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Settled science, by Jupiter

07 Jul 2021 | News Roundup

Speaking of settled science, Quanta magazine recently reported that “Jupiter and Saturn should be freezing cold. Instead, they’re hot. Researchers now know why.” And of course they’re always saying they know why Earth was doing whatever it just did, though somehow they didn’t know before it happened. But if you think we’re lost in space here, or making hip references that are desperately out of date, it’s worth recalling that a few news stories about 20 years ago reported evidence of warming on various other bodies in our solar system including Mars and Triton. And if Earth and Mars are warming at the same time and scientists say on Earth it’s all due to humans but on Mars it’s natural, it means they must know why Mars is doing what it’s doing too. Pending the next discovery, of course, because science is famously an exciting and turbulent frontier where new theories boldly go where none has gone before.

In case you hadn’t been following the gas giant mystery, neither were we. Evidently “Living as they do in the distant, sun-forsaken reaches of the solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, the gas giants, and Uranus and Neptune, the ice giants, were always expected to be frosty realms. But when NASA’s Voyager spacecraft sailed past them in the late 1970s and 1980s, scientists found that all four worlds were running planetary fevers — a revelation as jarring as finding a bonfire inside your freezer.”

Now to be fair, these planets are hard to get to and very dangerous to get near. So it makes sense that we’d know a lot more about Earth. Seen it? We’re on it. Though in fact the story blurts out that “Earth’s northern and southern lights aren’t yet completely understood, but the basics are clear.” (Just as National Geographic recently said “While magnetic north has always wandered, its routine plod has shifted into high gear, sending it galloping across the Northern Hemisphere—and no one can entirely explain why.” And SciTechDaily announced that “Geologic activity on Earth appears to follow a 27.5-million-year cycle, giving the planet a “pulse,” according to a new study published in the journal Geoscience Frontiers”. Which one could imagine having implications for climate.)

Out there among the rings and multiple moons, after a hair-raising claim that solar wind can strip the atmosphere right off a planet with obvious appalling consequences, the Quanta piece gets into the manner in which the solar wind interacts with Jupiter’s and Saturn’s own magnetic fields. Which are generated not, like our own, from a rotating liquid nickel-iron core but from hydrogen squashed so ferociously by gravity that it loses its electrons and turns metallic. Which is very cool though obviously best observed or hypothesized about from a very great distance. But it’s a bit rich that the story would claim that after half a century of confusion someone shouted Eureka, it’s the residual solar wind that far out interacting with the local auroras and there’s nothing left to do but issue a press release.

Science is a complicated business that proceeds by generating, testing and modifying hypotheses and periodically purging them. No matter how many activists and politicians claim otherwise.

2 comments on “Settled science, by Jupiter”

  1. "science is famously an exciting and turbulent frontier where new theories boldly go where none has gone before"
    Although not generally known, the Starship Enterprise had a crew of technical writers on board. Their five year mission: to boldly split infinitives which none had split before.

  2. Graves, the whole bugaboo about slitting infinitives is a misguided transference from ancient Latin. Splitting an infinitive in English does nothing to cause confusion or reduce comprehension; indeed, splitting infinitives often enhances comprehension, and is to be strongly encouraged.

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