Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Time's Arrows

Picture several scientists at a New Year’s Eve social gathering. They would provoke amusement among the guests by wishing them "Happy Arrow of Time" instead of the more conventional "Happy New Year." The scientific term arrow of time is an expression describing the relentless forward direction of the flow of time, helping us distinguish the past from the future.

Someone may ask if the forward flow of time and our awareness of the distinctions of past and future are worth contemplating, obvious as they seem. Most evident is our ability to remember the past but not the future. This is called the psychological arrow of time.

Two other arrows are less obvious to the non-scientist, but they describe an overlay of necessary conditions in the universe in which we operate. The two conditions are the thermodynamic arrow of time and the cosmological arrow of time.

The thermodynamic arrow of time is related to the second law of thermodynamics, also called the law of entropy. Briefly, this law describes the natural tendency of our universe to move toward a state of increasing disorder (entropy) in which energy is continually being transformed to a less useful state. The direction of this arrow of time is established by the direction in which disorder increases. Check out one of my previous posts on this topic for examples of increasing entropy:

Related to the thermodynamic arrow is the cosmological arrow of time. As the universe expands, time moves forward. In 1998 scientists were amazed to discover the universe’s rate of expansion was not slowing, as had been thought, but was actually accelerating. Suddenly the speculation that the universe would some day stop expanding and perhaps begin contracting under its own gravity was shown to be impossible. There would be no “Big Crunch” and there would be no reversal of the arrow of time!

Our “gut feeling” that time proceeds in a certain direction is connected, then, to our observation that (a) disorder is increasing, and (b) the expansion of the universe is ongoing. Light conversation at the coffee table and a friendly “Happy New Year” certainly has its place to enhance our social health. But more serious discussions involving the arrow of time may help us understand the kind of universe God designed for man’s benefit. Reversal of either the law of entropy or the expanding universe would preclude life on earth. There is an upside to the law
of entropy. The Creator had humanity in mind when He designed this operating system.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

One Time Dimension

To titillate their readers, science fiction writers often use the idea of time travel to the past or future. Examples abound, as popular past TV shows such as The Twilight Zone and movies such as Back to the Future have demonstrated.

Is there any reality in what these writers envision? They imagine time occurring in more than one dimension. But our universe is currently locked into only one dimension of time. Here and now, every effect has a previous cause. In travel to the future, events (effects) would not have to be preceded by a cause in the past. And travel to the past would necessitate a time reversal with causes following their effects instead of preceding them.

The timeline of our universe constantly moves forward. Scientists speak about a forward-moving Arrow of Time. But they also say that nothing in the laws of physics actually forbids a reversal of the direction of time. In our universe, however, this does not occur because God created our cosmos in the beginning to operate in one time dimension. The Arrow of Time moves in only one direction.

Science researchers acknowledge that more than one time dimension could exist. The Triune God, who created our universe transcendently from outside our cosmos, is not limited to one time dimension as we are. We may say, therefore, that human experience in this created cosmos has been purposefully limited by the Creator. For the redeemed in Christ, this limitation will be lifted at the onset of the New Creation described in Revelation 21.

The forward-moving Arrow of Time describes several necessary conditions imposed on our universe which make our physical life possible. It is a topic for a future post.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Time Limits

As each new year approaches we become more contemplative, curious, and sentimental about the subject of time. Greetings cards from friends and family frequently contain expressions of disbelief that time passes so quickly.

Time is also a scriptural and a scientific concept. The Genesis creation account asserts there was a beginning. The beginning refers not only to the creation of space, matter, and energy, but also to the beginning of time itself. The New International Version passages in I Corinthians 2:7, II Timothy 1:9, and Titus 1:2 all reference actions, intentions, and characteristics of God before the beginning of time, or before time began.The New Testament, especially the Book of Revelation, suggests future events with indications that time as we now experience it will end at the onset of the New Creation. Christ, existing before the creation of the universe, is described as the Alpha and Omega, an indication of His eternal nature. Humanity, however, thinks in terms of beginnings and endings within our own frame of created time. Our universe had a beginning, and therefore, a beginning to our time dimension.

Brilliant agnostic scientist Steven Hawking acknowledges the beginning of our time dimension at the Big Bang singularity. He claims we experience life in real time, but his writings and the writings of other thinkers focus more on the concept of “imaginary” time. They claim imaginary time is actually more “real” in the sense that there would be no beginning or end. Their writings wander to esoteric topics like no boundary conditions, sum over histories, and the possibility of tiny, tightly curled extra dimensions.

At least one secular writer, Gevin Giorbran, writing about imaginary time, stated, “But I have found it interesting that Christian friends have told me the bible actually says this is a period when we will find out more and more about God.” Giorbran claimed a blend of his “spiritual and scientific beliefs” as he contemplated these issues. I do not quote Hawking or Giorbran as authoritative on these issues. Their thoughts, however, merit consideration.

Some Christians believe the New Creation may be an extension of the time dimensions and real time experiences in which we are now embedded. In the passage in I Corinthians 2:7-9 which uses the phrase “before time began,” the Apostle Paul acknowledges the inconceivability of these truths to us who live in our present universe: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”

We can be sure God, as the Creator, had a special purpose in mind for this universe. This purpose was not for us to live forever in a universe running down under the Law of Entropy. It is more reasonable, according to scripture, to see our universe as a means of banishing sin and corruption finally and forever.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Descriptive or Explanatory?

Our many recent posts on the electromagnetic spectrum have been long on description, but perhaps short on explanation. We explained some of the physical characteristics of these waves: their electromagnetic nature, their wavelength, their similarity to particles, and their speed. It is more difficult to explain the many different ways in which they affect our environment, including how and why they affect humans. We're tempted to dismiss such questions with "That's just the way it is."

Microwaves offer a good discussion example. These are waves ranging from 0.3 cm up to about 30 cm. It is easy to explain that they are shorter than radio waves, but longer than light. Explaining why many hundreds of different microwave lengths are useful for some purposes, but not others, is more difficult, however. Scientists have figured out how to use microwaves to manage air traffic, observe development and movement of weather systems with Doppler radar, and measure the excess speed of drivers on the highway. Discovering how these systems work is challenging but rewarding for the non-scientist.

For several decades. we have heated our foods quickly in microwave ovens. Microwaves heat the water molecules in beverages or the water molecules in foods such as vegetables and meat by causing the molecules to vibrate rapidly. The faster the speed of vibrating molecules in a substance, the warmer it becomes. Cell phones send information by microwaves to nearby towers. The information may be briefly converted to electrical impulses and finally to audible sound waves from the hand-held receiver, all in a fraction of a second.

Visible light, which enables us to image our environment in detail with trillions of "data points" each millisecond our eyes are open, provokes a different type of "how" or "why" question: Why does a wavelength of 430 trillion hertz look red, while very slightly shorter wavelengths look orange or yellow? Scientists explain "what" happens better than they explain the subjective human experience of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or violet, depending on exceedingly slight variation in the light's wavelength. The subjective human enjoyment of color vision cannot be reduced to an easy physical explanation.

Our God has produced a material universe and an operating system which enables us to enjoy it. Our enjoyment is expanded when we grasp even a few of its operating principles. Our awe and wonder, in turn, become part of the enjoyment. As we make a study of how our universe operates and how we have expanded our knowledge to make these operations serve our needs, it becomes more difficult to deny the work of God, the Intelligent Designer.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Light Talk

In my childhood days I recall the anxious voice of my mother announcing to the family that a “long distance” call from an out-of-state relative had arrived. The ensuing conversation was often tense and terse, with no time for light banter. The three-minute talking time limit approached quickly; the basics of the call’s purpose had to be handled quickly, because money for this calling luxury was in short supply.

Even after factoring in cost of living increases in past decades, long-distance calling rates were many multiples of today’s rates because the copper cable medium carrying our call was expensive and limited in its capacity. In the 1930s or 1940s there was no phoning luxury as inexpensive as today’s “unlimited long distance calling.”

School children and young adults may have difficulty achieving a sense of wonder at the applications of modern technology. Recent posts on the electromagnetic spectrum--how it works and how its energy is transmitted--may be far less interesting than contemporary society’s focus on consumerism. Instead of curiosity about how things work, today’s consumers are more focused on how new products work for them, focusing on the marketing claims of the blizzard of new products and how to acquire them.

We must be careful not to be diverted from the worship-enhancing potential of becoming well-informed about the physical laws which govern the activities of our everyday life and in turn, the Creator who authored those laws. In previous posts we have mentioned the empowerment experienced by scientists since the onset of the scientific revolution. Rather than giving glory to the Creator, many began to bask in their own discovery achievements rather than giving glory to the lawgiver.

One such discovery achievement is the fiber optics technology perfected in the past three decades. It is likely that your phone conversations, cable television, and internet are transmitted mostly by ordinary light traveling through a tiny glass fiber core surrounded by cladding and protected by a buffer coating. Laser light in the infrared EMS light band is sent through the fiber. Traveling at 300,000 km/sec (7 ½ times around the world in one second), the light signal experiences what is termed “total internal reflection,” bouncing off the cladding of the cable many times on its way but remaining within it.

Laser light pulses within the hair-diameter fiber carry digital information--billions of bits per second. Receiving station technology converts the bits to intelligible sound, an image, or other information. The next time you speak on the phone, be aware that as many as 50,000 other conversations may be transmitted by your cable simultaneously. These conversations are literally “light talk.” Samuel F. B. Morse’s first telegraph message, sent between Washington, D. C. and Baltimore in 1844, read, “What Hath God Wrought?” This question now has a vastly expanded significance.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Subduing the Spectrum

Many people at or beyond retirement age fondly remember the excitement of mailing in 25 cents and a cereal box top, then waiting anxiously for the promised item to arrive by return mail. My personal favorite was the “Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring” from 1947, just two years after Hiroshima. This remarkable promotion came with instructions as follows: “Twist tail fin--slide it off…Go into dark room and wait until your eyes are accustomed to darkness. Look into lens—and SOCKO! You’ll see brilliant stabs of flashing light caused by released energy of atoms split to smithereens inside atom chamber.”

This hyped promise was actually quite accurate--more so than the disappointing pirate treasure finder’s ring I ordered later. The “stabs of flashing light” were caused by alpha particles, bundles of two protons with two neutrons, shooting out from the nuclei of a tiny quantity of radioactive isotope polonium 210 embedded inside the ring. When the particles struck a zinc sulfide screen, peering into the ring we could see flashes of light. I learned to appreciate the remarkable science of this toy as an adult. The polonium atoms randomly disintegrated on their own, forming lead and helium. The small amounts of radioactive elements and isotopes in our environment behave in a similar way. Using this scientific knowledge for beneficial purposes is a way to “subdue the earth,” God’s directive to man in Genesis 1:28.

The story of radioactive materials is somewhat more complicated. Radioactive elements emit one or more types of ionizing radiation: the previously mentioned alpha particles, beta particles (electrons), and gamma rays--extremely high energy electromagnetic radiation. Gamma radiation has the shortest wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum. In just over 100 years, scientists have discovered how to harness this radiation for man’s benefit.

The “ionizing” radiation of alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, and X-rays has become useful in treating disease and making food safer. Ionizing radiation breaks down the DNA molecule in cancer cells, damaging them fatally. Normal, healthy cells may avoid such damage when doses of radiation are correctly meted out to cancer victims. Radioactive elements such as cobalt 60 can kill microbes in food, retarding spoilage and increasing shelf life. Irradiated foods are gaining acceptance because the process is safe, leaving no residual radiation.

Near the end of the 19th century, little was known about how to use the many types of electromagnetic energy for the benefit of man. Since then we have experienced a flood of discoveries. Without this knowledge, life as we now know it would be impossible. God’s instructions to man in Genesis 1:28 are finally finding fulfillment, thousands of year after He gave them.

The Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring was completely harmless. Polonium 210 emitted virtually no gamma radiation or beta particles as do many radioactive elements. Alpha particles do not even pass through a sheet of paper, much less the casing of the Lone Ranger ring. The cost of that relic was only fifteen cents plus one box top and the price of a postage stamp--three cents at that time. What a small price to pay for piquing my interest in the wonders of how God’s created world works. In 1947, the best was yet to come.

Friday, November 27, 2009

X-rays and Truth

One distant memory of my childhood involves visits to the shoe store. Many such establishments had shoe-fitting fluoroscopes. These machines sent X-rays through shoe, flesh, and bone. Live images were transmitted to a fluorescent screen and we were able to see the digits of our toes wiggling. Purportedly, these fascinating machines helped the shoe salesman achieve a proper fit for the wearer. I’ll confess to being more highly interested in the novelty of seeing the internal structure of my feet--live, and in motion. These machines no doubt helped sell footwear, but the same purpose could have been achieved with simple measurements.

X-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895. My paternal grandparents were teenagers; my maternal grandparents were already busy raising their first eight children on the Great Plains of Oklahoma. X-rays were so named because so much was unknown about them. Knowledge of electromagnetic radiation--its potential and its hazards--was in its earliest stages. Medical personnel were quick to apply the technology to aid in discovering internally embedded objects, reveal fractures, and treat injured soldiers on the battlefield. It was soon discovered that X-rays also had downside potential.

The shortest-wave, highest frequency areas of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as X-rays, also have the highest energy. This means they are able to penetrate a wide variety of bodies. X-rays are able to ionize atoms and molecules in living things by detaching electrons, leaving charged ions to wreak tissue damage in large enough doses. Returning to our introductory example, fluoroscopes were recognized as potentially dangerous, and they vanished from shoe stores shortly after mid-century.

Preachers could use many object lessons from the scientific realm, particularly lessons concerning the penetrating qualities of radiation and its ability to reveal otherwise obscured truth. Medical personnel, in particular, need to discover truth about conditions in our bodies in order to effect appropriate treatment. X-rays and other types of penetrating radiation reveal not only the truth about internal bodily conditions, but are also effective in treatment of some of those conditions. For example, in proper doses they are able to destroy harmful tissue, such as cancer cells.

Luke 12:2 speaks explicitly about the revelation of truth in our spiritual, conscious existence: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.” God’s desire is that this existence be healthy: “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place” (Psalm 51:6, NIV). God’s truth discovery methods, therefore, also have a dimension of treatment for undesirable conditions.

We are created as physical beings as well as spiritual beings in God’s image. These two realms are intertwined. Since the scientific revolution, and, in particular, in the last 150-200 years mankind has been gifted with knowledge as never before in the preceding hundreds of centuries. That this knowledge has been made accessible is a cause for celebration and wonder

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Life Sustaining Flood

How do we react to a flood? Of course, it would depend on which type of flood we are talking about. I refer again to the flood of electromagnetic radiation arriving at earth’s doorstep each moment of our lives. The more we understand it, the more it appears God has ordered all things for the existence and benefit of man. Consider the flood of natural radiation ever present since the beginning.

The matter in our universe generates a constant stream of electromagnetic radiation: gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet, visible light, infrared, microwaves, and radio waves. In nature, these radiations rain down on our planet from multiple objects in our surroundings, our solar system, and the distant universe.

Most invisible short-wave, high energy radiation from outer space--gamma rays, x-rays, and ultraviolet--is filtered out by our atmosphere before reaching us. For that, we are thankful. We are shielded from potentially dangerous radiation. But this radiation is visible to cameras on space vehicles orbiting outside our atmosphere. We are able, therefore, to use such information to help us gain detailed knowledge of our universe--its structure, its function, and its origin.

Lower energy, longer wave radiation such as visible light, infrared, microwaves, and radio waves, penetrate our delicate atmospheric barrier. What a treasure trove of beauty, fascination, and life sustaining energy comes with it! We observe our beautiful sun, moon, and stars by visible light with our naked eye. We also use visible light telescopes to reveal countless additional stars, galaxies, and nebulae. Visible light and short wave infrared are easily transmitted from the sun through our atmosphere, and then absorbed or reflected by objects on earth. Finally, we see images around us and bask in the reflected warmth produced by long wave infrared. Earth temperature is maintained at a life-sustaining level.

Longer than light waves, microwaves bombard earth from every direction in outer space. These microwaves (cosmic microwave background radiation--CMBR) are left-over relics from the incredible Big Bang creation event. What about naturally-produced radio waves? Planet Jupiter, the Sun, and other bodies emit radiation in various radio frequencies. To be sure, these radio signals do not produce music or speech, but are merely “noise,” because they are not generated by intelligent beings.

Electromagnetic waves are part of God’s creative design features enabling man to develop and sustain our modern civilization. Scientists have discovered how to harness them in ways unimaginable a few centuries ago. Electromagnetic waves, however, were plentiful in the environment long before man’s birth on this planet.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Invisible but Real

Before discussing the reality of another portion of the invisible electromagnetic spectrum, I’ll ask my readers to join me on a field trip.

Some of the most memorable field trips with my science classes were visits to the museums of the Franklin/Sterling Hill area of northern New Jersey. At the Sterling Hill Mining Museum we walked through old mine tunnels of eons-old crystallized limestone interlaced with the leftovers of commercial minerals recovered during mining operations of long ago. I recall having a sense of strange reverence while walking through 1800 feet of cool, dark mine shafts in the bowels of the earth. Comparing human history with the age of these rocks, these rocks are about 20,000 times older.

The geological complexity of this area provides us with well over 300 different minerals, several dozen of which are found nowhere else in the world. We considered one room at the Franklin Mineral Museum to be one of the highlights of our visit. In ordinary light, we entered a long room--the fluorescent room--with a fairly ordinary array of rocks displayed behind large glass panels. But these rocks were different. Before us was one of the world’s foremost fluorescent mineral collections.

Upon first entering the “fluorescent room” the guide spoke about the minerals while the visible overhead lights were shining. Ultraviolet (UV) light (invisible wavelengths shorter than visible violet) was also shining on the display. At a given moment, the overhead visible lights were turned off. The many specimens of fluorescent minerals, however, continued to glow with a pleasing variety of different hues and brightness. The 1960s crowd may have called such a display “psychedelic.”

What explains the fluorescence? Electrons in the atoms are forced unnaturally to different “energy levels” by the UV light. As those electrons return to their normal energy levels, they emit visible light of a different wavelength--a visible wavelength this time. J.J. Thomson and other 19th century scientists described moving electrical charges as the source of all electromagnetic radiation. Moving electrons generate oscillating electric fields.

Invisible ultraviolet waves come in various wavelengths and have other effects apart from making certain minerals fluoresce. Some cause sunburn; others are beneficial to the body in measured quantities. Certain wavelengths have a germicidal function. The atmosphere filters out most UV coming from outer space.

Spiritual applications and object lessons abound. In fluorescence, the mineral’s source of energy to emit visible light is outside of itself. This reminds us of a similar term often used in scripture: power. In dozens of scripture passages, the power source for righteous living is outside of ourselves. God the Creator is the external source of the Christian’s power to achieve conversion and lead a righteous life.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

And There Was Light

When we flip on a light switch, wonderful things happen. In a subjective sense, our path is illuminated and objects become visible. But in a scientific sense we must explain the events in more complex terms. In our last three posts, we’ve spoken about the wonders of electromagnetic waves. We could also speak of those waves as packets of energy called photons.

White light bulbs emit thousands of different wavelengths together. The longest and shortest of them do not differ in wavelength very much. The tiny difference, however, is vitally important. A prism is able to separate the wavelengths. The longest of them (about 1/40,000 inch) impact our eyes and brain and we see “red.” We see the shortest (about 1/70,000 inch) as “violet.” The in-between wavelengths are seen as orange, yellow, green, and blue.

At the speed light travels--300,000 km/sec--trillions of these waves strike our eyes each second. When we see an object giving off red light, or appearing red, we are really seeing light which has a frequency of 430 trillion hertz (Hz). Violet colored objects emit light with a frequency of 750 trillion Hz. Other colors fall between these frequency values. Scientists use Hz to indicate the number of waves passing a given point per second. Therefore, when we observe red light or a red object, 430 trillion electromagnetic waves pass into our eyes each second.

We do not comprehend such enormous numbers. At the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, I viewed the display of one million silver dollars. Even with that visual aid, one million was difficult to grasp. A trillion (a million million) is certainly beyond our comprehension, whether in respect to waves of light entering our eyes each second, or as a figure to quantify our national debt. Scientists have determined wavelengths and their frequency with great precision.

Visible light falls between the wavelength range described above. In our environment, there are uncountable different wavelengths longer than these; uncountable billions of wavelengths are even shorter. These longer and shorter wavelengths exist abundantly all around us, but they are all invisible to humans. Our very existence would be impossible without them.

The imagery of light in scripture is beautiful and bountiful. Science knowledge in the 21st century helps us extend our applications of such imagery. “I am the Light of the world” refers to the spiritual illumination provided by Jesus Christ and is a metaphor for salvation. The created light in Genesis enabled man to inspect the glorious works of God. Physical light often accompanied the presence of Deity.

Our current knowledge of light evokes a sense of wonder at the glory of our created order. We may visually observe the beauty and function of the physical creation and the life forms it supports, producing reverent worship. While contemplating all this, we may use human terms to exclaim simply, “God had great ideas!”

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Spectrum of Possibilities

Science terms or definitions are necessary, but knowing a definition and understanding a subject are sometimes not the same. With that disclaimer, I’ll offer this definition of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). The electromagnetic spectrum is the complete range of possible wavelengths of electromagnetism, from longest to shortest.

Imagine the length of a long piece of string to represent the distance between electromagnetic waves. We could cut the string in any fractional length we choose, and continue to divide the string into smaller and smaller pieces. In theory, there is no limit to how short the pieces of string could be cut or how many pieces we could cut. It’s also possible to make longer and longer pieces of string by tying on additional pieces. Down the road we wind up with an infinitely large number of string pieces of many different lengths. Likewise, possible wavelengths of electromagnetism are virtually infinite.

Electromagnetic waves include radio, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays. These range in length from many kilometers to only trillionths of a centimeter. In the following brief primer on electromagnetic waves, we will use radio waves as an illustration. The length of waves in the radio band of the EMS varies over a wide range.

All electromagnetic waves are described in terms of packages of electromagnetic energy (photons) traveling at 300,000 km/sec. They are described according to wave length--the distance between the waves. In addition, they are described according to frequency--hertz (symbol Hz)--the number of waves passing a given point per second. All AM radio stations broadcast on the “medium wave” band of the radio portion of the EMS. At the 300,000 km/sec speed, an AM radio station at 600 on the dial sends out 600,000 waves, or photons, per second. It is said, therefore, to have a frequency of 600 kHz (600,000 Hz). Your radio receiver detects them and converts the information in the waves to audible, intelligible sound. Wavelengths of the 600 kHz AM station--the distance between one wave and the next--are about one-half kilometer.

My personal fondness for investigating the EMS may more aptly be described as astonished fascination. In lighter moments I have stated that when this created order ends and the New Creation begins (Revelation 3:12; Revelation 21), I would like to discover, directly from the Creator of this present order, more mysteries of the EMS I did not understand. Included in the questions would be why different waves have such a markedly different effect on man, our equipment, and our environment, when the only physical difference between them is a difference in wavelength. In many cases, that difference is unimaginably small.

The only electromagnetic wave mentioned specifically in the Bible is light, a topic for another post. The scientific knowledge of our day enriches our appreciation of scripture’s spiritual imagery concerning light.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Timeline Trivia

One of my pastimes is personal family genealogical research. I enjoy pinpointing family events and connecting them with people and dates in history. Which family life spans overlapped those of famous people? Who was living when certain historic events occurred? What family member was alive, for example, when a certain scientific discovery was made?

My maternal grandfather was born just before the Civil War and died a few weeks after my birth. He was alive, therefore, in 1864 when brilliant physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) developed his famous theory of electromagnetism which unified many observations of scientists who lived in previous decades.

Maxwell’s theory explained waves of electric and magnetic energy traveling at right angles to each other and to their direction of travel. I asked my students to imagine a tiny “package” of magnetism, the invisible force surrounding their childhood magnetic toys which attracted or repelled each other. They also imagined “packages” of electric force which, when pulsing through a copper wire, could deflect the needle of a nearby compass. By this, students were able to visualize the intrinsic relationship between electricity and magnetism.

The students needed to imagine these “packages” racing off through space. Through his equations, Maxwell calculated that the speed of these “packages” (waves) should be about 300,000 km/sec (186,000 mi/sec). Since light was known to travel at that speed, he correctly theorized that light was an electromagnetic wave. And he predicted that scientists would later be able to generate them artificially. Radio waves were first produced by Heinrich Hertz in 1886.

How are these waves produced? Another giant of science was J.J. Thomson (1856-1940). He was alive until 1940, several years after my birth. In 1897, this Nobel Prize winner discovered electrons: tiny negatively-charged particles present in all matter. In the late 19th century, Thomson and others realized that when electric or magnetic fields change position, or oscillate, electromagnetic waves are generated. As the atoms in all the objects around us vibrate constantly with kinetic energy, the electrons in them also oscillate. What is the result? The electrons and the magnetic fields around them also oscillate. Electromagnetic waves are produced.

My grandfather raised his older children on the prairies of Oklahoma during the late 19th century. His older children knew nothing of radio, microwaves, infra-red, the electromagnetic nature of visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays. Discoveries and applications of electromagnetic waves were in their infancy. And yet, they feared God deeply. With respect to our fear of God, what impact does our present knowledge have on us?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ubiquitous Radiant Energy

"Pulsing through our classroom walls and through your bodies at this very moment are hundreds of different forms of electromagnetic radiation! How are you feeling as a result?" This attention-grabbing statement produced mainly quizzical expressions on my students’ faces. But it also triggered fascination and an investigative frame of mind. When the electromagnetic spectrum unit was complete, I hoped it had also evoked a sense of wonder.

One of my favorite topics of study during my years as a classroom teacher was the electromagnetic spectrum. In multiple ways we are continually impacted by it. Where, then, do we begin in our explanation? The matter surrounding us is composed of elements or compounds of elements, or mixtures of elements and compounds. The smallest units of elements are atoms.

Little more than a century ago, the structure of the atom was discovered: a dense nucleus containing one, or more often, a cluster of electrically positive protons, together with electrically neutral neutrons. Surrounding the nucleus is a cloud of negatively charged electrons. In the early 1900s it was shown that most of the atom is just empty space. Different elements were composed of different numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

To understand the nature of the ubiquitous radiant energy surrounding us, we must realize that all atoms possess kinetic (motion) energy at all times. All substances, therefore, possess heat. The higher their temperature, the greater their kinetic energy. Even objects from our kitchen freezers have heat: they are hundreds of degrees above absolute zero--the coldest temperature possible. Atoms may be energized further in many other ways.

As atoms move, their electrically charged particles move with them. When electrical charges move, they release packets of energy called photons. These packets behave like particles, but they also have characteristics of waves. Each instant of our lives we are constantly impacted by a flood of photons or waves, also known as electromagnetic radiation.

Light, a tiny fraction of the many hundreds of forms of electromagnetic radiation, is visible to humans. Most of the remaining forms are not detectable by our human senses. But the multitude of tasks for which they have been harnessed in our era of advanced technology challenge the imagination. In upcoming posts I will discuss more details of the importance and fascination of the electromagnetic radiation which surrounds us.

The Apostle Paul wrote of God’s creation of invisible as well as visible things. For him the invisible things were no less real: “For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…” (Colossians 1:16 NIV). Scientists of the 21st century are making more and more discoveries of the reality of the invisible.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

William Whewell, Polymath

One definition of Renaissance man is “one who has a wide range of accomplishments and intellectual interests.” The seldom used term polymath conveys a much stronger meaning: a very learned person with broad and comprehensive knowledge in many fields. In our day of narrow academic specialization, rare is the modern person worthy of such a description.

William Whewell (1794-1866) was a true polymath. A priest in the Anglican Church, he was better known for achievements in fields other than theology. He possessed expertise in mathematics, architecture, educational reform, moral philosophy, astronomy, mineralogy, and history and philosophy of science, to name a few. In the latter area he is known for defining what he termed “fundamental ideas,” supplied by our own minds. Scientists formulate such ideas midway between the purely ideal (mind) and the purely empirical (experience), drawing upon both.

An important historian of science, Whewell, an early advocate of design theory, has received less attention than he deserves. His writing reminds us of better-known modern science philosophers such as Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi, and Thomas Kuhn. Whewell coined the terms “scientist” and “physicist” as well as other well-known science terminology. He consulted with famous science figures as diverse on the theological spectrum as Charles Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell.

He used the term “colligation” to describe the bringing together of isolated facts to form a unified concept or relationship and coined the term “consilience” to mean a joining together of concepts in order to achieve an even broader conceptual framework. These are terms used by today’s science philosophers to describe how the discipline of science works.

Within his concept of natural theology Whewell described our human ideas about the world as “shadows” of Divine ideas. Our explanations of nature’s laws, therefore, should preclude seeing those laws as “an accident on a cosmic scale.” Many of Whewell’s proposals may qualify him to be recognized as the originator of intelligent design theory, a term formally in use only in the last several decades.

Whewell was commissioned, in 1839, to write one of the eight Bridgewater treatises. These were scientific writings which purposed to speak “on the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation.” His standout treatise was titled “Astronomy and General Physics, Considered with Reference to Natural Theology.” Each treatise was book-length, suffused with arguments to demonstrate design in nature. In just a few introductory pages, Whewell used dozens of poetic terms for God, including Divine Governor, Intelligent Author, and Supreme Ordainer.

A reading of several dozen pages demonstrates the enormous changes in scientific writings from the early 19th century to the early 21st. This change is a mirror of the secularism progressively imposed upon our society beginning in the 19th century and accelerating in the 20th and 21st. Whewell wrote, “It may be interesting…to show how the views of the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, which natural science opens to us, harmonize with our belief in a Creator, Governor, and Preserver of the World.”

Whewell’s theology leaned toward Christian universalism. As such, it differed from the orthodox views of brilliant contemporary scientist James Clerk Maxwell. But his concepts of a Creator/Sustainer were, nevertheless, very strong, as evidenced in this statement: “It will, we trust, be difficult or impossible to exclude from our conception of this wonderful system, the idea of a harmonizing, a preserving, a contriving, an intending Mind; of a Wisdom, Power, and Goodness far exceeding the limits of our thoughts.” Most of the treatise was purely scientific without additional devotional statements. The scientific concepts of his treatise were far more advanced than one would think possible for that generation.

One may only imagine what sort of reaction would greet the submission of a similar scholarly scientific article to a popular publication in the 21st century. I found Whewell’s Bridgewater treatise to be inspirational. But while reading most of today’s science writings, we must remember that seeing overlap of the domains of science and religion is an application we, as readers, must make on our own.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bird Exuberance

Hidden in the verses of Psalm 148 is an unusual directive to sea creatures, all ocean depths, weather phenomena, mountains, trees, and wild animals to “Praise the Lord from the earth.” This instruction applies to “small creatures and flying birds.” So I applied these verses to my observations of the unique behavior of birds in our wooded, northwestern Illinois neighborhood.

For several years I have noticed that there are periodic episodes of collective, ebullient behavior among the feathered friends inhabiting our property. The behavior may be described as pure exuberance, having little purpose except obvious enjoyment. Several species of birds, primarily cedar waxwings, robins, and a few others, collect together in treetop crowds and fly noisily and swiftly from tree to tree, frolicking and feeding. After a few minutes the bedlam ceases, only to be resumed later. When this occurs, I tell my wife the birds are “going crazy” again. I’ve seen mixed groups of warblers exhibit similar behavior, especially in autumn.

Other bird behavior provokes amusement in me as an observer. With sanctified imagination, I could speculate that our birds are obeying the poetic directive of the psalmist that even the animals should give praise to their creator. If inanimate heavenly bodies like the sun, moon, and stars are called upon to offer praise, merely by displaying their beauty and glory, we might also view the deliberate antics of neighborhood avian entertainers in the same way.

Some members of a large group of young cedar waxwings recently showed off their joie de vivre in our leafless black walnut tree. They entered and exited a deserted nest structure, pulling off dead leaf stems and deliberately dropping them to the ground. Then, closely facing each other, opened and closed their bills as if speaking with each other. Cedar waxwings are known to pass food items down a row of birds sitting on a branch until one bird finally eats it. Other bird species soar in groups on rising air drafts, cool and clean themselves in water puddles, or gather in social groups to fly off deliberately toward destinations known only to them.

I could continue to describe the entertaining antics of crows, hummingbirds, owls, blue-jays, and many more. A strong case could be made that if the antics of our avian entertainers amuse and entertain, our own human emotions of praise are heightened.

A previous post described spring bird behaivior in our area:

Horatius Bonar, known as the 19th century prince of Scottish hymn writers, wrote, “Thus the air is vocal. It has a hallelujah of its own. The ‘flying fowl’ praise him. This is creation’s harp…which each sunrise awakens, “turning all the air to music.” Charles Spurgeon, 19th century “Prince of Preachers,” wrote in The Treasury of David, “Birds of every wing are called upon to join the universal worship. No one can become familiar with insect and bird life without feeling that they contribute a wonderful chapter in the history of divine wisdom.” I encourage readers to take quality time to observe the praise-givers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is Intelligent Design Science?

Would you like to foment a lively discussion? Just ask a few friends if intelligent design (ID) theory is scientific. Probably most creationists would say, “Yes.” A few will say, “No.” And others won’t be sure--possibly because they do not understand what scientific means. My discussions with several theistic friends on this topic have resulted in a lively exchange, but not much agreement.

If you like surprises, consider that some prominent atheists consider ID to be both scientific and constitutional to discuss in the classroom. Prominent professor of law and philosophy Thomas Nagel of New York University, a prolific author and brilliant thinker, has stated, “I suspect that the assumption that science can never provide evidence for the occurrence of something that cannot be scientifically explained is the principle reason for the belief that ID cannot be science; but so far as I can see, that assumption is without merit.”

In his article “Public Education and Intelligent Design” in Philosophy and Public Affairs, he continues: “A purely semantic classification of a hypothesis or its denial as belonging or not to science is of limited interest to someone who wants to know whether the hypothesis is true or false.” Nagle also states, “The denier that ID is science faces the following dilemma. Either he admits that the intervention of such a designer is possible, or he does not. If he does not, he must explain why that belief is more scientific than the belief that a designer is possible.”

In previous posts I have quoted atheist philosopher Bradley Monton and agnostic philosopher David Berlinski. Monton maintains the legitimacy of viewing ID as science and feels we need to ask a more important question: Is ID true?

Evolutionary scientists poke fun at theistic creationists and believers in ID. Their well-publicized statements encourage an army of supporters to endorse their naturalistic worldview. They become enthusiastic cheerleaders for the cause of philosophical naturalism. This cheerleader squad takes comfort from many evolutionary scientists who endorse a naturalistic worldview.

It is ironic that some of the best thinking is being done by a few atheist philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and Bradley Monton. Analyses of the ID/creation vs. evolution discussion should not be based on simplistic, default positions that ID and creationism are irrational and unscientific. Dr. Nagel’s detailed analysis illustrates this well.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Issues of Intelligent Design

The Intelligent Design (ID) proposal has come under heavy fire ever since it was put forward two decades ago. Supporters of ID claim the features of the cosmos and living things are best explained as the work of an intelligent designer rather than by natural happenstance. Researchers such as William Dembski and Michael Behe have further refined ID concepts, expanding the discussion with proposals such as “specified complexity” and “irreducible complexity” to bolster the case.

Naysayers shoot down ID with clever arguments. They say ID supporters use ambiguous terminology or fail to recognize all possible mathematical alternatives. When I read the creative suggestions attempting to explain away Behe’s idea of irreducible complexity, I realize that the debate will not end with one side or the other “proving” its point. Many important theories in science do not come close to achieving a standard of proof acceptable to all parties. This is not a weakness of the process of science. Rather, it is an indication that scientific knowledge sometimes changes as new evidence comes to light. Ideally, the revisions bring us ever closer to truth.

The most well-known think tank promoting ID is Discovery Institute in Seattle. They have been accused of promoting the “wedge strategy,” an organized program to overcome the naturalistic, materialistic, evolutionary worldview with one characterized by open belief in Christian theistic principles. The accusers imply that there is a stealth quality inherent in Institute activities, perhaps with political overtones.

In a telephone conversation with a Discovery Institute staff member, I mentioned the term “supernatural” in connection with an article I was writing. “Intelligently designed” was preferable, he stated. Discovery Institute staff members make no overt claim that the intelligent designer is the Judeo-Christian God of scripture. This is consistent with the stated goals of one of Discovery Institute’s programs--the Center for Science and Culture (CSC)--which challenges neo-Darwinian theory and supports “scholars developing the scientific theory of intelligent design.”

Discovery Institute’s failure to name the God of the Bible as the designer may work against their underlying goals. Secularists accuse the Institute of concealing their real purpose--promoting the Christian view of creationism, and therefore, having an explicitly religious purpose. Secularists, particularly in the field of education, see religion, or any proposal with a flavor of religion, as threatening the purity and integrity of the science enterprise.

Instead of the “respectable, loving concordat between our magisteria,” as spoken by the popular evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, it is disheartening to note that the two magisteria (authoritative schools of knowledge), science (as rigorously and naturalistically defined by many science professionals), and religion are not permitted to intersect. Sadly, this situation indicates a clash of worldviews more than an inherent incompatibility between the two magisteria.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Subdue the Earth

In Genesis 1:28, God instructs man to “multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Virtually all Bible translations render the identical imperative: subdue the earth. The term is sometimes misunderstood, especially in a day when we are becoming more aware of the need for prudent care of our planet. In this context, the meaning suggests that both humanity and the earth will benefit from our action, while neither will be harmed.

How should we understand "subdue" in this application? Consider how a vineyard must be pruned to control unwanted and detrimental growth, or how a garden needs to be weeded, cultivated, and supplied with water and nutrients at appropriate times. Think of methods of taming rivers: using them for irrigation, flood control, energy production, or travel. We have devised internal combustion engines to convert chemical energy to useful motion, combining many simple machines to fashion complex functioning units. In modern times we have understood electromagnetic theory, and have now harnessed the energy of many different electromagnetic waves for multiple applications, including the transfer of nearly limitless quantities of information through space almost instantly. In the last fifty years scientists have unlocked the DNA code, applying that knowledge to man’s benefit in the fields of medicine and agriculture. This summary barely scratches the surface.

From the moment of the creation of man, all of earth's raw potential existed untamed, waiting for man to discover how to subdue it. In many cases the wait lasted thousands of years. The spectrum of electromagnetic radiation has existed throughout the timeline of cosmic history. But man has learned how to tap its potential a mere moment ago in terms of the timeline of human history. In the Old Testament there are many descriptions of agricultural discovery, from tending and working the Garden to maximizing productivity by letting the land lie fallow periodically--the equivalent of taking a rest break to regain one’s strength. The captive Hebrews observed and no doubt participated in Egyptian construction projects which amaze even modern building technologists.

Subdue the earth. Does this mean conquer, subjugate, overuse, or abuse? Or does it refer to acts of intelligent discovery and management--sometimes activating, at other times restraining and controlling? The Genesis directive to “subdue” was an imperative to apply principles we now consider scientific in order to benefit man while tenderly caring for the environment. Man has been gifted by God to accomplish this task.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bacon and Galileo

Those who believe scriptural principles are at odds with science may be unaware of the historic role of Christianity and Christian concepts as they helped promote scientific discovery. In a previous post on this topic, I set forth many of the inherent connections between scriptural principles and the early views of famous figures who were pioneers in the development of the scientific revolution beginning four centuries ago and in helping to codify elements of scientific methodology still practiced today.

Early scientists over 400 years ago began to appreciate ideals which had been advocated in scripture centuries before. For example, Francis Bacon (1561-1627) was one of the most important architects of the scientific method. In earlier centuries, natural philosophers (later known as “scientists”) answered questions about nature by quoting Aristotle and using a dialectical method--logical testing of ideas--often in a public venue. But Bacon was a pioneer of observation and testing by experiment. In the Middle Ages prior to Bacon, testing and experiment were not practiced. Bible passages in Acts 17:11, Romans 12:2, I Thes. 5:21, and I John 4:1, while having primary application to the discovery of theological truths in their use of terms such as testing and examining, also suggest to us the value of testing and examining to discover truths about the natural world.

Bacon, four years before his death, wrote of the problems arising from imposing personal, traditional interpretations on our view of the natural world: “We want to have all things as suits our fatuity [foolishness], not as fits the Divine Wisdom, not as they are found in nature. We impose the seal of our image on the creatures and works of God, we do not diligently seek to discover the seal of God on things…”

The well-known dispute between Galileo (1564-1642) and some leaders of the church concerning his support of Copernican cosmology--a sun-centered solar system--was due to church leaders incorrectly interpreting Bible passages on movement of the sun and planets without correctly establishing the frame of reference, or point of view, for observing such movements. Church leaders assumed the earth did not move, wrongly interpreting scriptures such as Psalm 93:1: “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” Likewise, modern understanding of sequential creation events in Genesis 1-2 is crucially dependent on recognizing the change in the frame of reference from verse 1 to verse 2. Scientific investigation helps clarify the meaning of such passages. Scripture itself encourages us to discover and clarify concepts by testing.

Galileo also wrote of the difficulty arising when people put their personal spin on the meaning of scripture: “Holy Scripture can never lie, as long as its true meaning has been grasped; but I do not think one can deny that this is frequently recondite [difficult to understand] and very different from what appears to be the literal meaning of the words.” I am reminded of the many letters, articles, and books I have read which cite the expression “the plain meaning of scripture” in supporting their particular view of timelines of earth history. The plain meaning of scripture exhorts us to test, examine, and prove. Achievement of true beliefs is a painstaking process. We are encouraged by scripture to use the testing process not only to achieve theological truth, but also to understand scientific truths.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Emergent or Intelligent?

Skeptics propose unusual explanations for the origin of apparent design and complex function in physical and biological systems. One of the most incredible of these is a hypothetical proposal called “emergent properties.” In a 2006 article, Chicago Tribune science writer Ron Kotulak stated, “But to emergent properties scientists, it is clear that all things from the very beginning—atoms, molecules, and so on, up to living organisms—do their own ‘thinking’ without any outside help. They communicate, process information and form new unions, acquiring capacities that are unpredictable and greater than the sum of their parts.”

Emergent properties scientists do not hold the upper hand, even in the community of naturalistic scientists. Most biological scientists prefer a more reductionistic approach. That is to say, biological processes can be explained by more predictable chemical and physical laws. To the more mainstream scientist, saying that something mysterious or mystic is going on in life processes would smack of the discredited idea known as vitalism. For example, vitalism would posit that the behavior of living things is explained in terms of a vital force or essence unrelated to simple behavior of molecules, or the predictable effects of known forces.

Nevertheless, a few prominent scientists like Carl Woese of the University of Illinois have fueled emergent properties fires by assigning communication abilities to atoms, molecules, and living cells. Woese claims life originated in this way possibly millions of times in the past. He states, “Organization is something that evolves from within. It is the nature of the universe to organize with the passage of time.” In some specific respects this statement possesses some truth: sequential events in cosmic history do indeed follow a progression and are impelled by nature’s laws--dust clouds cool, condense, and eventually solidify. The real questions, however, run along these lines: did lifeless atoms really think, communicate, process information, and form new unions all by themselves? Is intelligence an innate property of inanimate matter? And is there, then, no warrant for belief in a supernatural organizing agent and supernatural intelligence apart from matter itself?

Woese and his colleagues were beneficiaries of a $5 million National Science Foundation grant in 2005 to finance study of emergent properties as the model for cosmic change. In my opinion, this is a model of imagination and speculation with little if any supporting evidence. Believing in emergent properties is tantamount to endorsing a mystical religion, and yet it pretends to explain order, design, communication, consciousness, and life itself. The NSF study is funded by your tax dollars and mine. Promotion of even-handed discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of naturalistic evolution theory as well as design theory is deemed to be motivated by religion and denied. I encourage all Christians and Christian educators to become aware and informed of the various strategies of naturalists and to study how they may coherently defend transcendent biblical creationism

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Science and Truth

Many of my friends and acquaintances voice their appreciation of science. They probably refer to the natural sciences such as biology, physics, and chemistry, and their positive feelings relate to the fascinating knowledge revealed by scientific studies. Broadly, the language root of science is “knowledge.”

For many people who “like science,” delving further into the process of acquiring knowledge of the natural world of science, or investigating the philosophy of science, turns them off to further inquiry. Others are deterred when they discover that the science profession is heavily weighted with naturalistic practitioners. Such naturalistic scientists are unwilling to concede that the ubiquitous order and design in our universe points to an author of order and design. This author of order and design, identified in scripture as the God of Creation, also had in mind how the universe should function as an outcome of the order and design He imposed.

Certain fields of inquiry which use scientific operating principles are willing to acknowledge the probability of intelligent or supernatural agents in their investigations of cause and effect. Even though so-called “science of the paranormal” (ghosts, spirits, ESP, UFOs) may be scorned as pseudoscience, serious investigators in those fields use established scientific principles in their work. Paranormal investigators first attempt to explain phenomena by natural cause. They make careful observations, attempt to ensure that their observations are objective and reliable, set up careful experimental conditions, formulate hypotheses, and test carefully. Their conclusions are tentative, notwithstanding the willingness of some investigators to minimize healthy skepticism.

In criminal investigations, principles of evidence-gathering, testing, hypothesizing, and many other facets of scientific method are rigorously enforced. We might say that law enforcement personnel are some of our most talented scientists. Sometimes they investigate deaths occurring by apparently natural or accidental circumstances. At other times what appears to be a natural death may turn out to be agent-caused. Even though a person is definitely identified as the perpetrator, an arrest may or may not follow.

The science motivating and driving paranormal and criminal investigations permits the conclusion that an intelligent agent is or may be responsible for observed events. In the field of natural science, neither philosophical nor methodological naturalists permit such a conclusion in their studies of biological origins, for example. Therefore, we must conclude that the definition of science, how science is supposed to operate, and what conclusions are permissible for scientists are dependent upon tradition and driven by the philosophy of science currently holding sway.

We must be careful that our adherence to current science philosophy or the power of consensus science never overpowers our search for truth. My previous post on Open and Closed Science is relevant to this discussion:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Science: God's Gift

Many scientists who investigate ultimate causes believe that as scientific knowledge increases, support for belief in a designer or creator becomes weaker. The science profession is populated with many practitioners who do not connect any of their observations in the physical or biological world with design theory or supernatural creation events. Even when their investigations approach a dead end, they are unwilling to explore the possibility of action by a supernatural agent, at least as part of their scientific studies. They are known as philosophical naturalists.

Their refusal to let scientific inquiry stray toward a non-natural explanation for any observed phenomena--for example, the sudden appearances of novel life forms in the fossil record--is due to a commitment a large number of scientists have made: that science investigates only natural causes. We must acknowledge that there are advantages to this stance, such as avoiding over-spiritualizing accounts of physical phenomena which yield their secrets by applying knowledge of existing physical constants and laws of science.

In the past 150 years, many scientists drifted inexorably toward a naturalistic bias and a belief that God does not exist. This has become a major worldview in modern times. This worldview is known as philosophical naturalism, metaphysical naturalism, or ontological naturalism. Those who embrace this form of naturalism do not believe in a transcendent God.

In the last quarter century an interesting term has become popular. Paul de Vries, formerly of Wheaton College, first used the term methodological naturalism in a 1983 conference. In 1986 in Christian Scholars Review, he made a distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Methodological naturalism says nothing about the existence of God, but philosophical naturalism denies the existence of God. There are interesting statistics about how many scientists are methodological, and how many are philosophical. Evolutionary scientists lean heavily toward philosophical naturalism. In other words, according to them, there is no God.

Methodological naturalists may believe in the existence and agency of God, even if they proceed with their work as if God does not exist. Methodological naturalists’ discoveries are based upon existing physical constants and scientific laws. I believe methodological naturalism is a good operating principle for scientific discovery. When I taught science in public school, I did not feel handicapped by adhering to a scientific method which discovered and recognized nature’s laws, even though I did not teach my lessons from a strictly theological perspective. However, on the occasions when a student inquired, "Do you believe in God?" I replied, "Yes, I do" without hesitation.

Early scientists such as Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, and Maxwell were methodological naturalists, although that term would not be used for centuries. They studied the physical constants and laws divinely established in the beginning and were not hesitant to acknowledge God as the omnipotent and omniscient creator and sustainer of everything. Their beliefs did not alter the quality of their scientific investigations. Many naturalistic scientists claim that mention of God as a possible agent anywhere along the timeline of cosmic history brings the work of science to a halt. Historically, this did not occur.

Many philosophical naturalists have become vocal expressing their worldview. They openly and enthusiastically deny the existence of God. The natural world is self-caused, they claim. Their belief is tantamount to a religion--a belief system which has a powerful hold on them. Many scientists are intolerant of theistic religious claims, an intolerance which has flooded into our secular culture--such as our public school science classrooms--to overwhelm and, in some settings, make illegal even the suggestion that supernatural agency may account for certain observations.

Many Christians in the community of faith are suspicious of science as a result of this situation, even when the science conclusions are sound and cogent. When good science contradicts their firmly held fideistic beliefs, some brand it atheistic science. There is no such thing as atheistic science, or theistic science, for that matter. But our conclusions about ultimate reality may be filtered through naturalistic or theistic worldviews. Science is a method of investigating God’s created cosmos. In Isaiah 40:26a we have a command and a question: “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?” (NIV). Scripture exhorts us to investigate the cosmos and then make an informed decision about what it tells us. Our ability to investigate the cosmos scientifically is one of God’s most treasured gifts.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Jitters from Genomics

A list of landmark scientific achievements thought by our ancestors several generations ago to be impossible would vary considerably from person to person. But most would probably cite space travel, or wireless communication, or today’s startling computer technology. The new science of genomics could not have been imagined by our forebears several generations back. They may have worried that it would not be God’s will for mankind to travel to the moon, talk instantly with someone around the globe, or access virtually any information merely by typing several words. They may have thought that such advanced achievements and knowledge would rob us of time devoted to God or deflect us from the pursuit of truth.

Such scientific advance, indeed, has both upside and downside potential. Space technology serves man with instant satellite communication along with the potential for doomsday weapons. Wireless devices such as cell phones provide the security of being constantly “in touch,” but also offer dangerous distraction and opportunities for wasting time. Information technology helps us access knowledge rapidly and easily, but could also feed dangerous addictions.

Recently a startling new science called “genomics” has emerged. It studies organisms in terms of their full DNA sequence. In 2003, the Human Genome Project was completed. As a result, the entire sequence of hereditary information for humans is now known. That hereditary information is composed of 3 billion “base pairs” bonded to the sugar-phosphate double helix structure of the DNA molecule. Simplified, there are only two “base pairs:” A and T (adenine and thymine), and C and G (cytosine and guanine). The 3 billion-long sequence of base pairs within the DNA molecule, present in almost every human cell, conveys the complete genetic information of every human being alive. Understanding this is somewhat like understanding that a digital television image, for example, is merely a sequence of 0’s and 1’s. The amount of information conveyed, however, can be virtually infinite.

Does knowledge of the human genome benefit humanity? Or is it potentially harmful? Should this knowledge be known only to God, or does God gift men with the knowledge to discover life’s genetic secrets? In future posts, we will explore this question in more depth.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Identify the Watchmaker

Intelligent Design (ID) has acquired a bad name in the community of naturalistic scientists. Some have called the concept of design, and its implications of a designer, irrational. They feel, as does Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker, that even though design in the cosmos is ubiquitous, there is no supernatural designer, and no supernatural creation. Dawkins claims “the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics” and that the theoretical “natural selection” process has no plan, no foresight, no vision, and no purpose in mind.

There are plentiful examples of the intelligent design process in human endeavor. For instance, scientists and non-scientists would agree that the exciting process of reengineering a bacterium such as E. coli to make it produce a source of alternative fuel in our energy-hungry world would qualify as a scientific endeavor. The intelligent designers are the bio-chemical technologists now reengineering already complex metabolic pathways and redesigning the enzymes in E. coli bacteria to coax them into producing alcohols which are more like petroleum products such as gasoline. Production of simple alcohols such as ethanol is becoming costly and raising concerns about food supply.

Redesigning any system takes a high input of intelligence. Think of remodeling your basement to achieve more utility, greater comfort, and improved appearance. That basement does not have the ability to redesign and reconfigure itself to a more useful purpose. An intelligent mind must plan, carry forward the plan, and finally utilize the final product in an optimal way. When the project is finished it is obvious an intelligent agent was at work.

Returning to the work being accomplished with the reengineering of E. coli bacteria, one must marvel at the genius of modern bioengineers. Dr. Fazale Rana, Reasons to Believe scholar, explains that “researchers have to reengineer the entire enzyme collective. Because of the complexity of metabolic pathways, bioengineers have to expend considerable effort on rational design strategies to achieve this engineering, as the recent work on E. coli attests.” Perhaps the most fascinating step in the reengineering process is the insertion of three plasmids, novel pieces of DNA, which are taken up by the bacterium to assist it in acquiring its new functions.

Dr. Rana writes “It’s fair to state that this novel metabolic process was intelligently designed.” If that is true, what can we say about the millions of other complex bio-systems abounding in nature? Is it unscientific to investigate the credibility of supernatural design in the natural world if everyone recognizes that human bioengineering is a scientific process?

This evidence suggests the rationality of supernatural design proposals in the natural world, and by extension, supernatural, divine creation. By contrast, proposals regarding the “blind forces of physics” seem weak and irrational as an explanatory option. The case for intelligent design and creation is made even stronger by our knowledge of the exciting new field of bioengineering.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Our Father's World

Some accounts of my personal campaign against NDD--nature deficit disorder--the subject of our last post, are worth sharing. As a college freshman, I was privileged to have poet John Ciardi for my professor in English composition at Rutgers University. One bit of advice I recall from him was “Get the ‘For instance’ habit.” So, in the spirit of that advice, I’ll discuss examples of the many outdoor teachable moments I’ve shared with my pre-school grandchildren during their visits to our northwest Illinois home. All of these experiences were within easy walking distance of our home. Most of them, in fact, were in our yard. None of these activities or observations, individually or collectively, consists of proof for the existence of God. The evidence tilting one person toward a theistic belief system may not operate the same way for someone else. Individual human will functions regardless of evidence. Therefore, evidence is not the sole factor molding our beliefs and worldview. But the evidence which points to God from the world of nature is startling.

I have referred to our neighborhood as “bird heaven.” Each grandchild has observed dozens of different birds and their behaviors. A few of the most notable ones were bluebirds with their ebullient liquid warble, the catbirds’ incessant chatter, pileated woodpeckers’ far-reaching “cuk-cuk-cuk” call, or a great horned owl’s somber, early evening mantra. On one journey to our clearing in the woods, a female turkey took umbrage at our presence, approaching us threateningly, no doubt to divert our attention from her well-hidden young. The hummingbird, opposite on the spectrum of size, will approach to arm’s length if we stand motionless next to the flowers of interest to him. And our mulberry tree doubles as a natural bird feeder just outside the dining room window.

Seemingly endless differences in the behaviors and characteristics of our neighborhood’s living creatures contribute to endless fascination as we study them. These differences are easy to observe, even for pre-school children. Their uniqueness and complexity bespeak divine creativity, a far more credible origins scenario than evolutionary randomness or chance. Sometimes we’ve spoken of the great ideas God had when he designed living things.

Plants have also offered multiple opportunities to enhance our wonder. We watched the bare winter branches of our black walnut tree awaken to bud, bloom, and full leaf-out. Then, over time, we observed tiny nuts slowly develop into fully formed fruit exceeding golf-ball size. Digging up several baby walnut trees growing from squirrel-buried nuts this spring was a lesson in itself (the nut was still intact). This autumn we are on track to harvest over 1000 nuts from our front yard tree. Later, we’ll continue our long-established walnut-cracking sessions and consume the fruits of our labors.

As if four-stage metamorphosis of monarch butterflies, including the collection of milkweeds which supply nourishment for the caterpillar stage, offered insufficient fascination, I also harvested some milkweed pods last fall. After drying the pods over winter, this spring we launched the milkweed down parachutes bearing seeds into the wind, combining seed “planting” with just plain fun. One fall each child shelled kernels from a corncob. Then one warm December day they planted some of the kernels in the mulch under the walnut tree. After that winter’s record snowfall, the seeds unexpectedly sprouted the next spring. The potted transplants reached 18” high over the summer. We’ve also shelled soybeans, an important agricultural product of this area, pulled weeds to examine their water-absorbing roots, and picked a large variety of wildflowers for Grandma’s bouquets.

Insects are a never-ending fascination for young children. Our grandkids were impressed by ants, digger wasps, centipedes, bumble bees, daddy-long-legs, pill bugs, and butterflies, especially when one of the latter alighted on a sleeve. Magnifying glasses made the world of the tiny more visible and real; binoculars brought the distant world close. One evening we sat on our driveway to watch Jupiter and Venus slowly set like the sun. We even saw the Milky Way after dark--not an easy achievement on most nights. The steep driveway offered lessons on the reality of gravity and its effects. “Watch out! Gravity will get you!”

These events involved asking What? When? How? and Why? We noticed beauty, design, and function and informally discovered the meaning of cause and effect. Parents and educational church personnel should become more aware of nature’s potential for faith strengthening for our young people and adults. The activities I described were merely natural outgrowths of going outdoors. They did not demand the development of systematic lesson plans. They do, however, demand a modicum of planning, generous amounts of motivation, and a sense of mission.

In the sense that nature speaks of the glory of God, we may assign an additional meaning to Deut. 11:18-19: “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds…Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up.”

Friday, August 21, 2009

Nature Deficit Disorder

There has been a sea change in our culture in the past sixty years. This change has affected the ways in which science is able to strengthen faith, particularly for our young people. Contributing mightily to the change was the onset of television at mid-century, the social ferment which began in the 1960s, and the plugged-in electronic era of the last two decades. This is far from a complete catalog of causative factors in the societal sea change.

Corresponding with these changes has been a retreat from natural play, particularly in the outdoors, by our children. Richard Louv in The Last Child in the Woods—Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, has skillfully described the problem. In the introduction to his book, Louv says natural play for children seems like a quaint artifact, and intimacy with nature is fading.

Our church leaders and Christian educators have not been particularly successful waging the battle for the minds and hearts of our young people using the terms of discussion set by our contemporary society. There are other battle venues where Christian parents and educators could be more successful in their efforts to teach children a world view that would bring them closer to belief in the reality of God. Immersion in nature is one of those significant venues. Of course, there are many other benefits.

The book of Proverbs uses “My son” many times, suggesting the importance of the mentoring of a parent or parent figure for a younger person. In those times child-raising parents did not face the same instructional challenges we face today. Children and adults now spend enormous amounts of time cloistered indoors, watching movie DVDs, television, video games, or on various electronic social networks. Children of Bible times had far less to occupy themselves indoors. Those children were outdoors, perhaps learning the nature lessons of Job 36-41 along with their work and play. Before 1950, our children were experiencing adventure, natural phenomena, and wildlife outdoors, learning how nature works and how living things behave--creating, savoring, and enjoying. Almost any person past retirement age could confirm the adventurous outdoor dimension of their childhood years.

Richard Louv refers to “the contribution of nature to the spiritual life of the child, and therefore to the adult.” He quotes Paul Gorman, director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, an ecumenical group: “The extent that we separate our children from creation is the extent to which we separate them from the creator—from God.” Gorman also states, “The purpose of creation really is to bring us—children and all of us—closer to the creator.”

My experience points to nature as a powerful means of affirming the reality of God. Nature is not God, as some might claim. However, nature reveals many qualities of the Creator, suffused as it is with beauty, order, and design. Nature is tangible, not abstract. Other evidences of God’s reality may not be so tangible, such as the evidence of historical revelation. Therefore, we should take full advantage of our children’s positive responses to the tangible evidences for the Creator’s existence in nature, along with their experience of healthy enjoyment.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Metamorphosis Miracle

Recently another example of a “teachable moment” for young people presented itself. Our young grandchildren had visited their uncle and aunt for a few days. They were being delivered to our home for the next leg of the journey to their parents on the following day. A few miles from our home, our son called to explain why they would be a little late. They had stopped to search for milkweed caterpillars. Our grandchildren have become fascinated with the metamorphosis of monarch butterflies. This was just a continuation of the fun. Check our last post on this topic:

When they arrived, we were given one of the several milkweed leaves they had collected which bore one tiny white sphere they suspected might be a monarch butterfly egg. A check of the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies revealed that such eggs would be 1.2 X 0.9 mm, pale green, ribbed, and pitted…shaped like a lemon with flat base. Seeing these characteristics was far under the capability of our eyesight, but not our magnifier. We had struck paydirt. Our granddaughter insisted on giving us one of the leaves. I accepted it without much assurance that anything would happen.

In the next few days the leaf became brittle and crisp. I checked it periodically, but without much confidence. Four days later, however, an incredibly tiny larva emerged. As I write, our pet “cattie” has increased its size ten-fold in only two days and seems on track to fulfill all the potential of second stage metamorphosis. In my decades of monarch propagating, I’d never had the patience to track down stage one.

Who could fail to see the value of such an incident as an example of a child’s “teachable moment"? Rare is the child who could not be made to understand and become excited by this mind-boggling sequence of events. Children are able to contemplate the beauty, design, functionality, and fulfillment of egg to larva to pupa to adult, not to mention thousands of other processes in nature both in the biological world and in the physical realm.

Young people are able to understand cause and effect at an early age. They grasp principles of design and the actions of a designer. They can understand that order is not accidental. This knowledge prepares them for the teaching onslaught of naturalistic evolution which permeates our culture. It also helps them grasp the absurdity of molecules-to-man evolution as an undirected process producing the complex designs and functions of living things on this earth.

Parents, Christian educators, and preachers should be warned that this type of apologetic is not easily achieved. Time and effort are required, just as it takes time and effort to pursue and present any rational theological instruction. Properly interpreted science reinforces theological studies for children as well as adults. Likewise, good theology supports good science. We must not neglect either one.

Sequel to this story: This special monarch entered our home as a tiny egg on a leaf August 8, hatched into a tiny caterpillar August 12, became a chrysalis on August 29, and finally, hatched into a beautiful butterfly and flew off on September 8. Bon voyage!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Teachable Moments

In science studies, teachable moments are abundant. But they are also abundant in everyday life. As a career science educator I formed strong, positive views of the value of science and scientific thinking skills as a tool to strengthen reasoning power, to understand cause and effect relationships, and to promote a sense of wonder about the world around us. This is but a minimal listing of the benefits inherent in science studies. If science is poorly taught or approached with tedium or indifference, the value of science for the student is diminished, as it would be for any subject. At worst, negative attitudes could prevail into adulthood.

What are the positive values of science as a faith strengthener for our young people? I propose that using a scientific approach to affirm the reality of God has definite advantages across the complete age group spectrum from youth to mature adult. Much of the curricular material in our church educational programs centers on social and interpersonal relationships as these connect with Bible events and Scripture passages. This is appropriate, of course, but not to the exclusion of other approaches which may have more apologetic value in our post-modern society.

We might ask how Moses presented his apologetic case to the Israelites. How did he channel the chosen people toward belief and obedience? We have a clue in nearly the entire book of Deuteronomy--three great speeches which may have been three of the longest sermons in the history of preaching. After nearly 40 years of wilderness wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land, none of those who left Egypt, except Joshua and Caleb, was permitted to enter Canaan. Those who would enter were all first or second generation witnesses to God’s awesome personal presence during those four decades. They had experienced the presence of God on Mt. Sinai in smoke, thunder, lightning, clouds, and earthquakes. They had seen the stone tablets engraved by God. They observed Moses’ radiant face after he talked with God, and miracles in the wilderness such as a guiding cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. They witnessed production of water from the rock, and provision of quail and manna.

When Moses delivered his lengthy sermons there was little need for references to nature’s glory, for they were eyewitnesses to God’s glory. Nevertheless, he did say, in his second speech, “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth, and everything in it” (Deut. 10:14 NIV). Moses sermon, therefore, was primarily exhortation to obey the statutes of God who had visited them in many direct, physical manifestations. Belief, therefore, in God’s reality was easy, but consistent obedience to Him in future times would not be so easy.

In our 21st century, we have the voice of the natural world which speaks loudly of God’s reality. Science has unlocked previously unknown secrets of the functionality and fine-tuning of that natural world. In Moses’ day, very little such knowledge existed. The first several centuries of the scientific revolution produced exciting, yet primitive concepts compared with the complex and wonderful discoveries of the last century. Today it is difficult to keep abreast of the profusion of knowledge.

In God’s plan, today we may never experience transcendent miracles such as the original creation of time/space dimensions “In the Beginning,” or the transformational miracles of Moses’ or Christ’s day, such as parting of the Red Sea, creation of new forms of physical life from earth’s raw materials, and the healing of a diseased body. Historically, such miracles have occurred infrequently. But we have plentiful examples of what are termed sustaining miracles, such as God’s maintenance of the universal conditions necessary to support life--the “holding together” of all things. We now understand design features which point to many past transcendent and transformational miracles, such as the incredible fine tuning necessary for God’s initial creation event, or clear coding features evident in the DNA molecule--evidence of the intelligent mind of the code designer.

Moses instructed the Israelites, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 11:18-19). There are plentiful opportunities to speak to our children about the wonders of God’s created order and the evidence for His creative works of past ages and those that are manifest in our day. These opportunities occur when we are sitting at home, walking along the road, lying down, and getting up. Parents, teachers, youth leaders, and preachers should be careful not to ignore our many available “teachable moments.”

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Are Those Stars?

“Grandpa, are those stars?” queried my 3 ½ year old granddaughter one late fall evening when I carried her out under the dark night sky of our community. The regulations of our residential association insure that dark skies prevail. But our granddaughter’s home neighborhood, well-lit and secure, does not offer the same observing opportunity. Aware of the healthy “early to bed” routine in her household, I realized it was entirely conceivable she had never seen “real” stars. Storybook graphics do not substitute for the real thing.

Young children in Bible times had ample opportunity to savor the magnificent glory of the darkened heavens. The nightly experience of dark skies enabled Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to grasp how difficult it would be to number their descendants by counting stars. God had proposed that idea directly to the patriarchs. He told them their descendants would be more numerous than the stars of heaven and asked them if they could number the stars. Surely they had observed that the darker the skies, the greater the number of stars coming into view. They may have even understood the object lesson to imagine the uncounted myriads of stars present in the heavens even beyond the limits of their dark sky vision.

Abraham was the first patriarch to receive the promise of offspring more numerous than the stars (Genesis 15:5). We could speculate on his trip with son Isaac up to Mount Moriah. Perhaps they camped out under the stars the night before the planned sacrifice. What did they talk about? During our March visit to Israel we stood near, or possibly even at the site of Abraham and Isaac’s faith adventure. Historians think the present day Jerusalem Temple Mount or even Golgatha may be the very spot. Several days earlier we had stood under the stars singing “Joy to the World” at the likely pastoral site of the birth of Christ. We overlooked the currently electricity-lit town of Bethlehem in the distance. The stars were bright as we sang, but how much brighter were they when Jesus was born and the angels sang?

Christian parents should start building a strong science/faith connection for their children at an early age. As they progress through elementary school, middle school, and high school, the opportunity to foster knowledge, appreciation, respect, and even awe for the Creator and His works never wanes. Parents must then also trust instructors at school, in Bible school, and in youth programs to carry out this responsibility. I’ll confess to being an idealist in this regard. Fostering interest in and awareness of the scientific principles operating in the physical and biological world is, indeed, difficult work. The effort, however, has wide-ranging and long-lasting benefit, because it calls attention to God, the Creator.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Evidence or Revelation?

Bible topics widely thought to refer to scientific topics should be approached with care. We must be sure we are using the Scripture mainly to affirm God’s sovereignty and His relationship to His creation rather than as a science textbook. One startling 80-year-old discovery, however, seems to have been addressed in scripture 2700 years ago by several writers, and is now revealed to be prescient from a scientific perspective. We speak of the expansion of the universe, an artifact of the Big Bang.

There are eleven Old Testament passages which address the agency of God in “stretching out” the universe. Six of those passages are found in the book of Isaiah: 40:22, 42:5, 44:24, 45:12, 48:13, and 51:13. Job 9:8, Psalm 104:2, Jeremiah 10:12 and 51:15, and Zechariah 12:1 complete the catalog. Five verses use a verb to indicate the stretching was action completed, while seven others use a different Hebrew verb to indicate the stretching is a continuous, ongoing action. One verse, Isaiah 40:22, uses both verb forms.

In 1998 astronomers discovered, to their surprise, that the stretching was accelerating. This caused great excitement, because in an expanding universe the degree of fine tuning necessary for life to exist anywhere is incredible. Many well-known Christians in the science profession cite this particular example of fine tuning as evidence of the hand of God, the Designer. As I read the responses of atheistic, naturalistic scientists to these design proposals, it is clear they are unimpressed. They propose alternate explanations, such as creative multiverse theories, and generally scoff at the idea that our universe’s obvious design features have any theistic significance. Scientists who support naturalism do not envision the possibility of an omnipotent designer at work in the cosmos. Their commitment to philosophical naturalism forbids it.

Scientists, thanks to Albert Einstein, recognize the relationship between energy and mass. The mysterious dark energy apparently driving the accelerated expansion makes up about 72% of the “stuff” in the universe. With respect to the necessity of exquisite fine tuning in an accelerating expansion, the verses in Jeremiah cited above caught my eye: “God…stretched out the heavens by his understanding” (NIV). It could mean an omniscient and omnipotent God is stretching the universe at precisely the correct rate to allow life to exist. Consider Psalm 68:34: "Proclaim the power of God...whose power is in the skies." Psalm 89:5 reads, “The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord.” In this passage, the Hebrew word for wonders could also be translated as miracle. Of course, this could refer to angelic adoration of the miracle of redemption. But it is fascinating to imagine God’s miracle-working hand controlling the precision of universal expansion!

The Bible passages cited above do not consist of scientific proof with respect to the “stretching” of the heavens. Absolute proof is a difficult and elusive standard. My personal leaning on matters of the science/faith connection is toward evidentialism, but one cannot rely completely on evidence. A belief system is made reasonable and rational by evidence. Faith is strengthened by evidence and reason, but confirmed as truth in our hearts by revelation.