Fun with Hydroplate Math

Over at Dispatches, Ed had a little something about the Hydroplate Creationist hypothesis invented to explain where all the water came from. In short, it asserts that there was a lot of water buried deep underground that somehow got forced up to the surface, causing the torrential flood rains, and for extra silly credit, created the comets and meteorites of the solar system. I had a request I thought would have a fun answer:

For the physics people who love to crunch numbers: Wouldn’t this catastrophe end up superheating the planet or something? I seem to recall a LOT of the flood theories would do that.

Robert B. took on that task and produced this comment:

Okay, so fun with numbers!

As best I can tell, the crust is supposed to have been one solid piece on top of the water. The weight of all that rock on top would indeed have put the water under enormous pressure, about 400 MPa (about 4000 atmospheres). Now, let’s open a one-square-meter crack in the crust of arbitrary shape, ignoring friction at the edges. The top cubic meter of water beneath that suddenly-opened crack is under a net upward force of 400 meganewtons. (Under the circumstances, the downward force of gravity on the water is negligible.)

We’ll guess that the force remained at that average for the whole distance through the crust, which in the mid-Atlantic is about 6 km, for a total work of about 2.5 terajoules on 1000 kg of water. The water is now rising at a hundred thousand meters per second. It will indeed escape Earth’s gravity. If the atmosphere didn’t get in the way, it would escape the sun’s gravity and splash Alpha Centauri. However, the atmospheric drag on an enormous supersonic jet of water that may be either a liquid or a gas or both is seriously complicated fluid dynamics, and I’m the kind of physicist who starts complaining when you put three whole electrons in the same problem, so I’m not really going to think about that much.

However. The total mass ejected into space is claimed to have been 1% of Earth’s mass, about 60 yottagrams. If you are not familiar with the more extreme metric prefixes, suffice it to say, that is quite a lot of grams. To get that much mass out of Earth’s orbit, the pressure has done a rock bottom minimum 5 x 10^31 joules of work. We get some of that energy back from the gravitational potential energy of the Earth’s crust as it drops through the space left suddenly vacant by all that ejected water, a distance averaging somewhere in the tens of kilometers. But that’s only about 10^27 joules, which gets lost in all the flagrant and shameless rounding I’m doing. The net energy loss would cool the entire planet by an average of 10000 K… wait, say what?

*checks my math*

Yyyyyup. A ten thousand degree temperature drop. That number doesn’t even make sense. Even the inner core is only about 5000 K. If we very kindly assume that the temperature change was everywhere proportional to the current temperature, so that most of the heat was lost from the center of the earth, we’re still assuming that the entire planet was three to four times hotter before the flood than afterward. Presently the surface is about 300 K, so before the flood it would have had to be 900-1200 K. Hopefully Noah’s wife didn’t wrap his lunch in aluminum foil, because it would have melted and made his sandwich soggy.

Let’s go back to the part where the entire surface of the earth falls a few tens of kilometers, though. The energy of that falling will eventually end up as heat, the same heat that got lost in the rounding a few paragraphs back. Before it was heat, though, it would have been kinetic energy – motion, in the crust and in the water suddenly flowing on top of it. The wave action would have been inconceivable, in the very literal sense that I can’t think of what the wave action would have been. (See above re: complicated fluid dynamics.)

At a wild guess, at least one percent of the energy would have ended up transferred to the ocean, in exactly the same way that earthquake energy is transferred to tsunamis. That’s ten thousand joules of kinetic energy per kilogram of water, on average, over the entire ocean. (I’m assuming the ocean had the same mass then as now – as far as I can tell, Doc Brown is arguing that it’s not that the water was all that deep, it’s that the continents and mountains as we know them were upthrust late in this same event and so the flood didn’t actually have to cover them.) If all that energy was kinetic at the same time, the water would have been moving at an average speed of about 100 m/s, in nowhere close to all the same direction. If this motion took the form of waves like we’re familiar with (which I doubt it would) they would be hundreds or thousands of meters tall. That’s a pounding that nothing bigger than plankton would have survived.

If the kinetic energy was damping out to thermal almost as fast as it was being converted from potential, then we can save the fish, but (more wild guesswork) we’re still talking about forty days of the kind of sea you get in a hurricane. I doubt any modern ship could have survived that, let alone a wooden hull without so much as an iron nail to its name. And if the crash actually took longer then the flood, as Doc Brown implies, it’s even worse – once you’re on land, that kinetic energy takes the form of a whole series of colossal earthquakes lasting weeks or months. If you’re near the ocean – and for a while there wouldn’t have been anywhere that wasn’t near the ocean – those death waves are now tsunamis.

That’s about all the math I care to do on this, though if anyone wants to see my calculations I can probably reproduce them on request. And by the way, I didn’t use anything but basic mechanics and thermodynamics, plus wikipedia – certainly nothing a mechanical engineer wouldn’t know about. Brown has no excuse.

I just love reading debunks like that. It harkens back to one I enjoyed by Carl Sagan about Velkovski’s Worlds in Collision. One TV Trope that comes to mind is Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale. I think that also applies quite well to woos. People can make up just about any story they like and have it sound plausible to our monkey intuition, but physics and math are much stricter and have no sense of literature or style. There has to be enough material to work with and enough energy to do that work. After it’s all done, all the matter and energy you started with has to be accounted for. No addition or subtraction allowed unless you feel like demonstrating a perpetual motion machine or perpetual heat sink. We can let you get away with that stuff in comics, prime time TV, and the movie theater with an affectionate gentle ribbing, but once you’re talking about the real world, you’d better have a physicist doing your audit.


You could call me a “materialist,” but I think that dilutes some of the point. I happily use materialist language because, let’s face it, the advocates of the supernatural, the spiritual, and the Platonic ideals simply don’t have the language it takes to describe the everyday world with a useful level of accuracy, precision, and detail the way materialistic science can. They have a hard enough time getting their stories straight when it comes to their alleged specialty. Still, being labeled a materialist risks catering to a dualist misconception: That people like me say the supernatural is categorically impossible.

To condense the point: My problem is not that I think the supernatural is categorically impossible. My problem is that dualist categorization doesn’t make sense to me, so I don’t understand how or why scientific methodology should adapt to their asserted categories.

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An Old Metaphor

I don’t know the original source, but it popped into my head yesterday:

“A chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs.”

It touches on another important metaphor that’s useful for understanding evolution: The selfish gene. I haven’t read the Dawkins book myself, but I think I’ve got the general idea down. Evolution is more about genes than organisms, which is part of why altruism shows up in nature. Kin selection is where animals seek to aid members of their families. Your siblings likely share many of the same genes you do, so if there’s a gene or combination of genes that causes its organism to have protective instincts toward its siblings, the gene sequence is “selfishly” protecting copies of itself, even though they’re in an entirely different organism. Altruists can form trust among each other and join into groups, which gives them abilities they wouldn’t have as individuals. They can end up becoming dependent on being in a group, which means the altruism will be a conserved trait, since losing it means losing the group they’re dependent on. Groups can tolerate some selfish behaviors, but there’s going to be a limit of some kind enforced, whether it’s through punishments for selfish individuals or social breakdown.

The fun part is that, with our large brains, humans are capable of taking altruism and running with it. We can consciously appreciate the benefits detached from genetics, ironically rebelling against the evolutionary “purpose” in being altruists. We’ve ended up as memetic specialists: A huge chunk of our survival ability is based on our cultural heritage and modification, not just our genes. We value people for their individual character, not their reproductive potential. We can appreciate people for the ideas they can pass on. We can appreciate the value of alternative perspectives, including those that come from the disadvantaged. We can afford to be generous toward so-called “inferior” people because culture is such a huge benefit to our species, and you don’t need to be disability-free to contribute to that culture.

Anti-Doggerel #1: “I Don’t Know”

The beginning of wisdom is, ‘I do not know.’ [gestures toward the “hole in space” on the viewscreen] I do not know what that is.

– Lt. Cmdr. Data, “Where Silence Has Lease

“I don’t know” is a phrase that probably should get more mileage. When used appropriately, it’s humble. It’s honest. It’s open. The universe is a big place with lots of tiny details, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there is still much that we don’t know as a species, let alone as individuals. Being aware of that ignorance inspires both caution and curiosity, virtues of science. We can devise hypotheses to explain unknown phenomena, but a scientifically minded person doesn’t jump to the conclusion that his hypothesis is true without carefully testing it. Sincerely admitting ignorance typically means being open to entertaining new ideas as well. Those ideas still have to be tested before they’re accepted as knowledge, of course.

There’s an annoying idea I’ve encountered with various pseudoscience trolls, quacks, and especially with Creationists. They treat any admission of ignorance from their opponents as a victory for their ideas. It doesn’t work that way. For an example, let’s say a particular type of cancer has no known effective treatment. Just because the scientific community doesn’t have an answer doesn’t mean that we should accept a quack’s answer, especially if that answer wasn’t informed by scientific research into its plausibility.

Science is cautious by nature. The world is a complicated place, and there’s always the possibility of discovering new nuances and exceptions to the rules we’re familiar with. We can’t have absolute certainty in what we do know because of our human limitations. The language of scientists typically reflects this, since they will mention nuances, limitations, exceptions, and uncertainty from simple probability.

Pseudoscience doesn’t like humility or measured confidence, often characterizing it was “weak” language. Statements of absolute certainty and absolute rules are much more marketing friendly and easier to fit into a slogan. Religion is quite aware of this and sets up gods and holy books as absolute authorities with circular reasoning. Quacks and pseudoscientists often follow suit and enshrine their gurus and particularly the original creator and his texts. In either case, they often implicitly or explicitly claim they have all the answers in a convenient package. This tends to lead to stagnation. The scientific community knows that it doesn’t know everything. If they did, science would stop.

I think treating “I don’t know” as a concession taps on an unhealthy obsession with completeness and perfection that overrides the healthy desire to know the truth. One problem with many religious, supernatural, and pseudoscientific ideas is that they can explain anything. If you’re sympathetic to those sorts of hypotheses, that’s not a strength. If an idea can explain anything, that’s actually a big problem: It can explain things that don’t exist just as readily as those that do. It can explain failures and success equally. It essentially means that we can’t use it to make predictions to verify its accuracy. We can’t use it to make predictions or decisions. It’s ‘heads I win, tails you lose.’ Such ideas are essentially a way to deceive yourself with the comforting illusion of understanding without the practical benefits of real understanding.

There’s another idea that any answer is better than none. This is simply not true. Actions based on an incorrect idea can be more harmful than inaction. They can waste resources better spent elsewhere. I can understand desperation in the face of death and the desire to go down fighting, but that doesn’t mean I should rhetorically support those who can exploit desperate people just because I don’t know the true answer.

Power Outage and The Greatest Show on Earth

Pole in my neighborhood fell down. Curse you, outdated infrastructure!

Anyway, after finishing off Dawkins’ Greatest Show on Earth, I suddenly remembered I had a WordPress app on my iPod and a full battery. So, here I am. You’ll probably see a post about a dream troll right after this one. Decided I needed to get that one written down, since dreams tend to be forgettable, even if they start out vivid.

The last bit of Greatest Show had a lot on how much waste, cross-purpose, and suffering there is in the world. It helped me become aware of the vast scale of it all once again. Evolution had its part in it, but not in the way fundies harp on: Evolution is driven by competition and scarcity. There’s no grand designer concerned for our wellbeing. In some ways, it’s like unregulated capitalism. You can make money by hurting others, and without a conscious effort to curb exploitation for selfish gain, it’s accepted as business as usual. There’s no god out there regulating the biosphere, telling parasites not to be too horrible, diseases to tone down their symptoms, or telling invasive species not to reproduce into giant swarms.

There’s not even a metaphorical Gaia seeking a balance that supposedly happens the moment humans stop meddling. Sometimes that balance ends in mass extinctions and wasteland, human involvement or not. Nature often is red in tooth and claw. Balance seems more a happy accident and consequence of having adaptable organisms, rather than any top-down governing force. There’s always the possibility that a change is simply too drastic for life to find a new balance we’d like. Of course, human intervention is responsible for a lot of changes like that, not just natural disasters.

Back to the point on evolution and Creationism, this world simply doesn’t look like anything I’d expect from typical human-like deities. Especially not benevolent ones. This isn’t some Disney fantasy backdrop.

It’s a Bird/Dinosaur!

Well, I got the recent news about that feathered dinosaur. Apparently Ken Ham and other Creationists have declared it to be 100% bird despite lacking a bony breast muscle anchor birds have and possessing dinosaur features like clawed fingers and teeth. This brings me back to a point I was thinking about including in Creationism is in a State of Chaos, though I rewrote it partway through to cover bigger issues, rather than list miscellaneous details. I’ve seen some Creationists claim that the more famous archeopteryx was all bird. I’ve seen others claim it was all reptile/dinosaur. It will not surprise me if this latest fossil triggers more flip-floppery from Creationists trying to shoehorn it into the categories they’re comfortable with.

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Creationism is in a State of Chaos

That’s the blunt truth about how I see it. I’m not talking about the political situation of various attempts to slip it into schools or its public relations, though it’s still applicable: The promoters try to gloss over the fact that it’s religious and try to make it look vaguely secular, meanwhile they can’t keep the fundie hordes from revealing the sectarian motives.

My major point is that Creationism as a hypothesis is in a state of chaos. If a person identifies himself as a Creationist, that doesn’t tell us what he believes or gives us insight into what he’s likely to believe, beyond the vaguest of details. Evolution and inflationary cosmology are better defined. I believe in those theories because of the evidence, and knowing that, you can reliably predict that I believe:

  • The universe is 13.7 billion years old. The Earth is 4.6 billion years old.
  • All life is related in a large nested hierarchy, like a branching tree. You won’t find any examples of large multicelluar organisms (like animals) that would fit in more than one branch. No cat-dog hybrids without deliberate genetic modification, for example. The closest you’d get naturally is a cat, with the genetic features that define it as a cat, that superficially resembles a dog or the reverse. The descendents of cats are still cats, though as deep time passes and modifications pile up, they may become very strange compared to our current idea of a cat. Even so, they’d still bear the molecular and morphological legacy of cathood.
  • Fossils are arranged with the oldest species on the bottommost layers of rock and the most recent on top. By comparing similar fossils up and down the rock layers around the world, we can infer relationships based on the shapes of their fossilized bones and compare these relationships with other lines of evidence, such as molecular biology, and find a consistent picture. This is what we find.
  • Most mutations are neutral, but some are deleterious, others are beneficial, and some are mixed because they affect linked traits in different ways. The beneficial mutations will generally have better chances of proliferating, while the negative mutations will more likely die out.
  • There is no “great chain of being” with humans at the top. We’re just one more successful species and there will be others, possibly including a future species descended from us. Evolution wasn’t “done” when we showed up.

These are a lot of “big picture” consensus beliefs. These are the kinds of things that experts will put into textbooks and popular science media. If someone claims to believe in evolution but asserts something contrary to these sorts of ideas, the experts would seek to correct the misunderstanding and/or challenge the dissenter to prove it with scientific evidence. And this is just the big picture stuff. There’s a massive wealth of details that have a strong consensus that remain consistent with the theories.

In other words, science has converged on these beliefs. This is what we would expect if a reliable testing method (science) was used by many different people from different backgrounds (scientists from around the world), to reach conclusions about objective reality. The history of science is one of increasing consistency and accuracy as more evidence comes to light. The consensus changes in a predictable, logically necessary manner.

Of course, there isn’t absolutely perfect agreement on all issues, but the arguments that do occur between scientists are about increasingly finer and more nuanced details. You can still find large areas of general agreement between scientists who are on opposite sides of one of those conflicts. In evolution, there are many different forces in play: Natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, and so on. Biologists of different specialties may have heated arguments about the relative importance of those factors in the evolution of a species or trait, but you can reasonably count on them to acknowledge all those forces exist.

And now, back to Creationism. If I stumble on some Creationists while web surfing, I have much less confidence in my ability to predict their answers to important questions about cosmology and the history of biology. There are a lot of mutually exclusive claims, and skimming the well known Talk Origins’ Index to Creationist Claims brings up a lot of them. I’ll point out that the page was last updated in 2006, and I can’t think of anything about Creationism that would necessitate further updates. Let’s go over a few examples:

Age of the Earth: Answers range from about 6,000 years to 4.6 billion. This is one of the bigger divides in Creationism: Young Earth Creationists (YEC) and Old Earth Creationists (OEC).

The age of the universe and distant objects: This is one of the classic things Young Earth Creationists have to come up with an explanation for. Their problem is that they’ve come up with multiple explanations and there’s no clear favorite. How did the light from those distant stars get here? Some say their god created light that was already en route to Earth. Others say the speed of light used to be much faster. In the ancient days, stars were holes in the sky, rather than distant fusion reactors. Of course, another popular answer is that the evidence for the distance of those objects is all a hoax perpetuated by a satanic worldwide conspiracy.

Radiometric dating: One of the core premises (which is backed by all the evidence thus far) behind radiometric dating is that isotopes have a consistent half-life and thus a predictable rate of decay that can be used to measure the age of something. Creationists sometimes try to get around this by asserting that the rate of decay used to be much faster. (Which would mean a lot more radiation in those days.) Others say the universe was just created with the isotopes and decay products in just the right proportions to give the appearance of age. And, of course, there’s the conspiracy assertion.

Fossils: Some say they’re distributed by the animals’ abilities to flee from the rising flood waters at the time of Noah, and altitude of habitat. (They’re not.) Others say they were somehow filtered by complexity by the flood waters. (They’re not.) Some say their god created the fossils to test faith and to troll scientists with the deception. Others say the devil made the fossils. Others say scientists planted the fossils.

Noah’s Ark and genetic diversity: Some claim that Noah brought aboard a few vaguely defined “baramin” animals that then evolved and speciated at super speed, somehow acquiring diversity that would be absent from such a genetic bottleneck. Some say some animals survived by living on floating islands of plant matter, lowering the demands of the Ark. Some say the dinosaurs were on the Ark. Some say the dinosaurs were left to drown. Some say there were no dinosaurs in the first place.

Noah’s flood and the source of the water: Vapor canopy. Comets. Hydroplate. Runaway Subduction.

I could go on and on if I really wanted to go over all the crazy Creationist ideas I’ve read about over my years as a skeptic. It’s even common to see a Creationist change their beliefs repeatedly over the course of a conversation as they’re criticized. This tells me that Creationists either don’t think about the implications of believing contradictory ideas and/or that they’re just trying every alleged “zinger” in their playbook to justify their dissent from the scientific consensus, as dictated by rhetorical convenience, rather than logic and evidence. There is no Creationist consensus beyond a few bare bones. Creationism is still at the mercy of the chaotic whims of fashion.