Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Winter's Statistical Wonders

As we write, the midwest is being struck by another polar vortex event. We highlight this anomaly and several other annual weather and astronomical phenomena most residents may be unable to explain. The polar vortex, an unusual outbreak of extremely cold “polar” air has its own connection with statistics. The last polar vortex event occurred in 2013/14. In 1977, 1982, 1985, and 1989 our country experienced polar vortex outbreaks, but the term did not become well known until the 2013/14 event. Our family vividly recalls unusual winter events in 1977 and 1982 which weather scientists have now credited to the polar vortex. Unusually rare cold winter outbreaks were described as early as 1853.

Our discussion affirms the complex uniqueness of our terrestrial weather systems. Planet Earth’s weather and weather statistics are far from dull or uninteresting. Our lives exist on a sphere which rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun. The features of our planetary sphere contribute to a fascinating set of interactions. For example, incoming radiation from the sun strikes Earth’s surface at various angles ranging from 90º to 0º. These changing angles result in large variations in solar energy received by the planet.

Ordinarily polar vortexes sit over both poles as high altitude low pressure zones. Winds circulate around them toward the east. Our northern hemisphere vortex becomes stronger in winter, usually as a single vortex. On occasion it weakens, becomes more disorganized, and sends atypical pockets of intensely cold air as far south as the northern tier of the United States. Temperatures lower than 30º below normal could result. These unusually cold outbreaks have resulted in all-time record cold temperatures. The Book of Job documents such events. In chapter 38 the Lord spoke about many aspects of the awe-inspiring world he created: “From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?” (Job 38:29-30 NIV) The Creator knew of the polar vortex before any man explained it and assigned its modern name.

We continue our “statistical wonder” post with mention of three more ordinary weather and astronomical phenomena: (1) Sunrise and sunset times—how they differ at various locations, (2) latest sunrise and earliest sunset times throughout the year, and (3) the date of the “coldest day” and “warmest day” of the year. (As an aside, we mention that many statistical facts are reversed in the southern hemisphere.)

Sunrise and sunset times at any location—Everyone has had phone conversations with someone in a distant location when one party is in sunlight and the other is in darkness. No doubt your phone partner was one or two time zones away—for example, 7 PM at your location, 9 PM at their location. Within any single time zone on a given date, the time by the clock is identical, but sunrise and sunset events for residents of that time zone occur at different times by the clock. To illustrate, statistics from December 7 reveal that four cities on an east to west strip passing through our home town (Chicago IL, Rockford IL, Dubuque IA, and Des Moines IA) had sunset times of 4:19 PM, 4:24 PM, 4:29 PM, and 4:44 PM respectively. These facts could enable young students to prove that we live on a spherical planet.

Latest sunrise and earliest sunset times—Statistics of sunrise and sunset times on every day of the year are easily accessible online for virtually every city in the world. One would think that the shortest day of the year would also correspond with the earliest sunset paired with the latest sunrise. But the earliest sunset precedes the shortest day of the year by about two weeks. The latest sunrise actually occurs a similar amount of time later than the shortest day. Astronomy articles sometimes highlight this unexpected phenomenon. In order to spare our readers from a lengthy esoteric discussion, we are content to affirm that the Earth’s obliquity (tilt on its axis) and it’s ellipticity (the degree of deviation from the circular) both affect sunrise and sunset times. Our world provides many fascinating surprises.

Last, we discuss why the coldest day of the year is not the shortest day of the year, and why the warmest day of the year is not also the longest day of the year. On the shortest day of the year (according to how long the sun is above the horizon), the coldest day of the year is still more than a month away. The longest day of the year (according to the sun) occurs before the warmest day of the year by a similar time interval. Coldest and warmest temperatures are statistically reported as average mean temperatures determined by studying records from many years in the past. Temperature on any given day at a given location is related to the amount of heat energy received balanced by the amount of heat energy lost. 

Average temperatures increase over time because the earth receives more heat energy than it loses. When average temperatures decrease the earth is receiving less heat than it loses. On a seasonal scale we are dealing with “seasonal lag.” Many factors relate to this lag, including the fact that land and water bodies absorb and release heat energy at different rates. This is not only a seasonal phenomenon acting over long time frames, but also a daily phenomenon acting over short time frames.

My paternal grandfather, a lifetime farmer in New York State born in 1880, observed that “winter’s back is broken” when the winter temperature commenced its very slow rise about January 25, about one month after the shortest day of the year—December 21. He observed that afternoon sunsets became noticeably later even though the daily temperature had not yet risen significantly. He must have looked forward to the beginning of his annual maple syrup-making activity which was to begin later in February, long before winter was finished with its assaults. We quote from a yellowed newspaper clipping from the Baldwinsville, NY Messenger of March 17, 1955: “Mr. Virkler thinks that he would feel lost if he didn’t get the sap buckets and spiles out each February and begin making the rounds to the big sugar maples that line the road side and driveway of the farm.”

I was raised two houses away from the 150-acre farm on which my grandfather operated his “sugar bush” for several weeks in the late winter and his dairy farm for the remaining weeks of the year. The farm was a wonderful venue for observing weather events and the wonders of plant growth and animal life. His children and grandchildren learned to appreciate the astronomical, meteorological, and agricultural wonders authored by the Creator of All Things. Perhaps the polar vortex which has descended on the midwestern US as I write the current post may have been the subject of the Lord’s reminders in Job 38:29-30.     


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Confessionalism in the Book of Job

Our current post title could be a source of some confusion or misunderstanding. In the context of our blog we will attempt to clarify how confessionalism relates to this inspired Scripture book.

The term confession has several valid meanings. In our secular language usage it most often refers to acknowledgement of wrong. In the world of church history, a confession is a statement or statements expressing religious doctrine. Over the last few centuries there have been many examples of confessions or confessionalism which embrace belief in and assent to a body of religious teaching, a unified interpretation of church doctrine. Confessional statements are usually broad and sweeping. There are dozens of Christian confessions which arose from doctrinal discussions generated by devout church figures around the time of the Reformation.

We examine one of the most significant confessions of the Christian reformers. It originated in the lowlands of the Netherlands, today divided into The Netherlands and Belgium. It is known as the Belgic Confession written in 1561. Its authors were intensely persecuted for their beliefs; many died. This confession is still recognized as one of the best summaries of Reformed Christian doctrine.

Article 2 of the 37-article Belgic Confession is a beautiful acknowledgement that characteristics of the natural world affirm the divine character of God in our created world. Through the wonders of the natural world, God is exalted, the Confession states: “We know him (God) by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity…” This echoes the message of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

Psalm 19:1-4 is also a powerful affirmation of the Belgic Confession: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (ESV). In the early church when Peter and John were strictly charged to stop preaching in the name of Jesus by the ruling council (Acts 4:17), they returned to the believers and reported on their experience (Acts 4:24). The believers exulted and praised the “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them…” The Apostle Paul praised “the God who made heaven and earth and everything in it” when he addressed the idolatrous “Men of Athens.” He urged them to consider the apologetic value of observing the God-created world as a prelude to belief in the reality of Christ’s redemptive work and the fact that he could live in us! (Act 17:22-28)

The Book of Job is a wonderful foretaste of the Belgian Confession. We might term it the “Job Confession.” The subject of the Book of Job is primarily the righteous omniscience and omnipotence of God in all human experience, but profound wonders of nature observed and described in Job’s day are supporting topics of discussion introduced by Job, Elihu, and the Lord himself. Modern scientists have explained the wonders of nature even more profoundly. The “universe…before our eyes” described by the Belgic Confession, refers to wonders of astronomy, weather, and living creatures—“all creatures great and small”—which make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power, and his divinity.”

Astronomical references such as binding the chains of the Pleiades or loosening the cords of Orion suggest the influence of gravity on these suspended bodies in space—not a well understood concept over 3500 years ago. Weather phenomena such as reference to the modern concept of an operating water cycle with its sequence of water transitioning among different phases in unique circulation cycles are suggestive of contemporary meteorological knowledge. Unique animal behavior detailed by the Lord in Job 38-41 inspires serious contemplation. Who is the Creator of these animals? What are his attributes?

The Belgic Confession is somewhat unique in its statements of support for knowing God through the wonders of the physical creation. It is part of the “two-books doctrine”—the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. The Book of Nature is known as “general revelation” while the Book of Scripture is termed “special revelation.” One is not more important than the other. Both are important pillars of our Christian faith.

We link our past post from 5/3/2012. It outlines my personal journey from reliance primarily on special revelation to reliance on both special revelation and general revelation. Stated differently, we rely on ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’ in regard to divine revelation:


Monday, January 14, 2019

Science in the Book of Job

The Book of Job is a masterpiece of literary excellence. Coming from a Israelite author, it expresses a monotheistic worldview. The epic story of righteous Job seemingly unjustly permitted by God to suffer material, family, and personal loss is the core of the book’s narrative. It is introduced by a dialogue between Satan and God in which Satan was permitted to deprive Job of his wealth of livestock, the life of his servants, and even his children. Finally, his own health failed but his life was spared. He “cursed the day of his birth” but “did not sin in what he said.” Later, Job wondered if God was oppressing him due to some fault or sin.

Job’s three friends proposed that Job was suffering retribution for sin. Late in the book, Elihu enters the story with disdain for the error of Zophar, Bildad, and Eliphaz. Wikipedia’s article on Elihu states, “He draws instances of benignity from, for example, the constant wonders of creation and of the seasons.” A reading of the statements of Job, Elihu, and God Himself are filled with scientific description. We reiterate as stated in past posts—Scripture is not a scientific textbook. However, when writers describe mighty weather events on the spectrum of gentle to powerful, they identify with current observational sciences of meteorology and climatology. Elihu, for example, gives an accurate account of the water cycle in Job 36:27-28: “He draws up the drops of water, which distill as rain to the streams; the clouds pour down their moisture and abundant showers fall on mankind.” While Elihu did not possess terms for evaporation and condensation in his ancient language, it is clear that he understood water traveled in vapor form from earth’s surface to the clouds, later to “distill” to liquid rain water and become “abundant showers” falling on mankind.

Snow, waters hard as stone on the frozen surface, intense heat, hail, lightning, rumbling thunder, mighty downpours, tempests, sweltering heat, torrents of rain, frost, floods…..Elihu had exceptional observational skills. He acknowledges these events as manifestations of a mighty and awesome God, powerful and firm in His purpose. On a higher level, they were manifestations of complex weather systems. Elihu may not have understood how weather systems operate but his observations inspired a strong sense of devotion to God, “exalted in His power” (Job 36:22). The operations of weather systems have been explained in our modern day. The consistent physical laws under which weather systems operate are indicators of coherent orderliness in the natural world.

In Job 38 the Lord speaks. Many of the verses refer to creation events long past. Elihu would be unable to offer commentary on the event described in Job 38:8-9. God is speaking of His works…“Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt.’” Scientists have determined that initial planetary conditions included pervasive darkness on a surface covered by water and swathed in dark clouds. Later conditions on Earth provided plentiful water existing in three phases—gas, solid, and liquid. Our planet was, and continues to be, a water world.

Other scripture passages describe conditions on the primeval Planet Earth. “You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.” (Psalm 104:6.) Earth’s surface was completely water covered and enshrouded by thick clouds. Genesis 1:2 tells us that “…darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. It is known that the first earth life was bacterial—morphologically simple but bio-chemically complex bacteria. Perhaps this was the result of God’s Spirit “hovering” over the early water world.

The three scripture passages cited above were written in pre-scientific days. No author of scripture had modern discovery methods for describing early planetary conditions. Contemporary scientists do not rely on divine revelation as did the writers of Scripture. Rather, they utilize reliable modern methods of scientific discovery. Nonetheless, ancient authors of scripture and modern scientists are in agreement on these significant areas of science. Christians hold the Canon of Scripture to be the authoritative word of God. It expresses the essence of our Christian faith. We note that writers of Scripture were skilled analytical observers of their environment as well as beneficiaries of supernatural divine revelation.   



Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Well-ordered Systems

Successful human activities are said to be well-ordered and systematic. Our post title may imply there are systems which are not well-ordered. Generally, however, systems are ordered or else they do not qualify as systems. We must first introduce the concept of a system. Various definitions of a system may be found, including, “a set of entities that through their interactions, relationships, or dependencies, form a unified whole.” Another definition is similar: A system is “a group of interacting, interrelated, or inter-dependent elements forming a complex whole.” These cerebral definitions may be more difficult to analyze and understand than our intuitive grasp of the term system. Many different spheres can be cited to illustrate the essence of a system. 

Even young children have ability to understand rudimentary behavioral systems in their lives. They must rise from bed when called or when the alarm clock rings. They must wash, brush, dress, restore their room to a semblance of order, and proceed to the breakfast table before hopping on the school bus. This exemplifies a simple behavioral pattern. Of course, there are dozens of other categories governing human behavior—systems of social relationships beyond family domestic networks, systems of government and politics ranging from local to national, systems of economics, and systems of infrastructure which preserve our ordered lives, to name a few.

Returning to our example of young children, early in their educational experience they study various subjects, including science. Our focus in this blog is the relationship of science and faith. I have asked my grandchildren several times, “What are you studying in science? Do you like science?” These are leading questions, of course. My own adult children answered the same questions before they entered college and even later!

Science is a study of the physical world, including the workings of its physical systems in various fields of study. Our universe may be described as a system of interacting systems. God is the Creator of the Universe and the Author of its thousands of physical systems. Each system, according to the definitions we offered in our opening paragraph, comprises a unified or complex whole. “Unity” and “complexity” are interesting concepts, especially when applied to the wonders of our physical world. Well-ordered, unified or complex systems are coherent manifestations of the characteristics of our Creator. 

In our public, private, or home schools we take advantage of students’ intrinsic curiosity in science and other subjects. In the absence of natural curiosity, teachers are challenged to help create curiosity in their students. In churches we treasure lessons from teachers or pastors who present fascinating working physical systems as demonstrations of God’s work in the physical creation. We speak about the “Theology of Creation.” Our previous post with this title is instructive:

The Book of Job, recognized as the earliest divinely inspired literary work in scripture, is not only a commentary on how Job dealt with a horrific family tragedy, but is also a book of powerful statements about creation events and a record of God’s involvement in shaping the characteristics of our world and its living creatures. This book is a source of information on how the Creator ordered the working systems of our cosmos.