The Evidence from Mercury: Inconclusive

This is an artist's conception of MESSENGER orbiting Mercury. (NASA image)
Mercury is a difficult planet to study because of its proximity to the sun. As a result, there are only two robotic spacecraft that have visited it. Starting on March 29, 1974, the Mariner 10 spacecraft flew by Mercury a total of three times, but it never entered orbit. Then, on March 18, 2011, the spacecraft known as MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) settled into a comfortable, near-polar orbit of the planet and has been studying it in detail ever since.

As a scientist, I am always excited to learn new information about God’s creation, so I have been watching MESSENGER’s progress with interest. As a young-earth creationist, however, my interest in MESSENGER was somewhat heightened, because its mission included collecting data on Mercury’s magnetic field. The young-earth model of planetary magnetic fields had made a prediction about what MESSENGER would find once it collected those data, so I was naturally very interested in the results of the measurement.

Since the previous measurement of the field was made more than 35 years ago, and since the young-earth model predicts that all planetary magnetic fields should decay fairly rapidly, the young-earth model predicted that Mercury’s magnetic field should have decayed by roughly 4 percent since Mariner 10’s previous measurement. By contrast, the old-earth model predicts no measurable change at all. Because the young-earth model has been successful in three other predictions,1 I was hoping that MESSENGER would provide a fourth.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

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The 2012 Southeast Homeschool Convention

Last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I spoke at the 2012 Southeast Homeschool Convention in Greenville, South Carolina. It was the first of the Great Homeschool Conventions, and I enjoyed myself immensely. I got to “catch up” with several of my colleagues who also work with home-educating families, but most importantly, I got to speak with homeschooling students and parents. The very first time I spoke at a homeschooling convention, I noticed a distinct difference between homeschooled students and their publicly- and privately-schooled peers. While most publicly- and privately-schooled students actively avoid interaction with adults (especially adults who are teachers), most homeschooled students actively seek out such interaction.

I will never forget an experience at that first homeschooling convention. I was sitting in my booth, and a teen came up to me and said, “You’re a scientist, right?” I told him, “Yes. I am a nuclear chemist.” His eyes brightened up, and he said, “Great! I need to ask you something.” He then sat down and asked me a very detailed question about the nature of light. While he had some misconceptions about the subject (don’t we all?), I was pretty impressed with his knowledge. More importantly, however, I was impressed with how he sought me out and was perfectly comfortable discussing science with me for what ended up being well over half an hour. In addition, he was very careful to avoid monopolizing my time. If someone else came to my booth, he would indicate to me that I should pay attention to this new person, and he would wait until I was free again.

Since then, I have come to expect such interactions at homeschooling conventions. This one was no exception. I ended up having a long talk with a teen who really wanted to understand how gravity can affect the passage of time. He had read about the strong evidence indicating that time passes more slowly in the presence of strong gravitational fields and more quickly in the presence of weak gravitational fields, but he wanted to understand why it actually happens. Of course, without the appropriate mathematics, it is rather hard to understand, but I explained it to him as best I could. He seemed to get it in the end, and he was very appreciative of my time.

I talked with homeschooling parents as well. One set of parents came by my booth and told me that their daughter was pursuing a PhD in biology. They said she credits my books with sparking her interest in science and preparing her to excel at university. Obviously, that made my day! I asked them what her PhD thesis would be about, and as near as I can tell, she is working on the phenomenon of horizontal gene transfer between organisms from different biological kingdoms. It sounds like fascinating work, and if my experience with homeschool graduates is any indication, she will probably be incredibly successful at it.

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La Presidenta and Other News from Costa Rica

The wonderful lady second from the right is the President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla Miranda.

Last week, my wife and I went to see a friend who is currently living in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful country that I find significantly more pleasant than most other Central American countries. We could drink the water in Costa Rica without experiencing any digestive issues. In addition, we actually ate food that people were selling on the side of the road, and we experienced no problems whatsoever. In fact, my favorite Costa Rican dish was queso palmito. It is essentially a ball of incredible cheese, and we bought it from a roadside vendor. Also, even though there is poverty in the country, it is not nearly as extreme as the poverty I have seen in other parts of Central America.

During our visit to this wonderful country, we actually got to meet the President, Laura Chinchilla Miranda! We were touring the main governmental building in San José and were allowed into a press conference that the president was having. It was all in Spanish, of course, so I didn’t understand a word. However, I will have to say that I was incredibly impressed with how the president handled herself. A member of the press would ask a 1-2 minute question, and the president would reply with a 5-10 minute answer. She did this with no notes or teleprompter. She had two advisers with her (the Vice President and her press secretary), but she rarely referred to either of them. My impression was that she was giving detailed answers to the questions off the top of her head. It was definitely a lot different from the kind of press conferences U.S. presidents give!

After the press conference, the president was kind enough to come down from the stage and meet us. She even let us take a picture with her (shown above). When I told her what an honor it was to meet her, she told me (in perfect English) that it was an honor for her to meet me. Obviously, she was simply being gracious, but once again, I doubt that I would see such graciousness from a U.S. president. While I know nothing of her political stances, I have to say that after that day, I became a fan!

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The Gorilla Genome Falsifies Another Evolution-Inspired Idea

A western lowland gorilla. The genome of this species was recently sequenced. (click for credit)
There is a vast gulf between humans and the great apes. While we share some superficial similarities with them, they are dwarfed by significant differences. For example, most (but not all1) evolutionists think that our closest living relative is the chimpanzee, because our genomes are the most similar (72%-95% similar, depending on how you make the comparison). Nevertheless, there are distinct anatomical and behavioral differences between humans and chimpanzees. Indeed, nearly every bone in the chimpanzee body is individually recognizable as chimpanzee and not human simply by its shape and size. Humans and chimpanzees also have different postures, different means of moving around, and different methods of obtaining food. Of course, the biggest difference between chimpanzees and humans is that of intelligence. People have a level of intelligence not seen anywhere else in creation, and it is apparent through our ability to create amazing technologies, produce breathtaking works of art, develop philosophies, and communicate across the generations.

But wait a minute. Haven’t experiments shown that apes can communicate in a very sophisticated way? If you read too much of the popular press, you might think that’s true. However, consider the words of Dr. Jonathan Marks, Professor of Anthropology at UNC-Charlotte and an expert on communication in apes:2

For all the interest generated by the sign-language experiments with apes, three things are clear. First they do have the capacity to manipulate a symbol system given to them by humans, and to communicate with it. Second, unfortunately, they have nothing to say. And third, they do not use any such system in the wild…There is in fact very little overlap between chimpanzee and human communication. (emphasis mine)

So what is it that produces the remarkable difference between apes and humans when it comes to communication? Evolutionists thought they might have at least a partial answer to this question. If you look in detail at human genes and chimpanzee genes, you see some remarkable differences among those genes that deal with hearing. As a result, it has been widely suggested that the human lineage experienced “accelerated” evolution in its hearing genes, which in turn produced our ability to utilize language, which in turn produced our ability to communicate in a sophisticated way.

Not surprisingly, additional data have falsified this evolution-inspired notion.

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Interaction Interruption?

I am currently on my way to Costa Rica. I will be there for a week, and within about 36 hours of when I get back, I will be off to Greenville, South Carolina for the first Great Homeschool Convention of the season. Because of this, I am not sure how much time I will have for blog-related activities over the next couple of weeks. This means my blog might be significantly less interactive than usual for a while. On the bright side, since my travel season is starting, there will be more Notes From The Road entries.

In the meantime, please enjoy this nighttime video from the International Space Station. It starts out dark, but eventually shows you lights from cities, clouds, lightning strikes, and auroras, all from above. The thin, curved line is the haze of earth’s atmosphere, and the brightness that approaches intermittently marks when the space station is moving into the sunlit side of earth. It is well worth watching!

Octopuses Can Change the Products of Their Genes When Necessary!

An Arctic octopus (photo by E. Jorgensen, NOAA)
I have always been amazed at animals that live in very cold water. I can’t stand it when my shower gets lukewarm, but animals like the Arctic octopus (genus Pareledone) flourish in waters that dip below 0 degrees Celsius! How can they do that? Well, they have specific characteristics that allow them to deal with the water’s cold temperature – characteristics that I obviously don’t have. But what is the basis of those characteristics? Until reading a recent paper by Sandra Garrett and Joshua J. C. Rosenthal, I would have said that the basis of those characteristics is the genome of the animal in question. As reasonable as that answer sounds, however, it is not correct, at least not in some cases.

One of the most important things a cold-water animal must deal with is how the temperature affects certain proteins that govern the response of the nervous system. Cold temperatures tend to reduce the efficiency of those proteins. As a result, the colder the water, the slower the nervous system conducts signals. In very cold water, the slowdown would be so great that in the end, signals would not travel quickly enough to allow the animal to do what it must do in order to survive.1 Thus, it has always been assumed (reasonably so) that many nervous system proteins in cold-water animals are significantly different from the corresponding nervous system proteins of animals that do not frequent cold waters.

Garrett and Rosenthal decided to determine just how different such proteins are by comparing the genes of an Arctic octopus (genus Pareledone) to that of a tropical octopus (Octopus vulgaris). Since genes tell the octopuses’ cells how to make the proteins they need, the researchers assumed that whatever differences exist in the nervous system proteins would show up in the genes that produce those proteins. Once again, this is a completely reasonable assumption. However, their study shows that the genes involved in producing these nervous system proteins are nearly identical between the species.2 To confirm this, they injected the genes from the different species into frog egg cells, and they found that the frog egg cells used those genes to produce nearly identical proteins. So in the end, the genes that produce those nervous system proteins are essentially the same in both species. But that doesn’t make sense. The proteins have to be different.

Well, it turns out they are different, but not because of the genes that produce them!

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Why God Won’t Go Away

Dr. Alister Edgar McGrath is a remarkable man. He holds an earned PhD in molecular biophysics and an earned Doctor of Divinity degree, both from the University of Oxford. He was once an atheist, but while studying chemistry at Oxford, he began to realize that the evidence for atheism was “circular, tentative, and uncertain.” The more he examined the evidence, the more convinced he became that Christianity was the most rational worldview. As a result, he became a Christian.

Because he was once an atheist, he continues to study atheism today. One of his best books is The Dawkins Delusion?, where he shows why atheists should be embarrassed by Dr. Richard Dawkins. However, that’s not the book I am writing about. Instead, I am writing about another one of McGrath’s masterpieces, Why God Won’t Go Away. Having publicly debated both Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, McGrath is well aware that many in the “New Atheist” camp would like God to go away. However, as McGrath demonstrates in this easy-to-read book, God stubbornly refuses to comply with the desires of the New Atheists.

Now even though this is an easy-to-read book, it is not simple or superficial. It is a deep, serious discussion of the New Atheist movement and its severe intellectual problems. However, McGrath is such an excellent teacher that you hardly notice how deep the material is until you put down the book and start thinking about what you have read.

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Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos: Looks Like a Bad Cable Is To Blame

I am not sure how I missed this when it was first posted, but it seems that experimentalists have found a probable explanation for those neutrinos that were clocked traveling faster than light. According to Science‘s website, a bad connection in a fiber-optic cable that carries GPS signals to the system’s master clock most likely made the particles appear as if they were traveling faster than they really were. There also seems to be a problem with a specific oscillator in the system, but it is not clear how big the problem is. Also, it is thought that correcting the oscillator’s problem might actually end up shortening the time measured, which would mean that the particles actually traveled faster than the original measurement indicated. As the web article makes clear, however, the main focus is on the fiber-optic cable connection.

We’ll know better in May, when a new experiment will be run. Hopefully, the fiber-optic cable’s connection, the oscillator problem, and anything else that is discovered between now and then will be fixed. However, based on what I have read, I think the most likely conclusion is that the neutrinos did not travel faster than light. Of course, as I said before, that was the most likely conclusion to begin with. When it comes to physics, don’t bet against Einstein. You aren’t likely to win!

Could This Be a Clue About the Origin of Pathogens?

A house finch, which is now susecptible to a new eye infection. (Click for credit)
The origin of pathogens is of particular interest to creationists. When God finished creating the world, he pronounced it “very good.” Now as I have pointed out previously, the term “very good” does not mean perfect. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand how disease-causing pathogens could fit into to a “very good” creation. So where did pathogenic organisms come from? One of the first steps toward an answer to that question came in 2003, when J.W. Francis proposed that microscopic organisms were created to serve as a link between macroscopic organisms and their physical environment. This link helped to channel necessary chemicals from the environment to the macroscopic organisms. However, when the Fall occurred, mutations began happening, and those mutations ended up turning beneficial microorganisms into pathogenic microorganisms.1

This makes sense in light of certain forms of cooperation between organisms. For example, a while ago I wrote about a relationship that exists between a grass that flourishes in hot soils, a fungus, and a virus. Scientists don’t know the details of the relationship, but they know that in order for the plant to grow in hot soils, it must be infected by a specific fungus. However, that fungus will not do the plant any good unless it is infected by a virus. Obviously, the fungus supplies some necessary chemicals to the plant, allowing it to live in hot soil. However, in order for the fungus to be able to do that, the virus must be providing necessary chemicals to the fungus. So in this situation, you have a viral link between the environment and a fungus, and then a higher-level link between the fungus and the plant. Obviously, if one of those links was corrupted, it could turn a beneficial relationship into a deadly one.

Over time, other creationists have suggested ideas for the origin of other pathogens. Dr. Peter Borger, for example, has a very interesting hypothesis on the origin of RNA viruses. He suggests that the genomes of all creatures were originally created so that they could produce fast adaptations to changes in their environment. As a result, all genomes contain variation-inducing genetic elements – sections of DNA that are specifically designed to produce changes that will aid in adaptation. He postulates that RNA viruses have been produced as a result of a corruption in certain variation-inducing genetic elements. This idea is intriguing because it solves the the RNA virus paradox, a recognized problem in the evolutionary literature.2

The real question, however, is what are the specific mechanisms by which this might happen? Exactly how could a beneficial microorganism (or genetic element) become pathogenic? As I was perusing the scientific literature the other day, I ran across an article in PLoS Genetics that might help us begin to answer that question.

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