October 13, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Science Potpourri

Interesting articles from recent issues of Science have piled up in the queue.  These might have made separate entries in CEH if time and space were unlimited.

  • Deep Impact:  The team of the Deep Impact mission to a comet published spectral results in the July 13 issue.  “Emission signatures due to amorphous and crystalline silicates, amorphous carbon, carbonates, phyllosilicates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, water gas and ice, and sulfides were found” in the plume of dust flung out by the probe.
  • Keep on rovin’:  Steve Squyres and the Mars Exploration Rover team celebrated two years at Meridiani Planum by Opportunity in a paper on scientific results in the Sept 8 issue.  They argued that “ancient Meridiani once had abundant acidic groundwater, arid and oxidizing surface conditions, and occasional liquid flow on the surface.”  In the Sept 29 issue, Squyres and two colleagues discussed “Merging views on Mars,” about how data from orbiters and rovers is coming together to provide comprehensive models of Mars history.  They speculated, “Both the roughly neutral pH suggested by phyllosilicates and the lower pH suggested by sulfates could have produced habitable surface environments; the former may have been more suitable for the origin of life.”  Yet evidence for surface water appears local, not global.
  • Plume gloom:  A major paradigm shift has been occurring in geology over the theory of mantle plumes and hotspots, and Science has had several stories on the controversy: On Sept 1, a Perspectives article discussed discrepancies with plume theory in its classic case, the Hawaiian seamount bend.  Also in the Sept 1 issue, another Perspectives piece asked if a chain of offshore Japanese volcanoes is “Another nail in the plume coffin?”  Three weeks later in the Sept 22 issue, Richard Kerr asked if plumes are phantom or real: “Seismologists probing the planet’s depths are generating tantalizing images, but whereas some researchers see signs of plumes feeding volcanic hot spots, others see noise.”
  • Radiocarbonization:  Those interested in the assumptions behind radiocarbon dating should check Michael Balter’s article in the Sept 15 issue, “Radiocarbon dating’s final frontier.”  He talks about the “heroic and contentious effort” to calibrate the method to 50,000 years, but unveils how coming up with a “calibration curve” is a controversial matter.  Here’s a sample about Paul Mellars (U of Cambridge) that may raise eyebrows on how the sausage is made:

    Mellars insists that archaeologists can’t wait for a final calibration curve.  “Are we all really expected to keep studies of modern human origins on hold for the next 5 years, until they decide they’ve finally got the calibration act together?” he asks.  The working group, he argues, “has hijacked the term ‘calibration’ to mean an absolutely agreed, rubber stamped, legalistic, signed, sealed, and delivered curve.”  And even when the experts agree on a curve, Mellars says, it will not be “final and absolute” but “simply the best estimate from the data at the time.”

  • Ocean motion:  Richard Kerr discussed a surprising discovery Sept 22 that plankton are a major factor in stirring the ocean.  This “preposterous” conclusion is supported by measurements of how krill descend into the depths during the day and ascent at night to feed.  The sheer numbers of these swimmers are a major factor in agitating ocean waters, and could be affecting global climate as well.  On Oct. 13, a press release about this was published from Florida State University.
  • Asteroid puzzles:  Robert Clayton gave a summary of asteroid science in the Sept 22 issue.  One puzzle is interpreting oxygen isotope differences in terms of accretion history.  “An additional unsolved problem in planet formation is the possibility of large oxygen isotope differences between the Sun and the inner planets.”  Greenwood et al. discussed this in more detail, also in the Sept 22 issue.  They had to postulate that “intense asteroidal deformation accompanied planetary accretion in the early Solar System” was responsible for the stony-iron meteorites.
        In the Oct 6 issue, Richard Kerr asked, “Has lazy mixing spoiled the primordial stew?”  Drawing on the studies of isotopic composition in meteorites, he warned that new findings “indicate that the notion of permanent layering in Earth’s depths may rest on shaky assumptions about the chemistry of the early solar system.”
  • Lab goof?  Elisabeth Pennisi explored whether a previous claim that plants can recover their grandparent’s genomes was due to contamination in the lab, in the Sept 29 issue.  One lab can’t reproduce the other’s and vice versa.  The jury is still out, she concludes.
  • Ribosome in focus:  Scientists continue to resolve more detail in the DNA-translating factory, the ribosome.  The Sept 7 issue had a paper on the structure of the 70S ribosome complexed with mRNA and tRNA, including details of the roles of metal ions and proteins in the intersubunit bridges.  The authors didn’t explain how these could have evolved, other than to say, twice, that they “had evolved” to do this or that function.
  • Brainy ideas:  The Oct. 6 issue featured computational neuroscience, with no less than a dozen articles and book reviews on the subject.  Evolutionary neurologists strive to reduce everything, even human altruism and the moral sense, to the connections of neurons and the actions of neurotransmitters in the synapses.  Peter Stern and John Travis gave an overview of the field in Of Bytes and Brains.
        When these articles mentioned evolution at all, most of them merely assumed it, such as this selection from Greg Miller’s An enterprising approach to brain science, which can be considered representative: “This memory-prediction framework has evolved to take advantage of the spatial and temporal structure in our surroundings, Hawkins says, which helps explain why brains easily do certain tasks that give computers fits.”  If you need more examples, here are the only three mentions of evolution in Ingrid Wickelgren’s piece, Vision’s grand theorist:

    1. [Eero] Simoncelli’s analyses have already solved several longstanding mysteries in visual science: for example, how the brain assembles a moving picture of the world and why humans drive too quickly in the fog.  He’s also helped explain how evolution may have sculpted the brain to respond ideally to the visual environment on Earth.
    2. Next, Simoncelli wanted to link his image analysis to the human visual system.  He hypothesized that evolution may have forced the brain to encode the visual world in the most efficient, mathematically optimal way.  Using that concept, Simoncelli and his colleagues reported in 2001 that the nonlinear responses of neurons, such as those in the primary visual cortex at the back of the brain, are well-matched to the statistical properties of the visual environment on Earth, that is, the mathematical patterns of lightness and darkness that recur in visual scenes.
    3. The result may help explain how evolution nudged certain visual neurons to be acutely sensitive to object edges and contours, for example.

    Readers will note some candidates for Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week that got overlooked.

  • Moral evolution:  In the Oct 6 issue, Michael Waldmann reviewed Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong by Marc D. Hauser (Prentice-Hall, 2006) – an odd title mixing metaphors of naturalism and design.  As could be expected, morality is discussed in purely naturalistic terms of natural selection and neuroscience, ignoring centuries of theological and philosophical input on such a sensitive subject so close to the human heart.  This is true even though Waldmann praises Hauser at one point, “Although Hauser is not shy about his theoretical preferences, he presents alternative theories in a fair manner.”  The only alternatives mentioned by the author or reviewer, however, are those based on evolutionary assumptions.

It’s painful to leave these articles behind without more detailed analysis, but after all, this is a “Headlines” website.  Readers interested in these topics are encouraged to go to the original sources for further study. 

Keep the Baloney Detector handy, though.  As the quotes from “Brainy ideas” bullet indicate, evolutionists perennially assume that blind processes of chance can produce exquisitely engineered products.  Once the Darwin Party is forced to back up these claims instead of asserting them unchallenged, the gig will be up, and design science will be back in vogue.
    When Darwinism finally falls into the dustbin of history, a fresh new way of looking at the world will open up in art, science, literature, history and every other field of study.  Some of these ideas were investigated in a new book by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt, A Meaningful World: How the Arts & Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature.  This book is getting rave reviews by leaders in the intelligent design community.  For instance, Michael Behe said, “A Meaningful World is simply the best book I’ve seen on the purposeful design of nature… the authors portray the depth, elegance, clarity and pure cleverness of a universe designed to nurture the intelligent life that one day would discover that design.  A Meaningful World recovers lost purpose not only for science, but for all scholarly disciplines.”  Chuck Colson in his BreakPoint commentary spoke highly of it and included links for further information.

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