Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Creation of Energy

Genesis 1:1 is one of the most frequently quoted verses in the entire Bible. It speaks of the creation of the heavens and the earth—all that exists—in the beginning. Before this divine creation, there was nothing. Theologians, philosophers, scientists, and laypeople have speculated and sometimes disagreed on the deeper meanings of creation ex nihilo—out of nothing. 

No doubt some recall flannel graph lessons during youthful days in Sunday School. These lessons presented a vivid visual portrayal of events on a board supported by a tripod. Children were impacted by images of beautiful animals, images of the sun, moon, and stars, and other visual descriptors of events as the subject of creation was taught. Sunday School pedagogues, especially those living several decades ago, found the visual imagery of flannel graphs effective in teaching Bible stories. They were also entertaining. A more profound challenge is to advance our students conceptually. What other concepts of the broad topic of creation could we address with our children as they advance toward maturity, or even with adults, without inappropriately boring them? Perhaps meaningful treatment of this topic is within reach more than we believe.       

The creation event was the origin of mass, energy, space, and time. This description of creation goes far beyond simple flannel graph visualizations of beautiful creatures and objects. Is this esoteric knowledge solely for scientists? Or does the topic have theological applications as we teach the topic of creation in our church educational program at all age levels? Let us elaborate: Scientists have connected mass and energy. A natural law describes their relationship in one way as the “Law of Conservation of Mass/Energy. Albert Einstein in 1905 proposed the equation E=mc2, posing the relationship between mass and energy. A brief definition of energy: The capacity or ability to do work. When work is accomplished, a push or pull force moves an object. Physical scientists are fond of defining and quantifying the terms mass, energy, space, time, work, force, motion, and acceleration. For good measure, teachers deal with other terms—gravity, force units such as the newton, and friction.

Before becoming too pedantic, we must express a truth in a simple form. When Genesis 1:1 speaks of God as the Creator of All Things, we must include Laws of Nature governing the activities of the physical Creation. All processes and activities of our daily lives are wondrously governed by natural laws set in place by God at the Creation event. All things includes ALL of dozens of physical constants quantitatively tuned to the precision of a metaphorical “razor’s edge.” Laws of Nature go hand in hand with physical constants. Laws of Nature are generalizations about the way the world actually is. Physical scientists have discovered regularities is the way matter behaves, including observations that the regularities are repeatable. Let us think what our world would be like if physical conditions were not predictable and repeatable, given the same initial conditions! If our creation were chaotic, life would also be chaotic. In fact, life would be impossible.

Young children learn about their world by observing the regularity of the laws which govern events in their surroundings. Cause and effect phenomena are plentiful as they learn to expend muscular energy to move their bodies, to swat the bell on their play pen (it rings every time), to push building blocks into desired positions, or to assemble a pile of blocks, being careful not to let them fall from the top of the pile if gravity takes over too early. Intentional use of energy assists in activities such as throwing, kicking, or batting a ball. Our grandchildren are currently fond of activities with balloons—wonderful instructional settings for lessons on the energy of air pressure. In home school venues there are many opportunities to apply and discuss energy applications in science classes by reminding students that our Creator is the Author of rational laws governing energy. In public school science settings students have many opportunities to tacitly infer a profound coherence in our natural world.  

With older children we discuss the fact that energy converts from one form to another without any loss of the combined amount of energy present. Energy conversions benefit humanity in multiple ways. For instance, coal, oil, and natural gas fossil fuel energy resources may convert to electricity, heat, light, motion, or work of many types. We will address the many dimensions of energy conversions in a future post. 

Creation of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1) included the creation of energy, mass, time, and space. It is important for educators to include the wonders of energy/mass, and time/space dimensions of our physical universe when we speak of what God created In the Beginning as well as what he sustains in the present moment. We close with a personal favorite expression used many times in discussing the subject of Creation for children and adults alike: God had great ideas!               


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Moon Landing at 50 Years

As we write our calendar reads July 20, 2019—fifty years to the day after humans first set foot on our lunar companion during the Apollo 11 program. This is a day when active recall dominates our consciousness for a few hours. The overpowering incredible technological human achievement was fraught with equally incredible risks. President Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 speech to Congress stated a goal of “…landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” The last seven words may be more technologically challenging than the previous six.

My grandfather, born in 1880, proclaimed that it would not be God’s will for man to break loose from the earth and visit the moon. His death in 1960, however, was sandwiched between the first earth orbital flight of a space vehicle in 1957, and Russian and American astronauts’ manned orbital flights in 1961 and 1962. The Moon visit by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on July 20, 1969 was obviously “permitted” by the God of Creation who implanted the technical ability in humans to accomplish the feat.

On July 20, 1969 I was traveling with an uncle and cousin in New Mexico during the evening. We were hoping to rent a motel room to join the estimated 600 million earth residents who watched the historic events on live television. We were successful, arriving in our room sometime after 9:39 PM MDT when the Eagle’s hatch was opened. My memory is entering the motel room to a blinking television screen displaying astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the Moon’s surface. A few feet away was the Eagle Landing Craft. Micheal Collins was circling above them in the Command Module. It was a special, unforgettable moment!

Armstrong died in 2012. Aldrin and Collins are still alive and able to recount their experiences clear-mindedly. All three Apollo 11 astronauts were born in 1930.

Twenty-four astronauts have left the confines of Earth and have viewed the Earth from the Moon, 240,000 miles distant. Twelve of those astronauts descended to the surface and walked on it. They experienced an emotional high called the overview effect, defined as a cognitive shift in awareness in which the viewer is overwhelmed by a vision of the Earth from outer space.

The most touching expression of the overview effect may have been experienced by US moon astronauts seven months before Apollo 11. On Christmas Eve 1968 Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders, while in moon orbit, took turns reading the first ten verses of Genesis 1 while transmitting images of Earth from space on live television. 

On this anniversary of man’s first moon walk, we are thankful that our space program has enabled Earth residents to see a portion of God’s glory in creation. 



Friday, July 19, 2019

Fossil Fuels in Family History

Fossil fuel energy was a fundamental driver of the Industrial Revolution and subsequent revolutions of the past 250 years. Contemporary society’s technological, economic, and social development was birthed by the events of the Industrial Revolution. Without the meteoric rise of fossil fuels on the human scene, how different would our lives be? Prior to the Industrial Revolution fossil fuel energy may be portrayed as a mere whisper. In our modern society we might metaphorically describe the fossil fuel phenomenon as an amplified full-throated shout.  

The “big three” fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas—rose and sometimes fell in popular use and appeal in the years since my personal family forbears arrived from Europe. Between my wife and me, three sets of grandparents arrived from Switzerland and The Netherlands from 1860 to the early 1900s. My third great-grandfather arrived even earlier and carved out a living in Northern New York from unspoiled wilderness. The Rudolph Virkler family, including his seven sons, initially did not utilize any fossil fuels according to our family genealogical history volumes. Instead, the fuel to heat primitive cabins in their New World home may be described as “biomass"—primarily wood. Biomass supplied virtually all their earliest energy needs in Northern New York.

Coal, first of the “big three,” became prominent in the 1800s. Before 1800 very little coal was mined compared with the 19th century, even though there are records of some use of coal for thousands of years. Likewise, small oil and natural gas seeps were known long before humanity began to utilize these fuels on a scale remotely resembling today’s level of use. Coal became important for powering primitive steamships. It was used to heat water for steam generation to drive pistons in steamships and railroad engines. In the mid-1800s coal was also used to produce iron and steel from mineral ores. Coal provided for generation of electricity, peaking in 1961. Coal fueled the Industrial Revolution which initially utilized energy supplied by water power and wind.

Rudolph Virkler sailed west to America in 1834 on a wind-driven ship in 42 days. Early steamships had barely begun to use coal to fuel their locomotion. Had they arrived in America a decade or two later the family may have arrived on a coal-driven steamship. During that family’s first fifty years in this country, the use of coal increased. Coal became a source of heat in homes beginning in 1885. In 2019 fewer than 130,000 homes in the US are heated by coal. 

In the 1930s and 1940s my century-old home in Central New York was heated by coal. Prominent in our basement was a coal burning riveted steel furnace. It was sometimes called an octopus furnace owing to the presence ductwork through which heated air flowed toward registers around the house by convection. Warm air is lighter than cold air and naturally rises by convection without being mechanically forced. Recalling the blast of heated air flowing from the main living room register early on cold winter mornings is still heart-warming.

Memories associated with this coal burning furnace are vivid and pleasant. My father was responsible for carrying the coal to the furnace, shoveling it in, and frequently removing the ashes. Ken Roginski, author of an article on The Old House Guy website, relates many stories triggering recall from my personal childhood: “Coal was delivered into a nearby basement window. Below the window was a sort of pen where the coal was stored.” The sound of coal being emptied from the coal truck, flowing down the tapered coal shute and into a bin in our cellar, is a fading memory I had not believed still existed. The rhythmic back and forth sound of the hand lever used to agitate the furnace grate so the coal ash could fall into the ash pit is another.

During my experience as a public school science teacher, I sometimes recalled childhood memories to reinforce science history. One example: the evolution of fossil fuels and their use by humans. Classroom students were amused by the anachronism of coal as fuel—in particular, my experience with a coal furnace during childhood. Most of my students’ families had modern central heating systems fueled by oil and later, natural gas.

Many home coal furnaces were converted to oil burners after coal fell from popularity. Some were modified; some were new installations. Many sent steam to radiators; some were modified to receive hot water. In 1951 my family moved to New Jersey. We burned oil to produce hot water; radiators transferred heat by radiant energy into the home. Petroleum became an important fossil fuel at about the turn of the 20th century. It has long outdistanced coal as an energy source.

After my sentimental experience with coal, three family homes since 1951 used oil to heat air or water in their central heating systems. Since 1989 three homes have consumed gas for their home heating fuel. This family progression from coal to oil to gas parallels the historic evolution of the popularity of fossil fuels: coal, then oil, followed by gas. Important natural gas discoveries in the United States since 2000 have trained the spotlight on the most recent fossil fuel to achieve increasing popularity. In the US coal use has declined substantially, oil use is still expanding, and natural gas use has increased dramatically.

Our memories help remind us that our timeless Creator intentionally supplied Earth’s inhabitants with plentiful deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas. The formation process from dead plants, algae, and zooplankton deposited in water consumed eons of time by human standards. 

When coal’s disadvantages became known, men appropriated other fuels such as oil and later, natural gas which burns cleaner than either coal or oil. The “big three” fossil fuels were support pillars for humanity’s Industrial Revolution. In turn the Industrial Revolution triggered technological, agricultural, and economic advances. Long before the surge of fossil fuel discovery and utilization, humanity had devised uses for biomass as fuel. Humanity’s use of wood for burning, garbage or manure to generate methane, or producing ethanol from the sugars in vegetable matter were evidence of creativity in humans. However, these processes do not compare with the creativity of God who provided humanity with plentiful coal, petroleum, and natural gas via wondrous chemical processes over millions of years of geologic history.

We have enjoyed “big three” products to heat our homes, power our internal combustion engines, produce electricity, clothe ourselves with fabric, and experience the utility of plastic goods in hundreds of products. There are thousands of petrochemicals and coal, petroleum, and gas by-products to enrich our life experience. Fossil fuels are examples of the exquisite provision of God for the welfare of humanity. For this we give thanks to God. 






Monday, July 8, 2019

Carbon Concerns

Articles about climate change are often intensely agenda-driven. We prefer to characterize climate as a wonder-driven topic. When I was a science teacher, I hoped my weather and climate units were approached with wonder. That unit was one of my favorites as an instructor because it enabled me to teach many fascinating principles of physical science, even though meteorology is taught as an earth science. As a teacher of weather/climate units half a century ago, I do not recall dealing with the topic of harmful fossil fuel carbon emissions and a dangerously warming Planet Earth. Neither were these issues high on the radar screen of media articles and broadcasts. But during the 1970s a tug of war developed between opposing camps. One camp, mainly communicating by media articles, proposed we were headed for a new Ice Age; another camp began to suggest global warming might become an issue. In the latter were scientists who began to study the effects of increasing CO2 emissions. 

Public concern about fossil fuels and their harmful emissions was practically non-existent before the mid-20th century. Scientists knew about the greenhouse gas qualities of carbon dioxide, but until roughly 1950 there was minimal concern about the warming of Earth’s atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels. Concern remained on the back burner of public awareness. The global warming proponents slowly won the day as CO2 levels in the atmosphere continued to show a significant increase. The CO2 composition of the atmosphere has significantly increased about 40% from 296 parts per million (ppm) in 1900 to 415 ppm in 2019. Publishers and scientists on the global warming side of the discussion still predominate, including those who predict looming planetary catastrophe. The average temperature of Earth has increased less than 1ºC since the Industrial Revolution while sea level has risen only 6.3” to 8.3.”

The beauty of a balanced treatment of weather and climate topics need not be overly obscured by harsh predictions of environmental catastrophe. We suspect that warnings of looming environmental catastrophe fundamentally dilutes genuine wonder at the beauty of our weather and climate systems.  

To put the matter in perspective, CO2 is only a tiny percentage of the composition of Earth’s atmosphere—about 0.04%. Textbooks in 1950 or 1960 would have reported the percentage of CO2 as approximately 0.03%. By a different metric the 2019 CO2 fraction of our atmosphere is about 1/2500, slightly increased from about 1/3300 in the early 20th century.   

A Center for Science Education graphic is an effective tutorial for expressing relative proportions of atmospheric gases. Envision a large rectangle representing the entirety of the atmosphere. The largest portion (blue) represents nitrogen (78%). Superimposed is a smaller rectangle, a red area representing oxygen (21%). Also superimposed is a very small green rectangle for argon—slightly less than 1% of the area of the rectangle. A tiny black rectangle represents CO2 (0.04%). A barely visible, miniscule rectangle represents all the remaining gases—mostly helium, neon, and methane, and tiny traces of others. Vitally important, life sustaining CO2 has earned a negative reputation because its molecule contains carbon. Some forms of uncombined carbon or other compounds of carbon can be harmful. Some people have generalized the life-giving compound, CO2, to be a harmful pollutant. This was aided by a 2007 Supreme Court 5-4 decision and subsequent EPA rulings. Many alarmists long to be carbon free or carbon neutral in our near future, a completely unrealistic goal.

Each atmospheric gas has its distinct role, including water vapor which varies from 0-4%. Water vapor and clouds are responsible for 75% of Earth’s greenhouse effect. There are many feedback effects between water vapor and CO2. If we attempt to correlate graphics of increasing atmospheric CO2 over a given time to graphics of increasing planetary temperature over an identical time frame, we may paint a misleading picture. CO2 has increased about 40% from its relatively consistent atmospheric amounts in the two centuries following the Industrial Revolution. On a line graph extending from the Industrial Revolution to the present, the curve rises substantially in the past century and has been described as shaped like a “hockey stick.” Planetary temperatures have increased 0.9ºC (1.4ºF) since the Industrial Revolution.

If graph scales are too big, too small, do not start at zero, or exclude relevant data, the graphs may deliberately shock or mislead. A famous saying claims we may prove virtually anything with statistics, including graphic statistics. Given: Earth’s temperatures are clearly on a slow rise. As stewards of our planet we must be aware of possible harmful effects of climate change as well as possible benefits. The recent 40% increase in atmospheric CO2 is assuredly a source of interest, even concern for humanity. But we must respond to the concern in a sensible and appropriate fashion. Currently the spectrum of concerned onlookers ranges from scientists of all stripes to politicians, theologians, ideologues, profiteers, catastrophists, and a plethora of others. Some members of society do not share any concern. Others are skeptical deniers.

Ken Bakke’s June 2019 Christianity Today article “God Gave Us Oil—Should We Keep Using It?” is a thoroughgoing balanced article dealing with many sides of climate change issues from a Christian perspective. It is well worth the effort to read it. Bakke quotes Alex Epstein, energy theorist, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (2014) that “…turning away from oil would deny people in the developing world the same gifts that built and succored the West.” The Cornwall Alliance, a right-of-center network of Christian scholars in diverse fields, affirms on its website “that one way of exercising godly dominion is by transforming raw materials into resources and using them to meet human needs.” 

Bakke continues, “The Cornwall Alliance’s arguments are persuasive in many ways: There’s no denying that the gifts of oil and other fossil fuels have enabled countless other ‘good and perfect’ gifts that, as Scripture points out, came in some way or another from God. Their critique of carbon haters is that to suddenly change the rules of the energy game and deprive the rest of the world the quality of life that Americans enjoy is not especially loving.”

Will acres of solar panels, wind farms, and electric and hybrid cars lead to disappointment based on substituting nasty new environmental side effects for problems we already have? Bakke closes with the proposal that “…Americans, including Christians, will eventually have to learn to live with less.”

Carbon is a key component of all known life on Earth. Let us make a commitment to our Creator to manage carbon with utmost respect and wisdom.