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I’ve been watching a really interesting series called The Universe.  It’s one of the better space documentaries I’ve seen.  This morning I watched the episode on moons, and it got me thinking.

When I was in school, there were nine planets and oh, I don’t know… maybe 25 or so moons, scattered through the solar system.  Things have changed a bit since then.  We’ve been to every planet except Pluto now, and there’s a spaceship on the way as I write this.  If memory serves, it’ll arrive in about four years.  (If you didn’t know, Pluto isn’t a planet any more.  It’s a planetoid, or a dwarf planet, or a Kuiper Belt object.  Ask Neil deGrasse Tyson.)  Today we know that there are hundreds of moons, some regular and some irregular.

When I was in school, water on earth was a big puzzle.  How in the world did it get here?  Where did it come from?  There were a few theories, but none of them sounded convincing, even to me as a school-child.  I was taught that water was very rare in the universe.  It turns out that I was taught wrong.  We’ve found water all over the place in our own solar system.  Jupiter’s moon, Europa, has a very thick coat of ice which probably has a liquid ocean underneath it.  There’s water on Mars, too.  Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto all have water in their atmospheres.

And then there’s the Kuiper Belt.  It was only discovered in 1992, but what a big discovery!  It’s similar to the asteroid belt, but there’s one important difference.  Many of the “rocks” orbiting beyond the gas giants are composed of frozen methane, ammonia, and water.  Do those chemicals sound familiar to you?  They should.  They’re the main ingredients in primordial soup.

Mars is an interesting case.  It has two moons, Phobos and Deimos.  They’re both irregular moons, which means they look like asteroids that have been snagged by the planet’s gravity.  We’ve done very precise measurements of their orbits and determined that Mars will be moon-less one day.  Phobos is going to eventually crash into Mars, and Deimos is eventually going to go wandering off on its own.  (Incidentally, earth’s moon has the same destiny.)

Jupiter is a moon magnet.  It has at least 63 moons, many of them irregular.  They orbit eccentrically at all sorts of distances and angles.  Jupiter’s immense gravity is powerful enough that moons can orbit much farther out than any other planet.

What Does It All Mean?

Ok.  I’ve been stringing you along and not getting to the point.  What is so damned interesting to me about these moons?  What can this possibly have to do with my blog’s theme?

I was thinking of Kavi and his quest for knowledge and realized that I have a perfect example from my life of allowing new learning to reshape and challenge old beliefs.  What do these moons mean?  Well, the irregular moons mean that planets do capture stray objects orbiting the sun.  The decaying orbits of so many irregular moons means that planets do grow from the process of grabbing passing asteroids and Kuiper belt objects.  The distinct difference between irregular and regular moons means that there are two ways that moons came to exist.  The existence of water all over the solar system, in the Kuiper belt, and on various moons means that water on earth isn’t an unexplainable miracle.

In short, moons and the Kuiper belt are the proof that the current model of our solar system’s formation is correct.  The planets did form by accretion.  Water did come from the outer limits of the sun’s gravity.  The chemicals necessary for the formation of amino acids are not rare at all.   It’s not speculation anymore.  Science and technology have given us first hand evidence of how our home came to exist.  (At least, if we are wrong about this, there’s going to have to be a monumental discovery which will invalidate most of our beliefs about the universe.)

That’s all well and good, but there’s a bigger lesson in the moons.  Our solar system doesn’t appear special in any particular way.  When we turn our gaze farther out, we discover that our system is an insignificantly tiny speck in a galaxy that is in turn an insignificantly tiny speck in a universe filled with billions of insignificantly tiny specks.  We’ve found that other stars have planets.  Lots of them do, in fact.  They all orbit following the same laws of physics that our planets do.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  It’s normal to start thinking philosophically about “what it all means” when we think about the enormity of the universe and the apparent insignificance of humans in the whole picture.  But let’s ask the question directly.  What does all of this mean for humans?

My answer to that question is easy.  I don’t know.  I can’t think of one thing in this gigantic picture that points to humans in any way whatsoever.  So I can’t very well answer the question, right?  And that’s ok.  Some questions are fine left unanswered.  It doesn’t mean we can’t keep looking for answers.  It just means we’re comfortable enough admitting that we don’t know right now.

This observation is problematic for some beliefs.  The main reason for this is what the solar system does not point to.  It does not point to a special act of loving creation directed towards earth and its inhabitants.  Let me be clear — it does not disprove the existence of an act of loving creation.  But it offers no support for the idea.

If we think about things historically, we get a clearer picture.  The idea of a magic act of creation is fairly old.  Almost every culture has a creation myth.  But we need to notice one simple observation about creation myths:  Not one culture knew about planets and moons when they invented their creation myth. Not one of them had any knowledge of the Kuiper belt, or accretion discs, or the existence of billions of galaxies.

Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?



10 thoughts on “Moons

  1. Allow me to anticipate the inevitable reply by paraphrase:



    Or something to that effect.

    Posted by Clint | September 23, 2010, 3:43 pm
  2. LOL. It’s a solid point. I’m sure someone is already furiously writing. I suppose I can write the reply now since you’ve already broached the subject.

    Claims that The Bible, or Koran, or other holy books are making reference to modern scientific knowledge are ultimately impossible to disprove, since we can’t very well bring the authors back to life and quiz them on precisely what they were thinking. Or, if we want to attribute authorship to a deity, we’ve been unsuccessful so far in getting it to come to dinner and explain itself.

    That being said, we can reach some conclusions about both the authors and the alleged deities behind the curtain:
    * If ancient civilizations knew about the Kuiper Belt and accretion, they did a damn good job of hiding it. All the archaeological evidence we have demonstrates very clearly that early conceptions of “the universe” considered earth to be the center and the “heavens” to be some sort of thing attached to the earth. We have to wonder — If they knew, why didn’t they tell anyone? Why didn’t they use their knowledge?
    * Assuming that a deity was dictating cryptic references to science while keeping his transcribers in the dark as to their true meaning, we must ask: Why not just say it? It would be equally cryptic to a Bronze Age nomad to say each of the following sentences:
    1. The pillars of the earth stand firm through the countenance of angels
    2. Gravity is the curvature of space/time. Planets were formed by accretion.

    Now, believe you me… if someone shows me a genuine relic from 2000 BCE with something about the curvature of space/time, I’m going to take the claims of that culture’s deity pretty seriously. But if you’re going to try to sell me on the idea that a deity who knows everything there is to know about physics and astronomy couldn’t make itself clear to modern scientists while remaining sufficiently vague so as to keep his Bronze Age followers ignorant…

    Speaking of which, why disguise oneself in scientific advancement? That is, why not throw a bone to your chosen people and give them something they couldn’t possibly know? Why make it look like all scientific advancement came from science?

    So no, I don’t see any evidence that a vague reference to something that might be interpreted as a hidden insinuation of future science should be taken seriously.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 23, 2010, 4:00 pm
  3. “My answer to that question is easy. “I don’t know” – Hamby

    Well Hamby,
    It’s OK to say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. But a person who doesn’t know has no business going on the attack!

    Now If your Atheism is to compete with other worldviews as an explanatory filter It inveritably must hold up to scientific scrutiny! It then has no choice but to positively answer certain kinds of questions. Questions like the one you present as ” No longer speculation” What caused abiogenesis”

    Yes, Hamby, after reading this blog entry, it becomes readilty apparent that many Atheists such as yourself do blindly believe a whole lot of rethorical answers to these questions, with no hard evidence. We both know that you have already consciously without admitance, come to realize that these explanations are little more than layers of assumptions embraced with the comfort of knowing that lots of other smart people believe the same things.

    If not, then please provide the specific scientific journals that make the claim as you do that ” there is no longer Speculation” regarding abiogenesis as you insist or imply!

    You should know me well enough now Hamby that I for one will not permit you to completely dodge your responsibilities by simply allowing you to prove your assumptions with non-scientific, non-empirical, hypothetical explanations, I think you deserve more evidence than that, for whatever you choose to believe.

    Dont you Hamby?

    “I dont Know?”

    So in all fairness Hamby, why dont you hold Atheism to the same set of standards as you apply to everyone else. Why should you be skeptical about religion and not be skeptical about, say, abiogenesis? Why become loathe to admit that many of the things you believe which in principle SHOULD be provable but which have never actually been proven at all?

    “I dont Know?”

    Why should anyone as intelligent as you Hamby believe a myth that says life spontaneously arose from chemicals when there is no such empirical evidence? Don’t you deserve better than that Hamby?

    “I dont Know?”

    Is “I am an atheist scientist. Just trust me!” really all you need to trumpet your Atheism?

    “I dont Know?”

    Hmm Hamby,
    I would accept all of your ” I dont know” answers if it wasent followed up with an attack on the other religions..


    Posted by PG | September 28, 2010, 12:23 am
  4. Since his “I don’t know” answers never lead to statements about how other people should lead their lives, or what rights we should keep from what people, I’m willing to tolerate them, while not willing to tolerate the same from the religious.

    When you can use your “I don’t know” to beat other people into doing as you want, then we deserve a better answer. As long as you let your “I don’t know” end there, we could care less.

    Not having fully proven (something impossible anyway) answers to the questions “answered” by religion isn’t a drawback (despite your ignorant attempts to make them so), they are science at work. That’s the difference between religion and science, religion replaces “I don’t know” with “God”, while science attempts to change it to “I think”.

    p.s. Your constant attempts to reframe atheism as a religion make you seem unintelligent. This isn’t an insult, it’s just the truth. This is from someone who is absolutely not an atheist (I don’t care to ask if God exist, since no one can prove any answer they may give).

    Posted by Alex Hardman | September 28, 2010, 8:07 am
  5. Alex says:
    “p.s. Your constant attempts to reframe atheism as a religion make you seem unintelligent. This isn’t an insult, it’s just the truth. This is from someone who is absolutely not an atheist (I don’t care to ask if God exist, since no one can prove any answer they may give).”


    Review this website and then tell me why it makes you seem unintelligent…


    Posted by PG | September 28, 2010, 11:46 am
  6. That website doesn’t make atheism a religion, it makes the people there hilarious.

    From wikipedia:
    Religion is the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or a set of beliefs concerning the origin and purpose of the universe.

    Atheism, in a broad sense, is the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.[1] In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.

    Since these two definitions are generally accepted, and contradictory, atheism cannot be a religion. It is the rejection of religion. QED

    Perhaps you are attempting to confuse evolution or the big bang theory with atheism, but that would be dishonest of you, and we know that can’t be the case…

    Posted by Alex Hardman | September 28, 2010, 8:20 pm
  7. I’ve already addressed this. Evolution and atheism are not connected. Neither is necessary, sufficient, nor contingent upon the other. Anyone who says they are is very bad at basic — very, very basic — logic.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 28, 2010, 10:07 pm
  8. Alex,

    My Wikipedia states the following::::::::::::

    “Atheism, in its broadest definition, is the absence of theism, viz., of belief in a god or gods. The degree to which one can be considered an atheist while simultaneously being an adherent of a sect of a traditionally monotheistic, polytheistic, or non-theistic religion is the subject of ongoing theological debate[citation needed].

    ******Some people with what would be considered religious or spiritual beliefs call themselves atheists; others argue that this is a contradiction in terms.*******

    Alex, Did you conviently leave the pertinant information out because that would be intillectually dishonest of you!

    Regardless, your opinions are irrelevent to the facts!

    The first church of Atheism is recognized by the U.S government as a legally operating religious organization with 3,040 LEGALLY ORDAINED MINISTERS with 10s of thousands more attending services each week. Im confident that they dont agree with your opinions of them!

    Therefore, I must side with logic and reason and the empirical evidence of a Government recognized religion and an actual Atheist church, and the religious views of the congregation of this particular denomination of Atheism.

    Can I get an amen…


    Posted by PG | September 28, 2010, 11:28 pm
  9. So, your argument is that because some people believe in Atheism as a religion, then it must be so? I could take this all over the place, but lets be honest and admit that would be a waste of time.

    I didn’t leave off anything, I merely pasted the relevant portions. Just because some people do not understand or use the term atheism correctly does not make it any less wrong when they do so, as evidenced by your continued argument.

    The Church of Atheism does not meet the definition of religion from wikipedia. It meets the legal definition because the gov’t cannot exclude people from calling anything they want a religion (Scientology for instance).

    I understand what you’re saying Hamby, I’m just practicing for those less intelligent I might have need (or desire) to debate on these types of matters.

    Thanks for the practice PG.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | September 29, 2010, 1:30 am
  10. That was meant as a compliment PG, by the way (as you are not one of the less intelligent, or you would not be worth practicing on).

    Posted by Alex Hardman | September 29, 2010, 1:31 am

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