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Monday, February 02, 2015

Saturn and Uniformitarianism

Maggie McKee at Nature.com has an interesting piece on the difficulties that a number of recent scientific discoveries pose for uniformitarians, several of them related to study of the planet Saturn.

For instance, Saturn’s rings, which are 90% water ice, should be darker than they are if they were actually formed 4 billion years ago as originally assumed. Comets and asteroids shed dust that in theory ought to darken the rings over time. So the rings are either younger than previously thought, or … something.

Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 62 moons, shoots watery geysers into space from its south pole. But researchers are unable to determine how such activity could be sustainable over more than 10 million years, making it a remarkable coincidence that we’d be able to observe it today.

Titan’s methane atmosphere and its effects on the moon’s landscape ought to be short-lived, since methane is degraded by sunlight. Either some unknown process replenishes what the sun destroys, or Titan is also younger than previously thought.

Uniformitarian observers presume that what they see now has been going on in precisely the same way for billions of years and can be expected to continue doing so. If the universe is billions of years old, the statistical unlikeliness of encountering one of these sorts of scientific oddities is very high indeed. The odds of humans simultaneously observing numerous such peculiarities is far enough off the charts to, in McKee’s words, “make planetary researchers uncomfortable”.

Jeff Moore, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, who presumably subscribes to the theory of uniformitarianism himself, says, “Geologists like things to be the same as they ever were,” and that the view is “philosophically comforting because you don’t have to assume you’re living in special times”.

Or accountable to a deity. But since the human conscience is probably not Mr. Moore’s primary area of expertise, we won’t carp at him for ignoring that aspect of things.

Naturally Moore’s (and McKee’s) honesty has not escaped the attention of Christian bloggers. The editor of Creation-Evolution Headlines has obviously read a lot of this stuff and sums it up quite a bit better than I might:
“It’s not complicated at all, if you subtract out the needless billions of years.

Here’s a classic case of ad hoc explanation to force observations into a web of belief. (This is called ‘special pleading’ in logic.) If science were about honestly following the evidence where it leads, these scientists would have to conclude that the solar system is much younger than thought.

If Saturn’s rings, Enceladus, Io and Titan were the only problem worlds, they might have hope to rescue their beliefs someday. Unfortunately, the problems mount for uniformitarianism when one considers Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and its moons, Uranus and its moons and rings, Neptune and its moons and rings, Pluto and the trans-Neptunian objects, comets, asteroids, dust — the whole system. There is hardly any planet or moon that met their uniformitarian expectations. We call on them: please, dump the assumption of billions of years, and all these things will start making sense. We do this out of sympathy for their discomfort, wishing them to sleep well for once.”
… and he’s charitable too.

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