A Christmas Letter from 1914

English and German soldiers celebrating Christmas on the Western Front in 1914.

It’s Christmas time again, and I am in the midst of preparing for many things, including the Christmas Eve service at church. I have been asked to do a short skit about Christmas. You can find some of my past attempts at dramatizing Christmas here, here, here, and here. The one I am doing for this year’s Christmas Eve service is much shorter, and it focuses on a remarkable event that happened during World War I: The Unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914. I think it illustrates the “peace, good will toward men” aspect of Christmas in a very tangible way. Parts of the drama (like the first four sentences) come straight from letters written by soldiers who participated in the event.

Ideally, the person doing the skit should be dressed in something like World War 1 gear. Honestly, a helmet and a long, ratty green coat over khaki pants would probably be good enough. An old-style rifle propped up next to him would be ideal. He should be sitting on a small stool or something like that (I will be sitting on one of the stairs that are on stage) and writing a letter.

As is the case with all of my dramatic material, please feel free to use this in any way you think might edify the Body of Christ. I would appreciate a credit, but there is no copyright on this piece.

Merry Christmas.

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Bias in Science

An illustration of the differences between RNA and DNA
(click for credit and a larger image)

Several years ago, Dr. Ivan Oransky (MD) and Adam Marcus (MA in science writing) started a blog called Retraction Watch, which reports on scientific papers that have been retracted by the journals that published them or the authors who wrote them. It provides a valuable service to those of us who frequently read the scientific literature, because many journals and authors don’t promote their retractions nearly as much as they promote their papers. Thus, if I want to see whether or not an important publication in the scientific literature has withstood the scrutiny of other scientists, I can check this blog.

Last week, while scanning the new entries, I ran across an interesting one. It reported on a major paper published last year in the journal Nature Chemistry. Despite the fact that it was published only 18 months ago, it has already been cited by 26 other papers in the scientific literature. Why? Because it appeared to solve a very serious problem in what is probably the most popular origin-of-life scenario.

Because the origin-of-life scenario I was taught as fact at university has fallen out of favor among origin-of-life researchers, other scenarios are being explored. One such scenario is the “RNA world” hypothesis. In this view, life was not initially based on DNA. Instead, it was based on a similar molecule, RNA (the differences between the two molecules are shown in the graphic above). This view has garnered a lot of attention, because RNA can do something DNA cannot. It can speed up chemical reactions without being used up in the process.

Why is this important? Many chemical reactions that occur in living systems happen slowly on their own. To be used by a cell, they need to be sped up. Cells do that today with enzymes, and they make those enzymes based on instructions that are found in their DNA. The problem is, of course, that a living system is needed to replicate DNA. But that living system depends on the information stored in DNA. How was DNA originally produced if its very replication is based on the information it contains? The RNA world gets rid of that problem.

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Lightning: A Natural Nuclear Reactor!

A thunderstorm in Annemasse, Haute-Savoie, France (click for full credit info)

In 1994, a scientific team using the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory reported seeing intense gamma ray flashes coming from the earth. The researchers called it an “unexplained terrestrial phenomenon,” but they noted:

The apparent correlation of the events with storm systems leads us to hypothesize that they are caused by electrical discharges to the stratosphere or ionosphere.

This generated interest among certain research groups, so ground-based observatories, airborne detectors, and other space-based observatories began looking for the same thing. It is now well-known that lightning is accompanied by the production of high-energy gamma rays.

While these gamma rays are of high enough energy to induce nuclear reactions, until now there has been no conclusive evidence that such reactions are actually occurring in connection with lightning storms. However, thanks in part to a Japanese academic crowdfunding site, we now have strong evidence that lightning does, indeed, produce nuclear reactions in the atmosphere!

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