Category Archives: From Stars to Stalagmites

My first non-technical book

The banker who lost his head

If Isaac Newton is the father of modern physics, then Antoine Lavoisier is the father of modern chemistry. Newton was knighted, and died in his bed at age 84. Lavoisier died at age 50, on the guillotine.

LavoisierAndWifeA civil servant scientist

Lavoisier originally trained as a lawyer, but studied science at the same time, and set about earning admission to the Academy of Sciences. This he achieved at the remarkably young age of 25, with a combination of pure science (composition of gypsum), and applications (problems of street lighting and water supply). He invested his inherited fortune in membership of a curious body called the Company of Tax Farmers. This was involved in the collection of indirect taxes throughout the whole of France, while its members individually lent money to the Crown, thus simultaneously taking on the roles of bankers, administrative civil servants, and investors in government securities.

Lavoisier’s administrative responsibilities included supervising the Gunpowder Administration. Gunpowder is a mixture of sulphur, charcoal, and saltpetre (potassium nitrate). At the time, this last was obtained from fermenting organic matter with human and animal manure. French production had become haphazard, and lack of gunpowder was one reason for France’s defeat in the Seven Years War/French and Indian War of 1754 – 1763. The Dutch had developed a system using beds of manure mixed with rotting vegetation, which Lavoisier copied, to such good effect that within a few years France was able to supply the material to its allies. French exports of saltpetre played an essential role in the American Revolution, and Lavoisier was able to write “One can truly say that North America owes its independence to French gunpowder”.

Reform, Revolution, and the Terror

In the years leading to the French revolution, Lavoisier campaigned for moderate reform. Reform, however, either constitutional or financial, was impossible in the face of entrenched privilege. When, in 1789, the Estates General finally met, the tensions within it set in motion the series of events that was to end in revolutionary Terror and, eventually, Napoleonic autocracy.

At its height, the revolution had no time for moderates, especially moderates who had been involved in the previous regime. Lavoisier, despite his brilliant success at the job, was removed from the Gunpowder Administration in 1792. The Academy of Sciences won a temporary respite by dominating the newly established Advisory Office on Practical Arts and Trades. Lavoisier himself worked within this Office, and was involved in developing the metric system, drafting a national educational curriculum, and advising on methods for printing banknotes; not a trivial problem before synthetic dyes became available. However, even before the revolution, allies of the revolutionary Marat had condemned the Academy as “elitist”, and it was abolished by the Revolutionary Convention in 1793.

Wealthy bankers are rarely popular, especially during periods of economic unrest; tax collectors, never. Moreover, the members of the Company of Tax Farmers had exercised their functions in the service of the King. Lavoisier and other prominent members of the Company were charged with fraud and arrested. When no evidence of this fraud could be found, the Revolutionary Convention simply declared them guilty of conspiracy against the people, and sent off Lavoisier with twentyseven of his colleagues to the guillotine. Meantime, the armies of the fledgling Republic were driving back invaders from half a dozen nations, using the products of Lavoisier’s work at the Gunpowder Administration.

Three months later, the Convention itself had turned against and executed its extremist leadership, and the revolutionary Terror was over.

Guinea pig, mesmerism, and placebo

We start with two of Lavoisier’s minor scientific accomplishments. “Minor” is a relative term, and either of these alone would ensure him a place in history.

Guinea-pig-242520__180First, the guinea pig. Food in, heat out. Lavoisier put his guinea pig in the centre of a chamber surrounded by snow, weighed the amount of water melted by its body heat, and found that it matched the amount that could be melted by simply burning the food. He also knew animals needed oxygen to stay alive. He concluded, correctly, that respiration is simply slow combustion.

Next, mesmerism. Lavoisier was part of a committee set up by the Academy of Sciences to examine the phenomenon of “animal magnetism” (a visiting American called Benjamin Franklin was also on the committee). This was a lucrative piece of quackery devised by one Dr Franz Animal_magnetismAnton Mesmer, who induced fits in his patients by his “mesmerising” hand gestures. The effects could then be brought on again by ordinary magnets. The committee were unconvinced. They examined a group of Mesmer’s patients, who reacted as claimed to the magnets, then moved the magnets without telling the patients and examined them again. The patients produced the expected responses where they believed the magnets to be, not where they really were. The committee concluded that the patients were simply responding to suggestion, and that animal magnetism did not exist.[1]

None of this extinguished belief in animal magnetism. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, wrote that malicious animal magnetism was being used in mental assassination, and magnetic healing devices of no clinical value are “a billion-dollar boondoggle“.

Chemistry, elements, and The Elements of Chemistry; the importance of the balance

Below, left: a selection of Lavoisier’s instruments, as illustrated by his wife Marie-Anne Paulze for the textbook. Paulze was a scholar in her own right, translating and annotating scientific papers and keeping records of her husband’s experimental work.

LavoisuerInsrtruments2Lavoisier, a banker, understood the concept of balance and applied it to chemical change, making him the first to understand combustion. It had long been known that when some metals are heated in air, they are converted to a powdery substance, called a calx, and it had even been shown that the calx of tin weighed more than the original metal. Moreover, in 1772 Lavoisier himself showed that sulphur and phosphorus, on burning, gained considerably in weight. So, he inferred, burning meant extracting something from the air.

In 1774, Joseph Priestley in England found that while mercury is converted to its calx by heating in air, stronger heating of that calx would decompose it to the original metal, and to a gas which could support respiration longer than ordinary air. Lavoisier showed that formation of the calx involved uptake of this same “respirable air”.

With hindsight, all that remained was to join up the dots, and joining up the dots was inevitable. As to why it was Lavoisier who took the crucial step, it is worth recalling that he had been trained as a lawyer, a skill involving the precise use of unambiguous language. It is also worth noting the complaints he made about the way in which he himself had been taught chemistry. He contrasted the teaching of mathematics, where each step is shown to follow from the preceding, with that of chemistry where the standard presentations “make use of terms that have not been defined, and suppose the science to be understood by the very persons they are only beginning to teach.”[2]

For ElementsDoverthis reason, Lavoisier deliberately set about reforming the language of chemistry, an ambitious task that Thomas Jefferson, who knew of his project, regarded as premature. In the way of these things, what was originally intended as the formal record of a memoir, read by him to the Academy of Sciences in 1787, expanded into a full-scale textbook, The Elements of Chemistry, published just two years later (here again we can only admire Lavoisier’s energy).

If you want to reform the language of a subject, the obvious place to start is with the definition of its key concepts, and the key concept of chemistry, then as now, was that of an element. For the ancients, as Lavoisier pointed out, there had been the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. To these, the alchemists had added salt and sulphur (he could also have mentioned mercury), while others had spoken of different kinds of “earth”. Faced with this, Lavoisier concluded that instead of attempting to find the nature of “those simple and indivisible atoms of which matter is composed”, we should define an element as a substance that cannot be broken down into simpler components. This provides we would now call an “operational definition”; an element is defined in terms of experimental tests. It also, as Lavoisier explicitly recognised, took account of the possibility of changing knowledge. Thus air had already been shown to contain more than one component, so it was not an element, and water also was shortly to suffer a demotion.

Things would now fall into place very quickly. “Respirable air” could not be broken down any further, nor could it be made from simpler components, so it qualified as an element. This Lavoisier called oxygen, producer of acidity, since from his work with phosphorus and sulphur he believed it to be a component of all acids. Calxes were compounds between their metals, and oxygen. Mercury was an element. So was carbon, the purest form of charcoal. Carbon reacted with oxygen to give “fixed air”, the same gas that John Black had produced in Glasgow by heating limestone, which was therefore not an element but a compound. In the reaction between charcoal and the calx of mercury, carbon was again converted into “fixed air”, this time by removing oxygen from the calx, leaving the metal free. This was the same kind of reaction as had been practiced, although not understood, for over 6,000 years, whenever metals were extracted from their ores using charcoal. Calxes were compounds between the various metals and oxygen, while the metals themselves were elements. So on moderate heating, mercury reacted with oxygen from the air to form an oxide, but stronger heating would decompose this oxide to its elements. Once oxygen had been extracted from the air, what remained was an inert residue, which Lavoisier named “azote”, or lifeless. This is still what it is called in French, although the modern English name is nitrogen, in recognition of its presence in nitre.

What about water? Lavoisier knew about “inflammable air”, a gas of low density formed when metals react with acids, and was indeed the first to suggest its use in balloons. Believing that its reaction with oxygen would produce another acid, Lavoisier in combination with Laplace (now best remembered as a mathematician) allowed oxygen and inflammable air from pressurised tanks to react within a glass bulb, and collected the liquid formed. To their surprise, it was nothing more nor less than pure water. Hence the name hydrogen, producer of water, for inflammable air. They were not the first to carry out this experiment, and to verify that the weight of water was equal to the combined weight of the reacting gases, but they were the first to recognise the significance. If water could be produced from two simpler substances, then whatever Aristotle may have said on the subject, it was not itself an element.

Not content with determining the nature of water by synthesis (combining elements together), Lavoisier verified his result by analysis. Again, he was not the first to carry out the crucial experiments, but the first to understand them. He reacted iron with water, collected the gas produced, and verified that this was indeed hydrogen by burning it and recovering the original material.

We can summarise the “new chemistry” that Lavoisier developed throughout the 1770s and 1780s as follows:

1) Combustion or calcination involves the formation of a compound with oxygen.

2) Air is a mixture of oxygen and azote.

3) Water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen.

4) Heat is an elemental substance that is released during combustion.

5) Combination with oxygen produces acids, and all acids contain oxygen.

6) Matter is composed of simple bodies (i.e. elements) free or in combination. Bodies are regarded as simple as long as all efforts to simplify them further or to produce them by combining other bodies have failed.

7) Matter is conserved during chemical changes, as is the amount of each of the “material principles” i.e. elements.

8) A new notation was needed to express these facts.

In the rearview mirror

It’s worth a look at how well these conclusions have stood up over more than two centuries. (1) and (3) read as true today as they did when Lavoisier wrote his Elements. (2) is something like 99% true. In addition to nitrogen and oxygen, air contains about 1% argon and small but vitally important minor amounts of carbon dioxide, as well as traces of other gases. (4) was soon to be replaced by our modern view of heat as a form of energy

(5) seems a little bit strange, even from the perspective of the time, and we now know that many acids, such as hydrochloric, contain no oxygen at all. So we can regard (5) simply as an empirical generalisation, which seemed reasonable at the time, but which is now rejected in the face of fresh evidence. That’s how science works.

(6) is essentially what we think today, with a “simple body” being the same thing as what we call an element. Lavoisier himself listed 33 of these, of which 23 are still recognised as such. (7) is the law of conservation of mass, and was to provide the vital link between experimental chemistry and the atomic theory of the ancient philosophers.

As we have seen, Thomas Jefferson regarded (8) as a premature exercise. He was wrong, and much of Lavoisier’s nomenclature is still with us. Lavoisier spoke of metal oxides, and identified salts by reference to the metal and the acid that they contained. Thus what we call potassium nitrate is what he called nitrate of potash. Lavoisier’s stated aim was to establish an unambiguous nomenclature in which the names of substances were systematically related to their composition, as an aid to clarity of thought, and in this he was wholly successful.

If he had survived the Terror, Lavoisier would quite probably have lived another 20 years or more, long enough to witness and contribute to the next round of developments. His clarity of thought and language would have helped make clear the underlying issues, such as the difference between an atom and a molecule, and might well have saved the world of science half a century of confusion.

1] These days, of course, we ideally use double-blind experiments, in which neither the subjects, nor the experimenters in contact with them, know which drugs or procedures are genuine and which are controls.

2] Elements of Chemistry, Dover edition (1965), p. xix. I fear much the same could be said about the present-day introductory curriculum in chemistry, where students are immediately exposed to concepts derived from quantum mechanics and thermodynamics, without any basis in experience for these concepts.

Reposted from 3 Quarks Daily. An earlier version of this material appeared in From Stars to Stalagmites (World Scientific Press, 2012). Portrait of Lavoisier and wife by Jacques Louis David, in Metropolitan Museum of Art. Guinea pig from Pixabay. Animal magnetism from an 1863 work by Du Potet, via Occultopedia. Lavoisier’s instruments via Chemistry Explained website.

Intelligently designed; the creationist assault on science; Conway Hall talk draft flier

I will be giving the Sunday Lecture to the Conway Hall Ethical Society at 11:00 on 16th March 2014. Attached is my draft publicity material. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Creation science” is a 20th century heresy, albeit with far older roots. Its central claim is that beliefs compatible with biblically inspired creationism are in fact scientifically superior to mainstream views on evolution and an old earth. Its arguments for supernatural intervention range from the ludicrous to the highly sophisticated; from “Flood geology” to the origin of biological information; from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to seemingly scholarly works invoking cellular complexity or the so-called Cambrian Explosion. The creationists themselves are not necessarily stupid, nor ill-informed, nor (in other matters) deluded. In all cases, their deep motivation is the wish to preserve the supernatural role of God the Creator, and a particular view of the man-God relationship.

There are several interlocking organisations active in the UK to promote creationism. These include Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (closely linked to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and its notorious Wedge Strategy), Truth in Science, and The World Around Us/The Genesis Agendum, who between them have links to Brethren churches, the Christian Schools Trust, Answers in Genesis, and Creation Ministries International.

I will be discussing the attempts by such organizations to infiltrate the educational system, the inadequacies of official attempts to prevent this, and possible countermeasures. I will also be giving my own views on why creationist arguments are appealing to those without detailed background knowledge, and how we should respond.

Paul Braterman is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at GlasgowUniversity, and former Regents Professor at the University of North Texas, where his research related to the origins of life was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Astrobiology program. He is a committee member of the British Centre for Science Education, and of the Scottish Secular Society, and has been following creationist infiltration into education in the UK for some years. He is a regular contributor to 3 Quarks Daily, and his most recent book, From Stars to Stalagmites, discusses aspects of chemistry in their historical and everyday contexts.  @paulbraterman

Reviewed: Young Earth Creationist books handed out in Scottish primary school


From Truth be Told, one of the books handed out to children at Kirktenholme Primary

My friends in Scotland will know about how a local Church of Christ sect, with the help of missionaries from the US,  successfully infiltrated a Scottish state non-denominational primary school, were only properly scrutinised (after 8 years of activity) when the school chaplain (a sect member) gave the children two fundamentalist Young earth creationist books to take home, and how the sect has now been barred from that school and the two head teachers who made the mistake of trusting them redeployed.

My American friends will be surprised that a school should have a chaplain, let alone at the rest of these extraordinary goings on, about which I shall have much more to say later. I have read the books given out, and prepared a full report on them, which I attach here.

I had previously, as a backgrounder, sent it to some of the parents, to the school itself, and to the local authority that controls the school, before the local authority education officer met parents to discuss the situation. The immediate problem has been dealt with, but I would like to know what steps the school and the Council plan to take to undo the educational damage inflicted by this.

The books are worse than I could have imagined. A mixture of Morris’s The Genesis Flood, Wells’s Icons of Evolution, and the most bizarre imaginings of Ken Ham‘s Creation Museum, all packaged to look like authoritative school books; the more advanced one even had chapter end review quizzes. I would like to know what steps the school, and the local authority that controls it, plan to take to undo the educational damage inflicted by this.

Anyway, It has occurred to me that I must be one of the few people in the world to have actually submitted himself to the tedium of reading these books from cove to cover, so I thought I’d append my report for those interested:  Truth be Told –  and How do we Know God is Real? For these books to be handed out by a school was a betrayal of trust. Their content is contrary to the whole of present-day science, and to the principles and requirements of guidance from the Scottish Department of Education, and the Curriculum for Excellence. Their arguments are a re-hash of a long-refuted “creation science”, a 20th century heresy that has its roots in Henry Morris’s Genesis Flood, and in Seventh Day Adventism, rather than in mainstream Christianity. They are produced by Apologetics Press, the publishing arm of a group of exclusive US sects calling themselves “Churches of Christ”, who “shun” ex-members ( and reject the whole of modern science in favour of their own kind of biblical literalism.

The books are professionally produced, and Truth be Told in particular is formatted in the same way as a real textbook, complete with chapter headings and subheadings, end-of-chapter reviews, quizzes and discussion topics. A diligent pupil receiving these books, as the children at Kirktonholme did, with the blessings of the school, will conclude that the whole of modern cosmology, geology, and biology is fundamentally mistaken, and that those who promulgate it, including their own science teachers, all university biology departments, and all the world’s leading scientific societies, are lying.One particularly nasty feature is that established science is repeatedly misrepresented so as to make it look absurd, and the evidence for it is repeatedly suppressed or, worse, incorrectly described so as to make it seem unconvincing. This is most obviously true in the chapters regarding the age of the earth, the fossil record, and evolution.

The authors have no scientific qualifications. Kyle Butt graduated from a private Churches of Christ university, and his degrees are in Bible and Communications. Eric Lyons’s degrees, from the same university, are in Bible, History, and Ministry.

How do we Know  misdescribes the Big Bang as disorderly (H 14) [1], asserts (H 18 – 39) that because organisms are complex, each species must have been individually designed, and claims (H 40 – 41) that if evolution is true, dogs could give birth to animals that are half-dog and half-cat.

There are also other claims, not strictly scientific, that are repugnant in a pluralist society, such as, that “Only a belief in God can help people understand what actions are truly right and truly wrong.” (H 51); that those who deny the existence of God are “like those people who deny that Americans have ever landed on the moon.” (H 54), that “when a person properly looks at all the evidence with an open mind and honest art, he cannot be an atheist.” (H 55; emphasis in original).

Truth be Told is the worst kind of creationist anti-science, made to look like a real textbook, with chapter end quizzes (sample: Briefly explain why the trilobite is evidence of Creation), claims of fossilised trilobites inside human footprints, that evolutionists are liars who try unsuccessfully to wriggle out of the Second Law, that radiometric dating depends on flawed assumptions, and other long-exploded lies. It says that evolutionists (that would include their own science teachers at school and university) are dishonestly refusing to admit the truth, that the earth is 6,000 years old, that Noah’s flood explains the Grand Canyon, and that people used dinosaurs as beasts of burden. All this presented as real science in a textbook-like format.

Within the first five pages of Truth be Told, I found nine major errors of scientific fact or logic. Even a brief summary of major errors runs to four pages, which I include here for those interested in the detailed arguments. Some of the highlights are:

Ch 1, Origin of the universe, claims that because Big Bangs are not taking place today, the idea is not amenable to scientific testing. False; the Big Bang is accepted because it quantitatively explains Hubble’s Law, the relative abundance of the light elements and their isotopes, the Cosmic Microwave Background and its fluctuations.

Ch 2, Origin of life, describes the unsolved problem of the origin of life as a weakness in the concept of biological evolution. Not so, any more than the unsolved problem of the origin of language is a weakness in the concept of language evolution.

Ch 5, Geology in the fossil record; geological strata are said to be the result of Noah’s flood, and the rapidity of change in special situations, specifically Mount St Helens, is said to argue against the gradualness of average change in general.

Ch 6, The age of the Earth; claims that radiometric decay rates could have been different in the past, although it has been known since 1928 that they could not have, since if they had been all the laws of physics and chemistry, responsible for the formation of rocks, would also have been different.

Ch 7, Dinosaurs and man, says that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. It also claims that assorted rock art represents dinosaurs, speculates that humans could have used dinosaurs as beasts of burden, and even has pictures of dinosaurs pulling carts.

Ch 8, Arguing against evolution, misrepresents the facts regarding embryo development, and, of course, the peppered moth story.

Ch 9, The origin of humans, concentrates on errors from many decades ago, and dismisses intermediate forms such as Homo habilis because they are not fully human (of course they are not. That’s the whole point)

Ch 10, Creation Scientists, is shameless. It lists Louis Pasteur (died 1895) and Sir Isaac Newton (died 1727), and confuses belief in God with belief in the kind of creationism described here. In addition, the book repeatedly accuses evolutionists (remember that this includes the science teachers they will be meeting later, as well as virtually all research scientists) of deliberate disregard and distortion of the evidence, and refusal to admit the truth.

In more tedious detail [you don’t really need to read this unless you want to]:

Ch 1: that the Big Bank was an explosion, sending lumps of matter shooting through space (false; it was a highly orderly event, and lumps of matter only condensed out much later), that acceptance of the Big Bang is of relevance to the acceptance of biological evolution (they are completely different topics), that because Big Bangs are not taking place today, the idea is not amenable to scientific testing(false; the Big Bang is accepted because it quantitatively explains Hubble’s Law, the relative abundance of the light elements and their isotopes, the Cosmic Microwave Background and its fluctuations), and that that a scientific law is “a principle in nature that is true in every observable case”, that (referring presumably the situation existing shortly after the Big Bang), “a tiny ball of matter is not an adequate cause” for our enormous universe (false; this claim neglects the effects of almost 14 billion years of expansion). The chapter also miss describes the use of the terms “law” and “theory” in science, and invokes an imaginary Law of Cause and Effect, which in reality is routinely violated by events at the quantum level, including according to some current thinking the Big Bang itself.

Ch 1 also incorrectly states that the Big Bang theory violates the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics. False; the First Law is not violated because the positive energy of the contents of the universe is exactly balanced by its negative gravitational energy, and the Big Bang was a highly orderly event, not disorderly as stated here. All of this is clearly laid out in many popular books on the subject. Most seriously, T 11 incorrectly invokes the Second Law as saying that the spontaneous pattern formation required by evolution could not occur. In reality, the spontaneous formation of new patterns in far from equilibrium systems, of which he Earth-Sun-Space system is an example, has been known for many decades, and was the subject of Ilya Prigogine’s 1977 Nobel Prize.

T13 on describes the suitability of the Earth to life as clear evidence of providence. False; examining two of the examples given, the ozone layer is the inevitable result of the Sun’s UV light, and the Earth’s magnetic field is the inevitable result of its molten core, which in turn is the inevitable result of its composition and mode of formation. Subsequent pages point out ways in which the World is just right for us; but of course it is, since it is the World that we have evolved in.

Ch 2 describes the unsolved problem of the origin of life as a weakness in the concept of biological evolution. Not so, any more than the unsolved problem of the origin of language is a weakness in the concept of language evolution. This chapter also completely misdescribes conditions on the early Earth, current thinking on the origins of life, and the very restricted role now claimed for the Urey-Miller experiment. The claim that the work of Redi and Pasteur, refuting 18th-century theories of spontaneous generation, has any relevance to what could have happened over tens of millions of years on the early Earth is ridiculous.

Ch 3 misdescribes evolution, chooses Darwin’s finches as an example but ignores extensive recent studies, and claims that mutations cannot generate new information on the grounds that they merely rearrange existing material (this is like saying that an author does not generate new information, because he is merely rearranging existing words). It ignores well established cases of adaptation, such as (within humans) lactose tolerance in pastoral peoples, and resistance to local diseases.

Ch 4 asserts that “Design demands a designer” (this is simply asserting what it claims to prove), and points to good design within the human body while completely neglecting the cases of bad design (such as hernias, choking, the blind spot in the eye, along with many others) that can only be understood as evolutionary relics.  Like so much of the creationist literature, the book at this point misquotes Darwin on the subject of the eye.

Ch 5, on the geological record, is a travesty. Geological strata are said to be the result of Noah’s flood. The fact that fossil tree trunks rise up through several layers of later sediment is said to refute the claim that these sediments accumulated over millions of years. The complexity of the trilobite eye is said to refute the plain fact that from the bottom up (i.e., according to three centuries of geology, but not according to this book, from older sediments onwards) the totality of life has become more complex and diverse. We have the usual (for the creationist literature) misdescription of uniformitarianism, and the claim that the rapidity of change in special situations, specifically Mount St Helens, argues against the gradualness of change on average.

Ch 6, the age of the earth, repeats the usual nonsense about radiometric dating depending on doubtful assumptions. In reality, the mineralogical assumptions made in the early work have been bypassed since the 1940s by the use of isochron dating techniques, while the “assumption” that decay rates have remained constant has been known, since George Gamow’s work in 1928, to be a necessary consequence of the fact that more fundamental quantities, such as the speed of light and the charge on the electron, have remained constant. If this were not so, we would not have had rocks laid down according to the laws of chemistry and physics in the first place.

At this point, the specific Young Earth agenda comes into its own. If tree ring dating places a piece of wood at 10,000 years old, this book claims that this is simply because it was created with 4000 years worth of tree rings inside it. Here we also meet the first flat-out piece of fiction. The book says that there are human footprints in coal layers dated at 250 million years old.

Next come the usual and long refuted creationist arguments for a young Earth. The Earth’s magnetic field is decaying. Indeed it is (and we know that it has decayed and even changed direction many times in the past). The book then says that therefore, the Earth a few thousand years ago would have been so hot it would have cracked. This is nonsense on so many levels that I hardly know where to start. It is claimed that if the universe were billions, or even millions, of years old, then all the hydrogen would long since have been changed into helium. Again this is nonsense. We know how fast hydrogen is being converted into helium in the Sun, from how bright it is, and this fits well with the established age for the solar system of a little over 4.5 billion years. There is a ludicrous argument from population statistics, which effectively assumes a rate of growth over evolutionary time comparable with that only made possible since the development of agriculture.

At this point, the lies become embarrassing. T 109 says that “archaeologists have documented time and again that the period between the time of Abraham and the time of Jesus was about 2000 years. Who do not believe in God… admit that this is true.” In reality, there is no archaeological evidence for Abraham.

Ch 7, Dinosaurs and man, says that it “simply is not true” that dinosaurs lived millions of years before humans, and that “there is much evidence which shows that humans, dinosaurs, and other extinct animals lived together only a few thousand years ago”. Abstract and fanciful monsters found in ancient art are described as evidence for dinosaurs. Herodotus’ description of remains of flying snakes resembling bats is taken as evidence for him having seen pterosaurs, even though pterosaurs are not in the least bit bat-like.  T 121 misdescribes collagen residues preserved in one tyrannosaur fossil by tight binding to bone as “soft issue”.

T 120 and T 121 accuse science textbooks of lying. T 120: “The reason you do not see it [the evidence that humans lived alongside dinosaurs] in your school science books is because it stands opposed to evolution…. When we look at the evidence, we can see the truth.” T 121: “Evolutionary scientists should admit… that dinosaur bones are not millions of years old…. An honest person who found soft issue in a dinosaur fossil would admit that the fossil could not be millions of years old.”

The rest of this chapter suggests that, by analogy with elephants and orcas, humans might have tamed dinosaurs, and shows (T 125, 132) humans interacting with dinosaurs and using them as beasts of burden. We are told that there were dinosaurs on the Ark, and there is discussion of how they could have been fitted in. Dinosaur graveyards are attributed to dinosaurs being drowned in Noah’s Flood.

Ch 8, Evolution is not a proven fact, starts off as is customary in the creationist literature with an attack on Haeckel’s drawings, ignoring everything that has been learnt about development since. It misdraws the human embryo as having the shape of a fully formed human, confuses gill slits with gill arches, and suppresses such well-known facts as the presence of fur and tails on human embryos at around six months. Next (T 138 – 139) we have the peppered moth story, complete with accusations that the camouflage story was false, and that “even though many of the writers and science have book publishers knew was false, they used it anyway” [emphasis in original].

By chance, I wrote at length about this a few weeks ago ( There was no fraud. There were inadequacies in the original experiments. These were repeated, and the results confirmed and placed on a sound footing. That is how science works.

The story of horse evolution is misrepresented on the basis of a quote mined from 1953, while that of whale evolution incorrectly asserts that the evolutionary account is based on only a few bones, and suppresses the fact that we have a complete sequence of over 18 separate stages connecting whales with their terrestrial ancestors. We have confusion between analogy and homology, and misdescription of the evidence from vestigial organs. The chapter ends with the claim that the ability of vestigial organs to perform a new function is evidence against evolution. On the contrary, it is evidence for what is known as exaptation, a powerful evolutionary mechanism.

Ch 9, Did humans evolve? Suppresses the evidence for some 20 species more or less intermediate between us and our common ancestor with chimpanzees, makes great play with frauds and errors long since disposed of, misdescribes Homo habilis as merely an ape and therefore irrelevant in human evolution (the opposite is the case; its position on the borderline between Australopithecus and Homo is evidence that the continuity that creationists deny).

Ch 10, Creation Scientists, is shameless. It lists Louis Pasteur (died 1895) and Sir Isaac Newton (died 1727), and confuses belief in God with belief in the kind of creationism described here.

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[1] References with page numbers; H, How do we Know, T, Truth be Told

World Scientific publishing creationist “symposium” proceedings

[This post got over 50 hits from Singapore, home of WSPC, on its first working day up]

Librarians, do not buy this book. University-based readers, please pass on these concerns to your librarian. Why World Scientific expects anyone to pay $139 for the volume is beyond me, unless they regard university libraries as a captive audience for whatever misrepresents itself as significant new material. Readers with any working relationship with World Scientific, if you agree with me please share your concerns with your contacts there.

The misrepresentation starts with the volume’s self-description: Proceedings of the Symposium Cornell University, USA, 31 May – 3 June 2011

So was this event organized or sponsored by CornellUniversity? No. They just hired a hall. Was it a symposium? Only if you can dignify with that name a gathering of the faithful, called together by invitation and without prior publicity.

It gets worse.

The “new perspectives” turn out to be nothing more than a regurgitation of long-refuted arguments from well-known creationists. (All chapters, by the way, are open access here, so any reader with the patience can go to the book, and refute what I am saying here chapter and verse.)

Nick Matzke originally reviewed the volume here on pandasthumb. At that stage, it was scheduled for publication by Springer, who reconsidered in remarkably short order; for the subsequent history, and reaction from the Discovery Institute, see here. We do not know how it came about that the volume is now scheduled for publication next month by World Scientific, but this, together with another extraordinary pending publication, gives great cause for anxiety about the health of a once-respected publishing house.

[Disclosure; World Scientific were the publishers for my own first non-technical book, From Stars to Stalagmites]

There is little that I can add to Matzke’s review. The book is based on the crucial refusal by the Intelligent Design movement to understand the process by which random change (generating novelty) followed by selection (filtering for function) gives rise to significant new information. This despite the fact that this process can be seen at every level from the creation within a computer of genetic algorithms, to the path-optimising activities of an ant hill. The contributors’ names are generally all too familiar; many readers of this piece will not need to be reminded, for example, what Dembski does for a living. However, I did spot one name that may be less familiar outside the UK; Andy McIntosh, of the creationist group Truth in Science, well known to the British Centre for Science Education for its attempts to sabotage the teaching of evolution in schools, and famous to his friends for his eccentric interpretation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Presumably, World Scientific were aware of the concerns surrounding this volume. Nonetheless, they decided to publish. I can think of only three possible explanations:

1)      An idealistic resolve to give due publicity to a particular point of view, however unfashionable. I think we can dismiss this, since World Scientific has not yet taken to publishing books about how aliens landed at Roswell, or the faking of the moon landings. Moreover, the Discovery Institute has adequate publication channels of its own.

2)      Creationist infiltration. I would like to dismiss this as an unfounded conspiracy theory, were it not for the existence of another upcoming publication, about which I have already expressed my concerns on this blog. (I am currently in correspondence with World Scientific about that publication, and will be giving an updated report later this week.)

3)      Utter incompetence. I would include in this category any cynical commercial decision to go ahead with full knowledge of the demerits of the work, since the damage to World Scientific’s reputation must surely outweigh the few thousands that would accrue from its publication.

Whatever the detailed explanation, I can only appeal to World Scientific, even at this late stage, to think again.

“Intelligible Design” or Intelligent Design or Creationism; what is World Scientific playing at?

[Disclosure: World Scientific published my own first non-technical book, From Stars to Stalagmites, in 2012.]

Update July 23: this book has been absent for a week from the WSPC web site. I am told that the matter is under consideration by WSPC management. In the circumstances, I have taken down my posts on the subject, and hope not to have to reinstate them.

Update July 29: World Scientific asked me for a full review of the book. I have sent it to them, with a cover note saying that I hope never to have occasion to publish it. All that fine invective, never to see the light of day! But fair’s fair.

Update Sept 27; It’s back on the menu. Too puerile to require rebuttal, too insignificant to be worth publicising by protest. So I’ll leave it at that, and simply bear in mind that World Scientific’s imprimatur is now worthless.

Boyle’s Law is not a principle; so does the UK Education Secretary know what a principle is?

What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law. [Education Secretary Michael Gove, reported here].

He has been justly mocked for confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics (e.g. here and here and, by me, here). But the kind of ignorance involved in describing Boyle’s Law as a “basic scientific principle” is far more damaging.

Disclosure: I taught Boyle’s Law for over 40 years, and it gets three index entries in my book, From Stars to Stalagmites.

Bottom line: Boyle’s Law is not basic. It is a secondary consequence of the kinetic theory of gases, which is basic. The difference is enormous, and matters. Anyone who thinks that Boyle’s Law is a principle doesn’t know what a principle is. (So Gove doesn’t know what a principle is? That figures.)

Reasoning: Boyle’s Law states that if you double the pressure on a sample of gas, you will halve the volume. Boyle thought this was because the molecules of gas repel each other, so it takes more pressure to push them closer together, and Newton put this idea on a mathematical footing, by suggesting an inverse square law for repulsion, rather like his inverse square law for gravitational attraction. They were wrong.

Mathematically, the Law is simply stated, which may be why Mr Gove thinks it is basic: volume is inversely proportional to pressure, which gives you a nice simple equation (P x V = a constant) that even a Cabinet Minister can understand. But on its own, it is of no educational value whatsoever. It only acquires value if you put it in its context, but this involves a concept of education that seems to be beyond his understanding.

Now to what is basic. Boyle’s Law is now explained using the kinetic theory of gases. This describes a gas as a whole lot of molecules, of such small volume compared to their container that we can think of them as points, each wandering around doing their own thing, and, from time to time, bouncing off the walls. It is the impact of these bounces that gives rise to pressure. If you push the same number of molecules (at the same temperature) into half the volume, each area of wall will get twice as many bounces per second, and so will experience twice the pressure. Pressure x volume remains constant.

Actually, Boyle’s Law isn’t even true. Simple kinetic theory neglects the fact that gas molecules attract each other a little, making the pressure less than what the theory tells you it ought to be. And if we compress the gas into a very small volume, we can no longer ignore the volume taken up by the actual molecules themselves.

So what does teaching Boyle’s Law achieve? Firstly, a bit of elementary algebra that gives clear answers, and that can be used to bully students if, as so often happens, they meet it in science before they have been adequately prepared in their maths classes. This, I suspect, is the aspect that Gove finds particularly appealing. Secondly, some rather nice experiments involving balancing weights on top of sealed-off syringes. Thirdly, insight into how to use a mathematical model and, at a more advanced level, how to allow for the fact that real gases do not exactly meet its assumptions. Fourthly, a good example of how the practice of science depends on the technology of the society that produces it. In this case, seventeenth century improvements in glassmaking made it possible to construct tubes of uniform cross-section, which were needed to measure volumes of gas accurately. Fifthly … but that’s enough to be going on with. Further elaboration would, ironically, lead us on to introductory thermodynamics. Ironically, given the interview that started this discussion.

Educationally, context is everything, the key to understanding and to making that understanding worthwhile. A person who decries the study of context is unfit for involvement with education.

Even at Cabinet level.

Denialgate; oil barons caught funding classroom anti-science

Denialgate is the name being given to the leaking of a parcel of documents from the Heartland Institute. This is a thinktank lying far to the right, even by American standards, and funded largely by an extremely wealthy “anonymous donor”, and by the Koch Brothers, oil barons, Tea Party funders, and each of them billionaires 25 times over. As I wrote in 21st Floor,  “ Koch Brothers, US oil billionaires who have spent millions promoting climate change denial (you didn’t think all those well produced “sceptical” or “real science” sites with nice sciency names just happened, did you?)” That may have been the first time that many people have heard of the Koch Brothers, but I fear that it won’t be the last, especially as US Supreme Court recently ruled that privately funded groups can spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns, and they are reported to be spending $60 million to defeat Obama (sound business; much cheaper than losing their tax breaks).

The Heartland Institute has many interests. One of their programs is called “health choice”, and their donors include Altria (that’s Philip Morris, the tobacco people). They fund Fred Singer, famous at one time for advising the tobacco companies on how to cast doubt of the link between cigarette smoke and health problems, but now apparently concentrating on climate questions. Regarding climate, the Institute has a long record of cherry picking and distortion, to create the illusion that the science of anthropogenic climate change is seriously in doubt. The strategy is to urge delay on grounds of uncertainty; to keep on claiming that the science is complicated (true) and controversial (true at one time, but no longer), and hence to infer that it is unwise to sacrifice immediate economic benefits to meet hypothetical future threats (non sequitur; as Margaret Thatcher pointed out 20 years ago, prudence implies the exact opposite). The tactics are to claim that anthropogenic global warming is a giant hoax by self-seeking scientists, and as evidence to present outlying points from the large but noisy available data set as typical. The sort of thing I discussed, in connection with how the Daily Mail (and in the US, Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal) have misrepresented the recent climate record. Denialgate now completes the military metaphor by showing us the Heartland Institute’s logistics.

There are six documents. One, a strategy outline, is quite different in style and tone from the others, and is the only one to have been explicitly denounced as a hoax by the Institute, while according to one of the Institute’s pet “experts”, Anthony Watts of the very professional Wattsup denialist website, PDF metadata confirmed its separate origin. Watts himself is a former TV weatherman, not a climate scientist. But then, climate scientists who deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming are about as common as life scientists who deny the reality of evolution.

The unintended consequence of these denials was to strengthen confidence in the authenticity of the remaining documents, including, crucially, the fundraising plan and budget. Finally, the distinguished environmental scientist Peter Gleick (MacArthur Foundation Fellow, member of the National Academy of Sciences) admitted that he had received the strategy document through the post from an anonymous source, and was then able to obtain the others directly from the Heartland Institute by a simple subterfuge. Heartland is frothing at the mouth over this piece of dishonesty; naturally, I have to join in this condemnation (ROFLMAO).

So what have we learnt? This, among other things:

The Heartland Institute is funded by Altria (better known as Philip Morris, the tobacco people) and by the Koch Brothers, whom we have already met, but most of its money comes from an anonymous donor.

The Institute plans to spend $249,000 on what it calls “Government Relations”.

The Institute is paying $5000 a month plus $1000 expenses to Fred Singer, a physicist who in the past advised the tobacco companies on how to cast doubt on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, but is now better known for advising fuel companies on how to cast doubt on the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming. (When questioned about this, Singer admitted to getting money from Heartland, evaded questions on the amount, and claimed to spend it all on student assistance.)

The Institute is also paying $88,000 to Anthony Watts, whom we have already met, for a new Internet venture. His present venture, Wattsup, will no doubt continue. Its main achievement was to perpetuate the myth that global warming was the result of an urban heat island effect, a case that he continues to argue even though, as I reported last week, an in-depth study funded by the Koch Brothers themselves found that this is simply not true.

Most ominously, the Institute is paying $100,000 to one David Wojick to prepare a series of 20 modules for classroom use on the subject of climate change. When challenged by a reporter, Dr Wojick emailed, with no sense of irony, “This means teaching both sides of the science, more science, not less.” (Where have we heard that before?) Dr Wojick really is an expert, but not on education, nor on climate science, but on data manipulation, and we can guess in what ways he will manipulate the data.

Meantime, climate change is increasingly finding its way into the “teach the controversy”, “sound science”, and “academic freedom” measures being introduced into US state legislatures, in parallel with Intelligent Design/Creationism. And while the creationist lobby relies on the generosity of the faithful, the climate change denialists are backed by some of the world’s deepest corporate purses.

[A version of this post has appeared on the 21st Floor site,  and forms part of the content of my article on recent developments in climate change studies in the first 2012 number of The Beacon, the house journal of  the New Mexico Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education]

From Stars to Stalagmites: Contents

Contents: Foreword and acknowledgements

1. The age of the Earth – an age-old question; Who thought what and when, and why

2. Atoms old and new; From Democritus toRutherford

3.The banker who lost his head; Lavoisier, gunpowder, revolution, and the birth of modern chemistry

4. From particles to molecules, with a note on homoeopathy; Dalton, Avogadro, Cannizzaro; why did it take so long for the penny to drop?

5. The discovery of the noble gases – what’s so new about neon? A tiny difference in density leads to a whole new group of elements

6. Science, war, and morality; the tragedy of Fritz Haber; Ammonia, explosives, fertilizer, gas warfare, and the most unintended of consequences

7. The ozone hole story – a mystery with three suspects; Volcano, refrigerator, or jet plane?

8. Rain gauge, thermometer, calendar, warning; What a stalagmite tells us about climate past; what history tells us about climate future

9. Making metal; Iron from the sky. From gold to bronze to iron. Philistines and Phoenicians. Domestic uses of arsenic. Smelting and electrolysis. Eros in Piccadilly. The jet age

10. In praise of uncertainty; Philosophically, statistically, quantum mechanically, and computationally unavoidable, which is just as well

11. Everything is fuzzy; And the smaller, the fuzzier. Waves are particles. Particles are waves. The crisis in the atom. More uncertainty.

12. Why things have shapes; How atoms connect. Lewis’s magic cubes. Stealing or sharing. Double counting. The shapes of molecules.

13. Why grass is green or why our blood is red; An old question answered. From sunlight to sugar. A brief history of colour vision. Jumping electrons. Blood and iron.

14. Why water is weird; The hydrogen bond. Floating ice and foreign policy. Molecular recognition and the molecules of life

15. The Sun, the Earth, the greenhouse; Yellow-hot sun, infrared-warm Earth. How the greenhouse really works. When it comes to carbon dioxide, more is more. Disinformation and denialism

16. In the beginning; From Big Bang to small planet. The birth and death of stars. Supernovas and red giants. The making of the elements. Vital dust

Notes, Glossary, Index

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