In an era when natural philosophers were consciously coming to rely on idioms of prediction, experiment, demonstration, and discovery, when accredited truths of nature were established by seeing and believing, Darwins approach was doubly unusual. He was inviting people to believe in a world run by irregular, unpredictable contingencies, as well as asking them to accept his solution for the simple reason that it seemed to work.
Proof of Life in Martian Meteorite Alleged Again
1A. P. Taylor and J. C. Barry, Magnetosomal matrix: ultrafine structure may template biomineralization of megnetosomes, Journal of Microscopy 213:2 (Feb 2004), p. 80, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2828.2004.01287.x.
Evolutionists are funny because they are so serious. Dog discovers origin of life. Americans lose spirit over lost opportunity to be first. Muslims snicker, G'day, mate.Georgia to Teach Evolution, but Avoid the E Word 01/30/2004
Its not evolution, its biological changes over time, asserts Georgia Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox. But sometimes good intentions can make both sides of a dispute upset, reports MSNBC News. Pro-evolutionists think the state is trying to water down the teaching of evolution, and anti-evolutionists think changing the word does not change the meaning. Cox explained that the suggestion does not alter textbooks or forbid teachers from using the E word.
No one seems to like the idea, however. Former President Jimmy Carter was incensed: As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Coxs attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgias students. A Democratic Congressman thought the move was throwing a bone to the conservatives, but a Republican reacted negatively for different reasons: Its stupid. Its like teaching gravity without using the word gravity.
The suggestion appeared in a draft of a revised science curriculum, to be debated in public hearings and voted on by the Georgia school board in May.
In the cartoon strip Hagar the Horrible, the Viking marauder once warned his shipboard cook, the milktoast born loser Lucky Eddie, that the crew was so sick of fish balls for breakfast, lunch and dinner, that if he didnt come up with a new recipe he would be tossed overboard. Later, with a look of triumph, he lifted the cover on his latest concoction. Whats that? the curious crew members inquired disdainfully. Lucky Eddie proudly announced, fish cubes! (Last frame deleted due to violence.)For Complex Life, Just Add Oxygen 01/29/2004
When you take in a breath of fresh air, you let in a lively but dangerous molecule that would kill you if it were not that your cells have elaborate controls to utilize its energy for good and avoid its damaging potential. Oxygen makes forests burn to ashes but also powers your muscles. Astrobiologists realize that oxygen would have ruled out the origin of life if present on the alleged primitive earth, but now some think that, once life started, oxygen paved the road to pines and peacocks.
EurekAlert sums up a presentation published in BioMed Central Evolutionary Biology with the announcement, Oxygen triggered the evolution of advanced life forms. S. Blair Hedges (Penn State), one of the authors, explained: To build a complex multicellular organism, with all the communication and signalling between cells it entails, you need energy. With no oxygen or mitochondria, complex organisms couldnt get enough of this energy to develop. His team performed a statistical analysis of the amount of complexity of life forms assumed through evolutionary time. They admit up front that the pattern and timing of the rise in complex multicellular life during Earths history has not been established. In fact, there is a large and serious disconnect in the data sets: Great disparity persists between the pattern suggested by the fossil record and that estimated by molecular clocks, especially for plants, animals, fungi, and the deepest branches of the eukaryote tree. Nevertheless, they pulled together a large set of protein sequence data and applied molecular clock assumptions to it to place constraints on the increase in complexity through time.
They attempted to derive branching times on the tree of life, and counted the diversity of cell types for each group. They noticed an apparent acceleration in the variety of cell types that seemed to be associated with the initial increase in oxygen levels about 2.3 billion years ago. The results suggest that oxygen levels in the environment, and the ability of eukaryotes to extract energy from oxygen, as well as produce oxygen, were key factors in the rise of complex multicellular life. Mitochondria and organisms with more than 2-3 cell types appeared soon after the initial increase in oxygen levels at 2300 Ma [2300 million years ago]. The addition of plastids at 1500 Ma, allowing eukaryotes to produce oxygen, preceded the major rise in complexity. What this means, they believe, is that oxygen triggered the rise of complex life.
1Hedges et al., A molecular timescale of eukaryote evolution and the rise of complex multicellular life, BioMed Central Evolutionary Biology, 2004, 4:2 (published 28 January 2004).
This is like correlating the stock market to the sunspot cycle, or worse, to a random number generator. Its a circumstantial argument based on begging the question whether evolution is even true. They admit that the fossil evidence, which should be considered more reliable, flatly contradicts the molecular evidence, which others have already lamented is a broken clock. Why do mythmakers masquerading as scientists get away with this bogus reasoning? Why do science news outlet depict their mythical hypotheses as conclusions? Maybe the solution will come, as with network news, when ratings keep dropping. At a certain point it wont matter what lies they tell, because no one will be listening.How to Get Engineering Without an Engineer 01/28/2004
The study of complex systems is all the rage these days (see, for example, 08/18/2003 entry). In the Jan. 28 issue of Nature,1 J. M. Ottino (Northwestern University) mixes up biology with human design in his Concepts essay on Engineering complex systems.
Complex systems, he explains, can be identified by what they do (display organization without a central organizing authority emergence), and also by how they may or may not be analysed (as decomposing the system and analysing sub-parts do not necessarily give a clue as to the behaviour of the whole). In the list of examples he provides, the juxtaposition of human-engineered and biological systems is so subtle as to mask the differences: Systems that fall within the scope of complex systems include metabolic pathways, ecosystems, the web [e.g., the internet world-wide-web], the US power grid and the propagation of HIV infections. He does clarify, however, that Many examples of complex networks that have greatly impacted our lives such as highways, electrification and the Internet derive from engineering. Presumably, some do not. He draws additional contrasts:
The hallmarks of complex systems are adaptation, self-organization and emergence no one designed the web or the metabolic processes within a cell. And this is where the conceptual conflict with engineering arises. Engineering is not about letting systems be. Engineering is about making things happen, about convergence, optimum design and consistency of operation. Engineering is about assembling pieces that work in specific ways that is, designing complicated systems.Ottino explains that complex and complicated are not one and the same. Complicated is more like the intelligent design terminology of irreducibly complex. In the tradition of Paley, his illustration is a watch with over 1000 parts working together. Then he explains,
The pieces in complicated systems can be well understood in isolation, and the whole can be reassembled from its parts. The components work in unison to accomplish a function. One key defect can bring the entire system to a halt; complicated systems do not adapt. Redundancy needs to be built in when system failure is not an option.Complex systems, on the other hand, do adapt, he claims: the hallmarks are adaptation (ability to change to match changing conditions), self-organization (ability to arrange parts unassisted), and emergence (new properties come to light which were not necessarily predicted, but represent a whole greater than the sum of the parts). The Web, for instance, has taken on a life of its own that exceeds what its original designers expected. Engineering went into the design of the parts, but not the whole: But although engineers may have developed the components, they did not plan their connection. Is there a place for engineering in the ongoing adaptation of a complex system?
How can engineers, who have developed many of the most important complex systems, stay connected with their subsequent development? Complexity and engineering seem at odds complex systems are about adaptation, whereas engineering is about purpose. However, it is robustness and failure where both camps merge.By this, he means that engineers can design robustness into a complex system by designing redundancy and performing risk analysis at the outset, or as the system grows. Engineers might also be able to leverage self-organization: by steering the properties of molecular subunits, for example, in the rapidly expanding field of nanotechnology. Still, these examples all involve intelligent foresight. What about the adaptation in living things?
Ottino barely touches on biological complex systems, but thinks the environment can optimize adaptation (this is known in the literature as niche construction):
But the choice need not be just between designing everything at the outset and letting systems design themselves. Most design processes are far from linear, with multiple decision points and ideas evolving before the final design emerges. However, once finished, the design itself does not adapt. Here, engineers are beginning to get insight from biology. The emergence of function the ability of a system to perform a task can be guided by its environment, without imposing a rigid blueprint. For example, just like the beaks of Darwins finches, a finite-element analysis of a component shape such as an airfoil can evolve plastically through a continuum of possibilities under a set of constraints, so as to optimize the shape for a given function.Ottino does not elaborate, but presumably he feels that natural selection chooses the optimum design from the continuum of possibilities.
The essay ends with these vague suggestions, because no laws of self-organization are known, most of the discoveries are in future tense:
Despite significant recent advances in our understanding of complex systems, the field is still in flux, and there is still is a lack of consensus as to where the centre is for some, it is exclusively cellular automata; for others it is networks. However, the landscape is bubbling with activity, and now is the time to get involved. Engineering should be at the centre of these developments, and contribute to the development of new theory and tools.
1J.M. Ottino, Engineering complex systems, Nature 427, 399 (29 January 2004); doi:10.1038/427399a.
No one designed the ... metabolic processes within a cell. Interesting. Could you elaborate, Dr. Ottino? Tell us how you know this.10 More Questions 01/27/2004
As a follow-up to Jonathan Wells popular (or notorious, depending on your point of view) 10 Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution, William Dembski has come up with 10 Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Design.
Dembski has also recently published a new book, The Design Revolution, Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (InterVarsity, 2004).
Whatever is good, whatever is true, think on these things.The New Phrenology Ostracizes Neanderthals 01/27/2004
Scientists contrasted different points on Neanderthal skulls to modern human skulls, and concluded Neanderthals were a separate species. The New York Times report by John Noble Wilford says that not all scientists are convinced, however, by the analysis published by Katerina Harvati et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1 Jan. 26 (online preprints).
Since parrots have better vocabulary and grammar than monkeys (see Jan. 20 entry), according to the BBC News, maybe scientists should redraw the ancestral tree of humans.
1Harvati, Frost and McNulty, Neanderthal taxonomy reconsidered: Implications of 3D primate models of intra- and interspecific differences, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 10.1073/pnas.0308085100, published online before print January 26, 2004.
These are such games that anthropologists play. How much can be known from tiny differences in skull measurements? How many differences are needed to call something a species, or a race, or a variety? If you cannot prove they were not interfertile with humans, how can you arbitrarily define them out of the family?Early Oxygen Causes Evolutionary Gasps 01/24/2004
The rise of oxygen in the primitive Earths atmosphere has been pushed back 100 million more years, according to Sid Perkins writing for the Jan. 24 issue of Science News. This is based on studies of sediments in South Africa. Though estimated at just a millionth of todays concentrations, the finding comes as a surprise. Previous research suggested that the atmosphere before 2.45 billion years ago was almost devoid of oxygen, according to Heinrich Holland, a Harvard geochemist whose report was presented in the Jan. 8 issue of Nature.1 Perkins says it is impossible to know if that was the first indication oxygen was present.
1Bekker and Holland, Dating the rise of atmospheric oxygen, Nature 427(Jan. 8):117-120.
Oxygen is good for people but bad for the origin of life. Even a tiny amount is poison to an evolving cell. The more secular geologists push oxygen back into their timeline, the more it will strain the credibility of the claim life arose from chemicals on a primitive earth.La Brea Tar Pits Trap Scientists 01/24/2004
Sid Perkins of Science News dropped in at La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, and got stuck, not in tar, but in the sticky evolutionary interpretations of these world-famous fossil deposits. This fossil bed, right in one of the ritziest parts of Los Angeles (adjacent to the County Art Museum), Perkins whimsically calls L.A.s oldest tourist trap because of the many mammals and birds that once paid a visit, never to exit again. Even roaches checked in, but they didnt check out. Millions of bones have been uncovered at the site, making it one of the richest Pleistocene fossil deposits in the world.
The standard explanation of the fossils is that herbivores became trapped in the gooey tar. Carnivores and birds of prey, leaping on the easy meals, became trapped also, and all sank together into the sticky preservative The tale is not without its mysteries, however:
One of the most conspicuous findings from a census of bones is the near absence of complete skeletons.
In a result that counters intuition, bones of predators were almost seven times as common in Pit 91 as were those of prey. Overall, an estimated 80 percent of the mammals were carnivores, and 60 percent of the birds were birds of prey. Thats a surprise, says [John] Harris [curator of the museum at the site], since the number of herbivores in a stable ecosystem always outnumbers the predators by a wide margin.
Of the seven mammal species that the team analyzed from Pit 91, skulls and jawbones were collected most often. Only half as many limb bones were recovered as would be expected from the number of heads retrieved.One possibility is that trapped herbivores, like bison or sloths, became tired and fell on their sides, exposing only one set of ribs and limbs to the meat-eaters. But the same puzzle exists with the carnivore bones:
Even carnivores became sitting ducks; the predators limb bones dont show up in the pits in the proportions expected if their carcasses had escaped scavengers. Dire wolves, an ice age predator larger than todays gray wolf, appear to have been scavenged less often than the saber-toothed cats. However, the large numbers of missing bones among any of La Breas meat eaters is surprising, says [Blair] Van Valkenburgh [of UCLA]. Modern carnivores rarely feed on other large carnivores, even when carcasses are available, she notes.
The carbon-isotope ratios found in the bones of dire wolves that lived 30,000 and 15,000 years ago have proved mysterious because they cant be explained by the consumption of herbivores, such as bison, horses, and turkeys, known to be living in the La Brea ecosystem at that time.
Several characteristics of the fossil bones suggest that the remains of trapped animals sank quickly into the tar, the researchers note. First, 93 percent of the bones show no sign of exposure to the weather. Almost half of the specimens show little or none of the outer-surface abrasion that indicates, for example, the scouring action of sediments. Finally, only 2 percent of the bones show any evidence that they had been gnawed or chewed by scavengers.This remarkable site, encompassing about 23 acres, has yielded the remains of more than 650 species, including at least 60 mammal species, 140 types of plants, 120 varieties of insects, and 60 species of snails and other mollusks during the past century of excavation, and current paleontologists have a huge backlog to inventory. The fossils include many extinct mammals, such as dwarf pronghorn antelopes, short-faced bears, ground sloths, and the North American versions of lions and camels, (as well as mastodons, mammoths and one human skeleton), along with bones of all the current L.A. mammals with the curious exception of opossums. Visitors to the attractive George C. Page Museum can watch scientists and volunteers at work separating the specimens from the matrix using fine brushes and picks a painstaking, time-consuming process.
1Sid Perkins, L.A.s Oldest Tourist Trap: At Rancho La Brea, death has been the pits for millennia, Science News, Week of Jan. 24, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 4.
Perkins ends with an anecdote about 60 cedar waxwings getting stuck in a tar seep last November, indicating that animals still get trapped. The problem is, cedar waxwings are not birds of prey. The fossil birds of prey outnumbered non-carnivorous birds 60% to 40%. In this case, he surely would have mentioned if 90 eagles or vultures had been seen swooping onto the trapped songbirds. The facts indicate that the present is not the key to the past.Should Cosmologists Get Worried Yet? 01/23/2004
The unexpected finding of mature galaxies in the early universe (see 01/02/2004) has Robert Irion worried, but he seems surprised the theorists are not. Reporting on last weeks meeting of the American Astronomical Society in the Jan. 23 issue of Science,1 he titles his article, Early Galaxies Baffle Observers, But Theorists Shrug. He begins:
Its not quite time for theorists to panic, but were getting there, said astronomer Roberto Abraham of the University of Toronto, Canada, after announcing his groups discovery of a startling number of mature galaxies in the young universe. But although the finding seemed to undermine the standard view of how matter assembled, theorists have respectfully declined to sound the alarm.The results from the Gemini Sky Survey seem to contradict the neat hierarchical model of galaxy formation, that galaxies gradually built up from small components over billions of years. He quotes astronomers like Joel Primack (UC Santa Cruz) who are not too worried about it yet. He thinks the standard model explains the dark matter haloes of galaxies fairly well. But the hardest problem in astrophysics, the one they understand least of all, is the stars themselves: But they fail to explain why the bright lights within the lumps--great waves of star formation that spawned visible galaxies--turned on when and where they did, Irion points out.
In a related article, reporting on the same AAS meeting, Irion asks if star formation is an extreme sport.2 Three new findings he heard about, which suggest extremely violent events going on in space, cause him to suggest that theories of star birth havent properly considered the roles of violent, impulsive events.
1Robert Irion, Early Galaxies Baffle Observers, But Theorists Shrug, Science Volume 303, Number 5657, Issue of 23 Jan 2004, p. 460.
2Robert Irion, Star FormationAn Extreme Sport? Science Volume 303, Number 5657, Issue of 23 Jan 2004, pp. 460-461.
Its not a problem. Everything is under control. Our model can handle it. (The last words of a dying paradigm.)Minnesota Debates Darwin Teaching 01/22/2004
Minnesota is next in line in the Darwin wars. This science framework writing committee has taken the unusual step of submitting two drafts to the legislature, a majority report with the usual Darwin-only rule, and a minority with two improvements, according to Seth Cooper of the Discovery Institute:
The first benchmark improvement proposed by the minority report requires students to be able to distinguish between changes existing within species (microevolution) and the emergence of new species and changes above the species level (macroevolution). The second would require students to be able to describe “how scientists continue to critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.”As an advocate for teaching the controversy about evolution, Cooper believes Minnesota is in a unique position to improve teaching of evolution and avoid extremes i.e., straight Darwinism without the problems vs. religious views of creation. Teaching the controversy, he believes, is the option most likely to succeed. The majority (Darwin-only) report ignored the expressed feelings of a majority of citizens who testified at public hearings last year, but the minority report at least understands that there is some controversy. Cooper explains,
“The debate over how best to teach evolution has devolved into an either-or argument that threatens science education in our schools,” said Cooper. “But there is another approach laid out in the minority report --teach the scientific controversy. Instead of pretending there is no debate over Darwin’s theory we should use it to further educate students about the scientific controversy surrounding evolutionary theory.”Cooper points out that the minority report is also in line with the official position of Congress as stated in the conference report of the No Child Left Behind Act. In fact,
Last fall, Commissioner [Cheri] Yecke [Education Commissioner] received a letter from Congress stressing that this guidance in the No Child Left Behind Act Conference Report was the official position of Congress on science education. The letter was signed by Minnesota Congressman John Kline and Congressman John Boehner, chairman of the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee.The position is summarized: Congress urged states to present “the full range of scientific views” on controversial topics “such as biological evolution.”
Whats so wrong with that? Who could disagree with that? The Darwin Party, thats who. They know that their position can only survive in a vacuum, in which data supporting their position is carefully selected and deceptively presented, without rebuttal. Since the Darwinian revolution, they have the power, and power corrupts.Sex and Gender Cannot Be Separated 01/22/2004
A study of male children born with a rare birth defect called cloacal exstrophy demonstrates that sexual identity is biologically determined, not a result of upbringing. The report in Science Now shows that most of the boys identified themselves as male early on, even though unaware of their condition and raised as girls under doctors advice. Mary Beckman ends the article:
The work is another nail in the coffin of the idea that gender identity is determined by the environment in which children grow up, says endocrinologist Daniel Federman of Harvard Medical School in Boston. He says the finding lends support to current thinking that aspects of gender identity are set up during intrauterine development.Her article is called, Once a male, always a male. The study by Reiner and Gearhart is in the 22 January issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
To be happiest, be what you were created to be. Dont blame God or bad science for your problems.Mars Gusev Crater May Be Dry 01/22/2004
Preliminary indications from the spectrometer on Spirit, the rover exploring Gusev Crater on Mars, may dash hopes for those looking for evidence of past water there. According to the NASA-JPL press release, the signature of olivine has been found. Olivine degrades in water, even at near-freezing temperatures, and it weathers easily. It is not known if the olivine is present in the soil or in the rock underneath. Its presence, however, casts doubt on whether the area was ever under water. The wet-Marsers might hold onto hope if perhaps the olivine was blown in from other locations in dust storms, but it is possible the floor of the crater consists of finely ground volcanic dust that was never wet.
Further corroboration is currently on hold, unfortunately, pending resolution of a serious communication anomaly with Spirit. This occurred the very day it was scheduled to grind a rock the team named Adirondack for more clues. The incident occurred just two days before the rovers twin, Opportunity is scheduled to begin its six minutes of terror descent to the opposite side of the planet. Opportunitys goal, Meridiani Planum, bears the spectral signature of hematite. Because hematite forms most readily in the presence of water, this makes Meridiani another prime target in the search for past liquid water on Mars.
The European Space Agency is celebrating the arrival of Mars Express. It just returned its first spectacular high-resolution color pictures from orbit, as partial compensation for the loss of Beagle 2.
Best wishes to the team for the resolution of the problem with Spirit and a happy landing for Opportunity. If worse comes to the worst for Spirit, at least it got two weeks of spectacular images, including this rear shot of the landing platform. The landing caught the attention of the whole world. Hits at the JPL Mars Exploration website surpassed all previous records, with traffic reaching 7 Gb/sec.Why You Need Sleep 01/21/2004
A study in the Jan. 22 issue of Nature1 claims that sleep gives you inspiration. Sleep is not just a waste of a third of your day; it helps consolidate memories, and provides pivotal insights. Insight denotes a mental restructuring that leads to a sudden gain of explicit knowledge allowing qualitatively changed behaviour, the five researchers explain. Human subjects trained in a new task uncovered a hidden rule after sleep, regardless of time of day. Various aspects of their experiments led the team to conclude that sleep, by restructuring new memory representations, facilitates extraction of explicit knowledge and insightful behaviour.
1Wagner, Gais, Haider, Verleger and Born, Sleep inspires insight, Nature 427, 352 - 355 (22 January 2004); doi:10.1038/nature02223.
Dont feel guilty about sleep. Everything has its purpose, even letting your mind wander as your body goes limp in horizontal position once a day. A lot is going on in that brain. So now you have new justification for that power nap. But sleep after the bosss meeting, not during. (Same rule applies to the Sunday sermon.)Monkey See, Monkey No Comprendo 01/20/2004
In 19th century mythology, a million monkeys might type the works of Shakespeare by chance, given millions of years. But monkeys would make lousy computer programmers, because they cannot understand the if-then construction. Comparison studies on humans and monkeys showed that while the monkeys could be trained to recognize when one word is followed by another, they cannot get the rules of recursive grammar into their heads. Trainers tried to get them to follow a simple rule, such as one to three words spoken by a male trainer are followed by the same pattern of words spoken by a female trainer. Since human volunteers had no such difficulty, even when previously unfamiliar with the rule, the scientists deduced that recursive logic is a uniquely human trait. New Scientist discusses the interpretation of David Premack, a renowned primate language expert:
Mastery of the underlying rule of recursion is the key to human flexibility, Premack believes, allowing humans to think in the abstract, use metaphors and comprehend concepts such as time. It probably arose as the brain evolved into a more complex organ, but is not located in a single brain region.The study by Hauser and Fitch was published in last weeks Science,1 along with commentary by Premack.2
In their report, MSNBC News tantalized with How humans got the gift of gab, but failed to satisfy: Language is at the very core of what makes us human, though how we evolved this ability has provoked intense debate. Somehow, it evolved (they dont quite know how), but whatever happened, it made all the difference:
Whatever it is about the brain that allows such linguistic flexibility may also be key to the human imagination, according to Premack. Unlike other animals, which specialize in various skills, humans are supremely adaptable, able to learn new tasks and develop new technologies. Human intelligence and evolution are the only flexible processes on Earth capable of producing endless solutions to the problems confronted by living creatures, Premack writes.
1Fitch and Hauser, Computational Constraints on Syntactic Processing in a Nonhuman Primate, Science 01/16/2003, 10.1126/science.1089401.
2David Premack, Is Language the Key to Human Intelligence? Science 01/16/2003, 10.1126/science.1093993.
That line makes Premack winner of Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week. The BBC News is runner-up with its very misleading headline, Monkeys grasp basic grammar, which the body of the article debunks. But hold the presses! Should we give it instead to National Geographic News for this line attributed to Premack? Evolution, being endlessly clever, might produce words that dont require teaching, but until it does, it is not clear how any species other than humans could evolve language.Editorial 01/20/2004
In the upcoming cover story of World Magazine (Jan. 24), Gene Edward Veith writes on Considering the heavens. Interacting with Space Shuttle astronaut Col Jeffrey Williams, Veith looks to a Christian view of space travel, bringing in the work and ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, Pascal, Dante, Milton, C. S. Lewis and others. He ends on a positive note, that Biblical faith should encourage the exploration of space.
Read his essay for the reasons. Some moderns think the immensity of space argues against a Biblical cosmology, but does it? He makes an interesting point: materialists would use opposite findings to discredit Christianity. They say, if we were alone in such a vast universe, how could God care about us? But then they say, If the universe were filled with life, how could God care about us? Maybe materialists want to avoid God no matter what the evidence.How and Why Whiskers Whisk 01/20/2004
Scientists at Weizmann Institute found some interesting things about whiskers, reports EurekAlert. While working with rats, they noticed that the whiskers are always in motion, twitching and sensing objects around them. They discovered that two kinds of neurons are involved in sending whisker signals to the brain. The whisking neurons are active all the time, whether or not the whiskers feel any objects. When an object is touched, touch neurons come into play. Some detect the first touch, some send a signal when touch is lost, and others relay information during the duration of contact. The report says this indicates that perception is a dynamic dance in which hands, eyes and whiskers move towards the world to actively seek out sensation.
It wouldnt be surprising if this neurological response is active all over the body, even in human skin. Skin has tiny vellum hairs all over, even on the palms of the hands. Consider how your skin is sensitive to the slightest brush, even without touch if static electricity is about. Probably similar neurons are involved. All these sensations require specialized neurons and a brain that can process them.Live at the Improv: DNA Polymerase 01/20/2004
When a DNA reader hits an unfamiliar line, it improvises, reports EurekAlert:
Prof. Zvi Livneh and Ph.D. student Ayelet Maor-Shoshani of the Biological Chemistry Department cut a DNA strand from the bacterium E. coli and inserted material similar to that which composes crude oil in between both its ends. As expected, the regular DNA polymerase stopped working when it reached the foreign material. Yet to the scientists amazement, a specialized DNA polymerase jumped in to rescue the stalled replication process, and continued the copying process, inserting nonexistent genetic components into the printout when it encountered the foreign material. This can be compared to a person who forgets some words in a song and makes up new ones to be able to continue to sing.The scientists believe this capability provides resilience against damaged DNA, except in the most extreme cases:
True, when DNA polymerase improvises a tune, errors (i.e. mutations) may occur in the new cells DNA. Yet Livneh explains that the body cannot feasibly let all cells with damaged DNA die, for there are too many of them. Only if the DNA contains a very high level of damage will the cells machinery give up and let the cell die.
The number of coded mechanisms keeping us alive is astonishing. Given all the things that could go wrong, it makes you wonder how the human race survives for even a few generations, let alone thousands of years. Molecular machines in the cell are multi-talented and well trained, and now even skilled at improvisation. Be thankful your gene readers know all that jazz.Does Microevolution Add Up? 01/15/2004
Do numerous small changes add up to big ones, like Darwin thought? In the Jan. 15 issue of Nature,1 New Zealand kiwi David Penny (Allan Wilson Center for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, Massey University) is hopeful that the new chimp genome will prove it so:
The fundamental issue here is Darwins bold claim that numerous, successive, slight modifications are sufficient for all of evolution (Fig. 1 [a photo of a group of chimpanzees]). This can be paraphrased, in later terms, as microevolution is sufficient to explain macroevolution. The historical context is that evolutionary biology can be divided into two phases: first, the acceptance in the 1860s that evolution (macroevolution) had indeed occurred; second, the realization in the mid-1900s that the processes of microevolution (natural selection working through genetics) were necessary for evolution to occur.Although the chimp genome is still in a preliminary draft stage, Penny points to some early results by A.G. Clark that suggest there has been some positive selection between ape and human genes, compared to the mouse genome:
Use of the mouse genome as an outgroup allows estimates of the number of synonymous (silent) mutations and non-synonymous (replacement) mutations. The ratio of the two permits the potential identification of genes that have been under positive selection in humans as opposed to chimpanzees, and vice versa.Not surprisingly, he then says, selective changes occur in both the human and chimpanzee lineages (our common ancestor was neither chimp nor human). Like what? He points to one example Clark found: enzymes for amino acid breakdown appear to have been under positive selection. What does it mean?
This is concordant with the generally high proportion of meat (and thus protein) in the human diet, at least in comparison with the more herbivorous chimpanzee and gorilla. The increased capacity to break down amino acids is not surprising in another respect. For example, failure to catabolize phenylalanine has several adverse effects, including brain damage. Overall, the finding lends support to theories that an increased proportion of meat in the diet of early humans was important for an increase in brain size. Regardless of that, there could also be ethical implications. If early humans ate meat naturally, then for example being vegetarian could be considered a personal choice rather than a universal ethical decision. But all that can be claimed here is that scientific knowledge will be necessary, even if not sufficient, for solving such ethical questions.The only other case of possible positive selection are differences in smelling genes between apes and men. Some genes seem to be under positive selection, while others seem to be becoming inactive as pseudogenes. This work is an example, he thinks, of how evolutionary comparative genomics can stimulate research:
These results illustrate how genome-wide information will stimulate new experiments, both at the level of gene expression and with the aim of making physiological comparisons. What, for instance, is the comparative sensitivity of humans and chimps to a range of olfactory stimuli? Do humans have an improved receptivity to odours from the increased proportion of meat and/or cooked foods in our diet? Such tests will allow us to see how genetic differences manifest themselves at the level of the organism, and we can expect a burst of experiments to that end.He touches on other questions: how important is neutral selection? How can one tell differences in the rates of gene expression? Do differences in gene expression occur more with conserved genes, or with those undergoing positive selection? Will these studies help nail down mutation rates? What is the sustainable reproduction rate? If the proportion of deleterious and slightly deleterious mutations is significant, he notes, then exact replacement reproductive rates might lead to eventual genetic decline. (That doesnt worry him as much as the planet's ecological sustainability, a a much more immediate worry.)
These are tastes of the plenty of food for thought that he thinks Clarks initial studies elicit. The chimp genome project marches along. Penny concludes,
The full sequence will be available later this year, and further comparative analyses should lead to a definite answer as to whether there is anything in the human genome that is not accounted for by the normal microevolutionary processes. Is there a genetic continuum between us and our ancestors and the great apes? If there is, then we can say that these processes are genetically sufficient to fully account for human uniqueness and that would be my candidate for the top scientific problem solved in the first decade of the new millennium.
1David Penny, Evolutionary biology: Our relative genetics, Nature 427, 208 (15 January 2004); doi:10.1038/427208a.
Ahem. Why are you asking this question? Here we are, 150 years after Darwin remade the scientific world, and you still dont know whether numerous, successive slight modifications could make a man out of an ape?Fossil Worm: Does It Help Solve Cambrian Explosion Puzzle? 01/14/2004
A soft embryo of a Cambrian worm, exquisitely preserved, makes Graham Budd (U. of Uppsala, Sweden) ask some hard questions about it and other recently-discovered embryo fossils in the Jan. 15 issue of Nature:1
These fossils raise several questions, to say the least. First, how could they possibly be preserved? Second, why are they concentrated in a period (600-500 million years ago) that is already unfairly overstocked with exceptionally preserved fossils, such as those of the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies? Third, do they tell us anything about animal evolution?He spends most of his article on the third question, but seems to end up with more questions than answers about the miraculous preservation of these embryos.
The BBC News has a report and pictures of the embryos.
Ask yourself how soft tissues could be exquisitely mineralized and preserved for 600 million years, when many later fossils have been reworked by storms, glaciers, moving continents and asteroid impacts. More interesting than the data that seem to fit the reigning myth are the anomalies that do not. This find does nothing to help evolutionists in their Cambrian explosion predicament (08/21/2002). Graham Budd has been pushed by the disconnect between his expectations and the facts to the ultimate no-no in science: invoking miracles.Centromere Shows More Gems in Junk DNA 01/12/2004
A biochemist at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a colleague sequenced a hard-to-sequence part of the rice genome, the centromere, and found four genes in it. Previously, it was thought to be a vast wasteland of repetitive, non-coding DNA. The scientist, Jiming Jiang, thinks his work provides a window to evolution of the centromere, according to writer Terry Devitt: The evolutionary progression of the centromeres, Jiang suggests, may be analogous to how temperate forests evolve from more diverse ecosystems to climax forests where a single species of tree dominates. In the rice centromere, it may be that evolution has not yet purged active genes to be replaced by the long and repetitive blocks of DNA that mark the centromeres of most organisms.
Wheres the evolution? If you start with genes and end up with more junk, youre going downhill. He should be celebrating that junk DNA is not junk after all. Only a committed Darwin Party member could make an evolutionary spin out of this data. Just the facts, ham.Your Bacteria Ancestors 01/12/2004
Dr. Peter Antonelli thinks he has mathematically proven that all multicellular organisms, including plants and animals and human beings, came from two ancient bacteria that met and formed a stable, consistent relationship. His boast is explained on a University of Alberta press release. He thinks most biologists dont comprehend his mathematical models yet, but EurekAlert thinks it all adds up. Next, Antonelli is working on a unified mathematical model of ecological evolution.
Antonelli seems to be a member of the Margulis sect of the Darwin Party. The Woese sect will probably respond with their champion. Numbers will crunch, but will the truth come out? Dont count on it. Math could also distinguish which of any two mythologies are more likely. We have a mathematical model that trumps all evolutionary myths with a sober reality check: click here.How Enzymes Work But Dont Ask Where They Came From: Just Believe 01/12/2004
Enzymes are protein machines in the cell that speed up reactions that normally would proceed very slowly or not at all. Four biochemists publishing in the Jan. 9 issue of Science1 describe the exquisite power of these biological catalysts: Enzyme catalysis, which can produce rate accelerations as large as a factor of 1019, involves molecular recognition at the highest level of development. That figure represents a speed increase of 10 quintillion (see also 05/06/2003 entry). After a brief review of efforts to understand enzymes, they remark that An overview of our present understanding of enzyme catalysis is particularly timely because of the increasing number of articles that propose a variety of origins for enzyme catalysis, of which they list the names of some proposals. Their paper offers a framework that incorporates these proposals.
They used rate theory and computer simulations to characterize some of the methods enzymes use to perform their specific reactions. Their table lists sixteen different mechanisms used by sample enzymes from plants and animals. Here is an example for tyrosine-tRNA synthetase:
Enzyme-transition state and enzyme-intermediate complementarity help to stabilize the transition state of tyrosine activation and to shift the chemical equilibrium by seven orders of magnitude in the direction of the intermediate. Loop motions induced by the chemical process are essential in creating these interactions and permitting access to the active site. (For more on the tRNA-synthetase family of enzymes, see 07/21/2003 and 06/09/2003 entries.)After providing detailed mathematical analyses of these mechanisms, they conclude, Evolutionary selection makes possible the development of enzymes that use a wide range of molecular mechanisms to facilitate reactions. Although, in principle, such rate enhancements could arise from lowering the quasithermodynamic free energy of activation or increasing the generalized transmission coefficient, the present analysis shows that the former plays the dominant role. They feel that modern transition state theory is adequate to describe these processes.
1Garcia-Viloca, Gao, Karplus, and Truhlar, How Enzymes Work: Analysis by Modern Rate Theory and Computer Simulations, Science 09 Jan 2004, 10.1126/science.1088172.
It takes great faith to be an evolutionist. In fact, their faith is so great, evolutionists could co-opt Jesus phrase to his disciples to admonish the average Christian: O ye of little faith. Here, these scientists have just described protein machines so efficient and so accurate, they can speed up reactions by a factor of 10 quintillion. They have described precise hand-and-glove fit of these protein machines, knowing that proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids whose sequence is critical to function. They have described some that actually bend and twist as part of the mechanism, and listed numerous diverse ways they can work. But then they attribute all this complexity and specificity to chance and unguided natural processes, saying Evolutionary selection makes it all possible.Did Borax Evolve Into 20-Mule Teams? 01/09/2004
Youre dating yourself if you remember the old TV western Death Valley Days, and its commercials about 20-Mule Team Borax. (Mule teams actually did pull loads of borax from Death Valley to Mojave, quite a feat in those days, but thats another story.) In modern times, though, borax has made science news as a possible ingredient in the chemical evolution of life, according to a paper in the Jan. 9 issue of Science1 (see also summary on EurekAlert, UF study suggests life on Earth sprang from borax minerals).
Chemical evolutionists have faced many problems, one serious one being the origin of sugars needed for RNA and DNA. According to the most popular RNA World hypothesis for the origin of life (see 07/11/2002 headline), RNA was a molecule that, as the story goes, possessed both primitive coding and enzymatic functions, and was able to evolve by natural selection. But the 'R' in RNA is ribose, a sugar that is doggedly hard to explain by natural processes. It is unstable and tends to degrade quickly into sticky, tarry substances. EurekAlert reminds us that Stanley Miller, of spark-discharge experiment fame, gave up on this problem in 1995, lamenting that The first genetic material could not have contained ribose or other sugars because of their instability.
Scientists at the University of Florida found that some of the minerals in borax can stabilize ribose, at least for awhile. So they speculate that borax was an ingredient in the chemical evolution of life. Steven Benner, one of the scientists on the team, a member of NASAs Astrobiology Institute, is cautiously optimistic:
We are not claiming that this is how life started, Benner stressed. We are saying that we have demonstrated a recipe to make a key part of life without any biochemical machinery. The more recipes of this type that can be found, the more clues we have about how life could have actually gotten started on the primitive Earth. (EurekAlert, emphasis added)So presumably once life got going, natural selection developed it all the way to humans, who could hitch mules to carry loads of the stuff that helped them get where they are today.
1Ricardo, Carrigan, Olcott and Benner, Borate Minerals Stabilize Ribose, Science 09 January 2004, 10.1126/science.1092464.
Need we remind anyone that recipes are written by intelligent design? These scientists did not use chance and mutations in their experiments. They applied mind to make matter do what it would not do naturally.Book 01/07/2004
The Discovery Institute in Seattle has published a new book, Darwinism, Design and Public Education, by John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, encouraging schools to teach both sides of the controversy over Darwinism vs Intelligent Design.
The Darwin Partys spin doctoring that students should be protected from the controversy over Darwinism is unpopular and unsupportable, and should be exposed for what it is: political and religious bias. If it were about science, well then, science thrives on controversy. Science is about pitting evidence against evidence and logic against logic. Wouldnt that be a healthy science lesson? Read this testimony and see what you think.Accepted Science or Censorship by National Park Service? 01/08/2004
Whats a national park bookstore vendor to do? A beautiful new book of photographs and quotations on Grand Canyon, entitled Grand Canyon: A Different View by veteran river rafting captain Tom Vail, went on sale in the national park bookstore. One would think it would not stand out too much along with hundreds of other items on varying subjects and viewpoints. Yet this one book has come under fire, because it presents a Biblical creationist view of the canyon, reports CNN.
If the national park removes the book, it might be accused of censorship, but if it keeps it, the scientific establishment is offended by its interpretation that the canyon is only thousands, not millions, of years old. CNN quotes a spokesman for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility who claims the park is approving a religious book. He claims, The overall concern is that the top managers of the park service are implementing a conservative agenda that is at odds with their duties as custodians of the nations heritage, he says, which is odd, since the book makes no conservative political statements, but only scientific claims. But can such a book be dismissed on religious grounds?
Still smarting from the recent flap over Bible verse plaques at the canyon (07/14/2003), the National Park Service has found a way to censor the book without getting into the quagmire of religious discrimination. It will recommend the Grand Canyon bookstore not restock the book, says CNN, because the book makes claims that fall outside accepted science which maintains the canyon is millions of years old. National Park Service spokesman David Barna thinks this provides a way to remove the offending book without a political or religious fight: To me, this is a decision you can make that has nothing to do with religion.
Update 01/14/2004: World Net Daily has an article on this story, and so does Nature Jan 15, 2004.1 WND says that the National Park Service has been swamped by emails about it. Apparently the book had been unanimously approved by a panel. Nature, as expected, quotes the American Geological Society calling it a narrow religious view, even though numerous PhDs contributed to the book, including several with doctorates in geology. Apparently the flap originated with Wilfred Elders (U of Calif., Riverside), and unnamed others, who got seven geological organizations to complain to the NPS (click here for the statement by the American Geological Society).
As a partial compromise, the book has been moved from the science section to the inspirational section of the store. But the author and his allies complain that it discusses scientific evidence, by scientists. Now its a neck and neck battle over the email campaigns: NCSE encouraging its members to complain, vs AIG, calling on readers to stop the book ban. Tom Vail, for his part, probably never expected such notoriety. On the bright side, hes getting a lot of publicity: radio interviews, the CNN story and major newspapers, and lots of hits on his website Canyon Ministries. The Alliance Defense Fund may take up his defense. The Nature editorial is cautious, knowing that censorship can backfire. Rex Dalton writes,
Vail says that an alternative to evolutionary science should be offered to members of the public visiting the canyon. Who is to say whose material should be or shouldnt be in the bookstore? he asks. Thats the tricky question that the NPS review will seek to answer, as it weighs issues such as the display of sound science, the right to free speech and the avoidance of censorship charges.Update 01/30/2004: The author has verified a rumor that sales of his book at the canyon stores are really cookin. So many have asked for the book that the park concessioner is planning to order more.
1Rex Dalton, National parks sale of creationist book draws geologists ire, Nature 427, 186 (15 January 2004); doi:10.1038/427186b.
This would be a good time to reread Michael Crichtons tirade against consensus science (see 12/27/2003 entry). The upshot of this decision is: only atheists, particularly members of the Darwin Party, are allowed to speak for science. Millions of years is now the new standard of accepted science, even though secular geologists have been coming around lately that the creationist claims of a young canyon are correct, at least in part (07/22/2002).How Do Plants Know When to Bloom? 01/07/2004
Scientists like to use big words to impress the rest of us, so they have a term for how a plant decides when to bloom: vernalization. But making up a word for a phenomenon is not the same as explaining it.
Everybody observes that plants seem to just know that spring is here, when they put forth their glorious blossoming colors, but think about it: how can a plant, without eyes or a brain or a calendar, judge when it is safe to send out flowers? Through all the vagaries of weather they have an uncanny sense of timing. Its especially puzzling how winter annuals do this, and biennials, which only bloom in the second year. How can a plant have a memory, and sense the seasons? What goes on in the genes, at the molecular level? How can the memory be preserved through multiple cell divisions?
This was the subject of two scientific papers in the the Jan. 8 issue of Nature,1,2 and an analysis by Christopher Surridge.3 The process is very complex and still mysterious in many respects. It involves quite a few genes and proteins, particularly histones which are part of the chromatin that wraps DNA, and additional signaling molecules like acetyl and methyl groups. Biochemists have found that, in many cellular processes, there are starters and stoppers: genes and proteins that initiate or suppress an action, and other genes and proteins that stop or re-enable them. For instance, a molecule might clamp onto a gene, making it impossible for the translation machinery to read it, and another molecule will remove the suppressor, allowing the gene to be read and transcribed into a protein. The complex dance of activators and repressors and signalling molecules can be triggered by the external environment and by other activities inside the cell.
If you can keep this all straight, vernalization goes something like this: a gene named FLC prevents flowering, and is normally expressed during the off-season. A cold snap induces the VIN3 protein to remove acetyl groups from the histones on the chromatin near this gene, signalling two other molecules (vernalization proteins VRN1 and VRN2) that this gene is silenced. Their job is to keep it that way, so that suppression of flowering is itself suppressed. The FLD gene, which promotes flowering, is then expressed. Somehow, FLD tells the molecules at the apical meristem (see 11/20/2003 entry), to send out the buds. Surridge explains, Silencing is an effective means of controlling long-term gene expression, as it persists even after cells divide. In animals, switching silencing on or off is a well-known way to control development. It seems that plants share this system, using it to preserve the memory of winters passing.
How does cold cause these reactions? What is known so far is just part of a more involved process. One of the papers2 admits, How cold results in low FLC RNA and whether any post-transcriptional regulation occurs that feeds back to cause reduced transcription is unknown at present. The other paper1 says, The additional components that interact with VIN3, and VRN1 and VRN2, to repress FLC during and after vernalization are not known. Undoubtedly there are other environmental cues that affect vernalization, such as length of daylight and nutrient availability.
A popular-level account from Reuters on these results can be found on MSNBC.com.
1Sibum Sung and Richard M. Amasino, Vernalization in Arabidopsis thaliana is mediated by the PHD finger protein VIN3, Nature 427, 159 - 164 (08 January 2004); doi:10.1038/nature02195.
2Ruth Bastow et al., Vernalization requires epigenetic silencing of FLC by histone methylation, Nature 427, 164 - 167 (08 January 2004); doi:10.1038/nature02269.
3Christopher Surridge, Plant development: The flowers that bloom in the spring, Nature 427, 112 (08 January 2004); doi:10.1038/427112a.
We hope this makes your gardening more thought-provoking. Inside a cell, theres a flurry of activity. If one gene were expressed freely, it would never stop. Suppressors turn them off until they are needed, then other molecules remove the suppressors. Cues from the environment and signals from other genes can trigger switches in the genes in the right sequence. How could the cell, without a brain, know how to handle these signals, if it were not preprogrammed? The cell responds to feedback from the environment, monitors protein levels, and can branch to different pathways depending on conditions. Everything acts as if programmed with loops, switches, and conditional procedures designed in advance. The proof of the programming is in the results: a crocus emerges out of the last snow, showing forth its delicate beauty, unafraid of the clouds, knowing that sunny days filled with pollinators are just ahead. This is so amazing it should make us stand in awe of the Almighty Programmer.New Autobiography of Darwin Published 01/06/2004
The Darwin industry as busy as ever with the recent completion of a major biography and renewed scrutiny of his substantial correspondence, writes Nigel Williams in the Jan. 6 issue of Current Biology. But a new edition of his autobiography compiled by his son is a welcome addition. The work seems to talk about his childhood influences, how he got aboard the Beagle against his fathers wishes, and how he thought his greatest contribution in life was adding a little bit to Natural Science. His father was apparently exasperated in the youthful Charless shiftlessness. He told him once, You care nothing but for shooting, dogs and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family. As a last resort he steered him toward theology, which Charles halfway liked: I had scruples about declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England; though otherwise I liked the thought of being a country clergyman, he admitted. Darwins only college degree was in theology (10/14/2002).
1Nigel Williams, Remembrance of things past, Current Biology, Vol 14, R4-R5, 6 January 2004.
Charlie is the evolutionists little idol, and its surprising why this should be so, considering he had no science degrees and was not that admirable a person. The biography Nigel Williams refers to must be the highly-acclaimed work by Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton, 2002; see quote at top right of this page). The Charlie Browne describes is a bit of a wishy-washy blockhead. He seems to be standing cross-eyed with his hands over his stomach most of the time, ailed by gastric pains caused by worry over what people would think of his book. Considering the strident opposition of leading scientists of the day, (Agassiz, Owen, Sedgwick, John Herschel and many others), his ideas wouldnt have gotten anywhere if it werent for the political savvy of his Four Musketeers, as Browne calls them (Huxley, Lyell, Hooker and Asa Gray), who took his ball and ran with it (see 10/24/2002).How Long Can DNA Survive? 01/06/2004
An international team of scientists takes issue with recent claims that ancient DNA has been found in ice, amber, salt or rock many millions of years old (see 05/23/2002 entry, for instance). They think such cases are due to contamination and have not been independently replicated. They gathered samples in Siberian and Antarctic permafrost under ideal conditions for preservation, and found that DNA would become unrecognizable after millions of years due to increasing numbers of interstrand crosslinks. Their report, published in the Jan. 6 issue of Current Biology,1 puts an upper limit at 400,000 years on the durability of DNA.
Unexpectedly, they found that non-spore-forming gram-positive Actinobacteria seems to survive the longest. This was surprising, because endospores were assumed to be the hardiest of all cell types. An endospore has no DNA-repair activity, so maybe thats the reason. They offer some other possibilities:
The mechanism behind the superior persistence of DNA from the non-spore-forming-GP Actinobacteria is currently unknown. Slow but continuous metabolic activity and DNA repair at subzero temperatures is one possibility. Adaptations connected to dormancy might be another explanation. Finally, the DNA could simply originate from dead bacteria, whose DNA for some reason, e.g., structural features, survived better.
Willerslev et al., Long-term persistence of bacterial DNA, Current Biology, Vol 14, R9-R10, 6 January 2004.
Do any of those possibilities sound plausible to you? Actually, DNA probably degrades much faster than they estimate. Theres no way they could verify the 400,000 year figure; its a pure guess, based on certain assumptions. At most, it is just an upper limit. If DNA could survive the onslaughts of nature for so long, it would speak of designed mechanisms to fight the degrading pressure of entropy.Discussions Increase About Science and Religion 01/05/2004
Cary McMullen, writing for the Lakeland Ledger (Florida), has listed some recent developments indicating that more and more scientists and theologians are becoming interested in the relationship between science and religion. His list spans a spectrum from atheistic opinions of Stephen Weinberg to neo-orthodox views of Fuller Seminary, with a variety of voices and views in between: the United Methodist Church, John Polkinghorne, the Templeton Foundation, bioethics, spirituality and health, Consilience, and the Intelligent Design movement, which McMullen calls one of the more controversial approaches to science and religion. He also reviews the history of thought on science and religion, polls of scientists, and whether there is any overlap between the two domains.
Few are the representatives on the list who regard the Word of God as authoritative. Most of the opinions expressed are just that: opinions. Liberal scholars and scientists have lots of opinions, but are there any, especially among those calling themselves Christians, willing to affirm that the Word of God is the final authority, even over science? Without that anchor, the fogginess of talk about spirituality could leave people in the dark as much as any materialistic religion.Mars Rover Lands 01/03/2004
From the scene of news at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
At 8:35 p.m. Pacific Time Saturday, January 3, signal was lost as a large set of air bags bounced on the surface of Mars. After several nail-biting minutes, signal was reacquired by two Earth stations, indicating that the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit had survived the heat of re-entry and 30 bounces on the surface some as high as a four-story building and was alive and well. The spirit of the crowds at JPL went from tense silence to back-slapping, hand-clapping celebration. Luckily, the spacecraft landed base-petal down, a one-in-four chance, providing good opportunity for pictures and data.
The joy of the successful landing was surpassed less than three hours later, at 11:33 p.m., when engineering data and the first pictures beamed up to Mars Odyssey and relayed to Earth arrived at mission control. The rover was not only healthy; it was in super shape. Its not supposed to work this well we were caught off guard far exceeded expectations and this is incredible! are just samples of the exuberance in the control room as needle-sharp images of the rover and its surroundings, all the way to the horizon, arrived in rapid-fire succession on the screens.
Some very interesting news over the next few weeks should now be forthcoming from Gusev Crater, a location on Mars that looks like it was once a large lake 100 miles across after a canyon from the south cut through the crater wall and drained into it. It may help settle once for all whether standing water ever existed on Mars for any significant period of time. Even with Mars Global Surveyor and 2001 Mars Odyssey having orbited for years now, scientists have debated over conflicting evidence.
JPL is now two for two (see next headline) in what may be the biggest year yet for planetary science. The twin rover Opportunity lands in three weeks, on January 24. Cassini is fast approaching Saturn for the July 1 start of its five-year orbital tour, which Science said yesterday may provide the most spectacular news of the year for plantary science. The number of current missions and upcoming missions makes 2004 a golden age of discovery in space.
The landing of rover Spirit tonight was a phenomenal achievement by many talented and hard-working people. It is no less exciting than great journeys of exploration from history, such as the Lewis and Clark expedition (celebrating its 200th anniversary this year). Getting new data from a new terra incognita on another world takes our mind for a moment off war and terrorism, evil and folly. All who gave the world this moment of wonder deserve international kudos.Stardust Mission Successfully Flies Through Comet Cloud 01/02/2004
In the first of what is hoped will be a series of spectacular space missions in 2004, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory flew the Stardust spacecraft today on a wild ride right into the dusty coma of comet Wild-2 (pronounced Vilt-2). Though the dust storm would have killed an astronaut at that range, the craft emerged on the other side unscathed, with possibly millions of dust particles embedded in its aerogel collector. The first sample return mission since Apollo 17 in 1972, Stardust will parachute its capsule loaded with the precious cargo into the Utah desert in January, 2006. During the encounter today, the mass spectrometer also worked well, and so did the camera. About six dozen images were snapped of the comets nucleus from about 250 km (150 mi).
Elated by their picture-perfect enounter, the spacecraft team proudly displayed two detailed images of the nucleus at the press conference this afternoon, just 3 hours from the time they were taken. They expect additional images still being processed may be even better. The photos reveal a rough surface mottled by pits, with about five jets visible. The pits, rather than being impact craters, may be sinkholes from collapse of underlying volatiles. If this comet is like Halley and Borrelly visited earlier by Giotto and Deep Space 1, respectively, the surface is probably as black as asphalt, but data will have to be analyzed to nail down the actual reflectivity. Principal investigator Donald Brownlee (Univ. of Washington) said that the jetting of volatiles and dust only comes from a few percent of the surface.
Project Manager Tom Duxbury explained that the spacecraft was named Stardust because comet dust is assumed to be pristine material from our star, the Sun, left over from its formation (although this assumption has been questioned recently: see 08/12/2003 entry). Brownlee, co-author of Rare Earth (12/19/2000), a book that asserts intelligent life is rare in the universe, stressed that photographs and actual physical samples that can be examined in the lab are worth much more than mere ideas. These first images were surprising, and more surprises are anticipated once the samples are returned to Earth. Nevertheless, he reiterated the evolutionary theme Carl Sagan made famous, that humans, like comets, are also made of star dust.
Upcoming comet rendezvous missions include the European Space Agency Rosetta, launching (after previous delays) in February (01/13/2003), and NASAs Deep Impact, launching in December.
As expressed in similar headlines in the past, we congratulate those who succeed in risky missions to gather data, and we can hardly wait to see what the particles in the collector show, but the public should be taught the controversy when there is one. If not all scientists agree that comets are made of pristine material, that should be mentioned, rather than making matter-of-fact statements to the press that comet material has been unprocessed for 4.6 billion years.Instant Galaxies? 01/02/2004
The Hubble Space Telescope, with its Advanced Camera for Surveys, has taken a peek at the most distant galaxy clusters ever seen. The astronomers found embryonic galaxies in a proto-cluster of galaxies, named TN J1338-1942, that they estimate formed a mere 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang. This find has been reported in the Jan. 1 issue of Nature.1
The same astronomers had earlier found a cluster named RDCS 1252 that, by 5 billion years after the Big Bang, looked already mature. The Hubble ACS was used to image the two clusters to study their evolution.
One of the astronomers, John Blakeslee (Johns Hopkins University) remarked, according to the Hubble press release, Until recently people didnt think that clusters existed when the universe was only about 5 billion years old. Another co-author of the paper, George Miley (Leiden University, Netherlands) added, until recently astronomers thought it was almost impossible to find clusters that existed 8 billion years ago. The new finding pushes the date of early galaxy and cluster formation even further back, to less than 10% the assumed age of the universe.
The newly-discovered cluster RDCS 1252, is virtually indistinguishable from later galaxy clusters. The Hubble press release states:
The cluster RDCS 1252 looks like a present-day cluster, said Marc Postman of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., and co-author of both research papers. In fact, if you were to put it next to a present-day cluster, you wouldnt know which is which.The proto-cluster TN J1338 has a dominant galaxy that appears to be producing spectacular radio-emitting jets, fueled by a supermassive black hole deep within the galaxy's nucleus. The cluster RD1252 may have thousands of member galaxies, of which only a few are detectable at visible wavelengths.
Miley et al., A large population of 'Lyman-break' galaxies in a protocluster at redshift z=4.1, Nature 427, 47 - 50 (01 January 2004); doi:10.1038/nature02125.
Observations such as these are on the bleeding edge of the possible, so one must be cautious interpreting the results. Sweeping aside the embedded assumptions about ages and evolutionary histories, there is nothing in these latest images to encourage old gradualistic cosmologies, and much to discourage them. The lumpiness problem in cosmology (i.e., too much structure too soon) has been a theoretical challenge for decades. Here is the lumpiness problem intensified. Not long after the origin of the universe, whenever that was, galaxies seem to be already mature enough to have black holes, heavy elements and grandchildren. This latest finding is another in a continuing trend of observations that show almost instantaneous structure from an assumed smooth beginning.Chinese Puzzle: New Primate Fossil Raises Eyebrows 01/01/2004
A new fossil primate skull from China, alleged to be 55 million years old, provides much-needed substantial evidence of early primates in Asia, says Robert Martin (Field Museum, Chicago), reporting in the Jan. 1 issue of Nature.1 But interpretation of the creatures eye size and activity pattern, he says, will spark debate. (This is code for, This find throws a monkey wrench into previous theories.)
Martin admits immediately that The first fossil evidence for primates of modern aspect the euprimates appears abruptly in the northern continents at the beginning of the Eocene, about 55 million years ago. He also points to a chart that depicts the widely accepted view that there is a basic dichotomy in the primate evolutionary tree one lineage leading to modern lemurs and lorises (strepsirrhines), the other to tarsiers, monkeys, apes and humans (haplorhines).
This new fossil, named Teilhardina asiatica, a kind of tarsier on the haplorhine side of the tree, casts into doubt the classification of the American genera with the Belgian and Chinese individuals. It also creates a biogeography puzzle. It was formerly assumed that European primates could have only reached Asia by crossing North America and then the Bering Strait, because a transcontinental marine barrier assumed to exist 55 million years ago would have prevented them migrating in the Eastern direction. But if the American primates are not related, was there a way around the barrier after all?
Martin takes issue with the discoverers interpretation that eye socket size relative to skull size indicates the animals were nocturnal. Biologically, one cannot assume that early primates (particularly if unusually small in size) showed the same functional patterns as modern primates which themselves are very variable, he states. He gives some examples of features in modern animals that show skull size and eye socket size do not necessarily correlate to behavior habits. His remarks are summarized on the publicly-available AAAS website EurekAlert.
The primate evolution chart in Martins article is striking in its lack of connections. Six lineages are shown without any obvious family relationships: lemurs and lorises (the strepsirrhines), lemuroids and tarsioids farther back in time, and then tarsiers and higher primates (the haplorhines). The bottoms of these separate lineages are all dashed lines leading to inferred relationships unsupported by fossil evidence, with question marks at the bottom.
1Robert D. Martin, Palaeontology: Chinese lantern for early primates, Nature 427, 22 - 23 (01 January 2004); doi:10.1038/427022a.
This sounds strikingly similar to the tale about mammal evolution in Africa (12/03/2003). The criticisms there similarly apply here.Globular Cluster Origins: Where Do We Go From Here? 01/01/2004
The simple explanation of globular clusters as bundles of ancient stars seems to be in a state of crisis, though the authors of a paper in the Jan. 1 issue of Nature1 try to keep a stiff upper lip. They begin, Nearly a century after the true nature of galaxies as distant island universes was established, their origin and evolution remain great unsolved problems of modern astrophysics.
For one thing, how could globulars survive all the tumult? Recent advances in our understanding of the globular cluster systems of the Milky Way and other galaxies point to a complex picture of galaxy genesis driven by cannibalism, collisions, bursts of star formation and other tumultuous events. It appears now that they cannot assume that the high metallicity (content of atoms heavier than helium) in cluster stars is an indication of old age.
Current thinking is a debate between competing models dealing with uncooperative observations. After showing strengths and weaknesses of contenders, they ask, Where do we go from here? Much work remains to be done, they admit. Although they offer some promising areas of research, it may be that the origin and evolution of each galaxy may be unique:
Detailed spectroscopic and photometric observations of the most massive galaxies in dense environments show that their globular cluster populations are generally old and coeval to within a couple of billion years. But the age distribution of globular clusters remains an open question, as several recent studies have found a wider spread of globular cluster ages in some galaxies, including the presence of some intermediate-age metal-rich clusters. The findings to date suggest a complex picture of globular cluster formation in galaxies, with the formation histories of no two galaxies being exactly alike.Not to end on a minor chord, they triumphantly promise that the quest for understanding galactic evolution marches on:
These are exciting times in the study of extragalactic globular cluster systems. Disentangling the myriad processes that may have contributed to the formation of nearby galaxies is a formidable challenge, but the potential reward is spectacular: a glimpse into the evolutionary histories of individual galaxies.See also the Oct. 5 entry on globular clusters.
Michael J. West et al., Reconstructing galaxy histories from globular clusters (review article), Nature 427, 31 - 35 (01 January 2004); doi:10.1038/nature02235.
We dont know where we are, we dont know how we got here, the territory is far more complex and formidable than we thought, and we dont know where to go from here, but at least we can imagine how nice it would be to find our way some day. How much do you trust this bunch?