Mathematics and Science

This is one way to visualize the meaning of the irrational number "pi."  If a wheel has a diameter of 1, it will travel a distance of pi when it makes one complete revolution. (click for credit)

This is one way to visualize the meaning of the irrational number “pi.” If a wheel has a diameter of 1, it will travel a distance of pi when it makes one complete revolution. (click for credit)

Was mathematics discovered or invented? That might seem like an odd question, but it is an important one. I haven’t seen any official poll on the matter, but I suspect that most mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists would say that it must have been invented. After all, math is a tool. We use it for accounting, parceling out land, etc. Surely people invented this tool and then improved on it over time. If that’s really true, however, there is a deep mystery that is awfully hard to explain. Nobel laureate Dr. Eugene Wigner (a theoretical physicist and mathematician) put it this way:

The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.

Think about it. We didn’t invent the natural world. We simply study it. If we invented mathematics, why does it play such an integral role in our understanding of the natural world?

In my opinion, there is no mystery as to why mathematics is so useful in the natural sciences. That’s because I don’t think we invented it; I think we discovered it. Indeed, I think it is the language of creation. As Galileo wrote:

[The universe] cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.

I was reminded of Galileo’s wise words when I read a short paper by two professors from my alma mater, the University of Rochester.

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In Honor of Veterans Day

My dad (Howard Edmund Wile) as a naval aviator.

My dad (Howard Edmund Wile) as a naval aviator.

I don’t typically do many holiday posts, and when I do, they are about Christian holidays. However, later on today I am going to attend a Veterans Day ceremony in which my father, Howard Edmund Wile, will be honored for his service. He is 89 years old and was in the Navy during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He was a turret gunner on a PV2 Harpoon and an aviation ordnanceman on four different aircraft carriers. He retired with the rank of Chief Petty Officer. This, of course, has made me think about Veterans Day and how important it is to remember those who have served. In honor of all veterans, I give you “A Nation’s Strength” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.

Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly…
They build a nation’s pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.

A Chemistry-Based Special Effect for Stage

A picture of the special effect in action.  (Credit: Lucas Collett, a fellow actor in the production.)

Me as Abraham Van Helsing, using the special effect.
(Credit: Lucas Collett, a fellow actor in the production.)

This post is a bit different from the standard fare you find on my blog, but it is about two of my passions: acting and chemistry. As longtime readers are probably aware, acting is a hobby of mine. I write Christian Dramas, most of which are best characterized as “skits,” and I also act in them. In addition, I do some community theater. Most of it is done at Anderson’s Mainstage Theatre as well as a new local group, The Alley Theatre. However, I have done some shows with other groups. In 2006, for example, I played Maurice (Belle’s Father) in Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s production of Beauty and the Beast. You can see a couple of scenes from the show here and here. The young lady who played Belle is one of the best actresses with whom I have ever worked, and I have worked with a lot of actresses!

In any event, I recently played the role of Abraham Van Helsing in Anderson Mainstage Theatre’s production of Dracula. The script is a relatively new one, but I think it is the best one I have seen. In the scene where Van Helsing confronts Dracula with a crucifix, the script says that Dracula is suppose to touch the crucifix, and it is supposed to briefly catch fire. I asked the director if she wanted that effect, and she said, “Yes, as long as it doesn’t look stupid.” I took that as a challenge.

Based on my past experience in the theater, I know of a substance called “flash cotton,” and based on my knowledge of chemistry, I understand that it mostly consists of a chemical called nitrocellulose. I had learned to make it for another show I was in years and years ago, so rather than buying it, I made it myself. The recipe is really simple, as long as you can get the ingredients.

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Put Away the Laptop. Take Longhand Notes.

Medical students using laptops in class (click for credit)

Medical students using laptops in class (click for credit)

In the fall of 2014, I taught a chemistry class at Anderson University. While I had been a guest lecturer for several university-level courses over the years, it was the first time in 19 years that I had taught an entire, semester-long class. As a result, I experienced some things I had never experienced before, and one of them was students using laptops to take notes. It wasn’t incredibly common in my class, but every day, a few students would come in, sit down, and open up their laptops.

I wasn’t crazy about the students using laptops in my class, mostly because I think they can be distracting for the students using them. If a student sees an e-mail message or Facebook notification, it is easy for the student to flip over to those things rather than concentrate on what is happening in class. However, I strongly believe that at some point, you need to start treating students as adults. Thus, I didn’t tell them that they couldn’t use laptops. I did note who the laptop users were and, when I processed test scores, I would compare the average of the students using laptops to the average of the rest of the class. Each test, the laptop users had a lower test score average.

Of course, my sample size was very small. As a result, the statistical error kept me from making any firm conclusion regarding laptop use in class and performance on the tests, but the results did correlate with my “gut feeling” regarding laptop usage, so I became even more convinced that laptop usage in class harms a student’s performance. Little did I know that there is actually a large body of statistically-significant research on the subject, and the studies are in general agreement: taking notes with your laptop is simply not as effective as taking notes longhand.

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Did We Really Save the Ozone Layer?

Ozone hole size and worldwide use of ozone depleting substances (click for credit)

Ozone hole size and worldwide use of ozone depleting substances (click for credit)

A reader sent me this article and asked for my thoughts on it. It discusses the fact that the ozone “hole” over Antarctica grew 22% from 2014 to 2015. It presents the graph shown above, which demonstrates that despite the fact that the worldwide use of chemicals known to destroy ozone has dropped to nearly zero, the size of the ozone hole has not really decreased. It points out two studies that claim the ozone hole will shrink in size by either 2020 or 2040, and it concludes with this sentence:

But the longer the hole persists, the greater the likelihood that the ozone layer is dominated by natural factors, not human CFC emissions.

So what’s the story? By banning the use of CFCs, which we know can destroy ozone in the ozone layer, did we really fix the ozone “hole” problem? Or did we, as this story seems to imply, try to fix something that is probably the result of earth’s natural variability?

The first thing you need to know is that the ozone “hole” isn’t really a hole. It is a reduction in the amount of ozone that exists within the ozone layer, a portion of earth’s atmosphere that is roughly 15-35 kilometers above the surface of the earth. While all portions of the atmosphere have some ozone in them, this portion has the highest levels. Ozone’s molecular structure allows it to absorb some of the ultraviolet light that comes from the sun. That’s good for us, because ultraviolet light is energetic enough to kill living tissue. You can therefore think of the ozone layer as a “shield” that protects us from most of the sun’s ultraviolet light.

The amount of ozone in the ozone layer is measured using Dobson Units (DU). The larger the number of Dobson Units, the more ozone there is in the ozone layer. Globally, the average amount of ozone in the ozone layer is about 300 DU, but in Antarctica, that number fluctuates significantly with the seasons. While there are times the amount of ozone in the ozone layer above Antarctica is 300 DU and higher, there are also times it is significantly lower. The lowest recorded level of ozone in the ozone layer above Antarctica was in September of 1994, when there were only 74 DU of ozone. That reduction of ozone is what scientists refer to as the ozone “hole.”

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Two Good Points Made by the Director of the Vatican Observatory

Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, the new director of the Vatican Observatory (click for credit)

Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, the new director of the Vatican Observatory
(click for credit)

Brother Guy J. Consolmagno received a Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona. He started doing research at MIT, but then wondered why he was doing astronomy when people around the world were starving. As a result, he joined the U.S. Peace Corps and started doing relief work in Africa. However, he says that when people in Africa found out that he was an astronomer, they kept asking him questions about the heavens. He said that even though they didn’t have running water, they wanted to look through a telescope. As a result, he went back to astronomy, serving as an assistant professor of physics at Lafayette College. After four years of that, he joined the Jesuit order, and in four more years, he was posted at the Vatican Observatory. On September 18th of this year, he became the director of the Vatican Observatory.

I ran across an interview with him in the October 2nd issue of the journal Science. While I am sure there are a lot of things about which Brother Consolmagno and I disagree (theologically and scientifically), I found two statements that he made in that interview with which I wholeheartedly agree. The first was in answer to the question, “Does God get in the way of doing good astronomy?”

Just the opposite. He is the reason we do astronomy. I would say that is true even if you don’t believe in God. We do it first of all because we can, because the universe acts according to laws. That is a religious idea…You also have to believe that the universe is real and not an illusion. You have to believe that the universe is so good that it is worth spending your life studying it, even if you don’t become rich or famous.

The interview ended with this quote from him:

If you think you already know everything about the world, you are not a good scientist, and if you think you know all there is to know about God, then your religious faith is at fault.

What’s Killing Corals? It Could Be Your Sunscreen.

Coral reefs like this one support a wide diversity of ocean life. (click for credit)

Coral reefs like this one support a wide diversity of ocean life. (click for credit)

Coral reefs are often called “the rainforests of the sea,” because the are so rich in biodiversity. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they support more species per unit area than any other marine environment and produce as much as $375 billion each year in economic activity. As an amateur scuba diver, I know the amazing beauty of coral reefs firsthand. That makes the following statistics from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network alarming: the oceans have lost 19% of their coral reefs (by area), an additional 15% are seriously threatened in the next 10-20 years, and another 20% are threatened in the next 20-40 years.1

What is causing this terrible loss? Here is how one organization puts it:

All over the world coral reefs are dying out. Marine pollutants, agricultural run-off and, above all, global warming, are taking a toll on these fragile marvels of nature…Politicians may be able to deny global warming, corals, sadly, don’t have that option.

While it is very fashionable these days to blame nearly any environmental crisis on “global warming,” we have no idea what the key factor in the loss of coral reefs is. Indeed, we don’t even know if there is a key factor. There might be several processes that are working together to produce this global loss of coral, and some of them might be completely unknown. However, an international team of researchers has found one thing that is definitely harming coral, and it certainly wasn’t anything I expected!

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Debunking the Myth That Copernicus “Demoted” the Earth

Jan Matejko's painting entitled, "Astronomer Copernicus, or conversation with God."

Jan Matejko’s painting entitled, “Astronomer Copernicus, or conversation with God.”

It is a common statement made in many discussions of how Copernicus revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Goethe’s quote is a typical example:

Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe.

If you read one of my previous blog posts you will recognize one myth in that quote. People knew the earth was round long, long before Copernicus. Indeed, by 200 BC or so, the distance around the earth had been measured.

There is, however, another myth in the quote. Do you see it? It is the myth that the ancients put the earth at the center of the universe to indicate how important humanity is and that Copernicus “demoted” the earth and humanity’s importance by taking the earth out of that center. While this myth is commonly taught wherever Copernicus’s revolution is discussed, it is quite false.

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New Study Indicates Chimp DNA is 88% Similar to Human DNA

A chromosome-by-chromosome comparison of human and chimp DNA.  The bars show the percent match on the chimpanzee chromosome to the corresponding portion of human DNA. (figure from the study being discussed)

A chromosome-by-chromosome comparison of human and chimp DNA. The bars show the percent match on the chimpanzee chromosome to the corresponding portion of human DNA. (figure from the study being discussed)

NOTE: Based on comments below by Glenn (who is mentioned in the article) and Aceofspades25, there are questions regarding the analysis used in Dr. Tomkins’s study, upon which this article is based. Until Dr. Tomkins addresses these questions, it is best to be skeptical of his 88% similarity figure.

More than two years ago, Dr. Jeffrey P. Tomkins, a former director of the Clemson University Genomics Institute, performed a detailed, chromosome-by-chromosome comparison of human and chimpanzee DNA using a widely-recognized computer program known as BLAST. His analysis indicated that, on average, human and chimpanzee DNA are only about 70% similar. This is far, far, below the 95-99% numbers that are commonly cited by evolutionists, so once I read the study, I wrote a summary of it. Well, Dr. Tomkins has done a new study, and it invalidates the one he did two years ago.

The new study was done because last year, a computer programmer of financial trading algorithms (Glenn Williamson) discovered a bug in the BLAST algorithm that Tomkins used. This bug caused the program to ignore certain matches that should have been identified, which led to an artificially low similarity between the two genomes. As any responsible scientist would do, Dr. Tomkins took this issue seriously and did a detailed analysis of several different versions of the BLAST program. His analysis showed that most of the newer versions of the program were bugged, including the one used in his study two years ago.

As a result, Dr. Tomkins redid his study, using the one version of BLAST that did not contain the bug. His results are shown above. As you can see, every chromosome in the chimpanzee genome, with the exception of the Y chromosome, matched a corresponding region of the human genome by somewhere between 85% and 90%. The overall similarity between the human and chimpanzee genomes was 88%. While this is still far lower than the 95%, 98%, or 99% similarity touted by many evolutionists, it is much higher than the 70% found in his previous study.

To make sure that these new results aren’t an artifact of some other unknown issue in the BLAST computer program, Dr. Tomkins also did his analysis with two other programs: nucmer and LASTZ. The nucmer program’s results agreed with the unbugged BLAST results: on average the human and chimpanzee genomes are 88% similar. The LASTZ program produced a lower average similarity (73%), which indicates that perhaps LASTZ has a bug or is not optimized for such comparisons, since its results are very close to the results Dr. Tomkins got with the bugged version of BLAST.

I think this is the most comprehensive comparison of human and chimpanzee DNA that has been done, so I am inclined to take the results (88% similarity between human and chimpanzee DNA) as the best number we have to date. Of course, I said something similar about Dr. Tomkins’s previous study (which turned out to be wrong), so take that statement with a grain of salt! [later addition:It might not be the best number we have to date. See note at the top of the article.]

Debunking the Flat Earth Myth

This painting depicts Christopher Columbus kneeling in front of Queen Isabella.

This painting depicts Christopher Columbus kneeling in front of Queen Isabella.

Since today is Columbus Day, I thought I would discuss a myth commonly associated with the man. I learned it in school, as did many others. It’s the myth that people in Columbus’s day thought the earth was flat. Highlights of American History Before 1850, for example, tells students about a conversation that supposedly took place between Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella:1

“Your Highness,” said Columbus, “instead of going east across the land to reach India, your traders can sail west across the ocean.” “What? Are you mad?” asked Queen Isabella. “If they sail too far west they will fall off the edge of the earth!”

A more recent book puts it this way:2

Only 500 years ago, sailors aboard the Santa Maria begged Columbus to turn back lest they sail off the Earth’s “edge.”

There is a big problem with such pronouncements: no historical evidence exists to back up the idea that most people (even uneducated people) in Columbus’s day believed the earth was flat. In addition, there is a wealth of evidence that indicates no one took such an idea seriously.

We know, for example, that philosophers understood the spherical shape of the earth long before Christ was born. It was discussed by philosophers like Pythagoras in the fifth century BC3 and became widely accepted when it was championed by Aristotle (384–322 BC). He saw that the stars were different in one part of the world than the other. This indicated to him that the earth must be a sphere.4 The spherical shape of the earth was so widely accepted among philosophers that Eratosthenes (c.276–c.195 BC) used the change in a staff’s shadow resulting from a 500-mile trip to measure the circumference of the earth. He was correct to within less than 2% of today’s accepted value.5

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