The SHEM Homeschool Convention (and some awesome questions)

This past weekend, I spoke at the Southwest Home Education Ministry Convention in Springfield, Missouri. It was a well-organized, well-attended convention with many excellent speakers. I had a total of seven sessions, including two with Diana Waring. One of the things that I love about doing conventions is that I get a chance to speak with a lot of people one-on-one. I personally think that’s where I can help people the most. It’s also a chance for me to be incredibly blessed.

After my very first talk at this convention, for example, a young lady came up to me to tell me that she is a nurse today because of my courses. I thanked her and told her that I was very happy my courses prepared her for college so that she could become a nurse. She immediately stopped me and emphatically told me it was much more than that. She said that before she started using my courses, she hated science. After using my courses, she not only loved science, but she realized that God wanted her to use science to help others. She said she would never have even considered becoming a nurse had it not been for learning science from my courses. I kind of teared up right there and told her I had no idea how I could thank her for telling me that.

Usually, it’s conversations like that one which I enjoy most at these conventions. However, as much as my conversation with this young lady (and many other such conversations throughout the weekend) were a blessing to me, I have to say that the most enjoyable part of the convention was a session I did with the teens. The organizers of the convention wanted me to do something different from a normal presentation, and they actually suggested that I do something related to acting, since they knew I write and perform dramas for my church. However, I told them I had no idea what I would do for a drama workshop, so I suggested a question/answer session.

The organizers decided it was a good idea, so they put it on the schedule and then put out notices telling teens that they would have a chance to ask me any questions they wanted to ask. I had a “backup plan” in place in case there were few (or no) questions, but from the moment the session started, I knew there was no need for it. Not only were there an enormous number of questions (so many that I had to cut them off after an hour and 15 minutes so the next session could start), but the teens were incredibly enthusiastic! Below the fold, you will find three of the excellent questions they asked me, along with a rough approximation of my answers.

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Another Fossil Surprise

This Archaeopteryx fossil, known as the "Thermopolis specimen," was analyzed chemically. The results were surprising to those who think it is millions of years old (click for credit)

Archaeopteryx is an extinct bird that we know only from the fossils it left behind. There are eleven discovered fossils in existence, and the one that is generally considered the most well-preserved is called the “Thermopolis specimen.” It was found somewhere in the Solnhofen region of Germany and was part of a private collection until it was acquired by the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming.1 The Solnhofen Limestone formation, where it was probably preserved, is thought to be 150 million years old.2 Because the specimen is so well-preserved, geochemist Roy Wogelius and his colleagues wanted to analyze the specimen chemically, to see if there were any chemical remnants of the actual bird still in the fossil.

How do you chemically analyze a fossil without destroying it? One way is to use the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL). This instrument produces high-intensity X-rays which are used to illuminate the material being studied. The elements in the material absorb these X-rays, becoming “excited” with the extra energy. In order to “de-excite,” they release that energy with X-rays of their own. The released X-rays are different for each element, so when you analyze the X-rays being emitted by the illuminated fossil, you can determine what elements exist in the fossil, along with their concentrations.

So Roy Wogelius and his colleagues teamed up with some physicists at Stanford University to analyze this incredibly well-preserved Archaeopteryx fossil. The results were surprising, at least to those who think the fossil is 150 million years old.

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Nematode Nervous System: A 1-in-40-Million Design

This nematode's nervous system is perfectly wired for minimum use of materials. (click for credit)
I have been doing an “interstate book club” with one of the most brilliant people I know. She and I read the same book and call each other on a regular basis to discuss it. We are currently covering Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini’s book, What Darwin Got Wrong. I suspect that I will do a complete review of the book at some point, but I ran across something that I found so amazing, I had to write about it today. It has to do with the roundworm known as Caenorhabditis elegans, which is pictured above. This tiny (about 1 millimeter long), transparent worm has been studied extensively. In fact, it was the first multicellular organism to have its genome fully sequenced.1

Before that happened, however, Christopher Cherniak did a detailed analysis of the creature’s nervous system. Approximately one-third of the cells in the roundworm’s body are nerve cells, so the nervous system is obviously important to this tiny animal. The system is made of clumps of nerve cells (called ganglia) in the head, tail, and scattered throughout the main nerve cord, which runs along the bottom of the worm’s body. While this system is “simple” compared to the kind of nervous systems you find in many other animals, it has served as a model for helping scientists understand how nervous systems develop and function in general.

Of course, since the nervous system has to process sensory information and control various muscle movements, the ganglia must be connected to one another, to the receptors that sense the outside world, and to the muscles that the nervous system controls. Obviously, then, there is a lot of “wiring” involved. Cherniak wanted to know what determined how this wiring was done in the animal, so he computed all the possible ways that the worm’s nervous system could be wired, given its structure and the number of components it had. His computation indicated that there were 39,916,800 ways the wiring could have been done.

Now that’s a lot of possibilities, but even back in 1994, computers could easily analyze all of them, so he used 11 microcomputers to analyze all 39,916,800 ways the nervous system could be wired. It took them a total of 50 hours to churn through the analysis, but what they found was incredible!

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Are We Becoming Less Intelligent?

A portrait of Eratosthenes, who lived from 276 BC to 194 BC (public domain image)

Somewhere around 200 BC, a man named Eratosthenes learned that at noon on the Summer Solstice in Syene, a man looking down a deep well would see no light in the well, because his shadow would block all the sunlight. He reasoned that this meant the sun was directly overhead in the city of Syene at that moment. Well, he lived in Alexandria, which was about 500 miles south of Syene. He measured the length of a pole’s shadow in Alexandria at noon on the Summer Solstice and from that determined the angle at which the sun shined on Alexandria when the sun was directly overhead in the city of Syene.

Why would Eratosthenes do this? Well, like all ancient natural philosophers (including the Christian ones who would come a few hundred years later), he understood that the earth is a sphere. If you are under the mistaken impression that most ancient people thought the earth was flat, you need to realize that this is a textbook myth that is repeated over and over again but is nevertheless quite false. Since he knew that the earth is a sphere, he used his measurement to reason that the distance between Syene and Alexandria is about one-fiftieth of the distance around that sphere. He then took the known distance between Syene and Alexandria and multiplied by 50 to get the total distance around the earth. The unit he used to measure distance (the stadium) had different definitions at the time, but assuming he used the one that was typically used for long journeys, his measurement was correct to within 2% of today’s accepted value.1

Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. In today’s culture, we think of ancient people as ignorant savages, but in fact, many of them were incredibly intelligent. According to at least one geneticist, they were probably more intelligent than we are! In a two-part series published in the journal Trends in Genetics, Dr. Gerald R. Crabtree states:2

I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues.

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Another Atheist-Turned-Christian

As an atheist who became a Christian, I am always intrigued to read of similar journeys made by others. I have written about a couple of them in the past (here and here), and now the GeoChristian points out another one:

The Atheist’s Dilemma

I love what she says at the end:

I came to Harvard seeking Veritas. Instead, he found me.

The Trend Is Not Good for Global Warming Advocates

A graph showing Global Climate Model predictions compared to surface temperatures (click for credit).
The Economist recently ran a story highlighting the fact that the Global Climate Model (GCM) predictions upon which most of the fear of global warming is based are not doing well when compared to measured surface temperatures over the past few years. I found the story to be surprisingly balanced and full of a lot of good thoughts. I strongly recommend that you read it if you can find the time, because it gives you a great idea of how little we know about climate science. I don’t want to rehash the article, but I do want to add some thoughts of my own.

If you look at the graph above (which is from the article), you will see the GCM predictions most recently cited by Global Warming advocates. The dark cyan areas represent what the GCMs predict with a certainty of 75%, and the lighter areas represent what the GCMs predict with a certainty of 95%. As you can see, the measured surface temperatures (given by the dark line) are not behaving as predicted for the past several years. In fact, they have already strayed out of the 75% certain predictions and are poised to stray out of the 95% certain predictions. This, of course, is discussed in the article. What is not discussed is that the graph is rather misleading.

If you look at the graph from 1950 to the present day, you will see remarkable agreement between the GCM “predictions” and the measured data. However, prior to 2001, none of those “predictions” are actual predictions. They are a retrospective fit to the already-known data. You see, the GCMs are so oversimplified that they contain all sorts of “fudge factors.” Those fudge factors are varied to produce as much agreement as possible between the known data and the GCMs. Since the GCM predictions shown in that graph were produced for the IPCC report issued in 2007, they represent work done after the IPCC report issued in 2001. As a result, the data that appear on the graph prior to 2002 were all known when the work was started on the 2007 report. This means that all agreement between the “predictions” and the data prior to 2002 say nothing about the ability of the GCMs. It only tells you how well the fudge factors could be varied to agree with the known data.

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The 2013 Midwest Homeschool Convention (and abiotic oil)

I spent this past weekend speaking at the 2013 Midwest Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. The crowds were huge, and there was a lot of enthusiasm amongst both the attendees and the speakers. It seems to me that this convention was much like the conventions I remember from ten years ago: lots of enthusiastic homeschoolers listening and talking to lots of enthusiastic speakers about the joys, troubles, and triumphs of home education. It was wonderful.

I spoke a total of seven times on six different subjects. Two of my talks were given with Diana Waring, and I enjoyed them the most. She and I have different styles that seem to complement each other really well. As she puts it, I provide the “analytics,” and she provides the “warm fuzzies.” I am not sure that’s exactly right, but it’s probably close. We gave the same talks in Greenville, SC, and we will be doing them again in Springfield, Missouri and Kissimmee, Florida.

As is typically the case, the most interesting part of the conference for me was interacting with the attendees. I had a rather constant stream of parents and students coming to my booth to talk with me. Many of them asked questions, and I hope my answers provided some help. Others came by just to report on how they (or their children) were doing with my courses. I was really impressed to meet one young lady who had completed all of my textbooks! I have authored or co-authored eight texts, and most students get through five of them. Some complete six, and a very few manage to cover seven, but this young lady had gotten through all eight of them. As a result, she has already taken the equivalent of a year of university-level biology, a year of university-level chemistry, and a year of university-level physics. That’s pretty impressive!

I take questions from the audience in all of my talks, and at the end of one of my evolution-related talks, a man asked a question about abiotic oil. He had read a book by Dr. Thomas Gold entitled The Deep Hot Biosphere, which tries to make the case that both oil and coal are not fossil fuels. In other words, they are not produced by decaying dead things. Instead, they are produced by chemical processes in the earth and simply reworked by living organisms. I read that book many years ago, and while it is definitely worth reading (even today), I personally think that it really overstates the case.

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Another Study Estimates Minimal Risk from the Fukushima Disaster

A protestor at the anti-nuclear demonstration in Paris on March 20, 2011. The demonstration was sparked by the Fukushima disaster (Click for credit)
On March 11th of 2011, an earthquake in the Pacific Ocean produced a tsunami that devastated parts of Japan. According to the Japanese National Police agency, at least 15,870 people died in the disaster, and an additional 6,114 were injured. Over 2,000 people were still missing as of September 12, 2012.1 In addition, the tsunami caused multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As a result, approximately 900,000 terabecquerels of radiation was released into the surroundings. To give you a sense of what that means, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that occurred in 1986 spewed an estimated 5.2 million terabecquerels into the surroundings.2 So while the radiation released in the Fukushima disaster was bad, it wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened at Chernobyl.

Of course, the total amount of radiation released isn’t the entire picture. After all, the Chernobyl area wasn’t nearly as densely populated as Japan. So while the Fukushima disaster released less radiation, that smaller amount of radiation could have a larger effect, given the fact that there were so many people who could have been exposed to it. Last year, a study was published in the Journal Energy & Environmental Science, and it indicated that the increased cancer risks caused by the Fukushima disaster would be minimal. Since cancer is the most common long-term consequence of radiation exposure, the report seemed to indicate that the long-term consequences of the disaster would be small.

A new study was recently published by the World Heath Organization (WHO). The authors of the previous study were not involved in this study, and the methodology of the new study is different from that of the previous one. As a result, it seems to me that this is a truly independent assessment compared to the previous one. However, the conclusions are roughly the same.

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Another Easter Drama

Easter Sunday is a big deal at my church. This is fitting, of course, since Easter is the most important holiday in Christendom. As 1Corinthians 15:14 reminds us:

and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.

Because we want to make Easter Sunday worship special, we put a lot of work into all parts of the service. This year, I was once again asked to write a short drama to communicate some truth about Easter. Below the fold, you will find the script of what we ended up performing.

Before you read the script, I want you to know three things. First, feel free to use this script in any way that helps you provide a meaningful experience for your fellow Christians. I would appreciate a credit, but the script is not copyrighted in any way. Second, I have only three or four original ideas when it comes to drama, so I tend to recycle them quite a bit. If you remember my previous Easter drama, you will find the basic premise and even the final line to be essentially the same. Nevertheless, I do think the drama presents a profound truth about Easter in a meaningful way. I hope you agree. Finally, this script was made significantly better with the help of Diana Waring. Without her help, the ending would not have been nearly as effective.

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