Yet another study says the oil IS broken down

I admit that I have no idea what is going on with the oil in the gulf.  The latest scientific findings keep changing:

A week after a high-profile paper suggested that the vast Deepwater Horizon oil plume could linger for months, another study claims bacteria are breaking the oil down quickly, and that the plume is likely gone.

The conflict between the results are striking. Other researchers warn that there’s just too little data to draw any conclusions. But the new findings are at least encouraging.

“We saw the same plume they did,” said Terry Hazen, an ecologist and oil spill specialist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, whose research is funded in part by BP. “We found that very large proportions of genes from water in the plume have the ability to produce enzymes that break down the oil.”

As with last week’s study, Hazen’s involved samples taken from the deep-sea oil plume that in late June was 22 miles long, one mile wide and 650 feet thick, and was published in Science.

The previous study, led by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, found few signs microbial activity around the oil. From those measurements, it seemed that months would pass before bugs broke down the oil.

The WHOI team didn’t look directly at bacteria in the water, but used oxygen depletion — caused by bugs multiplying and going into metabolic overdrive while eating — as a sign of their activity.

By contrast, Hazen’s team extracted microbial DNA from plume water samples, sequenced the genes and identified their functions. Many of the genes produce enzymes that break down some of the compounds in crude oil.

The researchers also identified a previously-unknown strain of ostensibly oil-gobbling Oceanospirillum that doesn’t consume oxygen. Its activity would have gone unnoticed by the WHOI team.

“That particular species becomes dominant in the plume. It out competes some of the other bacteria that are normally present. It can break down the oil quite well,” said Hazen, who noted that the Gulf’s deep-sea microbes have evolved to handle crude oil that seeps naturally from the seafloor.

When Hazen’s team put oil samples in a laboratory setup designed to mimic Gulf conditions, it had a half-life of between one and six days. And according to Hazen, the researchers have found no sign of the plume in the last three weeks, suggesting its breakdown.

via Oil-Gobbling Bug Raises Gulf Hopes … for Now | Reuters.

This study has its critics too.  But their bottom line is that we just don’t know.

Obama’s stem cell policy overturned

President Obama’s stem cell policy allows human embryos to be destroyed so their stem cells can be “harvested.”  But a federal court has overturned that policy:

A U.S. district court issued a preliminary injunction on Monday stopping federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, in a slap to the Obama administration’s new guidelines on the sensitive issue.

The court ruled in favor of a suit filed in June by researchers who said human embryonic stem cell research involved the destruction of human embryos.

Judge Royce Lamberth granted the injunction after finding the lawsuit would likely succeed because the guidelines violated law banning the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos.

“(Embryonic stem cell) research is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed,” Lamberth wrote in a 15-page ruling. The Obama administration could appeal his decision or try to rewrite the guidelines to comply with U.S. law.

The suit against the National Institutes of Health, backed by some Christian groups opposed to embryo research, argued the NIH policy violated U.S. law and took funds from researchers seeking to work with adult stem cells.

via U.S. court rules against Obama’s stem cell policy | Reuters.

Old people are both wise and happy

Empirical research is finding evidence that old people are not only wiser than younger people  (a traditional belief) but also that they are happier too (which may seem counterintuitive):

Contrary to largely gloomy cultural perceptions, growing old brings some benefits, notably emotional and cognitive stability. Laura Carstensen, a Stanford social psychologist, calls this the “well-being paradox.” Although adults older than 65 face challenges to body and brain, the 70s and 80s also bring an abundance of social and emotional knowledge, qualities scientists are beginning to define as wisdom. As Carstensen and another social psychologist, Fredda Blanchard-Fields of the Georgia Institute of Technology, have shown, adults gain a toolbox of social and emotional instincts as they age. According to Blanchard-Fields, seniors acquire a feel, an enhanced sense of knowing right from wrong, and therefore a way to make sound life decisions.

That may help explain the finding that old age correlates with happiness. A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found a U-shaped relationship between happiness and age: Adults were happiest in youth and again in their 70s and early 80s, and least happy in middle age. A 2007 University of Chicago study similarly concluded that rates of happiness — “the degree to which a person evaluates the overall quality of his present life positively” — crept upward from age 65 to 85 and beyond, in both sexes.

via Researchers find that wisdom and happiness increase as people grow older.

Read the rest of the article for the details and the evidence that points to these conclusions.  But how can that be?  What about the breakdown of the body, the loss of faculties, the facing of death?  And yet, even as I grow closer to that stage, I can see it.

How atheists are like Protestants

An anthropologist, Alex Golub, beginning with descriptions of the atheists’ new unbaptism rite (which involves a hair dryer), tosses off this delicious line:

One side believes it possesses an infallible book written by an omnipotent author with a huge beard with completely explains the dynamics all living things on earth. The other side believes in the literal truth of the bible.

via Bible/Darwin: Here Comes The Hair Dryers | Savage Minds.

Here is some more:

The genius of the hair-dryer ritual is that it demonstrates so clearly that what we actually have here is a case of what Simon Harrison calls ‘mimetic conflict’ — two groups competing to occupy a single identity. The opposition is not one of Christian versus non-Christian, but rather a conflict between two different permutations of protestant culture.

Consider: one side believes it possesses an infallible book written by an omnipotent author with a huge beard with completely explains the dynamics all living things on earth. The other side believes in the literal truth of the bible. One side believes it will go to heaven, the other advocates a space program to achieve “Mars in our time” as a mission to direct and shape human aspiration. Atheist parodic appropriation of Christian identity even comes with (according to the article) a ritual officiant who “doned a monk’s robe and said a few mock-Latin phrases” before the drying began — and of course there is nothing more protestant than damning your opponent for their popery.

This de-baptism makes clear in a single ritual what is at the heart of much of this debate: that within American culture, science and religion are two different things but two versions of the same thing, both of which rely in shared, rather intellectualist understandings of human nature and the role of the bible/Darwin: humans attempt to ‘find meaning in the universe’, explain natural phenomenon, and live regenerated lives free of the corrupting influence of earlier, false doctrine. These are notions that are, in general, not shared by members of other religions.

HT:  Joe Carter

One small step for a man

July 20 was the 41st anniversary of a human being landing on the moon.  The tiny spacecraft was guided by computers with far less capability than the one you are using to read this blog.  “One small step for a man,” said Neil Armstrong, “one giant leap for mankind.”   Was it really?  Watch the video of that dramatic 1969 telecast.  (If it isn’t appearing in your browser, click “comments.”)

Science and moral decisions

There is a new morning after pill that prevents a fertilized embryo from attaching to the mother’s womb, an abortifacient that pro-deathers want made available over-the-counter.   What I’d like to concentrate on, though, is this reporter’s framing of the issue.  Consider especially this last sentence:

A French drug company is seeking to offer American women something their European counterparts already have: a pill that works long after “the morning after.”

The drug, dubbed ella, would be sold as a contraceptive — one that could prevent pregnancy for as many as five days after unprotected sex. But the new drug is a close chemical relative of the abortion pill RU-486, raising the possibility that it could also induce abortion by making the womb inhospitable for an embryo.

The controversy sparked by that ambiguity promises to overshadow the work of a federal panel that will convene next week to consider endorsing the drug. The last time the Food and Drug Administration vetted an emergency contraceptive — Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill — the decision was mired in debate over such fundamental questions as when life begins and the distinction between preventing and terminating a pregnancy. Ella is raising many of those same politically charged questions — but more sharply, testing the Obama administration’s pledge to keep ideology from influencing scientific decisions.

via New ‘morning-after’ pill, ella, raises debate over similarity to abortion drug.

That last sentence betrays staggering  ignorance about both science and morality.  Science can tell us how the chemical works.  But it can’t tell us whether or not to sell it over the counter.   With any drug it studies, the  FDA has to make a decision about whether it “should” be made available.  This is never just a scientific matter.  A drug might prove harmful or ineffective.  Therefore it “should” not be sold, on the moral principle that we should not harm or defraud other people.   Anytime we are in the realm of “should,” we are in the realm of ethics.  “Keeping ideology from influencing scientific decisions” is a dishonest formulation, not to mention in practice an exercise in imposing pro-death ideology in virtually every case.  A “decision” involves the will, and the will, of its very nature,  will tend to engage the moral realm.


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