Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Where Jesus Was Born


Stone sheep cote in Zanuta, West Bank
Photo: Emil Salman

Dr. Alice C. Linsley

According to one tradition Jesus was born in a migdal eder, a sheep cote. In Hebrew, a migdal (מִגְדָּל) is a “tower” and eder (עֵדֶר) refers to a herd or flock. There were many such places in the Ancient Near East. They looked like the sheep cotes in this post.

The Bible scholar Alfred Edersheim interpreted the Micah 4:8 reference to the tower as a prophecy indicating that the Messiah would be revealed from the "tower of the flock" (migdal eder) which he claimed is connected with Bethlehem.

Likewise, Professor Samuel Klein believed that Jesus was born in a place where sheep were kept based of mention of a "shepherd's field" in Luke 2:8-20.

In the Ancient Near East dry stack sheep cotes served as housing for the shepherd. This is reflected in Judges 5:16: "Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart." 

2 Samuel 7:8 also describes the sheep cote as a dwelling place (naveh).

Sheep cotes similar to the one shown above are found in many parts of Europe and are called by different names: tholos, girna, caciara, and keyl. The last word, found in Wales, is provocatively similar to the Altaic kyr ayil, meaning a "sheep village" or "the shelter to which the ram (krios) leads the sheep."

Shepherds used sheep cotes as shelters for many centuries. In archaic times, these structures served as seasonal housing for the shepherd and his family as they moved their livestock between higher summer elevations and lower winter pastures. More recently, sheep herders maintain permanent homes in valleys and only a few men move with their flocks to the seasonal sheep cotes.

The dry stack sheep cotes pictured below are common in Ireland, Italy, Wales, Serbia and Croatia. 

This dry stack tholos in Abruzzo, Italy serves as a home and a sheep cote.
Note that where the man is standing is where the shepherd often sleeps.
He becomes the door that guards the way to the sheep.

This practice was familiar to Jesus who said, "I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me-- even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep." (John 10:9-15)

This sheep cote in Anatolia served as a shelter and as a place of worship.

The shearing of sheep was surrounded by religious ceremony. Sheep shearing and shrines are associated in Genesis 38.

"After a long time Judah's wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him. It was told to Tamar, "Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep."

Sheep shearing sometimes involved animal sacrifice and feasting on a large scale, as is evident in 2 Samuel 13:23-25.

Now it came about after two full years that Absalom had shearers in Baal-hazor, which is near Ephraim, and Absalom invited all the king's sons. Absalom came to the king and said, "Behold now, your servant has shearers; please let the king and his servants go with your servant." But the king said to Absalom, "No, my son, we should not all go, for we will be burdensome to you." Although he urged him, he would not go, but blessed him.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

300,000-Year Human Footprints Found in Spain

Current intertidal zone surrounding El Pichilín, Castilla beach, Matalascañas.

Footprints indicate the presence of humans in Southern Spain in the Chibanian (Middle Pleistocene) 200,000 years earlier than previously thought. More than 300 footprints have been found, of which 10% are considered well-preserved.

The discovery in June 2020 of human footprints more than 106,000 years old next to El Asperillo cliff (Matalascañas, Huelva) was considered one of the most important discoveries of that year. But now it has confirmed that those footprints are in fact 200,000 years older than previously thought, with a margin of error of 17,800 years, according to the data collected from the four samples of sedimentary levels in the cliffs of El Asperillo.

Researcher and GRS Radioisotopes technician Jorge Rivera applied an optically-stimulated luminescence technique at the Center for Research, Technology and Innovation laboratories at the University of Seville (CITIUS) and at CENIEH to the Matalascañas footprints to determine that the footprints are in fact 200,000 years older than previously suspected.

The Matalascañas discovery establishes the scenario that prevailed on the coast of the Gulf of Cádiz, with human settlements in a more temperate and humid climate than in the rest of Europe. In that period the sea level would have been about 60 meters below its current level. This implies that there would have been a great coastal plain, with large flood-prone areas, in which the footprints discovered in mid-2020 would have been made.

The site’s new dating also affects the vertebrate animals found, since the hominin traces there also included footprints of large mammals such as straight-tusked elephants, gigantic bulls (aurochs) and boars. It was the fauna that inhabited what is today Doñana National Park 300,000 years ago and not 100,000 years ago, as earlier reported.

The Chibanian includes the transition in palaeoanthropology from the Lower to the Middle Palaeolithic, which includes the emergence of modern humans between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago. As of 2016, the oldest known human DNA dates to the Middle Pleistocene, around 430,000 years ago. 

Friday, November 4, 2022

Effects of the Tonga-Hunga Eruption

(Image not to scale.) The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption on Jan. 15, 2022, caused many effects. Some of those effects, like extreme winds and unusual electric currents were picked up by NASA’s ICON mission and ESA’s (the European Space Agency) Swarm. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith

On 20 December 2021, an eruption began on Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai, a submarine volcano in the Tongan archipelago in the southern Pacific Ocean. The eruption reached a powerful climax on 15 January when it sent a tsunami racing around the world and set off a sonic boom that circled the globe twice. 

The underwater eruption blasted an enormous plume of water vapor into Earth’s stratosphere. The plume sent enough water into the upper layers of the atmosphere to fill 58,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. That’s nearly four times the amount of water vapor that scientists estimate the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines lofted into the stratosphere.

The height of the plume can reveal how much ice was sent into the stratosphere and where ash particles were released. The height is also critical for aviation safety because volcanic ash can cause jet engine failure.

The Tonga volcanic eruption created a plume of ash and water so strong it reached the mesosphere, about 50-80 km above Earth’s surface, where meteors and meteorites usually burn up. 

Researchers seek to understand the impact the eruption might have on Earth's climate. Massive volcanic eruptions like Krakatoa and Mount Pinatubo typically cool Earth’s surface by ejecting gases, dust, and ash that reflect sunlight back into space. The Tonga volcano did not inject large amounts of aerosols into the stratosphere, and the huge amounts of water vapor from the eruption may have a small, temporary warming effect, since water vapor traps heat.

The eruption of Tonga-Hunga produced a 6-acre island in the Pacific Ocean. The new island is likely to disappear due to volcanic rock degradation caused by the erosion of the waves. According to NASA, islands created by submarine volcanoes are often short-lived, though they occasionally persist for years. For example, an island formed by a 12-day eruption from nearby Late'iki Volcano in 2020 washed away after two months, while an island created in 1995 by the same volcano remained for over two decades.

Monday, September 19, 2022

The Brunswick Magnetic Anomaly


The Brunswick Magnetic Anomaly is a belt of volcanic rocks that formed around 200 million years ago at the time when the Atlantic Ocean took shape. The ribbon of rock is buried about 9 to 12 miles below the surface. It snakes from Alabama across Georgia, and offshore to North Carolina's Outer Banks.

It is believed that the Brunswick Magnetic Anomaly was created when the crusts of Africa and North America were yanked apart. As North America broke from Pangaea, deep troughs formed along the line of separation. These troughs filled with thick layers of coarse red sandstones, conglomerates, shales, and other nonmarine sediments. Similar sediment-filled troughs (called "rift valleys") occurred along North America’s east coast, from Georgia to Nova Scotia, Canada.

Though North America's east coast is relatively quiet now, clues to these ancient tectonic collisions remain buried deep underground. Using special instruments, geophysicists can discover important information about the large-scale motion of Earth’s outermost shell by determining the source of distinct striped magnetic anomalies.

The Brunswick Magnetic Anomaly may mark the original collision zone between the African and North American plates. At least part of this belt of volcanic rock may represent a suture between the plates east of Georgia. 

Friday, September 2, 2022

Counting and Measuring Tree Rings


Dendrochronology is the science of dating events such as volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and environmental changes by studying the characteristic patterns of annual growth rings in timber and tree trunks. Tree cell anatomy contributes to a better understanding of past climate events.

Irina Panyushkina pioneered one of the earliest wood anatomy studies in 1998.She spent the late ’90s in Krasnoyarsk at the Russian Academy of Sciences hunched over a microscope, peering down at paper-thin slices of wood from Arctic larch trees.

Panyushkina painstakingly counted and measured thousands of wood cells to create a 350-year climate chronology, dating from 1642 to 1993. It was among the most rigorous tree-ring–based reconstructions of past climate at the time, but it was also prohibitively tedious. To image the cells, each thin section first had to be photographed under a microscope, and then the images were imported into a computer and displayed onscreen. Panyushkina then had to click on every cell to tell the program to measure it.

Panyushkina took 9,460 photographs from 1,896 tree rings, in just 11 tree samples. The work took her four years. “It was so intensive and laborious,” says Panyushkina, who’s now at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona. “I said I’ll never do it again.

Fortunately, since Panyushkina's research there have been significant advances in dendrochronology and paleoclimate research because of analytical software and computing power. What would have taken weeks in the ’90s now takes days, says Jesper Björklund at the Swiss Federal Research Institute in Birmensdorf. “Using the same amount of time you can obtain roughly 100 times more data, increasing the potential for robustness and scope of each study,” he says. 

The “big jump,” Björklund says, was the development of a software called ROXAS in the early 2000s, which identifies and measures cells from high-resolution scans of tree rings.

Read more here.

Related reading: Tree Story by Valerie Trouet, Johns Hopkins University, 2020

Friday, August 26, 2022

The Chibanian Age of Geologic Time


Schematic illustration of Earth's magnetic field.
Credits: Peter Reid, The University of Edinburgh

A geomagnetic reversal is a change in a planet's magnetic field such that the positions of magnetic north and magnetic south are interchanged.

About 770,000 years ago, Earth’s magnetic fields reversed, swapping magnetic north and south for the last known time. That ushered in a new geological age which scientists have now named the Chibanian.

The Chibanian age is named after the Japanese prefecture Chiba where a cliff wall was found with an exposed layer of marine deposits and mineral debris about 770,000 years old.

When geologists studied the minerals inside, they found evidence of the last known shifting of Earth’s magnetic fields. The planet’s outer core generates its magnetic field, a kind of shield that protects Earth from solar wind.

As molten rock cools, iron-bearing minerals form. They align themselves with the magnetic field, then solidify, acting as a kind of snapshot of Earth’s magnetic field at the time cooling occurred.

The minerals in Chiba allowed geologists to date the last known switch of magnetic fields to about 774,000 years ago. They named the reversal event the Brunhes-Matuyama reversal in honor of the French geophysicist Bernard Brunhes (1867-1910) and the Japanese geophysicist Motonori Matuyama (1884-1958).

Matuyama was the first to provide systematic evidence that the Earth's magnetic field had been reversed in the early Pleistocene and to suggest that long periods existed in the past in which the polarity was reversed.

Antoine Joseph Bernard Brunhes was a pioneer in paleomagnetism. His 1906 discovery of geomagnetic reversal has since been verified. The current period of normal polarity, called Brunhes Chron, is named for him.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The 2022 American Scientific Affiliation Annual Meeting


Tell your friends and join the meeting.

Plenary I: "Reductionism, Emergence, and Free Will: Are We Bound by the Laws of Physics?" on July 29.

Plenary II: "The Scientist and the Questions of Race and Justice." Don't miss his workshop either, "Key Advances in the Science of Adam, Eve, and Evolution" on July 30.

Plenary III: "Mathematics for Human Flourishing" on July 31.

Plenary IV: "Flourishing Future: Keeping God's Creation "Good" So All Can Thrive" on August 1.

Monday, June 27, 2022

James Clerk Maxwell: A Man of Faith

James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell was a Scottish mathematician and scientist responsible for the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, the first theory to describe electricity, magnetism and light as different manifestations of the same phenomenon. He also made fundamental contributions to mathematics, astronomy and engineering.

He was a strong Christian and one of Einstein's heroes. Albert Einstein said, "One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell."

"The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell's equations of the electromagnetic field."

From an early age, James Clerk Maxwell had an astonishing memory and an unquenchable curiosity about how things worked. His first teacher, his mother, encouraged him to "look up through Nature to Nature's God."

Campbell, L. and W. Garnett. 1882. The Life of James Clerk Maxwell: With Selections from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings. London: Macmillan and Co. reports on p. 32:
His knowledge of Scripture, from his earliest boyhood, was extraordinarily extensive and minute.... These things were not known merely by rote. They occupied his imagination and sank deeper than anybody knew.


Maxwell is held in high regard by the scientific community, but few acknowledge his Christian faith or his conviction in the authority of God's Word. Virtually every part of his brief, but remarkable, life was spent exploring the wonder of God's creation.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Newly Predicted Superhard Carbon Structures


An illustration depicts three of 43 newly predicted superhard carbon structures. The cages colored in blue are structurally related to diamond, and the cages colored in yellow and green are structurally related to lonsdaleite. Credit: Bob Wilder / University at Buffalo

Researchers have used computational techniques to identify 43 previously unknown forms of carbon that are thought to be stable and superhard -- including several predicted to be slightly harder than or nearly as hard as diamonds. Each new carbon variety consists of carbon atoms arranged in a distinct pattern in a crystal lattice.

The study -- published in the journal npj Computational Materials -- combines computational predictions of crystal structures with machine learning to hunt for novel materials. The work is theoretical research, meaning that scientists have predicted the new carbon structures but have not created them yet.

Eva Zurek, a University at Buffalo professor of chemistry, conceived of the study and co-led the project with Stefano Curtarolo, PhD, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke University.

Superhard materials can slice, drill and polish other objects. They also hold potential for creating scratch-resistant coatings that could help keep expensive equipment safe from damage.

"Diamonds are right now the hardest material that is commercially available, but they are very expensive," says Zurek. "I have colleagues who do high-pressure experiments in the lab, squeezing materials between diamonds, and they complain about how expensive it is when the diamonds break.

She added, "We would like to find something harder than a diamond. If you could find other materials that are hard, potentially you could make them cheaper. They might also have useful properties that diamonds don't have. Maybe they will interact differently with heat or electricity, for example."

The first and second authors of the new study are UB PhD graduate Patrick Avery and UB PhD student Xiaoyu Wang, both in Zurek's lab. In addition to these researchers, Zurek, Curtarolo and Toher, the co-authors of the paper include Corey Oses and Eric Gossett of Duke University and Davide Proserpio of the Universitá degi Studi di Milano.

The research was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, with additional support from the Universitá degi Studi di Milano, and computational support from UB's Center for Computational Research.

Read more here and here.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Seawater to Drinking Water


MIT researchers have developed a suitcase-sized portable desalination unit that can remove particles and salts to render drinking water that exceeds World Health Organization quality standards. The device runs with the push of one button and requires less power to operate than a cell phone charger. It also can be charged by solar power.

Unlike other portable desalination units that require water to pass through filters, this device utilizes electrical power to remove particles from drinking water. Eliminating the need for replacement filters greatly reduces the long-term maintenance requirements.

The unit relies on ion concentration polarization (ICP). Rather than filtering water, the ICP process applies an electrical field to membranes placed above and below a channel of water. The membranes repel positively or negatively charged particles — including salt molecules, bacteria, and viruses — as they flow past. The charged particles are funneled into a second stream of water that is eventually discharged.

The researchers also created a smartphone app that can control the unit wirelessly and report real-time data on power consumption and water salinity.

This unit could be deployed in remote and severely resource-limited areas, such as communities on small islands or aboard seafaring cargo ships. It also could be used to aid refugees or by soldiers carrying out long-term military operations.

Read more here and here.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Intriguing Story of the Dingo


The Australian dingoes descend from domesticated dogs coming from East Asia, probably with the Austronesian expansion into Island Southeast Asia around 6000 years ago. They were introduced from a small population of dogs and have since roamed wild in most of Australia.

That is the belief of some researchers. However, others question whether dingoes’ ancestors were ever domesticated. The dingo is a genetic intermediate between domestic dogs and wild wolves. This is probably because dingoes spent thousands of years isolated from other dog species. Modern domestic dogs didn’t arrive in Australia until 1788, when they were introduced by Europeans.

Bill Ballard at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, believes that the dingo may have been introduced to Australia as a tamed wild animal, one accustomed to living alongside people but not domesticated through selective breeding.

In 2017, the dingo won the “World’s Most Interesting Genome” competition held by US biotech company Pacific Biosciences.

Read more here and here.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

The Mysterious Mustatils


Photo credit: Huw Groucutt

In the north of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering the Nefud Desert, archaeologists recently catalogued vast stone monuments dating back 7,000 years. These are called mustatils, meaning “rectangles” in Arabic.

Over 1000 of these prehistoric sandstone walls are found in northwest Saudi Arabia. They are clustered in groups of two to 19 and spread across 200,000 square kilometers (77220. sq miles). 

The largest mustatil is over 1,500 feet long and consists of 12,000 tons of stone. Recent fieldwork in AlUla and Khaybar Counties, Saudi Arabia, demonstrates that these structures are architecturally complex, featuring chambers, entranceways and orthostates.

A team of archaeologists led by Huw Groucutt of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany has been studying satellite images of the southern edge of the Nefud Desert. The team identified and studied 104 new mustatils up close.

First discovered in the 1970s, the purpose of these rectangular structures remains mysterious. One theory is that they are sacred enclosures for ceremonial gatherings and feasts. "Our interpretation of mustatils is that they are ritual sites, where groups of people met to perform some kind of currently unknown social activities," Groucutt said. "Perhaps they were sites of animal sacrifices, or feasts."

The structures were built during the African Humid Period (12,600 B.C. to 4,000 B.C.). During this time, the Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula had more plentiful rainfall and the regions were green with lush vegetation.

Read more here.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Reference Human Genome Almost Complete


Work remains to finalize the reference genome (the Y chromosome still needs to be finished) but researchers are close to finally sequencing every last nucleotide of human DNA.

Ever since the launch of the Human Genome Project more than 30 years ago, genetic sequencing technologies and data-processing pipelines have been getting faster, cheaper and more precise, allowing researchers to sample, sequence and compare more genomes with every passing year.

But huge chunks of DNA – amounting to around 8 percent of the human genome – were still missing from the most recent reference sequence that scientists use as a template to assemble newly-sequenced DNA samples.

Now, scientists have pieced together those parts of the human genome which have long been 'unsequenceable' to assemble the most complete reference genome to date, sharing their findings in a collection of six papers, published in the journal Science.

Read more here and here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Our African Ancestors


All living humans share a common point of origin in eastern Africa. Every person living today is descended from hunter-gatherers in Africa thousands of years ago. On our genetic profiles this appears as mtDNA Macro-haplogroup L, also known as Mitochondrial Eve/Eva. This should not be confused with the biblical Eve who lived no earlier than 7200 years ago.

Overview of the main divisions of haplogroup L.

About 300,000 years ago, people in Africa made new kinds of stone tools and began transporting raw materials up to 250 miles (400 kilometers), likely through trade networks. By 140,000-120,000 years ago, people wore animal skins and pierced marine shell beads.

A new genetic study indicates "The presence of eastern African ancestry as far south as Zambia, and southern African ancestry as far north as Kenya, indicates that people were moving long distances and having children with people located far away from where they were born. The only way this population structure could have emerged is if people were moving long distances over many millennia."

After a period of extensive population movements during which peoples from different regions intermarried, a change took place. Marriage partners were chosen from nearby.

The researchers used their study of Ancient DNA (aDNA) to create "the largest genetic dataset so far for studying the population history of ancient African foragers – people who hunted, gathered or fished. We used it to explore population structures that existed prior to the sweeping changes of the past few thousand years."

The DNA sampling was not uniform and not all of the individuals lived contemporaneously. However, "on average individuals from the same or nearby sites proved to be more closely related than predicted solely on the basis of the broad regional genetic structure, but this relatedness extends only over short distances, particularly within Malawi and Zambia."

This study focuses on population movements within Africa. It does not refer to the movements out of Africa. Stone tools dating to 1.5 million years have been found in Saudi Arabia near the Red Sea. 

The oldest stone tool to be found in Turkey reveals that humans passed through the gateway from Asia to Europe approximately 1.2 million years ago. The worked quartzite flake was found in ancient deposits of the river Gediz in western Turkey.

A trove of hand axes dating to 500,000 years ago was found in central Israel at Jaljulya

Thomas Strasser and Eleni Panagopoulou found stone tools on the southwestern shore of Crete, near Plakias. These date to between 200,000 and 100,000 years. 

A young male was buried 100,000 years ago in Qafzeh Cave in Lower Galilee.

Evidence of human habitation 100,000 years ago in the area of Bethlehem is attested along the north side of Wadi Khareitun where there are three caves: Iraq al-Ahmar, Umm Qal’a, and Umm Qatafa. These caves were homes in a wooded landscape overlooking a river. At Umm Qatafa archaeologists have found the earliest evidence of the domestic use of fire in Palestine.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

1921 Fossil Fuel Prediction and the Alligator Pear


A woman with a Chrysler vehicle, circa 1920s.
(Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

This 1921 Science News report predicts modifications to combustion engines that will reduce gasoline consumption. The article was written by E. H. Leslie, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan. He mentions the production of "synthetic gasoline" and the future increased dependence of the United States on imported petroleum products.

H. the production of "synthetic gasoline" and the future increased dependence of the United States on imported petroleum products.

The paper includes a report on the Alligator Pear, otherwise known as the avocado. At the time of the report (July 18, 2921) over 1200 acres of avocados grew in Florida and California. The cost of this fruit was high in the 1920s due to scarcity. The growers have managed to sustain the high prices throughout the subsequent decades.

STEM students will find the Science News Archives helpful for research on historical developments in science.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Remembering John Polkinghorne One Year Later


“Science is privileged to investigate a universe that is both rationally transparent and rationally beautiful. Scientists frequently speak of the experience of wonder as the reward for all the weary labour involved in their research.” - John Polkinghorne

John Polkinghorne died on 9 March 2021. He was an English particle physicist, theologian, Anglican priest, and Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University. He served as the president of Queens' College, Cambridge from 1988 until 1996.

His achievements were recognized in 1974 by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. His work concentrated on quantum physics and the theory of elementary particles. He published a large volume of papers and his books ranged from research texts to popular science such as The Particle Play (1979) and The Quantum World (1984).

In 1977, he decided that he had “done [his] bit for physics”, and he resigned from his university position to begin a second career in the Church. He was ordained a priest in 1982. He served as canon theologian of Liverpool Cathedral from 1994 to 2005.

After a number of years as a parish priest he returned to the academic world and made a significant contribution to the field of science and religion, something he continued to do until his death at age 90.

In his 2007 book Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (London: SPCK), Polkinghorne articulated five points of comparison between the ways in which science and theology pursue truth: moments of enforced radical revision, a period of unresolved confusion, new synthesis and understanding, continued wrestling with unresolved problems, deeper implications.

Polkinghorne believed that because "we are creatures made in the divine image, then it is entirely understandable that there is an order in the universe that is deeply accessible to our minds." It seems natural then that Dr. Polkinghorne would turn to theology as a way to shine light on reality and the material world. Polkinghorne suggests that the experience of meaning in the practice of science hints at God. Science and theology explore a common reality and therefore, share a common starting point for meaningful dialogue.

In the 2008, Polkinghorne wrote, "There are aspects of our scientific understanding of the universe that become more deeply intelligible to us if they are viewed in a Trinitarian perspective." (Science and the Trinity, p. 61)

He considered himself a "creationist", but he rejected the literalism of American Fundamentalism. In an article published in 2008 in The Times, Polkinghorne wrote:

An irritating feature of modern life is the way in which useful words get hijacked and used for different, and often unacceptable, purposes. An example is “creationist”. As a Christian believer I am, of course, a creationist in the proper sense of the term, for I believe that the mind and the purpose of a divine Creator lie behind the fruitful history and remarkable order of the universe which science explores. But I am certainly not a creationist in that curious North American sense, which implies interpreting Genesis 1 in a flat-footed literal way and supposing that evolution is wrong.

The irony of this notion of creationism is that it not only involves many scientific errors, but is also the result of a bad theological mistake. When we read any kind of deep literature, if we are to give it the respect that it deserves we must make sure we understand the genre of what is written. Mistaking poetry for prose can lead to false conclusions. When Robert Burns tell us his love “is like a red, red rose”, we know that we are not meant to think that his girlfriend has green leaves and prickles. Reading Genesis 1 as if it were a divinely dictated scientific text, intended to save us the trouble of actually doing science, is to make a similar kind of error. We miss the point of the chapter if we do not see that it is actually a piece of deep theological writing whose purpose, through the eight-times reiterated phrase “And God said, ‘Let there be . . .”, is to assert that everything that exists does so because of the will of the Creator. Thus literal creationists actually abuse scripture by the mistaken interpretation that they impose upon it.

Related reading: Remembering John Polkinghorne by Tom C. B. McLeish (University of York, UK); Obituary: The Revd Professor John Polkinghorne

Monday, February 28, 2022

Patagonian Mountains Rise as Ice Caps Shrink

Mount Fitz Roy and surrounding peaks on the border between Argentina and Chile.
(Photo: Ben Tiger)

The icefields that stretch for hundreds of miles atop the Andes in Chile and Argentina are melting at some of the fastest rates on the planet. The ground that was beneath this ice is rising as these glaciers disappear.

Geologists have discovered a link between recent ice mass loss, rapid rock uplift and a gap between tectonic plates that underlie Patagonia.

Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis, led by seismologist Douglas Wiens, the Robert S. Brookings Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, recently completed one of the first seismic studies of the Patagonian Andes. In a new publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, they describe and map out local subsurface dynamics.

Shrinking icefields have reduced weight that previously caused the continent to flex downward. The scientists found very low seismic velocity within and around the gap, as well as a thinning of the rigid lithosphere overlying the gap. The ongoing movement of land is known as glacial isostatic adjustment.

These particular mantle conditions are driving many of the recent changes that have been observed in Patagonia, including the rapid uplift in certain areas once covered by ice. 

Researcher Wiens reports, "Low viscosities mean that the mantle responds to deglaciation on the time scale of tens of years, rather than thousands of years, as we observe in Canada for example." Wiens explains, "This explains why GPS has measured large uplift due to the loss of ice mass.

"Another significant thing is that the viscosity is higher beneath the southern part of the Southern Patagonia Icefield compared to the Northern Patagonia Icefield, which helps to explain why uplift rates vary from north to south," Wiens said.

Wiens specializes in seismology and geophysics and has done extensive research on large deep earthquakes in the Pacific Ocean, the effect of ice melt, and the seismology of Antarctica. 

Read more herehere, and here.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

A Turbulent Sun

NOAA Solar Cycle Chart, October 29, 2020

News sources are picking up on the fact that the solar maximum is approaching in July 2025, with an increase in the number of sunspots. Sunspots often appear in pairs with different magnetic polarities. They become more prevalent every 11 years (solar cycle) and they migrate through latitudes, moving closer to the equator as the solar cycle progresses. 

SpaceWeatherLive tracks solar activity and reports that the Sun has erupted from February 1st through the 17th with some days featuring multiple flares. That includes three flares of the second-most powerful category: an M1.4 on February 12; an M1 on February 14; and an M1.3 on February 15. 

There were also five M-class flares in January. The mild geomagnetic storm that knocked 40 newly launched Starlink satellites from low-Earth orbit followed an M-class flare that took place on January 29.

Solar flares happen because of the constantly moving magnetic fields in the Sun's atmosphere. The frequency of solar flares coincides with the Sun's 11-year cycle. When the solar cycle is at a minimum, fewer solar flares are detected. Flares increase in number as the Sun approaches the maximum part of its cycle.

A solar cycle: a montage of ten years' worth of Yohkoh SXT images, showing the variation in solar activity during a sunspot cycle, after 30 August 1991 to 6 September 2001. Credit: Yohkoh mission of ISAS (Japan) and NASA.

The Sun's magnetic field has a north pole and a south pole. About every 11 years, the Sun's magnetic field does a flip. The north pole becomes the south pole, and vice versa.

This flip is one feature of the solar cycle. As the cycle progresses, the Sun's stormy behavior builds to a maximum, and that is when the magnetic field reverses. Then the Sun settles back down to a minimum, only to start another cycle.

Solar storms are not unusual. An ancient solar storm happened around7200 BC when most humans lived at Earth's middle latitudes, not near the poles. Another big storm came between 775-774 BC. By then humans were more widely dispersed and yet they survived that event. 

However, in those times people did not rely on the technologies that we have today. On March 13,1989 the entire province of Quebec, Canada suffered an electrical power blackout caused by a solar storm. Some are concerned that a future large solar storm could return Earth to the dark ages.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Potential AI Breakthrough on Neurodegenerative Disease


Jeremy Linsley: Scientific Program Leader at Gladstone Institutes, University of California, San Francisco. 

new artificial intelligence technology his research team developed can identify dead cells with both superhuman accuracy and speed. This advance could potentially turbocharge all kinds of biomedical research, especially on neurodegenerative disease.

Jeremy explains:

Understanding when and why a cell dies is fundamental to the study of human development, disease and aging. For neurodegenerative diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, identifying dead and dying neurons is critical to developing and testing new treatments. But identifying dead cells can be tricky and has been a constant problem throughout my career as a neuroscientist.

Until now, scientists have had to manually mark which cells look alive and which look dead under the microscope. Dead cells have a characteristic balled-up appearance that is relatively easy to recognize once you know what to look for. My research team and I have employed a veritable army of undergraduate interns paid by the hour to scan through thousands of images and keep a tally of when each neuron in a sample appears to have died. Unfortunately, doing this by hand is a slow, expensive and sometimes error-prone process.

Making matters even more difficult, scientists recently began using automated microscopes to continually capture images of cells as they change over time. While automated microscopes make it easier to take photos, they also create a massive amount of images to manually sort through. It became clear to us that manual curation was neither accurate nor efficient. Furthermore, most imaging techniques can detect only the late stages of cell death, sometimes days after a cell has already begun to decompose. This makes it difficult to distinguish between what actually contributed to the cell’s death from factors just involved in its decay.

My colleagues and I have been trying for some time to automate the curation process. Our initial attempts could not handle the wide range of cell and microscope types we use in our research, nor rival the accuracy of our interns. But a new artificial intelligence technology my research team developed can identify dead cells with both superhuman accuracy and speed. This advance could potentially turbocharge all kinds of biomedical research, especially on neurodegenerative disease.

Source: The Conversation: New AI technique identifies dead cells under the microscope 100 times faster than people can

Jeremy Linsley is a neuroscientist with a demonstrated and diverse skillset within academic biomedical research. Skilled in calcium imaging, cell culture, high-throughput microscopy, 4D microscopy, behavioral analysis, molecular biology, disease genetics, zebrafish, drosophila, hIPSC, primary tissue, organotypic slice culture, deep learning and artificial intelligence. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Cellular and Molecular Biology with John Kuwada at the University of Michigan, and postdoctoral fellowship at Gladstone Institutes with Steve Finkbeiner.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

University of Delaware Engineers Attack CO2 Pollution


Three fuel cell experts discuss their project. From left to right, Yushan Yan, Brian P. Setzler, and Shimshon Gottesfeld. (Photo: Evan Krape)

The University of Delaware engineers captured 99% of carbon dioxide in the air when using their novel hydrogen-powered electrochemical system. The UD engineers have developed a fuel cell technology that uses cheaper catalysts and structural components, but these hydroxide exchange membrane fuel cells (HEMFCs) have a limitation. They cannot use direct supply of ambient air, because the carbon dioxide in the air reduces their performance.

The alkaline environment of hydroxide exchange membrane fuel cells potentially allows use of cost-effective catalysts and bipolar plates in devices. However, HEMFC performance is adversely affected by CO2 present in the ambient air feed. Here, we demonstrate an electrochemically driven CO2 separator (EDCS) to remove CO2 from the air feed using a shorted membrane that conducts both anions and electrons. This EDCS is powered by hydrogen like a fuel cell but needs no electrical wires, bipolar plates or current collectors, and thus can be modularized like a typical separation membrane.

The University of Delaware team has been attempting to improve fuel cell technology for over fifteen years. They realized that the sensitivity of the fuel cell to carbon dioxide, while detrimental to its efficiency in converting the chemical energy in fuel to electricity, meant it could be used as an effective tool for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

An early prototype they developed using this approach, about the size of a 12-ounce (355 mL) soda can, could filter 10 liters of air per minute while scrubbing out >98% of the carbon dioxide present.

Brian Setzler, assistant research professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering and paper co-author explains, "Once we dug into the mechanism, we realized the fuel cells were capturing just about every bit of carbon dioxide that came into them, and they were really good at separating it to the other side," said

"It turns out our approach is very effective. We can capture 99% of the carbon dioxide out of the air in one pass if we have the right design and right configuration," said Professor Yushan Yan, Henry Belin du Pont Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware.

“This carbon dioxide problem has been with us for long enough, and we decided to turn the problem on its head and make it into a solution,” said Yan.

Read more here and here.  

Saturday, February 5, 2022

MIT Engineers Rock the "Impossible"


Using a novel polymerization process, MIT chemical engineers have created a new lightweight material stronger than steel. The new substance is the result of polymerizing a material in two dimensions.

The new material is a two-dimensional polymer that self-assembles into sheets, unlike all other polymers, which form one-dimensional, spaghetti-like chains. Until now, scientists had believed it was impossible to induce polymers to form 2D sheets.

The researchers found that the new material’s elastic modulus — a measure of how much force it takes to deform a material — is between four and six times greater than that of bulletproof glass. They also found that its yield strength, or how much force it takes to break the material, is twice that of steel, even though the material has only about one-sixth the density of steel.

Such a material could be used as a lightweight, durable coating for car parts or cell phones, or as a building material for bridges or other structures, says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the new study.

“We don’t usually think of plastics as being something that you could use to support a building, but with this material, you can enable new things,” he says. “It has very unusual properties and we’re very excited about that.”

The researchers have filed for two patents on the process they used to generate the material, which they describe in a paper appearing today in Nature. MIT postdoc Yuwen Zeng is the lead author of the study.

Read more here and here.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Acceleration of Wind at Jupiter's Red Spot


Credits: NASA, ESA, Michael H. Wong (UC Berkeley)

Students have seen images of Jupiter's Great Red Spot. That dot shows a huge storm and the winds are slowly but steadily accelerating! The acceleration of the winds in the outermost "lane" of Jupiter's Red Spot has been detected by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which has monitored the planet for more than a decade.

Researchers analyzing Hubble's "storm reports" from 2009 to 2020 found that the average wind speed within the boundaries of the storm's high-speed ring has increased by up to 8 percent and exceed 400 miles per hour. In contrast, the winds near the storm's innermost region, set off by a smaller green ring, are moving significantly more slowly. Both move counterclockwise.

Astronomers have pursued ongoing studies of the "king" of solar system storms since the 1870s. The Great Red Spot is an upwelling of material from Jupiter's interior. If seen from the side, the storm would have a tiered wedding cake structure with high clouds at the center cascading down to its outer layers. Astronomers have noted that it is shrinking in size and becoming more circular than oval in observations spanning more than a century. The current diameter is 10,000 miles across, meaning that Earth could still fit inside it.

Read more here.