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.”