Active Volcano on Venus: Before and After Images

European Space Agency's infographic: 'Evidence for active volcanoes on Venus' (June 18, 2015)
European Space Agency’s 2015 infographic: “Evidence for active volcanoes on Venus”.

Venus is dead as a doornail as far as life is concerned. Life as we know it, at any rate, and already I’m drifting off-topic.

Geologically, though, we’ve known that there’s still metaphorical life in Venus. Or was, until very recently.

Orbiters have sent back evidence of geologically-recent volcanic activity, including images of shield volcanoes and lava flows.

But we had no direct evidence of a volcano that’s active now. Until scientists sifted through data recorded and stored in the early 1990s.

Observing Venus: Five Millennia in About 700 Words.

Schematic diagram of Peter Apian's (Petrus Apianus) cosmology, largely reflecting Aristotelian physics and cosmology. From Peter Apian's 'Cosmographia,' annotated by Gemma Frisius. (1524) Reproduced in Edward Grant's 'Celestial Orbs in the Latin Middle Ages.' (1987)We’ve known about the planet Venus for a very long time.

Most of the lights in Earth’s sky stay put, relative to each other, and they all spin around the celestial sphere’s poles.

Seven — Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the moon and the sun — don’t.

Venus never gets very far from the sun, so it’s only seen in the morning or evening sky.

Some folks, like the ancient Greeks, had one name for Venus when it was a morning star and another for the evening star.

Those names go back at least to Hesiod’s day, two and three quarters millennia back.

But before that, around the time construction started on Stonehenge, folks in what we call Mesopotamia had a single name for Venus: Inanna. That was around 3000 B.C., during what archaeology buffs call the Jemdet Nasr period.

We know about the 3000 B.C. Venus observations, thanks to a cylinder seal found near today’s Jalibah, Iraq.

The next Venus-related record I know of is what we call the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa.

Ammisaduqa was Babylon’s king around the time Egypt’s Thirteenth Dynasty was winding down, when the Late Bronze Age Collapse was still four centuries in the future.

The last I heard, academics still haven’t decided whether Homer’s epics were based on actual events, but for some reason there’s a consensus that the Late Bronze Age Collapse was real.1 And that’s another topic.

Telescopic Views

Frank R. Paul's 'The Man From Venus', Fantastic Adventures back cover. (July 1939) via David S. Zondy's Tales of Future Past [], used w/o permissionNext — skipping lightly over Aristotle, Gan De, Ptolemy, Abd al-Rahman al Sufi and Copernicus — in 1761, Mikhail Lomonosov noticed that Venus has an atmosphere.

I gather that he saw a fuzzy arc during the 1761 transit of Venus, and that academics were debating what he actually saw until at least 2012.

Lomonosov used a telescope. So did Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Johann Hieronymus Schröter and Chester Lyman. Not the same telescope, of course.

Cassini and Schröter figured that a day on Venus lasted about 24 hours, based on markings they saw. Or thought they saw.

Until the mid to late 19th century, when John Draper and others began taking photographs through telescopes, astronomers made observations by patiently looking through their telescopes, sometimes for hours.

The human brain is very good at pattern recognition. So good that sometimes it shows us patterns that aren’t really there. Pareidolia is a five-dollar word for the sort of perception that lets us see the Man in the Moon, happy electrical outlets and Martian canals.

Although I haven’t confirmed it, I’m guessing that Cassini and Schröter observed something akin to Schiaparelli’s canali. All we can see of Venus in visible light is a nearly-featureless crescent or disk, depending on where it is in its orbit.

Starting in the 1920s, we could pick up a few cloud features by observing with ultraviolet-sensitive cameras.2

Pulp Fiction and the Radar Astronomers

Frank R. Paul's 'A City on Venus', Amazing Stories back cover. (January 1941) via David S. Zondy's Tales of Future Past [], used w/o permissionMeanwhile, pulp science fiction magazines were entertaining and inspiring America’s youth with tales that I’d call reality-based. But not realistic.

“…About the only thing that astronomers knew about Venus in the ’30s was that it was smaller than Earth, had a a bit more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and a heck of a lot of clouds. In pure run-with-it logic the clouds meant lot of water and the CO2 meant an atmosphere like prehistoric Earth. Conclusion: Carboniferous swamps over the whole planet inhabited by dinosaurs.
Also Munchkin villages….”
(Venus, Tales of Future Past, David S. Zondy)

Getting back to the non-fiction planet, Schiaparelli said he’d seen a few features on Venus. His best estimate was that it rotated once every 224.7 days, same as its orbital period.

Percival Lowell said pretty much the same thing. Then, from November 1902 to March 1903, Vesto Slipher collected spectrograms of Venus, looking for Doppler shift. He’d been working at the Lowell Observatory.

Lowell said that Slipher’s analysis confirmed his and Schiaparelli’s conclusion. Slipher was more cautious. He said he found “no evidence that Venus has a short period of rotation,” and that “so fast a spin as 24 hours could not have escaped detection.”3

Another big step in Venus studies was radar astronomy. It’s like radio astronomy, except that it bounces radio waves off places like the moon and Venus.

In 1944, Zoltán Lajos Bay started testing a radar telescope at the Research Laboratory of the United Incandescent Lamp and Electrical Co. Ltd., (“Tungsram”), Ujpest.

Ujpest is a district in Budapest. But more to the point, World War II was in progress. So it wasn’t until 1946 that they bounced a signal off the moon. By the 1960s, we’d learned that Venus turns on its axis more slowly than it goes around the sun.

Scientists got radar images of Venus in the 1970s, using the Arecibo Observatory’s thousand-foot dish. They found three bright patches: Alpha and Beta Regio in 1964 and Maxwell Montes in 1967.4

Missions to Venus

The first successful interplanetary mission, Mariner 2, flew by Venus in 1962.

The Venera 4 lander stopped transmitting when atmospheric pressure rose to 22 times Earth’s. That was in 1967. Venera 7’s lander made it all the way to the surface in 1970.

Mariner 4 did a flyby of Venus on its way to Mercury, the Venera 9 lander sent back the first pictures from the surface of Venus. In 1978, the Pioneer Venus Orbiter began mapping the Venusian surface.5

SAR, Science and Magellan

NASA SAR Handbook's illustration: 'Strong scattering in HH indicates a predominance of double-bounce scattering (e.g., stemmy vegetation, manmade structures), while strong VV relates to rough surface scattering (e.g., bare ground, water), and spatial variations in dual polarization indicate the distribution of volume scatterers (e.g., vegetation and high-penetration soil types such as sand or other dry porous soils).' (2019)
Cool SAR stuff: using polarized microwaves to ‘see’ what’s on a surface. (NASA)

NASA SAR Handbook's illustration: 'Geometry of observations used to form the synthetic aperture for target P at along-track position x = 0.' (2019)And that, finally, brings me to the Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar mission.

A 1978 study said that Synthetic Aperture Radar, SAR, would give resolution down to 200 meters.

Then budget problems and the Challenger disaster happened. Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar became Magellan, and was carried to low Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1989.

When I showed my oldest daughter an illustration of how SAR works, she said “MATH!“, so I’ll skip the “Synthetic Aperture LSA=BetaR0” stuff. Besides, I’m better with words than with numbers.

Basically, radar resolution depends on the ratio of the wavelength used to the length of the radar’s antenna.

For example, to get 10 meter resolution with a wavelength of around 5 centimeters, you’d need a radar antenna about 4,250 meters long. That’s just shy of two and two thirds miles, which isn’t even close to being practical. Not for a spacecraft.

Magellan’s SAR used 12.6 centimeter radar pulses, but — MATH!

The point is that by collecting several signals as a satellite moves — say, from point X1 to point X2 on that diagram — SAR radar gets resolution that’s as good as it would be if it was using one antenna that’s as long as X1-X2.

From September 1990 to October 1994, Magellan gathered data and sent it back to Earth.6 That’s a whole mess of data, and scientists are still sifting through it.

Active(?) Volcano on Venus: Maat Mons

NASA/JPL-Caltech's computer-simulated global map of Venus, showing location of Maat Mons. (March 17, 2023)
One hemisphere of Venus, with Maat Mons area outlined. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

One big plus of data from orbiters, Magellan included, is that they can show what an area looks like at different times.

They’ve also let scientists know that the amount of sulfur dioxide and methane in the Venusian atmosphere varies considerably. That’s been a metaphorical smoking gun, evidence that volcanoes might be active on Venus.

But there’s considerable distance between “might be” and “is”.

It took three decades for someone to notice Magellan’s ‘before and after’ SAR snapshots of volcanic vents on Maat Mons.

That seems like a long time. But Magellan sent back a lot of data. Plus, Venus is nearly as large as Earth: so I figure it’s small wonder spotting the two images took time.

Maat Mons is the second-highest mountain and highest volcano on Venus.7 It’s also one of the planet’s volcanoes that scientists thought might still be active. And now we have what looks like solid evidence of a recent eruption.

Volcanic activity on Venus spotted in radar images, scientists say
Ari Daniel, NPR (March 17, 2023)

“Researchers scouring decades-old spacecraft data have found clear signs of recent volcanic activity on Venus. The findings, published in the journal Science, reveal not only that the planet’s surface is currently a turbulent place, but offer insights into its geological past and future.

“By any measure, Venus is a hellscape: crushing pressures, a toxic atmosphere, and surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead. It’s like a scene lifted straight from Dante’s Inferno.

“It’s ‘my favorite planet,’ says Robert Herrick, a planetary scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks….”

From the Magellan Archives: a Changing Volcanic Vent —

Robert R. Herrick, Scott Hensley; Science's image: 'Fig. 1. Topography and SAR image of the study area on Venus. The colors indicate elevations, which are measured relative to the mean planetary radius from gridded Magellan altimetry. The x and y axes indicate planetary longitude and latitude, respectively. The background grayscale images are from cycle 1 east-looking SAR. The black rectangle indicates the area shown in Fig. 2.' (March 15, 2023)
Figure 1: the study area in Alta Regio, Venus. The black rectangle shows Figure 2’s area. (March 2023)
Robert R. Herrick, Scott Hensley; Science's image: 'Fig. 2. Radar images of a vent that has changed shape. (A) East-looking cycle 1 image and (B) west-looking cycle 2 image of the changed vent and its surroundings. In the cycle 1 image, the vent appears nearly circular and deep with steep walls. In the cycle 2 image, the vent appears larger, irregular in outline, shallower, and nearly filled. The dashed yellow line outlines radar-bright lava flows visible in the cycle 2 image that were not apparent in the cycle 1 image. (C and D) The same images indicating the manually selected match points (purple dots) that were used to generate relative elevations (overlain in color) and to orthorectify the images. The black box in (C) indicates the extent of the unrectified images shown in (A) and (B). All images are shown in a sinusoidal projection with a projection longitude of 165.359°W.' (March 15, 2023)
Figure 2: Close look at Maat Mons, scanned by Magellan: first (A) from the east, then (B) from the west.
Dotted yellow lines in (B) are new, bright lava flows.
Black box in (C) shows extent of images (A) and (B).
(C) and (D) show match points (purple dots) used to get elevations (overlaid in color) (March 2023)

I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.
Blaise Pascal, Provincial Letters: Letter XVI (4 December 1656)
via Wikiquote, unknown translator

I’m not in Pascal’s class, which is why I skipped over Synthetic Aperture LSA=BetaR0 and talked about wavelengths and distance.

But I’ve got the same issue with time and writing. Ideally, I’d boil down the following “…differences in imaging geometry…posteruptive vent…” excerpt. But I spent more time than I might have on that five-millennia ‘watching Venus’ summary.

So give this excerpt from the “Surface changes…” article in the Science journal, I’ll show a couple more “before and after” images, taken eight months apart in 1991, and move along.

Surface changes observed on a Venusian volcano during the Magellan mission
Robert R. Herrick, Scott Hensley; Science (March 15, 2023)

“Venus has a geologically young surface, but it is unknown whether it has ongoing active volcanism. From 1990 to 1992, the Magellan spacecraft imaged the planet’s surface, using synthetic aperture radar. We examined volcanic areas on Venus that were imaged two or three times by Magellan and identified an ~2.2-square-kilometer volcanic vent that changed shape in the 8-month interval between two radar images. Additional volcanic flows downhill from the vent are visible in the second-epoch images, although we cannot rule out that they were present but invisible in the first epoch because of differences in imaging geometry. We interpret these results as evidence of ongoing volcanic activity on Venus.”

“…An active vent in Atla Regio
Figure 1 shows gridded Magellan altimetry overlain on Magellan cycle 1 SAR images of an area in Atla Regio, Venus, which extends from 9°S, 170°W to 6.25°N, 151°W, covering ~3.2 × 106 km2. This area contains two of the planet’s largest volcanoes, Ozza Mons and Maat Mons, which have previously been hypothesized to be locations of active volcanism). Magellan observed this area with east-looking images in cycle 1 (incidence angle 45°) and west-looking images in cycle 2 (incidence angle 25°). This area has not been imaged by Earth-based radar, nor was it imaged during the earlier Venera 15 and Venera 16 missions to Venus….”

“We identified a volcanic vent at 1.363°N, 165.359°W that changed shape and expanded ([Figure 2]) in the 8-month interval between the Magellan imaging in cycle 1 and 2 (February to October 1991). The vent is located on the north side of a domed shield volcano that is part of the larger Maat Mons volcano. In the east-looking cycle 1 image, the vent appears near-circular (1.5 × 1.8 km, area 2.2 km2) with steep interior slopes. We speculate that it was a drained posteruptive vent. In the west-looking cycle 2 image, the vent has become larger (4.0 km2) and irregular in shape. In cycle 2, the vent wall, identifiable as bright pixels on the vent’s west side (an east-facing slope) and dark pixels on its east side (west-facing slope), is narrow, so the vent interior and exterior are separated by only a few pixels in the 75 m/pixel radar mosaic. We interpret this narrowness as being due to short vent walls, perhaps only tens of meters high, which implies that the vent is nearly filled to its rim in the cycle 2 image. We speculate that a lava lake formed in the vent interior during the 8-month gap between images….”
(Figure 1, 2: emphasis mine)

— And New Lava Flows, Maybe

Nasa/JPL's Magellan radar images of Maat Mons, showing changing landscape in 1991. Maat Mons is a shield volcano on Venus: the planet's second-highest mountain and highest volcano. (February and October 1991)
Maat Mons: possible new lava flows and a volcanic crater’s growth. (February and October 1991)

That pair of NASA/JPL Magellan SAR radar images, from an article in The Conversation, look a bit like part of Herrick and Hensley’s Figure 3, but I haven’t managed to find the NASA/JPL document they’re from.

The scientists figured that, since the February 1991 image was taken from a different angle than the October 1991 one, differences between the two in how the one crater looks might come from something in the image processing.

So they ran simulated SAR data of a virtual crater, seen from east and west, and came up with a crater that looked round, both ways.

Odds are very good that the crater on Maat Mons grew during those eight months, and was bean-shaped in late 1991. If follow-up work confirms what they’ve said, Herrick and Hensley have spotted the first known active volcano on Venus.

On the other hand, we’ve had other ‘firsts’ in the search for Venusian volcanoes.

Hot Spots, Sulfur Dioxide, Venusian Volcanoes and Acronyms

NASA, JPL-Caltech, ESA, Venus Express: VIRTIS, USRA, LPI's image: Idunn Mons, infrared glow observed by ESA's Venus Express shown in red.
Idun Mons: image showing infrared glow (red) detected by VIRTIS, Venus Express. (2020)

The ESA’s Venus Express orbited Venus from 2006 to 2015.

The spacecraft’s main job was studying the Venusian atmosphere. Its Venus Monitoring Camera, VMC, worked in ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared.

And it carried three spectrometers: including the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer, VIRTIS and SPectroscopy for Investigation of Characteristics of the Atmosphere of Venus, SPICAV.

In 2010, scientists published a study that connected hot spots with areas on Venus that looked like fresh lava flows.

Two years later, another study tracked a spike in sulfur dioxide in the planet’s upper atmosphere, followed by a slower decline. The decline looked like a similar drop in sulfur dioxide seen by Pioneer when it arrived at Venus.

Hot spots on ground that look like lava flows strongly suggests recent volcanic activity, but I’m guessing someone came up with another possible explanation.

Sulfur dioxide in the upper atmosphere must have come up from below: recently. It breaks down in a matter of days when exposed to sunlight.

Was that poof that volcanoes were erupting? Maybe not.8

“…’A volcanic eruption could act like a piston to blast sulphur dioxide up to these levels, but peculiarities in the circulation of the planet that we don’t yet fully understand could also mix the gas to reproduce the same result,’ adds co-author Dr Jean-Loup Bertaux, Principal Investigator for the instrument on Venus Express [SPICAV] that made the detections….”
Have Venusian volcanoes been caught in the act?“, Venus Express, ESA (March 12, 2021) [emphasis mine]

Maps, Missions, Maat Mons and More

NASA Ames Research Center, U.S Geological Survey, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's map of Venus, from Pioneer data. (March 1981)
NASA-Ames/USGS/MIT Venus map, from Pioneer data. (March 1981)

Two more excessively-wordy excerpts, and I’ll talk about Venusian maps and mountains.

First, what got this month’s study started:

“…Scientists study active volcanoes to understand how a planet’s interior can shape its crust, drive its evolution, and affect its habitability. One of NASA’s new missions to Venus will do just that. Led by the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, VERITAS – short for Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy – will launch within a decade. The orbiter will study Venus from surface to core to understand how a rocky planet about the same size as Earth took a very different path, developing into a world covered in volcanic plains and deformed terrain hidden beneath a thick, hot, toxic atmosphere.

‘NASA’s selection of the VERITAS mission inspired me to look for recent volcanic activity in Magellan data,’ said Robert Herrick, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and member of the VERITAS science team, who led the search of the archival data. ‘I didn’t really expect to be successful, but after about 200 hours of manually comparing the images of different Magellan orbits, I saw two images of the same region taken eight months apart exhibiting telltale geological changes caused by an eruption.’…”
NASA’s Magellan Data Reveals Volcanic Activity on Venus “‘ Ian J. O’Neill (JPL), Karen Fox/Alana Johnson (NASA), Rod Boyce (University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute); Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech (March 15, 2023) [emphasis mine]

Next, what Herrick and Hensley have shown, and what they figure they haven’t:

“…On the basis of only one changed feature, we cannot determine how common currently active volcanism is on Venus. We draw a distinction between identifying recent volcanism on a planet and demonstrating that it is currently volcanically active. For example, Mars has lava flows with estimated ages of less than a few million years, but no volcanic activity has been identified over multiple decades of continuous observation. Only one changed feature has been identified in our survey of the Magellan data, and none have been found in kilometer-scale radar observations from Earth that covered ~25% of Venus’ surface. The low detection rate indicates that Venus is less volcanically active than Jupiter’s moon Io, for which over 100 active spots have been imaged. We estimate that our search of the Magellan data has examined ~1.5% of Venus’ surface area….”
Surface changes observed on a Venusian volcano during the Magellan mission“; Robert R. Herrick, Scott Hensley; Science (March 15, 2023) [emphasis mine]

Now, about maps of Venus.

I found a good set of high-resolution maps here:

(Acronym time: LPI is the Lunar and Planetary Institute, USRA stands for Universities Space Research Association.)

Those maps were high-resolution, detailed, and included text in sidebars. But they were a tad too high-resolution for this blog. When I scaled the global projection down to something that would fit on this screen, most of the lettering was blurry. At best.

So I got the “Altimetry of Venus” map, designed for low-resolution displays, here:

Then I downloaded the LPI | Resources “Altimetric and Shaded Relief Map of Venus” and clipped out the east end of Aphrodite Terra and marked Maat Mons’ location. It’s under “Greater Admiration”, the next heading.

Again, Maat Mons is the mountain Herrick and Hensley studied.

Now, about those names. Briefly, for me.

A terra is a landmass, or would be if Venus had an ocean. More than one terra are terrae.

A mons is a mountain, more than one are montes.

Montes and terrae are words from Latin, which we use because today’s naming conventions got started when Latin was a common language for European scholars.

One more thing: Maat Mons is at 0.5°N 194.6°E.9

“Greater Admiration”

Detail, USGS Altimetric and Shaded Map of Venus from Lunar and Planetary Institute, Universities Space Research Association Venus Map Catalog. (1981) location of Maat Mons marked with a red +. Used w/o permission.
Detail, USGS Altimetric and Shaded Map of Venus. (1981) Maat Mons marked with red “+”.

I had, and still have, more to say about Venus.

But I’ve run out of time this week, so that’ll wait.

NASA/ESA's image: Galaxy UGC 9391, which contains two types of stars astronomers use to calculate distances: Cepheid variables and a Type Ia supernova, 2003du. (2016) via BBC News, used w/o permission.I’ll wrap this up by repeating something I haven’t said in a while.

We live in a universe that’s packed with wonders, beauty and harmony.

These wonders and beauty include, I think, places like Venus: which aren’t obviously beautiful in the picture-postcard sense.

Maybe it’s the nerd in me, but I see a sort of beauty in the way physical laws produce so many different — yet similar — landscapes and weather on other worlds.

That strikes me as a reason for “greater admiration” of God’s work. And since I see reflections of God’s beauty — and might — in this world, learning more about God’s creation inspires greater respect for God. It also reminds me that God’s God and I’m not. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 268ff, 283, 341)

More-or-less related posts:

1 History and a little science:

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's 'Porträtt, karikatyr:' portrait of Wolfgang Lazius. (1562) Photo by Samuel Uhrdin, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.2 Ptolemy, pareidolia and pulp fiction:

3 Scanning Venus:

4 Mapping Venus:

5 Missions to Venus:

6 More-or-less about Magellan:

7 Maat Mons and Magellan images:

8 Venusian volcanoes, indirect evidence and recent developments:

9 Naming conventions and Venusian features:

Posted in Discursive Detours, Science News | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Peril in Orion! Beware Betelgeuse?

H. Raab's photos: the constellation Orion, showing changing brightness of Betelgeuse (Orion's right shoulder), (February 22, 2012 (left); February 21, 2020 (right). via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
H. Raab’s photos of Orion: February 22, 2012 (left); February 21, 2020 (right)

IAU, Sky and Telescope magazine; Roger Sinnott, Rick Fienberg's sky chart: the constellation Orion.Betelgeuse, the bright red star in Orion’s right shoulder, is a semiregular variable star, with small periods of 185 days and 2,100 days and a main period of around 400 days.

It will explode at any moment, and we’re right next door.

If I had any sense, from one viewpoint, I’d talk about the ozone hole, denounce forever chemicals and promote a ‘Save the Panda’ fund I’d set up.

Or maybe indulge in free association inspired by Revelation and Gematria, and slip in hints that your only hope is to give me money.

Yeah. That kind of trouble I don’t need. Besides, I suspect the weird mix of numerology and Bible trivia that infested ‘Christian’ radio during my youth is no longer in vogue.1

So instead, I’ll look at the last two times Betelgeuse was newsworthy. Then I’ll talk about cosmic scale, stars and whatever else comes to mind.


Brian H. Gill's 'Totally Depressing News Network' logo. (2018)News media can serve useful purposes.

But I wouldn’t mind if journalists could dial the angst back a bit. And convince their editors that wasting time on a quick Google search wasn’t really wasted time.

That said, coverage of the last two times Betelgeuse threatened our fair planet could have been worse.2 Some was downright informative.


ESO, P. Kervella's image: Betelgeuse, seen in near-infrared; showing stellar disk and asymmetric extended atmosphere. (July 2009)
Betelgeuse in near-infrared, stellar disk and asymmetric extended atmosphere. ESO, P. Kervella (July 2009)

NASA Space Place's illustration: 'What holds stars together?' (2017)The 2009-2012 headlines got started when Townes, Wishnow, Hale and Walp said that they’d observed a change in Betelgeuse’s apparent diameter.

At one wavelength — 11.15 microns — the visible disk of Betelgeuse had shrunk by 15% in 15 years: 1993-2009. They were right about that.

But other scientists, measuring the star’s diameter at other wavelengths, found that Betelgeuse had gotten a tad bigger.

The last I checked, the consensus is that Betelgeuse’s envelope — a sort of extended atmosphere around the star — has changed.

Someone, I don’t know who, apparently mentioned that Betelgeuse will eventually become a supernova; and that stars shrink before exploding.

I only found one Betelgeuse-Mayan Apocalypse article, with Star Wars for extra flavor. And that one was comparatively low-key. Maybe the more creative journalistic outfits don’t regard their online content as evergreen, and that’s another topic.

Now, assuming that current models of how stars work are somewhat accurate, Betelgeuse will explode very soon. On a cosmic scale.

Estimates, based on various criteria, say that the the Betelgeuse supernova will happen somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 years from now.

Compared to the 13,780,000,000 years, give or take, that this universe has been around; that’s very soon. Measured against the 24-hour news cycle, not so much.

As for being close, Betelgeuse isn’t in our back yard. But it’s arguably in our neighborhood.

Betelgeuse is between about 500 and 600 light-years away. Stepping back a little, it’s about 26,000 light-years to our galaxy’s center — in the general direction of Delta Sagittarii — and 2,500,000 light-years to the next Milky Way-sized galaxy.3

So on a cosmic scale, I’d say Betelgeuse is several doors down the block.

Distances, Safe and Otherwise
NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)'s image: the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant ca. 6,500 light-years away, in the constellation Taurus. (1999, 2000 for optical images)
The Crab Nebula in optical, radio, infrared, ultraviolet, and X-ray wavelengths.

Light from a supernova that was roughly 6,400 light-years away reached Earth in the year 1054, when Edmund the Old was king of Sweden.

We know about it because Chinese astronomers recorded it as a “guest star”.

An English astronomer spotted the supernova’s remnant in 1731. In 1921, an American astronomer noticed that the Crab Nebula is expanding. Eventually, that let scientists work out when it had started billowing out; and that lined up with the 1054 guest star.

Right now, the Crab Nebula is about five and a half light-years across. If we’d been as close to it as we are to Alpha Centuari, it’d be more than an astronomical object of interest.4

Estimates and an Example

NASA/CXC/M. Weiss' illustration: SN 2006gy. (2007)If Betelgeuse was closer, say 50 light-years away, and reached the supernova point in its development this year, then folks who’d invested in sun block could celebrate.

Seems that 50 light-years is where a supernova’s particles and radiation would start seriously affecting our ozone layer. That could be bad news for phytoplankton: and, indirectly, us.

Bad news, but not necessarily catastrophic. Supernovae happen. Some have happened near Earth. Most recently, very likely, about 2,600,000 years back. Give or take a few hundred thousand.

That’s right around the end-of-Pliocene mass extinction.

At the time, Oldowan tools were standard equipment for many folks.

Acheulean tech was around 900 millennia in the future, and the data storage technology we call writing was uncounted ages beyond that. So we don’t know what folks thought about the bright new star in their sky.

Now, about the mass extinction. By journalistic standards, it was an “unprecedented” catastrophe. Some plankton and mollusks died. So did megalodons. But for the most part, life went on.

The supernova may have part of the Scorpius-Centaurus association of stars. That’s the nearest bunch of huge stars that haven’t exploded yet.

At the moment, the Scorpius-Centaurus association is about 420 light-years out, roughly in the direction of Alpha Lupi and Theta Centauri. Back when the supernova went off, it was closer: about 130 light-years.

That’s well outside the 50 light-year danger zone.

Or maybe it’s 25 light-years. Some scientists say that a supernova closer than that could do serious damage to Earth’s upper atmosphere. But we aren’t sure about the safe distance.5 Not yet.

Looking Ahead, Looking Back

Oldowan tools found in Kenya: 'The analysis of wear patterns on 30 of the stone tools found at the site showed that they had been used to cut, scrape and pound both animals and plants' (February 10, 2023) Text, BBC News; photo, ReutersSooner or later, there’ll be another uncomfortably-close supernova.

Based on past experience, life will go on after that, too. So, I think, will we.

Partly because the end-of-Pliocene mass extinction didn’t end us.

Granted, we looked a bit different then.

Or, from another viewpoint, we look different now: taller, with too much forehead and not nearly enough face.6 And that’s yet another topic.

Betelgeuse, The Great Dimming and After
ESO/M. Montargès et al, Center for Astrophysics Harvard and Smithsonian, SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope's photos: Betelgeuse (January 2019, December 2019, January 2020, March 2020)
ESO’s SPHERE photos: Betelgeuse (January 2019, December 2019, January 2020, March 2020)

Studio Foglio's Mr. Squibbs, used w/o permission.Maybe it’s just as well that news media was in full cry with the COVID-19 pandemic and political pandemonium in 2020.

It wouldn’t have taken a great leap of imagination to transform this expression of scientific interest into a shocking revelation. Maybe something like ‘mad scientists seek to doom us all!’

The scientists who are hoping for a supernova
If star on Orion’s shoulder goes supernova, Fermilab experiment will collect data bonanza
uchicago news, adapted from a story by Scott Hershberger originally posted by Fermilab (October 14, 2020)

“In late 2019, Betelgeuse, the star that forms the left shoulder of the constellation Orion, began to noticeably dim, prompting speculation of an imminent supernova. If it exploded, this cosmic neighbor a mere 700 light-years from Earth would be visible in the daytime for weeks. Yet 99% of the energy of the explosion would be carried not by light, but by neutrinos, ghost-like particles that rarely interact with other matter.

“If Betelgeuse does go supernova soon, detecting the emitted neutrinos would ‘dramatically enhance our understanding of what’s going on deep inside the core of a supernova,’ said Sam McDermott, a theorist with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory….”

Then again, maybe not.

I like to think that even the most desperate news editor, having received his science education during late-night mad scientist marathons, would realize that we can’t make stars go boom.

I’d also like to say that they don’t make films like these any more:

  • Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
  • Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (1965)
  • X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)

But cultural content, including film reviews, shows up in my news feeds, and that’s yet again another topic.

As it turned out, the 2019-2020 dimming of Betelgeuse wasn’t the prelude to a supernova.7 Probably.

Betelgeuse’s Great Dimming: The Aftermath
Colin Stuart, Sky & Telescope (August 25, 2022)

“…By piecing together data from a slew of telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, [Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian’s Andrea] Dupree is pointing the finger at an event called a Surface Mass Ejection (SME). Our own Sun regularly burps material from its corona, ejecting a billion tonnes of solar material — about the mass of Mount Everest. But Betelgeuse’s SME spit out 400 billion times more material, equivalent to several times more mass than the Moon. As the ejected material cooled, it formed a cloud of dust that partially blocked, and thus dimmed, our view of Betelgeuse….

“…The event seems to have had a profound effect on Betelgeuse’s more regular pulsations. Astronomers have observed the star for centuries and noticed that it goes through cycles of brightness variations with a period of 400 days. This pattern seems to have completely disappeared since The Great Dimming, perhaps as result of a reshuffling of material in the star’s interior. ‘Betelgeuse continues doing some very unusual things right now,’ Dupree says….”

On the other hand, maybe that stellar megaburp was but a prelude to a nearby supernova. My guess is that it’s not.

But if it is, then scientists around the world are going to be scrambling to get as much data as they can.

And the rest of us can either ignore the new light in our sky, fill the pockets of ‘Sam’s SuperSafe Supernova SuperShelter’ hucksters — or, if it’s summer, set up the lawn chairs, get popcorn and lemonade; and enjoy the show.

A Variable’s Variable Etymology

Frederik de Wit's 'Planisphaerium coeleste' star chart. (1670) Frederik de Wit, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Like a great many other stars, Betelgeuse got its name from Arabic: bat al-jawzā’ or maybe Yad al-Jauzā’, or something else.

Between transliterating from one writing system into another, a misreading, and maybe more glitches; by the time the star’s name got to my language it was Betelgeuse.

But we do know what it means: Giant’s Shoulder, or Hand of the Central One, or maybe Armpit of the Central One.

Me? I’ll stick with calling it Betelgeuse.

Now, finally, the usual links:

1 Science, psychology and silliness:

Anonymous(?) French(?) artist's cartoon of a destructive comet. (1857)2 Comets, climate and me:

3 Perspectives and scale:

4 Crab Nebula, a famous supernova remnant:

5 Archaeology, astronomy and palentology:

6 Ancestors and attitudes:

7 Science, mostly:

8 Naming Betelgeuse:

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Edited Twins, Genetic Engineering and Bioethics

SPL (Science Photo Library)'s image: In vitrio fertilization light microscope. (2015) via BBC News, used w/o permission.

Gene-editing rules showed up in my news feed last Monday. So, indirectly, did genetically-edited twins who, as far as I know, are still alive.

If I’d known how little I’d be able to verify about Dr. He Jiankui’s famous (or infamous) twins, maybe I’d have picked another topic.

But I did find a fair amount of information about genetic editing technology, and a hint at why Dr. He’s science project produced twins:

Gene-Edited Twins

SPL (Science Photo Library)'s image: 'Gene editing has the potential to treat numerous inherited disorders.' (2023) via BBC News, used w/o permission.
Gene editing could treat many inherited disorders.

China’s new human gene-editing rules worry experts
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (March 6, 2023)

New rules in China to regulate gene editing in humans don’t go far enough, a leading expert has warned scientists.

Dr Joy Zhang of Kent University, a global expert on the governance of gene editing in China, said authorities are susceptible to ‘regulatory negligence’….

“…China says the new laws are in line with international rules.

“They set requirements for ethical approval, supervision and inspection, but experts worry that they may not apply to the private sector.

“Dr Zhang, one of the main speakers at an international human genome-editing summit in London, told BBC News: ‘My biggest concern is that the new measures fail to cover a chronic and increasing problem in trying to deal with private ventures that are taking place outside of conventional scientific institutes.

“‘The new rules may struggle to keep up with the burgeoning innovation that is happening in China.’…”

On the ‘up’ side, China’s government says their new laws are up to international standards.

They may be right about that. There was a major stink back in 2018, when Professor He Jiankui told the world, in a series of YouTube videos, that he’d made two twin girls. And that, thanks to his genetic engineering, HIV couldn’t infect them.

Since HIV viruses are the ones that cause HIV/AID, Professor He’s engineered immunity sounded like a good idea.

A remarkable number of scientists didn’t agree.

I can see why, but suspect that the professor’s ‘YouTube first, published paper later’ strategy encouraged their “significant doubts”.

On the other hand, Professor He’s videos may have been a matter of making the best of a bad situation. Seems that the MIT Technology Review worked out what he’d been doing, based on a Chinese clinical trials registry.1

At Least Two “World’s First”

SPL (Science Photo Library)'s image: IVF embryo. (2015) via BBC News, used w/o permission.I gather that Professor He’s problems stem mainly from his tweaking the genes of healthy babies.

But his claim that he’d made “the world’s first genetically edited babies” arguably needs clarification.

For example, differences between his edited babies and the ones back in 2017. Aside from terminology, that is.

China baby gene editing claim ‘dubious’
Michelle Roberts, BBC News (November 26, 2018)

Significant doubts have emerged about claims from a Chinese scientist that he has helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies.

“Prof He Jiankui says the twin girls, born a few weeks ago, had their DNA altered as embryos to prevent them from contracting HIV.

“His claims, filmed by Associated Press, are unverified and have sparked outrage from other scientists, who have called the idea monstrous.

“Such work is banned in most countries….”

Human embryos edited to stop disease
James Gallagher, BBC News (August 2, 2017)

Scientists have, for the first time, successfully freed embryos of a piece of faulty DNA that causes deadly heart disease to run in families.

“It potentially opens the door to preventing 10,000 disorders that are passed down the generations.

“The US and South Korean team allowed the embryos to develop for five days before stopping the experiment.

“The study hints at the future of medicine, but also provokes deep questions about what is morally right….”

I think curing and preventing disease is a good idea, for reasons I’ll get into later.

Defining “First”

OHSU's image: genetically modified embryos. (2017) via BBC News, used w/o permission.At first glance, the BBC News articles of 2018 (first genetically edited babies) and 2017 (first human embryos freed of a disease) seem contradictory.

But, given my culture’s assumptions, they’re both right. The 2017 announcement involved genetically editing human “embryos”. He’s 2018 experiment was about the first human “babies”.

An ‘up’ side of the 2017 announcement was that the “embryos” were identified as human. But that didn’t keep the scientists from treating them as disposable lab materials:

“…The US and South Korean team allowed the embryos to develop for five days before stopping the experiment….”
(James Gallagher, BBC News (August 2, 2017) [emphasis mine]

My hat’s off to Professor He. For whatever reason, he didn’t kill his edited kids after demonstrating that he’d done something nifty.

Instead, he apparently worked with a couple: and allowed his experimental subjects to stay alive, at least for nine months or so. Given current values, and the trouble he got into later, that’s praiseworthy.2

That’s good news.

Not-So-Good News

He JiankuiLab / Image's photo: 'Dr He Jiankui served a three-year prison sentence following claims that he created the world's first gene-edited children five years ago'. (March 6, 2023) BBC News)
Dr. He Jiankui: genetics pioneer, sentenced to three years in prison for improper pioneering.

I don’t know why so many “experts” have aimed so much ill will at Dr. He’s experiment. Although there’s enough dubiously-proper procedure in the professor’s activities to warrant a raised eyebrow or two:

New technologies may have already introduced genetic errors to the human gene pool. How long will they last? And how could they affect us?“, Zaria Gorvett, BBC Future (April 12, 2021)

“…He had broken laws, forged documents, misled the babies’ parents about any risks and failed to do adequate safety testing. The whole endeavour left many experts aghast — it was described as ‘monstrous’, ‘amateurish’ and ‘profoundly disturbing’ ….

“…However, arguably the biggest twist were the mistakes. It turns out that the babies involved, Lulu and Nana, have not been gifted with neatly edited genes after all. Not only are they not necessarily immune to HIV, they have been accidentally endowed with versions of CCR5 that are entirely made up – they likely do not exist in any other human genome on the planet. And yet, such changes are heritable – they could be passed on to their children, and children’s children, and so on….”
[emphasis mine]

An ‘up’ side in the current mess is that apparently misleading the parents of an experimental child is now regarded as not entirely proper.

That’s a big step forward from the good old days of 1977, when Louisa Joy Brown’s parents had been told that in vitro fertilization (IVF) was experimental.

But not that, if it worked, they’d have the first surviving IVF baby. And even then, there was talk of informed consent being important.

And a really big step or two from 1951, when a doctor noticed that I was defective. But didn’t tell my parents, since letting my glitch go untreated would give him grist he could grind into a learned paper. And that’s almost another topic. Which, again, I’ll go into later.

Under the circumstances, and granting that it’s still early days for Lulu and Nana, the edited babies seem to have been rather lucky. Not only are they apparently still alive, but they don’t seem to have been gifted with any spectacularly obvious surprises.3

CRISPR Technology and Surprisingly Long-Tongued Rabbits

Alamy's photo: a rabbit after gene editing, with an unexpectedly long tongue. via BBC Future, used w/o permission.There’s much more in that BBC Future article, but if I don’t move along I won’t get this thing ready by Saturday.

So I’ll settle for sharing this bit:

“…there have been no shortage of surprises in the field. From the rabbits altered to be leaner that inexplicably ended up with much longer tongues to the cattle tweaked to lack horns that were inadvertently endowed with a long stretch of bacterial DNA in their genomes (including some genes that confer antibiotic resistance, no less) — its past is riddled with errors and misunderstandings….”
New technologies may have already introduced genetic errors to the human gene pool. How long will they last? And how could they affect us?“, Zaria Gorvett, BBC Future (April 12, 2021) [emphasis mine]

Next, here’s an excerpt from another discussion of genetic editing:

“…It is rapidly becoming apparent that a wide variety of cardiovascular diseases may one day be curable using CRISPR-Cas9 or similar technology, including many that heretofore have been entirely untreatable. Germline genome editing promises to permanently resolve monogenic cardiovascular disorders for the offspring and subsequent generations of affected individuals. … this approach remains ethically controversial. … In addition, further technical matters will need to be more fully resolved, including those of long-term risks, off-target effects, mosaicism, and applicability to a wider variety of mutations and cardiovascular conditions….”
(“Therapeutic Genome Editing in Cardiovascular Diseases“, David M. German, MD, MPH; et al.; Journal of the American College of Cardiology/Basic to Translational Science (published online February 25, 2019) [emphasis mine]

I gather that “off-target effects” are surprises like long-tongued rabbits and possibly-antibiotic-resistant cattle.

Mosaicism, in this context, is what happens when some of an embryo’s cells get edited, while others don’t. As an adult, the “embryo” has one set of genetic instructions in some cells, another set in others.

We’ve known about mosaicism at least since 1929. Apart from recent experiments, it’s the result of natural phenomena, along with mutation and horizontal gene transfer.4

Procedures, Perspectives and People

MeloneGuru's diagram of the primary sequence of CCR5, a seven membrane spanning G protein, on the cell membrane. (July 5, 2016) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
MeloneGuru’s diagram of CCR5 on a cell membrane.

As I said before, there’s enough dubiously-proper behavior on Dr. He Jiankui’s part to warrant sanctions of some sort.

Seems that he forged ethical review papers, which helped him talk eight couples into going along with his experiment; raised his own funds instead of going through official channels; and even had foreigners working with him.

Small wonder Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology fired him.

I don’t know whether I’m impressed that his sentence included fines amounting to nearly a half-million U. S. dollars, plus three years in prison; or that his sentence was so comparatively light.

Getting back to the eight couples, two pregnancies, and twin girls: as I see it, that means there is at least one dead baby in the mix. Unless the twins spent their gestation in two separate individuals.

But I’m not an expert, so the powers that be in China and others have different perspectives on Dr. He Jiankui’s actions:

“…He had ‘deliberately evaded oversight’ with the intent of creating a gene-edited baby ‘for the purpose of reproduction’, according to the initial findings of an investigating team set up by the Health Commission of China in southern Guangdong province, Xinhua news agency reported….”

“…Many scholars pointed to a 2003 guideline that bans altered human embryos from being implanted for the purpose of reproduction, and says altered embryos cannot be developed for more than 14 days.…”
(“Chinese scientist who gene-edited babies fired by university” … Reuters (January 21, 2019)) [emphasis mine]

I figure that helps explain why 2017’s genetically edited kids were killed.

Keeping them alive for another nine days would likely have gotten the U. S./South Korea research team into trouble. Might even have raised suspicions that the researchers thought their “embryos” were people.5

CCR5Δ32, Recent History and Speculation
. Strickland Constable's illustration of 'low types'. (1899)
“Low types”, left and right; a person of the “superior races”, center (1899)

An angle to the ‘edited twins’ issue I haven’t seen discussed is the particular gene Dr He had been trying to add to their chromosomes: CCR5Δ32/CCR5 Delta32.

CCR5 is a protein that’s on the walls of white blood cells. It acts as a receptor for a particular sort of molecule, and is part of our immune system.

CCR5 genes come in several varieties, alleles in geek-speak. CCR5Δ32 is an allele of CCR5 that’s in maybe 1% of the genetic code of folks who are northwestern Europeans. Or, in my case, whose ancestors are from northwestern Europe. And those are pretty much the only folks who have it.

Now, I wouldn’t have a problem with someone who looks a bit like me having genes that are more common among folks whose ancestors are, say, Chinese.

But then, I wouldn’t.

By some standards, I’m a second-generation result of miscegenation.6 Or, as one of my ancestors said of an Irishman who’d taken an interest in the daughter of a decent American family, “He doesn’t have family: he’s Irish.”

Again, Dr. He Jiankui’s failure to fill out paperwork and generally play ball with a government bureaucracy would be sufficient to account for his fines and imprisonment.

But I could imagine that both working with foreigners, and knowingly polluting Chinese chromosomes with foreign genes, pretty much guaranteed that he’d land in the hoosegow.

Under the circumstances, I could be mildly surprised that he didn’t simply disappear.

Chromosomes, Science and Twins

National Institutes of Health's diagram: 'Epigenetic mechanisms are affected by several factors and processes....' (2015) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
Epigenetic Mechanisms: regulating gene expression, switching genes on or off.

Another aspect of the Chinese twins brouhaha was that the kids are twins. This is speculation, but I think maybe Dr. He’s team wanted twins — and kept the kids alive — so that they could see how their epigentic mechanisms developed.

Here’s where I’d like to geek out, but I’m running out of time. So you’re in luck, I’m keeping this short.

Chromosomes aren’t just DNA. Among other things, the DNA is wound around histones: which pack the DNA more compactly.

Histones also have molecular mechanisms that turn individual genes on or off. Identical twins have identical epigenetic mechanisms when they start out. But if they keep on being alive, their epigenetic mechanisms generally stop being identical.

So I figure Dr. He and company wanted to see how their edited twins changed as they grew.

About epigenetics and all that, I put links to ‘for more information’ stuff near the end of this post.7

TALEN and CRISPR: Repurposing Prokaryotic Molecules

Kazi1111's illustration: showing how TALE proteins are used for epigenome editing. (2014) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission
Epigenome editing, using TALE proteins.

A fair number of articles about Dr. He and the edited twins mention that the researchers used CRISPR gene editing tech.

Again, I’m running short on time: so I’ll keep this short(ish).

CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. It’s part of the prokaryotic molecular tool kit. Prokaryotes are single-celled critters that don’t have nuclei.

CRISPR gene editing tech is a simplified version of the prokaryotic CRISPR-Cas9 antiviral defense system.

TALEN, which stands for transcription activator-like effector nuclease. A TALEN is what we get when we fuse a TAL effector DNA-binding domain to a DNA cleavage domain. What can I say? It’s complicated.

TALEN isn’t in the news much these days. It’s not the hot item that CRISPR is, at any rate.

But TALEN is in today’s gene-editing toolbox. And we got these molecules from prokaryotes, too.8

A Genomic Revolution: New(ish) Territory

Francesco Veronesi from Italy's photo: a red junglefowl, Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand. (2013) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
A red junglefowl: one of the birds we used to make chickens.

If I look at where CRISPR and TALEN gene editing molecules come from, I could see them as natural. Or as natural as any part of this world that we’ve modified.

Or I could go all apocalyptic prophet of doom, denounce all technology developed after some arbitrary date, and hope that nobody remembers where chickens come from.9

Lobby card for Cahn and Siodmak's 'Creature with the Atom Brain.' (1955)But that strikes me as being right up there with warning against atomic Nazi zombies.

So I’ll note that we’re dealing with new technology, quote what someone said, and move on.

“…The births of Lulu and Nana have pushed the boundary of genomic revolution to include generation of genetically engineered babies. This act has been widely condemned as premature, dangerous, alarming and unethical. Given this development, we likely will be hearing of an increasing number of reports on genetically engineered babies in the future. Yet, another woman in China is expecting the birth of a child with genetic modifications. This is new territory.

“Like it or not, this development forces us to ask, where do we go from here?…”
(“Lulu and Nana open Pandora’s box far beyond Louise Brown“; Shiva M. Singh, PhD; Canadian Medical Association Journal (June 10, 2019) via PubMed Central, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health)

Louise Joy Brown, HEK 293 and Me

An HEK 293 variant: 293FT cells.On the one hand, I’m glad that we’ve got rules about using people as lab animals. And that there’s even some discussion regarding reviewing the rules.

Like the one that says using very young humans is okay, as long as they don’t live more than 14 days.

“…The adoption of the 14-day rule in public policy is generally attributed to two major points of origin: in the USA, the 1979 report of the Ethics Advisory Board to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) on embryo research and, in the UK, the report of the Warnock Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology. From these foundations, the rule has acquired widespread influence elsewhere: almost every country in which embryo research is specifically permitted by regulation, soft or hard, employs a version of the 14-day rule….”
How and Why to Replace the 14-Day Rule“, Sarah Chan, Current Stem Cell Reports (published online July 16, 2018) via PubMed Central, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

The 14-day rule makes sense, from some viewpoints, since very young humans lack the abilities many of us develop if we’re not killed.

But I can’t say that I’m okay with killing someone who’s too young to matter. That may take a bit of explaining.

Because I’m Catholic, I must see every human being as a real person.

The divine image is in each of us. We’re all people: no matter who we are, who our ancestors are, or what we’ve done. (Genesis 1:2627, 2:7; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355-357, 361, 369-370, 1700, 1730, 2268-2269, 1929, 2273-2274, 2276-2279)

That means I think the girl whose designation was cell line HEK 293, the first person to survive in vitro fertilization, a convicted murderer, and someone who’s mentally ill are all people: each with a share in humanity’s transcendent dignity. (Catechism, 1928, 1934-1938)

Thinking that human beings — all human beings — are real people, and that we all matter, puts me at odds with assorted political positions. But it’s something I’m stuck with, if I’m going to take my faith seriously.

Responses to the first person to survive in vitro vertilization, Louise Joy Brown, ranged from all-too-familiar malignant virtue to Cardinal Albino Luciani’s “unexpected” application of Catholic beliefs to everyday life. And that’s another topic.10 Topics.

“…in August 1978, Cardinal Albino Luciani — shortly to become Pope John Paul I — unexpectedly refused to criticise Louise’s parents for using IVF, saying they had simply wanted to have a baby.

“‘It helped to counteract some of the negative things people were saying,’ Louise says.

“‘My mum got loads of letters from people. They were mostly positive, but there was some hate mail.

“‘They got an awful box from America which had a broken test-tube, fake blood and a pretend foetus inside. It came with a threat that the people who sent it were coming to see them.’…”
(“How has IVF developed since the first ‘test-tube baby’?“, Adam Eley, BBC News (July 23, 2015))

Making Sense: It’s an Option

'At the Sign of the UNHOLY THREE' cartoon, warning against fluoridated water, polio serum and mental hygiene. And 'communistic world government.' (1955)Maybe life would be easier for Catholics if we were told that any technology developed after 1928 was Satanic. That’s when polyester was patented, and that’s yet another topic.

Like I said, maybe life would be easier if being Catholic meant blindly believing nonsense like ‘polyester is Satanic’ or ‘QR codes are the mark of the beast’.

But that’s not how we work.

Okay. I’ve gone through this before, and will again, but here goes.

Starting with that time someone asked Jesus what the top commandment was —

“He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
“This is the greatest and the first commandment.
“The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.'”
(Matthew 22:3740)

That’s simple enough. I should love God and my neighbor. And see everybody as my neighbor. Everybody. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2537; Catechism, 1706, 1776, 1789, 1825, 1849-1851, 1955)

But “simple” isn’t “easy”, and we’ve needed reminders about what terms like “love” and “neighbor” mean. And why we should treat folks like people: all folks.

Human life is sacred, because it involves God from the get-go. That’s all human life: no matter how young or old, healthy or sick we are. (Catechism, 2258, 2261, 2268-2283)

We are rational creatures, able to think and decide how we act. And we can think about whether what we do is a good idea: or not. God gives us brains. Using them is a good idea. (Genesis 1:2627, 2:7; Catechism, 1730, 1778, 1950-1960, 2292-2295)

Science and technology, studying this universe and using what we learn, is part of being human. It’s what we’re supposed to do. (Catechism, 2292-2296)

Getting and staying healthy is a good idea. Within reason. (Catechism, 2288-2291)

But putting science, technology, health — anything or anyone that’s not God — at the top of my priorities is a bad idea and I shouldn’t do it. (Catechism, 2112-2114)

Bioethics, From a Former Lab Rat’s Perspective

Willowbrook State School.It’s late Friday afternoon now, and I still haven’t said why I think curing and preventing disease is a good idea.

Sure, ‘because the Church says so’ is a reason. But I’ve got personal reasons for how I see medical practices and bioethics. I’ve talked about this before.

A doctor my parents initially trusted correctly diagnosed my congenital hip dysplasia almost immediately after I was born.

This was 1951. Options were limited back then, so maybe he figured I was a hopeless case, doomed to a defective life. Either way, he didn’t tell my parents.

USAF Staff Sgt Eric T. Sheler's photo: A two week-old's Phenylketonuria, or PKU, screening. (2007) via Wikipedia, use w/o permission.“…Instead, he had them bring me in at intervals to see what my hips were doing.

“He made notes about what happens when hip dysplasia isn’t treated. Then he wrote a learned paper on the subject. His paper was published in a medical journal. A copy of the journal wound up in a college library’s collection.

“That’s where my father read the doctor’s learned paper.

“My mother intercepted him before he reached the doctor. She said, ‘no, I will speak with him.’ Which she did. And never shared what they discussed.

“The doctor disappeared a few days later. Maybe it would have been more humane to have let an enraged Irishman conduct the interview….”
(“COVID-19, Cells, Viruses and mRNA Vaccines”, Trust and Prudence, (December 5, 2020))

Attempted non-surgical interventions including a body cast didn’t fix my defective hips, but an operation put me on my feet. And a second operation fixed an issue that’d cropped up after the first one.

Several decades later, swapping out both joints for metal-and-plastic replacements made walking without pain an option: so I’m a happy camper.

But knowing that I’d been used as a lab rat arguably accounts for me not being overly shocked and surprised at incidents like the Willowbrook State School, Tuskeegee, Auschwitz, Dachau and Unit 731 experiments.11

On the other hand, knowing that being healthy and using our brains is okay lets me think that research can be a good idea. And that ethics matter, whether we’re using old or new tech.

One more overly-long excerpt, and then the usual links:

“…As with all medical interventions on patients, one must uphold as licit procedures carried out on the human embryo which respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve disproportionate risks for it but are directed towards its healing, the improvement of its condition of health, or its individual survival. Whatever the type of medical, surgical or other therapy, the free and informed consent of the parents is required, according to the deontological rules followed in the case of children. The application of this moral principle may call for delicate and particular precautions in the case of embryonic or foetal life. The legitimacy and criteria of such procedures have been clearly stated by Pope John Paul II: ‘A strictly therapeutic intervention whose explicit objective is the healing of various maladies such as those stemming from chromosomal defects will, in principle, be considered desirable, provided it is directed to the true promotion of the personal well-being of the individual without doing harm to his integrity or worsening his conditions of life. Such an intervention would indeed fall within the logic of the Christian moral tradition’….”
Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation“, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; quote from “Discourse to the Participants in the 35th General Assembly of the World Medical Association”, Pope St. John Paul II (October 29, 1983)) [emphasis mine]

I’ve talked about bioethics before, and probably will again:

1 Outing a research project:

2 Genetic and legal issues:

3 One of these times I’ll talk about the Hippocratic Oath, but not this week:

4 And one of these days I’ll probably talk about this:

5 Life, death and rules:

6 Science and reasons I don’t miss the ‘good old days’:

7 Genetics, it’s complicated:

8 You’re lucky; I didn’t have time to go over most of this stuff:

9 Artificial organisms, AKA domesticated plants and animals:

'I'd force peace right down their bloodthirsty throats.' Deacon Mushrat in Walk Kelly's Pogo. (1952)10 Modern medicine, making sense, malignant virtue and more:

11 Bad ideas, (some) lessons learned:

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