Evolution: Science, Religion, Opinions and Me

'Man is but a Worm' cartoon, caricaturing Darwin's theory, from the Punch almanac for 1882. (1981)

The University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has learned that more than half of all Americans think evolution is real.

Seems that 2016 was the tipping point. That’s when my country, on average, decided to step into the late 19th century.

Or stopped listening to Bible-thumpers.

Or started learning about science.

At any rate:

“…Since 1985, national samples of US adults have been asked to agree or disagree with the statement ‘Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.’ During the last decade, the percentage of US adults agreeing with this statement increased from 40% to 54%—a majority….”
(“Public acceptance of evolution in the United States, 1985-2020,” Jon D. Miller et al., Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan; Public Understanding of Science (August 2021))

The study’s results are filtering into non-academic news and op-eds. With the inevitable political spin:

“…The shift in attitudes towards evolution is particularly surprising given that the teaching of evolution was a major aspect of the culture wars of the late from the 1980s through the 2000s, particularly during the Bush Era in which the evangelical right was ascendant….”
(“Science quietly wins one of the right’s longstanding culture wars,” Matthew Rozsa, Salon (August 24, 2021))

Politics and Perceptions

'I'd force peace right down their bloodthirsty throats.' Deacon Mushrat in Walk Kelly's Pogo. (1952)About the political angle, the study says conservatives are less likely than liberals to accept evolution.

But politics is only one demographic factor. I’ll get back to that.

My experience suggests that no political camp has cornered the market in nitwits and ignorance, or sages and wisdom.

So I’m not convinced that liberal politics is humanity’s only hope in the face of doom, gloom and the religious right.

And I sure don’t yearn for yesteryear, when America’s self-appointed pillars of rectitude railed against commies, Catholics, and pretty much anything learned since the Black Death. And that’s another topic.1

“…Truth will be Truth….”

Jon D. Miller et al.'s graph: Public acceptance and rejection of evolution in the United States, 1985–2020. (August 2021)
(From Jon D. Miller et al., used w/o permission.)
(Americans and evolution: 1985-2020)

I think opinion polls matter, but I also think Bishop Sheen was right:

“Right is right if nobody is right, and wrong is wrong if everybody is wrong.”
(“Life is Worth Living,” Program 19, Fulton J. Sheen (ca. 1951-1957))

And I’m quite sure that if 99.9% of Americans believed the Rocky Mountains are in Florida, then the Sunshine State would still be notably mountain-free.

It’s like Ben Franklin and Pope Leo XIII said. Truth — is 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))

The U. of Michigan study wasn’t about whether or not folks believed the Rockies were in Florida. It addressed belief in evolution. Acceptance, at any rate.

Wiley Miller's 'Non Sequitur' Sunday comic, featuring 'Church and Science Compromise Committee' lack of evolution consensus. (posted August 22, 2021)A fair fraction of my fellow-Americans see unyielding rejection of evolution as a vital tenet of Christian belief.

Or did, anyway, judging from the shelf space devoted to anti-evolution tracts in “Christian” bookstores of my youth.

So why am I, a Christian, not having conniptions about what we’ve learned2 since Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species?”

Basically, I’m a Christian who prefers accepting God’s creation “as is.” And I’m not an evangelical/fundamentalist. Not even close.

As for how I’d have responded to “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” — I’d have been on the “accept” part of the graph.


Earth seen from the Rosetta spacecraft. From  ESA (MPS for OSIRIS Team), MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA (November 23, 2009) used w/o permission.

Given how much we’ve learned in the 162 years since Darwin’s “Origin of Species” hit the fan, I don’t see a point in rejecting evolutionary theory.

But I don’t see problems with the Genesis creation accounts — plural — either.

The Genesis 1:1-2:3 account tells me that God said, created, looked and blessed: but not exactly how the Almighty did all that. Beyond ‘God said, created, looked, and blessed.’

The first creation narrative ends with God resting, making the seventh day holy. Then the second creation narrative starts:

“This is the story of the heavens and the earth at their creation. When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens—…
“…but a stream was welling up out of the earth and watering all the surface of the ground—
“then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
(Genesis 2:4, G67)

Next thing God does in Genesis 2 is plant a garden in Eden “in the east,” a vague reference that’s encouraged fervent and — my opinion — occasionally goofy speculation.

“Eden” may come from a Sumerian word meaning “fertile plain.” The geographic references are most likely Mesopotamian, and that’s yet another topic.3

At any rate, God made trees grow “out of the ground” in Genesis 2:9, then gives the man a job: taking care of that garden. And then God —

“…formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name.”
(Genesis 1:19)

Appreciating Sacred Scripture

The 'Flammarion Woodcut, from his 'L'Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire.' (1888)
(From Camille Flammarion, “L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire;” via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

The two Genesis creation accounts don’t, apparently, agree with each other. Take the order in which God creates parts of this universe, for example.

The first one has God creating plants; the sun, moon and stars.

Then animals.

And finally us.

In the second one, man comes first, then the other animals.

If I expected the Bible to follow literalist preferences, or the principles of post-Enlightenment Western natural philosophy, then maybe I’d decide that it’s too jumbled to make sense.

Instead, I see the Genesis accounts as another indication that the Bible wasn’t written by Americans. Or even by folks who thought like Americans.

None of which keeps me from appreciating Sacred Scripture, which is just as well: since understanding the Bible is an important part of being Catholic.

Taking the Bible Seriously

'The Descent of the Modernists,' E. J. Pace. (1922)(From E. J. Pace, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Going to atheism in nine easy steps: according to E. J. Price. (1922))

Within the last month or so, my social media feeds included someone’s assertion that Catholics aren’t allowed to read the Bible.

Another netizen — don’t know if the word’s still in common use — responded before I did, and more briefly than I would have. But making the point I’ll discuss.

I take the Bible seriously, but don’t have America’s old-school faith in ‘Biblical infallibility.’

Since I’m a Catholic, reading and studying Sacred Scripture isn’t an option.

It’s an obligation.

That’s literally Catholicism 101. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101-133, actually.

And since I’m a Catholic, I must believe that “The inspired books teach the truth….” (Catechism, 107)

But “…the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book’. Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, ‘not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living.’…” (Catechism, 108)

Being Catholic

New York Public Library's Gutenberg Bible, purchased by James Lenox in 1847.It’s been a few years since I talked about Tradition with a capitol “T,” the Bible and the Magisterium; so here’s an oversimplified sketch.

Basically, our Tradition — capitol “T,” which isn’t trying to live like it’s 1945 — is the oral preaching of the Apostles, passed along for going on two millennia; and Sacred Scriptures, the Bible.

The Magisterium — remember, I said this was an oversimplification — is the Church’s teaching function, that tells us what the Bible and our Tradition mean. (Catechism, 75-95, 101-133, 2033)

As for how I see the Bible, the USCCB’s Understanding the Bible page gives a pretty good overview, including this:

“…Know what the Bible is – and what it isn’t. The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation….”
(“Understanding the Bible,” Mary Elizabeth Sperry, USCCB)

Recapping, I’m a Catholic, so I must read and study the bible; and I must accept the deposit of faith we’ve been passing along for two millennia4 — even if that means being out of step with my native culture.

There’s more I could, and maybe should, say about the Bible and being Catholic; but I’ve also got more to say about evolution, science, religion and using my brain.

So Sacred Scripture and my faith will wait until later. Much later, I suspect, since I’ve got two or three other ‘priority’ topics already in the queue.

Ideology, Evolution and Demographics

Branford Clarke's cartoon, from page 21 of Alma White's 'Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty;' Zarephath, New Jersey. (1926)
(From Branford Clarke, Alma White; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(“Guardians of Liberty” defending their country from people like me. (1926))

I’d be considerably more concerned about America becoming a less “Christian” nation, if my homeland’s notion of “Christian” hadn’t been quite so entangled with the notion that Catholics aren’t Christian.

And if ‘being Christian,’ and a conviction that evolution is ‘unbiblical,’ hadn’t been so thoroughly immersed our politics.5

Ideological partisanship
(2007 and 2019)
% accept evolution
% accept
Conservative Republican 25 34
Moderate Republican 40 49
Conservative independent 37 41
Liberal independent 65 78
Moderate Democrat 35 53
Liberal Democrat 73 83
(source: “Public acceptance of evolution in the United States, 1985-2020,” Table 2
Jon D. Miller et al., ISR, University of Michigan; Public Understanding of Science (August 2021)

Political slant isn’t the only factor these days. There’s age, for example.

Age % accept evolution
% accept evolution
18-24 54 68
25-34 50 65
55-64 36 45
65 and above 37 45
(source: “Public acceptance of evolution in the United States, 1985-2020,” Table 1
Jon D. Miller et al., ISR, University of Michigan; Public Understanding of Science (August 2021)

If I thought there was a strong link between accepting evolution and the age/politics demographics, then I’d see myself as an age 18-24 liberal Democrat.

Which would be silly. Since I’m not.

Conservative? Liberal? Libertarian?

An online opinion poll result that said I'm a libertarian. Not entirely inaccurate, but not accurate either. (2017)I’ll be 70 next month. I’m not a liberal Democrat, or a conservative Republican. And I’m certainly not a moderate anything.

Assorted online ‘what’s your political stance’ polls told me I’m a liberal, conservative, and libertarian.

The labels make sense, sort of, since each poll engaged with one part of my views.

I’ve been told I’m conservative, and I wouldn’t argue the point: since I’m not even close to being on the same page as today’s establishment.

On the other hand, I shy away from calling myself conservative.

Partly because I grew up in the Sixties. I talked about pigeonholes, politics, songs and patriotism last month. (July 3, 2021)

Moving along.

Romanism, Evolution and Other ‘Threats’

H.E. Fowler's 'Papal Octopus,' featured in Jeremiah J. Crowley's (1913) 'The Pope: Chief of White Slavers High Priest of Intrigue,' p. 430. (1913)Religion and accepting evolution is another slice from America’s demographic pie analyzed by the U. of Michigan study.

They found connections.

Along, I suspect, with a hint at why many ‘good Christian’ Americans are so stalwartly opposed to “Romanism.”

“…evolution is routinely taught in Catholic parochial schools in the United States, and mainstream Protestant denominations similarly accept evolution (Martin, 2010). While not all antievolutionism originates in Fundamentalism and its inerrantism about the Bible, it largely reflects a conservative form of Protestantism with relatively inflexible and inerrantist religious views (Scott, 2009), which we have been calling fundamentalism….”
(“Public acceptance of evolution in the United States, 1985-2020,” Jon D. Miller et al. (August 2021))

Excerpt from Mamma's Girls, Chick Publications, ©2012 by Jack T. Chick LLC; used w/o permission.Not that “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” is effective political rhetoric these days.

On the other hand, I still run across discussions of the ‘whore of Babylon/queen of whores;’ along with alternate histories.6

And that’s yet again another topic.

And I’m wandering off-topic.

Where was I?

Public acceptance of evolution.

Truth, a pope and Ben Franklin.

Genesis and Darwin.

Politics, demographics, “Romanism” and alternate histories.


So far, I’ve said that I accept evolution because I’m a Catholic; not a fundamentalist. But there’s more to it than that.

Seeking Knowledge, Appreciating God’s Work

USGS/Graham and Newman's geological time spiral: 'A path to the past.' (2008)Since I’m a Catholic, accepting what the Church says makes sense.

That includes beliefs that affect how I see God, this universe and science.

I believe that God is creating a good, orderly, and knowable world. (Genesis 1:31; Psalms 115:3; Catechism, 268, 279, 295)

I think this universe follows knowable physical laws. (Catechism, 32, 299, 301-305; “Gaudium et spes,” 15; Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

We’re born with a thirst for knowledge. Studying God’s creation can tell us a little about God. (Catechism, 282-289, 299, 301)

And each time we learn something new about this universe, it’s an opportunity to appreciate God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

Seeking knowledge, studying this universe and developing new tools, are part of being human. (Catechism, 2292-2295)

I don’t see a problem with that.

There’s more, much more, I could say about evolution, God and making sense. But I’ll leave most of that for another time.

Accepting a Vast and Ancient Universe

Hubble image of the Westerlund 2 star cluster. (February 2017)I’ll wrap this up with a few quotes.

“…You are addressing the highly complex subject of the evolution of the concept of nature. I will not go into the scientific complexity…. I only want to underline that God and Christ are walking with us and are also present in nature, as the Apostle Paul stated in his discourse at the Areopagus: ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). … He created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness….”
(“Inauguration of the bust in honour of Pope Benedict XVI,” Pope Francis, Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (October 27, 2014) [emphasis mine])

“…The place of human beings in the history of this evolving universe, as it has been charted by modern sciences, can only be seen in its complete reality in the light of faith, as a personal history of the engagement of the triune God with creaturely persons….”
(“Human Persons, image of God, Communion and Stewardship, Human Persons Created in the Image of Go,” International Theological Commission, Congregations, Roman Curia (2004))

“…Even more fascinating is the fact that, since the signals from its farthest reaches are transmitted by light which moves at a finite speed, you can ‘see’ back into the remotest past epochs and describe the processes which are going on today….”
(“Message to participants in a study session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,” Pope St. John Paul II (November 29, 1996)

God and Perceived Discrepancies

Geologic time scale, from Wikibooks: 'High School Earth Science/Relative Ages of Rocks'Finally, an extended version of Pope Leo XIII’s “truth cannot contradict truth.”

He was talking about recent archaeological discoveries. But I think the principle apples to any knowledge that doesn’t fit our preconceived notions.

“…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])

That’s all I’ve got for this week, apart from the usual links:

1 Science, politics and yesteryear:

2 Dealing with reality, or not:

3 Ancient lore:

4 An overly-sketchy set of links:

5 Reasons for not missing the ‘good old days:’

6 Assorted weirdness:

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Secondary Causes: Both/And, not Either/Or

How the Grand Canyon was formed depends on who’s talking.

Scientists say it’s what happened as a river cut through the Colorado Plateau.

Since I think scientists are right about the Colorado River’s role in making that mile-deep gulch, and think that both are part of God’s creation, maybe an explanation is in order.

To begin with, I’m a Christian and a Catholic, so I must believe that God made and makes everything. Which doesn’t mean I see God as a supercharged Paul Bunyan.

Origin Tales, Science, Logic and Me

William B. Laughead's illustration, a tale of Paul Bunyan, Babe the Blue Ox and efficiency engineering. (1922)
(From William B. Laughead, via The Red River Lumber Company, Project Gutenberg, used w/o permission.)

American folklore says Paul Bunyan made the Grand Canyon by absent-mindedly dragging his axe, or maybe a ski pole. And credits the giant lumberjack with making many of my country’s other landmarks.

I enjoy my homeland’s origin myths, but don’t see a point in trying to impose profound spiritual principles on them. As for why I’m also not upset that myths aren’t “true” in a hardwired American literalist sense, that’s another topic.

Anyway, getting back to Paul Bunyan and secondary causes —

Climate change protestors in penguin suits. (2015)A fair fraction of Paul Bunyan stories come from North American lumberjacks via publications like the Duluth News Tribune and The Red River Lumber Company’s “The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan.”

Since the written tales grew from oral traditions of lumberjacks, with roots going back at least to the days when companies clear-cut forests,1 I could put on an ‘environmentalist activist’ hat and call for a ban on P. Bunyan tales.

Because they glorify destruction of forests and cause global warming.

But I won’t.

That’d be as silly as slapping the “Satanic” label on Paul Bunyan stories, and insisting that God made the canyon by dragging an axe. Or that, since there’s no scriptural reference the Grand Canyon or Arizona — neither exists. Because they’re ‘not Biblical.’

I’d like to think that nobody could be quite that crazy.

I’m [not] a “Belivir”

But then there’s this discussion, from about 8 years back:

“Two errors in posted image:
1) The dates are significantly too long ago.
2) The Flood, which caused the immediate burial of dinosaurs, etc needed for good quality Fossilization, is absent.”

“Not sure if serious or trolling..”

“Please cite the Bible as your source, so that everyone can be keenly aware you have made no distinction between mythology and science, and thereby safely ignore you.”

“As a beliver in the one true God who created all things, who is over all things even science, and logic…..”
(Google Developers post, Google+ (October 11, 2013))

Orlando Ferguson's 'Map of the Square and Stationary Earth.' (1893) The legend at top says, in part, 'this ... is the Bible Map of the World.'If I thought the “beliver” and an earnest young chap who told me the sun goes around Earth because the Bible says so were typical Christians, then I might be an atheist today.

Or, more likely, since I’ll willingly think that spirit exists, maybe an agnostic or Buddhist; maybe a Hindu; all of which were popular options in my youth.

But my parents were both Christian and accepted that this universe is considerably older than Ussher’s six and a quarter millennia.

I don’t know how many American Protestants are still faithful Ussherites, much less why some Catholics apparently believe that accepting an anti-Catholic British bishop’s chronology is vital to being Catholic. And that’s yet another topic.

My faith isn’t built on science and logic, but I don’t have to ignore either.

As for how I can think that God makes everything we see and that stuff like erosion and gravity are real, it’s basically about secondary causes. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 306-308)

“…God Fixed a Certain Order….”

Detail, Gentile da Fabriano's 'Valle Romita Polyptych.' (ca. 1411)St. Thomas Aquinas talked about that sort of thing. At length:

“…God’s immediate provision over everything does not exclude the action of secondary causes; which are the executors of His order, as was said above (Question [19], Articles 5, 8)….”
(First Part, Question 22, Article 3)
“…For the providence of God produces effects through the operation of secondary causes, as was above shown (Question [22], Article 5)….”
(First Part, Question 23, Article 5)
“…The fact that secondary causes are ordered to determinate effects is due to God; wherefore since God ordains other causes to certain effects He can also produce certain effects by Himself without any other cause….”
(First Part, Question 105, Article 1)
“…God fixed a certain order in things in such a way that at the same time He reserved to Himself whatever he intended to do otherwise than by a particular cause. So when He acts outside this order, He does not change….”
(First Part, Question 105, Article 6)
(“Summa Theologica,” Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1265-1274))

Briefly — I suspect St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t say anything briefly — and that’s a very brief excerpt — I think God creates everything.

I’d better, if I’m going to be a Catholic. (Genesis 1:1-2:3, 2:4-25; Catechism, 279-314)

Before I go on, an explanation: why I said “God creates” instead of “God created.”

Genesis and Bemidji, Minnesota

(From Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox” in Bemidji, Minnesota. (2006?))

ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM, OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.Several decades back now, I read a discussion of why God probably doesn’t exist, and anyway couldn’t be all that all-knowing or all powerful.

The author pointed out that nothing can travel faster than light, so if all Hell broke out and God was a light year away, the “all-knowing” deity wouldn’t have a clue until a year later.

That almost makes sense.

If God was like us, an entity existing in a particular part of time and space, then God couldn’t know everything.

But since I’m a Catholic, thinking of God as a supercharged Paul Bunyan, living in Bemidji, Minnesota, or any other spot in this space-time continuum: that’s not an option.

God isn’t ‘in‘ time and space. Not the way I am, at any rate. He’s ‘there,’ immediately aware and present at every time and every place: past, present and future. (Catechism, 300, 600)

So “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth —,” as Genesis 1:1 puts it, is accurate enough: from our viewpoint. The moment at which this universe began is in our past, hence “God created.”

But God, again, isn’t ‘in’ time and space. Although the Almighty is still ‘here and now,’ and “at every moment, upholds and sustains” every creature. (Catechism, 301)

So that’s why I use present tense when talking about God creating this universe. It’s my way of saying that God’s actively engaged in creation in whatever “now” I’m in at the moment.

Talking About God, Appreciating God’s Work

My 'Cosmic Coffee Cup.' (2014)

Illustration of a spherical Earth 'L'Image du monde, by Gautier de Metz. (14th century copy of a 13th century original)God is large and in charge. (Catechism, 268)

“Our God is in heaven
and does whatever he wills.”
(Psalms 115:3)

I figure God could make stars, planets and people pop in and out of existence: but that’s not how this universe works.

I’m assuming that God isn’t also updating our memories to make reality in the current ‘now’ closely resemble ‘five minutes ago’ and ‘last year.’

At any rate, I think that God weaves knowable physical laws into reality’s fabric. What we observe are parts of creation acting in ways determined by their nature. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 301-305; “Gaudium et spes,” 5, 15, Second Vatican Council, Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

Folks who converted the Genesis narratives and other parts of Sacred Scripture from oral tradition to writing had a habit of giving God credit for events in this universe.

I could claim that, since they didn’t discuss the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric,2 Biblical authors were ignorant and simple-minded; but that would be silly.

As I see it, they were talking about God: and recognizing that God is what philosophers call the first cause. (Catechism, 304-308)

On the other hand, recognizing that God makes reality possible does not mean I must try hard to ignore — or at least not think about — this wonder-filled universe.

Everything — every grain of sand, every galaxy, every butterfly, every scientific law, everything reflects a facet of the Creator’s truth. What it reflects comes from its nature. (Catechism, 301-308)

And since I believe that God creates everything, learning about this universe gives me more reasons to admire God’s work. (Catechism, 159, 214-217, 282-283, 294, 341)

I’ve talked about that before. A lot.

“…Who’s Right?”

Bill and Jeff Keane's 'Family Circus' at the Grand Canyon: a river, a ranger, God and a good question. (August 14, 2021)Billy asked a good question last Saturday:

“The ranger said the river dug the canyon, Mommy, and you said God did it. Who’s right?”
“The Family Circus,” Bill & Jeff Keane (August 14, 2021)

As I see it, since I think God creates everything and maintains a universe in which creatures produce effects according to their nature, they’re both right.

God made the river, made both the rock and water which form their substances and determined the physical laws they follow; so God is the first cause.

Water, rock, gravity, and all natural laws involved in forming the canyon exist because God wills it, so they’re secondary causes.

Which reminds me of natural law: something I haven’t talked about for some time.

I asked a priest about natural law and how it’s defined, this was a month or three ago now.

Up to that point, based on what I’ve read, I’d taken natural law to mean ethical principles written into reality’s source code.

The priest defined natural law as that subset of God’s rules for how things work — what we call physical or scientific law and ethical principles — that we’ve noticed.

That makes sense, particularly since we’re starting to learn that altruism has specific and measurable effects.3 And that’s yet again another topic.

Finally, the usual links to more stuff:

1 It’s true! Wood does grow on trees:

2 Dealing with knowledge – – –

3 – – – and still learning:

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“…We Wait, and are Patient, and Back We Come….”

This is among my favorite quotes:

“‘…Here they stabled their horses and feasted, from here they rode out to fight or drove out to trade. They were a powerful people, and rich, and great builders. They built to last, for they thought their city would last for ever….
“… ‘People come — they stay for a while, they build — and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I’ve been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We keep on going, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come….'”
(From “Wind in the Willows,” Kenneth Grahame (1908))

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Robots on Mars, an Empty Sample Tube and a Laser

Several days ago, a robot on Mars selected a hollow coring bit from its tool kit, drilled into a rock, withdrew the tool and placed the core into a sample tube.

At least, that’s what should have happened.

But just to be sure, Perseverance felt inside the tube and took a look before sealing it.

Oops. The sample tube was empty.

NASA’s discussion of the robot’s first try at collecting samples is more detailed and less anthropomorphic:

At any rate, after finding to core sample in the tube, Perseverance radioed a report back to Earth; including a picture of what wasn’t inside sample collection tube number 233.


'Journey to Mars:' NASA's Perseverance rover's caching strategy.
(From NASA, used w/o permission.)

Sample collection tube number 233 was supposed to hold the first of many core samples taken by Perseverance, and left at a depot for later pickup. It’s not the robot’s only job on Mars, but it’s an important one.

If at First You Don’t Succeed — Try Another Spot

Mars 2020 sample collection tube 233: empty. (August 6, 20201)
(From NASA/JPL-Caltech, used w/o permission.)
(CacheCam’s view of (empty) sample collection tube number 233. (August 6, 2021))

The last time I checked, humans back on Earth decided that Perseverance should head for the next sampling spot and try again.

Looks like the tools worked fine. The Corer drilled seven centimeters into the rock, just as it was supposed to.

Perseverance pulled it out and would have dropped a core sample into the collection tube, but apparently the rock was too crumbly. The robot has looked for the missing core, or pieces of a broken core, on the surface and even peeked down the hole it drilled; but found nothing.

Scientists figure that —

“…the coring activity in this unusual rock resulted only in powder/small fragments which were not retained due to their size and the lack of any significant chunk of a core. It appears that the rock was not robust enough to produce a core….”
(“Assessing Perseverance’s First Sample Attempt,” Louise Jandura, Chief Engineer for Sampling & Caching at NASA/JPL, Mars Perseverance Rover Blog (August 11, 2011))

Perseverance found some stuff at the bottom of the hole. Scientists figure that the missing core sample is either at the bottom of the hole, mixed in with the cuttings pile, or both.

Either way, there’s not much point in trying again there, so they’re telling Perseverance to try again at the next sample collection spot.1

‘Here’s a Map, Good Luck!’

Mars 2020 flight systems.The Mars rover is a smart robot.

It had to be. Folks at NASA wanted MARS 2020 to explore Jezero Crater: an interesting bit of real estate.

But what made it interesting also made it a very dangerous landing field.

So they gave Perseverance a map of the landing zone, told the robot which patches of the Martian surface were comparatively safe, and let the onboard EDL and TRN systems decide which one to pick.

TRN is technospeak for Terrain Relative Navigation and Entry. EDL means Entry, Descent, and Landing.

Again, Perseverance is a very smart robot. It’s autonomous, making many of its own decisions, but it’s not fully autonomous.

If it were, then it wouldn’t have been waiting for folks back on Earth to tell it to do after the first core sample drilling came up empty.

That’s the way it is now. But we haven’t stopped designing smarter robots.

Sooner or later, autonomous spacecraft and rovers will almost certainly call home only when they have something they figure humans will want to see: based on criteria we’ve given them.2

The Little Helicopter That Could

(From JPL/NASA, via ISAE-SUPAERO/YouTube, used w/o permission.)
(Ingenuity’s fourth flight: another short flight for a helicopter, another giant leap for robots. (May 1, 2021))

Ingenuity, the Mars 2020 helicopter, is another smart robot: and has to be, too, since flying requires decisions based on what’s happening now: not five to twenty minutes ago.

Make that ten to 40 minutes ago, depending on where Earth and Mars are in their orbits.

Ingenuity can’t wait that long for ‘current’ flight data to reach Earth, someone with a joystick to react, and the data to travel back to Mars. So, although folks back on Earth tell Ingenuity where to go, The little helicopter flies itself.3

Snapshot From Mars

Image from Ingenuity's 11th flight: Perseverance rover. (August 4, 2021)
(From NASA/JPL-CalTech, used w/o permission.)
(‘I can see my rover from here!.’ Ingenuity’s view of Perseverance. (August 4, 2021))

Besides flight-testing the first Martian helicopter, Ingenuity is scouting ahead on Perseverance’s route; looking for possible hazards and interesting items.

Although I gather that humans back on Earth decide what’s safe, what’s not, and what’s worth a closer look.

Eventually, I’m pretty sure that our robots will decide what they’ll do next on their own. Based, again, on whatever folks back on Earth told them to be looking for.

Which reminds me. Besides sending back pictures and video clips — and, we hope, collecting core samples for later pickup — Perseverance has been zapping rocks with a laser.

A New and Improved Martian Rock-Zapper

US Army Research Laboratory's schematic of a LIBS system. (2010)Perseverance’s LIBS — Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy — isn’t the first rock-zapper on Mars.

Curiosity used an earlier model some 160,000 times at 4,500 locations.

The rover’s LIBS laser is just like the one in a DVD player, except that instead of bouncing light off a DVD disk, it vaporizes rock.

Not much rock, just enough to make plasma that’s bright enough for the LIBS spectrometer. That instrument tells scientists what elements are in the rock.

The Perseverance rover’s LIBS is about the same size and shape as Curiosity’s, but holds more and smaller instruments.

I gather that the LIBS laser’s pulse lasts no more than a few nanoseconds and carries upwards of 12 millijoules of energy.

A millijoule is — feel free to skip ahead, geek-speak can be boring — one thousandths of a joule, a joule is equivalent to one watt of electricity for one second, so it’s not much energy.

Just enough to make a bit of rock go “pop” and flash for a moment. That’s useful, since measuring how fast the “pop” reaches Perseverance’s microphone tells scientists the speed of sound in Martian air.4


'Does it LOOK Like We Need Help?!' Brian H. Gill (2014)

Robots are everywhere, not just on Mars. They’re building cars, packaging products and carrying them around warehouses.

Children dreaming of a life spent working as stock clerks will be sorely disappointed, unless we stop using robots.

This may be the end of civilization as we know it, which strikes me as a good thing. Particularly since I’m quite sure today’s world isn’t the best of all possible worlds.

And that, along with Leibnizian monadology and Voltaire’s “Candide,” is another topic.5

It’s been some time since I’ve seen scary headlines about robots replacing humans, so I’ll keep this brief. Brief for me, that is. Besides, I’ve talked about it before, and will put links to that stuff when I’m done here.

“To err is human….”

Boston Dynamics Atlas robots, showing how they'd work as stock clerks. Boston Dynamics, via Digital Trends, used w/o permission. (2017)If I thought humans in general and me in particular were defined by our jobs, then I’d have reason for concern.

I might also be a bit muddled about who and what I am, since I’ve had a whole mess of jobs: including but not limited to delivery guy, beet chopper, radio DJ, computer operator and list manager.

Today’s robots can probably do some of my old jobs better than I did. Tomorrow’s will most likely serve even more functions.

But replacing humans as humans? There’s an old joke about that, sort of, from the days when computers were scary new tech:

“To err is human.
To really foul things up, you need a computer.”
(20th century joke)

As I see it, humans are so good at being humans that no robot can ever replace us. Although I’m pretty sure that robots will eventually make better stock clerks.


Amazing Stories magazine cover. (March 1939)I’m quite sure that nobody’s raised concerns over NASA’s Mars rovers rolling across the Martian landscape, taking potshots at rocks with their lasers.

Ever since the Mariner flybys, we’ve realized that Martian civilizations aren’t here.

And almost certainly never were.

I’d say certainly, with no qualifier, since the most optimistic serious speculation about Martian life has been downgraded to maybe what Earth had a billion years back.

I think the current scientific consensus regarding Martian life is right, but also think that “certainty” can wait until after we’ve thoroughly explored the place.

Granted, locally-grown Martians like the multicolored Burroughs Barsoomians are wildly improbable, putting it mildly.

Just the same, before we send fully-autonomous robots to places that might have folks who’d take umbrage at being zapped — even it was just a little “pop” of a zap — maybe we should think about how a robot could tell the difference between a rock and, say, a backyard barbecue grill.

Or how to apologize, if a rock said “ouch” and moved. And that’s yet another topic. Topics.

I said there’d be links. Here they are:

1 A missing core sample:

2 A smart robot:

3 Another smart robot:

4 Energy units and a laser on Mars:

5 Philosophers and robots:

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