I Will Be Teaching Online Classes!

Your high school student can have me as a teacher!
Your high school student can have me as a teacher!
After teaching university classes for a couple of years, I have remembered that I really enjoy teaching. However, due to scheduling issues, I won’t be able to teach at the university this year. Nevertheless, I have officially “caught the bug,” so I decided to get my teaching “fix” with online courses. If you would like your student to have me as a teacher for the upcoming academic year, this is your chance!

I will be teaching biology, chemistry and physics. Not surprisingly, we will use the textbooks I have authored: Exploring Creation with Biology, Discovering Design with Chemistry, and Exploring Creation with Physics. Each course will consist of a weekly 90-minute videoconference where I get together with 20-25 students and discuss the material that is covered in the text. Classes start the week of September 11 and meet every week except for the week of November 20th (Thanksgiving break), the weeks of December 25th and January 1st (Christmas break), and the week of March 19th (spring break). Classes end on May 16th.

Students will be expected to have read the material that will be discussed in class so that they can ask questions about the things they don’t understand. In addition to answering any questions the students have, I will show cool videos (like this one) that illustrate the scientific concepts which are being covered, discuss the more difficult material, give students tips on how to remember things, and share my views on the relevant scientific breakthroughs that are currently happening. I am really looking forward to it!

One thing to note is that these are “honors” classes, which means that they are more academically challenging than a normal high school class but are not at the AP or CLEP level. Students will be expected to do experiments at home, but I will grade their laboratory notebook entries. Students in chemistry and physics will be expected to do all of the experiments in the course. For biology, students who do not care about having an “honors” course will be expected to do the experiments that use household items as well as the dissection experiments. Students who want an “honors” level of biology will be expected to do all the experiments, even the ones requiring a microscope and its associated kit.

If you are interested, you can learn more here.

An Excellent Observation about Postmodernism

Cartoon by Judy Horacek (click for her website)
Cartoon by Judy Horacek (click for her website)

I was first exposed to postmodernism when I went to university. If you don’t recognize the term, it is rather hard to define, mostly because there are so many variants of it. However, it generally refers to the idea that there are very few (if any) objective truths. Most of the things we hold to be “true” are only true for our experiences. Someone with a completely different set of experiences might come up with a completely different sent of “truths,” and those “truths” are just as valid as the “truths” that we come up with.

Consider, for example, the insightful cartoon above. The first panel shows an artist who has apparently come up with something he thinks is amazing. Because he sees that it is good, he considers himself to be a genius. The second panel shows a postmodern artist, who says that there is no such thing as a genius, because that category is dependent on culture. Of course, he thinks he is a genius for recognizing this fact!

Now, when it comes to art there is a measure of truth here. What is beautiful to one person might be quite unpleasant to someone else. As the old maxim states, beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. However, I think it is possible to recognize the genius of an artist, even if you don’t find his or her art appealing. A postmodernist would not agree. Moreover, a strict postmodernist would apply this idea of “truth” everywhere, even in science. According to the postmodernist, a “scientific fact” isn’t a fact at all. It is a social construct, and it might be quite different in another culture or society.

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Chris Williams: Husband, Father, Actor, and Friend

Chris Williams, one of my Christian role models.
Chris Williams, one of my Christian role models.

Towards the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas wrote a short book as a gift to the King of Cyprus. In that book, he wrote:

First of all, among all worldly things there is nothing which seems worthy to be preferred to friendship. Friendship unites good men and preserves and promotes virtue.

As the events of the past few weeks play in my mind, I can’t help but think of those wise words.

My dear friend Chris Williams went into the hospital about three weeks ago with a sudden illness, and he never got better. As his condition worsened, our prayers intensified, but the Lord did not heal him here on earth. I spent a couple of nights in the ICU with him, and when it became clear that the end was near, my wife and I went to the hospital to say goodbye. While I was there, I talked to his father at length, and I just kept thinking that this isn’t the natural order of things. Parents should not see their children die.

But it’s worse than that. Chris leaves behind a wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 15. Children shouldn’t have to grow up without a father. It’s just not right. He won’t be there to celebrate the milestones in their lives. He won’t be there to cheer them on when they need encouragement. He won’t be there to hold them when they need comfort. You can try to make sense of something like this all you want, but it doesn’t make sense. It’s just not right.

So what can be done? Well, the first thing I can do is celebrate the life that he had here on earth. Chris was an amazing man. He was incredibly talented, but utterly unassuming. He was one of my “go-to” actors in our church’s drama ministry. He was best at comedy, but he could literally play any role I gave him. His elder daughter joined him on stage a few times, and they were brilliant together. I will never forget them as father and daughter in A Drama About Grace. Despite his incredible talent, he didn’t think he was anything special as an actor. He just did it because he wanted to serve.

I think that was the key to Chris’s life. He was very successful in his career. He was an amazing actor. He was a devoted husband and father. But more than all of those things, he was a servant. He genuinely wanted to make this world a better place in which to live, and he was willing to do that one person at a time. My life was significantly better because Chris was a part of it, and I suspect that many others can say exactly the same thing. This is one of the many reasons I saw him as a Christian role model.

The second thing I can do is honor his legacy by being a servant myself, especially to his family. In the coming days, weeks, months, and years, they will have a host of struggles. I hope that I can be there to make those struggles a bit less painful.

The third thing I can do is accept this tragedy. I can’t explain it. I can’t justify it. I can’t understand how God’s master plan for the universe could include it. However, I can accept it, especially in the light of something his wife, Kim, wrote. In church yesterday, our pastor said that Kim texted him after Chris had died, and at the end of the text she wrote:

God was totally there.

After reading that text, my pastor said:

Of course. He was picking up one of His kids.

After that very sad but inspirational service, I was speaking to another friend about a play I had written. It recently won an award from a community theater organization and will be performed later on this year. It portrays former slave-ship captain John Newton near the end of his life. Chris played the lead role, a fictional assistant to famous abolitionist William Wilberforce. The character’s name is Nigel Bremley, and Chris brought him to life in a way that was better than I ever could have imagined. I told my friend that I would have loved to see Chris play that role again. My friend replied:

Think about it this way. Right now, he could be talking to John Newton, asking him what he thought of the play.

Kim’s text and the words of my friend encapsulate what makes this tragedy at least somewhat bearable. In the end, I know I will see Chris again, and I know that while we weep, he is in the arms of His Savior. I also know that in the context of eternity, the suffering that has been caused by this tragedy will hardly be remembered.

Of course, I do have to admit that I am somewhat anxious about seeing Chris in heaven. If John Newton didn’t like my play, those will be the first words out of his mouth!

One Reason It Is Hard to Change a Person’s Mind About Politics (and Science)

A scene from Her Opponent (Photo by  Richard Termine)
A scene from Her Opponent (Photo by Richard Termine)

I don’t write about politics, because I find that most political discussions produce lots of heat but very little light. However, I have decided to discuss a political “experiment” that I recently learned about because I think it relates to science. In addition, it is about a play, and since I am an amateur actor and playwright, I couldn’t resist. However, I have to warn you up front that I will mercilessly delete any comments that try to turn this into a political discussion. It is not. It is a discussion about how people react to the information they are given.

The intriguing political experiment was conceived by Dr. Maria Guadalupe, Associate Professor of Economics and Political Science at INSEAD an international business school. She wanted to know how people would react to the 2016 presidential debates if the genders of the two candidates were reversed. As a result, she decided to produce Her Opponent, a play that featured excerpts from the three presidential debates with the genders of the two candidates reversed. A male actor portrayed former Secretary of State and Senator Jonathan Gordon, while a female actress played business tycoon Brenda King.

Jonathan Gordon, of course, was the “male version” of Hillary Clinton, while Brenda King was the “female version” of Donald Trump. The actors delivered their lines verbatim from the debates, and they worked hard to use the same mannerisms, emotions, and vocal inflections as the candidates they were trying to represent. You can see a short excerpt from a rehearsal here. The audience members were given two surveys to fill out – one before seeing the play and one after seeing the play.

As New York University reports, Dr. Guadalupe and her co-producer thought they knew what the results of the surveys would be. They thought that the audience would react very negatively to Brenda King, because they thought that the kinds of things Mr. Trump said in the debates would never be tolerated coming from a woman. In the same way, they thought the audience would react positively to Jonathan Gordon, because they thought that Hillary’s tone and statements would be given more weight if they came from a man. It turns out that their expectations were wrong.

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Howard Edmund Wile: The Man Who Showed Me How to Live

My dad on a cruise ship, where he loved to feel the rolling deck under his feet.
My dad on a cruise ship, where he loved to feel the rolling deck under his feet.

What does it mean to be a father? When my wife and I adopted our only child, I thought a lot about that question. I came up with various answers, none of which were really satisfactory. However, something happened on Tuesday night that put it all into focus for me: my own father passed into the arms of his Savior. The event wasn’t a surprise. From the time I was in high school, my dad had severe health issues. However, over the past year and a half, his health deteriorated severely. More than a week ago, he stopped getting out of bed. A few days ago, he stopped eating. We all had time to prepare for the inevitable.

Of course, when the inevitable actually occurs, you find you aren’t prepared for it at all. The reality is that even when a person is bedridden and hardly able to muster the energy to speak with you, he is still there. When he dies, he is no longer there. He is simply gone, and there is no way to prepare oneself for that. Because of this gaping hole left in your world, you are forced to think about things differently. As a result, I think I have finally come up with the answer to my question.

While writing his obituary, I was forced to think about who my dad was. He was a sailor, having defended freedom in World War II and the Korean War. He was a part of the criminal justice system. He was a tireless volunteer for the Republican party, his church, and many community organizations. But of course, to me, he was much more than that. He was my dad. And he was really, really good at it.

What made him good at it? I thought about that question for a long, long time, and suddenly, a quote popped into my head. It was from a book on parenting I had read while we were in the process of adopting our daughter. The book itself was so unremarkable that I don’t remember its title. Perhaps because it was in such an unremarkable book, the quote meant little to me at the time. However, in the light of thinking about my own father’s life, its profound truth struck me. With a little help from Google, I got the actual quote as well as its source. When speaking of his own father, Clarence Budington Kelland said:

He didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.

In a nutshell, that’s why my dad was such a good father. He showed me, on a daily basis, how a Christian man should live. He demonstrated to me how a man cares for his family, how a man prioritizes his life, and how a man deals with those who are less fortunate than himself.

Howard Edmund Wile showed me how to live. When I see him in heaven, the first thing I am going to do is thank him for that.

A Demonstration About Inertia

inertia

My publisher asked me to record an example experiment from the third book in my elementary science series, Science in the Scientific Revolution. This one is about inertia, and I cover the topic when I cover Sir Isaac Newton. It’s a potentially messy experiment, because in your desire to hit the pie pan hard, you might end up hitting the glass of water, knocking it over. Also, if you don’t hit the pie pan hard enough, you might end up just upsetting the system, resulting in a broken egg. However, if you can do the experiment correctly, it’s pretty impressive.

The concept of inertia was an important step forward in our understanding of motion. Up until the 14th century, most natural philosophers (that’s what scientists were called back then) believed what Aristotle taught: objects have a natural tendency to be at rest. Thus, unless something kept exerting a force on an object, an object in motion would eventually come to rest. This is consistent with our experiences. After all, if I kick a rock, it bounces down the sidewalk for a while, but it eventually comes to a halt. Even though Aristotle’s teaching is consistent with our experiences, it is nevertheless quite wrong.

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This Baby Has Two Mothers and A Father

An illustration of what was done to produce a baby without Leigh Syndrome (click for credit)
What was done for one couple to produce a baby without Leigh Syndrome
(click for credit)

Modern medicine can do a lot of amazing things these days. Diseases that used to be a death sentence are now not only treatable, but sometimes even curable. Because of the marvels of modern medicine, I have been able to benefit from the company and wisdom of my parents for many more years than I would have if I had been born but a generation ago. However, there are times I wonder whether we should be doing some of the things that modern medicine makes possible. An article I recently read in the journal Science brought that question to my mind once again.

The article describes the work of Dr. John Zhang, the medical director at New Hope Fertility Center in New York, New York. He was working with a couple who had lost two children to Leigh Syndrome, a rare genetic disease that affects the nervous system. While there are different forms of this disease, some of those forms are the result of the mother’s DNA alone. The father’s genes don’t play a role at all.

How is that possible? Most of the cells in your body hold DNA in two different places. The nucleus of the cell contains most of its DNA, which is called nuclear DNA. Half of that DNA comes from your mother, and the other half comes from your father. However, there is a small amount of DNA stored in the cell’s mitochondria, which produce most of the energy that the cell needs to survive. They are represented by the blue, peanut-shaped structures in the illustration at the top of the post. This DNA is called mitochondrial DNA, and you get it only from your mother. As a result, any genetic disease that is produced by mitochondrial DNA is inherited solely from your mother.

This fact allowed Dr. Zhang to produce a baby that is mostly the biological child of the couple with whom he was working, but the baby is also partly the child of a second woman, who served as a donor of healthy mitochondrial DNA.

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More “Ancient” DNA Found

DNA that is thought to be more than a million years old has been discovered in the Bering Sea. (illustration by Lightspring via shutterstock.com)
DNA that is thought to be more than a million years old has been discovered in the Bering Sea. (illustration by Lightspring via shutterstock.com)
Over the weekend, I read a fascinating paper published in Geology, the peer-reviewed journal of the Geological Society of America. The authors of the paper report on their attempts to extract DNA from the sediments found at the bottom of the Bering Sea. They were successful in their attempts to find DNA, even in sediments that are supposed to be 1.4 million years old! This is a rather surprising discovery, since the half-life of DNA in bone is supposed to be about 521 years. In fact, the experiments done to obtain that half-life indicate that even at very low temperatures, no meaningful DNA could be extracted from bone after 1.5 million years.

So why is it surprising that the authors of this study found DNA in sediments that are supposed to be “only” 1.4 million years old? There are at least two reasons. First, wet sediment should accelerate the decay of biological molecules (including DNA) compared to the inside of a bone. Thus, DNA should become undetectable much earlier in wet sediment. Second, their results indicate that there would still be DNA found in much “older” sediments, because the “older” the sediment in their study, the more the DNA seem to resist decay.

But wait a minute. This is wet sediment. All manner of microorganisms can infiltrate wet sediment. How do we know that this DNA has really been in the sediment since it was formed? Couldn’t the DNA they detected be from microorganisms that recently started living there? That’s one of the clever aspects of this experiment. The authors looked at DNA that is found in the chloroplasts of cells that do photosynthesis! Since such organisms require light to survive, they wouldn’t have any reason to infiltrate the dark sediments. Even if they did get into those sediments for some reason, they would die in the upper layers, so the deeper (and therefore older) sediments definitely would not harbor any recent microorganisms that had such DNA.

In the end, it seems to me that they really did extract from the sediment DNA that had been there since that sediment had formed. That’s interesting enough, but there is something even more fascinating about what the authors found.

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Galileo and his Thermometer

Galileo's thermometer (left) and a closeup of the tube (right).
Galileo’s thermometer (left) and a closeup of the tube (right).
If you read my two previous posts (here and here), you know that my wife and I were recently in Italy, and I was really inspired by some of the things I saw. The art and history are amazing, but for me, one of the major highlights of this visit to Italy was seeing the Galileo Museum. It is filled with scientific instruments and lecture demonstration equipment from the past, and seeing those things helped me to understand the sheer genius of the natural philosophers (scientists) who learned an enormous amount about Creation without the help of fancy, technological gadgets. Instead, they relied on their creativity and their physical insight.

Consider, for example, the glass piece pictured on the far left. It consists of a small vessel, a long, narrow tube rising up from the vessel, and a small bulb at the top of the tube. Believe it or not, that’s a thermometer. Actually, it is more properly called a “thermoscope,” and the first one was designed by Galileo (with the help of some other natural philosophers) in 1593.* Until that time, it was difficult to make any systematic measurement of temperature. People could tell whether it was hot, warm, cool, or cold, of course, but they couldn’t make precise measurements of how hot, warm, cool, or cold it was.

In the late 1500s, Galileo came up with an ingenious solution. He understood that air expanded when it was warmed and contracted when it was cooled. He decided to use that fact to get an accurate measurement of the change in temperature. He designed a device similar to the one above, in which water filled the bottom vessel and ran partway up the thin tube. When the surroundings warmed up, the air above the water (in the tube and in the bulb at the top) expanded, and that pushed the water down the tube. When the surroundings cooled, the air above the water contracted, and that pulled water up the tube.

In other words, the higher the water climbed in the tube, the lower the temperature. By making tiny marks on the side of the tube (shown in the right-hand portion of the picture at the top of this post), he could assign a number to the water’s height. This allowed him to accurately measure changes in temperature. In my elementary science book, Science in the Scientific Revolution, I have students make a very simple version of Galileo’s thermometer with water, a glass, and a plastic bottle.

A clever variation on Galileo's thermometer.
A clever variation on Galileo’s thermometer.
A major drawback of Galileo’s thermometer is that it must be very tall to measure large changes in temperature. While at the Galileo museum, however, I saw a very clever way of getting around that problem, which is shown in the picture on the left. Instead of a tall, straight tube, this thermometer’s tube is a spiral. That way, the water still can travel a long distance through the tube, but the device isn’t absurdly tall. As soon as I saw this device, I thought, “Of course. What an ingenious way of getting around the height problem.”

Despite the fact that I understood exactly how this variation on Galileo’s thermometer would work and why it was superior to the original design, I doubt that I would have ever come up with it on my own. I’m simply not that clever. However, Galileo and the natural philosophers of his day were. The more I learn about people like Galileo, the more I appreciate how intelligent the great thinkers of the past were. Contrary to popular belief, I think it’s possible that they were actually smarter than we are today.

NOTE:

*Please note that a device like this one is often called a “Galileo thermometer,” but Galileo had nothing to do with its design.
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An Unexpected Consequence of the Fukushima Disaster

The thyroid gland is an important part of the endocrine system.
The thyroid gland is an important part of the endocrine system.
On March 11 of 2011, the most powerful earthquake known to have hit Japan struck near the east coast of Honshu. The earthquake generated a tsunami that reached a height of more than 130 feet. One of the many things that happened as a consequence of the disaster is that some of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant went into meltdown, and radioactive substances were leaked into the ocean and released into the air. People in a 12-mile radius around the power plant were evacuated. I have written several posts about the incident (here, here, here, here, and here), and I will continue to do so whenever new information comes to light.

Much of the discussion about the nuclear power plant disaster revolves around its long-term consequences. Since we know increased exposure to radiation can lead to an increase in cancer risk, it is natural to think that there will be an increase in cancer rates for people who were living or are living near the disaster site. Thyroid cancer is particularly sensitive to a common radioactive product of nuclear power plants, so it is assumed that thyroid cancer rates will climb in Fukushima. Indeed, a recent study shows a significant, persistent increase in thyroid cancers in the Ukraine that can be directly tied to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster of 1986.1

Two of my previous posts (here and here) discussed the projected increase in cancer rates as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and the balance of the evidence seemed to indicate that the increase would be rather small. However, in order to get a more direct measurement of thyroid cancers resulting from the disaster, Japanese authorities decided to screen all 368,651 Fukushima residents who were under 18 at the time of the disaster. An advanced technique (ultrasound) was used, and the results were surprising!

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