Will Babies Become GMOs?

One of the many trends in society today is over whether or not a food is a GMO, or “genetically modified organism.” A GMO is defined as organisms (plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic makeup has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or other natural reproduction. Making sure that the food we eat is not from GMOs is alongside eating free-range chicken or not vaccinating children because the vaccines lead to autism (a claim that finds no support in science).

Now the House of Commons in Great Britain has approved a bill that would allow using mitochondria from a second woman to replace mitochondria from a mother in order to avoid the baby’s being born with mitochondrial disease, an ailment that is passed through the mother and results in brain damage, muscle wasting, blindness, heart failure and death. The mother’s mitochondria that carries the defect is replaced with mitochondria from a second woman. While some are calling this a “three parent baby,” the fact is only about .1% of the child’s DNA comes from the second woman.

While this is clearly a boon for mothers who carry the defective mitochondria, the bill is opposed on moral, religious and ethical grounds. Some say this is the start of designer babies. It might get us to the year 6565 a lot sooner than Zager and Evans predicted in 1969:

“In the year 6565 Ain’t gonna need no husband, won’t need no wife. You’ll pick your son, pick your daughter too from the bottom of a long glass tube.”

This bill has been likened to eugenics, the “science” of improving the human race by deciding who can and cannot reproduce. In its most ugly form eugenics would prohibit certain socio-economic, racial or other classes from reproducing as a means of weeding out undesirables and improving humanity overall.

Some in favor of the bill say that religion has no place arguing against this bill. While acknowledging that moral and ethical issues are raised by the science, they claim religious objections have no place in the debate. That’s an interesting distinction to make. “Morality” is defined as the differentiation between ideas, actions and decisions that are right or good and those that are wrong or bad. The question becomes, who decides what is right or good and what is wrong or bad? Religion does have a place in this debate because religion attempts to distinguish good and correct actions from wrong and incorrect actions. In other words, religion provides a metric by which to measure ideas, actions and decisions. Without such a metric morality becomes relative, which is to say there is no good or bad, no right or wrong.

What are your thoughts? Does religion have a seat at the table in debates such this?

More Evidence of a Creator?

English: René Descartes, the French philosophe...
English: René Descartes, the French philosopher, by the French engraver Balthasar Moncornot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve already made note of the fact that the big bang looks a lot like the Bible’s description of the formation of the world. We’ve noted that the rate of expansion of the early universe had to be within tolerances on the order of 1 part in 1015 either way. That much more and stars wouldn’t have formed; that much less and everything would have collapsed by now. In the last post we saw the asymmetry between matter and antimatter necessary for the stars and galaxies to form and that that asymmetry is on the order  of one part in 109. As they say in TV commercials, “but wait! There’s more.”

If the asymmetry between matter and antimatter had been smaller, say one part in 1011 there wouldn’t have been enough matter for galaxies to form.  And if it had been greater, on the order of one part in 108 the abundant matter would have congealed into enormous lumps without forming discrete stars.

The same surprises exist in the world of particle physics.  If the strong force that binds atomic nuclei together were a few percentage points greater quarks wouldn’t form protons.  If it were five percent weaker stars couldn’t make heavy elements past hydrogen. If the weak force was much stronger the big bang would have cooked atoms all the way up to iron, leaving no lighter elements. If gravity was stronger stars would be mostly weak red dwarfs; much weaker and they would be fast-burning blue giants.  Either way so-called normal stars like our Sun would be non-existent or rare.

Many have seized on these incredibly improbable coincidences as evidence that some “Cosmic Designer” is at work. It is ironic that cosmology and physics can be conscripted to give evidence of a creator. This notion that the Goldilocks universe in which we live didn’t happen by chance is called the Anthropic Principle. The Anthropic Principle can be expressed many ways but the most common is, “the universe is the way it is because we are here to see it. If it weren’t the way it is, we wouldn’t be here.” This is reminiscent of Rene Descartes statement Je pense, donc je suis (I think, therefore I am, or cogito ergo sum in Latin). Descartes, a French philosopher of the 17th Century, set out to develop a set of fundamental principles that one can know without any doubt. As a starting point he had to prove his own existence. This he did by concluding that because he thinks, he exists. “The simple meaning of the phrase,” he wrote, “is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof he does exist.” Similarly, the universe exists as it does because we are here to question its existence.

Does all of this mean there is someone or something behind the big bang? Consider this hypothetical. You have been sentenced to death by a firing squad of 100 trained sharpshooters. You stand blindfolded and hear “ready, aim, FIRE” followed by a volley of shots. Suddenly you realize you are not dead. Under these circumstances the law says you may go free. Is it not realistic to see a higher power behind this? Aren’t the odds against all 100 sharpshooters missing you so astronomical as to be impossible in the absence of divine intervention?

On the other hand, the odds of a bridge player being dealt a particular hand are something like one in six billion. Does the bridge player marvel at the hand she has been dealt or does she simply play the hand she has? Most bridge players play the hand they are dealt rather than wonder why they got that particular hand, since all hands are equally likely.

Many scientists have taken the latter position — that the universe just happened this way. But to bolster their position against the “astronomical odds” argument, they suggest that one view of reality is that there is an enormous number of existing universes, on the order of 10500 (1 followed by 500 zeroes). With so many universes it is virtually certain that one of those is suitable for life. Therefore the Anthropic Principle holds true: the universe is this way because we are here to see it. We need not wonder at this particular state any more than we wonder at any other state. By making the universe non-unique in the sense that this is not the only one there is, the need for a creator is eliminated and replaced by simple laws of probability.

So where did these 10500 universes come from? For that we need to enter the world of string theory.

Einstein’s Victory

Einstein needed to be able to predict a result that hadn’t been observed yet.  Only in this way could he definitively show the superiority of his theory over Newton’s.  Think of it this way:  Suppose you have been talking to two investment advisers, Fred and Barney.  Fred shows you his calculations that predicted yesterday what the stock market did today.  Barney shows you his calculations today that predict what the market will do tomorrow.  Tomorrow the market performs exactly as Barney predicted.  Whom do you believe?  Fred could have manipulated his theory to match today’s results because he knew the result before he gave you his prediction.  But Barney couldn’t have known what the market would do today except through his theory.

Einstein had long pondered the relationship between light and gravity.  Since the General Theory of Relativity defines gravity as a warp in the fabric of spacetime and light travels through spacetime, under Einstein’s theory light should be affected by a massive body such as the sun.  Einstein theorized that light from a star behind the sun would be bent, resulting in an apparent shift in its position.  The problem was, you can’t see any stars when the sun is shining.  Einstein realized that during a total solar eclipse stars are visible in the daytime sky so he looked for an opportunity and an astronomer (remember, Einstein was a theoretical physicist — he didn’t actually conduct experiments) to observe stars during a solar eclipse.  He found both a partner in Arthur Eddington and an opportunity in the Southern Hemisphere in 1919.  Eddington and one team went to the island of Principe off West Africa and another team went to Brazil, hoping that if clouds obscured the eclipse in one location, the other location would be clear.

Eddington's photograph of a solar eclipse, whi...
Eddington’s photograph of a solar eclipse, which confirmed Einstein’s theory that light “bends”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end both teams were successful in observing the eclipse and taking what photographs needed to be taken.  After developing the plates, making measurements and calculating margins of error, Einstein’s predictions were within the margin of error while the results predicted by Newton’s laws were far too low.  Both Eddington and Einstein became virtual rock stars in science.  Eddington became inextricably connected to general relativity.  At one point someone said to him that he was one of three people in the world who understood the General Theory of Relativity.  Eddington was silent for several seconds and finally the person urged him not to be so modest.  “On the contrary,” Eddington replied, “I am trying to think who the third person is.”

The vindication of Einstein’s theory required a paradigm shift, a complete and sudden alteration in the way science viewed the universe.  Science usually moves incrementally, in small changes.  It isn’t often that Saul becomes Paul on the road to Damascus.  When a paradigm shift such as this occurs it usually isn’t generally accepted.  Older scientists who have devoted their professional lives to a particular view of things are reluctant to change and often it requires a dying off of the older generation before a new theory is completely accepted.  Such was the case with the General Theory of Relativity.  Yet his theories have been proven correct.  Einstein was once asked by a student how he would have felt if the universe had ultimately turned out to be different than his theory predicted.  With tongue firmly in cheek he replied, “Then I would feel sorry for the Good Lord.  The theory is correct anyway.”

A New Theory of Gravity

Induced spacetime curvature
Induced spacetime curvature (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember the example of traveling in a train at near the speed of light past a friend on a station platform.  The friend sees time as slowing down and you as being thinner.  Both space and time have changed in his perception.  Remember also that the theory of special relativity combines both space and time into one, spacetime.   What is this spacetime?

Mathematics is often called the language of science because many physical phenomena can best be expressed mathematically.  For those of us who have trouble with high school algebra and geometry, describing scientific theories can be daunting and understanding them well-nigh impossible.  We have to resort to crude analogies like the train traveling past the station.  But using another everyday example lets us at least visualize spacetime.

Imagine a trampoline stretched taut in its frame.  The surface is perfectly flat.  This represents spacetime in the absence of any matter.  If you roll a BB across the trampoline it will go in a straight line from one side to the other.  Matter is composed of mass so let’s see what happens when mass is introduced into spacetime.

Now imagine placing a bowling ball in the middle of the trampoline.  Spacetime becomes deformed as the trampoline sags to support the ball.  If you now roll a tennis ball across the trampoline it will follow what appears to be a curved path caused by the indentation from the bowling ball.  In fact, if you roll the tennis ball at just the right speed it will circle the bowling ball like a roulette ball circles the spinning wheel.

The bowling ball can be thought of as a star, our sun for example.  The tennis ball is a planet orbiting that star, our earth or one of the other planets.  The tennis ball makes its own slight indentation in the trampoline, just as the Earth makes its own indentation in spacetime.  We can imagine a marble circling the tennis ball, following that indentation.  In the same way the moon orbits the Earth.

This three-dimensional image of spacetime soon breaks down because friction of the tennis ball on the trampoline and air resistance slow the tennis ball and it drops into the indentation.  However, that in itself is instructive because that is the ultimate fate of Earth: eventually the earth will spiral into the sun just like the tennis ball.

Einstein’s view of gravity is thus fundamentally different from Newton’s.  Newton believed that gravity is a natural attraction of bodies for each other that is caused by a property inherent in mass.  Einstein postulated that gravity is caused by a deformation of spacetime, which in turn is caused by the body.  There is nothing inherent in mass that creates gravity.  Instead it is the nature of spacetime that causes gravity.

Newton’s theories had served science well for nearly 400 years.  It wasn’t enough for Einstein’s theory to predict the same thing as Newton’s.  Einstein’s theory had to predict an observable event not predicted by Newton’s theory.  Only in this way could Einstein’s theory be shown superior to Newton’s.  This is how most theories are “proven.”  In practice a theory can’t be proven right; it can only be proven wrong in the sense that it predicts something that is not observed or fails to predict an observation.  Einstein’s problem was that for all situations on earth, including the orbit of the moon, both theories predicted the same thing with the same accuracy.  Einstein’s theory predicted a difference in an extreme gravitational field.  The only problem was finding such a situation where the two predictions could be observed and compared.

He finally found such a situation in the orbit of Mercury around the sun.  Mercury’s orbit had long been observed as rotating.  Mercury’s orbit is elliptical like the other planets’ but the ellipse itself rotates around the sun by 574 arcseconds per century.  An arcsecond is 1/3,600 degrees.  It takes Mercury over one million orbits of the sun and 200,000 years to return to the same orbit.  Newton’s theory accounted for only 531 of the 574 arcseconds but Einstein’s theory account for exactly 574 arcseconds.

This was enough to put Newton’s theory in doubt but not enough for most scientists.  Someone discovered that if, instead of r2 in Newton’s formula for gravitational attraction there was r2.00000016 the two theories made the same prediction.  This was just number fudging but it shows the lengths to which scientists will go to salvage pet theories.  Einstein realized he would need something even more spectacular to win the controversy.

Enter Einstein

Albert Einstein was born in the village of Ulm near Munich in 1879.  Like Newton he didn’t have a particularly distinguished academic career, primarily because, in the words of one of his professors, he would “not let yourself be told anything.”   He failed to get a recommendation for graduate school and thus spent three years as a patent clerk.  This time, like Newton’s isolation during the Black Plague, allowed Einstein time to ponder basic questions about the world and set the stage for later scientific breakthroughs.

In particular, this time allowed him to solve a puzzle he had propounded to himself as a teenager.  Aware of the speed of light, some 300,000 km/sec. (187,500 miles/sec), he wondered “what if I were riding on a beam of light?”  He imagined riding a beam of light, holding a mirror in front of his face.  If the speed of light was measured relative to the ether (Einstein was unaware of Michelson and Morley’s experiment that disproved the existence of the ether), then, he surmised, as he approached the speed of light his reflection would vanish because the light from his face would never reach the mirror so as to be reflected back.

This conclusion was shocking because it violated Galileo’s theory of relativity of movement.  Galileo explained it in this way:  Imagine you are shut up below deck on a ship moving in a straight line at a constant speed.  Have a fishbowl with fish, a jar with butterflies, a bottle suspended and dripping into a container at a constant rate.  There will be nothing to indicate the movement of the ship.  The fish will swim the same as if the ship was at rest; the butterflies will flit around undisturbed by the movement; and the water will drop straight down into the container.  In short, you have no way of determining whether the ship is at rest or moving from the observations you can make inside the hold of the ship.  But in Einstein’s puzzle, he could tell he was moving because as he approached the speed of light he would no longer see his reflection.

Einstein toyed with this idea for the three years he worked as a patent clerk.  Finally, he realized that his conclusion that his reflection would vanish was based on the assumption that the universe is filled with ether.  Ether provided the absolute reference point against which all motion could be measured.  However, if there is no ether, there is no reference point against which to measure the speed of light.  Einstein made the intuitive conclusion that the speed of light is relative to the observer.  In other words, every observer, regardless of her motion, measures the speed of light to be 300,000 km/second.  Thus, if Einstein were riding a beam of light, holding a mirror in front of him, he would seem to be at rest according to Galileo’s theory.  Light would leave his face at 300,000 km/second, relative to him, reach the mirror and be reflected back.  He would not be able to discern movement based on the mirror.  Of course a corollary to this thought experiment is that there is no ether.

Einstein’s and Michelson/Morley’s separate conclusions that the ether doesn’t exist came through separate methods, demonstrating the difference between theoretical and experimental physics.  Einstein reached his conclusions based purely upon reasoning, while Michelson and Morley conducted experiments.  Both have a place in science.  When it comes to the cosmos, theoretical physicists have the upper hand since it’s difficult to re-create the Big Bang in the laboratory.

In 1905, at the age of 26, Einstein published three papers.  In the first he made a brilliant theoretical argument to support the observed Brownian movement, which supported the theory that matter is composed of molecules and atoms.  The second, which won him a Nobel Prize, showed that another well-observed phenomenon known as the photoelectric effect, could be explained using the new field of quantum mechanics.  The third summarized his thinking on the speed of light relative to the observer and created a new paradigm for physics, setting the stage for a deeper study of the universe and how it began.  This is called his special theory of relativity.  The implications of this theory are mind-boggling.  One of them is that time is not absolute as had always been assumed.  Instead, like motion, time appears different to different observers.

The special theory of relativity will be the subject of the next few posts.

The Ultimate Question

The sun-centered solar system model began to attract converts and the Church started to realize that it would look foolish if it continued to oppose what a majority of the world viewed as reality.  In the Eighteenth Century it relaxed its position on scientific inquiry and a new era of intellectual freedom opened.  Despite advances in biology, chemistry, mathematics and even physics, one question remained the elephant in the room that everyone ignored: how was the Earth (and, by extension, the universe) created?  There were two main reasons for avoiding this question.  First, science confined itself to explaining natural phenomena and the creation of the Earth was widely viewed to be supernatural and therefore beyond the ken of science.  Secondly, poking around in this area might, it was thought, upset the mutual respect and relatively stable truce that existed between science and religion.  No one wanted a return to Galileo’s time.

Actually, the question was even narrower than how the Earth was created.  Most scientists still accepted the Biblical version of creation by God, reducing the question to when did God create the Earth, not how or even did He.  Scholars combed through the begats of Genesis, counting years trying to set a precise time for In the beginning.  The markers in the Bible are sufficiently vague that differences of a few thousand years showed up.  Alfonso X of Castile determined a date of 6904 B.C. while Johannes Kepler found a more recent date of 3992 B.C.  Probably the most thorough search was made by James Ussher who later became Archbishop of Armagh.  He used agents in the Middle East to search out and obtain ancient Biblical texts so as to reduce errors caused by translation.  He made a huge effort to link Old Testament chronology to that of the secular world.  Eventually he discovered that Nebuchadnezzar, who is mentioned briefly in Second Kings, is also mentioned by Ptolemy in a list of Babylonian kings.  He was thereby able to anchor at least one Biblical date to a non-Biblical historical record.  Ussher arrived at an age of 4004 years for the Earth.  He went even further and declared that the creation began at 6:00 p.m. on October 22, 4004 B.C.  His date was accepted by the Church of England and was included in the King James version until into the Nineteenth Century.

Science was generally happy to accept Ussher’s date mainly because there was no evidence to the contrary.  However, when Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection, it soon became apparent that this theory could not fit into a world that was only a few thousand years old.  Natural selection is an agonizingly slow process, one that could not possibly have resulted in the complex life forms found on Earth today in less than 6,000 years.  Science could not afford to ignore Darwin’s theory.  Yet it couldn’t accept the theory and the age of the Earth, so it turned to a scientific examination of the age of the Earth.

Victorian geologists used what they calculated the rate of sedimentary deposits to be to arrive at an age of several million years.  Lord Kelvin assumed that the Earth began as a molten ball and calculated it would take 20 million years for the Earth to cool to its present state.  A few years later John Joly began by assuming the oceans started out pure and calculated how long it would take to arrive at their present salinity, resulting in an age of about 100 million years.  In the early 20th Century scientists were able to use radioactivity to estimate the age to be 500 million years.  Refinements in this technique led to an estimated age of over a billion years by 1907.

The dating game was on.

The Sun Revolves Around the Earth

At least since the time of Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer who lived in the first half of the Second Century A.D. until 1543 when Nicholaus Copernicus published De Revolutionibus Orbitum Coelestium man believed the Earth was the center of the universe, which at that time consisted of the sun and a few planets and stars that could be seen with the naked eye.  This was understandable because the sun appeared to rise every morning in the east, cross the sky and set in the west.  Copernicus challenged the earth-centric notion of things by postulating that the sun was the center of the solar system and that Earth and the other planets revolved around it.  So as not to offend the Church (that is, to avoid banishment), his book contained a disclaimer to the effect that his theory was more of a mathematical exercise than a statement of the way things are.

Copernicus believed that the planetary motions were circular, a throwback to the old Greek view that the circle is the most perfect geometric shape.  Another astronomer of the same time, Johannes Kepler, found that this view didn’t match the observations of a third astronomer, Tycho Brahe.  Kepler worked out the laws of planetary motion which predict that planets orbit the sun in elliptical shape, moving between two points of proximity to the sun, aphelion, when they are nearest to the sun and moving fastest, and perihelion, when they are farthest and moving slowest.

Approximately the same time, Galileo Galilei dropped out of medical school and began studying dynamics, the laws of moving bodies, which is now called mechanics.  He developed an early theory of relativity by questioning whether a stone dropped from the top of a mast of a moving ship would hit the base of the mast or would have the ship move under it and strike nearer the stern of the ship.  The latter result was predicted by Aristotlean theory, which said that the stone would stop moving as soon as it was released.  This was debated for years without anyone bothering to actually drop a stone from the mast of a ship.  Three centuries later Einstein extended this theory of relativity to electromagnetic waves.

By the age of 40 Galileo was engaged in astronomy, looking at stars through the newly-invented telescope.  He predicted that a bright light in the sky, something we now call a nova, would eventually fade and disappear.  This brought him under scrutiny by the Church, which viewed any change in the heavens as contrary to God’s work that is unchangeable.  Galileo went blithely on without regard to growing animosity and eventually confirmed Copernicus’ theories of planetary motion around the sun.  For his effort, in 1633 at age 69, he was brought before the judges of the Holy Office of the Church and “confessed” to heresy.  He was confined to his villa, essentially under house arrest, until his death in 1642.

Galileo’s experience with religion, and that of others over the centuries, undoubtedly spawned the tension between science and religion that continues even to today.  Stephen Hawking wrote in his book A Brief History of Time, that he and other physicists once had an audience with the Pope in which the Pope, apparently wanting to avoid another incident like Galileo, told the group that there was nothing wrong with trying to figure out how the universe began, but to leave alone anything that occurred before the Big Bang, as that was the work of God.  It is no wonder, then, that scientists cannot bring themselves to offer any hypothesis that includes any kind of Creator.