Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Miller-Urey Experiment

The Origin of Life

Though Darwin’s theory of evolution applies to the diversification of biological life, not the origin of biological life, scientists have nonetheless attempted to find a naturalistic explanation of life’s origin through recourse to Darwinian type events. Competition between the first self-replicating molecules is thought to have led to increasingly efficient and complicated bio-molecules until the first primitive cell emerged. The question then is: where did these first self-replicated molecules come from? Every living thing known to science utilizes the same set of bio-molecules to reproduce: DNA, RNA, and proteins. These are enormously complicated molecules that, respectively, contain genetic information, the ability to translate and transport genetic information, and the ability to construct molecular machines (including other proteins) based on that information. Without all three components in place and functioning, there is no self-replication. The difficult task facing origin of life scientists is to discover which bio-molecule came first, and how, and then to show how the other bio-molecules developed to form the first reproducing organism.

Darwin himself thought that life may have arisen from a “warm little pond,” and in the early 20th century the scientists J.B.S. Haldane and A.I. Oparin independently speculated that a pre-biotic organic soup must have arisen early in the Earth’s history. Haldane and Oparin postulated a reducing atmosphere for the early Earth, an atmosphere containing abundant hydrogen, methane, ammonia, and water vapor. It was a logical assumption, as hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and methane and ammonia are both hydrogen containing compounds. In this environment organic molecules were thought to naturally accumulate into the organic soup, and eventually, into life itself.

Miller’s Experiment

In 1953 a graduate student name Stanley Miller decided to test what may be called the “Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis.” Working under his advisor, Harold Urey, Miller created an experimental set-up to explore whether synthesis of organic molecules was possible in the hypothetical atmosphere of the early Earth.

Miller’s device (see Figure 1) contained three main compartments filled with water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen. The water was boiled and electrical charges were sent through the vapors, which then passed into the next compartment and cooled and condensed. He ran the device for a week and then analyzed the resulting compounds. Miller discovered that among the compounds were some amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. This result sent a ripple through the scientific community. Miller had uncovered experimental evidence demonstrating the first steps of how life could have arisen purely through natural means. The experiment has become a staple in science textbooks, often accompanied by words like "the Miller-Urey experiment has shown that biological molecules can accumulate through natural means, and events like these led to the formation of life on Earth.1" But just how significant were Miller’s results?

Figure 1

First, it had been known for a century that organic compounds could be synthesized from inorganic ones, so the fact that organic materials can result from reactions with non-biological materials had already been discovered (Schopf 2002).

Second, it turns out that Miller’s experiment has several problems. One major problem with the Miller experiment is the assumption of a reducing atmosphere. Electrical sparks in an oxidizing atmosphere (like our current atmosphere) do not lead to any organic compounds. As mentioned above, the atmosphere was originally thought to be reducing (composed of hydrogen, methane, and ammonia) because of the abundance of hydrogen in the universe. The problem is that hydrogen is too light for earth's gravity to hold it, and it escapes out of our atmosphere (Brinkman 1969)(Catling et al. 2001). Geochemists and atmospheric scientists currently believe the Earth’s original atmosphere was neutral, not reducing (Miyakawa et al. 2002)(Shapiro 1986)(Schopf 2002)(Stanley 1999). The atmosphere came from the interior of the earth through volcanic outgassing. Small amounts of oxygen also had to be present due to photodissociation2, though the exact levels at which oxygen was present remain unclear (Brinkman 1969)(Stanley 1999). What is clear is that oxygen is present as far back as the rock record goes (Rosing and Frei 2003). In any case, it is now recognized that the early atmosphere was neutral and consisted of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor with trace amounts of hydrogen, oxygen, and other gases (Schopf 2002)(Shapiro 1986)3.

In addition to hydrogen not being present except in trace amounts, the existence of methane and ammonia on the early Earth are also problematic. Since there was little oxygen on the early Earth, there was no ozone (O3) layer to absorb ultra-violet light. In addition, the younger sun would have produced ultra-violet light levels 30 times stronger than current levels (Schopf 2002)4. Methane and ammonia are both rapidly decomposed by UV rays and plausible suppliers of large amounts of these gases on the early earth do not exist. Neither could have been present on the early earth except in trace amounts (Schopf 2002)(Shapiro 1986). So, hydrogen, methane, and ammonia could at best be trace gases in the early atmosphere, but Miller's experiment postulated an atmosphere containing only them and water vapor. Clearly this is a fundamental flaw. Neutral atmospheres when sparked create only the simplest biological molecules, and this only with considerable hydrogen sources (Schopf 2002.) Since there are no plausible significant hydrogen sources for the early Earth's atmosphere, Miller’s experiment is something of a non-starter. However, there are other problems still.

Though it may seem trivial, the spark itself in Miller’s experiment is problematic, as there is no natural counterpart to the type of spark Miller used. He actually has tried simulating a lightning-type spark and, in his own words "very few organic compounds were produced and this discharge was not investigated further” (Shapiro 1986).

Miller's apparatus also contained a crucial piece: a trap which separated some of the resulting compounds, saving them from further exposure to energy. In nature, there is no such convenient trap, and the same energy that caused any molecules to bond would just as quickly (and in fact more commonly) break down those molecules. Energy is far more likely to break things down than to build them up. Effectively harnessing energy requires delicate, complicated, specific processes carried out by appropriate molecules. These processes do not occur in organic soup, and the soup would have moved toward equilibrium (the breakdown of all biological molecules is energetically favored in water) (Shapiro 1986)(Schopf 2002).
Interestingly, the specific arrangement of the device itself is in part responsible for the result of biological molecules. Miller had previously done the same experiment, with the same chemicals and spark, but with the pieces of the apparatus in a different arrangement and no biological molecules formed. The design of the apparatus favored the production of certain types of organic molecules, but in nature the process would not be so ordered (Shapiro 1986).

Ignoring all these problems, let us consider Miller's results anyway. The majority (85%) of the result can be referred to as tar, or organic goo, bearing no relevance to biological life (Shapiro 1986)(Schopf 2002). Of the approximately 50 major small organic compounds relevant to life, two were produced in Miller's experiments in a meaningful amount. These were the two simplest amino acids, glycine and alanine. There are twenty amino acids relevant to life, and though six were produced in Miller's experiment, only the aforementioned two were present in more than a miniscule amount. In addition, around half of the already small amounts of amino acids that were present are irrelevant to life due to the chirality problem (Shapiro 1986)(Schopf 2002). The chirality problem is that amino acids come in two forms, mirror images of the other. Only one type (the left-handed ones) are relevant to biology, and amino acids which spontaneously form will end being about half one type and half the other.

Miller’s results consisted of small amounts of a few of the molecules needed for life.5 The majority of a simple organism like a bacterium is composed of proteins (microscopic molecular machines), nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), polysaccharides (sugars), and lipids (fatty membranes). "None have been detected, in any amount, in a Miller-Urey experiment" (Shapiro 1986).


In short, even if the Miller experiment had turned out to simulate realistic conditions on the early Earth, its results are truly a most insignificant step toward figuring out how life arose. It is clear that the significance of this experiment has been grossly exaggerated. Miller himself has said as much. The severe problems with the experiment have led to interest in a variety of other ideas to explain the origin of life, including hydrothermal vents, meteorite seeding, and even panspermia (the idea that extraterrestrials planted the first life forms here).
So then, students should be taught that the Miller experiment is what it appears to be: a historically important but outdated and flawed experiment.

A further note: even if Miller’s experiment had generated every last biological molecule known to man, present in exactly the right proportions, we still would not have solved the origin of life. One could have all the right pieces together, in any conditions, and still “life” would not emerge. Scientists are unable to re-create any kind of cell even with all the right materials and controlled conditions. How then did it happen by accident on the early Earth?

1. Some modern textbooks do acknowledge the deficiencies in Miller’s experiments, but the Miller experiment remains an icon of pre-biotic evolution.
2. Photodissociation is the breakdown of H2O into hydrogen and oxygen by sunlight.
3. Scientists estimate that oxygen levels just 1% of current levels would prevent organic molecules from forming at all on the early earth.
4. The strong UV rays would have also instantly destroyed any biological molecules that had formed.
5. Subsequent Miller-type experiments have resulted in the production of almost all of the 20 amino acids found in proteins. While interesting, see the rest of this essay.

Works Cited

Brinkman, R.T., 1969, The photodissociation of water vapor, evolution of oxygen and escape of hydrogen in the earth’s atmosphere. PhD. Diss., California Institute of Technology,

Catling et al., 2001, Biogenic Methane, Hydrogen Escape, and the Irreversible Oxidation of the Early Earth. Science, 839-843

Miyakawa et al. 2002. Prebiotic synthesis from CO atmospheres: implications for the origin of life. PNAS, 14628-14631

Rosing, M.T. and Frei, R., 2003. U-rich Archaean sea-floor sediments from Greenland – indications of > 3700 Ma oxygenic photosynthesis. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 237-244.

Schopf, W., ed. 2002. Life’s Origin: the beginnings of biological evolution, California, UCAL Press

Shapiro, R. 1986. Origins: a skeptic’s guide to the creation of life on earth, New York, Simon & Schuster Inc.

Stanley, S. 1999. Earth System History, New York, W.H. Freedman and Company

Friday, December 12, 2008

My Job

I am a manager, administrator, secretary, and accountant.

I am an evaluator, psychologist, counselor, and diplomat.

I am a scholar, scientist, historian, and student.

I am a teacher, and I don't get paid enough for this job.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I'm almost through the audiobook version of The Omnivore's Dilemma, and it's one of the most interesting books I've read in a while. If you eat food (and I'm pretty sure you do) you must read this book.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Problem of Evil Solved

Hey, if Daniel Dennett can write a book called Consciousness Explained (though it does nothing of the sort) why can't I pretend to have solved the problem of evil? The intent of this post is not, of course, to actually solve the problem once and for all, but to demonstrate that the argument is less weighty than its proponents might think.

The standard formulation of the argument goes something like this: if God is good and all-powerful then evil should not exist. If evil exists, then either God does not exist or God is not like the traditional Judaeo-Christian view of him (i.e. either not all good or not omnipotent). It is usually taken as a given that evil does in fact exist and that this is a problem for the Christian God.

I admit that the problem is difficult from both an intellectual and an emotional viewpoint. Examples of evil (or suffering, as some philosophers might prefer) are easy to call to mind. The atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, the victims of the tsunami of 2004, or the children from around the world who are abused each day are only a few of the examples one can provide. How could a loving, good, all-powerful God allow such things? It is a difficult question, but I think a few considerations significantly soften the force of the argument.

In the Christian worldview, God created the universe and then life to occupy it. Because God desired a rational companion he created humans. He created them in his image, and he created them male and female. Humans are unique among the animals, being the only ones able to think abstractly, use language, and act rationally. By granting humans agency, or free will, God was able to have a relationship with them. Now, God, or humans, can have relationships with dogs, cats, pigs, or whatever. Clearly, though, the relationship is very different than one that is between two agents. That is, between two beings able to choose among different actions, a relationship acquires meaning. The reason why your relationship with your mother, spouse, or brother is meaningful is because both parties have a choice in the matter. Having someone love you is meaningful only if they have the option to not love you. God then, was taking a risk when he created human agents. Apparently he thought it worth the risk to have the possibility of meaningful, reciprocal relationships. So then, the possibility of love entails the possibility of hate. The possibility of performing acts of love and grace towards others entails the possibility of performing acts of hatred.

One might respond that, yes, in general God has reasons for allowing free will, but what about those concentration camps, did God really have to allow that? This seems reasonable at first glance, but consider: where exactly should God draw that line? When someone wants to kill 100 people, should God step in and stop him? What about 10 people? How about just one? Killing one person is evil, just as killing a thousand is. A husband striking his wife is also evil. A child who is bullied at school can be damaged physically and emotionally. Should God step in each time a bully is about to act? How about the next time you are about to lie to your spouse about something? Or spend an extra hundred dollars on a new TV while children starve to death in another country? I suggest that if we head down this path, soon we will find ourselves unable to hate, dislike, steal, lie, or in short, do anything short of perfect acts. We would find ourselves automatons, blindly, unthinkingly acting “good.” But these acts would be meaningless, as we would not have any other choice. This is exactly what God did not want.

In the movie, The Truman Show, Jim Carrey plays a character named Truman who has unwittingly become the star of a TV show. The TV show simply follows his every day life, but Truman has no idea he is being filmed. He also has no idea that his entire life, from his birth up to his present day, has been staged. Everyone he thinks he knows are just actors. The town he lives in has been created solely for the purpose of the show. Truman's life is very "nice." He has friends, a wife, a steady job. The problem? Since his whole life is an artificial construct Truman eventually begins to suspect something is up; something doesn’t feel right. His life, though encountering little direct evil or suffering, lacks meaning and Truman can feel it. A universe where God orchestrated what we are and are not allowed to do would be similar. Without the risk of evil, we cannot have the possibility of true goodness and beauty.

What about natural disasters, then? Free will may explain why humans are allowed to cause other humans suffering, but why would God allow earthquakes to kill? First, I think that the natural disaster problem of suffering is much less powerful than the original argument. When I am distraught about the evil in the world, it is not usually the hurricanes and earthquakes I am worried about. That said, it is still a challenge for a Christian to answer, as obviously free will has nothing to do with natural disasters.

As someone who studies and teaches the earth sciences, I am quite familiar with natural disasters of all kinds. Interestingly, all major natural disasters have their roots in processes that contribute to the overall habitability of planet Earth. The molten core of Earth, for example, drives plate tectonics and generates the Earth’s magnetic field. Without the magnetic field, life could not survive on Earth’s surface due to intense solar wind (charged particles from the sun). Plate tectonics, among other things, creates livable surfaces above water (continents), replenishes nutrients to the Earth’s surface (through volcanic eruptions), and helps regulate global climate. Side effects of plate tectonics (a result of the molten core) include earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. These events can pose hazards for life on Earth. But without them Earth would probably not be habitable at all. Hurricanes are essentially release valves for the global climate system, distributing heat and moisture away from the equator to the rest of the world.

But couldn’t God have designed a habitable world without all of these dangerous side effects? I don’t know. But just the fact that they do play an important role weakens the force of the argument. A completely useless catastrophic occurrence would be a more difficult problem.

So where does this leave us? I don’t think the argument succeeds in showing that the Christian God cannot co-exist with evil, as God may have good reasons for allowing evil to exist. Natural disasters can still be difficult to accept, but there is at least a good reason for them to exist as well. I’m sure these answers won’t satisfy everyone, but I like to think it’s a start. I hope to read more contemporary philosophers’ take on this problem at some point (it’s been a few years). Comments?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Karate and Friendship

Apparently you need to practice something for at least 10,000 hours to master it. Also, we are all made of corn.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Da Vinci Code

I just watched the last part of the movie The Da Vinci Code on TV. I watched it in the theater back when it first came out to see what all the fuss was about. It was OK as a movie: not terrible, not great. As history, though, it's kind of silly. I really can't believe that people take this book so seriously. Christians often get criticized for having "faith" in ancient texts, which may or may not be true or accurate. But a novel from some guy in New Hampshire happens to contain all these previously unknown secrets of history? Is this plausible?

There is no evidence that Jesus had an intimate relationship (nevermind children) with Mary Magdalene. I heard an interview with a scholar on NPR back when the movie was first out, and he discussed the texts which people suggest describes Jesus and Mary kissing, an indication of a physical relationship. The problem is that the texts are incomplete: many or most of the words are actually not there. The scholar quoted the sections in question. It was something like: ...and they were on their way..........from.......over to...........Galilee......Jesus.......lunch.....walking near the.....and between the........kissed.....returned from...etc etc. I'm obviously being facetious here, but it was something like that. The speculative leap from text like that to Jesus and Mary were lovers and had children is so large that, again, I find it hard to believe that people take this stuff seriously. The scholar said that there is no textual evidence for this stuff; people routinely kissed as a greeting back then, and Jesus and Mary were not the only ones mentioned in the text.

The assertion that Mary was in Da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper is also problematic. The painting is of Jesus and his disciples. There were twelve of them. If Mary is in there, John, a disciple, is not. I'm no art historian, but don't you think someone would have noticed if a disciple was missing before now? John, the disciple that is claimed to actually be Mary, is portrayed as feminine, and this is supposed to be evidence that it is a female. The problem: the character is wearing male clothing and it was not uncommon at the time (or in other works of Leonardo) for a subservient male to be portrayed as feminine. John's femininity is suppose to imply his lower status (compared to Jesus)and love for Jesus. The evidence for Mary being in the painting is therefore thin. Besides, are we really supposed to believe that Dan Brown (or the book he got this idea from, Holy Blood, Holy Grail) uncovered this secret that scholars have missed for the last 500 years?

Among other things, the movie stated that Newton was persecuted by the church. This is completely false. Newton was the leading man of one of the most conservative universities. He was a firm believer in God and believed his scientific work was uncovering the secrets God had used to create the universe. He also wrote extensively on theological matters (more than he did on science, actually).

The movie also laughably stated something along the lines of...did you ever wonder why the most talked about object in Christianity, the holy grail, is missing from Da Vinci's painting? The "holy grail" is never mentioned in the Bible, and I have never heard any Christian talk about it. It was probably an invention of some church in the Middle Ages who wanted a relic to draw pilgrims.

Anyway, if nothing else, The Da Vinci Code is an interesting example of peoples' propensity to believe nonsense as long as it somehow challenges orthodox views within Christianity.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Warm hands make you nice?

In a study from Yale University, researchers found that people who held something warm in their hands were nicer towards others than those who held something cold. The lead researcher says that subtle clues from our environment can impact our psychological disposition; warm hands help you have a "warm" heart. But...this study seems to overlook something. Something icy in your hand is uncomfortable; something warm is close to your natural body temperature and is therefore more "normal" than warm. It seems to me that merely the discomfort caused by the chill in your hand probably explains why people might be more irritable towards others, not some connection between physical warmth and psychological "warmth." In order to show that, people would need to hold something uncomfortably hot in their hands and still have the same friendliness towards others. If the comfort level is different between the two groups, then we don't know if it's really the temperature that makes the difference or the discomfort that makes the difference. Since more than one variable is involved, the results of the study are suspect. Thoughts?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Postmodern Church

The following is an essay I wrote a number of years ago:

The Postmodern Church
A Museum or a Theme-park?

In Dinosaur in a Haystack, the late great paleontologist Stephen J. Gould spends an essay discussing the book and movie Jurassic Park, the rise of what he calls “dinomania,” and the subsequent commercialization of museums of natural history. He laments the introduction of the commercial world into the academic world. Gould’s discomfort with the mixing of the two worlds parallels my own reservations about current trends in the church, where business-like tactics are employed in order to attract certain demographics or higher general attendance.

After attempting to trace the roots of “dinomania,” the current fascination with dinosaurs found among children, and evaluating Michael Crichton’s book and Steven Spielberg’s movie Jurassic Park from the viewpoint of a professional paleontologist and longtime dinosaur fanatic, Mr. Gould describes the ambivalence he feels “about the Jurassic Park phenomenon, and about dinomania in general.” Natural history has always “been a beggar’s game,” Gould writes, the work of which “has never been funded by or for itself.” Natural historians have always had to work to convince patrons to support their work, often through arrangements resulting in the patron gaining something in return, like rare fossil specimens to add to their collection. Similarly, modern museums of natural history have found themselves far from the center of the public’s attention and looking for ways to increase attendance and interest. Mr. Gould writes:

"[C]onsider the plight of natural history museums in the light of commercial dinomania. In the past decade, nearly every major or minor natural history museum has succumbed (not always unwisely) to two great commercial temptations: to sell a plethora of scientifically worthless and often frivolous, or even degrading, dinosaur products by the bushel in their gift shops; and to mount, at high and separate admission charges, special exhibits of colorful robotic dinosaurs that move and growl but…teach nothing of scientific value about these animals. (Such exhibits could be wonderful educational aids, if properly labeled and integrated with more traditional material; but I have never seen these robots presented for much more than their colors and sound effects [the two aspects of dinosaurs, that must, for obvious reasons, remain most in the realm of speculation].)"

The idea is, of course, to bring more people in to the museums than would normally come. “These folks can then be led or cajoled into viewing the regular exhibits, and the museum’s primary mission of science education receives a giant boost.” Gould continues that he “cannot fault the logic of this argument,” but fears that his “colleagues are expressing a wish or a hope, not an actual result, and not even an outcome actively pursued by most museums.” He fears that what may have started simply as an attempt to increase interest in education could eventually become the main attraction, replacing and washing away the very reason those museums exist in the first place.

The postmodern church exists in the same culture and predicament as the museums. The culture (especially of the younger generations) is one of extreme commercialism and ubiquitous gimmicks; media of all kinds are designed to get your attention and to convince you that you need what they’re selling. This commercial mentality has allowed companies to be successful, and it is seeping into institutions normally unconcerned with savvy business practices. Museums and churches alike have seen the light, and both, it seems, have jumped on the marketing bandwagon. Like successful corporations, churches and religious groups try to capitalize on current trends and create programs or marketing they think will be appealing to whatever demographic they are targeting. This marketing mentality can be found in all sorts of church services and activities. Donald Miller, in his book Blue Like Jazz, writes about some of his experiences within the church:

"I felt like people were trying to sell me Jesus. I was a salesman for a while, and we were taught that you are supposed to point out the benefits of a product when you are selling it. That is how I felt about some of the preachers I heard speak. They were always pointing out the benefits of Christian faith. That rubbed me wrong. It’s not that there aren’t benefits, there are, but did they have to talk about spirituality like it’s a vacuum cleaner. I never felt like Jesus was a product. I wanted Him to be a person. Not only that, but they were always point- ing out how great the specific church was. The bulletin read like a brochure for Amway…I felt like I got bombarded with commercials all week and then went to church and got even more."

Worship services seem to be especially susceptible to commercialization. Worship services seem designed specifically to attract young people by having the trendiest music and by repeating established formulas which young people seem to respond to. Christian college conferences are no exception, and are perhaps leaders of this type of programming. At one particular conference I attended, the worship band tried entirely too hard to replicate the worship experience of a concert of the popular worship band Passion, imitating everything from the specific Bible verses read in between songs to the intonation the speaker used while reading them.

A few years ago, a friend was attending a Christian college to study music. She took a class on music in worship settings and was instructed in various methods of “emotional manipulation.” I know a musician and singer who, though talented and far from elderly, was replaced as worship leader at his church by someone younger in order to have maximum appeal to the younger crowd. That church is also one of many that now employ smoke and light shows during their worship services. A pastor I know has, in meetings with other ministers, been advised to implement various technologies into his church worship in order to increase appeal with the college-age crowd. A friend who graduated from college a few years ago was recently invited to visit the church of his middle-aged future mother and father-in-law. They were very excited to tell him about the worship band in their church and insisted he would love the worship service. The church had obeyed all the current trends, and therefore they were confident that this young person would buy right into it.

At issue here are two things: authenticity and purpose. These are the same two things Stephen J. Gould is concerned with in his essay. He writes:

"I may epitomize my argument in the following way: Institutions have essences – central purposes that define their integrity and being. Dinomania dramatizes a conflict between institutions with disparate essences – museums
and theme parks."

One institution exists to educate and enrich; the other to entertain. Gould goes on to say that both have their place. He happens to like theme parks. But museums are not theme parks. It is the same with the church. What is the central purpose of the church? The church of Jesus Christ does not exist to entertain, to attract people through gimmicks, or through marketing. The church exists to preach Christ and forgiveness and redemption. It seems reasonable to say that people should not be going to church for the show. My friend, at the church service with his in-laws, was not able to worship. The band seemed to be performing rather than leading worship. It seemed an act designed to impress people and to manipulate their emotions. The result is a simulation of an encounter with God, and what many young people would call a good time. Churches do not of course do this purposely. Just like the museum curators, the church leaders started out simply trying to think of ways to draw more people in while still having the goal of authentic teaching. However, the church loses something when the mentality changes from spiritual to commercial. Stephen J. Gould writes of museums:

"If we have no other aim than to attract more bodies…than we might as well convert our museums to theme parks and fill the gift shop with coffee mugs.
But then we will be truly lost…with no defining integrity of our own."

Should churches become theme parks in order to bring in a larger audience? Or should the church be offering what only a real church can: authentic spiritual teaching, prayer, and worship. Gould writes that museums should not despair of closing due to a lack of interest because they refrain from cheap marketing tactics, for:

"We have an absolutely wonderful product to flog – real objects of nature. We
may never entice as many visitors as Jurassic Park, but we can and do attract multitudes for the right reasons. Luckily – and I do not pretend to understand
why – authenticity stirs the human soul."

Donald Miller writes, “The problem with Christian belief – I mean real Christian belief, the belief that there is a God, and a devil, and a heaven and a hell – is that it is not a fashionable thing to believe.” Attempts to make the Christian church fashionable in order to increase attendance compromise the beautiful, timeless truths of Christianity and instead hook people by offering a good time and a chance to get absorbed in the current trends. Why should the church waste its time advertising superficial experiences when it has the real thing to offer? Mr. Gould is right: authenticity does stir the soul, and if the church is interested in helping people establish a meaningful connection with their Creator rather than a fleeting connection with their emotions, we must steer away from dependence on mere fashion. We are called to worship in spirit and in truth, not in good marketing and trendy performances. Don Miller writes:

"A friend of mine, a young pastor who recently started a church, talks to me from time to time about the new face of church in America – about the postmodern church. He says the new church will be different from the old one, that we will be relevant to culture and the human struggle. I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel. If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another
tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing."

The church should strive for excellence in their music and teaching, but it cannot worry about following every trend. Technology can be wonderful, but it is not central. We live in a culture obsessed with superficial thrills, gimmicks, and promises. The church should stand out as an institution with a profound disinterest in the superficial.

Mr. Gould ends his essay by observing that the commercial dinosaur phenomenon cannot last, but can only be ephemeral, “for they have no support beyond their immediate profitability. “This too,” he writes, “shall pass, and nothing of human manufacture can possibly challenge the staying power of a dinosaur bone – 65 million years (at least) in the making.” Trendy music and slick presentations may get people inside the church, but it is our responsibility to ensure that people realize such things are irrelevant to Christianity, that the church is not a theme-park, and that nothing can compare to a genuine encounter with God.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Obama or McCain (or Joe the plumber)?

I don't like politics, and I can't say I'm particularly well-informed politically (though I do hear quite a bit on NPR). I'm normally apathetic, and usually don't vote. I know, I'm not being a responsible citizen blah blah blah. Well, I am going to try to vote (hopefully my registration will go through) this time. The problem is I'm not sure who I'm going to vote for. As far as policy goes, I am divided between the two. As far as the candidates themselves, I have grown to like McCain less and less. It just seems that in both the debates and his campaign he has grown more desperate and silly. I did not like McCain's attempt to question Obama's character. It just seemed lame.

Interjection: I am watching the post-debate stuff, and just heard Mitt Romney ramble about how McCain obviously won and Hillary Clinton ramble about how Obama obviously won. This sort of blatant rhetorical spin is why I can't stand politics...

Ok, continuing on:
When McCain got really aggressive, it totally drove me away. If he had had something really substantial to be aggressive about maybe it would have been alright. But, he didn't (in my opinion). Obama was smooth as usual; he certainly stays more calm and collected. The result is McCain coming off as more negative (as his campaign has been) and more desperate. Obama seems intelligent and thoughtful; McCain, of course, has more experience.

On the issues, I am pro-life (I believe abortion is about convenience, not "reproductive rights", with the exception of special cases; for some reason, the special cases for most people justify the general case. The fact is that most abortions have nothing to do with health threats, rape, or incest. Most abortions have to do with girls, boys, and their parents not wanting to deal with the consequences of sex. In other words, if a fetus is unwanted it is not human; if it is wanted, it is human, as illustrated by cases where if a pregnant mother is killed the person may be charged with two murders. But this is another topic...). I also believe nuclear power would be a huge step in the right direction; most people are needlessly afraid of this. Nuclear power has enormous potential for affordable, immediate, and efficient alternative energy. No other alternative energy comes close to being able to break our dependence on fossil fuels. As far as taxes and health care, I feel underqualified to judge: I am not an economist. I wonder sometimes how people can be so quick to support this plan or that plan when they actually have no idea exactly what kind of effects it may have. Only economists and other scholars would have a clue; the rest of us are stuck towing the party line, it seems. That being said, I lean towards Obama's tax plan over McCain; I don't really care if businesses don't get tax cuts. They can manage like the rest of us. As far as education goes, both candidates sounded reasonable to me, and I am of course both for reform and more funding for education (being employed in this field). Ok, I am getting bored of my own ramblings now. I'm going to bed.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Alternative Energy Hype #3: BioFuels

Biofuels are a growing part of the movement to replace fossil fuels as our primary energy source. The idea is that fuel made from crops like corn, sugarcane, and switchgrass is sustainable and lowers greenhouse gas emissions by reabsorbing CO2 when the next batch is grown. Unfortunately biofuels are not quite the easy solution they seem. Over the past few years experts have identified a number of negative side-effects, including increased food prices and , surprisingly, an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

First, the production of fuel from sources like corn is not (currently) terribly efficient anyway. One gallon of corn ethanol provides less energy than a gallon of gasoline, making it more expensive per unit of energy. Production efficiency is only around 23%, meaning that it costs you 1 unit of energy to get 1.3 units of energy. Even in ideal conditions this process only results in a 22% reduction in CO2 emissions.

In a recent article in Science magazine, Searchinger et al. discuss how the land-use change associated with producing biofuels actually leads to an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The land needed to grow crops for biofuels has to come from somewhere, and this inevitably results in increased CO2 emissions. Converting forest or grassland for biofuel use releases all the carbon stored in that land as biomass. Searchinger et al. estimate that corn ethanol use will indirectly double greenhouse gas emissions. Converting existing cropland has the same effect, and has the added effect of raising food price. This in turn, according to an article by Morton et al. in PNAS, has increased deforestation by farmers responding to the increased food prices and needing to clear more land for food crops. Deforestation also, of course, adds more carbon to the atmosphere. Increased grain prices have also had a detrimental effect on poorer countries, leading to food shortages. In an article in this month's Science magazine, Robertson et al. write that in addition to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, grain-based biofuels (like corn) also lead to increased soil erosion and nutrient loss, decreased air quality, and decreased biodiversity.

So, corn ethanol fuel, the current leading biofuel, is not quite as green as it may appear. This is not to say that biofuels in general do not have promise; they do, but they must be approached with caution. Certain crops (e.g. perennial grasses) and certain methods may have greater potential for reducing greenhouse gases. Careful research will be required to effectively replace fossil fuels with biofuels. For now, I think it's fair to say that, like the hydrogen fuel cell, biofuels create more hype than help. On the other hand, we've got to start somewhere, and biofuels probably should play (and will play) an important role in our energy economy.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Kepler Is My Hero

Johannes Kepler, the German mathematician who formulated the three laws of planetary motion (a foundation for Newton's ideas later on), is my hero. I am in the middle of a biography on him, and though I don't think it is particularly well-written, I am enjoying it nonetheless because Kepler is an interesting character. What impresses me the most is not his genius but the way in which he approached thinking. Whether it was a theological, scientific, or philosophical issue, he approached it with an open mind and a keen sense of truth.

He was a devout Lutheran, and attended seminary to become a preacher and theologian. But he never just towed the party line. He was critical of both Catholics and Protestants on various issues, pointing out where each had gotten something wrong. Most of his close friends and colleagues would reject any view or opinion from a Catholic, but Kepler would aggravate them to no end by highlighting parts of the Catholic position that he thought were true. This kind of talk, as well as criticism of certain doctrines of Lutherans, resulted in Kepler being excommunicated from his own religious group. Later, in the midst of the counter-reformation, despite intense pressure (and danger) Kepler refused to abandon his core Lutheran beliefs to appease the angry Catholic authorities. His nuanced view of truth and theology was a rarity in the 16th century. Kepler was a non-partisan voice in the midst of the crazy religious wars of his time.

Kepler's Lutheran approach to science may have also helped him break from long-held assumptions about the universe. Theologically, Luther suggested stripping away centuries old dogma and established interpretation to allow the individual to read the Bible for themselves and form their own interpretation. In science, Aristotelianism had long dominated how the world worked and how the heavens were arranged. Kepler, though, didn't just accept this dogma and work within its framework; he approached the heavens too with an open mind. He was a Copernican (Copernicus was the canon law priest in the Catholic church who suggested the planets revolved around the Sun rather than the Earth) when few were, and went on to formulate cosmological laws which went against the received Greek wisdom. Kepler's willingness to seek truth whether or not it went "against the grain" led to scientific work that became a huge stepping stone to modern cosmology.

Kepler was also a neo-platonist, obsessed with mathematical beauty and harmony (so was Copernicus). Kepler thought that he could discover God's laws and the underlying harmony of the universe; this, and his exceptional mathematical gifts, are part of the reason why he ultimately pursued science instead of theology. Kepler saw his science as a branch of theology; the study of the order God had put in his creation. Kepler's story runs straight against our own received wisdom that science and theology are opposed and that religious belief is incompatible with science or scientific discovery. On the contrary, religious convictions were a primary motivation for men like Kepler (and Newton) to study the universe. Both saw themselves as uncovering the mathematical secrets God had used to make the universe run.

Kepler's intellectual approach to difficult or contentious issues is one I hope to emulate. Rarely is one person or one person's viewpoint entirely correct (including our own); we would be better off if we could admit this and, like Kepler, keep an open mind while searching for truth.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Battle of the Blogs

Unwisely, I commented on someone's blog and ended up probably wasting way too much time in an exchange of comments concerning science and religion. That person's view is typical of the so called "new" atheists like Richard Dawkins. If you're interested, our exchange can be seen here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Early Life: not so simple after all

I haven't posted on evolution yet, though it is one of my main areas of interest. Quite frankly I don't know where to start. It's also so complex that I fear that I would find individual blog posts inadequate. Maybe in the future I'll change my mind. For now, I'll just post interesting tidbits.

That standard view of evolution includes the understanding that life started out simple and grew more complex as time went on. We can now understand the biology of organisms as arising from the information contained in the genes of that organism (though epigenetics is now complicating that somewhat). Evolutionary biologists then would expect simple life to have simple genes, and complex life to have more complex genes. As time went on natural selection and mutation (primarily) would add to and modify those genes, resulting in better adapted and often more complex life forms. Nevermind that even the "simplest"organism and its genes are incredibly complicated, a new study published in the journal Nature has found that the genetic code of of the Trichoplax adhaerens, thought to be one of the earliest animals, is about as complicated as the human genome. Not only is it close to being as complicated, this animal contains genes that code for organs, specialized cells, proteins, and body parts of more complex animals. In other words, this animal contains genes for body parts, organs, etc. that it doesn't have and that only animals in the future (relative to the time of this animal's origin) would have. It would seem that instead of evolution generating complexity, the complexity has preceded evolution. Likewise, in a study published this past July in the journal Science the genome of a tiny sea anemone was also found to be quite complicated, containing thousands of genes identical to those of humans.

This throws a huge monkey wrench in the standard developmental picture of life's history. The fact that there is such a huge discrepancy between the DNA of an organism and the morphology of an organism should give us pause regarding just how much we really understand about biology. As for evolution, a scientist once said (I don't remember who) that all we would need to disprove the general theory of evolution is to find a rabbit in the Cambrian period rock strata. Well, what if we've found (in a sense) a human?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Alternative Energy Hype #2

First up: the Hydrogen Fuel Cell. The next big thing in cars, we are told, is the hydrogen fuel cell. Claims of zero emissions and environmentally friendliness abound (see here or here). It's too bad then that hydrogen fuel cells can actually produce more greenhouse gases than our good old internal combustion engines. How can that be, you say? They couldn't be lying to us, could they? Well, in a sense, no, they aren't lying to you. The cars themselves would not produce any greenhouse gases. But whence comes this hydrogen to fill our cars?

Back to that question in a second; first, how does a fuel cell work? Basically, a hydrogen fuel cell works by combining hydrogen and oxygen to form water. Hydrogen enters from one side of the cell, and oxygen from the other. The hydrogen atom is split into a proton and an electron; the proton crosses a membrane toward the oxygen while the electron is forced to go around to meet the oxygen. That travel by the electron produces some electricity (electricity essentially is the flow of electrons) which can be used to power the car. The proton, electron, and oxygen then meet up to form water.

Ok, back to hydrogen. Hydrogen is not a normal part of the atmosphere: it is too light and gravitationally escapes from Earth. Oxygen is readily available and is produced by photosynthesis. Hydrogen, though, needs to be extracted from some hydrogen-containing source. There are two primary ways to acquire hydrogen for fuel cell use. The first, and worst, is through straightforward electrolysis. An electrical current is run through water to spit the molecules and produce hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then stored for use in the fuel cell. This is incredibly inefficient; almost 80% of the energy is lost, leaving us with an efficiency of 20%. Compare that to the processes of extracting and refining oil etc., which has an efficiency of 80%. The fuel cell vehicle itself is very efficient (almost 40%) at utilizing that energy once it gets to the car, but the process to get the hydrogen fuel is so costly that the overall efficiency of electric grid hydrogen fuel cells is actually less than your average combustion engine. Besides being so inefficient, a lot of the electricity needed to split the water comes from coal plants (around 50%). This leads us to an overall greenhouse gas emissions rating that is actually higher than normal cars (~440 grams per mile compared to ~380 grams per mile). Unbelievable.

Fortunately, there is a more efficient way to produce hydrogen. It's called steam reforming. The process involves using steam to break down natural gas into its components, which include hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be stored for use in a fuel cell. This process is way more efficient than grid electric (~60% efficient compared to ~20%). The high efficiency of the fuel cell combined with the good efficiency of the production method leads to the highest overall efficiency of the major engine types in automobiles, around 22%. This does not sound very impressive, but compared to normal gas engines (~16%) it's a good step up. Unfortunately, this method of obtaining hydrogen requires natural gas. This is, of course, a type of fossil fuel. One byproduct of the steam reform process is, you guessed it, carbon dioxide. At least this second method actually does produce less greenhouse gases (~140 grams per mile compared to the ~380 grams per mile) than gasoline engines. Still, we will eventually run out of natural gas, except for the relatively small amounts that are produced biologically (in swamps, etc.).

The larger message here is that despite the hype surrounding hydrogen fuel cells, they in fact do have emissions (indirectly, through their fuel sources) and in some cases are actually less energy efficient or produce more greenhouse gases than gasoline engines. And the more efficient method may only be sustainable on a small scale (e.g. using biological natural gas).

Next: biofuels (or maybe hybrids).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The God Gene and John Cleese

You've got to check out John Cleese's take on the gene that makes us all believe in

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Alternative Energy Hype #1

Each year I teach my students about the two major biogeochemical cycles (carbon and nitrogen) and their ecological importance. We discuss the human impacts on these cycles through the use of fossil fuels or other activities, and we also of course talk about alternative sources of energy. I assign a small research project which they work on in groups. They have to learn in some detail the idea behind and specifics of a particular source (wind, solar, bio, etc.). Then they have to present it to the rest of the class with some sort of visual illustrating efficiency, costs, etc. I believe developing these other sources of energy is crucial to our future (solar and nuclear seem the most promising to me; solar is the ultimate renewable energy, nuclear is pretty close and is extremely efficient). It's important that today's students develop an understanding and appreciation of these endeavors. However, as we attempt to develop and manage the processes required to access, store, and utilize these sources of energy it's also important to ensure that these processes actually are beneficial, actually are in some real way better than fossil fuels. Some processes have unacknowledged, unpublicized side effects or costs; others are having suprising impacts where we didn't expect. There are a number of misconceptions floating around that need to be clarified. This will be the first in a series examining some of the major players: biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, hybrids, and nuclear.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Gullibility and Politics

Why are people so gullible when it comes to politics? Intelligent people on both sides of the political spectrum seem to go crazy when it comes to their beloved candidates. On one blog I read, in which most posters lean toward the conservative side, there are constant references to "Barack Hussein Obama," obviously trying to imply something negative from the guy's middle name. I've heard of lots of rumors about his supposed Islamic beliefs and training and all that. Now we have all sorts of crazy rumors about Sarah Palin. First was that her daughter actually gave birth to Palin's latest child, with all sorts of evidence about how they looked etc. which turned out to be bogus. Now there are rumors about book bans which apparently also turned out to be bogus, with some of the books she was supposed to have banned not even being published yet at the time of the alleged banning. My wife got an email forwarded to her from a fellow grad student (in earnest) regaling her with crazy stories about Palin from "someone who really knows her." Uh-huh. And Barack Obama is actually Saddam Hussein; when was Hussein toppled in Iraq: 2003. When did Saddam, I mean Barack, begin his campaign for the senate: 2003. It all fits!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Rise of Modern Geology

In most modern texts the credit for the development of modern geology goes to folks like James Hutton and Charles Lyell. Perhaps the term "uniformitarianism" rings a bell, describing the approach that "the present is the key to the past." In other words, all geologic phenomena, past and present, can be described by the same processes we see today acting over long periods of time. Earth's history is therefore uniform and accessible to scientists today. Proponents of the other historical tradition , the catastrophists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, are dismissed as religiously motivated quacks. Their theories only retarded science, while Hutton and Lyell paved the way for our modern understanding of the Earth. Historians have shown this common narrative to be yet another myth (see here or here) concerning science and religion.

This time, Charles Lyell in the 19th century and C.G. Gillespies in the 20th may be blamed in part for perpetrating this myth. Lyell, in his Principles of Geology, spent some time in the introduction framing the catastrophists as religious folk whose theories were based on religious bias and miracles rather than scientific evidence. Gillespies in his 1951 book Genesis and Geology set up the narrative describing certain early geologists (Hutton and Lyell) as the true founders of the discipline while ignoring the contributions of others. Catastrophists were portrayed as religious and as only impeding science by, among other things, sticking to a Biblical time scale and invoking supernatural events like Noah's flood.

The truth, of course, is more complicated. In an attempt to keep this short, I will bullet the main points:

  • First, it is true that 17th century Protestants argued for a young Earth and influenced the study of natural history in a way that did not exactly parallel our modern approach. However, the priests and theologians were studying natural history and were certainly a major part of the tradition which led to our modern approach.
  • Some catastrophists were Christians; others were not. Many made significant contributions to geology. Most were not concerned with the exact age of the Earth at all.
  • Those catastrophists who did argue for a natural history more in line with scripture were British; in other words, this was an isolated phenomena, not representative of the tradition as a whole.
  • Neptunism, a movement within catastrophism which invoked water and floods to explain geologic phenomena often had nothing to do with supernatural events like Noah's flood. Most catastrophists, Christian or otherwise, were perfectly content invoking natural events to explain natural history.
  • Catastrophists like Cuvier, Hooker, Humbolt, Sedgwick, Murchison, Werner, and de Maillet all made contributions to modern geology, including the understanding that the Earth's crust is made of ordered layers of rocks (the stratigraphical sequence). The importance of this cannot be overestimated.
  • George Cuvier was an eminent paleontologist and catastrophist who established the fact that extinction events had occurred on Earth through catastrophes, not the slow everyday processes of Hutton and Lyell.
  • Hutton and Lyell, far from being paragons of objectivity, were influenced heavily by their own religious beliefs. They were deists.
  • In their theories, the Earth was eternal and ahistorical. This is a direct result of their religious beliefs and is in flat-out contradiction with our modern understanding of the Earth.
  • The catastrophists got it right; our Earth had a beginning and has had major, different historical periods. The Earth and its history is not as "uniform" as Hutton and Lyell would have liked.
  • Catastrophists believed that the Earth was hotter back when it formed and therefore geologic processes like earthquakes and volcanoes have differed throughout geologic time. They were right. We now know that the Earth was originally molten and has been cooling ever since.
  • In short, our modern understanding is a combination of uniformitarian and catastrophist theory. Our Earth is shaped both by slow, everyday processes like weathering, erosion, movement of tectonic plates, and by catastrophic, historical events like the original formation and cooling of the Earth, extinctions, ice ages, and asteroid impacts.
This myth is illustrative of the ambition of people who would like to rewrite history in favor of a chosen few scientists whose taste in worldview more closely mirrors their own. Even non-religious scientists get lumped in with the religious ones and dismissed if they don't fit the desired narrative.

Darwin's Face Seen In Stain

DAYTON, TN—A steady stream of devoted evolutionists continued to gather in this small Tennessee town today to witness what many believe is an image of Charles Darwin—author of The Origin Of Species and founder of the modern evolutionary movement—made manifest on a concrete wall in downtown Dayton.

"I brought my baby to touch the wall, so that the power of Darwin can purify her genetic makeup of undesirable inherited traits," said Darlene Freiberg, one among a growing crowd assembled here to see the mysterious stain, which appeared last Monday on one side of the Rhea County Courthouse.

See the rest here.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Terri Gross and Catholic Priests

Terri Gross is the host of NPR's Fresh Air radio program. It is one of my favorite shows, and I appreciate her skill and style as an interviewer. However, there was at least one show where her "liberal" bias shown through in such a way that I thought it diminished the quality (and a little bit, the integrity) of the show. My intention in this post is not to argue one way or another if the media are on the whole liberal or not. But a show last year (or maybe a few years ago) where she interviewed two Catholic priests was illustrative of a liberal approach to homosexuality and the church. One priest was gay (not sure if his employers knew or not) and another was a priest who thought that homosexuals should not be part of the priesthood. Terry interviewed each person individually. At this point I don't remember the entire conversation with either priest, but one thing, or rather one question has stuck in my mind. Terri, speaking to the priest who opposed gay priests, asked, who are you to say whether or not a priest can have a different sexual orientation? Who are you to pronounce judgement on another's choices? Fair enough. The priest answered very calmly and explained that he was not anyone to judge or decide what's right or wrong. But, he said, God's moral nature determines moral laws. His (the priest's) opinion is not what makes the gay priest unacceptable; rather, it is God who has set up moral law, which is now Catholic doctrine. Now, I am not a Catholic, and it is also not my intent here to argue whether or not gay priests should be accepted by the church. I would like to point out though, that Terri asked no such challenging questions of the gay priest. I can't help but think that to be fair she should have asked a similar question. How about, who are you to judge and condemn a millenia old institution no one is forcing you to join? Who are you to tell a whole community of people that they must change their beliefs to accommodate yours? Or, more to the point, who are you to tell God (for in the view of Catholics, and Christians in general, it is God who has established Christian morality) that he must change his views? Why didn't Terri ask the tough questions to the gay priest? It would only be fair. But her assumption from the start was that the gay priest was correct and the other one wrong. Just an observation.

P.S. If I have any liberal readers gnashing teeth over this post, don't. The main reason you won't find much criticism of conservative authors/bloggers/talk show hosts here is that I can't stand most of them and don't waste my time reading or listening to them.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Mythical Monkey Trial

The Scopes trial, or “Monkey” trial in the early 20th century is one of the most famous modern clashes between science and religion. Specifically, it was a clash between progressive, educated liberals and a bunch of religious ignoramuses over whether evolution should be taught in public schools. At least that’s the usual story, most famously portrayed in a play (and movie) called “Inherit the Wind.” In this version of the trial of John Scopes, in trouble for teaching evolution, we witness a brilliant agnostic lawyer take on a foolish religious bigot, John Scopes sent to jail, and mobs of angry Christian folk antagonizing anyone who disagrees with them. If one wishes to discover the real story, Edward Larson’s Pulitzer prize (in history) winning book Summer for the Gods is there to help.

In the 1920’s there was indeed a push (misguided, in my opinion) by religious fundamentalists to pass laws that would ban the teaching of evolution. The reasons for the stronger negative reaction from religious folk are complex, but included a growing scientific acceptance of Darwin’s particular naturalistic mechanism of evolution, natural selection (which had been almost universally rejected by scientists throughout the 19th century), the perception that naturalistic evolution would lead young folk astray by convincing them that the human soul and morality are illusions, and a growing discomfort with the teachings of eugenicists. This latter reason was one of the most important to William Jennings Bryan, the politician who famously represented the prosecution in the Scopes trial, defending the Bible and Christianity from the perceived evils of evolution and dying a few days after the trial ended. He is generally portrayed as an ignorant religious bigot and fundamentalist, but this is hardly an accurate description. He was of course a Christian, and he was not exactly a sophisticated intellectual, but he was a champion of the common people (his nickname was “the Commoner”), an advocate of women’s rights, an advocate for peace, an anti-imperialist, and he frequently railed against what he saw as the growing, rampant greed of capitalist corporations in America. In fact, his most famous moment was a speech delivered to the Democratic National Convention in the late 1800’s where he argued against policies that would only help larger businesses to the detriment of the average businessman. But of course you’d never know any of that from his portrayal in “Inherit the Wind.”

Bryan saw evolution (specifically the evolution of mankind) as an idea that undermined morality. He was particularly opposed to eugenics (sometimes called “social Darwinism), that idea that it would be wise for humans to exterminate the “inferior” members of their species while encouraging the reproduction of intellectuals and other “more fit” members in order to further the evolution of mankind. Bryan saw this as morally despicable; the rest of the world came to agree with him after the atrocities of Nazi Germany. He therefore became involved in the movement to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools.

What most people don’t realize about the Scopes trial is that it was in fact simply a publicity stunt. Organizers in the little town of Dayton, Tennessee were looking for a way to increase business and publicity for their town. A law banning evolution had been passed but had not really been enforced. They contacted the ACLU to set up a test case. John Scopes, who was not actually a science teacher but a substitute teacher and coach, volunteered to be the defendant despite not even being sure he had actually taught evolution. So, far from being an example of religion persecuting science, it was actually an example of a small town purposely stirring up controversy for its own benefit. John Scopes ended up convicted of breaking the law and was fined $100. Whoop-de-do. Bryan even offered to pay the fine himself. While I can appreciate people being opposed to the ban on evolution in the first place, this episode is hardly the clash of science and religion that it is commonly assumed to be, and the play and movie “Inherit the Wind” is quite simply a deceptive piece of propaganda (regardless of the original intent of the film's creators) that Draper and White would be proud of (see earlier post on the flat earth). This film is still shown on college campuses, and I'm guessing most people in the audience have no clue just how much artistic license was taken by its creators.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Flat Earth Myth

One of the great modern day myths surrounding science and religion involves Christopher Columbus and a flat Earth. Most of us were taught in school that Columbus wanted to travel the world despite all the dire warnings about falling off the edge of a flat Earth. He bravely set sail anyway and changed the world through his discoveries, or so the story goes. Many of us were taught in school that throughout the early and late Middle Ages most people thought that the world was flat. In addition, we are told that this state of affairs was the result of the oppressive religious authorities of the time. 

The truth, however, is that the West has known the Earth was a sphere since at least the 4th century B.C., when Greek philosophers like Pythagoras followed by Aristotle and Ptolemy all laid out arguments for a spherical Earth (a few, like Eratosthenes, even took a shot at calculating its circumference). This knowledge survived into the Middle Ages, and virtually all educated people and scholars still affirmed a round Earth. Columbus and company all believed the Earth was round; no one warned him about falling off any edge. He was warned about his faulty calculations, which led him to believe that the Earth was much smaller, and India much closer, than it really was. As we all know, he ended up in North America instead.

So how did we end up believing this fable about Columbus and the rest of Medieval Europe? Historians have traced this flat Earth myth to the 19th century. One of the first appearances was in the early 19th century in Washington Irving’s fictional account of the Columbus story, and sometimes Irving is given most of the credit for the flat Earth myth. However, recent scholarship shows that the myth became a staple in textbooks in the late 19th century after the publication of two books by John Draper and Andrew White. These men were overzealous secularists who wrote distorted (but highly influential) histories of science. Their intent was to provide a narrative involving science and religion where science is struggling for truth and progress and religion is doing its best to hamper scientific advances. The flat Earth myth was one pillar in their overall thesis: religious superstition is always trying to snuff out scientific progress. 

How exactly did Draper and White convince us that Medieval peoples believed in a flat Earth? They found two minor figures (no others have been found), Lactantius (245-325 A.D.),  a North African writer, and Cosmas Indicopleustes (fl. 540 A.D.), a Christian merchant from Europe, that wrote in support of a flat Earth and made this minority opinion appear to be the norm from the Dark Ages and onward. In fact, from the patristic period to the late Middle Ages (i.e. whenever you look), all church scholars, ranging from the Venerable Bede to Augustine to Aquinas, affirmed a spherical Earth.

Historians of science have dismissed Draper and White’s books as sloppy, selective scholarship that ignores the bulk of the historical data. Unfortunately, the myth persists. When I was teaching, I would ask my students each year if they had been taught the Columbus myth, and each year at least half of the hands were raised (I suspect most of the rest had also been taught it, but had forgotten). This is kind of sad. Here we are in the 21st century believing that people in the Dark and Middle Ages were fooled by religious authorities into believing in a flat Earth, when in fact we are the ones clinging to a discredited myth.

Further Reading: 
Stephen J. Gould's essays Dinosaur in a Haystack 

Carbon Dioxide Levels

I want to clarify something I said in the nitrogen post about carbon dioxide. I mentioned that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions still can't compare to natural carbon dioxide emissions. This may have given the impression that human contributions aren't the biggest problem since nature gives off more each year (by a factor of around 11 for just plants and animals alone). This is actually a common argument: we needn't worry about our emissions since nature is emitting a lot more than we are. This is in fact a deep misunderstanding. While it is true that plant and animal life give off far more carbon dioxide than we do, vegetation absorbs slightly more carbon dioxide than the total given off naturally. In other words, nature absorbs slightly more CO2 than it gives off, so each year planet Earth breaks about even. Human emissions, then, are on top of that balanced cycle, leading to an overall increase in CO2 levels each year.

Consider a large water tank connected to a pool by two hoses: one hose delivers water to the pool, the other hose brings water from the pool back to the tank. Let's say that each day the tank delivers 1000 gallons to the pool, and 1000 gallons are also returned to the tank throughout the day. A little boy playing with a bucket and a garden hose decides to fill up his bucket and dump it into the pool. His mother comes out and, after watching him dump bucket after bucket into the pool, warns him to stop or else the pool will overflow. "Don't be silly, Mom!" the boy yells as he fills up another bucket, "that water tank puts way more water in the pool each day than I do, how could these few buckets of water make any difference?"

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Secret Life of Nitrogen

Putting "the secret life of" in front of the title of your book topic or tv show is pretty trendy right now, so I figured I'd join in. Nitrogen, as part of the nitrogen cycle, is a little known player in both global warming and the formation of acid rain. Both the carbon and nitrogen cycles are extremely important biogeochemical processes. Carbon dioxide gets a lot of press nowadays, but you don't hear about nitrogen very much. An ecology professor I know likes to call nitrogen "carbon's ugly little step-sister" who nobody pays much attention to. While total anthropogenic (human caused) carbon dioxide emissions are significant (somewhere around 6 gigatons per year if I remember correctly), we still have not come close to the annual output by natural processes. Due to the enormous growth of agriculture, however, human contributions of nitrogen actually passed natural contributions back in the 1980's. That's pretty impressive. Unfortunately, as industrially fixed nitrogen (for fertilizer) cycles through the ecosystem, the resulting reactive forms of nitrogen can have a variety of effects including: increased acid rain which damages soils and plant life, an enhanced greenhouse effect (warming the atmosphere), interference with natural ozone forming processes which occur in the stratosphere, and increased smog in some areas. The burning of fossil fuels also contributes reactive forms of nitrogen to the ecosystem. So, for those of you concerned with carbon footprints (yours or our nation's), don't forget about carbon's neglected little sis, nitrogen.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On Omnipotence

The following essay was written in late spring 2008 during an episode of Lost. A master's student at UConn (where my wife is studying English lit) found out that I was a Christian and promptly asked questions like "can God create a square circle"? My quick answers needed some fleshing out, hence this essay. I don't think I have actually read any professional philosophers' take on these questions, so I welcome any comments or corrections.

A traditional objection to the possibility of God’s omnipotence (and therefore the existence of the Judaeo-Christian God) comes in the form of a question: can God create a rock so big that he can’t lift it? Or, another: can God create a square circle? The fact that it is difficult (or impossible) to answer these questions is supposed to demonstrate that an omnipotent being could not exist. How serious are these objections? Let’s take a look at the latter question first.

Wittgenstein, the 20th century Austrian philosopher, took the view (for a time, at least) that many of the problems of philosophy were actually problems with language. While it seems obvious that not all problems of philosophy reduce to a matter of unclear language, at least some problems can genuinely be seen as merely illusions due to language. The idea of a square circle is supposed to pose an unsolvable problem for an omnipotent being, demonstrating that such a being could not exist. Upon closer inspection, asking an omnipotent being to create a square circle is very much like asking them nothing at all. What is a square circle? It is not a thing. These two words joined together in the English language simply do not mean anything. We should not be bothered, then, by the fact that an omnipotent being cannot create a non-thing we pretend exists by stringing together two words. I can imagine someone demanding that God create a square circle, or else they won’t believe that he is omnipotent. One may as well stand before God and demand that he “couch shave while plant big in beer toe.” If he can’t, so much for God. I think the problem is that "square" and "circle" are such simple words that it is easy to pretend such a small phrase is intelligible when in fact it is no more intelligible than the above beer toe example. The phrase is literally nonsense and as such cannot tell us anything about God.

What about the first question? Can God create a rock so big that he can’t lift it? This objection seems to be the stronger of the two. Assuming the existence of such a being, obviously the answer must be either God can create a rock so big that he can’t lift it, or that God can’t create a rock so big that he can’t lift it. So perhaps the question should be which answer should be true for God to be as omnipotent as is logically possible. Let’s see. Would it be more impressive if God could create a rock that he then could not lift, or if God created the heaviest rock possible but could still lift it?

First, the very form of this question is problematic, as we are assuming that God has a physical body subject to physical laws (e.g. gravity). The heaviest rock possible? There is no logical limit to how massive an object may be; infinite mass is a possibility. This makes the question difficult to answer sensibly. I suggest a reformulation; this question, at its base, is asking: can an omnipotent being impose limits of power on itself? Imagine it this way: an omnipotent being creates maximally strong unbreakable (and let's say metaphysical too) handcuffs for itself and then cannot escape. Or, the being creates maximally strong unbreakable handcuffs for itself and then breaks them. It is clear that if an omnipotent being could impose limits of power on itself that it would only be taking away from its own omnipotence (e.g. if it could not break the handcuffs). Logically then, an omnipotent being cannot take away its own power without violating its own omnipotence. On the other hand, why couldn’t such a being willingly impose limits on itself? If it then decreases its own power, so what? How does any of this suggest that such a being could not exist? At best it suggests that we should approach the term “omnipotence” with care. Perhaps an omnipotent being’s omnipotence is tentative, contingent on its will. Or perhaps no matter what God does he could always later undo it.

Either way, it is not clear to me that these objections go very far in arguing against the existence of God (or superbeings in general).



The purpose of this blog is to share and discuss ideas. Some posts will be essays that I would love feedback on. I find that the best way to understand an idea (my own or another's) is to write about it. The process of fully articulating the idea often brings out flaws or nuances not previously seen. There will probably also be some random posts about my life or other random things, but my life is not terribly exciting, and I am not much of a "talker" so I don't know how common those posts will be. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your feedback.

Jeff L