Pluto, Cloning, New Hominids, & Humphry Davy

Pluto from New Horizons (NASA)

The newest release of images from New Horizons  include this backlit view of Pluto, taken 15 minutes after the closest flyby. In addition to the geology, the image also interestingly reveals hazes in Pluto’s thin atmosphere. Read more about it here.

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Public Discourse publishes a statement against human cloning:

“The central moral objection to cloning-for-biomedical-research is that it involves the deliberate killing of human embryos. Much of the debate over cloning-for-biomedical-research therefore concerns the question of the moral status of the embryo. Is the embryo “one of us,” despite its apparent lack of distinctively human features and capacities? Do these youngest of human beings deserve our care and protection, or are there purposes that are sufficiently important to warrant killing them or using them in experiments?

We maintain that, because human embryos are human beings, they must “never be used as a mere means for the benefit of others.” Human embryos are members of the human species at the earliest stage of biological development. They are tiny in size and unfamiliar in appearance, but they are unmistakably individual human organisms—they do not become human at some later developmental stage. Occasionally scientists will aver that “science does not offer a hard-and-fast answer to the question of when human life begins.” The notion that it is impossible for science to answer the question of when human life begins, or even that the question is meaningless, can be convenient for scientists who want to use embryos as raw materials in their technological projects, but it also represents an abdication of the responsibility of science to provide us not only with technological power over nature but also with answers to questions about nature, including answers that might make us reconsider the moral implications of some of our growing technological power over nature.”

Read here.

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A new find of hominid fossils has been found in South Africa. The uniqueness of the find itself is undisputed. The find includes 15 partial skeletons, a big contrast to the usual fragmentary and isolated finds in paleoanthropology. What will take some more time to elucidate is the significance of the finding in the larger picture of hominid evolution. The discoverers have described the fossils as belonging to a new species, Homo naledi, while critics have disputed even the identification of the species, as well as its significance.

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The more the phenomena of the universe are studied, the more distinct their connection appears, and the more simple their causes, the more magnificent their design, and the more wonderful the wisdom and power of their Author.

Sir Humphry Davy

Pluto & Charon, July 8, 2015

Pluto & Charon (NASA/JPL)

Image: NASA/JPL

What Is Nature?, Why Remain Catholic?, & Why No Irish Astronauts?

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Memoria Press, the classical, Christian, curriculum producer, has released a summer issue of their magazine, dedicated to science and science education in the classical education tradition. There are a number of thoughtful essays, but I’ll just start with this one from Christopher Blum:

The first face of modern science, the calm countenance of pious learning, is the face worn by the vast majority of those who study nature today: stargazers, birdwatchers, homeschooling mothers, all children, many armchair philosophers and some professional ones, and a surprising number of field and laboratory scientists. They have learned from Galileo that the moon is made of rocks, from William Harvey that the blood circulates, from Joseph Lister that they ought to wash their hands, and from many scientists many other truths besides. They are comfortable with the periodic table, unafraid of what the geological record may reveal, and even pay a respectful if somewhat quizzical regard to the mysteries of quantum physics. And many of them regularly worship Nature’s God.

The second face of modern science is similarly widespread, and seems to hold what T. S. Eliot once called “all the most valuable advertising space,” enjoying bully pulpits in academia and the media, from which it trumpets in dreary monotony the dirge of chance and necessity, of the land beyond freedom and dignity, and of the universe without a cause.

What do men of faith require in order to find in that first science the great good of truths lasting and significant? What can men of faith do to offer some measure of composure and peace to those now wearing the anguished and angry faces of that second science?

Such questions admit of no brief and easy answers. Yet the essays in this issue do speak to them and together offer a way forward. But what these essays hold in common is two-fold: a determination to use with great care the words that we employ to formulate our claims about nature, and a confidence that nature’s deep and beautiful order points the way back to its Creator. These two qualities do not themselves offer all that we seek, but they are the essential starting points for inquiry.

Read here.

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The top astronomical sights of 2015, in a handy list from Universe Today.

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Gaelic Storm, the Irish band, wonders why there are no Irish astronauts:

Of course, as a Notre Dame alumnus I am compelled to point out that there are, at least, “Fighting Irish” astronauts.

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“Why remain Catholic?” Elizabeth Scalia asks. I have only one answer: because it is true. I realize that this may seem flippant, but all reasons for being Catholic, or not, ought to reduce finally to simply this. There is no reason at all to be Catholic if you think that it is false. There is no reason not to be Catholic if you think that it is true. Of course the more complicated question is, “But why do you think that it is true?” And that question, I acknowledge, can be worthy of much more discussion. I only wish to urge that, if your reason for being or not being Catholic does not finally resolve itself upon the question of Truth, you are missing the point. No emotional or political purpose can make up for adhering to a falsehood, and no aesthetic or moral purpose can make up for rejecting the true manifestation of God’s Church in the world.

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“The ability not to yield to despair when confronted with the fact of death, as well as with the prospect of the catastrophic end of temporal history, is a matter of great practical concern  to us all. Even in the midst of catastrophe, a person who possesses this ability remains capable of affirmation, which in turn makes it possible for him to engage in activity on the historical plane: to engage, in other words, in “political” activity—activity directed toward the realization of justice—as well as artistic activity, whose purpose it is to praise the creation. As Erik Peterson has stated, the mouth of the martyr does not utter a word against God’s Creation. Despite everything which befalls him and despite how the world of man must “really” look to him, he still persists in saying: The Creation is good, very good!”

Josef Pieper, “The Art of Not Yielding to Despair” Problems of Modern Faith

Brian Greene’s Archnemesis, John Farrell on the Vatican and Evolution, Animals in Heaven, & A Warm Fish

Sunset on Mars (NASA/JPL)

Sunset on Mars on April 15th, 2015, as seen by MSL Curiosity. Read more here.

(Image: NASA/JPL)

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What do you think of string theory? Peter Woit is not a fan, and Nautilus has an interesting introduction to “Brian Greene’s archnemesis”:

Woit’s major complaint about the theory, then and now, is that it fails to make testable predictions, so it can’t be checked for errors—in other words, that it’s “not even wrong.” Contrast this with general relativity, for example, which enabled Einstein to predict, among other things, the degree to which a star’s light is deflected as it passes the sun. Had measurements of this effect not agreed with Einstein’s prediction, general relativity would have been disproved. Such falsifiability is a widely cited criterion for what constitutes science, a perspective usually attributed to philosopher Karl Popper. Plus, general relativity took Einstein only 10 years. String theory has taken more than 30 so far.

Woit’s secondary grievance is aesthetic. He, like many physicists, perceives an intricate beauty in the math underlying successful physical theories like Einstein’s. In contrast, Woit says, string theory’s math is “a gory mess.”

So his blog routinely condemns the theory as a “failure, ” and decries the “faddishness,” “mania,” and “arrogance” of physicists who promote its promise. He has publicly urged agencies like the National Science Foundation to cut string theory funding. The reaction from the community is plainly evident online, where he is called an “incompetent, power-thirsty … moron” and a “stuttering crackpot-in-chief” guilty of crimes as contemptible as those of Osama bin Laden.

Read here.

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What do you think of the Vatican’s approach to evolution? John Farrell is not a fan, and explains why in a recent issue of Aeon. I plan to offer some more commentary on his essay later when I’ve had more time to think over it some more, but for now, you can read it for yourself:

If the Vatican were not a powerhouse, it wouldn’t mean much. But without a more rigorous integration of science into theology, the Church is hobbling its ability to serve as a voice of clarity in worldwide debates about climate change, genetically modified crops, vaccinating children, and the controversial nature of assisted reproductive technologies, including human cloning.

It’s true that rhetoric from the Vatican often paints a more congenial picture when it comes to the compatibility of faith and evolution. Pope Francis recently declared that: ‘Evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.’  But this is really an obfuscation, fooling some optimists into thinking that the Vatican has genuinely moved forward.

Read here.

You can also pair it with this recent contrary take on Teilhard at Crisis.

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What do you think of animals in heaven? David Bentley Hart is a fan (First Things), but Edward Feser is not (see also here and here). Fr. Schall also puts in his thoughts on the matter at The Catholic Thing. As I recall, Peter Kreeft is a fan of the idea, as well.

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Finally, Science reports that the opah, or moonfish, has been discovered to be warm-bodied, maintaining a body temperature about five degrees warmer than the surrounding water. Various other fish have been known to have the ability to temporarily warm various organs or muscles, but the moonfish is the first fish known to be able to maintain a regular whole-body warm temperature, thus sharing a trait, to a degree, with endothermic creatures like birds and mammals. (Video: Science)

Spacecraft at Mercury and Pluto, Flat Space, Sylvester II, & Fulton Sheen

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The news this week is literally taking place at both ends of the solar system, on the small planet nearest the Sun and the small planet the farthest away. At Mercury, a fond farewell. MESSENGER, in orbit since 2011, has spent four years mapping and studying Mercury in detail. Today, the spacecraft’s mission ended when it (as expected) crashed into the planet’s surface. Read more from NASA.

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Pluto from New Horizons (NASA/JPL)

And as one mission ended, another is really just beginning, as New Horizons is approaching Pluto. This week, the probe sent back images that show, for the first time, hints of features on Pluto’s surface. Read more from NASA.

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And it’s worth remembering that, across the distances separating Mercury from Pluto, and across the vaster distances beyond, as far as we can tell, the universe is very flat. (Symmetry Magazine)

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At The Catholic Thing, Randall Smith explains why he rejects the notion that there is a war between science and religion.

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And why should there be, when you have people like Sylvester II, the “Scientist Pope”?

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“In like manner, sound philosophy, while admitting the truth of the theory of relativity in the scientific order, does not immediately lose its head and contend, as Lord Haldane has done, that all knowledge is relative; or as Westermarck has done, that all morals are relative. It repudiates the modern idea that philosophy is merely a synthesis of points of view, for it contends that there is a concept large enough to embrace the whole universe, which concept is objective, and real; and that is the idea of being upon which all metaphysics is grounded.”

Archbishop Fulton Sheen, The Philosophy of Science

Editing Embryos, Rover on Mars, Maudlin on Philosophy, & Br. Consolmagno Interview

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Nature reports:

In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted — rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month about the ethical implications of such work.

Read here.

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Tim Maudlin argues that science needs philosophy (Nova).

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Curiosity on Mars (NASA)

Spot the rover on Mars. This image shows the Curiosity rover on the Martian surface as spottes by the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter. Curiosity is the tiny pale dot in the center of this image, trucking down the “Artist’s Drive” valley. Read more about the image here. (NASA)

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The fossils that weren’t. Science reports:

What are the oldest fossils on Earth? For a long time, a 3.46-billion-year-old rock from Western Australia seemed to hold the record. A 1993 Science paper suggested that the Apex chert contained tiny, wormy structures … that could have been fossilized cell walls of some of the world’s first cyanobacteria. But now there is more evidence that these structures have nothing to do with life.

Read here.

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Full interview: Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno from Archdiocese of Denver on Vimeo.
 

SpaceX Launch: Success and Improvement, Brontosaurus’ Return, & The Probability of God

APril 14 Falcon 9 launch (SpaceX)

SpaceX has succesfully launched another Dragon capsule ferrying cargo to the International Space Station (Spaceflight Now). The launch was also a test of the company’s goal of landing the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket aboard a seagoing barge to be recovered and reused. Like the first attempt, unfortunately, this second try as not entirely successful. As before, the rocket’s first stage did make it back to the barge and—in an improvement from the first attempt—the rocket stage touched down, but, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, “residual lateral motion” toppled the rocket over after landing. This is not yet a success, but it is a step on the way. An excess of caution did not get spaceflight off the ground to begin with, and it won’t improve it either.

Image, video: SpaceX

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First color image of Pluto from New Horizons (NASA)s

Pluto: the New Horizons probe is approaching its target, still scheduled to make its flyby this summer. Now, en route, it relays this image, its first color photograph of the Pluto–Charon system. More from NASA.

Image: NASA

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Brontosaurus is back, they say. Popular Mechanics reports:

A team of paleontologists led by Emanuel Tschopp at the New University of Lisbon in Portugal has just completed a massive computer analysis of fossils in a group of dinosaurs called Diplodocids that includes ol’ thunder lizard (or whatever it really is). And to their surprise, they say they found that Brontosaurus really is in its own group. Its fossils share distinct, incomparable bone features—enough for it to reclaim its iconic genus name.

Read here.

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These attempts to pin down God’s existence mathematically or scientifically don’t do much for me. Over at First Things, Joe Carter discusses a new book by physicist Stephen Unwin applying Bayesian probability to the question of God’s existence (or, more accurately, to our judgment about God’s existence.) Aside from the fact that the judgments plugged into Unwin’s equation are “admittedly subjective”, which seems to defeat the purpose, I have trouble getting past the fact that the analysis relies on judging whether any particular piece of evidence is more likely if God does, or does not, exist.

But given a classical conception of God, and the classical arguments for Him, the very existence of any piece of evidence at all points inevitably to God. We cannot draw a chart, outline the various axes of evidence, and shade in the portion covered by God’s existence, leaving some portion left over that could possibly be explained in His absence. Classically, then, either God exists and the probability of his doing so is 1, or He doesn’t and the probability of anything existing at all is zero. Which, you may have noticed, isn’t the case.

Easter 2015

The Empty Tomb, Fra Angelico, ca. 1437

“The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented — a new dimension of reality that is revealed. What already exists is not called into question. Rather we are told that there is a further dimension, beyond what was previously known. Does that contradict science? Can there really only ever be what there has always been? Can there not be something unexpected, something unimaginable, something new?”

– Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2

Lensed Supernova, New Human Genus Fossil, & Priests’ Space Ice Robots

 

From Sky & Telescope:

[I]n 1964, Sjur Refsdal (Hamburg Observatory, Germany) suggested a background supernova explosion could create a temporary cross, given the right line-up with a foreground galaxy.

Now, decades after Refsdal’s predictions, astronomers have finally struck gold. Patrick Kelly (University of California, Berkeley) and colleagues report in the March 6th Science Hubble Space Telescope observations of a supernova gravitationally lensed by a foreground elliptical galaxy in a massive galaxy cluster.

Read here.

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From Science:

In two papers online this week in Science, the ASU team and co-authors introduce the partial lower jaw as the oldest known member of the genus Homo. Radiometrically dated to almost 2.8 million years ago, the jaw is a window on the mysterious time when our genus emerged. With both primitive and more modern traits, it is a bridge between our genus and its ancestors and points to when and where that evolutionary transition took place. As a transitional form “it fits the bill perfectly,” says paleontologist Fred Spoor of University College London.

Read here.

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[T]he Philberth brothers were hardly typical researchers: They were devoted Catholics who would soon after the expedition be ordained as priests. For them, scientific research represented not only a means for solving the problems of humankind, but also a pathway for probing religious questions. […]

When Karl Philberth arrived in central Greenland in 1968, he planned to study whether the ice sheet would remain stable when exposed to vessels of nuclear waste so radioactive they would constantly emanate heat, like high-powered incandescent light bulbs. Packed in the convoy of caterpillar vehicles were two reinforced tubes as long as coffins, holding a pair of machines that he had built with the help of US Army engineers. Those machines would allow him to probe the depths of this 8,000-foot-thick ice in ways that no scientist had ever done.

The Philberths’ plans for nuclear waste disposal never did come to pass, but the significance of their work has endured in other, unexpected ways.

Decades after the fact, the machines that Karl Philberth designed are re-emerging as a prototype for future planetary exploration and the search for life in other worlds. Space probes based on his ice-burrowing machines may one day tunnel into the frozen shell of Europa, a moon of Jupiter, to reach a vast hidden ocean that might harbor life.

Read here.

 

Dawn at Ceres

Artist's impression of Dan approaching Ceres (NASA)

Dawn has arrived at Ceres, the “dwarf planet” that is the largest object in our solar system’s asteroid belt. The Dawn probe arrived this morning, riding the gentle pressure of its ion engines into orbit. In so doing, Dawn achieved two firsts, says NASA, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit a “dwarf planet” and the first to enter orbit around two separate solar system objects beyond Earth. Dawn had previously orbited the asteroid Vesta, before leaving in 2012, bound for Ceres.

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Of course, this “dwarf planet” distinction is a bit semantic. Ceres is large enough to pull itself into a sphere, and in fact makes up a third of the asteroid belt’s mass. Until just a few years ago, Ceres was classified as an asteroid (although the largest by far), but after its discovery in 1801 Ceres was considered a full-fledged planet. When the “dwarf planet” classification was developed to accommodate Pluto in 2006, Ceres fit the bill as well.

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Ceres with unidentified bright spots (NASA)

One of the most interesting puzzles Ceres has presented is two bright spots inside of a crater, imaged as Dawn approached its target. The spots disappeared as the crater rotated to the dark side, indicating they were likely highly reflective substances. Closer images will have to be made to determine their origin, but the leading assumption is that they are areas of exposed ice or salt deposits.

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Dawn entered orbit this morning, and will begin its full science mission next month. If two of the probe’s reaction wheels had not failed previously in the mission, requiring the spacecraft to use up more hydrazine fuel for maneuvering than planned, Dawn would have even been able to depart Ceres for a third target. As it is, Dawn will remain in orbit of Ceres until its science mission is over, when it will be left to stably orbit Ceres indefinitely.

Images: NASA