Stacy A. Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She teaches chemistry and physics for Kolbe Academy online homeschool program. She teaches “Reading Science in the Light of Faith” at Holy Apostles College & Seminary and “Catholic Theology of Science” at Seton Hall University. She is author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki. Her new book is Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Ave Maria Press). Her website can be found here.
The Telegraph recently reported something sensational. “Bright flash of light marks incredible moment life begins when sperm meets egg.” The article stated, “Human life begins in a bright flash of light … tiny sparks erupt from the egg at the exact moment of conception.” Pro-life and Christian sites obviously took notice, and their authors repeated variations of the Telegraph’s claim.
Live Action added: “…a new scientific breakthrough might go a long way towards changing hearts and minds: scientists have been able to capture the moment life begins, with a bright flash of light as a new life is conceived.”
Life News continued: “Scientists … witnessed for the first time what happens at the moment when a new human life begins – a burst of zinc fireworks.”
Life Site went large: “God’s active act of creation, as described in Genesis 1, begins with those familiar words ‘Let there be light,’… At the moment that you, I and everyone else who has ever lived were conceived, the microscopic equivalent of ‘fireworks’ went off. A kind of mini ‘Big Bang.’”
Catholic Online went further: “Spark of life: Scientists discover moment souls enter eggs at the time of conception.” The author claimed that this is what the faithful recognize as the “moment when God allows a miracle to occur,” and called the science proof of Catholic teaching. “Now, with the discovery of the spark of life, science just may have proven the Church has been right all along.”
These are exaggerations. At conception, there is no flash of light, no burst of fireworks, no sparks flying, no fiat lux, no scientific proof of ensoulment, no vindication of doctrine by this research. There is a misunderstanding.
The actual paper is titled “The zinc spark is an inorganic signature of human egg activation” (Duncan, F. E. et al. Sci. Rep. 6, 24737), published by Professors Teresa K. Woodruff’s and Thomas V. O’Halloran’s research groups at Northwestern University in Chicago. The “flash of light” only refers to the “inorganic signature” of the “zinc spark” detected with fluorescence microscopy in the laboratory—an analytical technique. Calcium levels rise in the egg when a sperm enters it. These high calcium levels cause zinc to be released outside the egg. Researchers wanted to see the zinc, so they simulated fertilization in the lab and put the eggs in a solution containing a fluorescent tag (FluoZin™-3). When the zinc is released, it is chemically labeled because this tag bonds to it. The tag (also called a fluorophore) can be illuminated with light of one color, and it emits light of a different, specific color. That “fluorescence” can be detected under a suitable microscope, thus revealing the zinc.
Think of the chemical tag like this: You know how when you were a kid, adults told you that if you pee’d in the swimming pool, everyone would know because there was a dye that would color the water purple all around you to indicate the pee molecules? You did not think you actually expelled purple urine, but you understood that the dye in the water would detect it. This is the same idea (except there is no such dye in pools that I know of).
“Zinc spark” is science-speak. Scientists conducting these experiments can spend hours, weeks, even years looking intensely at data. If the data is in the form of fluorescence, then researchers can get excited upon seeing the “fireworks” they were hoping to see. Does that mean—to all the rest of us—that sparks of light actually fly out of zygotes inside the mom when a new child is conceived? No.
The clarification is found right in the abstract: “Here we show that zinc fluxes accompany human egg activation. We monitored calcium and zinc dynamics in individual human eggs using selective fluorophores…” The analytical procedure is detailed in the Materials and Methods. The same research group reported this mechanism five years ago in mice eggs. This newest paper reports the ability to detect the zinc release in human eggs. The research teams propose that the “inorganic signature” identifies the healthier fertilized eggs during in vitro fertilization (IVF) so the good ones can be selected for implantation over the others, which in my opinion means no pro-life advocate should have been promoting this research in the first place.
Northwestern’s newscenter is partially at fault for the mix-up. They reported the research as a “stunning explosion of zinc fireworks” when a human egg is “activated” by sperm enzyme, but they also correctly (of course) explained the other details later in the article. It seems the Telegraph’s science writer mistook the opening metaphor as literal, and apparently the writers citing the Telegraph took it from there.
I am addressing those writers, as well as all the people who shared these articles on the internet:
I totally understand that you wrote and shared about the “flash of light” story because you love life. You were excited to “see” what you know to be true—that the moment of conception is awesome. In your zeal for truth, you quite reasonably reported what was reported. But I implore you as Christians to take extra precaution when speaking of science.
Let me sketch a scenario. Suppose there is someone out there, say a young man named Steve who has a tentative and new faith. He wants so desperately to be confident in his faith. Suppose Steve reads the above articles, and his faith is strengthened. Steve thinks, Wait! Oh my gosh! So cool! The Church is right. I see now why they say life begins at conception. Why, God creates us all with a spark of life, a flash of light; scientists even call it fireworks! Hallelujah!
Armed with this pseudo-knowledge, poor Steve gets up the nerve to evangelize. He meets a sassy female atheist abortion supporter online; let us call her Dusty. In his newfound enthusiasm, Steve wants to lead Dusty to Heaven, so he tells her about this miraculous flash of light. Dusty rightly demands he cite his sources. Steve gives her one of the pro-life links above.
And woops, Dusty has taken Chemistry 101 in college and knows what fluorescence is. As Dusty reads the article and finds the scientific paper online, she realizes with a laugh that the Christians got the science wrong. Instead of checking their sources, they jumped right into making a big deal about conception, miracles, and souls, when the researchers made no such declarations. She can hardly hold her tongue.
“Ah, Christians and science—what a conflict! Christians are ignorant of science and blinded by their dogma. They can’t even get a simple metaphor. Do you realize this research only further supports my claim that life, even human life, is nothing but a biological machine made up of clumps of cells? It’s just zinc, not some miraculous firework show. What’s next? Sacraments for the immortal souls of mice? What a bunch of gullible buffoons!”
“I…I didn’t know,” Steve says.
“Look, Steve, you cannot trust these sources. They have an agenda. They don’t even really believe what they say. Why do you think they make such desperate claims any time science seems to give a nod to their doctrines?”
Steve has no answer.
Dusty feels obliged to set him straight. She shows him the correct information in the real scientific paper, and explains that it is nothing more than a stain used to detect a biochemical process, one of many processes, during the fertilization of eggs. Steve sees that she is right. He is utterly deflated and mistrustful of his sources, so embarrassed that he will not even reach out to Christians for support. What is more, Dusty confirms her suspicion that Christians do not understand science (Katie Couric is her hero) and congratulates herself for helping the sad fool. All in a day’s work.
I guarantee you such scenarios play out. The thing is: the public hears from the Dustys. We do not hear from the Steves. And the faith and science conflict myth perpetuates. To any Christian, please take this advice when communicating about scientific research:
Find and read the actual paper written by the scientists who did the work.
Never trust a popular science source completely. Too often, they are after the “wow” factor. If your goal is to educate, inform, and inspire, then do not write, talk, or share on social media about science without making darn sure you understand the science. If you need to ask for help, do it. Ask me if you want to. I will try to help you.
As for conception, be confident. We need no fireworks to prove that life begins at conception. It is simply sound reasoning. “Conception” means to first come into existence, and it is a beautiful word—a word that unites faith and science.
Scientifically fertilization is taken as the beginning of any new organism that reproduces this way. No, we do not know all the molecular details of human fertilization. Honestly, we do not need to know, for that knowledge will at some point require the destruction of human lives as test subjects. It is enough to recognize life once it has occurred, like Mary did—the real fiat. Faith tells us that if there is a human body, there is a human soul. Science and reason tell us that a healthy human zygote is a living human organism. Faith and reason! That is us.
If you want to be amazed at science, open a high school level chemistry or biology textbook and read carefully—through the eyes of faith—about meiosis, fertilization, fluorescence, the periodic table and atomic models, zinc, calcium, all of it, just the basics. It will blow your mind. That is the handiwork of God. I would love to see more pro-life articles teaching others about the biochemical events involved in the processes of life. Is that information boring? It does not have to be, but yes, it takes more work. I have much more to say about that later.
For now, I get it: “zinc is released” as an “inorganic signature” does not sound as share-worthy as “fireworks occur at moment of conception” when a “human soul enters an egg.” But you have to ask yourself in this age of the internet: Do I want to be snagged by shiny click-bait? Or do I want to be illuminated and awed by the truth?