Reasons to Believe

Connections 2008, Vol. 10, No. 3



iDNA: The Next Generation of iPods?
Fazale (Fuz) R. Rana, Ph.D.



A couple of years ago I bought a 30GB iPod classic for Christmas. At that time I couldn’t imagine what I would do with all that storage capacity, but it was the same price as an 8GB iPod nano, so I bought it nonetheless. Less than a year later, I ran out of space on my iPod. This year for my birthday my wife gave me a 160GB iPod. And in less than three months, I’ve already used about a third of the available storage space.
Data proliferation is not just a problem for me. It’s a widespread concern as more and more information technology applications demand more compact data processing and storage circuitry. Some technologists think that DNA represents a possible solution to these issues. One gram of this biomolecule can harbor as much information as 1 trillion compact discs!1
DNA can serve as a storage medium because, in essence, this molecule is an information-based system. In fact, DNA’s chief function is data storage—housing the information necessary to make all the proteins used by the cell.

The cell’s machinery forms the polynucleotide chains of DNA (which twirl around each other to form a double helix) by linking together four different nucleotides, abbreviated A, G, C, and T. The sequence of nucleotides in the DNA strands represents information. (For example, the nucleotide sequence that specifies the production of a single protein chain is called a gene.)
In his book Information and the Origin of Life, information theorist Bernd-Olaf Küppers points out that the structure of DNA’s information closely resembles the hierarchical organization of human language. Think of nucleotides functioning as alphabet letters, genes like words, and so on.

Technologists hope to take advantage of the information-housing properties of DNA for data storage applications. One recent proof-of-principle study conducted by a team from Japan demonstrated that the genome (entire genetic makeup) of a living organism (the bacterium, Bacillus subtilis) could be used to maintain data.2 When stored within an organism’s genome, data exists in a more robust format than when housed in magnetic media and silicon chips. These two nonliving systems can be readily destroyed and their contents lost without constant maintenance. In contrast, living organisms can reproduce. As they do, the information harbored in their genomes will be passed on to the next generation. This inheritance makes it possible to maintain information over extensive periods of time, perhaps up to hundreds of thousands of years.

The Japanese researchers treated sequences of nucleotides as strings of data. Using combinations of two nucleotides to represent the numbers of a hexadecimal system (42=16), they employed DNA sequences to represent all the characters on a keyboard and, consequently, encoded a message within a DNA sequence. Using these representations, they were able to prepare a synthetic piece of DNA that contained the message: “E=mcΛ2 1905!” The team then incorporated the laboratory-made DNA into the B. subtilis genome in multiple locations. This redundancy insured that mutations to the genome would not degrade or destroy the message.  The repeated sequences also allowed them to recover the message in a fairly straightforward manner. The scientists showed that the message could be readily retrieved by sequencing the organism’s genome and performing multiple alignments of the sequence. Since the message was encoded within the genome multiple times, it can be easily distinguished from the “noninformation” within the genome.
Practical applications for DNA storage remain for the future. But, as this study illustrates, the advances needed to matriculate this technology are happening at a fast pace. And the payoffs could be huge. In the meantime, the use of DNA as a digital storage medium carries more immediate significance—not technological, however, but theological.

Data storage capacity within the structure of DNA underscores the notion that information is housed in this biomolecule. DNA data storage makes it clear that biochemical information is truly information. And information serves as a potent marker for intelligent design. Human experience consistently teaches that information emanates from intelligence. Messages come from a mind. Information, in whatever form it takes, is not limited to communicating ideas, needs, and desires between human minds. As this discovery shows, information has become—more than ever—an integral part of modern technology.
The information content of DNA, therefore, makes it rational to believe that life must have come from an intelligent agent, a Creator. It also makes it realistic for me to hope for a really juiced up iPod in the not-so-distant future.



References:


1. Gheorghe Păun, Grzegorz Rozenberg, and Arto Salomaa, DNA Computing: New Computing Paradigms (Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 1998), 19–41.


2. Nozomu Yachie et al., “Alignment-Based Approach for Durable Data Storage into Living Organisms,” Biotechnology Progress 23 (2007): 501–05.

 


Humpack Whale Fins: Fresh Evidence for Design
Hugh Ross, Ph.D.

   


I remember being taught as a child that the humpback whale must be an accident of nature. The weird bumps along the leading edge of the humpback’s flippers (or fins) seemed to thwart the aerodynamic (or aqua-dynamic) efficiency of this massive sea mammal. These noticeably counterproductive features served as evidence against the wisdom and involvement of a benevolent Creator.

In recent days, however, three engineering professors at Harvard University discovered that these bumps actually represent an elegant design characteristic. In fact, their design is so good as to warrant imitation for the advancement of technology.1 Rather than faulty design or useless evolutionary artifacts, the bumps are worthy of in-depth study for application purposes!

The researchers constructed a detailed model of the humpback whale fin and tested it in a wind tunnel. Their experiments demonstrated two things: first, the bumps are not as big a limiting factor in the whale’s straight-ahead swimming speed as was initially presumed; second, and more surprisingly, the bumps deliver a major payoff for the whale in maneuverability. The bumps enable the whale to achieve a much higher attack angle without losing essential momentum—an enormous advantage for the whale’s survival.

A higher attack angle means the whale can climb faster through water without “stalling.” As a result, the humpback can more efficiently and effectively hunt for food. The bumps along its fins give this creature the ability to perform tight rolls and loops. So in spite of its huge body (as much as fifty feet long) the humpback can make turns in tight quarters and handle strong currents, tides, and eddies. This degree of maneuverability increases the whale’s range as well as feeding capabilities.

The Harvard team then went beyond wind tunnel experiments. They performed a mathematical analysis on the bumpy structure of the fin. They wanted to determine whether the bumpiness of the fin or rather some other feature of the animal contributed so significantly to its climbing ability and maneuverability. Their analysis confirmed the bumps are the cause.

This confirmation has led to some amazing breakthroughs in aerodynamic and aeronautic engineering. In more than a hundred years of research and design, no one had seriously considered that adding “bumps” to the leading edge of an aircraft or hydrofoil wing or to a turbine blade could provide an advantage, such as in avoidance of dangerous stalls. But it does.

Once again, in-depth research reveals that what was once thought to be a design defect, a convincing indication of natural evolution as opposed to divine design, turns out to be just the opposite. It is now recognized and appreciated as a manifestation of creative genius, of a Mind that soars far above the brilliance of the best aircraft and naval engineers, even of Harvard researchers. It should be noted that the Harvard team concluded their study with a strong recommendation. They urged design engineers to look for new applications of the whale fin’s design in efforts to advance technology. It seems to me the whale fin’s design may also be applied to advancing faith in the biblical Creator.
 
Reference:
1. Ernst A. van Nierop, Silas Alben, and Michael P. Brenner, “How Bumps on Whale Flippers Delay Stall: An Aerodynamic Model,”
Physical Review Letters
100 (2008): id 054502.

 


Earth's Deep, Life-Sustaining Oxygen Reservoir
Jeff Zweerink, Ph.D.




Southern California, home to RTB, requires a huge quantity of water to maintain its large population and diverse economic and industrial activity. The region’s water needs exceed the local supply so an aqueduct system pipes water from various reservoirs throughout the state into the area. Removing access to these reservoirs would not only drop the population by a factor of a thousand or more (say, from 25 million to less than 25 thousand) but would also force the region to a near Stone-Age existence. 



On a grander scale, Earth’s habitability relies on a vast underground reservoir for oxygen that relies on plates as aqueducts. Tectonic activity on Earth drives the plates that compose its surface deep underground. The plates carry along Earth’s mantle material containing oxygen bound to iron in a compound called iron oxide (also known as rust). As the plates descend deeper into the mantle, two important processes occur. First, the mantle material melts the iron oxide and causes the oxygen to become more reactive. Second, the higher temperatures and pressures result in the formation of a mineral known as majorite. The increased reactivity of the oxygen causes it to combine with the majorite.



A team of German geophysicists demonstrated in the laboratory that majorite forms under conditions present in the upper mantle.1 Furthermore, the team’s research showed that the capacity of majorite to “absorb” oxygen increases with pressure. Thus, majorite stores more oxygen as it moves deeper into Earth’s interior. 
Eventually, the convection processes that cycle material through Earth’s interior bring the majorite back near Earth’s surface, where it releases its oxygen. The oxygen then becomes available for numerous oxidation reactions essential for life on Earth. In one critical reaction, the oxygen combines with hydrogen (which Earth continually exudes) to replenish the water in Earth’s oceans and atmosphere. 



A sophisticated aqueduct system transports water from reservoirs to service Southern California’s water needs. Similarly, the tectonic activity within Earth provides the mechanism to transport oxygen to and from this majorite “storage tank.” Consequently, only planets of the right size and composition can utilize such an oxygen reservoir. The planet must contain the components of majorite in sufficient quantities. Additionally, only planets above a minimum mass will exhibit tectonic activity that interacts with the regions where majorite can form. For smaller planets, the pressures required to form majorite occur too deep in their interiors.  



California’s reservoir and aqueduct system was designed to ensure that all its inhabitants receive adequate water regardless of the inevitable fluctuations in yearly precipitation. However, the system shows signs of aging and may inadequately fulfill its function in the near future. In contrast, the majorite reservoir and tectonic “aqueduct” at work inside Earth continues to perform flawlessly, as evidenced by the abundant liquid water on Earth’s surface for nearly four billion years. That is evidence of good design! 

References:

1. Arno Rohrbach et al., “Metal Saturation in the Upper Mantle,” Nature 449 (September 27, 2007): 456–58.



How Can Yahweh Be Perfectly Good and Just and Yet Command Extermination?
Kenneth Richard Samples




Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, asserts that the God of the Old Testament is “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser.”1

Yahweh, the Hebrew name of the personal God of Israel in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, reveals himself to be the Creator of heaven and earth. As the one true Lord, he is an infinite, eternal, and morally perfect personal deity. Historic Christianity identifies Yahweh as none other than the Triune God who is more specifically unveiled in the New Testament as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Tension arises when examining the Scriptures. The Bible reveals God to be perfectly good (Psalm 145:8-9) and perfectly just (Deuteronomy 32:4) in the very nature of his being. However, the Old Testament states that God personally commanded the army of the Hebrews to destroy the Canaanite nations.

During the conquest of Canaan, God commanded the following to the Hebrews:
“When the LORD [Yahweh] your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:2).
“However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deuteronomy 20:16).

In response to this frightening divine command, the Hebrew army carried out the following:

“They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21).
How can this seemingly brutal genocidal command be reconciled with God’s perfect goodness and justice?

Moral Justification for God’s Command
The following seven points help provide the moral context and justification for Yahweh’s command to destroy the Canaanites:

    1.    While God doesn’t always reveal all the details concerning his sovereign decisions, Scripture indicates that God’s moral will flows from his perfectly good and just nature. Therefore God has morally sufficient grounds for his commands even if those reasons are not fully revealed to humankind. However, in this specific case some of those reasons are evident.
    2.    God’s command to destroy the Canaanites was motivated by his intention to preserve Israel from the deep moral corruption that would have inevitably resulted through cultural assimilation with the pagan nations. God’s wrathful justice upon the Canaanites resulted in an act of mercy (protection) upon the Israelites. Therefore God’s command to destroy an entire people group nevertheless constituted a moral good.
    3.    The Canaanites were a morally decadent and reprobate people. Archaeological discoveries have revealed that they practiced such moral abominations as temple prostitution, child sacrifice, and bestiality.2 And for hundreds of years they consistently ignored God’s call to repent of their wicked ways (Genesis 15:16). In God’s eyes they were beyond moral rehabilitation.
    4.    Life in the ancient Near-Eastern world was extremely brutal. And the Canaanite nations viewed the Israelites as their enemies. In this context of warfare among nations God’s command to destroy the pagan peoples was a necessary act of war.
    5.    God, as the sovereign creator and sustainer of life, has the prerogative to take life at his just discretion (Deuteronomy 32:39; Job 1:21). Because the cosmos belongs to the Lord, he has the ontological right to do as he wishes with his creatures. His only constraint is his moral nature. God is therefore in a different moral category of being than his creatures. He is the ultimate judge of all things. As Christian philosopher Paul Copan notes: “Like Narnia’s Aslan, Yahweh, though gracious and compassionate … is not to be trifled with.”3
    6.    God’s order to exterminate the Canaanites was not a command to murder (to take human life without just cause). Rather, it constituted a command of capital punishment on a grand scale and therefore reflected a retributive form of justice (the punishment matched the crime).
    7.    The divine command for the Hebrew army to destroy the Canaanites took place in a unique historical and biblical context. This was not a common or normative event in the life of God’s people. Yahweh is compassionate and patient and remains, in spite of this act, a God of mercy (Exodus 34:6).


Why Such Utter Devastation?



Yet while God had just cause to destroy the Canaanites for their wicked ways, was it necessary to kill all life? Couldn’t the innocent children have been preserved?

Unfortunately, the abominable evil of the Canaanite society had polluted the children as well.4 God, who knows the thoughts and intentions of people (Hebrews 4:12), knew that if these children had been allowed to live they would have inevitably infected God’s people with terrible iniquity. The Hebrews had to be “preserved” because they were the very people from which the Messiah would emerge. Additionally, it may be that God took mercy upon these children and granted them divine acceptance in the next life. God’s compassion is deep and wide even in the midst of temporal judgment.

An important lesson to be learned from this great and terrible event is that God loves his people and he will take extreme measures to protect them from moral and spiritual ruin (Romans 8:28).  



References:

1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 31.

2. Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody, 1964), 261.

3. Paul Copan, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” Philosophia Christi 10, no. 1 (Summer 2008), 31.

4. Ronald A. Iwasko, “God of War,” in Christianity for the Tough-Minded, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1973), 99-107.



A New Telescope "Almost" in Space
David H. Rogstad, Ph.D. 




At 16,000 feet and in the rain shadow of the Andes Mountains, northern Chile's virtually cloudless, extremely arid Atacama Desert1 provides an ideal location for large telescopes. Free from light pollution and radio interference, this desolate area is home for a new radio astronomy facility called the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA.2



ALMA operates at a range of wavelengths of between 0.3 to 9.6 millimeters; therefore any moisture in the atmosphere will affect measurements. By putting the facility where the atmosphere is thin and very dry, astronomers will achieve unprecedented sensitivity and resolution, almost as good as being in space but far cheaper.



When completed in 2012, ALMA will be a single research instrument composed of up to 80 high-precision antennas, each 12 meters (m) in diameter (see figure 1). By spreading the antennas out over a maximum distance of 18 kilometers (km), the instrument will be able to synthesize a portion of the sky with resolutions as fine as 0.005 seconds of arc at its shortest wavelengths, a factor of ten better than the Hubble Space Telescope. 



To visualize how an array works, picture a single reflecting telescope having a primary mirror with a diameter equal to the maximum size of the array, in this case 18 km. Such an instrument would have fantastic light-gathering power and resolution because of its enormous size. Imagine masking out most of the mirror's surface except in 12 m circles corresponding to the placement of the array antennas. The effect reduces the telescope's light-gathering power but its resolution remains the same. However, the image made with such a telescope creates “artifacts” caused by the masked areas of the mirror. But, if the antennas are properly spaced, these artifacts can be minimized over a sufficiently large portion of the image, resulting in a picture hardly different than one made with an 18 km telescope!



Excitement builds as astronomers anticipate a wealth of information. Because of its size and location, ALMA will be capable of producing detailed images of the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets. The instrument will image stars and planets forming in gas clouds near the Sun, and it will observe galaxies in their formative stages at the edge of the universe. 

   

Despite its harsh environment, ALMA will draw researchers hoping to peer through this window on celestial origins. RTB scholars stand to benefit from the new discoveries such an instrument will permit as it tests RTB's creation model predictions.



References:

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atacama_Desert

2. http://www.alma.nrao.edu/