Made of Stardust

carl-sagan-reality quoteToday, I am remembering a childhood hero, astrophysicist/author Carl Sagan. I was 12 when I bought his first book, Planets, from the Life Science Series. I paid for it from money I earned picking potatoes on the family farm in Pennsylvania. (I was given 10 cents for each 60-pound bushel. The book cost $3.99 and came in the mail a month after I ordered it. You do the math – how many pounds of potato picking is Planets worth?)

I still have the book. It's in good shape considering the wear it got over the past 50 years.

I still have the book. It’s in good shape considering 50 years of use.

Today would have been Sagan’s 81st birthday. So, I am sharing some of my favourite Saganisms. In the meme at the top of this page, you can read “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” But alas, to have the wisdom to shake delusion is beyond the power of most of us. But we should try, shouldn’t we?

Acknowledging the power of seductive delusion, I am well aware of some of the faults attributed to Dr Sagan. He was a childhood hero, but not a childhood god. Even today I sometimes squirm a little when I see an old clip of Carl Sagan and he seems to exaggerate the letter ‘b’ in the word millions. Or maybe he really meant billions and billions. But you catch my point, I hope. In the role of America’s greatest promoter of science in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, he occasionally had to suffer self-parody. But it was worth that price when we remember the people whom he led towards rationality through his enthusiasm for science.

I don’t imagine many people are reading Carl Sagan these days, except when his quotes are attached to pictures of galaxies and sunsets. But even in twenty-word sound-bites, Carl Sagan delivers. Here are a couple quotes worth pasting to Facebook today:

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.
We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.
The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.

I also like to remember this line from The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark – written by Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan:  “One of our grandmothers learned to read because her father, a subsistence farmer, traded a sack of onions to an itinerant teacher. She read for the next hundred years.”   That’s a wonderful testimony on the power and love of learning and knowledge.

By the way, resting on my deck here in Calgary is my 8-inch Celestron. We named it Carl.

daniel and carl

My son, Daniel, hanging out with Carl, the telescope.

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50 Years Ago: How the Continents Fit Together

Edward Bullard, 1936, during a geophysics study of the Caribbean

Edward Bullard, 1936, during a geophysics study of the Caribbean

50 years ago, on October 28, 1965, an unlikely British geophysicist made a map that set the record straight on how the world’s tectonic plates fit together. As a child, Edward Bullard was such a slow learner that his family thought he’d end up mopping floors at their brewery. Instead, he became one of a half dozen scientists who proved plate tectonics – and he was knighted for some of his work.

Sir Edward’s family could have given him a wide range of advantages, but they did their best to wreck the young man instead. He overcame the burden of privilege, but it took an unusual and sympathetic teacher to help him realize he wasn’t stupid.

goatBullard’s great-grandfather Richard owned The Goat, a once-popular Norwich pub, and started a brewery, making the family wealthy. Bullard’s grandfather Harry was thrice elected mayor, knighted by Queen Victoria, and was Member of Parliament for Norwich – until he was expelled for bribery.

On the other side of the family, Bullard’s maternal grandfather, Sir Frank Crisp, was a lawyer whose client list included the Japanese Imperial Navy. Crisp also inked the contract for cutting the largest diamond ever found, the 3,100-carat Star of Africa. Frank Crisp was an amateur scientist, an officer in the Royal Microscopist Society, an enthusiastic gardener, and was rumoured to be insane. He owned an estate where he erected a replica of the Matterhorn featuring a cave populated with garden gnomes. At the gate to Friar Park where he lived, the retired solicitor erected a statue of a monk holding a frying pan punctured by a pair of holes. He called the statue “The Two Holy Friars.” Young Teddy Bullard, the future geophysicist, enjoyed spending a month each year at his eccentric Grandfather Crisp’s 120-room house near Henley, until Sir Crisp died bankrupt in 1919, when Bullard was twelve. Years later, ex-Beatle George Harrison bought the holy friar estate and turned it into a comfortable home for his final years.

Bullard’s father was dyslexic and performed miserably at school. Edward Bullard himself was similarly afflicted, claiming his inability to spell was hereditary.  For his education, Sir Edward Bullard was first placed in a girls’ school, a place dunces in those days were sometimes sent. At age 9, his parents transferred him to a stodgy grammar school which made him so miserable he considered suicide. Anxious because of his grandfather’s mental state, the family alerted a psychiatrist who recommended that the child, by then 11, be sent away to a boarding school. Teddy refused, but his parents sent him anyway. There, at age 12, he was tested and placed next to last in a classroom of eight-year-olds.

He survived the experience and was rewarded with promotion to a strict secondary school with equally privileged classmates where he once again felt miserable and performed poorly. But a physics teacher with a doctorate arrived and took a serious interest in young Bullard’s future. He set the young man loose in the library with problems to solve and lectured him privately two or three times a week. It worked. The physics teacher changed young Bullard’s life. Edward Bullard applied to Cambridge and became a theoretical physicist. Against such disadvantages of upper-class birth, Edward Bullard  became one of his generation’s most brilliant and hard-working geophysicists.

St John's College, Cambridge

St John’s College, Cambridge

At Cambridge, Bullard studied physics under Lord Patrick Blackett, his doctoral adviser for a quantum mechanics thesis, and a scientist later awarded a Nobel Prize. Then Bullard worked with Nobel laureate physicist Ernest Rutherford, also at Cambridge. But by 1931, the Great Depression dried up funding for pure research – advancing the science of quantum physics was not deemed essential while millions of unemployed roamed England’s streets. Bullard’s boss, Rutherford, reluctantly sent Bullard away to teach applied geodesy – glorified surveying techniques that might help farmers and navigators. Through geodesy, Bullard became a gravity expert. He understood the physics behind surveys and maps and he determined the Earth’s gravity distortions and nuances of our planet’s non-spherical shape. Geodesists calculate innumerable perturbations, all of which affect the orbits of satellites, the flight paths of missiles, and the drafting of maps.

Before the Second World War, Edward Bullard also researched Earth magnetism and crustal heat transfer. During the war, he found ways to use geophysics in Britain’s fight to survive. He devised a method to demagnetize British ships so they could avoid German detection and he used magnetic disturbances to locate enemy mines. After the war, Bullard headed the University of Toronto physics department, then went to La Jolla, California, to work for  Scripps Institution of Oceanography. At Scripps, Bullard designed a tool to measure heat as it flowed from the ocean’s floor. But eventually Bullard returned to England to unravel the mystery of the source of the Earth’s magnetic field. He did the math and physics that showed how motion deep inside our planet generated magnetism.

Magnetism figured large in the transformation of continental drift theory into plate tectonics. Edward Bullard wasn’t the first to recognize the likelihood of crustal plates in motion.  But continental drift, being rediscovered as plate tectonics, was a hard sell. Bullard later wrote:

“There is always a strong inclination for a body of professionals to oppose an unorthodox view. Such a group has a considerable investment in orthodoxy: they have learned to interpret a large body of data in terms of the old view, and they have prepared lectures and perhaps written books with the old background. To think the whole subject through again when one is no longer young is not easy and involves admitting a partially misspent youth. Further, if one endeavours to change one’s views in midcareer, one may be wrong and be shown to have adopted a specious novelty and tried to overthrow a well-founded view that one has oneself helped to build up. Clearly it is more prudent to keep quiet, to be a moderate defender of orthodoxy, or to maintain that all is doubtful, sit on the fence, and wait in statesmanlike ambiguity for more data (my own line till 1959).”   – Bullard, Edward (1975). “The Emergence of Plate Tectonics: A Personal View,” Annal Review of Earth and Planetary Science.

(Photo used by permission of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.)

Bullard, receiving The Albatross Award, an ignoble geophysical prize.
(By permission of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.)

Edward Bullard’s conversion to plate tectonics in 1959 made him an early adopter of the theory. Although Wegener and others had made their continental drift proposals early in the 20th century, the bulk of the geoscience community didn’t switch until around 1967. For seven or eight years, Bullard was one of a handful of prescient scientists who saw the crust as a dynamic feature. But his conversion was only cautiously expressed.

Although his work in theoretical geophysics, heat flow from the crust, and magnetic field generation were his greatest triumphs, Bullard’s signature contribution to plate tectonics was a map of the continents that cleared up one of the uncomfortable issues that made some geologists balk at the notion that continents once fit snuggly together in Pangaea.

In 1965, Bullard constructed a map that fit the continents together without the huge gaps and overlaps that had plagued earlier researchers when they drew maps of Pangaea.   It was a simple remedy. Rather than using today’s coastlines as the outlines of continents, Bullard mentally drained the oceans, exposing the continental shelves, then he graphically connected the enlarged continents into Earth’s earlier supercontinent. The fit went from a sloppy cartoon to an almost perfect reconstruction.

From Fit of the Contients, 1965 - part of Bullard's calculation that reconstructed Pangaea

From Fit of the Continents – part of Bullard’s calculation that reconstructed Pangaea

In a paper written with JE Everett and AG Smith, The Fit of the Continents around the Atlantic, Bullard found that the best least squares fit of the outlines of the continents falls upon the steepest slope of the continental shelf. The authors believed that the fit of South America to Africa, Greenland to Europe, and North America to Greenland and Europe was so good they could “not be due to chance.”  As the paper states,

“Only two explanations have been proposed for the approximate fit of the continental blocks; either the fit is due to chance similarities, and is on a par with the similarity of the coast of Italy to a boot, or the continents were once united and have separated with the formation of the Atlantic Ocean. Other explanations are hard to find, they would involve similar processes carving similar shapes on the two sides of the ocean. It is difficult to decide by statistical theory alone whether two continental edges fit more closely than would be expected by chance.” – Bullard, Everett, and Smith (1965), “The Fit of the Continents around the Atlantic”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A.

Bullard and his colleagues conclude the paper by indicating that the evidence sides with continental fragmentation as the creator of the Atlantic. But even late in 1965, it was a tough sell so they nuanced their result. Bullard wrote that verification of the fit as part of a previous supercontinent would come with a comparison of stratigraphy, structure, mineral age dating, and remnant rock magnetism. He was right.

Bullard, et al., the fit of South America and Africa, mathematically expressed.

Bullard, et al., the mathematical fit of South America and Africa, 1965.



Posted in Biography, History, Plate Tectonics | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Canadian scientists hopeful under Trudeau administration


I will write about the change of government here in Canada (and its likely impact on science) in a future blog post. But meanwhile, here is an excellent summary of what Monday’s election may mean for Canadian science.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

Although I count myself (along with most Americans) woefully ignorant of Canadian politics, I do know what fellow scientists north of the border thought of the Harper administration: they uniformly hated it. Under Harper, funding was cut, especially to environmental research, scientists were muzzled, and, as I documented a while back a scientist at Environment Canada was even suspended for writing a song (in his off hours!) criticizing the Prime Minister. That’s unconscionable retribution, and smacks of fascism. When I went to the Evolution meetings in Ottawa a few years back, scientists marched from the meeting venue to the Parliament, dressed in lab coats and protesting the administration’s attack on science.

A new article in the Guardian documents these and other abuses of science and claims that the anti-science stance of the Harper administration helped bring it down:

All of these efforts began to attract significant domestic and international attention. There were numerous…

View original 416 more words

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Spocking Canada

spock 2 billsThe popular Canadian parlor pastime, Spocking the Five, has come under fire from the Bank of Canada.  The fact that Spocking has been going on for years and has become part of our heritage should make the Bank back off. And they have, a little. They say that Spocking is not illegal, but it is disrespectful. But are they right?

Spock’s connection to Canada is strong. He really should be on the Canadian Five Dollar, instead of the bank teller prime minister with the improbable name Sir Wilfrid Laurier. I’ll bet you five dollars that more Canadians have heard of Spock (who civilized planets) than Laurier (who didn’t). It’s just plain common sense that the well-known superhero deserves to be engraved on a bit of money that can almost buy half a ham sandwich. The bill should sport Spock, rather than some unknown politician from a hundred years ago. Spock has a strong Canadian connection.

Ron and Spock

A day in Vulcan, Alberta, Canada, isn’t complete without melding your prosperity fingers into those of Vulcan’s Mr Spock.

Spock visited Vulcan, Alberta. On display are his bust and hand print, made from cooling molten lead. (That must have hurt!)  This, in theory, honours his many one visit to the farm town named for Spock’s home planet. If you must know more, you can read my post about Spock’s days day in Vulcan.

So, to Spock or not to Spock?  The Bank of Canada says that merchants might not accept a Spocked bill as legal tender. But I think that a really nice Spock job might entitle you to a premium, like a 15% discount on a purchase.  So, go ahead and Spock.

Don't treat our money like this!!!!!

Spock left Spocking our 5s.  You should see what we’ve done to the queen on our 20s.

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The Morning After

This could be you. The October 7, 2011 Apocalypse.

This could have been you on October 7, 2015.

Looks like we missed Armageddon. Again. The world did not end in conflagration, though thousands of people insisted it would. Doomsday 2015 was scheduled for yesterday, October 7, but we seem to still be alive. If you missed the news stories, here are some links: “Christian group predicts the world will be ‘annihilated’ on Wednesday”“Christian group awaits fiery Wednesday apocalypse”; and “Don’t make any plans for Thursday: Christian doomsday group predicts world will be ‘destroyed by fire’ tomorrow”.

This is the eighth or ninth serious rapturous prediction in my own lifetime. I’m getting used to it. And that should worry the folks who keep repeating these mistakes.  Sure, the first couple of times I ran and hid like a child. (I was 8 years old.) But after the fourth, I stayed at work (though I fueled up my truck and packed a lunch and dinner, just in case). By the seventh call to repent and fly up into heaven, I sort of ignored the event altogether. Back in May of 2011, when the California preacher Harold Camping predicted the end (twice in one year!), I was becoming annoyed. A few months later the old preacher gassed out and it was disclosed that he had sucked millions from his followers and was worth $72 million upon death. I wasn’t annoyed, I was mad. Some very decent (albeit very naive) folks had been robbed.

My Saskatchewan cowboy friend, at age 97, in 1990.

A 97-year-old Saskatchewan cowboy who believed.

Who believes this stuff?  I’ve know two families of prophesy-church people. These are among the nicest, kindest, most respectful people you might ever hope to meet. I knew one fellow when I was rather young and he was rather old. It was around 1980 in southern Saskatchewan – rural cowboy country. I lived there. My friend told me that fifty years earlier he realized that the Apocalypse was at hand.. He gave away his cattle, freed his horses, and sat with his family on a hillside where they waited to be swept up into heaven. He was surprised when it didn’t happen. The man went on to enjoy a very long life, wasn’t bitter, and never rejected his doomsday belief. He just figured he got the timing slightly wrong, but the end was still at hand. [By the way, I am not going to tell you his name, though my friend has been deceased for almost 20 years. However, I write a bit about him in my 2004 book, Bad Beekeeping, which you should read.]

My Saskatchewan cowboy buddy  was typical of the folks who become convinced that Armageddon is nigh. They tend to be smart, generous, and upon failure, quite accepting of their missed one-way flights. But they usually don’t quit believing that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will happen before they die.

Harold Camping pointing the way
(by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed via Wikipedia )

Often,  when faced with rather clear signs that the world hasn’t conflagrated, the hopeful re-interpret the divine message. The cowboy did that, telling me that the real rapture was that God had entered his heart on that day.

The multi-millionaire preacher (Harold Camping) told the world that the May 2011 apocalypse was postponed until October 2011 to give people more time. (For what? To send him more money?) When the October event failed, Camping, age 92, died. When the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ prophet messed up his 1914 Doomsday forecast, Charles Russell simply said that Jesus had indeed returned, was floating in the clouds, giving the Witnesses a little more time to knock on their neighbours’ doors. So far, it’s been over a century, and the church has grown to over 8 million. In the cases of Camping and the Witnesses, anyone who believes in an acceptable way will be saved from the ugliness that God will bring. There’s not much hope for the rest of us.

Lack of evidence doesn’t matter. In yesterday’s failed prediction, the October moon was supposed to bring an unexpected apocalyptic  meteor shower. But there was never any evidence that a swarm of asteroids was waiting to pelt us as our planet came around its final bend. Three or four blood-red full moons in one year don’t necessarily mean the planet would ignite.

Scientific evidence can’t change hearts that are married to dogmatic belief. Nor can an honest examination of history.  One would hope that people would realize that The End has been falsely predicted over and over again. Previous false prophesies should make the gullible wary. A friend from my childhood belongs to one of the prophesy churches. I asked him about the many fails. He simply said, “They were wrong in the past, of course. But we’ve got it right.”   This time, it’s different.

I guess that every generation assumes it’s getting doomsday prophesy right while all the earlier ones were wrong. As Chris McCann, the leader and founder of this latest fiasco of failed Christian prophesy said back in 2013, “What risk is there when God is telling us what’s going to happen? Zero.”  Well, sure, if it’s really God speaking. If not, some people may become financially bankrupted, lose jobs, or at least feel sheepishly foolish. When asked what the Earth’s status will be after Doomsday October 7, 2015, McCann said with apparent certainty, “It’ll be gone forever. Annihilated.” Hmmm. Chris, today is October 8. The sun came up this morning.

Here are a few of the hundreds of failed historical Armageddon predictions:

Around the year 30: Regarding events leading up to Judgement Day, Jesus says (Matthew 24:34) “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” But that generation did pass. Revision and apologetics came quickly.

The year 150:  The powerful charismatic Montanists prophesized that Jesus would return sometime during their lifetime. They expected he would build New Jerusalem in the city of Pepuza in Asia Minor.

235: The Antipope (and later Catholic Saint) Hippolytus, predicted an imminent Armageddon. Hippolytus was quite popular. He is known as an Antipope because he claimed the title of pope and said that the man on Peter’s Rock was actually the Antichrist. Somehow his disrespect towards the church was forgiven because Hippolytus was canonized by the same church he had rejected. By the way, his beef with Pope Zephyrinus was that Zephy believed Father and Son are two names for the same entity, an idea which Hippolytus found blasphemous. So Hippolytus knew Zephyrinus was an Antichrist. Hippolytus also attacked popes Callixtus, Urban, and Pontian, all of whom he saw as liberals and Antichrists who were setting the stage for Armageddon. Saint Hippolytus had tens of thousands of followers and the division threatened Rome’s dominance of the Church.

365:   Bishop Hilarius of Poitiers, aka the Hammer of the Arians (The Arians were the nails, Hilarious was the hammer.) was a saint born into a family of “well off Pagans” in France where he received a good education, including the study of classical Greek. He distinguished himself by declaring that anyone who accepts Christ without acknowledging the Trinity Theory were Antichrists. His work was instrumental in moving that doctrine into the Church’s mainstream, where it resides today. He also announced that the world would end in a hundred years because of the politics of his heretical (but fellow Christian) political enemies, all of whom were Antichrists.

375 to 400: Hilary, or Saint Hilarious, died in 367. His disciple Saint Martin of Tours, re-interpreted Hilarious’s doctrine and discovered that the world would end before the year 400.

There are many more Doomsday prophesies in this era, most associated with church schisms and power struggles. Let’s skip ahead.

1000:  With a thousand years passing since the first Christian Doomsday prediction, people in Europe were pretty sure the year 1000 would mark the world’s end because 1000 is neatly divisible by 1000. Christian armies attacked pagan countries in Northern Europe, hoping to either kill the miscreants or convert them before it was too late for their hapless northern neighbours’ salvation. In May of 1000, the tomb of Charlemagne (who had been dead for two hundred years) was supposedly opened by Otto III with the expectation that Charlemagne would rise, take sword, and fight the Antichrist. Or maybe not. Charlemagne was disturbed repeatedly after being placed in his tomb, mostly for political reasons and the historical equivalent of photo-ops.

1147:  Gerard of Poehlde figured that Christ had already returned and had been ruling for centuries through his papal spokesmen in Rome. According to Gerard, it began with Constantine in 306. After a thousand years of good governance (of which Gerard was part) Satan would be released (in 1306) and Armageddon would begin.

1179:   An Englishman, Cardinal John of Toledo, predicted the end of the world would come with a planetary alignment in conjunction with the constellation Libra during 1186.

1205:  An Italian mystic and founder of a monastic order, Joachim of Fiore, predicted in 1190 that the Antichrist was already busy making mischief (he was believed to be King Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire). Joachim figured that King Richard of England would defeat Frederick in battle at Armageddon (in 1205), and the Millennium would begin.

1284:   Pope Innocent III calculated that Armageddon would be in 1284 because the year was 666 years onto the date the Islam was founded. Why 666 years? Why Islam?

In the next few hundred years, there were crusades to the Middle East that were intended to hasten Armageddon; there was also the slaughter of Satan’s little helpers (kittens) because people thought cats and witches spread the black plague that leads directly to Doomsday. There were attempts to build New Jerusalem in Strasbourg in 1533, and in 1669, it is rumored that 20,000 members of The Old Believers faith in Russia burned themselves to death rather than face the Antichrist who they thought was already looking for them. In 1736, the very respectable William Whitson, who succeeded Newton as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, calculated a comet would collide with Earth. As a theologian, he saw it as the doomsday of prophesy and good Englishmen rioted. Later, the 1783 Icelandic volcano killed a quarter of that country’s people and darkened British skies, leading thousands to expect the Second Coming.  And on it goes.  Here is a PDF that lists some of the more spectacular fails. There are dozens of lists on the web, some full of inaccuracies, but you can sleuth through the links and let me know what you find.

In our more recent era, Doomsday belief blossomed in America. The USA showed the world the way of tolerance and liberty. Religious freedom allowed a plethora of new faiths, many of which contained elements of the impending apocalypse. John Smith (the Mormon prophet) predicted it would all end before the 19th century ended. In 1830, Margaret McDonald had a prophesy that socialist Robert Owen was the one and only Antichrist. Owen founded New Harmony in Indiana and died in 1859 – without destroying the world.

A former Baptist named William Miller predicted the end would start in 1843, then had to change the date to 1844. He was going to guess again, and pick 1845, but by then his thousands of American followers, mostly in New York and Pennsylvania, had lost interest. Or joined one of the many competing Doomsday prophets.

In August, 1886, an unexpected Charleston, South Carolina, earthquake destroyed a quarter of all the buildings in the city and many assumed the destruction was the act of an angry God.  Canadian Ezekiel Wiggins (the Ottawa Prophet) was told by an angel that a second, much more devastating, earthquake would strike the eastern seaboard one month later, on September 29. His prophecy created widespread panic. Believers quit their jobs and donned fashionable “ascension robes” in preparation for the Second Coming. Most were back at work the following Monday.

All of this barely scratches the surface of the failed predictions. Yet many thousands continue to expect veracity in prophesy.

All of this seems funny today, but in 2015, thousands thought the big red moon meant the same thing, didn’t they? As revealed in Joel 2:31, the end of days will be known by the arrival of a blood moon. “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord comes,” reads the biblical passage.  That’s what the Bible tells us.

may 21 sign

As the sign says, “The Bible Guarantees it.” So, is that a money-back guarantee?
Followers of multi-millionaire Preacher Harold Camping know the answer.

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Water on Mars

Water has been found on Mars. But it's not the first time.

Water has been found on Mars. But it’s not the first time.

Not since Schiaparelli published his drawings of Martian “canals” has the popular press been so excited about water on Mars. Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer, science historian, and senator, had a good clear view of Mars through his scope back in 1877. And that’s when the troubles began. But it wasn’t all his fault.

In 1877, Mars was in opposition – an astronomical term that does not describe a state of feisty parliamentary politics but simply means that Mars was close to the Earth. In opposition, the Sun, Earth, and Mars form a straight line. The planet is millions of kilometers closer than usual, it lingers in the night sky, rises in the evening, sets at sunrise, and presents a fully illuminated face towards the Earth. Having a strong opposition, astronomically speaking, is a good thing.

Schiaparelli’s view of Mars was so spectacular that astronomers call 1877 the year of  “The Great Opposition”.  The favourable opposition enabled Schiaparelli to sketch and name the continents and oceans of Mars. (According to Schiaparelli, Mars has places named Utopia, Eden, Arabia, Libya, and the Australe Sea.) But most famously, he mapped Martian channels. These were broad waterways that, to him, seemed to start a few hundred kilometres from both Martian polar ice caps and appeared to carry water to the parched red prairies where farmers (as efficient as any of their 19th century earthling colleagues) made the deserts bloom.  At least this became the popular assumption shortly after Schiaparelli’s channels (canali, in Italian) were mistranslated as canals in English.

Use say channels; I say canals. Schiaparelli's 1888 Mars map.

You say channels; I say canals. Schiaparelli implied both on his 1888 Mars map.

Many of us possess lively imaginations that run more quickly than cautious reasoning. A prime example was a wealthy American, Percival Lowell. The Lowell family started as an ancient clan of Brits in America, the first of whom was also named Percival Lowell, a 1639 Newbury, Massachusetts, settler and merchant.

The 20th century astronomer, Percival Lowell, had well-connected siblings. His brother, Abbott Lowell was president of Harvard (1909-1933) and distinguished himself by limiting the number of Jewish students allowed into Harvard and by banning black students from living on-campus in dorms. Lowell’s parents did not allow his sister, Amy Lowell, to attend college – because she was a girl. Amy Lowell was brilliant and became a self-educated, obsessive, collector of books. In 1926, she was posthumous awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her feminist poetry.

Percival Lowell (1855-1916) had the money and enthusiasm to pursue anything that attracted his attention. He studied math at Harvard where his graduation speech was a discourse on the nebular theory, the idea that the solar system formed from the coalescence of nebulous matter. His talk in 1872 was unusually bold and decades ahead of his time, though he didn’t create the nebular hypothesis. (That credit goes to Immanuel Kant.)  What does an agnostic cosmologist with a  math degree do after Harvard? Percival Lowell ran a cotton mill for six years. Then it was off to Japan.

Lowell spent about ten years in the Far East. His travels led to a series of books about oriental culture, language, education, personality, and religion. Those years also forged his own philosophy that centered on the idea of human progress as a function of human imagination.  Unfortunately, his imagination would eventually take a bite out of his reputation.

Mars Hill, Lowell's Flagstaff observatory.

Mars Hill, Lowell’s Flagstaff observatory in 1910.

Astronomy caught Lowell’s attention. With his wealth and connections, he pursued his hobby in an effusive manner. He studied American geography, looking for a place with dry clear night skies. A perfect place to set up a telescope. So he went to Flagstaff, Arizona, and built an observatory on a hill.

Lowell Observatory was home to one of  the best telescopes in America when it opened in 1896. The first instrument was a 24-inch Alvin Clark telescope, assembled in Lowell’s home town of Boston. It cost $20,000. From there, the instrument was carried across America to its permanent home on Mars Hill in Arizona. The Lowell Observatory is still in operation, still overseen by a trustee who is a member of the Lowell family, and telescopes there are still used there to peer into the sky. The observatory’s greatest achievement was the discovery of Pluto, made with a 13-inch telescope in 1930.

But it was Mars that enchanted Percival Lowell. And consumed his spirit. He believed in the Martian canals and the importance of the water they channeled towards Mars’ equator. In his 1906 book, Mars and its Canals, Lowell wrote:

To Schiaparelli, the republic of science owes a new and vast domain. His genius first detected those strange new markings on the Martian disk which have proved the portal to all that has since been seen and his courage in the face of universal condemnation led to exploration of them. He made there voyage after voyage, much as Columbus did on Earth, with even less of recognition from home. As with Columbus, too, the full import of his great discovery lay hid even to him and only by discoveries since is gradually resulting in recognition of another sentient world.

Yes, another sentient world. Just like the Earth. In his 456-page book about Martian canals, Lowell builds his case for the existence of thinking, feeling, intelligent life on Mars. A section is devoted to the polar caps with their seasonal ring of blue flood water, another describes the vegetation Lowell could see seasonally changing the planet’s colour. Satisfied that he had proven to himself that plant life grew on the red planet, he admits that animal life on Mars is more difficult to spot with a telescope, even one as advanced as the instrument he had in Arizona. However, in a chapter called Evidence, Lowell writes:

“Not until the creatures had reached a certain phase in evolution would their presence become perceptible; and not then directly, but by the results such presence brought to pass. Occupancy would be first evidenced by its imprint on the land; discernible thus initially not so much by the bodily as by the mind’s eye. For not till the animal had learnt to dominate nature and fashion it to his needs and ends would his existence betray itself. By the transformation he wrought in the landscape would he be known.”

Lowell concluded that technologically advanced Martians had built the canals in an effort to postpone the certain demise of their civilization as their planet dried and died. From Earth, from his perch at 1400 West Mars Hill Road, in Flagstaff, Arizona, Percival Lowell watched the fall of a once proud and noble Martian civilization.

And this led to the fall of Lowell. With weak, faulty evidence, he reached a conclusion supported by little more than optical illusions seen on fuzzy images, encouraged by like- minded dreamers and his own powerful imagination.

Lowell died relatively young, at age 61. Within his lifetime, his Martian canal observations were never confirmed by serious astronomers, nor did it seem likely that his maps of the surface of Venus or his speculation of the existence of Planet X would ever prove true. It was widely suspected that stress, disappointment, and embarrassment contributed to Lowell’s death.

But he was not the failure that he felt he was. For one thing, Lowell mathematically predicted that a planet beyond Neptune must exist because of apparent gravitational interference with Neptune’s orbit. His Planet X speculation was vindicated 15 years after his death when Clyde Tombaugh used Lowell’s Flagstaff observatory and discovered Pluto. Just as importantly, Lowell fostered interest in astronomy and invested heavily in its popularization. He was arguably the most influential American astronomer until Carl Sagan came along decades later.

Lowell’s imagination also made a huge contribution to exploration and discovery. The idea of advanced civilizations on distant planets ignited wonder and awe in countless science fiction fans who grew into mature scientists. Some even became involved in the modern Mars explorations which have found running water on the planet’s surface, one hundred years after Lowell’s death.

NASA’s announcement of the discovery of water on Mars has once again roused the imagination of dreamers. Upon hearing the news, most of us immediately thought, “Water? Then maybe there’s life on Mars.” Sure, we accept that Martian life will not include an aging advanced civilization. But these days, the discovery of a couple of replicating strands of molecules found on another world will be every bit as thrilling.

There is just one more thing to round out this story. Remember the water channels? Here is a NASA photograph of the briny rivers flowing on Mars. The rivulets appear as a series of dark streaks. They look a lot like canals.

Seasonal ephemeral rivers (or maybe canals?) on Mars.

Seasonal ephemeral rivers (canals?) on Mars

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The Four-Legged Snake and the Bible

Serpent in Garden of Eden Before the Fall

Serpent in Garden of Eden Before the Fall – by conceptual artist Mark Dion
on display at the Museum of Biblical Art.

Martin Luther said that snakes were once four-legged cuddly creatures of the field. It’s in the Works of Luther, should you wish to read his theory. This summer’s news that a fossil was identified as a “four-legged snake” has a number of Creationists cheering about palaeontology. The Bible tells them that after the talking snake tempted Eve with some seedy pomegranate, God cut off all the snake’s legs, leaving the reptile squirming on its belly. God also rearranged the snake’s DNA and all subsequent issues of snakes were similarly hoofless.

Until this summer, fossil relics of four-legged snakes were in short supply. Well, actually, there weren’t any at all. This didn’t disturb most Creationists because they are comfortable believing the world began (on a Saturday night) just a few days before the pomegranate incident in the garden. Not much time to accumulate many four-legged snake fossils. Nevertheless, you can find websites full of glee for this new discovery. It proves God had created at least one four-legged snake before causing its appendages to detach.

The real story of the fossilized  Tetrapodophis, or four-legged snake, has legs of its own. David Martill, a British palaeobiologist, was leading a group of 3rd-year palaeontology students through a Berlin museum where Brazilian fossils were on view at a temporary display. Next to a placard labeled “Unknown” was the snake fossil. Professor Martill studied the rock for a moment: “I thought, ‘Bloody hell, it’s got back legs!'” Then he noticed the snake also had front legs. Martill is a respected expert on Brazilian Cretaceous fossils. He knew that a snake like this – with four legs – had never been seen before.

Martill's four-legged snake

Four-legged snake. The hind legs are clearly visible,
especially in the image below.  From Martill et al. (2015).

fossil snake rear legs

This discovery is incredibly significant. Biologists expected that an evolutionary link might exist between lizards and snakes but until Martill’s accidental discovery, none had been found. Further, the creature has microscopic fossil bones in its stomach (indicating it was a carnivore), a bone assemblage that suggested it was a burrower, snakey scales (not lizardy scales), and, Martill thinks, the fossil is embedded in Aptian-age Cretaceous rock, making it nearly 120 million years old – much older than any other snake fossil.

Unfortunately, the story is not so tidy. The fossil is an undocumented artifact. It was found on a museum shelf, part of a visiting display. Just in town from Brazil for a few days.

No one is suspecting any funny business. It is what it is. (You can’t make these things in the basement.) Radioactive testing, microscopic examination, chemical analysis and CT scanning tell the truth. But it would have been darn nice to know exactly where it was dug up in Brazil, and what rocks were lying beside and below its discovery spot.

Meanwhile, a few scientists are not so certain that the find is actually the modern snake’s ancestor. In particular, Dr Michael Caldwell at the University of Alberta thinks it looks more like a descendant of an even older, non-snake creature. The skull and spine don’t seem right for a snake ancestor, he says. And Caldwell should know, his research includes the evolutionary history of snakes and lizards. At the moment, he is cautious about the museum piece’s pedigree as the ancestor of all snakes, though he says it otherwise may have great importance as a long-lost lizard descendant.

How are the faithful taking all this? I’ve noticed a dozen popular religious websites which seem to feel this vindicates traditional sermons that before the snake turned bad, it was a soft, friendly, meek and mild four-legged beast of the field. You can catch the good news at Shoebat’s: For The First Time Ever A Snake With Legs Has Been Discovered, Proving The Bible To Be True That The Serpent Originally Had Legs and the always reliable Answers in Genesis, which posted Did the Serpent Originally Have Legs? (Don’t bother feeding them click-credit – their answer (in Genesis, as they see it) is Yes. It’s in the Bible.

Maybe you’re not overwhelmed by the wonderful Old Testament Bible story about fruits and snakes. Perhaps you find the New Testament more relevant.  In that case, you will be delighted to learn that a virgin birth by a Missouri snake was also in the news this summer. After living alone for seven years she somehow managed to have little baby snakekins. No one knows how. But it does prove that virgin births are scientifically possible.

Okotoks - aka Big Rock

Okotoks – aka Big Rock

If we want to prove the scientific validity of very old religions, we can’t forget the Okotoks Rock. Lying out on the flat prairie just south of my home here in Calgary is a mysterious big rock. The aboriginals called Big Rock Okotoks in their language. The rock is incredibly out of place, a boulder the size of a large 3-storey home sitting on wide-open farmland. Geologists claim that it’s an ice-age erratic. They think it was carried by a glacial train originating 500 kilometres north. They theorize that it was abandoned when the last prairie glacial ice melted. It has huge cracks caused by freeze-thaw cycles which have splintered the main boulder.

But aboriginal legends tell a far more enchanting tale. The Creator god Napi had offered his robe to the rock but Napi took it back when the weather turned cold and the Creator had a chill. The rock chased Him, trying to get the robe back. Finally (and this part may be just a myth), a bird farted on the rock, knocking it from the sky, allowing Napi to escape. The rock shattered. Perhaps the story is true – scientific evidence is there for all to see: a huge out-of-place fractured rock, lying on the prairies. Does anyone really need any more proof than that to validate their belief?

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