Geological Activity on Pluto and Charon

Pluto Close-Up - 14 July 2015Before New Horizon’s flyby of Pluto, I noted that the dwarf planet might have geological activity. But I was unprepared for the reality. The scientists studying the little bugger have not found a single impact crater. You can see this in the image on the right. According to their calculations, this means that there must have been geological activity on Pluto within the last hundred million years — a very small amount of time in the 4.5 billion year history of the solar system. But it could be that there is geological activity going on right now.

John Spencer, a New Horizons mission scientist, explained that this is an important finding. The only place where we’ve found geologically active on cold worlds have been in moons that experience tidal heating. This is where the planet’s gravitational field constantly deforms different parts of the moon, causing the interior to heat. This is what happens on Jupiter’s closest large moon, Io. And as a result, Io is the most volcanically active place in the solar system. But there is no large object near Pluto. So where is the heat coming from that at least very recently was being expelled? We don’t know, but then we didn’t even know it was possible a couple of days ago. Spencer cheekily said at a press conference, “You do not need tidal heating to power geological activity on icy worlds. That’s a really important discovery we just made this morning.”

Charon - 14 July 2015Another interesting aspect of the whole thing is that Pluto has more nitrogen in its atmosphere than it ought to, because the gas should reach escape velocity. Before this recent flyby, New Horizon’s chief scientist Alan Stern and a colleague predicted that if they saw steep water-ice mountains with a thin volatile gas veneer, it would indicate that there is some kind of geological process that is dredging up nitrogen from the interior. Well, as you can see in the image above, Pluto has very high (two mile), very steep ice mountains. And they have a “thin frosting of nitrogen and other volatiles.” They haven’t found any “geysers” or “cryovolcanoes.” But they only just started looking.

Also interesting is that Pluto’s biggest moon, Charon, shows signs of recent geological activity. It does have very clear craters. But it is nothing like our Moon. And the whole thing is amazing. Of course, the scientists have lots of theories as to why this might be. Stern mentioned the possibility of the liquid layer under both objects that are slowly solidifying and thus giving off heat. Personally, I think that sounds far fetched for Charon, but maybe works for Pluto.

What is so cool about this is that for hundreds of years, humans have been trying to figure out the cosmos in a very systematic and rigorous way. Yet each time we get another close look at some part of the cosmos, we have major rethinking to do. As Stern noted, this new information will “send a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing boards.” And that’s wonderful! That’s the way science works: you have a theory and you stick with it until reality shows that it is wrong. But it highlights the fact that we have so much to learn, so many more spacecraft to launch, so many more theories to explode!


I found this same thing just in terms of trying to explain how our very own planet’s magnetic field works. And I’m still researching that, trying to figure out what the hell is actually going on. It is possible to see Hamlet talking about science and not metaphysics, when he said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Sadly, Zeke Pipher Is Serious About Puppy Parts

Zeke PipherIf they were dead puppy parts, or parts from homosexual babies, or babies that self-identified as adults, it’d be a different story. Meaning, it would be a story. But as it is, the fact that these fetuses don’t look like puppies, and their sexual orientation cannot yet be determined, and their sexual-identity cannot yet be expressed, the most viral, re-tweeted, utterly disturbing national issue of the day went largely uncovered by all the major television and radio networks.

—Zeke Pipher
If They Were Dead Puppy Parts…

Keep Talking About the Iran Deal Mr President

Obama CopeJonathan Bernstein explained something important, Why Obama Won’t Stop Talking About Iran. The situation right now is that Congress has 60 days to pass a law killing the deal. I’ll come back to that. But the main thing is that Obama needs Congress to do what it does best: nothing. Of course, when it comes to really bad things, Congress is usually eager to act. So this bill should have little problem making it through through the House. In the Senate, the Democrats might be able to filibuster it. But in the end, Obama will probably have to veto it, and that means he can’t allow 290 votes in the House — and that would require only 43 Democratic defections.

Bernstein explained that under normal circumstances, when presidents talk about pending legislation, it just causes more polarization. But in this case, that’s exactly what he wants. All he needs is for the Democrats to remain cohesive. So the more he talks, the more that should happen. And in this case, he has nothing to lose. The Republicans hate him and everything he does. Other than some must-pass legislation like the debt ceiling and continuing resolutions, there has basically been no Republican support for anything that Obama is in favor of.

The whole thing makes me very sad. I really do think that the Republican Party has it out for America. They believe that they must destroy the America that is in order to create the “America” of their delusions. I seriously wonder if 9/11 happened today, how would the Republicans respond? Would they fall in line and decide we are one big country? Or would they instead start impeachment proceedings? This is a serious question. But it is most concerning that I’m no longer sure of the answer. As it is, conservatives are linking the Iran deal to what looks like some kind of ISIS wannabe attack in Chattanooga. I think these people would see Obama as part of the attackers, not the victims.

It reminds me the moral of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” This speaks very much to the Republican Party of the last two decades. I’ve never thought that Newt Gingrich actually believed the nonsense that he spouted. He’s just a power hungry jerk. He figured out a way to get people to vote for him. And 20 years later, not only is the Republican base in a constant state of fear and outrage, now most of the establishment Republicans are too. The biggest change in the House is not how many seats the Republicans control, but just how fanatical the people who hold those seats are.

So here we are with what looks like a good deal with Iran. Yet the Republicans are against the deal on principle. A lot of them would only be happy with a war with Iran. But few of them have the strength of their convictions. And that means in practice, they don’t want to do anything: no military engagement but also no diplomatic engagement. It’s the same old thing: just pretend that the situation doesn’t exist and hope it goes away; in the mean time, talk tough but do nothing. And this is apparently what the American electorate wants. It doesn’t want war, but it wants to feel “strong” to ease its constant fear of, well, everything.

We are lucky that in this case, all we need to get something done is nothing. But I won’t feel good until this is all done. Because I can easily see the Republicans grabbing a handful of Democrats in the Senate or a few dozen in the House. Fear, outrage, and stupidity is not something that the Republicans have a lock on. Keep talking Mr President; it may well be our best way forward.

Holder Lands Safe After Crashing Justice System

Eric HolderLast week, Matt Taibbi wrote, Eric Holder, Wall Street Double Agent, Comes in From the Cold. I will admit to not staying up on matters of corporate malfeasance. But I find it especially outraging whenever I do read about it. And I’ve long had major problems with Eric Holder. Taibbi summed him up this way, “He institutionalized a radical dualistic approach to criminal justice, essentially creating a system of indulgences wherein the world’s richest companies paid cash for their sins and escaped the sterner punishments the law dictated.” That’s what so terrible about it all: the double standard where the poor get prison and the rich get, well, nothing.

But I didn’t know that Holder came from a top corporate law firm before he became Attorney General. He made $2.5 million as a partner at Covington & Burling, the last year he was there. And for the six years he was gone, they left his old office empty, waiting for the day that he would return. And now that day has arrived. And we can only assume that the corporate criminals that Holder consistently let get away will be very happy to pay him and his law firm back now.

Taibbi figures that the amount of money that Holder saved the banking industry amounts to billions of dollars, just based upon what happened to bank share prices after each wrist slap was announced by the Justice Department. But it doubtless goes deeper than that. After all, what is the value of not going to prison for a bank CEO? It’s got to be huge for them. Not only are people like that terrified of prison, but every year they were in prison would have been tens of millions of dollars that they weren’t getting paid. So I have little doubt that the bankers are indeed very pleased with Holder, and thus Covington & Burling is too.

As Attorney General, Holder invented a concept called “collateral consequences.” According to it, the Justice Department should avoid criminal prosecutions against banks “if they believed prosecuting them might result in too much ‘collateral’ damage.” This is exactly “too big to jail.” And think about that. When a father is sent to prison, it has huge consequences beyond those of the man imprisoned. His family is devastated. The consequences span generations. Yet no judge cares about this. But when it comes to the richest, most powerful people, well, considerations must be made.

Another thing that Holder pushed was the “extrajudicial settlement.” These were agreements with banks that circumvented the judicial system. The reason for this is so that even judges aren’t able to stick their noses in the process. You see, some judges would occasionally look at the giveaways that Holder and company were offering to the banks, and balk. The banks didn’t like this because the deals were great for them. And Holder didn’t like this because it highlighted what a farce he was as Attorney General.

There are plenty of other things like Holder allowing banks to call fines for wrongdoing “remedial payments,” so they could write them off (that is, make taxpayers pay part of them). But the picture is clear. On the other hand, Holder was the perfect Attorney General for Obama: a man totally beholden to the power elite, who thinks that being beholden is the right thing to do.

Morning Music: Lambert, Hendricks & Ross

Lambert, Hendricks & RossWell, yesterday I mentioned that I was researching today’s post. Norm commented on the Morning Music featuring The Manhattan Transfer that if people liked that song they should check out Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. I thought I would second that recommendation.

The connection between this two posts is that Annie Ross had written the song “Twisted.” In fact, the trio recorded the song. You can hear their album cut on YouTube. But you know, I try to limit the morning posts to actual live performances — or something similar. So here they are in 1961 at Jazz à Juan doing the Eddie Vinson[1] song “Four” backed by Les McCann. I assume the group created the lyrics, but I don’t know.

If you want to hear some amazing scatting, check out this video on YouTube.

[1] According to Wikipedia, the song is often misidentified as a Miles Davis composition because he recorded it first. I checked my fake book, and sure enough, it says “Miles Davis.”

Anniversary Post: Great Fire of Rome

Great Fire of RomeOn this day in 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome started. At the time, many people said that Emperor Nero started it — singing and playing his lyre while the city burned. This is where the phrase “fiddled while Rome burned” comes from. Nero blamed the Christians for it. Sadly, neither of these stories is likely correct. Most likely, it was just an accident — or that same damned cow from Chicago!

It isn’t surprising that a lot of people at the time would have blamed Nero. He seems to have been well liked by the little people. But the power elite did not like him. And they were the ones in a position to have nasty things written down about him. Still, there was speculation that he burned part of the city to make way for a villa he wanted to build. In that case, he wouldn’t have intended to burn half the city. And we have to remember that Nero was, in fact, an emperor. And thus he was totally insane.

The case for some Christian group doing it is much stronger. Remember, Christianity is an apocalyptic cult. Even today, they are all excited about the end times when the rest of us will be killed (and then tortured for all eternity). So during these early days of Christianity, there were certainly people who wanted to get the promised apocalypse going. So the idea that they would torch Rome isn’t at all unreasonable.

But I think the simplest explanation is usually the best. And in this case, there was a fire. Fires happen. They are terrible. But there you go.