Thursday, May 4, 2017

A World Working Well

Our current focus on the wonders of air pressure directs us to some deeper questions. It is appropriate to backtrack somewhat to discuss a few questions about constantly moving sub-microscopic atoms and molecules. Children and adults fascinated by air pressure will profit from a discussion of the structure and characteristics of atoms and molecules. In the case of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, argon and all other atoms found in air, the atom is a marvel of structure and predictability. The nucleus, where over 99% of atomic mass occurs, is composed of tightly packed protons and neutrons held together by one of the four fundamental forces of nature—the strong nuclear force. Electrons swarming around the nucleus are kept in place close to the nucleus by another fundamental force—electromagnetic force.

How is our discussion related to air pressure? The atmosphere is composed of oxygen, nitrogen, argon, carbon, and other elements. Components of air molecules—protons, neutrons, and electrons—cohere by powerful forces. Two of the four universal (or fundamental) forces, the strong nuclear force and the electromagnetic force insure that these atoms hold together instead of generating a chaotic mass of protons, neutrons, electrons, and smaller particles such as quarks which compose them. Without the ever-present universal forces, our world’s matter would not exist as we know it. For example, some scientists humorously write that the protons in the nucleus of every atom in our universe have no business holding together in their densely packed condition. They are all positively charged particles in close proximity. Like charges repel. Why don’t the seven protons in nitrogen atoms and the eight protons in oxygen atoms fly apart? The answer lies with the strong nuclear force holding the particles together within the atoms’ nucleus.

For children and adults a discussion of the wonder of air molecules responsible for Earth’s ubiquitous air pressure phenomena may be appropriate. Diatomic molecules of nitrogen and oxygen composing 99% of our atmosphere each have nuclei which cohere by the strong force. In our last post (4-30-17) we stated there are 2.5 septillion air molecules in one cubic meter of air. Consider a smaller volume: In one cubic inch of air there are 440 quintillion air molecules at sea level. With either volume of air we deal with inconceivable numbers of molecules.

Especially curious older children and adults may understand that molecules of air are unlike simple sub-microscopic beads zipping around. Air’s uncountable billions of molecules zig-zag around at 1000 mph. Air possesses atoms whose components are held together by the strong nuclear force. When we discover the 14.7 lb. per square inch force of air pressure from air molecules colliding with any surface they contact, we have additional reasons to express open-mouthed wonder.

Children in Middle School learn basic atomic structure: protons, neutrons, and electrons. In subsequent years they study additional truths about the matter in air as reported to us by particle physicists. We trust that heavy scientific truths do not tire our young people prematurely. Parents and instructors must be alert for teachable moments. We propose that discussions or demonstrations of visible vs invisible forces are appropriate even for young children.

A startling New Testament passage occurs in the Book of Colossians. We do not quote these verses as a “proof text.” The Colossians passage may bring to mind a sometimes lively discussion of a little known term: Concordism. Some theologians believe that scripture provides explicit modern scientific truths. For example, they believe almost everything we wish to discover about creation events or the age of the earth is revealed by Bible passages. Such people are called “hard concordists” by astrophysicist/theologian Hugh Ross. In contrast, Ross describes “soft concordists” as less rigid. They “seek agreement between properly interpreted scripture passages that describe some aspect of the natural realm and indisputably and well-established data in science.” 

With the definition of “soft concordism” in mind, we quote from Colossians 1:16-17: “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17 NIV.) These verses reference (1) the initial creation event, (2) two realms of existence, temporal and eternal, (3) visibility and invisibility, (4) purpose of creation (for him), (5) time frames (before all things), and (6) holding together (coherence) of matter. The Colossians passage is startling because centuries before the scientific revolution of the past 400 years, the Apostle Paul expressed these powerful scientific insights. Whether or not this is an example of hard or soft concordism, the passage reinforces our collective worship experience.

The concept of “a world working well” has broad significance. It could mean working well spiritually, socially, politically, or a host of other operational possibilities. In the context of our blog, we stress working well in a physical and scientific sense as affirmation of the past and present work of the Creator and to provide support for belief in the existence of God. If our world does not work well in a physical sense, our experience in other spheres of existence is weakened. Worse, If our physical world were to operate chaotically and unpredictably, the supporting framework of our physical existence may not exist. 

Depending on their age, children may be aware of protons and neutrons in atoms of air molecules. The mass of every proton and the mass of every neutron is identical and constant within their nuclei. The force binding protons together with neutrons in the nucleus, the nuclear strong force, is also constant. A slightly heavier or lighter neutron or a slight strengthening or weakening of the nuclear strong force would preclude life on Earth. Even one of hundreds of other slight changes in our working well world would make life on Earth impossible. 

We used Earth’s atmosphere and air pressure as a launch point of discussion. Each of quintillions of atoms in a single cubic inch of air obeys fundamental physical constants and universal laws of force.    

We link our post from 8-4-2008: