Two Good Points Made by the Director of the Vatican Observatory

Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, the new director of the Vatican Observatory (click for credit)
Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, the new director of the Vatican Observatory
(click for credit)
Brother Guy J. Consolmagno received a Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona. He started doing research at MIT, but then wondered why he was doing astronomy when people around the world were starving. As a result, he joined the U.S. Peace Corps and started doing relief work in Africa. However, he says that when people in Africa found out that he was an astronomer, they kept asking him questions about the heavens. He said that even though they didn’t have running water, they wanted to look through a telescope. As a result, he went back to astronomy, serving as an assistant professor of physics at Lafayette College. After four years of that, he joined the Jesuit order, and in four more years, he was posted at the Vatican Observatory. On September 18th of this year, he became the director of the Vatican Observatory.

I ran across an interview with him in the October 2nd issue of the journal Science. While I am sure there are a lot of things about which Brother Consolmagno and I disagree (theologically and scientifically), I found two statements that he made in that interview with which I wholeheartedly agree. The first was in answer to the question, “Does God get in the way of doing good astronomy?”

Just the opposite. He is the reason we do astronomy. I would say that is true even if you don’t believe in God. We do it first of all because we can, because the universe acts according to laws. That is a religious idea…You also have to believe that the universe is real and not an illusion. You have to believe that the universe is so good that it is worth spending your life studying it, even if you don’t become rich or famous.

The interview ended with this quote from him:

If you think you already know everything about the world, you are not a good scientist, and if you think you know all there is to know about God, then your religious faith is at fault.

What’s Killing Corals? It Could Be Your Sunscreen.

Coral reefs like this one support a wide diversity of ocean life. (click for credit)
Coral reefs like this one support a wide diversity of ocean life. (click for credit)

Coral reefs are often called “the rainforests of the sea,” because the are so rich in biodiversity. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they support more species per unit area than any other marine environment and produce as much as $375 billion each year in economic activity. As an amateur scuba diver, I know the amazing beauty of coral reefs firsthand. That makes the following statistics from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network alarming: the oceans have lost 19% of their coral reefs (by area), an additional 15% are seriously threatened in the next 10-20 years, and another 20% are threatened in the next 20-40 years.1

What is causing this terrible loss? Here is how one organization puts it:

All over the world coral reefs are dying out. Marine pollutants, agricultural run-off and, above all, global warming, are taking a toll on these fragile marvels of nature…Politicians may be able to deny global warming, corals, sadly, don’t have that option.

While it is very fashionable these days to blame nearly any environmental crisis on “global warming,” we have no idea what the key factor in the loss of coral reefs is. Indeed, we don’t even know if there is a key factor. There might be several processes that are working together to produce this global loss of coral, and some of them might be completely unknown. However, an international team of researchers has found one thing that is definitely harming coral, and it certainly wasn’t anything I expected!

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Debunking the Myth That Copernicus “Demoted” the Earth

Jan Matejko's painting entitled, "Astronomer Copernicus, or conversation with God."
Jan Matejko’s painting entitled, “Astronomer Copernicus, or conversation with God.”

It is a common statement made in many discussions of how Copernicus revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Goethe’s quote is a typical example:

Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe.

If you read one of my previous blog posts you will recognize one myth in that quote. People knew the earth was round long, long before Copernicus. Indeed, by 200 BC or so, the distance around the earth had been measured.

There is, however, another myth in the quote. Do you see it? It is the myth that the ancients put the earth at the center of the universe to indicate how important humanity is and that Copernicus “demoted” the earth and humanity’s importance by taking the earth out of that center. While this myth is commonly taught wherever Copernicus’s revolution is discussed, it is quite false.

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New Study Indicates Chimp DNA is 88% Similar to Human DNA

A chromosome-by-chromosome comparison of human and chimp DNA.  The bars show the percent match on the chimpanzee chromosome to the corresponding portion of human DNA. (figure from the study being discussed)
A chromosome-by-chromosome comparison of human and chimp DNA. The bars show the percent match on the chimpanzee chromosome to the corresponding portion of human DNA. (figure from the study being discussed)

NOTE: Based on comments below by Glenn (who is mentioned in the article) and Aceofspades25, there are questions regarding the analysis used in Dr. Tomkins’s study, upon which this article is based. Until Dr. Tomkins addresses these questions, it is best to be skeptical of his 88% similarity figure.

More than two years ago, Dr. Jeffrey P. Tomkins, a former director of the Clemson University Genomics Institute, performed a detailed, chromosome-by-chromosome comparison of human and chimpanzee DNA using a widely-recognized computer program known as BLAST. His analysis indicated that, on average, human and chimpanzee DNA are only about 70% similar. This is far, far, below the 95-99% numbers that are commonly cited by evolutionists, so once I read the study, I wrote a summary of it. Well, Dr. Tomkins has done a new study, and it invalidates the one he did two years ago.

The new study was done because last year, a computer programmer of financial trading algorithms (Glenn Williamson) discovered a bug in the BLAST algorithm that Tomkins used. This bug caused the program to ignore certain matches that should have been identified, which led to an artificially low similarity between the two genomes. As any responsible scientist would do, Dr. Tomkins took this issue seriously and did a detailed analysis of several different versions of the BLAST program. His analysis showed that most of the newer versions of the program were bugged, including the one used in his study two years ago.

As a result, Dr. Tomkins redid his study, using the one version of BLAST that did not contain the bug. His results are shown above. As you can see, every chromosome in the chimpanzee genome, with the exception of the Y chromosome, matched a corresponding region of the human genome by somewhere between 85% and 90%. The overall similarity between the human and chimpanzee genomes was 88%. While this is still far lower than the 95%, 98%, or 99% similarity touted by many evolutionists, it is much higher than the 70% found in his previous study.

To make sure that these new results aren’t an artifact of some other unknown issue in the BLAST computer program, Dr. Tomkins also did his analysis with two other programs: nucmer and LASTZ. The nucmer program’s results agreed with the unbugged BLAST results: on average the human and chimpanzee genomes are 88% similar. The LASTZ program produced a lower average similarity (73%), which indicates that perhaps LASTZ has a bug or is not optimized for such comparisons, since its results are very close to the results Dr. Tomkins got with the bugged version of BLAST.

I think this is the most comprehensive comparison of human and chimpanzee DNA that has been done, so I am inclined to take the results (88% similarity between human and chimpanzee DNA) as the best number we have to date. Of course, I said something similar about Dr. Tomkins’s previous study (which turned out to be wrong), so take that statement with a grain of salt! [later addition:It might not be the best number we have to date. See note at the top of the article.]

Debunking the Flat Earth Myth

This painting depicts Christopher Columbus kneeling in front of Queen Isabella.
This painting depicts Christopher Columbus kneeling in front of Queen Isabella.

Since today is Columbus Day, I thought I would discuss a myth commonly associated with the man. I learned it in school, as did many others. It’s the myth that people in Columbus’s day thought the earth was flat. Highlights of American History Before 1850, for example, tells students about a conversation that supposedly took place between Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella:1

“Your Highness,” said Columbus, “instead of going east across the land to reach India, your traders can sail west across the ocean.” “What? Are you mad?” asked Queen Isabella. “If they sail too far west they will fall off the edge of the earth!”

A more recent book puts it this way:2

Only 500 years ago, sailors aboard the Santa Maria begged Columbus to turn back lest they sail off the Earth’s “edge.”

There is a big problem with such pronouncements: no historical evidence exists to back up the idea that most people (even uneducated people) in Columbus’s day believed the earth was flat. In addition, there is a wealth of evidence that indicates no one took such an idea seriously.

We know, for example, that philosophers understood the spherical shape of the earth long before Christ was born. It was discussed by philosophers like Pythagoras in the fifth century BC3 and became widely accepted when it was championed by Aristotle (384–322 BC). He saw that the stars were different in one part of the world than the other. This indicated to him that the earth must be a sphere.4 The spherical shape of the earth was so widely accepted among philosophers that Eratosthenes (c.276–c.195 BC) used the change in a staff’s shadow resulting from a 500-mile trip to measure the circumference of the earth. He was correct to within less than 2% of today’s accepted value.5

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What We Learned from the Recent Lunar Eclipse

The moon during the recent eclipse as seen by a camera (left) and through a telescope (right).  [click for a larger image]
The moon during the recent eclipse as seen by a camera (left) and through a telescope (right). [click for a larger image]

If you watched the lunar eclipse on September 27th, you were treated to quite a sight! My wife got some great pictures of it, two of which are shown above. The image on the left is a picture she got with her camera alone, and the one on the right is what she got with her camera looking through my telescope. That was a particularly difficult shot, because the camera wasn’t designed for the telescope. She just pointed her camera at the eyepiece and patiently played with its orientation until she got the best shot she could.

The eclipse was beautiful, but it did produce something unexpected: a dark moon. Now, this eclipse was supposed to be dark, because the moon was at its perigee, which is the closest it gets to the earth. As a result, the earth’s shadow covered it a bit more thoroughly than it would have if the moon had been farther from the earth. Nevertheless, a lunar eclipse doesn’t make the moon go completely dark, because sunlight is bent through the earth’s atmosphere and shines on the moon. The process of sunlight traveling through the atmosphere produces a noticeable effect.

Sunlight is composed of many different wavelengths of light, each of which corresponds to a color that we perceive. The longest wavelengths of sunlight are red, while the shortest wavelengths are blueish. The other colors (orange, yellow, and green) are in between. Because wavelength and energy are inversely proportional, red sunlight is lowest in energy, and blue sunlight is highest in energy. Once again, the other colors are in between. Well, when sunlight passes through the atmosphere, it can bounce off particles and molecules floating in the air. Higher-energy light tends to bounce off more things than lower-energy light, so as sunlight passes through the earth’s atmosphere, the blues and greens tend to bounce around more than the reds, oranges, and yellows.

This is why the sun appears reddish-orange at sunset. When you look at the sun, the light you see is traveling straight from the sun to your eyes. The closer the sun is to the horizon, however, the more atmosphere its light must travel through to reach your eyes. Since the blues and greens tend to bounce off things in the air, they don’t travel as straight as the reds and oranges. As a result, more red and orange light coming from the sun hits your eyes than blue and green light, so the sun appears reddish-orange when it is near the horizon. The same effect causes the moon to appear reddish-orange during a lunar eclipse.

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Do Selfies Result in More Deaths than Shark Attacks?

A woman uses a 'selfie stick' to take a selfie. (click for credit)
A woman uses a ‘selfie stick’ to take a selfie. (click for credit)

The headline on my Facebook feed was just too interesting to ignore: More People Die Taking Selfies Than Being Attacked by Sharks! I clicked on the photo, which sent me to this article. The first line tells you the gist of the story:

A tally of selfie-related incidents leading to deaths this year comes with a startling revelation — selfie deaths in 2015 outnumber deaths from shark attacks.

Of course, the sources seemed a bit dubious. The first was a list of shark attacks compiled in a survivors’ forum, and the second was a list of selfie-related deaths as compiled by I really didn’t trust either of those sources, so I decided to look into this intriguing idea a bit more.

Finding a reliable source for shark attack deaths was pretty easy. The Florida Museum of Natural History has an ichthyology (study of fishes) department that does a pretty good job of compiling shark attacks worldwide. While they haven’t posted any preliminary data for 2015, they do have data from 2005 through 2014. As you can see from their first table, fatal shark attacks ranged from 1 in 2007 to 13 in 2011. In 2014, there were 3 fatal shark attacks.

Getting data on selfie-related deaths is a bit more difficult. The only comprehensive source I could find was a Wikipedia article entitled, “List of selfie-related injuries and deaths.” While I wouldn’t necessarily trust a list on Wikipedia, this one has references to each of the incidents, and the references seem to be reliable. As a result, I decided to do my own comparison between selfie-related deaths and shark attack deaths.

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Bill Nye Once Again Demonstrates His Ignorance of Basic Science

Bill Nye calls himself the 'Science Guy' but doesn't know much about science. (click for credit)
Bill Nye calls himself the ‘Science Guy’ but doesn’t know much about science.
(click for credit)
Bill Nye has a habit of speaking and writing about things he doesn’t understand. For example, he speaks a lot about global warming but is ignorant of the data related to it. He also narrated a faked experiment about global warming, demonstrating that he doesn’t understand the physics behind the process. He then made an anti-science video regarding creationism and followed that up with an error-riddled book that demonstrates his ignorance of the evolutionary hypothesis. You would think he would learn from his mistakes and at least educate himself about a subject before he makes public statements. However, his latest video shows that he has not.

He opens up the video with a scientific error, stating:

Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized, and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova — a lot.

Of course, that is false. According to The Johns Hopkins Manual of Gynecology and Obstetrics,1 30-40 percent of all conceptions end in spontaneous abortion. The National Institutes of Health say that it might be up to 50%. The highest rate of spontaneous abortion occurs with in vitro fertilization, and that rate is nearly 93%.

So, in the normal course of things, maybe as many as half of conceptions end in spontaneous abortion. That means only twice as many eggs are fertilized than children who are born. Even with in vitro fertilization, about 13 times as many eggs are fertilized as children who are born. Bill Nye’s “Many, many, many, many more hundreds” statement has no scientific support whatsoever. Why does he make this false statement? Because he wants to use it to make a claim that is completely bizarre.

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