Planets

As most everybody knows, there are eight planets. This is according to the International Astronomical Union, which famously demoted beloved Pluto back in 2006 to a “dwarf planet”. But the definition of planet changes so often, that there is really no one way to define a planet.

To the ancient Greeks and Romans, a planet meant “any object that moved in the sky that wasn’t a bird”. This meant there were seven, the seven planets famously depicted in the Ptolmatic Model (by Ptolmey): Luna (moon), Mercury, Venus, Sol (sun), Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These all orbited the Earth, because they all appeared to move in the sky, and were thus planets. This model made the most sense and stuck around until a fellow named Copernicus noticed that Ptolmey’s model had some fancy math error that could be rectified by a heliocentric model of the universe. This is why the Sun and Moon move differently in the sky from all the other planets, since they orbit the Sun, and not the Earth. From this model there were only 5 planets, and the definition expanded to mean “a moving object in the sky that orbits the Sun”.

Then in the 19th century, as telescopes improved, a whole bunch of itty bitty planets were discovered. At the time, Uranus was newly discovered by William Herschel (who wanted to call it George’s Star, after the king). So when Giuseppi Piazzi found a dinky little planet between Mars and Jupiter in 1801, the scientific community were eager to add it to the official list, to be the 9th planet. They called it Ceres, in the tradition of naming planets after Roman gods. Then the next year another was found, but it was a lot smaller. And then another. And another. By this point astronomers were scratching their heads at these little oblong (except for Ceres) lumps that were all clustered together, and decided to call them “asteroids” (meaning star-like). Soon after, in 1846, a new planet (big this time) was discovered beyond Uranus, and they named it Neptune.

For years afterwards, astronomers studied the orbit of Neptune and realized that the orbit was slightly affected. They assumed that this was because of the influence of a large body’s gravity on it. They called this theoretical planet Planet X. The idea was Percival Lowell’s, and he poured a lot of money into finding it. And then, who should find the planet, but a new guy at the observatory, who was comparing photographs. The world was soon in delight to have found a new planet, despite it not being big enough to be Lowell’s Planet X. They called it Pluto.

From 1930 until 2006, Pluto has enjoyed status as a planet. We all grew up learning mnemotic devices in school to remember the nine planets. However, astronomers always were unsure about Pluto, especially once other objects in the area were found. They were of course much smaller than Pluto, in the same way that Ceres contains an entire third of the mass of the Asteroid Belt. So the Kuiper Belt was discovered, a mass of comets, and icy rocks beyond Neptune. The objects within are normally called Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), and yes, Pluto is included. So why isn’t Pluto a planet anymore? Well, astronomers figured that despite being tiny (for a planet), and not having a “clear neighborhood” (the official term), it could still be a planet unless something larger than Pluto was found, demoting its special status. While many objects were found that rivaled Pluto in size, and even being given names, none came close to being bigger.

I’ll give you one guess as to what was found in 2005.

Ladies and gentlemen, Eris is the reason Pluto was demoted. It’s not actually that much larger than Pluto, but is twice as far. It even has a moon, appropriately named Dysomnia (moons are usually given names from Greek mythology). As we all know from the “PLUTO IS NOT A PLANET ANYMORE” headlines of 2006, the IAU decided that neither Pluto nor Eris was to be a planet, and a new classification was to be made. Planets had to be 1) in orbit around the Sun, 2) have enough gravity to become round (or close enough), 3) has cleared the neighborhood (meaning that it can’t be in an orbit among a ton of space junk. For those objects that fulfilled 1 and 2, but not 3, the classification of “dwarf planet” was given.

The current definition of Dwarf planet means that there are five official dwarf planets (and several more objects that fit the definition but aren’t on the list) The official ones are Pluto, Eris, Ceres (the only round member of the Asteroid Belt), Haumea, and Makemake. There are four others which are most likely dwarf planets, and they are Orcus, Quaoar, Sedna, and 2007 OR10. In case you were wondering what that last one was, it doesn’t actually have a name yet. The designation is the astronomical designation, since no name has yet been given to 2007 OR10. Interestingly enough, all nine of these bodies have their own Wikipedia pages.

Here is where I make my point: These objects are certainly deserving to be called “planets”. They are big, they are round, and some of them are really really cool. Every planet has its own interesting facts: Venus’s runaway greenhouse effect, Earth’s uniqueness, Uranus’s being sideways and having all its moons named after Shakesperean characters. Pluto and Co. have their own traits of Awesomeness.

First there’s Ceres. It’s a big asteroid that’s big enough to have obtained hydrostatic equilibrium (which is science talk for “it’s round”), and it might even have a water ocean! All the other asteroids look like potatoes (use Mars’s two “moons” as an example). Next there’s Pluto. Oh esteemed Pluto, how it has sat in the hearts of humans for eighty years. What can we say about Pluto? It has five moons, one of which is so big, Charon, that it’s half the mass of Pluto itself, and so the two are a binary system, rotating around each other. It’s orbit is an ellipse, rather than a circle, so for a period of 20 years (recently too, from 1979-1999), it is actually inside Neptune’s orbit! A quarter of its surface is in permanent sun, and another quarter in permanent darkness, due to its rotational axis. And despite being really cold, it even has an atmosphere. Needless to say, Pluto is awesome.

Eris is really far out (although not the furthest on this list), beyond the Kuiper Belt. It orbits at a huge angle compared to the rest of the Solar System (all the planets are coplanar for some reason). Makemake is one of the few dwarf planets with no moons, and is really bright (considering its great distance from the Sun). Haumea looks like an egg, has two moons, and water ice about 80% of the surface (mixed with cyanide). Orcus and Quaoar just have really cool names (not much is known about them, except for Quaoar being bright red). And then there’s Sedna. Sedna tops them all in coolness. Sedna’s orbit is so long, that it takes approximately 11,400 years to complete one. Just look at this diagram for comparison. At the moment, it is at its nearest point (perihelion) to the Sun, which is how it was able to be discovered. It’s so far out, it’s in the darn Oort Cloud at aphelion! The Oort Cloud marks the outer edge of the Solar System. It’s so far, the only reason it’s known to exist is by mathematics, and the evidence of the Voyager probes.

As we can see, all of these minor Solar System bodies are highly underappreciated by the IAU. They ought to be planets. How cool would it be to have 17 planets in the Solar System?

Advertisements

On the Necessity of Religion in the Modern World

In the beginning, there was nothing. And then without cause, the universe ballooned out of nonexistence, containing proto-particles ruled by the four main forces of the Universe (gravity, electromagnetism, Strong, and Weak atomic forces, in case you were wondering). These particles cooled as the universe expanded and there was more space for the heat to spread out. Cooling down resulted in the particles joining together using the forces to make atoms, which made molecules, which made nebulae. In turn, the plasmatic particles of the nebulae cooled sufficiently to form stars. The remainder formed planets, and got stuck in gravity wells of the stars, and because of their own momentum interacting with the gravity, formed orbits. These planets cooled, and on one tiny insignificant planet, conditions were just right for the volcanic activity to spew hydrogen and oxygen, making vast seas. In these vast seas life suddenly came from non-living, without any explanation (most frequently cited as evolving on the backs of crystals, or the effects of random electrical strikes on primordial soup). Anyway, the life gradually got more complex and eventually spawned eukaryotic cells, which evolved into plankton, then fish, then reptiles then– Wait, what?

*sound effect*

It seems to me, as it should to any thinking person, that this explanation for our existence as we know it is really far-fetched. First off, you can’t have something come from nothing. This knowledge goes all the way back to Aristotle, for Pete’s sake, whose argument for a Prime Mover goes something like this:

  1. Everything in existence is the result of something else causing it’s existence or current state
  2. This implies an infinite regression of a causal chain.
  3. Something caused the beginning of the universe, which triggered everything else, like a domino chain.
  4. You can’t have infinite causes, since the universe has not been in existence forever. The universe cannot have been in existence forever, since we have scientifically proven it’s age.
  5. Therefore, something needs to have caused the Universe to Be.
  6. This Prime cause would need to be outside of everything, including  space, time, and the Universe.
  7. Therefore, the Universe could only have been brought into existence from a Prime Mover.

Now there’s a reason Aristotle is still studied a good 2300 years after he died. The guy was a genius, the kind who came up with stuff that nobody else could have, but people would always see the truth of when they learned of it. His philosophy (well, most of it) still is relevant to us today. Is it any wonder that Aristotle hit the proverbial nail on the head here too? Certainly it makes a lot more sense than the “it happened by chance” theory. For the universe is far too ordered. I mean, what are the odds that out of all the possible ways the universe could have developed, and of all the possible combinations of atoms, that out of billions of stars and billions of planets, that life form on one insignificant blue ball. And that on that blue ball, that complex life developed, and even within that, what are the odds of this life gaining the ability to reason for itself? The odds are impossible that it could happen by chance! And yet here we are.

So if we use logic, the universe, in it’s vastly ordered state, could have only have been created by a Prime Mover that exists outside of everything. It all fits, since all the goodness and beauty of creation, and the intricate structuring, and how everything has a specific purpose couldn’t have arisen by pure accident. It all make sense that it was by design. Furthermore, it makes us humans special, that we were designed as we are for a purpose.

Funnily enough, this idea of a Creator fits with a good 100% of world religions. These religions, from simple paganism all the way up to the complexities of the Abrahamic faiths, all share this. Were they on to something? This idea is particularily embarrassing for modern scientists, because it means that the idea of reality they have promoted since the Enlightenment has been disproved in favor of the “outdated, primitive” ideas of religion! Therefore, reason falls by the wayside in favor of keeping the ideas alive, and basing all belief on the assumption that they are infallable truths about the nature of reality. It all stems from the Enlightenment idea that “we can do it without God”. For the existence of God is the implictation of the Prime Mover argument, which is that which the Atheists who dominate  the scientific community deny. They don’t believe that science and religion can coexist. As a Catholic, I believe that they can. After all, what is science but the study of physical reality? And what is religion, but filling in the gaps of reason in things that we cannot understand, with beliefs held by faith? So in fact religion and science not only coexist, they actually fulfill one another!

I further believe that someday soon, the scientific community will come to the conclusion that religion has some pretty darn good explanations for those things they cannot understand. Heck, even the Genesis account of creation isn’t that far off from what we know, just stated in a way that people 3000 years ago could understand. They will find that there are some things reason alone cannot solve, and they need to turn to a tried-and-true source of knowledge to answer the Big Questions. Hopefully, this will result in a successful integration of science and religion on this subject. With advanced scientific knowledge, we can understand old beliefs as simplified versions of what we can understand today, and treat religious cosmological beliefs as early science! It’s broading our view of the past, and seeing it not as primitive outdated beliefs, but as a simpler way of understanding the same Truths. Look no further, scientists, for the answer has been right in front of your face for centuries!

The Nose Knows

A recent discovery of mine is that there is actually a scientific answer for why men are slobs, and women always clean up after them. This may seem like an unfair stereotype (after all, I personally know a few tidy men), but it is scientifically true. The answer is all to do with the sense of smell. Women have significantly stronger senses of smell than men, due to the omnipresent hormone oestrogen. This fluctuates during a woman’s cycle, meaning that women can smell the best when they are ovulating, and worst when they are menstruating. Results such as this suggest that for women, the sense of smell is important in attracting a mate. Some scientists suggest that it may even help a woman to find the most genetically compatible mate, which is important, since the best offspring have diverse genetics (this may also be why nobody is attracted to their siblings or cousins).

As if to prove this point, apparently testosterone makes men emit a chemical called androstenol through their sweat. Supposedly, men have two types of hormones secreted in sweat, the stinky type (androstenone) and androstenol, which doesn’t stink at all, and attracts women, especially ovulating women, who can smell it strongly. This reciprocation probably helped thousands of generations of humans to breed. Upon learning all of this biological stuff, I decided to observe myself, several months ago, to watch out for signs of this. Sure enough, at a certain time of the month, when me and a male friend of mine were hanging out together, I caught myself reveling in an inexplicably pleasurable scent, presumably androstenol. If it was nature’s way of chemical attraction, I must say it did its job rather effectively.

Of course the big downside to women having better senses of smell is that it means that men have crappy senses of smell. Therefore they cannot tell when they stink, at least not as easily as women can. This leads up to the stereotype of men being slobs. They simply cannot tell that they are filthy and smell awful, and due to their single-mindedness when it comes to certain tasks, they probably don’t realize that they are leaving muddy footprints on the carpet and dirty plates on the coffee table. This leaves the woman of the house to clean up after the resident male, since he can’t be bothered to do it himself. This is probably also the reason for the nagging housewife stereotype as well, come to think of it. And since smell is related to taste, it’s probably why men can (and do) eat anything if they’re hungry, even if it’s the nastiest food you can think of.

So the reason men are slobs is because of an evolutionary trait meant to benefit the best possible mating pairs in humans.

Why do all Chinese people look alike?

Believe me, this post isn’t as racist as it sounds like. Post flaming will be used to roast marshmallows. The answer lies within a trait unique to Europeans. Anthropologically speaking, there are four races: European, Negroid, Mongoloid, and Melanesian. Oddly enough, the European race is the only one subject to major internal genetic variation. Notice in America there is quite a great deal of racial interbreeding (a term I use only scientifically), yet in every combination, the non-European traits are dominant: very dark brown eyes, and black hair. Oddly enough, the skin color trait tends to be co-dominant, while European hair texture and lip thickness tend to be dominant. At least, this is what I can notice by observation. But what everybody cares about is hair color and eye color, in terms of passing down traits.

So let’s delve into this idea of internal genetic variation, shall we? Blue eyes came from a single mutation somewhere in the Caucus Mountain region thousands of years ago, so every blue-eyed person is very distantly related. It seems more prevalent i northern latitudes, as blue eyes are more adaptable to areas of less light. For this reason of there being less light, people in Northern Europe tend to have both blonde hair and blue eyes, as a result of adapting to this lack of light. Red hair also comes from northern climes, probably because of the pale skin tone associated with natural redheads (for more, see this). And eye colors other than blue and brown  only exist as different combinations of genes that cause either brown or blue eyes. There is no green-eye or hazel-eye gene, surprisingly enough. However, brown hair and eyes is still dominant, as seen in families and fourth-grade science textbooks introducing kids to the magical world of Punnett squares. So brown hair and eyes are dominant, and so are often paired together, as is the blonde hair/blue eyes combo. Easy: dominant vs recessive, right?

Then how do we explain the odd combinations of brown hair/blue eyes, or even rarer: blonde hair/brown eyes? I bring this up, as it is the entire reason I delve into this subject in the first place. While watching some British television, I noticed the large percentage of actors to play the title character in Doctor Who (nine out of eleven) have blue eyes (seriously, look at pictures). Yet all but two have natural brown or black hair! I decided to look at the supporting characters and noticed the same trend towards brown or black hair and blue eyes for British Caucasian actors/actresses. This seems to indicate a genetic anomaly in the British Isles that causes Brown hair/blue eyes pairing, or in some parts of Ireland, black hair with blue eyes. Meanwhile, while brown eyes with blonde hair seems to be common in the US, since it for some reason is the phenotypic combination most glorified by the West-Coast  dominated American culture, but it really is very rare. The highest concentration of people with blonde hair and brown eyes is the Baltic Countries, which for those of you who don’t know, is Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Those countries are very small, so odds are that if you see someone with blonde hair and brown eyes on the street, he or she probably invested in hair dye.

Yet other races don’t have this same type of genetic variation, which is strange to my mind. After all, the Mongoloid race is the largest by far, encompassing East and Southeast Asians, the Micronesians and Polynesians, and the Native Americans (very convenient map found here). Yet all (or at least most) of this race have an Epicanthal fold, very little facial and body hair, straight black hair, medium-toned skin and a unique facial structure. The same goes with those of the Negroid race, all have dark skin, large noses, noticeably protruding jaws, curly, sparse hair, and very dark eyes. Yet Caucasoids (Europeans) show a great variance in our appearance, especially since this group includes North Africa, the Middle East, and possibly South Asia (the Indians don’t really seem to fit anywhere), as well as Europe. It seems to me that the reason Americans say that all Blacks or Asians look similar to one another is because they lack these visible genetic variations that Europeans have, and are so used to seeing.