Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cycles by Design

The operations of most cycles of nature are well understood. The use and re-use of water, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen in our world depends on the properties of these chemical substances, how they react with other substances, and how their interactions sustain the activities of earth’s life forms. The deeper questions of how these elements came to be and how they have been endowed with their unique properties are more often excluded from the discussion. Science classes focus more heavily on process understanding. An example is provided by the operational emphasis of computer instruction for young people. Understanding the operational characteristics of modern technology is deemed more necessary than having a full grasp of the sequence of scientific breakthroughs which made the applications possible.

There is a downside to this state of affairs. Currently there is a popular television commercial featuring a young person enthusiastically explaining the operation of his computer assisted robot. Realistically, we understand that a lesson on the hundreds of discoveries in physics leading up to the production of that device would not result in robust product sales. Likewise, I would not expect the operational logic seemingly inherent in my young grandchildren entertaining themselves with their Nintendo DSi to be replaced by fascination with the early discoveries of James Clerk Maxwell.

Earth’s cycles are powerful examples of intelligent design. The design process commenced at the moment of creation. Our universe began as a singularity, an infinitely small, super-hot plasma. Out of the interaction of the plasma’s high energy photons came protons and later, electrons and neutrons. Millions of years later, atoms of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen were produced in nuclear furnaces inside stars. These elements are the backbone of chemical cycles powering life on this planet in our day.

How, we ask, could knowledge of the cycles of the “big four” elements produce respect for intelligent design? Protons, neutrons, and electrons which comprise atoms of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen were formed after the Big Bang. Each proton was identical to every other proton; likewise, neutrons and electrons. The Big Bang produced highly ordered matter. Our universe since that event has been governed according to hundreds of fundamental physical constants. The laws of nature operate according to the “rulebook” of these constants. Elements behaving according to physical laws points to an intelligent lawgiver.

Early in my teaching career I attended a summer course in chemistry. The participants were given the opportunity to purchase a handbook of chemical constants. For many years that book served as an object lesson for my students rather than a reference book. Its esoteric quantitative information on chemical constants was the invisible enablement behind the experiments our class performed. Students enjoyed the outcomes of their experiments without having to refer to the numerical constants listed within that several thousand page, 4″ thick book. Holding up that heavy volume, I joked that it would make good bedtime story reading.

All natural cycles operate according to the constraints of physical constants. In our everyday life, or even in the science classroom where we study nature’s cycles, we may understand how cycles work without knowing the precisely determined masses and forces possessed by the protons, neutrons, and electrons in the recycled oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen. Student appreciation, however, may be significantly advanced with the knowledge that the characteristics of atoms, how they combine, and how they behave in the natural world, are absolutely orderly and predictable. The thoughtful student may then be ready to consider the many intelligent design proposals of inspired scripture writers as well as the conclusions of today’s thoughtful theistic scientists.

Eugene Peterson’s The Message scripture translation often captures a sense of subjective devotional fervor as well as an objective statement of reality. For example, Peterson captures both in his exciting version of Psalm 104:24: “What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Big Four

Our discussions of major natural cycles have highlighted the big four of elements in living things: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. The water cycle also describes the cycling of hydrogen through the biosphere. The fundamental concept of recycling the big four chemical elements to power activities of our daily lives may not hold much potential for fascinating after-dinner discussion. Then again, it may, depending on how much wonder and awe we allow the knowledge of cycling processes to evoke.

The big four were not present in our universe at the initial moment of the Big Bang creation event. Hydrogen, the simplest element, was formed first after the universe cooled sufficiently from its extremely hot plasma state. Helium formation followed. Millions of years later, hydrogen and helium coalesced into stars, and later, galaxies. In the intense heat of these early stars, other elements of the big four, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, were forged from the stars’ nuclear furnace. These elements comprise a great majority of the “ordinary matter” we are familiar with in our universe. “Ordinary matter” is the type of matter we see in our own solar system and through telescopes.

Of the top seven elements detectable in our universe, the big four rank 1, 3, 4, and 7. In the living human body, these four elements comprise 96% by weight. (Oxygen in the water of the living human body causes it to rank first—about two-thirds by weight.) In the dry weight of the human body these same four elements constitute 88%, with carbon making up 50%. No element is more life friendly than carbon. Without it, life in the universe would not exist. Life on this earth is carbon-based life, but many other elements are life essential, in addition to the big four. They are termed micronutrients. For example, one such micronutrient, phosphorus, is an essential component of DNA and RNA which enable genetic inheritance.

The basic structural simplicity of atoms of the big four elements (try to recall your high school chemistry!) of which all life is composed belies the enormous complexity of living systems. The DNA molecule contains a digital code by which living things synthesize thousands of different proteins, the building blocks of their bodies. The human body contains over 100,000 different proteins. Basically, each of these proteins is a collection of strings of amino acids, thousands of atoms of the big four elements and a few other elements assembled and folded in a unique way and built into the correct location in the living system. These unique assemblages depend upon the ability of atoms of the big four and a few others to bond together in infinitely many ways, creating substances with new structures, properties, and functions.

A physical description of the structure of each of the body’s 100,000 proteins is a difficult, but not impossible task. An account of the function of each body protein is also within the realm of possibility. But to explain the origin of the digital code which directs the synthesis of millions of known proteins, is not within the realm of possibility, except as a supernatural act from the mind of the Creator who first produced multiple forms of life on Planet Earth, and later crowned his achievement with the creation of man in His own image.

My mother used to quote scripture and offer prayers in the dignified, linguistically conservative, archaic language of the King James Version. I quote from Psalm 103:14-17, verses which express the simplicity of living things and the elemental matter of which they are composed, hint at the recycling of the matter in flowers of the field as they live and eventually die, and the mercy of God who oversees the entire process:

For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Carbon Sequence

To catch the attention of high school students beginning their study of the carbon cycle, I may recycle one or two simple demonstrations they might remember from their younger days. One is a favorite, outrageous party trick. Passing one’s finger quickly through the lower part of a candle flame leaves a strip of black soot. The black material turns out to be non-combusted carbon, one of the elements in an unburned candle. Another experiment reinforces the knowledge that all animals, including humans, exhale carbon dioxide, a product of cellular respiration. Exhaling our breath into colorless limewater through a straw, the limewater turns cloudy. Milky calcium carbonate is formed in the clear limewater. Both reactions exemplify rotation of carbon through various compounds by chemical reactions.

The element carbon is essential to all living things; life cannot exist without carbon. It is the basis of all known earth life. Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in our universe and the second most abundant element in the human body. One source claims “The whole of the living world is based upon compounds of carbon.” It ranks at the top of the “big four:” carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. But that is not to say life could succeed without one of the others, or even one of the many lesser known elements of which living things are composed.

We must briefly digress. The Big Bang was not a destructive explosion. Rather, it was an event of incredible precision, as were events in the minutes, years, and eons to follow. Cosmologists are in essential agreement concerning the universe’s sequence of events since the Big Bang, acknowledged to be the beginning of time. When I taught the Big Bang event to my astronomy students, I announced it as “God’s initial creation event”--the beginning of the time, space, matter, and energy dimensions of our universe. Much later than this “initial creation event,” the element carbon was produced in the formation of stars by what is known as the triple-alpha process. When supernatural creation events such as the Cambrian Explosion and the creation of modern humans occurred, carbon was already present on earth, ready to be incorporated into the bodies of earth’s living creatures.

Fast forward to life in our day: Carbon, the vital element, now follows cyclical pathways into and out of both living things and non-living matter. The process is an occasion for humble wonder and awe. No new carbon atoms are produced. Therefore, the needs of earth’s living things depend on recycling the elements already present on earth. The most familiar aspect of the carbon cycle is manifest in the production of a carbon compound--carbon dioxide--by the process of cellular respiration in animal life. In turn, the plant’s production of food also results in generation of oxygen as a by-product of the plant’s food synthesis. Then the cycle begins anew.

Carbon is also released by the decay of dead animal and plant matter, combustion, expulsion of dissolved carbon dioxide from the ocean, and volcanoes and hydrothermal vents in the ocean. Other less familiar exchanges of carbon occur between earth’s rocks and the atmosphere. New knowledge of carbon cycle operation is still being discovered.

The simplicity of the well-known exchange of carbon and oxygen between animals and plants belies the wondrous complexity of carbon’s unique properties and the myriad of compounds it can form. Its four valence electrons give it almost limitless opportunities to form compounds. It can form ten million known compounds, but the number of possible carbon compounds is virtually without limit. Organic chemistry is the science of carbon based substances. The variety of carbon allotropes (physical forms), carbon compounds, and the properties of each is far beyond the comprehension of any human being.

Carbon atoms in both diamond and graphite, allotropes of carbon, are not combined with atoms of any other element. The two different substances differ only in their crystal structure, but they are polar opposites in several important physical characteristics. Diamond is transparent, extremely hard, not a conductor of electricity, and very expensive in the form of gem quality jewelry. In contrast, graphite is opaque, very soft, conducts electricity, and an inexpensive, common mineral. Other recently developed allotropes of carbon are fullerenes such as buckyballs and carbon nanotubes, somewhat reminiscent of science fiction imagination. This knowledge of carbon’s allotropes could be cited as a reason to claim our Creator has a sense of humor.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Nitrogen Renewal

For 50 years I was privileged to observe a master agronomist firsthand. My father was a regional agent for a hybrid seed company in the 1940s and 1950s. In this role, he applied knowledge of good plant nutrition in concert with his knowledge of the advantages of hybridization which started to filter into farmers’ awareness beginning in the 1930s. One of the several macronutrients (essential nutrients) for healthy plant growth is nitrogen. Without the element nitrogen, there would be no plants, no animals, and no earth life as we know it. I recall hearing about the nutrient nitrogen more often from my father during those early years than any other. My review of the nitrogen cycle has sharpened those memories.

The nitrogen cycle describes the uses and re-uses of one of the four most plentiful elements in the human body. Nitrogen is the vital component of DNA and RNA. Nitrogen is found in every one of the twenty amino acids our body cells synthesize in multiple ways to form tens of thousands of proteins--the building blocks of our physical bodies. In brief, plants need nitrogen for healthy growth. Directly or indirectly, animals eat plants because they need nitrogen to sustain virtually every function of the body.

What nitrogen is doing in our world and how plants acquire their needed nitrogen is of immense importance. The atmosphere is composed of 78% nitrogen. Unlike oxygen, nitrogen is very unreactive. In its gas state, it is useless to plants. Nitrogen, therefore, must be chemically combined into compounds with other elements so it may be absorbed into plant bodies. In such compounds, such as nitrates, the nitrogen becomes useful to the plant. Several natural processes do the task very well. In one of them, nitrogen fixation, atmospheric nitrogen is synthesized by bacteria into compounds such as ammonia which supplies nitrogen in a form plants are able to use.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria supply needed nitrogen to plants and in return receive nutrients from the plant. This mutually beneficial relationship is called symbiosis. Plants known as legumes, such as peas, beans, peanuts, and many others have this ability within their root nodules. Some bacteria are able to reverse the process and return free nitrogen to the atmosphere in a process called denitrification. We are describing the nitrogen cycle, the endless use and re-use of one of earth’s elements or resources over time. The nitrogen cycle is only one of an abundance of wonderful natural cycles sustaining our existence. Cycles are a small part of many intricate design features on our planet.

The last century has seen astonishing progress in understanding nature’s cycles and processes and developing manmade strategies to use them effectively for man’s benefit. For example, in the early 20th century, a method called the Haber process was developed. Natural gas (methane) was processed to produce hydrogen gas, later to be combined with atmospheric nitrogen to form ammonia gas. This ammonia gas, in turn, is treated to form ammonium nitrate, a popular nitrogen fertilizer. While the chemical reactions in this process are simple, the industrial application of the simple chemistry is complex and somewhat dangerous. Nevertheless, production of fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate exceeds 500 million tons per year. Roughly one-half of the world’s population is nutritionally sustained by synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. On an enormous scale, scientists now apply the knowledge of plant nutrition known to man for centuries.

These man-made applications have not occurred without environmental impact. Nitrogen and other chemical residues leech into water supplies with some adverse effects. Beneficial technology has also produced some solutions to the problems. World population has more than tripled in the last century, owing to progress in human knowledge on many fronts.

As I recall the large piles of bagged fertilizer ordered by my father with “ammonium nitrate” printed on the bags, the awareness washes over me that my father was ahead of his time. He knew the benefits of hybrid seeds and application of modern plant nutrition practices. He also knew the benefits of planting annual cover crops and periodic lime applications on his twelve acres of sweet corn in order to be able to raise the same crop on the same land year after year without any reduction in yield. He took advantage of the benefits of crop rotation without actually rotating the crops. In this way he followed the mandate of Genesis 1:28 to “…multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” without imposing any harm on the land. Our family likes to think of his application of knowledge and wisdom as God-given.

Psalm 104: 24 (NLT) exults “O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all…” We need to remind ourselves that our extensive local supermarket array of attractive food products is but a miniscule fraction of the nutritional needs of seven billion people.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Place to Thrive

As we study the cycles of nature—the water cycle and numerous other cycles and processes in nature, we sometimes experience some uncertainties about the goodness of these natural phenomena. Is Planet Earth really a place to thrive? Or is it a place of brokenness and decay? Superimposed upon the life sustaining water cycle, for example, are many sometimes frightening events. Inspired scripture writers do not shy away from vivid descriptions of these mighty events. When they occur in our day they command intense media attention. Accounts of many natural disasters, even though they occurred infrequently, have come down to us through historical records.

Droughts, famines, earthquakes, and pestilence have been recorded in the Old Testament. Some of the most vivid descriptions of water cycle weather phenomena have been recorded in chapter 37 of the Book of Job. Elihu, the speaker, could not be accused of over-dramatizing these events. Powerful lightning, roaring thunder, mighty downpours, whirlwinds (probably tornadoes), and cold snaps resulting in the freezing of “broad waters” are described as wondrous, God-ordained events.

These “wondrous works of God” are followed by far more tranquil clearing, bright skies and “golden splendor” coming out of the north. Elihu exults “…God is clothed with awesome majesty. The Almighty—we cannot find him; he is great in power; justice and abundant righteousness he will not violate.” It is apparent these violent terrestrial events are infrequent, even exceptional. Many other scriptures refer to God’s goodness in providing favorable conditions for raising crops and livestock for the benefit of humanity. The Book of Job does not, however, characterize the more violent events as evil. Rather, they are described as the wondrous or awesome works of a powerful, almighty God.

In Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job, (Baker Books, 2011) Hugh Ross, under the heading Lavish Creation in chapter 13 says “Observing earth’s beauty, abundance, diversity, and grandeur, people of all generations and cultures have been struck by the extravagance of it all. The Creator provided humanity with so much more than a place to survive. He presented us with a place to thrive.” It is apparent, nonetheless, that some events on our earth cause its living residents, including man, inconvenience, pain, and even death. This has been true since Eden. And it was true in the extended geological ages before Eden. The Law of Decay was operative since the cosmic creation event.

The Law of Decay has been a subject of ridicule and misunderstanding. Unbelievers ridicule the Christian God by stating that a loving, powerful, and all-knowing God would not permit pain, grief, suffering, or death. They use this argument as a reason to reject belief in God. On the other hand, many believers misunderstand the existence of the Law of Decay for an altogether different reason. Recently I read the lengthy statement of a well-known Christian college concerning the study of the natural sciences at their college: “We cannot, however, only celebrate the created order as good. We also recognize the effects of the disobedience of humankind, both in the world around us and upon the human race. Even our own capacities to know truth have been adversely affected. We learn in scripture that the creation groans in brokenness and decay (Romans 8:22-25) and awaits, just as we do as broken human beings, the final redemption, the ultimate healing of all that is wrong.”

Christians who believe the creation is currently “broken” may believe that the Garden of Eden sin of our original human parents resulted in the brokenness. Neither the Romans passage nor the record of life on earth since the creation supports this view. Sin was not present among animal species before man was created, because animals are incapable of sin. The context of Romans 8, and indeed, the context of the entire Pauline epistle, is the spiritual death of man through sin, and the spiritual life restored in Jesus Christ. It is doubtful the Apostle Paul digressed from the main burden of his Roman epistle to comment on the theological implications of the Law of Decay (2nd Law of Thermodynamics). Moreover, the people in Paul’s day were not privy to the evidence of the geological record which reveals the Law of Decay had been operative for millions of years.

In our present life we do experience pain and death. Earth’s living things had also experienced pain and death prior to the arrival of man. People who do not enjoy contemplating the death of any creature in modern times may not enjoy the thought of creature deaths millions of years ago any more than they do today. These geological deaths, however, and the geologic recycling processes of past ages, have provided plentiful sustaining resources for modern man, now numbering seven billion souls. God chose to create such a world. Should we question God, suggesting He should have done things in a different way?

Elihu proclaimed the majesty of God manifest in sometimes severe natural events. He also rebuked Job, perhaps somewhat unfairly, for questioning God, notwithstanding that Job had been pronounced blameless and upright by God in the first two chapters of the Book of Job. When God himself finally addressed Job beginning in chapter 38, responding to the reasoning Job had presented in his own defense, God asked him “Who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge?” (Job 38:2) In effect, God asked if Job knew how and why the world was created the way it was, including the creation of birds of prey (Job 39:29-30). Finally, Job humbly said “…now my eyes see you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6).

Another quote from Hugh Ross’s Hidden Treasures volume states “So, too, we who have not yet completed our lives on earth may complain that the pain and suffering seem too much, especially when at their most intense. But if we take time to ponder the good purposes being accomplished for time and eternity and stretch to imagine what life will be like in God’s perpetual presence amid the splendors of the new creation, we begin to see (at least in part) why a good God would allow sin and suffering and evil to exist in this creation.”

Monday, March 5, 2012

Oxygen for the Ages

When one wishes to convey the idea that something vital has been lost, he sometimes uses the imagery of “removing the oxygen.” We may ask, “What is so uniquely vital about oxygen?”

By weight oxygen is the most common element in the earth’s crust (almost half), and also the most common element in the human body (about two-thirds). The body possesses this high fraction of oxygen because the body is more than half water. Oxygen is the weightiest fraction of water by far.

In each of the above examples the oxygen is part of a compound, joined together chemically with other elements. In the rocks of earth’s crust, the oxygen is combined with elements such as silicon, aluminum, or calcium to form the rocks. In the human body the oxygen is chemically combined with hydrogen to form water. But when oxygen is separated from its chemical compounds, it is a gas at the temperatures present on earth. Humans cannot live for more than a few minutes without breathing a supply of oxygen gas from the air around us. In this sense, therefore, “removing the oxygen” essentially means “removing the life.” Virtually all of earth’s animal life forms are dependent on a continuous supply of oxygen in gas form.

Earth’s water cycle is a concept referenced, but not named, in scripture. Several other cycles, including the oxygen cycle, are not referenced in scripture. When scripture refers to cycles, we may be fairly certain those cycles were observationally affirmed. The authors of scripture did not possess the scientific knowledge we have in our day. In our time, we are gifted with the ability to discover scientific knowledge through the application of scientific method. For example, scientific analysis now tells us the atmosphere is composed of 78.09% nitrogen gas and 20.95% oxygen gas.

Knowledge of the oxygen cycle has been acquired using the methods discovered since the scientific revolution began in about 1600 AD. Oxygen and sugars (food) are produced in land plants and phytoplankton--water dwelling algae and cyanobacteria. This process is called photosynthesis, the synthesis of food from water and carbon dioxide in the presence of light. In turn, the animals, consuming the food and oxygen produced by the plants, produce their own life-giving energy and carbon dioxide as a by-product of a process called respiration. The carbon dioxide is then recycled back to the plants and the process begins all over again.

To support life on earth today the nitrogen/oxygen balance must be maintained precisely. If the balance is disrupted, even by a small amount, animal life and human life would suffer or become impossible. The nitrogen/oxygen balance has been maintained with great precision for thousands of years. This perfect balance is necessary for life as it exists on earth today. A reading of the literature does not reveal why the complex interchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide helps maintain such an exceedingly precise nitrogen/oxygen balance despite human activity on the planet.

Scientists and politicians argue about whether or not global warming actually occurs or may be caused anthropogenically by exceedingly slight changes in carbon dioxide composition which comprises only about 0.03% of the atmosphere. Our discussion does not begin to deal with the numerous factors which influence our weather apart from the release of greenhouse gases by human activity. As we discover what those factors are, it appears ever more clearly that our global environment is supernaturally fine tuned for the support of earth’s seven billion souls.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

High Tech Handicap

Hugh Ross of the Reasons to Believe organization has witten a new book entitled Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job (Baker Books, 2011). In one chapter he speaks of some of the modern handicaps to understanding and appreciating basic science which could give glory to the Creator and even strengthen belief in him. Job and his contemporaries did not suffer such handicaps.

Ross reminds us that a great majority of our population now lives in cities, away from meaningful contact with nature. Specialization in science professions deflects the layperson from their simpler recognition of God’s handiwork in the natural realm. We speak not only of the aesthetic beauty of nature but also of our understanding of authorship of the many orderly laws of nature, all of which reinforce belief in God. Science is often perceived as accessible only to specialists and inaccessible to the ordinary person. Therefore, the basic science which should inspire exuberant wonder, fascination, and awe, is often shunned, feared, or used inappropriately.

Our society demands specialization even in professions other than science. This has necessarily resulted in a narrower scope of interests and knowledge in many people. In turn, our population is more easily tilted toward a consumerist mentality in which natural inquiry is stifled. Our modern lifestyle does not lend itself to quality time for thoughtful contemplation of the design features supporting our existence on this planet.

What other factors have robbed us of time, and with its loss, the opportunity to learn more of the creative activities of our God who “created the heavens and the earth?” The answers should be discussed from our pulpits. Identifying time robbing factors is merely the prelude to our discussion. Time robbing activities of our modern culture leave us short on the opportunity and desire to contemplate the wonders of the natural world which could trigger a more refreshing God-awareness.

Our obsession with technology provides one of the best examples. Years ago we were concerned with the deleterious effects of watching too much television. But now we ask ourselves how much time we spend on social networks such as Facebook? How many hours do church folks, young and old, devote to checking and sending emails, gaming, Google searching, or speaking, texting, and sending photographs via the most recently marketed technological innovations? Our obsessions have made us enthusiastic consumers of these products. We have distanced ourselves from the joy of discovery of the basic principles and laws of science on which our modern technology depends.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was a pre-eminent scientist who made foundational discoveries regarding the electromagnetic spectrum. Our instant, long distance, wireless communication systems are utterly dependent on application of his landmark discovery. Albert Einstein gave Maxwell, a devout Christian, credit for discoveries which were “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.” He anticipated the discovery and propagation of electromagnetic waves of all possible lengths. But even Maxwell would be astonished at the application of his work to our modern wireless Smart Phone technology. Today’s scientists use his fundamental discoveries in thousands of applications. The layperson’s rediscovery of the wonder of Maxwell’s 19th century landmark findings could be an occasion for reverence.  

Many no longer have the time to reflect on the wonder of early science breakthroughs such as those of James Clerk Maxwell. He posited that ongoing discoveries would enlighten interpretation of scripture. He saw “the ordered uniformity rather than the peculiarity and complexity of nature, as signs of the Creator.” Our culture, bathed in the applied science of so-called “miracle” technologies, does not believe the findings of science call attention to the Creator. Instead, our high tech gadgets often distract us, deflect us toward ourselves, and promote our worst human tendencies. In our day we must work to overcome our high-tech handicap.

Below is a link to our previous post on James Clerk Maxwell: