Thursday, December 8, 2016

God made dinosaurs with BEAUTIFUL feathers!

For some reason, feathered dinosaurs have become a touchy subject among creationists.  As far as I'm aware, the major creationist organizations still do not accept the existence of feathered dinosaurs.  Either the fossils are not really dinosaurs and have real bird feathers, or the fossils are real dinosaurs but the feathers aren't really feathers, or it's all just a hoax.  There is certainly precedent for being suspicious of feathered dinosaur fossils.  Back in 1999, National Geographic ended up with egg on its face after it put Archaeoraptor on its front cover.  Turns out, Archaeoraptor was a fraud, two different fossils stuck together by shady fossil dealers.

On the other hand, there are many, many other feathered dinosaur fossils that have been discovered since then.  I had the opportunity to see one up close and personal at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History back in 2013.  Now, you can't really see much in a museum exhibit, but it was still pretty cool seeing one in person.  I have no problem whatsoever with feathered dinosaurs.  If God wanted feathered dinosaurs, He could make feathered dinosaurs!

A new paper in Current Biology by Xing and colleagues describes a remarkable new fossil that appears to be a feathered dinosaur.  This fossil is a segment of tail spectacularly preserved in amber, and it was originally discovered in Myanmar.  Here it is:

From Xing et al. Figure 1

My first impression was that it was a beautiful fossil, but how do we know it's a dinosaur?  First of all, it's not a bird, at least not a modern bird.  Modern birds don't have long tails like this.  Could it be one of those weird fossil birds with long tails like Archaeopteryx?  The tail bones (visible in scans of the fossil) aren't the right shape, and there seems to be more flexibility to this tail (because it's bent) than to tails of fossil birds with tails.  That means that it's probably a dinosaur of some kind, since they're the only other critters we know of that had feathers like this.  Am I 100% sure it's a dinosaur?  No, nobody is, but it sure does look like one based on what we know about dinosaurs and birds.

From Xing et al. Figure 3

And what magnificent feathers they are! The beauty of amber is that we can see amazing details that just aren't preserved well in rocks.  Here you can see a closeup of a few of the feathers, showing that they are definitely feathers.  We can see that they are symmetric, so they're probably not flight feathers.  Flight feathers are asymmetric to make them aerodynamic.  Since dinosaurs didn't fly, symmetric feathers would make sense.  The other thing we can see is that they are loosely connected.  Modern feathers have a central shaft and barbs that branch from that shaft (both of which are visible in this fossil).  In flight feathers, the barbs are connected together with little barbules to give the feather a nice flat surface, but that's not seen here.  The barbs appear to be separate from each other, like a modern downy feather.

Modern feather vs. downy feather (Pixabay)

Personally, I think this discovery is amazing.  It is completely in line with what we already know about feathered dinosaurs, namely that they had real feathers.  It also doesn't change any of my conclusions from my recent ICC paper, where my colleagues and I concluded that there were important, detectable discontinuities between dinosaurs and birds, even when examining feathered dinosaurs.  In other words, there are many different created kinds (some birds, some feathered dinosaurs) that did not all evolve from a common ancestor.

With that in mind, we should celebrate God's creativity wherever we find it.  I'm sure there will be a few creationists who cast aspersion on this fossil, or call it a fraud, or maybe even call me gullible.  That's OK.  You and I know better.  We can celebrate with the ancient Psalm:
Great are the works of the Lord,
    studied by all who delight in them.
Full of splendor and majesty is his work,
    and his righteousness endures forever.
He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered;
    the Lord is gracious and merciful.
(Ps. 111:2-4)
Fossils are a special way for us to remember the wondrous works of the Lord, just as the Bible says.

Check out the original research paper for all the details; it's open access and completely free to read:

Xing et al. 2016. A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber. Current Biology DOI:

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Lab Meeting 3: Trillium Breakthrough!

Trillium grandiflorum rbcL PCR

Science isn't always pretty.  This is only the third "Lab Meeting" post I've done this semester.  I was hoping to update a lot more often, but sometimes there are unforeseen problems that need to be ironed out and things slow down.  This is definitely one of those occasions.  We've been hacking away at a baffling PCR problem for the last month or so, and we've only just resolved it.

I mentioned previously that one of our projects was to study flower genes in trilliums.  Trilliums are a really interesting species group, and there are many different species here in the southeast.  We've been looking very closely at a mutant trillium that has only petals for flower parts.  My intern and I want to find the genes that control flowering from trillium specimens that we collected this past summer, and for us, that involves a process call Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR).  PCR is like a copy machine for DNA.  You put an original piece of DNA into the PCR machine, and it will produce zillions of copies.  Because we're dealing with tiny molecules too small to actually see, we need zillions of copies so that we can see our results (literally).

After designing the PCR experiment the first half of the semester, we started working on the actual PCR.  As I said, the results were baffling because we weren't getting any results, which didn't make any sense.  Monday night, we finally figured out what the problem was (It was the transilluminator!  Of course!), and that was our little breakthrough for the semester.  (Truth be told, it actually felt like a big breakthrough, but we try to keep things in perspective!)

So just before Christmas break, we finally got to see some trillium DNA!  That's what's in the picture at the top of the page.  Those blurry little pink lines are where the DNA is.  The pink color is from soaking the DNA in a special chemical that makes it glow under black light.  The three bright lines right in the middle of the picture (without any lines above or below) are the trillium DNA.  In this PCR experiment, we were looking for a common gene (rbcL) from a sample of large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) to test whether our specimens were good and our PCR worked.  As you can see, it worked GREAT!  Now we can start looking for those flower genes I've been talking about.  This is where it gets really fun!

I want to thank all the donors to Core Academy that made this research possible.  Our student interns are especially excited during this holiday season (finally getting DNA), and I wanted to share that excitement with you!  If you would like to help support our student scientists, please click on that donate button at the end of this post or visit Core Academy's website to find out more.  This week at Core Academy, we have a special challenge gift of $2,000, so your contributions can be doubled.  If you've been considering a gift to Core Academy, this would be the week to do it!

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Research Reminder in a Busy Week

Classes are drawing to a close, and I've been busy this week finishing up my ICC abstracts.  I've been working on a HUGE mammal created kinds project, which is turning out much better than I expected.  I'm trying to do statistical analyses on every mammal group that I can get my hands on.  I've done about 20% of them, which doesn't sound like much, but it's a big move forward for baraminology.

As I was working on the ICC abstract this morning, I remembered that I ought to remind everyone that the deadline for CBS members to have the CBS pay for their submission fees is Monday.  If you're a CBS member and you want to take advantage of this offer, you need to submit your abstract to the ICC then forward your submission receipt to the CBS.  Get more details at the CBS website.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Monday, November 28, 2016

FREE booklet!

In honor of Giving Tuesday tomorrow, Core Academy is giving away a special booklet consisting of two chapters from my Introduction to Science textbook to every donor this week.  Check out the Core Academy website for more details, or just click that Donate button below!

Thanks for your support of Core Academy!

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Back to Basics

Happy Monday morning, everyone, and to my American readers: Happy Thanksgiving week.  I've been spending a lot of time lately pondering the future of Core Academy of Science.  It's been three years since we launched, and things are coming along.  Personally, my wife and I are moving past the crisis stage of trying to survive.  The Lord faithfully provides our needs, and I'm immensely grateful for that.  I'm also thankful for each and every donor who has provided funding to keep Core Academy going.  Your generosity has been inspirational to me.

I'm still wondering about Core Academy, though.  After all, I could conceivably get a faculty job teaching at a Christian school and run Core Academy as a little side hobby.  Lots of people run small nonprofits in their spare time rather trying to turn a tiny nonprofit into a real job (which is really hard).  I don't think we need yet another AIG or ICR, and I know we don't need another tiny ministry focused on a single individual's writing and speaking.  So what is the purpose of Core Academy?  Why is there a need for us?  Where are we going?

I have a few stock answers to these questions.  I usually say that Core Academy has a unique perspective on the creation/evolution debate that is poorly represented in the wider debate.  We don't think anyone has all the answers, about science or the Bible.  We want to seek answers and invite others to seek answers with us.  I also emphasize our focus on basic science education rather than just origins because so many people seemed confused about science itself. These are important distinctives that give Core Academy a unique identity.  But they're not enough.

In the end, Core Academy looks like a ministry about knowledge.  We focus on science and scientific discoveries.  We create curricula that promote our understanding of science.  It's all about knowledge, and knowledge is a risky thing.  The apostle Paul had some pretty strong words about knowledge to the Corinthians: "Knowledge puffs up but love builds up" (I Cor 8:1).  Later in the same letter, he wrote, "If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (I Cor 13:2).  That's a pretty staggering reality.  Faith and knowledge are not enough.  Being right about doctrine or the Bible is not enough.  We need to put that faith and understanding into action by loving God and neighbor.  Core Academy needs to go back to basics.

Honestly, it sounds a little weird to my ears, but Core Academy needs to become the faith/science ministry defined first and most importantly by love.  In this world where everyone seems to follow the template of propaganda wars, arguing past each other and insulting enemies, Core Academy needs to manifest the attributes of love: patience, kindness, and humility.  We need to rejoice in the truth, wherever it comes from.  We need to give cheerfully and generously to those in need.  We need to show grace to our enemies and listen patiently to their concerns.  And we need to be willing to admit when we've messed up.

So that's a nice idea, but how do we do it?  I'm still working out all the details, but here are a few thoughts:

  • We rejoice in truth.  We love to share new discoveries and ideas as we explore God's creation, and we don't really care where they come from. We love making our own discoveries and encouraging our student researchers to do the same. God's creation is worth celebrating.
  • We give cheerfully.  We sponsor special events and programs to encourage Christians interested in science.  Our annual creation retreat (coming up March 17-19, 2017) is a gift to our southeastern creationist community. Coming up next month, we'll announce our equipment grant awards to six Christian schools to help teachers teach science.
  • We love our enemies.  This is something we're going to work on even harder in the future.  There's a lot of enmity in the creation/evolution debate, and I personally have contributed my fair share of it over the years.  We need to break down those walls and learn to love our enemies, and we need to encourage everyone in the debate to do the same.
These are valuable things.  As we look across the wider culture tearing friendships and families apart over political choices, what better place to show the power of God's love and transforming grace than one of the most contentious corners of the culture wars?  If you think creationism is all about ignorance, arrogance, and argument, I hope Core Academy will give you pause.  If you are a young-age creationist, I hope we can show you a way to use your passion to spread faith, hope, and love.  To our Savior and Creator, thank You for giving us such a wonderful world.  Please make us more like You as we celebrate Your mighty works!

Core Academy wants to be different.  We want to transform the debate by going back to the basics of loving God and neighbor.  I think that's worthy of my commitment and investment, and I hope you'll join us.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.