Coming “Soon”: Science in the Atomic Age

My elementary science series is finished, and I am currently working on a junior-high course that carries on with the theme of teaching science through history.

My elementary science series has been complete for a while now, and I am thrilled to see it becoming popular in the homeschooling community. The series teaches students science in roughly chronological order. It begins with the days of creation (Science in the Beginning). It then moves on to the ancient Greeks (Science in the Ancient World), teaching science in the order it was learned. It continues through roughly the end of the 1800s (Science in the Industrial Age). If a student completes all five books in the series, he or she will be very well prepared to start learning science in a detailed way in junior high school.

For quite some time, I have been hearing from homeschooling parents who would like me to continue the theme of teaching science through history into the junior high school years. With the encouragement of my publisher, I have decided to give it a try. I am currently working on Science in the Atomic Age. It will be a junior-high-school level course that covers many of the scientific discoveries made in the 20th and early 21st centuries. I plan to discuss the modern view of the atom, how atoms join together to make molecules, what the molecule known as DNA does, the cell as the basic building block of life, several of the advances that have been made in medicine, the structure and characteristics of the universe as a whole, radioactivity, and nuclear reactions.

While it carries the theme of teaching science through history, there will be at least four important differences between this course and my elementary courses. First, in the elementary course, I teach all of science on a timeline. As a result, the books change science topics constantly. In the first 15 lessons of Science in the Ancient World, for example, students start by learning the importance of math in science, then learn about the science of music, then learn about atoms, and then learn about medicine. It’s difficult to cover scientific advancements made in the 20th and 21st centuries that way, because the issues become more complex, and it is important to see the development of one particular topic over the years. So while I will still discuss science in the context of history, it will be by topic.

In other words, when I write about our modern understanding of the atom, I summarize what was known towards the end of the 1800s. I then step students through the history of atomic science, eventually ending with our current understanding of the atom. As a result, students see how the entire field of atomic science developed through the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. I then move on to molecules, but once again, I step back to the end of the 1800s and discuss the history of how our understanding of molecules developed. When I get to DNA, I “reset the clock” once again, starting with what was known at the end of the 1800s and working forward to the present day.

Now, of course, the focus is on the science, not the history. The students aren’t learning what happened in the world during the 20th and 21st centuries, unless those events affected scientific progress (like the World Wars). Instead, they learn the history of how scientists were led to our modern views. Because of this approach, students not only learn the science of what is being discussed, but they also learn the scientific reasoning used to reach our current understanding of scientific issues.

The second major difference between Science in the Atomic Age and the other books in my series is that it will be much longer. More science has to be covered in junior high school, so unlike my elementary books, this book is designed to be used every day. The third major difference is the frequency of experiments. In my elementary series, each time the student does science, he or she has a hands-on activity, usually an experiment. While there are still experiments and hands-on activities in this book, there aren’t as many. In a two-week period, students will do three or four experiments or activities. That means the student will be expected to do more reading in this course.

The final major difference is that the book switches from a notebooking approach when it comes to reviewing the material to a question/answer approach. There are “comprehension check” questions the student needs to answer while he or she is reading. Then, at the end of each chapter, there is a chapter review to help the student remember everything that was learned. Finally, there is a test for every chapter. In order to prepare the student for high school and beyond, it is important that the student answers all of those questions and takes the test.

I have only just begun writing this course, so it won’t be available for this academic year. However, I hope to be able to choose a group of students to “field-test” the book for the 2019-2020 academic year. However, that will depend on my progress. Assuming that I can start the “field-testing” on time, the book should be ready for general use in the 2020-2021 academic year. Of course, the Lord might have quite different plans, so stay tuned to find out what happens!

No, We Won’t Have Dinosaurs in Two Years!

Even with a LOT of tinkering during embryonic development, only minor changes could be made in a chick’s skull.
(image from Bhullar et. al. article linked below)

A little while ago, I wrote an article about how silly “science journalism” can get. The article was about the popular media’s claim that scientists were about to bring mammoths back from extinction. I explained how the idea was based on real research, but the goal of the research was not to bring mammoths back from extinction. In addition, if anything concrete comes from the work, it will probably be decades from now. In response to that, a student sent me an even sillier article, which comes from that bastion of journalistic integrity, People. It states the following:

Famed paleontologist Dr. Jack Horner, who’s been a consultant on all four films and is the real-life inspiration for Jurassic Park’s dinosaur expert Dr. Alan Grant, believes we’re (optimistically) just five years away from genetically engineering a dinosaur.

This article was written back in 2015, so based on Dr. Horner’s optimistic projection, we should be just two years away from having dinosaurs roaming around in some laboratory.

So what is the source of Dr. Horner’s optimism? He thinks that birds evolved from dinosaurs, so he thinks that we could genetically “turn back the clock” and transform a bird into a dinosaur. He claims that this has already been done to some extent:

In what Horner calls a definitive “proof of concept,” a group at Harvard and Yale “just recently, within the last few weeks, were able to transform the head of a bird back to actually reverse-engineer the bird’s snout back into a dinosaur-like snout.”

There are so many things wrong with that statement, it is hard to know where to start. However, I will give it a try.

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“Nylon”-Digesting Bacteria are Almost Certainly Not a Modern Strain

This marine bacterium has the ability to digest nylon waste products, despite the fact that it doesn’t live in an environment that contains nylon waste products. (click for credit)

Evolutionists are fond of stating “facts” that aren’t anywhere near factual. For example, when I was at university, I was taught, as fact, that bacteria evolved the genes needed to resist antibiotics after modern antibiotics were made. As with most evolutionary “facts,” this turned out to be nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of evolutionists. We now know that the genes needed for antibiotic resistance existed in the Middle Ages and back when mammoths roamed the earth. They have even been found in bacteria that have never been exposed to animals, much less any human-made materials.

Of course, being shown to be dead wrong doesn’t produce any caution among evolutionists when it comes to proclaiming the “evidence” for evolution. When Dr. Richard Lenski’s Long Term Evolution Experiment (LTEE) produced bacteria that could digest a chemical called “citrate” in the presence of oxygen, it was hailed as definitive “proof” (a word no scientist should ever use) that unique genes can evolve as a result of random mutation and selection. Once again, that “fact” was demonstrated to be wrong in a series of experiments done by intelligent design advocates. They showed that this was actually the result of an adaptive mutation, which is probably a part of the bacterial genome’s design.

Recently, I learned about an impressive genetic study by young-earth creationists Sal Cordova and Dr. John Sanford. It lays waste to another evolutionary “fact” I was taught at university: the recent evolution of nylon-digesting bacteria. The story goes something like this: In 1975, Japanese researchers found some bacteria, which are now charmingly named Arthrobacteria KI72, living in a pond where the waste from a nylon-producing factory was dumped. The researchers found that this strain of bacteria could digest nylon. Well, nylon wasn’t invented until 1935, and there would be no reason whatsoever for a bacterium to be able to digest nylon before it was invented. Thus, in a mere 40 years, a new gene had evolved, allowing the bacteria to digest something they otherwise could not digest.

Of course, we now know that this story isn’t anywhere close to being true.

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Print Reading versus Digital Reading: Which Produces Better Comprehension?

I saw this Science Alert article come across my Facebook feed a few days ago, and I read it with interest. Written by two researchers from the University of Maryland, it makes some pretty strong statements about the effectiveness of reading a digital article compared to a print article. Essentially, the researchers say that for specific kinds of articles, students’ comprehension is better if the article is read in print form as opposed to digital form. They make this statement based on a review of the studies that already exist as well a study they published two years ago. While I think they are probably correct in their assessment, I am struck by how small the difference really is.

For the purpose of this article, I will concentrate on their new study. In their Science Alert article, they refer to it as three studies, but it is published as a single paper. In the study, they had 90 undergraduate students who were enrolled in human development and educational psychology courses read a total of four articles: two digital and two in print. Two of them were newspaper articles and two were excerpts from books. They were all roughly the same length (about 450 words). They dealt with childhood Autsim, ADHD, Asthma, and Allergies. Presumably, all of those topics would be of interest to the students, given the classes in which they were enrolled.

Before they did any reading, the students were asked to assess themselves on their knowledge of the four topics about which they would be reading. They were also asked which medium they preferred to read: digital or print. They were also asked about how frequently they used each medium. They were then asked to read the articles, but the order in which the articles were read changed from student to student. Some would switch between digital and print, while others would read the first two in one medium and then the second two in the other medium. That way, any effect from switching between the media would not be very strong.

After each reading, students were asked to identify three things: the main idea of the article, its key points, and any other relevant information that they remembered from the article. The researchers had asked the authors of the articles these same questions as well as two independent readers. Those were considered the correct answers. Two trained graders independently compared the students’ answers to the correct answers, and the grades they assigned were in agreement 98.5% of the time. For the 1.5% of the time they didn’t agree, they then discussed the grading and came to a mutual agreement.

After all four readings and tests, the students were then asked in which medium they think they performed best. As you will see, that’s probably the most interesting aspect of the study.

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Will Scientists Resurrect the Woolly Mammoth?

Model of a woolly mammoth at the Royal BC Museum in Canada. (click for credit)

One of my former students sent me an article from The Telegraph, a news outlet in the UK. The headline reads:

Woolly mammoth will be back from extinction within two years, say Harvard scientists

The article was written in February of 2017, so the student wanted to know if there would really be living woolly mammoths next year. The answer, of course, is absolutely not. This article is just another example of how many “science journalists” understand neither science nor journalism. Nevertheless, the actual scientific story is interesting, even though it isn’t nearly as sensational as what is indicated in The Telegraph‘s article, or articles found on other sites, such as here and here.

These articles are attempting to report on the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project, which is headed by Harvard professor Dr. George Church. As its website indicates, the goal is not to bring back the identical mammoth species again. Instead, its goal is to create some kind of elephant/mammoth hybrid that can live in colder climates. Why would it want to do that? For ecological engineering.

At some time in the past, woolly mammoth herds (and herds of other cold-adapted animals) roamed what are now the evergreen forests in the northern latitudes. This kept the growth of evergreens in check, making those areas more like grasslands. In addition, the mammoth herds would pack down and scrape away snow. Without this “land reshaping,” snow insulates the soil below, reducing the depth to which it freezes. As the deeper soil thaws, it releases greenhouse gases, and the worry is that those released greenhouse gases will accelerate global warming, aka “climate change.” Now please note that actual data indicate thawing soil will reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but most “climate change” alarmists aren’t interested in the data.

In the end, then, the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project hopes to populate the north with cold-adapted, elephant-like animals that will once again turn the northern evergreen forests into grasslands, packing down and scraping away the snow as they roam.

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Death and Transformation

From left to right, Robert Kaufmann, JJ Brannon, yours truly, and John Ashmead.

I have to warn you. This post is different from the normal fare you will find on this site. It represents more of an unfinished thought than an argument or an analysis. However, I want to share this unfinished thought with you, because I can’t help but think that it might be important, at least in some way.

This past weekend, I attended a memorial service and wake for a man who was taken from this earth far too soon: James Jerald (JJ) Brannon. I met JJ at a science fiction convention that I speak at nearly every year. He was the cousin and dear friend of the man who invited me to participate in the conference, and he was also a speaker at the conference. In fact, we did several panel discussions together over the years, such as the one pictured above. That particular panel was about the diseases we might expect to see in the 21st century.

JJ was, in a word, unique. He had many awesome qualities, but he was, quite frankly, incredibly difficult to deal with. He often portrayed himself as an expert on subjects about which he was not well-educated, and unless you worked hard to hold him in check, he would monopolize any conversation he was a part of. He also went on and on and on and on and on when a subject was very important to him.

Now don’t get me wrong. JJ was incredibly difficult to deal with, but he was also an amazing friend. I genuinely enjoyed seeing him, and I was truly fond of him. Also, he loved me and his other friends (and his family) fiercely. However, after spending a lot of time with him, I often found myself getting annoyed with him. His cousin (the friend who introduced us) often felt the same way. One thing he would often complain about is that when JJ called, it was never a short conversation. As I said, JJ could go on and on and on, especially when a subject really interested him.

When I went to his memorial service, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What would people say about this wonderful but annoying man?

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Study of Mice Highlights the “Junk DNA” Myth

Junk DNA is a crucial to evolutionary theory, despite the fact that it most likely doesn’t exist to any significant extent.

The concept of “junk DNA” is crucial to evolutionary theory. For example, the “gold standard” of evolutionary simulations doesn’t produce any evolution unless at least 85% of the simulated DNA is junk. This is why so many evolutionists are fighting against the straightforward conclusions of the ENCODE series of studies, which indicate that at least 80% of the human genome is functional. Dr. Dan Graur, for example, has famously said that if ENCODE is right, then evolution is wrong.

As is the case with most evolution-inspired ideas, the more we learn about the natural world, the more it becomes obvious that there is very little “junk DNA” in nature. A recently-published study of gender in mice highlights this fact. In the study, an international collaboration of scientists examined the development of sexual characteristics in mice. As you probably already know, in mammals there is a pair of chromosomes referred to as sex chromosomes. If an individual has an X chromosome and a Y chromosome in that pair, he is a male. If the individual has two X chromosomes, she is a female.

But the development of the proper characteristics associated with each sex depends on what happens during embryonic development. For example, as a mammal embryo develops, it starts out producing ovaries. However, there is a gene on the Y chromosome called Sry. It produces a protein that controls the production of another protein, called SOX9. The SOX9 protein turns developing ovaries into testes. A male develops testes, then, because of the action of a gene on the Y chromosome. But as this latest study shows, there is more to it than that.

The scientists removed a small section of DNA from genetically-male mice. This section is found in what the authors refer to as a “gene desert,” a section of DNA that is devoid of genes. Nevertheless, when that small section of DNA was deleted, the genetically-male mice developed ovaries and female genitalia. Now please understand that the genes involved in the production and regulation of the SOX9 protein were not removed; only a small portion of what many would call “junk DNA” was removed. Nevertheless, without that section of DNA, the genetically-male mice did not produce enough SOX9 protein, so the ovaries continued to develop into ovaries, which then caused the production of female genitalia. As a result, the authors refer to this small section of DNA as a SOX9 “enhancer.” It enhances the production of SOX9 at just the right time, so the males develop the correct gender characteristics.

While the results of this study are fascinating, they are not surprising. After all, it has become more and more clear that the concept of “junk DNA” is a myth. As a result, it makes sense that even small sections of DNA have important functions, at least in certain stages of development or under certain conditions. The reason I am blogging about the study is because of something the lead author said in an article that was published on his institution’s website:

Our study also highlights the important role of what some still refer to as ‘junk’ DNA, which makes up 98% of our genome. If a single enhancer can have this impact on sex determination, other non-coding regions might have similarly drastic effects. For decades, researchers have looked for genes that cause disorders of sex development but we haven’t been able to find the genetic cause for over half of them. Our latest study suggests that many answers could lie in the non-coding regions, which we will now investigate further.

Indeed. As Dr. John Mattick so aptly put it more than a decade ago:

…the failure to recognise the implications of the non-coding DNA will go down as the biggest mistake in the history of molecular biology.

Observations about Second-Generation Homeschoolers

One of several second-generation homeschoolers I have met this year.

This is “convention season” for homeschoolers across the United States, so I have been traveling to several different homeschool conventions, giving talks and speaking individually with lots of homeschooling parents. In some ways, these conventions never change. Many of the talks that I give are on the same topics that I spoke about at homeschooling conventions more than 20 years ago: how to “teach” science at home, why it is best for most students to be homeschooled through high school, and the fact that homeschooling produces graduates who are, on average, significantly better university students. Obviously, the details of the talks change every few years, but the basic points do not.

In the same way, many of the questions I get from homeschoolers are the same year after year and convention after convention. My son is only in 7th grade but is about to start Algebra 1. Should he really take high school biology? (In general, the answer is “yes,” but it depends on the student’s ability to work independently and how he reacts to academic rigor.) If he does take biology in 7th grade, can it be included on the high school transcript? (Once again, the answer is “yes.” See this article for more details.) My daughter is very talented in ballet and wants to pursue it as a career, but it requires a lot of rehearsal time. What should I do? (If a professional says that she has real potential, then you should scale back her other academic courses so that she can pursue her talents. Don’t neglect her education; just pare it down to the basic essentials so that she can have more time to hone her craft).

At the same time, however, each year brings a few changes. Some of the conventions that used to be large and well-attended are either very small or nonexistent. Other conventions that didn’t exist many years ago are now large and well-attended. Lots of new curricula are available, giving homeschoolers a wealth of choices for how to meet their children’s educational needs. The people you see at homeschooling conventions are also becoming more and more diverse every year.

This year, I noticed a new difference. Most likely, the difference has been slowly growing over a period of many years, but after speaking at the California Homeschool Convention this past weekend, it struck me that this year, I have interacted with a lot of second-generation homeschoolers (homeschool graduates who are now homeschooling their own children).

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Another Unsuccessful Attempt to Detect Dark Matter

This NASA image illustrates the fact that most astrophysicists think there is about four times as much dark matter as visible matter in the universe.

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about a galaxy that has no “need” for dark matter. This is interesting, because most galaxies “need” dark matter to explain the motion of their stars. Based on the mass that is actually observed in most galaxies, the stars should not be moving the way that they do. Thus, scientists think there must be a lot of mass in those galaxies that cannot be seen (dark matter). To make their current theories work, scientists estimate that about 80-85% of the mass in the universe comes from dark matter. Since dark matter is thought to be so prevalent in the universe, scientists have tried to detect it directly, without any luck.

How do you detect something you can’t see? First, you have to have some idea of what you are looking for. Then, you design an experiment to see if what you think you might be looking for really exists. The most “promising” candidate for dark matter is a class of hypothetical particles called “weakly interacting massive particles” (WIMPs). These are particles that don’t interact with matter using the electromagnetic force. Since the electromagnetic force works via the exchange of photons, if a particle doesn’t use the electromagnetic force, it produces no light. Instead, WIMPs are thought to use only the gravitational force and the weak force, which works only at the subatomic level and is responsible for most of the natural radioactivity on planet earth.

Since all the matter we know of uses the electromagnetic force, WIMPs are obviously strange particles. However, they are allowed by the mathematics of the standard model of physics, which is why they are considered the most “promising” of the candidates for dark matter. How do scientist try to detect WIMPs? The most sensitive WIMP detector is called XENON1T, which is filled with liquid and gaseous xenon. The design of the detector allows scientists to identify electromagnetic interactions that occur between particles hitting the detector and the liquid xenon inside. They discard those interactions, and what’s left should be any interactions that use only the weak force. Those, of course, would be caused by the WIMPs.

The team of scientists using XENON1T reported their latest results at a seminar on May 28th, and so far, they have not seen a signal that is consistent with what is expected for WIMPs. I think their results argue strongly that WIMPs don’t exist, but that’s not the only explanation. The results could also mean that physicists don’t understand WIMPs as well as they thought, and these particles actually interact more weakly with matter than what the theories tell us.

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NASA Has NOT Found the Building Blocks of Life on Mars

A “self-portrait” of the Curiosity rover on Mars: a composite of several images taken with the rover’s Hand Lens Imager.

The headlines are screaming it. NASA Mars rover discovers ‘building blocks’ for life: 3-billion-year-old organic matter, Curiosity Rover Finds Ancient ‘Building Blocks for Life’ on Mars, Building Blocks of Life Found on Mars, etc. etc. There’s only one problem. The building blocks of life were not found on Mars. I wish they had been. I think it would be awesome to find evidence of life on other planets besides earth. However, what NASA’s rover discovered on Mars wasn’t even close to the building blocks of life.

So what was really found on Mars? Not surprisingly, the title of the scientific paper that was published in the journal Science comes close to the truth:

Organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones at Gale crater, Mars

Now, of course, I think the “3-billion-year-old mudstones” is scientifically irresponsible, but notice the difference between the scientific article’s title and the title of the articles written by “science journalists.” There is no mention of life in title of the scientific article.

But wait a minute. Isn’t that just semantics? Doesn’t “organic” refer to chemicals that come from living things. Absolutely not! As I tell students in my elementary science book Science in the Industrial Age:

While organic chemicals are generally associated with living things, it is possible to make them from nonliving things…Scientists still use the terms “organic” and “inorganic” today to classify chemicals, but they do so based on the elements that make them up, not based on where they come from.

Now, of course, the news articles I linked above eventually get around to saying that it is possible for the molecules discovered on Mars to have come about without the presence of life. Even with that caveat, however, the news articles are still wrong, because the molecules discovered are not, in any way, the “building blocks of life.”

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