Cool Video of a Soft Dinosaur Cell

A dinosaur fossil (left) and a cell that came from a different part of the same fossil assemblage (right)
(Images copyright Mark Armitage. Click for source)

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the remarkable dinosaur research being done by microscopist Mark Armitage. The story discussed two scientific articles he wrote about finding soft dinosaur cells in a Triceratops fossil. Well, Armitage is continuing his research at the Dinosaur Soft Tissue Research Institute in the state of Washington. The pictures above represent some new results: soft bone cells from a Nanotyrannus fossil.

Now whether or not there is such a thing as a Nanotyrannus is actually a matter of debate. Some paleontologists think the fossils are really from a juvenile Tyrannosaurus. So it might be a different species, or it might just be a juvenile form of an already-known species. Regardless of which is correct, it is well accepted that these fossils have been found in Cretaceous rock that is supposed to be about 65 million years old. It’s hard to understand how any cellular material could have survived for that long without being fossilized. Nevertheless, the cells that Armitage has extracted from the fossil are soft, as shown in the video below.

Of course, it is always possible that the cell is not really from the dinosaur. However, that’s a bit hard to believe. It came from a bone, and it has all the visual characteristics of an osteocyte, which is a bone cell. I can’t think of any possible contaminant that has the size, shape, and filipodial extensions that you see in the video. Also, remember that Armitage previously extracted soft bone cells from a Triceratops fossil. Thus, if this is a contaminant, it must be common to two completely separate fossils (or somehow introduced by Armitage’s process, which once again, is hard to believe).

I think it is reasonable to conclude that Armitage is, indeed, isolating soft dinosaur bone cells. He plans to make a presentation at Lower Columbia College in Longview Washington, on October 5th 2019, at 7 pm. In that presentation, it looks like he will also discuss how the soft tissues from which his cells are isolated react to stains for DNA and RNA. I won’t be able to make it, but I sincerely hope that it is recorded and that Armitage eventually writes another article about his continuing research!

Large Study Indicates Genetics Has Little Influence on Sexual Orientation

I don’t normally write on topics like this, because studying human behavior is a tricky subject. There are all sorts of different explanations for a given behavioral characteristic in people, and trying to isolate a specific cause is difficult, to say the least. However, there has been a lot of news about the recent study that concluded there is “no gay gene,” and I have gotten several questions about it. As a result, I decided to read the study and share my thoughts.

First of all, it’s not surprising that there is no gay gene. In fact, researchers have said that for years. If there were a single gene that heavily influenced whether or not a person is homosexual, it would have been easy to find and discovered years ago. Also, even something as simple as the color of your eyes is governed by at least eight different genes. Thus, to think that something as complex as sexual behavior is governed by one gene is naive at best. So that specific result of the study is not even interesting, much less newsworthy. What makes the study newsworthy is its size, its scope, and the fact that its conclusions are very weak.

The study is massive in two ways. First, the main study looked at 477,522 individuals, but then it repeated the study using three smaller datasets that were composed of 15,142 individuals. Whenever you study people, the more people you have, the less uncertain your results will be. Thus, the sheer number of individuals in the study makes it important. Second, the study compared the entire genomes of the individuals. In other words, they looked at all the DNA found in the nucleus of the individuals’ cells. That’s a massive amount of data for a massive number of people!

What it tried to do is compare single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) among the individuals to see if they could be correlated with sexual behavior. If you aren’t familiar with the term, SNPs are the most common variation between sets of human DNA. Genetic information comes in sequences of DNA building blocks called nucleotide bases. There are roughly three billion nucleotide bases in one strand of human DNA. An SNP is a change in one of those nucleotide bases.

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Excessive Screen Time Linked to Poor Psychological Health in Children and Adolescents

A child playing with an Apple iPad
(click for credit)

Screens are everywhere. It’s very hard to avoid them. However, many health organizations recommend that parents limit the amount of screen time children and adolescents have. First, the health effects of excessive screen time have been well documented. Children who watch TV, computer, phone, and tablet screens a lot don’t exercise much. That leads to some very poor health outcomes, such as obesity. Second, a recent study indicates that there are significant negative psychological effects associated with a lot of screen time.

Psychological research is difficult for many reasons. Whenever you deal with people, you have to try to control for all sorts of variables that affect each subject, and those variables are often significantly different in different subpopulations. In addition, some of outcome measures are subjective, at best. As a result, psychological studies often have conflicting results. However, this one seems to do a good job getting over those hurdles. It contains a lot of subjects (40,337) who were randomly selected, leading to an averaging-out of at least some of the variables. Also, it used the results of the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), which was done in 2016. This survey was given to the people who know the subjects best: their caregivers. It also asks a lot of fairly objective mental health questions, such as whether or not the subject was ever diagnosed with anxiety or depression.

The survey also asked the subjects’ caregivers the following questions:

a) On an average weekday, about how much time does [child’s name] spend in front of a TV watching TV programs, videos, or playing video games?

b) On an average weekday, about how much time does [child’s name] spend with computers, cell phones, handheld video games, and other electronic devices, doing things other than schoolwork?

The researchers added the results of both questions to get the total amount of screen time the subject has each weekday. They then correlated that number to the mental-health-related questions on the survey. The results were rather alarming.

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Another High-Profile Defection from Darwinism

Yale computer science professor Dr. David Gelernter (click for source)

The High Priests of Science continue to assure us that there is no debate when it comes to the validity of evolution as an explanation for the history of life. As the National Academy of Sciences says:

…there is no debate within the scientific community over whether evolution occurred, and there is no evidence that evolution has not occurred. Some of the details of how evolution occurs are still being investigated. But scientists continue to debate only the particular mechanisms that result in evolution, not the overall accuracy of evolution as the explanation of life’s history.

The problem, of course, is that such dogmatic statements are not consistent with the data that is supposed to guide scientific inquiry. When people honestly evaluate such data, many see how wrong the High Priests of Science are. Nearly two years ago, for example, I wrote about a world-renowned paleontologist who put up a display in his museum showing how there was no controversy about evolution. The problem, of course, is that he had never investigated all the data. When he got up the courage to actually read books written by scientists who point out the many flaws in evolutionary thinking, he ended up being convinced by the data and defected away from Darwinism. This cost him his job, but at least his scientific integrity remained intact.

Now there is another addition to the list of high-profile academics who had the courage to investigate all the data. His name is Dr. David Gelernter, and he is a professor of computer science at Yale University. In May of this year, he wrote a very interesting article for The Claremont Institute. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety, but I cannot help but add a bit of “color commentary.”

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There Is Nothing Unusual About the Fires in the Amazon

Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest (not the Amazon region) in 2013 (click for credit)

I had another blog post planned for today, but I decided to put it off because over the weekend, I got three questions regarding the fires in the Amazon. People are concerned, mostly because of irresponsible articles like this one:

Brazil’s Amazon rainforest is burning at a record rate, research center says

It’s the classic example of a story that is technically true but absurdly misleading. Indeed, the National Institute for Space Research has never seen the number of forest fires that it is currently seeing in the Amazon. However, as the article notes, that research program started in 2013. So yes, over the past six years, this is the worst year yet. However, if you just broaden your scope a bit, you will see that there is nothing unusual about this year.

While the National Institute for Space Research has only been collecting data about forest fires since 2013, researchers at the Global Fire Emissions Database have been studying them since 2003. That’s almost three times as long. What do their data tell us? Well, all you have to do is go here. It gives you a handy graph that shows you the total count of fires in the Amazon region by year.

To make it stand out, I thickened the green line, which represents this year. As you can see, this year is pretty much dead center compared to the past 16 years. If you go to the link itself, you can put your cursor over the year listed under the graph, and you can see each year clearly. If you do that, you will see that 2003-2007 were all worse than this year, with 2005 setting the record. The data are actually more detailed than this. You can click on areas of the Amazon region on the left part of the website and see data for each region. If you click on “Amazonas,” for example, you will see that a few days in 2019 did set the record in that region.

It’s probably worth noting that many of these fires are caused by people…deliberately. Natural forest fires don’t happen in the Amazon region very often. Most of the fires are being set to clear land for agriculture, and most of them are not in the heavily-forested regions. Also, while you might be worried about deforestation in general, you needn’t be. The latest research indicates the earth has been getting greener since 1982.

UPDATE (08/27/2019): It does seem that there is something unusual happening in the Amazon right now. According to this source:

…the fires were at average levels through to mid August, and then there was a huge uptick.

Why was that? Seems that it started when the farmers in the state of Para declared a “‘dia do fogo,'” or “day of fire” on August 10th. They said they did this in order to show to Bolsonaro that they want to work and that the only way to clear pastures for them to work was with fire (report in Portuguese here), This was spectacularly “successful” and there was an immediate increase in fires which continued through the following weeks.

So there is unusual fire activity right now – more than the standard land-clearing fires for agricultural use. The added fires are the result of political protests.

Postmodernism Redefined

The cover of Dr. Lawler’s book

I am not a fan of postmodernism, at least as it is generally defined. Because of this, I have written a couple of posts (here and here) that portray it in a negative light. A frequent commenter on this blog, Jake, took issue with my negative portrayal and suggested that I read Postmodernism Rightly Understood by Dr. Peter Augustine Lawler.

Since I appreciate Jake’s excellent comments and have learned from him on more than one occasion, I wanted to read the book, but it took me a while to get to it. I finally did read it last week. It was an interesting book that discussed several important authors and their ideas. Some of the authors (like Walker Percy, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Allan Bloom) were familiar to me, but others weren’t. As a result, I learned a lot and was exposed to several new ideas. However, I think the book misses the mark.

Now, of course, I am practicing philosophy without a license, while Dr. Lawler is a trained philosopher with lots of experience. Thus, you can take this criticism for what it is worth. Nevertheless, I don’t think this book is a defense of postmodernism. It is more of a discussion of anti-modernism, and based on Lawler’s obvious admiration of Walker Percy (who definitely deserves admiration), it is more a defense of Thomism.

Of course, it’s easy to get lost in the language of philosophy, so let’s make sure we are all on the same page. When it comes to philosophy, modernism suggests that we should ignore traditions (both religious and social) and the inherent biases that come with them, and we should try to judge the world critically. The more unbiased we can be in our judgments, the better. If we do that, we will be able to control our own destiny.

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Forbes Censors Article About a Scientist Who Is Skeptical of Climate Hysteria

Dr. Nir Shaviv speaking in Australia

Dr. Nir J. Shaviv is an astrophysicist of some renown. He has over 100 scientific papers to his credit and is currently chairman of the Racah Institute of Physics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I think it’s safe to say that Dr. Shaviv knows a thing or two about science and how it is done. One of his specialties is studying the effect that cosmic rays from the sun have on the earth’s climate. So just to make it clear. Dr. Nir Shaviv is a well-respected scientist who has published peer-reviewed research specifically about earth’s climate.

Does this mean we have to believe what Dr. Shaviv says when it comes to earth’s climate? Of course not. However, it does mean that he is a recognized expert in the field. Even when I disagree with experts, I still try to pay attention to what they say and the data they produce, because they know more than I do when it comes to the issue I am investigating. Thus, while I certainly don’t have to agree with the conclusions of any given expert, I do have to at least try to understand the data the expert has collected and why he or she thinks they point to a certain conclusion. If I don’t do that, I am no longer thinking scientifically. After all, the only way you can make a scientific conclusion is to consider all of the data. Ignoring data because I don’t agree with the source is not scientific; it is emotional.

Why am I bringing this up? Because last night, I was scrolling through a news feed and noticed a Forbes article entitled, “Global Warming? An Israeli Astrophysicist Provides Alternative View That Is Not Easy To Reject.” Obviously, that title was very interesting to me, so I clicked on the link. Unfortunately, what I found was a message that said:

After review, this post has been removed for failing to meet our editorial standards.

We are providing our readers the headline, author and first paragraphs in the interest of transparency.

We regret any inconvenience.

This seemed rather odd to me, so I decided to do some digging. What I found did not reflect well on Forbes.

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One Way To See How Special Earth Is

A sample of the exoplanets “conservatively” thought to be in their star’s habitable zone, along with familiar planets for scale. (click for credit)

Thirty-five years ago, Dr. Theodore P. Snow wrote a book entitled Essentials of the Dynamic Universe. On page 434 of the 1984 edition, he summed up the obvious consequence of the idea that earth was formed as a result of natural processes without any need for Divine intervention:

We believe that the earth and the other planets are a natural by-product of the formation of the sun, and we have evidence that some of the essential ingredients for life were present on the earth from the time it formed. Similar conditions must have been met countless times in the history of the universe, and will occur countless more times in the future.

In other words, there is nothing special about the earth; it is one of many planets that harbor life. The more we learn about the universe, the more we should realize just how mediocre the earth is.

Since Dr. Snow penned those words, almost 4,000 exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) have been discovered. How many of them are similar to earth? The most reasonable answer, based on what we know right now, is zero. Why? Well, let’s consider one and only one factor: whether or not the planet is in the habitable zone of its star. That’s the distance from the star which allows the planet to get enough energy to stay warm enough to support life as we know it.

Out of nearly 4,000 exoplanets, how many are within the habitable zone? With the recent discovery of a planet charmingly known as “GJ 357 d,” the number of planets that might possibly qualify is 53. If we are conservative in our estimate, the number drops to 19, but let’s be as optimistic as possible. Out of nearly 4,000 exoplanets, only 53 might possibly be in the habitable zone.

What do I mean when I say “might possibly be in the habitable zone?” Well, there are a few factors that influence a planet’s temperature, and the distance from its star is only one of those factors. Another important issue is the planet’s atmosphere. With the right mix and right amount of greenhouse gases, a planet that is a bit far from its star could be in the habitable zone, because even though it gets only a little energy from its star, its atmosphere holds onto that energy really well. In fact, that’s why GJ 357 d might possibly be in the habitable zone. It gets about as much energy from its star as Mars does from the sun, but it is massive enough to hold on to a pretty thick atmosphere. It’s possible that the atmosphere could make up for its distance from the sun, so astronomers say it is possibly at the “outer edge” of the star’s habitable zone.

Now think about that for a moment. If we consider only one factor necessary for a planet to sustain life (being in the habitable zone of a star), just over 1% might possibly have it. Of course, there are lots of other factors necessary for life as we know it. A life-sustaining planet must also have an abundance of water, the right mixture of non-greenhouse gases in its atmosphere, the right mix of chemicals in its crust to provide nutrition to organisms, a shield from both ultraviolet rays and cosmic rays that come from the star around which it orbits, a reasonable speed of rotation around its axis, etc., etc. The earth has all these things, but a survey of nearly 4,000 exoplanets shows that just over 1% have only one of those things. What’s the chance that one of those planets has everything else it needs to support life? The most reasonable answer based on what we know is zero.

Despite what naturalists expect (and most still want to believe), it is clear that the earth is a very, very special planet. One might be so bold as to say that it is the Privileged Planet.

Human/Animal Hybrids?

Pallas and the Centaur, by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1482

A Facebook friend posted this article on my timeline, and then a reader of this blog sent me an email that included the same article plus this one. Both articles report on experiments that will attempt to produce human/animal hybrids. This idea obviously makes a lot of people uneasy, so I thought I would explore it a bit here.

First, let’s make sure we know exactly what these experiments are trying to accomplish. They are not trying to make some human/animal hybrid like the centaur pictured on the left. Instead, they want to take animal embryos and edit out key genes necessary for the animal to grow a specific organ. They then want to inject pluripotent human stem cells into the embryo. Since pluripotent stem cells have the ability to become any kind of cell, the thought is that the human pluripotent stem cells would grow the organ that the animal embryo cannot grow, resulting in an animal embryo that is growing a human organ. So this is less of a human/animal hybrid and more of an animal/human chimera.

Why would anyone want to do this? Well, it is estimated that more than 7,000 people die every year because they need a transplant but cannot get the necessary organ. This process would greatly increase the pool of organs available for transplant, thus saving many people’s lives.

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Data Indicate That Earth Was Warmer in The Middle Ages

Inferred temperatures for Antarctica as a Whole over the past 1500 years.
(graph from study being discussed)

For some time, climatologists have accepted the fact that from about the year AD 1000 to AD 1200, the temperature of the Northern Hemisphere was unusually warm. In fact, most studies indicate that it was warmer than it is today. This period of warm temperatures has been referred to as the “Medieval Warm Period,” the “Medieval Climate Anomaly,” or the “Medieval Climate Optimum.” A few hundred years later, the Northern Hemisphere experienced cooler-than-normal temperatures, and that part of earth’s history is sometimes called the “Little Ice Age.” Many climatologists argue that both the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age were limited to the Northern Hemisphere. However, a series of studies indicate that these periods of extreme temperatures were experienced worldwide.

I just recently became aware of these studies because the latest one appeared in my news feed. This study used the results of climate proxy data from 60 different sites. If you aren’t familiar with that term, it refers to data that scientists use to attempt to understand climate conditions of the past. Tree rings, for example, are sensitive to temperature and precipitation, so it is thought that we can use them to determine past climate conditions of the region where trees have been growing. Many climate-sensitive things like recorded harvests, coral growth, pollen grains, etc. can be used as climate proxies. The more climate proxies you have for a given region, the more likely you are to be able to determine the local climate conditions over the times for which you have those data.

As I said, the study used proxy data from 60 different sites to reconstruct the temperature of Antarctica over the past 1500 years. The overall graph from the study is given above. As you can see, according to the study, Antarctica was significantly warmer from AD 500 until AD 1250 than it is today. The pink region is the time over which the Northern Hemisphere experienced the Medieval Warm Period, and as you can see, the study’s data indicate that Antarctica was experiencing warmer-than-average temperatures as well. You can also see that those temperatures then fell over the next 750 years or so, producing colder-than-average temperatures. Thus, Antarctica seems to have experienced both the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age.

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