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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Those Plates, They Are A-Movin’

Posted by jlwile on April 30, 2012

This map of a portion of the earth shows the motion of specific locations relative to a fixed point. The arrows indicate the velocity of each location, and the blue lines are the outlines of what are thought to be the plates that are producing this motion. (Click for credit)

In the theory of plate tectonics, the earth’s surface is broken into several distinct plates which move about, carrying the continents with them. As a result, a fixed location on the planet is not really stationary. It is actually moving along the earth! We don’t notice the motion, of course, because it is happening very slowly. However, according to the theory, it is always happening. If scientists make certain assumptions about how this motion occurred in the past, they can conclude that at one time, all the continents on earth were grouped together in a supercontinent called Pangaea. Over time, the motion of the plates then separated the continents into the positions we see today.

If you assume that the plate motions we think are happening today are representative of how fast the plates have always moved, you find that it would take hundreds of millions of years for the continents to have moved from Pangaea to where they are today. However, many young-earth creationists think that plate motions were much faster during the worldwide Flood, and some have produced detailed computer models that attempt to explain how the Flood happened in the context of this catastrophic plate tectonics. Other young-earth creationists are skeptical about plate tectonics, claiming that there isn’t a lot of evidence to support it.

I tend to disagree with the young-earth creationists who are skeptical about plate tectonics. While I am definitely not a geologist or geophysicist, I do think there is a lot of indirect evidence to indicate that the plates are real and that they are really moving. Interestingly enough, I recently ran across an article by Dr. John Baumgardner that, in my mind, really clinches the case for the reality of plate tectonics.1 Not only that, the data used in the article are just plain cool!

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The Freshwater/Saltwater Shuffle

Posted by jlwile on April 26, 2012

Question: What is the significance of the freshwater fish groups represented by the individuals pictured below?

Saddled Bichir, a representative of the Polypteriformes. (Click for credit)

Atlantic sturgeon, a representative of the Acipenseriformes (Click for credit)

A bowfin, representative of the Amiiformes (Click for credit)

Believe it or not, the answer is as follows: The most recent evolutionary analysis says that nearly all saltwater fishes* evolved from fishes that were members of these freshwater groups!

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The 2012 Midwest Homeschool Convention

Posted by jlwile on April 23, 2012

I spent the past weekend in Cincinnati, the site of the Midwest Homeschool convention. This was the original Great Homeschool Convention, and it is one of the most popular homeschooling conventions in the nation. As usual, the attendance was huge, and I gave a total of seven talks over a period of 2 and a half days. There was a steady stream of people coming to my booth to ask specific questions, so when I wasn’t giving a talk or answering questions on stage, I was generally answering questions at my booth. It was very busy, but I had a blast!

I got to meet the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys at this convention. These three young men started posting videos of their bedroom practice sessions on YouTube (an example is given above), and because of their incredible talent, the videos almost immediately went viral. The videos have millions of views, and the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys have appeared as musical guests on The Late Show with David Letterman and the Today Show on NBC. In addition, when they appeared on the Mike Huckabee show (Fox News), they were so popular that they were invited back the very next week. They are the only musical guests to appear in back-to-back episodes of that show.

These talented young men are homeschooled, so it was natural for Great Homeschool Conventions to invite them to appear. They gave a great performance, and later on, I happened to be dining at the same restaurant as they were. As a result, it was my honor to meet them personally. Not only are they excellent performers, but they are also genuinely fine young men who have the right priorities in life. They are just another example of what wonderful things can be accomplished as a result of the individuality and flexibility of home education.

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The MidSouth Homeschool Convention

Posted by jlwile on April 17, 2012

Over the past weekend, I spoke at the Midsouth Homeschool Convention, which is a part of the Great Homeschool Conventions series. It was held in Memphis, TN, so pictures and tributes to Elvis were abundant everywhere except the convention itself. I didn’t give as many talks at this convention as is typical, so that left more time for my favorite part of a homeschool convention: talking with students and parents.

Since I am not selling anything at homeschool conventions these days, my booth in the exhibit hall looks rather odd. It consists of a plain black-and-white sign that just has my name on it, an empty table, two chairs, and me. In contrast to most of the other booths that try to attract people in with color banners, comfy couches, potted plants, and videos, mine looks pretty bare. The CEO of Home Educating Family thought it was just too bare, so he added one “decoration.” On my plain white sign, he wrote “The Doctor Is In” and gave me a sticky note that said “OUT.” When I left my booth, I could cover the word “In” with the sticky note. Perhaps it doesn’t sound funny to you, but I thought it was hilarious, and I used it the whole time I was there. I regret that I did not take a picture of it before I left.

Although the bulk of this post will deal with a question I got in one of my talks, I do want to mention one thing that really impressed me. It turns out that during the conference, some low-life broke into several of the vendors’ vans. While most vendors didn’t lose much, one vendor’s van was loaded with an iPad and some other important technology, so they were looking at a serious financial loss. In order to help them out, several other vendors took up a collection. Now these vendors are all competitors. If you buy a math course from one vendor, that probably means you won’t buy a math course from any other vendor. Nevertheless, the vendors all gave generously. That really impressed me. Even in business, Christians should put compassion first, and that’s what I saw happening in Memphis.

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How Meaningful are Genome Comparsons?

Posted by jlwile on April 12, 2012

The information in DNA is stored in specific sequences of the nucleotide bases adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). (Click for credit)

We hear a lot about how similar the human genome is compared to the chimpanzee genome. As I have discussed previously, if we compare the genomes one way, they are 72% identical. If we compare them another way, they more than 95% identical. If we compare them yet another way, they are 88-89% identical. That’s a wide range of results! Why can’t we say definitively how similar the human genome is to the chimpanzee genome? There are probably several reasons for this, but I want to highlight a basic one. Even though the human and chimpanzee genomes have been sequenced, we still don’t know them as well as you might think.

To understand why we don’t know these sequenced genomes very well, you need to know a bit about how DNA stores information. As most people know, DNA is a double helix. Each strand of this double helix has a sequence of chemical units called nucleotide bases. There are four different nucleotide bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). Taken three at a time, these four nucleotide bases code for a specific kind of chemical called an amino acid. The two strands of the double helix hold together because the nucleotide bases on one strand link up with the nucleotide bases on the other strand.

As shown in the illustration above, the way the nucleotide bases link up is very specific. Adenine (A) links only to thymine (T), and cytosine (C) links only to guanine (G). Because of this, if you know the sequence on one strand of DNA, you automatically know the sequence on the other strand. After all, A can only link to T, so anywhere one strand has an A, the other strand must have a T. In the same way, C can only link to G, so anywhere one strand has a C, the other strand must have a G. So the two strands of the DNA double helix are held together by pairs of nucleotide bases.

As a result, we count the length of a genome in terms of how many base pairs there are. The illustration above, for example, has 14 base pairs (the black G is hiding a C behind it, and the black A is hiding a T behind it). Obviously, then, the larger the number of base pairs in the genome, the longer the genome is. Believe it or not, even though the human and chimpanzee genomes have been sequenced, we don’t know for sure how long either of them are!

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Jesus Talks to Pilate After the Resurrection?

Posted by jlwile on April 9, 2012

I have a little-used category on this blog called “Christian Drama.” It is there because from time to time, I write dramas that are performed at my church. Back in January of 2011, for example, I wrote a 25-minute drama based (very loosely) on the end of John Newton’s life. It turned out pretty well, and I posted the video here so that others might enjoy it. Since then, I have written a few dramas for church, but I didn’t consider any of them worth posting.

Yesterday, of course, was Easter Sunday, which I consider to be the most important Sunday worship service of the year. I was asked to come up with a short drama for the service, and I agreed – with some hesitation. The problem with writing a drama about Easter is that it’s hard to come up with something new. The account of Jesus’ resurrection is so important to the Christian church that it has been written about, preached about, and depicted in all sorts of different ways. How do you come up with something that is original and at the same time meaningful?

Well…here’s what I did. I decided to present a fictional (but maybe plausible?) presentation of Easter from Pilate’s point of view. Pilate was governor of Judaea at the time, so it fell on him to order Christ’s crucifixion. His wife warned him to “have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him” (Matthew 27:19), but he felt pressured by the crowd to order Christ’s execution. I suspect that as time went on, he regretted that decision. I wondered how he might deal with that regret. I then wondered how Jesus might have helped him.

Below the fold you will find a wholly made-up encounter between Jesus and Pilate shortly after the resurrection. This is not meant to have even the slightest hint of historical accuracy. It is just meant to communicate the gospel’s message of forgiveness. I hope you enjoy it.

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Just How Evil Is This “Evil Twin”?

Posted by jlwile on April 5, 2012

This cold-water coral flourished in acidic waters once it was given time to adapt. (Click for credit)

Ocean acidification has been called the “evil twin” of global warming. That’s because rising carbon dioxide levels are not just supposed to result in an overly-warm world. They are also supposed to result in an overly-acidic ocean. How does carbon dioxide in the air affect the acidity of the ocean? Well, the ocean absorbs a large fraction of the carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere. Some of that carbon dioxide then reacts with the water in the ocean, producing carbonic acid. The more carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere, the more carbon dioxide the ocean will absorb. As the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide, more carbonic acid will be made. Thus, rising carbon dioxide levels will lead to a more acidic ocean.

Unlike the link between rising carbon dioxide levels and global warming, the link between rising carbon dioxide levels and ocean acidification is straightforward and has already been seen to some extent. As you may remember from high school chemistry, acidity can be measured using the pH scale. A pH of 7 is neutral. A pH greater than 7 indicates a basic solution, while a pH lower than 7 indicates an acidic solution. The key for this discussion is as follows: the lower the pH, the more acidic the solution. Well, according to the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research council:1

The average pH of ocean surface waters has decreased by about 0.1 unit—from about 8.2 to 8.1—since the beginning of the industrial revolution, with model projections showing an additional 0.2-0.3 drop by the end of the century, even under optimistic scenarios

Now this might not sound like a big change, but the pH scale is logarithmic. That means if the pH decreases by 1 unit, the acidity has increased by a factor of 10! Thus, a drop in pH of 0.1 is actually a change of 26%. This means the ocean is 26% more acidic than it was before the beginning of the industrial revolution. If the models are correct (and who knows if they are), the ocean will increase in acidity by an additional 58 to 100 percent by the end of the century!

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The Christian Home Educators of New Hampshire Convention

Posted by jlwile on April 3, 2012

The view from my room at the Christian Home Educators of New Hampshire Convention.

On Friday and Saturday, I spoke at the Christian Home Educators of New Hampshire convention. It was held at a very nice resort in the town of Laconia, New Hampshire. The resort was right on a lake, so the views were beautiful. Indeed, my Saturday talks were held in a large room that had huge windows and a great view of the lake. I expect people were enjoying the view more than my talks! Even so, there were some great questions, and because it was a smaller convention, I got to spend a lot more time talking to people one-on-one.

The conference started on an incredibly memorable note. I was sitting at a table in the vendor hall waiting for my first talk to begin, and a young woman who was in her 20′s came up to me and asked if I was Dr. Wile. When I told her that I was, she introduced herself, giving me her married name and her maiden name. I seemed to recognize the maiden name, but I couldn’t place it. Then she told me her story. Back when I owned a publishing company, I used to have a “Science Question of the Week” competition on the company’s website. I would post what I thought was a challenging science question, and I would invite students 18 or younger to answer the question. After 12 questions, whoever had the most correct answers got to choose from a list of four prizes, typically bought from the Edmund Scientifics catalog.

This young lady told me that she was a past winner of the contest. That, of course, told me why I recognized her maiden name. She said that she chose a Galileo thermometer as her prize and had treasured it for many years. Well, not too long ago, she was cleaning the shelf where it was stored and broke it. Even though she is now an adult with young children of her own, she actually sat down and cried over the loss! Her grief must have been evident, because her husband ended up buying another one to replace it.

Her story meant a lot to me. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working on the Science Question of the Week, but I had no idea that it meant so much to (at least some of) the students who participated in it. It just goes to show that when you work with students, you never know how you will touch them. Never in a million years would I have thought that the contest meant so much to a student that even as an adult, she would be emotionally affected by the loss of a $30 prize. Teachers and homeschooling parents, take this as a lesson. The things you do that you think are small and insignificant might affect your students in an incredibly powerful way!

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