Wednesday, May 12, 2004

What to Make of This? When I first saw this story at the AgapePress website, I hoped it would turn out to be a huge exaggeration.

Two Maryland home schoolers were recently honored for winning the "Best Overall" project award at Lockheed Martin's “Space Day” competition.

Fifth-grader Grant and seventh-grader Samantha Foster from Germantown finished first place in their age group for the “Space Trek” design challenge. In their project, the Fosters put forth a creationist view of the solar system and wrote about their fictional journey in search of the Oort Cloud (the alleged “nursery of comets”). After researching the Answers In Genesis website, they realized the Oort Cloud did not exist because the universe is less than 10,000 years old.

Maybe it would turn out out that while the students were, in fact, creationists, that fact played no role in their project. I mean, there just had to be more to the story, right?

Apparently not. From what I've been able to learn so far it appears that this story is straight up. You can learn more about the Lockheed Martin Space Day program here. An excerpt:

Since its launch in 1997, the Space Day educational initiative, which takes place on the first Thursday of each May, has evolved into a massive grassroots effort dedicated to the extraordinary achievements, benefits and opportunities in the exploration and use of space. The ultimate goal is to promote math, science, technology and engineering education by nurturing young peoples' enthusiasm for the wonders of the universe and inspiring them to continue the stellar work of today's space explorers.

Here's a brief description of the task the students had to fulfill:

Exploring a new place is the ultimate adventure. You would be the first person to see, smell, hear, touch, and even taste a new environment. Like other great explorers, you would need to record everything you experienced. Lewis and Clark, who explored the Louisiana Purchase territory, kept detailed journals of their expeditions that included stories of hardship and extraordinary finds, descriptions of the landscape, maps, drawings of animals, portraits of people around them, even samples of dried plants.

The Challenge
Design an electronic journal about a planet, moon, comet, or asteroid in our solar system that you choose to explore. Include your expedition plans, as well as several daily entries about exploring this new environment.

Further details can be found here.

The winning team described an expedition to the comet Chiron. The materials they put together as part of their winning entry are available here. Part of their entry involved writing three short stories describing the adventures of their explorers. It is the second of the three, available here, that contains the creationist content. Here's an excerpt.

The rest of the team was on a weekend break. They were out floating around in space. I had to stay behind to look after the ship. Tomorrow Cadence would take over for me for a while so I could get a chance to get a break.

That was really nice of her, since she had been an enemy with me from the beginning. I tried to be friends with her but she wouldn’t have anything to do with a Christian. She’s very into evolution. That’s the only reason why she wants to go to space, to prove the Oort Cloud theory. Which is almost the same reason I want to go to space as well, but I want to disprove the Oort Cloud theory.

In theory, comets are only supposed to live to be a few thousand years old. Again, in theory, the universe is supposed to be 4.8 billion years old. So if comets live only to be a few thousand years old and the universe is WAY older than that there should be no more comets right? Wrong. Scientists suggest that there is this cloud out in deep space called the Oort Cloud. This cloud is supposed to spit out new comets every so often.

Instead, if thinking that there’s something way out in deep space that nobody has ever seen spitting out new comets for us at just the right times, wouldn’t it make more sense to think that the universe is less than 10,000 years old and that’s why comets are still alive? I thought so.

One day Cadence came up to me and asked, “So you don't believe in evolution, right?”

“Right. Why do you ask?”

“Well, I was just wondering what your stance was on the Oort Cloud Theory.”

“That thing doesn’t exist. If it did, that would mean the universe is 4.8 billion years old, which it isn't.”

“Don't you believe in the Big Bang Theory?”

“Kind of… God said 'let there be' and BANG! there was.” Cadence scowled at me as I continued, “Why can't we just believe that God created the universe and everything in it?”

“Because there is no God. He’s just a fictitious character in a book. Somebody just made him up because he felt the need to have somebody rule over him and tell him what to do.”

Not very subtle. Want to guess whether our courageous explorers found the elusive Oort cloud?

This could be a major discovery! I went back to my bunk and grabbed my digital camera. It was the newest one and just 2'' x 1'' and it was only ½ an inch thick. I took shots of the space where the cloud would be if it were there. I had discovered the absence of the Oort Cloud! Well, actually Jason had, but I was still very exited!

This was an important piece of evidence in this battle between Creationists and Evolutionists that could bring thousands to know the Lord. I would have some hard solid evidence to show all the evolutionists and to give to today's Christian scientists who are struggling with other non-believing scientists to prove a point. I hit my knees right there and gave thanks to the Lord and said a silent prayer for Cadence.

Naming their lead character Jason does rather add insult to injury.

Anyway, the winners certainly can not be accused of concealing their sympathies.

After a fair amount of browsing on the Space Day website, I managed to find the criteria on which the stories were judged:

All three stories:

  • Are extremely well-written
    and organized.

  • Have very well-developed

  • Have well-developed

  • Have great use of dialog.

  • Contain science and
    space facts that are very
    effectively incorporated
    into the stories.

And therein lies the interesting part. I haven't seen the other entries, so I don't know what they were competing against. But considering that this story was written by a seventh grader, I must say I'm impressed. It certainly scores well in organization, plot, dialogue, and characters. Obviously I would not have chosen to cast the creationist in a favorable light, and cast the evolutionist as the humorless dogmatist, but surely that is an editorial decision.

Which brings us to the final criterion. Though I would quibble with the tone and some of the phrasing, the fact is that I can find no serious factual errors in this story.

Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia's entry on the Oort cloud:

The Oort cloud (sometimes called the Öpik-Oort Cloud) is a postulated spherical cloud of comets situated about 50,000 to 100,000 AU from the sun (approximately 1000 times the distance from the Sun to Pluto); with an inner disk at the ecliptic from the Kuiper belt. Although no direct observations have been made of such a cloud, it is believed to be the source of most or all comets entering the inner solar system (some short-period comets may come from the Kuiper belt), based on observations of the orbits of comets.

In 1932 Ernst Öpik, an Estonian astronomer, proposed that comets originate in an orbiting cloud situated at the outermost edge of the solar system. In 1950 the idea was revived and proposed by Dutch astronomer Jan Oort to explain an apparent contradiction: comets are destroyed by several passes through the inner solar system, yet if the comets we observe had existed since the origin of the solar system, all would have been destroyed by now. According to the theory, the Oort cloud contains millions of comet nuclei, which are stable because the sun's radiation is weak at their distance. The cloud provides a continual supply of new comets, replacing those that are destroyed.

I think my creationism-hating credentials are pretty solid, but it looks to me like the students here did an impressive job. I congratulate them on their victory.


At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I would not suggest that their victory was any less than deserved I would disagree with the idea that the students got everything right.

Just looking at the quoted material I can find one (minor) scientific and one logical error in the following sentence of dialogue.

“That thing doesn’t exist. If it did, that would mean the universe is 4.8 billion years old, which it isn't.”

The scientific error is confusing the age of the Solar System with the age of the Universe.

The logical error is the idea that the Oort Cloud proves that the Solar System is old - when in reality it simply refutes one Creationist argument for a young Solar System.

I would also question whether an ordinary camera shot could hope to disprove the Oort Cloud. The comet nuclei in the Oort cloud would be very dim and small by astronomical standards and also very widely spread out. Because the Cloud is diffuse the camera must cover a very large volume - which requires that it be sensitive enough to detect a comet nucleus at a great distance with little illumination. That seems implausible to me.

Paul King

At 2:22 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Good points. You're right about the age of the universe question; I had noticed that myself when I first read the story but then forgot about it as I went looking for links.

I'll give them a pass on your second point. You may be right that the Oort cloud would not be visible to a simple camera shot, but surely there would be some visible evidence of it, which is all that is essential for their story.

At 7:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The winning team describes a visit to the comet Chiron.
Chiron is part of the Centaur group whose orbits lie within the solar system. You have about as much chance of seeing the Oort Cloud from Earth as you do from there.

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