Designing a Planet to Support Life

Designing a Planet to Support Life
Agarwood (Aquilaria sinensis )

An interesting electronic game is one where you have access to a reservoir of materials to design a life-sustaining planet. Once you choose your materials and processes, the game computes how long life could survive on your planet. All the choices end up sterile, but the player with the longest survival time is the winner. Unfortunately, the limited number of variables causes all the options to eventually result in a lifeless globe because designing a planet to support life is a complex process. 

As scientists examine systems that support life on Earth, they find multiple complex systems with some surprising agents that allow life to exist over the long haul. For example, we have written before about how many bird and mammal species spread seeds. Also, ants spread the seeds of more than 11,000 plant species. Without ants, the existence and abundance of many plant species could be impossible. A recent study has shown that other insects also spread seeds, allowing the enormous number of plant species on Earth. 

Most plants have a compound called “herbivore induced plant volatiles” (HIPVs for short). A plant releases these HIPVs when caterpillars start eating its leaves. The HIPVs attract hungry predators that eat caterpillars. A recent study showed that agarwood (Aquilaria sinensis ), which is native to China, depends on hornets to spread its seeds.

Agarwood fruit produces HIPVs even though it is not assaulted by caterpillars. The agarwood HIPVs attract hornets which rush to capture the plant’s seeds. The hornets carry the seeds to their nests, where they eat the fleshy nutrient-rich structures called elaiosomes attached to the seeds. The hornets discard the seeds on the ground near their shaded nests. The seeds would dry out and die in the sun, but they germinate to produce new agarwood plants in the shade.

The Chinese people use agarwood for various purposes. However, the plant is listed as “vulnerable” because of habitat loss and the fact that local people eat the hornet larvae. Designing a planet to support life is a complex and challenging goal only God can do. Unfortunately, humans lack the wisdom to protect the life-sustaining system God has created for us.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: “Helpful HornetsScientific American, October 2022, page 18.

The Design of Lobster Eyes

The Design of Lobster Eyes
Have you ever looked a lobster in the face?

How do you design an optical system that enables an animal to see 2300 feet (700 m) below the ocean’s surface? That question is similar to the problem that astronomers face as they look into low light levels in areas of space around black holes. The answer came from a detailed study of the design of lobster eyes, and scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center have successfully copied it.

The human eye works by refraction, bending light by using rounded lenses. The lobster’s eyes work by reflection. Each eye of the lobster is packed with 10,000 square-shaped tubes lined with a flat, reflective surface that acts like a mirror. These mirrors direct incoming light to the retina, where tiny cells trap the light and focus it onto a layer of photoreceptors. This allows the lobster to have a full 180-degree view compared to the 120-degree view of human eyes. It also enables them to detect motion in low-light conditions.

In 1992, researchers from Columbia University built a device that mimics the design of lobster eyes, but the technology required 15 years to build a device for use in space missions. Studies using the lobster eye device have shown how the solar wind interacts with Earth’s magnetic field. In addition, newer models are opening the door to detecting faint X-rays from distant galaxies.

The design of lobster eyes is another of many design features in animal life that scientists have copied, leading to new discoveries. A visual system this complex is not the product of blind accidents. We see the handiwork of God everywhere we look in the natural world. The same God who designed the lobster’s eyes has given us the design for how we should live, and it’s written in His Word, the Bible. We would be wise to follow it.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: “Lobster Eyes Help Us See Into Space” in Discover magazine November/December 2022, page 18.

Unconditional Love – Agapao

Unconditional Love – Agapao

Biblical Greek had five different words for love, each of which refers to something God created. For example, God wants us to have friends, and the Greek word for friendship is phileo. Peter’s exchange with Jesus in John 21:15-17 does not indicate that phileo was wrong, but Jesus was calling Peter to a different kind of love, agapao (unconditional love). Philadelphia (brotherly love) in Greek calls us to care about others as in Hebrews 13:1. The Greek word thelo (to want something physical) is not negative, but the condemnation in Mark 12:38 was about priorities. Finally, Eros (sexual love) is not used in the New Testament but refers to a beautiful creation of God, used to cement marriage.

What Jesus wants from Peter and us in John 21 and throughout the New Testament is agapao. The Greek dictionary defines it as “seeing something infinitely precious in its object.” People quote John 3:16 carelessly without understanding the depth of the kind of love that God has for us. Read 1 John 2 – 4, especially chapter 4:7-11. The word used throughout 1 John is agapao.

We need to be reminded that God doesn’t create any junk. Every human has a spiritual makeup that makes them “infinitely precious.” When you reject that concept, human life becomes cheap–worth no more than a cockroach.

Where would we be today if all world leaders saw human life as “infinitely precious?” Without that concept, you can’t make sense of the Sermon on The Mount and the admonitions of Jesus to love your enemy and do good even to those who abuse you. Racism and sexism exist because we refuse to have unconditional love for those who are different from us.

Peter learned to have agapao. It was a rough journey for Peter, and it isn’t always easy for us, but we need to preach it and do our best to live it. We can grow in unconditional love (agapao) with the help of God’s Spirit.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Date Palms and Food

Date Palms and Food

In our day of climate change, drought, and food shortages, it is essential to know God’s answer to these problems. The Bible talks about “a land of milk and honey.” Most of us probably think this refers to the product of bees and cows. In fact, the milk was mostly from goats, and the honey was entirely from date palms. This plant is so productive that each tree will provide 150 pounds of food a year.

Date palms can live for over 100 years and grow to the height of a five-story building. However, they grow best when the roots can find underground moisture while the tree is in arid and hot conditions above ground. That is the environment of the area where Jesus lived, and today groves of date palms grow on the edge of the Dead Sea.

Date palm seeds are so resilient that some from the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls 2000 years ago have germinated when planted and watered. In the United States, we merely call them “dates,” but there are many varieties for different uses, such as medjool, khalas, sukkary, barhi, rutab, ajwa, kimia, deglet noor, and halawi. In the Middle East, where dates have been used for over 4000 years, these varieties are well-known.

God has provided for human needs in a wide variety of ways. We can solve the problem of food shortages if we use what God has given us. Many of our staple foods in America are difficult to grow, especially in nutrient-poor soils or harsh climatic environments. Using God’s gifts wisely on a global level can reduce hunger, pain, and suffering enormously. God has given us what we need, but we must manage it intelligently.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: “The Sweet and Sticky History of the Date” Smithsonian magazine for November/December 2022, pages 27 ff.

The Concept of Infinity and God

The Concept of Infinity and God

When you read the biblical description of God, you find that it involves qualities that atheists reject. An omnipresent, omnipotent, and eternal God are biblical descriptions that skeptics refuse to accept as possible. The foundation of the atheist worldview rejects an infinite eternity in heaven. Likewise, mathematicians rejected the concept of infinity for many years until the end of the nineteenth century. However, infinity exists, and mathematics doesn’t make sense without it.

Euclid’s geometry deliberately excluded the idea of anything infinitely small or infinitely large. The Greeks believed they could describe the entire universe with positive rational numbers. However, there are cases where a calculation cannot be made with a whole number or one having non-repeating decimal places. For example, the value of pi requires an irrational number with infinite decimal representation. A circle with a radius of one turns out to be 22/7, which is 3.1415926535 8979323846 2643383279 5028841971 6939937510 5820974944 5923078164 0628620899 8628034825 3421170679 if carried out to 100 places. The value of pi is called an irrational number because even at 100 places, it does not end. The digits after the decimal point are infinite.

Legend says that Hippasus, the first to prove that irrational numbers exist, was executed when his proof was published. The scholarly group known as the Pythagorean brotherhood was vocal about naturalism which had to deny the existence of the infinite. Eventually, it became evident that their view of the cosmos was impossible. And yet here in the twenty-first century, we find that denial of the concept of infinity is still the thinking of those who reject the biblical concept of God.

You can’t understand your life as having an infinite purpose if you reject the concept of infinity. The concept of the infinite is contained in the statement of Jesus in Matthew 20:16, “So the last will be first, and the first last,” and Matthew 16:25, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has set eternity in the hearts of humanity. On a fundamental level, that biblical concept of reality makes sense, and the history of mathematics is a strong support for the credibility of the biblical concept of eternity.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: “Mathematical Theology” by Doug Phillippy in the Fall 2022 issue of God and Nature

Plant Survival and How It Works

Plant Survival and How It Works

Have you ever thought about the fact that everything in the natural world directly or indirectly eats plants? Not just animal life but bacteria, viruses, and pathogens also attack plants. So how do plants keep from being wiped out? Recent Duke University research headed by Xinnian Dong shows that similar to animals, plant survival depends on an immune system.

The difference is that animals are protected by specialized immune cells that travel through the bloodstream to a place of infection. A plant doesn’t have that means of resisting an attack. Instead of traveling immune cells, each plant cell has a built-in resistance to infection. Each cell synthesizes new proteins to attack an infection while suppressing the normal functions of photosynthesis and growth.

A plant must perform a complex balancing act. The infection will destroy the plant if it doesn’t produce enough defense proteins. If the plant produces too much defense protein, its growth will be stunted. Plant biologists are still trying to understand how plants can resist infection while still growing and carrying on their normal functions. That ability seems to be built into the design of the plant’s DNA.

Understanding the plant survival defense system and how it works will address one of humanity’s significant problems. Fifteen percent of all crops are lost to bacterial and fungal diseases, translating into some 220 billion dollars. With the growing need for food, we must find new ways to increase the productivity of plants by reducing the losses to disease.

When you look at a plant, you might think it’s a simple thing whose functions we understand. However, every plant is a showcase for the wisdom and design of God.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: The National Science Foundation in its Research News for September 20, 2022, and the journal Cell

Nanofibrils of Spider Silk

Nanofibrils of Spider Silk - Brown Recluse Spider Building Web
Brown Recluse Spider Building Web

Would you like to see a material that is stronger than steel and can stretch ten times more than Kevlar? If so, look at a spider web and marvel at the design of the microscopic nanofibrils of spider silk.

Researchers at William and Mary University, funded by the National Science Foundation, used atomic force microscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance to examine the molecular structure of spider silk as never before. The nanofibrils of spider silk are fibers with diameters in the nanometer range, 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. Spiders generate them using proteins.

The scientists found seven layers of structural hierarchy in the spider silk. At a molecular level, they saw six distinct protein substructures making up the nanofibrils of spider silk, giving it incredible strength and resilience. They hope their research will lead to the development of high-performance synthetic fibers.

The nanofibril structures are so complex that understanding how they give spider silk its properties takes a great deal of time and special equipment. We have discussed spider web materials previously, but this new research shows that it is even more incredible than we realized. Hannes Schniepp, the director of the study, said, “Right now, we’re innovating and discovering in tiny steps, but there’s the larger goal of fully understanding the structure of spider silk. This study solves a piece of the puzzle and takes us closer to the larger dream of one day making materials like nature and, in doing so, create a more sustainable world.”

Studying God’s design in nature has led to an incredible number of things that make our lives more comfortable and enable us to solve some of the problems we face. Romans 1:20 tells us we can know there is a God through the things He has made. One of those things is the nanofibrils of spider silk.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

References: National Science Foundation and William & Mary University

Blood Moon and Shooting Stars

Blood Moon and Shooting Stars

On the morning of November 8, you will have a chance to see a total lunar eclipse, also known as a “blood moon.” At the same, you may also see a display of “shooting stars.”

A full moon occurs every 29.5 days as our planet comes between the Moon and the Sun. A couple of times per year, the alignment is precise enough that some part of Earth’s shadow falls on the Moon. If the outer area of the shadow crosses the Moon, we see a slight darkening of the Moon’s light. If the full shadow covers only a portion of the Moon, we see a partial eclipse looking as if someone has taken a bite out of the Moon. However, we will see the more dramatic total lunar eclipse this time.

When the eclipse reaches totality, the Moon will take on an orange or reddish glow. That is why people call it a “blood moon.” That color is because the small amount of sunlight reaching the Moon’s surface is the glow of sunrise and sunset all around the world. Our atmosphere bends and filters the light, blocking the blue light and focusing the lower-frequency reds and yellows on the Moon. We see that reflected back to us, this time for about 85 minutes.

You can enjoy a double treat if the sky is clear and the weather is not too cold. This is also the time for the annual Taurid meteor shower. The annual Taurid “shooting stars” are actually fragments of the comet Encke which burn up from the friction of Earth’s atmosphere. They are primarily tiny sand-grain-size pieces of rock that appear as streaks of light. However, some may be a little larger, looking like fireballs. The Taurids generally move more slowly and are often larger than the meteorites of other annual meteor showers. But, they may be fewer and farther between, with perhaps five to fifteen per hour visible in very dark skies.

The problem this year is that the peak of the Taurids is during the full Moon. The bright Moon always makes it difficult to see the much dimmer meteor showers. However, the 85 minutes of the total lunar eclipse creates an ideal window to look for the meteorites. So you can enjoy the “blood moon” and the “shooting stars” at the same time.

So, how and when can you see them? The total eclipse phase will begin on the morning of November 8 at 5:17 a.m. and end at 6:42 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. The partial eclipse will start and end about half an hour before and after those times. The faint penumbral phase will begin and end about an hour before and after the partial eclipse times. To see the Taurids, plan on being where you can see a clear view of the whole sky during the total eclipse phase. If you miss this total lunar eclipse, the next one will not occur until March 14, 2025.

Romans 1:20 tells us that we can know there is a God by observing the things He has made. What do the lunar eclipse and the Taurid meteor shower tell us about God? They are not omens of world events. They tell us that the creation is not chaotic but predictable. We live in a solar “system” in which we can accurately predict the movement of planets and moons and calculate what is going to happen and when–even to the exact minute. God has given us an orderly universe that we can study to learn about His power and wisdom. He has also given us His written word, which we can study to learn about His love and find the instructions for how to enjoy the gifts He wants to give us.

— Roland Earnst © 2022

References: on their website or YouTube channel and NASA HERE, HERE, and HERE

The Gifts God Offers for Free

The Gifts God Offers for Free

We live in an age of skepticism about religion in general and specifically about the “church.” There are many churches in America, and their messages frequently contradict one another. At the same time, we are inundated with vast numbers of messages about attractive alternatives to the Church. The word “church” is “ekklesia” in the original language, and it means “the called out.” It does not refer to any denomination or human-made religious body. It refers to individuals who reject the alternatives the world has to offer. The biblical teachings about the “called out” cannot be improved upon, and neither can the gifts God offers to us. Here are some that specifically deal with finding the best life possible.

The word of God cannot be improved. The Bible has been tested over the centuries, primarily by people who were trying to prove it wrong. Having been one of those people, I can testify to the futility of that attempt. As 2 Peter 1: 16-21 tells us, the Bible is not a bunch of fables. It contains prophecies that can be confirmed. The Bible includes just enough history to verify its integrity and just enough science to show it is beyond human knowledge for its day. The philosophy of the biblical narrative has proven to lead to a high quality of life, mentally and spiritually. The problems come with what Peter calls “private interpretations” and when humans try to find a way to make money with it instead of just letting it guide their lives.

God’s instructions on how to live cannot be improved. Take the teachings of Christ in Matthew 5:21 through chapter 6 and think about what kind of world it would be if everyone lived by those teachings. As you read those verses, you will see that this wisdom contradicts what you hear from politicians and secularists. Next, read Galatians 5:19-23 and think about what has caused the misery we see in the world around us. The gifts God offers are free, and all alternatives to God’s instructions fail.

God’s instructions for salvation make sense. Being lost means a relationship has been severed–be it a marriage, a business, or a life. All the pop psychology in the world won’t repair relationships because it has no power. God created us pure, but the world corrupts us, rupturing our relationship with Him. Repairing that relationship is beyond all human efforts. God knows how to restore us (2 Peter 2:9), and Romans 6 tells us how to become a new person with God’s Spirit living in us. This is the ultimate gift of God because it is eternal. Go to a quiet place and allow yourself to think about the gifts God offers. Accepting God’s gifts and living life God’s way works, and it’s the ultimate solution to the human dilemma.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Diving Bell Spiders Breathing Underwater

Diving Bell Spider Breathing Underwater

In freshwater lakes, ponds, and rivers in Europe and Asia, a spider spends virtually its entire life below water, catching prey, mating, laying eggs, resting, and overwintering. Called diving bell spiders or simply water spiders (Argyroneta aquatica), they are the only spiders that breathe air underwater.

Diving bell spiders have a very dense layer of hydrophobic (water-repelling) hairs on their abdomen and legs that they use to hold a bubble of air. They create a “diving bell” by spinning an underwater web to hold the air bubble. The web is made of silk and a specially-designed and unknown protein-based hydrogel. They spin these sheets between submerged water plants and inflate them with the air held by the spider’s hydrophobic hairs. The silk is waterproof but porous enough to allow gas exchange with the surrounding water. There is a net diffusion of oxygen into the bell and a net diffusion of carbon dioxide out.

Nitrogen escapes from the bell as this process continues, so the bubble size decreases, and the spider has to bring new air in periodically to retain the bubble’s size. However, this system is so efficient that they may not have to add air for more than a day. By being underwater their whole life, diving bell spiders have only frogs and fish as their predators. They play an ecological role in the water body by eating aquatic crustaceans and insects such as mosquito larvae.

God has designed many different systems to allow balance in nature. When humans upset the balance, we create problems. The more we study the less visited areas of planet Earth, the more examples we find of unique life forms. We also find ways of copying God’s designs to create new materials and new ways to improve our living conditions.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

References: Science News, July 2, 2011, page 14, and wikipedia.