Riddle of the Feathered Dragons

Despite the fact that no evidence of feathers has ever been found associated with a Deinonychus fossil, this model of the dinosaur at Canada's Royal Ontario Museum is covered with feathers in an attempt to emphasize the supposed evolutionary relationship between dinosaurs and birds.
(Click for credit)

Dr. Alan Feduccia is a world-class evolutionary biologist whose research has focused on the natural history of birds. He is the S.K. Heninger Distinguished Professor Emeritus at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and even his abbreviated list of publications is the envy of most scientists. He has received numerous honors for his scientific accomplishments, including having an extinct species of bird named after him: Confuciusornis feducciai.

Despite his incredible scientific accomplishments, he is ridiculed by some in the scientific community because he doesn’t think that dinosaurs evolved into birds. There are those who call him a “BANDit” (BAND stands for “Birds Are Not Dinosaurs) and lump him in with the hated creationists and the global warming “deniers.” Why don’t these people listen to a man who has contributed so much to the biological sciences? Because they follow the consensus, and the consensus is that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Anyone who questions this consensus, regardless of the data they present, are simply ignored and ridiculed.

In his latest book, Riddle of the Feathered Dragons, Dr. Feduccia has something to say about this consensus:

The word “consensus” has no place in science and is never a validation of any hypothesis, yet one frequently sees trust in “consensus” for validation of important scientific concepts. (pp. 4-5)

I couldn’t agree more. When you hear the word “consensus” used to support a scientific argument, you know the speaker has stopped thinking. Rather than examining evidence for himself or herself, the speaker is simply allowing the majority to rule. Majority rule might be a good system in some social applications, but it is the worst possible method for doing science.

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Want to Lose Weight? Ask Your Bacteria for Help.

The view from the scales. Please note that this scale reads in kilograms. (public domain image)

Gastric bypass surgery has been done on many people who are thought to have a medical need to lose weight but cannot do it on their own. The most common technique is called “Roux-en-Y,” and it involves using a small part of the stomach to make a “stomach pouch” that is about the size of an egg. That pouch is then connected to the jejunum, which is the middle section of the small intestine.1 This means the food eaten by the patient bypasses most of stomach and the first section of the small intestine. Studies that have followed patients for 2-12 years show that the surgery does help them lose weight and keep it off.2

While most experts think this kind of gastric bypass surgery works because it forces people to change their eating habits, recent evidence suggests that at least one other factor is involved. As Science News reports:3

Previous studies of people and rats have found that the natural mix of microbes in the intestines changes after gastric bypass, with some groups growing more prominent and others diminishing. No one knew whether the altered microbial composition was merely a side effect of the surgery, or if shifting bacterial populations could help generate weight loss.

Well, a recent study was published that indicates at least some of the weight loss experienced by gastric bypass patients is attributable to the microbes.

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The Human Body: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Second Edition

This is an example of Leonardo Da Vinci's drawings of the human foot's anatomy. (public domain image)
The Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, mathematician, engineer, inventor, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and anatomist Leonardo da Vinci said, “The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.”1 Indeed, the entire human body is a testament to the creative mind of God. That’s why Marilyn Shannon and I used Psalm 139:14 in the title of our our human anatomy and physiology book, The Human Body: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made. The book was published in 2001 and has been used by many high school students around the world. Several students have written me over the years saying that the book helped them in their university-level studies, and some have even said it sparked their interest in a career in health care.

Of course, most textbooks need to be updated from time to time, especially to keep up with advances in the field. For example, when our book was published, scientists weren’t sure what the human appendix did. Many considered it a vestigial organ, but creationists and intelligent design advocates did not. As a result, the best we could write at the time was that the function of the human appendix was unknown. Several years after the book was published, however, scientists determined the function of the appendix (see here, here, and here). Even some evolutionists now agree that the appendix provides such a vital function that it is not vestigial in any way. In fact, one group says it is so important in some mammals that it evolved independently at least 32 separate times over the course of earth’s history!

It is not surprising, then, that the publisher of our book decided it was time for a new edition. However, since I am no longer a part of that company, I was not involved in its production. As people began to understand this, some asked me what I thought the new edition would be like. I told them that the co-author of the first edition (Marilyn Shannon) was involved in the project, so I expected the second edition of the book to be very good. She is incredibly knowledgeable in the field (she teaches it at the college level), and she is a strong Christian who has a good understanding of how faith and science interact. I didn’t know who else was working on the project, but I suspected that as long as she was the guiding force, it would turn out well.

I was recently able to review the book, and I was pleased to see that my expectations were correct. The second edition is an excellent course on human anatomy and physiology that will prepare students well for advanced study at the university level. It is “user friendly” enough to be used independently by home-educated students and is rigorous enough to prepare students who have already taken Exploring Creation with Biology for the Advanced Placement Test in biology.

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Archaeologists May Have Found a Palace Used by King David

A painting of David and Goliath by the Italian artist Caravaggio (public domain image)
King David is a central figure in the Old Testament. In 1 Samuel 17, we learn that as a young man, his faith in God allowed him to challenge and defeat the champion of the Philistine army (Goliath), who was a giant. He spent many years on the run from the vengeful King Saul, but eventually, he became ruler over all Israel. He also fathered one of the wisest men who ever lived: King Solomon. He was far from a saint, however. He not only forced a woman to commit adultery with him, he also arranged for her innocent husband to be killed in battle. Despite such grave sins, we learn in the New Testament (Acts 13:22) that he was a man after God’s own heart.

There are some Biblical scholars who think that King David never existed. Dr. Philip R. Davies, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, says:

I am not the only scholar who suspects that the figure of King David is about as historical as King Arthur.

Others think that David might have been a real person, but he was not the ruler of a mighty kingdom, as depicted in the Old Testament. Dr. Michael Carden suggests:

Was there a David? Possibly. Possibly a bandit and maybe eventually a warlord with some authority in Judah during the ninth century BCE, from whom a subsequent dynasty in Jerusalem claimed descent.

The main reason some think that David could not have been ruler over a great nation is that there is very little archaeological evidence that indicates Judah was anything but a rural backwater during the time when David reigned. That view, however, might be changing.

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A College Education Makes You MORE LIKELY To Retain Your Faith

Those who graduate college are more likely to retain their faith. (Click for credit.)

We’ve all heard the story before: A devout young student graduates from high school and attends college. While he is there, he hears all the arguments against his faith from his secular professors. He is tempted to live the “wild life” that many college students enjoy. He finds that it is easy to do all sorts of things that his parents didn’t allow him to do at home. Pretty soon, his faith is in the rear-view mirror, and by the time he graduates, he has lost it altogether.

While there is no doubt that this story is true for some individuals, it is almost certainly not true for the majority of students. In fact, according to an article discussed by the Geochristian, students who attend college are more likely to retain their faith than those who do not attend college! The article bases its conclusions on two sources: a book published by Oxford University Press and a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Social Forces.

Since I am always interested in looking at the evidence as directly as possible, I read the study, and it is truly fascinating!

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Can Random Processes Produce Biological Information?

A simplified model of a protein called phenylalanine racemase. The star points out the binding pocket. (click for credit)
In a previous post, a commenter asked an off-topic question. I try to focus the comments section on the topic at hand, but the question is an important one, so I decided to answer it as a separate article. The commenter is well aware that I think random processes cannot produce biological information. He included a link to an article by Dr. Fazale Rana in which Dr. Rana makes the claim that a recent study demonstrates that biological information can be produced by random processes. Obviously, the commenter wanted my take on the article.

Before I comment further, I want to make it clear that Dr. Rana has probably forgotten more biochemistry than I have ever learned. I have a lot of respect for him and am a big fan of his latest book. He and I disagree on some issues, but the issues on which we agree are far more numerous and far more important. This particular issue, however, represents one of the former. While I think the difference in our positions is largely semantic, it is important and worth defining.

In the article, Dr. Rana reports on a study1 that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. In the study, the authors compared the binding pockets of all known proteins in nature to a database of randomly-generated peptides (molecules that are very much like proteins but not large enough to be considered proteins). In order to understand the results of the study, you need to know what a binding pocket is.

A protein is a large molecule, but the workhorse of the protein is typically called its active site. When a protein needs to modify a molecule in some way, it attaches itself to the molecule at its active site. This active site is held in a region of the protein called the binding pocket. So the binding pocket is the area on the protein that contains the active site. An example of a binding pocket is given above. The drawing gives you a simplified view of a protein called phenylalanine racemase, a good example of a protein that is used in a wide variety of living organisms. The star points out the binding pocket.

In the study, the authors found that there were remarkably few varieties of binding pockets found in all the known proteins, and that all those pockets were able to bind (at least in some way) to something in the randomly-generated set of peptides. The conclusion, then, is that random chance could, indeed, produce biologically-active proteins. After all, if randomly-generated molecules could bind to the binding pockets of the known proteins of life, then those known proteins of life could also be randomly generated.

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“Ancient” Bacteria Use Quantum Mechanics!

The light-harvesting antenna complex of purple bacteria (Click for credit.)

The quantum world is a strange one. In a process called “quantum tunneling,” particles can pass through barriers as if they aren’t there at all. As a result of a process called “perturbation,” empty space can give rise to virtual particles that “blip” into and out of existence. Because of a phenomenon known as “quantum coherence,” a particle can be in several different places at once. These ideas defy common sense, but they have been experimentally verified in many different ways.

It turns out that photosynthesis (the process by which some organisms convert the energy in sunlight into energy that they can use) exploits quantum coherence in an incredible way. When light strikes a photosynthetic organism, its energy must be captured so that it can be used in an amazingly complex process that will convert it from radiant energy into chemical energy. It has long been known that photosynthesis is about 95% efficient when it comes to the first step of capturing light’s energy.1 Until now, however, scientists have not understood how photosynthesis could be that efficient.

After all, harvesting light in a biological environment is difficult. Even though photosynthetic organisms have a well-designed “antenna” system for capturing that light (an example is given above), a living organism is usually in motion. Its environment is also constantly stimulating it in different ways. As a result, even though the antenna system is well designed, it will be distorted and deformed as the organism moves and responds to its environment. This means there should be times when the antenna system is well-aligned, producing very efficient transfer of energy, but there should also be times where it is misaligned, reducing its efficiency. Nevertheless, photosynthesis stays very efficient, regardless of how the antenna complex is distorted.

How does the antenna complex stay efficient? The answer is incredible.

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CAPTCHA – Why We Can Read It and Robots Can’t

This is a typical CAPTCHA security question.
People can read the two words - no automated system can.

We’ve all seen it. Whether it’s there to keep automated spammers away from your blog comments or to make sure you are a real person who is registering for an account, at some point we’ve all had to deal with a graphic like the one above. It’s called CAPTCHA, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. While there is some controversy over who invented it, the process was first patented in 1998 by Mark D. Lillibridge, Martin Abadi, Krishna Bharat, and Andrei Z. Broder at AltaVista.

Why is CAPTCHA so effective? Because even though it is relatively simple for you and me to read the obscured and distorted words in a graphic, so far no one has been able to program an automated system to do the same thing. Computers can be programmed to scan a picture of a page of printed text and read the words in the picture. However, when the words are obscured or distorted too much, the program doesn’t recognize them anymore. A human looking at the same picture can read the words, even when the most sophisticated automated system cannot.

A team of scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is starting to reveal the amazing complexity behind our ability to interpret such images.

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A Surprising Study of People Living Near Fukushima

This picture of Ryugo Hayano comes from his Twitter feed.
Dr. Ryugo Hayano is a particle physicist with more than 120,000 Twitter followers. Why is he so popular? Because when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster was unfolding, he starting posting his observations of the radiation that was being released by the plant. He started explaining the basic physics behind radiation, and within less than a week, his readership grew by a factor of 50! People were obviously happy to have a non-governmental source of information regarding the dangers associated with the disaster.

Even though his academic research has nothing to do with nuclear power and its radioactive byproducts, he decided to devote his time to studying the effects of the disaster. In December of 2011, for example, he and some colleagues published a paper1 that contained detailed maps of the Cesium-137 contamination in the soil. This isotope is the most abundant contaminant in the environment around Fukushima. The authors specifically stated that their data should be used to guide the efforts of government officials who were trying to protect Japan’s food supply.

As time went on, government officials began offering assurances that the food supply was safe, but they were not providing any hard facts to support their claim. As a result, Hayano decided to do his own research. He began analyzing school lunches that were being served in Minamisoma, which is only 25 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Once a week, he would take everything on a lunch tray from an elementary school and a nursery school, throw it into a blender, and measure the radiation level. Every week, the levels were well below the safety limit. For example, the level of Cesium-137 allowed in the U.S. food supply is 370 Becquerels per kilogram. Hayano rarely found a reading greater than 1 Becquerel per kilogram in the food that he analyzed.2

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A Particularly Startling Wind Turbine Death

A White-throated Needletail (Click for credit)
The White-throated Needletail is thought to be the fastest bird on the planet. It is not endangered, but it is rarely seen in Europe. However, an alert went out last week on the Rare Bird Alert Twitter feed, telling bird-watching enthusiasts that one had been spotted on the Outer Hebrides, an island chain off the west coast of Scotland.

The last confirmed sighting of this bird in the United Kingdom was 22 years ago, so understandably, many bird watchers (about 80 according to one source) went to see it. Here is a video that was taken by one of those people:

The joy these birdwatchers felt in seeing this rare sight quickly turned to anguish, however, when the bird flew into a wind turbine and died. While no one caught the actual death on camera, here is a video of the bird after it was killed by the turbine:

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