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Conor Lenihan, junior minister for Education and Science in the Irish government, must be reeling from the storm he found himself in yesterday. After accepting an invitation to launch a book debunking Evolutionary Theory, he was lampooned and ridiculed with a ferocity I have rarely seen on the Internet. Here are a selection of the comments on Twitter.

“Maybe the author told Conor that it was a book about Job Creationism.”

GSheehy

“Ye Minifter for ye Sciencef of ye Kingdom of Prefter John sendf salutationf&wishef of good health to ye Minifter for Alchemy, Mr Lennyhan.”

– janeruffino

“Conor Lenihan may be late for Wednesday’s book launch as he’ll be trying to rake the moon out of the pond with a hoe.”

Charlieconnelly

And these are just the nice ones.

Lenihan says that he is a friend of the author, that he was attending the book launch in a personal capacity and that doing this for constituents is something public representatives often do. (The author’s website advertised his presence as Junior Minister of Education – this was later changed).

Late last night, the author withdrew his invitation, but you would wonder how the minister is feeling today. If he is feeling wronged, that he was subjected to an attack by the media and the intelligensia, he is missing the point. The reason he got such a strong reaction is because of his cluenessness on this issue. He can no more claim “personal capacity” than if he was attending a UKIP friend’s campaign launch at the launch of the Lisbon referendum. On one hand, we have a government that supports the advancement of science, but on the other hand we have a minister tacitly supporting a book which, no matter which way you cut it, is vehemently anti-science right from page 1. The optics here are terrible. Evolution is one of the strongest theories in science, backed up by over a century of solid evidence, and fundamental to diverse studies such as biology, medicine, genetics and geology. Even someone with a rudimentary understanding of science would understand this. Giving a platform to a man whose only argument is “I am too ignorant to understand it, therefore it cannot be true” is just mind-blowing. Whether he realises it or not, it is very embarrassing for our country’s image abroad, not to mention to him personally.

Maybe, Minister, it’s time you stepped down from your position, took some time to read a few books and not just those with big coloured pictures on them.

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What a tremendous and wholly unexpected reaction to my “Five Reasons” post last Friday. To everyone who commented, “Liked” or shared my entry I would like to thank you all.

The entry had been in the works over several weeks due a renewed interest in astronomy caused in no small part by a recent visit to some huge meteorite craters in Germany. I had refrained from posting it earlier because of some problems with wording. I certainly didn’t expect it to get much of a reaction because my posting has been quite sporadic lately and comments tended to be few and far between.

How wrong I was. The entry was placed in a prominent position on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed page, and the numbers began to shoot up immediately. My initial reaction was that I was the victim of a spam attack, but after reading the comments I was delighted to discover that something entirely different was happening. My site got thousands of hits over the weekend with over 120 comments to the entry at the time of writing, many of them very positive and supportive.

Some of the commenters were exceptionally kind. Many of you share my love of the stars and planets and the sense of wonder it creates. A few of you lamented the lack of light available in urban areas – a concern I share too. Here is a small selection of comments from you that I thought I would respond to.

Ishana wrote:

Nothing is more fascinating than that which we cannot obtain.

Very true. But who knows what awaits us in the future? Arthur C. Clarke once said that when a distinguished but elderly scientist declares that something is impossible, he is probably wrong. I think we have a lot to learn yet, but yes, it seems there will always be an “unobtainable” when it comes to the vastness of the Universe.

CommentatorandPoet said some particularly nice things about my use of the English language, and I would like to thank him for this. If only I could always be so fluent, as it often takes quite a bit of work for me to come up with the right words.

Nora Weston said

“Every time I venture into virtual space to find information and photographs…I’m left in awe”

A great point Nora. Astronomy is not just about what we can see, but what these amazing instruments such as Hubble can perceive. We can experience so much just sitting at our desktops now.

Pduan quoted Carl Sagan, one of the foremost science communicators of the last century.

“every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

This piece of writing should be on the desk of every politician and religious leader in the world.

Rebelliousvanilla said

“I was laying on my back on the grass during the night and looking at the stars and thinking that if a civilization advanced enough to see details on Earth’s surface will look this way from Andromeda in 2 million years, they will see me, laying on the grass, looking towards them.”

You never know. Keep having weird thoughts, RV.

Chemical Marriage said

“Plus, IT IS HUGE! Space is a never ending hill to look over.”

Spot on and well said. I just quoted five reasons. I’m sure there are hundreds.

mndals said

“The universe is indeed filled with wonders and the more we learn about it the more wondrous it becomes.”

So true. We are only now beginning to learn about planets around nearby stars, and their strange and wonderful ways. What next? Life?

Last but not least, Tom Baker said

“I think my favorite heavenly body is my wife, but next to her is the Horsehead Nebula.”

Thanks Tom! That brought a smile to my face.

These are just a selection of the comments. I will try to visit as many of your blogs as possible over the coming days to see what I can find.

Thanks again for all your kind words.

It’s beautiful

If you go out on a dark moonless night, you will immediately know what I mean. The Milky Way, stretching its jagged course across the heavens, is quite a sight to behold. The constellations, particularly the winter constellations, have an elegance and familiarity to them. The Moon is also an appealing object, with its ever changing phases and frequent conjunctions with other planets in the sky. Through a small telescope, planetary disks, galaxies, nebulae and open clusters come into view, often startling in their majesty.

Of course, the beauty of the universe is not limited to what is immediately visible to our eyes. Deep space objects, seen through the largest of telescopes, are candidates for some of the most beautiful things ever seen by human eyes. Who could not fail to be impressed by the wonderful Hubble photos of the Crab and Eagle nebulas, or the views of the outer planets and moons from space probes such as Voyager and Cassini? To see for yourself, each day NASA publishes it’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. Few images ever fail to impress.

It’s extreme.

Nothing can be taken for granted about space. Most of it is unimaginably cold, interspersed occasionally by blisteringly hot stars with coronal temperatures of millions of degrees. Almost everything is racing around at breakneck speed: barreling through space at velocities of hundreds or thousands of kilometers a second relative to us. That’s enough to cause quite an impact if we were to get in their way. All around us catastrophic convulsions are taking place, with vast explosions and unconscionably high energies. This is a Universe of supernovas, neutron stars, magnetars, pulsars and Gamma Ray Bursts – beams of high energy radiation that would eliminate all life on our planet in an instant were our Earth unfortunate enough to stray too close. Black holes exist that can compress the mass of whole stars into volumes a few kilometers wide, creating gravitational fields that nothing, not even light itself, can escape from.

This is the stuff of childhood fantasies. Superpowers. Forcefields. Instantaneous death. The destruction of worlds. It is no wonder that space features so prominently in the minds of the young.

It ignites our curiosity.

Astronomy confronts us with some of the biggest and most challenging problems about the nature of ourselves and the fabric of reality. As a science, it has lead the way in overturning ancient notions of how nature should behave. At one time we believed ourselves to be at the centre of the Universe, with all objects, including the Sun, revolving around the Earth. Astronomers through the ages slowly revealed a different truth. Our star and our home planet are among countless billions in a very ancient Universe. Everything we do ultimately only affects an infinitesimally small piece of real-estate in the cosmos. This discovery, while deeply humbling, is enlightening. It tells us that we will never know everything. Our quest for knowledge is unlimited. We are ants in a cathedral, and what a cathedral it is.

The study of the stars and planets has pushed out the frontiers of knowledge in every direction. It’s contribution to science and mathematics cannot be underestimated. Without astronomy, the modern world as we know it would not exist. Astronomy continues to confound us and guide us right to this day. Gigantic accelerators are busy smashing sub-atomic particles into smithereens to gain greater insights into the nature of matter because objects in space do not always behave the way our current scientific models expect them to. Astronomy has revolutionised our understanding of nature and it will continue to do so.

It tells us about our past.

When you look into space, at any star you care to mention, you are looking into history. You are not seeing the star as it is now, but as it was when the photons of light left its photosphere many years ago. If you can find the Andromeda Galaxy in the sky, you are getting a picture of how it looked two million years ago, long before humans ever roamed our planet. The largest telescopes can see back billions of years ago, to galaxies in their infancy, still in the process of being formed.

History is about ourselves, how we got here, why things are how they are. Astronomy opens history even further by explaining the origins of our planet, our sun, our galaxy – even providing insights into our Universe and how it all started some 13 odd billion years ago.

Astronomy is fascinating even when applied to our own modest human story. We have had an intense relationship with the stars and planets for thousands of years. It guided the ancient cycles of sowing and harvesting. It provided the raw material for belief systems, rituals and religions. It contributed to our language. It assisted with navigation and discovery. In living memory, we have witnessed men walking on the Moon and robot probes being flung out of the solar system – events likely to be celebrated for millennia to come. Our relationship with the stars has shaped the culture of today.

It’s our future.

Astronomy is important to our future, from the short term to the distant long term. Over the coming decades, private companies will take over much of the heavy lifting formerly associated with government agencies such as NASA and ESA. This will create new jobs and new wealth. Bigger telescopes and better equipment will provide insights into reality that will stretch our technological capabilities. Over the coming centuries perhaps we will explore and colonise deep space for ourselves, using technologies yet undreamt of. In the end, billions of years from now, our sun will expand, frying everything on this planet before diminishing in size itself, its fuel spent, its job done.

Perhaps there is a large asteroid or comet out there in space with our name on it. Perhaps our planet will eventually turn against us, forcing us to find a new home. Perhaps we will find a way to cross the enormous gulfs separating us from other stars in our galaxy. All of these possibilities lead us to the conclusion that the stars will feature prominently in the future of the human race.

Astronomy is available to all, from the small child with his toy rocketship, to the octogenarian peering through her telescope at a crater on the Moon. Few endeavours are so wide in scope, so rich in detail, or so marvelous in implication. I invite you to join in.

This blog entry was written to accompany my podcast for the September 5, 2010 broadcast of the 365 Days of Astronomy. The podcast can be listened to here.

One of the high points of my stay in Germany recently was a visit I made to Nördlingen on the border between the provinces of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. It’s a beautiful place. It is enclosed by a defensive wall that dates back to the 14th Century – there are only three towns in Germany with this claim to fame. All the buildings are full of character. The town was the site of two battles during the Thirty Years War and were it not for the cars and the shops, you could easily imagine yourself in another time, another era.

But beautiful and all though the town is, this is not the reason I went there. It’s Nordlingen’s surroundings that interested me the most. The town is located in a region known as the Ries: a round, flat plain with an approximate diameter of around 23 km (15 miles).  This area is quite different to the surrounding countryside as the following scale model clearly indicates.

For many centuries, the prevailing idea about how this geological feature came to be was that it was an ancient volcanic caldera. The trouble was that much of the boulders and debris surrounding the  region were of non-volcanic origin. Many ideas were presented as to how this material got there, but it’s didn’t fully add up. The origins of the Ries remained controversial until fifty years ago.

Enter Eugene “Gene” Shoemaker. Gene was an astronomer and he had a few questions. When he looked at the Moon he saw a landscape quite different to the Earth. Everywhere on the Moon he saw craters. Big craters, small craters, enormous craters. Why then was the Earth practically devoid of them? Was it credible that the Moon could be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous impacts while its larger sister, our planetary home, missed them all? He was convinced that the evidence for impact craters must exist on Earth, but where were they all? Gene had a good idea what kind of material would be created when a large object hit the Earth. It was just a matter of finding it.

Gene found the answer in Nordlingen. During a visit to the town in 1960 he became fascinated by the stones of St Georg’s Church in the centre of the town. He immediately realised that the church walls contained coesite, a material only created as a result of a massive meteorite impact. The rock had been mined locally from the Ries. This lead to a simple, stark conclusion. The Ries had been formed as a result of a gigantic meteor impact. “It was the first big impact crater on the Earth that we could prove was an impact crater, and that just changed the whole ballgame”, said Shoemaker.
Here is what we know. 15 million years ago, two large objects, one measuring up to 1km in diameter, crashed into southern Germany. The large object hit Nordlingen. Hitting the ground at a speed of 45,000 km per hour, it punched a hole 4km deep into Earth’s crust, vaporising on impact. The surrounding rocks were compressed to a quarter of their size by the impact and they responded with an explosion measuring 18,000 megatonnes of TNT, hundreds of times larger than the greatest nuclear bomb ever detonated on this planet. An enormous shock wave killed all living things for a hundred kilometers in every direction with devastating effects felt much further afield. A mushroom cloud 30km high was generated. Much of this cloud, composed of melted rock from deep within the crust, subsequently fell back to earth, covering the crater and the region around the Ries with a material known today as Suevite. The church of St Georg in Nordlingen is built from this material.
A massive amount of bedrock was ejected ballistically, forming rocks known as Bunte Breccia. The deepest rocks landed close to the impact zone while rocks close to the surface were hurled over great distances. Some limestone blocks have been found 70km from the crater while glassy rocks known as Moldavites have been discovered 400km away in the Czech Republic.
The 1km deep hole left by the impact became a lake and life returned to the Ries. Over time the lake itself became clogged with sediment and subsequent glaciations flattened out the region into the wide plain we see today.
A particularly good place to see the crater expanse is the Daniel, the steeple of the aforementioned St. Georg’s Church. From a height of 80 metres you can see in all directions the flat, fertile countryside with the hills forming the outer crater in the far distance.
A smaller meteorite simultaneously hit the region of Steinheim am Albuch, 40km away from Nordlingen. While the resulting crater was much smaller – just 3km in diameter – a distinct central uplift remains. Steinheim is a village well worth visiting. There is an excellent little museum in the hamlet of Sontheim im Stubenthal and plenty of well marked trails with wonderful views of the crater.
Addresses
Nordlingen:
Rieskrater Museum
Hintere Gerbergasse 3
86720 Nördlingen, Deutschland
09081 273822-0
Steinheim
Meteorkratermuseum
Hochfeldweg 5
89555 Steinheim, Deutschland

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