Saturday, March 28, 2015

Matter's Sustaining Power

We have written about physical characteristics of atoms, the smallest units of matter. All matter is composed of the roughly 100 elements present on Earth. Atoms possess smaller constituent parts. Among the constituent parts are electrons and protons with negative and positive electrical charges possessing electric and magnetic fields. Tiny electrons swarm around much larger, dense atomic nuclei consisting of composites of protons and non-charged neutrons at the center of the atom. Physical science students master basic facts of atomic architecture without much difficulty.

Beyond the basic facts reviewed above, the story of matter’s sustaining power becomes more interesting and complex. This results from the fact, among others, that all matter is electrical in nature. Negative and positive electrical charges abound in the matter of every atom in our universe. Matter coheres as a result of its abundant electrical charges. Electromagnetic force, one of the four basic universal forces, keeps the electron swarm confined near the nucleus of the atom like a swarm of bees around their hive. In addition to the electromagnetic force causing electrons to adhere to their own atom, the strong force, another of the four basic forces, holds the protons and neutrons together in their dense nuclear bundle notwithstanding the tendency of like-charged protons to fly apart. A third basic force of nature, gravity, enables attraction of objects over long distances, such as planets held in place around the sun.

A New Testament passage written to the Colossians by the Apostle Paul is framed in the concept of creation: For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:17 NIV). 19th century theologian Albert Barnes commented on possible interpretations of this passage. It could refer to the moral creation. Alternately, Barnes writes, “The meaning is, that they are kept in their present state; their existence, order, and arrangement are continued by his power. If unsupported by him they would fall back into disorder, or sink back into nothing. If this be the proper interpretation, then it is the ascription to Christ of infinite power - for nothing less could be sufficient to uphold the universe; and of infinite wisdom - for this is needed to preserve the harmonious actions of the suns and systems of which it is composed.” Barnes was prescient in his scientific perception. In the early 19th century scientists were not aware of subatomic particles or details about electromagnetism and the four basic universal forces.

As we contemplate the universe and its design we acquire a deep sense of worship of the supernatural Designer. Agnostics and atheists experience different emotions. Is the design of the universe intrinsically the consequence of a miracle? The remarkable coherence of subatomic particles—is it merely an accidental outcome of naturalism? Opinions vary concerning the remarkable properties of ordinary matter and the characteristics of atoms from which matter is composed. When we consider the generation of hundreds of various types of electromagnetic radiation and the benefit our society derives by motions of atomic particles with their electric charges, what do we conclude? Are these remarkable manifestations miracles? Or are they an accident of chance?

If these characteristics of matter are miracles, we must ask what sort of miracle is demonstrated. Transcendent miracles are works of God which are not subject to previously existing physical laws. We posit that in the beginning, creation of matter, energy, space, and time were the consequence of a transcendent miracle. Since the time of that creation event there have been other transcendent miracles which involve suspension of physical laws. At the Passion season we focus on another event of transcendent, divine significance—the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Other transcendent events of sudden appearances of novel species on earth or divine physical bodily healing not otherwise explained serve as examples.

Miracles are phenomena about which many theologians have commented. Discussions concerning which events are miracles and which type of miracles they are have engendered diverse opinion. A category of miracle about which there is little disagreement is termed the sustaining miracle. Theologians agree that God sustains the universe by his will and power. Our recent posts have called attention to familiar environmental factors sustained by electromagnetism and other fundamental forces. We close with the proposition that these phenomena are examples of sustaining miracles initiated by the Creator.    


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Impossible without EMR

The question “What is your favorite…” is a favorite conversation starter and sustainer. Usually we are asked to choose among games, foods, music, or people. Students of science may be asked to name their favorite laboratory experiment. Less often they may be asked to choose among more serious alternatives, such as, “What is your favorite science topic?”

As a classroom science instructor, I had my personal favorite curriculum topics. High on the list was the electromagnetic spectrum. Of dozens of important topics for which I hoped to trigger student fascination, none rivaled the electromagnetic spectrum. The existence of this phenomenon and its importance is crucial to a basic understanding of how the universe operates. Even fine-tuning advocates who frequently intone beliefs that “without this or that scientific parameter, life as we know it would be impossible,” must recognize the paramount role of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In the first chapter of the Bible, God is identified as the creator of time, space, energy and matter. He created all things in the beginning. Matter before the initial creation event did not exist except in a near-infinitely minuscule singularity. Time, space, and energy did not exist as we now experience them. Then, In the Beginning, God created matter framed by time and space. With the newly created matter God called electromagnetic energy into existence by the action of atoms. Now we recognize radio, micro, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma radiation. Electric charges in atoms were produced by moving electrons (negative) and protons (positive). The result was a sea of electromagnetic radiation. Multiple forms of electromagnetic radiation were present in the eons prior to the creation of microbial life on earth. Earth was bathed in electromagnetic radiation before and after microbial life appeared.

Post-creation, the Creator provided many self-sustaining features of our universe. For example, light and infrared radiation are continually produced by the action of atoms generating magnetic fields by the movement of their electrons, protons, and nuclear particles. Now we are continually bathed in life-sustaining radiation. Visible light and heat (infrared radiation) are the two most familiar examples. These two examples of electromagnetic radiation comprise the great majority of radiation released by the sun.

Visible light and infrared is also produced by humans’ artificial sources. Actually, infrared radiation is being released from all matter in our environment above absolute zero. In nature, no object ever achieves this low temperature. Nonetheless, we are beneficiaries of infrared heat from surrounding matter every moment of our lives. Infrared radiation is constantly being generated, absorbed, and reflected by all atoms of matter in our environment. In terms of human comfort, our bodies are comfortable only within a narrow range of temperature. In our modern world our technology enables us to control the temperature of living environments to within a few degrees.

Atoms from the Sun emit primarily visible light and infrared. These atoms also release photons of every other electromagnetic radiation, but in much smaller quantities. Modern science technologists are able to generate many thousands of different wavelengths, especially in the radio and microwave regions of the spectrum. All of these  wavelengths differ from visible light and infrared in only one respect—wavelength. Apart from wavelength, the physical characteristics of different electromagnetic waves are identical. The literature describing many thousands of different electromagnetic waves, how technicians produce them, and how they are useful to man would fill many libraries.

Is it more important to understand the causes and effects of electromagnetic radiation or grasp the divine genius of God as designer of the cosmic system? Both are vitally important! Acts 17:28 may be interpreted either as a spiritual truth or as a guiding devotional suggestion for appreciating the divinely created physical world: “For in Him we live, and move, and have our being.”      




Saturday, March 21, 2015

Electromagnetic Reality

The production and reception of electromagnetic waves is a scientific phenomenon of crucial importance. What is the wonder of electromagnetic waves? We are immersed in them in multiple ways every moment of our existence. For example, we experience visible light and infrared radiation in the form of life sustaining heat each day of our lives. These energy forms arrive by electromagnetic radiation.  

Several hundred years ago scientists did not have a good understanding of electricity and magnetism. For hundreds, even thousands of years we have observational records of simple static electric and magnetic phenomena. Landmark discoveries proliferated beginning with the onset of the Scientific Revolution in the last four centuries. Scientists such as Robert Boyle (1627-1691) brought empiricism to bear on the knowledge of their time. Famously, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) performed the hazardous kite experiment. He termed electricity an”imponderable fluid” pervading everything. Later, other famous scientists such as Farraday, Galvani, Volta, Ampère, and Ohm weighed in with discoveries for which units of electrical measurement are currently named.

During the 18th century a few scientists suggested the relationship between electricity and magnetism. Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851) and Michael Farraday (1791-1867) were most prominent in this discovery. But it remained for a giant to emerge in order to perfect one of the most important scientific theories of all time. James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) possessed deep Christian faith. No less a scientific genius than Albert Einstein pronounced Maxwell’s work “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.” Our previous post puts him in perspective:

Information on electricity and magnetism must have reference to atoms, discrete particles demonstrated empirically about two centuries ago. Scientists more recently discovered the subatomic, fundamental particles which comprise atoms: electrons in 1897, protons in 1917, and neutrons in 1932. Many older citizens are surprised how recently these discoveries have been made. Most of their parents were unaware of the above-mentioned subatomic particles early in the 20th century. Atoms of ordinary matter generate the bath of electromagnetic radiation in which we are embedded. The spectrum of electromagnetic radiation is composed of radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays.

Ordinary atoms are composed of electrons with their negative electrical charges, protons with their positive electrical charges, and neutrons with no electrical charge. Atoms of ordinary matter are constantly vibrating with kinetic (motion) energy. Electrons are constantly moving in a swarm surrounding the nucleus. This means their positive and negative electrical charges are always moving. When electric charges are accelerated (moving), they generate waves of electric or magnetic fields.

Returning to James Clerk Maxwell’s genius, he discovered that visible light is an undulation of electric and magnetic waves traveling in phase, oscillating together at right angles through space. When I taught early lessons on the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) to my class, we first demonstrated the effects of electricity traveling through a copper wire on a compass needle a short distance away. Then we showed that the magnetic field surrounding a magnet generates electricity in a coiled wire when passed through the coil. Electricity and magnetism were related, students concluded. We defined light as an electromagnetic wave which had electric as well as magnetic components. It was a useful, albeit not a highly technical concept.

Maxwell described electromagnetic wavelengths as the distance between the pulses of electric and/or magnetic energy. Pulses of electromagnetic waves are called photons and act like particles. He taught that visible light is electromagnetic wave energy and predicted that there should be many others discovered or artificially generated in future years. He was correct. His mathematical formulas are difficult for laypeople to understand, but scientists of every stripe have defined the work of Maxwell as the work of an inspired genius.

Since Maxwell’s discoveries, scientists have discovered an overpowering yet simple truth about the EMS. All electromagnetic waves of any wavelength (radio, microwave, infrared, light, ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma) are produced by atoms. Moving electrical charges or moving electric/magnetic fields are continually produced by atoms. We know, of course, that atoms are everywhere in our environment. Many electromagnetic waves are produced naturally; some are produced artificially by man; others are produced either way.

Contemplate how our lives are sustained by moving electrical charges in the atoms of ordinary elements. They generate multiple types of electromagnetic waves each moment. We must also contemplate the gifts of discovery of many scientists who came before us. We are indebted to their discoveries. 

Hundreds of scientists have focused our attention on the wonders of electromagnetic reality. James Clerk Maxwell’s profound Christian faith inspired him to proclaim “…the ordered uniformity rather than the peculiarity and complexity of nature, as signs of the Creator.”              



Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Surrounded by Radiation

If our blog title provokes fear, we must act quickly to allay a feeling of alarm. We must replace alarm with appreciation and respect for a mostly harmless, beneficial phenomenon surrounding us every moment of each day throughout our lives. Electromagnetic radiation, sometimes abbreviated EMR, is a ubiquitous life-sustaining energy phenomenon surrounding us. 

The awe-inspiring physical characteristics of our universe do not prove the existence of a Creator. Some may claim our apologetic strategies for establishing God’s existence would be simpler if we acquired explicit proof. Our view, however, is that conclusions about God’s reality are meaningfully demonstrated when we observe, reason, and learn from the discoveries of skilled scientists.

We return to the subject of electromagnetic radiation. At natural levels of exposure most levels of EMR are innocuous. Without EMR life on Earth would simply not exist at all. How do we characterize the presence of radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays? In particular, infrared radiation and visible light sustain earth life. In past eons it has bathed earth with life sustaining energy producing resources we still enjoy in our day as fossil fuels and mineral riches.

Our contemporary examples include, of course, light from the sun and artificial illumination by which we carry on daily activities. Today’s green plants, the base of our food supply, rely on solar radiation. Our modern lives could not function without microwaves to prepare food, radar to guide our planes, radio and television signals to provide information and entertainment, and X-rays to help doctors observe our inner body parts. In one way or another infrared radiation circulates heat energy for our bodily comfort and provides the dynamics for our weather. The physical mechanism for producing and transporting EMR does not ordinarily filter into our everyday awareness.

Advanced knowledge of the physical production and transfer of electromagnetic radiation coming from the matter surrounding us has been acquired only in the two most recent centuries. Important details have been added to human knowledge more recently as details of atomic structure have come into focus. Ordinary matter generates electromagnetic radiation. The basics of electromagnetic generation and the scope of usefulness of the many thousands of different types of EMR emitted by  matter are cause for worship of the Creator who designed this cosmic system.

We must leave additional discussion of ubiquitous electromagnetic radiation for future posts. Simple explanations of what occurs when simple atoms emit millions of different wavelengths of energy under a myriad of different physical conditions can be reported with relative ease. The how and the why of the process is more difficult, even impossible to explain. Physical scientists often feel empowered when they respond to the questions, “What happens?” But many other how and why questions concerning the generation ability of physical matter must remain unexplained and unanswered for now. One example to illustrate the previous sentence: There is no answer to why any particular physical constant has a specific quantitative value. Professional physical scientists may be embarrassed to admit, “That’s just the way it is!” For reference, see this link:

Many years ago a friend asked me, rhetorically, “Who is the author of the physical laws governing the universe?” We both agreed there exists an omnipotent, omniscient Creator who formulated the laws.

The behavior of matter as it generates electromagnetic radiation may be considered obedience to the physical “laws” of the universe. Removal of even one of the physical laws governing the behavior of the electromagnetic spectrum would send our universe into a state of chaos. Our universe, instead, manifests order and purpose.    





Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Discovery and Discussion

Recollections from my tenure as a secondary school science educator filter through my memory after many years. My chosen teaching fields of physical and earth science enabled me to help students already equipped with delight in the natural world to intensify their level of interest. Perhaps a greater responsibility was helping  students with less intrinsic natural curiosity develop their powers of observation and understanding. 

The introductory course in chemistry was exciting for me as a teacher. I hoped my students would share the excitement and fascination. The introductory course in chemistry provoked a measure of satisfaction for my students as they discovered elements, compounds, and atomic structure, among other topics. The astronomy and weather units provided a ready-made observational laboratory. 

Ideally, the joy of discovering foundational principles in chemistry launched my students toward achieving advanced knowledge and application skills. Many students were on the college preparatory track. Seeds of curiosity were planted for further college education and possibly graduate school. Some students would pursue science careers bolstered by inspired teachers and supportive parents.

Each teacher develops a store of individualized pedagogical trade secrets. In chemistry many “how to” books on fascinating classroom demonstrations are available. In the spirit of discovering “Science can be fun!” we may demonstrate instant color change experiments by mixing appropriate chemicals. A spectacular leap beyond such simple demonstrations is delayed color change: a clear mixed solution flashes black after a delay of perhaps 30 seconds. It is called the iodine clock reaction. We pretended to control the reaction by “mental power,” while secretly timing the reaction. Yes, science can be fun, but we must be sure the stage is set for goal-directed learning. Are we merely having fun? Or is meaningful learning taking place?

One item resting on my classroom library shelf was the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. One summer institute workshop instructor suggested students purchase this volume. Currently, its 95th edition (2014) contains a mind-bending 2693 pages of information. Over the decades this volume has morphed from practical to increasingly technical. My citation of this Handbook suggested additional wonders of chemistry and  scope of knowledge yet to be discovered by students. One humorous assignment related to their memorization of chemical constants in the 44th edition CRC volume. Students soon realized their teacher was not really serious.

As a teacher I approached other physical and earth science subject matter with personal reverence for the Creator. The public school setting did not afford explicit worship opportunities but our earth and physical science courses provided opportunities for metaphysical student discussion on occasion. Where did the universe come from? Did our universe originate by itself, naturalistically? One student asked, “Do you believe in God?” My answer was, “I certainly do!” I disclosed my personal belief that, “The Big Bang was the initial supernatural creation event in the cosmos, in keeping with the text of Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” The discoveries of science point to the events of the Big Bang as the divine initiation of time, space, matter, and energy. “The heavens and the earth” is accurately translated “all that exists.”

The truths of chemistry, physics, biology, and earth science all point to a cosmic Designer and Creator, the God of Genesis 1:1. These truths are not completely proven by physical evidence. As a public school science educator, I believed evidence of a theistic Designer, the Creator of all things, was powerfully indicated.



Friday, March 6, 2015

Element Identity

Midway through my teaching career our district offered a popular science course called Introductory Physical Science (IPS). One primary purpose was to introduce the concept that matter was composed of billions of tiny particles called atoms rather than a continuous homogeneous mass of matter. The particulate nature of matter is not visually obvious to observers. The concept of matter’s composition as discrete particles by ancient thinkers several thousand years ago was an early inspiration. But it remained for scientists during the modern scientific revolution several hundred years ago to discover the concept empirically rather than rationally as did the early thinkers.

For IPS and most other modern science courses, logical development of ideas takes precedence over mere rote learning of facts and terms. Model development is based on sequential experimental evidence. For example, one fascinating experiment on spectral analysis which helped identify a chemical “element” followed establishment of the model of an element based on a previous sequence of logical classroom experiments. Ideally, our modern classroom science students benefit from logic, reasoning skills, and proper laboratory procedures.

How does spectral analysis help identify one of the nearly 100 natural elements comprising all matter? There are dozens of ways to identify an element. Spectral analysis is but one way. First, we remind readers that electron structure of atoms of each element is arranged hierarchically—one more electron is added as each element number increases by one. Atomic number 8, oxygen: 8 electrons; Atomic number 47, silver: 47 electrons. In any element, the outer valence shell (now called a principal energy level) of electrons governs how the element combines with other elements by giving up, acquiring, or sharing electrons.

When elements receive energy from an outside source, their electrons are driven to a higher energy level. When electrons return to their normal energy level, the atoms of that element emit energy in the form of light or other energy. Electron configurations vary from one element to another, so the wave lengths of light energy emitted are different from one element to anther. Some elements’ atoms may produce mainly one visible wave length of light. For example, sodium emits mainly orange light but manganese emits spectral light of many colors. The idea of an identifying “fingerprint” seems outdated, but it provides a scientifically useful analogy.

Spectroscopic analysis is based on the analysis of light coming from heated elements or compounds containing those elements. Each element emits characteristic patterns of spectral lines. In the IPS laboratory we heated small amounts of a compound of various elements in a burner flame. Viewed through a simple device called a spectroscope with a slit at one end and a small piece of material called a diffraction grating at the other, we observed one or more bright spectral lines. Simple science class spectroscopes for students are precursors of more advanced devices.

Spectral lines are unique to every element. Our sun produces the total visible spectrum because it possesses most elements in various quantities. Visible white light may be separated into every color from red to orange to yellow to green to blue and finally, violet. Visible red is produced by the longest physical light wavelengths. Violet is visible from the shortest wavelengths. Our sense of wonder is piqued when we understand that each separate position on the visible light spectrum may be produced by the action of electrons as they return to a previous energy level (ground state) in their “host” atom.

We close with an analogy from the world of bioscience. In the area of human life, a term stands out—biometrics. This technology can be used to discover an individual’s unique identity. There are many ways to identify a human’s unique identity. Likewise, in the world of physical science, there are many ways to identify substances. We have discussed only one in this post—spectral analysis. Our God designed the cosmos and stamped it with HIS divine identity. In a small way the identity of the universe’s building blocks—elements—speaks of the Creator’s ordered plan for our universe.

Searching for descriptions of the Introductory Physical Science (IPS) course, we encountered course descriptions from individual high schools as well as statements from the publisher. One statement from a Christian Brothers High School syllabus stood out. It read, “Additionally, the student will be working in teams during this course building moral values and a love of God. Science and spirituality are certainly not mutually exclusive.” The phenomena of our world are ordered because the God of Creation is the author of all things. Wonderful cause and effect events inspire humble worship of the Creator.