Mars: Leaky Red Planet

What we’re learning about Mars, and a new type of really small spacecraft, reminded me of earth, air and kilts.

Also pharaohs, Thomas Paine, and Lord Kelvin. By then I was running out of time to write something more tightly-organized.

I figured you might be interested in some of what I have written. On the other hand, maybe not. So I added links to my ramblings before and after what I said more-or-less about the science news, and figure you can decide what’s interesting and what’s not.

Earth, Air, and Kilts: Also Lord Kelvin

Earth’s atmosphere is roughly 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide; plus traces of neon, helium, and methane.

That’s not including water vapor. Depending on where you are and what time you take the sample, that varies from 0.001% to 5%.

Sometimes it feels like the air is about 125% water, and that’s another topic.

Many folks are more concerned these days about Earth’s atmosphere than in my youth.

We’ve learned quite a bit since 1898, when Lord Kelvin told a reporter that if we kept going through coal and wood at the late-19th-century’s rate, we’d have burned all Earth’s fuel in 500 years.1

That wasn’t the bad news.

According to the British peer, we were using up Earth’s oxygen so fast that we’d run out in 400 years.

And you thought global warming/climate change was bad!

Lord Kelvin’s math was accurate. His assumptions weren’t, entirely. For one thing, we’ve learned about Earth’s oxygen cycle since then.

I still think developing more efficient gadgets, and looking for the next practical energy source, makes sense.

Outlawing ‘scary’ technology, or deciding that there are too many humans, not so much. (February 17, 2017; February 10, 2017; August 12, 2016)

I’ll admit to a bias. I’m human, and arguably among those who are not sufficiently useful and fit to deserve life. ‘Improving’ humanity has been tried, with regrettable results, and that’s yet anther topic. (August 14, 2016)

In fairness, some tech really is dangerous; or too hard to dispose of safely. I’ve talked about PCBs before, but not asbestos. (February 17, 2017)

Maximilian I apparently thought wheellocks were too dangerous to let Austrians own them; and King George II defended England by banning tartans and kilts in Scotland. That law was repealed, finally, in 1782.

On the other hand, Bhutan’s government passed the Driglam namzha laws in 1989, making traditional Bhutanese dress compulsory in some settings. And that’s yet again another topic.

Change Happens, and Early Planetary Atmospheres

Earth’s atmosphere hasn’t always been like it is now.

We’ve learned a great deal since the 1700s, when some natural philosophers suggested that the Solar System might have started as a rotating cloud of gas and dust.

It wasn’t until after my youth that observations and better math made the nebular hypothesis the preferred model. Getting decent images of ‘nearby’ protoplanetary disks helped.

I think the one around Beta Pictoris was the first, in 1984. That’s an infrared image of the one around HL Tauri, taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. (December 23, 2016; December 9, 2016)

We’re pretty sure that our Solar System’s planets all started with hydrogen atmospheres.

Mostly hydrogen, that is. Water vapor, ammonia, and methane, among other chemicals, would have been in the mix. Big, distant, worlds like Jupiter and Saturn stayed old enough to keep most of their original gasses. Earth didn’t.

Earth was gassy, early on. Volcanoes, and — probably — volatile-rich asteroids gave our home its ‘second atmosphere.’ We’re still not sure about the Late Heavy Bombardment.

Comets have been falling from the sky at odd intervals, too; which may or may not be where much of Earth’s water came from. “Not” is the prevailing opinion, but that could change as we learn more.

The current mix started forming as plate tectonics kicked in, and critters started making changes. That caused Earth’s first environmental crisis, although I’m the only one who I know of who calls it that.

Cyanobacteria , or critters like them, started dumping oxygen some 2,300,000,000 years back, give or take. The Great Oxygen Event was great for us, eventually, but lethally bad for obligate anaerobes. (September 30, 2016; September 2, 2016)

I’ll be calling it the GOE; mainly because that’s shorter, and I like acronyms.

After the Great (For Us) Oxygen Event

We’re not entirely sure what set off the GOE. Photosynthesizing microcritters almost certainly were major players, quite possibly helped along by a variety of processes we didn’t know about until recently.

Besides setting off an extinction event, the newly-present oxygen would have reacted with methane, producing carbon dioxide and water. Carbon dioxide isn’t as effective a greenhouse gas as methane, which helps explain why the Hurorian glaciation started.

That was the longest ice age we know of, and apparently set off another extinction event, or kept the oxygen-sparked one going.

We didn’t know that extinction happened until the 1700s — according to a Forbes article by David Bressan. That’s when folks putting together facts and speculations about fossils started thinking about why some of the critters weren’t around now.

One of the fossils was a set of outsize antlers, found in Ireland. An Irish priest, Bressan said, Thomas Molyneux, figured big antlers were from a critter that didn’t live in Ireland any more. But molyneux thought the critter was probably still around somewhere else.

That made sense back in 1695, when Europeans were learning how much of Earth they hadn’t known about. Later, when European explorers were running of unknown new lands, not so much.

Bressan’s Irish priest sounds like Thomas Molyneux, an Irish doctor born in 1661.

He’s also credited with publishing the first scientific description of the Irish elk. That critter’s binomial name is Megaloceros giganteus, and I’ve talked about Linnaeus before. (September 23, 2016)

T. Molyneux is the chap folks at the California Museum of Paleontology think identified the Irish elk, and helped get scientists thinking about evolution. Dr. M. didn’t get everything right, though:

“…In the words of Dr. Thomas Molyneux, the first scientist to describe the Irish elk:

“That no real species of living creatures is so utterly extinct, as to be lost entirely out of the World, since it was first created, is the opinion of many naturalists; and ’tis grounded on so good a principle of Providence taking care in general of all its animal productions, that it deserves our assent.”

“Molyneux erroneously identified the Irish elk with the American moose…”
(California Museum of Paleontology)

William Molyneux, an Irish priest, was born in 1685. That would make him about 10 years old in 1695: a bit young to be writing about extinct critters, and that’s still another topic.

In 1796 French naturalist George Cuvier said that a newly described species of elephant was an extinct creature, unlike any living species.

He had evidence to back it up. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach called the critter Elephas primigenius. Most folks call it the wooly mammoth.

But mammoths aren’t mentioned much, since the last ones died around the time Thutmose was taking territory back from Nubia and Carchemish on the Euphrates.

Recent Changes, and More Than You Need To Know About Pharaohs

(Hatshepsut’s temple, refurbished and currently maintained as an historic site.)

Maybe Nubia’s king thought it was a good time to reclaim land earlier Pharaohs had taken. He was wrong about that, fatally, another Nubian effort failed with pretty much the same result a few years later.

I haven’t learned the name of that Nubian King. My guess is that most of the records we have of him are from official Egyptian archives, which weren’t particularly interested in whoever wasn’t in charge at the moment.

My word for Egypt’s top leaders, pharaoh, is what happened to the Egyptian word (par-ʕoʔ, probably) after passing through Greek (Φερων) and Hebrew (פרעה), Greek again (φαραώ, this time), Late Latin (pharaō), and English (pharao).

England’s King James put the Hebrew “h” back in, and that’s where we are today. A few millennia from now, I suspect my language will still be around. If it is, I’m quite sure it will have changed.

Although history usually gets presented as a succession of wars, I gather that most of the time Nubians and Egyptians got along about as well as neighbors anywhere.

Hence trade, cultural exchange, and intermarriage among Nubians and Egyptians; punctuated by intermittent warfare.

My civilization didn’t start realizing that Africa had a significant history until my lifetime, so we haven’t put many of the pieces together yet. Better late than never, I think.

My guess is that Egypt of the pharaohs is more of an African civilization than the ‘Western’ folks centered on the Indus and Mesopotamian regions.

The Kush Kingdom lasted a little longer than ancient Egypt.

That’s Mentuhotep III, not Thutmose.

We don’t know much about Mentuhotep I, who lived during one of Egypt’s major speed bumps. If I was taking a History test, I’d say it was the First Intermediate Period, about 41 centuries back.

There was another one, 36 centuries back, give or take a few.

The third happened when the Late Bronze Age collapse reached Egypt. Egypt ended up as part of the Achaemenid Empire.

Egyptians who weren’t part of the Achaemenid system were happy to see Alexander the Great take over.

Alexander the Great died before tying his empire together. Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander’s generals, pulled Egypt out of that mess, and was accepted as a pharaoh.

My guess is that pharaonic Egypt would have recovered and be around today, if another major power hadn’t been around. The Roman Republic was built on what I think are good ideas. Like every other effort, it wasn’t perfect. But for nearly five centuries it brought a measure of peace and prosperity to much of the Mediterranean basin.

My the time our Lord showed up — I’ll be talking about that elsewhere — the Roman Senate had schemed and assassinated themselves into a corner.

They named one of their members “dictator perpetuo,” hoping that Julius Caesar would solve their problems. He was doing that when some well-meaning, or disgruntled, Senators killed him.

The Final War of the Roman Republic rolled over Egypt around 30 BC. The Republic became an empire, which lasted a little over five centuries. We haven’t had that level of stability since. Stability isn’t everything, but it can be a good idea.

Some developments over the last century are hopeful, I think. And that’s — what else? — another topic. (October 30, 2016; September 25, 2016)

1. Martian Air

(From NASA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Artwork: Mars today is cold and dry (L) but it have been very different billions of years ago (R)”
(BBC News))

Most of Mars’ air was ‘lost to space’
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (March 31, 2017)

It is clear now that a big fraction of the atmosphere of Mars was stripped away to space early in its history.

“A new analysis, combining measurements by the Maven satellite in orbit around the Red Planet and the Curiosity rover on its surface, indicate there was probably once a shroud of gases to rival even what we see on Earth today.

“The composition would have been very different, however.

“The early Martian air, most likely, had a significant volume of carbon dioxide.

“That would have been important for the climate, as the greenhouse gas might have been able to warm conditions sufficiently to support nascent lifeforms….”

Let’s say we find life on Mars: or learn that there was life there. What would that mean?

I’m pretty sure that would depend on who’s talking. I’d most likely be fascinated, excited, eager to learn more; and recognize the discovery as another opportunity for greater admiration of God’s work. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283)

But I’m a Christian and a Catholic who isn’t upset that whoever wrote Joshua and Job didn’t know about Kepler’s work. I’ve talked about Psalms, Ptolemy, and getting a grip, before. (December 2, 2016; July 29, 2016)

Others might decide that Thomas Paine was right. (December 23, 2016)

Paine has been called an English-American activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary; and a rabble-rousing troublemaker. Again, it depends on who’s talking.

Christopher Hitchens’ “Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography” recognizes that folks often think and write as if they’re living in the era they’re living in.

That shouldn’t be surprising, but like I said: I’m not upset that the Old Testament isn’t written from a 20th-century scientist’s viewpoint.

Or 34th-century philosopher’s, for that matter.

Anyway, here’s what Hitchens wrote about Paine:

“…Paine was an engineer and amateur scientist, and stood on tiptoe to see as far as he could over the existing horizon. He half-understood the concept of infinity and the infinite plurality of possible other galaxies, but he could not leave hold of the idea that this made the terrestrial much more unique, rather than quite possibly less….”
(“Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’,” Hitchens, p. 133, via Google Books)

I’m not surprised at Paine’s views. He was born on January 29, 1736 or February 9, 1737, depending on which calendar you use. (March 24, 2017)

His father was a Quaker, his mother an Anglican.

Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” came out in 1741. Thomas was about four at the time, and living with his parents in Norfolk, England; so I’m pretty sure he didn’t read it at the time.

Edward’s sermon left a lasting impression, though, so I’m sure Paine ran into Edward’s version of Calvinism. That mix of ideas is still echoing in America’s religious assumptions. (March 5, 2017)

The first part of Paine’s “Age of Reason” came out about 53 years after Edward’s “God … abhors you” bestseller. Paine’s “…Reason” was a bestseller, too; and echoes of it’s ideas are, if anything, a bit easier to hear these days.

Thomas Paine

Paine spends part of two sections in “…Reason,” Part First, saying that Christianity actively suppressed scientific progress. I think I understand how he came to that conclusion, but I don’t agree.

I’ve talked about Saints Hildegard of Bingen and Albertus Magnus, autopsies, and H. P. Lovecraft, before. (March 31, 2017; December 16, 2016; July 15, 2016)

Paine starts the next section starts by saying that someone can either take Christianity seriously, or accept what folks were learning about the universe. That’s an oversimplification:

“…the story of Eve and the apple, and the counterpart of that story, the death of the Son of God, that to believe otherwise, that is, to believe that God created a plurality of worlds, at least as numerous as what we call stars, renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous, and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air. The two beliefs cannot be held together in the same mind, and he who thinks that he believes both, has thought but little of either….”
(“Age of Reason,” Part First, Section 12, Thomas Paine (1794) via

I don’t blame Paine for seeing Christianity that way.

He grew up in a country whose ruler had kicked over the traces two and a half centuries before, setting up a national church; and Europe was recovering from the Thirty Years War. (November 6, 2016; October 28, 2016)

About two centuries after Paine, some — not all — Christians had conniptions about evolution. We’re dealing with the same weirdness in the second decade of the 21st century.(October 28, 2016; August 14, 2016)

Life, the Universe, and Doing Our Job

I don’t think that life emerged on Mars, or that Mars never harbored life. Like I keep saying, we don’t know. Not yet.

The odds have been looking much better in recent years, from a low point after 1965. That’s when when Mariner 4 sent back images of craters, detected no planetary magnetic field, and surface atmospheric pressure well below ‘best case’ estimates. We’ve learned quite a bit since then. (September 30, 2016)

We still don’t know about life on Mars, but it’s become increasingly difficult to say there can’t have been life there.

And if we don’t find Life on Mars, we’ve found favorable locations in and beyond the Solar System’s asteroid belt.

We’ve also started charting promising destinations around other stars. (March 3, 2017; September 30, 2016; September 2, 2016; July 29, 2016)

I think it’s very likely that we’ll find life somewhere beyond Earth. But I won’t say that there must, or must not, be life elsewhere in the universe. That’s up to God. Part of our job is learning what’s out there. (Catechism, 159, 282286, 341, 22922296)

I’ve talked about God, Aristotle, 1277, and getting a grip, before. (December 16, 2016; December 2, 2016)

2. The Lost Ocean of Mars: Maybe

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Did early Mars have a vast northern ocean?”
(BBC News))

Impact crater linked to Martian tsunamis
Paul Rincon, BBC News (March 26, 2017)

Scientists have located an impact crater linked to powerful tsunamis that swept across part of ancient Mars.

“The team believe an asteroid triggered 150m-high waves when it plunged into an ocean thought to have existed on northern Mars three billion years ago.

“Lomonosov crater in the planet’s northern plains fits the bill as the source of tsunami deposits identified on the surface….”

A Martian ocean isn’t news. Evidence of a tsunami is literally last year’s news. Scientists reported landforms in the Ismenius Lacus quadrangle where the simplest explanation was that at least two whacking great waves rearranged boulders. That was in May of 2016.

Finding a probable impact point where the tsunamis started, that’s news.

About the Martian ocean: We’re still not absolutely sure, but robots like Curiosity have been finding rocks that form in water.

Scientists have worked out some variously-improbable scenarios where water isn’t involved, or where there’s only enough water to form a molecule-thick film.

My guess is that the simpler explanations are more likely: and that Mars once had water. Which may still be there. That would make self-sustaining outposts there much easier to set up. (September 30, 2016)

We also don’t know for sure if Mars had enough water to make an ocean. But again, explanations for what’s being found are simpler with water.

There are possible non-water explanations for the river channels and deltas we’re finding, but it does look like they’re what’s left of rivers flowing to lakes and an ocean.

Whether or not the Mars ocean hypothesis is eventually proven, we’ve got names for it: the Paleo-Ocean and Oceanus Borealis. Either way, it would have filled the basin Vastitas Borealis in the Martian northern hemisphere.

If there was a Martian ocean, it was most likely drying up between 4,000,000,000 and 3,800,000,000 years ago. Give or take.

If life got started on Mars, and developed at anything like the speed it did here on Earth, there wasn’t time for Barsoomians to appear. (December 16, 2016)

We might, however, find traces of microbes. Or we may find that life on Earth isn’t particularly close to the 50th percentile. (March 3, 2017)

Changing Air

Like I said earlier, Earth’s atmosphere is about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide; plus traces of other gasses. That’s not including water vapor, anything from around 0.001% to 5%.

Our home’s air wasn’t always like that.

Like everything else we’re finding, it’s been changing. I could kvetch that “it’s not in the Bible,” but that doesn’t make sense, not to me. Accepting that the creation we’re in is in a “state of journeying” does. (Catechism, 302)

We think of 21% oxygen as “normal.” But again, that’s been changing. Atmospheric oxygen was almost non-existent Before the GOE, and has fluctuated since. A lot.

After photosynthesizing microcritters started dumping oxygen in Earth’s ocean, killing anaerobic life — I talked about that earlier — there still was precious little in the air. Most of the oxygen was getting absorbed by the ocean’s water and rock.

Then, from around 1,850,000,000 to 850,000,000 years back, it looks like the ocean and seabed got saturated enough for oxygen to start escaping into Earth’s atmosphere.

It still wasn’t accumulating there, since exposed rocks were getting oxidized as fast as oxygen reached them.2

If you haven’t noticed the hue and cry over carbon dioxide, you probably don’t read or listen to the news.3

“Hue and cry” apparently started with Edward I of England’s 1285 Statute of Winchester, making lots of folks responsible for theft or robbery. American law discourages folks from shielding burglars and robbers, and I’m drifting off-topic again.

Carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse gas” produced by volcanoes, fermenting bread, and leaky fire extinguishers. There’s more in Earth’s atmosphere now than there was before the industrial revolution. I’ll get back to that.

3. Smaller Can Be Better

(From NASA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The IceCube smallsat was designed to study Earth, but upcoming missions would be despatched to other planetary bodies”
(BBC News))

Nasa ‘smallsats’ open up new planetary frontier
Paul Rincon, BBC News (March 22, 2017)

Nasa is planning a series of small satellite missions that could open up new ways of exploring the Solar System.

“James Green, head of planetary science at Nasa, told BBC News that the agency was investing in the technology and looking at how best it could be used.

“Scientists studying these “smallsats” believe they have now proven their utility for cutting edge science.

“They could be deployed from larger spacecraft to carry out targeted investigations, Dr Green explained….”

Satellites and probes have been, mostly, getting bigger. Sputnik 1 was about the size of a beach ball; 58 centimeters, 23 inches across — not counting antennae.

The Hubble Space Telescope is 13.2 by 4.2 meters, 43.3 by 13.8 feet; and the International Space Station is 72.8 meters, 239 feet, long.

I’m pretty sure we’ll keep building large spaceships: when that’s the most reasonable design for a mission. But we’ve been getting better at making equipment smaller.

I’m most impressed by what’s happened in electronics. I remember when vacuum tubes were pretty much the high end of electronics tech. We’ve recently made circuitry small, and low-powered, enough to fit inside people. Also monkeys. (November 18, 2016 )

Carbon Dioxide isn’t Carbon Monoxide

I’m not surprised that there’s more carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere than the ‘good old days’ of no steam locomotives and cholera epidemics.

We’ve been learning that there’s been less carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, and a whole lot more than today. The same goes for oxygen.

I’m also not surprised that the crisis du jure is now called “climate change.” My guess is that too many folks started remembering the coming ice age, and began actually looking at available data. (January 20, 2017)

I don’t deny that Earth’s climate is changing. I’d be astonishing if it stopped changing. I also think we should “do something” about conditions here.

But I sincerely hope that decisions are made rationally, based on data: not feelings.(January 20, 2017; November 18, 2016 )

Earth’s carbon monoxide isn’t quite the same as carbon dioxide. It comes mostly from sunlight hitting the atmosphere.

It also comes from volcanoes, forest fires, and faulty stoves. The stuff binds with hemoglobin, but the way it kills critters like us is a lot more complicated. It’s toxic in more than trace amounts, though, which is why it’s a good idea to fix stoves.

Aristotle didn’t know about the biochemistry of carbon monoxide poisoning, but did notice that toxic fumes come from burning coals.

Killing folks convicted of crimes by putting them in a bathing room with smoldering coals is another reason I don’t miss the ‘good old days.’ (January 22, 2017; January 11, 2017; November 21, 2016)

Supereons, Eons, and Eras

As scientists started realizing that Earth a whole lot more than a few thousand years old, they coined words to make talking about different amounts of ‘a really long time’ easier.

This sort of thing fascinates me, your experience may vary.

Eons are units on the geologic time scale between supereons and eras. The Phanerozoic eon is the current one, when critters like trilobites and reef-building archaeocyathans appeared. That’s about 541,000,000 years ago, give or take 1,000,000.

The next one back is the Proterozoic, and don’t bother memorizing these names. There won’t be a test on this stuff.

Quite a bit happened before the Phanerozoic and Proterozoic. That’s January through September, more or less, on the ‘cosmic calendar’ up there.


There’s a kernel of truth behind all the chaff of “climate change” hype.

It’s nearly certain that we’ve been altering climate, at least regionally, ever since folks started planting crops.

Like it or not, we’re hot stuff:

4 What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.
(Psalms 8:46)

But “little less than a god” isn’t God.

Earth got along fine before we showed up.

Now that we’re here, we have “dominion;” which doesn’t mean we can do whatever we please. (March 26, 2017; January 20, 2017; November 18, 2016)

We can, actually, we have free will. But it would be a very bad idea. Our dominion is not ownership.

We’re more like stewards, responsible for God’s property. Using resources is okay. That’s part of our job: using and managing resources; for our reasoned use, and for future generations. (Genesis 1:2629, 2:15; Catechism, 339, 952, 24022405, 2415, 2456)

Our croplands and factories aren’t the only forces at work. I’ve talked about stewardship, eruptions of Mount Tambora, Krakatoa, and Mount Redoubt, before. (January 20, 2017)

Climate Change and Thinking Ahead

Earth’s climate was changing long before humanity arrived. It’s changed a lot over the last few billion years.

I think we have serious decisions to make over the next few centuries. I also think that we have centuries, millennia, and longer; and should be planning with that in mind.

I also think that we will prove as durable as rats, cockroaches, and — eventually — scorpions. (September 30, 2016)

Still learning about Earth and the universe:

1 Baron Kelvin, science, and sense:

2 Atmospheres:

3 I’ve talked about Ehrlich and fizzled forecasts before:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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