Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Planet cupcake

I just found out that Neal Adams, most famous as a comic book artist and creator of characters for DC Comics, died a couple of weeks ago at the age of eighty.

I'm not an aficionado of superhero stories, either in comic/graphic novel or movie form, so I didn't know much about Adams's contributes to that genre other than that he was involved somehow.  I knew Adams from a contribution to a much less publicized field: loopy pseudoscience.

As you all know, the Earth is a geologically active place.  Most scientists attribute this to plate tectonics, the shifting of Earth's geological plates relative to one another.  Their explanation is that these processes have been going on throughout Earth's history, driven by magmatic convection currents in the Earth's mantle, and that while active plate margins are expected to be -- well, more active -- any apparent clustering of geographically-separated tectonic events is simple coincidence, insignificant in the bigger picture.

Neal Adams disagreed.

In a video that you really should watch in its entirety, Adams called our attention to phenomena such as the following:
  • The formation of a three-kilometer-long crack in the ground in Huacullani, Chucuito Province, Peru, following an earthquake
  • The opening of a wedge-shaped, 500-meter-long, 60-meter-deep rift in Ethiopia, along the Great Rift Valley
  • The sudden creation of a crack in the ground in Iceland, and the subsequent draining of Lake Kleifarvatn into the fissure
  • The presence of a deep hydrothermal vent in the Mid-Cayman Rise, a spreading center in the middle of the Caribbean Sea
  • Increasing tension along the San Andreas Fault, causing cracks and fissures to form
Adams took these stories, and many others like them, and decided that the conventional explanation -- that all of these places are on plate margins, so cracks in the ground are to be expected -- is wrong.  And in a classic case of adding two plus two and getting 113, he deduced the following:

The Earth is expanding.

Yes, just like a cupcake in the oven, the Earth is getting bigger, and as it does, its surface cracks and splits.  The tectonic plates are a mere side-effect of this phenomenon, and are basically the broken up surface of the cupcake, pulled apart as the inside swelled.  Now, a cupcake, of course, is only increasing in volume, as the air bubbles in the batter expand; its mass remains the same.  Is that what's happening here?  Some kind of planetary dough rising?

Don't be silly.  We haven't trashed nearly enough physics yet.  It's not just volume; the Earth is actually gaining mass.

Wait, you might be saying; what about the Law of Conservation of Mass, which is strictly enforced in most jurisdictions?  Simple, Adams said.  No problemo.  Physicists have demonstrated that empty space can give rise to electron/positron pairs without any violation of physical law, because of the presence of "vacuum energy."  "Empty space" is actually, they say, a roiling foam of particles and antiparticles, most of which annihilate each other immediately.

So, Adams said, this sort of pair-production is happening inside the Earth.  Therefore it's gaining mass.  And expanding.

Of course, Adams conveniently ignored the fact that if this was happening, half of the mass thus produced would be antimatter.  If the Earth's middle was producing matter and antimatter fast enough to pop open cracks on the surface, the antimatter would follow the E = mc^2 rule (also strictly enforced) and blow us to smithereens.  After all, you may recall from scientific documentaries such as the original Star Trek what happens when antimatter containment is lost -- Captain Kirk strikes a dramatic pose, usually with his shirt ripped open to expose one or more nipples, and the show breaks to a commercial.  

And heaven knows we don't want any of that to happen.

So there are some problems with Adams' theory.  But this hasn't stopped websites from popping up supporting the Cupcake Earth Hypothesis and touting how amazing Adams's video is.  Apparently the argument is that the claims in the video must be true because (1) it has cool animation of the Earth shrinking and the continents fitting together as you go back in time, and (2) uses dramatic music from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  

Notwithstanding those points in its favor, it raises a few key questions in my mind:
  • What happened to all of the oceans?
  • If the Earth really was (let's say) a quarter as massive, 100 million years ago, it would have had a quarter of the gravitational pull.  Which would have resulted in a good bit of our atmosphere leaking out into space, not to mention herds of enormous dinosaurs bouncing about the landscape in the fashion of Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon.  So why do we still have an atmosphere?
  • Why am I spending so much time and effort addressing this goofy theory?
As far as the last question, I recognize that I can't debunk every silly idea in the world, and in fact I had originally intended to write about marginally more reasonable claims, such as sightings of sea serpents off the coast of England.  But then I found out that Adams had gone to that big E-Z Bake Oven in the sky, and I felt like I at least owed him that much.  So I'll end by passing along my condolences to his family, friends, and fans, and maybe today I'll eat a cupcake or two in his memory.


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