Why Do Creationists Use the Bible for Science?

Matthew Fontaine Maury, who was inspired by the Bible to map ocean currents.
This blog has been more quiet than usual, because I am trying to put the finishing touches on my new book, Discovering Design with Earth Science. As soon as that job is complete, you will be able to see preview materials at my publisher’s website. I decided to pause for a moment, however, because I was recently asked the following question by a frustrated atheist:

Why would you even think of using the Bible for science? It isn’t a scientific book!

It turns out that Discovering Design with Earth Science has two answers to that question. I shared them with him, and I thought I would share them with you as well. In the book, I present both sides of the age-of-the-earth issue in as unbiased a way as possible. I start with the uniformitarian view, which requires a very old earth. I then present the young-earth creationist view. The first answer to the atheist’s question is found at the beginning of that discussion:

Suppose you are examining the ruins of an ancient city and want to learn as much as you can about when it was built, how it was built, and how it fell into ruin. You see some of the remains of buildings, streets, walls, etc., but nothing has been preserved intact. You can learn a lot by investigating the ruins, but your conclusions will be based on your interpretation of what you see. Now suppose you found out that there was a book written shortly after the city was built, and it discusses the politics of the city for several centuries. While the focus of the book is on the government, it does cover many aspects of how and when the city was built.

Would you completely ignore the book and just examine the ruins, relying on your own interpretation to determine the city’s history? Of course not! If you wanted to learn the truth about the city’s history, you would read the book and let it help you interpret the ruins that you are investigating. This is how young-earth-creationists (YECs) study the geological record. They believe they have a book (the Bible) that comes from the Creator Himself. While the book focuses on more important things like salvation, morality, and our duties to God, it does discuss the creation of the universe, the earth, the organisms that lived on earth, etc. Since YECs consider the Bible to be an accurate source of history, they use it as a guide to studying the “ruins” of the geological column and fossil record. There’s a lot more to the history of the earth than what is in the Bible, but at least the Bible gives YECs a starting point to help their interpretation of the geological record.

The second answer to the atheist’s question comes from my discussion of the surface currents found in the ocean. While others had mapped some of those currents (Ben Franklin, for example, mapped the Gulf Stream), the man most responsible for mapping the ocean’s surface currents was Matthew Fontaine Maury, who is pictured above. He was inspired to search for the “paths of the seas” that are mentioned in Psalm 8:8, and after an exhaustive research effort, he ended up producing a detailed map of those currents. This revolutionized ocean travel, so he became quite famous in his time. He ended up writing a very important text on oceanography (what they called “physical geography” back then): The Physical Geography of the Sea. In that book, he references the Bible several times. In my earth science book, I tell the students all of this and then I add:

Many scientists didn’t like that and tried to discourage him from connecting the Bible to science. In a speech given at the founding of The University of the South, he gave those scientists a stern rebuke:

I have been blamed by men of science, both in this country and in England, for quoting the Bible in confirmation of the doctrines of physical geography. The Bible, they say, was not written for scientific purposes, and is therefore of no authority in matters of science. I beg pardon! The Bible is authority for everything it touches.
(Diana Fontaine Corbin, A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury, Samson, Lowe, et. al., 1888, p. 192)

Young-earth creationists like me really believe that. The Bible is an authority when it comes to all the important things of life: salvation, morality, our duties to God, etc. However, because it was written by the Creator Himself, we believe it is an authority in whatever it mentions, including science.

A Monkey/Man Embryo

An illustration from the scientific paper being discussed.
A few readers have sent me news stories like this one, entitled “Human-Monkey Hybrid Embryo Created by Joint China-U.S. Scientist Team.” Obviously, the concept of mixing the embryos of people and animals is abhorrent, so these readers wanted my view on the experiment and what it means. Since “science journalists” know little about science and even less about journalism, I ignored what has been written in the press and went straight to the actual scientific paper to find out what had been done. While the paper alleviated some of my initial concerns, it most certainly didn’t alleviate all of them.

What did the researchers actually do? They first developed a method for fertilizing the eggs of a long-tailed macaque (Macaca fasciularis) so that the monkey embryo could start development in a lab dish instead of the body of a female macaque. Once they accomplished that, they took human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) that had already been developed and injected them into the lab-dish monkey embryos once they reached a specific stage in development, called the “blastocyst stage.” They then followed the development of these mixed embryos over time.

Why would someone want to do something like this? The scientists on the project were mostly interested in trying to understand how the cells in an embryo communicate with one another so that they can do the jobs they need to do to make a baby. They thought that if they could see how the human cells communicated with one another in this kind of system, it would help them understand human embryonic development better. Of course, to “sell” the research, they also indicated that it could help produce animals that could grow human organs for transplant, since many people die waiting for an organ transplant.

Were they successful? Not really, but they were able to get some results. They started with 132 separate monkey embryos, and they injected 25 human stem cells into each of them once they reached the blastocyst stage. Stem cells have the ability to develop into many different kinds of cells, so they hoped that human cells would communicate with one another and mimic what happens during early human embryonic development. However, over the course of 20 days, most of the embryos died. Only three of them survived for 19 days, and there was significant interaction between the human and monkey cells. As a result, it’s not clear how much of what happened to the human cells is related to actual human embryonic development.

Now remember, I said the paper alleviated some of my concerns. That’s because the source of the human cells is not immoral. There are three ways to get human stem cells. The first way is to extract them from a human embryo. This kills the baby, so murders must be committed in order to use such cells. Thus, no one with any sense of morality should be involved in such research. Fortunately, this experiment didn’t use such cells.

The second way to get human stem cells is to harvest them from the umbilical cord after birth or from certain parts of an adult. This doesn’t kill anyone, so there is nothing unethical about their use. Indeed, several successful medical treatments are based on such cells, which are usually called “adult stem cells.” This experiment didn’t use those cells, either. Instead, it used mature cells (from an adult) that had been chemically reprogrammed to act like stem cells. Such cells are usually called “induced pluripotent stem cells,” and once again, no one is killed in the process. Thus, at least the source of human stem cells used in the experiment is a moral one.

However, my concerns are not fully alleviated. After all, this experiment could be done by others who are immoral enough to use stem cells that require babies to be murdered. Indeed, there are probably scientists reading this very paper thinking that one reason the survival rate was so low was because the stem cells did not come from a human embryo. As a result, they might try to replicate this experiment with immorally-sourced stem cells.

Of course, the other serious issue is that this experiment could be altered so that the mixed embryo is implanted back into a female monkey, in hopes that some kind of creature would actually be born. I seriously doubt such a thing could actually happen, because embryonic development is so complex that the communication between monkey and human cells would eventually cause the process to break down. Nevertheless, the possibility exists that such a monster could be produced, which is morally repugnant.

Now I do have to say that the authors of the study went to great pains to make sure that their experiment was deemed “ethical.” However, that doesn’t comfort me in the slightest. After all, the medical community thinks abortion is ethical, and it is clearly not. Given this fact, I don’t think this line of research should be extended. There are just too many ways it could be done immorally, and the medical community has shown that its sense of morality is, at best, stunted.

About That New Physics….

Fermilab’s muon 2- storage ring, where some are saying new physics has been confirmed. (click for credit)

A reader sent me this article over the weekend. The long title indicates something exciting is happening:

A new experiment has broken the known rules of physics, hinting at a mysterious, unknown force that has shaped our universe

I have been sent similar articles by others. Most of them have the same breathless excitement: physicists have found that the laws of physics as we know them can’t be right, because an experiment at Fermilab shows that they are being broken. If true, this is really exciting news. However, much like the “faster-than light neutrino” results that were later found to be incorrect, I remain very skeptical that there is any reason to think that the laws of physics as we understand them are wrong.

So what’s the story here? Twenty years ago, physicists at Brookhaven National Lab were studying muons, which are particles that have the same negative charge as the electron but are significantly heavier. Because they are charged, they produce a magnetic field, just like the electron does. The physics that we know right now (collectively referred to as the “Standard Model”) predicts the behavior of particles that produce magnetic fields, and the way the electron behaves agrees perfectly with the Standard Model’s prediction. Because muons are heavier than electrons, their behavior is more complex, so they can be used as an additional test for the Standard Model. In the Brookhaven experiments, the muon’s behavior differed very slightly from the predictions of the Standard Model. However, because of the limits of the experiment, the physicists couldn’t rule out the idea that the result was a fluke, so the team made no concrete statement about the accuracy of the Standard Model when it comes to muon magnetic fields.

Recently, Fermilab announced that they replicated the Brookhaven experiment, using the same basic setup as what was used at Brookhaven, but they did it with higher precision. They confirmed the Brookhaven experiment’s results, and based on the quality of their data, statistics indicate there is only a 1 in 40,000 chance that the result is a fluke. Because of this, there is a lot of excitement in some parts of the physics community. After all, if the Standard Model can’t correctly predict something, that means there is something wrong with it, and that means there is “new physics” to discover.

Of course, this line of reasoning ignores one inconvenient fact. There is another possible reason the Standard Model’s prediction for the muon is wrong: The prediction itself could be incorrect. It turns out that the muon’s complex behavior causes the math in the Standard Model to be very difficult to solve. As a result, the prediction against which these experiments are compared used a well-accepted shortcut: it incorporated some independent experimental results into the calculations to make things easier. Of course, this leads to a problem. Those experimental results produce uncertainties, because all experiments have error in them. As a result, what’s really going on here is that an uncertain prediction is being compared to an experimental result, which has its own uncertainties. When uncertain things are compared to other uncertain things, it’s not clear what the difference between them means.

To solve this problem, Borsanyi and colleagues did the tough math. They used millions of CPU hours at a supercomputer so that the prediction they produced was purely mathematical. They found that their prediction agreed with the experimental results at both Brookhaven and Fermilab. Thus, as far as they are concerned, there is no discrepancy between the behavior of the muon and the predictions of the Standard Model. Is that the end of the story? Of course not! It could be that Borsanyi and colleagues are wrong. However, I would think their conclusion is more reliable, since a prediction made with pure mathematics has less uncertainty in it.

So my bet is that there is no new physics here, and the Standard Model has been vindicated once again. Of course, only time will tell whether or not I am right. However, there is a lesson to be learned here, and it is an important one. Borsanyi and colleagues’ calculation was published at the same time as the Fermilab results. However, most science “journalists” aren’t bothering to mention their conclusion. Why? Either because it isn’t exciting, or because they haven’t bothered to see what other physicists are saying about the situation. Either way, it’s truly unfortunate, and it confirms what I have said many times before: most “science journalists” know little about science and even less about journalism.

A New Kind of Vaccine for COVID-19

Pfizer’s description of how an mRNA vaccine works (click for larger version)
There has been a lot of talk about Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, and a reader asked me to comment on it. The company claims it is more than 90% effective at preventing the disease, which is better than what most health-care experts were expecting. If true, that news is exciting enough. To add to the excitement, it is a new kind of vaccine that has great potential, if it works the way it is supposed to. There is another company trying to produce a similar vaccine, but it looks like Pfizer is in the lead, so for the purpose of this article, I will focus on its version.

Let me start by saying that I have no connection to Pfizer or any other pharmaceutical company. I am a science educator who writes about science issues like this one. I am also not a medical doctor or medical researcher. I am simply a nuclear chemist who has broadened my knowledge base by writing (or co-writing) a series of textbooks used by home educators and teachers in Christian schools. Thus, I am no expert on these matters. However, I get most of my information by reading the scientific literature, which allows me to avoid a lot of the misinformation found in the standard media outlets and (even worse) social media.

Before I talk about Pfizer’s vaccine in particular, I want to explain how this kind of vaccine works. To understand that, remember that a traditional vaccine uses a weakened/inactivated form of the pathogen whose infection it wants to prevent (or a chemical mimic of that pathogen). This causes your body to react as if it is being infected by the real thing. As a result, it mounts a defense that is specific to that pathogen and remembers how to fight it. That way, if you get infected by the real thing, it can mount a swift immune response. This process takes advantage of your acquired immune system. However, you also have an innate immune system, and the active ingredient of the vaccine does not stimulate it. As a result, traditional vaccines have additives, called adjuvants, which are designed to stimulate your innate immune system. That way, everything in your immune system works the way it is designed to work.

Continue reading “A New Kind of Vaccine for COVID-19”

Regardless of What You Have Heard, the COVID-19 Deaths in the U.S. are Real

The purple bars are the deaths in the U.S. each week since2017. The yellow line represents the maximum number of deaths that were projected for those weeks. (graph by The Conversation, data from the CDC)

I have referenced this article in some comments I made previously, but I want to highlight it in a separate post, because the graph it contains (also shown above) makes it clear that the COVID-19 deaths are not some manipulation of the data. They are real. Very real. The purple bars in the graph represent all deaths recorded in the U.S. each week since 2017. The yellow line represents a projection of the maximum number of deaths that should have happened each week. The projection is based on historical data, and it fluctuates with the season. That’s because there are usually more deaths in the winter and fewer deaths in the summer, and as you can see, the actual deaths show that same fluctuation.

Notice that for most weeks, the actual deaths were lower than the maximum number of projected deaths. That’s expected. If the projection is done well, there should rarely be a time when the actual number of deaths meets or exceeds the maximum projection. However, there were some weeks in December of 2017 and January of 2018 when that happened, because there was a particularly virulent strain of the flu that season. As a result, more people died than were expected.

But those excess deaths are dwarfed by the ones that start showing up the last week of March in 2020. In that week, about 4,000 more than the maximum projected deaths occurred. Since then, the actual deaths have exceeded the maximum projected deaths by a considerable margin every week. All of this is discussed in the article from which I took the graph. However, I want to make a couple of additional points.

First, look at the shape of the excess deaths. There appear to be two peaks – one very large one the second week of April, and a smaller one at the end of July. This is important, because it looks very, very similar to the COVID-19 deaths reported over the same time span:

When the excess deaths have essentially the same time profile as the COVID-19 deaths, you know that the COVID-19 deaths make up most of the excess deaths. This tells us that the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths are real and most certainly represent people who would not have died had there not been the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second, some friends have asked me why they don’t know anyone who got the disease or died from it. After all, if there really have been more than 180,000 people who died from the disease and more than 6 million confirmed cases, shouldn’t everyone know someone who has suffered from it? Of course not! There are 328.2 million people who live in the U.S. That means about 2% of the population has contracted COVID-19, and about 0.05% have died from it. Thus, your chance of knowing someone who died from it is ridiculously low. While your chance of knowing someone who contracted it but didn’t die from it is significantly higher, remember that for most cases, the disease is mild. Thus, you would have to know someone well enough that you track his or her common illnesses to be aware that he or she had the disease!

It disturbs me that there are so many people (many of whom are Christians) who think this pandemic has been made up. The data clearly say that it hasn’t been. Lots of people died because of the disease, and misinformation will only increase the number of deaths. Now please understand that I am not saying that I support any of the measures that governments have taken to slow the spread. We don’t know enough about the disease or the consequences of the actions that have been taken to know whether or not they are a good idea. I said this before, and I will say it again:

As a scientist, let me assure you that no one really knows what we should be doing. There are a lot of experts saying a lot of different things, and you should listen to all of them. Then, you should decide what works best for you and your family, and you should start doing it. But once you decide what you and your family should be doing, please please please show grace to those who choose to do something different. Since the experts can’t agree on a proper course of action, there is no reason to expect your neighbor to agree with your course of action.

In addition to showing grace to others, please please please stop spreading the false idea that the COVID-19 deaths are few in number or not real at all. They are real, and there are a huge number of them. There is simply no other way to understand the data.

Can a COVID-19 Virus Communicate with Other COVID-19 Viruses?

I am writing this post because a reader asked me a question that I thought was very interesting and relates to a broader concept in biology. Before I answer her question, however, I want to make an important point about the virus that causes COVID-19 and how we should react to it. A few weeks ago, I gave the commencement address to a group of homeschoolers. Before I started my official remarks, I said this:

I am not going to say much about this virus, but I will say this: As a scientist, let me assure you that no one really knows what we should be doing. There are a lot of experts saying a lot of different things, and you should listen to all of them. Then, you should decide what works best for you and your family, and you should start doing it. But once you decide what you and your family should be doing, please please please show grace to those who choose to do something different. Since the experts can’t agree on a proper course of action, there is no reason to expect your neighbor to agree with your course of action.

I think that is the best way to approach this pandemic. The experts still can’t agree on exactly what to do because we just don’t know enough about this virus to make definitive choices. As a result of this ignorance, we must all muddle through this as best we can and realize that none of us has all the correct answers.

Now let me share my reader’s question:

Recently I came across a discussion online about quorum sensing in viruses. The initial topic had been the difference between groups meeting indoors verses outdoors, as many churches are now doing. I had never heard of quorum sensing before, so I did a little research, but I wondered if you would consider addressing this sometime. It sounds pretty fascinating to think viruses and such can actually monitor their environment.

Continue reading “Can a COVID-19 Virus Communicate with Other COVID-19 Viruses?”

Yes, the Coronavirus Bill Was Introduced in 2019. No, It’s Not Because the Pandemic Was Planned.

***PLEASE NOTE: This is not a political post, and all political comments will be deleted without mercy.***

A good friend of mine asked me about something he had seen on Facebook. It wasn’t this particular post, but the message was the same. The image on the left comes from the post I linked. As it shows, the Coronavirus bill that became law on March 27, 2020 (called the CARES ACT) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on January 24, 2019. That’s long before we knew about the COVID-19 pandemic. How in the world could this bill be introduced in the House before anyone knew about the virus? As the Facebook post says:

Attention: The conspiracy theorists were right in calling this a “plandemic” and the proof can be found at www.congress.gov. Look up H.R. 748- CARES Act (the Bill that was passed for Coronavirus relief).

To someone uninitiated in the vagaries of legislation in the United States, the fact that the bill was introduced almost a year before anyone heard about the novel Coronavirus does seem to confirm that the entire pandemic was planned. However, like most conspiracy theories, a bit of education is all it takes to understand the real reason behind this odd timeline.

The U.S. Constitution says that all spending bills must originate in the U.S. House of Representatives. Thus, to be Constitutional, any spending bill (including the CARES act) must originate in the House. After it passes the House, it moves on to the Senate for consideration. During that process, the Senate can amend the bill, changing things it doesn’t like. However, once the Senate passes an amended bill, it must go back to the House, and it cannot be sent to the President for his signature until the House concurs with the Senate’s version of the bill.

Because Congress wanted the CARES act to move quickly, it essentially skipped the first step. It did so by taking a bill that had already passed the House and been sent to the Senate. That bill was HR 748, which was originally entitled, “Middle Class Health Benefits Tax Repeal Act of 2019.” Its intent was to repeal a tax that the Affordable Care Act placed on “Cadillac” health insurance plans. It passed the House but was never voted on by the Senate. As a result, it just “sat” in the Senate until March of 2020.

At that point, the pandemic was upon us, and the Senate decided it needed to pass a relief bill fast. It took HR 748, stripped the bill of its content, changed the title, and “amended” it by writing an entirely new bill. The details of the bill were crafted with input from the House leadership so that once it passed the Senate, the House would quickly concur with the “amendment” so that it could be signed by the President, who had also been consulted to ensure that he would sign it right away.

So the strange timeline of the CARES act is the result of a “loophole” that the Senate uses in order to speed up the passage of a spending bill, not because the pandemic had been planned ahead of time. You might wonder if using such a “loophole” is really Constitutional. I personally don’t have enough expertise to figure that one out. I have read legal opinions on both sides of the issue, and they just left me with a headache. However, I can tell you that this is not the first time the Senate has used it. In fact, the Affordable Care Act, which was originally called the “Service Members Home Ownership Tax Act of 2009,” was passed in the same way.

Did This Bird Go Extinct and Re-Evolve? I Doubt It.

A flightless Railbird on the Aldabra atoll in the Indian Ocean (click for credit)

Over the past few days, several people have sent me articles like this one, which makes a rather fantastic claim:

The Aldabra white-throated rail bird was declared extinct, a victim of rising sea levels almost 100,000 years ago.

However, the flightless brown bird has recently been spotted – leaving scientists scratching their heads as to how – and why – the species has come back to life.

What do you conclude from reading that? The article seems to be saying that no one had ever seen this bird before; it was only known from the fossil record. Now, however, living versions of it have been seen, and how they came back from extinction is a mystery. Unfortunately, like many “science news” stories, this one distorts the science to the point that it is deceptive and misleading.

The science that is being distorted comes from a study published last year. A responsible article that describes the study can be found here. While the study and the responsible article don’t distort the science, I do think the conclusion that they draw is not the only one consistent with the data.

Let’s start with the bird that is being discussed. It’s the Aldabra white-throated rail, whose scientific name is Dryolimnas [cuvieri] aldabranus. It lives on the Aldabra atoll in the Indian Ocean and is nearly identical to white-throated rails (Dryolimnas cuvieri) found in other parts of the world, like Madagascar. However, the ones on the Aldabra atoll cannot fly, while the others can. As a result, the flightless birds on the atoll are considered a subspecies of the version that can fly.

While we cannot say for sure, the generally-accepted origin story for the Aldabra white-throated rail is that normal white-throated rails landed on the atoll, and since there were no predators there, they stayed. Since they didn’t need to fly anymore, they evolved into flightless birds over several generations. This makes sense, because when a population of organisms doesn’t need a particular biological trait, mutations can degrade those traits without affecting survivability. In addition, DNA is so incredibly well-designed that over the course of generations, it can “turn off” genes that are no longer used in order to save energy. As a result, it makes sense that these flightless birds are descendants from birds that could originally fly.

Why do these articles discuss the birds being extinct at one point? Because the authors of the scientific study looked at the fossil record of the atoll. Using scientifically-irresponisble dating methods, they came to the conclusion that the atoll was completely underwater about 140,000 years ago. When they looked at fossils they interpreted to be older than 140,000 years, they found two bones that seem identical to the corresponding bones in the Aldabra white-throated rails that currently live on the atoll. Thus, they conclude that these flightless birds lived on the atoll before it went completely underwater.

Well, since the birds couldn’t fly, the authors assume that they all died when the atoll was underwater. However, in fossils that they interpret as being deposited after ocean levels decreased and the atoll was no longer underwater, they found another bone that looks similar to the corresponding bones in white-throated rails that can fly. However, it is heavier and more robust than what is found in those birds, but still lighter than what is found in the flightless Aldabra white-throated rails. In other words, it seems to be “in between” the bone of a normal white-throated rail and a flightless white-throated rail. To them, that gives “irrefutable evidence” (their words) that the Aldabra white-throated rails evolved twice: once before the atoll went underwater, and once after.

While their interpretation of the evidence makes sense and is consistent with all the known data, their case is certainly not “irrefutable.” First, you have to assume that they are interpreting the fossil record correctly. There is a lot of evidence to indicate the earth isn’t anywhere close to 140,000 years old, and if that evidence is correct, then their entire explanation is wrong. Also, even if the earth is as old as these scientists want to believe, the authors’ explanation is not the only one consistent with the data. We know that flightless animals can move from place to place on floating mats of vegetation. This is called “rafting,” and it is used by both evolutionists and creationists to explain the worldwide distribution of certain animals. If the atoll flooded like the authors think, the flightless birds could have survived by rafting. What about that one bone that is “in between” the two subspecies? There are natural variations in all bones. A “more robust” bone from a normal white-throated rail can be explained by natural variation within a population of normal white-throated rails.

The main reason I am writing about this is not to argue with the authors. It’s to point out the deceptiveness of articles like the one I quoted at the beginning of the post. As I have said many times before, do not believe the things you read in the popular press when it comes to science. Most “science journalists” are profoundly ill-equipped to understand science, and usually quite poor journalists as well.

More Thoughts on the New Coronavirus

An infographic adapted from one produced by the CDC (click for larger version)

A few readers have sent me questions regarding the coronavirus that is spreading across the world, so I thought I would make a post answering those questions and providing some resources you can use to deal with the issue. Please note, however, that I am neither a medical doctor nor a biologist. As a result, I don’t claim any expertise on the matter. However, there are some misconceptions about the virus that are easily cleared up, and there are some facts that anyone who can understand the scientific literature should share.

First, a few facts. The term “coronavirus” refers to a very large group of viruses that circulate mostly among mammals and birds. However, some are able to infect people. Most coronaviruses that infect people produce mild illnesses, but some (like this one) produce potentially fatal ones. The coronavirus that is in the news right now is one that has not been seen before. This is not unusual. When an animal is infected with two different versions of the coronavirus, they can mix together, producing a new (usually called “novel”) coronavirus. This particular novel coronavirus has been charmingly named SARS-CoV-2, and it causes the disease referred to as COVID-19. Because of that, it is sometimes referred to as the “COVID-19 virus.”

The reason it has been given the name SARS-CoV-2 is that its genetic sequences indicate it is very similar to the virus that caused the SARS outbreak of 2003. Based on that sequence, it is thought that the virus originated in bats, but it might have passed through another animal (possibly a scaly anteater) before infecting people. Most importantly, there is strong evidence against the idea that it was genetically engineered. This is because the way it infects people is quite different from what would have been predicted given our current knowledge about these viruses. In other words, it is very hard to believe that anyone knowledgable enough to engineer a virus would purposefully make the genetic sequences that end up allowing the virus to be so good at infecting people.

The illness caused by this virus is flu-like, but it is much more serious than the flu. The death rate caused by the flu changes from year-to-year, depending on the strains that circulate. However, on average, the flu has a death rate of about 0.1%. That means for every 1,000 people who get the flu, 1 will die. Even though that is a low death rate, a lot of people get the flu. As a result, millions of people die from the flu every year. We don’t know the death rate for this new virus, since we don’t really know how many people have actually been infected, but the best estimate so far is that the death rate is about 2%. That means this virus is thought to be 20 times more deadly than the flu virus.

Second, the resources. The infographic above has been adapted from one that was produced by the CDC. The university at which I teach has asked all its professors to post this electronically as well as wherever students might be found. It is basic, but nevertheless, it does contain some helpful information. This link will take you to the latest information regarding where the virus has been detected, how many people have been infected, and how many people have died.

In general, the best way to avoid being infected by this virus is to avoid other people and avoid going to places where it has been found. The virus spreads most effectively when an infected person is within a few feet of an uninfected person. However, it might also be transferred by surfaces. If someone sneezes on a surface and someone else touches that surface, the virus can be transferred to the hand. Then, if that person touches his or her mouth, nose, or eyes, it is possible for the virus to begin an infection. Thus, you need to wash your hands a lot and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth in between washings.

The most important thing to remember is that while the illness caused by this virus has a death rate that is thought to be about 2% on average, it is significantly higher for elderly people, people who are already sick with something else, and people with weakened immune systems. Thus, if you show any of the signs of the illness (fever, cough, shortness of breath) and think you might have been in contact with someone who has the virus, you should seek medical help.

While there are several groups working on a vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus, the earliest a vaccine could possibly be ready would be at least a year from now. My guess, given that I am anything but an expert about these things, is that it will not be needed. The disease seems to have already plateaued in China, and I expect other countries to be a bit better at reducing the spread. Thus, I expect that the spread of the disease will slow down significantly before a vaccine can be approved for use. I could easily be wrong about that, however.

How Can a Planet Orbit Two Stars?

An artist’s interpretation of the planet TOI 1338b, which orbits a binary star system. The planet is on the left. The two stars are the two white spheres. (NASA image)

If you haven’t seen it, there is a viral story about a high school student, Wolf Cukier, who made a significant discovery. During a summer internship, he was looking through data that had already been flagged as coming from binary star systems. In these systems, two stars orbit one another. While this may sound unusual, most stars in the universe (as far as we can tell, anyway) are a part of a system in which two or more stars orbit one another. Solitary stars like our sun are the exception, not the rule.

In most binary star systems, one star is much brighter than the other. As a result, if earth’s orbit is aligned with the orbital paths of the two stars in a binary star system, when the dimmer star passes between earth and the brighter star, the light we get from that star system gets dimmer. This is called an eclipsing binary. The data that Wolf Cukier was studying had already been noted as representing eclipsing binaries, but Wolf noticed another periodic dimming in the light coming from a binary star system charmingly named “TOI 1338.” The dimming was weaker than the dimming seen from the eclipsing binary, but it was regular. It was determined that this weak dimming was the result of a planet coming between earth and the brighter star in the binary system. In other words, this young man had found a planet orbiting two stars! Such planets are rare, but not unheard of. There were seven such planets confirmed before this one, but this is the first one discovered using this particular telescope, which is called TESS.

If you can’t quite visualize what is going on here, NASA has made a helpful animation, which I have included below. As you can see from the animation, when the dimmer star in the system passes between earth and the brighter star, the amount of light earth receives from the system decreases a lot. When the planet comes between earth and the brighter star, it dims a little.

The student and several scientists have co-authored a paper that has been submitted for publication. Years ago, I had a high school student co-author a scientific paper with me because of a discovery she made under my supervision, and it was very exciting. I hope that their paper gets published as well!

Continue reading “How Can a Planet Orbit Two Stars?”