Monday, August 27, 2007

Toxic Cloud May Have a Silver Lining.

(At left) Berkeley Pit Lake in Butte, Montana. Photo by Chris Mueller

"We're all downstream."
- Ecologist's motto adopted by Margaret & Jim Drescher, Windhorse Farm, Nova Scotia

Ever since the first Paleolithic Ph.D applied for an NIH Grant, researchers have sought a "silver bullet" that would be effective against the legion of cancers afflicting humanity. Now hope may come from a most unlikely source - a toxic waste site.

The September 2007 issue of Wired Magazine features "Creatures From the Black Lagoon" by Guy Gugliotta - a former Washington Post science writer. This article chronicles how chemists Don and Andrea Stierle stumbled upon potentially useful microorganisms in an abandoned Montana copper mine. Berkeley Pit Lake was born after the open pit operation closed, and water was no longer being pumped out. Minerals leaching from the soil created a highly toxic lagoon. As a result, many an unfortunate creature breathed its last after dropping in for a drink.

But as Jeff Goldblum's character says in Jurassic Park, "Life, uh . . . finds a way." So resourceful BPL microbes fulfilled their Darwinian destiny - and adapted. The outcome was strains of bacteria and fungi that exist nowhere else in the world.

This discovery would have been reward enough for many scientists, but Don and Andrea then took their research in a new direction. Their lifelong passion has been to discover nautical plants and animals with pharmaceutical potential. So they did what any surf loving scientists would do when stuck in Montana - they brought the medical mountain to Muhammad (or Butte, as the locals call it). By subjecting their new bug buddies to the same assays they used with oceanic life, they discovered that some appeared to kill cancer cells. And that - as the white coats at Sloan Kettering will tell you - is a good thing.

The Stierles' work is preliminary, and requires further investigation. Hopefully Big Pharma will now get involved to determine if cancer fighting drugs can be developed from these candidates. I've come up with a few brand names for them: Tumor-Tox, Contamin-Oma, and Berkeley-Balm. And to give their campaign more zing, pharmaceutical sales reps could call on doctors' offices in HazMat suits! (Hey, I'm not married to the last idea - just spitballing here . . .)

Author Guy Gugliotta does a masterful job of presenting this story. His prose is clear and concise, which unfortunately is not the norm in science writing. Many technical journalists fall in love with their own special vocabulary, and forget that we mere mortals can't recite the periodic table by heart. In addition, Gugliotta's compelling imagery captured my imagination. While reading "Creatures From the Black Lagoon", I felt like I was watching a "Nature" TV program. The only thing missing was the sound track.

Gugliotta seamlessly moves his account forward, while covering such diverse topics as Butte's geography and economic history, the Stierles' academic credentials and research, NIH funding, and pharmaceutical drug discovery. The author's narrative flow made me believe that the entire story could have been written in one (really big) paragraph, without losing continuity or comprehension.

I live in New Jersey, whose unofficial nickname is "The Landfill of Opportunity". Thus I am painfully aware of how pollution can damage an environment. This story gives me hope that my state can also find something good in its toxic terrain.

You can find more about Berkeley Pit Lake at Pitwatch. I wish the Stierles continued success with their exciting work!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Intevolution - The Debate Continues

(At left) Scopes Trial newspaper cartoon, 1925 Collection of Richard Milner

“While the rest of the species is descended from apes, redheads are descended from cats.” - Mark Twain

The June 2007 issue of Natural History Magazine offers "Darwin in Court" - an excellent article by Richard Milner on the debate over evolution and intelligent design.

For those of you who haven't watched television or read a newspaper in the last 100 years, I will summarize. Evolutionists believe that life evolved gradually, through a process known as natural selection. Intelligent Designers believe that life was placed on Earth by a supernatural force (like God or Google) pretty much in its final form. That's the story in a nutshell, (which evolved from a nut without a shell).

Milner's article outlines the argument, lists new books, and details an important court case - Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. Richard is an Associate of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Recent publications mentioned are:

"Intelligent Thought" by John Brockman - an excellent introduction to this controversy. IT is a collection of essays on Intelligent Design by some of the world's top scientists. Brockman, a respected editor of scientific literature, collaborated with the authors to make this information comprehensible to people (like moi) who will never be asked to join MENSA.

"40 Days and 40 Nights" by Matthew Chapman, who is a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. Milner describes Matthew's work as "a tour de force, hilarious without sacrificing seriousness or purpose." Chapman, attended the Dover School District trial, which lasted 40 days and 40 nights. This Biblical coincidence was not lost on the author, who incorporated it into his title.

"Not in Our Classrooms" by Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch. Eugenie is the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. This organization is focused on keeping religion (disguised as science) out of America's classrooms.

These books have been added to my (rapidly growing) "must read" list. I may need to get a second job to support my journalistic jones.

In his analysis of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, Milner focuses on the core issues: 1) Does Intelligent Design meet the definition of "science"? and 2) Does teaching it in public school classrooms violate the U.S. Constitution? The rulings of Presiding Judge John E. Jones III were that Intelligent Design was not science - and therefore requiring it to be included in a science curriculum violated the Establishment Clause of The First Amendment. This Clause forbids the U.S. Government from establishing or supporting religious activities. Since Judge Jones is a lifelong Republican, who was appointed by (born again Christian) President George W. Bush, I am guessing that he will be getting a few less Christmas cards from the GOP. But I applaud him for his judicial integrity.

In his final comments on the case, Judge Jones offered scathing criticism of the Dover School Board, the group responsible for introducing Intelligent Design into their classrooms:

"It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise their real purpose. . ."


". . .The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources"

I enjoyed Richard's fluid prose, which facilitated my journey through the literary and legal landscape of this debate. Scientific writing is often harder to understand than Chinese algebra. My touchstone for this genre is "Can I read the article without moving my lips or getting a headache?" Milner passed this test with flying colors!

Richard also presented a fair and balanced profile of the IDers. He did not demonize them or describe them in condescending terms - something many of his fellow scientists have been guilty of. His article included a dialogue with a Christian associate. This person explained that not all Christians supported the IDers' view that Evolution and Intelligent Design were mutually exclusive. At a time when our world is so polarized, it was refreshing to find a writer who approached such a divisional issue with an open mind.

If you want to learn more about the Intevolution (my new word) argument - and what it means to John (or Jane) Q. Public, then I highly recommend "Darwin in Court". I also encourage you to visit the new Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It is a fun and fascinating way to learn more about where humans came from!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Newsweek Features Emma and Jackson at Chimps Incorporated

Newsweek recently featured a story about Emma and Jackson at Chimps Inc. in Bend, Oregon.

The chimps were brought to Chimps Inc. after their previous owners were taken to court for alleged abuse and neglect. Now the former owners want them back.

This conflict is being fought out in court - and it has raised an important question: Do chimpanzees (whose DNA differs from humans by less than 2%) have any rights, or are they simply property?

This situation harkens back to the Dred Scott Vs Sandford Case, which took place shortly before the American Civil War. At that time, the same question was asked about a slave (Dred Scott) who petitioned the US Government for his freedom. Unfortunately for Mr. Scott, the United States Supreme Court ruled that (as a slave), he was property and therefore had no rights under the US Constitution.

In today's world, the Dred Scott decision is considered to be misguided, at best, and shameful, at worst. I am hopeful that Emma's and Jackson's fate will be happier. It would be unfortunate if it took another 100 years for such wonderful creatures to be afforded some rights and dignity.

I know and have great respect for the people who run Chimps Incorporated. I am confident that all of the animals under their care are supported in a loving and responsible environment. It would be a terrible tragedy if Emma and Jackson were taken away from such a nurturing home.

I encourage you to contact Chimps Incorporated to offer whatever assistance that you can. Many thanks!

Karen Kruger is Featured Artist of the Month at the Highlands Photo Guild

"A photograph does not speak, it does not smell, it makes no sound, it does not move, it is just a two dimensional piece of paper, but a good photograph can do at least one if not all of the above!"
I recently posted a story about the Highlands Photo Guild in Milford, PA. This post mentioned talented photographer Karen Kruger. I am particularly impressed with her use of color in creating an emotional response. A sample of her work is shown here.

This month (Aug. 10 through Sept. 6) Karen is the featured artist at the Highlands Photo Guild. The press release for Karen gives the following information:

"KAREN KRUGER is the featured artist of the month at HPG. Her images showcase the shops, doorways, balconies, and windows of Southern Italy and Sardinia.

Some images are rendered as traditional photos while others are given a more painterly touch. All of them communicate the feel and allure of the locale.

Imagine what your life would be like if you passed through these doors on your way home each day, if you peeked out those windows each morning and if you bought your groceries in these shops.

Visitors to Italy sense that life is different there. Meals and family are savored, time slows down and daily tasks take on a greater meaning. Come experience the feel of it, no passport or jetlag necessary!"

Highlands Photo Guild
224 Broad Street
Milford, PA 18337
Phone: (570) 296-2440

Milford, PA is on the border or NJ and PA, near Rt. 84 and High Point State Park. You can find directions here: Milford, PA Map.

If you find yourself in the area, then it would be worth your while to visit the Highlands Photo Guild and view Karen's wonderful photos!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Intelligent Thought by John Brockman

"It will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of evolution may be guided by an intelligent design." - Oxford scholar, F.C.S. Schiller, 1897

“Today, the theory of evolution is an accepted fact for everyone but a fundamentalist minority, whose objections are based not on reasoning but on doctrinaire adherence to religious principles."
- James D. Watson.

Intelligent Design
advances the idea that our world was created by a supernatural being. ID proponents believe that this concept is a scientifically valid alternative to Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

In his book Intelligent Thought - Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement, author John Brockman presents essays on ID by some of the world's top scientists. Contributors include:

Leonard Susskind - the Felix Bloch Professor of theoretical physics at Stanford. He is the author of The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and The Illusion of Intelligent Design.

Richard Dawkins - an evolutionary biologist, is Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His book The Selfish Gene has generated much discussion among scientists and lay people.

Lisa Randall - is Professor of Physics at Harvard University. She is the author of Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions.

The overwhelming conclusion of the book's contributors is that ID is not science - for three fundamental reasons:

  • A primary rule of science is that natural causes must be attributed to natural phenomena. ID relies on supernatural causality, (i.e. God) which violates this rule. Once you abandon natural causation, you enter into the area of magic or metaphysics - neither of which is science.
  • Intelligent Design has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community. As a result, it has not been presented in peer-review journals. Such publication is de rigueur for any new theory to be validated.
  • ID is not subject to scientific methodology, so the accuracy of ID's claims cannot be independently authenticated.

The same conclusion was reached in 2005 by the United States District Court, for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in the famous case of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District. The court determined that ID was not science, and that teaching it (as science) in the classroom violated The Establishment Clause of The First Amendment. This clause states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion".

In his Introduction, Brockman notes an irony about presiding Judge John E. Jones III: "Readers can rely on the writings of the scientists in this volume (Brockman's book). They can also rely on the words of this lifelong Republican jurist, who was appointed to the court by the current President of the United States (himself a born-again Christian fundamentalist)."

A primary difference between Intelligent Design and the Theory of Evolution is in answering the question - "How did today's life forms get here?" ID advocates state that all life was created abruptly - by a supernatural designer. As as a result, today's flora and fauna have the same form as when they first appeared on Earth. In other words, evolution of species never occurred.

However an overwhelming majority of scientists support an opposing view - the Theory of Evolution, with natural selection and gradual adaptation as its driving forces.

Another tenet of ID is that - Where Evolution is discredited, Intelligent Design is confirmed. This logic is fundamentally flawed, as indicated below:

Item A is red

Item B is blue

If Item C is not red, then it must be blue.

Item C does not have to be blue. It could be yellow, black, white, green, or any other color of the light spectrum. Item C could also be a color that hasn't been discovered yet.

The Wedge Document is an internal memorandum of the Discovery Institute - one of the primary supporters of ID. The Wedge Document was leaked to the Internet in 1999, and was later authenticated by the Institute. Many scientists believe that this document spells out ID advocates' real agenda - to introduce religious doctrine into schools and science. The Wedge Document states "The social consequences of materialism have been devastating. As symptoms, these consequences are certainly worth treating. However, we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, out strategy is intended to function as a "wedge" that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points. . . Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialistic worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."

Well known proponents of ID include:

Michael J. Behe - author of Darwin's Black Box (1996). One of the arguments of this book is that many biological systems are irreducibly complex at the molecular level. Therefore, they could not have gradually evolved to their current state.

Pervical Davis and Dean H. Kenyon - who authored Of Pandas and People. ID advocates are promoting this as a (required) high school biology text.

Former Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum - Wikipedia states "In 2001, Santorum tried unsuccessfully to insert language which came to be known as the Santorum Amendment into the No Child Left Behind bill that sought to promote the teaching of intelligent design while questioning the academic standing of evolution in public schools."

Scott Minnich - whose slogan Teach the Controversy has been praised and condemned by opposing sides. The scientific community's view is that unless intelligent design can be proven to be a valid scientific discipline, then it is inappropriate to compare intelligent design to evolution in a science class. This discussion is better suited for a course in philosophy or religion.

Phillip E. Johnson - a retired UC Berkley Law Professor, is considered by many to be The Father of Intelligent Design. He is the author of Darwin on Trial which argues that science should allow for supernatural explanations.

Intelligent Thought, gives the following bio for author John Brockman - "John Brockman, editor of many books including The Next Fifty Years, Curious Minds, What We Believe But Cannot Prove, and My Einstein, is also the author of By the Late John Brockman and The Third Culture. He is the founder and CEO of Brockman, Inc., a literary and software agency, and the publisher of the website Edge, the forum for leading scientists and thinkers to share their research with the general public."

Brockman's editorial skills contributed greatly to the success of this book. The essays that he presents are written in uncomplicated and focused prose. This makes them easy to understand -even for non-technical readers. The physicist Ernest Rutherford once said "If you can't explain a result in simple, nontechnical terms, then you really don't understand it."

In this post, I have tried to provide the basic elements of this controversy, and also to provide resources - so that readers can make an informed decision about what to believe. I invite your comments.