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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Science and History Synchronized…Sort of

Posted by jlwile on January 21, 2015

This painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael is called The School of Athens.  Plato and Aristotle are at the center.

This painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael is called The School of Athens.
Plato and Aristotle are at the center.

I have been writing an elementary science series that introduces science topics in roughly chronological order. Currently, two of the books are available, and the third is being printed as I type these words. The fourth is finished and is currently being reviewed by two science PhDs and one historian. I have just one more to write.

Now that I am near the end of the series, my publisher came up with a great idea. Since there are some excellent history courses that homeschoolers use at the elementary level, he suggested that I write a guide which synchronizes my elementary courses to them. That way, if a homeschooling family wants to, they can learn science and history side-by-side. I thought, “How hard can that be?” After all, my science is presented chronologically, and many of these history programs are presented chronologically. It should be easy to synchronize them, right?

Wrong! Science progressed slowly at first and then picked up steam as time went on. As a result, my courses speed through ancient history and the middle ages, slow down a bit in the renaissance, slow down even more in the Age of Reason, and will slow down even more after that. Understandably, this isn’t how most history courses are paced.

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Scientists Are Still Trying To Figure Out Gecko Feet

Posted by jlwile on January 15, 2015

The underside of a gecko's foot as seen through glass (click for credit)

The underside of a gecko’s foot as seen through glass (click for credit)

Geckos are lizards that have an uncanny ability to crawl on virtually anything. They effortlessly climb up glass windows without slipping, and they can even crawl on a smooth surface when they are upside down! What gives them this incredible ability? A popular chemistry textbook explains it this way:1

…the gecko uses van der Waals forces to attach itself to surfaces and employs a special technique to disengage from that surface. Van der Waals forces exist between any two surfaces, but they are extremely weak unless relatively large areas of of the two surfaces come quite close together. The toe of a gecko is covered with fine hairs, each hair having over a thousand split ends. As the gecko walks across a surface, it presses these stalks of hairs against the surface. The intimate contact of a billion or so split ends of hairs with the surface results in a large, attractive force that holds the gecko fast. Just as easily, a gecko’s foot comes cleanly away. As the gecko walks, its foot naturally bends so the hairs at the back edge of its toes disengage, row after row, until the toe is free.

I have used this explanation myself when lecturing about van der Waals forces. It sounds like scientists have the gecko’s climbing ability all figured out, doesn’t it? Not surprisingly, however, the gecko’s climbing ability is even more complex than we imagined. As a result, scientists still haven’t completely figured it all out.

The best way to understand what I mean is to look at a bit of history. Back in 1904, German scientist H.R. Schmidt thought that perhaps the gecko employed electrical charges to stick to surfaces. After all, opposite charges attract one another, so if a gecko could induce its feet to develop one charge and the surface to develop the opposite charge, the resulting attractive force could hold the feet to the surface.

About three decades later, another German scientist, Wolfgang-Didrich Dellit, did a simple experiment to test that hypothesis. He shot X-rays at the air surrounding a gecko’s feet while it was on a smooth metal wall. Those X-rays should have ionized the air around the gecko’s feet and neutralized any charge on the wall’s surface. This would have negated any electrical force between the gecko’s feet and the wall, and the gecko should have fallen off the wall. However, after repeated attempts, he couldn’t get a gecko to even slip.2 As a result, scientists ruled out the possibility that electrical charges had anything to do with a gecko’s climbing ability.

Dellit also tested other possible explanations, including that geckos used suction to hold to surfaces, and each was ruled out. Eventually, electron microscopes were used to analyze gecko feet. Once the toe hairs and their “split ends” were seen, the van der Waals forces explanation given by the chemistry text I quoted above was suggested. In the year 2000, a study in Nature confirmed the explanation. It directly measured the force of a single hair from a gecko’s foot, confirming that van der Waals forces were at play.3 As a result, van der Waals forces have been considered the complete explanation for a gecko’s remarkable climbing ability…until now.

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Counting To God: Another Atheist Who Became a Christian

Posted by jlwile on January 13, 2015

Douglas Ell, MIT graduate and former atheist (click for credit)

Douglas Ell, MIT graduate and former atheist
(click for credit)

Douglas Ell graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with degrees in math and chemistry. He then went to the University of Maryland, where he earned a Master’s degree in theoretical mathematics. Not satisfied with only three degrees, he also went to law school and graduated magna cum laude. After that, he began his career as an attorney.

When he was a child, he went to church, but the older he got, the less he believed in God. By the time he was in high school, he wrote to his minister and stated that he no longer believed in God. His minister wrote back and gave him a book to read, but Ell never read it. By the time he got his law degree, he was a full-fledged atheist. In his new book, Counting To God, he describes what he believed at that point in his life:

It seemed you could explain just about everything with logic and science. It seemed God had no place in our modern world. I treated God like a joke. (p. 19)

In his early thirties, Ell had a son, and this caused him and his wife to start attending church. Ell treated it like a social club, but he did notice something: Many of the people in the church he attended (including the minister) had an inner peace that he could sense. He wanted that peace, but didn’t see how he could have it, because he didn’t believe what they believed.

In his mid-forties, a new career opportunity forced him to spend a lot of time on airplanes. As a result, he started reading about science, mathematics, and religion. The more he read, the more he saw a connection between the three. He eventually saw seven specific ways in which science and mathematics support the existence of God:

1. The evidence that the universe had a beginning
2. The apparent “fine tuning” of the universe
3. The complexity of life and our inability to discover a naturalistic explanation for its origin
4. The fantastic, futuristic technology that exists in all of life
5. The mounting evidence against neo-Darwinian evolution
6. The specialness of earth
7. The mathematical nature of the universe

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An Update On The Triceratops Fossil That Contained Soft Tissue

Posted by jlwile on January 7, 2015

A triceratops skull (click for credit)

A triceratops skull (click for credit)

In March of 2013, I wrote about soft tissue that had been found in the fossilized remains of a Triceratops horridus, which is supposed to be about 65 million years old. One of the scientists who found the tissue and published a paper on it in the peer-reviewed literature1 (Mark Armitage) was subsequently fired from his position at California State University Northridge. He has sued the university, claiming that he was fired because of his religious views. This update isn’t about the lawsuit; I have no knowledge of how that is going. Instead, this update is about the fossil itself.

Samples from the fossil were sent to Dr. Alexander Cherkinsky at the University of Georgia’s Center for Applied Isotope Studies for dating via the carbon-14 dating method. Since the current half-life of carbon-14 is “only” about 5,700 years, there should be no detectable levels of it in the original parts of the fossil, if the fossil is millions of years old. However, Dr. Cherkinsky’s lab found very detectable levels of carbon-14. In fact, there was so much carbon-14 in the fossil that it was given a date of 41,010 ± 220 years.2 This is well within the accepted range of carbon-14 dating, and it is actually younger than other carbon-14 dates reported in the scientific literature.3

While this is an interesting result, it is not as interesting as I would like it to be. I wanted the soft tissue that was found in the fossil to be dated, but it was not. Instead, the fossil’s bioapatite (a mineral found in bone) was dated. According to a 2009 report in the journal Radiocarbon, bioapatite is actually preferable to soft tissue in many cases. As the report states:4

Contamination of the organic fraction in the process of the burial or during museum preservation treatment generally prohibits the use of the collagen fraction for dating. Our investigation has shown that the pretreatment of bone with diluted acetic acid following a proscribed technique allows the separation of the bioapatite fraction from diagenetic carbonates.

Please note that “diagenetic carbonates” refer to contaminants that occur during the fossilization process. The report then gives a method by which original bioapatite can be extracted from a fossil. Dr. Cherkinsky’s lab followed that procedure. Since the lab specifically reported a date for the fossil’s bioapatite, I have to assume that the investigators who actually did the preparation and dating think they were dating the fossil’s original bioapatite, not a mixture of bone and contaminants.

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More Archaeological Evidence That Supports The Bible

Posted by jlwile on December 30, 2014

This bulla (a clay seal) and five others were found in a 10th-century BC village near what was the border between Judah and the land of the Philistines.  The ruler in the photo is marked off in centimeters.  (click for credit)

This bulla (a clay seal) and five others were found in a 10th-century BC village near what was the border between Judah and the land of the Philistines. The ruler in the photo is marked off in centimeters. (click for credit)

Back in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, it was fashionable among certain archaeologists to claim that Biblical characters such as King David never existed. However, archaeological finds like the Tel Dan Stele forced most of these archaeologists to admit that King David was, indeed, an actual historical figure.

But many of them still wanted to doubt the accuracy of the Biblical text. As a result, they grudgingly admitted that David really existed, but they claimed that the Old Testament “glorified” him. He wasn’t the king of a mighty kingdom, as depicted in the Bible. Instead, he was more of a tribal chieftain who commanded a rag-tag group of rural villagers. National Geographic, for example, describes how Dr. Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, sees it:1

During David’s time, as Finkelstein casts it, Jerusalem was little more than a “hill-country village,” David himself a raggedy upstart akin to Pancho Villa, and his legion of followers more like “500 people with sticks in their hands shouting and cursing and spitting—not the stuff of great armies of chariots described in the text.”

While this might be the fashionable view among certain archaeologists, the actual archaeological evidence speaks strongly against it. As I discussed more than a year ago, the excavations at a large city called Khirbat Qeiyafa have demonstrated that in the late 11th-century BC (David reigned in the early 10th century BC), Judah was already a thriving kingdom. Just recently, more archaeological evidence has surfaced to back up this view of ancient Judah.

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Another Christmas Drama

Posted by jlwile on December 23, 2014


Since this is my last post before Christmas, I thought I would include another Christmas Drama that I wrote. All of the dramas I write are non-traditional, but this is non-traditional in a couple of ways. First, it tells the Christmas story, but not in the standard way. If you read the script, you will see that it starts with a stage that has a stable filled with hay. This gives the illusion that the congregation will be seeing a standard depiction of the nativity. It even begins with an innkeeper sweeping the floor. A knock is heard, and the innkeeper says that there is no room. The person outside persists, saying that his companion needs help. When the innkeeper answers the door, however, two men walk in.

The audience learns that the men are Saul of Tarsus and his traveling companion, Shemaya. Saul has been struck blind and is making his way slowly to Damascus. However, they need to get out of the terrible weather. The innkeeper eventually agrees to let them stay in his stable, and that’s where they go. When the innkeeper brings them blankets to help make them more comfortable, Saul speaks for the first time. In the discussion that follows, the innkeeper learns about Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and birth, in that order. Along the way, the audience learns that this is the same innkeeper who (when he owned an inn in Bethlehem more than thirty years ago) sent Mary and Joseph to his stable. He has been suffering from guilt about that, and he ends up finding forgiveness and joy as a result of Saul’s visit.

The play is also non-traditional because it uses some multimedia. The story of Christ is told through “flashbacks.” Sometimes, the flashbacks contain singers who are supposed to represent people from the past. A teenage young lady, for example, sings “Be Born in Me” as Mary. Later, she and a teenage young man (playing Joseph) care for a baby in a manger. Some of the other flashbacks, however, use singers in modern dress and a slideshow that depicts the event being presented. For example, to tell the story of the crucifixion, two singers in modern dress sing “The Power of the Cross,” while a slideshow presents several pieces of art that depict the crucifixion. Two of the flashbacks don’t even use live people. They are just YouTube videos. The combination of the way the story is told and the incorporation of multimedia make the drama very non-traditional, indeed.

It’s kind of silly, but this is one of my favorite endings. Even if you don’t read the entire script, you might want to skip to the last page and read it. If you do, remember who Saul becomes…

Feel free to use the script in any way you think would edify the body of Christ, but if you use it, I would appreciate a credit.

Full script of The Innkeeper: More than 30 Years Later

USGS Sacrifices Scientific Integrity to Jump on the Global Warming Bandwagon

Posted by jlwile on December 16, 2014

This aerial photo, captured by Corey Accardo of the NOAA, shows the enormous walrus haul-out.  (photo in the public domain)

This aerial photo, captured by Corey Accardo of the NOAA, shows the enormous walrus haul-out that occurred this year. (photo in the public domain)

The National Geographic headline says it all:

Biggest Walrus Gathering Recorded as Sea Ice Shrinks
More than 35,000 of the marine mammals have congregated in Alaska

Unfortunately, the headline isn’t true. It isn’t the biggest walrus gathering, and it’s not clear such gatherings have any relationship whatsoever to the amount of sea ice that exists in the Arctic. Where did National Geographic get their false information? From the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

The National Geographic article goes on to say:

Scientists have seen large haul-outs on the Russian side of the Bering Strait for quite some time, says Anthony Fischbach, a wildlife biologist at the USGS in Anchorage. But since the first recordings of walrus gatherings in Alaska in the 1870s, groups of this size weren’t observed until 2007, he said.

Of course, that’s also not true. Either the scientists at the USGS didn’t bother to check the literature on what they have been studying, or they willfully ignored the recorded observations of the past. This is not the largest haul-out on record for walruses, and haul-outs of this size have been observed several times in the past.

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Research Shows That We’ve Been Wrong About Stem Cells

Posted by jlwile on December 11, 2014

This is a simple schematic of a tooth. (click for credit)

This is a simple schematic of a tooth. (click for credit)

Stem cells are a hot topic in biology. Scientists call them “undifferentiated,” because they have not yet specialized to become a specific kind of cell. This means that a stem cell can develop into several different kinds of cells, depending on what the body needs. For example, everyone has stem cells in their bone marrow. Some of those cells (called hemopoietic stem cells) can develop into various kinds of blood cells, while others (called stromal stem cells) can develop into fat cells, bone cells, or cartilage cells. Physicians have used such stem cells to treat certain heart conditions1, and it is expected that as time goes on, more stem-cell-based treatments will be developed.

Of course, bone marrow isn’t the only place in which stem cells reside. In fact, stromal stem cells can also be found in tooth pulp, the soft tissue that is under the tooth’s dentin (see the illustration above). That’s where the blood vessels and nerves of the tooth are found. While scientists have known for a long time that these stem cells are there, how they get there has always been a mystery.

Nina Kaukua and her colleagues weren’t trying to solve that mystery. They were just studying certain kinds of cells in the teeth of mice. These cells, called “glial cells,” are support cells that help the nerve cells (called neurons) do their job. In their research, they were adding a fluorescent chemical to these cells and watching what happened to them over time. What they found was kind of shocking!

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Another Atheist Who Became a Christian

Posted by jlwile on December 9, 2014

This is Guillaume Bignon, a French theologian who used to be an atheist.  (click for credit)

This is Guillaume Bignon, a French theologian who used to be an atheist. (click for credit)

Because I was once an atheist and became a Christian, I am fascinated by stories of other atheists-turned-Christians. I have written about several over the years, and I plan to continue to write about them as I find out about them. Well, I ran across another one a few days ago, and his story is different from the others. For one thing, it starts in France!

Guillaume Bignon was born near Paris. He says that his family was “nominally Roman Catholic,” but none of them seemed to take it very seriously. By the age of 13, he decided that he no longer wanted to go to church, and his parents had no problem with that. As a student, he studied math, physics, and engineering, eventually graduating from an engineering school and working as a computer scientist. He also played volleyball for a national league. Here is how he sums up his life at that point:

An important part of young male French atheist ideals also consisted in female conquests, at which I was starting to have enough success to satisfy the raunchy standards of the volleyball locker room. All in all, I was pretty happy with my life, and in a thoroughly secular culture, the chances of ever hearing (let alone believe) the Gospel were incredibly slim.

Obviously, God can conquer the odds, no matter how slim.

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Hello, my name is Jay Wile, and I am a pyromaniac.

Posted by jlwile on December 4, 2014

This is me lighting a methane balloon during a lecture.

This is me lighting a methane balloon during a lecture.

I haven’t written much about the chemistry course I am teaching at Anderson University, but it has been going very well. In fact, it is almost over. I don’t know whether or not I will do it again. It is a lot of fun to be teaching in a live classroom, but it also takes a lot of time to do it right. Unfortunately, that means less time for writing. Whether or not I do it again, I am glad I that did it this time.

As a part of my duties at Anderson University, I was asked to give a lecture for the public that is part of a very interesting series that the School of Science and Engineering is hosting. They said the lecture could be about anything, so I decided to share with the audience the fun you can have with chemistry. In the end, this turned into a lecture about fire, because I am a bit of a pyromaniac. I personally think all chemists are pyromaniacs, at least to some extent.

I started the lecture with burning gases that were held in balloons. Along the way, I taught the audience the basics of combustion. You can see a video of that part of the lecture below. Unfortunately, the camera had a bit of trouble focusing, because we dimmed the lights so the fire could be seen better. In addition, the best part of the lecture (burning a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen) did not translate well on video. The result was a loud explosion that shook the hall, but the camera’s automatic volume adjust ended up making it sound pathetic, so I cut it from the video. Nevertheless, I think you will enjoy the video segment, and I hope you learn from it as well.