A Different Kind of Blog

Upper Waterton Lake in Alberta, Canada. (Photo copyright Kathleen J. Wile)

My wife and I felt led to leave the church we had been attending for 25+ years, and after a lot of searching and praying, we found a wonderful new church. There are lots of ways to serve in this church, and one of them is to contribute to the church’s blog. I will be doing that on a regular basis. My contributions to the blog will come under the heading “Amazed by Him,” because that’s the way I feel when I study Him. As a scientist, I am amazed by His creation, and as a Christian, I am amazed by Him. If you would like, you can read my first article, which was published today:

Amazed by His Goodness

Another Special Effect Based on Chemistry

The very talented Eric Bailey portraying Dr. Jekyll in Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical (edited photo by Michelle Mullins)

I just got finished portraying Sir Danvers Carew in Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical. I had never seen or read the show before, so I didn’t know what to expect. It turns out that it is more of an opera than a musical. Most of the lines are sung, and the music is hauntingly beautiful. The cast was full of incredible singers, so the performances were remarkable. I got the opportunity to sing a duet with the young lady portraying my daughter Emma, who is engaged to be married to Dr. Jekyll. I also got to sing a lovely quartet with Emma, Dr. Jekyll, and John Utterson (Dr. Jekyll’s attorney). The music was incredibly challenging, but with lots of help from my fellow actors, I managed to pull it off.

The superbly-talented director had developed some important imagery for the show. The cast is divided into “the rich” and “the poor.” Dr. Jekyll is part of “the rich,” but when he turns into Mr. Hyde, he is part of “the poor.” The rich obviously wore much better clothes than the poor, but the director wanted something else to symbolize the divide between the two, so he used colors. The set was lit with green when the rich were being highlighted, and all the rich people had a splash of green on their costumes. The set was lit with red when the poor were being highlighted, and all the poor people had red in their costumes.

With this in mind, the director asked me if I could make a “smoking potion” that turns from green (representing Dr. Jekyll) to red (representing Mr. Hyde). I said, “no problem.” Then he added that the actor portraying Jekyll and Hyde must be able to drink the potion. That turned out to be a challenge. However, drawing on my experience writing a chemistry book for homeschooled students, I came up with something that worked pretty well.

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Incredibly Fragile Dinosaur Soft Tissue

Two images of the delicate, one-way valves from veins. They were found in in dinosaur soft tissue!
(Image copied from the presentation embedded below)

Mark Armitage and James Solliday at the Dinosaur Soft Tissue Research Institute have been doing some amazing work. On October 5th, Mr. Armitage presented their findings at Lower Columbia College. Apparently, he has not yet received the video of that presentation, so he kindly posted a quick overview of the content. To me, it is astounding:

While everyone should watch all 15 minutes of the presentation, I want to highlight the things that I think are most important.

At 2:29, he shows two images that elicited an audible gasp from me when I first saw them. To understand just how incredible the images are, you need to know that there are one-way valves found in vertebrate veins. This is because the blood pressure in a vein is so low that blood can actually travel backwards. To prevent that, there are delicate, one-way valves throughout the veins. They open when the blood is flowing the correct way, and they close to prevent it flowing backwards. In the left-hand part of the image at the top of the post (copied from the presentation), you see a circle with what looks like a partially-opened tent flap. The circle is the base of the valve, and the “tent flap” is the delicate membrane that opens and closes. In that image, the valve is partly open. On the right-hand side, the valve is fully open.

This is incredible to me, because I have tried to dissect animals and extract these valves. I have never been able to. They are so delicate that I end up destroying them in the dissection process. Now, of course, I am not much of a biologist, and I am even less of an expert at dissection. Nevertheless, my experience with them indicates that they are absurdly delicate. Yet, here they are in a dinosaur fossil! Not only does this give evidence that the fossil is not millions of years old, but it also shows that these are definitely not structures that come from fungi or bacteria which recently invaded the fossil. Bacteria and fungi do not build structures with these delicate, one-way valves! He also presents other evidence that rules out bacterial and fungal contamination.

At 8:22, he shows red blood cells from a fossil that is supposed to be 400 million years old! The cells have the appropriate size and shape for red blood cells. Later on (12:05), he shows a blood vessel from a dinosaur fossil that has not even collapsed! It has an air bubble in it. When he does a stain test to see what is in the blood vessel, the test indicates that there is RNA in the blood vessel!

At 6:47, he shows what appears to be blood clotted in the tissue. He shows how it behaves just like you would expect blood to behave when exposed to polarized light, and he also shows that iron from the blood has not spread into the bone tissue. This is important, because Dr. Mary Schweitzer has proposed that iron might be preserving the soft tissue found in dinosaur bones. There has already been several arguments (see here and here) that seem to invalidate Dr. Schweitzer’s hypothesis, but this observation is the nail in the coffin. Iron can’t be preserving bone tissue if it doesn’t spread into the bone to begin with!

I have said this before and will say it again: It’s a wonderful time to be a young-earth creationist!

NOTE: A commentor made the great suggestion that I post a link if you want to support Mr. Armitage’s research. Here it is:

Donate to the Dinosaur Soft Tissue Research Institute.

Rat Surgeons?

I have written previously about Australia’s cane toad problem (here and here). In 1935, cane toads were brought in to control a pest that was feeding on sugar cane in northeastern Queensland. They ended up being ineffective at controlling the pest, and because they have few natural predators there, Australia was ineffective at controlling them. They have been spreading out across Australia since 1935, and there is no end in sight to their population’s expansion.

As I have discussed previously, cane toads have already affected wildlife in the areas where they have become established. Because they are large (for toads) and the adults are poisonous to snakes, for example, the average head size of a snake has decreased in those areas with a significant cane toad population. After all, the snakes that have large enough heads to eat the adult toads die. As a result, snakes that can’t eat them (snakes with smaller heads) are significantly more likely to survive. They survive because they cannot eat what would kill them!

But there is another way to survive in the presence of cane toads: figure out a way to eat them without being poisoned. Based on the results of a recent study, it seems that one clever Australian predator has learned to do just that. The authors of the study were intrigued when they started finding cane toad bodies that had what appeared to be surgically-precise incisions on their bodies. They eventually set up some infrared cameras and found that golden-bellied water rats were the ones making the incisions.

It turns out that only the skin and certain organs (like the bile duct) in the frog are poisonous. If a predator can avoid those structures, it can eat the toads without being harmed, and apparently, the water rats have figured that out. The researchers found that the heart and liver had been removed in each dead cane toad, presumably eaten by the rats. In the largest toads, the skin of the legs was also peeled back and the leg muscles were eaten. The authors say that all of this was done with a high level of precision.

The question, of course, is how the rats figured this out. The researchers are not sure. They know that water rats feed on other toad species as well as the younger cane toads that aren’t as poisonous, and it may be that in this area, that’s the way rats eat all the toads they kill. It’s also possible that some rats just stumbled onto this technique and passed it on to their offspring. As the authors note, water rats care for their offspring for weeks after they have been weaned, so it would be easy for the young rats to learn how their parents are eating the toads. The researchers note that for now, this feeding technique is limited to the water rats in certain areas, but they suggest that it might spread as time goes on.

Add the Australian water rat to the ever-growing list of surprisingly clever animals (see here, here, and here.)

Is Religion on the Decline in America?

Ruins of the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was destroyed by earthquakes (click for credit)

The secularization thesis holds that the advance of science and modernization leads to a decline in religion. As a result, the more scientifically and technologically advanced a society becomes, the less religious it becomes. One of the strong proponents of this view was Dr. Charles Wright Mills. In his book, The Sociological Imagination (Oxford University Press, 1959), he wrote:

Once the world was filled with the sacred – in thought, practice, and institutional form. After the Reformation and the Renaissance, the forces of modernization swept across the globe and secularization, a corollary historical process, loosened the dominance of the sacred. In due course, the sacred shall disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realm. (pp. 32-33)

There are many people who believe this, and they think that Europe provides a great example of how it happens. There are huge, magnificent cathedrals in Europe, which are a testimony to how influential Christianity once was. Today, however, many of those cathedrals do not serve as houses of worship. Instead, they are museums of history. Even the ones that are still functioning as houses of worship have tiny congregations that are dwindling year by year.

Despite what happened across Europe, I have always been skeptical of the secularization thesis. Mostly, that’s because science convinced me that there must be a Creator God, which then led me to Christianity. The more I teach science and do scientific research, the more I see the Hand of God in nature. In my mind, advances in science and technology strongly support Christianity. As a result, the secularization thesis makes no sense to me.

I was recently made aware of an article from two years ago that argues against the secularization thesis in the United States. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think that it applies to the world as a whole.

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Why Do I Include God in My Science Texts?

13th-century illumination from the French Bible Moralisée, depicting Christ (who is God) creating the World.

I was asked that question a couple of days ago, but it wasn’t the first time. Over the years, several people have asked me why I write about God in my science textbooks. After all, science is about facts, while belief in God is about faith. As a result, science doesn’t belong in religious texts, and God doesn’t belong in science texts. That may sound reasonable in today’s world, but it is simply dead wrong. In addition, it demonstrates a shocking level of ignorance about the history of science. Nevertheless, it is a good question, and it deserves a detailed answer.

First, there is an obvious philosophical reason: God is the source of all that science studies, so it only makes sense to discuss Him in the context of studying His creation. Consider, for example, teaching a course on U.S. Law. Would you try to teach it without referring to the U.S. Constitution? Perhaps. Maybe there are law professors who do just that, but for me, I can’t imagine discussing U.S. law without discussing the source from which it comes. In the same way, I find it pointless to discuss science without discussing its source.

Second, there are practical reasons to discuss God while teaching students about science. If we emphasize the fact that the things we study as scientists are designed, we give students a superior way in which to view the natural world. Those who want to reject the idea of a Creator God will try to convince students that this world was “thrown together” by random chance. As a result, students get the idea that creation is full of shabby constructions. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The designs found in the natural world make our best technology look like garbage. This has led one desperate atheist to write:1

Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.

Of course, a more reasonable evaluation of the data leads us to the conclusion that biology is the study of things that have been designed for a purpose.

This is very important, because when we understand that biology is the study of designed things, we don’t fall prey to misconceptions that hold back the progress of science. How many lives have been wasted because scientists looked at the primary cilium as a evolutionary vestige rather than an antenna designed to receive signals? How long did scientists delay a more detailed understanding of genetics because of the nonsensical notion of “junk DNA”? How many people needlessly suffer relapses of intestinal bacterial infections because of the silly idea that the appendix is a vestigial organ? A scientist who understands that the natural world is designed is simply better able to interpret what he or she is studying, since it is the more realistic view.

Finally, there is a spiritual reason to include God in science. As Nobel laureate Dr. Arthur Leonard Schawlow once put it:2

But the context of religion is a great background for doing science. In the words of Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” Thus scientific research is a worshipful act, in that it reveals more of the wonders of God’s creation.

Ever since I became a Christian, science has been a worshipful act for me. There is no way I could write about this worshipful act without including the One who is being worshipped!

REFERENCES

1. Dawkins, R., The Blind Watchmaker, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, USA, p. 1, 1986.
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2. Cosmos, Bios, Theos, Henry Margenau and Roy Abraham Varghese, ed., Open Court Publishing 1992, p. 106.
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What’s Really Causing Coral Bleaching?

The soft coral colony at the center of the picture is bleached. The corals to the right are not. (click for credit)

Coral are amazing animals. They live in a mutualistic relationship with algae, giving the algae a safe home in exchange for some of the food that the algae make through photosynthesis. The variety of colors seen in a coral reef are a result of this relationship. However, coral sometimes expel their algae, turning white. This is called “coral bleaching,” and it generally happens when the water is warmer than usual. the Australian Marine Conservation informs us:

Coral bleaching is a global crisis, caused by increased ocean temperatures driven by carbon pollution.

This has become a common mantra in the “global warming is going to kill us all” movement, because coral reefs are so fundamentally important to the health of ocean ecosystems. Indeed, it has become so important that if you question what the global-warming alarmists say, it can lead to dire consequences.

Consider, for example, the case of Dr. Peter Ridd. Some of his colleagues at James Cook University published work indicating that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was on the verge of collapse because of global warming. Dr. Ridd dared to question that narrative, pointing out the data that indicate there is nothing unusual about the bleaching events that have been occurring at the Great Barrier Reef and that the reef has about the same amount of healthy coral as it did back in 1985. For that transgression, he was fired. While a court has ruled the firing unlawful, the university plans to appeal the ruling. Regardless of what happens at appeal, it is clear that the firing was anti-science. Criticism of data, even data related to sacred cows such as global warming, is the hallmark of good science. To squelch such criticism is a direct assault on the progress of science.

Of course, the real question is whether or not global warming is a threat to the oceans’ coral reefs. The answer remains unclear, but the balance of the evidence indicates that it is not. For example, one study of the Great Barrier Reef shows that bleaching events were more common several hundred years ago. According to that study, bleaching events hit their peak in the 1850s. There is also some indication that bleaching is an adaptive mechanism and is not necessarily bad for the health of a coral reef.

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Something I (and Most Scientists) Have Taught for Many Years is Probably Wrong!

One of the problems that science textbook authors face is the fact that science is constantly changing. As we learn more about the Creator’s handiwork, we find that the science we have taught as fact is actually incorrect. Sometimes, this is because the experiments upon which those facts are based were in error. Sometimes, it’s because our interpretations of those experiments were in error. Sometimes, it’s a result of making conclusions that go beyond what the experiments actually tell us. The practical upshot of all this is that some of the things you are reading in your science textbooks are wrong.

I recently found out that something I (and most other authors) have taught about DNA is probably wrong. Most people know that DNA is a double helix. As shown in the illustration above, those two helixes wind around each other, with the information-bearing units (called nucleotide bases) inside. In order for cells to use the information in DNA, those helixes have to be separated so that the sequence of the nucleotide bases can be read. That means the helixes need to be held together when DNA is not being used, and then they must be separated when it is time for the cell to read the DNA.

How does that happen? Well, according to most textbooks (including mine), it is because the nucleotide bases form hydrogen bonds with one another. Hydrogen bonds are weaker than true chemical bonds, but they can hold things together. As I say it in my textbook, Exploring Creation with Biology, 2nd Edition:

…the attraction between the atoms in hydrogen bonding is about 15% as strong as the attraction between two atoms that have a true chemical bond linking them. Thus, the hydrogen bonds in DNA are strong enough to keep the two chains together in a double helix, but they are significantly weaker than a true chemical bond. Since they are weaker than a true chemical bond, it is rather easy for the two helixes in DNA to unravel.

This sounds great, but a recent study indicates that it’s probably not true. If nothing else, it doesn’t tell the entire story.

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And Now For Something Completely Different

A while back, I posted a very creative test answer given to me by one of my former students. I want to post something else that she wrote. It’s not what you normally see on this blog, but I enjoyed it immensely. I hope you do, too.

A Tale of Two 19th Century Gentleman Scientists Living in the 21st Century in Six Short Scenes


By Eden Cook

~January 21, 20—~

It has been said, though by whom I cannot say, that every good story starts with a bad decision, and that is precisely what a certain Mr. Tobias Newton was thinking he had made in accepting the chairmanship of the S. O. O. S. S. Like so many societies of its kind, the Something-or-other Science Society had been founded with the best of intentions. It was to be a society for the local pursuers of all branches of scientific knowledge to aid one another by exchanging ideas, hypotheses, and data, and for some time this was what it had been. In past times Newton had brought those who were flagging in their scientific zeal to the society meetings and it almost never failed to invigorate their studies, but now it had fallen into disrepair due to that same lack of zeal on the part of its leading members. It could now be best described as a meeting of rather glum persons, mostly men and mostly chemists, who came together to complain of the weather, their health, and the lack of available Cesium. Newton had hoped to be able to revive the society that he had enjoyed so much in the past by accepting the position of chairman, but he found that instead of influencing the members for good, their persistent pessimism was wearing away his resolve.

Hence it was a rather dejected Mr. Tobias who arrived back at his extensive Edwardian abode. It was a house with that strange sort of charm peculiar to antiquated buildings which have not yet been allowed to fall into disrepair. But to one so accustomed to its premises as Newton, these finer qualities were for the moment swallowed by his many other preoccupations. Not the least of these other worries was the guests he had coming to stay with him. His cousin, Rutherford—a chemist—was coming to visit Newton later that week. In general Newton felt inept at entertaining company, but he was always at his ease around his cousin. The trouble was not (as it so often was) Rutherford, but his much younger lab assistant who simply went by Tertius. Newton knew next to nothing about the young scientist, but in all probability he would be a sorry addition to their customary twosome. But whether he really was or not, Newton needed to try to make his cousin’s assistant feel welcome, and we will leave him to attempt that very thing.

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This “Junk DNA” Confirms a Creationist Prediction!

How DNA is arranged in the nucleus of a cell when it’s not in the process of reproducing. (click for credit)

When a scientist refuses to see the design that is so obvious in nature, it can lead to all sorts of incorrect conclusions. Consider, for example, transposable elements in DNA. Often called “transposons,” they jump around in an organism’s genome. In other words, they are in different places in different cells of the same organism. Those who have their naturalist blinders on initially thought that they were useless – part of the “junk DNA” that represents all the evolutionary “flotsam and jetsam” that has accumulated over hundreds of millions of years. Dr. Leslie Pray, writing in Nature Education, puts it this way:

Transposable elements (TEs), also known as “jumping genes” or transposons, are sequences of DNA that move (or jump) from one location in the genome to another. Maize geneticist Barbara McClintock discovered TEs in the 1940s, and for decades thereafter, most scientists dismissed transposons as useless or “junk” DNA. McClintock, however, was among the first researchers to suggest that these mysterious mobile elements of the genome might play some kind of regulatory role, determining which genes are turned on and when this activation takes place.

Of course, we now know that these supposedly useless stretches of DNA have widespread functionality throughout the genome. However, a recent study demonstrated that one set of transposable elements (the HERV-H subfamily) has a particularly interesting function, which indicates that a creation scientist’s prediction I wrote about nine years ago has been confirmed.

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