Jesus is for geologists (and other scientists)

I’ve always known that Jesus is for geologists, as well as for biologists, chemists, physicists, archeologists, astronomers, and all other sorts of scientists.

There are, of course, many Christians who are scientists, and many scientists who are Christians. As a graduate student in geology, I found rich fellowship with a half dozen Christian geologists-in-training, and there was a Christian on the faculty of the department as well.

Davis Young, a Christian geology professor (retired), and author of The Bible, Rocks and Time, Christianity and the Age of the Earth, and Mind over Magma: the Story of Igneous Petrology, has written what he considers to be his most important book: Good News for Science: Why Scientific Minds Need God.

The summary on Barnes & Noble reads:

Bridging the fields of natural science and religion, Good News for Science: Why Scientific Minds Need God invites members of the professional scientific community, graduate, undergraduate, and high school science students, science teachers, and members of the general public who are interested in the natural sciences to embrace the Christian faith personally. Employing the theme of good news, this book challenges readers to ponder the question of life after death as a gateway to the overall claim that Christianity, at its best and most consistent, bears good news for both science and the scientist. On the one hand, Christianity, far from being antithetical to science, supplies the rational foundation that makes the scientific enterprise possible. On the other hand, the central message of Christianity brings a firm hope to scientists as individual persons in meeting their deepest needs and desires for genuine significance, purpose, goodness, forgiveness, justice, and relationship with the Creator. In presenting his case, the author eschews pseudo-science and treats with great respect the discoveries of contemporary mainstream natural science, including an ancient universe and Earth, biological evolution, and the standard model of cosmology. The text adopts an informal, personal, conversational style. Good News for Science will be of interest not only to the general scientific community but also to Christians who are seeking a resource to use in presenting Christian faith to scientifically knowledgeable individuals.

As the review says, this would be a great book for

  • Professional scientists
  • Students of science, at either the undergraduate or graduate levels
  • High school teachers and students
  • Members of the general public.

Buy this book at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

Grace and Peace

Arsenic in DNA – maybe

Figure 1 -- Phosphorus and arsenic on the periodic table.

News of surprising biochemistry: Thriving on Arsenic (NASA Astrobiology Magazine)

NASA microbiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon has discovered bacteria that apparently can use arsenic in its DNA in place of phosphorus. Most biochemistry can be done with six elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur (CHONPS). Smaller amounts of a variety of other elements are also necessary to varying degrees depending on the organism, such as sodium, calcium, iron, and magnesium. Arsenic is similar enough to phosphorus (same column in the periodic table, Figure 1) that within these bacteria it may be able to play the same role.

From the Astrobiology Magazine article:

The recent discovery by Felisa Wolfe-Simon of an organism that can utilize arsenic in place of phosphorus, however, has demonstrated that life is still capable of surprising us in fundamental ways. The results of her research were published December 2 on Science Express and subsequently in the journal Science.

The organism in question is a bacterium, GFAJ-1, cultured by Wolfe-Simon from sediments she and her colleagues collected along the shore of Mono Lake, California. Mono Lake is hypersaline and highly alkaline. It also has one of the highest natural concentrations of arsenic in the world.

On the tree of life, according to the results of 16S rRNA sequencing, the rod-shaped GFAJ-1 nestles in among other salt-loving bacteria in the genus Halomonas. Many of these bacteria are known to be able to tolerate high levels of arsenic.

But Wolfe-Simon found that GFAJ-1 can go a step further. When starved of phosphorus, it can instead incorporate arsenic into its DNA, and continue growing as though nothing remarkable had happened.

“So far we’ve showed that it can do it in DNA, but it looks like it can do it in a whole lot of other biomolecules” as well, says Wolfe-Simon, a NASA research fellow in residence at the USGS in Menlo Park, California.

The article describes the methods used to purify the DNA, to ensure that the arsenic was truly incorporated into the structure of the DNA rather that being associated with other molecules. Not all, however, are convinced.

But Steven Benner, a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL, remains skeptical. If you “replace all the phosphates by arsenates,” in the backbone of DNA, he says, “every bond in that chain is going to hydrolyze [react with water and fall apart] with a half-life on the order of minutes, say 10 minutes.” So “if there is an arsenate equivalent of DNA in that bug, it has to be seriously stabilized” by some as-yet-unknown mechanism.

Benner suggests that perhaps the trace contaminants in the growth medium Wolf-Simon uses in her lab cultures are sufficient to supply the phosphorus needed for the cells’ DNA. He thinks it’s more likely that arsenic is being used elsewhere in the cells, in lipids for example. “Arsenate in lipids would be stable,” he says, and would “not fall apart in water.” What appears in Wolfe-Simon’s gel-purified extraction to be arsenate DNA, he says, may actually be DNA containing a standard phosphate-based backbone, but with arsenate associated with it in some unidentified way.

Microbiologists over the past few decades have discovered bacteria and archaea in increasingly hostile places, such as hot springs and deep in Earth’s crust. This has spurred on the hope that other worlds (e.g. Mars, Titan) also have places that would be suitable for bacterial life. The possibility of bacteria that can live with a chemical foundation other than CHONPS indicates that life might thrive in places where we otherwise would not have expected it to.

This discovery may not completely redefine life as we know it, but it does (if proven to be true) add one more bizarre thing that life can do.

Grace and Peace

The Chemistry Song

My daughter did the “burn the nut” experiment in her high school chemistry class yesterday. In this experiment, the nut is set up under a calorimeter (which could be as simple as a glass beaker with a thermometer, though other setups work better), the nut is burned, the water warms up, and the student calculates the amount of heat released in the combustion reaction.

She told me about this, and I burst into song, just like I did when I was a chemistry teacher. Here is the song:

THE CHEMISTRY SONG
(Tune:  The Christmas Song)
words by Kevin Nelstead, Bucharest Christian Academy

Chestnuts roasting with an open fire,
With a calorimeter.
Chemis-tree carols being sung by a choir,
And students dressed up with safety goggles.
Everybody knows the specific heat of H2O
Is one calorie per gram degree Celsius.
And though its been said, many times, many ways
q=mCΔT

I’ll write on the topic of Chemis-tree carols some other time.

Grace and Peace

Science without experiments?

From Times Online: School lab health and safety rules ‘could stop future scientists’:

It is a scientific fact, tested and proven by generations of pupils, that experiments in school laboratories win young people to the cause of science. White coats, goggles and the chance to set fire to things foster a passion for chemistry that even years of examinations do not extinguish.

But government advisers and eminent scientists are warning of a disturbing development that could endanger generations of future scientists: pupils are no longer allowed to experiment.

Health and safety concerns are preventing students — including those taking A levels — from performing vital and exciting investigations into what happens when one sets fire to magnesium ribbon, or drops a small glob of sodium into a dish of water.

——————————–

The comments follow an Ofsted report warning that the national curriculum and testing regime led to boring science lessons. Schools spent too much time drilling students for tests, it said.

Jane Lees, head of Hindley High School in Wigan, and a former head of science, agreed that health and safety had put an end to a number of “whiz-bang” experiments. “But we’re moving on to different ways of teaching science — with videos, and on the web with virtual learning environments which are quite as interesting. It’s a different way of learning but it should still be able to turn them on. What you need is inspirational teachers.”

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Experiments at risk

Ammonium dichromate volcano Make a pile of ammonium dichromate and set the tip alight using a magnesium fuse. The result is a tiny volcano, complete with ash, steam and nitrogen gas

The thermite reaction Mix metal powder with metal-oxide to create thermite and set it alight. The mix will burn at an exceptionally high temperature

Potassium in water The classic school experiment. Drop potassium into water and it reacts violently, making hydrogen, which then ignites in a small fireball

Safety is very important, but these demonstrations can be done safely with the proper training and setup.

I still remember demonstrations from middle school physical science and high school chemistry (a long long time ago), such as sodium in water, and (gasp) actually handling mercury (do students today ever even see mercury?).

Grace and Peace

Religious belief among scientists

Here are some results of a PEW Research Center study on the religious and political beliefs of scientists:

Statistic #1
42% — Scientists ages 18-34 who say they believe in God.
28% — Scientists 65 and older who say this.

What does this mean? Does it mean that an increasing number of scientists believe in God? Or does it mean that young scientists give up their faith as they grow older? Unfortunately, this study is just a snapshot in time. It would be helpful to see the results of similar surveys done over time, or the results of studies that follow the same scientists throughout their careers.

Statistic #2
3% — Percentage of scientists who are “white evangelicals”.
19% — Percentage of Americans who are “white evangelicals”.

What does this mean? Either we evangelicals are doing a pitiful job of preparing and motivating our young people to enter the sciences, or they fall away from faith once they do enter the sciences. I place part of the blame for both of these possibilities on the dominance of young-Earth creationism in our Christian educational system, whether in our private schools, home schools, or churches. Students are either scared away from the sciences because of the perceived warfare between science and faith, or they are ill-equipped to see God’s world as it is, especially in terms of Earth history. There are likely to be a number of other factors as well.

Statistic #3
Field Believe in God
Believe in higher power
Believe in neither
Biology and medicine 32 19 41
Chemistry 41 14 39
Geosciences 30 20 47
Physics and astronomy 29 14 46

There is not as much of a difference between the different fields of science as I had been led to believe by some other studies. I had thought that astronomers were more likely to believe in God or some sort of a higher power than other scientists, but according to this study this isn’t the case.

In the geosciences, 47% of scientists are in the “believe in neither” category: atheists and agnostics. But at 30%, we theists are not all that far behind, and I find this encouraging.

One more item from the study that I found interesting, though it related to politics rather than religious beliefs:

Statistic #4 — Party affiliation among scientists

Republican
Democrat
Independent
All scientists 6 55 32

Some questions:

  • Is there a trend towards increasing faith among scientists, as indicated by statistic #1, or will these young scientists lose faith as they grow older?
  • Why are only 3% of scientists evangelical Christians? What can we evangelicals do about it?
  • Is there any significance to the differences between the various fields of science? Are chemists most likely to believe in God because their science doesn’t have as direct of a relationship to the issue of origins?
  • Why do only 6% of scientists identify themselves as Republican? What can be done about it?

HT: Christianity Today

Grace and Peace

CRC periodic table, 1924

One more periodic table: from the 1924 CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, which one of my ancestors picked up somewhere.

PeriodicTable1924CRC

This periodic table has 79 elements, as opposed to the 117 on the current periodic table, 90 of which are naturally-occurring.

The familiar modern layout of the periodic table (as on my previous post) was developed by Glenn Seaborg in the 1940s as the trans-uranium elements were being created.

Grace and Peace