Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Coordinating Celestial Observations

To introduce astronomy studies to my former students, I regaled them with an account of my early childhood musings about the the Earth and the sky. Some confessed similar youthful personal misconceptions about the cosmos.

As a young child I gazed out and envisioned a solid dome of sky arching down to Earth and meeting the solid ground “out there” at some distant point on the horizon. I wondered what would it be like to be “out there.” I don’t recall wondering about the juncture as I looked across Lake Ontario or the ocean. Neither do I recollect noticing that stars on the solid sky dome were positioned on the night sky in a consistent arrangement from night to night and that certain bodies such as the sun and moon were superimposed on the star field and always slid across the dome from east to west. I was far too young for such a detailed analysis. My understanding of the Earth/sky relationship was quite preliminary. Immediate observation predominated.

The prehistoric Sumerians also had concept of a solid dome stretching across the sky—part of a three tiered (sometimes seven-tiered) concept of the heavens. Earth was perceived to be a flat disc under the dome. There was no concept of Earth as a sphere suspended in space. The tiered, domed concept was embellished with many imaginative beliefs as was their complex polytheism. One wonders about their everyday experiences in a physical world not unlike our own.

Against the background of our knowledge of ancient prehistoric mysticism, polytheism, and superstition, a strange irony springs forth with respect to how we currently plot celestial coordinates. With what system do we communicate information concerning positions of heavenly bodies in our vast heavens? The irony is this: The heavens surrounding Planet Earth do not really consist of a solid dome surrounding the Earth, but we use this faulty worldview scheme for teaching celestial coordinates in modern classrooms—a map of the heavens used to precisely describe the location of countless thousands of heavenly bodies. Alan MacRobert of Sky and Telescope magazine wrote in the 7/20/06 issue that, “In astronomy, appearances and reality are more different than in any other area of human experience.” In humorous, simpler terms, seeing is not always believing when we look at the sky: The sky looks like it is a solid dome over our head, but it really isn’t.

It slowly dawned on early astronomers that our Earth seems not to be encircled by a “dome,” but rather, a complete celestial sphere. What a startling revelation that was! They noticed that part of the sky dome was always setting in the west; another part was always rising in the east. Therefore, at any time, half of the celestial sphere must be below the horizon. We do not live on a flat Earth surrounded by a dome; rather, we live on a spherical Earth.  

What happened on that dome has been historically subject to much interpretation and misinterpretation. Later believers thought the “dome” which encircled our planet carried with it certain objects such as stars, the Moon, and the Sun. As a result, we experience direct light from the Sun and the reflected light from the Moon, but there was still room for misunderstanding of reality. 

So what is the “dome” conceived by early Mesopotamian astronomers? It was the backdrop for wonderful manifestations of visual observations. What were they? They were images of the Sun, Moon, and various planets which crept across the sky. Our children and grandchildren still observe the Sun as it treks across the sky and sets in the west. They also observe the Moon in its relentless travels. Less careful observers may notice the trek of the stars. We acknowledge that people from every age have been challenged to identify profoundly non-obvious causes in relation to powerfully impactful obvious effects. 

The scientist Ptolemy who died in 168 A.D. established the Ptolemaic cosmological system. We live on a spherical planet, said Ptolemy, but the planet did not move. Various objects moved around us. We were part of a geocentric (Earth-centered) system. The celestial sphere was host to complex movements of the Sun, Moon, and stars emplaced in many spherical layers. The idea of a solid dome was gone.

Copernicus (1473-1543) supplied clarity. Aristarchus (310-230 B.C) had pre-stated Copernicus’ ideas by many hundreds of years. Copernicus, however, acquired modern credit for his heliocentric cosmology. Already established by Ptolemy was the idea of a spherical Earth in space with the Earth at the center of the universe. Now Copernicus amazed church leaders by claiming the Sun was at the center of the known universe with the planets revolving around it, placing Earth in a subordinate position. Some leaders were thrilled at the new knowledge while others felt this was anti-biblical. Over one hundred years later, Galileo was ostracized for endorsing Copernican cosmology. He was not officially vindicated by the Catholic Church until 1992.

This brief account of the evolution of cosmology does little justice to the intense struggles of scientists and church authorities to arrive at truth based on a blend of accurate modern science and divinely inspired Biblical orthodoxy. 

Recently our pastor began a series on the Psalms. Could there be a more propitious launch of a sermon series than Psalm 8? It begins, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.” (Psalm 8:1) This Psalm places the glory of God above the heavens but God also reserves a measure of glory for man created in His own image: “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5)   





Friday, June 22, 2018

Summer Solstice Splendor

Recall your personal response to the “first day of summer” when you were a school student. Children greet this day with happiness and fervor. By this date in June some midwestern school children have been on summer vacation for several weeks. Other schools, primarily in the mostly non-agricultural east, have school calendars extending until mid or late June. Eastern snowstorms wreaked havoc this school year making closing dates even later than usual.

One day appears on printed annual calendars every year. It is called the summer solstice or the first day of summer. This special astronomical event is unaffected by our efforts to postpone scheduled activities to conform with the vagaries of daily weather. Among many special days on our annual calendars, the summer solstice has special appeal for science minded folk—in particular the astronomy minded.

Most people realize the date on or close to June 21 is the longest day of the year—longest in terms of daylight. But it is the longest day of the year only for people in the Northern Hemisphere. At the Equator, 12-hour days and nights persist all year long. The longest Northern Hemisphere day is longer than the second or third longest day by only a few seconds. Sunrise and sunset times change very little for several days. After a few weeks we may take note of the slowly diminishing day length.

The Summer Solstice is the date on which the sun seems to “stand still.” We know that our Sun, when viewed each day at noon, appears to creep higher and higher in the sky between December and March. The sun appears to ascend from south to north on the ecliptic, the apparent annual path of the sun. Between March and June, the sun continues to ascend northward in the sky, beyond the celestial equator, an imaginary line formed in the sky by extension of Earth’s equator. The sun ascends to its farthest northward position on June 21. On that date the Sun appears to stand, or stop moving farther north. Technically, the sun “stands still” only momentarily, and the sun’s apparent movement slowly begins to resume its slow southward journey. Daylight begins to shorten.

We may derive literal meanings from the Latin. Sol means “sun.” Stice means to “make stand” or “to stop.” Literally, solstice means “the sun stands still,” but only briefly when its northernmost or southernmost position has been reached. During December, “winter solstice” is also noted on our printed calendars when the sun reaches its southernmost distance from the celestial equator, a permanent reference point in the sky based on the plane of Earth’s Equator. For Southern hemisphere residents, the sun stands still for a brief time on December 21 this year. It will be their summer solstice!

Viewed from any spot on Earth, the Sun seems to advance northward in the sky, then southward, a total range of 47º during the calendar year. If Earth’s axis were tilted 0º instead of 23.4º, the Sun would appear at the same noontime elevation above the horizon daily. The lengths of day and night would be virtually identical all year long, assuming the Earth’s orbit was perfectly circular. There would be no seasons on our planet. Last year we included a discussion of seasons. For your reference, we link…

The Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice occurs on December 21 in 2018. Three months later the Vernal Equinox occurs on March 20, 2019, while the Autumnal Equinox will occur on September 22, 2018. On Equinoxes, day and night lengths are exactly the same all over the world. Astronomy enthusiasts become enthralled with the majestic subtleties of our grand Solar System. From a theological perspective, we propose that these majestic subtleties provide countless divine benefits to humanity as well as an opportunity to stretch our understanding of how the cosmos works.  


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Regulations on Human Innovation

The CRISPR/Cas9 genetic editing phenomenon receives much press in our current climate. Our government regulators solicit public commentary on lively issues of the day. Well they should, particularly when bioscientists develop novel processes which could impact human life negatively. In particular, when genetic experts deliberately alter in some way the human genetic heritage by modifying or changing DNA structure or function, we should take notice. 

In review, we cite the recent movement toward GMOs—genetically modified organisms. The pioneering discoveries appeared during the last quarter of the 20th century. The first genetically modified organisms resulted from inserting genetic material from one organism into an organism of a different species. Antibiotic resistance was one of the first problems solved by genetic modification. Since then modified organisms have provided pharmaceutical benefits, more desirable and productive fruits and vegetables, and insect and herbicide resistant crops.

More recently, CRISPR/Cas9 technology has opened the door to genetic editing. An organism’s own DNA is modified by deleting, inserting, or transferring a subject’s own DNA to correct inherent deficiencies or diseases or enhance desirable physical traits. This process is the result of hundreds of research procedures far beyond the comprehension of most laypersons. In a general way the public may understand that processes of great import are being developed at our personal genetic level. This phenomenon is at once powerfully desirable, yet potentially frightening. The CRISPR/Cas9 biotechnology does not face the regulatory restrictions that GMOs face. No harmful effects from consumption of genetically modified foods have been discovered. Both technologies have been made possible owing to revelations of detailed DNA atomic structure since 1950.

There is a commonality across the genetics of living things. For example, biologists tell us that the annelid genomes (segmented worms such as common earthworms are examples) are more similar to humans than to genomes of arthropods and insects. The Creator of All Things has designed different body plans for each of the 33 animal phyla and 14 plant phyla. In reference to physical traits, animal phyla are similar to each other, but also different from each other in significant ways. The genomes of diverse phyla are also similar to each other and also different in significant ways. Bioscientists are fond of “connecting the dots” of genetic similarity among phyla in order to establish their hypotheses of common ancestry and fortify their evolutionary proposals. Common physical traits and common genetic traits could also signal a Common Designer origin. Common Design appears to be a more rational explanation to those people not ideologically driven to embrace evolution. It makes sense that the Creator would use successful designs and successful genetic patterns repeatedly.

The complex majesty of the genomes of living things is worth studying at an advanced level of personal study. It is unsurprising that objections to GMOs and genetic editing have achieved prominence. The public needs assurance that the procedures are safe. Throughout human history man has weighed the positives and negatives of his grand schemes and discoveries. However, over-caution or under-caution is equally harmful to human progress.

Government regulations have proliferated in our day. Regulations concerning personal health and safety have produced a generous share of our attention. This is warranted, but we could be vulnerable to misunderstanding and abuse. There is a difficult balance point to be achieved between protecting the population from harm, but avoiding ideological fears which may prevent genuine healing and benefits to personal wellness.

Edward Jenner developed the remarkable life-saving process of immunization by vaccination in the late 18th century before the onset of modern governmental obsession with regulation. Milkmaids working with cows infected with cowpox acquired that mild disease, but subsequently avoided infection with the often fatal disease of smallpox raging in society at the time. They had acquired natural immunity. Inoculation with similar cowpox organic material provided protection from the much more devastating smallpox. The subsequently developed vaccination process protected the population from the horrors of many diseases. Smallpox killed an estimated 300-500 million people in the 20th century, but aggressive action eradicated the disease from the planet by 1977.

We cite one historical example of opposition to medical innovation. The Australian media outlet The Conversation published an article in 2017 by Ella Stewart-Peters and Catherine Kevin entitled “A Short History of Vaccine Objection, Vaccine Cults, and Conspiracy Theories.” They state, “…there’s a long history of opposition to childhood vaccination.” The article further relates,”By submitting to compulsory vaccination laws, a parent was allowing the government to insert itself into the individual home and take control of a child’s body, something traditionally protected by the parent.” This quote reminds us that some modern residents value medical privacy over efforts to acquire potential personal healing. There are no right or wrong answers to such complex issues. 

Complex questions surrounding personal genetic modification are intensely challenging. The battles over Jenner’s vaccination process and even suspicions leveled at early proponents of germ theory must be kept in mind in our day when so much benefit has already accrued. Incredible medical advances have enriched humanity. We return repeatedly to Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…” This passage immediately follows Genesis 1:27 where God speaks of man’s creation in the Image of God. It is our belief that humanity’s fruitfulness and increase in population in the past two centuries is God’s gift to Earth dwellers still operating under the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. The 2nd Law is the “operating system”of our cosmos. The “operator” is the God of Creation.

We do not abide in a perfect world. Where imperfections are prevalent, we are gifted with the opportunity for discovery of remedies for the imperfections. We may judiciously celebrate recent strides in genetic modification.




Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Human Knowledge and God's Image

The concept of God’s image in humanity is a deep and provocative concept. God’s image does not occur in sub-human life even though God’s creative power is evident in all life. God’s creative power is also manifest in the coherent orderliness of the cosmos, especially in our unique Solar System with our Planet Earth. There is no body in our Solar System approaching Earth’s uniqueness, not only because Earth has been created life-abundant, but especially because the highest form of life, humanity, has been created in the Image of God. A few unusual animals have been created with a quality defined by Reasons to Believe author Hugh Ross as soulishness. Ross is careful to distinguish the fascinating quality of soulishness in animals from the much more elevated concept of human beings created in the Image of God:

The website Rationalwiki published an essay in 2008 entitled “Greatest Achievements in Human History.” Its unnamed authors cited numerous achievements powered by human knowledge and creativity in multiple categories. Included were 16 topics: Architecture, art, engineering, exploration, inventions, law/government/politics/economics, literature, mathematics, medicine, military, music, philosophy, political/social movements, religion, science, and speech/orations. The authors listed multiple examples of human knowledge and achievement in each of sixteen categories. The essay was reminiscent of several categories discussed in Focus on the Family’s worldview workshop offered over a decade ago. The Truth Project categories were veritology (truth), philosophy and ethics, anthropology, theology, science, history, sociology, the “mystical union,” the State, the American experiment, labor, and community involvement. 

Both of the above sources offer a virtual catalog of outworking of the Image of God evident in humanity, and only in humanity, as contrasted with millions of other living species. Humans are gifted with the ability to perceive, understand, organize, and create in many spheres of achievement. Appropriation of these gifts is a special honor to humankind—a legacy from our Creator. 

As we examine the accomplishments of the human race in the most recent 50,000-75,000 years we detect a sudden infusion of traits clearly seen by most historians as a “sea change” in human knowledge and achievement. The gap in knowledge and achievement between modern humans and the next lower hominid clearly sets man apart from all other forms of life. 

The writers of the essay “Greatest Achievements in Human History” listed an average of 22 major human accomplishments in each listing for a total of 358. This is not to say there were only 358 major accomplishments. The authors subjectively chose their illustrations.
We find many essays and plentiful commentary on the meaning of the Image of God with which humanity was created. Scripture contains several expressions such as Genesis 1:27 where we are explicitly told, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The concept of man’s creation “in His image” is exceedingly powerful. New Testament passages tell us we identify with Christ who is the image of the invisible God. Human existence “in the image of God” is one of the most awesome concepts of theological reality. It implies we have the knowledge and responsibility to create and manage our environment not only for our own benefit but also for the glory of God who initially created all things.

God created humans to exercise creativity and self-reliance. Man controls and enriches his own life in a volitional manner. A study of major human accomplishments affirms humanity’s gifts resulting from infusion of the creative Image of God. Animal and plant life possesses extraordinary intrinsic abilities. However, they are not manifestations of the Image of God.   



Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Peril, Paradise, or Divine Plan?

The universe God created may not be described as “paradise,” a perfect, ideal, idyllic place. Yet, In Genesis chapter 1, God pronounced His creation “good” or “very good” several times. Scriptural and historical records do not describe the existence of an early paradise on Earth long ago. From Scripture, however, we may infer the existence of an unimaginable paradise in the world to come. 

In what respect is our present Earth environment “very good?” We could detail thousands of ways. In contrast, we could also describe many ways in which our God-created world is less than perfect. The “less than perfect” measure must be defined subjectively in many ways across a broad spectrum of standards. Sometimes the “less than perfect” description is used by those who doubt the reality or the ultimate goodness of God. Would God permit sin? illness? death? or would He permit “natural evil” such as floods, droughts, or hurricanes to occur? Those doubting God’s supernatural wisdom may say, “No, He would not.” In terms of a higher purpose, those who trust the infinite wisdom of the Creator claim “God knows what He is doing.”

Hundreds of commentators have weighed in on the condition of life on Planet Earth. Comment is roughly spaced along a faith spectrum—little or no faith in the reality of The Creator to a high degree of faith in an all-sufficient, omniscient, omni-benevolent, and loving Creator who cares deeply and provides for the human race, collectively and individually.

Scripture speaks of God initiating (creating) the heavens and the Earth—all that exists. This is a fascinating concept, especially in terms of Creation Ex Nihilo (CEN)—creation from nothing. Philosophers and scientists have discussed endlessly what CEN could mean. If no matter—nothing—existed before the Big Bang, neither would there be energy, space, or time. There would be, therefore, no 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, no energy levels to deteriorate, no space in which energy could exist, and no time during which any events could take place. If God created the universe In the Beginning, we may more easily grasp that He chose to impose the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics deliberately on His creation as part of a purposeful operating system. We link two past blog posts describing the essence and implications of the important 2nd Law:

Paradise does not describe past conditions on our planet. Scientists have long described a powerful physical “overlay” which governs how things work. We have often mentioned the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics by which energy levels deteriorate and the system’s energy becomes less useful. Of course, there are some conditions during which the 2nd Law may appear to be excepted. If energy from an outside source is applied during the deterioration process, it may appear that the 2nd Law process sometimes does not apply. Overall, however, there is a deterioration in the combined systems. Conditions of decay and entropy (disorder) still occur.

There are hundreds of manifestations of the perils of living in our 2nd Law (the Law of Decay) world. Here we discuss only one, a tragic condition relating to the existence of genetic diseases. Natural environmental radioactivity has been the source of genetic mutations for thousands of years of man’s Earth habitation. As wonderful as our human DNA molecular heritage is, genetic damage has occurred owing to decay of radioactive elements. Release of subatomic particles from several source elements in our environment damages our genes and restructure them causing mutations in our DNA. Germline mutations in reproductive cells persist from generation to generation. Many diverse somatic mutations in other cells result from various chemicals such as tobacco or from skin damage caused by ultraviolet radiation in sunlight. Sometimes damage results from a combination of poor health habits and inherited genetic predispositions. 

Human death ultimately results from age-related wear and tear and deterioration of body cells and systems. Aging is related to multiple causes. Many physical systems begin to fail as aging progresses. The foregoing outcomes are the most sobering of all 2nd Law outcomes for humanity.

2nd Law phenomena are beneficial in many respects. Our interacting universal systems transfer energy from one form to another. For example, fuel in our automobiles is converted from chemical energy to thermal energy and finally to mechanical (kinetic) energy. Food consumed by living things travels through several desirable energy transformations gaining a measure of disorder along the way. Overall, the broad outworking of 2nd Law phenomena keeps our world functioning for the benefit of living things. There are unavoidable downsides blended with favorable upsides in the outworking of these energy transformations. Our universe has been divinely created to work that way.