Ice floes


Photograph by Dan Moore.

This article in the Post reminded me of a photo – and the accompanying commentary – that Dan Moore sent us in 2015 (though not for entry into the contest). We posted Mr. Moore’s 2015 photo of a polar bear 2 weeks ago, so perhaps that is one reason that I made the association.

Ice floes
Ice floe. Mr. Moore writes, "By the way, our ship got caught in the ice and had to be freed by a Canadian ice breaker. Global warming – what?? Actually, yes – so much ice broke free further north near the polar ice cap and was blown south into the shipping channels that we could not get through." Mr. Moore's photograph was taken at least 3.5 y ago, so the situation may be worse now.

Below the fold, a picture of the icebreaker coming to the rescue.

Ken Ham has his eye on the Supreme Court

Waste disposal
Waste disposal in Noah's Ark. All photographs courtesy of Daniel Phelps.

According to a recent article in The Secular Spectrum, Ken Ham has his eye on the Supreme Court, and well he might, considering that the Court now includes at least three extremely reactionary Justices. As Dan Phelps reported in the Lexington Herald-Leader in October, the story begins, more or less, when a Kentucky community college took a number of middle- and high-school students on a field trip to Mr. Ham’s Creation “Museum.” Mark Alsip outlines the story well in The Secular Spectrum and notes that the Freedom from Religion Foundation responded by sending a memo to school districts in several states, warning that such field trips may be unconstitutional. Mr. Ham in return offered free admission to any school group that organized a visit to the “Museum” and essentially promised

... access to expert constitutional law attorneys who will provide their services to the school, pro bono, even if that means going all the way to the US Supreme Court.

According to Mr. Phelps, at least one school principal tweeted that he would “listen to” any proposal for a field trip to the “Museum.” I hope that he understands how expensive that proposal could become.

It came from outer space


Not just outer space, but outer-outer space, beyond the solar system, maybe from Vega. It is the object named Oumuamua, which famously passed by the Sun and through the solar system along an orbit inclined at a very steep angle to the ecliptic. Now a pair of Harvard astronomers has suggested that it may have been flat, or pancake-shaped, and have inferred that it might be a solar sail or other part of a spacecraft from a distant star system.

Specifically, as reported in Haaretz, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb and postdoc Shmuel Bialy drew this inference on the basis of several anomalies. First, the reflectance of the object varied greatly with time, a phenomenon that is observed if the object is rotating and irregular. The variation of the reflectance was several times more than that of any asteroid, which suggests that it might be very long and narrow, or perhaps flat and thin.

Additionally, Oumuamua appeared to undergo some acceleration beyond that provided by the force of the Sun’s gravity. Comets similarly undergo acceleration owing to the reaction forces caused by gases evaporating from their surfaces; these gases generally form the tail of the comet. The evolution of these gases also causes the rotation rate of a comet to vary, whereas Oumuamua, which did not display a tail, rotated at a constant rate, so it is probably not an icy comet. Radiation pressure from the sun could have brought about the observed acceleration only if the object was flat and thin, consistently with the variation of the reflectance.

Finally, and somewhat technically, Oumuamua is approximately stationary with respect to the average velocity of stars in the region, which strikes the astronomers as peculiar.

Professor Loeb and Dr. Bialy speculated on the basis of this evidence that the object might be artificial and indeed similar to a light sail. That is, they speculate that it could be part of an interstellar space probe or perhaps just a piece of space junk from another star system.

They published an article in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. I have read the abstract, but unfortunately not the article, for 2 reasons: First, I speculate that the cost of purchasing a single article will be outrageously high (a speculation at least as well-founded as the speculation that Oumuamua is all or part of an artificial spacecraft). Unfortunately, and additionally, the journal’s document delivery service has been temporarily suspended and is expected to resume early in 2019; consequently, I cannot right now test my hypothesis.

You may not be able to read the Haaretz article for a similar reason to my first reason above. You may, however, see 2 articles posted by The Harvard Gazette and The Harvard Crimson.

Amusingly, Prof. Loeb told The Harvard Gazette,

... there was nothing else I could think of which could account for our observations, because this object is weird. So, my approach was to follow the maxim of Sherlock Homes [sic] — ‘When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’”

I cannot think of anything else either, and I would not automatically rule this explanation out, but I confess that I looked up the quotation (which more properly should have been “eliminated the impossible”) and found that it is sometimes called the Holmesian fallacy. It is a fallacy because it assumes incorrectly that you know all the impossibilities. I will not rule out an alien spacecraft, because it does not seem impossible, but I will be unsurprised if someone develops a more naturalistic explanation.

Ursus maritimus


Photograph by Dan Moore.
Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

Polar bear
Ursus maritimus – polar bear. Mr. Moore writes, "This magnificant animal was photographed on an ice floe in the Davis Strait of Canada's Nunavut Territory. He was all by himself, which is typical in the polar region. Their primary food is the seal, which is what this guy was waiting for to emerge from the sea. The reduction in sea ice is the problem these days – as the ice melts earlier than in the past, the bears must go to the land, and hunting is limited. We did see several females with cubs on land to keep away from the males but food is really limited in their cases."

Kentucky (yes, Kentucky) erects plaque honoring early defenders of evolution


[Matt Young is the moderator of this thread. He, not Mr. Phelps, is responsible for the headline.]


Lexington, Kentucky, paleontologist Dr. Donald Chesnut, along with Dr. Joseph Jones, has been successful in getting a plaque erected in the newly renovated Miller Hall on the University of Kentucky campus. The plaque commemorates UK graduate John Scopes, Scopes’s geology instructor Arthur M. Miller, and University President Dr. Frank L. McVey. All three were strong evolution advocates associated with the University of Kentucky in the 1920s. Scopes was nationally known (but less well-known as a UK graduate). Miller was the first Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, head of the geology department, and a popular teacher, as well as UK’s first football coach.

University President McVey defended evolution from political attack, particularly when the legislature almost passed an anti-evolution bill in 1923 (the bill failed to pass by one vote). William Jennings Bryan had come to Kentucky to support the bill in 1922. The Anti-Evolution League of America was headquartered at Porter Baptist Church in Lexington at the time. See here for information about the Anti-Evolution League, and UK’s Impact on the Evolution of Evolution for details about UK’s impact on evolution.

Finally, here is a wonderful photograph of Arthur M. Miller teaching geology circa 1900 to 1905:


Miller is standing near the classroom door. Many of the male students appear to be military cadets, and there are a surprising number of women in the class considering the time period.