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Monday, September 1, 2014

Exploring Creation with Chemistry, 3rd Edition: My Initial Thoughts

Posted by jlwile on August 28, 2014

An Erlenmeyer flask is a typical piece of glassware used in chemistry experiments.  (click for credit)

An Erlenmeyer flask is a typical piece of glassware used in chemistry experiments. (click for credit)

I write this blog post with a somewhat heavy heart. Apologia is in the process of producing Exploring Creation with Chemistry, Third Edition, which is an update of the high school chemistry course I wrote. Updating science books is a good thing, and when Apologia updated the Human Anatomy and Physiology course that I co-authored, I was very happy with the result. The new edition of that course is better than the old edition, no question about it. I wish I could say the same thing about the new edition of this chemistry course. So far, however, I cannot.

Now please understand that I haven’t seen the entire updated course yet. Although Apologia’s catalog indicated the new course would be available in July, they have delayed the release of the book. To help families who plan to use the new edition for this academic year, they have posted the first three modules of the course online. That’s what I have reviewed. There were 16 modules in the original course, and assuming this holds true for the new edition, that means I have reviewed only about 3/16 of the course.

In addition, please understand that since I wrote the original course, I am probably not as objective as I would like to be when evaluating the new edition. After all, I wrote what I thought was the best explanation of general chemistry that I could possibly give. Perhaps I can’t be satisfied with any update. However, I was very satisfied with the update of the Human Anatomy and Physiology course that I co-wrote, so I really hope I am being as objective as possible. I am certainly willing to believe that there’s a better way to teach chemistry than what I developed. I just don’t think this is it.

Finally, I have to say that I know one of the authors of the new edition personally (Rusty Hughes), and I consider him to be an excellent teacher. I also really like him as a person. I don’t want him (or the other author, who I do not know) to take offense. It’s just that many people have asked for my thoughts on this new edition, and I feel compelled to write them.

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First Day of Class

Posted by jlwile on August 25, 2014

College students sitting in class (not my class - click for credit)

College students sitting in class (not my class – click for credit)

Today was my first day teaching general chemistry at Anderson University. I promise I won’t be reporting on every class session, but I couldn’t resist talking about this one. I started the class with a little demo. Prior to class, I had soaked a Q-tip in a slightly acidic solution of phenolphthalein, an acid/base indicator. In presence of an acid, it is clear. In the presence of a base, it is pink. I used the Q-tip to write the name of the course (Chem 2110) on a large sheet of paper, and it dried clear. I soaked another Q-tip in a solution of potassium ferrocyanide (which is a light yellow color) and wrote my name on the same piece of paper, right over where I had written the course name. It also dried clear. When I set it up, then, the students saw a blank sheet of paper.

I then sprayed the paper with a very weak solution of sodium hydroxide. The base caused the phenolphthalein to turn pink, revealing the class name. It had no effect on the potassium ferrocyanide. I then sprayed the paper with a weakly acidic solution of iron (III) chloride. The acid caused the phenolphthalein to turn clear again, so the course name went away. The iron (III) chloride reacted with the potassium ferrocyanide to bring out my name in blue. I love that demo, and at least a few of the students seemed to appreciate it.

After going over the syllabus and discussing the mechanics of the course, I decided to start by giving one of the best descriptions of science I have ever heard. It comes from Dr. Henry F. Schaeffer III, the Graham Perdue Professor professor of Chemistry at the University of Georgia. He is one of the most important chemists of our time, and here is what he says about science:1

The significance and joy in my science comes in those occasional moments of discovering something new and saying to myself, ‘So that’s how God did it.’ My goal is to understand a little corner of God’s plan.

I told the students that as far as I am concerned, that’s what science is all about – figuring out how God did it and trying to understand a small piece of God’s amazing plan for His creation. I then went on to discuss the introductory material for the course.

I was pleased to find out that two of the 61 students in my class had used my high school chemistry book! I wrote that book to prepare students to study chemistry at the college level, and I have received many notes from students, parents, and teachers indicating that it has. It will be interesting to see whether or not these two students have a similar experience.

It looks like the semester is off to a good start!

REFERENCE

1. Sheler, J. L. and J.M. Schrof, “The Creation,” U.S. News & World Report (December 23, 1991), pp 56-64.
Return to Text

Another Study Shows College Does Not Erode Faith – For Most Christians

Posted by jlwile on August 21, 2014

College students pray at an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship meeting.  (click for credit)

College students pray at an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship meeting. (click for credit)

About a year ago I discussed a study that indicated a college education makes a person more likely to retain his or her faith. Recently, a new study on essentially the same topic was published in the same academic journal. It looked at data in a different (and very interesting) way, but its conclusions generally support those of the previous study.

The author, Dr. Philip Schwadel, used a well-known data set called the General Social Survey (GSS) for the years 1973 to 2010. He then looked at the years in which the respondents were born. He found that he had plenty of data for people born after 1900 and before 1980, so he focused on them. This gave him 38,251 people to analyze, which is an excellent sample size. In the GSS, the people are asked what their religious preference is: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion. They are also asked about their education and what kinds of degrees they have. Dr. Schwadel wanted to determine whether or not a college degree had any effect on a person answering “no religion.”

He found that people who were born from 1900 to 1964 were more likely to say they had no religion if they had a college degree. However, the amount by which they were more likely to say that dropped fairly steadily from 1915-1964. For those born in 1965, a college degree had no effect on whether or not they answered “no religion.” After 1965, having a college degree made a person less likely to indicate they had no religion. As the author says:1

Results from hierarchical age-period-cohort models using more than three and a half decades of repeated cross-sectional survey data demonstrate that the strong, positive effect of college education on reporting no religious affiliation declines precipitously across birth cohorts. Specifically, a bachelor’s degree has no effect on non-affiliation by the 1965–69 cohort, and a negative effect for the 1970s cohorts.

If we dig a bit deeper into the study, however, we find something even more interesting.

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Going Back to College

Posted by jlwile on August 18, 2014

The Helios fountain (designed by  Arlon Bayliss), which sits outside of Hartung Hall (the science building) at Anderson University.  The statue is meant to represent DNA.

The Helios fountain (designed by Arlon Bayliss), which sits outside of Hartung Hall (the science building) at Anderson University. The statue is meant to represent DNA.

No, I am not going to earn another degree. You can’t teach this old dog any new tricks. However, for the first time since 1995, I will be teaching a college chemistry class. I have to admit that I am a bit nervous about it, simply because it has been so long. Of course, I am also excited about it for exactly the same reason. While I truly enjoy interacting with students over the internet, it will be fun to go back to the classroom and interact with students who are right there in front of me!

It’s not that I never get to interact with students in that way. After all, I travel to all sorts of homeschool conventions where I get to interact with lots of students and parents. Indeed, one of my favorite convention experiences was a session where I did nothing but answer student questions. In addition, I have been a guest lecturer at many universities, both in the U.S. and other countries. However, it has been nearly 20 years since I spent an entire semester teaching one group of students.

Whose students will be subjected to my presence for an entire semester? The science majors at Anderson University, about which I have written before (here and here). It is one of the few Christian universities at which I would be comfortable teaching, because it doesn’t have a long list of beliefs to which its professors must subscribe. Instead, it takes the mission of a university seriously – to tackle tough questions in as open-minded a way as possible.

I have added a new blog category called “College Chemistry,” in the hopes that I can write about my experiences over the course of this semester. I really have no idea whether or not I’ll actually do that. I’ll just have to see how it goes. As a final note, this doesn’t mean I am making a change in my career’s focus. I believe God has called me to work with homeschoolers, and I will continue to write and speak for them. This is (most likely) a one-time thing. It fills a one-time need that Anderson University currently has.

Yet Another Study Confirms The Effectiveness of Home Education

Posted by jlwile on August 14, 2014

College graduates during their graduation ceremony  (click for credit)

College graduates during their graduation ceremony (click for credit)

As far as I know, I first encountered homeschool graduates when I was on the faculty at Ball State University. The ones I met stood out, even in a crowded chemistry or physics classroom. The more I researched homeschooling, the more I came to learn that this was the norm. On average, homeschool graduates are better prepared for college than their peers (see here, here, here, and here, for example). As a result, I started working with homeschoolers, and I began to understand why my homeschool graduates at Ball State University stood out: Homeschooling is a superior form of education for most students.

The data continue to support this fact. Consider, for example, a study that was published in the March 2013 edition of Catholic Education. The author examined the academic records of 408 students at Ave Maria University, a Roman Catholic university in South Florida. It is a fairly young university, founded in 2003 by the same man who founded Domino’s Pizza. In my mind, it makes perfect sense that a pizza man would open a university. The two seem to go together! Specifically, the university was founded as a conservative alternative to some of the more liberal Roman Catholic universities that exist in the U.S. As a result, it attracts a lot of homeschoolers, most of whom are Roman Catholic.

In the sample the author studied, there were 137 public school graduates, 142 students who graduated from catholic schools, and 129 homeschool graduates. The author compared four things among the three groups of students: SAT or ACT score, college grade point average (GPA), GPA by major, and GPA in the university’s “core” curriculum. The results are very interesting, and they demonstrate yet again that homeschooled students are simply better prepared for college than their publicly- and privately-schooled counterparts.1

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Confirmation of a Creationist Prediction Becomes Even More Stunning

Posted by jlwile on August 11, 2014

A model of the vertebrate retina, showing the Müller cells (image by Dr. Jens Grosche, Universität Leipzig, found in reference 2)

A model of the vertebrate retina, showing the Müller cells (image by Dr. Jens Grosche, Universität Leipzig, found in reference 2)

Nature is filled with amazing designs, which leads me to the conclusion that it is the product of a Magnificent Designer. Of course, many scientists disagree with that conclusion, and some of them try to argue against it by pointing out examples of what they think are bad designs in nature. One of the oft-cited examples is the retina of the human eye. As Dr. Michael Shermer puts it:1

The anatomy of the human eye shows that it is anything but “intelligently designed.” It is built upside down and backwards, with photons of light having to travel through the cornea, lens, aqueous fluid, blood vessels, ganglion cells, amacrine cells, horizontal cells, and biploar cells, before reaching the light-sensitive rods and cones that will transform the signal into neural impulses.

To understand what he is saying, look at the illustration above. When light hits the surface of the eye’s retina, it has to travel through layers of cells that essentially connect the retina to the rest of the nervous system. Only then can it reach the light-sensitive cells, called rods and cones, and be converted into a signal that can be sent to the brain. This, of course, seems backwards to most evolutionists. According to them, if the retina were designed intelligently, the rods and cones would be at the retinal surface so they are the first thing the light hits. That way, the connecting neurons could be placed behind the rods and cones so they don’t interfere with the light in any way.

Like most arguments inspired by evolution, the more we learned about the human retina, the less reasonable this argument became. Back in 2007, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA showed that light doesn’t have to travel through the connecting neurons to reach the rods and cones. Instead, as shown in the illustration above (which appeared on the cover of the journal), there are special cells, called Müller cells, that collect the light and guide it to the rods and cones.2

Three years later (in 2010), an analysis published in Physical Review Letters concluded:3

The retina is revealed as an optimal structure designed for improving the sharpness of images.

The authors of the analysis showed that the position of the rods and cones in the retina combined with the way the Müller cells guide the light to them make them much less sensitive to light that is scattered within the eye itself. This, in essence, reduces the “noise” that the rods and cones would get from errant photons, making the overall image sharper and clearer.

I blogged about this previously, pointing out that it is precisely what creationists predicted and quite opposite what evolutionists maintained. I am bringing it up now because further research has confirmed the creationist prediction in an even more stunning way!

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Road Salt Changes Butterflies, Perhaps for the Better

Posted by jlwile on August 7, 2014

A snow plow spreads salt to melt ice on the road. (click for credit)

A snow plow spreads salt to melt ice on the road. (click for credit)

Living in Indiana, I see snow plows spreading salt on the roads every winter. I don’t think much about them, because I have seen them all my life. However, I ran across an interesting study that indicates the salt they spread actually affects some of the insects that live near the road. Sodium chloride (the main ingredient in road salt) is such a ubiquitous chemical in nature that I never thought about how road salt might affect the flora and fauna that live near the side of the road, but the study indicates that for butterflies, the effect is significant.

The authors studied flora near the side of salted roads and found that the amount of sodium in the plants can be as much as 30 times what exists in the same plants that live more than 100 meters from the side of the road. That’s not very surprising, since most roads get salted quite a bit, especially during winters with lots of snow and ice. The surprising aspect of the study is the profound effect these elevated salt concentrations had on monarch butterflies that eat roadside milkweed while they are caterpillars.

The authors found that compared to monarch butterflies that ate milkweed plants in prairies far from the road, the male monarchs that ate salted roadside milkweed had much stronger flying muscles. The females were different, however. They had larger eyes than their prairie-raised counterparts.1 To confirm that it was really the salt having this effect and not some other chemical that might be found near the roadside, the authors reared cabbage white butterflies in the lab. They saw exactly the same effect – the males that ate a high-salt diet had stronger flying muscles, while the females had larger eyes.

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Instant Cooperation Among Organisms

Posted by jlwile on August 4, 2014

The alga (left) and yeast (right) are free-living, but when put in a situation where they must cooperate in order to survive, they do.  (images in the public domain)

The alga (left) and yeast (right) are free-living, but when put in a situation where they must cooperate in order to survive, they do. (electron microscope images in the public domain)

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows that I am fascinated with mutualism – the phenomenon whereby organisms of different species live together in a mutually-beneficial way (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example). I think it is probably a glimpse of what nature was like before the Fall. Based on what I see in mutualism, I think that lots of species were designed to cooperate with one another, and many of the pathological relationships we see today are corrupted versions of previously-beneficial ones.

Evolutionists have a different view, of course. The generally-accepted view is that mutualism starts out with one species trying to exploit another species. Here, for example, is how the text Symbiosis: An Introduction to Biological Associations, Second Edition puts it:1

Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of two organisms starting out in a mutualistic association. Most mutualistic symbioses probably began as parasitic ones, with one organism attempting to exploit another one.

To be fair, the authors of this text do allow for another option. There are some relationships between organisms that seem neither harmful nor beneficial. Barnacles that live on whales, for example, seem to neither harm nor help the whales in most cases. These kinds of relationships are called commensal, and the authors allow for mutualism to start out as a commensal relationship and then evolve into a mutualistic one.

The key, however, is the first sentence in the quote. They say it is difficult to conceive of two organisms starting out in a mutualistic relationship. Why? Because evolutionists cannot allow for a grand design in nature. They can’t look at the relationships in an ecosystem and see how they fit together in an overall plan. Instead, they have to imagine some scenario in which relationships are cobbled together by selfish organisms that are only concerned with their own survival. If organisms live in a mutually-beneficial relationship today, it is only because they evolved together (in a process called coevolution) from a negative relationship or at least a relationship that didn’t begin as a mutually-beneficial one.

A new study indicates that at least in some cases, this evolutionary-inspired idea is wrong.

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Geneticists’ Bias Causes a Big Mistake

Posted by jlwile on July 31, 2014

This is one way to visualize a coding section of RNA.  It has a start codon that tells the cell to start making a protein, followed by a recipe for that protein.  Then there is a stop codon, to tell the cell that it is done making the protein.

This is one way to visualize a coding section of RNA. It has a start codon that tells the cell to start making a protein, followed by a recipe for that protein. Then there is a stop codon, to tell the cell that it is done making the protein.

You’ve heard it many times before. The vast majority of DNA is junk. Of course, the ENCODE project showed how wrong that notion is. Now that we know the vast majority of DNA is functional, you might wonder how in the world the idea of “junk DNA” became so popular among scientists. I suspect there are many reasons, but some recent research has revealed one of them – a bias regarding what it means for DNA to be functional. The research was done on molecules called long non-coding RNAs, which are commonly referred to as lncRNAs.

What are lncRNAs? Well, let’s start with what RNA is. The genes that your body uses are in your DNA, most of which is found in the control center of the cell, called the nucleus. In order for your cells to use those genes, they must be copied by another molecule. This process is called transcription, and the molecule that performs transcription is RNA. Once it has transcribed the gene, RNA leaves the nucleus, at which point it is often referred to as messenger RNA (mRNA), because it is sending a message to the cell.

What’s the message? It is a recipe for building a protein. That recipe is put together in informational units called codons, and it goes to a ribosome, which is a protein-making factory in the cell. The ribosome reads the codons, translating them one-by-one into a protein. Not surprisingly, this process is called translation. How does the ribosome know when to start building the protein? There is a start codon that tells it to start. How does it know when to stop building the protein? There is a stop codon that tells it to stop. As a result, you can think of messenger RNA in terms of the illustration above – it contains a start codon, a recipe for a protein (the blue bar in the illustration), and a stop codon.

So how does this relate to lncRNAs? Well, messenger RNA is referred to as “coding RNA,” because it codes for the production of proteins. LncRNAs are called “non-coding RNAs,” because it was thought that they do not code for proteins. Now there are lots of RNAs that are thought to be non-coding, but lncRNAs are relatively long. That’s how they get their name. Well, it turns out for at least some lncRNAs, every part of their name (except RNA) is wrong.

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The 2014 Valley Home Educators Convention

Posted by jlwile on July 28, 2014

This is me at my publisher's booth talking with two homeschoolers.

This is me at my publisher’s booth talking with two homeschoolers.

This past weekend, I spoke at the Valley Home Educators Convention in Modesto, California. It’s a mid-sized convention that is always well-run and a delight to attend. I gave a total of six talks: Why I believe in a Young Earth, Creation vs Evolution: Religion vs Science or Religion vs Religion, Homeschooling: The Solution to Our Education Problem, Why Homeschool through High School, What about K-6 Science?, and ‘Teaching’ the Jr High & High School Sciences at Home. They were all well attended, and I got several good questions. However, I did have one talk (I forget which one) after which no one asked a single question. I don’t recall that ever happening before.

I was a bit concerned about giving the first talk, because it tends to ruffle some feathers. In the talk, I make the (rather obvious to me) point that the young-earth interpretation of Scripture is not the only orthodox interpretation that submits to Scriptural authority. I demonstrate this several different ways, including by pointing out that some of the early church fathers (like Origen) interpreted the days in the creation account to be figurative and not literal. By the 1100′s a figurative interpretation of Genesis was widespread in the church. Other church fathers (like Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Augustine, and Hilary of Poitiers) believed that the days had nothing to do with the passage of time but instead were used as a means by which the things that were created could be ordered in terms of priority.

This, of course, goes against what some of my fellow young-earth creationists teach, so sometimes, the content of the talk is greeted with quite a bit of anger. At this convention, however, no one seemed to get angry. In fact, I didn’t get a single hostile question after the talk, which surprised me. Everyone who spoke to me about that talk later said they appreciated how I handled such a hot-button issue. I did get an interesting question related to the talk from someone who came to my publisher’s booth, and it’s the question I want to address in this post.

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