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.