SpaceX Launch: Success and Improvement, Brontosaurus’ Return, & The Probability of God

APril 14 Falcon 9 launch (SpaceX)

SpaceX has succesfully launched another Dragon capsule ferrying cargo to the International Space Station (Spaceflight Now). The launch was also a test of the company’s goal of landing the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket aboard a seagoing barge to be recovered and reused. Like the first attempt, unfortunately, this second try as not entirely successful. As before, the rocket’s first stage did make it back to the barge and—in an improvement from the first attempt—the rocket stage touched down, but, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, “residual lateral motion” toppled the rocket over after landing. This is not yet a success, but it is a step on the way. An excess of caution did not get spaceflight off the ground to begin with, and it won’t improve it either.

Image, video: SpaceX


First color image of Pluto from New Horizons (NASA)s

Pluto: the New Horizons probe is approaching its target, still scheduled to make its flyby this summer. Now, en route, it relays this image, its first color photograph of the Pluto–Charon system. More from NASA.

Image: NASA


Brontosaurus is back, they say. Popular Mechanics reports:

A team of paleontologists led by Emanuel Tschopp at the New University of Lisbon in Portugal has just completed a massive computer analysis of fossils in a group of dinosaurs called Diplodocids that includes ol’ thunder lizard (or whatever it really is). And to their surprise, they say they found that Brontosaurus really is in its own group. Its fossils share distinct, incomparable bone features—enough for it to reclaim its iconic genus name.

Read here.


These attempts to pin down God’s existence mathematically or scientifically don’t do much for me. Over at First Things, Joe Carter discusses a new book by physicist Stephen Unwin applying Bayesian probability to the question of God’s existence (or, more accurately, to our judgment about God’s existence.) Aside from the fact that the judgments plugged into Unwin’s equation are “admittedly subjective”, which seems to defeat the purpose, I have trouble getting past the fact that the analysis relies on judging whether any particular piece of evidence is more likely if God does, or does not, exist.

But given a classical conception of God, and the classical arguments for Him, the very existence of any piece of evidence at all points inevitably to God. We cannot draw a chart, outline the various axes of evidence, and shade in the portion covered by God’s existence, leaving some portion left over that could possibly be explained in His absence. Classically, then, either God exists and the probability of his doing so is 1, or He doesn’t and the probability of anything existing at all is zero. Which, you may have noticed, isn’t the case.

Easter 2015

The Empty Tomb, Fra Angelico, ca. 1437

“The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented — a new dimension of reality that is revealed. What already exists is not called into question. Rather we are told that there is a further dimension, beyond what was previously known. Does that contradict science? Can there really only ever be what there has always been? Can there not be something unexpected, something unimaginable, something new?”

- Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2

Lensed Supernova, New Human Genus Fossil, & Priests’ Space Ice Robots


From Sky & Telescope:

[I]n 1964, Sjur Refsdal (Hamburg Observatory, Germany) suggested a background supernova explosion could create a temporary cross, given the right line-up with a foreground galaxy.

Now, decades after Refsdal’s predictions, astronomers have finally struck gold. Patrick Kelly (University of California, Berkeley) and colleagues report in the March 6th Science Hubble Space Telescope observations of a supernova gravitationally lensed by a foreground elliptical galaxy in a massive galaxy cluster.

Read here.


From Science:

In two papers online this week in Science, the ASU team and co-authors introduce the partial lower jaw as the oldest known member of the genus Homo. Radiometrically dated to almost 2.8 million years ago, the jaw is a window on the mysterious time when our genus emerged. With both primitive and more modern traits, it is a bridge between our genus and its ancestors and points to when and where that evolutionary transition took place. As a transitional form “it fits the bill perfectly,” says paleontologist Fred Spoor of University College London.

Read here.


[T]he Philberth brothers were hardly typical researchers: They were devoted Catholics who would soon after the expedition be ordained as priests. For them, scientific research represented not only a means for solving the problems of humankind, but also a pathway for probing religious questions. […]

When Karl Philberth arrived in central Greenland in 1968, he planned to study whether the ice sheet would remain stable when exposed to vessels of nuclear waste so radioactive they would constantly emanate heat, like high-powered incandescent light bulbs. Packed in the convoy of caterpillar vehicles were two reinforced tubes as long as coffins, holding a pair of machines that he had built with the help of US Army engineers. Those machines would allow him to probe the depths of this 8,000-foot-thick ice in ways that no scientist had ever done.

The Philberths’ plans for nuclear waste disposal never did come to pass, but the significance of their work has endured in other, unexpected ways.

Decades after the fact, the machines that Karl Philberth designed are re-emerging as a prototype for future planetary exploration and the search for life in other worlds. Space probes based on his ice-burrowing machines may one day tunnel into the frozen shell of Europa, a moon of Jupiter, to reach a vast hidden ocean that might harbor life.

Read here.


Dawn at Ceres

Artist's impression of Dan approaching Ceres (NASA)

Dawn has arrived at Ceres, the “dwarf planet” that is the largest object in our solar system’s asteroid belt. The Dawn probe arrived this morning, riding the gentle pressure of its ion engines into orbit. In so doing, Dawn achieved two firsts, says NASA, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit a “dwarf planet” and the first to enter orbit around two separate solar system objects beyond Earth. Dawn had previously orbited the asteroid Vesta, before leaving in 2012, bound for Ceres.


Of course, this “dwarf planet” distinction is a bit semantic. Ceres is large enough to pull itself into a sphere, and in fact makes up a third of the asteroid belt’s mass. Until just a few years ago, Ceres was classified as an asteroid (although the largest by far), but after its discovery in 1801 Ceres was considered a full-fledged planet. When the “dwarf planet” classification was developed to accommodate Pluto in 2006, Ceres fit the bill as well.


Ceres with unidentified bright spots (NASA)

One of the most interesting puzzles Ceres has presented is two bright spots inside of a crater, imaged as Dawn approached its target. The spots disappeared as the crater rotated to the dark side, indicating they were likely highly reflective substances. Closer images will have to be made to determine their origin, but the leading assumption is that they are areas of exposed ice or salt deposits.


Dawn entered orbit this morning, and will begin its full science mission next month. If two of the probe’s reaction wheels had not failed previously in the mission, requiring the spacecraft to use up more hydrazine fuel for maneuvering than planned, Dawn would have even been able to depart Ceres for a third target. As it is, Dawn will remain in orbit of Ceres until its science mission is over, when it will be left to stably orbit Ceres indefinitely.

Images: NASA

Teilhard, Geocentrism, & Leo XII and Vaccines

It’s been too quiet around here for a while, so let’s see if we can’t get back into the swing of things with a few articles of note.


At Crisis, Scott Ventureyra is concerned about the “rehabilitation” of Teilhard de Chardin:

Such praise for Teilhard’s attempt to amalgamate evolutionary thought with theological concepts is justified only to the extent that we see him as a pioneer within a historical context and not as someone whose work has any contemporary relevance. Indeed, there are many approaches that may or may not include evolutionary thought, the majority of which transcend what Teilhard envisioned with respect to the harmony between science, philosophy and theology. For example, the late nuclear physicist and theologian, Ian Barbour, published more recent ground-breaking studies on the relationship between science and religion that stands as a distinct alternative to Teilhard’s own limited, and ultimately outdated, approach. So aside from a relevant historical context, the science and religion interaction has advanced far beyond Teilhard’s thought.

Read here.


By way of the recent discissions of vaccination, Ulrich Lehner corrects an historical falsehood (First Things):

In the words of moral theologian Fr. Richard M.Cormack, SJ (1922–2000):

‘In 1829 Leo XII declared, “Whoever allows himself to be vaccinated ceases to be a child of God. Smallpox is a judgment of God, the vaccination is a challenge toward heaven.”’

This alleged statement was often used to ridicule the Holy See and Catholic faith. It “proved” that Catholics did not use reason but blind faith and trusted rather divine providence than their intellect. Just like papacy rejected the unification of Italy and acted “irrationally,” so it had (according to Godkin) denounced all progress.

How could a man like Leo XII, after successful inoculations in Europe, America, Africa, and Asia, really reject a treatment that saved innumerable lives?

He didn’t. The whole “announcement” was made up to discredit Leo XII. A black legend was born.

Read here.


Karl Keating discusses his new book countering geocentrism (Catholic World Report):

There are two things wrong with these notions. First, the science is wrong. That’s bad enough. Worse, for Christians, is that the new geocentrists insist that the Bible (in the case of the Fundamentalists) or the Bible and the Church (in the case of the Catholics) teach infallibly that these scientific theories are true and must be accepted by faithful Christians. They are laying on Christian shoulders burdens that the Bible and the Church don’t really place there.

Read here.


And finally, Anthony Esolen offers some reflections on science’s place in Catholic thought:

But the deep reason why the Church has been a friend to natural science is to be found in Genesis and the Gospel of John.  For God in the beginning created all things and declared them each to be good, and the whole of the world together, very good.  The first created thing was not mud or something else unformed and despicable, but light — the most immaterial thing we know, wholly beautiful in itself and revealing the beauty of all other things.  We might say that the first word of creation, “Let there be light,” was like the first word given to Moses on Mount Sinai, “I am the Lord thy God.”  It’s God, imparting a measure of his being to all things; his truth, and beauty, and goodness.

Read here.

New Article: Remembering Carrie Buck

My latest article is up at The Catholic Thing today. Read here.

Football, Nuns in Space, and “God Made Fireflies”


Writing at National Review about football, David French makes the following statement in responding to The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates:

This materialist view, that counts what happens to our bodies as the most important of life’s considerations drives much of the modern discourse about parenting. We can’t agree about morals any longer, so we move to the lowest common denominator — the protection of our physical selves. The body isn’t a temple, it’s god himself. And we live to serve it.

As a Christian, my view is completely different. My body is not me, but the temporary vessel my soul inhabits. And while I should obviously care for my body, the care and feeding of my soul — the building of my character — is by far the most important consideration.

But as others quickly noted, this is not an accurate representation of orthodox Christianity. It is a far better example of post-Enlightenment Cartesian dualism, which far too many Christians have mistakenly and uncritically absorbed. Coates’ “atheist” view is, in fact, more accurately Christian than French’s formulation.

It is neither sound Christianity nor sound philosophy to hold that the body is merely a receptable for the soul, which is the “real person”. No: the soul is the form of the body. Without the soul, of course, the body would not be what it is. It would not be living; it would not be human; it would not be yours. But the soul without the body is equally meaningless. The soul cannot be the form of nothing. The soul is one part or one aspect of the body: not a material part, to be sure, or an expendable part, but neither is it the real and only core of being to be considered apart from the body. We are not, as C. S. Lewis mistakenly said, a soul with a body. We are human persons, which cannot be absent either souls or bodies.

None of which necessarily dooms French’s argument: there is still a hierarchy. A diseased limb may be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good of the person, for example. So too are the scars and bruises of living a good life to be accepted as necessary, when ordered properly, to be preferred over the attempt to preserve the body from all accidents by the choice of never really living at all.


Nuns in space (sort of.)


Russian activity in Ukraine may have an effect on the American spaceflight program, warns veteran space writer Jim Oberg. According to a report from Russian News agency ITAR-TASS, survival training for crews aboard Russia’s Soyuz capsules may be transferred back to Russian naval base at Sevastopol in disputed Crimea.

NASA currently has no capability to launch manned crews into space, and relies on the Russian Soyuz capsule to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station. Those crews must undergo extensive training on the Russian equipment, including preparations for emergency water landings. Such water training has been performed near Moscow in recent years, but was previously performed near the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. A return to Crimea may require foreign astronauts to travel on Russian visas and under Russian oversight, complicating diplomatic matters for the United States and other spacefaring countries as they respond to Russia’s move into Crimea. At NBC News, Oberg writes, “Shifting the survival training to Russian-occupied Crimea will require foreign cosmonauts to accept travel there without Ukrainian visas, an explicit acquiescence to the new diplomatic status of the province. Refusal to attend survival training is equivalent to failing the training, which by existing training regulations is an automatic disqualification for flight certification. No Crimea trip, no space trip.”

NASA plan to return to its own program of manned spaceflight with the launch of its Orion capsule, currently under construction. The agency is also sponsoring the development of manned capsules with private companies like SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Boeing. SpaceX’s first manned launch to the space station is expected to take place in late 2015 at the earliest. At least until then, American access to the space station will hinge on the ability to fly with Russia on the Soyuz.


But fear not: NASA has, just this week, announced the selection of Boeing and SpaceX to return the United States to manned spaceflight. Read here.


I’ll admit it: I let my small children read creationist science textbooks. Proof is below:



“Any branch of knowledge, cultivated by itself, not only does not suffice for itself, but presents dangers that all men of sense have recognized. Mathematics by themselves warp the judgment, accustoming it to a rigor that no other science admits of, still less real life. Physics, chemistry, obsess you by their complexity and give no breadth to the mind. Physiology leads to materialism; astronomy to vague speculation; geology turns you into a nosing hound; literature makes you hollow; philosophy inflates you; theology hands you over to false sublimity and magisterial pride. You must pass from one spirit to the other so as to correct one by the other; you must cross your crops in order not to ruin the soil.”

A. G. Sertillanges, O.P., The Intellectual Life

Fulton Sheen’s Praise of Science


Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s cause for canonization has been suspended due to differences about removal of his body from New York, it seems. One upside of the story, though, is that while reading about Sheen’s biography, I discovered he had written a Philosophy of Science, and it’s available online here. The video above is of the Archbishop praising the “Glories of Science”, complete with his characteristic jokes throughout.


Back to Sean Carroll. He writes:

“It’s interesting that the “religious beliefs are completely independent of evidence and empirical investigation” meme has enjoyed such success in certain quarters that people express surprise to learn of the existence of theologians and believers who still think we can find evidence for the existence of God in our experience of the world. In reality, there are committed believers (“sophisticated” and otherwise) who feel strongly that we have evidence for God in the same sense that we have evidence for gluons or dark matter — because it’s the best way to make sense of the data — just as there are others who think that our knowledge of God is of a completely different kind, and therefore escapes scientific critique. It’s part of the problem that theism is not well defined.”

It is also part of the problem that “evidence” is not well-defined. “Evidence” does not mean self-evident. I consider Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy to be “evidence-based”, for instance, in that it is based on observation and reflection on the world around us, though not in the measurable, scientific sense. What Carroll forgets is that scientific observations are not self-evident. Observations are, as they say, theory-laden. They only make sense within complex chains of reasoned connections—and if there are errors in that reasoning, the observations don’t show what they are claimed to show. To make a measurement with an instrument—say, a particular value of X-ray intensity, or electrical charge, or some such thing—and then to interpret that as “evidence” for a particular value of the age of the universe or for some cosmological process requires a chain of logic, induction, and deduction. But then, philosophical reasoning works the same way. Science depends on metaphysics. Science depends on philosophy. You can’t just say it is “evidence-based” as if that means its results, unlike those of philosophy, are independent of potentially controvertible lines of reasoning.


Neanderthal art?

Is this Neanderthal artwork? It was found etched onto a table-like rock in a cave in Gibraltar (Nature). The design is identified as Neanderthal because it was found beneath sediment layers containing clear Neanderthal tools, before modern humans had migrated into the region. The archaeologists investigating the remains also determined that the designs could only have been made by repeatedly carving the same design, i.e., it is not likely to be an accidental byproduct of some other process. But it’s also not obviously a representation of something identifiable. So did Neanderthals make art?

Maybe. There’s been a few other circumstantial cases that have suggested they did as well. “Art is the signature of man,” Chesterton wrote. So was Neanderthal man?

I suspect he was, though that’s just a hunch, as there’s not evidence enough yet to conclude such firmly. For theological and philosophical purposes, what matters is that each individual man contains an immaterial, God-created intellect, and is biologically unified (through descent) with the human race. It is not required that he fall within that particular genetic and phenotypic range that is identified today as Homo sapiens.


A new blog has been started dedicated to Catholicism and science, Rational Catholic. Take a look.



The Milky Way’s place in space has been studied in more detail, and it turns out we are embedded in a supergalactic structure the researchers have now dubbed the “Laniakea supercluster”, from the Hawaiian (I am told) for “immeasurable heaven”. Read Sky & Telescope’s write-up here.


Even a prominent embryonic stem cell researcher opposes “three-parent” embryos (via Mary Meets Dolly).


I’ll have more to say later about Sean Carroll’s most recent science-and-religion post, but the first thing I’d like to object to is the implicit characterization of the argument that God is a necessary being as a fall back or as some sort of way around the lack of evidence for God. The argument that God is necessary doesn’t really start from the need to provide arguments for God; it arrives from reflection on the nature of reality, hence its origin not in Christianity but in earlier philosophy. The Christian addition is to realize that this “Necessary Being” must be God. The earliest proponents of the “necessary being” argument were non-Christians and even non-theists, in the modern understanding of that term. They developed it long before modern science was touted as a way to disprove God. I suspect that if the argument wasn’t so identified with Christian thought today, skeptics would be more willing to admit its strength.


It seems that Thomas McDonald visited my parish on vacation, and encountered our unique Thomas Aquinas.

Atheist’s Awe, Pleiades, & Realism

“Atheists feel awe too,” writes Barbara King at NPR. But of course—who said they didn’t? The problem for atheists is not that they don’t fell awe and wonder. The problem is that their theory can’t account for it. For the believer, and even for the agnostic, awe and wonder are, at least potentially, actual contact with the awesome and the wonderful. There is, for them, a real and objective reality outside of ourselves that we can glimpse. For the materialist atheist, however, these experiences and “feelings” are nothing more than purely subjective experiences, reducible to various electrochemical reactions in our heads. I don’t dispute that the atheist feels awe and wonder. I simply challenge him to explain, on his own terms, why he should care about such material illusions.


The Catholic Herald reports:

“A scientist honoured by the Vatican for his work in the field of adult stem cell research is close to producing a therapy to treat congestive heart failure – the biggest killer in the industrialised world.

Professor Silviu Itescu, the chief executive of Mesoblast, an Australia-based regenerative medicine company, is pioneering a therapy that requires a single injection of 150 million adult stem cells into the heart – and no conventional surgery.”

Read here.


Hubble view of M45 (NASA/STScI)

How far are the Pleiades?


John Farrell writes about science and philosophy, and on the question of scientific realism in particular. While of course naïve realism is clearly false, I incline more towards the moderate realist side than the anti-realist. My ultimate objection to anti-realism is that, if science doesn’t uncover something of the truth about nature, however incomplete,  then what’s the point? Rather than an attempt to perceive truth, goodness, and beauty in Creation, science becomes little more than the associations of an animal learning that it gets a reward when it presses the blue lever and a shock when it presses the red one. In the strongest forms of this view, scientists simply correlate causes and effects, and sometimes figure out ways to use those effects to our advantage, but never really “know” anything about the natural world around us at all. This seems to me to be a very deficient view of the human intellect. If science is merely useful, I’m not interested.