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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why the “Celtic Cross” on Mars Cannot Be Debunked as a “Screw Imprint”

There has been a very strange series of unusual things found in photographs taken by unmanned robots on the planet Mars. Recently yet another strange object was noticed on Mars. It was described in the press as a “Celtic cross,” although it does not actually seem to be a Christian cross, in that the two intersecting lines are the same size. It is more accurately described as an X shape surrounded by a circle. The image taken on Mars is below:

Martian cross
Image Credit: NASA

The photograph above was taken by the Opportunity rover, one of the two robotic rovers now on Mars. The NASA web page giving the photo says it was taken on Sol 3720, which corresponds to July 11, 2014.

If you do a Google search for “Celtic cross on Mars,” you will find quite a few Internet discussions about this photo. At first sight the picture seems to indicate something sensational – what looks like an image of something artificial on the surface of Mars, perhaps some artifact from long ago.

But almost as soon as the strange shape was discovered, skeptics came up with an explanation trying to explain it away. The explanation was that the “X within a circle” or “Celtic cross” shape was a screw imprint. It seems there is a scientific instrument on the Opportunity rover called the APXS, which stands for Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer. On this NASA page, the APXS is described as a “contact” instrument, leading one to assume that it makes contact with the soil or rock it is analyzing. The APXS is shown below:

The APXS instrument

Now here is the ingenious explanation of the skeptics. They noticed that in the image above, there are exterior flat screws, which have an “X within a circle” shape similar to the “Celtic cross” shape discovered on Mars. The skeptics then suggested that the “Celtic cross” shape was caused by a “screw imprint” when the APXS instrument made contact with the surface of the planet Mars.

Some initial visual analysis leads one to be doubtful about this explanation. The APXS instrument has quite a few screws that might make an imprint, but we see only one “X within a circle” in the Mars image of the “Celtic cross.” Also, there seems to be a kind of handle shape attached to this “Celtic cross,” something that is not explained by the “screw imprint” hypothesis. Also, the “X” part of the “Celtic cross” appears to be higher than the nearby rock or soil, an effect one would not see if the shape was produced by a screw imprint.

The real test of the “screw imprint” hypothesis is the timing of the Opportunity rover's activities. In order for this explanation to hold up, it would have to have been that the Opportunity rover was actually using the APXS instrument at the particular spot that the photo was taken, before or during the Martian day of July 11, 2014 (3720) when the photo was taken. What do the NASA logs say about this?

The relevant log is found here, which covers the period between July 9th and July 17th. Below is a screen shot from the NASA web page:

According to the log, between July 9th and July 17th, the Opportunity rover was mainly busy traveling. During this period, there was only one day when the APSX instrument was used for in-place “contact” science:

The one sol of in-situ (contact) science was the first sol of a two-sol autonomous 'touch 'n go' where the rover used the robotic arm (the 'touch') on Sol 3720 (July 11, 2014), to collect a Microscopic Imager mosaic of the surface target 'Trebia,' followed by an overnight contact integration measurement performed by the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS).

So is the skeptical explanation of “screw imprint” compatible with this history of what the Opportunity was doing? No, it is not. The record above makes clear that the chronology was as follows:
  1. First, during the Martian day of Sol 3720 (July 11, 2014) the photos at the Trebia site were taken by the Opportunity rover, including the photo of the strange-looking “Celtic cross.”
  2. Then, during the following Martian NIGHT (as indicated by the word “overnight,”) the APXS instrument was used (presumably to make some type of contact with the ground), which was the only time that instrument was used to make contact with the ground during the period between July 9th and July 17th.
This chronology is completely incompatible with the skeptical explanation that this “Celtic cross” was produced by some kind of “screw imprint” caused by the APXS instrument on the Opportunity rover. If the APXS use had occurred at this “Trebia” site before the photos were taken during the day of Sol 3720, such an explanation might be tenable. But the chronology makes clear that the APXS instrument was not used at this location until after the photos were taken that include the “Celtic cross.”

So the official NASA chronology refutes the glib “screw imprint” explanation for the “Celtic cross” on Mars. Apparently the mysterious “Celtic cross” could not have been produced by the APXS instrument.

We are stuck with a big mystery. What in blazes is an X shape within a perfect circle doing on the planet Mars? In my next blog post, I will theorize about several possible explanations for this Martian surface anomaly and other strange anomalies on the Martian surface. These explanations will involve various awe-inspiring possibilities. 

Postscript: If you read the Opportunity activity log here (the same link given above), it becomes clear that it is something like standard operating procedure for the Opportunity rover to travel to a spot, use the Microscopic Imager unit first to take pictures (the unit that took the "Celtic cross" picture), and then later (usually overnight) to use the APXS instrument (the unit claimed as the source of the "screw imprint") on the same spot. It's easy to see why that order is preferred. Since the APXS has to make contact with the surface, it's better to take the pictures first, to capture the natural, undisturbed look of the soil and rocks being studied (rather than take pictures of the soil after it has been touched and zapped by the APXS with its x-rays and alpha particles).  

Monday, October 20, 2014

New Results Consistent with Dark Matter, and Also Astrology

Some excitement has been raised recently about a scientific study involving solar x-rays. The popular press has been gushing forth with statements like this: “British scientists believe that they may have finally found the first direct evidence of dark matter.” But such statements are exaggerations.

The new study does not give direct evidence for dark matter. Direct evidence for a new type of particle is found at places like the Large Hadron Collider, which produced evidence for the Higgs boson particle. The new study was something completely different, a study of solar x-rays. The authors detected a seasonal variation in solar x-rays, one that is anomalous. As we normally think of the sun, it is something that goes about its business without the slightest knowledge of earthly seasons – so how could there be such a seasonal variation?

sun face
Sun face: another type of solar weirdness (credit: NASA)

There are a variety of possible explanations that the authors can think of, which are listed in Table 4 at the back of their paper. The explanations include solar wind charge exchange, “galactic background, local bubble,” residual soft proton flux, keV electron flux, Earth aldebo, and Compton-Getting effect/X-ray dipole. But the authors seem to prefer a different explanation – that their observations are caused by a type of undiscovered particle called axions. Their suggestion is that the sun may be producing these axions, that they may be interacting with our planet's magnetic field, and that this may be the explanation for the seasonal variability.

It's the same old story we see again and again these days. First, scientists make a modest statement, which in this case is the statement made in the scientific paper, which merely says that “potential axion signatures” have been found. Then science writers (eager to announce something important that gets more web hits) inflate this into something much bigger, in this case “the first direct evidence of dark matter.” For one thing, the new study does not provide direct evidence for any type of matter, either dark or normal, because it is a study of energy not matter (X-rays being a form of energy). For another thing, as I mentioned above there are quite a few alternate ways of explaining the observations without assuming the existence of axions.

Moreover, even if axions do exist, that does not confirm the theory that dark matter is a key component of the universe. Axions are merely a candidate dark matter particle. If we knew that the sun produced some axions, that still would not tell us whether dark matter plays a major role in the universe, as we still wouldn't know about how much of a relation there is between dark matter and axions, how many axions there are, how much dark matter there is, and so forth.

The scientists say, “We have discovered a seasonal signal in this X-ray background, which has no conventional explanation, but is consistent with the discovery of axions.” The phrase “consistent with” means little. Here are four levels of scientific assertion, from weakest to strongest:

X is consistent with Y. This means very little. It does not mean that Y is true, nor does it necessarily imply that Y is probably true. A hundred and one weird conspiracy theories are consistent with the assassination of John Kennedy, but it doesn't mean that any of them are true or probably true.

X suggests Y. This is a stronger statement, but basically all that it says is that X brings to mind Y, without asserting Y's likelihood. Lots of things suggest other things that aren't really there, as when you look at a cloud in the sky and see a face.

X is evidence for Y. This is a still stronger statement, which pretty much indicates that Y is likely. But since evidence can be misleading, it still leaves the door open that Y may not be true.

X proves Y. This is the strongest assertion, which asserts that Y is definitely true.

I may note that while the new X-ray observations may be consistent with dark matter or axions, they are also consistent with something radically different: astrology! The authors have provided evidence suggesting a weird unexplained connection between the sun and the seasons. I can imagine an astrologer's reaction: why, of course, they're all connected along with the zodiac and your birth sign, just as we astrologers have been saying for centuries. Don't get me wrong: I am not a believer in astrology. I merely mention this to point out that it means quite little to say “X is consistent with Y,” because X may also may be consistent with a hundred and one other things you don't want to believe in or never thought of.

As you can probably figure out, I am still skeptical about dark matter. I regard it as a possibility, but do not think its likelihood has been demonstrated. One of the reasons I am skeptical is the severe problem of reconciling dark matter theory with observations of dwarf galaxies, as discussed here and here. Another reason I remain skeptical is that scientists keep changing their story about dark matter. Six days ago an article on space.com said, “Scientists have found that the Milky Way galaxy holds half as much dark matter...as scientists had previously thought.” Beware of a claim when someone keeps changing his story. If someone knocked on your door one day offering to sell you a jewel that he claimed was worth 2000 dollars, you wouldn't exactly have confidence in him if he appeared the next day claiming the jewel was actually worth 1000 dollars.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Bus Driver Who Went to Three Planets: A Science Fiction Story

Floyd Baxter was a Denver bus driver who liked to unwind from the stresses of his job by hiking in the mountains. One day he hiked deep into the mountains, and saw another hiker in the distance. Suddenly Floyd heard a strange scream. The hiker had fallen off a treacherous mountain cliff. Floyd rushed to where the hiker was. He was surprised to see the hiker was wearing some kind of strange helmet looking like the helmet of a space suit.

Floyd looked into the helmet and saw a strange face unlike any he had seen before. The eyes were larger than human eyes, and the nose was a weird kind of triangle slit. The skin was salmon-colored. Floyd thought to himself: what the devil have I stumbled on to? Some kind of weird alien hiker?

It was apparently an alien being, an extraterrestrial from some other planet. The poor creature had apparently died in the fall from the cliff. For some time Floyd just stood in wonder looking at this amazing site. He tried speaking to the alien creature, but got no response. He tried gently shaking its arm, but there was no sign of life.

Floyd noticed that the alien wore a kind of vest-like apparatus or device that was about the size of a life jacket used to keep swimmers afloat. The device fitted over the alien's arms much as a life jacket fits over a man's arms. At the front of this vest-like device there were dozens of small buttons. After great hesitation, Floyd finally decided to remove this vest-like device from the alien's body. He imagined that the vest-like apparatus might be some kind of a supply holder, and that inside it might be something he could use to help save the life of the alien – perhaps some kind of life-saving potion he could pour into the creature's small mouth.

So holding the machine, Floyd pressed one of the buttons on the vest-like apparatus. Suddenly Floyd found himself transported instantly to another planet.

Astonished, Floyd looked around. He could see no sign of the place he had found the alien, and no sign of the alien. He was now at some location he had never before been to. It was apparently some location that was not even on planet Earth.

Looking ahead he could see two mighty glaciers that fed into the waters of a sea. The sea water was bluer than any he had ever seen. In the sea he saw what looked like two large islands. The temperature was very low.

Floyd knew from the moon in the sky that this location was not on Earth. The moon in the sky did not look like any moon he had ever seen.

Floyd asked himself: how could this have happened? Then he had an idea. Perhaps the machine he was holding, the machine he had taken from the alien creature, was some kind of instantaneous transportation device. Perhaps rather than using big spaceships to travel to different planets, the alien was simply using some kind of amazing machine that could instantly transport a person to an entirely different planet.

The temperature was too cold, so Floyd decided that he might as well test his idea immediately. He decided to press another one of the buttons on the machine.

Then instantly Floyd again found himself transported to another planet. This planet was much warmer, and it was nighttime, but a night unlike any Floyd had ever seen. The sky was ablaze with hundreds of stars far brighter than any you could see on planet Earth.

Ahead of Floyd was a building, and Floyd began to walk towards it. But out of the building there came creatures unlike any Floyd had ever seen. They looked like elephants with spider heads. Terrified, Floyd thought to himself: I'm getting the hell out of here. He pressed another button on the machine.

Suddenly again Floyd was instantly transported to another planet. He found himself in a totally different landscape. It was a lovely valley flanked by mountain peaks. Floyd saw some strange-looking houses and a lake ahead. He walked towards them.

Near the lake Floyd encountered the planet's inhabitants. They were beautiful-looking creatures who had whitish-blue skin. One of the creatures seemed to say “Hello” to Floyd, but it was not through language, but through telepathy.

Floyd tried to talk to the creature, but it was useless. But then he tried just thinking his thoughts. It worked! Floyd could talk to the creature purely through telepathy.

Floyd stayed at the planet for two days. He found the creatures on the planet to be loving and trusting. He told them he was from another planet, and they believed him. Floyd found the planet so delightful he was hesitant to leave. But eventually he decided he really should get back to his home planet. So he decided to keep pressing more buttons on the machine. Floyd thought to himself: one of these buttons must be programmed to transport me to Earth.

Floyd pressed another button on the machine. Again, he was instantly transported to another planet. This time, the planet was his home planet. He found himself back on Earth, near the same place he found the dead alien and the alien machine.

Floyd hiked back to his car, and drove home. Floyd then thought: wait until everyone hears about this!

First, Floyd told his friend Charley all about what had happened. Charley refused to believe a single word of his story. Then Floyd called up a newspaper and got a reporter to come over. Floyd spent three hours telling all about what had happened. Two days later the newspaper published the story: Bus Driver Claims to Have Visited Other Planets.

But no one seemed to believe the story. Floyd became an object of ridicule and contempt. The bus riders would come on his bus and whisper: that's him, the crazy bus driver who thinks he went to other planets. Children from Floyd's neighborhood would stand outside his house and make scornful jokes about Floyd. When they saw him come out of his house, they would taunt him by saying things like: Hey, big-shot, have you been to any new planets today?

The bus company called in Floyd and told him that since he was either a huge liar or someone suffering from hallucinations, he could not be trusted to perform his bus-driver job. Floyd was fired. Unable to keep up with his house payments, he received a foreclosure notice from the bank.

Floyd thought to himself: what can I do? Then he remembered something very important. He had brought the alien machine back with him in his car, and had left it in the trunk of his car. He had also remembered which button he could press to return to the planet of the beautiful, trusting telepathic creatures.

Floyd remembered those creatures he had visited for two days. They were so loving, so trustful, and so innocent. They seemed so different from the humans he had recently dealt with.

Floyd opened the trunk of his car, and took out the alien device. Preparing to return to the planet of the telepathic creatures, Floyd thought to himself: as soon as I get back to that planet, I'm throwing away this damn machine.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Discovery of Extraterrestrials May Have Little Short-term Impact on World Religions

We may not be more than a few decades away from discovering proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. Various people have speculated on what the cultural effects will be of such a discovery. A common idea is that if we finally discover some other intelligent life out there in the universe, it will be a shattering event for traditional world religions. The idea is sometimes suggested that the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrials might cause a sudden collapse in confidence in long-standing world religions, causing a large fraction of their followers to abandon their faiths.

But such an idea may be unfounded. Rather surprisingly, the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence may not have all that huge an effect on the world's traditional religions, for several reasons I will now explain.

Reason #1: Ideological Inertia

In physics inertia is the resistance of an object to a change in its state of motion, proportional to the object's speed and mass. We can use the same idea to identify a kind of ideological inertia – the resistance of a person to a change in his beliefs. People all over the world of many different viewpoints have a huge amount of ideological inertia, including both believers and total non-believers. The longer a person has been believing in some particular doctrine, the more ideological inertia he will tend to have. We can visualize ideological inertia as kind of like a great big boulder that is very hard to move unless a gigantic force is applied.

It seems that people will be unlikely to change long-standing beliefs unless something incredibly dramatic happens to them – a “knock you over the head with a 2 by 4” kind of event. If we were to discover some unmistakable signs of extraterrestrial intelligence in some far off solar system, that probably would not be sufficient to cause that much of a belief change in people who have held old-fashioned religious beliefs for decades. It might be that such a discovery should cause people to reassess many of their beliefs, but it probably wouldn't.

Reason #2: People Would “Mentally Minimize” the Discovery

Many old-fashioned believers would not at all want to suddenly leap to a very different new outlook on the universe in which man is a mere minor player in the universe rather than the center of creation. So people would use various mental tricks to minimize whatever discovery was made. One little mind trick people would use is the little trick of “avoiding the implications.”

For example, imagine if we were to discover positive evidence of intelligent life in some distant solar system. Many people would attempt to minimize this discovery in their minds by thinking along these lines:

Before we knew there was one intelligent species, mankind. Now we apparently know that there are two. No big deal – two is not much different than one.

Of course, this type of thinking involves a little mind trick. Given a galaxy of billions of stars, and the existence of billions of galaxies such as ours, the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence should really cause us to conclude that the universe is full of intelligent life, and that there are billions of intelligent species. But through the trick of “mental minimization,” a person can avoid such an implication, and just think thoughts such as “two is not much different than one.”

Old-fashioned believers could use a similar trick to kind of pretend that any extraterrestrial civilization discovered far away is “irrelevant,” because of the difficulty of communicating with it, or the unlikelihood of it visiting our planet.

The Fireworks Galaxy (Credit: NASA)

Reason #3: People Would Explain Away the Discovery or Dismiss It As a Deception

People of all viewpoints (both believers and skeptics) show an almost limitless capacity for explaining away or dismissing things they don't want to believe it. If extraterrestrial intelligence were discovered in a distant solar system, I imagine that the defenders of old-fashioned viewpoints would come out in force, and pull out every argumentative trick in the book to cast doubt on the discovery. They might argue that the discovery was a misinterpretation of the data, or that the discovery was just some story being put forth by astronomers eager to get more funding for their pet projects. The only type of discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence that would prevent such a maneuver would be if giant alien spaceships were to appear in the skies of many of our cities.

If people didn't buy the explanation that the discovery of aliens was a misinterpretation or a plot by fund-seeking scientists, defenders of old-fashioned religions could always use the last resort of arguing that the evidence for extraterrestrials is all just a deception by Satan and his cohorts. Outsiders would cringe and laugh at such an explanation, but within a particular religion such an explanation might seem plausible.

Reason #4: People Would Try to Squeeze-fit the Discovery into Their Own Doctrines or Scriptural Analysis

It also seems that whatever was discovered in terms of extraterrestrial intelligence, old-fashioned believers would try to somehow make it seem compatible with their own religious beliefs or scriptures. It's been said that you can find a Bible verse to support almost any opinion. That may be an exaggeration, but no doubt after the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, people would scour the Bible looking for some verse that could be cited as a prediction or foreshadowing of such a discovery. Never mind the fact that the Bible makes no mention of extraterrestrial life. Scriptural enthusiasts would probably find some murky passage that they could claim was a prediction or foreshadowing of the discovery.

We can also imagine that old-fashioned believers might try to squeeze the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence into their own traditions by saying that the discovery is a sign of something mentioned in their own traditions. If we discovered signs that stars far away are being manipulated by some higher intelligence, Christians might say, “It's not extraterrestrials doing that – it's angels.” Hindus might say, “It's not extraterrestrials doing that – it's one of our many gods.”


There are all kinds of defense mechanisms that old-fashioned believers could and probably would use to minimize the shock of the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. So in the short-term (say, 5 or 10 years), such a discovery might have relatively little effect on the world's major religions. But in the much longer term, after people had many years to reflect on the implications of the discovery, the impact might be much greater.