Liar, lunatic, lord, or other L-words

I was mulling over on my drive to work the other day, the C S Lewis trilemma about Jesus’ divinity. Yes, that’s the kind of thing I think about while in transit, when the classic rock station isn’t holding my interest. It struck me that when people offer a limited set of options as though they are the only options, they almost always exclude options that are devastating to their general argument, and this was probably the case here as well. This is a “false dilemma” or “excluded middle” fallacy. Lewis offers exactly three options as though they are the only ones — that Jesus either intentionally lied about being God, was a lunatic and thought he was God but wasn’t, or was actually God.

Lewis’ argument runs that anyone claiming to be Lord either is, is mad, or is lying; and that since these latter two options are logically incompatible with the idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher, and that it is generally accepted that he was, then Jesus must have been Lord. The thought emerged fully formed in my mind: what if Jesus didn’t exist at all, and was pure legend? Or if he existed, much like Jason of the Argonauts, but his stories had accumulated millenia of apocryphal cruft? The option had an L-word right in the name — “legend” — so I was naturally quite pleased with myself and my big pulsing brain.
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Liar, lunatic, lord, or other L-words

Trilobite On the Radio

Everyone’s favourite Canuckistanian science artist is due to be on Atheists Talk Radio tomorrow morning, same place and time that Stephanie interviewed me about the recent astrology non-debate. The blurb from their site:

The religious despair for atheists that with nothing but science and rationality for inspiration, we can’t appreciate the beauty of art, music, poetry, prose nor the weaving of a rainbow.  By unweaving a rainbow, we are told that we miss out on the deepar beauty that underlies the “mystery of being.”  Don’t try to tell that to my guests on this show.  They will look at you, baffled, because they both draw inspiration for their art from the wonders of science.  Lynn Fellman is a frequent guest on the show, interviewing scientists she has met through the course of her art career.  She rarely gets the chance to talk about her own specialties in art and so I asked her to be an interviewee.  I also asked one of my friends I haven’t met, but only know through internet interactions, Glendon Mellow of Toronto, Canada.  Glendon digs the artistic inspiration of fossils and trilobites.
Both artists are highly inventive in the ways thet they draw science into their art and I will mostly be listening in to the conversation as Glendon and Lynn talk about atheism, science and art.
Lynn Fellman is an artist bridging science and humanities through art. Working in multiple media to make complex concepts accessible, she also speaks and writes about the intersection of art and science; most recently at the “Personal Genomes” meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Lab. See examples of her work at:
“Unfolding the Natural History and Science of Life” commission from BioBusiness Alliance
Fellman’s current art exhibit “Deep Ancestry Portraits of a Diverse Community”
Glendon Mellow is a freelance artist living and working in Toronto, Ontario.  His work has been chosen for magazine covers and the book cover for The Open Laboratory 2008. Glendon’s websites:
Twitter:  @flyingtrilobite (half my traffic comes from Twitter these days)
Also can find my fan page on Facebook by searching for Flying Trilobite.
Glendon’s big project was to gather the RSS feeds of science artists in one place, and he maintains it at ScienceBlogging.com
He did the artwork for Dan Rhoads’  blog Migrations. Dan is an atheist living in Cyprus.

Be sure to check it out — the live stream is right here, though they seem to expect you’re a US resident. I just punch in 55454, which is a Minneapolis area code, and that works.

Trilobite On the Radio

The Center of All Things

The Thinking Atheist synthesizes pretty much exactly why humans invented religion, then came to realize our true role in this cosmic ballet, in this elegantly professional video.

I wish I had the kind of talent it takes to produce such a slick piece. I strongly feel that for all my words, videos work far better at what I’m trying to achieve in terms of outreach, and in terms of explanation of this universe’s subtle intricacies.

The Center of All Things

It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it

NASA is due to announce today that they have discovered a form of bacteria living in the arsenic-rich Mono Lake in California. This is slightly old news (e.g. from 2008) mind you.

The bacteria is incredibly novel though — it is apparently capable of thriving by metabolizing arsenate. This is completely unlike any other life form known on the planet. We don’t even yet know if we’re related, in fact. Turns out we’re distant cousins!

Duquesne-based scientist John F.Stolz figured out that the bacteria were able to do this because they contain certain enzymes, or proteins, that act like a key, allowing the chemical reaction to occur.

Bacteria that generate energy by metabolising (reducing) arsenate are already known. But Ronald Oremland and colleagues at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, were puzzled by the great range of arsenic-eating bacteria. If they evolved recently they must have passed the ability to metabolise arsenic to each other by lateral gene transfer, he says.

Alternatively, arsenic metabolism could have evolved much earlier, giving plenty of time for bacteria to diversify. The newly discovered bacteria from oxygen-free hot springs in Mono Lake, California, support this interpretation. It’s likely that the newly-discovered arsenite photosynthesis, which produces arsenates, opened up niches for these arsenate reducing microbes, the researchers suggest.

This form of life could have derived from a separate biogenesis event. It could have evolved at a very early stage in our planetary biology. Or it could have evolved relatively recently. Regardless of how these bacteria managed to come across this enzymatic ability to eat poison, it ultimately means we can greatly expand the window in which we should be searching for extraterrestrial life — because some life needs only arsenic and sunlight to thrive.

Original study here, though it’s behind a paywall.

Edit: Apparently the novelty is the point of the announcement, not so much the “newly discovered” part. Any evidence that this is a separate biogenesis event will impact heavily the search for extraterrestrial life, insofar as it would prove that abiogenesis can occur in a far vaster range of circumstances than the ones that occurred on our planet. According to the BBC:

Until now, the idea has been that life on Earth must be composed of at least the six elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus – no example had ever been found that violates this golden rule of biochemistry.

[…]

One idea to shore up these theories is to begin to look for examples of life here on Earth that break the “golden rules” of biochemistry – in effect, finding life that evolved separately from our own lineage.

John Elliott, a leader of the UK’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence, explained how such evidence on Earth could be suggestive about life elsewhere.

“If we can find a ‘second genesis’ on our planet, obviously separate from our own evolution, you could then extrapolate that life can generate multiple times – that it’s not a one-off phenomenon,” he told BBC News.

“And that’s incredible evidence for it happening on other planets.

Edit 2: These bacteria are not from a separate abiogenesis event, sadly. Doesn’t make them any less cool, though. Nor does it mean abiogenesis can’t happen in these circumstances, only that it didn’t happen in Mono Lake.

It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it