The Long View 2007-01-26: The Dead Hand of the Seventies Flexes but Is Mitigated by Scientific Advances

The end of low mass stars

The end of low mass stars

I have never bothered to closely follow popular science news for two reasons:

  1. It is often confused, at best

  2. Even when it is well-reported, whatever results are covered tend to be invalidated over time

Nothing here strikes me as especially dumb, but I like to wait for the dust to settle.


The Dead Hand of the Seventies Flexes but Is Mitigated by Scientific Advances

Homer Simpson himself once characterized the 1970s as "a dark time when folly and madness ruled the earth." Now Mark Steyn sees that decade's return:

“It feels like August,” wrote National Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, about eight months after 9/11. August 2001, that is: he meant America’s war on terror seemed to have lost its urgency and the “sleeping giant” appeared to be resuming his slumbers. Five years on, it’s worse than that: it feels like the Seventies.

But it does not feel like the Seventies. The characteristic of the Seventies (and the Sixties after 1965) was that all the West's establishments, political, artistic, and spiritual, abdicated their historical moral authority. At least in public, they deferred to the superior wisdom of "the kids," or simply embraced chaos. That is not the case today. The establishments know more or less what they are doing. They are far more guilty.

* * *

On a happier note, we are getting closer to a reliable projection for the ultimate fate of Earth. Lee Anne Willson of Iowa State University has been doing the math:

The life-giving, aging star we orbit is using up its fuel supply and will collapse within 7 billion years. Before that, though, there will be an agonizing period of repeated swelling, as the sun grows into a red giant. How giant?...

"Earth will end up in the sun, vaporizing and blending its material with that of the sun," said Iowa State University's Lee Anne Willson. "That part of the sun then blows away into space, so one might say Earth is cremated and the ashes are scattered into interstellar space"...

Willson and her colleague George Bowen studied other red giants, medium-sized stars like our sun that are near death, and used their findings to calculate the fate of Earth.

"If the sun loses mass before it gets too big, then Earth moves into a larger orbit and escapes," Willson told SPACE.com. "The sun would need to lose 20 percent of its mass earlier in its evolution, and this is not what we expect to happen."

I had read an estimate that the sun would in fact lose enough mass to allow Earth to rise to a sustainable orbit. Now I'll have to change my plans.

But what about the moon, you ask?

During the red giant phase the Sun will swell until its distended atmosphere reaches out to envelop the Earth and Moon, which will both begin to be affected by gas drag—the space through which they orbit will contain more molecules.

The Moon is now moving away from Earth and by then will be in an orbit that's about 40 percent larger than today. It will be the first to warp under the Sun’s influence...

If left unabated the moon would continue in its retreat until it would take bout 47 days to orbit the Earth. Both Earth and Moon would then keep the same faces permanently turned toward one another as Earth’s spin would also have slowed to one rotation every 47 days....

[T]he drag caused by the Sun's extended atmosphere will cause the Moon's orbit to decay. The Moon will swing ever closer to Earth until it reaches a point 11,470 miles (18,470 kilometers) above our planet, a point termed the Roche limit.

“Reaching the Roche limit means that the gravity holding it [the Moon] together is weaker than the tidal forces acting to pull it apart,” Willson said.

I had read that solar tidal forces would continue to slow the rotation of Earth even after the day became equal to the month, causing a tidal drag that would draw the Moon to the Roche limit irrespective of friction from the evaporation of the Sun.

I am sorry, but I find this question troubling. Can't these people keep their story straight?

* * *

Speaking of troubling thoughts, there are few more troubling than the ones mentioned recently by Wesley J. Smith at First Things in the comment Zoos: Not for Children Anymore:

Perhaps it is wrong for me to comment about a movie I have no intention of seeing: But if this review of the new semi-documentary Zoo is accurate, it apparently has a sympathetic take on “the last taboo,” meaning bestiality. (”Zoos” in this context don’t refer to animal viewing facilities but are apparently the chosen moniker of people who like to have sex with animals. It is a take off on zoophilia. Who knew?)

Surely this is not the last taboo. That would be consensual cannibalism, of which there have been a few incidents in recent years. Actually, if the courts discern an autonomy right to suicide, it would be hard to see what the objection to this form of self-expression would be. Certainly it would present fewer objections than bestiality, where the consent of the animal is always in doubt. The limiting factor, perhaps, is that any society that really did not see a problem with the practice would already be so chaotic that it would make little difference what the law said.

Getting back to the Seventies for a moment: this film will have to be very strange indeed to be stranger than Equus (1977).

* * *

A scientific cliche' may be about to bite the dust: String Theory may be falsifiable!

[R]esearchers at the University of California, San Diego, Carnegie Mellon University, and The University of Texas at Austin have now developed an important test for this controversial "theory of everything"...at the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a subatomic particle collider scheduled to be operating later this year at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, or CERN....

"The beauty of our test is the simplicity of its assumptions," explained Grinstein of UCSD. "The canonical forms of string theory include three mathematical assumptions-Lorentz invariance (the laws of physics are the same for all uniformly moving observers), analyticity (a smoothness criteria for the scattering of high-energy particles after a collision) and unitarity (all probabilities always add up to one). Our test sets bounds on these assumptions"...

He added, "If the test does not find what the theory predicts about W boson scattering, it would be evidence that one of string theory's key mathematical assumptions is violated. In other words, string theory-as articulated in its current form-would be proven impossible."

If those pesky W bosons do scatter as theory predicts, that does not prove that String Theory is true, just that it will live to face further tests. That is the best that can be said for any theory.

* * *

On the other hand, there is disturbing news from Mars:

Dried up riverbeds and other evidence imply that Mars once had enough water to fill a global ocean more than 600 metres deep...Some scientists have proposed that the Red Planet lost its water and CO2 to space as the solar wind stripped molecules from the top of the planet's atmosphere. Measurements by Russia's Phobos-2 probe to Mars in 1989 hinted that the loss was quite rapid....Now the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft has revealed that the rate of loss is much lower...Its measurements suggest the whole planet loses only about 20 grams per second of oxygen and CO2 to space, only about 1% of the rate inferred from Phobos-2 data...If this rate has held steady over Mars's history, it would have removed just a few centimetres of water, and a thousandth of the original CO2.

As the link explains, it is possible, even likely, that the rate of solar-wind erosion has not been constant over time. Still, there is an apparent anomaly in the lack of a modern Martian hydrosphere.

Or is it lacking? Once again, the Seventies extend a hand of dementia into the 21st century, and I recall the lyrics of the song A Horse with No Name (1971):

An ocean is a desert
with its life underground
and a perfect disguise
above.

And no, that was not recorded by Neil Young, but by America.

* * *

Finally, here is the strangest item in a post notable for strange items:

Bush Pushes Health Care Plan

He's doing it again. He won re-election in 2004 because he assured people he would not lose the war in Iraq; then he spent months promoting a Social Security reform that was incoherent and repulsive. Today, he just lost an election, he pleaded with the Congress and the public in the State of the Union Address to let him win the war in Iraq, and the first thing he focuses on is that nitwit health-insurance proposal.

This is beyond satire.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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