolution. And science in general. I’m not sure why.

I suspect punctured pride accounts for some anti-evolution sentiments. That, and a Gnostic diffidence toward physical realities. (April 21, 2018; March 26, 2018)

Finding truth in this universe shouldn’t surprise Christians. Genesis 1:131 says that it’s made by God, and that it’s all “very good.” I don’t see a point in disagreeing with God’s assessment — or ignoring what we’ve learned since the 1860s.

I figure learning more about our physical origins means that we know more about the “dust” we’re made from.

Like I said earlier, all truth points toward God. (Genesis 2:7; Catechism, 3135, 41, 74, 2500)

Finding new-to-us signposts pointing towards God shouldn’t be a problem.

I don’t know what’s behind ‘old is good, new is bad’ sentiments. Or the unwillingness to learn new views.

Folks were skittish about science and their Biblical assumptions long before Darwin. Some folks, that is.

Albertus Magnus, I mentioned him earlier, got a posthumous reputation as a magician. The ‘summon demons’ sort, not a performer who pulls rabbits out of hats.

Folks using his name to boost the reputation of books like “Secreta Alberti” didn’t help.

Neither, I think, did the silly sides of cultural and intellectual upheavals we call the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Or folks who seem convinced that their favorite English-language Bible translation is the only “real” one.

I’m not bothered by the idea that the Bible wasn’t written by Americans or Englishmen, and that we’ve learned a bit since Mesopotamian astrologers were studying the stars.

I figure God’s large and in charge. What we learn, anything we learn, isn’t going to threaten an informed faith — or God.

Now, finally, about the “sixth day” thing in Genesis — and what we’ve learned since the 17th century.

Ussher’s 1650 Bible study pegged Creation’s date and time as near the autumnal equinox in 4004 BC.

About a century later, the Comte de Buffon published results of his experiments, along with an analysis that said Earth was about 75,000 years old.

The Sorbonne promptly condemned his analysis. It was insufficiently “Biblical,” maybe. As it turns out, the Comte de Buffon was wrong.

Earth is lots older, by several powers of ten. (November 3, 2017; March 10, 2017)

The Comte also had ideas about human origins that likely made more sense in 18th century France than 21st century America. That’s a can of worms I’ll leave for another day.

I figure Ussher and de Buffon both believed what they wrote. Their publications weren’t hoaxes. They were, I think, honest mistakes.

Hoaxes, “Sea-Dragons” and Imagination

Johann Beringer’s “Lithographiae Wirceburgensis” started as a hoax. Or maybe a practical joke. One that led to an honest mistake; followed by more fakery, and tenacity — or something — above and beyond the call of reason.

The trouble started in 1725.

Two of Beringer’s colleagues made little critter carvings from limestone.

They inscribed some with the name of God, in Hebrew: planting them where Beringer went fossil-hunting. Beringer found and studied the fakes, publishing a book about his discoveries in 1726.

Nobody knew much about fossils at the time. That may explain why he didn’t realize they were phony.

And maybe why he thought God had signed some of them. Maybe.

He kept insisting that he must be right, even after the hoaxers left increasingly blatant fakes and finally told him what they’d done.

I don’t know why Beringer seemed so unwilling to re-think his original idea. Sliding from confidence into mulish stubbornness seems likely. Maybe because I’m stubborn. I could be projecting my problems.

Beringer wasn’t the last to try mixing science and faith. With regrettable results.

Thomas Hawkins probably meant well when he wrote “The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons….” (May 5, 2017)

His florid prose may have influenced H. P. Lovecraft. Not Hawkins’ style — Lovecraft is positively terse compared to Hawkins’ 1840 exercise in grandiloquent garrulity. It’s the book’s apparent attitude toward “…Dragon Pterodactyles flitting in the hot air with Vampire Wing….” (January 28, 2018)

Today’s “creation science” popped up in the 1960s. A remarkable number of folks take it seriously. I don’t. More accurately, I think it’s a tribute to human imagination. And an embarrassment to Christians who accept the reality we all share. (March 31, 2017)

Wanting allegedly-scientific support for cherished notions isn’t limited to religious folks.

Cephalic Index: Science and Biases

Cephalic index is what you get by multiplying a head’s width by 100 and dividing by the head’s length.

I see it as a number we can use to sort critters into categories.

It fell out of favor in the 1960s. Partly, I think, because scientists had found data and analysis methods that were more useful. Cephalic index getting hijacked by ethnic chauvinists didn’t help its reputation.

By itself, cephalic index is harmless. It’s a simple analysis of data. Trouble started when someone noticed that Europeans generally have longer heads than most other folks.

Mixing that observation with 19th and early 20th century Western biases did science and European-based cultures no favors. My opinion. (March 10, 2017)

Boston Brahmins and Euro-Americans generally don’t have a monopoly on letting self-esteem slide into favoritism and narrow-mindedness. Feeling more comfortable around ‘folks like me’ isn’t a problem.

Forgetting that we’re all made “in the image of God,” with a share of humanity’s transcendent dignity — that’s a problem. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism, 357, 1700, 19291933)

Echo Chambers

“I’ve got standards, you’re biased, he’s crazy. Or stupid. Maybe both.”

Feeling that anyone who disagrees with me is stupid or crazy is easy. But I don’t think it’s a good idea. Neither is trying to isolate myself from folks who don’t think and act like me.

“Consciously or unconsciously, the strategy of true believers is to isolate themselves from skeptics.”
“Voodoo Science,” p. 122; Robert L. Park (2000) via wikiquote)

Earning a paycheck as a beet chopper, radio DJ, copywriter, and whatever else came along kept me from getting too comfortable anywhere. My eclectic job history introduced me to folks with backgrounds and views that weren’t much like mine.

Some were very smart folks who didn’t agree with me on faith, social norms, or politics. That helped me learn to be careful about what I believe. Careful, not timid.

I’ve seldom if ever lived in an echo chamber, surrounded by like-minded upholders of decency, grooviness, or whatever. says “echo chamber” is an Americanism dating from the mid-1930s. Back then it meant a room for recording echoes or hollow sound effects.

Today it means a closed community, folks who don’t mingle with outsiders any more than they must. By itself, I don’t see that as a problem. Some, not all, religious orders are closed communities: Trappists, for example.

I think trouble can start when members of a closed community forget that there are outsiders. Or think that folks outside the community are “outsiders:” city slickers, country bumpkins, social justice warriors, Repugnicans, or worse.

Assumptions like that might encourage noticing outsiders only to confirm that they’re stupid, crazy, or just plain bad.

Echo chambers as a term for closed communities may be new. Closed systems and a desire to conform isn’t. Peer pressure and misdirected ambition are ancient issues.

“You shall not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When testifying in a lawsuit, you shall not follow the crowd in perverting justice.”
(Exodus 23:2)

“If rulers listen to lying words,
their servants all become wicked.”
(Proverbs 29:12)

“Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”
(Romans 12:2)

The Establishment, Then and Now

America has changed since my youth.

So has “the establishment,” a term that probably popped up in the 1950s or 60s. According to Philip Maughan anyway, and that’s an etymological rabbit hole I’ll leave for another time.

Mid-1950s to early-1960s America was no more monolithic than today’s.

Some folks in top government, business and academic circles were anything but hidebound conservatives. But I suspect McCarthyism succeeded partly because ‘everybody knew’ that “right” politics were always right. And that deviation from the “right” politics was anti-American.

That and other debacles helped convince many Americans, including me, that we needed change. Which is what we got, starting in the 1960s.

Focusing on some of my preferences and attitudes, I could believe that what this country needs is more Sixties-era ideals. And that any deviation from lockstep conformity to the principles of individual liberty and social activism will doom the environment. Or inclusiveness. Or, perhaps worst of all, seem “intolerant.”

“Individual liberty” being defined as freedom to agree with me and avoid doing anything I find annoying or unsettling.

I don’t want that, partly because I remember what happened when conservatives were running the show. “Free to agree with me” wasn’t freedom then. It isn’t now.

Cherry picking other attitudes, I could believe that we must return to the Golden Age before 1967, 1954, 1848 or some other arbitrary date.

That’s not possible.

We can’t return to yesteryear, except in memory. Time doesn’t work that way.

We’ve never had a Golden Age. Nobody has.

Even if I could drag us back to days of yore, I wouldn’t. Not if I had any sense. The America of my youth wasn’t all bad, but reforms were overdue. Some were long overdue.

What we called ‘the establishment’ then had good reason to fear many — maybe most — reforms. They’d become accustomed to the perks and privileges of the status quo.

We’ve got a new ‘establishment,’ with different preferences and slogans — and pretty much the same old perks and privileges.

Details are different. But I see the same old distaste for dissent and desire for control. And aversion to change.

But distasteful or not, change is happening. I think that’s a good thing, provided that we learn from past mistakes.

And take at least an occasional stroll outside our convivial echo chambers.

It’s a big world. Paying attention makes sense:

1 Exoplanets and, maybe, their moons:

2 Studying Kepler-1625:

3 Finding new worlds:

4 Big planets, new categories:

5 Learning how stars and planets begin:

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Death, Funerals — and Life

We celebrated my father-in-law’s funeral a week after his death. I’d planned on writing about that, and probably will. But not today. I ended up talking about funerals in general, Psalms and science — it’s about as linear as most of my posts:


Saying that we “celebrated” may sound inappropriate at best, even disrespectful. It’s not.

I’m a Catholic who speaks English and lives in America, so the verb I use to describe what we did is “celebrate.”

It makes sense, considering how we view life, death and sacraments.

Sacraments, in the Catholic sense, are something we do because our Lord said they’re important. Really important:

SACRAMENT “Efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church….”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, p. 898)

A funeral is the sacrament where we look back at our Lord’s last Passover, and ahead to “…the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” (Catechism, 1680)

It’s a ‘journey’s end’ event, a sort of going away party; a chance for family and friends to help each other through the loss. (Catechism, 16811690)

Some parts of Catholic funerals are always the same. We’ll read from the Bible, receive the Eucharist, and commend the deceased to God. (Catechism, 16841690)

Some details reflect regional cultures and traditions. (Catechism, 1685)

That’s because the Catholic Church really is καθολικός, katholikos, universal. What’s important in our faith hasn’t changed, and won’t. How we live our faith, the details, changes as our cultures change. (February 4, 2018; October 15, 2017)

11th century Bremen isn’t 21st century Minnesota, or 31st century who-knows-where. And that’s okay.

“Funeral Orgies”

A lack of over-the-top eulogies is among the more obvious differences between Catholic funerals and America’s old-school funeral obsequies. Or “orgies,” as a con man said in Huckleberry Finn.

“‘…Orgies is better, because it means the thing you’re after more exact….'”
(“Huckleberry Finn,” Chapter 25, Mark Twain)

Most Catholic funerals, that is.

I was at a funeral Mass where some of the bereaved folks came up front for a few words. One of them launched into a lengthy and impassioned panegyric. She finally got winded and sat down.

That was the first and last time I saw folks come up front to say their piece at a Catholic funeral. Not that I’ve been to many, Catholic or otherwise.

I don’t doubt that the overly-enthusiastic eulogist was sincere, and quite possibly accurate. But impassioned and seemingly-interminable monologues like that are embarrassing, at least for me. Sharing good memories is one thing. Laying them on with a trowel is another.

Maybe that’s why my father-in-law said ‘don’t let them canonize me’ to the parish priest. The priest mentioned that remark at some point, I don’t remember when.

There’s a time and place for sharing memories of who our family member, friend, associate or neighbor was, and what that person did.

How we share has been changing since I started paying attention. Photo displays are, to my knowledge, only a few decades old. Some now include digital media.

Getting ready for these remembrances may be easier when we’re dealing with someone like my father-in-law.

But it’s never, I think, easy.

Folks in my household and extended family have been putting together photo montages and other memento collections: some of which have been displayed in his house. One of my brothers-in-law was showing folks around the house after the wake.

I don’t have a problem with that sort of thing.

Maybe because I’ve yet to experience one that’s like the “orgies” in old jokes. I don’t see a point in describing a philanthropist, font of wisdom and all-round good guy who’s pretty much the opposite of the irascible old coot being buried.

Enough, maybe too much, of what can go wrong with “funeral orgies.”

Death: It’s Inevitable

Folks can be uneasy about funerals and death at almost any age.

Or excessively fascinated.

No two people, likely enough, respond the same way. Which era we’re in, where we’ve been living, our experiences, personalities and beliefs affect each of us differently. (April 11, 2018; November 11, 2016)

I’m well past this life’s midpoint, so my anxieties and interests aren’t quite like a child’s or youth’s. But they’re probably not that much different, either. Not when I step back and look at the big picture.

I see death as something that happens. It’s inevitable, or nearly so. Exceptions, like Elijah’s spectacular departure in 2 Kings 2:814, are — exceptional. I’ve talked about miracles, peanut butter and comic strips before. (August 13, 2017)

I can’t reasonably expect heavenly limousine service, with or without “a fiery chariot and fiery horses.” Death? That’s something I can expect. It’s inevitable.

How I see death may take a little explaining, starting with how I see faith and reason, science and religion.

Psalms and Copernicus — and H. P. Lovecraft

If you’ve read my ‘science and religion’ posts, you know that I think this universe is filled with wonders, and that learning more about it is a good idea. Science and faith both seek truth, or should. (January 28, 2018; October 29, 2017)

Noticing and appreciating this universe isn’t new. We’ve known all along that we live in a good, beautiful and vast world — and been impressed.

“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:31)

“You adorn the year with your bounty; your paths drip with fruitful rain.
“The meadows of the wilderness also drip; the hills are robed with joy.”
(Psalms 65:1213)

“How great are your works, LORD!
How profound your designs!”
(Psalms 92:6)

Some realized that what we see points toward God. Others were overly impressed by the show, and didn’t notice “the original source of beauty….” (Wisdom 13:3)

“Praise him, sun and moon;
“praise him, all shining stars.”
(Psalms 148:3)

“Instead either fire, or wind, or the swift air,
or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water,
or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods.
“Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them.”
(Wisdom 13:23)

The sun and moon haven’t changed much since Psalms 148 was composed, or Aristotle said that we live at the center of the universe. Or the bottom, if you’re thinking about Aristotelian physics

What we know about the sun, moon and beyond has changed; particularly in the five centuries since Copernicus wrote “Dē revolutionibus….”

I’m fascinated by what we’re learning. But that’s not the only possible reaction to “such terrifying vistas of reality.”

“…The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age….”
(“The Call of Cthulhu,” H. P. Lovecraft (1929); via WikiQuote)

Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” isn’t on a par with Thomas Paine’s “Reason” or J. B. S. Haldane’s “Fact and Faith.” But I think it echoes how folks deal with our new horizons. Some folks, that is.

I might be scared of what we’re learning, if I imagined that my fate depended on Aristotle being right. Or that philosophers and scientists create or control reality: that Earth really was in the center of celestial spheres when Aristotle said it was, and stated orbiting our sun when Copernicus wrote about his theory.

I have no idea whether anyone really believes that. On the other hand, a few folks insist that Earth is flat, and that’s another topic.

I figure that no philosopher or scientist can change reality’s source code. Humans can understand the physical laws of this universe. Inventors can use that knowledge to develop new tools. It’s part of being human. So is having a thirst for truth. (Catechism, 27, 2293)

Science and faith both assume that absolute truth exists. But, as a science editor pointed out, they look at different aspects of truth:

“…It’s something too many of us forget, that reality has layers. Occasionally people ask me how I can be Catholic and a science journalist. The answer is simple: Truth does not contradict truth. Both science and religion are pursuit of truth. They’re after different aspects of truth, different layers of reality, but they’re still both fundamentally about truth.

“We assume that there’s a right and a wrong way to describe the universe. … Quantum mechanics is right or it’s wrong. It isn’t right for some folks and wrong for others. Truth is truth whether we know the truth or not: Earth revolved around the sun even when people thought it was the other way around.

“Science teaches us, in other words, that absolute truth exists. It doesn’t tell us why, or Who that Truth is. Science is a marvelous tool, but in our marveling we must not forget that science is our interaction with and understanding of physical reality. It’s immensely powerful, but it’s not metaphysical….”
(“Science and faith offer different but kindred paths to grasping reality,” Camille M. Carlisle, Sky and Telescope (June 2017))

We didn’t have all the answers when Copernican theory upset Aristotelian applecarts. We still don’t. But we’ve learned a bit more.

We learned that planetary orbits aren’t perfectly circular. We discovered that Copernicus was right, to an extent. This universe isn’t centered on Earth, or our sun. Most of it isn’t even in our galaxy.

I don’t mind living in a universe that’s neither geocentric nor heliocentric.

I figure God is still large and in charge. This is also not a new idea.

“Terrible and awesome are you,
stronger than the ancient mountains.”
(Psalms 76:5)

“Yours are the heavens, yours the earth;
you founded the world and everything in it.”
(Psalms 89:12)

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”
(Wisdom 11:22)

“His gaze spans all the ages:
is there any limit to his saving action?
To him, nothing is small or insignificant,
and nothing too wonderful or hard for him.”
(Sirach 39:20)

I figure Pope Leo XIII and St. Augustine of Hippo are right.

God creates everything. We don’t have all the answers. Using our brains is okay. So is studying God’s creation. Scientific discoveries are invitations “to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator….” (Catechism, 283)

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])

“Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air…. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.’…
“…So in this way they arrived at a knowledge of the god who made things, through the things which he made.”
(Sermon 241, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 411))

Accepting Truth

I’m a Catholic, so I don’t have much wiggle room when faith and science are in play.

I see faith as accepting truth and God. All truth, including what we’re learning about God’s creation. (Catechism, 142159, 282289, 341)

Deciding that I’ll believe the bits I like, and reject truths I don’t isn’t an option. Not if I’m going to be a Catholic.

Even if I felt like it, rejecting what we’re learning wouldn’t make sense. As I’ve said before, faith isn’t reason. But it’s reasonable, and certainly not against an honest search for truth. (Catechism, 3135, 159; “Fides et Ratio;” “Gaudium et Spes,” 36)

Happily, I like living in a universe that’s vast and ancient on a cosmic scale.

I also like having a body.

The notion that there’s something basically bad about bodies, or anything physical, goes back at least two dozen centuries. Variations with a Christian spin keep cropping up, sort of like bindweed. (April 21, 2018; April 15, 2018)

Cherophobiac cognoscenti — there’s a tongue-twister for you — aside, matter isn’t basically bad. Having a body isn’t a problem. Humans are body and soul, and this is “very good.” (Genesis 1:27, 31; Catechism, 285, 337349, 355373, 285, 1703)

I’m human, so my soul is spiritual and immortal, created by God. (Catechism, 366)

Like every other human, I’m a creature made from the stuff of this world and God’s ‘breath.’ We’re made in the image of God, with a body and “equally endowed with rational souls.” (Catechism, 355379, 872, 1703, 1880, 1934, 19341937)

Being both spiritual and material isn’t good or bad. Not by itself. What matters is how I use my reason and will: what I decide to believe and do. (Catechism, 17041707, 1730, 18521869)

I could try believing that death doesn’t happen, that my body will keep living forever. Since I’m a Catholic, that’s almost what I expect, but not quite.

My body will die, and that’s where it gets interesting. After I die, I’ll be someone whose soul and body are separated. It’s a temporary condition. (Catechism, 991, 9971001)

Life and Expectations

I’m not sure which is more comforting, or unsettling — believing that I stop existing when I die, or that I’ll live forever.

Seeing this life as all that there is could let me think I can do whatever I like, with consequences limited to what happens before I die.

That could mean good times for me, with cleanup left as a chore for someone else.

An anthropomorphized “All Dogs Go to Heaven” theology could have the same effect, provided I didn’t think too much about justice and all that.

Predestination is another can of worms. One that I’ve talked about before. You’ll find “Predestination” in the inevitable link list after this post.

Living forever will be good news or bad news, depending partly on what I’ve done with my life. But I won’t be dragged, kicking and screaming, into Heaven if I don’t want to go.

It’s my choice, one I’ll make at the performance review we call the particular judgment. I’m not looking forward to it, since my record is far from spotless, but it’s unavoidable. (Catechism, 10211037, 10421050)

My soul and body will be rejoined in time for the Final Judgment. How resurrection gets done is something I don’t know. Not the nuts-and-bolts operational details. I can’t. God does, which works for me. (Catechism, 9971004, 1031, 10421050, 1059)

Judgment Day Silliness

I’m not sure why so many Christians, including the occasional Catholic Christian, believe that they’ve got inside information on the Final Judgement’s timetable.

Folks who buy ‘End Times are Nigh’ books aren’t all like Non Sequitur’s Lucky Eddie. Some are smart, some are well-read.

My guess, and it’s no more than a guess, is that many never got around to thinking hard about what they believe and why they believe it. Or don’t realize how often another ‘End Times’ prognostication flares, fizzles and fades.

It’s been several months since I ran into an in-progress “rapture” prediction, so we’re probably due for another one.

“Rapture,” by the way, is one of America’s contributions to world culture. Along with Mickey Mouse and Marlboro cigarettes, and that’s yet another topic. Topics.

I don’t take America’s perennial ‘End Times Bible Prophecies’ seriously, apart from the effect they have on folks. And as opportunities to talk about what I do, and don’t, expect.

I think the Final Judgment will happen. I don’t know when that will be. That’s fine by me.

I’ve read what our Lord said, recorded in Matthew 24:3644, 25:13; and Mark 13:3233.

Details of the Final Judgment’s timetable seem to be available on a ‘need to know’ basis. The Son of God didn’t need to know, so I sure don’t.

Looking Past “These Few Years”

(From Albert Robida, via the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons. Used w/o permission.)
(Albert Robida’s 1902 print: “La Sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000.”)

I very strongly suspect that most efforts at imagining what’s next are about as accurate as Albert Robida’s flying cars. That hasn’t kept folks from trying. Revelation 21 seems to be a favorite starting point, and that’s yet again another topic.

Whatever it’s like, I expect it’ll be better than I expect. Better than I can expect.

“Those who trust in him shall understand truth,
and the faithful shall abide with him in love:
“Because grace and mercy are with his holy ones,
and his care is with the elect.
“But the wicked shall receive a punishment to match their thoughts,
since they neglected righteousness and forsook the LORD.
“For those who despise wisdom and instruction are doomed.
Vain is their hope, fruitless their labors,
and worthless their works.”
(Wisdom 3:911)

“The number of their days seems great
if it reaches a hundred years.
“Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,
so are these few years among the days of eternity.
“That is why the Lord is patient with them
and pours out his mercy on them.”
(Sirach 18:911)

“But as it is written:
‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,'”
(1 Corinthians 2:9)

More of how I see life, death and the big picture:

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This Week’s Scandals

Friday’s news included claims that a UN environmental protection boss and an Indian bishop have been acting badly.

Maybe someone has decided that environmental protection is a fraud after they read those articles. Or at least stopped supporting outfits that promote responsible resource management. Or stopped being a Catholic because they feel bad about the news.

I don’t think either decision would make sense. I’d better explain that.

About environmental protection and resource management, I live on Earth. It’s our home.

Taking care of this world makes sense. It’s part of our job. (Genesis 1:2731, 2:78, 2:15; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 307, 339340, 24152418)

Rape is a bad idea. A very bad idea. (Catechism, 2356)

Hypocrisy is also a bad idea. (Catechism, 2468)

But hypocrisy happens. Sometimes folks with authority act badly.

And sometimes folks make accusations that aren’t true. That’s a bad idea too, partly because it gets in the way of justice. (Catechism, 2476)

I also think that I’ve got far too little information to have an informed opinion about either of Friday’s scandals:

That won’t stop me from talking about how I see problems like these, and why I won’t stop being a Catholic. The latter won’t take long.

I’m a Catholic because I’m a Christian.

I’m a Christian because I think Jesus of Nazareth really is I AM:

“Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.'”
(John 8:58)

That claim, by itself, isn’t particularly impressive. Anyone can say ‘I am God.’ A few do, occasionally. (January 21, 2018)

Being tortured and executed isn’t all that unusual either, sadly. What makes Jesus stand out from the crowd is that a few days after he’d been killed, our Lord stopped being dead. (October 29, 2017; April 30, 2017)

Two millennia later, we’re still celebrating. (December 25, 2017)

I was a Christian long before becoming a Catholic. I thought following Jesus made sense. I still do. I became a Catholic, grudgingly, when I realized who currently has the authority our Lord gave Peter. (July 30, 2017)

I think Peter was and still is right:

“Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’
“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
“We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.'”
(John 6:6769)

American Traditions and Attitudes

I like being an American, for the most part. My guess is that quite a few other folks feel the same way. Some were born elsewhere, moving here in hopes of making a better life for themselves and their families.

That’s given descendants of other immigrants conniptions. I’d be concerned if folks stopped trying to come here, and that’s another topic. (June 17, 2018; January 22, 2017)

My country’s attitude toward Catholics could have been much worse. But it could have been better.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we inherited England’s tradition of feeling threatened by Catholic ideas.

Times change, fears and biases don’t. Not that I’ve noticed, not the basics.

Blaming our anxieties on Papists, immigrants, commies, Muslims, or other folks on society’s fringe is easy.

Thinking, and seeing ‘them’ as fellow-humans? That’s hard.

But I think it’s a good idea. (June 13, 2018; June 25, 2017)

Realizing that irrational fears aren’t reasonable concerns, accepting the idea that everybody isn’t — and shouldn’t — be just like me, treating others the way I’d like them to treat me? Humanity got off to a bad start. I talked about that on Wednesday. (September 19. 2018)


Maybe the Indian bishop in Friday’s news is guilty. It’s possible. Like I said before, I don’t know enough about the accusations to have an informed opinion.

Assuming that a bishop is innocent because he’s a bishop is about as reasonable as assuming he’s guilty for the same reason.

It’s possible, I have no idea how likely, that the accusation is as well-founded as those in Maria Monk’s best-seller. (May 14, 2017)

The last time I checked, Catholics are a minority in India: about 1.55% of the population. That, and our clergy’s flashy uniforms, might make us an attractive target.

Folks in India have at least their share of very real problems. I figure they’re likely to have their crackpots and conspiracy theorists too.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of priests behaving badly in America’s news.

Some accusations have been true. One incident would have been one too many.

But like I said before, I won’t stop being a Catholic because someone in our camp violates our principles and betrays our trust. I don’t follow a priest, a bishop, or a pope.

I follow our Lord, because it’s a good idea. And the only viable option, in the long run. It’s like Peter said in John 6:6869: “…’Master, to whom shall we go?…'”


Once in a while I see someone expressing frustration that the Pope doesn’t ‘do something’ about a pet peeve. Or outrage that the Pope did do something.

An unspoken assumption seems to be that the Catholic Church can somehow force folks to be nice, or generous, or have the ‘right’ views, or resolve whatever crisis du jour is in play.

I remember an America where folks often acted as if the Vatican was a vast conspiracy, run by dark powers and hordes of toiling minions. I haven’t run into that sort of thing for decades. It’s another reason I don’t miss the ‘good old days.’

There’s a very slight bit of truth in that image. Very roughly a billion folks say they’re Catholic. That’s a big fraction of this world’s population. Vatican City, in Rome, has some remarkable architecture. Quite a few folks live there: around a thousand. That’s not a typo.

The Holy See is headquartered in Vatican City. It’s the Roman Catholic Church’s administrative service, sort of. Some folks who live in Vatican City work for the Holy See. Some don’t.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is part of the Holy See. It’s the section responsible for ensuring that we know what we believe, that what we’re told is accurate, and that clergy behave themselves. It’s more complicated than that, of course.1

They’re not always successful. Gibberish seems to travel faster, and get more attention, than what we’ve been saying for the last few millennia. But I’ve found that truth wins. Eventually.

Ideally, maybe, we wouldn’t need a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This isn’t an ideal world. We don’t always behave ourselves, which is why we’ve got that section.

Maybe, with enough staff and resources, the Congregation et cetera could have studied every accusation made in every diocese around the world, swiftly and surely determined which were valid, and dealt with each incident.

That didn’t happen. The entire Congregation has no more than a few hundred folks running it, and they’re not dedicated exclusively to criminal investigations. That’s not even, I gather, their primary function.

I don’t think it helps that some countries, like mine, have a history of folks making wildly-inaccurate claims against Catholics and the Catholic Church.

Wolves, Washington, and Stories

Kids who hear about the boy who cried ‘wolf!’ are, I’ve read, more likely to lie than those who get the George Washington cherry tree treatment.

I think it’s a good thing for George that his father wasn’t in the cherry tree at the time.

And that stories don’t have to be historically accurate to be true in another sense. (December 13, 2016)

And that’s yet another topic. Topics:

1 Briefly, very briefly:

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