Some Comments on the New Living Translation(NLT) of the Holy Bible.

The New Living Translation (red letter edition) by Tyndale.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

                                                                                            Philippians 4:8 (NLT)

Preamble

Take a good look at the world around you.

Lawlessness is on the increase in every nation. Our TV and cinema screens are cesspits of filth, lewdness, blasphemy and the glorification of violence. Britain is now the stab capital of Europe. Anti-semitism is escalating across the globe, tearing whole communities and political parties apart. The cold-blooded murder of the unborn is legalised in most developed countries and soon the right to life will be denied to the newborn(it’s already happened in fact). Traditional family values have all but disappeared. Our churches are nearly empty, their elders, priests and pastors, feverishly busy spreading false doctrines. Depraved acts such as homosexuality(they have the audacity to call it ‘sex’) are being promoted as ‘good’ and ‘natural.’ Our children are being taught that they are ‘highly evolved animals'(based on Darwinian pseudoscience); gender is ‘fluid’ even though our chromosomal karyotype plainly says otherwise, boys can be girls or vice versa, and morals are ‘relative.’  Wars and rumours of wars are never far from the headlines. The Middle East is a tinder box ready to explode. Civil war threatens many nations. Whole economies are collapsing. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Steeped in debt, young people can’t afford to get on the housing ladder. Homelessness is at an all-time high. Our once clean cities are slowly becoming slums. Food banks are now common across the western world and their queues are getting ever larger. The biosphere is dying before our very eyes; insects, animal and plant populations are being decimated by pollution, unsustainable and aggressive agricultural policies, and climate change.The bountiful seas are becoming water deserts. And there’s no where to go.

Don’t you think something is terribly wrong with the world? Are you not concerned for the next generation( if the Lord tarries) who will see these trends continuing to escalate?

You’re either a fool or completely deluded to think otherwise!

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course, and I could go on and on.

What source of knowledge brings all of these evils into sharp focus?

Only the Bible provides the answers we so desperately seek. Moreover, it makes it pretty clear that it can’t and won’t be sustained.

The Bible warns us not to turn to idols(which includes atheism) for solutions. In the days of old, these took the form of carved images of wood and stone, animals and even persons( e.g. the Emperor Cult of the Caesars). And though the old gods are long gone, new ones have stepped in to fill the power vacuum; unaware AI, non-existent alien intelligences, sports personalities, rampant consumerism and greed (which the Bible teaches is yet another form of idolatory), ‘mind and body’ gurus, tree huggers and charlatans that promise the earth, steal your money, and leave you high and dry. The secular world believes man is benevolent by nature and can find the answers to all his problems, but let’s be honest; that humanist philosophy has failed miserably. Where exactly is that utopia you dreamt up in your vain maschinations?

It doesn’t exist and cannot exist.

In contrast, the Bible says precisely the opposite; left to his own devices, man is fundamentally not good. Humans become more depraved, more wicked and more desperate without guidance from their Creator. Without God in their lives, things always go from bad to worse. And the inspired Biblical writers foresaw all of it!

We need the Bible more so now than at any other time in human history.

How do I know this? I read the Bible every day. I see it all on the pages of Scripture, as if it’s today’s news. The secular world will accuse you of ‘bigotry’ and ‘small mindedness’ of course, for the simple reason that the same people are woefully ignorant of what the Bible actually says; not the watered down sermons you hear in a typical church on Sunday morning, delivered by a clergy that are increasingly afraid to offend anyone, but by taking heir of one’s self, and actually reading the Biblical text through and applying its principles in every day life. Seen in this light, the accusations of the secularists against true Christians are just more of the same: arguments from ignorance.

And that’s true bigotry!

There is a simple principle I apply in my dealings with the secular world: if it is approved of in the Bible, I’m for it; but if the Bible disapproves of it, I’m not for it!

It’s simple, straight-forward, and unambiguous.

In the 21st century there is an explosion of Bible versions written in the English language to suit the needs of a diverse group of people. The following diagram gives you an idea of the types of Bibles you can choose from:

The green zone represents very literal ‘word for word’ translations from the original Hebrew and Koine Greek. The orange zone represents an entirely different translation philosophy; the so called ‘thought for thought’ translations. Finally, the red zone represents the most loosely rendered interpretations of the Biblical text; the paraphrases.

As you can see from the diagram above, the New Living Translation(NLT) of the Bible is in the orange zone, so bordering between the ‘thought for thought’ and the ‘paraphrased’ renditions. But unlike true paraphrased versions like the Message or The Living Bible, the NLT is actually a true translation of Holy Scripture, but it places a great emphasis on rendering the essential ideas in simple, modern English. The NLT was formulated by a broad church of Christian denominations under a solid translation committee. This is evidenced by the lack of errors in the text(yes, I’ve found typos in other versions formulated by smaller committees) and the attention to detail they have displayed in bringing to life the timeless stories and moral teachings of the Bible for a modern readership. The NLT is available in the 66 books that comprise the Protestant Bible, but they have also produced a Catholic version (with its 72 books). The comments made here refer to the former.

The first edition of the NLT was published in 1996 and its aim was to turn the paraphrased Living Bible (composed by the late Kenneth Taylor in 1971) into a proper translation. It has since undergone several revisions (2004, 2007, 2013 and 2016), which aims to make the text as accessible and inclusive as possible. Like the NIV, the language is quite gender neutral, but the committee has clearly not gone as far as their NIV counterparts, which some feel has taken the issue a wee bit too far. Weights, measures and the timing of religious festivals are expressed in modern terms, which adds to the intelligibility of the text. The introduction pages to this Bible clearly explains why these strategies were adopted.

While it is acknowledged that any thought-for-thought translation is in danger of going too far, and that, ultimately, you are probably safer going with a good literal translation like the ESV, NKJV or NASB, I find there is much that is meritorious about this fresh, dynamic and often idiomatic edition of the Bible. I found it is excellent for speed reading( I obtained my copy in October 2018, but had sampled an earlier edition before giving it away to a friend), having completely finished it in just a few months. Although some renderings of the text were mildly alarming(see Luke 5:30 for an example), on the whole I thought the translation was very enjoyable and worth the effort to read through. At no point did I ever feel that the translators were watering down Scripture (e.g. the deity of Christ or the nature of the triune God), as some commentators have suggested. Indeed, in some cases, I felt it was easier to understand certain passages about the Atonement than in more literal word-for-word translations.

Many of the Psalms will come across as unfamiliar to those who cherish traditional translations, like my beloved NKJV, because the wording is different, but I found the differences enriching more than they were distracting. Consider Psalm 23, for example:

The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
    he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
    bringing honor to his name.
Even when I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
    for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
    protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
    My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
    all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
    forever.

Psalm 23

As you can see, it is worded rather differently to more celebrated versions of the Bible such as the grand old King James Version (which my family and I have committed to memory) but if I’m being honest, it conveys exactly the same comforting ideas as older renditions of this time-honoured Davidic psalm.

I would highly recommend this translation to everyone, but especially those who are making their first steps in the faith. I completely reject the idea that it is an inferior version compared with the more technically accurate renditions of the Bible, for I equate this kind of thinking to yet another example of legalism, which is just plain wrong and anathema to the true message of the Gospel. Afterall, God never intended for His inspired word to be misunderstood or that it be made accessible to only an elite few. Have we not learned anything from the days when the Latin Vulgate was the only version in existence, delivered and understood only by priests?

As our Lord and Saviour once declared:

O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike.

Matthew 11:25(NLT)

That we have so many versions is a blessing and not a curse. Personally, I see it as part of the Divine plan to bring as many people to Christ before the Lord wraps it all up. I for one cherish the NLT as a fine addition to my Bible collection and one which I will continue to use and enjoy until the day I see Him face to face.

Ultimately, the message of the Bible is joyful and optimistic to those who have the wisdom to accept its teachings. So believers have absolutely nothing to fear! Indeed, Scripture anticipated that these radical changes in human society would occur near the closing of the age. It’s as if prophecy is unravelling before our very eyes, and that gives me goose bumps! In the meantime, we just have to keep on trying to make the world a better place and to speak up for issues that we believe are immoral. Moreover, the Bible has always encouraged us to be vigilant in the times we are given to live in. So take heart! Nothing should surprise you!

A few Words on the NLT Premium SlimLine Large Print Reference Edition ( ISBN- 978-1-4143-0711-4)

Now, I would like to say a few words about the particular NLT Bible I have sourced.

The beautiful Leatherlike Brown Gator covering of the Large Print Slimline NLT.

As I explained in a previous blog about my NKJV Bible, I like to have a hard copy of any Bible I purchase. The NLT is, of course, available for study online, but like any other Bible I use, I prefer to have a copy I can bring anywhere with me, without the hassle of relying on using electronic devices to retrieve the text. Afterall, we cannot be certain that we will have the internet forever, can we?

This NLT measures 6.5″ x 9″ and is about an inch thick. It has a paste-down liner and a strong, Smyth-sewn binding. The cover is Leatherex; making it very flexible and durable. It is very attractive to the touch and is easy to grip. It is not ostentatious and will not make you stand out in a crowd. It lies flat when hand-held or when opened on a table. The words are printed in 9.84 font, so very easy to read, even without my glasses. The quality of the paper is not the best but not the worst either, and is perfectly adequate for reading.  It has two colour-matched ribbons page markers to keep track of whatever text from the Old and New Testament I’m studying from.

The NLT large print Slimline edition has nice gold gilding on its pages and comes with two colour-matched ribbons.

The edges of the pages have a very nice gold gilding. The text is fairly well line matched with only a little bit of bleed-through visible from page to page. This is a red letter version. The colour of red is slightly paler than I would have liked but it does the job fine.I don’t really like footnotes, so I was delighted to see that they are minimal in this version of the NLT and are placed at the bottom of the page, where they provide little in the way of a distraction and are also printed in a smaller font size to the main text.

The NLT has the words of our Saviour in red.

At the back of the Bible, there is a fairly comprehensive 53-page concordance, followed by a single page presenting ” Great Chapters from the Bible.” This is immediately followed by a 3-page presentation of what the committee consider to be the “greatest verses from the Bible.” The last few pages present a useful 365-day reading plan to get the user through the entire Biblical text in a single year. Finally, like most Bibles, it presents a few useful full-colour maps of the Holy Land, including a detailed look at the places Jesus visited during his three and a half year earthly mission, as well as maps of the Greek, Babylonian and Assyrian Empires,and which also includes the route of the Exodus and the missionary journeys of Saint Paul.

For a modest cost of £26.99. I consider it a good value in today’s market.

 

I hope readers will receive the NLT with enthusiasm and that it will enrich your knowledge of the Bible in these somewhat alarming but ultimately exciting(for Christians and Messianic Jews)  times in which we now live!

With Every Blessing,

 

Neil.

 

Dr. Neil English recounts the stories of many Christian astronomers from centuries past in his latest historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

 

 

 

De Fideli.

 

 

Earth & Sky.

“Moonrise” by Stanislaw Maslowski (1884); image crdit Wiki Commons.

In a fallen world, where mankind’s rebellion against his Creator is now rapidly reaching pre-flood levels of wickedness, it is good to know that the planet Earth is still a pretty neat place to live. Protected by a just-right atmosphere of mainly nitrogen and oxygen, the Lord of Heaven’s armies has packed this planet full of living things and amazing geological features that bring joy to the human heart.

Our atmosphere is neither too dense or too rarefied, allowing us to peer deeply into the Cosmos, where we have caught a glimpse of eternity.  And all around us, our Creator has left clear evidence of His handiwork so that we are without excuse on the day of judgement.

The human eye can only see so much though, but our Creator chose to give us a mind that enables us to improve our lot, to see things in new and different ways. That’s how I see my binoculars; simple tools that bring heaven and Earth closer, providing a perspective that transcends the limitations of my corporeal form. I am especially fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world, away from the cities where atheism flourishes. Out in the sticks, I can enjoy the beauty of God’s creation more fully, in quietness, surrounded as I am by hills and valleys, green fields and lovely streams of cool, fresh rainwater that sustain the lives of all living things.

The author’s wide angle 8 x 42 binocular: extraordinary performance at an ordinary price.

My wide-angle 8 x 42 binocular, in particular, is the perfect tool for combining the beauty of the night sky with that of the comeliness of the earthly creation. And in this blog, I would like to share with you some of the kinds of activities I get up to to bring these worlds together. This binocular provides a power of just 8 diameters but has an angular field of view wide enough to fit over 16 full Moons in the same wonderful portal. And with its decent light grasp, especially in fading or low light, it is powerful enough to allow me to simultaneously appreciate sights in the heavens and on earth.

                                                  Picture Postcards

Surrounded by mature trees, sometimes many times older than myself, I have grown terribly fond of framing famliar celestial sights, such as the Pleiades and the Hyades in the foreground of their impressive branches. Sometimes, I would wait for the stars in these clusters to fall in altitude after they culminate in the south, so that they are seen to ‘hover’ over the conifer trees beyond my back garden. And if, by chance, the presence of a gentle breeze in the binocular image is witnessed (and it can happen a lot!), then you’ve got a home run; an epiphany of sorts! At other times, I will plan a vigil where the soft light from the stars fills the background whilst the foreground is occupied with denuded winter branches of the deciduous trees near my home. A little light pollution can actually be advantageous in such circumstances as it can help illuminate the tree branches making them stand out more boldly against the stellar backdrop.

Living inside a long valley with verdant hills that soar to about 1000 feet on either side, my binocular is good at framing the rising Moon as its silvery light clears their summit in the east, or as it sinks behind the hills in the west. There are many times where I can plan to observe the Moon and the hilltops in the same field, creating visual scenes that leave a deep impression on me. I give thanks to my God for allowing me to witness such scenes, safe and secure at the bottom of a great sea of fresh, clean air.

Ever since childhood, I have been attracted to storms, often venturing out to feel the energy they generate in the atmosphere. Sometimes these storms occur on moonlit nights and I would think it nothing to grab my binocular and carry myself off to some favourite haunts, woody glades and the like, where moonbeams create wonderful atmospheric scenes, complemented by the sound of wind whistling through their branches.

My binocular has renewed my interest in observing the full Moon, not in and of itself, but when it is surrounded by low lying and fast-moving rain clouds, as often happens here in the British Isles. I watch as these clouds enter the outer field, inching their way toward the bright satellite, and all the while lighting up with beautiful colours caused by refraction of moonlight through raindrops. The colours often start off deep and moody, like dried-in blood, when far from the Moon, but as they move ever closer, the colours they generate; gorgeous shades of pink, yellows and even rose tints; saturate the cones on my retina and,  upwelling feelings of great happiness.

The structure of clouds backlit by moonlight reveals wonderful, highly complex structures, as well as colours – knots, filaments and pleated sheets. Often the scene reminds me of the play of light on the matter which is expelled into the shells of planetary nebulae as imaged by a great telescope, with a white dwarf star being replaced by our very own Moon at its epicentre lol. Such natural shows of light and form rank as some of the most lovely and most surreal binocular images one is likely to capture. Sometimes, great gaping holes in the heavens open up around the clouds, allowing the light of the distant stars to be seen near the full Moon.

Dawn and dusk are good times to see some spectacular sights, such as the bright planet Venus sinking low into the sky, often silhouetted by interesting terrestrial structures, such as a distant hill,  an old barnhouse or silo, church or windmill. By getting to know your horizons, sublime scenes can be captured with your binocular, bringing heaven and Earth together, just like it will be in the New Creation.

Cityscapes can also be used to enhance the binocular view. Framing bright star clusters like the Pleiades or a crescent Moon in the background to an old church spire, domed cathedral, or grand municipal building, can make for a very fetching sight. Photographers  imagine likewise,of course, but the impromptu binocular experience is an even greater liberal art!

Another worthwhile project is to image the bright Moon over a large expanse of water, especially during calm conditions, when its  reflection  is quite mirror-like. Under the light of a town or city, smaller binoculars do just fine, like my little Pentax DCF 9 x 28 pocket instrument. You can even wander through your neighbourhood finding interesting foreground subjects to frame your celestial scenes in advance of an event.

It’s good to plan.

Well, I hope you get some ideas from this short article. In doing so, you can enjoy the best of the heavenly and terrestrial creations, and which can turn an otherwise mundane evening or morning into a very memorable one!

Happy hunting!

 

 

Neil English is the author of several books in amateur and professional astronomy.

 

 

 

De Fideli.

Notes on Going on Campaign.

In it to win it.

Today you are on the verge of battle with your enemies. Do not let your heart faint, do not be afraid, and do not tremble or be terrified because of them;  for the Lord your God is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.’

Deuteronomy 20:3-4

 

As you may well be aware of, I don’t spend a lot of time on internet forums. When looking for specific information, I generally consult known and trusted authorities from books rather than the ramblings of folk whose only apparent purpose in life is to post stuff online. You don’t have to search for long to see that some folk spend nearly their entire waking moments on these forums(clocking up tens of thousands of posts in the process), wasting their employers time (read stealing) and that makes for very one-dimensional personalities, who ostensibly crave power or attention, or both. That is their world pure and simple; take that world away and they’d probably fall to pieces. What’s more, some of these characters resent individuals who hold different opinions to their own and go to great lengths to de-rail them, especially if it threatens their world view.

If I go online, I generally do so for a very specific purpose; to raise awareness of some issue that is important or to alert people to new concepts. I see this as part of apologetics per se, as there is usually a moral dimension to my ‘campaigns’, such as folk getting ripped off by unscrupulous telescope salesmen and their fanboys and to alert or inform the general public about ideologies that are patently false. One subject that is close to my heart pertains to the staggering complexity of living things in general, and human beings in particular, and the unprecedented accumulation of new scientific evidences that we are not on this planet as a result of some quirk of nature.

Evolutionary ideology has robbed many people of their self-worth. Putting their faith in a ‘monkey religion’ first promulgated by a second-rate Victorian barnacle collector by the name of Charles Darwin, who turned his back on his Creator just because he couldn’t come to terms with the loss of his daughter, they believe that we are the progeny of pond scum and that we slowly evolved through innumerable transitional forms to become the ‘naked apes’ we are today. What is more, for decades they have been fed a staple diet of ‘junk science’ that anticipates that the Universe is teeming with life and that anyone who expresses scepticism is to be viewed with suspicion or even derision. Invariably, these individuals are unwilling to do their own research and continue to propagate extremely dubious ideas to an unsuspecting audience. I felt it was high time to challenge this claim head on, to show that the evidence in support of these ideas was in fact extremely tenuous.

                                                      Know thine Enemy

Before commencing upon any campaign of this nature it pays to know your enemy; the mindset of those who are likely to challenge the claims you bring to the table and their motivations for resisting such claims. Very often it is just good old fashioned hatred. They can’t stand being told that their evolutionary bubble is about to be burst. Others resent for entirely personal reasons; consumed with murderous thoughts and green with jealousy. They are easy to spot as they always return to the scene, or lurk like cowards in the background endorsing their men with ‘likes’.  Expect ad hominem attacks from trolls; that comes with the territory and be prepared for insults being hurled at you. These are the God haters, the mob who believe and act as if humans were animals, so invariably, their responses reflect their bestial nature. Be aware also that many folk are naturally drawn to conflict; they are just there to be entertained.

                                                        Avoid Conflict

Responding to insults and getting embroiled in heated arguments online is to be avoided. It drains you of energy and causes you to lose focus. Doubtless it can be very difficult, but it serves no good to lower yourself to the level of the heckler. One must always remember that despite their belligerent unbelief, they are also made in the image of God, though they have long fallen away. Just make your points and leave it at that. Understandably, some folk seek genuine dialogue; but this can be done behind the scenes, via email or some other private medium. If they are really interested in learning, they’ll stick with you. If not, they will soon vanish in the aether.

                                                          Be Prepared

Before launching a campaign; prepare yourself. You need to do your research, bringing all relevant information to the fore. You need to check references, academic credentials etc. Where possible, one should aim to present the views of distinguished scientists, with solid track records. Holding a PhD in a relevant science would be an absolute minimum standard for me. Those who don’t  have such credentials are very unlikely to be nuanced enough in the field to bring anything concrete to the table. Unfortunately, there are frauds in every avenue of human enquiry (I’ve uncovered a few with googly eyes) and some continue to fall for their trappings. Be selective, presenting information that firmly establishes the points you wish to make. Avoid hyperbole. If at all possible, collate more information than is generally needed (auxilia) to re-inforce a point and ideally from a number of different sources. You never know, such data might come in handy if the thread takes a tricky turn. No one individual has an absolute monopoly on a truth claim. The truth is best displayed when several sources arrive at the same conclusion.

                                                             Don’t be Afraid!

Don’t be initimated by your adversaries. Sometimes the hatred sensed becomes so overbearing that it induces nausea; so I do what I do quickly.

If you’re prepared, there is little they can do to retort.

Seek the Lord always; ask for His advice.

Commit your actions to the LORD, and your plans will succeed.

Proverbs 16:3

 

 

Case Study: How Many Earths in Our Galaxy?

Intended Audience to be Reached: Atheists, evolutionists with a religious bent or churches which have been indoctrinated with evolutionary ideology; Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians. Also, the editorial teams of astronomy and popular science periodicals.

Typical response: Trillions upon trillions.

Scientific basis for believing in the Plurality of Habitable worlds: Life exists on Earth, a typical planet, so life must be common in the Universe.

Actual Evidence for Extraterrestrial Life: None.

 

                                      The Scientific Evidence Against the Case

The Wider Universe: Gamma Ray Burst Frequency at High Redshifts( z>0.5) and its likely consequences for living things.

Nota bene: This was not presented on the discussed thread but in a related thread on the same forum.

Christians have been at the forefront of the debate about whether life can arise naturalistically here on Earth and elsewhere. The organisation, Reasons to Believe, employs scientists trained to PhD level and beyond, who have thoroughly researched the issue. Many of the basic ideas were laid out in their book: Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (2014); which summarizes many of the problems in a clear and concise way.

The audience is asked to look at the reviews of the book and not to dismiss the book because of their Christian positioning.

The scoffers enter the scene and state their opinions.Some posters are gracious but others persist in scoffing(especially those who are singularly unqualified to offer a technical opinion on the matter) I asked the responders a simple question:

“Have you read the book yet?”

Furthermore, I suggest that abiogenesis(the notion that living systems can arise naturally) is scientifically impossible.

I re-entered the debate several years later in late 2018, as more science came to the fore:

Leading German biochemist(Dr. Clemens Richert) admits that cheating (human intervention) occurs in much prebiotic chemical research in a premier scientific journal.

World leading chemist, Dr. James Tour ( Rice University, USA) speaks out about the same issue as the German biochemist. Tour makes it clear that life cannot arise without an intelligent agency.

Dr. Tour also speaks out about the failure of Darwinian mechanisms to account for the complexity of life. Indeed, behind the scenes, Tour states that Darwinian evolution has now been debunked by the biologists.

I present a detailed talk on the fossil record (2018) by Dr. Gunter Bechly, a leading German paleontologist, who has studied the phenomenon for many years. Bechly presents clear and unambiguous evidence that the fossil record, with its serious discontinuities, does not support a Darwinian scenario. Furthermore, he concludes that life must have been designed.

I point out that Bechly was an avowed evolutionist until he was forced to reassess his scientific positioning as more fossil evidence emerged that could not be reconciled with a Darwinian evolutionary process. His change of mind was driven by the scientific evidence and not by any religious conviction (although he is now a Roman Catholic). The trolls re-emerge in the background supporting their man with “likes”. One of the trolls is a carpenter by trade (yep I did my research) from Upstate New York, another is a prominent ‘know it all,” a retired mechanical engineer from San Diego, who spends his entire waking life on these forums, following me around like a bad smell. Such individuals have expressed a singular hatred of this author in past encounters. However, both individuals are ultimately unqualified to offer any scientific criticism of the work presented; their dissent has no teeth.

Their man attacks the scientists at the Discovery Institute, who are sceptical of the evolutionary paradigm, calling them “frauds.”. I refrain from addressing this potentially serious accusation, as it’s an unnecessary diversion from the truth.

I then present more scientific evidence relevant to the question of whether life exists elsewhere in the Universe;

A team of Cornell University scientists(December 2018) identify potential fake biosignatures in simulations of exoplanetary atmospheres.

Astrobiologists, in their unbridled belief that biosignatures can be identified spectroscopically could pontentially identify fake life signatures and thus mislead the public.

A team of astronomers at Cardiff University, UK (April 2018) present a potentially serious problem of phosphorus synthesis in supernovae.

If phosphorus is only produced in localised pockets of the Universe then it raises a serious question about whether life can really be ubiquitous.

No responses are made by my adversaries on the two issues raised above.

One gracious individual asks for dialogue between myself and my adversaries but I suggest that he contact Dr. Tour directly and provide his contact details (and illustrious credentials). At this stage I deduced that no meaningful dialogue was really possible as the responses from my principal adversary strongly suggested that he did not look at the counter evidence ( a very common problem unfortunately) as presented in the thread.

I present a paper which discusses the concept of Specified Complexity, which offers a much better fit of the proposed relationships between organisms, and which is not predicated upon the assumption of common descent.

My adversaries fail to see the relevance of the work and accuse me of ” not knowing what I’m talking about.”

I ignore these ad hominem attacks on me and proceed to the conclusions of my “campaign.”

I present evidence(October 2018) that M Dwarfs, which comprise some 80 per cent of all stellar real estate in the Universe are very unlikely to support planets capable of harbouring life owing to their frequent flaring events, not to mention tidal locking of planets within their putative habitable zones:

 

At this stage I inform readers that the scientist who first brought the “Hand of God phenomenon” (the very phrase used by Dr. Richert in his December 12 2018 Nature Communications paper) in prebiotic chemical synthesis to the attention of the wider scientific community was Dr. Fazale Rana, staff biochemist with Reasons to Believe (www.reasons.org). Dr. Rana actually anticipated the admissions of both Dr. Tour and Dr. Richert in his 2011 book; Creating Life In the Lab.

More on this here: https://www.youtube….ZgO-sEw&t=1098s

 

I respond to one post (# 103) of this thread, where the poster presented work by Dr. Jack Szostak(Harvard University).

“It must be noted that some of Szostak’s claims of RNA self replication were retracted owing to the inability of his colleagues to reproduce the work.

Source: https://www.nature.c…UVvR6XRR1ibSn0=

In an interview Szostak said, “we were totally blinded by our belief [in our findings]…we were not as careful or rigorous as we should have been…”

Source:https://retractionwa…nal/#more-52894

Another 2009 paper by Szostak et al was similarly retracted.

My adversaries also seem singularly ignorant of my own scientific criticism of Szostak’s work in the same video sequence which I presented here and here.

I point out that in light of the gross negligence in accountability of origin of life research protocols and the “Hand of God phenomenon(read cheating)” that occurs in prebiotic research that Dr. Tour calls for a moratorium on such research.

One responder asks what the relevance of all my posts is.

I did not respond, as I deemed the string of posts as being logically consistent with the matter in hand. It was just another attempt at provocation but I did say this:

“I would suggest you speak with Dr. Tour on these matters. He is better qualified than I to elaborate on this and I’m not here to discuss details. But what I will say is the popular science/astronomy magazine articles and their editorial teams should stop flogging lies to the general public, who have swallowed this claptrap hook line and sinker, based on their pagan ideologies.”

Finally I presented a summary of what science actually tells us about life on Earth and elsewhere in the Universe by Dr Tour himself:

“Life should not exist. This much we know from chemistry. In contrast to the ubiquity of life on earth, the lifelessness of other planets makes far better chemical sense……….We synthetic chemists should state the obvious. The appearance of life on earth is a mystery. We are nowhere near solving this problem. The proposals offered thus far to explain life’s origin make no scientific sense.

Beyond our planet, all the others that have been probed are lifeless, a result in accord with our chemical expectations. The laws of physics and chemistry’s Periodic Table are universal, suggesting that life based upon amino acids, nucleotides, saccharides and lipids is an anomaly. Life should not exist anywhere in our universe. Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth.”

Source: https://inference-re…o-my-colleagues

At this point, the forum moderator, clearly incensed by these comments, blocks my further participation in the thread. The author acknowledges this as a flagrant violation of free speech but does not protest.

I would submit to the reader that what is presented above is actually the most accurate and up-to-date scientific assessment of the phenomon of life and whether it can emerge on other planets. It is at direct odds with the prevailing notion among science journalists and the general public, who, by and large, lack any scientific training on this matter. Doubtless the pagan media will continue to peddle lies to a naive readership. So be on your guard!

This is the position I hold to as of late January 2019

I mentioned that this campaign was a source of “great non-personal success.” This is evidenced by the large increases (up to ten fold) of the number of “likes” received from the viewing public to the youtube clips presented in the short time since they were posted. Hitting the “like” button helps to increase the profile of these presentations, allowing more people to find and share them with their friends.

Lies need to be exposed; as St. Paul declares:

Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them.

Ephesians 5:11

 

Dr. Neil English maintains a keen interest in origin of life research and is deeply sceptical of the evolutionary paradigm.

If you like this work and wish to support the author, please consider buying a copy of his latest book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, which touches on such issues here and there, newly published by Springer Nature.

 

 

De Fideli.

Living without Lasers

Collimation tools; from left right: a SkyWatcher Next Generation laser collimator, a collimation cap, a well made Cheshire eyepiece and a Baader lasercolli Mark III.

 

It is undoubtedly true that by far the most prevalent reason why so many amateurs have dissed Newtonian reflectors in the past boils down to poorly collimated ‘scopes which lead to less than inspiring images. The amateur who pays close attention to accurate collimation will however discover the solid virtues of these marvellous telescopes and will soon forget the bad experiences of the past.

I’ve noticed a trend over the last few decades, where more and more amateurs have become lazy and impatient. They want instant gratification. This is one of the main reasons why many have turned to hassle-free instruments such as small refractors and Maksutov Cassegrains. It’s an entirely understandable trend, but in other ways it is lamentable. One of the downsides of this trend is that amateurs have become less concerned with learning practical optics, deferring instead to higher tech ways of obtaining optimal results in the field. One such technology is the laser collimator; a very useful device that has made accurate collimation far less of a chore than it was just a few decades ago. But while many have defaulted to using such tools as labour-saving devices, they have, at best, become less familiar, or at worst, all but forgotten the traditional tools used in the alignment of  telescope optics; tools such as the collimation cap and the Cheshire eyepiece, and in so doing have less and less understanding of how their telescopes actually work.

The desire for super-accurate collimation has undoutedly been fuelled by the advent of faster optical systems; often supporting sub-f/5 primaries. Once, the traditional Newtonian was almost invariably made with higher f ratios:- F/7 to f/10 and beyond, and requiring very little in the way of maintenance. This is abundantly evidenced by the scant attention astronomy authors of the past gave to such pursuits. In contrast, modern Newtonians are usually f/6 or faster, necessitating much greater attention to accurate optical collimation if excellent results are to be consistently attained during field use.

In my chosen passtime of double star observing, I have acknowledged the need for accurate collimation. Such work often requires very high magnifications; up to and in excess of 50x per inch of aperture, to prize apart close double stars, some of which are below 1 arc second in angular separation. At such high powers, sub-standard collimation results in distorted images of stellar Airy disks, and that’s something that I’m not willing to put up with. In this capacity, I have tested a number of collimaton techniques using a few different laser collimating devices but have also spent quite a lot of time comparing such methods to more traditional techniques involviing the tried and trusted collimation cap and Cheshire eyepiece.

To begin with, it is important to stress that the methods covered in this blog can be achieved easily with a little practice, and I will gladly defer to recognised authorities in the art of Newtonian collimation, such as the late Nils Olif Carlin and Gary Seronik, who have done much to dispel the potentially stressful aspects of telescope collimation. Nothing I will reveal here goes beyond or challenges anything they have already said. My goal is to reassure amateurs that one can happily live without lasers, especially if your Netwonians are of the f/5 or f/6 variety.

Many of the entry-level laser collimators often manifest some issues; partcularly if they are not collimated prior to use. Thankfully, the inexpensive SkyWatcher Next Generation that I have used for a few years did come reasonably well collimated, but others have not been so fortunate. One easy way to see if your laser collimator needs collimating is to place it in the focuser of the telescope and rotate it, examining the behaviour of the beam on the primary. If the beam does not stay in place, but traces out a large annulus, you will have issues and will need to properly collimate the laser. This is not particularly difficult to do and many resources are available on line to help you grapple with this problem. See here and here, for examples.

Of course, you can pay extra for better made laser collimators that are precisely collimated at the factory. Units that have received very good feedback from customers include systems manufactured by Hotech, AstroSystems and Howie Glatter. Some of these are quite expensive in relative terms but many amateurs are willing to shell out for them because they deliver consistently good results. My own journey took me in a different direction though. Instead of investing in a top-class laser collimator, I re-discovered the virtues of traditional techniques involving the collimation cap and Cheshire eyepiece.

My personal motivation to return to traditional, low-tech tools was stoked more from a desire to understand Newtonian telescopes more than anything else. Any ole eejit can use a laser collimator but it deprives you of attaining a deep understanding of how Newtonians operate. In addition, I have frequently found myself dismantling whole ‘scopes in order to get at the mirrors to give them a good clean and this meant I had to learn how to put them back together from scratch. The simpe collimation cap has been found to be an indispensable tool in this regard, allowing one to rapidly centre the secondary mirror in the shadow of the primary.

Singing the virtues of simple tools, such as the tried and trsuted collimation cap.

 

Using just this tool, I’ve been able to set up all my Newtonians rapidly to achieve good results from the get go, at both low amd medium powers more or less routinely.

For the highest power applications  more accuracy is required and I have personally found that a quality Cheshire eyepiece to be more than sufficient to accurately align the optics in just a few minutes. Not all Cheshires are created equal though; some are less accurate than others. For my own use, I have settled on a beautifully machined product marketed by First Light Optics here in the UK ( be sure to check out the reviews while you’re at it). For the modest cost of £37, I have acquired a precision tool to take the hassle out of fine adjustment. The unit features a long sight tube with precisely fitted cross hairs that are accurately aligned with the peep hole. It needs no batteries and comes with no instructions but with a little practice, it works brilliantly!

The beautifully machined and adonised Cheshire eyepiece by First Light Optics, UK.

A nicely finished peep hole.

The precisely positioned cross hairs on the under side of the Cheshire.

 

Because all of my Newtonians are of the closed-tube variety, they are robust enough to only require very slight tweaks to the collimation. I would estimate that 80 per cent of the time, it is only the primary mirror that requires adjusting in field use. I have found this overview by AstroBaby to be very useful in regard to using the Cheshire and would recommend it to others.

The Cheshire eyepiece is a joy to use when collimating my 130mm f/5. Because the tube is short, I can access both the primary and secondary Bob’s Knobs screws to whip the whole system into alignment faster than with my laser. With my longer instruments; partcularly my 8″ f/6 and 12″ f/5, collimation using the Cheshire is decidely more challenging as they both have longer tubes. That said, by familiarising one’s self with the directions of motion executed with the three knobs on the primary, one can very quickly achieve precise collimation. One useful tip is to number the knobs individually so that you can dispense with the guesswork of which knob to reach for to get the requisite adjustment. At dusk, with the telescopes sitting pretty in their lazy suzan cradles, and with the Chesire eyepiece in place in the focuser, I swing the instrument back and forth to alternately view the position of the primary in the eyepiece and the knob(s) I need to turn. Doing this, I get perfect results in just a few minutes; a little longer than can be achieved with a laser, admittedly, but not long enough to render the process exhausting or boring. It’s time well spent.

Know thy Knobs: by spending some time getting to know which directions each of the collimation knobs move the primary mirror, it makes collimation with a Cheshire eyepiece hassle free.

The proof the pudding, of course, is in the eating, and in this capacity, I have found the Cheshire to achieve very accurate results each time, every time. Indeed, it has made my laser collimator blush on more than a few occasions, where high power star tests and images of close double stars reveal that the laser was out a little, requiring a collimation tweak under the stars. Indeed, the Chesire is so accurate that it has become my reference method to assess the efficacy of all the laser collimators I’ve had the pleasure of testing.

While I fully acknowledge the utility of good laser collimators, I get much more of a kick out of seeing, with my own eyes, how all the optical components of the Newtonian fall into place using the Cheshire. Furthermore, the fact that it requires no batteries (and so no issues with the unit failing in the field for lack of power, as has happened to me on more than a few occasions), deeply appeals to my longing for low-tech simplicity in all things astronomical. The fact that the aforementioned amateurs also recommend the Cheshire as an accurate tool for collimating a Newtonian makes it all the more appealing.

Having said all this, the utility of a Cheshire eyepiece lessens as the f ratio of your telescope gets smaller, so much so that for f/4 ‘scopes ar faster, the laser technique will, almost certainly, yield more accurate results. But that’s OK. We are blessed in this day and age with many good tools that can make Newtonian optics shine!

 

Note added in proof: August 14 2018

A really good laser collimator: the Hotech SCA, which can be used with both 1.25″ and 2″ focusers and comes in a very attractive little box with straightforward instructions on how to use it. You will still need the collimation cap to centre the secondary though.

 

If you do decide that you don’t like using a good Chesire eyepiece for precise collimation of your Newtonian reflectors, then I would highly recommend the Hotech SCA laser collimator. It’s an ingenious device (but costs significantly more than a regular laser collimator), but in this case you really do get what you pay for. I have tested the device on all three of my Newtonians and it gives accurate and reproducible results that agree perfectly with the Chesire. It yields perfect star tests at appropriately high powers (I’d recommend a magnification roughly equal to the diameter of your mirror in millimetres for such field tests) both in focus and defocused. I’d go for it if you can afford it. You will still need the collimation cap to centre the secondary before use however. See here and here for more details.

Neil English is author of Choosing and Using a Dobsonian Telescope.

 

 

De Fideli.

Pulcherrima!

Beauty and the beast: my 130mm f/5 Newtonian versus a 90mm f/5.5 ED refractor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Date: Wednesday March 28 2018

Time: 22:00UT

Temperature: −2C

Seeing: III, bright gibbous Moon, small amounts of cloud cover in an otherwise clear sky.

It is often claimed that refractors give more aesthetically pleasing images of celestial objects than reflectors. But how true is this statement? Last night, I learned yet another instructive lesson that shatters this myth once and for all.

Earlier in the evening, I fielded my 8″ f/6 Newtonian against a very good 90mm f/5.5 ED apochromat. The target was Theta Aurigae, then sinking into the western sky and so past its best position for observing. Seeing was only average. Both telescopes had been fielded about 90 minutes earlier with the optics capped, so both were completely acclimated. I charged the apochromat with a 2.4mm Vixen HR eyepiece yielding 208x. The 8 inch Newtonian was charged with a 6mm Baader orthoscopic ocular delivering 200x.

Examining the system in the 8 inch reflector showed the primary star as a slightly swollen Airy disk but the faint companion was clearly visible. In contrast, the view through the 90mm refractor showed a less disturbed primary but the secondary(for the most part) couldn’t be seen!

Question: How can an image be deemed more aesthetically pleasing when a prime target (the secondary) in that said image can plainly be seen in one instrument and not in the other?

Date: Thursday March 29 2018

Time: 00:05 UT

Temperture:−3C

Seeing; II/III, slight improvement from earlier, otherwise very similar.

Later the same night, I fielded my 130mm F/5 Newtonian along side the 90mm refractor and  turned my attention to a spring favourite; Epsilon Bootis, now rising higher in the eastern sky.

This time, I charged the refractor with a 2.0mm Vixen HR eyepiece yielding 250x. The Newtonian was fitted with a Parks Gold 7.5mm eyepiece coupled to a Meade 3x Barlow lens giving a power of 260x.  Examining the system, I was quite shocked by the difference between the images; the refractor did show a dull, greenish companion but it was entangled in the diffraction gunk from the orange primary. What’s more, the entire system was surrounded by chromatic fog owing to the imperfect colour correction of the refractor (an FPL 51 doublet). In contrast, the 130mm f/5 Newtonian image was far superior in every way; the Airy disks were smaller, tighter and more cleanly separated, and with zero chromatic fog to be seen. The Newtonian image remained just as stable as in the refractor image throughout the observation! The components also displayed their pure colours (as only a reflector can yield); the primary orange and the secondary, blue. In a phrase, the differences between the images was like night and day!

Conclusions: The 130mm Newtonian provided a much more aesthetically pleasing image than the refractor, which was compromised by its smaller aperture and less than perfect colour correction. As a small portable telescope, the Newtonian is far more powerful and is capable of delivering images that are simply in a different league to the refractor.

ED 90 Refractor: Proxime accessit.

130mm f/5 Newtonian(Plotina): Victrix/Pulcherrima!

 

Postscriptum: As always, I would encourage others to test these claims. Truth matters.

 

 

Neil English is author of Grab ‘n’ Go Astronomy.

 

De Fideli.

 

 

Planetary Telescopes.

The author's plnetary telescope; a 8 inch f/6 Newtonian reffector.

The author’s planetary telescope; a 8 inch f/6 Newtonian Reflector.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But thou shalt have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have:

Deuteronomy 25:15

Comments on planetary telescopes by established authorities** in the field over the last 130 years.

As a really efficient tool for systematic work on planets, telescopes of about 8 inch aperture cannot be surpassed. It is useless waiting for the two or three serene nights in a year when the whole diameter of a big instrument is available to really good effect. Amateurs urgently require the appliances most efficient under ordinary conditions and they will find a larger aperture of little avail until it is much reduced by a system of gagging and robbed of that very advantage which is extolled so much; namely grasp of light. The 18.5 inch equatorial of the Dearborn Observatory cost £3700, the great Washington refractor £9000, the great Melbourne Cassegrainean (reflector) of 4 feet aperture cost £14,600, and at first it would appear preposterous that a good 8.5 inch With or Calver mirror, that can be purchased for some £30 will effectively rival these expensive and elaborate instruments. Many people would consider that in any crucial tests the smaller instrument would be utterly snuffed out: but such an idea is entirely erroneous. What the minor telescope lacks in point of light it gains in definition. When the seeing is good in a large aperture, it is superlative in a small one. When unusually high powers can be employed on the former, far higher ones proportionally can be used with the latter. We naturally expect that very fine telescopes, upon which so much labour and expense have been lavished, should reveal far more detail than in moderate apertures, but when we come to analyze the results it is obvious such an anticipation is far from being realized.

From W.F. Denning’s, The Defining Powers of Telescopes, Anno Domini 1885.

The planet looks as if cut out of paper and pasted on [the] background of sky. It is perfectly hard and sharp with no softening of edges. The outline and general definition are much superior to that of a refracting telescope.

E.E. Barnard comparing the views of Saturn seen with the newly erected 60-inch reflector atop Mount Wilson, with the 36-inch Lick Refractor, Anno Domini 1908

Source: Sheehan, W. The Immortal Fire Within: The Life and Work of Edward Emerson Barnard, Cambridge University Press, pp 398. Anno Domini 2007.

Although something worth recording may be seen even with a 3-inch, the intending student of Jupiter should have available a telescope of not less than 6 inches aperture. With such an instrument a great deal of first-class systematic work can be accomplished and only the smallest of the really important markings will be beyond its reach; indeed, until only a year or two before his death Stanley Williams made all his invaluable observations with a 6-inch reflector. An 8-inch is probably adequate for all purposes; a 12-inch certainly is. The bulk of the author’s work has been done with a 12-inch reflector; and although it would not be true to say that he has never yearned for something larger when definition was superb, the gain would have been mainly aesthetic and he has never felt that anything important was being missed owing to the inadequacy of his equipment.

Peek, B.M., The Planet Jupiter:The Observer’s Handbook, Faber, pp 36-37, Anno Domini 1981.

If the aperture exceeds about 12 inches , the atmosphere will seldom allow the full aperture to be used……..Direct comparisons of performance on different occasions have revealed an 8-in refractor showing more than a 36-in reflector; an 11-in refractor surpassing a 12-in reflector; canali invisible in the Greenwich 28-in stopped down to 20 ins, but visible in an 8-inch by T.E.R. Philips; apertures less than 20 ins showing more than the Yerkes 40-in stopped to 30 ins.

From Mars by J.B Sidgwick, Observational Astronomy for Amateurs, (pp 118) Anno Domini 1971.

One of the greatest Jupiter observers, Stanley Williams, used only a 6-inch reflector, but most serious students of the planet now would look for at least an 8-inch, although a good 5-inch OG can reveal surprising detail. This is not the place to debate the relative performance of refractors and reflectors, but good resolution, high contrast and faithful colour rendition are essential. A good long focal ratio Newtonian , a Maksutov, or an apochromatic refractor is probably the best but, as in every field, the quality of the observer is the most important factor, and good results can be obtained with any reasonable instrument.

Moseley T., from the chapter on Jupiter in The Observational Amateur Astronomer, (Moore, P. ed), Springer, pp95, Anno Domini 1995.

To recapitulate: Mars is not an easy target. Because the disc is generally small, it is essential to use a fairly high power telescope if it is hoped to see anything except for the most prominent features. Of course a small telescope such as a 7.6cm refractor or a 15cm reflector will show something under good conditions, but for more detailed work a larger aperture is needed. A 20cm telescope is about the minimum for a reflector; I would not personally be happy with anything below 20cm, though opinions differ, and no doubt observers more keen sighted than I am will disagree.

Moore, P., from the chapter on Mars in The Observational Amateur Astronomer, (Moore, P. ed), Springer, pp78, Anno Domini 1995.

A 3-inch refractor with a magnification of around 50x will show the planet and its ring system, but an aperture of no less than 6-inches is needed for observations to be of value; ideally one should aim for an aperture of at least this size – the larger the better. It has been claimed that the best magnification for planetary observation is about equal to the diameter of the object glass or mirror in millimetres. To see the fine details of Saturn’s belts and ring structure, a magnification of 150x to 300x is necessary, and therefore, according to the above rule, telescopes of 150mm or more are clearly required.

Heath, A.W., from a chapter on Saturn in:The Observational Amateur Astronomer, (Moore, P. ed), Springer, pp113, Anno Domini 1995.

Seeing varies from 0.5 arc seconds on an excellent night at a world class observatory site to 10 arc seconds on the worst nights. On nights of poor visibility, it’s hardly worth observing the Moon with anything but the lowest powers, since turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere will make the lunar surface appear to roll and shimmer, rendering any fine detail impossible to discern. For most of us, viewing rarely allows us to resolve lunar detail finer than 1 arc second, regardless of the size of the telescope used, and more often than not a 150mm telescope will show as much detail as a 300mm telescope, which has a light gathering area 4 times as great. It is only on nights of really good visibility that the benefits of the resolving power of large telescopes can be experienced. Unfortunately, such conditions occur all to infrequently for most amateur astronomers.

Grego, P., The Moon and How to Observe It, Springer, pp244, Anno Domini 2005.

As a choice for planetary observations then, there is a lot to be said for the Newtonian reflector in the 6- to 10-inch aperture range.

F.W. Price, The Planet Observer’s Guide (2nd Edition), Cambridge University Press, pp 41. Anno Domini 2000

 

It allowed visual scrutiny with very high magnifications, each time it was necessary.

Adouin Dollfus (2002) in a comment pertaining to the efficacy of the Great Meudon Refractor.

A high quality Newtonian reflector is a very powerful instrument, fully capable of superb performance in viewing the planets, when the optics are kept clean and properly aligned. They have been among the favorite instruments of serious planetary observers for many decades.

Bengton, J.L., Saturn and How to Observe It, Springer, pp57, Anno Domini 2005.

As good as my 6-inch f/9 is, the 8-inch f/6 I built soon after is crushingly superior in virtually every way — including planetary performance. This is something to keep in mind if you’re considering a long-focus Newtonian. A long f-ratio helps, but aperture is much more important. Would an 8-inch f/9 be better than my f/6? Probably. But mounting and using a scope with a tube more than 6 feet long is would be a challenge. And when the aperture gets much bigger, it’s easy to keep the secondary size small without resorting to extremely long focal lengths.

From an article entitled,The Big Red One, Sky&Telescope Associate Editor and veteran ATMer, Gary Seronik, commenting on the superiority of a 8-inch f/6 reflector over an optically superlative 6-inch f/9 reflector ‘Planet Killer,’ Anno Domini 2009.

I was once loaned a 4.5 inch refractor by the British Astronomical Association back in the 1990s; it was an excellent instrument, but the optical tube was longer than me! These days refractors come with much shorter tubes, but at considerable cost and apertures of 5 in., or more, however the cost of smaller refractors have come down in recent years. Although they look splendid, remember it is aperture(size of the telescope) that is the most important. Ideally you should get the largest telescope you can for your money.

Abel, P.G, Visual Lunar and Planetary Astronomy, Springer, pp 13, Anno Domini 2013.

All in all, if you can afford it, and if you have the room to house it in some sort of observatory, I would say go for a Newtonian reflector of 10 inches -14 inches aperture and as large a focal ratio as you can reasonably accommodate…..My second choice would be a 5 inch refractor…..having a focal ratio of f/12……or an ED apochromat ( f/8).

North, G., Observing the Moon, Cambridge University Press, pp 52, Anno Domini 2014

When Mars was closest to the Earth in August 2003, the Macclesfield Astronomical Society held a star party at Jodrell Bank Observatory with quite a number of telescopes set up to observe it. As the evening progressed a consensus arose that two scopes were giving particularly good images; my FS102 4-inch Takahashi Fluorite refractor (at around £3500, or $5000, with its mount) and an 8-inch Newtonian on a simple Dobsonian mount newly bought for just £200($300). I personally preferred the view through the f/6 Newtonian but others thought that the FS102 gave a slightly better image, so we will call it a draw. It is worth discussing why these performed so well and, just as importantly, why perhaps the others did not.

From A Prologue of Two Scopes: Morison, I. An Amateur’s Guide to Observing and Imaging the Heavens, Cambridge University Press, xiii, Anno Domini 2014.

** The author chose these individuals based on both published and unpublished observations of planets available from historical archives and/or books, and having (ostensibly) sustained these observations over many years.

                                   Relevant Physical Principles

 

Resolution:

A telescope of diameter D cuts off a wavefront and blurs a point source to an image size, I,  given by I = lambda/D (radians). This can be converted to arc seconds by multiplying this result by 206265 giving I = (lambda x 206265)”/D.

Making both units of diameter and wavelength (arbitrarily set to 5.50 x 10^-9 m)  the same we obtain:

I = 0.116/D

This is similar to the more familiar Dawes formula (expressed in inches given by 4.56/D)

Thus resolution scales linearly with aperture e.g. a telescope with a diameter of 20cm will have an angular resolution twice that of a 10cm instrument.

Contrast Transfer:

Optical engineer, William Zmek, in the July 1993 issue of Sky&Telescope magazine, analysed the effects of a central obstruction on contrast transfer, arriving at this simple rule:

Contrast Transfer of an Obstructed Telescope = Full Aperture – Aperture of Obstruction.

Consider this author’s chosen planetary telescope, a 203 mm Newtonian with a secondary minor axis of 44mm (22% linearly), the resulting contrast transfer will be the equivalent of a 203-44 = 159mm unobstructed aperture, the effects of the spider vanes being essentially negligible (~1-2 %).

This result has been amply borne out by the author’s extensive field testing.See here for details.

Larger apertures also allow the observer to enjoy a larger exit pupil, which is of paramount importance in studying low contrast details at magnifications typically employed in planetary studies. See this link to see how a consideration of the size of the exit pupil can radically change the direction of a discussion about two very different telescopes.

Light Gathering Power:

Image brightness is proportional to the number of photons collected, which in turn scales as the area of the optical surface. Thus a 20cm telescope collects four times more light than a 10cm, all other things being equal. Refractors, having no central obstruction and multi-coatings applied to the glass surfaces have the greater light transmission. Reflective surfaces exhibit proportionally less transmission to the eye due to less efficient reflection off optical surfaces. In the same article highlighted above, the author described the acquisition of ultra-high reflective coatings (and greatly reduced light scatter) to both mirrors (97 per cent). Thus the overall transmission is (0.97)^2 =0.94 and subtracting the obstructing area of the secondary reduces the overall light gathering power to ~0.9. Compared with an almost perfectly light transmitting refractor object glass, this represents a 10% reduction in light, a value that even a seasoned observer would be hard pressed to see. Thus, the author’s 20cm Newtonian has a broadly equivalent light transmission to an unobstructed refractor of equal aperture.

Atmospheric Turbulence, Seeing Error & Viewing Altitude

The astronomical seeing conditions at a given site can be well described by the so-called Fried parameter r0. We need not wade into the mathematical details to understand the basic ideas behind this model. In this scheme of events the air consists of moving cells which form due to small-scale fluctuations in both the density and temperature above the observer, resulting in the blurring and/or moving of the image. The larger these cells are (which is a measure of r0) the greater the aperture that can be profitably employed. For telescopes with diameters smaller than r0, the resolution is determined primarily by the size of the Airy pattern (which scales as 1/D) and thus is inversely proportional to the telescope diameter. For telescopes with diameters larger than r0, the image resolution appears to be determined primarily by a quantity known as seeing error and scales as (D)^5/6. So, for example, a doubling of aperture results in a 1.78x i.e. (2D)^5/6 increase in seeing error. Interestingly, while the seeing error does scale with aperture, the rate of increase is not nearly as rapid as one might anticipate. This implies that large apertures can work at or near optimally, though maybe not as frequently as smaller apertures.

Reference here.

The best estimates of r0 for typical observing sites used by the amateur astronomers seems to be in the range of 5–20cm (2-8 inches) and generally larger in the better sites at high altitude, where bigger telescopes are pressed into service. Intriguingly, r0 also appears to scale somewhat with wavelength, being as high as 40cm at 900nm(near infrared).

Reference here.

Seeing is also dependent on the altitude of the planet owing to the variation in air mass through which it is viewed. If one observes a planet at the zenith, one looks through 1 air mass. At 30 degrees altitude, the air mass through which the observer views is fully doubled and at 10 degrees altitude it shoots up to 5.6 air masses!

Reference: Morison, I., An Amateur’s Guide to Observing and Imaging the Heavens, Cambridge University Press (2014), pp 22.

In general, a long-held tradition recommends waiting for the planet to rise above 30 degrees altitude to begin to exploit the potential of any given telescope, large or small.

Taken together, these physical parameters can be used to adequately explain all of the aforementioned comments made by celebrated planetary observers over the decades and centuries.

Discussion:

Unbiased testimonies provide a bedrock upon which sound conclusions can be formulated. It is self evident that aperture plays a crucial role in seeing fine detail and it is reassuring that basic optical principles reaffirm this.

The list of British observers quoted above; Denning, North, Moore, Abel, Grego, Heath and Sidgwick etc, highlight the efficacy of moderate but not large apertures in divining fine detail on planets. The consensus appears to be that apertures of between 6 and 10 inches are most efficacious in this regard. This may be explained in terms of the size of the atmospheric cells that move over British skies, which allow telescopes in this aperture range to be exploited. My own discussions with many experienced planetary observers abiding in Britain affirm the truth of this; British skies seem to favour these moderate apertures. It is important to note that this conclusion has little to do with planetary imaging, which often employs significantly larger apertures to excellent effect.

The testimony of Gary Seronik shows that an optimised 6-inch f/9 Newtonian – which presumably would provide views rivaling a 6-inch apochromatic refractor, was comfortably outperfomed by an 8-inch f/6 Newtonian, again confirming the superiority of a little more aperture.

The testimony of E.E Barnard at Mount Wilson and Adouin Dollfus at Meudon shows that larger apertures can be used to much greater effect if seeing conditions allow. Both Meudon and Mount Wilson have enabled telescopes of 30 and 60-inches to be used visually, indicating that the atmosphere can be particularly good there and for long enough periods to permit a meaningful program of visual study.

There evidently exists regions on Earth where the seeing is poor (small r0) for prolonged periods of time, explaining why amateurs in these regions stick to smaller apertures. This in part explains the popularity of small refractor culture.

The most intriguing testimony is offered by Professor Ian Morison, also based in the UK, which, on the face of it, seems to lend more credence to small refractor culture. The reader will recall that during the August 2003 Martian opposition, a large number of amateurs, fielding various telescopes, were present at Macclesfield, England. Morison claimed that two telescopes were doing particularly well; a Takahashi FS102 Fluorite refractor and a mass produced 8″ f/6 Dobsonian and that there was no clear consensus on which was delivering the better views. Having owned several econo- and premium 4 inch apochromatic refractors (and even a gorgeous 4-inch f15 classical refractor), this author (also based in the UK) has become intimately familiar with their performance. And while they all provided good views of the planets, they come nowhere near the performance of the author’s 8-inch f/6 Newtonian, which, despite its very modest cost, proved ‘crushingly’ superior to the former.

So, Morison’s testimony presents an apparent contradiction, which must have a rational explanation.

Further investigation revealed that during the August 2003 Martian opposition, the maximum altitude of the Red Planet was just 23 degrees at meridian passage as observed from London (51 degrees North latitude).

Reference here

Since Macclesfield (53 degrees North latitude) is further north than London, the maximum altitude of Mars would only have been 21 degrees and thus was significantly below the minimum altitude recommended – 30 degrees – for planetary study. Thus, it is not at all surprising that Morison et al reached the conclusions they did.The Newtonian being more sensitive to the vagaries of the atmosphere would not have been performing optimally at that low altitude, while the smaller refractor was performing much as it always does. In addition, this author observed Mars during the same August 2003 opposition using a 20cm f/10 Schmidt Cassegrain. At 56 degrees North, the planet was only 18 degrees above the horizon at meridian passage. Needless to say, the images of Mars were nothing to write home about.

Interestingly, this author reached the same conclusion whilst comparing visual drawings of Jupiter conducted with a Celestron 8″ f/6 Dobsonian during the mid-1990s with those delivered by a 5-inch refractor in much more recent apparitions. It was subsequently discovered that Jupiter was low in the sky in Aquarius at this time, while the 5-inch refractor enjoyed views of the Giant Planet situated much higher in the sky. Last year’s Jovian apparition revealed the clear superiority of the 8-inch f/6 Newtonian over the 5-inch under these more favourable conditions.

Thus there is no contradiction; aperture rules when conditions are reasonable to good. Anomalies only arise under sub-optimal conditions – persistent bad seeing, low altitude viewing etc – or if one telescope has not fully acclimated when the other has etc, hardly a fair test.

This author has brought the reader’s attention to the efficacy of a modified 8-inch Newtonian on all types of objects; deep sky, planets, lunar and double stars. These testimonies provide further evidence that such an aperture – 20cm – is probably optimal for British skies and many other environs besides.

De Fideli

Origins of Life: A Closer Look Part II

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

 

 

Continuing a critical analysis of Professor Jack Szostak’s Origin of Life scenario proposed here.

See Part I for comments on earlier sections of the video

The goal: to critically appraise each of the steps Dr. Szostak presents in light of the latest research findings that show that any such scheme of events is physio-chemically untenable from a purely naturalistic perspective.

Video Clock Time 10-30 mins

Dr.Szostak’s RNA chains contain homochiral ribose (D ribose) though he has not disclosed how this D ribose originated. This is a crucially important point that the reader must gain an appreciation of. This will be discussed on this page.

No D ribose, no nucleotides, and no oligonucleotide chains.

                                                            Imago

Dr. Szostak completely avoids another intractable problem for his chemical synthesis scenario; that of the homochirality of sugars and amino acids. As shall be outlined in the next section, this is a very exciting and fast moving arena of research (owing to the pressing nature of the underlying problem), but as I shall demonstrate, it is still a mystery.

One of the key molecular features of life is that its major polymers are built up from chiral molecules. Chiral molecules exhibit handedness. All celllular life on Earth utilises left handed amino acids ( L amino acids) and right handed sugars ( D sugars). The L and D forms of the same molecules are called enantiomers and can be distinguished by how they rotate the plane of plane-polarised light in aqueous solution (either to the left or right) Because amino acids and sugars in all life on Earth exclusively incorporate L and D enantiomers, respectively, they are said to be homochiral.

The problem begins when scientists set out to explore synthetic means of producing molecules such as ribose, which almost invariably produce a 50:50 mixture of both enantiomers. Such a condition is said to be racemic.

To maintain biochemical viability, the ribose must be 100 percent in the D enantiomeric form; mixtures will soon grind any synthetic scheme to a halt.

Reference: Biochemistry Voet, D. & Voet J.D, (2011) Wiley pp 74-75.

Looking for solutions: what the latest research (as of 2015) has revealed

Scientists have been searching for many decades for a solution to the homochirality problem. One source was shown to occur via the production of 100 per cent circularly polarised light derived from the vicinity of black holes and neutron stars. This light selectively destroys one enantiomer over the other, with the result that one chiral form is selected for. The problem with this astrophysical source is that it only generates 20% enantiomeric enrichment, not enough to allow life processes to proceed or to explain the homochirlality problem.

Reference: Hazen, R.M., Life’s Rocky Start, Scientific American (April 2001)  77-85.

Molecules are not the only entities that exhibit mirror images of each other. In physics, the parity principle states that physical processes that display symmetry about a central plane operate as mirror images. According to this principle, nature shows no preference for either left- or right-handedness. In the 1950s however, physicists discovered an exception to this rule, referring to this interesting idea as a parity breaking. Chinese physicists demonstrated that the electro-weak force displays a slight preference for left-handed  amino acid enantiomers . When a radioactive nucleus undergoes decay via the weak nuclear force, it emits polarised light with a slight left-handed bias. Some physicists have suggested that this parity breaking could have led to homochirality. But since the energy difference between enantiomers is only of the order of 10 J Mol^-1 it would have no appreciable effect on chemical reactions, a situation endorsed by leading astrobiologists.

Reference: Rikken, G. L. J. A. Rikken & Raupach, E., Enantioselective Magnetochiral Photochemistry, Nature, 405 ( 2000), 932-35.

The inconvenient truth about homochirality in biochemical systems has led some more zealous scientists to uncover chemical means to surmount the problem. The most promising of these will be discussed here.

One way to create some chiral excess is a process called oligomerisation. Biological polymers are built up of subunits called monomers. By chemically linking up these monomers a polymer is created. An oligomer is an intermediate state between a monomer and a polymer, usually having several tens of monomer units. Some laboratory studies have shown that oligomerisation reactions are inhibited  when a racemic mixture of monomers is incorporated into the reaction.Specifically, if the researchers add the opposite enantiomer of a nucleotide during the oligomerisation of RNA nucleotides, the addition inhibits the reaction. This, some researchers have suggested, provides a way of producing homochiral polymers.

Reference:Joyce et al, RNA Evolution, pp 217-24.

The main problem with this model resides with the probability of assembling sufficiently long RNA oligomers for it to allow the process to occur in a realistic prebiotic setting. To get anything viable, at least 50 subunits must be routinely produced and preferably much longer chains. As a result, most researchers in the field now consider the probability of this mechanism favouring homochirality to be too remote to be a viable option. Others have suggested that enantiomers with the same handedness could react preferentially to form the oligomer chain. However, no such selectivity  has thus far been observed in laboratory experiments.

Theoretical work first conducted in the 1950s by the chemist F.C. Frank showed another way forward; Asymmetric Autocatalysis.

A chemical reaction in which one or more products serve as a catalyst is called autocatalysis. In this process, the enantiometric products selectively exert  their catalytic activity driving the production of one or more compounds of the same molecular handedness. In exact racemic mixtures, asymmetric autocatalysis would lead to no chiral excess. In reality however, chemical reactions are never an exact 50:50 mixture. Statistical fluctuations cause nearly imperceptible imbalances of enantiomers. This slight excess, created by statistical fluctuations- can be amplified. One demonstration of this mechanism is called the Soai Process, after the Japanese chemist, Kenso Soai, how first  elucidated it in the 1990s.

Reference:Blackmond, D.G,  Asymmetric Autocatalysis and its Implications for the Origins of Homochirality, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS),101, (April 2004) 5732-36.

The Soai process involves the alkylation of pyrimidyl aldehydes by dialylzincs. The product of this reaction is a pyrimidyl alcohol that can exist in left- or right-handed enantiomers. Soai discovered that the alcohol products catalyses this transformation. As the pyrimidyl alcohol products are produced, statistical fluctuations cause these compounds to display a slight excess of one of the enantiomers over the other. This minor imbalance sets up asymmetric autocatalysis i.e. the more abundant enantiomer selectively catalyses the production of its corresponding chiral counterpart Over time, chiral excesses on the order of nearly 99 per cent can be achieved.

Soai’s discovery may sound like a plausible breakthrough to creating homochirality but significant problems remain. For one thing, the Soai reaction has no relevance in biological systems as none of the reactants and products have been documented in bona fide biological systems.In addition to this, this reaction is the only real-life example of asymmetric autocatalysis discovered to date.

Further theoretical studies of asymmetric autocatalysis reveal that the chiral excess produced by this reaction is short-lived; because it rapidly decays from near 99 per cent chiral enrichment back to the racemic condition (50 per cent) caused by the activity of the other enantiomer, which also acts as an autocatalyst, competing with its mirror image. Curiously, this does not occur in the Soai reaction because the enantiomer that achieves an excess not only acts catalytically but also acts as its own anticatalyst. The oddity of the Soai process is more a reflection of the scientist’s genius in recognising the underlying mechanism  and pursuing it experimentally and not a general chemical principle.

Other chemists and astrobiologists have looked for other autocatalytic mechanisms that are relevant to studies of prebiotic chemistry. In particular, chemist Sandra Pizzarello and Arthur Weber have shown that the amino acids alanine and isovaline (which show slight chiral enrichment in the Murchison meteorite) can catalyse the formose reaction leading to ribose.

Specifically, when amino acids that catalyse the formose reaction harbour a chiral  exess, the sugar products generated also display a chiral excess. In other words, the amino acids are able to transfer this chiral excess  to the sugar products. Researchers observed that when the amino acid catalysts were enantiomerically pure, the sugar products displayed a chiral enrichment of up to 10 per cent. Yet, as the enantiomeric purity of the amino acid declined, the chiral excess of the sugar products also decreased. Of particular note is that when the enantiomeric imbalance of the amino acid catalyst reached 10 per cent, the chiral excess in the sugar products became imperceptible.

Further research by the same scientists showed chiral enrichment when homochiral dipeptides were used as catalysts.

Reference: Pizzarello, S., Weber, A.L., Prebiotic Amino Acids as Asymmetric Catalysts, Science 303 ( February 20, 2004), 1151.

A dipeptide consists of two amino acids that have undergone a condensation reaction, linked by a peptide bond. Curiously, the dipeptide catalysts yielded an 80 per cent chiral enrichment, raising hopes that this could have been the breakthrough origin of life researchers were looking for. But, yet again, there are problems with this scheme of events. As shown in Part I, it is not at all clear where such homochiral dipeptides might have originated from. Carbonaceous chondrites have been suggested as a possible source. In addition, relatively high concentrations of these dipeptide catalysts were required in laboratory experiments to generate this chiral enrichment, so much so that stretches credulity that the concentrations required were ever attained on the primordial Earth. But there are more sonorous reasons why either asymmetric or symmetric autocatalysis could ever have been a viable option; which derives from the properties of chiral molecules themselves.

Firstly, the dipeptide catalyts require extremely exacting pH and temperature regulation if they are to act out their roles. In other words, this phenomenon only works within very narrow temperature and pH regimes, something very unlikely to occur on the primordial Earth. A chemical process that does not have geological relevance creates a further problem for chemical evolutionary models for the origin of homochirality. Worst still, the examples explored above which generate homochiral excess are transitory at best. The reasons are due to the fact that enantiomers establish a dynamic equilibrium with each other that cause them to flip flop between enantiomeric states; a process called racemisation. This process causes enantiomerically pure compounds to transform over time back to their racemic form through structural inversion. Laboratory studies estimate that a set of homochiral amino acids would become completely racemic in one thousand years at 50 C and in one million years at O C under dry conditions, but much faster under aqueous conditions.

References:

Bada, J., Origins of Homochirality, Nature 374, (April 13, 1995), 594

Irion, R., Did Twisty Starlight Set Stage for Life, Science, 281 (July 31, 1998), 627.

Curiously, a paper published in Nature Communications in December 2018, raised considerable concern about the practices of prebiotic chemical research. In particular, the author (Richert), expressed concern over the number of human interventions needed for such research to be conducted and that “the hand of God” phenomenon, as the author himself put it, was not being addressed.

Source: Richert, C. Prebiotic chemistry and human intervention, Nature Communications 9, article number 5177 (2018)

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-07219-5

The consequences of racemisation are troubling for chemical evolutionary scenarios, because even if homochiral excess could be achieved, it could not be realistically maintained  on the primitive Earth. The important point to remember here is that all such studies ignore, or fail to account for, the transitory nature of achieving chiral excess. This means that because the researchers have to stop and start their experiments as soon as they achieve some enrichment, they unconsciously cultivate a false sense of success.This is intelligent design through and through!

                                              A Closer Look at Hydrothermal Vents

Dr Szostak has emphasised prebiotic molecule synthesis at hydrothemal vents. The origin of these ideas come from a team of Japanese researchers who had searched for ways that homochirality could be produced at such sites. In their simulation studies, designed to mimic hydrothermal vents, these investigators noticed that both left-handed and right-handed versions of the amino acid alanine undergo racemisation from a pure state at 230 C in a matter of 30 to 40 minutes. To their surprise however, the left handed enantiomer is racemised to a slightly lesser extent than the right-handed counterpart. This effect was concentration dependent however, occurring when there was only unrealistically high concentrations of alanine present.

Reference:

Atsushi Nemoto et al, Enantiomeric Excess of Amino Acids in Hydrothermal Vents, Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres 35 (April 2005), 167-74.

                                                       PNAs and that…...

These studies prompted the late Stanley Miller to formerly acknowledge the intractability of the problem of homochirality’s origin. As a consequence, he proposed that the first replicating molecules were achiral peptide nucleic acids (PNA).

Reference:

Nelson, K.E., et al, Peptide Nucleic Acids Rather Than RNA May Have Been the First Genetic Material,  PNAS, 97 (April 11, 2000): 3368-71.

Miller was drawn to these models because he knew no meaningful progress could be made using sugar- or dipeptide-based catalysts, as discussed above. PNA chemistry is simpler, because neither does it contain sugar or phosphates and because they can form base pairs as well as helical structures. The nucleobases of PNA are joined together through a molecule of acetic acid and a chiral amino acid of non biological origin; 2-aminoethyl glycine (AEG). For a PNA origin-of-life scenario to be viable, a plentiful source of acetic acid, nucleobases and AEG had to identified. To date, only acetic acid synthesis has been achieved and AEG has not been detected either terrestrially or extraterrestrially.

Miller’s PNA molecules  have other problems however; they are stable; too stable.They bond very strongly to any daughter molecules they may have replicated but could only do so very slowly, too slowly to be relevant to realistic origin-of-life scenarios.

                                                             Mineral Surfaces

Another possibility for the origin of homochirality is via mineral surfaces, discussed by Dr. Szostak in his video. Some mineral surfaces can indeed generate chiral excess, which has given rise to some optimism in the prebiotic chemistry community.

Reference:

Hazen, R., et al, Selective Absorption of L-and D-Amino Acids On Calcite: Implications For Biochemical Homochirality, PNAS 98 (May 1, 2001) 5487-90.

This proposal involves clays and mineral surfaces with highly specific chemical and spatial orientations – like quartz and calcite – that can selectively absorb either left- or right-handed enantiomeric substrates. Curiously, it was discovered that when these surfaces were exposed to dilute solutions of amino acids, they will differentially become absorbed onto these surfaces creating a chiral excess.

Reference: Ibid

But let’s take a closer look at this process. For one thing the mineral surfaces must be ultra clean. The actual laboratory protocol for creating these surfaces involves successive washings in this order; deionised water, ultra-pure methanol, methylene chloride, more ultra-pure methanol and finally another soaking in deionised water. No contamination can be tolerated to even get the process started.

This in and of itself raises serious doubts as to the validity of using clay surfaces as loci for the naturalistic generation of chiral excess, as no real life site could be expected to offer such ultra clean surfaces. What is more, such crystal structures actually occur in two forms – opposite in their chiral specificity. This would produce only very small and geographically dispersed opportunities for any absorption to take place, preventing the build up of high enough concentrations of prebiotically relevant reservoirs of such molecules.

References:

Hazen, R., et al, Selective Absorption of L-and D-Amino Acids On Calcite: Implications For Biochemical Homochirality, PNAS 98 (May 1, 2001) 5487-90.

Thomas, J.A & Rana. F, The Influence of Environmental Conditions , Lipid Composition, and Phase Behavior on the Origin of Cell Membranes, Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, 37( June 2007): 267-85

                                    Crystallisaton-induced Homochirality Studies

One more mechanism of achieving chiral excess has been recently explored; crystallisation. The great French chemist and microbiologist, Louis Pasteur was one of the earliest investigators of homochirality, when he was able to distinguish between L tartaric acid and D tartaric acid using a microscope. This chiral preference occurs with other substances too and leads to the formation of enantiomerically pure crystalline forms. This curious phenomenon has encouraged researchers to investigate whether this differential ‘sifting’ of prebiotic molecules on the primitive Earth could have led to homochirality.

When evaporated to dryness in the presence of a porous material, the amino acids, aspartate and glutamate will form crystals that are enantiomerically pure. But this is the exception rather than the rule because, under, normal circumstances the crystals usually form racemic arrays. However, in the presence of some porous materials, they can form supersaturated solutions during evaporation, and, as a result, produce chirally pure crystals.

Researchers led by Ronald Breslow (whose names also makes an appearance in Szostak’s presentation) of Columbia University suggested that it was in fact the material that was left behind in the solution during the crystallisation  event that was the source of the homochirality and went on to show this was indeed the case for the amino acid phenylalanine. While the crystal contained a racemic mixture of the amino acid, the aqueous phase became enriched with the enantiomer that initially showed a slight statistical excess. Furthermore, Breslow et al showed that a chiral excess of about 1 per cent can be amplified to about 90 per cent after just two successive rounds of crystallisation. They envision a scenario on the early Earth, where carbonaceous chondrites might have seeded the oceans with amino acids. Tides would then wash these amino acids onto ancient beaches and, after evaporation, crystals would form and a slight chiral excess of the other enantiomer. This, they claim, would have slowly caused the build up of one enantiomer over the other, leading the way to homochirality.

Reference:Science Daily, Meteorites Delivered the Seeds of Earth’s Left-Hand Life, Experts Argue, (April 7 2008).

But this reasoning is flawed. Dr. Fazale Rana, in his recent book on the matter, Creating Life in the Lab, presented the reason why; amino acids tend to stay single in aqueous solutions and not form higher order structures like peptides. This is thermodynamically the most stable state for them in this environment. The Columbia University researchers have tried to counter this argument by suggesting that condensation reactions would begin during the drying out phase in this scheme of events.. But as Dr. Rana has pointed out, these amino acids would be a racemic mixture with little or no chiral excess. Thus, the mechanism proposed as the origin of homochirality would in fact inhibit the process! In addition to this, any dipeptide exposed to the fierce UV flux from the Sun (remember there was no ozone layer) would quickly degrade them. One need only look at how biotechnology companies recommend they be stored to verify this (personal communication). See here and here for examples.

Reference:

Rana, F., Creating Life in the Lab, (2011) Baker Books.

Summary:This section discussed at length the concept of homochirality, the handedness of life’s sugars and amino acids. Szostak’s RNA chains were all produced with pre-primed nucleotides, replete with ready made D-ribose. The work illustrated shows that producing D ribose under credible prebiotic conditions (and indeed the L amino acids) has not been satisfactorily achieved and that any process that attains significant chiral excess is actually the result of careful  adjustment of the experimental conditions and artificial selection of specified outcomes; again the manifestation of intelligent design. As we have seen, the inherent tendency for an enantiomeric excess to rapidly return to its thermodynamically most stable state, that is, racemic, would severely curtail or completely halt any realistic abiogenic scheme. The probability of achieving true homochirality via naturalistic mechanisms is very highly unlikely, if indeed well nigh impossible.

I leave you with a quote from Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel’s book: Life Itself

An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.

Video Clock Time: 30-54 minutes

On Vesicles:

One of the basic properties of living cells is their ability to maintain a chemical environment distinct from the space surrounding it. Life exists in the world and despite of the world, but is not of the world. This is achieved by creating a membrane which separates internal chemistry from external chemistry. Researchers have known for many years that under laboratory conditions certain kinds of molecules – what Dr. Szostak calls amphiphiles – made from fatty acids and phospholipids, which can form spherical structures called vesicles. An amphiphile is a molecule which has has both hydrophobic and hydrophilic natures. We are all familiar with the old adage; oil and water don’t mix. That’s because oil does not have chemical groups that can stably interact with water, blending with it, to create a solution. They are said to be hydrophobic because their chemistry does not permit them to dissolve in water. Molecules that have the right chemical groups to stably interact with water are said to be hydrophilic. Sugars are good examples of hydrophilic molecules. An amphiphile, as its name implies, has both hydrophilic and hydrophobic properties, allowing them to form unstable suspensions in water, usually in the form of single-layered micelles. Phospholipids – the components of real cells – and fatty acids (discussed by Szostak) possess such amphiphilic properties. When shaken up in an aqueous environment, they arrange themselves in such a way that their hydrophobic ends huddle together, like oil, and their hydrophilic end points outwards to form stronger interactions with water. The most stable (read lowest energy) arrangements are spherical structures – the vesicles that Szostak describes in his video.

Superficially, these vesicles look like cells and have served as a starting point to create the protocells he describes. As Dr Szostak explains, these membrane-bound vesicles can segregate materials located inside them from their surrounding environment.

As well as providing a physical barrier from the outside world, membranes harbour proteins that act as channels and transporters of molecules both into and out of the cell . They also act as sensors of the environment, as well as energy transducers. Synthetic biologists such as Dr. Szostak have to figure out not only how to form vesicles but also enable them with a means of transporting substances across their boundaries. One way forward is to try to manipulate the chemical structure of these amphiphiles in such a way that they can incorporate proteins both inside and on the membrane in order to serve as pores, environmental sensors and energy transducers.

As most any high school student of biology will tell you, reproduction is one of the basic characteristics of all living cells and this ability fundamentally resides in its DNA, which is replicated and then partitioned into two daughter nuclei before the cell fissures. Scientists must thus find ways to encapsulate DNA (or in this case RNA) molecules within the vesicle. When supplied with the right mix of chemicals, the encapsulated genetic material can then be used to synthesise proteins, which in turn could at least set the stage for the replication of the ‘protocell.’ The trick is to find a way to get the vesicle to divide in two, and in such a way that ensures that each new daughter vesicle has a copy of the genetic material.

So the process can best be seen as a series of steps which include;
1. The membrane has to be assembled.
2. Development of an energy transducing capability by the boundary membrane.
3. Genetic material must be encapsulated into the vesicle.
4. Pore proteins must be added that can funnel material into and out of the vesicle.
5. Generation of membrane bound systems that allow complex molecules to grow.
6. Generation of catalysts to speed up any given chemical process within the vesicle e.g DNA/ RNA replication.
7. Introduction of information-rich molecules that can direct the synthesis of other molecules of benefit to the developing chemical environment within the vesicle
8. Development of mechanisms that cause the boundary membrane to subdivide into smaller systems that can demonstrate ‘growth’.
9. Development of a means to pass information containing molecules into the daughter vesicles.

As you imagine, this is an incredibly complex process, effortlessly achieved by even the simplest living cells, but the list serves to illustrate one approach to the creation of artificial life; the so-called ‘ground up’ approach. This is the approach adopted by Szostak and his team.

Starting in the 1990s, he and his colleagues have exerted great effort into getting vesicles to grow and divide, getting genetic material to replicate and evolve within these vesicles and the creation of artificial proteins by either synthesising them under laboratory conditions or utilising pre-existing proteins that have been genetically engineered. Szostak coordinates several teams of scientists who bring as many of these steps together to create states that indeed show some of the characteristics that we would recognise as ‘alive’.

Like all scientists, Szostak builds his work on the shoulder of others who have pioneered methods to produce vesicles from purified phospholipids, trap molecules of interest within them and then incorporate purified proteins into the vesicle walls. Synthetic biologists like Szostak strive to capitalise on the vesicle forming properties of amphiphiles in order to construct protocells. The first such experiments began with the pioneering work of membrane biophysicist Pier Luigi Luisi, who encapsulated ribosomes (the molecular machines which carry out protein synthesis and other chemical components within phospholipid vesicles and, in so doing, managed to create an artificial protein – polyphenylalanine – within the vesicle.

Reference:

Oberholzer, T., Nierhuas, K.H. & Luisi, P.L., Protein Expression in Liposomes, BBRC, 261, (August 1999) 238-41

This work was followed up by other researchers who investigated ways of designing protocells consisting of vesicles made from simpler amphiphiles such as fatty acids, because they were considered more versatile than phospholipids (which are actually found in real cell membranes). Luisi and his collaborator Dr. David Deamer (cited on Szostak’s slides). By the early 2000s, Deamer‘s group showed that fatty acids can indeed assemble into bilayers ( just like real cell membranes) but under highly specific conditions, of concentration, pH, temperature and salt concentration. Furthermore, all of these conditions vary considerably between fatty acid species.

Reference:

Hanczyc, M.M., Fujikawa, S.M.,Szostak, J., Experimental Models of Primitive Cellular Compartments, Science 302 (October 2003): 618-22.

Luisi’s team showed that certain kinds of these vesicles can ‘grow’ if supplied with more fatty acids. This causes the vesicles to enlarge, become unstable, before dividing into two daughter vesicles. The same researchers have used fatty acid vesicles to encapsulate interesting enzymes such as polynucleotide phosphorylase, which uses adenosine diphosphate (ADP) as a substrate to build the DNA analog called polyadenylic acid.

Reference:

Thomas, J.A & Rana. F, The Influence of Environmental Conditions , Lipid Composition, and Phase Behavior on the Origin of Cell Membranes, Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, 37( June 2007): 267-85

This was widely cited in the origin-of-life community as a sort of ‘proof of concept’ that genetic material could indeed replicate inside vesicles and hence a demonstration of the first step towards the generation of self-replicating protocells.

Szostak’s group built on all these successes to attempt to create more life-like protocells. Specifically, they allowed fatty acids to interact with mineral surfaces (discussed above) and showed that this improves the efficiency of vesicle formation.

Reference:

Ibid

But vesicles constructed from fatty acid substrates have marginal long-term stability. Another show stopper is that even small amounts of salts (ionic substances) completely inhibit vesicle formation, a point completely avoided by Dr. Szostak. What’s more, the consensus opinion is that primordial oceans would have had a higher salinity than those existing today. What is more, real cell membranes are not symmetrically arranged but are assymetric, providing much greater compexity than anything utlised by Szostak’s team. See here for a commentray on membrane biochemistry. Yet again, without the maintenance of exacting conditions of pH, temperature, salinity, etc, these vesicles would fall apart. Indeed, no method has been demonstrated that can maintain stable, long-lasting vesicles. Such stability is a necessary pre-condition to the creation of artificial life.

Szostak’s team has explored ways to get vesicles to grow and divide like real cells. By the addition of fresh fatty acids to the medium and studying their behaviour, his team has developed a deeper understanding of how this process works.
Reference:

Chen, I.A., Szostak, J., A Kinetic Study of the Growth of Fatty Acid Vesicles, Biophysical Journal 87, (August 1 2004) 988-98.

While Luisi’s team produced vesicle fissuring, they do so unstably. Szostak’s team have addressed this issue by developing ways to sustain vesicle division after a period of growth. This is achieved by pushing the expanded vesicles through pores (extrusion). In so doing, Dr. Szostak has shown that the process can be repeated indefinitely to create multiple ‘generations’ of protocells.

Reference: Hanczyc, M.M.& Szostak, J., Replicating Vesicles as Models of Primitive cell Growth and Division, Current Opinion in Chemical Biology 8 (December 2004) 600-64

When Szostak et al encapsulated RNA molecules inside such vesicles, they actually promote growth because they produce osmotic pressure on the vesicle walls, increasing membrane stress, which in turn allows fresh fatty acids to become incorporated into the bilayer membrane. He further showed that the RNA molecules are retained inside the vesicle after filter extrusion. Researchers have also encapsulated clay minerals inside vesicles, along with RNA, and demonstrated that the clay is also retained by the vesicles during the growth and division process.

Reference:

Ibid

The next phase in this ‘bottom up’ approach is to provide an energy source for more sophisticated protocell activities. Cells use pH gradients as a way to harvest energy. Indeed this is the fundamental way in which all real cells synthesise the universal energy currency of life: adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

To this end, some researchers have incorporated special molecules which can absorb light into phospholipid membranes to create such pH gradients. Then by adding the pre-existing enzyme complex F0F1 ATP synthase (a remarkable molecular machine in its own right!), they were able to use these pH gradients to synthesise ATP.

Reference:Steinberg,-Yfrach, G. et al, Light-Driven Production of ATP  Catalysed by F0F1 ATP Synthase in Artificial Photosynthetic Membrane, Nature 392 ( April 2, 1998) 479-82.

Szostak’s team has simplified this process. Specifically, they found that the growth of vesicles made from fatty acids naturally generates pH gradients. So, the growth and division of vesicles can provide an energy source.

Reference:Chen, I.A, Szostak, J, Membrane Growth can Generate a Trans-membrane pH Gradient in Fatty Acid Vesicles, PNAS 101( May 25, 2004) 7965-70.

The fatty acid vesicles created by Szostak’s team delivered another advantage over their phospholipid based counterparts; they were more permeable, allowing easier transport of molecules both into and out of the vesicle. Activated (pre-made) nucleotides, which serve as the building blocks for DNA and RNA, were able to move into the vesicles more easily. This led the team to develop systems that could incorporate these activated nucleotides and, using a pre-encapsulated strand of DNA, demonstrated replication capabilities. In addition, his laboratories began experimenting with different types of amphiphiles (including unsaturated fatty acids, alcohols and monoglycerides), mixing them up to try to optimise their stability between the freezing and boiling point of water.

Reference: Mansy, S. & Szostak, J. Thermostability of Model Protocell Membranes,  PNAS 105 (September 9, 2008) 13351-55.

These are important advances, because they have steadily improved the robustness of their protocells and allow scientists to chemically replicate genetic material within the interior of the vesicle.Szostak’s group at Harvard hope to learn how to coordinate the replication of the genetic material encapsulated within these vesicles with the process of vesicle fission. By engineering more and more properties into these vesicles, Szostak and his collaborators hope to create systems tailor made to carry out specific functions.Their ultimate goal is to create synthetic cells that can carry out novel biochemical processes in order to make new biomedical advances and novel pharmaceuticals that will greatly enrich biotechnology. Some foresee that, at the current rate of advancement, these will be a reality as early as a decade from now.

Summary

What Professor Szostak and his colleagues have achieved is truly remarkable! By divesting many millions of dollars from public and private donors, recruiting a very large team of the finest biochemists and molecular biologists, and  utilising the most advanced equipment ever assembled, real progress can be made and his success is bound to continue over the coming years. But, as I have indicated previously, this progress has not come about through Darwinian means, far from it! What Szostak’s work has demonstrated is that by deliberate effort and the harnessing of extraordinary human ingenuity, the era of synthetic biology is well and truly upon us. Their work empirically shows that even the simplest life-form ( which are orders of magnitude more complex than the ‘protocells’ discussed) cannot arise without the involvement of an intelligent agent.

Fatty acids do not  form bilayered membranes when added to ordinary water. On the contrary, their work shows that it is possible to coax stable vesicles to form only by making conscious choices about the kinds of fatty acids (in Szostak’s case the monounsaturated variety) and other amphiphiles that constitute them. If the wrong choice is made, the vesicles cannot even form. What is more, vesicle formation and stability depend critically on fine-tuning the optimal concentration of the amphiphiles in an aqueous environment carefully controlled for pH (buffers), salinity and temperature. Those clays and minerals must be scrupulously clean. The melting point of the fatty acids employed in the vesicles must also be considered. In a real life laboratory environment, the vesicles must, in some cases, be repeatedly frozen and thawed and, as highlighted above, their physical extrusion through pores must be carried out. Even then, vesicles of only the desired size are selected to optimise the process. Creating the vesicles from scratch requires advanced knowledge of the chemical properties of the amphiphiles making them up. After all, the mantra of the biochemist is ‘structure dictates function.’ Furthermore, Szostak’s progress depends upon the prior work of thousands of intelligent minds across the human world, and from many generations.

Sic transit gloria mundi!

This analysis shows that it is unreasonable to expect life to have arisen without an intelligent agency.

I believe this agency to be a personal being, infinitely good, infinitely powerful and infinitely well funded; the God uniquely revealed in the Bible.

                                                           Imago Dei

I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty

Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Of all that is seen and unseen.

Through Him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation, He came down from Heaven.

By the power of the Holy Spirit He became incarnate with the virgin Mary and was made man.

For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

He suffered death and was buried.

On the third day, He rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures, and is seated at the right-hand of power.

He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

And His Kingdom shall have no end.

Neil English holds a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Dundee and has carried out post doctoral work in the field of Cytochrome P450 mediated fatty acid hydroxylation and associated gene expression.

De Fideli

 

 

The Generosity of the Sun

Totality.

Totality.

 An essay dedicated to the Faithless Generation.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature –have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools..

                                                                                                          Romans 1:20-23

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous

                                                                      Albert Einstein (from The World As I See It)

When the Moon formed, it was much closer to the Earth, and has been steadily retreating as the energy of its orbital motion has gone into stirring up tides….. Just now the Moon is about 400 times smaller than the Sun, but the Sun is 400 times farther away than the Moon, so that they look the same size on the sky. At the present moment of cosmic time, during an eclipse, the disc of the Moon almost exactly covers the disc of the Sun. In the past the Moon would have looked much bigger and would have completely obscured the Sun during eclipses; in the future, the Moon will look much smaller from Earth and a ring of sunlight will be visible even during an eclipse. Nobody has been able to think of a reason why intelligent beings capable of noticing this oddity should have evolved on Earth just at the time that the coincidence was there to be noticed. It worries me, but most people seem to accept it as just one of those things.

                                                                   John Gribbin (from Alone in the Universe)

The noted science writer and astrophysicist, Dr. John Gribbin, raises an interesting point at the end of the excerpt from his 2011 book, Alone in the Universe, quoted above. He describes the coincidence of a total solar eclipse and the emergence of a global human technical civilization as something that ‘worries’ him. I can well understand that position given the inadequacy of the blind forces of Darwinian evolution to explain why these events are coincident in cosmic time. But that’s only an issue if one assumes biological evolution to be watertight. A more rational, and dare I say, compelling answer to Gribbin’s conundrum is that these events are not mere coincidences but were pre-ordained to occur in a unique window of cosmic history to reveal the attributes of an all powerful Creator; a personal God who, like a great king, wishes to demonstrate His omnipotence to an unbelieving population.

Such a world view, which is currently counter to the prevailing secular corpus of scientific thought, would be strengthened if other attributes of the Sun were found to be odd, peculiar or even unique. Intriguingly, great advances in our knowledge of the Sun over the past 30 years has yielded a solid body of evidence pointing to the possible uniqueness of our Sun, the yellow star that has presided over the extraordinary allegory of events that culminated with a global human technical civilization in the present epoch.

                                                Peculiar formation history

Diligent research over the past century has revealed that stars are not born in isolation but are hatched in their thousands inside enormous clumps of gas and dust. Our Sun was formed from the fragmentation of one such cloud under the auspices of magnetic and gravitational forces that led to the contraction of one cloud fragment, culminating with the ignition of the nuclear fires at the centre of the proto-Sun and the formation of a disc of gas and dust in the plane of the solar equator that would form the elegant planetary system we live in today. Yet the Sun was formed with an unusual assortment of heavy elements that originated in not one but two distinct kinds of supernova events that must have occurred in close proximity to our neonatal solar system to enrich it with those elements. What is more, our solar system was formed during the epoch  when the interstellar medium was maximally enriched with the long-lived radionuclides thorium-232 ( half life 14.1Gyr), uranium-235 (half life 0.704 Gyr) and uranium-238 (half life 4.468 Gyr); elements that provided Earth with the thermal energy to maintain plate tectonics on our planet over geologic time. Without large quantities of these elements, the Earth would have been just another lifeless planet.

But forming the right kind of star and the right kind of planets was still not enough though. Had the Sun and its retinue of planetary bodies remained entangled in the star cluster of its birth for very long, gravitational interactions with nearby stars would have wreaked havoc with our orderly solar system. Moreover, had the Sun formed as part of a binary or multiple star system – as have as many as 70 per cent of sun-like stars in the Galaxy – it would have been game over for a life bearing planet like the Earth, as it would not have able to maintain a stable circular orbit about the Sun over the entire duration of its history. For the Sun and its family of planets to proceed to the next stage of development, it had to be ejected from the cluster of its birth to live in safe isolation from the rest of its stellar siblings.

                                              Peculiar physical properties

In the early 19th century, the German optician, Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787-1826), founded the science of stellar spectroscopy. By attaching a diffraction grating to his achromatic refractor (both of his own design) he was able to demonstrate that stars like Sirius differed significantly from the Sun.

Joseph von Fraunhofer demsonstrating the spectroscope.

Joseph von Fraunhofer demsonstrating the spectroscope.

Today, we follow in the great optician’s footsteps, employing diffraction gratings to obtain high resolution spectra of a multitude of stars, allowing astronomers to perform a so-called differential element analysis on a large stellar population.These and other techniques have revealed a curious truth about our star, the Sun. While it is easy to find twins of almost any other star, an exact solar twin has yet to be found. And though quite a few stars can be matched to the Sun with respect to its basic parameters like mass, age and luminosity (G2V spectral class), the Sun stands out like a sore thumb with respect to these solar analogues, showing a 20 per cent depletion in certain refractory (non-volatile) elements such as calcium, aluminium, magnesium and silicon; the elements that wound up inside the rocky terrestrial planets of our solar system.

 The Sun, though widely reported to be an ‘ordinary star’ is actually more massive than 95 per cent of all other stars in the Galaxy. The vast majority of stars, the teeming multitudes of red and brown dwarves, are too cool to hold planets at a safe distance from their fiery surfaces in order that liquid water could be profitably maintained on their surfaces over the aeons. Such stars would need to spawn planets very close in – typically an order of magnitude closer than Mercury is to our Sun – causing them to become tidally locked. This means that they would keep the same face to their parent stars in much the same way our Moon does while orbiting the Earth. This scenario would render life incredibly difficult on such planets. After all, the permanently illuminated hemisphere would be incinerated while the other would be in a perpetual frigid darkness. Lower mass stars, by their nature, emit less ultraviolet (UV) radiation too – a plus you might think – until you learn of how important UV radiation is for generating and sustaining the ozone layer. And no ozone layer would make life very difficult indeed on the landmasses of any putative world orbiting these low mass stars.

But there are yet other perils that attend stars with lower masses than the Sun. In the summer months, I use my 3 inch classical refractor to project an image of the Sun on a piece of white cardboard or by using a full-aperture solar filter. More often than not, I can make out small sunspots – regions of intense magnetic activity that correspond to cooler regions of the solar photosphere – that make an otherwise bland solar disc all the more interesting to observe. Sunspots though, are also strongly correlated with flare activity and it is not an inconsiderable fact that stars even a little lower in mass than the Sun have significantly higher activity in this regard. Ongoing solar research suggests that during sunspot maximum (which follows a roughly 11 year cycle) our Sun already has the ability to inflict potentially serious damage to living cells, as well as hampering human telecommunication  systems, so that any significantly greater activity would prove disastrous for life on Earth in general and human civilization in particular.

Sol, as it appeared at appeared on the sunny afternoon of May 7, 2013.

Sol, as it appeared through the author’s 3-inch Fraunhofer refractor  on the sunny afternoon of May 7, 2013.

The tiny fraction of stars in the Galaxy larger than the Sun have very short lifetimes (scaling with mass as M^-2), insufficiently long to allow even microbial life (if it exists at all) to start the process of heavy metal concentration – which include the so-called ‘vital poisons,’ as well as the heavy metal deposits needed to sustain a high-technology society – in their planet’s crust.

                                                           Peculiar stability

How does flare activity correlate with stellar age? It turns out that solar flaring has continued to decline over time, reaching a minimum in the present epoch, roughly half way through the life of our star and dovetailing nicely with the emergence of humanity in the solar system. What’s more, sensitive measurements reveal that our star varies less in luminosity (typically by less than 0.1 per cent) than any known star.

                                                       Peculiar kinematics

In 2008, a team of astronomers led by Charles Lineweaver based at the Australian National University, conducted a study on a large body of stars taken from the Hipparcos archive and discovered that the Sun has a more circular orbit than 93 per cent of other stars in the distribution. Safely tucked away between spiral arms near the co-rotation axis of our Galaxy (a peculiarly stable place to be!), some 27,000 light years from its centre, we live on a planet spared the deadly effects of short wave radiation that have surely sterilised the down town regions of the Milky Way. Out here, in Galactic suburbia, we move around the centre of the Galaxy once every 0.25Gyr, enjoying transparent, dark skies that allow us to look all the way back in time to the earliest epochs in cosmic history, so enabling humans to elucidate the physical events that shaped the unfolding cosmos in which we find ourselves in.

Stars not only move within the plane of the Milky Way’s thin disc but oscillate up and down as they orbit the Galactic centre. Many years of kinematic studies conducted by astronomers show that its amplitude of oscillation is smaller than many stars in the solar neighbourhood which makes the solar system less susceptible to gravitational perturbations that could potentially destabilise established planetary orbits. Indeed, according to the stellar astronomer, Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, the Sun’s kinematic attributes are more reminiscent of a young star than one that is 4.57 billion years old!

                                                            Not forever!

As I have attempted to outline thus far, it seems patently clear that the Sun is a very unusual star enjoying a rather unusually stable phase in its life. Over billions of years since its birth, the Sun has grown steadily brighter and life on Earth, particularly the green plants, have worked to compensate for the Sun’s increasing luminosity by removing more of the greenhouse gases (particularly carbon dioxide and water vapour) from the Earth’s atmosphere. But the unchanging laws of physics that govern the Sun’s evolution are the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. This means that the Sun is going to continue to brighten and heat the Earth’s surface. But the levels (currently 392ppm) of carbon dioxide needed to conduct photosynthesis are already close to the minimum necessary (~150ppm) to sustain vigorous plant growth. Clearly, the current situation cannot be maintained indefinitely. Likewise, as it continues to evolve (and stars really do evolve because there is a robust physical theory underpinning that process), flare activity will increase to a point where large animal life cannot be sustained. Clearly therefore, we are living in the best of times.

                                               Just one of those things….

Sol Invictus!

Sol Invictus!

 

 

I suppose one could always shrug one’s shoulders and say something like, “that’s a strange coincidence,” or “it’s mere chance.” But, these answers are not very satisfying to a curious intellect; an intellect hard wired to spot patterns. Cast your mind back once more to the exquisite geometry of a total solar eclipse. A few million years ago, the Moon’s apparent diameter was larger than the Sun’s and the non-human primates – Homo Erectus or some such – that inhabited the Earth at that time, lacked the sophistication – both mentally and spiritually – to appreciate the event. In a few million years hence, the Moon will be smaller than the Sun’s face and the Earth will be unfit for human habitation. Only at a time sandwiched neatly between these epochs did creatures with the necessary cognitive capacities emerge on the scene to understand the significance of this alignment, allowing them to deduce both the geometry and scale of the solar system. Even the mind-boggling logic of Einstein’s theory of general relativity was confirmed during a solar eclipse.

Do you really think these solar peculiarities are just coincidences? How many coincidences and peculiarities does one need to convince one of a greater, underlying truth about the Sun and our relationship with it? And where does Darwinian evolution – the ‘blind watchmaker’ – fit into all of this?

Thank goodness for small mercies!

If you’d like to hear more amazing coincidences about the Universe we inhabit, you might be interested in my new book, Grab ‘n’ Go Astronomy, due out this Summer.

 

De fideli

This essay was inspired by the continuing work of Dr. Hugh Ross, Founder & President of Reasons to Believe and colleagues; truly a candle shining in an ever growing sea of darkness.

Some References for Further Study.

Barrow J.D. & Tippler, F.J. (1988), The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Cambridge University Press.

Ross, H. (2008), Why the Universe is the Way it is, Baker Books.

Ward, P.D, & Brownlee, D, (2000) Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, Copernicus.

Gribbin, J, (2011), Alone in the Universe, Wiley.

Philips, A.C. (2001), The Physics of Stars, Wiley.

Want to explore More? Follow me on Facetube & Twatter.

 

Pause for Thought: Mars, Barnard and his Byrne.

Young Edward

Edward Emerson Barnard (1857-1923) needs no introduction in the world of amateur astronomy. Emerging from abject poverty, his natural curiosity, regal humility and diligence for his work, set him on a path that would lead to his becoming arguably the greatest visual observer of all time. In this short presentation, the author recounts Barnard’s earliest forays into telescopic astronomy, and in particular, the acquisition of his ‘pet’; a 5-inch achromatic refractor by the relatively obscure New York optician, John Byrne. His devotion to that instrument established his reputation as a gifted telescopist.

While Mars mania was quickly turning the world’s pre-eminent planetologists into imbeciles, this young man, endowed with wisdom far beyond his years, eschewed the unbridled imaginations of his contemporaries, and quietly watched the Red Planet with his ‘large telescope’.

De Fideli.