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Friday, April 18, 2014

Arched Necks In Dinosaur Fossils: Is Water to Blame?

Posted by jlwile on February 28, 2012

The position of the head and neck in this fossil is common among dinosaur fossils (Click for credt).

Relatively complete dinosaur fossils are fairly rare. Additionally, fossils in which the bones are essentially preserved in their proper arrangement (called fully articulated fossils) are even more rare. However, among these rare, fully-articulated fossils, there is a common feature: the head is often thrown back, curving the neck, as shown in the fossil on the left. This is so common it has its own scientific term. It is called the opisthotonic posture. Since it is so common among dinosaur fossils, it has been recognized for a long time. Indeed, the first reference to it in the scientific literature can be traced to a German paper that was written by A. Wagner back in 1859.1 Since then, paleontologists have been trying to figure out what causes this unusual “death pose.”

This investigation has produced a lot of speculation, but in the end, a study that was published in 2007 seemed to have settled the issue. It was done by a veterinarian, Dr. Cynthia Marshall Faux, and a vertebrate paleontologist, Dr. Kevin Padian. That seems like a perfect team when it comes to figuring out what’s going on here. The veterinarian would understand the various physiological and anatomical features of living vertebrates and how they would change during the death process, and the paleontologist would understand the details regarding the fossilization process. Their conclusion was:2

It is not postmortem contraction but perimortem muscle spasms resulting from various afflictions of the central nervous system that cause these extreme postures.

So according to Faux and Padian, the opisthotonic posture occurs at or near the time of death (perimortem) due to problems related to the central nervous system. It has nothing to do with what happens after death (postmortem). Their study got a lot of press and was considered by some to be the final say on the matter.

That is, until last year.

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Is This a Miracle Tree? Not Really – It’s Just the Result of Amazing Design!

Posted by jlwile on February 24, 2012

This is the fruit of the Moringa tree, which earns it the nickname drumstick tree. (Click for credit)

Moringa oleifera (commonly called the “drumstick tree”) is probably one of the most useful plants on earth. It’s leaves and flowers are eaten in many parts of the world. When its fruit is still developing, it can be cooked in a variety of ways. Even its roots can be eaten. These parts of the tree are rich in iron, minerals, proteins, and vitamins B and C. Its seeds produce an oil that can be used for both cooking and lubrication, and to top it all off, the tree is very hardy. It withstands significant droughts, making it easy to grow and maintain. Finally, unlike many trees, it matures very quickly. It usually bears fruit during its first year of growth, which means it can be used as a very productive crop.1 It’s no wonder that some sources call it “the miracle tree.”

It seems that the usefulness of the drumstick tree doesn’t end there, however. Back in 1987, Madsen and colleagues found that if you crushed the seeds of the drumstick tree into muddy water, the water would not only clear up, but it would also be free of most of the bacteria that were originally there.2 As a result, they suggested that the seeds of the drumstick tree could be used to purify water in third-world countries where no other means of water purification existed. Since drinking bacteria-laden water is a leading cause of death in many third-world countries, this could be a major benefit in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, carrying around the seeds and crushing them into water is fairly inefficient if you want to clean water on a large scale.

Eventually, the “active ingredient” that produces the water-purifying properties of the drumstick tree was identified. It turned out to be a series of proteins that are fairly small (as proteins go, in any case) and have a strong, positive charge.3 These proteins were dubbed “MOCP,” which stands for “Moringa oleifera coagulant proteins.” In February of 2010, the journal Current Protocols in Microbiology published a step-by-step procedure by which MOCP could be extracted from the seeds of the drumstick tree to make it easier to use.4 All of this represented great progress, but the question still remained: How can we most effectively use MCOP so that it becomes a cheap, efficient means of water purification?

That question might have been answered.

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Where the Conflict Really Lies, Part 2

Posted by jlwile on February 22, 2012

In part 1 of my review of Dr. Alvin Plantinga’s book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, I spent all my time discussing how he deals with the superficial conflict between theism and science. That’s because Plantinga spends most of his book discussing the issue. When it is time to move on to the deep concord that exists between science and theism, you have reached page 191 of 350. I suppose he spends so much time on the issue because there is so much discussion of it in today’s society.

When Plantinga moves on to discussing what he sees as the deep concord between science and theism, he brings up many familiar arguments. He starts with the “fine tuning” argument, which says that science has found many, many aspects of the universe that would forbid life if they were much different from how we actually observe them:

For example, if the force of gravity were even slightly stronger, all stars would be blue giants; if even slightly weaker, all would be red dwarfs; in neither case could life have developed. The same goes for the weak and strong nuclear forces; if either had been even slightly different, life, at any rate life even remotely similar to the sort we have, could probably not have developed (p. 195)

Thus, it really does look like the universe was “rigged” to produce life, as the theist believes.

Plantinga also discusses the argument that turned me from atheist to creationist – the argument from design. When we observe nature, we see instances of the most exquisite design, which generally implies the existence of a designer. He says that the design argument isn’t an irrefutable argument for theism. After all, there are ways around it. However, they “add to the pile” of evidence for theism. Here is how he puts it:

…design discourses do support theism, although it isn’t easy to see how much support they offer. I realize that this is a wet noodle conclusion: can’t I say something more definite and exciting? Well, I’d love to; but my job here is to tell the sober truth, whether or not it is exciting. That obligation can sometimes interfere with telling a good story, but what can I say? (p. 264)

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Where the Conflict Really Lies, Part 1

Posted by jlwile on February 20, 2012

I have written about Dr. Alvin Plantinga before (here, here, and here). He is arguably the most important Christian philosopher alive today and is largely responsible for the revitalization of Christian philosophy that took place in the mid-to-late 1900s. As my previous posts indicate, I don’t always agree with Dr. Plantinga. However, each time I have read one of his books or listened to one of his lectures, I have learned a great deal. As a result, I was thrilled to receive a copy of his newest book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism for Christmas.

Like any serious book on science or philosophy, this is not an easy book to read. It’s not that Plantiga is hard to understand – quite the opposite. It’s just that he thinks very, very deeply. As a result, when you read his books, you also have to think deeply. Of course, the hard work is rewarded if you stick with it, but make no mistake about it – reading this book in its entirety is hard work. Now Dr. Plantinga has made it a bit easier for you if you don’t want to work quite so hard. The book is written in two fonts: a large one and a small one. If you read just the large font, you can understand the message of the book, but you won’t get bogged down by certain details. If you read the small font as well, you get the message of the book in all its philosophical depth. While that is challenging, it is well worth it.

Dr. Plantinga encapsulates the message of his book in an elegant phrase. He says that his overall claim can be summed up as follows:

There is a superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. (p. ix)

Needless to say, I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Interestingly enough, however, I agree with it for slightly different reasons from those that are given in the book.

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Silver Foxes Change Rapidly… and in Surprising Ways

Posted by jlwile on February 16, 2012

In the experiment, farm-bred silver foxes went from being agressive towards people (left) to being friendly (right) in as little as six generations. (Photos from reference 1)

I recently read about a fascinating experiment that has been going on in Russia for the past 50 years. Dmitry K. Belyaev acquired some silver foxes from a farm that breeds them for their fur. The farm started about 50 years prior to the experiment, so several generations of foxes had experienced human contact to some degree. However, the foxes still did not care for human contact and were quite aggressive if they were forced into such contact.

Belyaev took this group of foxes and began trying to develop a new trait: tameness. Each fox was exposed to a human for a specific amount of time at specific ages. The fox was then evaluated based on how well it reacted to the human, and only the foxes with the best overall reactions to humans were bred. In a mere six generations, some foxes were born that not only enjoyed human contact, they actually craved it! This behavior became characteristic of the entire population, so that the foxes now behave like dogs – wagging their tails, whimpering, licking people, and generally doing all they can to interact with people.1

Now these results are cool on at least two levels. First, I was shocked at how quickly the foxes adapted to human socialization. For human-friendly foxes to appear in a mere six generations just astounds me. I know that dogs were domesticated from wolves, but I always imagined that it took a long, long time. After all, a lot has to change in order to take an animal that avoids people and is aggressive towards them and turn it into an animal that not only jumps up on your lap to cuddle with you but begs to be able to do so! According to this experiment, however, the change can happen quickly. Second, I just think it would be incredibly cool to have a pet fox. From time to time, I see a wild red fox in the neighborhood where I live. I would love to have such a beautiful animal as a pet!

Those are the cool aspects of the experiment. However, there are a lot more interesting aspects to the experiment, and they indicate that we still have a lot to learn when it comes to genetics.

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The Debate is Settled on Another “Vestigial Organ”

Posted by jlwile on February 13, 2012

The Guiana dolphin's vibrissal crypts, which some thought were vestigial remains of whiskers (photo from reference 3)

Most dolphins are born with hairs on their rostrum. However, those hairs quickly fall out, leaving empty pits behind. The photograph on the left gives a rather striking example of these pits, which are often called vibrissal crypts. For a long time, there has been controversy in the scientific literature regarding what these pits are. Some have contended that they are leftover vestiges from when the ancestors of dolphins had whiskers1, while others have suggested that they serve some sort of sensory purpose.2

Wolf Hanke and his colleagues set out to settle this controversy for at least one species – the Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis). As they say in the introduction to their study3

These vibrissal crypts are often described as vestigial structures lacking innervation and the characteristic blood sinuses [15,16], which are probably reduced in favour of the sonar system.

However, they indicate that there are some data that contradict this this idea, so they decided to do a detailed study of the Guiana dolphin’s vibrissal crypts. First, they examined the microscopic structure of the tissue. They noticed that each crypt had about 300 nerves plugged into it, which is more than the number of nerves plugged into a rat’s whisker. It seems obvious that there wouldn’t be such a large amount of nerve tissue wasted on a useless structure.

In addition, the tissue looked a lot like the electroreceptors found in the bill of a platypus which allow the platypus to detect electrical fields in the murky water where it lives. Why would the platypus want to sense electrical fields? Because whenever a muscle contracts, it sends out a weak electrical signal. As a result, a platypus can find prey without seeing or smelling it. All the platypus has to do is find the electrical signals being emitted by the prey’s contracting muscles.

So the microscopic structure of the tissue in the vibrissal crypts makes it look like the Guiana dolphin uses them to detect electrical signals, just as the platypus does. The scientists decided to put this idea to the test, and the results were astounding.

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The Rage Against God

Posted by jlwile on February 9, 2012

Peter Hitchens is probably best known for the fact that he is the brother of Christopher Hitchens, the famous New Atheist who recently died. This is unfortunate, because he is actually a very accomplished writer. He was a resident foreign correspondent for British newspapers in both Moscow and Washington, and over the years, he has written five books. In 2010, he was awarded Britain’s most prestigious prize for political journalism, The Orwell Prize. Honestly, I had never heard of him until I read about his latest book, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Given that he is the brother of a New Atheist, and given that New Atheists are known for their anger against God, I decided this would be an interesting book to read. While it did turn out to be interesting, it wasn’t anything like I expected it to be.

I think my expectations for the book were wrong because I didn’t appreciate the fact that Peter Hitchens is a political writer. As a result, he seems to see things through the prism of power and control. For example, here is how he explains the New Atheists’ rage against God:

Why is there such a fury against religion now? Why is it more advanced in Britain than in the USA? I have had good reason to seek the answer to this question, and I have found it where I might have expected to have done if only I had grasped from the start how large are the issues at stake. Only one reliable force stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. Only one reliable force forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law. Only one reliable force restrains the hand of the man of power. And, in an age of power-worship, the Christian religion has become the principal obstacle to the desire of earthly utopians for absolute power. (pp. 112-113)

In other words, as far as Peter Hitchens is concerned, it’s all about power. There is a rage against God (and Christianity in particular), because belief in traditional religious principles gets in the way of the New Atheists’ desire to force people to live the way the New Atheists want them to live.

How does Peter Hitchens come to this conclusion? Mainly, it is because of his life experiences. A large part of the book is concerned with his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Moscow. As he discusses them, he paints a picture of Russia in the waning days of the Soviet Union, and it is not pretty. The people are mostly depressed, alcoholism is rampant, and there is no freedom. Everyone is watching everyone else, and if you aren’t connected to one of the elites, the slightest mistake can produce drastic consequences. In the end, all this was possible because of the supreme power the Soviet Union wielded over its people.

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You Never Know What They Will Discover…If You Let Them!

Posted by jlwile on February 6, 2012

Tetrakis(nitratoxycarbon)methane, a theoretically-possible molecule discovered by ten-year-old
Clara L. Lazen.

Back when I was on the faculty at Ball State University, I was cleaning some platinum foils that I was using in my research. I brushed them with ethanol and then put them in a flame until they glowed red hot. By accident (which is often the way scientific truths are discovered), I found that if I passed a platinum foil back over (but not into) the ethanol while it was hot but no longer glowing, it would start to glow red hot again. When I pulled it away from the ethanol, it would stop glowing, but if I put it near the ethanol soon enough, it would once again begin to glow. I was fascinated by this effect and played with it for quite a while. The next day, I was teaching chemistry to a class of gifted-and-talented high school juniors, and I showed them what I had found. Then I gave them the “explanation” for it.

Platinum is a known catalyst, which means it tends to speed up a reaction without being consumed. In addition, alcohols are known to decompose into another class of organic molecules called “aldehydes,” and that happens quickly in the presence of the right catalyst. Thus, it was “obvious” what was going on: the platinum was catalyzing the decomposition of ethanol vapors into aldehyde vapors (specifically, acetaldehyde vapors), and the energy released by that reaction heated the already-hot platinum sufficiently to start it glowing red again. The students oohed and ahhed over the effect, and they dutifully wrote down my explanation in their notes. At the end of class, however, one of the students patiently explained to me that my analysis couldn’t be correct.

You see, she had done something I hadn’t bothered to do. She used the appendixes in the back of her book to calculate the energetics of the decomposition of ethanol into acetaldehyde, and she found that the reaction actually absorbed energy. It did not release energy. Thus, it could not be heating the platinum! Needless to say, I was rather impressed with this young lady’s analysis. The next class period, I told all the students that I was wrong and that I would look into the real explanation. However, I couldn’t find anything in the chemical literature that was relevant. As a result, I asked the young lady if she would work under my NSF research grant that summer and figure out what was really going on. She was surprised that I thought she could figure something like that out, but she said she would be happy to try.

It took her only a few weeks to learn what was really going on. Yes, the platinum was catalyzing the decomposition of ethanol into acetaldehyde, but that wasn’t what was causing the effect. Instead, the other product of that decomposition, hydrogen, was reacting with the oxygen in the air to make water. That reaction released the energy which caused the platinum to heat up enough to glow red hot again. This young lady’s work was so solid and elegant that we published a paper on her explanation of the effect.1

Why am I telling you this story? Because a friend of mine alerted me to an article that brought it all back to me in vivid detail.

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From Atheist to Creationist: Several Have Made That Journey

Posted by jlwile on February 2, 2012

I receive a regular newsletter from Creation Ministries International (CMI), a young-earth creationist group made up of scientists from around the world. While I was reading the October, 2011 edition of that newsletter, I ran across an article entitled “Eternal fruit – from atheist to creationist.” According to the article:

Sai-Chung was an atheist activist attending church to study Christianity – so as to be effective at undermining it!

Well, it turns out that this man attended a talk on creation science given by Warwick Armstrong, who used to be a speaker at CMI but is now retired. Recently, Sai-Chung contacted CMI and told them that Armstrong’s talk (which was given in 2003) was instrumental in him coming to faith in Christ. He is now a youth group leader in the Chinese extension of one of Australia’s largest churches. He was actually contacting CMI because he wanted some assistance in polishing off his first talk on creation.

So here is someone who attended church specifically to learn how to undermine it. Obviously, then, he was not predisposed to believe what the Church (or the creationist speaker) was telling him. Nevertheless, what he heard was so convincing that he not only decided to put away his atheism and become a Christian, he also decided to become a young-earth creationist! That story, in and of itself, is quite interesting. It also got me to thinking: Sai-Chung isn’t the only one who made the journey from atheist to young-earth creationist. I made that same journey, albeit by taking a slightly different path.

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