With a total eclipse of the Sun less than a week away, let’s consider why solar eclipses happen.
A solar eclipse can occur only at the time of the new moon. The Moon appears to us in phases, and the principle phases are new moon, first quarter, full moon, and third (or last) quarter. Those phases are dependent on the relative position of the Sun, Moon, and Earth. The entire sequence of phases takes about 29.5 days, which is a synodic (or lunar) month. The new moon is the time when the Moon and the Sun are on the same side of the Earth.
Obviously, if the Moon is on the side of Earth where the Sun is, we can’t see the Moon at night. It also means we usually can’t see it during the day because the Sun’s brightness hides it except when the Moon passes in front of the Sun. When the Moon only partially blocks the Sun, we see a partial eclipse. When the Moon is precisely aligned with the Sun, we see a total eclipse.
During a total eclipse, the Moon casts a moving shadow over a portion of the Earth. Those who are outside of that shadow can still see a partial eclipse. How much of the Sun is hidden by the Moon depends on how far the viewer is from the shadow. People all over North America will see the eclipse that is coming as a partial eclipse. It will only be total for those who are in the 70-mile-wide path of the shadow that will travel from Oregon to South Carolina.
On August 21 people across North America will have a unique opportunity to see a total solar eclipse. It is a very rare event, and especially rare to have so much of the United States involved. The experience itself is worth a considerable drive if you don’t live in a zone of totality.
The Moon is just the right size to cover the Sun. That means that the shadow of the Moon will fall on a small area of the Earth. Normally the bright photosphere of the Sun overpowers everything else. In a total eclipse of the Sun, the photosphere is covered, and you can see the outer atmosphere of the Sun called the corona. When light from the photosphere shines through a valley on the Moon just before and after totality, a blast of bright light appears to viewers on Earth. It looks like a huge diamond ring.
The sky is not the only place where strange things happen. We enjoyed a partial eclipse when I taught astronomy at Riley High School in South Bend, Indiana. We made a point of telling our 1600-member student body what was going to happen. We set up our telescopes and pin-hole cameras to project the event onto poster board. The principal allowed the whole student body to gather in front of the school.
When the eclipse started, there was the usual teenage horsing around as the Moon began to cover the Sun. All of a sudden the kids got very quiet as it became noticeably darker and you could feel the air become cooler. Dogs started howling as the eclipse progressed. Leaves in the maple tree in front of the school projected small pin-hole images on the sidewalk of the Sun with a chunk missing. We even had a few kids who became disturbed by what was happening. This was not a total solar eclipse, but just a partial eclipse which didn’t cover the entire Sun. Those who live near the path of totality will have the rare experience of seeing complete coverage of the Sun and darkness in the middle of the day.
It is amazing that our solar system is designed in such an incredible way that even high school students with a knowledge of math and astronomy can predict when the eclipse will start, reach totality, and end. The fact that the Moon is just the right size to cover the Sun is remarkable. In the past, humans believed that eclipses were the prognosticators of a coming disaster. For us, the total solar eclipse is simply a wonderful display of the precision and design built into our solar system and the fact that we can understand what God has done by studying the events that we see in the sky.
A few days ago we wrote about the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The newest SETI project is in the news because the Chinese government can’t find anyone to manage it. That is in spite of the fact that the chief scientist-manager will receive a $1.2 million-dollar salary plus housing. The job is to supervise the operation of the world’s largest “filled aperture” radio telescope.
This new telescope is designed to search for radio signals from intelligent life in the universe up to 1,000 light-years away as well as to monitor pulsars and detect interstellar molecules. Its name is Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) because it is 500 meters (1600 feet) in diameter. It was constructed in a natural basin in southwest China at the cost of $180 million dollars. Since FAST can’t be turned to receive signals from different directions, it is made up of 4450 metal panels that can be rotated independently to pinpoint different areas of space. Construction has been going on since 2011, and it’s in the testing stage now.
Sixty-five people lived in a village located in the valley where FAST was built. The Chinese government evicted them. Also, to prevent interference from electronic devices in the area, more than 9,000 residents within 5 km (3.1 miles) of the site were also relocated. They were given about $1800 each for relocating. About 500 families tried to sue over the demolition of their homes without adequate compensation. In the end, the Chinese government spent about $269 million to relocate the previous residents in addition to the cost of the telescope.
Now China is searching the world to find someone to manage the operation of FAST. So far they have had no success in spite of the large salary. There are several reasons why they haven’t filled the job. For one thing, the area is very remote and doesn’t have much to offer in the way of entertainment or activities. Also, because of the failure rate of the mirror activators, any scientist who wants to spend time in research using the telescope may end up mostly dealing with technical problems. In addition to those factors, the Chinese government has placed very high requirements on potential job applicants. With the educational and experience requirements, there may be only a handful of qualified candidates in the world.
China will eventually find someone to manage FAST. Calibration of the radio telescope is projected to take three years. Then the operation will require hundreds of astronomers and the SETI project will spend years and large sums of money searching for intelligent life in the universe. We have said many times before that whether life exists anywhere else in the universe has nothing to do with whether God exists. God could choose to create life anywhere, but so far the effort to find signs of intelligent life beyond our planet has not been promising.
One of the interesting scientific discoveries of the past decade has been that there are planets orbiting other stars (called exoplanets) and that many of these planets may have temperatures that would allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces. There has been a special interest in M dwarf exoplanets.
In theory, all stars could have a possible planet in a zone where the temperatures would be between zero and 100 degrees Celcius. However, that zone could be very small, and there are many factors required to make life possible, and many that would make life impossible. In an article in Science News dated June 24, 2017, (page 18) some of those factors were mentioned. They include stellar flares, gravitational locking, and especially the life expectancy of the star.
Stars age and the period during which their habitable zone could exist in a stable form is very short. M dwarf stars are held up as having long enough lifetimes for water to exist and biological processes to take place. Since they are the most common type of star in the Milky Way (70% of all the stars in our galaxy) scientists are studying them closely. We have reported before on one of them called TRAPPIST-1.
As more data comes in, it is becoming apparent that although M dwarf exoplanets remain as they are for very long times, they are still not stable enough to sustain life. Scientists hoping to find another “earth” orbiting another star are learning that M dwarfs are not good candidates even though they have some of the conditions necessary for life.
Mars researchers have discovered a new issue in their attempts to find life on Mars—a toxic Martian cocktail.
One reason scientists believed that life might be possible on Mars was that tests from Martian soil samples show chemicals that are a potential energy source for bacteria. However, because Mars has such a thin atmosphere, ultraviolet radiation levels are very high. A Recent sampling of the Martian soil has also shown that it contains perchlorates, which are toxic to living cells. An article in Scientific Reports on Nature.com said that the UV rays combined with perchlorates as well as iron oxide and hydrogen peroxide together give what the researchers are calling a “toxic cocktail.” The bacteria Bacillus subtilis, which is often found in spacecraft and can survive extreme conditions of space, is wiped out in 30 seconds when exposed to this cocktail.
In other words, the surface soil on Mars can kill living cells. On July 6 Popular Science reported on these findings and indicated that you would have to go six feet below ground to get away from this toxic mix. Surface expressions of life on Mars are almost certainly not going to be found. Deep underground testing is the only possibility for finding life on Mars.
The mass media often oversimplifies what it takes to make life possible on a planet. This oversimplification continues to be bombarded by the facts. Just being in the zone where water can exist as a liquid, called the “habitable zone,” doesn’t qualify a planet as a dwelling place for life. The “uninhabitable zone” keeps getting larger.
One of the ongoing mysteries about the solar system is the question of how the orbits of the planets and other objects function. If the solar system consisted of only the Sun and the Earth, the motion of the Earth could be easily calculated by a simple formula. When you add other planets and moons, all tugging and pulling on Earth in different ways at different times, no simple mathematical formula explains what is taking place. The solar system seems to be incredibly stable, but why should that be? Chaos mathematics helps us see design in the solar system.
For hundreds of years, astronomers and mathematicians have wrestled with the questions that relate to the consistency of the solar system. Why does Mars not get pulled out of its orbit and crash into Earth? Why does Earth not drift closer to the Sun when it is pulled on by the gravitation of the inner planets? How does the Moon’s gravity affect Earth’s orbit and rotation?
Modern computers have given us spectacular advances in understanding planetary motions. The simple calculation gets complicated when you add a second planet to the solar system. With three objects tugging on each other and the Earth no longer follows a precisely elliptical orbit. Earth experiences different gravitational pulls at different times depending on the distances between the objects. With each planet, moon, and even asteroid the calculations become more difficult.
Since no simple formula accurately describes the planetary motions, French astronomer Jacques Lasker and others have used an advanced technique called chaos mathematics. The term chaos in this application does not mean a disorderly system. Chaos refers to situations in which the behavior of a dynamic system depends sensitively on the initial variables that control the final outcome. In this case, each of the planetary gravitational effects is written as an equation called a differential equation. By carrying all of the equations out to include many variables and then averaging the equations, Lasker was able to describe the orbits very successfully. Other scientists have found that adding other influences such as the effects of relativity increase the accuracy and predicted stability of Earth’s orbit.
The importance of this work is that it shows why the solar system consists of many objects and not just the Earth and Sun. A resonant system of gravitational forces is needed to keep the stability and consistency of our orbit around the Sun. Chaos theory and the use of computers that can do incredibly complicated calculations have opened the door to a better understanding of our complex solar system.
Romans 1:19-22 tells us that we can know that there is a God through the things He has made. Psalms 19:1 and Isaiah 40:26 tell us to examine the heavens and see the handiwork of God. Chaos mathematics tells us that the initial state is crucial to the outcome. God established the initial state which has given us our present stable solar system.
In each issue of our printed publication, we have a feature called Scientists and God, in which we quote from a leading scientist who is also a believer in God. Today I would like to do something a little different. I want to quote the words of a leading scientist who was not a believer.
J. B. S. Haldane (1892–1964) was a British geneticist and evolutionary biologist. He was also an outspoken atheist and a Marxist. Because of the political controversy caused by his Marxist ideology, he left England in 1956 and spent the remainder of his life in India.
Haldane was a brilliant man who made contributions in the areas of genetics, evolutionary biology, and mathematics. In many ways, he was ahead of his time. He proposed the central ideas of in vitro fertilization. He was the first to suggest human cloning. In fact, he coined the use of the term “clone” for that purpose. He also helped to create the science of population genetics.
In 1929, Haldane introduced the “Primordial Soup Theory,” which said that life began on the early Earth in a chemical soup where the elements of life came together. That theory became the leading concept of abiogenesis–the idea of life coming from non-living matter by a natural process. Haldane’s theory led to the famous Miller-Urey experiment in 1952. In that experiment, Stanley Miller created a sealed container with the chemicals thought to have been part of the early atmosphere of Earth. He subjected the chemicals to an electric spark and collected some amino acids which are the building blocks of proteins. The news media went wild over “creating life in the laboratory,” but that was an example of media exaggeration–or as it would be called today “fake news.”
Incidentally, science has since shown that the Miller-Urey experiment did not emulate the conditions or chemicals of the early Earth and therefore is not a valid demonstration of the first step in abiogenesis. However, it is still shown to students in school textbooks because science has not produced anything better, and it is easy to understand. Today’s attempts at abiogenesis are far more complex, proving that it takes great intelligence and carefully controlled lab conditions to produce even the basic building blocks of life. In other words, it takes intelligence to create life, which has been our message for many years.
Haldane proposed correctly that sickle-cell disease gives immunity to malaria. He prepared gene maps for color-blindness and hemophilia. Nobel Prize winning biologist Peter Medawar called Haldane “the cleverest man I ever knew.”
Haldane wrote numerous books presenting his ideas and defending Darwinism. In 1949 he debated British ornithologist Douglas Dewar on the topic “Is Evolution a Myth?” In that debate, Haldane said that evolution would not be capable of producing “various mechanisms, such as the wheel and magnet, which would be useless till fairly perfect.” In other words, if those mechanisms could be found in living organisms it would be an indication that evolution did not create those organisms.
Since that debate, we have found magnets in anaerobic bacteria which are considered to be the most “primitive” forms of life. The sightless, single-celled magnetotactic bacteria consume iron and produce magnets which they use to guide them to anaerobic areas that are safe for them to live. The magnets they produce are better for some scientific purposes than what humans can produce in the laboratory. Turtles, birds, and other more advanced animals also use magnets for navigation. Wheels can also be found in living organisms. As Janine M. Benyus (another Darwinist) wrote in her book titled Biomimicry, “Even the wheel, which we always took to be a uniquely human creation, has been found in the tiny rotary motor that propels the flagellum of the world’s most ancient bacteria.”
Most of us have had some experience with lightning. The chances are that our experiences have been terrifying and destructive, and we may view lightning as a bad thing. You may wonder if we need lightning. The short answer is, “Yes.” Lightning is a good thing, and there are many things we are still learning about it.
Lightning helps produce the nitrates and other nitrogen compounds that are needed by all living things on Earth. The process is called “nitrogen fixation, ” and it is vital to our very existence. Water droplets in the air carry an electric charge. That charge can accumulate to dangerous levels unless there is a way to neutralize it. That’s where lightning comes in.
One of my favorite demonstrations as a physics teacher was to get a very small flow of water going from a faucet and then bring a charged rod up to the column of water. The stream of water will bend in response to the charge. That is because the polar nature of the water molecule allows it to have electrical properties. Because of water’s electrical property, lightning is generated to release nitrogen from the air and deposit it in the crust of the Earth as nitrates and other nitrogen compounds that plants need to grow. The plants then feed and protect the animals and us.
Low Earth orbit satellites and high flying airplanes have recently made us aware of other properties of lightning. We have learned that red sprites occur and they have been photographed above large thunderstorms. Other upper atmosphere lightning phenomena include blue jets and terrestrial gamma flashes. Scientists are studying the highly complex nature of lightning to understand how the system works.
The Bible makes many comments about lightning. It tells us that lightning is made with water (rain) even though people at that time totally ascribed lightning to supernatural causes. (See Jeremiah 10:13 and 51:16). Lightning is referred to as a tool of God. (See Job 28:26; 36:30; 37:3, 11, 15; 38:24, 25, 35.)
It was the world’s largest snake. Fortunately, it is extinct. The computer-generated picture shows what it might have been like if a human had ever confronted a Titanoboa (Titanoboa cerrejonensis).
One thing that many creationists and evolutionists forget is the fact that Earth’s climate in the past was much different from what it is today. To produce animals of massive size, Earth’s climate would have to be much warmer. The temperatures would have been so high that mammals could hardly survive. Cold-blooded (ectothermic) animals in tropical areas today tend to be larger than ectothermic animals found farther from the equator.
While giving lectures in Colombia, South America, we learned about the snake named Titanoboa. Fossils of more than two-dozen of these snakes were discovered in coal mines in northern Colombia. The name means “titanic boa,” and that seems fitting because it measured 48 feet (14.6 m) long and would have weighed 2500 pounds (1,135 kg). For a snake of that size to live, the climate must have averaged 90 degrees F (32 degrees C). It is difficult to comprehend how any mammal, especially humans, could survive in such temperatures.
There is a significant amount of debris left over from the formation of the solar system existing in clouds outside the solar system. That debris eventually gets attracted toward the Sun. In 1992 scientists observed Jupiter pulling the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 apart and breaking it into more than 20 pieces which eventually slammed into Jupiter’ surface in 1994. We learned that we have a Jupiter comet shield to protect our planet.
It is obvious that Jupiter is essential to the survival of life on Earth if for no other reason than the shield it gives us. Right now a spacecraft named Juno is orbiting Jupiter and sending back data and pictures that are amazing. The spacecraft has made five elliptical orbits since last July dipping to within 2100 miles of Jupiter’s atmosphere, collecting data, and taking photographs. ScienceNews.org has some of the amazing pictures.
Here are some things we have learned about Jupiter:
*Polar cyclones 900 miles wide circle the planet.
*Jupiter has a powerful magnetic field about ten times stronger than Earth’s.
*Powerful auroras work in the polar areas of the planet but are different from what we observe on Earth in both structure and function.
*There is a concentrated band of ammonia near the planet’s equator.