Sofishsticated Swimming

This is a glass knifefish like the one used in the study (click for credit)

Many aspects of nature are a mystery to science, and at least part of the reason is that nature has been designed so incredibly well. There are systems running in nature that are simply too complex for us to understand and, as a result, their functions remain a mystery. Not all that long ago, for example, many biologists were silly enough to actually think the human genome was mostly junk, simply because they couldn’t understand what the vast majority of the human genome does. Of course, as we have learned more about DNA, we have learned that what was once considered “junk” is vitally important (see here, here, and here, for example). Since the Encode project published its first major results, most reasonable biologists have slowly started to realize what creationists have said all along – there really isn’t much (if any) junk DNA.

Even on a larger scale, there are many aspects of nature that are very hard to understand. A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America provides an example:1

Animals often produce substantial forces in directions that do not directly contribute to movement. For example, running and flying insects produce side-to-side forces as they travel forward. These forces generally “cancel out,” and so their role remains a mystery.

Why would a moving animal expend energy to produce forces that are perpendicular to its motion? Those forces don’t contribute to the animal’s forward motion, and they tend to cancel each other out. As a result, they are often called “antagonistic forces.” Such forces seem like an utter waste of energy. Nevertheless, lots of animals do this. In addition, some animals exert antagonistic forces even when they are not moving in a given direction. Hummingbirds, for example, produce antagonistic forces when they are hovering over a flower.

To understand the purpose of antagonistic forces, the authors of the study examined the glass knifefish (Eigenmannia virescens). When this fish is “hovering” in the water, it uses its fins to produce antagonistic forces. It has been thought that these forces might improve the fish’s ability to control its position and orientation in the water, but no one understood how.2

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Richard Dawkins Produces Another Theist

This is Dr. Laura Keynes, who returned to the faith of her childhood after reading the New Atheists and those who replied to them. (Click for credit.)
Dr. Laura Keynes grew up in Cambridge, arguably the intellectual center of the United Kingdom. She studied at the University College of Oxford on a full-ride scholarship and ended up earning a Doctor of Philosophy degree. Her doctoral thesis was on epistemology, the study of knowledge and justified belief. As her last name indicates, she is the great-grandniece of the famous economist John Maynard Keynes. She is also the great-great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin.

Why am I telling you about this young lady? Because she recently wrote an article entitled, “I’m a Direct Descendant of Darwin…and a Catholic.” Now the title didn’t surprise me at all. I know a lot of Catholics (and even more Protestants) who believe in evolution. Indeed, one of the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement, Dr. Michael Behe, says:1

You can be a good Catholic and believe in Darwinism. Biochemistry has made it increasingly difficult, however, to be a thoughtful scientist and believe in it.

However, as I read the article, I couldn’t help but smile. You see, Laura was raised Catholic but drifted away from the faith after her mother became a Buddhist and her brother rejected all organized religion. By the time she was studying for her Doctor of Philosophy degree, she was an agnostic. During that time, however, Richard Dawkins had opened up an international dialogue on the existence of God with his thoroughly awful book, The God Delusion. Well, Laura decided to read Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists, and she says:

I expected to be moved from agnosticism to atheism by their arguments, but after reading on both sides of the debate, I couldn’t dismiss a compelling intellectual case for faith. As for being good without God, I’d tried and didn’t get very far. At some point, life will bring you to your knees, and no act of will is enough in that situation. Surrendering and asking for grace is the logical human response.

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People Weren’t The First to Develop an Internet!

This microscope image shows an arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus in a clover plant's roots.
(Click for credit.)

The microscope picture above shows you a clover root (the mostly transparent material in the picture) whose cells have been “infected” with a fungus (the thick, dark material in the picture). At first glance, you might think the fungus is a parasite that takes nutrients from the plant, but that’s not really true. While the fungus does take nutrients from the clover, it also supplies the plant with critical nitrogen- and phosphorus-based chemicals that the plant has a hard time extracting from the soil. This is a mutually-beneficial relationship, which is often called a mutualistic relationship.

As anyone who has read this blog for a while knows, I am fascinated by such relationships. I have blogged about them many, many times before (see here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example). In fact, I have blogged about this specific kind of mutualistic relastionship before. It is called a mycorrhiza, and it is very, very common in nature.

About 95% of all vascular plants develop mycorrhizae,1 and these relationships come in many different forms. For example, in the relationship shown above, the fungus forms a highly-branched structure called an arbuscule, which comes from the Latin word arbusculum, which means for “little tree.” This arbuscule is formed inside the walls of the root’s cells, and the fungus is called an arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungus. Such fungi cannot exist by themselves. They can only exist as a part of a mycorrhizal relationship. There are other forms of mycorrhizae as well, but the study I want to discuss is specifically about AM fungi.

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The Blue Planet

The blue dot pointed out in this picture is the earth as seen from Saturn.
(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute) Click for a full-sized version.

Astronomers call earth “the blue planet,” because when you look at it from space, it often appears blue. That’s because most of the earth is covered with water, which reflects blue light better than the other colors of light. So when white light from the sun hits the earth, more blue light is reflected than any other color (as long as there isn’t an enormous amount of cloud cover).

The Cassini space probe that is currently in orbit around Saturn recently had a chance to photograph the earth. It appears as the tiny blue dot pointed out in the photo above. Please click on the photo to get the full-sized version. It really is magnificent. At the time the photo was taken, the earth was 898 million miles away from the Cassini space probe. Nevertheless, it appears as a vivid blue dot on a mostly dark background. In addition, if you “zoom” in close enough, you can actually see the moon orbiting the earth:

The earth (left) and moon as seen from 898 million miles away.
(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute) Click for a full-sized version.

Notice the differences between the earth and the moon. The moon is smaller, but more strikingly, it appears a stark white next to earth’s blue.

The earth has been intricately designed as a haven for life. Its blue color is a beacon proclaiming that, and the beacon can be seen from nearly 900 million miles away!

More Evidence That Earth Is Designed to Resist Warming

This map shows the extent of permafrost in the Arctic. The dark purple represents glaciers, while the lighter purple represents nearly continuous regions of permafrost. The other colors represent less continuous regions of permafrost. (Click for a higher resolution image from the USGS.)

The earth’s polar regions have large amounts of permafrost, a thick layer of soil underground that stays frozen throughout the year. It has been suggested by climate alarmists that as the earth warms, this permafrost will begin to melt, and that will lead to disastrous consequences. Why? Well, there is a lot of organic material in this permafrost, and it doesn’t decompose much, because decomposition is slowed significantly due to the soil being frozen. As the permafrost thaws, decomposition will increase, and that will lead to a significant amount of carbon dioxide and methane being released into the atmosphere. The release of these greenhouse gases, of course, will further accelerate global warming. This affect is known as the permafrost carbon feedback, and here is what the United Nations Environment Programme says about it:1

If the permafrost thaws, the organic material will also thaw and begin to decay, releasing CO2 and methane into the atmosphere and amplifying the warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions…The permafrost carbon feedback is irreversible on human time scales. Warmer conditions and increased atmospheric CO2 will enhance plant growth that will remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but this can only to a small degree compensate for the much greater carbon emissions from thawing permafrost.

Notice how strongly this is worded. The effect is “irreversible,” and even though a warmer climate will result in more plant growth, this will not come close to offsetting the devastating amount of greenhouse gases released by the thawing permafrost.

Well, the results of a 20-year experiment have been published in the journal Nature, and not surprisingly, they show that the effect is precisely opposite of the nonsense quoted above.

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The Inquisition Strikes Again – Twice!

This is 19th-century artist Cristiano Banti's interpretation of Galileo before the Inquisition in Rome. (public domain image)

In March of this year, I wrote a post about an article that would later appear in the peer-reviewed journal Acta Histochemica. It was an exciting report about soft tissue recovered from a fossilized Triceratops horridus horn. Unfortunately for the lead author, Mark Armitage, it was too exciting for the High Priests of Evolution. According to Creation Ministries International:

Until recently, Mark served as the Manager for the Electron and Confocal Microscopy Suite in the Biology Department at California State University Northridge. Mark was suddenly terminated by the Biology Department when his discovery of soft tissues in Triceratops horn was published in Acta Histochemica.

He is currently seeking relief in a legal action for wrongful termination and religious discrimination by the University.

Now, of course, the exact details of why Armitage was fired from California State University Northridge are not publicly known. However, the timing of the event speaks volumes. It’s not every day that a university employee gets fired right after publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal!

If the article was the motivation for Armitage’s termination, it wouldn’t surprise me. As more and more evidence against the ruling scientific dogma of the day continues to accumulate, the only thing the fervently faithful can do is call out the Inquisition in an attempt to squelch that evidence.

That’s what happened when Grand Inquisitor Jerry Coyne decided that Dr. Eric Hedin at Ball State University had to be silenced. He called in the attorneys and forced the university to cancel a course that introduced students to Intelligent Design, as well as the arguments against it. Obviously, the university had to give in to the attorneys, since there was no way it could afford to face an easily-avoided lawsuit. The only good news that comes from this Orwellian situation is that Dr. Hedin will not be fired.

Of course, squelching competing ideas is incredibly anti-science, and it never works. The evidence will win out, and science will eventually correct itself. Thus, the High Priests of Evolution are fighting a losing battle. The only thing their Inquisition can do is delay the inevitable.

“Ancient” Bacteria Use Quantum Mechanics!

The light-harvesting antenna complex of purple bacteria (Click for credit.)

The quantum world is a strange one. In a process called “quantum tunneling,” particles can pass through barriers as if they aren’t there at all. As a result of a process called “perturbation,” empty space can give rise to virtual particles that “blip” into and out of existence. Because of a phenomenon known as “quantum coherence,” a particle can be in several different places at once. These ideas defy common sense, but they have been experimentally verified in many different ways.

It turns out that photosynthesis (the process by which some organisms convert the energy in sunlight into energy that they can use) exploits quantum coherence in an incredible way. When light strikes a photosynthetic organism, its energy must be captured so that it can be used in an amazingly complex process that will convert it from radiant energy into chemical energy. It has long been known that photosynthesis is about 95% efficient when it comes to the first step of capturing light’s energy.1 Until now, however, scientists have not understood how photosynthesis could be that efficient.

After all, harvesting light in a biological environment is difficult. Even though photosynthetic organisms have a well-designed “antenna” system for capturing that light (an example is given above), a living organism is usually in motion. Its environment is also constantly stimulating it in different ways. As a result, even though the antenna system is well designed, it will be distorted and deformed as the organism moves and responds to its environment. This means there should be times when the antenna system is well-aligned, producing very efficient transfer of energy, but there should also be times where it is misaligned, reducing its efficiency. Nevertheless, photosynthesis stays very efficient, regardless of how the antenna complex is distorted.

How does the antenna complex stay efficient? The answer is incredible.

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Another Example of Three-Way Mutualism

Mealybugs feeding on a hibiscus plant (Click for credit)

As anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows, I am fascinated by the phenomenon of symbiosis: two or more species living together in a relationship. In my opinion, the most interesting form of symbiosis is mutualism: two or more species living together in such a way that each species benefits. I have written several different articles about it over the years (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example), and I personally think it is a picture of what creation was like before the Fall.

As scientists have studied mutualism over the years, they have found some really complex examples. In the past, I wrote about a three-way mutualistic relationship that exists between a grass, a fungus, and a virus. Later on, I wrote about a three-way mutualistic relationship that exists between seagrasses, clams, and bacteria. Well, I just learned about another example of a three-way mutualistic relationship. Scientists have known about it for more than 10 years, but it was the subject of a recent study that comes to some rather startling conclusions.

The biggest member of this relationship is the mealybug, which is shown above. It feeds on the sap of plants, but that presents a bit of a problem. In order to make all the proteins it needs to survive, the mealybug must have certain amino acids at its disposal. It can get some of them from its diet, but plants don’t make all the amino acids that the mealybug needs. As a result, it must manufacture some of them. By itself, however, it can’t get the job done. It can make some of the chemicals that are necessary to produce the amino acids, but it can’t make them all. If left on its own, then, the mealybug could not survive.

In 2001, Carol von Dohlen and her colleagues demonstrated that the mealybug has help in making those amino acids. A bacterium, Tremblaya princeps, lives in the mealybug, and it helps the mealybug make the amino acids it can’t get from its diet. However, the bacterium can’t do that job on its own. As a result, a smaller bacterium, Moranella endobia, lives inside it. Together, these two bacteria make the chemicals that the mealybug needs but cannot make itself. All three species are needed in order for the mealybug to survive.1

So here’s the arrangement: a bacterium inside a bacterium inside a bug. It reminds me of an exchange from one of my favorite Dr. Who episodes:

Lily:Where are we?

The Doctor:In a forest, in a box, in a sitting room. Pay attention!”

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Optics Is Starting to Catch Up to the Arthropods

This is one of the digital cameras inspired by the design of arthropod eyes (Click for credit.)

There are two basic designs for animal eyes: “simple” eyes and compound eyes. Your eyes are called “simple” eyes, because each has only one lens. The lens focuses light that enters your eye onto a layer of tissue called the retina, which has light-sensitive cells. Those cells detect the light and send electrical impulses to your brain, which then produces an image of what the eye is seeing. In contrast, many arthropods (a broad class of animals including insects, crustaceans, spiders, etc.) have compound eyes. Each compound eye has many lenses, and each lens focuses light onto its own set of light-sensitive cells. The brain then collects the information from each of these optical units (called ommatidia) and produces a composite image.

Each eye design has its own strengths and its own weaknesses. A simple eye produces a very sharp image of whatever the lens is focused on. However, the farther anything is from the center of a simple eye’s vision, the more distorted it becomes. In addition, a simple eye has a narrow depth of field. When it focuses on an object, other things in the field of view are blurry if their distance from the eye is much different from the object being focused on. The compound eye, on the other hand, does not produce very sharp images. However, because its lenses are so small, there is very little distortion of objects that are away from the center of the eye’s view. In addition, the small lenses have a nearly infinite depth of field – objects stay in focus whether they are near or far from the eye.

The practical upshot is that compound eyes tend to be very valuable if you want a wide, panoramic view. In addition, they are very sensitive to motion. If you’ve ever tried to swat a fly, you understand that. The fly seems to see your hand no matter how slowly you move it or where you are relative to the fly. Simple eyes, on the other hand, are more valuable if you want very a very sharp, clear image of what you are focused on. So far, the cameras produced by human science and technology have been modeled after simple eyes. They give sharp, clear images of what the camera focuses on, but the view is not panoramic and the depth of field is narrow.

Now that has changed.

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The Inquisition Strikes Very Close to Home

Dr. Eric Hedin, a professor who is vehemently suspected of heresy
Dr. Eric Hedin is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Ball State University. He has 38 peer-reviewed publications to his credit in such diverse fields as integrated optics, electromagnetic theory, and nanoscience. He has also been put on notice by the Inquisition, because he is vehemently suspected of heresy. Why? He teaches a course called “The Boundaries of Science,” which seems to come from a (gasp!) Intelligent Design point of view.

There are actually two versions of the course: Astronomy 151 and Honors 296, the latter of which is one of three courses a student can use to fulfill his or her science requirement in the Ball State University honors college. The honors course description, which is similar to (but not the same as) that of the non-honors course, says:

In this course, we will examine the nature of the physical and the living world with the goal of increasing our appreciation of the scope, wonder, and complexity of physical reality. We will also investigate physical reality and the boundaries of science for any hidden wisdom within this reality which may illuminate the central questions of the purpose of our existence and the meaning of life.

That sounds like a very interesting course to me. In perusing the bibliography of the non-honors version of the course, I see that it includes intelligent design advocates, such as Dr. Michael Behe and Dr. William Dembski. However, it also includes opponents of intelligent design such as Dr. Charles Wynn and Dr. Hubert Yockey. In addition, there are theistic evolutionists such as Dr. Paul Davies and old-earth creationists such as Dr. Hugh Ross. There are several Christians on the list, including Dr. John Lennox, but there is also at least one atheist (Dr. Roger Penrose) and one person of the Jewish faith (Dr. Gerald Schroeder). There are also several whose religious persuasions don’t seem evident from their writings, such as Dr. Michael Seeds and Hans Christian Von Baeyer. Is it a balanced list? No. It is weighted towards Christianity and intelligent design. Nevertheless, most views that exist among scientists seem to be represented.

So what’s the problem? The Inquisition has decided that the course smells of heresy.

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