Friday, February 24, 2012

Water's Anomalies

One of my temptations as a science classroom teacher was to devote unequal time to curricular topics for which I had a special fondness. The district curriculum, of course, outlined the topics to be covered. Time requirements for sub-topics were not rigorously spelled out. Sometimes I found myself covering certain topics in astronomy and meteorology more extensively, because those topics were especially fascinating for me.

Within the weather unit, water was an ever-present topic of relevance. Using just one example, water has unique properties with respect to its ability to hold and distribute heat energy. A catalog of water’s behavior when heat flows in or out, resulting in temperature change, state change, or changes in a large variety of other properties, would fill volumes. With varying degrees of success I resisted the temptation to make the study of water a full-fledged, self contained mini-unit. Notwithstanding, several topics relating to the multiple, unexpected anomalies of water assumed front and center standing in my classroom for a few days each year.

For instance, it is well known that matter expands when heated and contracts when cooled. Welcome to an anomaly provided by water. (An anomaly is defined as an unexpected outcome, deviating from what is standard, normal, or expected.) At a narrow, commonly experienced temperature range in earth’s temperate zones where a vast majority of earth’s population resides, the expected behavior of water is sometimes turned on its head. Water contracts as it is cooled toward 39˚F. But when water is gradually cooled below 39˚F it begins to expand, and finally expands dramatically when it freezes solid upon reaching 32˚F.

The grief of burst winter water pipes aside, this behavior has many beneficial effects. Because of the polarity of water molecules (explained in our last post), water molecules slowly begin to assume a hexagonal, crystalline structure below 39˚ F. Then they suddenly lock into the complete, rigid crystalline structure when the 32˚ freezing temperature is reached. The ice expands greatly, becoming only 91% as dense, because a little extra space is formed within the hexagonal crystalline structure. Ice forms, therefore, at the top of a water body and our ice cubes float atop our beverages.

There is much more to know. Come spring, the geometric structure breaks down almost completely when the ice melts. The water is now denser and begins to sink toward the lake bottom. When water warms to 39˚F it is densest because the crystalline structure has broken down completely. Heated above 39˚F other factors take over and the water begins to expand, becoming less dense, and remaining at the top of the water. What is the upshot of water being least dense at 32˚F? In winter we skate on ice at the top of the lake. The ice also acts as an insulating layer for the water beneath. The bottom of the lake remains at 39˚F all year long, providing a constant environment for fish which require such conditions. The warmest water is at the bottom of the lake in winter but at the top of the lake in summer. Swimming is more enjoyable.

This post is not meant to create technical expertise among my readers. Its purpose is, however, to inspire wonder and curiosity. We wonder, “Why does such a plentiful, common, even 'plain' substance such as water possess such a wealth of unusual and unexpected properties?” The answer lies in understanding that water must have its set of unique properties in order to sustain the life of earth’s many creatures, great and small, including man.

We might ask why the 105˚ angle of the two hydrogen atoms with the single oxygen atom in the water molecule results in a certain set of properties for water. In most questions of this sort, we could respond that Condition A is followed by Result B. We could also respond that changing Condition A would change Result B in some respect and perhaps offer some explanation. But why did Condition A result in a particular Result B in the first place? There is no real reason except to say that physical constants and the laws of nature dependent on them are out of man’s control. They are under divine control. Man is primarily an observer and ultimately, a consumer. Man’s activities depend on the Designer who lovingly provides us opportunities for utilizing His designs.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Just Plain Water

When the restaurant waitress inquires if we would care to have something to drink, I sometimes reply, “I’ll just have plain water.” My reply belies the complex and uniquely wonderful properties of water. Its colorless, odorless, and tasteless qualities have earned it the moniker “just plain water.” But our earth’s most plentiful liquid is far from plain if we carefully study its characteristics.

The successful operation of earth’s water cycle as well as many of our daily activities depends on dozens of unusual and unexpected properties of water. Only a few of water’s unusual properties are well known and appreciated by the average person, but every member of our population benefits from water’s ubiquitous presence in multiple ways every day. Without each of its many properties, life as we know it would be impossible. Beyond our needs, however, knowledge of water’s wonders enhances our sense of awe at God’s created order.

One characteristic of water that inspires wonder is called “surface tension.” This property enables some objects even denser than water to float on its surface. Objects less dense than water such as a piece of cork float owing to buoyant force. Paradoxically, a small steel needle can be made to float on water’s surface because of a tough “film” on its surface. This is the same phenomenon permitting water spiders to walk on a pond’s surface.

Water molecules possess polarity. They act like little magnets, able to attract other water molecules in a variety of ways. The two hydrogen atoms in the water molecule align themselves with the single oxygen molecule at a 105˚ angle. This causes one side of the water molecule to become positively charged while the opposite side becomes negatively charged. Why? The hydrogen atoms share their negative electrons with the oxygen atom, leaving the hydrogen side of the molecule with a net positive charge because hydrogen’s positively charged protons remain in place. The oxygen side of the molecule gains the shared negative electrons from the two hydrogen atoms, thereby acquiring a net negative charge. In my classroom, I used to characterize atoms which either shared or gave away electrons as generous atoms, helping students understand what happens, I hoped.

Surface tension is the tendency of water molecules at the surface to clump together in a dense configuration. Beneath the surface the polarity attracts molecules from every direction. But molecules at the surface attract each other in a tight linear configuration effectively forming a layer of molecules with greater density than the water beneath the surface. This dense layer is able to support water spiders and darning needles. When a drop of “wetting agent” was placed in the water, destroying the surface tension, the needle fell to the bottom. My students enjoyed imagining what would happen to the water spiders if a wetting agent were placed in the pond water.

The surface tension phenomenon, present on every water surface of every ocean, affects evaporation rate, reducing it to a “manageable” and correct rate. Water with no surface tension would support a water cycle with excessive evaporation resulting in uncontrolled rainstorms. We speak of only one of water’s characteristics. Many other characteristics of water, if changed, would not provide appropriate conditions for successful earth life.

Does knowledge of one astonishing characteristic of water enabling earth life as we know it prove the input of a designer? Taken alone, perhaps not. But taken with hundreds of other manifestations of God’s general revelation apparent in our world, we must thoughtfully consider the evidence.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dissolving Power

Charles Dickens is credited with initially offering the proverb “Tis love that makes the world go round.” In a poetic sense this may be true. A less romantic proverb may provide more truth in a scientific sense: Water makes the world go round.

Our water world is driven by the water cycle. Knowledge of how the water cycle operates is basic to our grasp of how our world functions. But knowing the mechanics of the water cycle may not hold the same fascination as knowing why that cycle must function as it does. In short, water makes the world go round because it possesses the ability to dissolve more substances than any other material known. Without that ability no earth life would be possible.

There is no such thing as chemically pure water in the world of nature. Stated differently, other substances are always dissolved to some degree in earth’s water, perhaps a mineral solid or a gas such as atmospheric oxygen or carbon dioxide. Plant life needs dissolved minerals from the soil for healthy growth and food production. Those minerals are absorbed into the plants through their root systems and carried through the plant’s vascular system to and from its food manufacturing regions. In plants, water is both the solvent and the transporter of these raw materials and products.

Animal life also depends on water’s superb ability to dissolve other substances. Fish remove dissolved oxygen from the water in their habitat. Food consumed by air-breathing animals must be digested and converted into water soluble substances before it can be used. The water in body fluids such as blood, which is mostly water, dissolves and transports the nutrients to body cells for use in growth, repair, and energy production. Water later carries away the waste products of metabolism in dissolved form. Water is the ever-present companion in all of life’s processes.

The water cycle is only one of many cycles operating on this planet. Hundreds of other successful events in the world of nature occur moment by moment without any input from man. The success of these operations is based on hundreds of physical constants, the “fixed order of heaven and earth” (Jer. 33:25) which results in the orderly operation of the laws of nature. These cycles and events occurred even before the human race was created. When modern man arrived on earth, he was able to follow God’s directive to “subdue it and have dominion…over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Our observation of these wonders is a virtual catalog of divine design features.

David the psalmist expressed this truth in a devotional context. It is difficult to separate devotional fervor from the reality of what we actually observe in the natural world. But consider the psalmist’s elegant insight: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers” (Psalm 24:1-2)  

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Water of Life

By one count there are over 700 references to water in the Bible. The first mention, Genesis 1:2, describes the water-covered early earth, swathed in darkness, with “the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters.” What a picture of God’s tender care for this unique planet! In future eons God would create unicellular life within earth’s waters in preparation for future complex multi-cellular forms of life. Creation acts culminated with the recent sudden onset of man “in our image.” Humans were the eventual recipient of the redemption God had in mind for them before the beginning of time (I Cor. 2:7, Eph. 1:4, 2 Tim. 1:9, Tit. 1:2).

The first biblical mention describes the plentiful physical water present on the primitive early earth. This water, recycled endlessly since that time, is virtually all still present on our planet. This concept supplies an interesting object lesson for the water referenced in the Bible’s last mention of water -- the “water of life” of Rev. 22:17. This water is symbolic of our eternal salvation, the gift of God to those He redeems. Earth’s physical water continues its life-giving work throughout earth’s long ages. The spiritual water of eternal life, as taught by Jesus to the Samaritan woman (John ), would become “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Earth’s physical water is cleansing, thirst quenching, and life giving as explained by hundreds of scripture passages. Hymn lyricists poetically express the same qualities in a spiritual context. Its cleansing qualities are illustrated by this invitation set to music: Come to the life giving water, for just one sip will cleanse the soul from sin. Spiritual thirst is quenched as expressed in this popular chorus: As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after thee. And this hymn text by Christian Stover compares the physical life water provides for earth's living things to the spiritual life acquired by consumption of the living water: Nobody can live who hasn't any water, When the land is dry and nothing much grows; Jesus gives us life if we drink the living water, Sing it so that everybody knows.

The benefits of water do not end with one incident of use. Earth's water has been recycled thousands of times over thousands of years. But we must recognize one important difference between earth's physical water and the spiritual water of scripture. The role of earth's phsical water will come to an end before the onset of the New Creation described in Rev. 21. The function of the water of life, the symbol of our eternal salvation, however, continues from the moment of our spiritual birth throughout endless eternity.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Everyday Water Cycle

Those who understand weather events to the point of being able to explain them are far more likely to enjoy those events. This statement also applies to a wide spectrum of human knowledge and daily experience. Consider, for example, how we enjoy watching athletic contests. A mother who cheers her son’s touchdown on the football gridiron enjoys the event more if she understands the complex events leading up to the score. Had the coach adjusted to the opposition team’s defensive alignment? Did the quarterback make a good pass? How skillfully did her son avert tackles? In football, as in the science of meteorology, knowledge is an enjoyment enhancer.

Even children may be taught the principles of nature’s many cycles as part of God’s majestic plan for our planet’s operation. In the kitchen, boiled water evaporates, sometimes to condense back to liquid again on a cool pan lid –- the water cycle in miniature. Boiling water uses up heat while condensation requires cooling. Herein lies an interesting irony, but not a contradiction. Our science teachers tell us evaporation is a cooling process, but heat is required for it to occur. That is because when water evaporates from our skin, for example, heat is removed from our skin and we feel cool as a result.

Less often, we hear that condensation is a warming process. When widely spaced water molecules clump back together (condense) to form drops of liquid water, the heat energy of the moving molecules becomes concentrated and some heat energy is given back into the environment. In this way the water cycle results in a just-right exchange of heat energy. Without such a just-right heat exchange process, the delicate, beneficial water cycle process would not function properly for our benefit.

The warming or cooling during evaporation or condensation, or even while water is freezing or melting, is due to the heat gained or lost during the process. It is called latent heat. It is responsible for the cool feeling we experience when we emerge from the swimming pool as well as the updrafts generated as air is warmed by the condensation of water during a summer thunderstorm. Water is a remarkable storehouse of heat. It absorbs and stores great quantities of heat, but it acquires and gives up that heat slowly. The speed of this heat exchange is fine-tuned for the good of earth’s life forms. This phenomenon is only one of hundreds of finely tuned processes without which life would be impossible.

Bible authors did not understand the “scientific” explanations we have discussed in this post concerning water’s behavior. They lived in the pre-scientific age. We can, however, identify with the insights of those authors gained by careful observation and their possession of spiritual inspiration from God. Modern scientists have discovered no scientific “errors” in scripture, but scripture is full of profound insights.

Genesis 8:22 (ESV) provides an outstanding example: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” In this verse there are four important cycles mentioned. Underlying the success of the seedtime and harvest cycle is the water cycle, authored by the Creator who designed cycles for man’s benefit.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Earth -- A Water World

Some of the most familiar and plentiful things in our experience are also some of the most underappreciated. Water falls into that category. The surface of Planet Earth is 70% water covered to an average depth of about two miles. Earth’s oceans contain 97% of Earth’s water. Life on earth depends on this water in manifold ways. To the average person most of these ways are unknown and undervalued. If I were still a teacher beginning a unit on water, I might introduce the topic by using the catchy idiom “Water rules.” When we discover deeper truth about some of the most mundane matters or events, our expectations are often exceeded. Water provides a superb example.

Earth was a water world in the early days of earth’s formation. Genesis 1:6-8 describes events of Day 2. Reference to the expanse in the midst of the waters separating the waters from the waters, probably relates to the dividing boundary between the oceans and the atmosphere. In the water cycle liquid water evaporates from oceans and lakes into water vapor and later falls as a variety of precipitation. This is described in detail in the creation account of Job 38. Water must not merely be present on earth to sustain life. It must also be cycled and recycled endlessly through the ages because there is a finite supply of water on earth. The recycling of water (the water cycle) is a vital feature of God’s plan for the successful operation of this planet.

Bible passages referring to the “expanse” are used along with the terms “dome,” or “canopy.” Meteorologically, all of earth’s weather occurs in the troposphere, the thick lower layer of atmosphere supplied with water vapor mainly from the oceans. The boundary between the troposphere and thin upper atmospheric layers is quite distinct. The troposphere is the zone where earth’s weather occurs. Evaporation supplies this zone with water vapor to sustain the water cycle. The water cycle operated beginning with the second creation day. Vegetation, with “plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit” was the sequel on Day 3.

Skeptics like to claim these Genesis 1 descriptions echo the primitive pagan mythologies of nations surrounding Israel. One such image occurring in Job 37:18 refers to the sky as “hard as a mirror of cast bronze.” A few verses later, however, the sun is described as “bright as it is in the skies after the wind has swept them clean.” The brightness of the sky is compared to the brightness of a highly polished cast bronze mirror. Scripture writers used figurative language to augment their point poetically. Much of the imagery occurring in Job 38 clarifies the writer’s understanding of the many varied water cycle phenomena occurring in earth’s atmosphere.

Historical geologists have described how earth became a “water world” very early in its history. Before the water cycle was established numerous interrelated events occurred on our planet. It is certain that modern life would be impossible had the water cycle not been established. Ancient giant rainstorms bathed the earth in liquid water. Plentiful bacterial life of various types then appeared as precursors of today’s mineral resources and producers of the life sustaining atmosphere we enjoy today.

Modern man is consuming the resources formed over billions of years at an alarming rate. On the upside, many humans are learning to use water, mineral, and food resources more wisely as time progresses. We are also learning to recycle, an idea that originated in the mind of God. Some people, even in our churches, are ignorant of past earth processes which brought our modern treasure trove of mineral, energy, and food resources into existence. Better understanding of these processes should be an important product of church educational programs. In turn, responsible stewardship of nature should be the outcome.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Absent from the Body

Driving along Interstate 80 on the return trip to the Midwest from my brother’s funeral services, a Christian Aid Ministries roadside billboard stood out starkly: “After you die, you will meet God.” There was no politically correct gloss in this statement, even though its explicit message grieves many and triggers scornful disbelief. In others, the message conveys hope and joy, for the statement is entirely biblical.

Here are some scripture phrases that come immediately to mind: If in Christ we have hope in this life only we are of all people most to be pitied (I Cor. 15:19); Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live (John 11:25); Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8); If a man dies, shall he live again? (Job ESV). Each of these passages reminds us of what is known, scientifically, as dualism. This is not strictly a theological term, but there is strong connection with the Christian view that our body is distinct from our soul and spirit. Stated colloquially, we are talking about our real self when we speak of soul and spirit.

The real self meets God when temporal physical life ends. Scientists and philosophers of mind have discussed and proposed their ideas about the so-called “mind-body problem” for centuries. Thousands of books have been produced on the issue. Many of the speculations relate to how the presence and processes of physical matter in the brain--the atoms and molecules--could explain the reality of human consciousness. This concept, seriously studied and extensively commented upon, is actually not very well understood.

One quote recurring repeatedly in the literature on this topic is “The question, then, is how it is possible for conscious experiences to arise out of a lump of gray matter endowed with nothing but electrochemical properties.” Speculations on how conscious experiences are generated are far more plentiful than truly satisfying explanations.

Scientist/philosopher RenĂ© Descartes (1596-1650), was one of the early thinkers on the subject of consciousness, perception, and many related topics. He described the mind as “a thinking thing.” He stated, “I am therefore precisely nothing but a thinking thing; that is, a mind, or intellect, or understanding, or reason…” Further, that means, “a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses.”

At the risk of serious oversimplification, we might say that the characterization of humans as “thinking things,” together with our inherent ability to be aware of the existence of God by using our senses, intellect, and exercise of free will and faith, actually describes the gift of soul and spirit implanted in the human race by God when he created man. When we meet God after this life is over, we meet him as “thinking things,” souls and spirits redeemed by God in Jesus Christ. Our physical bodies function as a temporary material home for the “real person.” God created our physical bodies--“fearfully and wonderfully made.” Our physical bodies do, however, experience physical death. “Then the dust (of mortals) goes back to the ground as it was before, and the breath of life goes back to God who gave it” (Eccl. 12:7 GW Translation).

We may ask what is more real--our bodies, or our soul and spirit? Ecclesiastes 12:7 supplies the answer as do many New Testament passages. When the body dies, we are poignantly reminded of the loss by the events of the funeral and by remaining artifacts associated with the loved one. Sadly, no longer can we interact with the “real self” of the departed. Joyfully, however, we realize that the redeemed soul and spirit given to humans by God, lives on permanently in the presence of the Lord. And when the time comes when each of us dies who remain, we will also meet God.

In memoriam…David M. Virkler, May 30, 1934-January 23, 2012