Brave New Worlds

Astronomers say they’ve captured the most detailed image yet of planet formation around a young, sun-like star — and it’s pretty awesome.

Scientists believe the image, captured by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile, will expand understanding of how planets form and how our own solar system came to be.

The image features the star HL Tau, which is approximately 450 light-years from Earth. The star is surrounded by a protoplanetary disk made of gas and dust. The gaps in the disk indicate that emerging planets orbit around the star, clearing dust from their path as they go.

Update: Jack the Ripper Finally ID’d?

Turns out, maybe not.

Last month the author of a new book entitled Naming Jack The Ripper said he had irrefutable evidence that the notorious serial killer who terrorized London in the late 1880s was a Polish émigré named Aaron Kosminski.

The author, Russell Edwards, went so far as to say that “only non-believers that want to perpetuate the myth will doubt his contention.”

Doubt is exactly what’s surrounding Edwards’ claim, which has been called into question by a scathing follow-up report published this week by The Independent.

Edwards had enlisted the help of forensics expert Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a senior lecturer in molecular biology at Liverpool John Moores University to analyze a bloodstained shawl that purportedly had been retrieved from the murder scene of Catherine Eddowes, one of Jack the Ripper’s victims.

Louhelainen reportedly extracted fragments of mitochondrial DNA from the fabric, later matching these with DNA taken from living descendants of both Eddowes and Kosminski. But The Independent says Louhelainen may have erred in the way he matched the DNA samples.

Hang on to your butts, this is pretty dense.

Louhelainen said the DNA from the shawl and from one of Eddowes’ descendants contained 314.1C, a mutation that is found in only 1 in 290,000 people in the general population. But several scientists who contributed to the Independent story claim that Louhelainen was wrong. The mutation wasn’t 314.1C, they said, but 315.1C, a mutation shared by more than 99 percent of people of European descent.

Obviously, if the match frequency is over 99 percent , and not 1/290,000, then there is little significance in the match between the shawl and Eddowes’ descendant. The same match would have been seen with almost anyone who had handled the shawl over the years.

And so the Jack the Ripper saga continues.

Mything in Action

Many antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are “mythologized history.”  They think that around the start of the first century a controversial Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef gathered a following and his life and teachings provided the seeds that eventually grew into Christianity.

However other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually “historicized mythology.”  In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.

Naturally, the notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. For centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were themselves Christians, and modern secular scholars rely heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts. Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under the historical presumptions of their former faith.

The arguments on both sides of this question, mythologized history or historicized mythology, fill volumes, and if anything the debate seems to be heating up rather than resolving. A growing number of scholars are openly questioning or actively arguing against Jesus’ historicity. Many people, both Christian and not, find it surprising that this debate even exists, that credible scholars might think Jesus never actually existed, here are some of the key points that keep the doubts alive:

No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the existence of Yeshua ben Yosef.  In the words of Bart Ehrman:

“What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp. 56-57)

The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts. Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians.

Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts. We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not actually written by them. To make matter even sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began. For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are “signed” by famous figures.  The same is true of the New Testament epistles; except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of the 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine.  But even the gospel stories never actually say, “I was there.” Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . .

The gospels, the only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the 20 question quiz at

The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing “life of Jesus,” and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences in mind. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree with one another.

Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different people. They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, a Zealot revolutionary, and a nonviolent pacifist to name a few. A historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been one or many of those things but he could not very well have been all of them at the same time. John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”

Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord’s Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors’ longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.

We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion. Only time (or perhaps time travel) will tell.

Do Black Holes Even Exist?


There are a lot of bizarre theories about black holes. Black holes gobble up everything that gets too close, even light, they can cause time to slow down, they contain entire universes, etc.

But here’s something about black holes you might not have heard: They simply don’t exist.

That’s the contention of Dr. Laura Mersini-Houghton, a theoretical physicist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In a new paper submitted to the non-peer-reviewed (red flag!) online research paper repository ArXiv, she offers what she calls proof that it’s mathematically impossible for black holes ever to form.

The paper suggests a possible resolution of the so-called “black hole information loss paradox,” in which Einstein’s theory of relativity predicts that black holes should form but quantum theory says no “information” can ever permanently disappear from the universe.

In the conventional view, a black hole forms when a dying star collapses under the force of its own gravity to become a singularity. The gravity within the region surrounding this singularity is so intense that not even light can escape, hence the term black hole.

According to Mersini-Houghton however, a collapsing star sheds mass as it shrinks–so no black hole ever forms. Instead, the star stops collapsing at a finite radius…and its core explodes.

If Mersini-Houghton is correct, long-held theories about the origin of the universe may need to be revised. But not everyone is buying this new claim. Dr. David Garfinkle, a professor of physics at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan and an expert on singularities and gravitational fields said the following:

“We don’t know enough about…the singularity to say whether [Messini-Houghton’s] picture is correct. Even if it is correct, it is very misleading to describe it as showing that ‘black holes don’t exist.’ There is a lot of astronomical evidence for objects that behave just like the black holes predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity.”

Another problem with the new theory is the difficulty of claiming that ‘black holes don’t exist’ without first explaining the observational evidence we have for black holes.

Five Common Myths About Dinosaurs







Dinosaurs died out around 65 million years ago, likely wiped out by a huge comet or asteroid. But we can look at the fossil evidence they left behind to understand what these prehistoric beasts were really like. If you’re still relying on what you learned in grade school, and saw in Hollywood classics like Jurassic Park you’ve got dinosaurs all wrong. The scientific understanding of dinosaurs, and dinosaur behavior, has changed drastically even in recent years.

In ancient times, fossilized dinosaur bones were thought to have belonged to monsters, giants, or even dragons. In the 1800s, scientists realized that the teeth and bones were unlike those of any living animal so they must have been the remains of long-extinct creatures. And so, British paleontologist Sir Richard Owen coined the word “dinosaur” to describe these prehistoric creatures. But the fossil record can be hard to interpret, which brings me to those myths:

Dinosaurs were dumb: In the 1970s, a system was developed to estimate dinosaur intelligence based on the dinosaur’s brain weight relative to the brain weight of another living animal. It turns out that, based on that system, some dinosaurs (like the Velociraptor) were pretty smart.

Brontosaurus was the biggest dinosaur of all: Like me, you may have been taught that one of the biggest dinosaurs was the enormous plant-eater called Brontosaurus. But there’s one problem, that guy never even existed. Brontosaurus was invented when 19th century paleontologist O.C. Marsh misidentified an Apatosaurus skeleton as belonging to a new species. Even though the mistake was discovered in 1903, it wasn’t until the 1970s when museums got around to fixing their skeleton displays. Still, the long-necked dinosaurs were the largest.

Dinosaurs were covered in scales: You may have heard that some dinosaurs sported feathers. Fossil evidence now suggests that most or even all of them did. Researchers recently found fossils belonging to a small, two-legged dinosaur with scales and feather-like structures, dating back around 160 million years. This leads scientists to think that dinosaurs’ plumes may have evolved much earlier in dinosaur history than previously thought.

Dinosaurs were cold blooded: At first scientists thought dinosaurs were cold-blooded like reptiles. Then some researchers said that dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded. But based ondinosaurs’ growth rate, size, and metabolism, some scientists now pose that dinosaurs were mesotherms, which means they couldn’t control their body temperature as us mammals do, but they weren’t so dependent on their environments as cold-blooded reptiles are. They were somewhere in between.

Dinosaurs were slow movers: Dinosaurs may have been much speedier than you probably thought. Computer simulations suggest that this tiny guy was the fastest dinosaur of all, with a running speed of around 40 mph. Meanwhile, a six-ton T. rex could reach a top speed of around 18 mph. That’s one guy I’m glad I’ll never have to outrun.