It’s 2.5 billion light-years away, and brighter than the over 100 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy combined. If it were even as close as 30 light-years from us, it would appear as bright as the Sun, which is only eight light minutes away. Before anyone ever saw it, scientists detected it by the radio waves that it sends out.
In 1963, astronomer Allan Sandage was the first to observe quasar 3C 273 with a telescope. Quasars are the brightest objects in the known universe. They’re massive discs of particles that surround a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy. They emit intensely powerful energy as the black hole sucks the life out of matter and pulls it into its abyss. The energy is brighter than 100 billion stars.
The cloudy streak in the picture from NASA’s Hubble Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 is a jet of energy that was fired off by the quasar at some time in the past. That streak is 200,000 light-years long! It would be impossible to survive in a galaxy with a quasar in its center. The intense energy from the quasar would destroy life while the black hole devoured the matter. We can be thankful that this quasar is so far away, even though it is one of the nearest.
Life on Earth is possible because we have no black holes or quasars near us. We think the universe reveals the work of an amazing Master Designer. We agree with Dr. Allan Sandage, the first person to observe a quasar, when he said, “Science makes explicit the quite incredible natural order, the interconnections at many levels between the laws of physics…Why is the design that we see everywhere so truly miraculous?… As I said before, the world is too complicated in all its parts and interconnections to be due to chance alone.”
Bacteria are single-cell microorganisms that we do not think of as having social behavior. However, scientists are studying Myxococcus xanthus bacteria working together. They are rod-shaped bacteria that live in the soil and organize into structures of thousands of cells to hunt food or to survive when food is not available.
Myxococcus xanthus bacteria are predators that eat other microbes. When they organize into 3-D structures, they can be visible to the naked eye. In this complex form, they swarm toward their prey in a single mass of bacteria working together in “ripples.” You can see them on the left side of the picture.
To capture their food, the swarms of Myxococcus xanthus microbes secrete enzymes that kill and digest the prey and then take in their nutrients. These predator bacteria hunt together because individually they can’t produce enough of the antibiotics to kill the prey, but together they are deadly to other microbes.
When there is a food shortage, scientists still find these bacteria working together to survive. They form a structure called “fruiting bodies” as pictured on the right. In that form, they can survive for years if necessary. As single cells, they would not survive.
Studying how these microbes work can help scientists design new antibiotics or pest-resistant seeds for agriculture. Myxococcus xanthus rods are alive and can crawl, so their movement applies the laws of physics and the biological laws that govern living things. Studying these bacteria may help materials scientists gain new ideas for constructing liquid crystal display screens in electronic devices.
We learn much by looking at what is functional in the natural world. A wonder-working hand has moved before us and gives us tools for developing new materials to improve our lives. Also, bacteria working together can serve as a lesson to remind us that humans can accomplish more when we work together.
The media often overlook how many things have to be “right” for life to exist on a planet. Planetary atmospheric pressure is one factor.
By “life,” we mean the standard textbook definition of organisms that can move, breathe, respond to outside stimuli, and reproduce. The problem is that many conditions make other terrestrial planets (planets with hard surfaces) unlikely to harbor life. Life is even less likely on Jovian planets that are primarily gaseous. You can postulate balloon-like living organisms in Jupiter or Saturn’s atmosphere, but radiation and electrical problems make that unlikely as well.
Planetary atmospheric pressure depends on the weight of the gases above a planet’s surface. The air pressure on Earth’s surface is 14.696 pounds per square inch a sea level. That pressure allows water to exist as a liquid, and it will enable various gases to dissolve in the water. We all know what happens when you shake a bottle of carbonated beverage and then quickly remove the cap. The sudden drop in pressure causes an explosion as the dissolved carbon dioxide escapes from the liquid. For organisms to absorb oxygen dissolved in water, which fish do, the atmospheric pressure must be high enough for the oxygen to dissolve. The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is .01 of the pressure on Earth. That means water on Mars would contain no oxygen or dissolved gases.
There has been discussion about finding water on the Moon or Mercury, but those atmospheric pressures are considerably lower than those on Mars. That means water would not be in a liquid state. On the other end of the pressure spectrum is Venus, where atmospheric pressure 92 times greater than on Earth. At that pressure, toxic gases would be dissolved in any water that existed on the planet.
Planetary atmospheric pressure is just one more variable that must be carefully and precisely chosen when constructing an environment that will support and sustain life. The creation is far more complicated than most of us realize. As we learn more, we must stand in awe of the God who created our planet.
A skeptic recently complained that mountains are a mistake. “They block travel, cause avalanches, create deserts, and are just a general nuisance. If God were the creator, He wouldn’t have made these huge obstacles to human well-being.” In response to this skeptic, we consider, “Why do we need mountains?” For one thing, mountains are a very practical solution to one of humanity’s greatest needs–water.
In a basic geography or meteorology class, we learn about orographic uplift and rain shadows. As air comes across a flat area, it picks up moisture. But to make rain, there must be more than just water. Condensation requires a cool enough temperature and nuclei on which the water vapor can condense. Mountains provide both the cooler temperatures and the condensation nuclei.
As air pushes up the side of a mountain, it cools, and stirred-up dust provides condensation nuclei. For that reason, it is frequently very rainy on the windward side of the mountain. On the other side, the air is dry because all of the moisture has been removed.
Mountains can also capture and store water as ice and snow.Scientific American (January 2021) published an article with data on how many people get their water from the mountains. There are 78 regional mountain chains or “water towers” that deliver water to almost two billion people and surrounding ecosystems. Without mountains, the amount of land that would be hospitable to humans would be much more limited.
In addition to mountains capturing and storing water, they have also created underground aquifers. Glaciers generated in mountain areas have carved out huge valleys, depositing sand and gravel in permeable layers that allow massive amounts of water to seep into the ground. Here in southern Michigan, continental glaciers produced aquifers that supply us with water. In a large area of the Midwest United States, an underground aquifer called the Teays River has supplied adequate water for agriculture.
God has provided a massive and effective water system for nearly all continents, primarily because of mountains. Why do we need mountains? We need them for the water that allows irrigation as well as drinking and other uses. Mountains are beautiful, they provide recreational activities for humans, and they literally water the world for human survival.
The study of insects continues to find design features that enable them to survive when it seems their enemies should wipe them out. The numerous ant species have a variety of defense mechanisms. Entomologists at the University of Wisconsin have discovered ant armor for leafcutter ants.
Leafcutter ants are small and must protect themselves from larger predatory ants. Researchers found that they have a tough coat of mineral armor. Entomologists studying Acromyrmex echinatior worker ants found that their exoskeleton has a thin white protective coating. After trying various methods to remove that mysterious layer, researchers discovered that it is calcite with high magnesium levels.
The thin protective layer, only 7% of the exoskeleton’s thickness, more than doubles the leafcutter ant’s hardness. When larger soldier ants of another species attacked, they were not able to kill the leaf cutterants.
Ant armor for leafcutter ants is similar to the mineral protection that crabs and other crustaceans have, but scientists had not discovered it in ants before. How did these ants get this protection? Researchers theorize that external microbes the ants carry are responsible. That means this is another example of symbiosis between species–another evidence of design. The scientist leading this study said that learning how this tough coating forms could help technicians develop protective coatings for various products.
It seems that God has given every species of life on this planet protection against their natural enemies. Not only must all lifeforms have a ready supply of food and adequate water, but they must have physical protection. Ant armor for leafcutter ants is only one example of God’s intricate design for life.
One of our readers wrote the following poem and sent it to us. We share it with you to show one person’s evaluation of this ministry. The title is “Truth in Nature” by Don Betts.
Does God Exist? Of course, He does! My brother John says so. He digs deep for evidence, So you and I may know That God in all His glory lives. His sign is everywhere Extant in oh, so many things, Wonders made for us to share.
John’s compiled a Dandy List, Designs in nature meant to be Proof in things that now exist In which God’s face we see. The truth of His existence Is everywhere we look, And our hope lies in persistence Worded in His Holy Book!
An exciting area of study is the way various animals protect themselves against would-be predators. We find one of the most unusual methods in the African crested rat (Lophiomys imhausi), also known as the maned rat. It’s the world’s only poisonous rodent.
Crested rats have a white-bordered mane that extends from the top of the head to the base of the tail. Their body can be up to 14 inches (360 mm) long, or 21 inches (530 mm) if you include the tail. They would make a very nice meal for a wild dog or hyena if they didn’t have a poison defense system. Crested rats chew the bark of the poison arrow tree (Acokanthera schimperi). They spit out the chewed matter and rub it on the coarse fur of their mane. When threatened, the rat’s mane stands erect, so the poison is the first thing a predator will contact. The toxin is strong enough to kill a wild dog or hyena.
Researchers studying crested rats report that their behavior demonstrates that they are aware of their poisonous nature. It seems to be built into the DNA of these animals to know how to secure the toxin. Animals such as skunks produce their own noxious chemicals for defense, but they are not poisonous. Scientists have not found any other mammal that collects poison from a plant species and stores it for protection. Crested rats depend on the poison arrow tree and don’t seem to be harmed by the poison.
How does the world’s only poisonous rodent develop such a tool for survival? We see God’s design over and over in animal behavior and the tools that they know how to use.
How does insulin control blood sugar levels? How do antibodies fight coronaviruses? Questions like these have been at the frontier of biochemical research for as long as we have known there were such things as proteins. Understanding proteins and how they are made is a challenge that continues to be the focal point of a great deal of work.
The human body contains at least 20,000 different proteins, and their shapes are controlled by how their component amino acids are twisted and folded. In the medical field, the importance of understanding proteins is enormous. Not understanding proteins and how they are made would be like trying to fix a car engine when you don’t know how it works or how it was put together.
The Week for December 18, 2020, quotes Janet Thornton of the European Bioinformatics Institute, saying, “This is a problem that I was beginning to think would not be solved in my lifetime.” What has changed is that computers can do in hours what would take a human years to solve. Scientists have analyzed protein structures for malaria, sleeping sickness, and leishmaniasis (a disease caused by parasites) to find new methods of treating those diseases.
Amino acids are the basic building blocks of life, and we know that they exist in outer space and can be produced in the laboratory. Using these building blocks to make proteins that govern how life works is extremely complex. The amino acids bend and fold in origami-like structures to make proteins. To suggest that proteins can result from some chance process of organic evolution is stretching credibility to the breaking point.
Genesis gives us the simple statement, “And God said ‘It is good.’” As biochemistry begins understanding proteins and how they are made, we see how complex God’s creation is. Those simple words wonderfully describe what we are starting to understanding as a work of incredible intelligence and design.
It’s an evergreen tree that can live for 500 years and grow up to 33 feet (10 meters) tall. However, it usually doesn’t live for more than 100 years or grow taller than 10 feet (3 meters). It is often associated with Christmas because people use it in wreaths and garlands, and you see it pictured on many Christmas cards. What does European (or English) holly (Ilex aquifolium), also known as Christmas holly, have to do with Christmas?
The connection to Christmas goes back to medieval times in Europe. People said that the sharp-pointed evergreen leaves reminded them of the crown of thorns Christ was forced to wear at His crucifixion. The berries, which are red during the Christmas season, reminded them of the blood Christ shed, and the white flowers stand for purity.
European holly grows as a tree or a bush. The berries are mildly toxic to people and harmful to dogs or cats. However, they provide winter food for birds, rodents, and other animals. The flowers are sources of nectar for bees and butterflies. European holly grows in shady areas in forests, and it can form a dense thicket along forest borders. Because it is a dense evergreen with sharp points, people often use it for privacy hedges.
In its native areas of Europe and other regions, holly is an ornamental plant admired for its beauty. However, since people brought it to North America’s west coast, it has become an invasive species. It thrives in the shade of forests and crowds out species native to that area. Washington state has called it a weed.
Like other plant species, European holly has an ecological niche to fill. Problems often arise when people do something to upset the balanced relationship that God has designed into nature. From the beginning, humans have done things to upset our relationship with God. That brings us back to Christmas and the reason God came to Earth in the form of a human who lived a pure life and shed His blood on the cross to redeem us. Christmas holly reminds us of that.
If you have looked to the southwest just after sunset in the past month, you probably saw two bright stars that have been moving closer to each other. They are not stars. They are the planets Jupiter and Saturn, two of the brightest objects in the sky, reaching a planetary conjunction for the winter solstice.
In their orbits around the Sun, Jupiter and Saturn appear to pass each other about every 20 years. However, the last time they appeared this close was in 1623, just 13 years after Galileo first pointed his telescope into the night sky and discovered four moons of Jupiter and saw Saturn’s rings. On December 21, those two planets will appear only one-tenth of a degree apart. That is one-fifth the diameter of the full moon.
You can bet that there will be hucksters making connections between this very unusual astronomical event and the star of Bethlehem or various political events. This conjunction is not part of a doomsday scenario but a demonstration of the accuracy of scientific observation. We can predict planetary conjunctions or solar and lunar eclipses to the minute, which is not hard to do.
When I taught earth science using the Earth Science Curriculum Project, we did a lab where the students predicted an eclipse of the Sun. They predicted when it would begin, when it would reach totality, and when it would end. I tried to make this a school-wide event, and the principal permitted me to take all 1000 students onto the school lawn to witness the eclipse. We gave the students special glasses and set up our telescopes to observe the eclipse.
We told the students what was going to happen and when it would happen. When it started, and the sky got dark, dogs began to howl. Crescents appeared on the ground under the trees as the eclipse projected through spaces in the leaves. Even though we had told the students what would happen, some kids began crying and ran back into the building in fear.
Why do people lack trust in scientific information, whether it concerns an eclipse, planetary movements, climate change, or COVID-19? Science and the Bible are friends, and God has called us to look at the creation around us and learn from it. Proverbs 8, Romans 1:19-20, and Matthew 6:25-33 all remind us of science and faith’s symbiotic relationship.
Tomorrow we will consider this planetary conjunction and the star of Bethlehem.