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Comparative Youth

Comparative Youth


When I say I’m young, people laugh! Well, I am young, compared to lots of things: the pyramids of Egypt, for example. Whether an object or person is young or old, you see, depends upon what you are comparing. Even thousands of years can be young in the right context. For example, I read recently in Scientific American that the rings of the planet Saturn are “young”. In that case, astronomers were not comparing these rings to the ages of any of us living today, but rather to evolutionary ideas about the solar system. Most astronomers imagine that the solar system is billions of years old. However the ring systems around several planets in our solar system may be only “several thousand years” (Joseph Burns et al. 2002. Scientific American 286 #2 p. 73). That’s a huge difference. But why do we care? What do several zeros (or not) at the end of a number matter anyway? The problem for secular scientists is to explain how young rings came to be around “old” planets. The alternative, of course, is to conclude that both the planets and the rings are young.

According to the very interesting article in Scientific American, Galileo discovered Saturn’s rings in 1610. But it was not until 1977 that the next ring system was observed, that of Uranus. Then in 1979 Jupiter’s delicate rings were discovered and in 1984, pieces of rings around Neptune were observed. Interestingly, no two ring systems are like — so there is plenty of food for thought and lots of opportunity for comparisons. All four planets however boast of richly textured systems made up of many concentric rings often separated by gaps. There are also some moons and moonlets moving near or even in the rings. Astronomers have made lengthy observations of these systems and they have tested computer models which include such terms as “repulsion” (pushing away) and “attraction” (pulling toward an object) and “angular momentum” (speed of moving around an object). If you like physics, you will have heard all these terms before.

All these studies have revealed some very interesting facts. So far, not even the best models are able to explain how the visible gaps and plethora of ringlets are able to maintain their positions. Apparently the very tiny particles should fall in toward the parent planets. Also the sparkle of the icy ring particles should be darkened by debris if an extremely long time has passed since their formation. Moreover the moons and moonlets inside the rings should function to sweep up debris and clear away that ring. Alternatively the moons, when bumped by another fast moving body, should shed debris. Apparently these systems are all very dynamic, very short term and very puzzling (but interesting).

Secular astronomers explain the discrepancy (big difference) in age between the planets and their rings, by supposing that relatively recently the shattering or crashing of moons near each planet so pulverized these impacting bodies that the debris still lingers as a ring around the planet. This theory invites us to believe that only a few thousand years ago, moons were pulverized in the vicinity of four planets. This explanation calls for four unlikely events, all about the same time. How much more straight forward and elegant is the conclusion that the planets and their ring systems are both young, created together only a few thousand years ago.

So you see, youth is indeed a relative concept. If the rings around the planets are “young” then who are we to suggest that anyone is “old”?

April 2002

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