About me

 This blog springs from my lifelong interest in how things came to be the way they are. Geology and deep time. Living things and their evolution. And from my discovery, late in life (I had a very sheltered upbringing) that there are people who simply do not believe in these well-established realities, and my attempts to understand them.  Old Earth – Young Earth; how do we know how and why does it matter? Creationism and evolution – why is there an entire cottage industry devoted to dismissing everything that we have learnt in the life sciences for the past 150 years or more? Missing missing links; what we can and do find in the fossil record, and what we can’t and don’t.

I had a religious upbringing, which I rejected in my late teens after a road-from-Damascus experience, but none of this ever affected my attitude to science. I retain an affection for many aspects of religion, and unlike some of my colleagues I see no point in picking fights with believers unless and until they attempt to interfere with the teaching of science, or with the public understanding of morality. As for morality, that I regard as springing from our common humanity. If someone wants to believe in a God who created heaven and earth, that is not my business. However, it does very much become my business if someone wants to teach children that whales came into existence before land mammals, because Genesis says so, or that homosexuality is wicked because of Leviticus, or that condoms are useless because that fits Catholic doctrine. And we see all of these things every day.

On this site I will feature developments relevant to all these topics, scientific and otherwise, and to anything else I fancy. I make this promise to my readers; while, like everyone else, I rely on secondary sources to remain aware of a broad range of current developments, I will in every case that I discuss drill down to the primary literature, inform myself about the context, give citations and links as available, and verify what I write against the original publications.

About me: I spent most of my career at Glasgow University and the University of North Texas, and now live in Glasgow. I hold one undergraduate and two graduate degrees from Oxford, and have published over 120 scientific papers and book chapters and two specialist books, and have been cited in the primary literature over 4,000 times. I am on the committees of the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE; see also here ) and of Secular Scotland (see also here), and my past collaborations include NASA’s Astrobiology CenterJet Propulsion LaboratoryScripps Institution of Oceanography, and the Sandia/UNM Advanced Materials Laboratory. I am a regular contributor to 3 Quarks Daily, and have posted many times in The Beacon, house organ of New Mexico Coalition for Excellence in Science Education, and to Reports of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, the BCSE blog and newsletter, 21st Floor (a sceptical website based in Scotland), and (occasionally) pandasthumb. My experience with British Centre for Science Education has forced me to become acquainted with the Creationist/Intelligent Design literature, a fact I now plan to turn to advantage.

Recent publications include my first non-technical book,  From Stars to StalagmitesWorld Scientific Publishers  (Scientific American Book Club selection and excerpted in Scientific American), and the introduction to the recent Scientific American Classics special, Determining the Age of the Earthhttp://www.scientificamerican.com/classics/.

My recent public appearances include Edinburgh International Science Festival 2011, 2012, and 2013, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (2011), Glasgow Galilean Society (2011), Glasgow and Dundee Skeptics in the Pub and Glasgow and Dundee Humanists (2011 – 2013), Conway Hall Ethical Society (2014), and Pint Of Science Glasgow (2014) on topics including the age of the Earth, current thinking on the origins of life, the significance of Darwin, the creationist assault on science education, the evolution of morality, and the future of religion.

Some comments on From Stars to Stalagmites:

Simon Cotton here in Chemistry World writes “well-researched, showing how deeply the author has read into the background. Although the articles are scientific, the author has carefully segregated chemical equations and formulae into the endnotes, which also contain a detailed bibliography for those who wish to delve further… Apart from being highly recommended for a wide adult readership, this would be an excellent book for teachers to give to students for enrichment, with the background to the chemistry going beyond the textbooks.”,

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries writes: … extremely readable, even for those with limited scientific training. … an excellent resource for general readers with a wide interest in all aspects of natural science. Highly recommended.

“A superb combination of history and scientific explanation!”, Roald Hoffman, Nobel Laureate in chemistry, and writer. “It’s a terrific read and the idea of intertwining the facts of chemistry with the history and personalities of the scientists who discovered it works brilliantly.” – John Wiltshire, systems engineer, Nelson Gold Medallist for creativity.  “Your writings are a wonderful compilation of chemistry, history, and human endeavors. The chapter on Haber was superb!  …  This text is something that every chemist should read!” – Prof Diana Mason, Regional Director, Associated Chemistry Teachers of Texas.  Publishers’ description here.

  1. Ralph Gironda

    I, too, had a similar experience. I went from ignoring the Catholic faith to science, dipped into Evolution and found it wanting-or disprovable scientifically- then took courses in anthropology where I had to take evolution courses, then to finally specialize in human paleontology with a sidebar of North American archaeology. What I finally came to conclude is that when somebody is entrenched in their ideas it is more important to continue your research ignoring their criticism but publish your ideas (like blogging) for students who want to further come up with ideas and for some interaction. The prime example for not getting into arguments is the Creationist/Evolution debate. Not only are both sides entrenched but one takes the Bible and and applies it to science and the other can’t see contradictory evidence when there is any. The proper procedure is to approach the Bible as an historical document and see what information we can glean from it. For example, it does not matter how old the earth is because it could have taken God by our measurements billions of years to create Humankind. When we focus on Adam we find that he had two sons, one was a sheppard and one was a city-dweller. We can place the rise of cities at !0,000 bp which would give us a fair calculation on a time frame. Can we make these kind of conclusions in a clear and sensible way with starting on a crusade?

    • The Catholic Church has long since accepted the material fact of human evolution from non-human animals, and that Ken Miler, one of the most vocal opponents of creationism is a Catholic, sees evolution as the Divine Creativity in action, and rhapsodises about this in his book Finding Darwin’s God.

      In my experience, what is presented as contradictory evidence to the scientific narrative is of three kinds: (1) things we don’t yet understand, e.g. origins of life (not part of evolution as such, anyway, but its precursor); (2) informative anomalies, e.g. differences in K/Ar and U/Pb ages for metamorphically altered rocks; (3) bullshit. Generating such bullshit is a full time professional activity for Answers in Genesis, Inst for Creation Research, Creation Ministries international and, at a seemingly higher level, Discovery Institute. refuting them is a cottage industry, whose fruits you will find at http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/list.html.

      We know that cities arose separately in Old and New Worlds; relating this to an iron age myth with mythical bronze age author does not seem to me a good approach.

      • Ralph Gironda

        This is not an Iron Age myth nor is there a mythical Bronze Age. Archaeologists have set-up a classification as the Bronze Age. Radiocarbon dating has established this date for the Old World. New World cities evolved later and did not become true cities until about 250 AD. (I have too go my time is up on the computer.)

      • Very briefly; I’m not sure you got my allusion. Moses would have been bronze age if historical, but the Books of Moses are iron age on internal evidence (e.g. all those references to iron). And the foundation of New World cities was as you say later than Old World, but independent, so I don’t see how the Cain and Abel story gives us insight here. And your “city dweller” is a bit of a stretch, given population size within the story. There are many interesting ways of using Genesis; a key to history, biology, or geology is not among them.

  2. hey paul – thanks for including my blog on your blogroll! made my day.

  3. Please consider signing and sharing our petition calling for the Welsh government to advise schools on visiting a creationist zoo.
    https://www.assemblywales.org/gethome/e-petitions/epetition-list-of-signatories.htm?pet_id=1020#.U7Kl-yrKPfM.twitter

  4. Dr. Braterman:
    I will be in Inverness, Scotland for a Clan Munro gathering the 22nd to 29th of July. If I have an address I will be delighted to send you a DVD copy of a book I have written that refutes creationism. In my discussions with creationists I have developed rules that have proven successful
    1) Don’t debate those that promote creationism. To them it is a business and they are not about to concede. Direct your efforts solely toward the believers in creationism.
    2) Avoid debunking creationism from a scientific standpoint. Most who believe in creationism are essentially scientifically illiterate and in no position to differentiate between real science and pseudo-science.
    3) Attack creationism as an embarrassment to the Christian religion as nothing in the New Testament is dependent on the Old Testament.
    4) Focus on the failure of creationists to explore the possibility that what Genesis is describing may well be in accord with modern science. Examples:
    – The first four verses of Genesis describe the conditions at the moment of the Big Bang; and yes light had to be separated from darkness but not in a day but 380,000 years later.
    – Verse five describes how the author reckons time by the coming and going of light. Major epochs are indeed marked by the coming of light and it’s disappearance.
    – Adam’s rib is still missing and the ‘flaming sword that prevents a return to Eden still exist. Consult a biology book and look at the 23rd chromosome of the male and the mitotic fiber bundles. Ask creationists how could the author have known this?
    – The patriarchs, who supposedly lived to 900 + years. They are not humans and their total age, according to the oldest extant religious document from which the ages where obtained, is 4,320,000,000 years.
    The story of Noah’s Ark is the weak link in creationism. If, as the story goes, an olive tree was submerged in water for the better part of a year then the dove could not possibly have returned with a “freshly plucked olive leaf”. My book offers several experiment to verify this.
    Cheers, Charles Munroe Simi Valley, California ccmunroeiii@msn.com

  5. Hi
    I love what you’re doing here, but was pained to see you trying to distance yourself from colleagues who ‘pick fights’ with believers for reasons other than the ones you have chosen.
    I don’t like to see you throw your colleagues to the lions on your home page.
    JA

  6. Christopher Clifford

    I’ve received your book “From Stars to Stalagmites” from Amazon.com this afternoon and it’s excellent. The account of Fritz Haber is especially interesting. I became aware of Haber from my university history professor, Dr. Donald Richter, who wrote “Chemical Soldiers,” an account of the British Army chemical warfare section and its contributions during the First World War. I also enjoy your website, having subscribed in the past couple of months. In your biography, I read that you’ve done work regarding the origin of life. I’ve read a number of general interest books on this subject, among them “First Life” by David Deamer, “Life on a Young Planet” by Andrew Knoll, and “Young Sun, Early Earth, and the Origin of Life” by multiple authors. As I learn more, I’m amazed and disappointed at what’s available, yet I’d like to learn more, and guidance would be appreciated. Could you compile a reading list for me on the origin of life? It’s difficult to explain why this subject is so fascinating, perhaps it’s because the field is interdisciplinary, extending from physics, chemistry, geology, biology, to paleontology and astronomy. Thanks in advance for any help you can offer. And here’s to an early spring, with all the cold weather we’ve had, I’d like to take my little son out fossil collecting and star gazing soon!

    • Thanks. Regarding origns of life, you have chosen well. I am a few years out of touch with the field, but would recommend Gen.e.sis by Robert Hazen, the Fifth Miracle Paul davies, and the underrated The Emergence of Life on Earth by Iris Fry. Seven Clues to the Origins of Life by Graham Cairns-Smith is a great read. Few would accept his conclusions, although his concept of genetic takeover is liberating.

  7. Paul

    I attempted to leave a comment at the Smithsonian site but my post was censored. Apparently any information related to a Young Earth is considered on par with racism or potty words.

    Anyway, I am interested in two things. One is related to dinosaur biological material and radiometric dating. The other is, would you ever be interested in having an “Age of the Earth” debate? I have a friend that is a radio talk show host for Real Science Radio and I am sure he would be up for the challenge.

    Daniel

    • Not knowing what happened to you on the Smithsonian site, I cannot comment. However, there is an endless stream of highly repetitive creationist pseudoscience (excellent summary at http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/list.html) and they may be unwilling to allow their site to be used to promulgate it.

      I do not debate creationists – it’s like having a boxing match with a roly-poly toy.

      You will find an excellent discussion of radiometric dating at Wiens, R.C. (2002). Radiometric Dating – A Christian Perspective. By a Los Alamos physicist. Discusses all the different methods, and deals with the scientific and religious so-called objections (Wiens is PI on the latest Mars probe, for the LIBS system): http://www.asa3.org/ASA/resources/wiens.html

      There is more than one creationist myth regarding dinosaur dating; I expect you will find yours discussed on the talkorigins site.

      Hope this helps.

      • So you have no opinion on the recent discoveries of the age of dinosaurs and the existence of dinosaur biological material?

        I personally find the issue quite intriguing. Because one way or the other you need to find a mechanism that can preserve these tissues for an extraordinary amount of time or the item is much younger.

        How do you approach this?

      • Did you, as I suggested, check out your dinosaur dating question on the talkorigins site? Since you ask abiut my own approach, I use here my professional knowledge of organic-inorganic composites [see e.g. Journal of Applied Polymer Science,Vol. 113, 1905–1915 (2009), Applied Clay Science Volume: 48, 2010, 235-242, and J. Phys. Chem. C, (2007), 111(10), 4021-4026], and note that despite much hype the only surviving material is in the form of a collagen-bone composite. The mechanism, in short, is topotactically adjusted hydrogen bonding, the same mechanism that makes the tendons stick to the bone surface during life.

        Now you have had two bites at the same cherry, and that is enough.

      • Paul, you wrote: “despite much hype the only surviving material is in the form of a collagen-bone composite.” The most comprehensive catalog of dino soft tissue findings online is at rsr.org/soft. Here’s what’s been published, in Nature, Science, PNAS, PLoS One, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Bone, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, and other journals…

        Biological Material Found: As of March 2014, in fossils from dinosaur-layer and deeper strata, researchers have discovered flexible and transparent blood vessels, red blood cells, many various proteins including collagen, actin, and hemoglobin, and powerful evidence for DNA.

        Dinosaur and Dinosaur-Layer Creatures: The dinosaurs and other Mesozoic creatures that have yielded their biological material are hadrosaur, titanosaur, ornithomimosaur [ostrich-like dinosaurs], mosasaur, triceratops, Lufengosaurs, T. rex, and Archaeopteryx.

      • Bob, your link is to http://kgov.com/dinosaur-soft-tissue, your own web site, with your own interpretations of the literature you report. One sample will serve: the claim “scientists confirm another biological tissue discovery” is based on Microspectroscopic Evidence of Cretaceous Bone Proteins, PLOS1 here, which, as anyone can verify from the paper, actually says “amino acid containing matter is located in bone matrix fibrils that express imprints of the characteristic 67 nm D-periodicity typical of collagen.” I leave it to readers to decide whether your description or mine is more faithful to the reported data, and to explore, if they wish, your other examples.

      • Hi Paul. Of the 24 peer-review papers excerpted and linked to, you selected one that reported on collagen. I went ahead and added some of the other findings to the top of the article, to make it more clear what has been found in fossils from dinosaur-layer and deeper strata:
        – flexible and transparent blood vessels
        – red blood cells
        – many various proteins including the microtubule building block TUBULIN
        – collagen
        – the cytoskeleton component ACTIN,
        – and HEMOGLOBIN
        – the bone maintenance osteocyte cells,
        – and powerful evidence for DNA.

        Various items in that list have been confirmed by sequencing and by immunological testing. The era of informed scientists claiming such findings were a result of biofilm and other contamination has passed. This is the data; and a growing body of evidence it is. Now the scientific community must deal with it.

      • I refer readers to the papers you cite, and repeat my invitation to them to compare what is published with your claims. I will leave this discussion there.

  8. Congratulations, Paul!

    I have nominated your blog for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.

    The rules of this award are at

    http://dearkitty1.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/very-inspiring-blogger-award-thanks-ina-helgiu/

  9. Thank you for adding me to your blogroll! I will add your blog to my long neglected blogroll as well :)

  10. Is there any way to purchase/rent those 120 papers that you wrote?
    I’m an undergraduate studying biology in Australia, always looking for references for assignments.

    • Most of my papers aren’t about biology, though the motivation for much of my work was to learn more about molecular interactions of possible relevance to the origins of life.

      If you are a University student, you should be able to look me up on World of Science or some similar data base, and obtain my papers through your University library. And anyone can look me up on Google Scholar, with some of the links there leading to full texts of the papers, and most to, at least, the abstracts.

  11. Welcome to the world of blogging. I hope you do a better job than I do at keeping your blog up to date!

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