By the Numbers: Class Project is FascinatingMay. 1, 2012
When an invitation came across the e-mail message system to those of us on staff at Lubbock Christian University last week from Joe Marshall I was, at first, hesitant to even read it. Mr. Marshall, you see, is an Instructor of Business in the Business Administration Department and that in and of itself would usually make reading the aforementioned e-mail not something I would deem urgent. Many times those are sent campus-wide, but are actually intended for a certain constituency.
That being said I went on to read the e-mail and found out that Mr. Marshall's class, IST 1350 - Programming Logic - had conducted a class project that sounded, even to someone as non-scientific, non-mathematical and non-computer literate as myself, intriguing.
"I was fascinated by an article from Al Cornell that pointed out the improbability of 'accidentally creating' the proteins necessary for life," said Marshall when reflecting on how the idea for the project came about. "The more I thought about it, the more I considered how it might be modeled. It would involve many of the fundamentals taught in the Programming Logic course - looping, string manipulation, random number generation, etc. From there, I'm afraid it morphed into an autocratic decision on my part, 'This is what we're going to do, class.'"
As this reporter sat in on the class session, joined by such LCU luminaries as Dr. Rod Blackwood (University Provost), Dr Steve German (Dean, B. Ward Lane College of Professional Studies) and Mr. Robert Smith (Director, Technology Services), it became obvious that Mr. Marshall and the members of his class were excited to be able to share the findings of their project with those of us in attendance.
"If there was any apprehension I didn't hear about it," said Marshall of the students and their interest in the project. "The term 'computer models' is kicked around a lot and I think the students were excited about getting some firsthand exposure to modeling."
The project itself, conceptually, was to model the accidental construction of protein chains as described in the article written by Al Cornell that Mr. Marshall previously alluded to. Each student was assigned different pieces and they were placed on teams to assemble their pieces. The biggest question presented in Cornell's article was " ... what are the chances of accidentally producing just the ingredients of life?" Cornell considers the probabilities of evolution producing just the proteins of the simplest known free-living organism (Does God Exist; Nov./Dec. 2009, www.doesgodexist.com), mycoplasma genitalium, which has 470 proteins. These 470 proteins are made up of 347 amino acids, on average, that are intricately strung together. There are 20 different amino acids to choose from to assemble each particular protein chain. To construct a specific protein we must assemble the amino acids in a precise sequence. The chance of accidentally choosing the right amino acid to attach next is one out of 20. To assemble a series of 347 amino acids in the protein chain is approximately equal to one chance in 10451 and this probability only considers producing ONE protein.
Scientists don't yet know how many of the 470 proteins are absolutely necessary for mycoplasma genitalium's existence. If all 470 are required the chance of accidentally assembling each particular chain is one in 20,163,090 - astronomical to those of us that are purely laypersons.
These numbers are beyond our imagination. Remember, Cornell is only considering the simplest free-living organism. He has NOT considered ingredients other than the proteins; NOT considered the assembly equipment for putting the parts together; NOT considered producing a mechanism to pass on the blueprints and assembly system to mycoplasma genitalium's offspring. Doesn't the complexity of life point to intelligence way beyond our imagination?
As stated earlier, my expertise in the fields of science, math and computer knowledge, both individually and collectively, is very limited. Given that somewhat benign intellect for such a study I can tell you how impressive it was to see how this revelation, based on numbers, seemingly 'excited' the entire class. The study not only affirmed the belief that God and his plans for us are greater than we can imagine, but it also offered a convincing argument to those that have chosen to believe other wise.
While this project was certainly beneficial from a standpoint of giving the students in Joe Marshall's class an in-depth and intricate body of work to be proud of, the deeper meaning and result probably has even more significance.
"If this project changed the perceptions of any of my classmates, I would not know," said IST 1350 student, Alan Runkles. "But, it seems to me that it would give people who don't share in Christian beliefs something to think about. The most revealing aspect of our findings is that it made me realize how special we are to be here on Earth living life, and I thank God for every day he gives us."
And, no one can sum up the entire project better than Mr. Marshall himself.
"I don't ask every student if they consider themselves believers or doubters," he says. "But, after some of my 'faith statements' in class during the semester, body language and verbal comments give me a pretty good idea of how the students are leaning. After the class saw the first demonstration of the model, I was shocked at the response from all the students, but some in particular. It was one of those rare moments for a teacher!"
When taking all the science, math and computer lessons to be learned out of the equation, there is no question as to what the most revealing aspect of this project ultimately was and, again, Mr. Marshall explains it best.
"Since this was all about science, math and computers, asking to take that aspect out of the equation is tough," Marshall explained. "In a nutshell, simple accidents are easy to create, but wanting the slightest bit of complexity takes you into God’s territory. You don't have to be stupid to be a Christian."
Well played, Joe Marshall and students ... well played!