Image: NGC 1097
European Southern Observatory
NGC 1097 is a spiral galaxy about 45 million light-years away in the southern constellation Fornax. The European Southern Observatory released this image as a Christmas week offering.

Dec. 23, 2004 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Glad tidings from space: To finish up the week's "Science and Religion" Symposium, here's a selection of modern Christmas "stars" you can enjoy online and in person during the holidays.

The European Southern Observatory sends along a stunning image of the spiral galaxy NGC 1097, which was observed this month at the ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile while that country's president, Ricardo Lagos, was at the telescope control desk.

NGC 1097, which is about 45 million light-years away in the southern constellation Fornax, is notable for several reasons: A ring of bright knots circles the galaxy's nucleus, indicating a recent burst of star formation. The galaxy is thought to have a huge black hole at its center, with a mass at least 10 times that of the black hole in the center of our own Milky Way.

"However, NGC 1097 possesses a comparatively faint nucleus only, and the black hole in its center must be on a very strict 'diet,'" the observatory says. "Only a small amount of gas and stars is apparently being swallowed by the black hole at any given moment."

In addition to the galaxy, the observatory offers up a heavenly Christmas card to mark the season.

NGC 1097 can't be seen by the unaided eye, but you should be able to spot several other celestial delights during the holidays: The five naked-eye planets are strung across the night sky right now, and this year's Christmas full moon is worthy of note as well.

Strictly speaking, none of these sights can be considered a Christmas star, but the historical "Star of Bethlehem" may not have been a star in the astronomical sense either. For some true "Stars of Wonder," check out the Dazzling Deaths in our Hubble slideshow.

Finally, don't forget about another star of the Christmas show: Santa Claus is due to make his rounds Friday, and children of all ages can follow the jolly old elf's progress online via the NORAD Santa Web site.

As for me, I'll be taking the day off and settling in for a long winter's nap. Regular Cosmic Log postings will resume Monday.

Dec. 23, 2004 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Online field trips for the long weekend:
The Economist: Can religious experiences be made artificially?
Discovery.com: Boy Jesus image created from Turin Shroud
Nature: Natural selection acts on the quantum world
Vote for the year's top 10 Ikonos satellite images

Dec. 22, 2004 | 6:25 p.m. ET
Portals to science and religion: Does it always have to be science vs. religion? Evolution vs. creation? Over the past couple of days, we've aired opinions on all sides of the question as part of our third annual Christmas "Science and Religion" Symposium.

On Tuesday, one Cosmic Log reader passed along a quote from Pope John Paul II on the subject, in which he said that the Bible "does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven."

From the other side of the scientific/spiritual fence, Ian Baxter from Calgary, Alberta, cites an oft-heard quote from Albert Einstein: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

The quote comes from "Science, Philosophy and Religion: A Symposium," published back in 1941, and it's worth reading the whole essay. In fact, as we near the centenary of Einstein's breakthrough theories — a milestone that has led scientists to dub 2005 the World Year of Physics — it's appropriate to explore this Web site, which draws together many of Einstein's writings on science and religion.

We're fortunate that the central texts for evolutionary biologists as well as spiritual thinkers are freely available online: You can review the Old and New Testaments via the Bible Gateway, which offers browsable, searchable versions of multiple English-language translations. "The Origin of Species," Charles Darwin's masterwork, is also on the Web. You can even find "How Humans Evolved," a full-length college textbook complete with quizzes.

The National Academies Press also offers a free online version of its 1998 report, "Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science."

If you want to learn more about how the proponents of intelligent design think, you might look into "The Privileged Planet," which lists astronomy professor Guillermo Gonzalez as a co-author. Gonzalez's work, including his influence on the "Rare Earth" hypothesis, generated controversy among astrobiologists even before "Privileged Planet" came out. The Talk.Origins Web site catalogs the book as "Creationist Claim CI302."

Finally, here's an entertaining book recommendation that goes beyond the narrow Darwin-vs.-doubters debate — and the fact that the whole book is freely available over the Web is a bonus:

Patrick Bishop, Caldwell, N.J.: "Whenever I think of the sociological significance of what scientists (especially biologists) do, I'm reminded of H.G. Wells' book 'The Food of the Gods.' In that book, a couple of scientists develop a nutritional supplement that, when given to living things, causes unprecedented growth. Through careless mishandling, it gets loose in the environment at large. The immediate result; daisies like oaks, wasps like eagles and rats like Irish wolfhounds, not to mention 40-foot-tall teenagers. The delayed reaction; systematic rejection of all of these things (including the modified children) by a culture that is either incapable or unwilling to adapt to their inclusion. War actually breaks out.

"Wells published this book 103 years ago. How prescient!

"It has taken a century to catch up, but we are on the threshold of being able to modify our offspring (and all living things for that matter), if not with the same tools, then certainly to a similarly stunning degree. Of course there is going to be a growing social gap between science and religion. Actually, the gap may be more basic; it may between science and the rest of us. ...

"Undoubtedly, just as the industrial revolution, the petrochemical revolution and the information revolution has changed society, the genetic revolution will do the same. But whereas the other revolutions changed society at an ephemeral level, this new one threatens to change it at its core. Don't be surprised if Luddites start springing up like Wells' giant daisies; only these won't be as pretty."

Dec. 22, 2004 | 6:25 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Newswise: Jumping gene boosts immune system
New Scientist: Undercooked turkeys can harbor superbugs
Desert Sun: SpaceShipOne designer talks about flight's future
Inc. Magazine: Burt Rutan, Entrepreneur of the Year
Wired.com: Stem-cell method may cheat death

Dec. 21, 2004 | 10:10 p.m. ET
Doctrines and doubters: In the debate over origins, you can generally tell where a person stands by what comes up during the discussion.

If the conversation turns to "macro vs. micro evolution" and "irreducible complexity," it's more likely that you're talking to a creationist. On the other hand, if the person believes it doesn't do any good to have the discussion in the first place, you may be talking with someone who favors the Darwinian view of evolution.

This second installment of the annual Christmas "Science and Religion" Symposium provides exposure for both sides of the argument — including the argument that there should be no argument:

Rod Kardorff, Houston: "I wonder if you think you are helping science? The topic of religion no more belongs in science than a discussion of free throws when the topic is baseball. If you wanted to help, when you post links or letters from people, take a moment (and some space) to research them and post your comments. I went to 'The Evolution Cruncher,' and it was so full of errors that it hard to believe that anyone could buy into it. But obviously people do, and here you are promoting that garbage. You cannot be fair. If information is wrong, it is just wrong. Period. By pretending to be fair what you are doing is convincing people that there actually is an argument in science over evolution and creation. You are doing everyone associated with science great harm, and I am disgusted by your attempts to walk the line. If you are talking about science, there is no evidence pointing away from evolution. If you are religious, you can believe what you want. Don't play games with both."

Quick response: I admit that I try to stay out of the fray, because I look upon this particular symposium as a lightly moderated soapbox forum rather than a place to confront readers. I do think one of the problems is that many of the experts in evolutionary biology haven't engaged in the public debate as much as they should. That's why I favor sites such as Talk.Origins, Talk Design and the National Center for Science Education. At the same time, I think it's important to find out what all the shouting on the other side is about. Then readers can come to their own conclusions. As for whether that toes the scientific line, I like what NPR's Ira Flatow said when a similar question came up during a radio debate on evolutionary theory: "But we're not doing a science class now."

John Merter, Hamburg: "To keep it short and simple enough for everyone to understand: There is proof of evolution all around. To see it in the space of time that human beings live, just look at the simpler organisms. Take some bacteria and use an antibiotic, but only once, to kill most of them. Some will survive the first dose and reproduce. These will survive the antibiotic in future — they have mutated, they have evolved. The same can be done with cockroaches in place of bacteria and poison in place of antibiotics. ...."

Greg Throop, Las Vegas: "There is some evolution within species, very obviously. But from species to species ... please. No way are fish changing into birds because they want to fly. Man has wanted to fly for millennia, and no wings have sprouted despite the potential advantages. Darwin, as we can plainly see, was half right, which for a 19th-century observation is pretty remarkable — i.e., survival of the fittest is real, its just that it works to eliminate species, not to perpetuate them with changes. Look how many species are going extinct daily! Believe me, they would change if they could, but they have no options. The structure of even the simplest organism is far too complex to have occurred by accident. Science will, in time, be shown to explain, not contradict religion (at least in the sense of an overriding intelligence at work)."

Patrick Burns, Amarillo, Texas: "To understand the the concept of evolution you must note that there are two different forms of evolution, Macro evolution and Micro evolution. Micro evolution is the variation within a species, and has been an undisputed fact for many years. It explains the change in a species to adapt to a region or climate or any other various dealings it comes in contact with. This is the type of evolution that some try to use to prove that everything evolved from a single-celled organism. Macro evolution is the theory that everything evolved from that single-celled organism, and after billions of years to where we are today. It is a theory that plays on the statement that it took billions of years and you can't know what could have happened over that time and it is possible. It has no validity."

Brooks Anderson, St. Louis: "Simply show us a concrete example of DNA which gains information rather than losing it to produce microevolutionary change (within a species) and you will have a basis upon which to suggest that macroevolutionary change is possible (e.g., ape to man, fish to reptile, etc.) Without a gain in information, such evolution is impossible."

Quick response: To my mind, macroevolution and microevolution involve differences of degree, having to do with how an organism reproduces. If breeds within a species can diverge over the course of scores or hundreds of years (as is the case with dogs) , is it so far-fetched that isolated populations can diverge so much over the course of millions of years that they can no longer interbreed? That's the definition of macroevolution. Here's more on the subject from Talk.Origins.

As for the claims that information cannot be added to DNA, there is indeed evidence that  genetic strings can be added, repeated and reshuffled. During efforts to reconstruct the ancestral genetic code for mammals , researchers found numerous instances where bits of DNA appeared to have been grafted in. Even within human populations, short tandem repeats contribute to genetic diversity. Over the past year, research into "junk DNA" has sparked a vigorous scientific debate over the genetic course of hominid evolution.

Tom Canham, Seattle: "The problem with news stories like these is that they are too balanced (when's the last time you heard that in a complaint, eh?).

"Evolution occurs all the time. It is observed every day by scientists around the world. The problem is that those who would ban the teaching of evolution from textbooks misunderstand what it is, so they make wild demands of it which, when science can't meet them, they claim show that evolution doesn't occur. Evolution is just about the changes within a species that occur as a result of selection pressure. This happens all the time and is the inevitable byproduct of competition for scarce resources and differential genetics.

"Think of it this way; if you had a bag of red and blue marbles and you went through and picked out and threw away all the red ones, eventually only blue ones would be left, right? Well, it's the same way with evolution. It's inarguable fact that there are variations within a species — within humans, some of us are taller, shorter, fatter, thinner, have blond hair or brown hair. Not only that, but some of us live longer and reproduce better than others — this isn't theory but simple, observable fact.

"Now, if you accept the fact that genes can be passed down from parent to child (I sure hope you accept that, or Crick and Watson are going to be really annoyed :) and you accept that we're all 'competing,' as it were, for scarce (and dwindling!) resources of food, money, shelter, and available mates, eventually the ones who are genetically 'best' at competing should prevail in the population. Simply put, we've been systematically weeding out the 'red marbles' so the 'blue marbles' are taking over. Why this should be a matter of contention is beyond me — it's simple common sense, based on what we know about how genes work and a little careful thinking. And, in fact, this is observed in nature on a regular basis. ..."

Richard Cooper, Bellingham, Wash: "The problem is not science vs. religion, it is science vs. dogmatic ultra-conservative fundamentalist religion. This is true of Christianity, Islam and, in all probability, every other faith. Our biggest problem is that we pay more heed to the lunatic fringes than we do to the balanced, intelligent mainstream."

Robert Nachtegall, Grand Rapids, Mich.: "Creationism is largely the result of Christians who simply misunderstand the Bible, its origins and purpose entirely. A very wise Christian described it this way: 'Cosmogony itself speaks to us of the origins of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth, it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The sacred book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and makeup of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.' - Pope John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 3 October 1981"

On Wednesday I'll provide further resources on scientific and spiritual perspectives, as provided by Cosmic Log readers. Feel free to send in your suggestions for additional reading, listening or mouse-clicking.

Dec. 21, 2004 | 10:10 p.m. ET
Science in a similar vein on the Web:
EurekAlert: How proteins beat the evolutionary stakes
LiveScience: The top 10 creation myths
York Daily Record: Law firm picked for intelligent-design suit
S.F. Chronicle: Wobbles may have shaped evolution

Dec. 20, 2004 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Science vs. religion? It's tempting to pit scientists against religious believers, particularly in light of the recent controversies over evolution , stem-cell research and even a presidential election contested on cultural terms .

But casting the larger cultural and philosophical debate as a faceoff of "science vs. religion" would be too simplistic. This week's third annual Christmas "Science and Religion" Symposium is aimed at providing a deeper sense of the interplay between life's scientific and spiritual perspectives, through the observations of folks such as yourselves. It follows up on similar end-of-the-year feedback fests in 2002 and 2003. (We also had Easter/Passover editions of the symposium in 2003 and 2004.)

This year, readers on both sides of the issue said the debate was more than just an idle philosophical exercise. The teaching of evolutionary theory was a particularly sore subject.

For some, it's a question of family values: "Stop undermining the teaching of Christian parents just to perpetuate a false theory," one correspondent wrote.

Others saw economic implications: "Let us teach our kids creationism and guide them to doubt evolution, so kids in Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe can one day beat our kids academically and intelligently," S.L. Tsai of Pittsburgh said with a touch of sarcasm. "Don't we already lose the battle in mathematics to other countries?"

Can the rift between scientists and religionists be bridged? To start off the symposium, here is expert testimony from those who claimed credentials in one field or the other:

Stephanie, Elmira, N.Y.: "I am a scientist, and I see the rift between us and the public growing as you suggest. I was brought up in the Christian faith but I was never taught that evolution didn't occur. It did. It is a fact. We have seen it happen. I understand that this may be hard for some people to accept, but at one time people could not accept that the earth was round or that the earth was not the center of the universe."

Alan Bean, Harrison, Maine: "Qualifications: Medical doctor here. Straight A's and the top of my class in every science class I ever took, including two 5-semester-hour evolution courses, genetics, microbiology, biochemistry, physics, etc. OK, I am now a Christian and was not when I was in school, but even when I was a secular student, the more I learned of the complexities of the 'what' of science, the more I questioned the 'why' — now I know it is not so much 'why,' but 'who.' I could talk for hours on why the theory of creationism is every bit as 'scientific' as the theory of evolution. Change within a species? Sure. Change from one species to another? I challenge anyone to show me evidence of such. Try reading 'The Evolution Cruncher' (900-plus pages) and then try to refute the validity of teaching alternatives to evolution."

Michael Massey, Topeka, Kan.: "As a Christian youth minister, I believe we are doing our students a disservice when we confuse faith with science. Scientific theory is based upon objective, observable phenomena that can be tested and modified to fit existing knowledge. Faith, on the other hand, is intuitive and unprovable. While I believe in intelligent design, I recognize that this belief is based upon my faith in God and is not a scientific theory. As a result, it has no place in a science classroom. The church must help youth develop strong religious convictions and rich spiritual lives. At the same time, it is important for the future of our society that we support our schools in assuring that our students have a solid understanding of scientific methodology. We in the church must be there to guide them in doing both and being able to discern the difference."

Klaus Burton, Lower Hutt, New Zealand: "Evolutionary theory and religion are not mutually exclusive. If God exists and has any brains at all (which I'm assuming a God inherently would) he would realize that if you were to have a large species that didn't evolve to suit changes, they would die. As far as I know, no one is saying that every change that occurs in a species or genus is made at the hand of God.

"So atheists can believe evolution exists and has always existed, and theists can believe evolution exists and has existed ever since God created it, but to deny its existence is ridiculous. Either way, evolution does occur, and creationism is not scientific.

"I'm an atheist and am studying for a B.A. in Religious Studies. Next thing I know, I'll be watching the news one night to see that my B.A. is now magically changed to a B.Sc. because belief counts as fact."

Gary: "I am a college-educated Christian. Major: Organic chemistry. Personally, I view science as an effort to understand God's creation — not as a tool to disprove the existence of the creator. However, since faith is just that, faith, I do not get angry at the overt attempts of scientists to disprove the existence of the Creator; I know He is real and so does He. We're cool with that. It does bother me when scientists try to discredit people of faith by implying that all faith-followers are ignorant, huddled masses incapable of accepting the truth.

"After all, how many of the scientific 'truths' taught 100 years ago still hold up today? How many 'truths' taught today will still hold up 100 years from now? (Every time the Hubble Space Telescope focuses on a new part of the universe it seems that all the prior astronomy textbooks have to be thrown out.)

"Strangely enough, the truth of the Bible has not changed in the last 2,000 years, and I am very confident that Biblical truth will still be 'truth' 2000 years from now. And God and I are cool with that, too."

Rick Burton, Marietta, Ga.: "As a scientist, I know that evolution is factual and occurs in nature all the time. An example of evolution that we all may be familar with is antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The development of a resistance to antibiotics is in itself part of the evolutionary process. No one can say for sure that man evolved from apes, but as we have a similar genetic makeup, we can assume a close relationship to our fellow primates. Thus, this is the basis for our teaching of evoluation in the science curriculum."

"What really bothers me is that some ignorant self-righteous indivduals/groups demand that creationism, a concept describe in a book written by stone age men who thought the earth was flat and had no concept of science, be given credibility without any scientific facts to substantiate it. While I believe there may be a higher power in our incredible universe, I do not believe in an invisible/imaginary friend who looks over us and demands blind obedience from us. This type of blind faith and ignorance leads to the evils related to religion we see in the world today. In other words, religion is about faith while science is about fact, thus religion does not belong in our education system."

J. Mayfield, Houston: "Being a former scientist myself (chemistry and anthropology), it is amazing that some of your readers purport Darwinism as fact. Even he didn't do that. Not only is the idea of creationism not so far-fetched, as many of your readers believe. Intelligent design is a fundamental facet of life. How else do you explain the properties of water being so fundamentally different from other liquids? Unfortunately for most of your readers, they prove the validity of the old adage, 'You can't see the forest for the trees.'"

Everett Stoub, pastor and physicist: "At least I used to be a physicist — I have an earned Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1977, and worked as a leading research scientist in the commercial side of nuclear medicine for over 20 years through 1996. I have a keen interest in astrophysics and astronomy.

"I earned my M.Div. in 1989 with a thesis that modern self-described 'Creation Science' is a barrier to evangelism, and an example of really bad science. I respect Dr. Hugh Ross, a professional astrophysicist now leading 'Reasons to Believe.' I am pastor of a church I founded in 1998. Surprise: Not everyone in my own church agrees with me in matters of origins. I embrace the apparent ages of the universe at 13.7 billion years, of Earth at 4.8 billion years, etc. Obviously I find little to no problem in dealing with accepting the inerrancy of the Bible and the importance of observational deductions of science. Interpretations of both can reflect the bias of the analyst, whether exegetical or scientific. ...

"I find too much of the rhetoric between proponents of science and of religion to fail the 'smell' test: too many logical fallacies, straw men too distorted to be useful, and too much over interpretation, as if any 'I don't know' admissions are far too costly too tolerate in debate. This is 'stinking thinking,' to quote an authority on addictive thought. Perhaps leaders should be selected by a 'humility' index instead of opinion polls."

The symposium will continue on Tuesday with some of the common claims made on each side of the debate, and on Wednesday we'll provide links to readers' recommended resources on science and religion.

Dec. 20, 2004 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Science News: Dog diversity sparks new evolution theory
Slate: What are genetic engineers really afraid of?
L.A. Times (reg. req.): The age of smart drugs is dawning
Discovery.com: Are all stalactites shaped the same?

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.

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