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Friday, April 18, 2014

Another Scientist Who Gives Credit Where It Is Due

Posted by jlwile on August 31, 2012

It’s popular these days to claim that science and Christianity are incompatible. Of course, no one who spends any amount of time learning the history of science can be fooled by such a claim, because the history of science makes it very clear that modern science is a product of Christianity. Specifically, because early Christians understood that the world was created by a single God who is a Lawgiver, it made sense to them that the universe should run according to specific laws, and those laws should be the same everywhere in the universe. In addition, because they believed they had been given the image of God, they thought it was possible to understand those laws. That’s what prompted the revolution that produced science as we know it today.

For example, Morris Kline discusses Sir Isaac Newton in his book, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty. He explains why Newton believed that the same laws which govern motion on the surface of the earth should also govern motion in the heavens:1

The thought that all the phenomena of motion should follow from one set of principles might seem grandiose and inordinate, but it occurred very naturally to the religious mathematicians of the 17th century. God had designed the universe, and it was to be expected that all phenomena of nature would follow one master plan. One mind designing a universe would almost surely have employed one set of basic principles to govern related phenomena.

Morris Kline was a mathematician, but I recently ran across a scientist who says essentially the same thing.

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Bill Nye the Anti-Science Guy

Posted by jlwile on August 29, 2012

Most people have heard about Bill Nye the Science Guy. He had a high-energy television show that ran for five years, teaching children about science with cool demonstrations, lots of great interviews, and extreme enthusiasm. Nowadays, he produces videos about science and talks about science at many different venues. While I always thought that his approach was a little short on substance, I have to admit that he has the ability to communicate great scientific truths in an exciting, easy-to-understand manner. It’s no wonder that he has a dedicated following of students and teachers.

He recently made a short video that has become extremely popular (the one posted above). It’s gotten more than 2,000,000 Youtube hits, and I have seen it all over Facebook and my E-MAIL inbox. When I watched the video, my first thought was, “How can someone who knows so much science be so confused as to what science is all about?” As I continued to watch the video, I wondered “How can someone who knows so much science be so misinformed when it comes to creationism?”

Let me start by explaining why that first question came to mind. In essence, Bill Nye is imploring creationists to stop teaching creation to their children. He is saying that we should accept the scientific consensus and move on. The vast majority of scientists today believe in evolution, so we should believe in evolution, too. When you first hear such a thing, it might sound reasonable, but it is amazingly anti-science. What if all scientists had followed the scientific consensus that Newtonian physics was a complete description of the universe, and there were just a few “nagging problems” that still had to be worked out? If they had done that, we would have never learned about quantum mechanics and relativity, which are the guiding theories for most of today’s physics.

What if all scientists had accepted the scientific consensus that it is impossible for a crystalline substance to have a structure that can be rotated by one-fifth or one-tenth and end up looking the same as it did before? If that had happened, we would have never learned about quasicrystals, for which Dr. Dan Shechtman won his Nobel Prize. What if all scientists had accepted the scientific law known as Bateman’s Principle? If they had, we would still be laboring under the false notion that males are promiscuous in their mating habits, while females are more choosy about their mates.

The fact is that those who go against the scientific consensus are often the ones who are responsible for propelling science forward, or at least correcting false notions that had been promulgated by science. To tell people to stop going against the scientific consensus, then, is one of the most unscientific things you can do.

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It’s Amazing What RNA Can Do!

Posted by jlwile on August 27, 2012

A sunburn comes from micro-RNAs that are released by damaged cells. (Click for credit)

One of the truly remarkable things about creation is how one substance can be used in nature to do all sorts of different jobs. Take ribonucleic acid, for example. Commonly referred to as RNA, scientists have known for quite some time that it is an integral part of how the cell makes proteins. A particular kind of RNA, called messenger RNA, copies a protein recipe contained in DNA, and it takes that copy to a protein-making factory called a ribosome. Once the recipe is at the ribosome, two other kinds of RNA, transfer RNA and ribosomal RNA, interact with the messenger RNA to build the protein in a step-by-step manner.

Because RNA is such an important part of how the cell builds proteins, some scientists speculated that this was its only job. In 1993, however, Victor Ambros, Rosalind Lee, and Rhonda Feinbaum found another job for RNA. Short strands of RNA, which are now called microRNAs, sometimes regulate how much of a particular protein is made in the cell.1 Since then, other forms of RNA have also been shown to regulate the amount of protein produced in a cell. In addition, scientists have found that some types of RNA perform functions that aren’t even directly related to the production of proteins. For example, some types of RNA serve as “molecular guides,” taking proteins where they need to be in the cell, while other types of RNA serve as a “molecular adhesives,” holding certain proteins to other RNA molecules or to DNA.

Now even though the last two jobs I mentioned are not directly related to protein production, they still involve proteins. So is it safe to say that while RNA performs several functions in the cell, all of them are related to proteins in some way? I might have answered, “Yes” to such a question if a student had asked me that just a few weeks ago. However, a new paper in Nature Medicine has found a function for some microRNAs that has nothing to do with proteins. Some microRNAs serve as radiation detectors.2

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Move Over, Kindle. This Scientist Stored His Book on DNA!

Posted by jlwile on August 24, 2012

DNA stores information more efficiently than any human technology. (montage of Art from Kevin Spear and the public domain)

Everyone has heard of DNA, but many don’t appreciate its marvelous design. It stores all the information an organism needs to make proteins, regulate how they are made, and control how they are used. It does this by coding biological information in sequences of four nucleotide bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). The nucleotide bases link to one another in order to hold DNA’s familiar double-helix structure together. A can only link to T, and C can only link to G. As a result, the two linking nucleotide bases are often called a base pair. DNA’s ingenious design allows it to store information in these base pairs more efficiently than any piece of human technology that has ever been devised.

What you might not realize is that pretty much any information can be stored in DNA. While the information necessary for life involves the production, use, and regulation of proteins, DNA is such a wonderfully-designed storage system that it can efficiently store almost any kind of data. A scientist recently demonstrated this by storing his own book (which contained words, illustrations, and a Java script code) in the form of DNA.1

The way he and his colleagues did this was very clever. They took the digital version of their book, which was 5.27 megabits of 1′s and 0′s, and used it as a template for producing strands of DNA. Every time there was a “1″ in the digital version of the book, they added a guanine (G) or a thymine (T) to the DNA strand. Every time the digital version of the book had a “0,” they added an adenine (A) or a cytosine (C). Now unfortunately, human technology cannot come close to matching the incredible design of even the simplest living organism. As a result, while living organisms can produce DNA that is billions of base pairs long, human technology cannot. It can produce only short strands of DNA.2 So while a single-celled organism could have produced one strand of DNA that contained the entire book (and then some), the scientists had to use 54,898 small strands of DNA to store the entire book.

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Homeschooling in Savannah

Posted by jlwile on August 22, 2012

Me hanging with Paula Deen. She was thinner than I expected...

On Tuesday, I spoke in Savannah, Georgia at the Family Education for Christ yearly kickoff event, which marks the beginning of the academic year for many homeschoolers. I spoke at the same event about six years ago and was excited to come back this year. The city of Savannah is gorgeous and steeped in history, and the food is amazing.

Speaking of food, before the event, my wonderful hosts took me to The Lady and Sons, which is Paula Deen’s restaurant. The food was nothing short of incredible. It started with hoecakes and garlic/cheese biscuits. It was followed by pulled pork, which had probably the sweetest barbeque sauce I have ever tasted. I was then “forced” to eat dessert, which was banana pudding mixed with vanilla wafers. As you can see from the picture, I am no stranger to eating a lot of food, but this meal filled me to the brim!

After lunch, we took a driving tour of the city. The historic section is filled with squares that hold plant life and monuments to famous people or events. What makes the city gorgeous, however, are the trees that fill the squares and line the streets. Many of them are covered with Spanish moss, an epiphytic plant. This means it grows on trees but does not act as a parasite. Instead, it just gathers water from the air and from rainfall. The moss hangs down from the trees, producing the illusion that you are in a deep, medieval forest, even though you are in the heart of a city.

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There Seems To Be No Question About It: The Sun Affects Some Radioactive Half-Lives

Posted by jlwile on August 20, 2012

Almost three years ago, I wrote about how I had changed my mind on radioactive half-lives. Throughout my scientific education (from high school through graduate school), I had it pounded in my head that radioactive half-lives are constant. There is so much energy involved in radioactive decay that there is just no way to change the fundamental rate at which a given radioactive isotope decays without taking extreme measures that don’t generally occur in nature. This was considered a scientific fact, and to question it was just not reasonable.

Over the years, however, more and more evidence has been piling up indicating that this scientific “fact” is simply not true. Some of the most surprising evidence has come from Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) and a German lab known as the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB). The group at BNL had been studying the radioactive decay of silicon-32, and they noticed that the half-life of the decay periodically increased and decreased based on the time of year. The half-life was shortest in the winter and longest in the summer. The variations were very small, but they were measurable. The PTB group was studying the decay of radium-226, and they noticed the exact same behavior. In the end, both groups concluded that the half-lives of these two isotopes were changing slightly in direct correlation with the minor variation in the distance between the earth and the sun. Thus, they concluded that the sun was affecting the rate of decay in those two isotopes.1

This conclusion was bolstered by a fortunate coincidence in which the BNL group was measuring the radioactive decay of manganese-54 before, during, and after the solar flare that occurred on December 13, 2006. They noticed that the half-life of that isotope’s radioactive decay increased more than a day before the solar flare occurred. In addition, the behavior repeated itself on December 17, when another solar flare occurred.2 Based on these two papers, it seemed obvious that the sun was exerting some influence over the half-lives of at least some radioactive isotopes.

Obviously, of course, others tried to replicate these results, and they weren’t always successful. A group at the University of California Berkeley analyzed their data for several different radioactive isotopes but saw no correlation between their half-lives and the seasons.3 However, a reanalysis of the same data seemed to show some variation correlated with the distance between the earth and the sun, although it was much weaker than what was seen by BNL and PTB. The authors of the reanalysis suggested that perhaps the influence of the sun was different for different isotopes. Since different isotopes have different half-lives, it makes sense that they would respond differently to an outside influence such as the sun.4

Well, some new data have come to light, and as far as I can tell, they confirm that at least for some radioactive isotopes, the sun is affecting the value of their half-lives.

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More on Mercury’s Magnetic Field

Posted by jlwile on August 17, 2012

Mercury's magnetic field and how it interacts with the solar wind.
(Image courtesy of Windows to the Universe, click for details.)

One of the many scientific successes of young-earth creationism involves planetary magnetic fields. In 1984, Dr. Russell Humphreys produced a model of planetary magnetic fields that not only explained the data that were available at the time, but it also made several predictions.1 Over the years, many of those predictions have been borne out by the data (see here and here, for example). Compare this to the old-earth theory, which continues to struggle in accommodating the data that we already know (see here and here, for example).

Not content to rest on his laurels, Dr. Humphreys has continued to use his successful model to make more predictions. One of his recent predictions involved what MESSENGER (the latest unmanned spacecraft to visit Mercury) would learn when it measured Mercury’s magnetic field. The last spacecraft to visit Mercury was Mariner 10 back in 1974-1975, and based on some assumptions, it was able to measure Mercury’s magnetic field. Since that measurement was made more than 35 years ago, and since the young-earth model predicts that all planetary magnetic fields should decay fairly rapidly, Humphreys used his young-earth model to predict that Mercury’s magnetic field should have decayed by 4-6 percent since Mariner 10’s previous measurement. By contrast, the old-earth model predicted no measurable change.

Nearly five months ago, I wrote about the scientific paper that had been written regarding MESSENGER’s measurement. The main conclusion from the paper was that the shape of Mercury’s magnetic field is completely unlike what was assumed in the Mariner 10 measurement. As a result, I concluded that the new measurement could not be compared to the old one. That, of course, was a disappointing conclusion, since I was very interested in finding if the young-earth planetary magnetic field model was successful in yet another one of its predictions.

Interestingly enough, the first comment on the post suggested that the old Mariner 10 data should be reanalyzed now that we know the shape of Mercury’s magnetic field. That way, a proper comparison of the two measurements could be made. At the time, I suggested that the raw data probably still existed, but it might be hard to retrieve because of the changes that had taken place in computer technology. As a result, I wasn’t sure whether or not such a reanalysis could be done.

Well, even though a reanalysis of the raw data hasn’t been done, Dr. Humphreys has done the next best thing, and it does seem that the data at least partially confirm his prediction.

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Once Again, It’s Just Not That Simple…

Posted by jlwile on August 15, 2012

Two versions of the same species of coccolithophore - the heavily-calcified one is on the left
(image from the paper being discussed)

A few months ago, I discussed the acidification of the ocean. It is often called global warming’s “evil twin,” because it is caused by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Unlike global warming, however, the connection between carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and increasing ocean acidity is straightforward and has been confirmed by many observations. Thus, while it is not clear that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide will lead to global warming, it is very clear that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide lead to an increase in the acidity of the ocean.

The question is, “How will increased ocean acidity affect the organisms living there?” Many who call themselves environmentalists answer that question by saying increased ocean acidification will produce catastrophic results, threatening many species of ocean life. The reason? Many organisms that live in the ocean have shells made out of calcium carbonate. To make those shells, the organisms use carbonate ions that are dissolved in the seawater. However, as the acidity of ocean water increases, the concentration of carbonate ions in the water decreases. Thus, it is thought that increased ocean acidification will make it harder for these organisms to make their shells. Here’s how one publication from the National Academies puts it1

As ocean acidification decreases the availability of carbonate ions, these organisms must work harder to produce shells. As a result, they have less energy left to find food, to reproduce, or to defend against disease or predators. As the ocean becomes more acidic, populations of some species could decline, and others may even go extinct.

Now if that’s true, ocean acidification is a major problem. Indeed, if several shell-making organisms go extinct, we could be in real trouble.

However, this is a very simplistic way of looking at things. Yes, the availability of carbonate in the ocean will affect how easily shell-making organisms produce their shells. However, there are a host of other factors involved in the process. To single out one factor without considering the others is not very scientific. When all the factors are considered, the picture is not nearly as bad.

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Stone-Age Animation

Posted by jlwile on August 13, 2012

When you flip this thaumatrope back and forth, it looks like the flowers are in the vase. (public domain image)

It’s sad to see how evolutionary thinking causes so many misconceptions in the realm of science. For example, evolutionary thinking has produced the idea that “stone age” people were primitive and barbaric. Of course, as is the case with most evolution-inspired ideas, this one doesn’t stand up in light of the evidence. The more research is done, the more we know that “stone age” people had an advanced culture all their own.1 A recent finding that I just read about in Science News adds more evidence to support the fact that there was nothing very “primitive” about ancient people.

The article starts out like this:2

By about 30,000 years ago, Europeans were using cartoonlike techniques to give the impression that lions and other wild beasts were charging across cave walls, two French investigators find. Artists created graphic stories in caves and illusions of moving animals on rotating bone disks…

While it’s very interesting that ancient artists were painting scenes that produced the impression of motion, the thing that really caught my eye was the part about the rotating bone disks. The article has three pictures that show how one of them worked (you can see them here), and when I saw those pictures, I immediately recognized it as a thaumatrope. However, according to everything I have read, the thaumatrope was invented in 1825. For example, here is how Ray Zone puts it in his book, Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952:3

The fundamental principle behind the movies is persistence of vision, when a visual impression remains briefly in the brain after it has been withdrawn. This principle was demonstrated in 1825 with an optical toy called the “Thaumatrope,” invented by Dr. John Ayrton Paris.

Obviously, Mr. Ray is off by a few years!

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Animal Magnetism

Posted by jlwile on August 10, 2012

Brown trout like this one return to the stream in which they hatched in order to spawn. (Click for credit)

Many species of fish, such as the brown trout pictured on the left, hatch in streams and then travel away from those streams in order to mature. However, when it is time to reproduce, they end up navigating back to the same stream in which they hatched so they can spawn there. How do they accomplish this? How do they know where they are and which way to swim in order to get back to that special stream? Based on behavioral studies, scientists have thought that these fish are able to sense the earth’s magnetic field and use it as an aid in their navigation. However, the specific source of this magnetic field sense has been elusive…until now.

A recent study has shed a lot of light on this magnetic sense, at least for trout (and presumably other similar fish, like salmon). The authors of the study set out to determine what gives the trout their magnetic sense, and they developed a rather ingenious method to aid them in their search. First, they took tissue samples from the trout’s nasal passages, because previous studies indicated that there was magnetite (a mineral that reacts strongly to magnetic fields) in those tissues.1 Then, they put cells from the tissues under a microscope and exposed the cells to a rotating magnetic field. In response, some of the cells rotated with the field.2 You can actually see a video of this happening here! Just click on the links for downloading the movies.

This is a very simple, very sensitive method for finding the cells responsible for the trout’s magnetic sense. As you can see from the video, the cells that are sensitive to the rotating magnetic field are smaller than the other cells in the tissue. Also, the authors found that only 1 in 10,000 cells in the nasal tissue have a magnetic sense. No wonder these cells haven’t been found until now! Of course, as the authors studied the cells more closely, they found evidence of thoughtful design.

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