That Virus in China

People in China wearing surgical masks. Photo copyright shutterstock/testing.

If you haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the international news, you might not know that there is a serious virus spreading in China. As of yesterday at 3 PM Eastern, 640 people have been infected, and 17 have died. Most of the cases are in China, where the virus originated, but there have been four cases in Thailand, two in Vietnam, and one each in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and the United States. While there is always a chance that the virus could produce a pandemic, officials in China seem to be doing all they can to keep that from happening.

Several cities have suspended bus and train service in an attempt to keep people the virus from spreading through travel. The city in which it originated (Wuhan) has been completely shut down. A colleague of mine says that her son is in that city, and all transportation has ceased. Businesses (even grocery stores) are not allowed to open. People must make do with the food they currently have until the government decides that it is safe for businesses to open again. Currently, they are hoping to allow businesses to open on Tuesday. The virus is very dangerous, but the Chinese government seems to be taking it seriously. Only time will tell if their efforts will be enough.

What is this virus? It is a strain of coronavirus, which causes respiratory infections. It usually gets spread from animal to human, but in some cases, it can be spread from human to human as well. This version of the virus seems to be one of those. Most coronavirus infections produce mild symptoms. In fact, nearly everyone has had a coronavirus infection at one time or another. However, the severity of the infection depends on the proteins that the virus carries. The SARS epidemic of 2003 was caused by a particularly virulent coronavirus, resulting in more than 770 deaths worldwide. The hope is that the spread of this coronavirus can be better contained.

Why did it just appear? When the cell of an organism is infected with two different viruses, a new virus, called a recombinant virus, can be produced, mixing characteristics from each. That seems to be what has happened here. According to a study that was just published, it looks like the virus is a combination of a bat coronavirus and another one that cannot be identified. The study looked at the way the proteins are coded, and the authors claim that the most likely animal that spread the virus is a snake. That would be odd, since coronaviruses are only known to infect mammals. However, Wuhan does have open markets where live snakes are sold, and since that’s where the virus originated, it could have come from a snake.

Regardless of what animal it came from, once this new virus (which is really just a combination of two old viruses) was produced, it then was transmitted to a person. Once again, that’s usually the way a coronavirus is spread to people, but this one has been confirmed to spread from human to human, which is why China is clamping down on travel. The virus can be spread through the air, through personal contact, or from touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes before washing your hands. Because of this, many people in China are wearing masks like you see in the photo above (which was taken a long time ago), and they are washing their hands regularly. Currently, there is no cure for the viral infection. The best thing that can be done is to treat its symptoms (fever, cough, and breathing difficulties) so that the body’s immune system has time to conquer it.

We should pray that the Chinese government is taking this situation as seriously as it seems to be, so that a deadly epidemic is averted. Also, we should pray for the people in the cities that are on lockdown. Not only are they the ones most at risk for the infection, but their lives have also been severely disrupted. Some may even have to deal with hunger or thirst caused by the precautions that are being taken.

UPDATE (02/26/2020): Here is an analysis from the WHO. If it is correct, then the epidemic is declining, and the fatality rate outside Wuhan is much less than what was originally feared.

UPDATE: My colleague, whose son is in Wuhan, says that the grocery stores were open on Sunday (January 26th) and well stocked. He was able to buy enough food to last a month if necessary. According to him, there was no panic. However, the city is still on lockdown, and the infection is still spreading. As of the morning of Monday, January 27th, there have been five confirmed cases in the U.S. Not of the U.S. cases have resulted in death, but at least 56 are dead in China.

Posted in Medical Science, Modern Science | 12 Comments

A Dirty Childhood Can Lead to a Healthy Life

A happy child plays in a muddy river (photo copyright Shutterstock/Christin Lola)

One of the proposed explanations for the rise in allergies seen in the industrialized world is the hygiene hypothesis. It argues that many children who live in industrialized nations are raised in an environment that is just too clean. Because of this, they are not exposed to infectious and foreign agents that properly “train” their immune system. In addition, they miss out on some of the good bacteria and fungi that would take up residence in their body and support their immune system. As a result, the natural development of the immune system is stunted, and the body doesn’t know how to properly respond to certain assaults.

While there is a lot of good indirect evidence to support the hypothesis, the only controlled studies that support it have been done on mice. Of course, it is hard to do a controlled study on people, because you would have to get two similar groups of people and force them to live in different environments (one clean and one dirty) for a long period of time, and that’s just not practical. However, I recently came across a study which comes close to doing that, and the results strongly support the hygiene hypothesis.

The authors cleverly made use of an artificial separation of people that occurred more than 70 years ago. At the end of World War II, Finland had to give up some of its land to Russia, creating a new border between the two countries. Over time, the people who lived on either side of the border developed very different lifestyles. The Russian side of the border stayed largely agrarian, while the Finnish side became more urban. Since these two populations started out very similar but ended up very different, the authors decided to compare their susceptibility to allergies, and the results were rather astonishing.

In 2003, the authors randomly selected 98 Finnish children and 82 Russian children who were 7-10 years of age. They took skin samples and nose mucus samples, and they asked the parents to report on the childrens’ susceptibility to certain allergies. They also measured the sensitivity to certain allergens by looking at chemical levels in their blood. They then did a follow-up study of the same children roughly 10 years later. The results remained consistent between the initial and follow-up studies: The Finnish children were three to ten times more likely than the Russian children to have allergic reactions like asthma, hay fever, eczema, and a runny nose.

When the authors examined the skin and nose mucus samples, they found that the Russian children had a lot more bacteria in their skin and mucus than the Finnish children. In addition, the diversity of bacterial species was much greater in the Russian children. So the children who had more bacteria and lots of different species of bacteria living in and on their bodies were less likely to have allergies!

The authors specifically note that the largest disparities between the two groups were in bacterial species from the genus Acinetobacter. As the authors state:

Our results also suggest that high abundance and diversity of Acinetobacter might contribute to the low allergy prevalence in Russia. Implications of early‚Äźlife exposure to Acinetobacter should be further investigated.

In other words, the authors think that at least part of the reason that the Finnish children had more allergies is that they weren’t exposed to enough Acinetobacter. Where do these bacteria live? In dirt and water. So based on the results of this study, children who grow up doing things like the child in the picture at the top of the post are less likely to develop allergies later in life!

As a creationist, this doesn’t surprise me at all. God created us to interact with His creation, and when we try to isolate ourselves from it, we suffer.

Posted in Medical Science, Modern Science | 7 Comments

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!

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Posted in Answered Questions, Modern Science, The Wonders of Creation | 1 Comment

Once Again, Don’t Get Your Science from Facebook!

A visualization of the Australian fires that have happened recently (by Anthony Hearsey and Creative Imaging: click for more info)

I have made two posts so far cautioning people to be very skeptical of science-related Facebook posts (see here and here). In general, you should be skeptical of anything on any social media site, but science is easily skewed and misrepresented, especially when people are trying to show their own virtue by championing some cause.

One case in point comes from the Australian bushfires that are wreaking havoc throughout the country. My Facebook feed recently showed me the image you see on the left. The person posting wanted to make me aware of how devastating the bushfires in Australia have become, so he posted this picture. While it does indicate an incredible level of devastation, it isn’t really true. There are two problems with the image. First, it looks like a satellite photo that is showing the fires burning right now, but it is not. It is an image that was developed on a computer, and it doesn’t show how Australia is burning right now or at any other time in the past. Each “flame” in the image represents a fire that burned sometime this season. In other words, it shows any region of Australia that had a fire this season, but it shows that region as on fire right now. In fact, many of the fires depicted on this image have been extinguished.

There is a bigger problem that is common with all visualizations of this kind. When you make an image like this, you need to add “fire” in the region where there is or was a fire. However, the image represents something very, very large. Suppose there was a fire that burned three square miles. That’s a big fire, but in this image, it would be represented by a red dot that is one millionth the size of the image. Thus, it wouldn’t show up. In order to make it show up, you need to make it bigger. However, that makes it look like more than three square miles were burned.

This issue is called “gridding.” When dealing with a large object, it must be partitioned into small sections by drawing a grid. If the sections in your grid are very large compared to the areas that you are depicting, the resulting depiction is deceptive. So, in fact, even considering all the fires that have happened so far this season (extinguished or not), they haven’t covered as much of Australia as the “flames” on this map.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the fires in Australia are nothing to be worried about. They most certainly are devastating! They probably represent the worst bushfires in the past hundred or so years. That’s a bit hard to tell, because some of the most devastating fires in Australia occurred in the past, when news coverage wasn’t very good. We know, for example, that in 1851 widespread bushfires killed at least 12. In 1939, bushfires killed at least 71. While it does look like the current bushfires are burning a larger area than any of the previous ones, it is hard to say that with certainty. Regardless, the image above definitely overstates their severity.

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Posted in Global Warming, Modern Science, Science Myths | 10 Comments

More Incredible Dinosaur Soft Tissue Results

An axon from a nerve fiber, found in a triceratops fossil. (image taken from the video discussed below)

The Dinosaur Soft Tissue Research Institute is producing some incredible results. About two months ago, I discussed a video in which the institute’s founder, Mark Armitage, showed some of them. Recently, Armitage posted another video that shows even more results, and once again, they are amazing.

If you don’t have time to watch the entire video, let me summarize what I consider to be the two most amazing things shown. In my previous post, I told you that Armitage shows delicate vein valves that he extracted from soft tissue found in a triceratops fossil. It is amazing that he could get them, since they are so delicate that I end up destroying them when I try to get them from a dissection. More importantly, there is no possible way that such a vein valve could be from any source other than the dinosaur, since no organism that could possibly contaminate the fossil produces such structures. Thus, these vein valves are clearly original tissue from the dinosaur itself.

At 2:49 in this video, he shows not only the vein valve, but he shows that the wispy tissue which covers the valve when it is close is still 100% intact! How does he do that? He traps bacteria underneath the closed valve. The tissue is so thin that you can actually see the bacteria swimming around underneath it, trying to get out! The bacteria are obviously the result of contamination, but there is simply no way that the vein valve can be explained that way. So the video shows incredibly delicate dinosaur tissue (so delicate that you can see through it) that is still soft! That’s strong evidence that the fossil is not millions of years old!

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Posted in Age of the Earth, Confirmed Creationist Predictions, Creationism, Modern Science | 4 Comments

A Bacterium That “Eats” Carbon Dioxide…and a Creationist Prediction

A false-color scanning electron microscope image of Escherichia coli. The different colors represent bacteria with different traits.

Escherichia coli (E. coli) are the workhorses of the bacterial world. They are found in every human being and most warm-blooded animals, but they are also found in laboratories all over the world. Because they are easy to care for, reproduce quickly, and have a genome that is reasonably well-understood, they are a popular subject of study among biologists. In addition, they end up producing a lot of chemicals that we need but are unable to produce ourselves. For example, insulin is a protein that all people need, but some people don’t make enough of it (or don’t respond well enough to it) to remain healthy. That leads to diabetes, and one treatment for diabetes is regular insulin injections.

While the insulin in pigs and cattle is close to what we find in people (and was used to treat diabetes for a long time), the best insulin for most diabetics is human insulin. Unfortunately, even with the best technology available, we aren’t good enough chemists to make insulin, but simple organisms like bacteria are. As a result, scientists have learned how to insert the human gene for insulin into a bacterium, which allows the bacterium to do the chemistry for us. As a result, much of the insulin used to treat diabetics today is human insulin produced by E. coli bacteria.

Unlike some species of bacteria, however, E. coli have to eat in order to get the energy and raw materials they need to do that chemistry. This ends up producing carbon dioxide as waste. To reduce the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then, it would be nice to produce chemicals like insulin from an organism that does not produce carbon dioxide in order to live. There are technical problems with that, however, so right now, diabetic insulin (and many other medically-related chemicals) adds to humanity’s “carbon footprint.” There are two ways to fix this: Either figure out how to use organisms that don’t have to eat (like organisms that make their own food through photosynthesis) or change E. coli so that it doesn’t have to eat.

In a recent study, scientists have been working on the second alternative and have experienced some success. As a byproduct, they have produced something that can be used to test creationism.

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Posted in Creationism, Evolution, Global Warming, Modern Science | 5 Comments

When Is a Person Actually Dead?

A student recently sent me an article from Live Science that reports on a man who was declared dead by three doctors. Four hours later, as he was being prepped for an autopsy (the marks to guide the autopsy had already been put on him), he started snoring! As of the time the article was written, he was alive and in the intensive care unit of a hospital. The student asked how such a thing could happen. Was it incompetence on the part of the doctors, or is it difficult to tell whether or not a person is dead? I told the student that while I couldn’t address the details of this particular case since I wasn’t involved, I could tell him that there have been cases over the years where the experts were convinced that a person was dead when, in fact, that person wasn’t.

I first heard this kind of story when I was preparing for a talk about miracles. I ran across the case of Emma Brady. She had been declared dead after exhibiting no vital signs. She was placed in a body bag and taken to the morgue. When her children arrived about an hour later to say their goodbyes, they found her gasping for air. The administrator of the hospital said that after the family told a nurse about what they had seen:

Miraculously, the patient exhibited vital signs that were absent previously.

Over the years, I have kept my eye out for stories like this, and while they are rare, they are most certainly not unheard of.

Consider, for example, the story of Steven Thorpe. At age 17, he was in a tragic accident that killed one of the other occupants of the automobile. He was put in a medically-induced coma, and a team of four physicians told his parents that he was brain dead. They suggested that his organs be donated to help others. However, the parents brought in an additional doctor (a neurologist), who demonstrated faint brain activity. The doctors at the hospital agreed to bring him out of the medically-induced coma, and Thorpe recovered. He left the hospital five days later and at the time the article was published, he was alive and well.

Once again, while these stories seem rare, they are not unheard of. In 2008, Zack Dunlap was in an automobile accident and was declared dead 36 hours later. However, he wasn’t dead. In fact, he says that he actually heard his doctors saying that he was dead. The hospital made plans to harvest his organs, since his driver’s license said that he was an organ donor. However, as his family was saying goodbye, one of his cousins (a nurse) decided to pull out his pocket knife, hold Zack’s foot, and scrape the knife against it. Zack pulled his own foot out of his cousin’s hand. The family took it as a sign of life, and they argued that the hospital should treat Zack as if he were alive. He ended up making a full recovery.

The bottom line is that while we have amazing technology and a lot of knowledge about human anatomy and physiology, there are limits to what we can detect and what we can conclude. While it is sometimes very obvious that someone is dead, there are other times when even the experts can be fooled. That’s something all of us need to keep in mind when we deal with life and death issues.

Posted in Answered Questions, Medical Science, Modern Science | 14 Comments

No, It’s Not a Picture of an Atom

When I wrote the first edition of my high school chemistry textbook (back in 1994), I discussed the impossibility of seeing atoms. Atoms aren’t just small; they are simply too small to be seen, even with the most powerful microscope. That’s because in order for us to see something, light must bounce off it and enter our eyes. Cells on our retina detect that light, send nerve signals to our brain, and our brain interprets the signals to form an image. Since atoms are roughly 1,000 times smaller than the smallest wavelength of visible light, there is no way for light to bounce off a single atom. As a result, we will never be able to see individual atoms, no matter how powerful a microscope we use.

I said that every year to every general chemistry class I taught at the university level, and no one ever questioned my assertion. But homeschoolers think more critically than most students, so the very first year my chemistry course was published, I got a FAX (yes, a FAX) from a student questioning my statement. The student showed me an image like the one below, which was taken with a scanning tunneling electron microscope at IBM. She asked if it wasn’t a picture of individual atoms:

An image of the surface of nickel, as produced by a scanning tunneling electron microscope (click for source)

While the image is generally presented as a “picture” of nickel atoms, it is not. It is a graph that represents data that have been processed through a series of equations which govern the behavior of electrons traveling at high speeds. The equations depend on multiple theories, including special relativity and quantum mechanics. I am pretty confident that those theories are mostly true, so I am pretty confident that this is a realistic representation of atoms on the surface of a nickel foil. However, it is not a picture. Light was not used (high-energy electrons were used), and the image is not a direct representation of the nickel surface. It is a direct representation of data that have been processed through mathematical equations that come from several theories.

Recently, I got a question from a teacher who is using my new chemistry course. A student brought him an article that says scientists have been able to take a picture of a single strontium atom. I told the teacher why it is not a picture of a strontium atom, and then over the weekend, I got the same question on my Facebook page. As a result, I decided to write a quick article (well, as quick an article as I can write) about it.

This is definitely a picture, as it is the result of directly detecting light. And, that light is coming from a single atom. That’s the remarkable aspect of the photograph. Because atoms are so small, it is very hard to isolate a single one, but the experimenter who took the picture was able to do just that. However, it is not a picture of the atom. It is a picture of the visible light that the atom is emitting as a result of being excited. When atoms are excited, they must get rid of that excess energy, and one way they can do that is to emit light. The strontium atom is emitting visible light, which is why a picture of it could be taken.

Once again, however, this is not a picture of the atom; it is a picture of visible light being emitted by the atom. After all, the picture shows that the light is purple. If this were a picture of a strontium atom, it would mean that strontium atoms are purple. However, atoms have no color, because they are smaller than the smallest wavelength of visible light.

If you think I am just being pedantic here, consider the picture below:

Tubes of neon atoms emitting light as a result of being excited by electricity. (click for credit)

Each tube in the picture contains neon gas, and electricity is being passed through the gas, giving the atoms extra energy. To release that energy, they emit light, and the visible wavelengths that are emitted produce the orange color that you see in the picture. Are you seeing all the individual neon atoms in those tubes? Of course not. You are seeing the light that those excited neon atoms are emitting.

The “picture” of the strontium atom is the same thing, except that there is only one atom emitting light, while there are roughly 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 neon atoms emitting light in the picture above.

Posted in Answered Questions, Modern Science | 8 Comments

A Different Kind of Blog

Upper Waterton Lake in Alberta, Canada. (Photo copyright Kathleen J. Wile)

My wife and I felt led to leave the church we had been attending for 25+ years, and after a lot of searching and praying, we found a wonderful new church. There are lots of ways to serve in this church, and one of them is to contribute to the church’s blog. I will be doing that on a regular basis. My contributions to the blog will come under the heading “Amazed by Him,” because that’s the way I feel when I study Him. As a scientist, I am amazed by His creation, and as a Christian, I am amazed by Him. If you would like, you can read my first article, which was published today:

Amazed by His Goodness

Posted in Modern Christianity | 4 Comments

Another Special Effect Based on Chemistry

The very talented Eric Bailey portraying Dr. Jekyll in Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical (edited photo by Michelle Mullins)

I just got finished portraying Sir Danvers Carew in Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical. I had never seen or read the show before, so I didn’t know what to expect. It turns out that it is more of an opera than a musical. Most of the lines are sung, and the music is hauntingly beautiful. The cast was full of incredible singers, so the performances were remarkable. I got the opportunity to sing a duet with the young lady portraying my daughter Emma, who is engaged to be married to Dr. Jekyll. I also got to sing a lovely quartet with Emma, Dr. Jekyll, and John Utterson (Dr. Jekyll’s attorney). The music was incredibly challenging, but with lots of help from my fellow actors, I managed to pull it off.

The superbly-talented director had developed some important imagery for the show. The cast is divided into “the rich” and “the poor.” Dr. Jekyll is part of “the rich,” but when he turns into Mr. Hyde, he is part of “the poor.” The rich obviously wore much better clothes than the poor, but the director wanted something else to symbolize the divide between the two, so he used colors. The set was lit with green when the rich were being highlighted, and all the rich people had a splash of green on their costumes. The set was lit with red when the poor were being highlighted, and all the poor people had red in their costumes.

With this in mind, the director asked me if I could make a “smoking potion” that turns from green (representing Dr. Jekyll) to red (representing Mr. Hyde). I said, “no problem.” Then he added that the actor portraying Jekyll and Hyde must be able to drink the potion. That turned out to be a challenge. However, drawing on my experience writing a chemistry book for homeschooled students, I came up with something that worked pretty well.

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Posted in Chemistry | 6 Comments