Even Eyes Contain Bacteria!

Mouse eyes were studied in the article being discussed, but the results are probably applicable to many mammal eyes.

Writing about coral in the Journal Science, paleontologist Dr. George D. Stanley noted:

Symbiosis is the most relevant and enduring biological theme in the history of our planet.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, “symbiosis” refers to organisms of different species living together. There are three general forms:

(1) Parasitic symbiosis, in which one organism benefits and the other is harmed

(2) Commensal symbiosis, in which one organism might benefit but neither is harmed

(3) Mutualistic symbiosis, in which all organisms in the relationship benefit

I have written extensively on mutualistic symbiosis (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example). Not only does it fascinate me, but it was also the major scientific issue that led me away from atheism. When one sees the amazing mutualistic relationships that exist all over nature, it becomes clear that these organisms were designed to work together.

Bacteria tend to develop a lot of mutualistic relationships. Indeed, you would not be nearly as healthy as you are if it weren’t for the many mutualistic bacteria that live in and on your body. And while it is widely-known that you can find mutualistic bacteria in many parts of a mammal’s body, it was thought that you would never find them living in the eye for any extended period of time. That’s because mammal eyes contain an enzyme called lysosyme, which kills bacteria. However, new research indicates that at least one species of bacterium, Corynebacterium mastitidis, makes its home in at least some mammal eyes.

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What Is the Function of a Narwhal’s Tusk?

Three Narwhals swimming close to the surface of the ocean. The lead narwhal’s tusk is easy to see.
(credit: Dr. Kristin Laidre, Polar Science Center, UW NOAA/OAR/OER)

Back in April, I spoke at the Ohio Homeschool Convention. It is part of the Great Homeschool Conventions, at which I have been fortunate to be a regular speaker. This year, the convention graciously allowed me to do my favorite kind of presentation: A Question/Answer Session. I have done them at other conventions (see here, here, and here), and I always enjoy them, usually because I learn something. I open these sessions by simply asking for questions, and I tell the audience that the questions can be about anything. If I can’t answer a question, I am happy say the three words any scientist should be totally comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” I also tell them that if I have to say those words, I will try to find the answer later and post it on my blog.

That’s what happened at the Ohio Homeschool convention. One of the audience members asked me what a narwhal (Monodon monoceros) does with its horn. I had to tell him that I don’t know. I did tell him that it isn’t really a horn. In fact, it is an elongated tooth. I speculated about a couple of possibilities, but I couldn’t say anything for sure. That was a few weeks ago, and I have been pretty busy since then. However, I have wrapped up both the Thermodynamics course I was teaching at Anderson University, and the online classes I have been teaching this year, so I finally got around to investigating narwhals.

The short answer is that we still don’t know what a narwhal does with its tusk. The long answer, however, is much more interesting.

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Ignorant People Acting Intellectually Superior

Screenshot from the video being discussed.

We live in a nation that is shockingly ignorant of basic science. Yet, at the same time, some of the most ignorant people on the planet act as if they can speak for science. Take, for example, Bill Nye. Many people view him as today’s spokesperson for science, despite the fact that he displays his scientific ignorance time and time again (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example). I just ran across another example of ignorant people claiming to speak for science. It comes from the Jimmy Kimmel Live show.

It’s one of those fake public service announcements (PSAs) which attempts to demonstrate the intelligence of the people making the announcement while at the same time displaying the stupidity of those who disagree with them. This is a form of what is now called virtue signaling – the attempt to show others how virtuous you are, often by making fun of people who disagree with you. A screenshot from the fake PSA is given above. The spokesperson, “actor, director, and two-time sexiest man alive George Clooney,” is promoting an organization that attempts to educate ignorant people to give up their foolish beliefs. In the segment from which the screenshot is taken, Mr. Clooney says that your donation of $200 will “…teach ten @*!x&^ knuckle-draggers that dinosaurs existed, but not at the same time as people.”

Now, of course, anyone with a modicum of scientific knowledge should immediately see what is wrong with the graphic being shown. Those who believe that dinosaurs and people did not live at the same time cannot use carbon dating as a way of supporting their claim. Because of the relatively “short” half-life of carbon-14, carbon dating can only be used on carbon-containing items that are less than 60,000 years old. Given that the generally-accepted timescale has dinosaurs going extinct 65 million years ago and the earliest humans appearing about 200,000 years ago, “Basic F**king Carbon Dating” cannot tell us anything about whether or not humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time.

In fact, if one truly believes carbon dating, one has to believe that people and dinosaurs did, indeed, coexist. That’s because multiple dinosaur fossils have been carbon dated to between 23,000 and 41,000 years old (see here, here, and here). All of those values are well within the timeframe that the scientific consensus tells us modern humans existed.

Now, of course, those who desperately want to believe in the generally-accepted timescale will make up excuses for why you can believe most carbon dates, but not the ones done on dinosaur bones. Interestingly enough, however, at least some of those people don’t want to do further tests to see if their excuses work. But that’s not my point. To some extent, all scientists make up “just so” stories to prop up their hypotheses, so it’s understandable that those who are committed to the scientific consensus do so as well.

My point is much simpler than that. The makers of this fake PSA wanted to show that they are well-educated and intelligent because they simply accept what the High Priests of Science proclaim without investigating the evidence in any way. At the same time, they wanted to show that those who believe dinosaurs and people lived at the same time are stupid. Instead, they ended up demonstrating their own ignorance of the scientific data related to the issue. Unfortunately, because the High Priests are doing such a great job at keeping the general public ignorant of science, most people will have no idea!

Dr. Winston Ewert, Homeschool Graduate and Software Engineer

Dr. Winston Ewert

Back in July of last year, I wrote about what might be one of the most important genetic studies of the decade. It treated an organism’s genome like a large computer program that was put together using specific groups of genes as programming “modules.” The study showed that this view of the genome made more sense of the genetic similarities between certain animals than an evolutionary view. When I read the study and blogged about it, I did not recognize the author’s name and had no idea who he was. Later on, he contacted me and thanked me for blogging about his study. He also informed me that he is a homeschool graduate and used my courses in his education. I recently contacted him to see if he would be willing to be a part of my homeschool graduate project, and he graciously agreed.

Dr. Ewert was homeschooled K-12, as were his four siblings. Like many homeschoolers, his parents’ primary motivation was to school their children using a Christian worldview. However, unlike most of the homeschool graduates I have talked with and written about, he was homeschooled in British Columbia, Canada. This actually made access to university a bit more difficult for him. Most British Columbia universities weren’t “homeschool friendly” like U.S. universities, so when he graduated from homeschooling, he started his higher education at Kwantlen University College, which was pretty much the Canadian equivalent of a community college. After two semesters, he transferred to Trinity Western University to finish his degree.

He said he had developed a computer obsession by the age of 10, so he knew he wanted to study computers. At Kwantlen, he started studying computer information systems. He transferred to Trinity when he realized he should be studying computer science instead. Had he started out in computer science at Trinity, this would have made graduating in four years a bit easier. That’s the only real negative aspect he could think of regarding his homeschooling.

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You Just Never Know What Will Inspire a Student

Spoons used as resistors in series (left) and in parallel (right).

In my high school physics course designed for homeschooling, I cover the standard topics that are considered important in preparing a student for university-level physics. One of those topics is resistance in electrical circuits. Unless you are dealing with exotic substances at very low temperatures (superconductors), all materials that conduct electricity resist the flow of electrons to some extent. A good conductor has a low resistance; a poor conductor has a high resistance. The amount of resistance in an electrical circuit and the voltage of the power source determine the amount of current flowing through the circuit, so it is important to be able to calculate a circuit’s overall resistance.

When resistors are connected so that the electricity must flow through each one of them, we say that the resistors are hooked in series. Notice how the spoons are connected in the left-hand photograph above. If I hook a battery up to the handle of the right-hand spoon and the head of the left-hand spoon, electricity would have to flow through both spoons to get from the negative side of the battery to the positive side. That tells you the spoons are hooked together in series.

When resistors are connected so that electricity has a “choice” about which resistor to travel through, we say that the resistors are hooked up in parallel. Notice how the spoons are connected in the right-hand photo above. If I were to hook a battery to the handle and head of the bottom spoon, the electricity would only have to travel through one of the two spoons to go from the negative side of the battery to the positive side. That tells you the spoons are hooked together in parallel.

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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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