Saturday, June 27, 2009

When Did Leeuwenhoek Know?

The well-known phrase “What did he know, and when did he know it?” is an artifact of past courtroom inquiries. As I research scientific discoveries since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, that phrase frequently comes to mind. Sometimes I am amazed how long ago certain discoveries were made; at other times, how recently.

Our world revealed by the microscope and telescope came more clearly into view with advances in the 17th century. Robert Hooke was a versatile scientist who, among other wide ranging discoveries, experimented with the compound microscope. Perhaps more credit in microscopy, however, should go to Hooke’s contemporary, Dutch textile merchant Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). Leeuwenhoek’s simple microscopes were superior in many respects.

Considered the father of microbiology, Leeuwenhoek is said to be an “unlikely” scientist. In the first decades of his life he was not formally educated and did not have a scientific background. But his curiosity led him to develop simple one-lens microscopes which have been shown to magnify up to 300 or more times. With them he first viewed and described the wonders of the microscopic world such as living bacteria, green algae (spirogyra), protozoa, animal sperm cells, blood flow in capillaries, and much more. He named these tiny organisms “animalcules.” He debunked an idea popular at the time--spontaneous generation, and showed that fertilization and reproduction occurred by the union of sperm and egg.

Leeuwenhoek is an interesting example of an ordinary non-scientist whose scientific interest and perseverance provided personal enjoyment and a permanent legacy. He wrote many letters describing his extraordinary discoveries, especially to the Royal Society of London, but did not otherwise publish his findings. He also kept secret his method of producing the tiny spheres of glass which became the high powered lenses for his simple microscopes. He thought that by revealing his manufacturing secrets the scientific community would quickly forget his role in innovative microscope technology.

He made many references to the wonders of God’s great and small creatures. Leeuwenhoek spoke reverently that his discoveries bespoke the wonders of creation and the Creator and expressed, in his Dutch Reformed Calvinist faith, a high view of scripture and salvation in Christ. He was part of a large contingent of famous early scientists such as Robert Boyle who believed natural laws were originated by God and that our discovery of them works both to the glory of God and the benefit of man.

There is a strange irony evident in the observation that many early scientists had no difficulty crediting God with creative authorship in the world of nature. As marvelous as were the early discoveries such as Leeuwenhoek’s, the extended discoveries in the world of biology and in most other fields of science, especially in the last 50 years outdistance them exponentially. This highlights a strange phenomenon in the world of modern science. Many scientists express disdain for propositions of design in the physical and biological world. They hide securely behind their insistence that pure science seeks to propose only naturalistic explanations for observed phenomena.

Early scientists such as Leeuwenhoek and Boyle had no problem recognizing and celebrating the apparent work of the Creator in the world of nature. This occurred hundreds of years before many scientists demanded that all scientific propositions be framed in naturalistic terms. The question is not whether a proposal meets the parameters of “science” as defined by our contemporary scientists. Rather, we should be concerned whether proposals that supernatural input is evident, which in some cases may exceed purely natural events, pass the “smell test” of logic, reason, and rationality.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Stuff of Life

Readers old enough to have studied biology before 1960 now realize that the course emphasis has changed. We recall a term for the “living substance” of the cell: protoplasm. The concept originated in the 19th century. Compared with the knowledge of cells available today, 1950s knowledge could be considered the dark ages of biology.

Back then, high school and college biology courses were mainly studies in anatomy and basic physiology. But beginning about 1960, life science was highlighted differently. The catch-all term protoplasm has become the dinosaur of studies in biology. In 1868, T. H. Huxley described protoplasm as “the physical basis of life,” a basic homogenous stuff made of protein. The 20th century brought discovery of enzyme catalysis and more knowledge of complexity, but the deepest knowledge of cell function has occurred in the last sixty years. Fazale Rana, in The Cell’s Design, states, “The ever increasing understanding of the cell’s chemistry has revolutionized our daily lives. Biochemistry drives many of the technological advances in biomedicine, agriculture, and even industry.”

The quantum leap in knowledge of molecular genetics in the same time frame--discovery of DNA as the material of information storage and heredity, and RNA as processing director--greatly strengthened recognition of the appearance of design. To illustrate this knowledge leap, consider the fact that most children, about half-way through their first decade of life, learn how to operate a bicycle. The skill seems to arrive suddenly and intuitively. Years later he may learn about the physics of energy, forces, motion, friction, and mechanical advantage. His knowledge expands exponentially. The joy of learning the operational skill is marvelously enriched by discovery of the underlying physical laws which make bike riding possible. Likewise, our knowledge of the complex coding system of DNA in just one cell’s nucleus helps us appreciate “the physical basis of life,” Huxley’s dimly visualized dream.

Recently our local pregnancy center sponsored a “Walk for the Unborn.” The goal of such ministries is not solely to counsel and promote respect for life, important as that is. The larger aim for these events is the awareness of the real tragedy of abortion, the destruction of embryos and fetuses possessing FULL personhood. The foundational concepts promoted by such ministries are far more profound in light of our knowledge gains in the last six decades. We must cite once more the majestic passage in Psalm 139 by King David. Is this passage poetic, or presciently scientific? In the light of our expanding knowledge base, it is both.

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made: your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” Psalm 139:13-16 (NIV).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Nature's Symmetry

We referred to the laws of nature in a previous post, somewhat lightly, as “rules of the game.” These laws, or rules, have their basis in a more fundamental, but less familiar concept called “symmetry.” Nature’s symmetry may be described with terms such as balance, predictability, regularity, invariance, and repeatability. When we refer to nature’s symmetry, therefore, we are referring to nature’s coherent orderliness. Symmetry implies conservation laws.

Our recent post on the law of conservation of mass reminds us of a corollary--the law of conservation of energy. Albert Einstein connected mass and energy, and scientists now also refer to the law of conservation of mass/energy. The term energy sometimes refers to a fossil fuel product such as oil or gas. We refer to the “energy crisis” as a situation where supply and demand for these products are not in balance, causing shortages and price inflation.

The textbook definition of energy is different. Energy is the capacity or ability to do work. When work is done, a push or pull force moves an object. No work is done unless an object is moved, regardless of how much force is applied.

Energy takes many forms. Kinetic energy is energy present due to the motion of an object. A moving object can accomplish work, because it may move some other object. Potential energy takes two forms--gravitational potential energy and chemical potential energy. A large boulder hanging on a cliff has much potential energy due to its position: it could do a lot of “work” (destructive damage in this case) if it fell. A gallon of gasoline has chemical potential energy: burned in an automobile it could move your vehicle 20 miles. There are other types of energy capable of accomplishing work, such as electromagnetic energy (light or infrared waves), sound energy (voices or music), and heat energy (molecules in motion).

Each day of our lives, energy changes form many times during the course of our activities. If we start our car, the burning of fuel--chemical energy--is converted ultimately to motion of the car, heat of the engine, and sound of the motor. As the vehicle travels along, it transfers motion to the air. The swirling air, in turn, causes the leaves and grass to wave in the breeze, creating a gentle rustling sound. Where did the engine’s heat go? It is still in the air, but now widely diffused. All the other forms of energy are also present in a different form, perhaps as a very slightly higher air temperature. No energy is lost; rather, it has merely changed form. It may be less useful now because it is more diffused, but the total quantity of energy still exists. Einstein saw the relationship between mass and energy. We say the total mass/energy of any isolated system is conserved no matter what other changes occur.

As we recognize the coherent orderliness, the symmetry of nature’s laws, we might also logically and rationally deduce the existence of the Author of the symmetry which governs our universe. Scientists are discovering more and more about the macro- and micro-functioning of our universe. They acknowledge that nature’s symmetry is more and more apparent with each new discovery.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Physical and Spiritual Laws

Not surprisingly, theories and laws of science do not rise to the level of curiosity and fascination for most people who are content to defer to experts in the field. They are satisfied to endorse the bus company advertising slogan of “Leave the driving to us.” At a basic level, however, they are able to understand that every human activity in the physical realm must obey the set of laws which governs matter. The purpose of this blog is to promote understanding of the laws of matter’s governance and their connection with matters of faith. We could call it “consumer education.” An informed consumer will have an enhanced level of “product enjoyment” based on knowledge.

There are numerous examples. Builders of homes and skyscrapers know the principles of physics which, applied to their constructions, provide functionality such as load-bearing stability. Musicians know the physics of sound production. They subjectively understand what is consonant or dissonant, and its physical basis as well. On the level of human interaction, similar principles apply. Skilled teachers know the complex characteristics of their students, and appropriate strategies for achieving successful learning. Familiarity with characteristics and operational rules, therefore, is a prerequisite for the design of a successful final product.

Highly educated people in any field of learning study in detail the theory and philosophy which undergird the knowledge and value of their academic specialty. But what about the people who are not scholars? Consumers of today’s products are becoming increasingly adept at end-stage applications, but more ignorant of nature’s constants, physical laws, and theories which sparked initial discoveries and now sustain ongoing improvement and refinement. I’ve noted and admired the speed with which most members of our younger generation intuitively comprehend the operational logic of even the newest, most complex technological marvels. New products are proliferating at a breakneck rate, and in our culture there is little need to know anything but applied skills.

Even our church leaders and church members may place too much emphasis on satisfying easy consumerism. A legitimate concern for pastors in our churches is how parishioners may achieve ownership of the theological “rules of the game”--the rules defining belief and behavior. Scripture has significant references to topics we would call scientific in our day, such as advice to study the heavens (the cosmos) and the orderliness of our universe. The Book of Job, in its fascinating insights, proclaims, “He establishes order in the heights of heaven” (Job 25:2 NIV).

Consider the connection between lack of knowledge of God-authored physical constants and laws, and lack of knowledge of God-authored spiritual constants or spiritual laws. Ignorance of or disobedience to physical laws could result in bodily injury or death in situations related to laws of gravitation or laws of motion. Likewise, ignorance, disregard, or disobedience in the spiritual realm results in spiritual disfigurement or death. Imagine the disastrous confusion in societies where the principles of the ten commandments are unknown or dishonored. Consider Moses’ end-of-life instruction to his people about keeping the laws of God: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deut. 30:19 NIV).

If we lack certainty about cause and effect in either sphere, and if we are uncertain that both spheres are authored and connected by God the Creator, we reduce our prospects for success in either sphere.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Changeless Physical Laws

Our recent posts on physical constants take me back several decades in my teaching career. One summer, after returning from a trip to the western states, I discovered the district science chairman had lined up a workshop for science teachers in my region. A course called “Introductory Physical Science” had just been developed for use as an 8th or 9th grade offering. Its goals and concepts were lofty and ahead of the curve in science education. Lawrence S. Lerner, science author and textbook critic, offered this appraisal of the IPS course in 1999: “The authors of Introductory Physical Science show the student how science is done, and they teach the student to think like a scientist. Their strategy…is to take the student through a series of experiments and analyses that amount to an abridged account of the development of chemistry and physics from the mid-1700s to 1900 or so.” From my experience, I agree that the IPS course helped students “think like a scientist.”

The experiments were carefully structured and sequenced to accomplish that goal. An offensively odorous introductory experiment on the destructive distillation of wood successfully captured the interest not only of our class members, but also everyone else at our end of the building. Then the students, in pairs, launched into a series of five varied experiments. Those activities purposed to demonstrate that, regardless of other apparent and significant changes occurring, the mass of matter in the isolated chemical system at each table was completely conserved. The changes involved dissolving a solid in a liquid, freezing and melting, generating a gas by adding a solid to a liquid, and two spectacular chemical change experiments in which new compounds were formed: a bright yellow solid precipitate formed by mixing two clear solutions, and another reaction generating intense heat, a red-hot glow, and production of an obviously new substance when two powdered solids were mixed and heated.

Beyond much doubt, we discovered that mass was completely conserved. We carefully measured the masses of the systems before and after. We accumulated results from as many as fifty pairs of experimenting students for each of five different types of chemical events. The blackboards were filled with experimental data, student-crafted bar graphs displayed our derived results, and we discussed possible errors and what our results could mean--all of this contributed to a sense of student satisfaction that they were actually discovering for themselves the important principles which would trigger further questions and experiments. After the complete year of IPS, students possessed an experimental justification for concluding that matter is composed of particles. This concept was only imagined by ancient thinkers, and only proven convincingly by scientists in the last two or three centuries.

In our recent posts we have spoken how precisely the masses of some of these particles have been determined in the last few decades. Masses of the proton, neutron, and electron are known to one or two parts per million. Experiments such as those carried out by IPS students (as well as high-tech science laboratories) have shown that the mass of everyday matter is invariant; it is conserved. The conservation of matter is now a scientific law based on plentiful observations of the way our universe operates under every conceivable circumstance.

It would seem that if the Creator of Heaven and Earth caused matter to operate according to what we might call absolutes, we might also devote some thought to the Creator’s absolutes in the moral realm: “I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6 NIV). There is a rational connection between the operation of our physical world and the operation of behavioral moral absolutes. In this relativistic post-modern culture, we must contemplate this harmony in the physical and moral spheres.