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Friday, August 22, 2014

Another Famous Physicist Leaves the APS Over Global Warming

Posted by jlwile on September 29, 2011

Nobel Laureate Dr. Ivar Giaever (click for credit)

Dr. Ivar Giaever has a PhD in physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was a biophysics scholar at Cambridge, and is professor at both his alma mater and the University of Oslo. Although he has an impressive list of accomplishments, he is best remembered for sharing the Nobel Prize in physics with Dr. Leo Esaki and Dr. Brian Josephson in 1973. The trio won the award for investigating a quantum mechanical effect called “tunneling” and how it relates to solids. When a particle (like an electron) passes through a barrier that Newtonian physics says it should not be able to pass through, we say that it has “tunneled” through the barrier. Specifically, Dr. Giaever showed how this quantum-mechanical phenomenon applies to superconductors, which are materials that conduct electricity without resistance.

Of course, that was almost fourty years ago. Since then, he made a name in the field of biophysics, shedding light on how large biological molecules as well as cells interact with thin metal films. While he still has academic appointments at both Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Oslo, he has dedicated most of his recent time to a company called Applied Biophysics, which specializes in scientific instrumentation used in biological research and drug discovery.

Why am I telling you about this world-renowned physicist? Because he has joined another famous physicist in protesting the American Physical Society’s stand on global warming by resigning from the society.

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An Interesting Canadian Homeschooling Study

Posted by jlwile on September 27, 2011

I started working with homeschoolers because while I was on the faculty at Ball State University, my best chemistry and physics students were homeschool graduates. At the time, I knew almost nothing about homeschooling, but since it was sending me my best university students, I thought I should investigate it a bit. As I looked through the academic literature that was available at the time, I saw that the few studies which had been done on homeschooling were in accord with my observation: homeschooled students are academically superior to their publicly- and privately-schooled counterparts.

Since then, a wealth of studies have been done on homeschooling, and the results are essentially the same. In 1999, for example, Rudner showed that homeschooled students academically outperform their publicly- and privately-schooled counterparts at every grade level.1 In 2010, a nationwide study of more than 11,000 homeschooled students showed that homeschooled students score, on average, more than 30 percentage points above the national average in all subject areas tested (which included math, science, social studies, reading, and language).2 In general, when you attempt to measure academic performance, the average homeschooled student beats the average privately-schooled student, and the average privately-schooled student beats the average publicly-schooled student.

Well, a recent study of homeschooled elementary students in Canada has produced very similar results, but in a different way. In addition, it actually compared two different homeschooling styles, and the results are very intriguing.

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Particles Traveling Faster Than The Speed of Light?

Posted by jlwile on September 23, 2011

The OPERA detector at CERN (click for credit)

The science media is abuzz with claims that scientists at the world’s largest particle physics lab (CERN) have observed subatomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light. If this observation is confirmed, it could deal a severe blow to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which has an enormous amount of experimental confirmation. However, the first part of that previous statement is really, really important. These results need to be confirmed, and I am rather skeptical that they will be. Even if they are confirmed, however, they don’t necessarily mean that special relativity is incorrect. That’s probably the most overlooked part of the story!

First, you need to know that the particles being studied are called neutrinos, and they are maddeningly hard to detect, because they don’t interact strongly with matter. In this experiment, the neutrinos are detected by an underground system called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus), which is made up of about 150,000 bricks of photographic emulsion film stacked in between lead plates. The mass of this system is 1,300 tons. It sits 730 kilometers away from the source of the neutrinos it is detecting, and those neutrinos generally take about three thousandths of a second to travel from the source to the detector.

The scientists have published an initial version of their paper, and it is impressive. Most importantly, they seem to have taken great care in keeping track of time in their experiment. After all, if the scientists are going to measure the velocity of the neutrinos, they need to know when the neutrinos are made and when they reach the detector. The difference between those two times tells them how long it took for the neutrinos to travel from source to detector, which then allows them to determine their speed. Measuring those two times is a bit tricky, however. Even though they took great pains to measure the times as well as they could, I think that’s the weak point of their experiment.

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Stem Cells: Induced Ones Make The Same Proteins as Embryonic Ones

Posted by jlwile on September 20, 2011

This illustration shows the first few steps of embryonic development. Embryonic stem cells, which are pluripotent, are colored blue. (Click for credit.)

When your mother’s egg cell was fertilized by your father’s sperm cell, the result was a single cell, called a zygote. That cell had all the information necessary to develop into the person you are today. In other words, it could produce everything necessary to build you. So that single cell had the capability of developing into any human cell. We call such cells totipotent cells. Of course, in order to make all those cells, the zygote had to start reproducing, resulting in an embryo.

As this cell (and its progeny) reproduced, the number of cells in the embryo grew. When that reproduction had produced about 12 cells, you were in the morula stage of your development, and on a microscopic level, you resembled a mulberry. As your cells continued to reproduce, they formed a hollow sphere called a blastocyst. At one end of the hollow sphere, there was a bunch of cells called the inner cell mass, which is represented by the blue cells in the illustration above. That inner cell mass developed into all the organs and tissues that make up your body.1

Interestingly enough, however, the cells in that inner cell mass were no longer totipotent. They could not, for example, form the kind of cells that make up the outer layer of the blastocyst, which are shown in yellow in the illustration above. However, they could end up becoming any of the cells in any of the organs or tissues of your body. As a result, they are called pluripotent cells. As they continued to reproduce, they started “choosing” what kind of cell they would become. Some of those pluripotent cells, for example, became skin cells. Once they did that, we say that the cells had differentiated. This means they lost their pluripotency, and would no longer be able to become some other type of cell. As a result, they would end up doing the same job for the rest of their lives.

Pluripotent cells are often called stem cells, and they have a lot of potential in medicine. After all, if someone suffers from severe organ damage, I could theoretically get his or her body to rebuild that damaged organ if I supplied it with enough stem cells. The stem cells could then differentiate into whatever cells are needed to replace those that died when the organ was damaged. While this sounds wonderful, there is a problem. The most ready source of pluripotent cells come from the blastocyst stage of an embryo’s development. If I remove those pluripotent cells from the blastocyst, I have embryonic stem cells, but unfortunately, the embryo dies.

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Young-Earth Creationist Leads Award-Winning Research Team

Posted by jlwile on September 15, 2011

The bombardier beetle is an amazing animal. It has a fully-functional chemical weapon that it uses to protect itself. Inside its body are two chambers that are separated by a muscle-controlled valve. In the first chamber, the beetle makes and stores hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone. In the second chamber, it makes and stores two enzymes. When the beetle feels threatened, it opens the valve between the two chambers, which allows all the chemicals to mix. The enzymes catalyze a reaction between the hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone, resulting in the production of a very hot gas. The gas builds up pressure and is then released, shooting from the abdomen and hitting whatever the beetle thinks is a threat. As shown in the video above, this weapon is quite effective.

The bombardier beetle has fascinated young-earth creationists for quite some time, because its chemical weapon is best understood as a product of design. This fascination caused Dr. Andy McIntosh, a young-earth creationist, to lead his research team at the University of Leeds to develop an artificial system that mimics the bombardier beetle’s weaponry. What was the result? New technology that received the 2010 Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology award at the Times Higher Education awards ceremony in London.

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Doubt Can Aid Faith

Posted by jlwile on September 13, 2011

Robert Boyle (Click for credit)

Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691) is generally considered to be one of the founders of modern chemistry. He took the study of how matter changes out of the mystical realm of alchemy and turned it into a scientific endeavor. He is known by nearly every freshman chemistry student as the author of Boyle’s Law, which tells us how a gas behaves when its pressure changes. In addition to being a brilliant scientist, he was also a devout Christian, and he saw the pursuit of science as a way of learning more about the majesty of God. Here is how he put it:1

“…when, in a word, by the help of anatomical knives, and the light of chymical furnaces, I study the book of nature and consult the glosses of Aristotle, Epicurus, Paracelus, Harvey, Helmont, and other learned expositors of that instructive volume, I find myself oftentimes reduced to exclaim with the Psalmist, How manifold are Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou made them all!”

Even though he was a firm believer in Christ, he was an advocate of doubt. In fact, his most famous work is a book entitled The Sceptical Chymist. In addition to his published works, he kept of series of “work diaries” in which he wrote down his daily thoughts. One of the entries reads as follows:2

He whose Faith never Doubted, may justly doubt of his Faith.

We don’t know whether this is something Boyle came up with on his own or whether he read it and thought it was worth noting in his diary. Regardless, we know it was important enough to him that he wanted to record it. This seems to indicate that Boyle thought doubt was not only a necessary part of science, but it was also a necessary part of the Christian faith.

Why am I writing about Robert Boyle and doubt? Because it relates to the results of a recent survey of college students in the United States.

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Antibiotic Resistance is Not a Modern Phenomenon

Posted by jlwile on September 12, 2011

Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is often cited as evidence for evolution. For example, in his book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, Richard Dawkins says:1

Many bacterial strains have evolved resistance to antibiotics in spectacularly short periods. After all, the first antibiotic, penicillin, was developed, heroically, by Florey and Chain as recently as the Second World War. New antibiotics have been coming out at frequent intervals since then, and bacteria have evolved resistance to just about every one of them.

However, we’ve known for quite some time that at least some antibiotic resistance did not evolve after the production of antibiotics. Instead, it existed before antibiotics were developed. For example, in 1988, bacteria were recovered from the frozen bodies of Arctic Explorers who died in 1845, long before antibiotics had been produced. When the bacteria were revived, some were found to be already resistant to certain antibiotics.2 So contrary to Dawkins’s claim, it is not at all clear that bacteria have evolved resistance to just about every antibiotic. Some possessed resistance before antibiotics were ever made

A recent study published in the journal Nature confirms this fact at a very basic level.

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The Inquisition Strikes Again!

Posted by jlwile on September 6, 2011

On August 4, 2004, an article by Stephen C. Meyer appeared in a rather obscure peer-reviewed journal entitled The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington,1 and it quickly ignited a firestorm of controversy. Why? Did it contain fabricated data? No. That kind of thing doesn’t produce nearly as much controversy. One study, for example, says that 14% of scientists have observed their colleagues fabricating, falsifying, and modifying their data, and 72% have observed their colleagues engaging in questionable research practices.2 Did the article contain egregious errors? No. While the article has many detractors, their criticisms were leveled more at the fact that it was published than at the content of the work.

So what caused the controversy? This peer-reviewed article not only had the audacity to argue that the current view of evolution can never hope to explain life as we see it today, it actually dared to say:

An experience-based analysis of the causal powers of various explanatory hypotheses suggests purposive or intelligent design as a causally adequate–and perhaps the most causally adequate–explanation for the origin of the complex specified information required to build the Cambrian animals and the novel forms they represent. For this reason, recent scientific interest in the design hypothesis is unlikely to abate as biologists continue to wrestle with the problem of the origination of biological form and the higher taxa.

That’s what caused the controversy. This well-reasoned paper, full of serious data-based arguments, was an attack on the scientific orthodoxy of the day and dared to argue that intelligent design was a reasonable scientific alternative. As a result, the Inquisition was mobilized. In the end, the publisher of the journal released a statement repudiating the article, the editor of the journal was branded a heretic, and he was then targeted for retaliation and harassment. After the dust had settled, the biological community breathed a sigh of relief, because orthodoxy had been successfully enforced. Another editor would surely think twice before allowing a well-reasoned argument for intelligent design to be published in his or her peer-reviewed journal, regardless of its quality.

Well, it seems that biology isn’t the only scientific field where orthodoxy is enforced by the Inquisition.

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