20120709

Arsenic-loving bacteria probably a mistake

Remember a few years back when NASA announced the discovery of a new form of life, a bacteria that was able to incorporate arsenic into its cell components, instead of phosphorus, as is somewhat more Earth-life like? This was a very significant and exciting discovery because it allowed for a broader spectrum of possible life forms that might evolve in outer space, which, for a lot of scientists (and sci-fi loving nerds), is a HOLY SHIT YES kind of possibility. I mean, think about it - arsenic is a poison, and this microbe thrives and reproduces using this toxin, instead of a basic chemical constituent like phosphorus. Massively cool, right?
GFAJ-1, an exciting new life-form.
Well, turns out NASA was probably wrong. In two new papers published in the journal Science the authors (Reaves et al. and Erb et al.) show that the bacteria can’t use arsenic for growth, but, in fact, depends on phosphorus. It is, however, very resistant to arsenic (more than other arsenate resistant strains) and "is able to grow in the presence of very high arsenate and limiting phosphate concentrations" (Erb et al.). Furthermore, its core metabolism is "based on phosphorylated metabolites, even when cells are grown at high concentrations of arsenate and low concentrations of phosphate" (Erb et al.). For more details refer to the original articles. You will have to register to read them in full, but the registration is free and the benefits great (like getting the access to all of Science's publications back to 1997), so there's really no reason not to do it.

So, that's a bit disappointing, isn't it? Well, yes and no. It is disappointing because it means no arsenic munching aliens probably exist. What is great about this story, however, is that, even though this was supposed to be a huge and revolutionary discovery, scientists tried to falsify it and apparently managed to do so (read more about the importance of trying to falsify scientific theories here). This is a great example of how science works - no matter how exciting the theory might be, and how important its conclusions, it is still expected to sustain lots and lots of nit-picking and then some more experimenting before earning the right to be considered valid. It shows how, in science, there is no such thing as 'dogma', and every discovery can be re-tested at any point in time and, if shown wrong, discarded as such. It doesn't mean that science is wrong, it means it always corrects itself, learns on its mistakes and grows to be more reliant and to make less mistakes. When these happen again, however, scientists will again reveal them, give a detailed description of them, and then correct them. That's the strength of the scientific method - even mistakes are accepted as necessary, and not as something to be ashamed or afraid of.

20120707

When the religious write about atheism

Google kindly alerted me of news concerning the atheism today, and one article caught my eye in an instant. Written by Father Richard Ho Lung, founder of a religious order called The Missionaries of the Poor (M.O.P.), and published on The Jamaica Gleaner, the article carries quite a sounding title 'Atheism - it is coming!'
I wonder what he's talking about
The article starts with Dostoevsky's quote "If God does not exist, everything is lawful," and goes on to proclaim that "as we enter an age of cataclysmic confusion, there is no thought that is forbidden, no action that is wrong. Our generation continues to question and reject every moral principle of life."

This should be enough to make any sensible person jump from his chair yelling: "Oh no he didn't!" In the very first two sentences of the article the logical fallacy that is the belief that the morals come from religion hits a reader straight between the eyes. Not only is such an idea illogical and pretty much rejected by psychologists all over the world, it is a blatant indicator of arrogance of the religious, who time after time try to claim the ability to be a decent human being as a trait possessed only by those whose entire knowledge of the matter usually comes from a traditional higher ground, be it one's parents or a priest. That this idea is wrong is obvious when one considers the sheer number of different religions (which one has the correct moral codex?) and the numerous absolutely immoral acts done by religious authorities or regular faithful folk about which one can read in any newspaper pretty much every day. I'm not saying that religion makes you a bad person, but I'm sure as hell saying the lack of religion does not either. Articles on this topic, written by far more eloquent and educated individuals than me, can be found in a matter of seconds using Google, so I won't stay on this topic any more.

A bit further into the text Father Richard goes on to bash a basic human freedom of choosing who to love and marry and how: "In our times for instance, there are only partners in marriage, no husband and wife - the length of time of the partnership is arbitrary; there is also any choice of partner in marriage, whether male or female..." A person who chose to live his life in the most unnatural way of all - celibate - finds it his job to decide how we should love, and who. Oh, the irony!

Then, a pearl: "Without the Christian God, we are individuals, we have no community, we seize the moment, we grab what we can. We become existentialists. All that matters is the intensity of the moment, the greatest pleasure we can grasp this day, this place, with this person." I guess the Reverend Father has no idea how right he is when saying this. He is almost completely correct, you see. We are, each of us, individuals, by the very definition of a word 'individual', and we absolutely and positively should seize every single moment we can. Carpe diem, my friends! Our lives are so very, very short, and there are things far more interesting and beautiful in our world than imaginary friends and bronze-age fairy tales. What should matter the most is the intensity of the moment, and we should strive to make every single one greater and more pleasurable than the last. There are only so many moments we can enjoy, and to hell with those who try to tell us not to do so.

I will finish with one more quote, and then leave you to read the article for yourselves, and to ponder upon it. Father Richard gives us one more beautiful example of illogical and ignorant thinking, so typical for those who reject logic and reason: "We know that whether others believe in God or not, He exists. It doesn't depend on their belief in Him. And He, His ways and commands are the only 'way, the truth and the life'." No longer is it a virtue to believe without knowing - no, from now on we will know things even without believing in them. We will not look for the evidence of our or others' claims either, because that is not the way of the faithful. Which you don't have to be to know that fairies and gods exist, because they're out there, man, whether you believe it or not.
When you say it that way, it's hard not to believe...
Here's a link to the article for those too lazy to scroll up: 
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