Soft Tissue Showdown

Soft tissue structures in a dinosaur bone that the authors interpret as biofilms left by modern bacteria (image from study being discussed)

Since Dr. Mary Schweitzer shocked the paleontological community with her discovery of what appears to be soft tissue in a dinosaur fossil, scientists rushed to find more examples of such soft tissue in fossils that are thought to be many millions of years old. They were apparently successful (see here, here, here, here, and here, and here).

Reactions to these finds follow one of three schools of thought. Some in the scientific community (like myself) beleive that the soft tissue is from the creatures that made the fossils and is therefore evidence that the fossils are not millions of years old, since there is no plausible mechanism by which soft tissue can stay soft that long. Some believe that the soft tissue is from the creatures that made the fossils and are seeking a means by which it could stay soft for millions of years. So far, those attempts have not been successful (see here, here, and here). The rest accept the seemingly obvious fact that soft tissue cannot possibly stay soft for millions of years and therefore argue that the soft tissue that has been found cannot be from the creatures that made the fossils. The results of a recent study at least partially support the view of those in the third camp.

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Soft Dinosaur Tissue Looks Really Young!

“Soft” tissue from an Allosaurus fossil, which is supposed to be 150 million years old. (Image from study being discussed)

In 2005, Dr. Mary Schweitzer stunned the paleontology community by finding soft tissue in a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil that is supposed to be more than 65 million years old. Because it is very difficult to understand how tissue could remain soft for more than 65 million years, many scientists tried to contest her findings. Over the years, however, more discoveries of soft tissue in fossils that are supposed to be multiple millions of years old have been made (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example). As a result, most scientists have come to accept the fact that there is soft tissue in fossils that are up to 550 million years old.

Now the focus on soft tissue in fossils is changing. Scientists are trying to find some chemical mechanism that would allow soft tissue to avoid decay and fossilization over such a long period of time. Dr. Schweitzer herself did experiments to suggest that iron might help to stave off decomposition and fossilization, but from a chemical standpoint, it simply doesn’t work (see here and here).

A reader recently asked me about another proposed explanation that I had somehow missed. The study was published late last year, and while it attempts to explain how soft tissue can avoid decomposition over millions of years, it doesn’t achieve its goal. Instead, it actually gives more evidence that the fossils in the study are very young. However, it does produce some interesting results that require further investigation.

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Here’s Another College That Gets It

Six years ago, I wrote an article about Anderson University, where I am an adjunct professor. While the university clings strongly to the essentials of the Christian faith, it does not force its faculty to conform to one interpretation of Scripture. As a result, students are exposed to many different views that exist within Christendom.

In addition, rather than just trying to proselytize for their own view, the faculty are committed to making sure students understand the different ways Christians interpret the world through the lens of Scripture. This is best exemplified by an example. One of the science professors is an old-earth creationist, but he regularly invites me into his classes either to give a young-earth view of the science the students are learning or to engage in a friendly debate with him on the issue of the earth’s age. I especially like the latter, since students see that two people can engage in serious disagreements and still be good friends.

Just before Christmas, someone I respect and admire sent me an article that I wanted to share with my readers. It gives you another example of a Christian College (in this case, a seminary and Bible College) that gets it. To fully appreciate the article, however, you need to know the history behind it.

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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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Sometimes, It’s the “Deniers” Who Are Right!

Nobel Laureate Dr. Daniel Shechtman
(click for credit)
Nearly six years ago, I wrote about Dr. Daniel Shechtman. He had recently won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and I wanted to highlight him because had the term been popular in his day, he would have been called a chemistry denier. His own research demonstrated the existence of quasicrystals, despite the fact that the science of the day said (quite conclusively) that they couldn’t possibly exist. He faced a lot of opposition from his fellow scientists, even though all he was doing was following the data.

Although the term “denier” wasn’t fashionable at the time, two-time Nobel Laureate Dr. Linus Pauling famously said:

There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.

Despite the fact that the head of his own research group asked him to leave because of “bringing disgrace” to the team, Dr. Shechtman persevered, and he was eventually vindicated. Even though science conclusively said that quasicrystals don’t exist, Dr. Schechtman showed that they did.

I recently learned from one of my chemistry colleagues that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote an article about Dr. Schechtman’s story. It is called Crystals of Golden Proportion, and if you have any interest in chemistry, you might find it worth the read. I certainly did.

The article discusses the ridicule Dr. Schechtman received from his fellow scientists, and then it makes this statement:

Dan Shechtman’s story is by no means unique. Over and over again in the history of science, researchers have been forced to do battle with established “truths”, which in hindsight have proven to be no more than mere assumptions…Keeping an open mind and daring to question established knowledge may in fact be a scientist’s most important character trait.

I have said the same things many times. Unfortunately, this obvious truth is lost on most people, including most scientists. If a scientist dares to question established truth, he or she is immediately labeled a “denier.” If you point out the uncertainty in our understanding of global climate, you are a “climate change denier.” If you question the “accepted” age of the earth, or flagellate-to-philosopher evolution, you are a “science denier.” As the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences admits, however, the “deniers” are right in many cases, and established scientific “truths” are sometimes just incorrect assumptions.

Science would be better served if more people (including more scientists) understood this.

Radioactive Half-Lives Not Affected by Earth/Sun Distance

The international symbol for radiation, which is also known as the trefoil.
The international symbol for radiation, which is also known as the trefoil.
Several years ago, data came out of Purdue University, indicating that the half-lives of some radioactive substances are affected by the distance between the earth and the sun. Despite the fact that most scientists thought there were problems with the experiment, the group continued to publish pretty convincing data supporting their case. Based on their data, I thought their conclusion was well-founded. However, it looks like they (and I) were wrong.

I first noted that there might be a problem with their conclusion over two years ago, when other researchers tried to duplicate their results using a more precise technique. They found small changes (significantly smaller than the Purdue group) and no indication that those changes were correlated with the distance between the earth and the sun. Since then, two more papers have been published that pretty much seal the case that the Purdue results were wrong.

The first paper comes from NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Since NIST is responsible for all sorts of standards, several of their groups monitor radioactive isotopes for extended periods of time. They are also concerned with precision, so their procedures are focused on making sure there are no outside influences acting on their experiments.

Their paper reports on the results of experiments carried out in 14 laboratories across the world. A total of 24 different radioactive isotopes were studied, including those that decay by alpha emission, beta emission, electron capture, and positron emission. Some experiments covered “only” 200 days, but others covered four decades! Eleven different experimental techniques were used. All of the experiments saw very small variations (less than one-hundredth of one percent), and none of them saw any correlation between those tiny variations and the distance between the earth and the sun. In addition, the variations were different from experiment to experiment, so the most likely explanation for them is variation in the instruments that were used.

While the NIST paper obviously makes a strong case that the Purdue results are not real, I think a more recent paper gives us the final word. The authors used the same detection technique as the Purdue researchers, but they performed the experiment in a sealed chamber that had constant pressure, humidity, and temperature. They studied five radioactive isotopes for over a year, and like the NIST teams, they saw only small variations that were not correlated with the distance between the earth and the sun. This indicates that whatever the Purdue researchers saw was related to changing weather conditions, not changing radioactive half-lives.

While it would have been exciting for radioactive half-lives to be dependent on the distance between the earth and the sun, it almost certainly isn’t the case.

PZ Myers Needs Better Reading Skills Than That

A single bone cell isolated from a Triceratops fossil. (Photo by Mark Armitage)
A single bone cell isolated from a Triceratops fossil. (Photo by Mark Armitage)

I was delighted to see that another blog post of mine is the subject of yet another diatribe by Dr. PZ Myers (Creatonists Need Better Evidence Than That). For those who missed it, my post on Mark Armitage’s groundbreaking original research bothered Dr. Myers, and he wrote a response that showed he didn’t really bother to read much about the issue. I wrote a reply that was designed to educate him on the issue. His newest diatribe is a response to that reply. Unfortunately, while Dr. Myers has shown more of an ability to read than he did in his first attempt, he needs to sharpen his reading skills if he ever wants to be informed on the issues that he is attempting to discuss. Perhaps this post will help.

Let’s start with Dr. Myers’s first problem. He doesn’t like the fact that carbon-14 has been found in a Triceratops fossil that is supposed to be millions of years old. In his first attempt at ignoring the data, he claimed:

If the bone was really young, you wouldn’t just be reporting that there was some C14 in it, you’d be reporting an age derived from a ratio.

In my response, I noted that this is just what was reported. The fossil was given a C-14 age of 41,010 ± 220 years. Of course, now he claims that such an age is meaningless. Why? He says that the date indicates there is very little carbon-14 in the fossil – so little that it could be explained by a source other than the Triceratops itself.

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Read, PZ, Read!

Electron microscope image of three soft bone cells from a dinosaur fossil (image by Mark Armitage)
Electron microscope image of three soft bone cells from a dinosaur fossil
(image by Mark Armitage)

As I indicate in my “Links to Investigate” list on the right, one of the few blogs I read regularly is written by Dr. PZ Myers. While I disagree with nearly everything he writes, I do think he provides an entertaining, “new atheist” perspective on science. Of course, if you dislike foul language, it is best to avoid his blog. Some people are adept at defending their point of view with reason and intelligence, while others specialize in crude insults. It is rather obvious which camp Dr. Myers is in.

Imagine my delight when I was doing my “light reading” this past weekend and found that a blog post of mine was the focus of one of his diatribes! The post is entitled, “Think, creationists, think,” and it is an attempt to discredit Mark Armitage’s excellent work of isolating soft cells from a dinosaur fossil. The problem, of course, is that Dr. Myers didn’t actually bother to read up on the issue, and as a result, he makes some rather silly statements.

For example, when discussing the carbon-14 found in Armitage’s Triceratops fossil, Dr. Myers claims that someone with a PhD in nuclear chemistry (like me) should know that the presence of carbon-14 in the fossil means nothing. After all,

C14 dating uses the ratio of carbon isotopes; it can’t be used on material above about 50,000 years because the quantity of carbon-14 is too low to be reliable, not because it’s nonexistent. If the bone was really young, you wouldn’t just be reporting that there was some C14 in it, you’d be reporting an age derived from a ratio.

Well, had Dr. Myers bothered to click on the link given in my post, he would have seen that an age was reported: 41,010 ± 220 years. As I state in that link, this is well within the accepted range of carbon-14 dating, and it is younger than many other carbon-14 dates published in the literature. In addition, the process used to make the sample ready for dating has been spelled out in the peer-reviewed literature, and it is designed to free the sample of all contamination except for carbon that comes from the original fossil. Now as I said in my original post, it’s possible that the reading comes from contamination. However, I find that unlikely, given the process used on the sample, the cellular evidence that Armitage found, and the fact that such carbon-14 dates are common in all manner of fossils that are supposedly millions of years old or older.

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Scientist Isolates Individual Dinosaur Cells!

A single bone cell isolated from a Triceratops fossil. (Photo by Mark Armitage)
A single bone cell isolated from a Triceratops fossil. (Photo by Mark Armitage)

If you follow young-earth creationism at all, you probably know about Mark Armitage. In 2013, he and Kevin Anderson wrote a paper in which they imaged soft bone cells from a dinosaur fossil that is supposedly 65 million years old. This challenges the old-earth dogma pronounced by the High Priests of Science, and Armitage was happy to discuss that fact with students at the university where he worked. However, to teach such heresy is an excommunicable offense, so the Inquisition fired him from his university position. He eventually won a lawsuit against them.

Despite the hard work of the Inquisition, Armitage is still investigating his amazing discovery. A couple of years ago, for example, a sample of the fossil was analyzed for carbon-14 content. If it really is 65 million years old, there should be no carbon-14 in the fossil. Nevertheless, carbon-14 was found. Of course, there is always the chance that the carbon-14 is the result of contamination, but combined with the presence of soft bone cells, it seems obvious to me that the fossil is significantly younger than 65 million years!

Somehow, I missed the latest update on Armitage’s incredible work. In the January, 2016 issue of Microscopy Today, he published more results from his painstaking analysis, and they are truly amazing.

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Scientist Realizes Important Flaw in Radioactive Dating

In beta decay, a neutron turns into a proton by emitting a beta particle, which is an electron (click for credit)
In beta decay, a neutron turns into a proton by emitting a beta particle, which is an electron (click for credit)

As someone who has studied radioactivity in detail, I have always been a bit amused by the assertion that radioactive dating is a precise way to determine the age of an object. This false notion is often promoted when radioactive dates are listed with utterly unrealistic error bars. In this report, for example, we are told that using one radioactive dating technique, a lunar rock sample is 4,283 million years old, plus or minus 23 million years old. In other words, there is a 95% certainty that the age is somewhere between 4,283 + 23 million years and 4,283 – 23 million years. That’s just over half a percent error in something that is supposedly multiple billions of years old.

Of course, that error estimate is complete nonsense. It refers to one specific source of error – the uncertainty in the measurement of the amounts of various atoms used in the analysis. Most likely, that is the least important source of error. If those rocks really have been sitting around on the moon for billions of years, I suspect that the the wide range of physical and chemical processes which occurred over that time period had a much more profound effect on the uncertainty of the age determination. This is best illustrated by the radioactive age of a sample of diamonds from Zaire. Their age was measured to be 6.0 +/- 0.3 billion years old. Do you see the problem? Those who are committed to an ancient age for the earth currently believe that it is 4.6 billion years old. Obviously, then, the minimum error in that measurement is 1.4 billion years, not 0.3 billion years!

Such uncertainties are usually glossed over, especially when radioactive dates are communicated to the public and, more importantly, to students. Generally, we are told that scientists have ways to analyze the object they are dating so as to eliminate the uncertainties due to unknown processes that occurred in the past. One way this is done in many radioactive dating techniques is to use an isochron. However, a recent paper by Dr. Robert B. Hayes has pointed out a problem with isochrons that has, until now, not been considered.

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