Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Movement in the Skies

In our last post we observed that the conjunction of bright Planet Venus with the crescent moon on July 18, 2015 looked like a “Semicolon in the Sky.” As our family members watched the crescent moon and Venus set, thanks to Earth’s rotation, the darkening skies revealed another assemblage of stars—The Big Dipper. This grouping of stars rates as an “asterism,” a conspicuous star pattern or grouping of stars which does not qualify as a constellation.

The Big Dipper is a favorite of young and old. To modern folks, this asterism looks like a container with a handle and a pan (the Dipper). To the ancients, The Big Dipper was only a part of a greater constellation known as Ursa Major—the Great Bear. When my grandson asked if the Big Dipper was visible in the darkening evening skies following our sighting of the Venus/moon conjunction, I first mistakenly replied, “No.” But a quick reappraisal revealed it actually was visible high in the northwest skies if we looked carefully. After a few hours, however, major changes were in store. The star group moved to a new position in the darkening skies.

The seven stars of the Big Dipper are never below the horizon, night or day. The entire Big Dipper asterism visually circles daily around a point on the dome of the sky called the north celestial pole (NCP). The famous star Polaris, the North Star, is fortuitously located almost exactly at that spot. If we journeyed to the Earth’s geographic north pole, the north celestial pole would be straight overhead continuously, night and day. “Why?” we may ask. Even though Earth’s revolution is a long journey around the sun once per year, the Earth’s axis of rotation always tilts to this single spot on the dome of the sky. Stars are incredibly distant so earth’s revolution seems minor in comparison. Earth’s axis is always directed at only one point on the dome of the sky—the NCP.

The apparent daily 360º journey of the Big Dipper around the NCP is caused by the real rotational motion of the Earth. Our real motion causes the stars such as The Big Dipper to appear to move. In reality, our Earth is moving—360º of rotation per day—but we do not sense any movement. Apparent movement of the Big Dipper and other stars signals we are moving. The confusion about what moves was settled in the days of Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543). He established that the Sun is at the center of the Solar System while Earth and other planets revolve around it and rotate. These real motions provide us with the joy of witnessing sunrises, sunsets, seasonal changes and many other phenomena, and the interesting circular swings of the Big Dipper and all other visible stars in the sky.

The Creator has provided our system of revolving planets around a central Sun. He has enabled us to decipher the apparent motion of the sun, moon, planets, and stars as well as their real motions. The Big Dipper’s major movements tell us about the rotation of the Earth. Less obvious, more subtle movements  of the stars have enabled astronomers to discover the facts about Earth’s revolution. We now know the Earth revolves around the sun, but how did the brilliant astronomers of several hundred years ago first figure it out? We leave this mystery for an upcoming post.  


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Semicolon in the Sky

My 10-and 11-year old grandchildren journeyed outdoors toward evening last Saturday with their uncle to search for milkweed caterpillars, the larvae of monarch butterflies. Milkweed caterpillar collection has been a summer staple of family nature study in our family for three generations. If captured, each caterpillar greedily devours milkweeds in a jar, soon suspends itself to become a beautiful, emerald green, gold bejeweled chrysalis, and finally, after a few days of quiet development, emerges as a fully developed adult monarch.

Twilight was descending on the neighborhood as the threesome returned from their country caterpillar pilgrimage. A short time before, I noted an unusual conjunction of astronomical bodies in the western sky. The thin waxing crescent moon was positioned just below Planet Venus in the fading twilight. The moon’s diameter is about 0.5 degrees. On that night, bright Venus was only one degree distant from the moon. These numbers make for a stunning close meeting, a “conjunction” of sky objects. The moon is second only to the sun in brightness. Venus ranks number three.

When my grandson first saw the configuration, he volunteered that “it looks like a semicolon.” Indeed, it did. On infrequent instances such unusual positioning of celestial bodies offers rare beauty and an occasion for wonder. I could not resist donning my science teacher’s hat: “Tomorrow night the waxing crescent moon will appear about 12º east, leaving Venus by itself,” I exclaimed. I pointed to the approximate locations of the moon for the next few nights at the same clock time—a visual reminder of the moon’s revolution around the earth, I hastened to explain.

In just over 29 days, our lunar companion would return to the same spot in the sky at the same time by the clock. But during early August Venus dips completely below the horizon so another conjunction would not occur. Our moon, meanwhile, would favor us with its monthly phases and stages: waxing crescent, first quarter, waxing gibbous, full moon, waning gibbous, last quarter, and waning crescent. This sequence of events occurs every 29+ days. Earth residents may count on it!

Careful observers notice movements of the moon and Venus as described above. The moon’s speed of revolution, almost 2300 mph, is noticeable because it is so close to Earth. Venus’ speed of 78000 mph is barely noticeable because it is much more distant. When we compare size, speed, distance, and appearance of astronomical bodies in our Solar System, we have a formula for enjoyment of the world as gifted to us by the Creator.

The semicolon in the twilight sky of July 18, 2015 was a “still picture” of startling beauty. Momentary observations did not reveal changes in position or appearance of the sky objects. But with a little patience, in a few minutes we perceived the twilight fading and the descent of the semicolon below the horizon. These observations resulted from the rotation of our planet—once each 24 hours. Many years ago I challenged my students to witness a sunset patiently for a few minutes in an effort to observe movements not otherwise visible. Our classroom discussions of their experience revealed some students claimed to “feel” the Earth’s rotation. Of course, they did not “feel” the rotation except in a visual sense.

The search for Monarch larvae yielded two tiny caterpillars and one tiny Monarch egg, discovered by my granddaughter. Combined with the aforementioned astronomy lesson in fading twilight, the children experienced two diverse lessons without cost, but full of value. Three generations shared the joy of wholesome natural discovery that evening. 





Monday, July 20, 2015

On Their Own Terms

In our previous post on “Wildlife Perspectives” we closed our discussion of South African mammals and Midwestern birds by mentioning two theories of origins— creationism vs evolutionism. Our purpose was to highlight an ongoing television interview series on The John Ankerberg Show featuring Dr. Stephen Meyer and Dr. John Ankerberg. The PBS special on The White Lions may have triggered an interest in origins. How and when did these animals come to exist? Discussions on origins sometimes deteriorate into arguments on the relative merits of creationism and evolutionism.  

Some analysts have stated that arguments are not strengthened by attacking weaknesses in the opposing case. More appropriate is presenting the strength of one’s own argument. For example, the creation model for the origin of life and the first appearance of animal phyla must stand on its own as does the belief that existing animals are the result of a past act of divine creation. We may also say that existing animal life is intelligently designed. Cataloging the perceived weakness of evolution does not strengthen the case for creation or design. Likewise, evolutionist positions are not buttressed by pointing out perceived deficiencies in the creationist position. In that spirit, we briefly offer observations from both positions.

For creationists, belief in creation or intelligent design with respect to the existence of living creatures may be an example of a properly basic belief. Such intrinsic beliefs do not need to be inferred from other truths to be reasonable. Most often the term connects with a more general discussion of belief in the existence of God. Properly basic beliefs are based on intuition and are self-validating. Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig frequently discuss this term. When we examine the magnificent beauty, diversity, adaptability, and functionality of animals on distant continents or birds in our neighborhood, we are unable to observe the act of creation by which they originated. Intuitionally, however, we are confident that these complex and exquisite animals originated in a supernatural act of creation.

Creationists support their beliefs with empirical and inferential evidence as well as properly basic beliefs. DNA and RNA are genetic and messenger molecules in the systems of all living things. The detailed information conveyed in these molecules is in the form of a code. Complex codes are always produced by an intelligent agent. The exceedingly sudden appearances of life forms along the timeline of geologic history support belief in creation and intelligent design. Creationists believe production of new proteins, then new cell types, new tissues, new organs, new body plans and finally, a new organism is a sequence of creation events necessary for the production of novel animals and plants.

Evolutionists also support their beliefs with empirical and inferential evidence. They claim evolution is a fact. Evolutionary facts are the world’s data. The data clearly show that life forms have changed substantially over time. The theory of evolution offers an explanation of the fact of evolution. Common ancestry is a tenet of the theory—all living things have descended from a common ancestor in an unbroken line of descent. The theory of evolution is profoundly dependent on demonstrating a branching phylogenetic tree of life succession from the common ancestor. Formerly the evolutionary process was explained by mutation and natural selection.

Mutation and natural selection are fading as mainstays of the explanatory evolutionary argument. Morphology, a study of form and structure has become less important as cladism and molecular genetic relationships have become more important in the explanation of evolutionary theory. Evolutionists strive to demonstrate evolutionary relationships among living things in the interest of fortifying the theory. The degree to which evolutionary relationships among current living things can be demonstrated matches the importance of the entire theory. In this way the backbone of evolution—common ancestry—is affirmed.

We hope our exceedingly brief comparison of creationism vs evolutionism is an example of presentation of both theories on their own terms. We made no effort to point out errors in either belief. Many devote much effort to denigrating the opposing theory and waging ad hominem attacks to the detriment of the argument. Readers should study and test each position, however, in order to compare strengths and weaknesses in respective arguments.            



Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Wildlife Perspectives

Mammals in South Africa? Birds in the US Midwest? We highlight two geographic regions almost half a world apart for a brief wildlife discussion on animal diversity and origins. 

The television was tuned to a PBS special: The White Lions. The gripping subject matter filmed in South Africa won out over our favorite baseball team’s broadcast. White lions are a rare color mutation short of albinism. The unique beauty and capabilities of the lion families, including their youthful ability to frolic and later learn to hunt prey, was an entertainment draw in the comfort of our living room. The story line of the white lion family and their efforts to survive was gripping. Other highlights were shots of famous South African animals—leopards, hyenas, wild dogs, giraffes, elephants, wildebeests, bushbuck, buffalo, hippos, and zebras among others.  The behavioral abilities of these animals pairs with their physical attractiveness. Each animal is a work of designer art as well as an example of unique adaptive function.

Our wide screen TV brought South Africa’s stunning mammalian wildlife to our living room in living color with advanced telescopic technology. Earth’s mammals number close to 6000. African mammals are beloved by young children for their diversity and uniqueness. They help children sharpen recognition and identification skills. Many children’s picture books tell the story. 

We hope children will broaden their interest to the wondrously diverse creatures in their home neighborhood. Our northern Illinois region is 14000 km from South Africa. We continue our perspective by highlighting a different class of animals from our community: Phylum Chordata; Sub-phylum Vertebrata; Class Aves (Birds). Earth’s bird species number close to 10,000. One of our grandchildren's favorite “coffee table” volumes when they visit is “Bird Songs,” 250 North American Birds in Song. This volume enables them to access pictures and songs of birds in our locality.

And what are the most spectacular birds in our neighborhood? We admire modestly colored cowbirds, catbirds, sparrows, crows, wrens, phoebes, sparrows, tufted titmice, and many others, but pure spectral joy accompanies our perception of bluebirds, indigo buntings, blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, cardinals, scarlet tanagers, baltimore orioles, and goldfinches. Their unique vocalizations and intelligent behavior enhances visual identification. Song identification is a prime identifier. We have named only a few resident birds. One neighbor has identified 153 species over the years.

As I recently experienced the PBS special and observed our region’s birds, I reflected on how these animals came to exist. Do we subscribe to the secular pronouncement that evolution is responsible for the production of over 1,700,000 fully distinct species of animals and plants, including the PBS highlights of South African mammals and Northern Illinois birds we have sighted?

Darwinian evolution attempts to account for the “mass production” of 1,700,000 fully distinct species of animals and plants on Planet Earth. That includes only species already catalogued, not to mention uncatalogued species, perhaps four times that number! Mutation and natural selection, together with lots of time, is a theoretical mechanism to produce the magnificent diversity of Earth life in our day. Newer theoretical explanations for the evolution of Earth’s species are still being offered to a willing audience as mutation and natural selection lose explanatory power among evolutionary biologists.

An event of incredible scope occurred approximately 540 million years ago. It is termed the Cambrian Explosion. Virtually every animal phylum appeared abruptly on Earth in a narrow window of geologic time. In the millions of years since that event, other radiations (sudden appearances) of new species occurred following extinction events on this planet. These appearances have the attributes of supernatural creation events.

We suggest our readers review the television series by Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, interviewed by Dr. John Ankerberg on the current Daystar broadcast series on The John Ankerberg Show. Website: The sudden origins of living phyla are presented as events of supernatural creation. The programs are archived for replay at any time.   


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

'Wrath of God' Headliner

On June 23, 2015, vicious thunderstorms and windstorms tore through northeastern Iowa. Our local newspaper described widespread damage. Heavy winds knocked down trees and damaged multiple homes. There were no injuries but there was widespread damage even without a tornado.

On the following day the local newspaper headlined the ‘Wrath of God’ on front page one inch bold letters. Violent thunderstorms are not uncommon during the warm seasons in the midwest. Residents have learned to cope with and endure the most extreme manifestations of summertime in this region. The warm weather spate of meteorological turbulence is not surprising. However, this media headline was surprising for Iowa in the summer. One wonders if harsh, even damaging summer thunderstorms are truly manifestations of the ‘Wrath of God.’ Or are such headlines merely an example of editorial exuberance? The quote came from a frightened resident interviewed after the storm passed.

The ‘Wrath of God’ is an emotional reaction to a frightening experience with wind. We do not feel God’s wrath is literally manifest in meteorological extremes, especially as God’s punishment in our age of grace. Some weather disasters such as flash flooding may result from environmental degradation by humans—severe deforestation, erosion, or over-cultivation. In such cases, some people may call the disaster an ‘Act of God,’ a legal term for events over which we have no control. Legally, however, humans may bear some responsibility. Unfortunately, some may use this as an opportunity to blame God as unjust. Wrath in such a case may be more aptly translated as God’s justice

In terms of effective agricultural distribution of water for our population, summer storms are a necessity. A few weeks ago, raging floods in Texas and Oklahoma brought an end to a widespread regional drought. Such meteorological events “come with the territory.” Without a robust seasonal circulation and recirculation of water vapor, including flood-producing heavy rains, thunderstorms, hurricanes, including heavy snowstorms in winter, our population would ultimately suffer hunger. Unpleasant and periodically damaging windstorms are part of atmospheric circulatory activity. Like them or not, these events sustain agriculture, industry, and ultimately even recreational enjoyment.

Droughts do not generate the same negative emotional reaction as do sudden and destructive windstorms and accompanying events. Media consumers and producers demand news of spectacular and tragic weather events. The reality of weather and climate as a beautiful natural system authored by the Creator to distribute Earth’s water, our planet’s key resource, does not command the same interest level from the public. We acknowledge that extreme events on the weather and climate spectrum may be more noteworthy for consumers and publicists. Our leaders in schools and churches bear some responsibility for helping the public acquire a balanced picture of weather and climate—yes, even the more extreme events.    

Our blog has dealt with the above questions in past posts. We suggest you study this link from 3/10/12 to gain a more positive perspective on startling and sometimes inconvenient weather events:

Before we leave our brief discussions of 2015 flooding and excess rainfall events in the midwest region of our country, we enlarge on the opposite extreme of the weather spectrum. In the summer of 2012, a large swath of the midwest was in the grip of an unusual drought. Some speculated we were at the beginning of a long term drought such as had occurred in the US throughout the 1930s. It was termed the Dust Bowl. That drought was made more severe from extensive deep plowing of prairie grassland. In semi-arid conditions, much of the soil blew away due to excess heat and the rainfall deficit. In contrast, the 2012 drought extended only over several months. Even as a short-term event, however, there was much concern. Most of the area received relief as 2013 approached. This short-term but severe drought inspired your blogger to submit three posts in 2012 on topics which had been one of the mainstays of my teaching preference as an earth science educator—weather. Here are links to my 2012 commentaries on the midwest drought:

Let us rejoice together in David’s message of Psalm 24:1: “The Earth is the LORD’S, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”




Friday, July 3, 2015

Hundred Year Events

Our personal neighborhood in extreme northwest Illinois has been struck many times in the last dozen years by monumental rainfall events. It is debatable whether their frequency has been intensified over previous decades. Our locality has endured four or five rainfall events in the 8 to 13 inch category. These do not compare with more widespread flooding disasters such as the 1993 and 2008 midwest events which extended over weeks.

Statistics show that disasters such as flooding have occurred throughout man’s tenure on earth. It is doubtful that weather disasters have been increasing on the planet, notwithstanding the lament of climate change enthusiasts. They claim Earth is warming and violent weather is increasing as a result. Nevertheless, tornadoes and hurricanes have been far below average in frequency for several years, while winter severity has increased in some areas. 

Hundred year storms have gained negative publicity. Such storms are defined as having a 1% chance of occurring in any year. If a so-called hundred year storm occurs one year, the same chance of another occurrence exists for the next year or the year after. After the recent severe flooding in Texas and Oklahoma, Weather Channel reported that in Oklahoma City there have been three 500-year floods in five years based on drainage codes for that particular location. Of course, these would be even more severe than the hundred year variety. Quoting such statistics can be misleading. The impact of such flooding may be lost as we inappropriately focus on interpretation of hundred year or 500-year flooding events.

Our neighborhood in extreme northwest Illinois received 13 inches of rainfall in June 2015. Even three times normal rainfall for the month did not compare with the 13 inches which fell in one night in July 2011. 

I now refocus from the “weather wow factor” to proposing that Planet Earth is resilient as are human residents of our planet. Earth has been the recipient of heavy rains, droughts, blizzards, cold snaps, heat waves, tornadoes, and hurricanes, for countless thousands of years. Just in the last million years one source calculated there have been 10000 hundred year storms. Our population has not only survived; it has actually thrived. Since 1800 world population has increased seven-fold. Modern society is thriving owing to achievements in technology and agriculture, as well as enlightened application of environmental practices.

The Creator’s Genesis mandate to “subdue the earth” has been more effectively applied in response to the disastrous weather mentioned above. Research on fatalities resulting from weather disasters in the US reveal a surprising fact. We justly grieve concerning fatal or costly outcomes of any weather disaster. However, this country has suffered less from weather related fatalities and damages from 1995-2015 than might be expected. On average there were almost 500 annual deaths nationally, a minuscule percentage compared with other deaths by carelessness or accidental injury—192,000. The damage costs from avoidable accidents or injuries also exceed weather related damages by many multiples.

The overall effect of floods is beneficial in terms of vital water distribution. For instance, the recent Texas/Oklahoma flooding has effectively ended a damaging drought in that area persisting for several years. An example of the wisdom man utilizes to manage his environment is the ongoing effort by hydrologists and geologists to replace trillions of gallons of floodwater in underground aquifers rather than permit the water to run into the ocean. The huge Ogallala aquifer is located under a broad area of the central United States. This aquifer is a geologic formation able to store huge amounts of water underground. During rainfall deficit periods, farmers could make use of the ground water to sustain normal agriculture.

Several water conservation strategies are being developed to slow the depletion of underground water from this aquifer which supplies 30% of the ground water used for irrigation in this country. This is reminiscent of recently successful stringent water conservation measures in California’s drought struck regions. We witnessed the water conservation/recycling effort of Israeli agriculture during our 2009 visit to that country.

It remains for our government authorities to implement intelligent management of flood control measures in order not to disrupt natural water storage systems such as wetlands. We must pray for the wisdom of our elected officials and offer them encouragement in their effort. We thank God for the wisdom he has given government leaders in the past few decades to restore rather than to despoil our environment.

And what of our fear of hundred year storms? We must make use of divine wisdom to prepare adequately for these events and use them to our advantage in terms of prudent management of water resources. Then we may agree with The Cornwall Alliance in their statement, “Earth and its ecosystems…are robust, resilient, self-regulating and self-correcting.” Humanity must be wise in supplementing the robust and resilient ecosystems of earth with environmental wisdom. The proposition of Isaiah to Old Testament Israel may apply to the people of God in the 21st century: “…Israel will blossom and sprout, and they will fill the whole world with fruit” (NAS).