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Titan's Partisan Atmosphere

  Yesterday I stopped in at the American Astronomical Society annual meeting, at the Wardman Park Hotel. Tobias Owen gave a talk about Saturn's moon Titan, and at one point showed a slide of what appears to be a river system flowing into a dry lake. The topography, in fact, looked strikingly like a satellite view of the East and Wye rivers flowing into Chesapeake Bay. Of course it's not liquid water that made the river channels on Titan, but liquid methane. Owen said scientists are laboring over all the Huygens and Cassini data, trying to figure out where all of Titan's methane came from, and where its carbon went.

    As always happens at these science meetings, I understood only a modest fraction of what the speaker was saying. (Remind me to look up the word "clathrate.") But what's clear is that substances like methane and nitrogen are kind of like the Republicans and Democrats of Titan, the big movers and shakers. Carbon is largely locked up, out of sight, playing the role of the Silent Majority. Molecular hydrogen is as rare as a liberal Republican, while oxygen, on Titan and most other planets, is kind of a fringe, wacky element, like the Reform Party. Argon is obviously the equivalent of the Green Party.

    Xenon: LaRouche. 

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 11, 2006; 1:11 PM ET
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You did major in "Political *Science*" at Princeton, didn't you, Joel?

Posted by: Reader | January 11, 2006 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Regardless of the scent discussion from the earlier Kit, it's very apropo to link the GOP to methane and the Dems to nitrogen. Republicans seem MUCH more combustible these days...

Posted by: Scottynuke | January 11, 2006 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Joel - ha!

I like the subtle analogies of Rebublicans to methane, and Democrats to inert nitrogen.



Posted by: bc | January 11, 2006 1:26 PM | Report abuse

BOO on me.


Posted by: bc | January 11, 2006 1:27 PM | Report abuse

SCC, too: "Republicans".



Posted by: bc | January 11, 2006 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Nothing but helpful, I am ...

Main Entry: clath·rate
Pronunciation: 'kla-"thrAt
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin clathratus, furnished with a lattice, from clathri (plural) lattice, from Greek klEithron bar, from kleiein to close -- more at CLAVICLE
: relating to or being a compound formed by the inclusion of molecules of one kind in cavities of the crystal lattice of another
- clathrate noun

Posted by: Bayou Self | January 11, 2006 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Um...isn't the carbon in methane? Guess you had to be there.

Posted by: PeterK | January 11, 2006 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for the definition of clathrate, Bayou Self; I had to pick up these facts in the gutter, so I see that I kind of understand it, after all. On Titan, the clathrates would consist of molecular water ice with methane packed into it -- and other CAP too, I s'pose.

Since you are doing so well with these technical sort of words -- I've been aching (pining, yearning, itching, scratching, burning, breaking out in inexplicable rashes) for a proper definition of 'tholin.' Not to be confused with Tholen, which is the name of an astronomer (first name Dave).

I'm missing the AAS. I went to two international meetings last year, so now I need to try to be diligent and get some work done. Except I keep reading (and responding to) this damned Achenblog.

Posted by: ScienceTim | January 11, 2006 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Yes, the carbon is in methane, but there's not nearly enough to eat up the full carbon budget. Also unknown: Why so much nitrogen? I have to admit that to some extent I find it all esoteric and am disappointed when they show images of Titan and there are no animals. I'm like: For all that money we gave you, can't you deliver some extraterrestrial animals? Two-headed hopping things?

Here's a quote from Owen: "On Titan, everything burns. It's a completely flammable world."

Posted by: Achenbach | January 11, 2006 2:07 PM | Report abuse

I think ScienceTim IS Tobias Owen.

Posted by: Achenbach | January 11, 2006 2:08 PM | Report abuse

What you say to the cops after a mugger punches you in the mouth?

"Offither, my wallet'th been tholin'!"

Posted by: kurosawaguy | January 11, 2006 2:11 PM | Report abuse

I can't take credit for this definition of tholin, but here's what I found:

"A hard, red-brownish substance made of complex organic compounds. Tholins don't exist naturally on Earth, because our present oxidizing atmosphere blocks their synthesis. However, tholins can be made in the lab by subjecting mixtures of methane, ammonia, and water vapor to simulated lightning discharges. Conditions like this probably exist in many places in the universe, including the icy moons of the outer Solar System. The presence of tholins may help explain the orange-red hue of Titan's atmosphere and the reddish surface of some outer asteroids."

So, sounds like vaguely organic goo.

Posted by: Paul | January 11, 2006 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Joel writes: "I have to admit that to some extent I find it all esoteric and am disappointed when they show images of Titan and there are no animals. I'm like: For all that money we gave you, can't you deliver some extraterrestrial animals? Two-headed hopping things?"

Dude, I got two words for you:

Deja Thoris.

Then watch NASA's budget issues disappear.


Posted by: bc | January 11, 2006 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I should add that DT should put some oomph behind the private space industry as well.


Posted by: bc | January 11, 2006 2:30 PM | Report abuse

"On Titan, everything burns" sounds like a dramatic narration that might come at the start of a movie trailer.

Merriam-Webster has no listing for tholin. also comes up empty. Maybe it was tholin from them, kguy.

Posted by: Bayou Self | January 11, 2006 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Didn't the Enterprise have to escape the Tholin Web at some point?

bc, DT would also boost private spaceship funding by about 10 orders of magnitude...

Posted by: Scottynuke | January 11, 2006 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of partisan, I felt the urge to blog a bit about the Alito hearings today:


PS, Scotty, I had the same thought about the Tholin Web.

Posted by: bc | January 11, 2006 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of trailer voice-overs, BSelf, here is one of my favorites of all time. For years I told my family (loudly and frequently) that any movie trailer that began with some variation of "In a world..." was advertising a POS film. The last time I said this was right before we sat down and watched the trailer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,, which begins "In a land...". Hilarity ensued. I don't make that blanket condemnation any more.

Posted by: kurosawaguy | January 11, 2006 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Scotty, we've got to risk implosion! I just always wanted to say that. It was the Tholian Web, and that episode of the original Star Trek series won an Emmy for FX. It's hard to believe looking at it now, but that series was the most expensive TV show ever produced up to that time.

Posted by: kurosawaguy | January 11, 2006 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Achenbach claims: "I think ScienceTim IS Tobias Owen."

Nah, If I were Toby, I would know a hell of a lot more organic chemistry than I do, but somewhat less infrared spectroscopy. I was a collaborator with him once -- on a project to do infrared spectroscopy of methane in Titan, of course. I think that I've only personally met Toby in the flesh maybe once or twice, so I am probably presuming too much to call him by his nickname.

Just keep checking out Google scholar and you'll come across me eventually -- there aren't many Tims in planetary astronomy (5, including grad students, last time that I counted), even fewer publishing on Titan (I think I may be the only one).

Posted by: ScienceTim | January 11, 2006 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Aye, Cap'n K-guy!

Yes, I get a lot of Scotty jokes. Yes, I miss Jimmy Doohan. Yes, Star Trek was one helluva wonderful money pit.

Posted by: Scottynuke | January 11, 2006 3:11 PM | Report abuse

I always thought LaRouche was the "Xenu" of america - as in the "evil lord xenu" that scientologists believe froze millions of aliens, flew them to the earth of big plane-like rockets and dropped them into volcanos... then he caught their souls in the sky and imprisoned them until they escaped and inhabited your mom and dad and you and your sister and most certainly George Bush.

Doesn't that sound like a LaRouche political plank?!?

Scientologists ought to hire him!

Posted by: Xenon or Xenu? | January 11, 2006 3:28 PM | Report abuse

And actually, I just realized:

LaRouche would be flourine, no doubt about it.

Posted by: Scottynuke | January 11, 2006 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Love the trailer, kguy!

But I just might be able to top that. Let me see what I can do.

Posted by: Bayou Self | January 11, 2006 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Say, did you see what Specter said to Kennedy at the Alito hearings, according to

"Specter said "I take umbrage" over the Massachusetts senator's suggestion he had ignored a letter the Democrat had sent."

Specter's a 'boodler! Somebody get that Senator a T-shirt!

Posted by: Paul | January 11, 2006 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Movie voiceover guys? Try this on, kguy.

Posted by: Bayou Self | January 11, 2006 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Try this on, kguy.

Posted by: Bayou Self | January 11, 2006 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Clathrates aren't new to the Boodle, by any means. (Tim, are you livin' good?)

Farting oceans:

In the last decade or so, it has come to be suspected/believed that there are large deposits of methane clathrates in the ocean bed. They stay there because of the pressure, combined with cold, combined with higher density than frozen water. I'm guessing that clathrates must freeze a little warmer than liquid water, or maybe it just has less heat of fusion. Anyway, one of the great worries of global warming is that some relatively modest shift in ocean circulation or sea temperature could trigger a release of methane from the sea-bed clathrates, increasing the burden of greenhouse gases and thus increasing the rate at which things warm up and further clathrates are released. It's a vague nightmarish scenario because very very little is known beyond the fact that sea-bed methane clathrates have been found.

Posted by: ScienceTim | Dec 7, 2005 2:12:27 PM | Permalink

Posted by: Loomis | January 11, 2006 4:16 PM | Report abuse

I see the robots got me.

Posted by: Bayou Self | January 11, 2006 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Good job with your googling, Linda. I'm living well.

Posted by: ScienceTim | January 11, 2006 4:38 PM | Report abuse

On "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" it was a special moment when they got Don LaFontaine to voice "From WHYY in Philadelphia ... *this* is Fresh Air! I'm Terry Gross." I like the fact that he claims to be the inventor of "In a world where ..."

Posted by: Tim | January 11, 2006 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Flammable World... isn't that the same as Inflammable World?

Aren't they the amusement parks that Dan Snyder just took over?

Posted by: TBG | January 11, 2006 5:10 PM | Report abuse

As I skimmed the headlines online, I first misread LaRouche = Xena. Slight disappointment followed.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 11, 2006 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Science Tim,

One of the questions at the back of my mind for some time is how the Loomis-Michael Observatory on Harvard's campus came to be named? If you have any knowledge of this, I'd love to know, as I haven't been able to find any info online.

Do you know if Harvard's observatory was named after Elias Loomis, the astronomer (also one of the first to tackle the Loomis genealogy tome), after whom the Western Reserve College/(now Academy) Observatory in Hudson, Ohio is named? (Elias Loomis's nuclear family is far more interesting than I'm willing to let on at this point in time.)

I know that Yale's early observatory was named for Elias Loomis. (Denison Olmsted may, quite possibly, have been Loomis's distant cousin.)

The Loomis Tower on Canner Street [at Yale University], erected in 1923 in memory of Elias Loomis (1811-1889), at the time the largest polar telescope in America. The installation was originally designed for the comfort of the observer who sat at the eyepiece in a warm room at the top of the tower. The tube (beneath the stairs) was parallel to the polar axis of the earth. The building at the base of the tower had a sliding roof and housed a 30-inch optical flat coelostat mirror driven equatorially and reflecting light from any unobscured part of the sky through both a 15-inch photographic and a 10-inch visual guide 'scope, both of the same focal length, 600 inches.

Posted by: Loomis | January 11, 2006 5:46 PM | Report abuse

Hi Linda,

I know nothing whatsoever about the Loomis-Michael Observatory.

Posted by: ScienceTim | January 11, 2006 6:38 PM | Report abuse

In the book "Imperial Earth" Arthur C. Clarke postulates a hydrogen-mining colony on Titan. In the book he describes enormous flames formed by pumping oxygen into the combustible atmosphere.

I think that would be, like, awesome.

Posted by: RD Padouk | January 11, 2006 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Now that I think about it, the book also involved a lobbyist of sorts. Wow, lobbyists from Titan. Almost as scary as the giant flames.

Posted by: RD Padouk | January 11, 2006 7:55 PM | Report abuse

RD, CLONED lobbyists from Titan.

Definitely scarier than giant flames.


Posted by: bc | January 11, 2006 8:15 PM | Report abuse

Don LaFontaine: In a world where everything burns ... cloned lobbyists are stone cold!

Posted by: Bayou Self | January 11, 2006 10:46 PM | Report abuse

For lack of ability to weave into Joel's football remarks...

Super Bowl XL will be a rematch of XXXVIII:
Patriots v. Panthers.

Grossman & Bears lose, b/c playoff maiden QBs are 0-fer four (Palmer, Simms, Manning, Leftwich) - & then Carolina beats Seattle in a close one on Peppers' two sacks and team playoff experience.

Patriots hold the Broncos to less than ten and win on defense & the clutch Brady, extending the streak to three in January.

Patriots win in Indy on the last possession after a goal-line stand.

Patriots and Panthers and Janet Jackson - all over again.

PS the Skins don't have a chance if the 120 yards of total offense that beat the Bucs is the best they can bring against Seattle

Posted by: Dauphin Cajun | January 11, 2006 11:09 PM | Report abuse

Reads like a round-headed chemistry class without enough other class work to be busy. About the new morality for the troups, will the next directive be to penalize masturbation also known as jack off? The troops I knew weren't that round-headed!

Posted by: williwaw | January 11, 2006 11:29 PM | Report abuse

Skins: 20
Hawks: 17

Posted by: ot | January 12, 2006 3:44 AM | Report abuse

Are you sure 22541 of this?!?

Posted by: Gezer Gamadi | September 19, 2006 8:21 PM | Report abuse

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