Earthrise: A Re-Creation

The earth rising over the moon as seen by astronauts on December 24, 1968.
(public domain image - click for higher resolution)

The picture you see above is an iconic image in science. Does it look a bit odd to you? That’s probably because it’s usually rotated 90 degrees when it is shown in most resources. After all, it is a picture of the earth rising over the horizon of the moon. Shouldn’t the moon’s surface be at the bottom of the photo, with the earth at the top? It should be if it were taken from the surface of the moon, but it wasn’t. It was taken from a spacecraft that was orbiting the moon. The photographer was in the spacecraft, so he didn’t see it from the same perspective as he would have had he been standing on the moon.

While I have seen this photograph many times and have even put it in a textbook, I got to appreciate it in a whole new way thanks to a team at NASA. By correlating an automatic camera that was taking pictures of the moon’s surface while the spacecraft was making its orbit back in 1968 with data from the modern Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, they were able to determine exactly when the picture was taken and where the spacecraft was at the time. They then made an animation in which the events were correlated to the audio taken during the December 24, 1968 orbit. The result (shown below) is an exciting re-creation of how this iconic image was captured.

As you watch the video, note how it demonstrates that this iconic photo is not the result of careful planning. Instead, the spacecraft just happened to be making a maneuver at the right time, and the astronauts quickly understood what an amazing photo-op they had. It’s especially exciting when the astronauts are afraid they missed taking a color version of the picture because they couldn’t find the color film quickly enough!

Stranded at Christmas

This Christmas play is about several people who will have to spend Christmas in an elementary school because of bad weather. (click for credit)

Since this will be my last blog entry until after Christmas, I thought I would post another Christmas drama. It’s tough to write dramas about Christmas, because it is such an important event. It has been preached about, sung about, depicted, and discussed for almost 2,000 years. How do you come up with something original about Christmas? Well, I try to do that by either telling the Christmas story from the viewpoint of the people who were involved in it or doing the drama in the setting of Christmas. Last year, I posted a Christmas drama that look the former approach. This year, I give you one that takes the latter approach.

As is the case with all my dramas, there is no copyright. Please feel free to use this in any way that will serve the Body of Christ, and please feel free to improve the drama in any way you see fit.

Stranded at Christmas

The Benefits of Musical Instrument Lessons Last A LONG Time!

A recent study shows that musical instrument lessons can provide lasting benefits to hearing.
(click for credit)

My parents thought it was very important for all their children to have piano lessons. I think they believed it would give us boys (I have no sisters) some culture, so in first grade we all began learning how to play the piano. My brothers quit as soon as they were allowed, but I really enjoyed those lessons, so I continued. At one time, I honestly thought I would become a concert pianist, but unfortunately, my fingers are too stubby. I simply cannot play many pieces of music properly, because I cannot spread my fingers wide enough to span more than an octave. I still play for church (mostly on the synthesizer), and anyone who watches me play can see that I am truly having fun. I thank God that my parents thought those lessons were important, because they ended up providing me with a long-term hobby that has brought me a lot of happiness.

Long after my brothers quit playing the piano, they complained that those piano lessons (as well as the practicing that went along with them) were a big waste of time. They understood that I really got something out of the lessons, but they were convinced they received nothing. However, a recent study indicates that they may be wrong. They might enjoy better hearing now because my parents forced them to take piano lessons when they were young.

It turns out that when you listen to someone else talking, your brain does an incredible job of interpreting the quickly-changing sounds associated with speech. Especially when the person speaking makes a transition between a consonant and a vowel, there is a rapid change in the properties of the sound wave that hits your ears. To be able to recognize such transitions, your brain relies on its ability to link the sounds the ears are receiving to the time at which the sounds were received. This is called neural timing, and as you get older, your brain’s neural timing deteriorates. This is one reason older people have trouble following conversations. They may be hearing just fine, but if their neural timing is off, they can’t understand the words they are hearing.1

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DNA Is Even More Sophisticated Than We Thought!

The information in DNA is stored in sequences of four different nucleotide bases (A, T, C, and G). In a gene, three nucleotide bases code for a specific amino acid, and that three-nucleotide-base sequence is called a 'codon.' (click for credit)

Over the years, scientists have learned a lot about DNA. Nevertheless, the molecule continues to surprise us with its exquisite design. Not long ago, scientists demonstrated that a single gram of DNA can store about 500,000 CDs worth of information. It has also been shown that the code used by DNA to store this information has been specifically designed to allow living organisms to respond to their environment in many different ways. In addition, we know that DNA stores its information in “modules” that can be rearranged in many different ways. This allows a single stretch of DNA to contain many different meanings, depending on how the modules are put together.

In the December 13 issues of Science, researchers have demonstrated yet another incredible design feature of DNA, and according to the University of Washington, the scientists who made the discovery were “stunned.” To understand what was done and what the discovery means, however, you need a little bit of background information on DNA and how it is used by the cell.

DNA stores its information in sequences of nucleotide bases called adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). As shown in the illustration above, those nucleotide bases link together to hold DNA in its familiar double helix shape. The meaning of each sequence depends on where it is in the molecule. In many organisms, a small fraction of the DNA is made up of genes, and in most of the organisms with which you and I are familiar, the genes consist of two regions: exons and introns. The exons of a gene contain the recipe that tells the cell exactly how to make a protein. This recipe is given in groups of three nucleotide bases, which are called codons. Each codon specifies a certain chemical called an amino acid. When the cell stitches amino acids together in the sequence given by the codons, it makes a useful protein.

Introns are “spacers” that exist between the codons in a gene. Once derided by evolutionists as “junk DNA,” we now know that introns are a powerful means by which the exons are split up into functional information modules. The cell can stitch the modules together in different ways, so that a single gene can instruct the cell on how to make many different proteins. This is called alternative splicing, and it is a incredibly powerful design feature that allows DNA to store its information with amazing efficiency. Indeed, thanks to alternative splicing, there is a single gene in fruit flies that can tell the cells to make 38,016 different proteins!1

Now don’t get lost in all the terminology. Think of it this way: genes tell the cell how to make proteins. However, to increase the information storage capability of DNA, these genes are split into two regions: exons and introns. The introns separate the exons into modules of useful information, and the cell stitches those modules together in different ways so that a single gene can tell the cell how to make lots and lots of different proteins.

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Some “Vegetative” Patients are Probably at Least Partially Aware

An EEG image of a person in a vegetative state listening to a list of words that contains the word to which he is attending and a bunch of distractor words. (click for credit)

The Royal College of Physicians defines a vegetative state as:1

a clinical condition of unawareness of self and environment, in which the patient breathes spontaneously, has a stable circulation, and shows cycles of eye closure and opening that may simulate sleep and waking

When I read this definition, a question immediately arises: How do you know whether or not a person is aware of himself or his environment? You might ask him a serious of questions, but if he doesn’t have the ability to move his mouth or other parts of his body, how can he make you aware of his responses?

A few years ago, Dr Steven Laureys made headlines with his pronouncement that a man in a coma was able to communicate with people when given the aid of a keyboard and someone to support his hand as he typed. Based on Dr. Laureys’s work, it seemed that the man was describing exactly what you might think is going on in the mind of a person who is aware of himself and his surroundings but cannot communicate with the outside world. However, as skeptics started pointing out the flaws in Dr. Laureys’s method, further tests were done, and it turns out that the person supporting the patient’s hand was actually directing the patient’s hand. In other words, the patient wasn’t communicating; the helper was.

So what can we say scientifically about such patients? If they cannot do anything to communicate with the world, how do we know whether or not they are aware of it? A collaboration of scientists from Cambridge University, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Western Ontario have gotten us a step closer to answering that question. They have published a study in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical that might help us produce a method by which an aware patient can communicate, even if he is not able to do so by traditional means.

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Chromosome Fusion? It’s Getting Harder and Harder to Believe.

An illustration of the fusion of two chromosomes. (public domain image)

People have 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46 chromosomes. Most apes have 24 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 48 chromosomes. One very popular piece of genetic evidence for the idea that humans and apes have a common ancestor is that human chromosome 2 looks like two chimpanzee chromosomes that have been stitched together. As the evolutionary story goes, the common ancestor between apes and humans had 24 pairs of chromosomes, and it initially passed them to those animals that began evolving into apes and humans. The apes kept that number of chromosomes, but after the human lineage split off from the chimpanzee lineage, something happened to fuse two of the chromosomes, leading to only 23 pairs of chromosomes in humans. As Dr. Francis Collins puts it:1

The fusion that occurred as we evolved from the apes has left its DNA imprint here. It is very difficult to understand this observation without postulating a common ancestor.

This idea has been around for a long time, but I never put much stock in it. Why? Because even if human chromosome 2 is the result of two independent chromosomes being fused together (an example of which is shown in the illustration above), I don’t see why this can only be understood in the context of evolution. After all, we know that chromosome fusion events happen in human beings today.2 Thus, if human chromosome 2 really is the result of a fusion of two chromosomes, it could have happened early in the history of human beings. It need not have happened to some hypothetical evolutionary ancestor. Any event that restricted the human population to those who arose from the people who originally experienced the chromosomal fusion would then fix that chromosome in the population. A worldwide Flood in which a single family was saved would be one example of such an event.

Regardless of whether or not human chromosome 2 is evidence of common ancestry, it’s getting hard to understand how it could even be the result of two chromosomes fusing.

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Insults Do Not an Argument Make

This book by Dr. Stephen Meyer has elicited a lot of insults from its critics, but not much reasoned response.
Nearly two years ago, I wrote a review of double-doctor Alister McGrath’s book Why God Won’t Go Away. It ends with an amusing anecdote about a young man who meets Dr. McGrath and asks him to sign one of his theology books. The young man tells Dr. McGrath that he has Richard Dawkins to thank for his conversion to Christianity. He had read Dawkins’s The God Delusion and thought it was so unfair and one-sided that he had to look at the other side. When he did, he become convinced of the reality of Christianity.

While one might pass this off as an isolated incident, it’s not clear that’s the case. Not long ago, I blogged about another person who was raised Catholic but became an agnostic in her teens. She read The God Delusion and similar works, thinking it would drive her to atheism. Once she read Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists, however, she read authors on the other side of the debate. In comparison, she found the arguments of Dawkins and his ilk intellectually deficient, so she returned to her Catholic faith.

Note what happened in both of these cases. Each person decided to look at both sides of the issue. They looked at the arguments of those who claimed there is no God, and they looked at the arguments of those who claimed there is a God. Both decided that those who argued against the existence of God had a significantly weaker position. As a result, they ended up believing in God.

But what makes the arguments of the New Atheists so weak? It’s not just that they have little evidence to back up their claims. It’s more than that. I think one of the reasons their arguments are so weak is that they try to make up for their lack of evidence with insults and bluster. Somehow, they think they are making their case stronger, but to most reasonable people, it has the opposite effect. A few days ago, I ran across a story that makes this very point.

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An Explanation that is Not Exactly Iron-Clad

Tyrannosaurs like this one were thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago, but soft tissue has been found in one Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. Soft tissue has also been found in several other fossils that are supposed to be millions of years old. (click for credit)

In 2005, Dr. Mary Schweitzer shocked the scientific world by reporting soft tissue in a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil that is supposed to be 68 million years old.1 While many scientists who are more interested in their preconceptions than they are in the data tried to dismiss her findings, several other examples of soft tissue in fossils that are thought to be millions of years old have been found (see here, here, here, here, and here). In the end, it has become nearly impossible for a thoughtful scientist to conclude anything other than the fact that there is soft tissue present in some fossils which are thought to be millions of years old.

Now, for someone who truly believes in an ancient earth, it’s very hard to explain how soft tissue can remain in a fossil that has been in the ground for millions of years. Even for a young-earth creationist like myself, it is still a difficult thing to understand. Soft tissue tends to decay in a matter of days or weeks. From a chemical point of view, it is hard to understand how it can stay soft for even a few years, much less hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years. Fortunately, Dr. Schweitzer has continued her studies on soft tissue in dinosaur fossils, and she has found at least one chemical mechanism by which soft tissue can be preserved for significantly longer than anyone expected.2

She and her colleagues began by examining soft tissue from her T. rex fossil as well as a Brachylophosaurus canadensis fossil. While the T. rex fossil is supposed to be about 68 million years old, the B. canadensis is supposed to be about 76 million years old. Nevertheless, under a transmission electron microscope, both are seen to harbor soft vessels that are probably blood vessels. Interestingly enough, however, the vessels have tiny particles of iron embedded in them.

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