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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

CHARGING Towards an Understanding of Autism

Posted by jlwile on June 22, 2012

There are many myths about medicine these days. Some are harmless, but many can lead to all sorts of problems. One very harmful medical myth is the idea that autism is caused by childhood vaccination. Although many careful studies have demonstrated that there is just no link between vaccines and autism, you can still find many websites that try to argue that vaccination causes autism. A while back, I participated in a debate hosted by one such website.

In the debate, I discussed and explained the studies that show there is simply no link between vaccines and autism. I also pointed out that some of the authors involved in these studies have a proven track record for finding a link between a vaccine and a serious medical condition, so it is hard to believe that they would miss a link between vaccines and autism if there is one. Not surprisingly, the website that hosted and heavily promoted the debate removed all mention of it afterwards, because the debate clearly showed the error of the idea they they are trying to promote.

Fortunately, real scientists are searching for the actual cause of autism, and lots of progress has been made. I recently ran across a study that addresses autism and the health of the mother during pregnancy. As a result of that study, I learned about a very interesting program that was started in 2003 and is just beginning to produce some very interesting results. It is called the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study. The study recognizes that there seem to be both genetic and environmental risk factors for autism, and it is designed to produce rigorous research that will help us understand both.

The CHARGE study has already produced at least three very important and somewhat surprising results.

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You Cannot Promote Truth With Lies!

Posted by jlwile on June 20, 2012

Not long ago, I wrote an article about how Dr. Richard Dawkins attributed a quote to St., Augustine, but the quote turned out to be 100% false. A while before that, I wrote an article about how an evolutionist and a young-earth creationist both mangled quotes by C.S. Lewis in order to make it sound like Lewis believed things that he didn’t believe. Well, here’s yet another example of someone using made-up quotes in an attempt to prove her point of view.

This article comes from World Net Daily, which is not exactly a paragon of responsible journalism. It was written by Marylou Barry, and it tries to make the case that scientists don’t believe in evolution because of the evidence. Instead, they believe it because they dogmatically reject the idea of a Creator. This, of course, is absurd, as there are many, many Christians who believe in evolution. If belief in evolution is based on the rejection of a Creator, no Christian would accept it. Nevertheless, Marylou Barry tries to make the case, and she does so by quoting famous scientists. Some of the quotes sounded a bit odd to me, so I did some checking. It turns out that many of them are either made up or taken completely out of context.

Let’s start with a simple one. Ms. Barry reports:

“Evolution is unproved and improvable, we believe it because the only alternative is special creation, which is unthinkable,” wrote the late Sir Arthur Keith, physical anthropologist and head of the Anatomy Department at London Hospital.

Since she doesn’t bother to source any of her quotes, I had to do a bit of research. The only source that has been given for this quote can be found in Comparative Views on Origins. The author (Brock Lee) claims that this quote comes from the forward to 100th anniversary edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, 1959.1 The problem with this reference is that Sir Arthur Keith died on January 7, 1955. That’s a full four years before this book was supposed to have been published! Keith did write an introduction to an edition of The Origin of Species that was published by J. M. Dent. However, it was published in 1928, and Keith’s introduction does not contain anything even approaching the quote that Barry gives. In the end, then, this is simply a made-up quote, and it doesn’t belong in any legitimate discussion of evolution.

Now if this were just one example among many quotes, I might be able to overlook Barry’s irresponsible behavior. Unfortunately, several other quotes in the story are either made up, edited, or taken way out of context.

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The Northeast Homeschool Convention

Posted by jlwile on June 18, 2012

This past weekend, I spoke at the Northeast Homeschool Convention, the last of the 2012 Great Homeschool Conventions. While it had the lowest attendance of all the Great Homeschool conventions, there was a lot of enthusiasm, and I had a great time talking to (and with) home educators and their children.

For example, I had a wonderful conversation with a young lady who had just finished her junior year of high school. She told me that she really liked physics, but she didn’t like the mathematics associated with it. As a result, she had a hard time deciding what she would major in when she went to university. After talking with her for a while, I told her that it sounds like she enjoys science in general, not specifically physics. I suggested that she should go for a “natural science” major, which is common at many universities. Then, as she pursued that major, she might find the specific area of science that has the right mix of characteristics for her. During the course of the conversation, I found out that she was attending the University of Washington on a full-ride scholarship in gymnastics!

Of course, in addition to speaking with home-educating parents and their children, I also spoke to them. I gave a total of six talks at the convention, and (as always) I had a question/answer time after each. One of the talks was called Life and Its Amazing Design. In that talk, I discuss how the design I saw in nature convinced me of the existence of God, even when I was an atheist. I also discuss how that same observation convinced noted atheist philosopher Dr. Antony Flew that God does, indeed, exist.

Those who try to shut their eyes to the design that clearly exists in nature often try to point out what they think are “bad designs,” and vestigial structures are often given as examples. The problem is that very few vestigial structures really exist. In the talk, I discuss how at one time, evolutionists thought there were as many a 83 vestigial organs in the human body.1 However, over time, important functions have been found for all but one (the male nipple). In the course of making this point, I highlight the function of the appendix, as biologists still misinform the public that it is a vestigial organ.

During the question/answer time, a student said the common evolutionary response is that vestigial structures don’t have to be useless. Instead, they can evolve to perform some new function as the old function becomes unnecessary. I agreed with him that this is the common evolutionary response. However, I cautioned him that this is a very new response. It is certainly not what evolutionists thought throughout most of the history of the evolutionary hypothesis.

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Tragedy and Faith

Posted by jlwile on June 15, 2012

My nephew, Nathan, who recently passed away.

Tragedy. There’s just no other word for it. My nephew, who was only 18 years old, died in an automobile accident. He and some friends were on their way to a fish camp to celebrate the end of school. They weren’t drinking. They weren’t doing drugs. The driver probably was speeding. They hit a rut in the road, and the truck they were in flipped over…into a swamp. Thankfully, there were people close by who were able to get the teens out safely…except for my nephew. He drowned before he could be rescued. His life ended after a mere 18 years.

Not too long ago, my aunt died. Her death was not a tragedy. She lived a full, happy life. She married, had a wonderful son, and truly enjoyed her life to the fullest. She had a strong faith, and she positively impacted a lot of other people. It was hard to say goodbye to her, and I miss her a lot, especially when I am playing cards at her favorite hangout, the American Legion Post in Lapel. But death is a part of life, and you expect it for people who are getting on in years.

Nathan was not getting on in years. He was in the prime of his life. He was taken from this earth before he could get married, have children, or even start a career. His parents will never know the joy of experiencing his college graduation, his wedding day, or the birth of his children. There will forever be a hole in their hearts, because a huge part of their lives was taken from them far, far, far too soon. Parents should never have to bury their children. It just isn’t right.

So what are Christians to do when faced with such a tragedy? Are they supposed to wonder why God took Nathan so young? Are they supposed to come up with some reason for why this had to happen? Are they supposed to make sense of it all? I don’t think so.

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Cells Might Actually Communicate with Each Other Using LIGHT!

Posted by jlwile on June 13, 2012

This is a magnified image of a paramecium like those used in the experiment. (Click for credit)

I was reading an article on Dr. Cornelius Hunter’s blog the other day, and he mentioned a 2009 study of which I was not aware. I was surprised by what Dr. Hunter wrote, so I read the study myself and became even more surprised. Quite frankly, I nearly fell off my chair. I try to stay relatively informed on major advances in the sciences, but somehow, I missed this one entirely.

What am I talking about? It involves cellular communication. Biologists have been studying how cells communicate with one another for quite some time. In order for any multicellular organism to survive, the cells must cooperate with one another. As a result, they must communicate. Generally, this is done through chemical means: one cell releases a chemical into the environment, and other cells interact with that chemical, producing an effect. In the human body, for example, your insulin-producing cells (technically called the islets of Langerhans) release insulin into your bloodstream. When cells in your liver, muscle, and fat tissues detect the insulin, they respond by absorbing sugar from the blood. This regulates your blood sugar levels.1

Even when not part of a multicellular creature, cells in groups often communicate with one another. When bacteria group together in a colony, for example, they communicate with one another so that they can do things like forage for food as a group and form coherent structures such as biofilms.2 Once again, however, most of the research that has been done on how this communication takes place focuses on chemicals that the cells release into their environment.

The study to which Dr. Hunter referred looked at an entirely different means of cell-to-cell communication, and if its conclusions are correct, the method is nothing short of amazing.

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More Evidence Against Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos

Posted by jlwile on June 7, 2012

In September, a high-energy physics group released some results indicating that they saw neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light. This is a violation of Einstein’s special relativity, so it was met with much skepticism. Earlier this year, the group announced that it had found a problem with its experimental setup, and it wasn’t clear whether or not their result was valid. Well, another group has performed a similar experiment at the same laboratory, and they found that the neutrinos were not moving faster than light. I think it’s now safe to say that the faster-than-light neutrino result was incorrect.

The 2012 Transit of Venus

Posted by jlwile on June 6, 2012

I had the rare opportunity to watch Venus pass in front of the sun yesterday. This is called a transit, and it’s a rare event because the orbit of Venus around the sun is tilted relative to the earth’s orbit around the sun. As a result, Venus passes between the earth and the sun frequently, but it rarely passes directly between the two. However, every now and then Venus lines up directly between the earth and the sun twice in a period of eight years. When this happens, you can see Venus as a black dot passing across the face of the sun. It happened in 2004, but the weather in my area was too cloudy to see it. It happened again yesterday, and this time, the weather was a bit better. It wasn’t completely sunny, but there were enough patches in the clouds to actually see something. That’s good, since it won’t happen again until 2117, and I doubt that I will be alive then!

Since you can’t look directly at the sun in order to see the transit, I rigged up my own “transit viewer,” made from a pair of binoculars, a camera tripod, a threaded rod, two nuts, a metal ruler, a bungee cord, a sheet of cardboard, a sheet of white paper, a spool of soldering wire, and lots of tape:

As you can see, the binoculars were not made for the tripod, so I used the bungee cord to hold them in place. I used a threaded rod, two nuts, a metal ruler, and tape to hold a screen made from cardboard and white paper behind the binoculars. That way, the image of the sun would be projected through the eyepieces and onto the screen. Because the ruler and screen were heavy, I needed a counterweight to keep the threaded rod hanging straight along the angle at which the binoculars were pointed, and the spool of soldering wire worked great for that.

Below the fold, you will find some pictures of what I saw.

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Information Is A Real, Physical Quantity

Posted by jlwile on June 5, 2012

Getting rid of information requires a release of energy.

When you read these words, you are receiving information. Some would call the information “too sciency, too nerdy,” but it is information nonetheless. But what, exactly, is information? Is it a real, physical quantity, or is it some esoteric construct of the mind? Rolf William Landauer spent a lot of time thinking about this question. That’s not surprising, because he was a physicist who worked for IBM, a company that deals with lots of information. In 1961, he wrote a paper for the IBM Journal of Research and Development in which he argued that information is a real, physical quantity that is governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. As a result, in order to erase information (such as when a file is deleted from a hard drive), a certain amount of energy must be released.1

It is important to understand what Landauer meant. He didn’t mean that it takes energy to erase information. For example, if you want to erase the writing on a whiteboard, you have to expend energy wiping the markings off the board. That makes perfect sense, but it’s not what Landauer was referring to. He said that in order for information to be erased, energy must be released into the environment. The very act information being destroyed, regardless of the method, requires a physical response: a minimum amount of energy must be released. This is because information is a real, physical quantity and is therefore governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Now the Second Law of Thermodynamics is misunderstood and misused frequently (you can read more about that here and here), so let’s start with what the Second Law actually says. It says that the entropy of the universe must always increase or at least stay the same. It can never decrease. What is entropy? It is a measure of the energy in a system that is not available to do work. However, a more useful definition is that it is a measure of the disorder in a system. The larger a system’s entropy, the “messier” it is. Using this concept of entropy, then, we can say that the disorder of the universe is always increasing or at least staying the same: the universe never gets more ordered.

Now let’s apply this concept to a computer disk. A computer disk has a bunch of bits, and each bit can have a value of either 0 or 1. On a blank disk, all the bits have the same value. Let’s say it’s 0. However, as you start putting information on the disk, the bits change. Some stay at their original value (0), but others change (they become equal to 1). So as more information gets put on the disk, there are more possibilities for the values of the bits. If you were to erase the disk again, you would set all those bits back to 0. When you do that, the disk gets more ordered. While there was information on the disk, it was possible for many of the bits to have a value of 1. When you erase the disk, that’s not possible anymore – all the bits have to have a value of 0. From the point of view of the disk, then, when you erase the information, the disk gets more ordered.

If the disk gets more ordered when information is erased and nothing else happens, the universe would become a bit more ordered, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics forbids this. Thus, in order to follow the Second Law, the very act of erasing information must release energy. Furthermore, that energy must be large enough to disorder the universe as much as or more than the disk became ordered. That way, the decrease in entropy of the system (the disk) will be offset by the increase in entropy of the disk’s surroundings so that the total entropy of the universe remains the same or increases. Landauer even used the Second Law of Thermodynamics to predict the minimum amount of energy that must be released for each bit of information that is erased.

This idea remained theoretical for more than 40 years, but it was recently tested by experiment, and it seems that Landauer was correct.

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