Flat Earth Week, Day 2: Flat Out Wrong

FlatEarth1

It’s interesting – and a bit infuriating – how many conspiracy theories paste the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as one of their biggest, baddest bogeymen, especially considering that (A) NASA is one of the most transparent government agencies in existence, with a huge public outreach mission, and (B) NASA is not the only gatekeeper to information concerning the cosmos.  In other words, even if NASA knew that Earth was flat but wanted to keep it a secret, they wouldn’t be able to.  There are simply too many other people who are in a position to blow the whistle.

An article published in the Independent last month underscores the difficulty of keeping big secrets over long periods of time.  According to the article, Dr David Grimes at the University of Oxford developed a formula showing that the more people know about a sophisticated conspiracy, the more quickly it will be exposed.  Although the article focused mainly on Moon Landing deniers, Dr Grimes’s conclusions are presumably still valid when it comes to Flat Earth conspiracy theories.

Think about this: there are literally thousands – if not millions – of photographs of Earth taken from outer space.  In fact, there have been satellites launched with the express purpose of taking pictures of Earth.  NASA is just one organization responsible for launching and monitoring these spacecraft.  The European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have also launched a fair number of satellites capable of taking pictures of Earth.  Here are a few of the beautiful shots of our homeworld as seen by their spaceborne eyes.

ESA’s Rosetta captured this true-color image of Earth during its November 2007 swing-by on the way to its cometary rendezvous.

JAXA’s lunar orbiter KAGUYA watched Earth “rising” behind the Moon’s horizon.  About 40 seconds have elapsed from the first frame to the last frame.

Notice anything about these images?  For starters, neither image was captured by NASA.  Also, the shape of Earth in both images is decidedly round.

Of course, dedicated Flat Earthers will not be deterred by such evidence; after all, these images could easily have been faked.  That’s the problem with Flat Earthers – nay, with conspiracy theorists of any stripe.  There is no evidence so compelling as to shake them from their convictions, which renders their convictions meaningless.

But even if we had never placed a camera in outer space and turned it back toward Earth, this meme would still be bunk.  There are many ways to know that Earth is round, even without photographic evidence.  For example, Earth always casts a round shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse.  Furthermore, ships sailing over the horizon disappear bottom first.  Here’s video evidence for those that have never witnessed this phenomenon firsthand:

There are several cuts in the video because the sailboat is moving quite slowly and it would take more than an hour to show the entire process.  However, if you’ve got a lot of time to spare, the uncut version can be found here.

Still not convinced?  If you’re a Flat Earther, then of course you’re not.  You have your own brand of “logic” that doesn’t mesh well with the logic used by everybody else.  Here’s one more piece of evidence – although I could go on – that refutes the notion of a Flat Earth.  If you take a trip from the extreme northern latitudes to the extreme southern latitudes, you will see an entirely different set of stars and constellations in the night sky.  The Globe Earth model explains this phenomenon perfectly.  If people are stuck to the surface of a globe, then people in opposite hemispheres each have their own set of stars that are never visible to people living in the opposite hemisphere, owing to the fact that they would be perpetually below the horizon.  For example, the North Star, Polaris, is never visible to anybody south of the equator, just as the bright star Canopus is never visible to people north of 37º north latitude.

Of course Flat Earthers have an “answer” for this as well; in fact, they go so far as to claim the shifting constellations as a point in their column.  (This is a frustrating tactic commonly employed by Creationists as well.)  According to the Flat Earth Wiki, the apparent shift in constellations as one travels southward from the North Pole (or, in the Flat Earth model, outward from the center) is caused by nothing more than perspective.  You see, in the Flat Earth model, the stars are not light years away.  Instead, they are merely thousands of miles above our heads.  The pole star is directly overhead when one stands in the center of the disc Earth, and as one moves outward, it shifts downward toward the vanishing point.  When you have moved sufficiently far from the central point of the disc, Polaris sinks and vanishes into the haze of the horizon.  Meanwhile, stars that are further outward “rise” and become more prominent as you position yourself beneath them.  Isn’t that neat?

One major problem: there is also a south celestial pole.  Although there is no star currently positioned prominently near the south celestial pole, there still exists a point in the southern skies around which all southern stars seem to revolve on a nightly basis.  This wouldn’t happen on a Flat Earth.  On a Flat Earth, the farther south you went (meaning, the closer you got to the Antarctic ice wall), the further removed you would be from the center of the sky’s rotation.  As you brushed against the shores of Antarctica, all the stars would seem to zip by overhead, moving much faster than their more northern counterparts, since they are much further from the center of rotation.  This is exactly the opposite of what we observe.  In the far southern hemisphere, the stars high above seem to trace smaller and smaller circles as they get closer to the south celestial pole.  Only at the equator do the overhead stars seem to have the fastest nightly velocities with respect to the ground.  Try as they might, Flat Earthers cannot fit the facts of the night sky into their model…because their model is wrong.

There is one question that remains to be answered, and it is perhaps the most vexing: assuming that Earth really is flat and the space agencies of the world know it, why the cover-up?  What do the world’s governments stand to gain by pretending?  With other loony conspiracy theories (the 9/11 “truth” movement or the Moon landing hoax conspiracy, e.g.), the theorists have at least presented somewhat compelling reasons for the conspiracy (even though they’re still wrong).  But it’s very hard to imagine what the shadowy New World Order would gain by having everybody believe in a round Earth.

No doubt the religiously-motivated Flat Earthers believe that the “Globe Earth myth” is a lie invented by Satan to draw people away from God’s saving truth.  We saw a bit of that sentiment yesterday.  Others may simply believe that the whole-world government (Flat Earthers are typically big into that kind of idea) intends to keep people as docile as possible by keeping them as ignorant as possible.  If they can cultivate an entire species of people who overwhelmingly believe a lie, what other horrible things can they convince us to believe?

In many cases, the why of the Flat Earth conspiracy theory seems to simply be ignored.  Some Flat Earthers contend that because Earth looks flat from their perspective, it must be flat, and that any statement to the contrary is a lie.  How sad it must be to live in a world limited only to one perspective.

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Flat Earth Week, Day 1: Flat Out Stupid

I realize I’m probably giving it far more attention than it deserves, but I have decided to dedicate an entire Stupid Bad™ week to the mother of all conspiracy theories: Flat Earthism.  Strap in, kids!

FlatEarth2

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: This is low-hanging fruit.

Still, it bears discussing, because the Flat Earth belief system (I refuse to call it a theory) has recently enjoyed a sudden resurgence of attention thanks to the Twitter ramblings of Atlanta-based rapper B.o.B. and former celebrity (or so I’ve been told) Tila Tequila (Warning: NSFW language).  Now you might think it unworthy of your time to pay much attention to the ill-informed tirades of a couple of limelight seekers, but here’s the thing: Flat Earthism is not just embraced by those desperately clinging to relevance.  You’ve heard of the Flat Earth Society, often invoked as a proxy for someone who holds really, really ludicrous beliefs?  Well, they’re real, and by all accounts, they’re serious.

Before we go any further, let’s say something that ought not need to be said: Earth is not flat.  Earth is a sphere, or an oblate spheroid if you’re pedantic.  There are so many lines of evidence converging on this singular conclusion that to deny the roundness of Earth smacks of outright contrarianism and willful ignorance.

There are several different forms of Flat Earthism, and it’s beyond my means or desire to compare them all.  Suffice it to say that the defining characteristic of all Flat Earth belief systems is that our planet is not a planet at all, but a more-or-less flat disk, with minor variations in flatness where we experience hills, valleys, and suchlike.

Dedicated Flat Earthers have answers (not good answers, but answers nonetheless) for every objection that might be raised by a Globe Earther – by which I mean somebody reasonable and correct.  The most prevalent version of Flat Earthism holds that Earth is a circular disc, with the North Pole in the center and Antarctica around the rim.  Acoording to this model, Antarctica is an ice wall that holds all of Earth’s water in place.

But wait, you might reasonably ask: Wouldn’t gravity cause an object as big as Flat Earth to automatically crush into a sphere?  Gravity doesn’t exist, they say, or at least, it doesn’t exist on Earth (although gravitation apparently does exist among the Moon, planets, and stars, which raises even more questions).  What we perceive as gravity is actually the result of Earth accelerating through space at about 9.8 m/s².  That in itself is not as crazy as it sounds: Einstein showed that an accelerating reference frame is totally indistinguishable from a stationary reference frame in which there is a constant gravitational pull.  Flat Earthers, however, have yet to explain what force could possibly cause an object as large as Earth to accelerate perpetually.  Even in a Flat Earth model, mass and inertia are still real things that must be overcome in order to make something accelerate.

Furthermore, why does gravity vary with altitude, if Earth is simply a disc accelerating through space?  Apparently the weak gravitation of the Moon, Sun, and stars partially negates the effect of the acceleration-induced pseudo-gravity we experience while standing on Earth’s surface.  Yeah, I don’t know how that’s supposed to work either.  But it makes perfect sense to a Flat Earther.

So what kind of person is the typical Flat Earther?  Based on this meme, you might think that modern Flat Earthers are also Biblical literalists.  That’s rarely the case, though: in fact, Daniel Shenton, President of the most recent incarnation of the Flat Earth Society, accepts the reality of evolution and human-caused climate change – ideas that are typically anathema to religious fundies.  One Flat Earther even claims that evolution proves that Earth is flat, if you can imagine such a thing.

Creationist groups jubilantly point this out to their detractors: “See?  Flat Earthers believe in evolution and global warming as well!  If Flat Earthers are so wrong about the shape of Earth, then maybe they’re wrong about the other stuff too!”  Creationists are also quick to claim that Flat Earthism was not prevalent during the Church’s glory days in the Middle Ages, and that only a small but vocal minority of Church officials rejected the idea of a globe Earth.

In any case, this meme’s author apparently did not get the message about Creationists eschewing Flat Earthism.  In his literal interpretation of scripture, Earth is unmoving, which means he must reject other Flat Earthers’ ideas vis-à-vis constant acceleration.  This guy is marching to the beat of his own ignorant drum, and I say good for him.  Don’t let anybody else tell you how to be nuts, anonymous meme maker!

Since this guy’s diatribe is likely to ignite a firestorm of controversy among the Bible Believers, let’s tackle this question next: What is the Bible’s official position regarding the shape of Earth and its motion through the cosmos?

ChristianAnswers.net claims that Bible writers did not literally believe in a flat Earth, and that any scripture which seems to point to the idea of a flat Earth is simply the “language of appearance” (a curious position for a Biblical literalist to take).  As evidence, they point to a few key scriptures in which Bible writers seem to indicate that they understood at least a little bit about Earth’s shape and its place in the Universe:

Isaiah 40:22 (KJV): It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:

According to Bible-believing Globe Earthers: the Hebrew translation of the word circle can also mean sphere (although that might be wrong, according to the Institute for Biblical & Scientific Studies), which means that, at best, there’s a 50/50 chance that this passage speaks of a spherical Earth.  And hey, a 50/50 chance is all a Biblical apologist needs to press on!

Job 26:7 (KJV): He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.

See?  It says so right there!  Earth is just floating in space, not resting on the backs of turtles or what have you.

But there’s also this:

Matthew 4:8 (KJV): Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

The “him” referred to in this passage is Jesus Christ.  Are we to assume that Matthew is using the “language of appearance” when he claims that there is a mountain tall enough to see all the kingdoms of Earth?  If Earth is a globe (and it is), then there is no way you can view all of its kingdoms, even from the tallest mountain.  The highest point on Earth is the top of Mount Everest, which, at 8,848 meters above sea level, gives you a view of about 340 kilometers (211 miles) in any direction that isn’t obscured by another mountain.  The largest authoritative jurisdictions in the time of Jesus were the Roman Empire ringing the Mediterranean Sea, the Parthian Empire centered on modern-day Iran, and the Han Dynasty in China.  These three empires, along with other autonomous regions, formed a continuous chain of dominance from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, nearly 12,000 kilometers (7400 miles) long.  If Mount Everest were dropped smack in the middle of the Roman Empire during the first century C.E., not only would you not be able to see all the kingdoms of the world, but you wouldn’t even be able to see all of the Empire.  Unless you believe Earth is flat.

So…either Matthew was speaking metaphorically or making a gross exaggeration, or he truly believed that Earth was flat and that all of its kingdoms were visible from a sufficiently tall mountain.  All of these possibilities are embarrassing for Biblical literalists and Creationists trying to distance themselves from Flat Earthism.

And so is this meme.

The bottom line is this: it doesn’t matter whether a Flat Earther is a Creationist or one who accepts the well-supported theory of evolution by natural selection; in either case he is wrong about Earth’s shape.  No matter what his motivations or arguments are, he is wrong, and demonstrably so.  People have known for thousands of years that Earth is round; it’s one of the oldest established truths in all of modern science.  To claim otherwise in 2016 is to be willfully ignorant and proud of it.


In observation of Poe’s law, which says that parodies of extremist views are easily mistakable for sincere expression of said views, I realize that this meme might be a parody.  In fact, I sort of hope that is the case, for the author’s sake.  Parody or not, however, it is still representative of very wrong ideas that some people seem to genuinely believe.

Quick Memes, Part 3

It’s time to take a look at a few memes that are Stupid and Bad, but which don’t warrant an entire post.  Enjoy! (Here are parts 1 and 2, if you missed them.)


is it legal

The mind of a smart man asks “Is it legal and right, and if it’s not legal, does the rightness of it outweigh the possible legal ramifications?  Is right for me the same as right for everybody else?  Is my right more important than other folks’ right?  If I think that something illegal is nevertheless right, should I try to reform the laws concerning that thing, or should I just do as I wish and damn the consequences?”  And then the smart man starts to realize that ethical decisions are far more complicated than the simple dichotomy suggested by this meme.

Be aware: if anybody has ever called you a slave because you concerned yourself with questions of legality, that person is a fool, and he’s no friend to you.  A real friend would not offer a false dilemma like this one in order to goad you into making potentially life-altering decisions.  A friend would encourage you to consider all aspects of an ethical decision – legality, fairness, long-term consequences, and so on – before making an informed decision.  And if, in the end, you decide that the rightness of an act is more important than its legality (or lack thereof), then so be it.  But at least you’ll have considered all the relevant details and will have made your decision accordingly, and you’ll know that you’ve made your decision not just as a free person, but as a wise person.


Fences

Several things wrong here:

  • Just because some “rednecks” enjoy watching NASCAR doesn’t mean that rednecks contracted, designed, or built the fences the surround NASCAR tracks.
  • Even if they did, there’s a huge difference between building a fence that will stop a 190-mile-per-hour stock car (and the flying debris inevitably associated with it) and building a fence that will stop a nimble person determined to get past it.  People trying to cross the United States-Mexico border – let’s be honest…when you said illegal aliens, you weren’t talking about Canadians, were you? – are seldom (probably never) driving 190-mile-per-hour stock cars.
  • There is currently a “wall” along the United States’ southern border, but it’s an incomplete hodgepodge of various fence types.  There have been political pushes to complete it – especially during election years – but the price tag for this project is uncertain and unpredictable.

So, yeah.  Building a 2000-mile-long fence across various types of terrain is altogether a different task than building a 2-mile-long fence around a NASCAR track.  This meme’s author is trying to compare apples to oranges, and probably feels terribly clever for doing so.  To the author:  Stop it.  You’re not clever.

Also, stop calling them illegal aliens, you racist prick.


IntelligenceTest

This is a personal quibble and I understand if you disagree, but I hate these little “math” puzzles posing as intelligence tests.  It’s not that I don’t get it.  I get it.  I see the pattern, and given any pair of numbers, I could generate the expected “solution”.  For example:

55,500,000 + 55,611,111 = 111,111,111,111,111

Or:

228,333 + 228,456 = 123,456,789

Now that’s clever.  But I digress.  The problem with these “math” puzzles, besides the fact that they use non-standard definitions for the plus and equal signs, is that they aren’t intelligence tests at all.  They’re nothing but sharebait.  The “puzzles” presented in these memes are generally trivial in order to maximize the number of people who solve them and pass them along.  Why?  Because a challenging puzzle – a puzzle that really makes you work for that shot of self-satisfaction when you solve it – would hardly get any exposure at all.  These stupid math puzzles give you the impression that you’ve done something smart, when all you’ve done is cleared the minimum hurdle necessary to share somebody else’s meme.


Gays and Guns

Capital idea!   Our approach to gun ownership should exactly mirror our approach to marriage: it’s only legal with the state’s consent and it must be thoroughly documented!

Or would you rather just acknowledge that marriage rights and gun rights are separate issues, and that supporting one doesn’t obligate you to support the other?

Your call.


Privileged Earned

I’d say you’re wrong, Morpheus.  You might be successful because of your education and hard work, but you’re privileged because of the station into which you were born, and because of society’s reaction to that station.  Ignoring privilege doesn’t make it go away.


Facebook Feeds The Hungry

No it doesn’t.  Facebook’s charitable donations are not affected by the number of people that share a meme.  Just like the math puzzle above, this is sharebait.  Its only purpose is to reward you with a false sense of self-satisfaction in exchange for a minimum amount of effort.

If you want to make a real difference, donate real money to real organizations that are working to alleviate hunger and sickness in developing nations.  If you’re a genuine activist, leave the comfort of your home and nation to volunteer in the regions struck by famine, war, and poverty.  Real change takes real effort; clicking “Share” on Facebook isn’t going to do it.


Stand Up and Be Men

Did you ever read something so blatantly sexist that you have to read it twice because you’re certain you misread it the first time?  For me, that’s this meme.  Yowza, what a load of sexist bullshit!  I didn’t even realize they had memes back in the 1950s!


Pennies from Heaven

“When an angel misses you”?  Are you operating under the misconception that angels are the departed souls of our loved ones?  Because if you are, I have to tell you: that flies contrary to your own religious dogma.  I researched the topic briefly, and here’s the theological consensus, as best as I can tell: angels are not humans, nor have they ever been.  According to most religious scholars, angels were created by God specifically to be his right hand not-men; humans, on the other hand, are spiritual beings in physical bodies.  Death is not some kind of graduation from human to angel; it’s merely a passage from physical human to non-physical human.  Or so the Scripture goes.

I’m not trying to tell you what to believe, but those who are telling you what to believe say that people don’t become angels when they die.

If we take this meme at face value, it raises all sorts of interesting questions:

  • Do angels materialize pennies themselves, or do they take already-minted pennies from somewhere else?
  • If they create coins ex nihilo, could they destabilize the economy by injecting enough money into the system?  Do angels have to be careful about that, keeping close tabs on how much money they’ve given away?
  • If angels get their coins from somewhere else on Earth, where?  A fountain, perhaps?  Do angels routinely search between peoples’ couch cushions for loose change, which they redistribute to people who are feeling glum?
  • If angels are the messengers of God, does God direct them to drop pennies?  How do they decide who gets a penny and who doesn’t?
  • Is there a way for people who are really upset to get larger values of money – say, quarters?
  • Do angels deliver pennies only to Christians, or can people of other faiths – and atheists – benefit as well?
  • Do people living in other countries also get US pennies, or do they get coins from their own currency?  Given the abysmal buying power of a single penny, it wouldn’t seem to matter much.  But still, if I lived in Uruguay, being given a useless US penny by an angel would almost seem like an insult.

I eagerly await the advisement of learned theologians on these queries.

The Meaning of Miracles

Miracles

None of this is miraculous (and one part of it isn’t even correct).  If you’re trying to convince me that miracles are real, this is not the best way to go about it.

In bygone days, a miracle was a true wonder – an event so contrary to natural laws that it could only be the work of a divine hand.  Miracles were seen as signs that the gods existed and took an interest in human affairs.  If you believe the holy texts, the ancient world was frequently the site of soul-changing, attention-grabbing miracles.  Now, not so much.  For whatever reason, the kind of miracles depicted in old scrolls – the kind that would instantly turn a skeptic into a believer – no longer happen.  It seems that as humanity has become a more scientifically literate species (on average, mind you), the inexplicable occurrences to which we used to afford miracle status – and which we later embellished and recorded in religious texts – suddenly became much more explicable.  As we shone the light of scientific advancement into the dark corners of our former ignorance, there were fewer places for gods and miracles to hide.

Perhaps because of the dearth of real miracles, the faithful are compelled to seek the miraculous in the mundane.  Therefore, the definition of miracle has evolved.  In modern, common parlance, a miracle is any unlikely but fortunate event, regardless of whether or not it defies scientific explanation.  For example, if a woman and her young child survive a horrific airplane crash, some might call that a miracle (although one might question why the miraculous power that saved them could not have prevented the crash in the first place and therefore spared the lives of the other passengers; I suppose it is not our place to ask, right?)  This type of miracle always seems to benefit one person or group of people while ignoring another group, who are presumably equally deserving.

Some people, skirting the criterion of scientific implausibility altogether, think that anything grandiose and beautiful qualifies as a miracle.  So now, every sunrise, every healthy birth, every rainbow is a miracle.  And apparently, celestial physics should also convince you of the reality of miracles.

Don’t get me wrong; the cosmos is awe-inspiring in every facet.  The Universe is full of fury and brilliance, and its scale is mind-blowing.  But we now know – in fact, we have known for a long time – that the Universe does not run contrary to the laws of physics, and that there is nothing miraculous about it.  The Universe runs in perfect concordance with physical laws, and it is this perfect agreement between laws and reality that allows us to probe ever deeper into the inner workings of the cosmos.

Let’s consider the statements made by this meme one-by-one:

We live on a blue planet

And here it is.

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17

 

This is the famous “Blue Marble” photograph, taken by the Apollo 17 lunar mission.  You’d have to be some kind of heartless grinch not to be inspired by this picture; it’s your home, and it contains every human then alive (except for the three people who were traveling to the Moon at the time).

As you can see, the world isn’t completely blue, although you get an instant impression of blueness when you look at it.  Earth’s blueness comes from its oceans, and there’s a very simple explanation about why the oceans are blue…because water is blue, and the oceans are made of water.

There’s another explanation that has to do with the fact that water preferentially absorbs red light and scatters and reflects blue light, but why make things more complicated than they have to be?  Oh sure, you don’t notice the blue color of water when you pour yourself a glass from the tap, but that’s because the color is exceedingly faint.  It takes a lot of water in one place for its color to become apparent, but that’s what oceans are: lots of water in one place.  There’s nothing miraculous about it.

Aha, the believer might say, the fact that Earth even has a large volume of liquid water is itself miraculous, for without liquid water, life as we know it could not exist.  But I contend that this too is a matter of physics, and not of divine providence.  Water is an exceedingly common molecule in the Universe, but in most cases it exists as either a solid (ice) or as a gas (water vapor or steam).  Earth’s oceans must stay within a fairly narrow range of air pressure and temperature, or else they would freeze or boil away.  All life on Earth requires liquid water; if the oceans go, so do we.

Earth’s oceans exist in liquid form because of two major factors: first, Earth orbits the Sun in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”.  The effectiveness of the Sun’s heat decreases with distance; too close and Earth’s oceans would boil away; too far and they would freeze.  The Goldilocks zone is just right – neither too hot nor too cold – for water to exist as a liquid on Earth’s surface.

But even in the Goldilocks zone, Earth could be a barren, dry husk – like our Moon – without a protective atmosphere.  Water’s boiling temperature varies directly with the overlying air pressure; if Earth were to lose its atmosphere, the boiling point of water would drop below the average temperature of Earth’s surface, and our oceans would quickly boil away.  So Earth depends not only on its distance from the Sun, but also on its protective atmosphere to maintain its life-giving oceans.

Liquid water has played a critical role in the existence of life, probably since its very beginning.  If Earth had no oceans – if it weren’t blue – it’s doubtful that any of us would be here to discuss it.  So you may call it a miracle that Earth is blue, but that only works if you assume that the Universe has some agency that wants us to exist.  In the absence of such an agency, we only exist because we can.  Conditions were right, so we evolved.  No miracle is needed to explain our existence.

that circles around a ball of fire

Hoo boy.  Besides the over-arching logical fallacy expressed by this meme, this is the single most egregious error.  The Sun is not made of fire.

Fire is generally the result of a chemical reaction called combustion.  During combustion, a fuel source combines with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, water vapor, and lots of thermal energy (heat).  Depending on the fuel source and the conditions of the fire, a fire may also release soot, ash, and other by-products.  The glow of a fire is due to the fact that the combustion products are extremely hot – so hot they give off visible light.  This phenomenon is called incandescence.

Somebody living in a less-enlightened age could be forgiven for thinking that the Sun was made of fire; after all, it glows with fierce warmth, just like the Earthly fires with which our ancestors were so familiar.  We now know (well, we should know) that the Sun’s heat and light come from quite a different process: nuclear fusion.  The Sun is mostly made of two elements: hydrogen and helium.  In the hellish inferno of the Sun’s core, hydrogen atoms are squeezed together under tremendous pressure until they combine to form helium atoms.  This is the same process that happens in a thermonuclear bomb, but on a scale zillions of times larger.  Each fusion reaction releases a burst of energy in the form of heat, light, and particles.  In essence, the Sun is a giant H-bomb that is constantly exploding,  yet is held in shape by the immense pull of its own gravity.

As fantastic as the Sun’s power is, there’s still nothing miraculous about it.  In fact, on a universal scale, the ferocious fusion reactions that sustain the Sun are positively mundane.  Just look up at the night sky; each star you can see is sustained by the same process as our Sun.  And there are many, many stars you cannot see – probably infinitely many – and most of them are busy churning hydrogen into helium within their cores (older stars tend to fuse heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, and so on).  No, the Sun is not a miracle.  It appears to be a certainty; a guarantee made by the laws that govern the cosmos.

next to a Moon that moves the sea

This only comes across as miraculous if you don’t understand how gravity works.  (To be fair, gravity is a pretty complex topic, but still one that operates according to physical laws.)  Gravity is an interaction between any two objects that have mass (or energy, which is another side of the same coin as mass).  The gravitational interaction between two bodies depends on how much mass those bodies have, but also on the distance between them.  The farther apart two objects get, the less gravitational attraction they feel for each other.

Gravity is a two-way street.  Just as Earth tugs on the Moon, the Moon tugs on Earth.  Earth is roughly 12,800 kilometers across, so one side of Earth is 12,800 kilometers closer to the Moon than the other side is.  The Moonward side of Earth experiences a stronger tug from the Moon than the anti-Moonward side does.  This gravitational gradient across the bulk of Earth is what gives rise to the tides.

Due to a complex web of forces that are beyond the scope of this already-lengthy post, there are two high tide bulges; one that roughly faces the Moon, and one that faces roughly away from the Moon.  As Earth rotates once a day, each point on its surface sweeps through these high tide bulges.  When your beach rotates into one of Earth’s high tide bulges, you see the water level slowly rise up.  When your beach rotates out of a high tide bulge, you watch the water level slowly sink.

It’s probably worth mentioning that local factors such as wind, ocean currents, seafloor geography, and so on, can have a great effect on how a region experiences tides.  Regardless, tides are not miraculous; they are well-understood phenomena that do not require divine intervention to work.

I often wonder why some people need for miracles to exist.  Furthermore, why do they clutch at impressive but nevertheless non-miraculous phenomena?  Is it because they find comfort in the idea that a deity can still interfere with the clockwork machinations of nature for their particular benefit?  Does their faith in the divine reside in unexplained mysteries?  Are they afraid that if everything is explained by science, there will be no room left for their gods?  Do they think that if their gods disappear in a puff of logic, they will be forced to undertake the always-uncomfortable task of rewriting their belief system?

I personally think that even if I were religious – if I believed in supernatural beings – I would find the idea of miracles unsettling.  A miracle – a real miracle – would be a clear sign that there is a god who is willing to sidestep his (or her; let’s not be sexist) natural laws, but any deity who is willing to interfere with the game could suddenly decide to end it.  For what it’s worth, I don’t think any being should have all that power.

 

 

Briefly…

God ends your struggles

Is it just me, or does this come across as kind of menacing?  I mean seriously, substitute any other name for God and this is an out-and-out threat.

“Soon Venus and Serena Williams will end all your struggles.”

“Soon Quentin Tarantino will end all your struggles.”

“Soon the barista at the Starbucks down the road – you know, the one with the red hair and a scar over his right eye – no, not the one who smells like waffles, the other one – the one with a limp…yeah, THAT one – will end all your struggles.”

Creepy.

A Devil of a Misconception

Heat Doesn't Rise

Okay, ha ha.  This is kind of funny, but it merits discussion because of the Stupid phrase “heat rises”.  That’s utter nonsense, and we’re going to talk about why.

People often use heat as a synonym for hotness or temperature, but it’s not the same thing.  From a physics standpoint, temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of the molecules in a body.  When an object is hot, its molecules move around faster than they do when the object is cold.  Heat is the spontaneous transfer of thermal energy from a region with high temperature to a region with low temperature.  If you have a block of, say, iron, with a temperature of 400º Celsius, and you place it right next to an iron block with a temperature of 20º Celsius, heat will flow from the 400º block to the 20º block until their temperatures are the same.  (This example ignores heat lost to or gained from the surroundings, which will complicate the issue somewhat.)

Why does heat flow from the hot block to the cold block when they touch?  The hot block’s atoms are vibrating faster, with more energy.  When the atoms of the hot block vibrate against the atoms of the cold block, vibrational energy gets transferred primarily in one direction; from hot to cold.  The hot block loses energy while the cold block gains it.  The hot block’s atoms decrease their wiggling, while the cold block’s atoms increase.  The situation reaches equilibrium when both blocks’ atoms have the same average kinetic energy; i.e. when they have the same temperature.

So heat itself – as a transfer of thermal energy – does not have a natural tendency to move upward; it follows the temperature gradient, whatever direction that may be.

But perhaps you know from experience that the attic of a house is warmer than the lower levels, or that steam rises from the surface of boiling water to form droplets on the lid of a pot.  And of course hot air balloons soar above the countryside.  Aren’t these textbook examples of heat rising?

Well, they may be textbook examples; however, any textbook that parrots the phrase “heat rises” is contributing to a widespread misconception.  But now we’re no closer to understanding the problem:  If heat has no natural tendency to rise, why is it that, especially in gases, hot regions tend to rise up while cold regions tend to sink?

Slightly more sophisticated textbooks use density and buoyancy as a tool to explain why, say, a hot air balloon is capable of soaring above the countryside.  As a parcel of air is heated, its molecules move faster, they correctly point out.  As the molecules move faster, they tend to expand a bit, which lowers the overall density of the parcel.  The surrounding air, which is cooler and therefore more dense, buoys the hot air parcel skyward, in much the same way that dense seawater buoys up an ocean liner.

This explanation is better than the perfunctory “heat rises” account, and it would probably suffice for an introductory physical science class, but the sharp student will see through it.  Sure, it makes sense to claim that the air in a hot air balloon rises because it is more-or-less thermally isolated from the surrounding air, but that doesn’t explain why an unconstrained warm air mass tends to rise or why a similarly unconstrained cold air mass tends to sink, as in weather systems.  After all, there is no envelope or barrier between these two air masses.  Shouldn’t they interact and exchange heat, thereby equalizing their temperatures and preventing any net movement of the air?

In the absence of gravity, they might.  We have to dig deeper if we want to really understand why a warm air mass would rise above a cool air mass (or why the first level of Hell would be the hottest).  We have to get all the way down to the molecular level.

All molecules are subject to gravity, and they experience a downward force that is proportional to their mass.  But molecules – particularly gas molecules – also bounce around randomly and collide with other molecules.  Now this might sound bizarre, but in a body of colliding molecules, there is a net tendency to transfer momentum upwards – in other words, the bazillions of collisions that happen with a typical gas parcel tend to work against the pull of gravity.

When a parcel of air gets heated, its molecules speed up (on average) which means there are more frequent collisions within that parcel; ergo, there is an increase in the net upward momentum of the parcel’s molecules.  Heating a gas actually increases its parcels’ ability to bounce themselves away from the ground.  The molecules in a cold air parcel collide less frequently, ergo, the molecules tend to bounce around less vigorously.  When a cold air mass meets a warm air mass, the molecules in the warm air mass naturally tend to bounce off of and above the molecules in the cold air mass.

(On a related note, when powerful solar flares strike Earth, they dump lots of energy into Earth’s atmosphere, causing it to expand outward.  This can increase the drag on Earth-orbiting satellites and shorten their useful lives.)

So to sum up:

  • Heat has no inherent tendency to rise, even in Hell.
  • Heat is the transfer of thermal energy from regions of high temperature to regions of low temperature.
  • The molecules in a hot air mass move around faster, which means they collide more frequently than the molecules in an adjacent cold air mass.
  • The increased frequency of collisions in the hot air mass enhances the molecules’ upward momentum compared to molecules in a colder air mass, therefore:
  • A hot air mass tends to rise above a cold air mass.

I find it inexcusable that the devil is lecturing Joe about his lack of science knowledge, especially when he doesn’t quite get it himself.  According to some theologies, Old Scratch was present almost from the beginning of Creation (in fact, some sects hold that Satan is the author of the physical world.)  You’d expect him to be more well-versed in the physics of the atmosphere.  Then again, Satan has been called the Father of Lies; maybe he delights in spreading scientific misconceptions?

One more thing before I sign off…and this is really just a nitpick:  How is it that Satan did not know Joe’s name, but was able to determine that this was the same Joe that cheated on a test in 3rd grade?

Happy Christmahanakwanzika to You

Merry Christmas

I really hate to beat a dead horse, but the United States of America is a secular nation; meaning we have no official state religion.  In case you’re confused, that’s a good thing.  It means that you can’t be harassed if your religion doesn’t jibe with the state’s.  You’re free to follow whatever beliefs you hold (or don’t hold, as the case may be), and nobody can tell you otherwise.

You absolutely can say “Merry Christmas”.  Go ahead, say it right now.  I’ll wait.

Did anybody break down your door to arrest you?  Probably not (and if they did, it certainly wasn’t because of your choice of holiday greeting).  You’re free to run down the streets shouting “Merry Christmas” as loud as you please, subject to your town’s noise ordinances.  You can say it to your postman; you can say it to a cashier; you can say it to a police officer; you can say it to an atheist.  You can say “Merry Christmas” all day, every day, and nobody can do a thing to stop you.  That is one of your constitutionally guaranteed rights.  I’m curious: who keeps telling people that they’re not allowed to say “Merry Christmas”?

I have a feeling I know who:  the Right-Wing Noise Machine.  See, ultra-right-wingers want you to believe that your rights are being stripped away whenever you’re forced to read “Happy Holidays” in a store window instead of “Merry Christmas”.  They want you to believe that the dark forces of political correctness are closing in on your faith.  But you know what?  They’re wrong.  If somebody tells you “Happy Holidays”, that doesn’t impinge on your rights…not even a little bit.  You can respond back with a “Happy Holidays” – if you want to follow suit – or you can go ahead and break out a “Merry Christmas!”  Nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to tell you otherwise.  Know what else?  If somebody does try to rebuke you for saying “Merry Christmas”, they’re wrong too!  And you can ignore them, because it is in no way, shape, or form illegal or ill-advised to wish somebody a Merry Christmas (and a Happy New Year).

Now here’s the flip side of that coin.  Just as other people shouldn’t tell you not to say “Merry Christmas”, you shouldn’t tell them not to say “Happy Holidays”, or “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Kwanzaa”, or “Happy Hanukkah”.  It’s their choice, just as it is yours.  Personally, I’m glad to live in a nation where we have the freedom to wish somebody well in whatever words we choose.  I wish everybody else would celebrate that freedom.  I wish people wouldn’t get so bent out of shape because they don’t get the exact holiday greeting they wanted.  And I wish people would stop with this paranoid fantasy about having their religious freedoms eroded away by the forces of political correctness.  Just be happy already.  It’s the holidays!