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), and Conway Hall Ethical Society (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.

Comments
  1. Christopher Clifford says:

    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.

  2. Daniel Hedrick says:

    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.

      • Daniel Hedrick says:

        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.

      • Bob Enyart says:

        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.

      • Bob Enyart says:

        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.

  3. petrel41 says:

    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/

  4. petrel41 says:

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

  5. Cece says:

    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.

  6. puckerclust says:

    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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