Friday, March 8, 2013

Stem Cell Research, Mapping Mercury, and Alpha Centauri's Cool Layer

In a way, it's nice to know that clueless journalism isn't limited to coverage of 'Catholic' stories:

(from Non Sequitur, Wiley Miller (March 5, 2013), used w/o permission)

On the other hand, it would be even nicer if more folks in the news industry and elsewhere started learning about science and religion: preferably from something other than interviews of movie stars and the sort of literature found in checkout lines.

I wrote about freedom, tolerance, and what's happening at the Vatican earlier today. This post focuses on science, starting with some exciting news about stem cells.
  1. "The Healing Cell"
  2. Mercury Map - Hot
  3. Alpha Centauri - Cool

Life, Decisions, and Research

The Catholic Church supports some stem cell research: and says that other research is wrong. Supporting research that does not kill people, and criticizing lethal experiments, isn't an arbitrary distinction. Catholics see human beings as people, all human beings. We're supposed to, anyway.

This list isn't even close to being all the Church has to say about human life, but it's a start:
  • Human life is sacred
    (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2258)
  • Humans are
    • A special sort of animal
      • Endowed with reason
      • Capable of
        • Understanding
        • Discernment
      (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1951)
    • People
      • Rational and therefore like God
        • Made in the image and likeness of God
        (Catechism, 355, 1700-1706)
      • Who
        • Have free will
        • Can
          • Make decisions
          • Control our actions
        (Catechism, 1730)
      (Catechism, 356-357)
  • Killing an innocent person is wrong
    (Catechism, 2259-2262, 2268-2269)

1. "The Healing Cell"

"New book shows adult stem cells as medical 'paradigm shift' "
Carl Bunderson, CNA (Catholic News Agency) (March 7, 2013)

"The recent explosion of success in using adult stem cells to treat and cure diseases marks a shift in the medical field by making it unnecessary to use controversial embryonic stem cells, said Dr. Robin Smith.

" 'These cells are impacting many peoples' lives who are treated in a clinical trial, and as they become standard in will become part of modern medicine,' the president of the Stem for Life Foundation told CNA March 6....

"...Smith, along with Monsignor Tomasz Trafny and Max Gomez, is co-author of 'The Healing Cell,' a new book that presents the many ways in which adult stem cell therapies are being used in regenerative medicine.

" 'The Healing Cell' is the fruit of collaboration between the Stem for Life Foundation and the Pontifical Council for Culture. In Nov. 2011, the two organizations held a conference at the Vatican promoting adult stem cell research...."
I've posted about the Vatican's interest in stem cell research before. (April 28, 2010)

What's the Big Deal?

"...Stem cells are incredibly versatile, and can grow just about any other kind of cell. Stem cell treatments cause stem cells to get to an area of the body damaged by trauma or aging, where they can repair or regrow damaged tissue, restoring function...."
(Carl Bunderson, CNA)
I doubt that stem cells will cure the common cold, make teeth whiter and brighter, and help you drop two dress sizes in two days. On the other hand, medical techniques growing out of today's research might be as important as learning that penicillin wasn't just another fungal byproduct.

Stem Cells and a Shady Reputation

Stem cells got a shady reputation, I think, when news coverage gave the impression that the only way to get stem cells was to kill babies and harvest their cells. Since I think that all human beings are people, even helpless ones; and that killing an innocent person isn't right: killing babies wasn't acceptable.

Happily, all human beings have stem cells in our bodies. Removing some from an adult won't hurt the donor, apart from getting pricked by a needle. And 'adult' stem cells apparently work at least as well as the ones pulled from baby carcases.

The Vatican and SCIENCE?!

I don't have to be interested in this wonder-filled universe to be a Catholic. But a lively interest in God's creation doesn't get in the way of my faith, either.

The Catholic Church was getting involved with what 'serious thinkers' were discussing long before we knew about stem cells.

For example, there was a lively debate a bit over seven centuries ago about whether we're standing on the only world, or if there could be others. Predictably, some folks didn't like the newfangled ideas.

Eventually the Church had to remind us that personal preference and Aristotle don't outrank God. Ever since, Catholics haven't been allowed to say there can't be other worlds. And that's another topic. (January 29, 2012)

In 1603, the Accademia dei Lincei was the first academy in the world that studied science: and nothing else. That academy didn't last long, but Pope Pius IX re-founded it as the Pontifical Academy of the New Lynxes in 1847. Pope Pius XI restarted it in 1936, and changed the name to what we've got now.

And that's yet another topic:

Honest Research and God

The Church gets along fine with honest research. I've been over this before:
"...the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God..."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

"...The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man's intellect and will."
(Catechism, 341)

"...Science and technology are ordered to man, from whom they take their origin and development; hence they find in the person and in his moral values both evidence of their purpose and awareness of their limits."
(Catechism, 2293)
The down side, if you can call it that, is that the Church also insists that people pay attention to ethics: even if they're important people like doctors and scientists.

Ethics: Pesky Things, But Important

Having ethical standards emphatically does not mean being against helping people. Organ transplants, for example, are a good idea. But the Church says we're not supposed to kill one person to get parts for another. (Catechism, 2296)

As a Catholic, I'm expected to take care of my health: reasonable care. Science and technology are fine tools, but I'm not allowed to see 'being scientific' as an excuse for unethical behavior. As I've said before, ethics are pesky things; but vital:
"Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good...."
(Catechism, 2288)

"Scientific, medical, or psychological experiments on human individuals or groups can contribute to healing the sick and the advancement of public health."
(Catechism, 2292)

"Basic scientific research, as well as applied research, is a significant expression of man's dominion over creation. Science and technology are precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his integral development for the benefit of all. By themselves however they cannot disclose the meaning of existence and of human progress....

"It is an illusion to claim moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications. ... Science and technology by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria. They must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good, in conformity with the plan and the will of God.

"...Experimentation on human beings does not conform to the dignity of the person if it takes place without the informed consent of the subject or those who legitimately speak for him."
(Catechism, 2293-2295)
I've got a very personal interest in that last bit, about experiments on human beings and informed consent. (February 3, 2009)

2. Mercury Map - Hot

(NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington, via, used w/o permission)
"Scientists use images from NASA's Messenger spacecraft to create these global views of Mercury, the most complete maps ever. The images were released on Feb. 22, 2013...."
(Andrea Gagliarducci, CNA/EWTN News)
"NASA Spacecraft Makes 1st Complete Map of Planet Mercury"
Clara Moskowitz, (March 6, 2013)

" The surface of the planet Mercury has been completely mapped for the first time in history, scientists say.

"The closest planet to the sun hasn't received as much scientific attention as some of its more flashy solar system neighbors, such as Mars, but NASA's Messenger spacecraft is helping to close the gap. The probe has been in orbit around Mercury since March 2011, and its team announced Feb. 28 that the spacecraft had finished mapping the planet's surface...."
I suspect that the new Mercury map won't be the cultural landmark that National Geographic's 1969 Earth's Moon Map was.

On the other hand, I think it's worth noting another "first."

3. Alpha Centauri - Cool

(from ESA, via, used w/o permission)
"The atmosphere of the sun has a strange cool spot amid its many layers. The outer atmosphere is super-heated to millions of degrees, while the surface is about 6,000 degrees Celsius. Sandwiched in between is a 4,000-degree C layer. Astronomers have found a similar cool layer in the atmosphere of the nearby star Alpha Centauri A."
"Nearby Star Has Strange Cool Layer Like the Sun" (March 4, 2013)

"Scientists have discovered that the sun and its nearest twin star, Alpha Centauri A, share an odd solar quirk: a puzzling cool layer in their wispy, hot atmospheres.

"The different temperatures of the sun's layers have long intrigued solar scientists. The outer atmosphere, or corona, is millions of degrees hotter than the sun's surface, or photosphere, where temperatures are about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,537 degrees Celsius)....

"...Now scientists have found a similarly cool layer around Alpha Centauri A using the European Space Agency's Herschel space observatory to look at the nearby star in far-infrared light....

"...Alpha Centauri A ... is almost a twin to the Sun in mass, temperature, chemical composition and age...."
About "almost a twin to the sun," the statement's accurate enough: but we're talking about "almost" on a cosmic scale. I've watched estimates go up and down over the decades. Over the last dozen years or so, our neighbor's estimated age has ranged from about 4,800,000,000 to about 6,000,000,000 years:
  • "Rigel Kentaurus"
    Jim Kaler, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy, University of Illinois (June 4, 1999; rev August 13, 2010)
  • "Alpha Centauri"
    Smoot Group (last updated October 15, 1997)
Lately, astronomers and stellar physicists have had a lot more data to work with, and I think current estimates of 4,500,000,000 and 7,000,000,000 years are probably pretty accurate. By comparison, our own star, and Earth, are about 4,540,000,000 years old. (June 10, 2012)

That's a lot of zeroes. I'd write "billions," but depending on which dialect of English folks use, that number can be a one followed by 12 zeroes or nine zeroes, or 'really big:' and that's yet again another topic.

Alpha Centauri, Temperatures, Big Numbers: So What?

"...'The study of these structures has been limited to the sun until now, but we clearly see the signature of a similar temperature inversion layer at Alpha Centauri A,' study leader René Liseau of the Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden said....

"...Scientists believe the extreme heating of the sun's corona is likely related to the twisting of magnetic field lines that give rise to explosions known as solar flares. Studying Alpha Centauri A could help scientists better understand the atmospheric phenomenon....

"...'Detailed observations of this kind for a variety of stars might help us decipher the origin of such layers and the overall atmospheric heating puzzle,' Liseau said...."
Understanding what goes on in our star's atmosphere is important: increasingly so, as more hardware and people are working above Earth's atmosphere.

Here on the surface, about the worst a big solar flare could do would be to shut down the power grid on a continent or two, and put the GPS system offline. Starting in low Earth orbit: fried circuits and lethal radiation levels make predicting solar weather fairly important.

Having another, similar, star to study should help: a lot. One more thing. Our sun is a variable star, and we've got a lot to learn about its long-term behavior. I put links to some resources, and an infographic about the Alpha Centauri system, under "Background," at the end of this post.

Related posts:
"Alpha Centauri Stars & Planet Explained: Our Nearest Neighbors (Infographic)"
Karl Tate, (October 16, 2012)
(Size reduced to fit this blog's format)

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.