Taking Back Visual Astronomy II: Resolving Binary Stars with Newtonian Reflectors

Octavius the Progressive.

Octavius the Progressive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 De omnibus dubitandum

The Newtonian reflector has a long and distinguished history among dedicated observational astronomers. With the advent of generous aperture, silver-on-glass mirrors in the late 19th century, many more amateurs could enter the field and make valuable contributions to the study of the Moon and planets. What’s more, their comparatively enormous light gathering power compared with traditional refractors made it possible to see new morphological details of hitherto elusive deep sky objects, thereby aiding in their classification.

The traditional instrument of choice in double star astronomy has been the classical refractor. With their long, native focal lengths and excellent thermal stability, they are especially adept at separating point sources at very high magnifications, at or near the theoretical limit imposed by their aperture. Refractors don’t scale well though and become impractically cumbersome and expensive in apertures above 6 inches (and if you really want to do sub arc second work you’ll need something larger anyway). I have demonstrated in earlier work that more economical telescope designs – the Maksutov Cassegrain in particular- can be excellent double star instruments. Having used a large, 17cm f/16 Maksutov continuously for a year, this author debunked a long standing assumption about these telescopes that prevented many from exploring their considerable charms. Specifically, some prominent amateurs, perhaps in some desperation to justify the purchase of much more expensive refractors, cultivated the idea that large Maksutovs (and, by implication, other catadioptrics) would not acclimate. This assertion was found to be largely unsubstantiated, after extensive field testing showed that these instruments can and do work well, even in winter.

In more recent times, this author has begun to explore anew the many attributes of the Newtonian reflector. As described in an earlier review lasting about six months, a closed-tube 8” f/6 Newtonian reflector was found to cool quickly (typically 40 minutes for a temperature differential of 20C) – significantly faster than even a 5 inch refractor. What is more, no cooling fan was deemed necessary and the telescope offered up excellent, high resolution images of planets like Jupiter. What was most surprising however, was its ability to split tricky double stars when contemporary wisdom said otherwise. This led to further investigation by examining the historical literature in order to establish whether Newtonians were ever used for double star astronomy and, if so, how efficacious they were in this capacity.

Having explored the life and work of the Reverend T.W. Webb (1806-1885), it came to my attention that the celebrated 19th century observer had indeed used a large 9.25 inch f/8 silver-on-glass reflector made by George With to resolve very tight pairs at or close to the limit imposed by its aperture. As a follow up, double star observer, John Nanson, alerted me to the work of an obscure British 19th century observer – Kenneth J. Tarrant – who employed a 10.25 inch Calver reflector (probably a f/7 or f/8 relative aperture) during the 1880s and 1890s to not only observe double stars, but to measure them also!

I would invite you to examine the documents presented here, noting the dates and seasons when the measures were made, thereby providing information on the frequency and likely conditions (like English summer temperature swings) under which observations were conducted – as well as the measures themselves, some of which show that the mirror was indeed capable of resolving pairs at or near the theoretical resolution of the telescope. I canvassed the opinion of the double star expert, Bob Argyle, based at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, for his take on Tarrant’s data. Specifically, I asked Argyle whether there was anything in the Victorian amateur’s data that would stretch credulity, calling his attention to Tarrant’s measures of 25 Canum Venaticorum.

“As far as I can see, looking at Tarrant’s results, these are what I would expect from a good Calver telescope – in fact he did not seem to stretch the telescope very often. Specifically 25 CVn looks very plausible – the current WDS mags are 5.0 and 7.0 so it’s somewhat brighter than the values Tarrant gives (and currently at 1″.7).”
Tarrant’s measures demonstrate three things;

1. The British climate allowed him to frequently work to very high standards, which included sub arc second pairs.
2. The Calver reflector must have produced images stable enough for mensurative purposes.
3. Tight pairs with very significant brightness differences (up to two or three stellar magnitude differences) were also resolved.

Not much else is known about Tarrant however. “I don’t know of any other references to Tarrant’s work, “ said Arygle, “but he seemed to hold the BAA Double Star Section together before WWI finished it, and probably deserves a paper from one of the historical groups.”

In more recent times, a number of other observers using Newtonian reflectors have come to the fore. This author has already brought to your attention some of the ongoing work of Christopher Taylor, who employs an open-tubed 12.5 inch F/7 Calver reflector to watch a number of sub-arc second pairs moving rapidly in only a few years. You can see a few images of his telescope here. In addition, I am mindful of the work of the French double star observer, Jean-Francois Courtot, who has resolved pairs down to 0.66” using his homemade, 8-inch Newtonian since 1993.

It would also be worthwhile considering the portfolio of the well known astronomical artist, Jeremy Perez, who has sketched many double stars using both a 6″ f/8 and a 8″ f/6 Newtonian reflector, as well as the observations of Mircea Pteancu, who has used a 8″ f/6 reflector to successfully resolve sub-arc second pairs.

Thus, not only is there a historical precedent for the use of the Newtonian reflector in doing the kind of work traditionally associated with the classical refractor, but the notion that the former instruments would only be capable of such work in tropical or temperate climates is not supported by the evidence.

That said, not all Newtonians are equally well favoured to carry out such work!

To see why, we need to explore aspects of the physics of the Newtonian telescope.

Modern parabolic mirrors of decent quality are (or should be) essentially devoid of spherical aberration. The main optical defects in the Newtonian are due to other Seidel aberrations, particularly coma and astigmatism. Let C represent coma and A represent astigmatism.

Mathematically, the angular expansion (theta) of the image due to coma is given;

C = 3theta/(16F^2) where F is the focal ratio (relative aperture) of the telescope.

Astigmatism is given by:

A = ( D/2f) tan^2(theta), where f is the focal length of the telescope.

Since D/f = 1/F and if we consider small angles, where tan (theta) expressed in degrees ~ theta radians, the formula for astigmatism simplifies to;

A = (theta)^2/2F.

We can see from the formula for both C and A that coma (C) scales proportionately with theta while A scales as (theta)^2, so that for very small angles ( << 1 radian) it follows that coma will always overwhelm astigmatism in any properly executed mirror.

Let us now set the resolution of the telescope to the Dawes limit (in arc seconds) given by 4.56”/D
To convert this formula to radians, we need to do some more arithmetic.

1 degree = 60 x 60 = 3600”

Also 1 angular degree = 1/57.3 radians =0.017 radians

Thus if 0.017 radians = 3600” then 4.56” = (0,017/3600) x 4.56 radians = 2.21 x 10^-5 radians

So the Dawes formula expressed in radians is:

(2.21 x 10^-5)/ D where D is in inches.

For critical work at maximum resolution we may equate the expressions for coma and astigmatism with the Dawes limit;

Thus,

A + C = (2.21 x 10^-5)/D

But since A << C for any small angles (which is appropriate here), we may simplify this to just:

C = (2.21 x 10^-5)/D

Thus, since we have C = 3theta/(16F^2)

We get: (2.21 X 10^-5)/D = 3 theta/(16F^2).

Cross multiplying and rearranging, we obtain:

Theta = (16F^2 x 2.21 x 10^-5)/3D

Simplifying gives theta (in radians) = (1.18 x 10^-4 x F^2)/D

For convenience, we can now convert this formula to arc minutes;

1 arc minute = 1/60 degree = (1/60) /57.3 = 2.9 x 10^-4 radians

So, 1.18 x 10^-4 = (1.18 x 10^-4)/ 2.9 x 10 ^-4 = 0.407

Thus our final result is that

Theta (arc minutes) = (0.407F^2)/D.

We are now in a position to analyse what happens when we use various different numbers for the focal ratio (F). The formula predicts that for a constant aperture D, the maximum available field (theta) over which the image contains no appreciable aberrations scales as F^2.

This means that the faster the F ratio, the smaller the true field over which aberrations are minimized.

For example, a 8 inch f/6 mirror would have an optically corrected radius of (0.406 x 6^2)/8 = 1.83 arc minutes or 3.66 arc minutes in angular diameter. Doing the same math for F=5 and F=4 yields diameters of 2.54 and 1.62 arc minutes, respectively.

To see how this impacts work at the eyepiece, consider my own telescope, a 8” f/6 Newtonian. In order to get adequate image scale for sub-arc second pairs, I like to use a magnification of 548x (3.5mm Baader zoom and 1.6x Barlow). Since my eyepiece has an apparent field of 72 degrees, the true field available at this magnification will be 7.88 arc minutes [ that is (72/548) x 60]. Thus, the percentage (linear) of the field that gives perfect definition will be (3.66/7.88) x 100 ~ 50 per cent. When we get to an F/5 system, the percentage falls to just 30 per cent, and at F/4, a pesky 20 per cent!

One can see that at F/5 or faster, positioning the image of the double stars will become problematical, but that’s not the end of the story!

As anyone familiar with the operation of a Newtonian will tell you, the lower the F ratio, the harder it is to collimate the optics accurately. Indeed, the sensitivity to mis-collimation (a quantity called primary mirror axial error) in millimetres is given by the 0.022 x F^3. It follows that the wiggle room for a F/6 Newtonian will be a comfortable 4.8mm but just 2.8mm at F/5 and only 1.4mm at F/4!

What does all this mean?

In a nutshell, the faster the F ratio of the primary mirror, the smaller the true field at any given magnification that is truly free of aberrations and the greater the likelihood of mis-collimation. I was being kind when I described the result linearly; but when you recognise the relevant field area (which scales with r^2), you suddenly realise you’re in deep water. X marks the spot! LOLl

These are the principle reasons why an F/5  or faster Newtonian will be less likely to resolve to the Dawes limit. F/6 is about good enough – thank goodness for small mercies! – and anything slower is a bonus!***

This also agrees with my own experience, having never satisfactorily resolved sub arc second pairs with an F/5 or F/4 Newtonian. It also agrees with the aforementioned historical curiosities!

Look again at Tarrant’s measures of 25 CVn conducted in the summer of 1885.

Octavius; a ‘scope to believe in!

***Note added in proof: The above calculations do not preclude the possibility that a precisely aligned, fast Newtonians (f/5 or slower) can’t do this type of work  but rather serve to illustrate that the difficulty of achieving these high resolution results becomes more difficult as the F ratio falls. Investing more money in precision focusers and more exotic collimating devices can increase the odds of success, as could the possibility of introducing optical accoutrements like coma correctors (now being made by various manufacturers) into the optical train.

References

Bell, L The Telescope, Dover (1971)

R.W. Argyle (Ed.) Observing and Measuring Visual Double Stars, Springer (2012).

Results so far: In the last six months or so, I have had the privilege of using this fine SkyWatcher 8-inch f/6 Newtonian reflector. As explained in an earlier review, I modified the instrument by purchasing a smaller secondary mirror (22 per cent by diameter) made by Orion Optics, Newcastle Under Lyme, England. I could have reduced this further but I wanted the telescope to be an excellent all-rounder rather than just a one trick pony. Both the primary and the new secondary were treated to enhanced Hilux coatings, which significantly increased its light grasp, reduced scattered light around images and has a longevity that is guaranteed for at least 25 years. Such an instrument provides breath-taking views of the Moon and planets and serves up a 2.25 degree true field for stunning deep sky vistas.

Even before I had these modifications done, I was very impressed by its ability to resolve some tricky doubles and triple systems. On the best nights, stars present as tiny Airy disks, round as buttons, even at very high powers ( > 500x). The spherical correction of the mirror is excellent and displays no on-axis astigmatism, which is a definite show stopper for this kind of work. My best images yet came just a few nights ago, where on the mild evening of Friday, June 26 at 22:20 UT, I beheld the most striking image of Epsilon Bootis (340x) I have seen in just about any telescope! The components – a soft yellow primary and a royal blue secondary – were magnificently rendered with acres of dark sky separating them. The same was true when I examined Delta and Mu Cygni, as well as Pi Aquilae (1.5″); text book perfect renderings if ever I have seen them!

At twenty minutes past midnight on the morning of June 9 last, I managed to glimpse the elusive companion to Lambda Cygni (my best yet at this location, 0.9” and 1.6 stellar magnitude differential), convincing me that I could go still further.

My methodology is fairly straightforward and is based on the recommendations of Christopher Taylor, who I mentioned earlier.

• The telescope is checked for accurate alignment using an inexpensive laser collimator before the commencement of each vigil and backed up by careful star testing.

• Only stars above a certain minimum altitude are examined, not less than 35 degrees

• I use a Baader Neodymium Moon and Sky Glow filter, which darkens the twilit sky at my location, reduces glare from very bright stars, and retains a neutral colour balance.

• After charging the telescope with the appropriate optical power, the stellar image is swung to the east of the field and left to drift slowly into the centre, where it is critically examined by my eye. The above is repeated again and again until I am satisfied that what I am seeing is not a diffraction artifact or some such.

• The time, date and conditions, magnification etc are always recorded. And if at first you don’t succeed……. try try again Lol!

In my correspondence with Bob Argyle, he was kind enough to suggest two stellar systems which are especially ripe for study with the 8-inch speculum; 78 UMa, now conveniently located near the bright star Alioth in the Plough Handle (components have magnitudes 5.02 and 7.88, with a current separation of ~0.8”) and Tau Cygni (magnitudes 3.38 and 6.57 with an angular separation of 0.9”).

I will begin with 78 UMa, as it should be fairly easy to find near Alioth in the twilight.  I shall leave Tau Cygni to later in the season.

I will report back on my progress in due course.

If you have a similar ‘scope at home, why not give it a try too?

If these stars are not suitably located for you, seek out others of similar difficulty by looking up the WDS catalog.

This project will certainly tax your powers of observation.

It would be great to hear about your experiences!

 July 1, 2015

NB: Taylor used a ‘routine’ magnification of 825x with his 12.5 inch f/7 Calver to achieve separations of 0.35 -0.40″ pairs. May attempt slightly higher powers on my own (smaller, 8 inch) telescope, perhaps 600x plus?

Nae luck as yet. A heat wave has settled in over the UK. While southern Britain basks in sunshine, conditions have remained stubbornly sultry with lots of cloud hampering any attempts to track down UMa 78.

Attempted a brief vigil late in the evening of Friday, June 26. Although my ‘easier’ test systems mentioned above all looked excellent, cloud prevented me from locating  my target near Alioth. I did however ‘uncover’ a delightful new binary system about half a finder field away from Alioth; STF 1662 ( RA  12h 36 min, Dec: 56 34, magnitudes 7.83 an 9.75, separation 19.3″).

Just received word that my article on modifying the SkyWatcher Skyliner 200P will be featured in the August 2015 issue of Astronomy Now………hallelujah!

July 2, 2015

Time 22:50h UT

Ambient: Clear, good transparency, 14C, slight SW wind, strong twilight, seeing not so hot (Ant III-IV), midge flies legion.

Four ‘warm up’ systems  observed @ 340x

Epsilon 1&2 Lyrae: well resolved.

Epsilon Bootis: resolved with some distortion.

Delta Cygni: Companion seen periodically, but with some considerable distortion.

Pi Aql: Resolved fairly well but only occasionally.

A 1.5″ night. Little point in continuing. Packed up early.

 July 4, 2015

Happy Holidays to all my viewers in the United States!

Moi?

Semper eadem.

Weather still rather unsettled, very humid with lots of heavy down pours, so little else to report from my own observations.

Investigo: I love data and admire diligence. Though I don’t know him from Adam, the American amateur astronomer, Mr. Tom Bryant, gave me both in bucket loads!

Mr. Bryant has been very busy testing the performance of his C8 on hundreds of double stars from all across the heavens.

You can see the fruits of his considerable labours here.

Go on; have a good, long look at that huge list. Dates (all year round!!!), times, instruments, are recorded, and, crucially, the location of those observations.

Input! Input! Input!

Lol!

And I see he’s constantly updating (see the latest dates listed).

Way to go!

He’s done remarkably well on many sub-arc second pairs don’t you think?

0.7″ doesn’t seem too much of a stretch for him and he’s elongated pairs down to 0.5″!

Here’s a recent review of a modern C8.

This instrument has a central obstruction of ~ 35 per cent and takes a while to acclimate…. apparently.

Here’s  the climate data for Bethesda, MD, which is quite near Silver Spring, MD, where Mr. Byrant uses his C8 inside his cosy, wee observatory, Little Tycho.

Typing in the months, one by one, we see diurnal swings of about 10C throughout the year, and which is a little larger than those encountered at my location.

My 8″ f/6 Newtonian, with a 22 per cent central obstruction, ought to do just as well – if not better – would you not think?

Only the seeing and my laziness can limit its performance.

Surely?

 July 5, 2015

Some thoughts on a lazy, Sunday afternoon:

The diligence of Tom Bryant and Carlos has delivered treasures to them. Work pays.

God endowed King Solomon with wisdom because he desired it ahead of wealth and power.Still, because of his faith, the Lord gave Solomon all three, and in great abundance.

Yet, he was better at dispensing that wisdom to others than applying it to himself.

In the proverbs of that ancient King, we learn of the traps laziness sets for us;

No matter how much a lazy person may want something, he will never get it. A hard worker will get everything he wants. 

Proverbs 13:4

A lazy person is as bad as someone who is destructive.

Proverbs 18: 9

Why don’t lazy people ever get out of the house? What are they afraid of? Lions?

Proverbs: 26:13

Nuff said, eh?

20:30 UT

At last, another opportunity will likely present itself later this evening to visit 78 UMa.

With a bit of luck, I’ll have more to report back on soon enough.

But let’s not confuse ourselves. There is one telescope forum in particular that harbours a few lazy liars I’m in the processing of flushing out.

Folk who masquerade as being ‘experienced’ but ostensibly reveal very little of that quality. Nor do they show any real insight except that which they borrow from others.

They neither understand their observing environment, nor the kinds of instruments that would best work there. e.g. using a large, fast reflector to split low-altitude double stars in a desert?!

How dumb is that? Lol!

But this is just ignorance, and I’m willing to overlook that.
That said, there’s a more insidious side to all this, which I am not willing to overlook.

Lies, lies, porky pies.

You see, some individuals spend their time cultivating untruths about what can and can’t be done with certain telescopes, without ever testing these claims in a scientific way.

Worst still, they persist in maintaining these myths, despite the mounting counter-evidence presented to them.

I suppose it’s a form of blindness.

Why shouldn’t a Newtonian deliver the readies?

If you know, tell me; I’m all ears!.

iustitia! iustitia! iustitia!

July 6, 2015

00:20h BST.

Ambient: Mostly clear, tranquil, cool (10C), twilit.

Seeing: II-III

A better night tonight. Seeing fairly good.

All warm up systems beautifully resolved at 340x

0.9″ companion to Lambda Cygni well glimpsed at 548x during moments of better seeing

78 UMa: diffraction pattern examined on and off for 20 minutes at 548x. Higher powers found to be unhelpful. Companion unseen.

Heavy dew this evening.

Good, productive night, all in all.

22:25UT

Teeming down with rain tonight.

Thus far, it’s not the kind of Summer we enjoyed last year.

Still, when are two ever the same? lol

Moi?

Semper eadem.

It occurred to me that I’ve already achieved what I set out to demonstrate; that a decently executed Newtonian can be used to explore the dynamic realm of sub-arc second binary star astronomy; I mean, I’ve already bagged (a few times now) a 0.9″ with a sizable brightness differential (1.7), so anything beyond that just reaffirms my premise.

But I don’t think I’m being overly ambitious to work for something better. Do you?

I will continue to work with 78UMa until the skies get darker.

July 8, 2015

00:30h BST

Test everything; hold fast to what is good.

                                                                   1 Thessalonians 5:21

Ambient; mostly cloudy, 13.5C, a few patchy sucker holes opening and closing. Breezy (7mph westerlies).

Seeing: II, certainly a notch up on last night.

Only three test stars examined tonight; all images at 340x were clean and crisp but shaky in the wind.

Spent a few minutes on and off examining 78UMa at 340x and 544x. Complex diffraction image, no elongation observed at 544x, so the companion must be ‘disembodied’ from the primary (Airy disk round as a button). Wind and cloud making detailed observations very difficult. Companion unseen.

I have noticed, going back through my notes, and again tonight, that on windier evenings, the images through the Newtonian can look especially fine. I have thought about why this might be. Perhaps the breeze circulates the air inside the tube more efficiently and might be ‘brushing off’ any boundary layer that might be on the mirror?

I think there is something in this.

Mother Nature lending a helping hand, just as she must have done with other observers using their specula over the decades and centuries.

Thank goodness for the wind!

09:50h BST

Last night was most interesting. Not much in the way of systems observed but the quality of the images in the modest wind was duly noted.

It was such a simple revelation to me that I cannot help but think it is universally true.

My previous observing records with refractors and a large Maksutov have shown that good to excellent seeing can accompany windy weather. I look back fondly at the wonderful skies of last Summer, where I got superb results with a 17cm Maksutov. I note especially my observations made on the evening of July 16, 2014, where the Maksutov cleanly resolved Lambda Cygni  during a windy (9mph) spell.

In the case of the Newtonian, I think windy conditions can have additional benefits in improving image quality, independent of the seeing.

Open air observing with Newtonians appears to be a good thing and I shall continue with this custom.

Might a fan be beneficial?

Maybees aye, maybees naw.

Would I consider installing one?

No.Ohxi.

I get enough breezy evenings in a year to continue as I am.

Besides, I am willing to bet that the foolishness of the wind is smarter than the ingenuity of any man-made fan.

A curious aside: Our Victorian friend, Kenneth J. Tarrant, observed 25 CVn with his Calver reflector on the 189th day of the year. Curiously this was July 8, 1885 – almost exactly 130 years ago today!

LoL!

I found some old British archives for the general weather for that month here.

I note that in this meteorological document, for the dates July 7-11, there were ‘favorable South-westerly winds in most places’.

Might  Mr. Tarrant have enjoyed a few breezy evenings when he made these measures?

I wonder!

July 9, 2015

00:20h BST

Ambient: Clear, cloudless sky, very beautiful twilight, no ground wind, unseasonably cold (6.5C), seeing III-IV. Cool Arctic air flow tonight; bright stars scintillating strongly.

Test systems all resolved, but the more difficult ones not so cleanly. U78Ma examined at 340x an 544x but too turbulent to study.

Vigil aborted.

11:20h BST

I have been thinking about the wind again and how best to use it. When Mr. Tarrant observed 25 CVn, his telescope would have pointed westward, towards Canes Venatici, and if there were a southwesterly breeze during the time he observed the system, some part of it would have blown over his Calver primary mirror.

This immediately presented a simple activity that I could use profitably during breezy evenings. When first placed outside, I could remove the cap that covers the front of the instrument and point the telescope directly into the prevailing winds. That way, the air would be blown over the mirror and it would help expel any ‘stagnant’ air inside the tube.

When observing an object in a part of the sky away from the natural direction of the wind for any prolonged period of time, I could swing the instrument back into the natural air flow  periodically, for a minute or two perhaps, before resuming my work.

I did some searching this morning to ascertain if anyone had recommended this procedure, either in printed texts or online. To my astonishment, I came up with nothing.

Maybe you know better?

In addition, I have been looking at images of those silver-on-glass reflectors of old (existing before the era of the electric fan) and noticed that many of the tubes have little hinged  ‘windows’ at the side, near the primary mirror, so as to assist (presumably) the circulation of air in the optical train. I may consider something along these lines myself; perhaps drilling a coupe of small holes on opposite sides of the tube and fitting a fine wire gauze over them to enable air to flow through but not particulates.

I can make the wind work harder for me.

Something to think about anyways.

To my chagrin, more unsettled weather is forecast for the weekend ahead.

Mair anon..

July 13, 2015

23:45h BST

Ambient: almost entirely clear, tranquil skies, seeing excellent (I-II), 10C, humidity high.

Success!

Started on Delta Cygni (340x) and was rewarded with a beautiful calm image! Companion resolved from its primary by a veritable country mile.

Pi Aql: Very cleanly resolved (340x) even at less than optimal altitude.

78UMa: Companion seen fairly well, roughly due east of the primary and inside first Fraunhofer diffraction ring. Glimpsed at 22:50h but better seen at 23:30h.  Checked the WDS data on the system Der Admiral sent me the other week. Its estimated position angle of ~118 degrees agrees fairly well with my observation.

No’ bad ken.

Where next Columbus? LOL

Anyone following me?

Vigil ended owing to heavy dew.

July 14, 2015

Bastille Day, New Horizons hurtles past Pluto, ken.

20:00h

Consummatum est.

No more to prove. No more work to be done. No one left to fight.

A 8 inch f/6 reflector can indeed be used to resolve sub arc second pairs. You don’t need an expensive telescope to do it.

A little preparation and the determination to succeed is all that is required.

And one good night.

I contacted Bruce MacEvoy, who I had the pleasure of meeting in California a few years back. He will be editing a brand new edition of the Cambridge Double Star Atlas. Bruce followed my work with the Maksutov and, more recently, the Newtonian reflector. After congratulating him on his new role, I reminded him that he had a responsibility not to cultivate untruths about the types of telescopes that can and cannot do high resolution double star work. He assured me that the atlas will not endorse the fallacy that one type of telescope is superior to others.

Satis.

Nota Bene: November 29, 2015: Dave Cotterell, based in Ontario, Canada, posted a string of high resolution images of double stars – some quite tricky for any telescope – using his 12.5″ f/6.5 Newtonian, thereby providing more evidence that these instruments can and do make excellent double star ‘scopes. In addition, he has reported his visual results here, using the same instrument, showing that he was able to cleanly resolve pairs down to 0.5″ or  0.6″. Well done Dave!

De Fideli

 

The Sceptical Astronomer: Evolution in the Spotlight.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.

                                                                                                               2 Timothy 4: 3-4

Do you accept the theory of biological evolution? If so, why? Do you have the necessary cognitive tools to assess the theory?  Are you equipped with the latest knowledge that enables you to critically appraise the theory in light of new research findings?

Here, I present a variety of evidentiary points, testimonies, discussions and philosophic discourses that raise legitimate arguments against the theory of evolution, as promulgated by biologists.

Part I: Origins

And God said let there be soup….Not!

All theories, no matter how credible they may appear, must be based on robust origins. Yet the very foundations upon which the ‘warm little pond’ theory has been built are shaky.  There is actually no evidence that something manifestly alive can self assemble from pre-existing non living matter. Naturalists often point to a ‘creation myth’ in which pre-biotic chemicals existing in an organic ‘soup’ that lasted for a billion years, spontaneously assembled into the first cells….. just like that. Recent research however has shown this to be patently not the case. There was no primordial soup and no time (from a geological perspective) for the origin of life to get started. Furthermore, the first cells would have required homochiral molecules, displaying either right handed (for sugars) and left handed (for amino acids) enantiometric properties and in their pure form. However, no one has come up with a plausible physicochemical mechanism to explain the origin of homochirality.

Evolution cannot be considered a serious science unless it is based on solid foundations, which it clearly doesn’t have.

So why do you persist in believing it?

Have a listen to this talk presented by the distinguished chemist, Professor John Walton, Fellow of the Royal Society, currently based at the University of St. Andrews; Could life have started through chance chemical reactions on the primordial Earth?

Part II: Numbers

Biologists have long known that the number of genetic mutations that are deleterious to an organism vastly outnumber those that are beneficial. That ratio appears to be species dependent and can range from 10,000:1 to about 10,000,000:1. If natural selection were the prime driving force in speciation, one would expect it to move a gene pool towards the acquisition of more and more beneficial mutations over time (because they confer a survival advantage, right?). Yet, because the mutation rate of most genomes is very high, logic dictates that it would drive a species to extinction well before enough beneficial mutations were accrued to bring about any meaningful phenotypic change. Furthermore, the greater the complexity of the animal, the faster it ought to degenerate. In regard to speciation, despite showing abundant evidence for micro-evolutionary changes in viruses and bacteria, scientists have failed to observe the emergence –in real time – of a single, new bacterial species in over 150 years of diligent study.

This simple appeal to numbers, in my mind, seriously challenges any kind of evolutionary paradigm; theistic or otherwise.

My cats and I shouldnae be here!

Yet, nonetheless here we are!

And what is the nature of life’s sustaining principle?

Eye.

Part III: Life’s Minimal Complexity…..More Numbers.

The earliest forms of life to appear on Earth, the Bacteria and Archea, have been studied more by scientists than any of the other domains of life. Free living species consist of about 1500 genes and seem to require all of them to eke out an existence in their respective environments. Yet scientists have uncovered parasitic species that harbour about a third of the free-living gene quota; about 450 to 500 gene products. The smaller number reflects the parasitic nature of the organism which presumably only requires a minimum number of genes in order to sustain its existence within its host. But that raises an interesting question. What is the minimum number of gene sets that can enable these microbes to survive? Recent theoretical work conducted by a team of researchers at the National Institute of Health has yielded a lower minimum of ~ 256 genes. Curiously, molecular biologists conducting gene knock out experiments on Bacillus subtilis, reveal that between 254 and 450 genes are required to sustain life in its bare minimal form i.e. they can only be kept alive by supplying them with additional minerals and nutrients. Further independent work performed on other bacterial species reveals the same thing; a few hundred genes are needed to maintain the essence of life.
But what does this mean for origin of life researchers? These genes must spontaneously exist in the same place at the same time, together with all the protein enzymes needed to replicate their minimalistic genomes within a semi-permeable membrane. When all the calculations are done, they find the probability of such an event occurring to be of the order of one chance in 10^99,999,999,916. Such a number implies that neither enough matter or enough time in the universe exists for even the simplest bacterium to emerge via undirected, naturalistic means.

And yet, we are told they evolved!

Really?

Non credo quia absurdum est!

Further Reading: Rana, F. & Ross, H, (2014), Origins of Life, RTB Press.

Part IV: Complex Enzymes Evolving Earlier than Expected…… Much Earlier!

All life on Earth requires nitrogen in a chemically active form to synthesize the proteins and a plethora of other biomolecules necessary to drive life processes.  Although nearly four fifths of the Earth’s atmosphere is made up of molecular nitrogen, it is almost inert (owing to the very strong triple bond forged between the N atoms). This means that living organisms cannot utilize this form of nitrogen without reducing it to a more chemically reactive form – ammonia. Nitrogen fixing bacteria possess a highly complex enzyme – nitrogenase – which mediates this vital metabolic role but previous phylogenetic studies of the enzyme suggested that it could not have existed much before 2 billion years ago.

Nitrogenase reaction.PNGA simplified schematic of nitrogenase biochemistry.

New revelations are unveiling something much more interesting. A group of researchers based at the University of Washington has uncovered isotopic signatures in rocks dating back to 3.2 billion years which imply that biochemical nitrogen fixation was already established by this early time – the Archean. While the data cannot be readily reconciled with a molecular evolution model, it is entirely anticipated in a testable creation model. The latter predicts that the first forms of life were biochemically complex and thus could not have evolved. There is a groundswell of new scientific data pointing in this direction.

 Part V: Corbies

 

The wee corbie.

The wee corbie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who provides for the raven its prey,

When its young ones cry to God,

And wander about for lack of food?

                                                                   Job 38:41

The wee corbies that nest in the conifer trees ‘round my hoose are awfully clever. Noah( Genesis 8:7) and Elijah ( I Kings 17:4) used them as couriers back in the day.

Indeed, recent studies show that they have greater mental powers than any of the great apes. You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side o’ them either; they recognise faces and teach others in their community to single you oot.

The cleverness o’ corbies has left evolutionary biologists in a guddle.

They cannae explain it and didnae anticipate it.

The corbie’s intellect is strong evidence that humans could not have descended from another primate species (even if they share 90 per cent of their DNA wi’ humans while bananas share 50 per cent). Or shall we posit that Homo sapiens sapiens descended fae the Corvidae?

Don’t be an ape. Open your eyes while you still have time.

Eye.

Part VI: The Evolution of  Microbial Drug Resistance

The phenomenon of antibiotic resistance has long been used by biology educators to illustrate the veracity of the evolutionary paradigm. We’re all familiar with the basic idea; a population of microbes initially 100 per cent sensitive to an anti-microbial drug produces a single mutant bacterium that can either detoxify the drug or find a way to expel it from the interior of the cell. This resistance to the antibiotic confers a selective advantage on the mutant cell, allowing it to replicate unhindered and so, as time progresses, the mutant organism becomes the predominant phenotype, so that strain eventually becomes resistant to that particular agent.

Then we have so-called Multidrug Resistance, where organisms are assumed to have ‘evolved’ the genetic ability to prevent not one, but several antibiotics to work, thus creating the ‘highly evolved’ Superbugs (MRSA and the like). This chain of events is widely used as a very potent argument for ‘evolution in action’. Indeed, this same argument has been used by some proponents for ‘Evolution Only Education’ to suggest that those who don’t believe in the theory -from a purely rational perspective -are somehow acting in an immoral way.

The truth however, as you’ll see from this podcast, is that bacteria never evolved anything new. The researchers discovered that the majority of bacteria living in waters isolated from the rest of world for several million years (and thus, by implication, had no prior exposure to these antimicrobial drugs) were already multi-drug resistant. They simply acquired these characteristics from their environment and thus did not evolve. They did not change in their fundamental nature, just as the Bible states in Genesis I.

So, the question I’d like to ask you is this: Is it moral to withhold the whole truth from beginning biology students about the so-called ‘evolution of multi-drug resistance?

Quid est veritas?

More on the human hand in the scourge of antibiotic resistance here

Part VII: Probability

In a very interesting research paper published in 1983, physicist Brandon Carter calculated the probability for a species as technically advanced as human beings to have developed from a microbial species in ten billion years or less. The odds are 10^-24,000,000. This result completely rules out the possibility of any extraterrestrial intelligence arising anywhere in the Universe but also the impossibility of human life arising from any naturalistic means.

Somebody ought to tell the folks at SETI about this paper, as well as origin of life researchers.

Source: Carter, Brandon, “The Anthropic Principle and its implications for Biological Evolution”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, A 310, pp- 347-60. (1983).

Part VIII: Brave New Worlds

books

You cannae win.

 

You cannae break even.

 

You cannae stay oot o’ the game.

Aye, the classical laws o’ thermodynamics!

The inadequacy of the evolutionary paradigm has prompted some prominent scientists to ‘look beyond Darwin’, as it were, to discover other ways in which complex systems can come into being without the intervention of a supernatural agent. The Nobel laureate, chemist Ilya Prigogine, in his book, Order out of Chaos, explores how chaotic systems ‘evolve’ into more ordered structures within a naturalistic framework. To be honest though, all Dr. Prigogine has managed to demonstrate is a kind of pattern formation – fractal systems and the like- such as those seen in snowflakes, spiral galaxies and rose petals – systems that cannot even remotely approach the level of complexity, information storage capacity or specified purpose of even the simplest living systems.

Others have gone in other directions, invoking new laws of nature to explain how living systems could arise from non living susbstrates. Biologist Stuart Kaufmann, of the Santa Fe Institute, California, has proposed what he calls a 4th law of thermodynamics in his book, At Home in the Universe, to explain the origin of self sustaining, self organising systems such as living things. The only trouble with such a law is that it would violate the second law o’ thermodynamics, but he’s still searching….. apparently.

Part IX: Transitional forms and all that

One of the ‘strongest’ arguments used by biologists to bolster the evolutionary paradigm is the existence of so-called transitional forms which are often cited to explain the evolutionary progression of a species. Arguably the best attested examples of these ‘missing links’ are illustrated by the fishapods and the whale. But as this podcast clearly demonstrates, these examples make heehaw sense. As you’ll discover after watching this podcast, three major problems attend the putative evolutionary ascent of these (or any other) creatures.

They often appear at the same time in the fossil record

They appear in the wrong order to that anticipated by Darwinian theory.

There ought to be far more examples of transitional forms in the fossil record to make the theory viable.

There is simply insufficient hard evidence to convince a sceptic that macro-evolution is real.

Are you going to stand there and defend a theory that doesn’t make sense?

Don’t be a dunderheid!

How can you even refer to the theory of evolution as ‘rational’?

A zoologist debunks whale evolution here

Part X: Speedy Evolution

Anyone wishing to evaluate the evolutionary paradigm in the cold light of day, must contemplate the explosive events in the history of life on Earth. Arguably the most profound and (still) deeply mystifying of these events is the Cambrian Explosion, which occurred about 540 million years ago, when in the space of a very short time (no more than 2 million years and possibly a lot less than this), most of the known complex animal phyla sprang into existence. The best palaeontologists can say is that it demonstrates super rapid evolution without providing any clarification of how this (dramatic) speeding up of the evolutionary rate was supposed to occur. 

We don’t need any more flowery books talking about it and making its authors wealthy, we want credible scientific explanations!

Part XI: Junk DNA, Bad Designs and all the rest of it

Biologists have long known that only 5 to 30 percent of DNA found in complex creatures codes for functional proteins – the workhorse molecules of the cell. Indeed, only 3 per cent of human DNA encodes proteins. The rest came to be known as ‘junk DNA’ and biologists cited this as powerful evidence for the evolutionary paradigm. Afterall, random molecular events would be expected to gradually turn functional DNA into useless artefacts.

For three decades, they rested on their laurels. But in the mid-1990’s, a team of physicists (yes physicists) made an important breakthrough that left the biologists scratching their heads.  They noticed that the quantity of junk DNA correlated strongly with the degree of complexity of the organism. In 1994, the physicists brought computing power to the table, showing that the junk DNA carries the same complex patterns of communication found in human speech. Indeed, subsequent work revealed that our junk DNA encodes far more information about our linguistic nuances than the protein-coding DNA. Today, it is becoming widely recognised that none of the junk DNA is devoid of function and indeed seems to be directing many higher order coding activities.

These revelations have proven to be highly embarrassing for the High Priests of the Evolutionary Paradigm and can no longer be used to support their world views.

Likewise, traditional arguments of ‘bad designs’ reveal a deep-seated ignorance on the part of those who cling to evolutionary ideas. Traditional examples, such as the human appendix, tonsils and the ‘ residual’ human tail bone, the back-to-front wiring of the human eye and the presumed awkwardness of the Panda’s thumb have been shown to be ill thought out, when further research has clearly established important functions for these organs and appendages and why they are the way they are.

Without my tailbone, I wouldnae be able tae stand for long in me gairden ken wi’ my telescopes, nor could I have been the promising long distance runner I was in my teenage years.

Evolutionists ought to think twice in future about spouting off about bad designs. Time always reveals the foolishness of their proclamations.

For more on Junk DNA see here.

For more on Bad Designs see here.

More on Junk DNA & human linguistics;

Mantegna, R.N. et al, “Linguistic features of Non-Coding DNA Sequences”, Physical Review Letters, 73, pp 3169-72 (1994).

Part XII: Stamp Collecting

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1: 28

If a soulish creature finds itself on the edge of a sheer cliff, without wings, it intuitively knows it’s in danger. Humans understand that this fear arises as a consequence of the law of gravity, a force which operates throughout the universe, deciding the fate of galaxies, stars and the planets they spawn.

There is nothing in the evolutionary paradigm that can explain my ability to type 100 words per minute on my laptop either; why, despite as yet, no spacecraft data, I can use the inverse square law to vividly imagine how bright the noonday Sun would be on my upturned face were I able to stand on the surface of Eris.

It is our cognitive capacities, –entirely unanticipated by Darwinian evolutionthat turn out to be our saving grace. Humans conceived of the Big Bang before we had any hard evidence for it. And in another Big Bang, humans arrived on Earth, consuming its resources and building the global high technology society we find ourselves in today.

Part XIII: Spiritual Blindness

Romans 1 tells us how intelligent, well meaning individuals will become spiritually blind, unwilling to accept the truth even though the evidence is heavily stacked against them.  In this link, you will uncover yet another reasoned argument against the theory of evolution by an ordinary bloke who has done some homework and there is much that is meritorious in it.

Isn’t it about time you started to wise up?

Part XIV: The Nervous Multitudes of the Cambrian Seas.

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life….

Genesis: 1:20

Every day the case for biological evolution weakens. And the Cambrian animals continue to provide the ‘smoking gun’. In this article, the author discusses the amazing discovery of animals already possessing complex nervous systems when the evolutionists would expect otherwise.

Scrathin’ my heid.

Part XV: Getting Round Life’s Early – Very Early – Origin

Despite strong isotopic evidence favoring the early origin and global reach of life, some scientists have tried to duck the issue by trying to find ways round the conundrum,  recognizing that any realistic evolutionary model needs way more time to create complex cellular lifeforms. But you can’t have your cake and eat it!

Here is a rebuttal of that back-tracking.

Life on earth appears to have arisen spontaneously in the early history of our planet, challenging Neo-Darwinian evolution.

 

Part XVI: A Purpose Led Life

What are the implications for holding true to the prevailing, naturalistic interpretation of the allegory of life on Earth via Darwinian evolution? There is no God and no heaven, no basis for right and wrong, no purpose and no ultimate meaning to life. It is a world utterly bereft of hope.
That’s such a dull way to look at things don’t you think?

Which clever clogs dreamt all that up?
Dinnae fash yersel!
You see, that’s just not the way the world really is.

Part XVII: Experiments

A team of evolutionary biologists based at the University of Michigan have been carrying out a long term experiment on the bacterium E. coliTwelve different  E. coli populations  were grown under highly artificial laboratory conditions in order to establish whether such breeding conditions could bring about a repeated micro-evolutionary outcome. The answer after twenty years of continued growth corresponding to 40,000 generations was no. After 45,000 generations just one micro-evolutionary change was documented. But that change did not manifest something new; indeed it only re-activated a pre-existing gene.

Extrapolated to our kind, 45,000 generations would represent a million years of ‘human evolution’.

Other long term evolution experiments on yeast, fungi and fruit flies show how limited natural processes seem to be in their capacity to generate significant changes in existing lifeforms. The Biblical account – the only book of scripture that gets the science right – informs us that divine intervention played a critical role in directing life on Earth over the aeons and provides a much more plausible explanation to a rational mind. For six days God created and on the seventh, He rested.

Put your trust in the God of the Bible. Open your heart to Him today!

Part XVIII: Genetic Entropy

Plant geneticist, Dr. John Sanford, a former secular scientist turned Christian, has promulgated the concept of genetic entropy, which posits that genomes, like all other complex structures, are subject to the law of decay causing organisms to decrease in fitness and not the other way round as Darwinian models predict.
Such a model neatly explains the ages of the Patriarchs of the Old Testament, who lived far longer lives than we do and why they declined in longevity as the post-flood era progressed.

In this article, the author discusses the alarming increase in autism in the world and how it might well be the best evidence yet that humans either didn’t or can’t evolve.

See what you think?

Part XIX: Extra-terrestrial Life: Frank Drake, one of the founding fathers of the radio Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), once described how he and the late Carl Sagan went up to the great radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia, to listen for signals from alien civilizations. Sagan was cock sure that they would uncover something ‘within an hour’. But instead of finding ETI, Sagan nodded off and eventually got so bored that he gestured to Drake to quit and go home.
Half a century later, advances in technology have improved the power of detection by 14 orders of magnitude, yet still there are no signs of alien intelligence. You see, Drake’s ‘faith’ lies entirely with the evolutionary process operating throughout the cosmos, but as I have demonstrated previously, there is no solid evidence that what happened on Earth could ever happen anywhere else. An appeal to probability alone suggests that it was a singular event, once in a 13.8 billion year old blue moon.

Even if alien biospheres exist, the latest research shows they’re more likely to go extinct.

I suspect the only aliens you’re ever going to meet are the ones already living next door to you.

Part XX:Hominids

Recoginse yourself? Really?

Know thyself?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paleoanthropologists have uncovered a variety of human-like creatures that exhibited bipedalism and tool use over the last few million years. These hominids are widely cited as evidence that humans evolved from more primitive ancestors. But a closer look at the data shows that the tools employed by these hominids did not improve appreciably over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years and are nothing like the sophisticated tools that were suddenly introduced by modern humans. Moreover, DNA analyses of later hominids (the Neanderthals and Denisovans, for example) show that they were genetically distinct from contemporary humans. What is more, there is zero solid evidence (but a lot of wishful thinking) that any of these hominids were capable of symbolic thought – an attribute unique to human beings.

Were you able to look deep into the eyes of a Neanderthal you would not see a spirit.

They did not possess Imago Dei.

So why did God create hominids?

To warn the animals of the impending arrival of a super-predator.

Where is the evidence?

Here is data on large mammal (>40 kilograms) extinction rates during the Late Pleistocene(126-10,000 years ago).

Continent                               Extinction Rate (%)

Australia                                         94

South America                               79

North America                                73

Europe                                           30

Sub-Saharan Africa                         5

Source: African Exodus,The Origins of Modern Humanity ( 1997) Stringer C. & McKie, R., (New York: Henry Holt)

Notice that in regions such as Europe and Sub Saharan Africa, where hominids appeared ‘early’ and in various ‘stages’ of sophistication in the fossil record, extinction rates of large bodied mammals remained very low. In contrast, where hominids were suddenly introduced i.e. Australia, South America and North America, large bodied animals suffered catastrophic extinction rates because they were not ‘habituated’ for long enough to adjust to the increased sophistication of predation.

More on hominids versus humans here.

Can Chimps Cook?

A PhD. zoologist, Dr. Marc Surtees, debunks human evolution here.

Part XXI: Growing International Dissent Among Scientists

One might think that an individual who expresses scepticism about Darwinian evolution is some kind of uneducated crackpot or religious fanatic, but the plain truth is that more and more scientists from all around the world are publicly willing to express their doubts, irrespective of the consequences. Did you spot the Nobel Laureates in there? It is my contention that the theory of evolution as promulgated by biologists is in crisis and needs to be urgently addressed. Take a long, hard look at the list of signatories (and their academic credentials) in the link provided above. If you fit the criteria and have developed similar doubts then add your name to the list?

You can get started here.

Part XXII: Debates & Testimonia:

One of the regnant priests of naturalistic evolution, Professor Richard Dawkins, has publicly claimed that one should never debate with a creationist. But to my way of thinking, that’s a cop out and worse still, a gross admission of weakness.The truth is that Dr. Dawkins won’t debate a scientifically competent creationist because he knows he would lose the argument on multiple levels.

Thankfully, some of Dawkins’ disciples have ignored that advice and gone head to head with other scientists who hold a completely different world view. In the coming weeks, I shall present a series of links to such debates as well as presenting testimonia from a variety of academics within the field.

Link A: Ruse versus Rana

In this debate, American biochemist Dr. Fazale Rana, vice president of Reason’s to Believe, debates British evolutionary biologist, Dr. Michael Ruse, on campus at the University of California on issues regarding the origin of life and Darwinian evolution.

Link B: Two Oxford Professors: Lennox versus Atkins:

Dr. John Lennox, Old Earth Creationist and Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University  debates atheist Dr. Peter Atkins, Professor of Chemistry, also of Oxford University, on that big question here.

Link C: Lennox versus Dawkins:

Dr. Lennox debates atheist biologist Richard Dawkins here.

Link D: Professor Richard Lumsden: Evolutionary Biologist turned Christian

The late Dr. Richard Lumsden, distinguished Professor of Parasitology at the University of Tulane, New Orleans, USA, gives his damning verdict on the pseudoscience of Darwinian evolution here.

Link E: Dr. David Berlinski, Mathematician & Philosopher

A scathing critique of Darwinian evolution if ever I’ve heard one.

Link F: Problems with Theistic Evolution

Some Christians have tried to harmonize evolutionary ideas with their belief in God. They argue that God used the evolutionary process to ‘guide’ life on Earth over the aeons. But God expects us to think critically, to put everything to the test.

Darwinian evolution fails the litmus test because it is not rational.

See why here.

Here are more discussions on theistic evolution and its intractable problems.

Link F: Whence Biological Information?

Scientist and philosopher,Dr. Stephen Meyer is a distinguished thinker within the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. Here he discusses the origin of life and the information all living things are endowed with.

Link G: Can we know our Designer?

Because God is rational, He created us to be rational in His own image.

A rational being can see clearly whether or not something is the product of a mind, irrespective of what a blinkered evolutionist may claim.

But can we glean something of the nature of the designer from the things that are designed?

Yes indeed! Have a read of this link to explore this idea further.

Part XXIII: The Human Body; Designed or Evolved?

In recent years more and more physicians and life scientists  are recognizing the astounding elegance of the human body and how it defies any evolutionary explanation. Here are just a few for interest;

Body Beautiful

Curvaceous Females

A Beautiful Mind

Wondrous Reflexes

Human G Suits

A Mind Boggling Circulatory System

Designed Image Stabilisation

An Engineered Pelvis

Body Designed to Minimise Dangers from Falling.

The Human Hand: Coupled to our indefatigable spirit, our hands allow us to do marvellous things. With our long, slender fingers and opposable thumbs, humans can create incredibly complex tools and deadly weapons. They enable us to write words, paint pictures and create logical constructs that distinguish us in kind and degree from the animals. Predictably, evolutionary adherents have tried hard to show that the human hand evolved over long periods of time, but now paleo-anthropologists are in a bit of a pickle. Since chimps – our so-called ‘nearest living relative’ do not have hands like ours, it was long thought that the anatomical changes in our hands evolved after the ‘branching’ off of the human and chimp lineages.  But new research conducted by researchers based at the George Washington and Stony Brook universities reveal a completely different picture; the hands of extant and fossil primates, including hominins, are actually quite diverse and that there appears to be nothing especially distinguished about ours. This raises more doubts about the standard concept that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors. See this article for more information.

Part XXIV: More Speedy Evolution

The Triassic-Jurassic mass Extinction Event (TJEE), occurring some 201 +/- 2 million years ago, is the second greatest mass extinction event preserved in the fossil record. It removed more than 95 percent of terrestrial megaflora species, as well as all the animal species dependent upon these plants. Despite this devastating epoch in earth history, it led to another exceptionally rapid radiation of large bodied theropod dinosaur species in its aftermath, with new research suggesting that they appeared in a time span of the order of 10,000 years! And within 100,000 years, dinosaur families had reached a new stable maximum in extremely hostile conditions. Yet again, there is no Darwinian explanation for this but the data beautifully fits a biblical creation model.

Part XXV: The Tree of Life and the Fossil Record
Imagine you came across 100 random frames of an old movie consisting of 100,000 frames. Could you determine the plot of the film? You might be able to get a handful of frames to fit your pre-conceived idea but the rest seem to be telling a completely different story. Would it be reasonable to claim that your pre-conceived ideas of the movie were correct in light of that handful of frames you ‘pieced’ together?

That is rather like the current state of affairs in evolutionary biology.

Here are some influential quotes from a number of researchers in that field:

Henry Gee from his book, In Search of Deep Time- Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life, (1999) , pp 116-117, says:

To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story – amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.”

Prominent cell and developmental biologist, Stuart Newmann,  based at New York Medical College, Valhalla, NY had this to say regarding the status quo:

The Darwinian mechanism that’s used to explain all evolutionary change will be relegated, I believe, to being one of several mechanisms – maybe not even the most important when it comes to understanding macro-evolution, the evolution of the major transitions in body”

Concerning the fossil record, biologist Malcolm S. Gordon in his book, Biology and Philosophy (1999) , pp 340 states:

“There is no way of knowing to what extent, if at all, those specific organisms were relevant to later developments, or what their relationships might have been.”

Regarding Darwin’s tree of life, evolutionary biologist, Dr. Eric Bapteste said in a 2009 interview for New Scientist:

“We have no evidence at all that the tree of life is a reality.”

Later in the same article, fellow evolutionary biologist, Dr. Michael Rose (University of California) says,

“The tree of life is being politely buried, we all know that. What’s less accepted is that our whole view of biology needs to change.”
                                                       New Scientist, January 24, 2009, pp- 37-39.

We are still in the dark about the origin of most major  groups of organisms. They appear in the fossil record as Athena did from the head of Zeus – full-blown and raring to go, in contradiction to Darwin’s depiction of evolution as resulting from the gradual accumulation of countless infinitesimally minute variations…..

Schwartz,J., Sudden Origins: Fossils, Genes an the Emergence of Species, pp 3, (Wiley, 1999).

If the experts are not sure; why should you feel secure in your evolutionary ‘heritage’?

Part XXVI: Vestigial Organs? No Such Thing!

Evolutionary biologists have long looked to so-called vestigial structures as ‘evidence’ of the evolutionary paradigm at work. But as we learn more about the Book of Nature, we find that no such structure exists; there is specified purpose in everything that is created. Just like the human appendix was found to have important roles in the immune system, so now the intriguing story of the Whale Pelvis is unraveling.

Evolutionary biologists would learn a great deal more if they became Baraminologists!

Part XXVII: The Seeing Eye

The eyes are like a lamp for the body. If your eyes are sound, your whole body will be full of light.

                          Matthew 6:22

We have already covered some of the astounding features of the human body that show unmistakable signs of design. But your eyes are orders of magnitude more complex than the best robotic eyes humankind has ever constructed. The eye provides excellent evidence of design rather than (excuse the pun) a blind evolutionary theory stabbing in the dark. To help you see the light, have a look at this article and its associated links.

More on the design of the human eye here.

Part XXVIII: Did God Create Using Evolutionary Processes?

The account of Genesis 1-3 and also Psalm 104 clearly indicates that God did not resort to producing creatures gradually, as the evolutionary paradigm insists, because there would not be enough time to do so. Furthermore, I would have to call God a liar but that would contradict scripture (Numbers 23:19). Indeed the evolutionary position makes absolutely no sense, as the Earth would have required a complex biosphere from the beginning in order to maintain life throughout the ages. Psalm 104 in particular informs us that God renews the face of the Earth, driving species to extinction and replacing them with organisms better equipped to deal with a steadily brightening Sun. In this link and the associated podcast at the end of the article, you can explore these ideas more fully.

Part XXIX: Origins with a New Twist

Now that Darwin’s famous book,On the Origins of Species, is in the public domain, some have quickly taken to write their own foreword to the classic text. Ray Comfort, well known for, but not universally respected for, his militant style of evangelism, took the time to illuminate Darwin’s worldview in view of the 21st century Christian faith. Comfort makes some good points that we ought to remember. You can read this and the 150th Anniversary Edition of Origin’s here.

Part XXX: Language & Darwin

Language is a characteristic unique to modern humans. Yet despite a great deal of effort to frame the origin of language in an intelligible Darwinian framework, it has not yielded the evidence it ought to. The latest research suggests that since all humans possess the  same ability to utilize language in conveying thoughts, emotions and abstract ideas, it is unlikely to have evolved gradually as it ought to have in a Darwinian fashion. Indeed, the distinguished authors of this work (Noam Chomski & Ian Tattersall et al) conclude thus:

By this reckoning, the language faculty is an extremely recent acquisition in our lineage, and it was acquired not in the context of slow gradual modification of preexisting systems under natural selection but in a single, rapid, emergent event that built upon those prior systems but was not predicted by them…The relatively sudden origin of language poses difficulties that may be called ‘Darwin’s problem’.’

Yet again, evolutionary process fail the litmus test, but language and its origin can be neatly framed within a biblical creation model.

More on human language here.

Part XXXI: New Evidence from Molecular Biology and Genetics

But you, Daniel, keep these words secret and seal the book until the time of the end. Many will roam about, and knowledge will increase.
                                                                                                  Daniel 12:4

New research continues to cast doubt on the concept of human evolution. In this subsection, we shall explore the latest findings from the discipline of molecular biology to cast a sceptical eye over Darwin’s Victorian creation myth.

Exhibit A: the HAR 1 gene in the animal kingdom and its peculiar behaviour in the human brain.

Exhibit B: Are we more than our DNA? – an interesting talk by David Harrison, currently Professor of Pathology at the University of Edinburgh.

Exhibit C: Microbiologist Rich Deem casts his critical eye over the genetics of humans and their putative ancestral hominins. Is the genetic evidence really there to support human evolution? I don’t think so!

Exhibit D: Population geneticist, Professor Maciej Giertych provides evidence against evolution here.

Exhibit F: Do genetic mutations support a Naturalistic or Creation based worldview? Molecular biologist and visiting Fellow at the Rivendell Institute, Yale University, Dr. Anjeanette  Roberts, argues that maintaining a purely naturalistic outlook could actually be damaging to scientific progress. See here for details.

Exhibit G: Despite vigorous attempts to show otherwise, vascular plants show little or no capacity to evolve. Plant geneticists have used the ordering of genes (synteny) along a chromosome to build ‘evolutionary trees’ between various plant species, but a team of French researchers showed this reasoning to be untenable, debunking a key prediction of the evolutionary paradigm. See here for details.

Exhibit H: In June 2012, Dartmouth University molecular biologist, Kevin Peterson, had a paper published in Nature, where he presented sequence comparisons of microRNA strands (which play vital roles in gene expression) across a wide variety of mammal groups. His results shocked the scientific community because they tore apart traditional ideas about the so-called animal  ‘family tree’.  As Peterson laments in this article, “I’ve looked at thousands of microRNA genes and I can’t find a single example that would support the traditional tree.” According to his own analysis microRNAs yielded, “a radically different diagram for mammals; one that aligns humans more closely with elephants than with rodents.” In the end, Peterson concludes,” the microRNAS are totally unambiguous….. and give a totally different tree from what everyone wants.”

A follow up commentary in Nature from July 28 2014 concludes thus; “A simple tool to decode how animals have evolved over hundreds of millions of years would certainly be nice — but it is looking unlikely that one exists.”

Exhibit I:The Bible and the Jewish Torah authoritatively claim (and borrowed much later in the Qur’an [Sura 2: 30-39] ) that Adam and Eve were the first human beings, uniquely created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1: 26-30), ancestral parents to us all, and that this first couple lived together in the Garden of Eden. The scientific community ridiculed this position for a very long time until new evidence deriving from human mitochrondrial DNA (which is passed down the maternal line) and Y chromosome (passed down the male line) analysis showed that this idea appears to be essentially correct.

All women can be traced to a mitochrondrial ‘Eve’ and all men to a Y chromosomal ‘Adam’. What is more, according to a new study published in Nature in August 2013, ancestral ‘Adam’ and’ Eve’ could well have co-existed, just as the Bible had showed us all along.

For  pre-emptive apologetic commentaries on this fascinating study, see here and here.

Exhibit J: Are organelles evidence for evolution or creation?

Deep inside the cells of eukaryotic organisms (such as humans, frogs and yeast) are found curious structures called organelles such as chloroplasts, which carry out photosynthesis in green plants, and mitochondria, the structures where the vast majority of our cellular energy is furnished. The size and structure of both the chloroplast and the mitochondrion resemble those of simpler, free living cells such as cyanobacteria and ricketsiales, respectively. These organelles possess their own DNA, coding  for anything between 30 and 100 genes. The evolutionary paradigm has it that these were once free living organisms that were internalised inside larger cells, but instead of being used as a food source, they ‘learned’ to co-exist with the larger cell, and gradually, over billions of years, most of their genes were transferred to the genome of the larger, host cell. Evolutionists point to the fact that other organelles have lost all of their genes and so it’s only a matter of time before the same fate will befall mitochondria and chloroplasts, but new research has cast doubt on this idea by finding that the genes encoded by mitochondria and chloroplasts have good reason to stay where they are. An evolutionary quirk or good design sense? You be the judge of that. See here for more details.

Exhibit K: Engineers look to the genius of Nature for Inspiration

By reverse engineering biological organs,  new research continues the make a powerful case for design at the heart of living things. In this article, the distinguished biochemist, Professor Russell W. Carlson, shows how the tail of the seahorse shows the unmistakable hallmarks of intelligent and elegant design in a way that could not be expected by some blind, bumbling process like evolution.

Part XXXII: Seeing the ‘Big’ Picture

As I have intimated throughout this link, belief in Darwinian evolution is not scientific and thus, cannot be considered rational. Such irrational ideas have pagan origins.This extends to the wider Universe. We eagerly expect a cosmos brimming over with life yet fail to see the miracle of life around us! Evolution is insidious, obnoxious, an insult to reason, a corruption of the mind; a denier of the spirit. Here’s a fine synopsis by Dr. William Worraker (BSc Physics, PhD Engineering Mathematics) of the real picture, the ‘Big Picture’.

Part XXXIII: Philosophic Objections to Evolution through History

Ever since Darwin first published his influential books on evolution, it has impelled learned men and women to question its relevance to Christianity, and, more broadly, its legitimacy as a true science. And while some Christian scholars were able to reach some degree of accommodation with evolutionary ideology, many others couldn’t. It is interesting that there have been Christians and non-Christians alike, in every generation since, that have expressed their doubts on whether a purely blind, evolutionary process could possibly be true; a significant historical observation, I think!

For them, it didn’t just feel wrong, it didn’t compute either. In this series, we shall explore some of those objections through history.

Oculus Historiae 1: The American theologian, Charles Hodge (1797-1878), concluded that if one were to embrace Darwinian ideas, one would necessarily have to deny God’s existence. See here.

Oculus Historiae 2: The pre-Darwinian English philosopher and theologian, William Paley (1743-1805) developed a splendid argument from design; if one were to come across and examine a watch  set upon a heath, he argued, one would rightly conclude that it was designed. Influential atheist, Professor Richard Dawkins, claimed in his book, The Blind Watchmaker, that “biology is the study of things that give the appearance of having being designed.”

Paley used common sense reasoning to come to his conclusion, yet Dawkins requires you to abandon it!

You can explore Paley’s magnificent work, Natural Theology (1802), here.

Oculus Historiae 3: Sir Richard Owen was arguably one of the finest naturalists of the Victorian era. Darwin himself openly acknowledged his greater academic prestige. Owen is the man who gave us the name ‘Dinosaur”, which translates as ‘fearfully great lizard’. Unlike Darwin though, who viewed homological organs in terms of common descent, Owen argued the same homologous structures are better explained in terms of an ‘archetype’. To elaborate, shared biological features from the molecular level right the way up to whole organ structures could just as well (if not better) be viewed as evidence for common design, not common descent. More on Owen’s archetypes here.

Oculus Historiae 4: Louis Pasteur (1822-95) was, without doubt, the greatest scientist of the 19th century. His seminal work in microbiology made him Mankind’s greatest benefactor, with millions of lives having been saved through his efforts to develop cures for many diseases that have plagued our kind down through the millennia. Pasteur was also the scientist who demonstrated that life can only be derived from pre-existing life. Despite his towering scientific presence, Pasteur was also a life-long Christian, never seeing any conflict between science and his belief in the Biblical God. He also rejected mainstream evolutionary arguments. You can read a good essay about him here. [Note: the views expressed on Catholicism and Young Earth Creationism by the authors of this essay are not necessarily shared by myself.]

Oculus Historiae 5:

As soon as the earth in the course of time had achieved the necessary capability for the formation and maintenance of organic life, plants and animals of the lowest sorts first appeared….. [it] developed more and more abundantly; the oldest forms disappeared in part, to make space for new, more perfect ones.

                                                                                Gregor Mendel

mail.google.com

The Austrian Augustinian friar and biologist, Gregor Mendel (1822-84)  carried out a set of famous experiments with pea plants, which established the basic laws of genetics we understand today, and was the first to coin the term ‘gene’, although he was unaware of its exact chemical nature. Evolutionists have tried to claim Mendel as one of their own but if one studies the scholarly literature, it is clear that although Mendel was intimately familiar with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, he rejected the notion that the various groups of animals and plants came about through ‘decent with modification’. In retrospect, his experiments showed that traits were not ‘blended together’ but recur, ‘undiluted’ as it were,  in later generations. Mendel was a progressive creationist, understanding that this provided a much better fitting of the facts than Darwinian evolution could ever hope to do. For more on Mendel’s opposition to the evolutionary paradigm see here.

Oculus Historiae 6: The ‘Other’ Darwin

I now uphold the doctrine that not man alone, but the whole World of Life, in almost all its varied manifestations, leads us to the same conclusion—that to afford any rational explanation of its phenomena, we require to postulate the continuous action and guidance of higher intelligences; and further, that these have probably been working towards a single end, the development of intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings…

Thus wrote the celebrated Welsh naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), who proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection before Darwin. Unlike his more famous contemporary though, Wallace came to accept that intelligent agencies must have directed all life on Earth from its inception. Wallace’s ideas resonate well with the explosion of new information available today that categorically rejects – on purely rational grounds – myopic, reductionist arguments for the history of life on Earth.

Oculus Historiae 7: The Catholic Church’s ‘evolving’ acceptance of the evolutionary paradigm.

Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.

                                                                                          Luke 23:34

The Roman See has, up until fairly recently, maintained a fairly ambivalent view of Darwinian ideologies. But as the twentieth century progressed, and as supposedly ‘stronger’ evidence for evolution was emerging, some intellectuals within its ranks sought to harmonise the evolutionary process with a kind of ‘systematic theology’. Prominent among these was the influential work of the French, paleontologist, philosopher and Catholic priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who produced many treatise that attempted to reconcile the record of nature with the historic, Christian faith. For Teilhard, evolution was “the natural landscape,” where the “history of salvation” was situated.

It is undeniably true that in recent years, the higher echelons of the Catholic Church have been ‘pushing’ the ‘reality’ of Darwinian evolution among its billion-strong flock. In one very alarming development, and in an attempt to sanction evolutionary ideas in the wider  Universe, Catholic clerical astronomers announced to the world it was “OK to believe in Aliens”.

Remarkably though, in line with these developments, there have been ‘gentle’ voices of dissent within the Catholic Church that have raised alarm bells about the direction the ‘consensus’  is gravitating towards. You can see some of those views here and here.

In this clip, Pope Francis endorses the evolutionary paradigm, stating that, “God is not a Magician but allows life to develop in accordance with internal laws that he gave to each one so that they could reach their fulfillment.”

What laws might those be?

Darwinian laws?

That’s an oxymoron.

Who is the Holy Father trying to kid?

Who advises this man?

Non credo quia absurdum est!

In light of the new explosion of knowledge at our disposal, I strongly urge Catholics to reject outright the evolutionary paradigm, based both on rational and Scriptural grounds.

Oculus Historiae 8: A Philosophic response to an Arch-Evolutionist

The late Dr. Dallas Willard (1935-2013), Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, left behind a wealth of discourses on  a wide variety of philosophic questions. In this essay, Willard uses his forensic training in logic to unpick the central tenets of Richard Dawkin’s book, The Blind Watchmaker.

Oculus Historiae 9: Darwin’s Doubt

In 1993, the American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga (born 1932) developed an extremely persuasive argument which hinges on a simple presupposition: if our minds were shaped by an evolutionary process then we have no reason to trust our reasoning and understanding of the world. Materialistic evolution is purported to be an adaptive mechanism that controls the development of life and guarantees the survivability of that life. In particular, the neuro-physiological processes that make up a species produce behaviour that results in a species more suited for survival. In this evolutionary scenario, these same neuro-physiological processes also produce beliefs. But while natural selection rewards adaptive behaviour, it does not care whether beliefs are true. Plantinga argues that a naturalistic process like evolution cannot be guaranteed to produce true beliefs, and he quotes several evolutionists who confirm this view. He concludes that naturalistic evolution is a self-defeating explanation in that it cannot guarantee the reliability of the reasoning processes that lead to it.  In his own words,

Evolutionary naturalism can’t sensibly be accepted. The high priests of evolutionary naturalism loudly proclaim that Christian and even theistic belief is bankrupt and foolish. The fact, however, is that the shoe is on the other foot. It is evolutionary naturalism, not Christian belief, that can’t rationally be accepted.

Neat huh?

Oculus Historiae 10: On Being Brave

In more recent years, more and more scientists are willing to come forth and admit there are insurmountable problems with the wholesale embracing of the evolutionary paradigm.

The late Professor Arthur E. Wilder Smith, holder of three doctoral degrees, comes clean about evolution here.

Dr Denis Noble, distinguished professor of physiology at the University of Oxford, debunks Darwinian evolution here.

Oculus Historiae 11: Evolution Undermining the Historic Christian Faith

Whatever you believe about evolution, it is, at its base, completely incompatible with the the Judeo-Christian world view. And whatever theistic evolutionists may sincerely believe, they are deluding themselves. Evolution devalues the sanctity of human life and dishonours our loving Creator.  In this essay, a group of pastors have come together to explain why accepting the evolutionary paradigm is dangerous and evil.

I believe it’s not possible to be a Christian and to believe in evolution. To see why, have a look at this link.

***The distinguished American nuclear engineer, Dr. Michael G. Houts, revealed his thoughts on Darwinian evolution in this 2007 essay for the Apologetics Press. Dr. Houts argues that biological evolution is a pseudoscience and highlights the dangers evolutionary ideologies have on people, particularly Christians. Crucially, Houts argues – quite correctly in my opinion – that evolutionary atheism is not a rational position to hold.

You can read Part II of Dr. Houts’ essay here.

Part XXXIV: How Questions for Evolutionists

How did life appear so early and so rapidly on Earth?

How did life on Earth arise without any prebiotic soup?

How did life ‘find’ apparently non-existent chemical pathways?

How was the problem of homochirality overcome?

How did biological information arise de novo?

How were life’s essential boundaries formed?

How did life achieve its minimal complexity?

How did life fill even the harshest of niches in such a short time?

Part XXXV: Why Questions for Evolutionists

Why does the universe on every scale we examine show unmistakable signs of fine tuning for life in particular, and human life especially?

Why did the first life appear on Earth at the earliest possible moment permitted by physics?

Why are the Earth’s continents and its oceans optimised for advanced life?

Why are so called ‘transitional forms’ most abundant among species with the lowest probability of long-term survival and least abundant among species which exhibit the highest probability of survival?

Why does the build-up of mineral resources and biodeposits on our planet over 3.8 billion years consistently anticipate the needs of human technological civilization far in the future?

Why does the quantity and diversity of life forms on Earth precisely compensate for a steadily brightening Sun over the aeons?

Why are the laws of physics – the ‘bondage to decay’ if you will – displayed in such a way so as to minimize the spread of evil?

Why do so many animal and plant species exhibit altruistic behaviour?

Why does the fossil record show the sudden appearance of new life forms capable of multiple partner symbiosis?

Why does life from elsewhere in the cosmos make no sense?

Why do humans universally know ‘right’ from ‘wrong’?

Why do humans alone express a sense of  hope, purpose and destiny?

Part XXXVI: Darwin & Destiny

You cannae win.

 

You cannae break even.

 

You cannae stay oot o’ the game.

 

You did not evolve!

If you didn’t evolve then where did you come from and where are you going?

Once you free yourself from the shackles of Darwin’s Victorian creation myth, you become a new person. You see the world in a completely different way. Transformed from within, you fear no one but the person who created you. And that is the beginning of wisdom.

How could you not know that the elect will judge the angels? (1 Corinthians 6:3)

You are worth more than the world.

You what mate?

You heard!

Can you begin to imagine how empowered you really are!

Use that power responsibly.

Here’s a NEW and updated summary of why Darwin got it wrong.

For more evidence and testimonials on the same subject see Part II here

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, 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.

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 and colleagues 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.