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Episode 103: Does Jupiter Support Young-Earth Creationism?

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Recap: Any legitimate field of science or scientific object is fair game for young-Earth creationists in their attempts to sew doubt about an old universe. Somehow, Jupiter is dependent on evolution and since Jupiter can't be old, evolution can't have happened, therefore Goddidit many (where many = 6) thousands of years ago. Or not.

Puzzler for Episode 103 (same as 101): How could you tell if something was done by extraterrestrials?

Q&A: There was no Q&A for this episode.

Additional Materials:


Claim: All because someone is a creationist - a young-Earth creationist (or "YEC") to be specific - does not mean they are stupid. There are numerous YECs who have advanced degrees in a scientific field of study. One of those is not Spike Psarris, who has written extensively on astronomy and produced a video series about how he thinks astronomy supports YEC. I'm going to go through some material from a free preview of that, from his website, in this episode.

Spike Psarris

I'm not entirely sure why Mr. Psarris writes so much about astronomy, and tries to argue from the science of astronomy for the YEC viewpoint. As you'll find out in this episode, he makes many elementary mistakes. His background is this, taken from the CreationWiki website, which took its information in part from Creation Ministries International's website:

"Spike Psarris has a Bachelor's of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Massachusetts, and has done graduate work in Physics. For a number of years, he was an engineer in the U.S. military space program. He went into the U.S. military space program as an atheist and committed evolutionist, and came out of it as a young-earth creationist and Christian."

Claim 1: Jupiter's Rotation Rate

The first claim is about Jupiter's rotation:

“Evolution says Jupiter can’t be spinning as fast as it is … [because] evolutionary model make certain predictions about how fast a planet should spin.” He then quotes a “recent” article to back this up, where “recent” is 1992. He then makes the argument that evolutionary models cannot supply the energy to spin up Jupiter such that its day is only 10 Earth hours long. (1 min)

First off, I am NOT going to address the complete non sequitur about the "evolution" references in each and every claim. It's like a nervous tick from YECs, the need to "name-drop" evolution into everything.

We've known how fast Jupiter has spinning on its axis, at least since 1835, so the question now is, how does it spin so quickly? The preliminary question if we start from basics would be, why does it spin in the first place? The basic one-liner is that the protoplanetary disk was orbiting the protosun in the same direction, and due to the differential rotation within the disk, a net spin was imparted onto any condensing objects. That was a dense sentence: What it means is that if you have a bunch of material all spinning around a central point, and then some of that material starts to condense, it's going to keep spinning in that same direction.

That brings us to the part where the objects spin quickly. This is the classic ice skater analogy: If you're spinning on the ice and you have your arms extended, you will spin slowly. If you bring your arms closer to your body, you will spin faster. That's because of the conservation of angular momentum. Now let’s say you put 20-lb lead weights in your hands. If you now bring your arms close to your body, you will spin even faster than before. In other words, the more mass you bring close to the center, the faster you will spin.

Jupiter has a lot of mass – the most mass of any object other than the sun in the solar system. It also has the fastest rotation rate. Saturn, the second-most massive planet, has the second-fastest rotation rate. Neptune, which has the third-largest mass, has the third-fastest rotation rate. See a pattern?

The paper that Psarris quotes from in order to support his assertion that Jupiter shouldn't spin fast is from Kerr, from 1992, in a paper entitled, "Theoreticians are putting a new spin on the planets." (Kerr, (1992), “Theoreticians are putting a new spin on the planets,” Science, 258: 5082, p. 548.) This example is a very obvious example of a fairly common YEC tactic, quote-mining where they search for a line or two in pretty much any scientific paper/book/press release and use it completely out of context.

In this case, the quote is, “The simulated bombardment leaves a growing planet spinning once a week at most, not once a day.” The main problem is that this isn’t a “naked” announcement — the two teams that this paper cites have modified current models in order to explain how the planets spin faster than once a week. In fact, the quote Mr. Psarris uses comes from the fourth paragraph of the paper.

The second paragraph states: “Neither group claims to know exactly what actually set the planets spinning so furiously. But both groups–Stony Brook’s Jack J. Lissauer and David Kary and Toronto’s Luke Dones and Scott Tremaine–are ready with alternative scenarios. Lissauer and Kary favor a modified version of the small-collisions scenario, but Tremaine and Dones lean toward a more catastrophic mechanism, in which planets acquired their spins from a few giant impacts, or even one, late in their evolution.”

I can’t go on to quote the paper verbatim because that is not the purpose of this podcast and it is not completely legal (and the paper requires a subscription to the journal in order to read it). But the upshot is that this paper simply describes, in short, two small modifications to the main planetary formation models that can better account for a preferred direction once you consider even more of the real, physical dynamics that occur in a protoplanetary disk. And that was from 22 years ago.

Regardless, Psarris has not presented any case that anyone should take seriously as to why Jupiter “can’t” spin quickly under an “evolutionary model,” so at best this is an unsupported claim where the burden of proof is solely upon him to at least present reasoning rather than a simple claim. Clearly, however, he wants you to make a God of the Gaps leap to, well, Goddidit.

Claim 2: Jupiter's Composition

The next claim has to do with Jupiter's composition, what its atmosphere is made of:

“Evolutionary models predicted that Jupiter would lack certain elements, Ar, Kr, Xe, N, and others. But it turns out that Jupiter has lots of these elements. … [An overview of the article of the results said] ‘Jupiter is the largest of all the planets, but results in Nature now reveal the embarrassing fact that we know next to nothing about how – or where – it formed.’” (2 min)

This second claim is at best misleading, at worst just an outright lie. The main composition of Jupiter is H_2 (molecular hydrogen) at 89.8% (±2.0%). The secondary element is He at 10.2% (±2.0%). Notice that those two add up to 100%. Now, there is a very little bit of other stuff, but it is what we call “trace,” meaning that there is very very little of it there.

The main trace constituents are methane (0.3±0.1%), ammonia (0.026±0.004%), hydrogen dueteride (.0028±0.001%), ethane (0.00058±0.00015%), and water (0.0004% (varies with pressure)).

Looking at a recent paper, the amount of argon in Jupiter is about 2.5x the sun’s or ~0.0009% of the total composition. Krypton is 2.7x the sun’s, or ~0.0004% the total composition. Xenon is 2.6x the sun’s, or ~0.0004% the total composition. And nitrogen is 3x that of the sun’s abundance, or ~0.0003%. It’s noted in the paper that the nitrogen amount is likely off, that the probe landed in a “hotspot” of nitrogen.

Now the question is, why are these tiny tiny numbers cause for mention? Well, they do show a relatively significant enhancement over the solar abundance, and Jupiter is supposed to be reasonably like the sun in its composition. But not totally. What I have noticed that creationists commonly fail to realize is that scientists want to make observations that disagree with their models. But rather than throwing away those models, they modify them in order to improve them, so they can explain all of the evidence. That is what has happened since the determinations of the jovian atmospheric composition: It has placed constraints on models of Jupiter’s formation. Rather than make assumptions, we now have legitimate constraints upon parameters, like where in the solar nebula Jupiter may have formed, or where the smaller pieces that combined to form Jupiter may have formed themselves.

That is what real science is: Making a model from current observations and then making predictions from that model. If future observations do not match those predictions, then the model must be altered or replaced in order to be able to account for the new observations. We can still build Jupiters in planetary formation models (as opposed to "evolution" models). We just now have more constraints upon how, where, and from what they form.

Claim 3: The Core of Jupiter

The next claim that Psarris made was about Jupiter's core, the center of the planet:

“The evolutionary model requires Jupiter to have a large core inside of it [at least 10 times the mass of Earth]. This would have been necessary for Jupiter to form from the solar nebula billions of years ago. Unfortunately for evolution, a recent space probe measured the mass of Jupiter’s core. … We now know that, at most, the core can only be 3 times the mass of Earth. … Jupiter does not match evolution’s predictions.” (2 min 30 sec)

This claim is fairly silly at this point in time. Before the Galileo probe reached Jupiter in the 1990s, estimates of the size of the core of Jupiter were around 5-15 Earth masses, though the actual value varied considerably based upon what model you used and what you assumed.

Once Galileo reached Jupiter, it was able to take various measurements and it being in orbit allowed various tracking stations on Earth to record its position — allowing us to create a model of Jupiter’s gravity field. This, along with Jupiter’s moments of inertia, are needed to really constrain models of how big Jupiter’s rocky, solid core may be — or if it even has one.

The current state of the science, however, is inconclusive. The measurements from a decade ago were not good enough to conclusively state whether or not Jupiter has a core, and how large it may be. The data generally indicate that the core can be no larger than ~12 Earth masses — a far cry from whatever source Psarris used that said the core can be a maximum of only 3 Earth masses. But, the results from Galileo provide few limits towards the size of the core, and so it is still not well-constrained. I spoke with Fran Bagenal, a research scientist where I work at the University of Colorado and she literally wrote the book on Jupiter - or at least edited it. She related to me a story about when all the authors of all the various chapters got together with her to talk about certain bits of information, none of them could agree on what the data yet showed about Jupiter's core. They fought over one of the illustrations and ended up leaving it with a big question mark about the structure and transition to the possible core.

Other than observations, a recent paper from 2008 models what Jupiter’s core will be from first principles of physics and comes up with 14-18 ±6 Earth masses, within the range of what Galileo results show. But still, big uncertainties are attached to that number. Until we get more data. From space probes, not from watching bacteria evolve in a lab. Because this is space science, not evolution.

Claim 4: Formation Timescale

The final claim that I'm going to talk about has to do with the formation of the planet itself:

The next claim is that models require 10-100 million years for a planet like Jupiter to form, but that the solar nebula would have dissipated around the sun within 5 million years. “So, according to evolution, Jupiter shouldn’t exist at all.” (3 min 15 sec)

The claim boils down to the idea that the solar nebula would disappear within 5 million years, but Jupiter takes 10-100 million to form. According to models. Obviously a problem!

But that’s what happens when you take the extreme numbers on the one hand with the opposite extreme numbers on the other, along with outdated models.

For example, we can take a look at a publication from 2004, “Formation of the giant planets.” The author clearly states that the protoplanetary disk will dissipate within 1-10 million years. So, yes, the “5 million years” number Psarris quoted is reasonably accurate and jives with the latest science from a decade ago.

However, this isn’t a “gotcha” moment for the YECs. It’s not as though they caught us astronomers with our proverbial pants down, that we didn’t realize there’s a contradiction here. We do. And yet again, this simply serves to place further constraints on how planets can form. And new models have come out of it.

The main model of forming planets is referred to as the “core instability model,” and it takes 6-8 million years to form a nice-sized gas giant. A possible problem. Then there’s the “disk instability model,” which is somewhat poorly modeled but promises to form planets somewhat faster. This is still a very active area of research, and the state-of-the-art can change over the course of a grad student’s tenure of just a few years. (Case-in-point: There was a grad student in my program who was 4 years ahead of me who, when I took the “Planetary Formation” class my third semester, sat in on the class. I asked him why, and he said that it’s changed so much in the 4 years since he took the class that he wanted to see what people were discussing now.)

An example is yet another model which proposes a diffusive redistribution of water as one of the primary mechanisms for forming Jupiter, and they can form Jupiter’s core within 100,000-1,000,000 years. Or there’s another model, which forms the gas giants by concurrently accreting both solids and gas (these are generally thought to accrete separately, but maybe that's a bad assumption). It can form Jupiter and Saturn in 1-10 million years.

Of particular interest in planet formation, to be honest, is how Uranus and Neptune form rather than Jupiter. All models require significantly longer timescales for them because they are farther from the sun. The fastest I’ve seen still requires ~2x as much time to form them as Jupiter and Saturn, but they have to form while there’s still enough of the solar nebula left.

The very first line of a 2002 paper by Thommes, Duncan, and Levison states, “The outer giant planets, Uranus and Neptune, pose a challenge to theories of planet formation.” Even though this was written over a decade ago, it still somewhat holds true today. They do pose challenges, and researchers are actively trying to figure out how they could form given these constraints. New clues could come from studying exoplanet systems, which have over the past 20 years led planetary scientists to realize that early solar systems are less stable than we thought, and planets can migrate considerable distances.

This is why astronomers welcome those challenges as opportunities to learn more about the universe around us, and how we tie together disparate parts of astronomy to try to figure out the big picture about what's going on, and you never know where the next breakthrough may come from. That is, unless we throw up our hands and turn to a young-Earth creationist model, which is ultimately what Psarris wants you to do.


From all of this, many common YEC tactics are made obvious, such as quote-mining, data-mining, half-truths, God of the Gaps, and ignoring more recent scientific advances, all within less than three minutes of video, which is part of a 13-minute free sample of a two-part DVD series. As is the case in most pseudoscience, when it's NOT supported by the data, you have to fall back on bending things to make it all fit. If it WERE supported by the data, then it would be science, not pseudoscience.

Mr. Psarris did this by pointing out apparent observational evidence that seems to conflict with the “evolutionary” picture of Jupiter. The problem with that is astronomers KNOW about these problems – if they are problems at all – and we actually use them rather than ignore them in order to refine models of how Jupiter formed and has changed through time. All because Jupiter's atmosphere has 3x more nitrogen than the sun does not mean that astronomers will suddenly throw up their hands in despair and change their views to reflect that of young-Earth creationism.

But, for $15 for each DVD, entitled, "What You Aren't Being Told About Astronomy" volumes 1 and 2, that’s what Mr. Psarris is going to try to convince you of.

Provide Your Comments:

Comments to date: 1. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:

Paul   Los Angeles

9:47pm on Wednesday, March 19th, 2014 

Not sure what the voting thing is for. Hopefully the episode because I just gave a 5.

Anyhow, I wasn't even listening to this episode or Exposing Pseudoastronomy at all just now, but I suddenly had a flash of insight as to a question you asked a long time ago. Just as Skeptics Guide's acronym is SGU, Stu asked for ideas for a quick catchy acronym for this show. I now have an answer, EPsa. Pronounced Ep-sah, it would just roll off the tongue. You can thank me later. I hope you didn't already decide on something because now changing it will be a ton of work, but whatcha gonna do? Jk... It's just a suggestion. I just don't think there's a way to include the X from exposing without it looking dumb on paper

As far as the puzzler, I don't think it's possible to know ahead of time, at least not in a UFO sighting from afar situation. Anything we could think of would be thinkable by someone else, which could then be created digitally or via some sleight of hand method trick someone... read more »

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