1. Stanford University News: “The Strange Case of Solar Flares and Radioactive Elements

Last year we mentioned research that showed a relationship between earth’s distance from the sun and the rate at which certain elements undergo radioactive decay—an eyebrow-raising linkage.

Now, scientists at Stanford University and Purdue University have found a further strange connection between astronomy and radiometric decay: the activity of solar flares seems to affect how quickly unstable elements fall apart. The find may “rewrit[e] some of the assumptions of physics,” Stanford University News reports.

Radioactive decay is important in the origins controversy because evolutionists, along with old-earth creationists who argue for a very old age for the world, argue that such decay allows us to accurately determine the age of rocks. By dating earth’s rock layers at millions or even billions of years old, evolutionists claim to support the supposed evolutionary history of earth’s life and show the Genesis account of history to be, at the very least, metaphor. As the news report explains,

The story begins, in a sense, in classrooms around the world, where students are taught that the rate of decay of a specific radioactive material is a constant. This concept is relied upon, for example, when anthropologists use carbon-14 to date ancient artifacts . . . . [As seen—and accepted without question—in other news this week.]

Creationists have not left these claims unanswered, of course. Recently, the RATE project produced an academic book series discussing various problems in radiometric dating, while resources for the laymen translate all the technical talk.

The latest discovery began when Purdue University physicist Ephraim Fischbach was studying radioactive decay as a method of generating random numbers—although the rate of decay is constant overall, individual atoms still behave randomly, and the physicist hoped to produce random numbers without any human input.

But as Fischbach and other scientists looked at their data and data from other labs, a strange trend showed up: the decay rate of at least two isotopes seemed to vary, slightly, with the seasons (during which time the earth’s distance from the sun varies). Further, Purdue nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins observed a decrease in the decay rate of manganese-54 that occurred during a solar flare in 2006.

Stanford physicist Peter Sturrock said of the discovery, “Everyone thought it must be due to experimental mistakes, because we’re all brought up to believe that decay rates are constant.” Now, the scientists have hypothesized that the sun is, in a way, “communicating” (to use Fischbach’s word) with radioactive isotopes on earth. This may occur through the transmission of solar neutrinos, which the sun radiates toward earth, although the science behind such an effect is unknown.

It will likely take years before scientists are fully convinced of the relationship between solar activity and radioactive decay, and years more until the relationship is better understood. What is clear, perhaps now more than ever before, is that radioactive decay is not as constant, nor as understood, as old-earth creationists and evolutionists have insisted. Nevertheless, radiometric dating of rocks won’t fall out of fashion yet; as long as one assumes a relatively constant fluctuation in solar activity across millions of years of history, the old-earth conclusions of radiometric dating hold up. But once again, the issue is which assumptions one begins with.

2. ScienceDaily: “Bug with Bifocals Baffles Biologists

Bugs wearing glasses? Not quite, but research into the larvae of the sunburst diving beetle has revealed an amazing ocular design.

A team led by University of Cincinnati biologist Annette Stowasser studied the twelve-eyed larvae of Thermonectus marmoratus, the sunburst diving beetle. At least four of the larva’s twelve eyes feature bifocal lenses, and the research marks the first time bifocal lenses have been discovered in nature.

As in the case of human eyeglasses, the bug bifocals are used to switch the larva’s focus from close up to far away, effectively giving them “two eyes in one” and helping them better snatch prey. The larva lose the bifocals once they morph into adults, however.

The discovery is another look at God’s clever designs—created thousands of years before humans invented similar technology. And while many scientists “can’t believe their eyes” at how evolution could generate such complexity, creationists see the master Designer at work.

For more information:

3. BBC News: “Space is the Final Frontier for Evolution, Study Claims

Was Charles Darwin wrong? A few headlines this week have made the claim, but the news isn’t anything that will thrill creationists.

Darwin’s big error, according to a new study published in Biology Letters, was in arguing that competition between organisms is the most important force in evolution. The idea—often cast as “survival of the fittest”—is that in a dog-eat-dog world of scarce resources, carnivory, disease, and other dangers, all but the most fit will be killed off. This constant competition and the elimination of less fit (“less evolved”) species, the argument goes, moves evolution forward.

But the new study emphasizes the role of an organism’s “living space,” which includes the overall availability of food as well as the size of a population’s habitat. When an animal group gains access to new living space—especially an area unoccupied by other animals—evolution kicks into high gear. The team, led by the University of Bristol’s Sarda Sahney, came to the conclusion from a study of fossil diversity.

As an example, the team points to the supposed evolutionary rise of mammals, which happened as the dinosaurs died off (thereby vacating their “living space”). Team member Mike Benton explains,

“Even though mammals lived beside dinosaurs for 60 million years, they were not able to out-compete the dominant reptiles. But when the dinosaurs went extinct, mammals quickly filled the empty niches they left and today mammals dominate the land.”

While the theory is academically interesting, the scientists have presupposed evolution—interpreting fossil history as a record of millions of years of evolution, rather than as (largely) the record of a single, catastrophic, earth-wide Flood year. Beyond that, the connection between an organism’s living space and its diversity can be explained more concisely as the working of natural selection combined with an understanding of genetics—principles that both evolutionists and creationists accept and that can be observed in the present.

Finally, as we mentioned above, a few media outlets had headlines with somewhat irresponsible wording, claiming, vaguely, that “Darwin was wrong.” While a cursory examination shows that the research has nothing to do with the creation/evolution controversy, the headlines were objectionable enough for a blog response from the National Center for Science Education’s Steven Newton. He uses the media flap as an occasion to take a swipe at Answers in Genesis, claiming (as if we would agree) that we attack evolution “for reasons outside of science.”

4. ScienceNOW: “Colored Lice Are for the Birds

Are feather lice—like peppered moths—a black-and-white example of evolution in action?

When it comes to feather lice, the name fits well: the lice live on birds, feeding on feathers as well as dead skin. The birds try to get rid of them, of course, and succeed part of the time.

But ScienceNOW reports that the lice have “evolved” camouflage to help them hide from their unwelcoming hosts—a conclusion that comes from a new study appearing in The American Naturalist. Scientists compared twenty-six pairs of related, but different-colored, birds, looking at the color of their feather lice. As the scientists suspected, the color of each lice population tended to match the color of its host’s feathers—dark lice on dark-feathered birds, and light lice on light-feathered birds.

That makes sense, the researchers say, because birds can more easily spot—and remove—lice that stand out against their feathers as they preen. One exception was the color of the birds’ head lice, which was always dark. But this also makes sense; the birds are unable to see their heads as they preen, so the color of a louse doesn’t make it more likely to get “picked off” (literally).

Once, peppered moths were a leading icon of evolution. As the story goes, the presence of dark moths resting on dark trees and light moths resting on light trees proved the populations were “evolving” to their environment. But neither peppered moths nor feather lice are evolving at all; the force at work is natural selection, the result of which is a decrease in a population’s diversity and (potentially) its amount of genetic information.

5. ScienceDaily: “Doctors’ Religious Beliefs Strongly Influence End-of-Life Decisions, Study Finds

Are controversies over religion, origins, and the like merely academic? Of course not; new research reminds us of the powerful connection between values and actions.

The research, which appears in the Journal of Medical Ethics, shows that atheist and agnostic doctors are far more likely to undertake actions “expected or partly intended to end life.” The result comes from a survey of several thousand doctors working in the UK. Many of the doctors surveyed came from specialties where end-of-life treatment is routine: neurology, elderly care, palliative care, and intensive care.

The doctors were asked questions about their faith and level of religiosity. Respondents included Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and those of other faiths (including atheists and agnostics). One series of questions pushed the respondents to recall the care they provided to their last patient who had died, asking, for example, whether they discussed with the patients options likely to hasten their death.

The least religious doctors were, not surprisingly, nearly twice as likely as other doctors to take life-ending decisions for patients. They were also more supportive of laws allowing euthanasia and other doctor assistance in bringing about a patient’s death.

When one rejects God, the consequences are more than theological. The value of a human life—young or old, born or unborn, healthy or diseased—is a very different question for an individual who believes humans are created in the image of God and one who believes humans are the accidental result of an unforgiving, bloody process of millions of years of natural selection.

6. And Don’t Miss . . .

  • A newly found solar system may be “a bit like ours.” But with the system’s earth-like planet orbiting its star at one-twentieth the distance between our sun and Mercury, it’s easy to see the difference. But should astronomers be searching for earth-like planets, anyway? A new idea is that the aliens we may find in space will be mechanical, not biological.
  • It’s another “could have” report about life on Mars: volcanoes “could have contained enough organic materials to support primitive forms of life.”
  • Arrows from 64,000 years ago: another questionable result of radiometric dating.
  • It appears the cover story of the next issue of World magazine will discuss the question of the age of the earth within Christian academia. The article’s backdrop is the raft trips Answers in Genesis and Canyon Ministries run on the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. 
  • Scientists in Britain have created liver cells out of stem cells derived from skin. But in the United States, the Obama administration is appealing a court ruling that blocked federal government funding of embryonic stem cell research.

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