Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Polygons on Pluto

When NASA's New Horizons probe made a flyby of Pluto last summer, it sent back remarkably detailed photographs of this strange frozen dwarf planet, so distant that even one of the fastest man-made vehicles took nine years to get there.  Naturally, it's taken scientists a while to explain what the photographs contained, given our prior lack of knowledge of Pluto's composition.

One of the most curious features noticed were more-or-less straight-sided "polygons" in a region called "Sputnik Planum."  There's no doubting that the pattern is peculiar:

[image courtesy of NASA/JPL]

And of course, all it takes is "peculiar observation" added to "scientists haven't explained this yet" to send the woo-woos of the world off into a dizzying spiral of completely loony speculation.

Here are a few suggestions as to what the "polygons" might be:
  • the rubble-strewn walls of an ancient alien city
  • a secret base on Pluto designed (possibly with alien help) by NASA.  If you buy this one, then New Horizons was not a research mission, but was going to reestablish contact with people who are already there
  • evidence that Pluto is actually the fabled planet Nibiru
  • the encampments of a hostile force from another solar system
Apropos of the last one, it didn't take long for someone to remember that Pluto has been identified as the site of H. P. Lovecraft's world "Yuggoth," home to sentient fungus-beings who are able to switch personalities with human beings and keep our consciousness stored in what amount to high-tech tin cans.

So okay.  Let's start with the fact that H. P. Lovecraft's story "The Whisperer in Darkness" is labeled "fiction."  As far as the rest of the hypotheses (I hate to dignify them with that name), allow me simply to say that if I were looking for a place to build a base, Pluto would not be my first choice.  For one thing, I hate cold weather, and Pluto's average surface temperature is -229 C.  Plus, it doesn't appear to have much of an atmosphere, and I kind of like going outside without putting on a space suit.

Additionally, we just got word a couple of days ago from actual scientists (i.e. people who prefer evidence and logic than talking out of their asses) that they now have a good working explanation for the polygons.  Planetary astronomers Andrew J. Dombard and Sean O'Hara of the University of Illinois have proposed that the pattern can be explained by vigorous convection -- what we are seeing are the tops of Rayleigh--Bénard convection cells, which occur when a fluid is heated from below.  (This is what causes the pattern you observe if you carefully add cream to hot coffee without stirring.)

"Evidence suggests this could be a roiling sea of volatile nitrogen ice," Purdue planetary scientist Jay Melosh explained.  "Imagine oatmeal boiling on the stove; it doesn't produce one bubble for the entire pot as the heated oatmeal rises to the surface and the cooler oatmeal is pushed down into the depths, this happens in small sections across the pot, creating a quilted pattern on the surface similar to what we see on Pluto.  Of course, on Pluto this is not a fast process; the overturn within each unit happens at a rate of maybe two centimeters per year."

So once again, we have a cool explanation of an odd natural pattern, without any recourse to aliens, conspiracies, Nibiru, or Yuggoth.  All of which reminds me of the wonderful quote from Tim Minchin: "Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be... not magic."

1 comment:

  1. "a secret base on Pluto designed (possibly with alien help) by NASA"
    And you thought Antarctica was a hardship posting!