Monday, July 31, 2017

Total Eclipse Geometry

As we write on July 30, 2017 our daily newspaper weather almanac page proclaims the moon on this date to be in first quarter phase. Careful observers watch the moon cycle through its beautiful phases once in approximately 29 1/2 days each month. On this day the sun, earth and moon form a 90º angle. After sunset, this right angle provides a view of a half illuminated moon surface called first quarter. In the coming week the sun, earth, and moon angle will increase to 180º. The side of the moon facing us will then be fully illuminated, providing a full moon on August 7.

In the week following full moon, the angle of the three bodies slowly decreases. In a week the angle of the three bodies is again 90º with the moon now on the opposite side of the earth. We experience last quarter phase on August 14. The moon is half illuminated again, but this time a different quarter of the moon is visible in sunlight. The geometry of the three bodies changes moment by moment. In one week we arrive at a very significant “straight angle” configuration of the the astronomical bodies. On August 21, 2017 we experience new moon phase. The three bodies are directly in line. In the United States a total solar eclipse is in prospect for millions of residents. We will experience the “new moon of the century” in terms of additional astronomical coincidences. 

Not since 1970 and 1979 has a total solar eclipse been visible to so many people in the US. The 1970 total solar eclipse event was visible to many people along the east coast before the shadow passed out to sea near Norfolk, VA. Even though the driving time from my home to Norfolk was approximately six hours, I made an error in judgement in not traveling to Norfolk from northern New Jersey. However, I graphed the temperature drop of 4º F while the partial eclipse progressively covered nearly the entire sun. In northern New Jersey, 3/7/70 occurred on Saturday when school was not in session. I encouraged my students to observe the eclipse with protective eye devices. During the 1979 event only a few states in the Pacific Northwest were able to observe totality.

The effective difference between observing a total eclipse of the sun in the narrow path of totality and observing the partial solar eclipse just outside the path of totality is comparable to the difference between hitting a home run in baseball just inches beyond the outfielder’s glove and having the outfielder make a leaping catch for the out. There are many other analogies we could cite to illustrate the difference between total success and great disappointment. This explains why millions of visitors will travel many miles to observe the August 21, 2017 eclipse in the narrow path of complete totality.

The shadow of a total eclipse of the sun traveling across virtually the entire United States mainland has not occurred in the US since 1918. There have been many partial solar eclipses, annular solar eclipses, and hybrid solar eclipses. Other awe-inspiring eclipses are various types of lunar eclipses. A total solar eclipse visible to so many people is a truly rare and uniquely spectacular event. We will follow the story of this great total solar eclipse both before and after it occurs.

Citizens who position themselves in the path of totality may experience various degrees of success. In one more baseball analogy we claim that totally clear skies on August 21 might be compared to hitting a baseball completely out of Yankee Stadium. But if a turn at bat barely results in a home run there is still cause for rejoicing for the winning team. With the bases empty, the team scores one run. With the bases full, our team scores four runs—a grand slam. If the ball also travels out of the stadium, we would catalog and remember the wonderful additional details forever! The events of the upcoming total solar eclipse will exceed the glory of any conceivable sports event imaginable. We may pray for clear skies, keeping in mind that we are subject to the natural vagaries of weather. Even if it is cloudy, the onset of complete darkness in the middle of the day will be an event to remember.  

This eclipse is a completely natural event but it will inspire self-transcendent, overpowering emotions. A memorable Bible verse translated by Eugene Peterson reads, “What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made the earth overflow with your wonderful creations” (Psalm 104:24 The Message Translation).            

Friday, July 28, 2017

Error-free Beginnings and Endings

Our previous post discussed the concept of an error-free creation. God did not err in creating dozens of physical constants by which our cosmos functions. Neither did he err in designing the physical structure or functionality of the human body and all other living things. We admire the beauty and organization of the created order surrounding us. Only the most negative appraisal would fault the creation at this level.

One could attempt to promote the case that the existence of death for all living things is an error in the creation process for this cosmic sphere. This proposal is in a different category than the possibility of errors in the creation and operation of our physical creation—the subject of our previous post. For example, we may believe there are “errors” in the strength of the force of gravity, the speed of light, or in the characteristics of thousands of wavelengths of electromagnetic energy by which we function moment by moment. Some skeptics may perceive error in the orientation of light-sensitive cells in the human retina, a favorite ploy of ID skeptics. Such proposals are intended to arouse suspicion concerning the ultimate wisdom of the Creator and perhaps even his existence. Such objections are essentially scientific issues. The objections are shown to be valid or invalid scientifically.

The presence of death in our universe is also a scientific matter. Scientists instruct us concerning the physiological basis for both life and death. Death is also a weighty discussion topic for philosophers. Most important, the sequence of life followed by death has theological significance. In Genesis 1:1, we discover that, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Not only did he create the matter, time, space, and energy dimensions of our universe, but it is also apparent that he put in place an incredible operating system. It is at this level of analysis that some human observers are dissatisfied with the operating system. Specifically, they object to the reality of death on our planet, especially of human death. They may even claim that the presence of human death, perhaps even death of any creature, should not have been part of God’s operating plan for Planet Earth. Did God, therefore, commit an error in permitting the existence of death?

There are some parallels between the beginning and end of human life and the beginning and end of our universe. The universe originated in a high energy birth—the Big Bang. At its beginning it possessed all the potential for a fully developed universe as it followed divinely established dictates of physical laws. For billions of years until the present it has slowly dissipated from a maximally ordered to a less ordered energy level as the present universe expands. There exists the prospect of ultimate death of the universe at a very distant point in the future. We might say that the universe is programmed to die as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (also called the Law of Decay or the Law of Entropy) operates with the progression of time. One fundamental law by which the universe operates is the 2nd Law—all systems naturally proceed from a state of higher to a state of lower useful energy. Available energy resources constantly become less useful, never the opposite.

Now consider how human life develops from birth to death. From the initial formation of a diploid zygote having all the potential for mature development, life proceeds on its journey from beginning to end. For a number of years the human body takes advantage of environmental opportunities to produce a healthy, attractive young person and adult. For several decades the resources in food and healthy activity are temporarily transformed to produce normal growth in size, body complexity, and physical and mental ability. But the increasing order, temporarily accomplished at the expense of external resources in our environment, soon reverses as humans age.

Our bodies quickly deteriorate without heroic health maintenance, along with many other features of our environment such as aging physical homesites and automobiles. Notwithstanding outstanding advances in health care, ultimately every human being experiences death. Historical records claim 100 billion people, more or less, have lived and died on Planet Earth since modern man was created. Of 7.5 billion people currently living, they will all have died not far into the 22nd century. This does not sound pretty, but our universe’s 2nd Law of Thermodynamics operates to support the births and deaths of the universe, humanity, and all creatures who have ever lived.

Theological strife has sometimes resulted from the proposal that all death in this universe has been the result of the original sin of Adam. In our brief and incomplete response, we propose that verses such as Romans 5:12 (Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…) refer primarily to spiritual death as the result of man’s sin. We recommend reading this 2011 post in which we covered questions of death and the 2nd Law overlay governing all of our experiences from birth to death:

We decry the idea that God made mistakes in his creation, including the establishment of death as a fundamental characteristic of existence in our universe. The Creator knew man would quickly exercise his free will to sin against him in the early days of Adam and Eve’s residence on Earth. Before the beginning of time God knew humanity would need redemption (Tit. 1:2 NIV). Sin is at the root of man’s spiritual death. This is the the real subject of Romans 5.

In God’s infinite wisdom he created a universe where the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics could benefit human existence. In many cases the Law of Decay works to human advantage. Yes, sometimes the Law results in inconvenience, discomfort, or worse. In this complex topic, the broad scope lesson lies in our understanding that, “…my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord (Isa. 55:8 NIV). In the future New Creation described in Revelation 21 our Maker may choose to reveal answers to questions we may not even imagine in our present realm.    


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

No Creation Errors

A look at the creation of Planet Earth, our Solar System, the Milky Way galaxy, and our entire cosmos reveals a creation with no divine errors. If we believe in an omniscient and omnipotent Creator, we posit that his works of creation are mistake-free. From a human perspective, however, we may errantly identify many “errors.” As we talk with friends concerning the reality of God and his characteristics, a common thread sometimes runs through our discussions: Why didn’t God…..? Why doesn’t God reveal himself by…..? According to our friends’ human reckoning, they believe an answer to these questions according to their personal viewpoint might affirm the reality of God’s existence or reveal his attributes. We believe human answers to these questions would do little to affirm the Creator’s existence or reveal his characteristics.

We are tempted to ask our friends, “What would be the characteristics of a perfect world?” Descriptions of our “perfect world” may be interminably long. Some folks may realize the futility of their project. Countless volumes have been produced describing the physical world as it currently exists. Most secular books describe our world with detailed accounts of an ordered and well-designed physical system. Most people would be unable to deny the existence of a lengthy collection of orderly characteristics and designs. Fanciful proposals of a human designed “perfect world,” however, would descend into triviality and ignorance. 

Would we change any of the dozens of physical constants by which our world currently operates in a predictable and orderly manner? Does anyone wish to change the predictable force of gravity on Planet Earth? Would we consider modifying the virtually unlimited manifestations of electromagnetic energy by which light and heat are transferred and by which modern communications are enabled? Personal studies may reveal precise empirical facts about charges, masses, and sizes of atomic particles which compose the matter of our physical existence. These are just several of dozens of characteristics of matter known as physical constants. They are the immutable design characteristics of our cosmos. Not even one of these constants could vary and still permit life to exist anywhere in the universe. Moreover, altering any of the constants would plunge the cosmic system into chaos.

In more specific areas of life science, secular scientist Fred Hoyle in his 1984 volume Intelligent Universe compared “the chance of obtaining even a single functioning protein by chance combination of amino acids to a star system full of blind men solving Rubik’s Cube simultaneously.” Intuitively, when we examine the millions of different Earth species, we perceive that there were no mistakes by the Creator in their production, physical design, and behavioral manifestations.  

Modern skeptics of intelligent design select the human “inverted retina,” as an example of errant design. They claim the cells in the vertebrate retina are oriented functionally sub-optimally because retinal photoreceptors are oriented away from incoming light. We must pass over many pages of detailed scientific evidence and claim that “if the human retina were (not inverted), we have no evidence that vision would be better. Most likely, it would be worse.” (ASA fellow Jerry Bergman, in “Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith,” March 2000.) 

Some non-theistic scientists dwell on other fanciful ideals for their proposals of a “perfect world” of living creatures—different from our current one. The Creator’s “mistakes” are supposedly demonstrated by the human esophagus, the panda’s thumb, the human appendix, and pseudogenes, all pronounced to be wasteful or unnecessary. These famous objections have been debunked many times.

As we examine our universe, the life forms within it, and the unique visual beauty and physical organization of several million species of life forms, we caution our readers that any effort to identify errant designs or inefficient processes in our physical planetary system, including its living systems is doomed to fail. God has made no errors in his personal creative actions, but he may have a purpose in allowing error in the behavior of his redeemed people. Such error by humanity is the result of God’s gift of free will.

We conclude our discussion of the absence of errors in God’s creation with Psalm 145:3 (ESV): “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.”       

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Repeating Natural Wonders

In ten years of our science/faith blog we have made 14 references to the unique monarch butterfly. Four entries were detailed personal family accounts of the monarch phenomenon. First, our gymnastics instructor son, unbeknown to me, challenged his young gymnastics students for an out-of-the-gym project. They were to search for and collect a few familiar monarch caterpillars on local milkweed plants, carefully feed them fresh leaves in an aerated, covered jar for a week or more, and observe the incredible phenomenon of a fully grown caterpillar suspending itself in its familiar upside-down J-form before shedding its skin to form its gold-bejeweled green chrysalis. When I asked where he got the idea for this student project, he reminded me of family projects with monarchs when he was a child. We have a picture of Brad as a kindergartner holding a jar lid and a newly emerged butterfly. We also have a letter from his third grade teacher commending him on his oral Monarch presentation for his classmates.

We continue describing the monarch saga from chrysalis to adult monarch. After a week or so, the emerald green chrysalis begins to change color, revealing the compressed orange and black monarch wings within the now clear, cellophane-thin chrysalis covering. Soon, the monarch butterfly breaks loose from its confinement and almost immediately begins to inflate its wings to its adult full measure while clinging to what is left of the chrysalis. With experience we learned to carefully transport the newly hatched monarch outdoors as it clung for dear life to the remains of its hatching nursery venue. After several hours the monarch gains strength and deems it is time to launch as an adult. In our region, depending on how far summer has advanced, the adult monarch will reproduce a new generation. After a few weeks sampling nectar, mating and producing tiny eggs placed on the bottom of milkweed plants, its life ends. The remarkable last generation of the the summer wings its way to central Mexico despite multiple travel hazards in order to overwinter in a specific few hectares of Mexican forest. They become the next season’s first generation up north of the border.

When we visited our son’s home in Iowa this year in late June, we experienced a throwback to the joys of observing this ancient natural wonder. His own children now participate in the monarch saga. One evening we observed a color-changed chrysalis attached to a leaf taped under the kitchen cabinet. The next morning it had hatched. We coaxed it onto a marigold out on the deck. After about two hours of contemplation, the butterfly deemed it was ready to fly away on its adult mission but not before we asked three preschoolers to pose for a photograph as inspectors. After a long wait, only Grandpa was present at the precise moment of the initial launch event—a first for him! 

As our family became older some of the children became expert at finding the tiny, lemon-shaped monarch eggs, exceeding even their father’s and their grandfather’s skill in studying the initial stage of metamorphosis. One of the most fascinating observations followed as we watched tiny new caterpillars break out of the pinhead sized egg and multiply their body weight by a factor of a thousand in ensuing days. Consider the information stored in the tiny egg—all the stages of design, growth, and behavior, including finding its way to a tiny forest site in Mexico for the last generation of the summer.

Since our early blog posts on the wondrous monarch, their numbers have been in serious decline for several reasons. After the turn of the millennium, the species experienced a severe winter freeze in Mexico, other storms in their limited wintering area, and constant threats from loggers intent on harvesting the trees in their winter roosting area. In their summertime abode the lifeline milkweed crop is threatened by agricultural herbicides and other hazards. Groups such as Monarch Joint Venture (MJV) are committed to improving monarch habitat including restoring milkweed plants in their former range.

All butterflies, moths, and many other insects experience unique wonders in their metamorphosis process sequences. Individual patterns of unique behavior are plentiful in thousands of different species-specific specimens. Of multiple behaviors during metamorphosis, we mention only one other. Swallowtail butterflies weave themselves a silken support harness in which to insert themselves for their motionless chrysalis stage. Unique programming of each of hundreds of steps in four stage metamorphosis is a source of wonder at the manifestations of behavior arising from simple combinations of living chemicals. Although such behavior does not rise to the marvel of human consciousness, animal behavior gives rich cause to contemplate their version of consciousness.

In Psalm 104:24 (NLT) the author proclaims his worshipful exuberance: “O LORD, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures.” Intuitively we recognize the reality of God’s creative activity, not only with respect to the physical designs of living creatures, but also with respect to their inherent behaviors. When working with young people admiring the awe-inspiring behavior of living creatures, I have expressed this thought on many occasions: God had many great ideas!          


Saturday, July 8, 2017

Science or Ideology?

Ideology is the systematic body of ideas, ideals, and beliefs forming the basis of human action. Science is the systematic study of the physical world in order to acquire knowledge about how it works. Knowledge of how our world works may be influenced by the ideology we bring to the study process. 

To what degree is scientific discovery tainted or influenced by ideology of the scientists? All parties may not agree on the results of scientific studies and research. Even fewer may agree on the action plan our results suggest. This statement implies some science is heavy on ideology and could have negative outcomes. We acknowledge that ideology could have both negative and positive results as we appraise the fruit of science discovery. The statement “Science tells us that…” could be heavily value-laden. 

The scope of the 450-year old Scientific Revolution is often misunderstood. In that period science has provided us with a wonderful means of discovery of the truths of our physical world, invention, and application. Modern society could not function without its benefits. Science existed prior to the revolution but its impact was inconsistent among the world’s cultures. Some productive empiricism, observation, and induction existed but utilization of formal scientific method was still distant.

The Scientific Revolution formalized the methods of science investigation and research and has paralleled other important social revolutions such as the modern Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolutions, the Urban Sanitary Revolution and the 19th century medical revolution in Germ Theory. Each of these revolutions was opposed by some members of society on ideological grounds. In terms of pure science, ideology has sometimes blocked the way to truth discovery.

In our study of science we are concerned about the philosophy of science which overviews our concerns about these issues. At the risk of complicating (or clarifying) our discussion, we present a definition of science philosophy: “Philosophers of science typically understand the epistemological and philosophical dimensions of science—presuppositions, values, what kinds of knowledge claims are being made and how they are justified.”  

Science historian Mary Jo Nye, speaking about famous science philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) writes, “By the 1970s practitioners of the social construction of science…were explaining scientific theories as the result of negotiations of competing interests within scientific communities, so that scientists’ claims for the value-free objectivity and universal validity of their results became a matter of self-interest rather than reflections of the natural world.” Polanyi stressed the importance of personal commitment in the practice of science. He claimed personal knowledge and commitment drove the scientist more than scientific method. “We believe more than we can prove; we know more than we can say,” stated Polanyi. One of his signature publications was titled “Personal Knowledge.” With this degree of personal input to science, we observe that science is not a totally objective field of study.

Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), physicist, historian, and philosopher of science wrote of “paradigm shifts” instead of linear progress in our knowledge of science. The scientific community is ruled by shifting consensus. His seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was not the first to advance the idea that personalities and politics play a large role in science. Many modern science philosophers such as Karl Popper (1902-1994) and Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) have advanced divergent views of the objective certainty of science truth as opposed to science as just another ideology.

Like it or not, ideology and science always overlap. We challenge readers to investigate the difficult complexity of this phenomenon for themselves. Instead of the hope of separating ideology from science, we must accept the benefit of ideology in all human production, science included. We strive for sound thinking as we search for an appropriate balance. Neither ideology nor science exists as a singular entity.

Christians working professionally in physical sciences, earth sciences, or biological sciences may interpret scripture passages as devotional or inspirational in their professional activity. Jeremiah 33:25 refers to the fixed laws of heaven and earth. The astrophysicist takes inspiration from insightful cosmic commentary by the prophet in Isaiah 40:21-26. The famous passages in Psalm 139 on the fearfully wonderful prenatal “weaving” of our unformed body motivates awe for the omnipotent Author of Life. A case could easily be made that ideology, tantamount to worldview, inspires professional production. 

The differences between ideology and worldview are subtle. The influence of ideology could channel scientific process or application in many different directions. For example, if political or profit-minded ideology negatively impacts science, results could be more harmful to science than devotional or inspirational effects. Actions resulting from benevolent or altruistic ideology is a desirable outcome of the linkage of ideology and science.      



Monday, July 3, 2017

Harmful Climate Actions

The presidential Climate Action Plan was offered by President Obama in 2008 and biennially renewed until 2013. The plan progressively developed until 2015 and resulted in a consensus agreement on 12/12/15—the Paris Climate Accord—and a more formal agreement signed on 11/4/16. President Trump withdrew our country from the accord on the first day he took office. Most people understand the provisions of climate change actions: the issue revolves around reducing CO2 by curtailing use of fossil fuels, embracing instead alternate energy sources at a huge cost. It is likely that most supporters of climate change see climate change issues as relatively simple—reduce global warming by limiting the world-wide use of fossil fuels. The solution seems obvious, they claim. Concomitant reality is far more difficult.

Almost all world attention focuses on avoiding the horrors of a vastly warmer future Earth and the stark necessity of achieving this effect no matter what the cost. The worst case climate scenario is terrifyingly frightening as are all worst case possibilities in significant realms of life on our planet. A generous measure of Godly wisdom is desperately needed. The Creator has gifted humanity with innate wisdom to discover truth.

World opinion concerning climate change focuses almost exclusively on the potential  disaster of a warming Earth. Humanity has experienced a naturally warming Earth several times in the past ten millennia. Of course, the warm spells were interspersed with cool spells. In general, climate alarmists speculate the climate sensitivity is high, believing even small amounts of human contribution to warming are magnified. Climate skeptics perceive that climate sensitivity is low, in keeping with their feeling that CO2 does not cause as much warming as previously thought. The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation believes recent global warming has been largely natural with some minor anthropogenic contribution and does not pose major risks. The Cornwall Alliance is an evangelical coalition promoting environmental stewardship and economic development built on Biblical principles. Average laypersons could become confused at conflicting scientific claims and counterclaims offered on both sides of the climate question.

We wind down current discussion of this lively topic with our claim that some scientists’ projections of climate disaster are subject to error. It is also fraught with a generous degree of ideology. If this claim is true, we possess substantial complications in our effort to arrive at truth and a proper solution to perceived climate problems. Causes and effects of climate are enormously complex especially when causes are oversimplified. Factoring ideology into complex climate issues results in confusion.

Oversimplified effects, while not judged to be a fallacy such as “oversimplified cause,” are worth considering. For example, many global warming enthusiasts have proposed that largely undeveloped, poor countries of the world would be most impacted by increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, more frequent and violent storms, and other dangerous outcomes. If those outcomes were actually to occur, perhaps poor nations may be more vulnerable than wealthy, developed societies. Alarmists’ concern for these underdeveloped countries, however, is misdirected. There exists a far more significant threat to undeveloped nations—an economic threat linked with draconian Paris Climate Accord solutions. The Paris Accord would primarily focus on weaning society of fossil fuels in favor of much more expensive renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and biomass.

Over a decade ago two different evangelical groups began to make pronouncements about climate issues and the responsibilities of Christians to respond with respect to poor, undeveloped nations of the world. In the evangelical community, these two groups set different priorities in their responses. The Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) published their Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI). They stated and still state that the consequences of climate change will be significant, hittiing the world’s poor the hardest. Their worries seemed justified in terms of scriptural exhortations on behalf of the poor. Concerns for the poor centered on environmental factors such as mentioned in the previous paragraph—unbearable heat, rising sea levels, frequent and violent storms, and additional destructive outcomes.

The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation responded with a 12,000-word, point by point rebuttal to the ECI. They countered that “The destructive impact on the poor of enormous mandatory reductions in fossil fuel use far exceeds the impact on them—negative or positive—of the moderate global warming that is likely to occur. Indeed, the policy promoted by the ECI would be both economically devastating and ineffective in reducing global warming. Because energy is an essential component in almost all economic production, reducing its use and driving up its costs will slow economic development, reduce overall productivity, and increase costs of all goods including the food, clothing, shelter, and other goods most essential to the poor.”

In 2017 this statement has proven prophetic in terms of the unrealistic proposals of the Paris Climate Accord. In keeping with the complexity of this issue for lay observers, we must review the history of the United States in its formative years. In the early 19th century, our country embraced the energy resources initially becoming available to them: coal, petroleum, and to a lesser degree, natural gas. These fuels powered the country into prosperity as a modern society. Only recently has our country begun to utilize more costly alternative renewable energy resources such as wind, solar, hydropower, nuclear. In undeveloped nations the costs would be overwhelming. If developed nations wish to benefit poor nations, supplying finances for clean water, indoor plumbing, sewage treatment plants, improving medical care and adequate nutrition would fulfill that desire. 

Poor and undeveloped countries need fossil fuels to continue on their path to economic development just as the US has done in the past 150 years. The Paris Climate Accord would stifle their quest for economic development while primarily shifting the burden to developed countries at the cost of trillions of dollars as they transition to more expensive renewable energy sources. We encourage readers to study the reasons many world leaders were angry when the US withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord. Global leaders had hoped the United States would bear the brunt of trillions of dollars in future costs for the world’s transition away from fossil fuels.

Psalm 90:12 (NIV) reminds us: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Numbering our days may mean that we should make wise use of our time so that we may gain wisdom by our study of the most important climatissues of the day.