No, Scientists Did Not “Partially Revive” Pig Brains!

One conception of a pig’s brain being kept alive outside the body. (modified from the linked image)

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I have a rather low opinion of science “journalism.” In my experience, most science “journalists” know little about journalism and even less about science. As a result, what they publish is often so misleading that it just adds to the level of scientific ignorance that is already shockingly prevalent in today’s society.

As a result, I was pleased to find that two different readers sent me two different articles about a recent experiment involving dead pig brains. They were both justifiably skeptical of what the articles were saying, and they asked my opinion. I am happy to oblige. The worst of the two articles can be found at Big Think. It is entitled “Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs.” It then goes on to say:

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction…But like any good science fiction, it’s only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week’s Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs’ brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

None of this is true. The researchers have accomplished something that overturns the current scientific consensus about the survivability of neurons (the “workhorse” cells of the brain). They also might have developed a technology that will significantly improve drug testing, but they haven’t even come close to restoring brain function!

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Best Evidence Yet for a Black Hole!

Four images of the center of M87 constructed from data collected by eight radio telescopes on four different days. The bar represents an angle of roughly 14 billionths of a degree, and the circle represents the resolution of the system.
(click for credit)

In 1796, Simon Pierre LaPlace predicted that there are objects in the universe which are so massive that light cannot escape them. As a result, they would be “invisible” to us. These objects have become known as black holes. More than 100 years later, Einstein published one of the most successful theories of modern science: General Relativity. A year later, Karl Schwartzchild used Einstein’s equation to define a black hole and calculate its radius, which is now known as the Schwarzschild radius. While black holes captured the imagination of many scientists, Einstein himself did not like them. In fact, in 1939, he published a paper that attempted to show they cannot exist.

Over the years, however, several lines of indirect evidence have supported the existence of black holes. For example, astronomers can measure the speed of objects in orbit around other objects. The speed of the orbiting object indicates the mass of the object being orbited. In the center of a nearby galaxy charmingly named “M87,” there is a disc of hot gas that is orbiting so quickly that the mass of what is being orbited must be three billion times the mass of our sun. However, the size of the object is, at most, the size of our solar system. Those measurements are consistent with Schwartzchild’s description of a black hole.

Of course, it’s always possible that the speed measurements are wrong, or that there is a very massive object that is consistent with what we think a black hole might be but isn’t actually a black hole. Thus, we need some other means by which to analyze the object. That’s where the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) comes in. Despite it’s name, it is not a single telescope. It is a combination of eight different telescopes that are found in different geographic locations. Those telescopes examined the center of M87 for several days, and their data were combined together to produce the images seen at the top of this post. They are exactly what one expects those telescopes to detect if the center of M87 is a black hole. Thus, as the title of this post indicates, they represent the best evidence to date for the existence of a black hole!

Now while these images are excellent evidence for a black hole at the center of M87, it is important to know what they are and what they are not.

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Robert Rowlett, Homeschool Graduate and Deputy Attorney General

Robert Rowlett

I recently wrote about Hayley Bower, a homeschool graduate who earned a degree in Engineering Physics. When I interviewed her for that article, I also interviewed her boyfriend, Robert Rowlett. He is just as impressive as Hayley, but in a completely different way. He was homeschooled for thirteen years, kindergarten through 12th grade, and he had a very traditional experience. Unlike most homeschooled students, he didn’t get together every week with other homeschoolers in a co-op setting. Instead, he learned on his own and was entirely taught at home. His only co-op experience was teaching a co-op class.

By the time he was in high school, his parents noticed that he took after his grandfather, who had been a chancery court judge in Tennessee for 25 years. As a result, they signed him up for a homeschool speech and debate team. Initially, he found the public speaking experience nerve-wracking, but he got over that pretty quickly. As he told me:

It didn’t take six months of competing [in debate tournaments] and it became my entire high school…It’s what I loved doing, and I did it all the time.

Not surprisingly, the class he taught at co-op was a speech and debate class.

As you would expect from someone who loves speech and debate, he wanted to be an attorney. He decided to major in biology at Anderson University and then go to law school. As time went on, however, he found that the biology program was largely focused on preparing students for the medical profession, so he switched majors to political science. He ended up graduating in three and a half years magna cum laude as a member of the AU Honors Program. His B.A. is in political science with a minor in biology.

The semester before Robert graduated, an AU chemistry professor asked him to speak to a group of six incoming freshman who were recent homeschool graduates. The professor wanted Robert to share his thoughts on the transition from homeschooling to university. Guess who was one of those incoming freshmen? Hayley Bower! That’s how they met. So you could say that homeschooling is what brought them together.

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An Excellent Commentary On Science

Robert Tracinski, who writes about politics and culture
(click for source)

We live in an age of shocking scientific illiteracy, and to add insult to injury, some of the loudest “cheerleaders” for science are some of the most ignorant when it comes to science. No one illustrates this better than Bill Nye, who is considered by many scientifically illiterate people to be today’s spokesperson for science, despite the fact that he is woefully ignorant about the science upon which he pontificates (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).

As a result, it is refreshing to run across the work of someone who is not even trained as a scientist but can write about science realistically. I was recently sent an article by one such person: Robert Tracinski. He has a degree in philosophy, but has spent more than 20 years writing about politics and culture. Nevertheless, the piece I read was about science, and it has some very important words for the scientifically illiterate among us. The title of the piece is Why I Don’t “Believe” in “Science”, and while the title might surprise you, I strongly recommend that you read it in its entirety. As a trained scientist who does original research in my field, I can tell you that it is one of the best commentaries on science I have seen from a layperson.

Is it surprising that I am recommending a piece from someone who doesn’t “believe in” science? It shouldn’t be. As he writes in the piece:

The problem is the word “belief.” Science isn’t about “belief.” It’s about facts, evidence, theories, experiments. You don’t say, “I believe in thermodynamics.” You understand its laws and the evidence for them, or you don’t. “Belief” doesn’t really enter into it.

I couldn’t agree more. The problem, of course, is that some of the people claiming that they “believe” in science the loudest don’t understand the least bit about it. They think “belief in science” means accepting the scientific consensus on any issue. That, of course, is the opposite of science. As Tracinski writes:

Some people may use “I believe in science” as vague shorthand for confidence in the ability of the scientific method to achieve valid results, or maybe for the view that the universe is governed by natural laws which are discoverable through observation and reasoning.

But the way most people use it today — especially in a political context — is pretty much the opposite. They use it as a way of declaring belief in a proposition which is outside their knowledge and which they do not understand.

There are a lot of people these days who like things that sound science-y, but have little patience for actual science.

I couldn’t agree more. If you want to use science as a means by which to understand what is going on in the world, you are in for some hard work. It doesn’t mean just parroting what the High Priests of Science proclaim. It means studying the evidence related to the issue, educating yourself about how different groups of scientists interpret that issue, and then deciding for yourself what position is backed by the most evidence. It also means being willing to change your mind if you learn additional evidence that contradicts your original position.

Your “belief” is quite irrelevant, as is the dogma promulgated by the High Priests of Science. Only the evidence is relevant, and if you aren’t willing to investigate that evidence, you are not using science.

Hayley Bower, Homeschool Graduate and Engineer

Hayley Bower

I have been interviewing homeschool graduates to learn what they are doing these days, how homeschooling helped or harmed them in their post-high-school endeavors, and what advice they might give to homeschooling parents and students. As part of that project, I was happy to interview a former student of mine, Hayley Bower. At the same time, I interviewed her boyfriend who is also a homeschool graduate, and I will write about him in a separate article.

I met Hayley in 2014 when she was a student in the general chemistry course I taught at Anderson University. A faculty member had informed me that she was a homeschool graduate and had used my biology, chemistry, and physics courses in high school, but I probably would have guessed it anyway. As is typical for homeschool graduates, she was in the honors program, actively engaged in class, and confident with the material. In addition, she always had a wonderful smile on her face when she spoke with me.

Hayley graduated from Anderson University four years later with a degree in engineering physics. She earned the Outstanding Student of the Year award in the School of Physical Sciences and Engineering for the 2015-2016 school year. When that was announced publicly, I joked with my colleagues that since she was my student as a freshman, I was taking all the credit for her earning the award. Honestly, however, I had nothing to do with it. She was an outstanding student from the moment she walked into my class.

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Soft Dinosaur Tissue Looks Really Young!

“Soft” tissue from an Allosaurus fossil, which is supposed to be 150 million years old. (Image from study being discussed)

In 2005, Dr. Mary Schweitzer stunned the paleontology community by finding soft tissue in a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil that is supposed to be more than 65 million years old. Because it is very difficult to understand how tissue could remain soft for more than 65 million years, many scientists tried to contest her findings. Over the years, however, more discoveries of soft tissue in fossils that are supposed to be multiple millions of years old have been made (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example). As a result, most scientists have come to accept the fact that there is soft tissue in fossils that are up to 550 million years old.

Now the focus on soft tissue in fossils is changing. Scientists are trying to find some chemical mechanism that would allow soft tissue to avoid decay and fossilization over such a long period of time. Dr. Schweitzer herself did experiments to suggest that iron might help to stave off decomposition and fossilization, but from a chemical standpoint, it simply doesn’t work (see here and here).

A reader recently asked me about another proposed explanation that I had somehow missed. The study was published late last year, and while it attempts to explain how soft tissue can avoid decomposition over millions of years, it doesn’t achieve its goal. Instead, it actually gives more evidence that the fossils in the study are very young. However, it does produce some interesting results that require further investigation.

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A Frustrating Book, But A Good First Step

A new, honest book about the creation/evolution controversy with the church.

When the creation/evolution controversy comes up in Christian circles, it is often accompanied by a lot of strife. Some Christians think that evolution comes straight from the Devil, while others think that when Christians refuse to accept the fact of evolution, they are harming the cause of Christ. Unfortunately, most of the major Christian organizations that focus on the subject fuel this acrimony. As a result, when I heard that the Colossian Forum had convinced Dr. Todd Wood (a young-earth creationist) and Dr. Darrel R. Falk (a theistic evolutionist) to write a book about the subject, I was intrigued. I actually pre-ordered a copy of the Kindle version, but later was happy to find that the publisher had sent me a free paperback copy to review.

The book, entitled The Fool and the Heretic, is made up of chapters written by Dr. Wood (the “fool”), chapters written by Dr. Falk (the “heretic”), and short interludes written by Rob Barrett of the Colossian Forum. There are also discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Drs. Wood and Falk are diametrically opposed when it comes to the question of origins, and that becomes clear right up front. Indeed, the first chapter (written by Wood) is entitled “Why Darrel is Wrong and Why It Matters,” and the next chapter (written by Falk) is “Why Todd is Wrong and Why It Matters.” Because of those titles, I almost named this review, “Why Todd, Darrel, and Rob are all wrong and why it matters,” because that’s the main conclusion I was left with when I finished the book.

Both initial chapters present the standard view from each camp. Dr. Wood says that Dr. Falk is wrong because when you try to interpret the first eleven chapters of Genesis to be anything other than historical narrative, you end up doing great theological damage to the rest of the Bible. Dr. Falk says that Dr. Wood is wrong because the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and when Christians reject that evidence in order to hang on to an outdated view of Scripture, it ends up causing great damage, especially to those who are interested in pursuing the truth. They will eventually encounter this overwhelming evidence, and it will produce a crisis of faith, which sometimes results in leaving the faith. Of course, neither of those assertions is new, and in my view, neither of them is correct.

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C.S. Lewis’s Stepson at the Texas Homeschool Convention

Me and Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis’s stepson. The cross he is wearing was made by his daughter, a professional jeweler. It has Aslan at the center of the cross.

I travel to a lot of different places and meet a lot of different people. I also hear a lot of different speakers. After a while, most of those experiences become a blur in my mind. However, a few stand out as truly extraordinary, and last weekend was one of those. I spoke at the Texas Homeschool Convention, and while I was there, I got a chance to meet with Douglas Gresham, a man I had corresponded with a few years ago and interviewed a few weeks ago. We had a lovely lunch, over which Mr. Gresham shared some of his memories of C.S. Lewis, who he refers to as “Jack.”

As I listened to Mr. Gresham’s stories, I was struck by Dr. Lewis’s humor. This is not something I had noticed by reading his books and essays, and it is not something I recall any biographer discussing. Nevertheless, nearly every tale I heard was either charmingly witty or downright hilarious. For example, Mr. Gresham was discussing a time at the dinner table where his mother, Joy, asked C.S. Lewis about a task that she had reminded him of but was afraid he had forgotten. He said:

My mother asked, “Jack, did you take care of that matter?” Jack replied, “Yes, of course I did. What do you take me for, a fool?” She replied, “No, I took you for better or for worse.”

I also learned that Mr. Gresham was responsible for a bumper sticker that was popular a while ago. As I mentioned in my previous article, Mr. Gresham has become an advocate for homeschooling. Apparently, someone was interviewing him about education, and in his typical witty way, Mr. Gresham said:

Schools are for fish.

Later on, the interviewer contacted him and asked for his permission to turn that phrase into a bumper sticker. I remember seeing a couple of them at past homeschool conventions.

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Tori Miller, Homeschool Graduate and Elementary Education Major

Tori Miller, a homeschool graduate I have in one of my university courses.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I first learned about home education when I found out that my top students at Ball State University were graduates of homeschooling. After taking a long hiatus from academic life to write textbooks designed for homeschoolers, I am once again “dabbling” in academia as an adjunct professor of chemistry and physics at Anderson University. I am once again teaching homeschool graduates in my university classes, and I continue to be impressed by them.

As a part of a new series on this blog, I decided to interview one of my current students, Tori Miller, who is in a physics class I am co-teaching. Entitled “Teaching STEM in the Elementary Classroom,” it gives future teachers specific tools that they can use to incorporate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) into their lesson plans. While you might find it odd that a homeschool graduate is studying to be a school teacher, I think it is awesome!

Tori was homeschooled K-12, and although she has only been at Anderson University for two years, she is technically near the end of her junior year because of all the college credits she has earned. Initially, she was thinking about studying accounting so she could help her father in a family business, but she decided she wanted to work more directly with people. If you meet Tori in person, you will see why. She is friendly, outgoing, and always willing to lend a helping hand.

Once she decided that she wanted to work with people, she gravitated towards professions where she could help make the world a better place. She considered nursing, but says that science is not her strong suit, although you wouldn’t know that from her performance in my class. She settled on education because she thinks that she can do a lot of good there, and she hopes that she can bring the values that she learned through homeschooling to the classroom.

I asked Tori about how she thinks homeschooling prepared her for university life. She says it produced a good work ethic in her, and it also taught her about taking responsibilities seriously and having respect for authority figures. She also says that homeschooling gave her a desire to pursue a higher education, since she was taught to appreciate learning and was also encouraged to make life better for those around her.

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No, These Researchers Did Not See a Single-Celled Organism Evolve Into A Multicellular Organism!

A green algae in a predator-free environment (far left) and other environments with predators. (click for credit)

A student sent me an article from Science Alert, asking me about its rather bold claim:

Scientists Have Witnessed a Single-Celled Algae Evolve Into a Multicellular Organism…Most of us know that at some point in our evolutionary history around 600 million years ago, single-celled organisms evolved into more complex multicellular life. But knowing that happened and actually seeing it happen in real-time in front of you is an entirely different matter altogether. And that’s exactly what researchers from the George Institute of Technology and University of Montana have witnessed – and captured in the breathtaking, time-lapse footage below.

Over the course of my scientific career, I have learned that many science journalists are terrible at science and not much better at journalism, so I did what I always do when I read about science in the popular press: I found the scientific article upon which it was based. Not surprisingly, the study didn’t do what the article claims. It did find one interesting result, however.

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