Alien planets and cephalopodoids

The latest issue of Science has a fascinating article on Exotic Earths—it contains the results of simulations of planet formation in systems like those that have been observed with giant planets close to their stars. The nifty observation is that such simulations spawn lots of planets that are in a habitable zone and that are very water-rich.

(click for larger image)

Final configuration of our four simulations, with the solar system shown for scale. Each simulation is plotted on a horizontal line, and the size of each body represents its relative physical size (except for the giant planets, shown in black). The eccentricity of each body is shown beneath it, represented by its radial excursion over an orbit. The color of each body corresponds to its water content, and the inner dark region to the relative size of its iron core. Orbital values are 1-million-year averages; solar system values are 3-million-year averages. Note that some giant planets underwent additional inward migration after the end of the forced migration, caused by an articial drag force. This caused many hot Earths to be numerically ejected, but had little effect outside the inner giant planet.

Dynamics of Cats has a better summary than I could give, and it leads in with this lovely illustration of an hypothetical alien organism on one of these hot water worlds.


The only thing cooler than a cephalopod has to be a tentacled alien cephalopodoid. There’s a high-res version of that image at Dynamics of Cats—and I’ve got a new desktop picture.

Getting ready for Halloween (already?)

Since I saw this meme at Dr Crazy’s place, I thought I’d toss it up here for the commenters to make suggestions.

” If I were designing a Pharyngula Halloween costume, it would consist of…”

It’s actually relevant. I just put out a call at my university for volunteers for Cafe Scientifique, which we will be holding on the last Tuesday of each month…and the October calendar puts that on Halloween. I’m going to be trying to organize a panel session on “Mad Scientists and Monsters” as the topic that day, and ask the panelists to show up in costume. So let’s see what suggestions you might come up with!

Carnivalia, and an open thread

Perusable blogaliciousness for your Friday morning:

The Tangled Bank

The Hairy Museum of Natural History has put out a call for submissions to the Tangled Bank, with an early deadline. If you want a shot at maybe seeing your link with a custom illustration, send it in by Sunday evening. He’ll try to accept stuff up through Tuesday, but make life easy on the guy, OK?

Look who’s coming to town

Minnesotans are going to be a little less above average in October, when a gaggle of evil morons hit the state: James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Gary Bauer are having a rally in St Paul to “motivate pro-family conservative Christians.” It may also help motivate us pro-family liberal atheists.

Andy wonders which Minnesota politicians will show up for these hucksters for fascism: would Michele Bachmann be a safe bet? Mike Hatch better not; I’ve seen a few of his ads, and his gun-totin’ bird-killin’ pseudo-populism is almostas annoying as Mark Kennedy’s badly acted family dramas that play up his ‘credentials’ as a CPA—if Hatch sucks up to Dobson, he’ll lose my vote. I will rip his sign out of my yard.

Friday Cephalopod: Septopus!

Go ahead, count ’em. Since there were some comments about octopuses with an odd number of arms, here’s an example. Males of this species have a highly modified arm (the one they use for sex) that is tucked away in a pouch, so they have the appearance of a seven-armed octopus.

Haliphron antlanticus, the seven-arm octopus

Figure from Cephalopods: A World Guide (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by Mark Norman.

Intelligent Design strikes out at the Vatican

There’s no official declaration of the Pope’s recent consult on evolution, but news is leaking out…and the good news is that Intelligent Design is not going to have a place at the table, and didn’t figure in the discussions at all. Catholic News has one source:

A participant at the Pope’s closed door symposium on creation and evolution, Jesuit Fr Joseph Fessio, has denied speculation about a change in the Church’s teaching on evolution, saying nothing presented at the meeting broke new ground and that American debates on Intelligent Design did not feature in discussions.

Declan Butler, in this week’s Nature, also reports on the impression of the only biologist at the meeting (isn’t that peculiar in itself, that they’d have a conference on the status of evolution in the church, and only have one informed attendee?):

Schönborn was one of four invited speakers at the meeting, which also included Robert Spaemann, a conservative German philosopher, and Paul Erbrich, a Jesuit priest who questions the random nature of evolution. The fourth speaker, the only working scientist present, was Peter Schuster, a molecular biologist and president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

In a break with tradition, the proceedings of the meeting will be published later this year, says Schuster, with a preface written by the Pope. The message will be to promote dialogue between faith and reason, Schuster says. Given the power struggles within the Church, however, the precise outcome of the overall debate is impossible to predict, he says: “We have to wait.”

But discussions at the meeting suggest that the Church will probably affirm a form of theistic evolution, which posits the general principle that biological evolution is valid, although set in motion by God. At the same time, it seems likely to reject the fundamental intelligent-design principle that God was a watchmaker, intervening in the details. “Intelligent design as an intervention of God during evolution will not be an outcome,” predicts Schuster. “I got the impression that there was general agreement that evolutionary biology is a undeniable science and not a hypothesis.”

A few thoughts on the decision:

  • It is good news that ID is not going to get any official endorsement from the Catholic church. The Discovery Institute has taken a beating lately, and this is not the time to slacken the pressure or give them any succor; we need to throttle that toxic weed until it is dead.
  • Backing a form of theistic evolution, while still insupportable nonsense, is the best we could hope for from the Pope, I suppose. My dream that Ratzi would go into a conclave and emerge to announce that it was all a mistake, the papacy was dissolved, and good Catholics should all embrace an enlightened materialistic naturalism hasn’t come true just yet.
  • While we can be pleased that the Vatican hasn’t found common cause with another institutional enemy of good science, ultimately their decision is irrelevant. “Eppur si muove,” and all that—the world keeps spinning, the alleles keep changing, biological history has happened, and all the dogma of old men in funny hats won’t change that.

Butler, D (2006) When science and theology meet. Nature 443:10-11.

Wait—I’m in the same building with a bunch of chemists

I’m having second thoughts about the virtues of proximity to my colleagues of that other discipline after watching this video of people plunking alkali metals into water. Cesium looks…interesting.

Fortunately, my chemistry pals aren’t British, or I might have trouble understanding their comments. What the heck does “the dog’s nuts of the periodic table” mean, anyway?

Good for the Godless Party

The Secular Coalition for America has put together a Secular Scorecard for our representatives in both houses of congress, evaluating them for how they voted on issues of importance (separation of church and state, science, funding religious organizations, that sort of thing) in the past year. It’s interesting in a sad way in how it’s split along party lines: the lesson is that the godless should never, ever vote Republican, but that Democrats are only mostly safe. There are a few screwballs like Salazar and Nelson of Nebraska that throw off the general rule that you can divide them neatly by party, but generally you see disparities like this, for Minnesota.

MINNESOTA Party RC130 RC131 RC132 RC133 RC1 RC2 RC158 RC159 RC163 RC206 Score

Coleman, N

R 0

Dayton, M

D + + + + + + + + + + 100

Even if Democrats aren’t godless themselves, they’re mostly on our side on the issues that count.

Sadly, I suspect that rather than being proud of their voting record, this is one endorsement they’ll struggle to hide.