Monday, December 28, 2020

Signs in the Sky

 Worldwide excitement was high on December 21, 2020 as a special event in the evening sky unfolded. We were disappointed but not surprised that a normal weather condition—cloudiness—obscured personal observation of what some have dubbed the “2020 Christmas Star,” a close conjunction of two bright planets, Jupiter and Saturn. This degree of planetary meeting has not visually occurred since AD 1226. We do not disclaim the astronomical significance of such an important planetary conjunction. Unusual or rare sky phenomena deserve special attention. Our natural inclination may lead us to assign theological significance to the event. Scriptural references to “Signs in the Sky” may indicate possible eschatological importance. This rare planetary conjunction inspires special attention among astronomers, but does it deserve to be highlighted among theologians?

The Gospels of Luke and Matthew have been important in end times predictions. Luke 21 and Matthew 24 contain commentary concerning the presence of signs, including “signs in the sky” and their occurrence in the future, especially at the  “end of the age.” Such speculation is natural. Has God provided guidelines for Christians to relate specific physical events to the end of the age?” This depends on how we interpret the guidelines and how precisely we demand time frames for the events. Generally, these chapters quote Jesus on (a) the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies in 70 AD, (b) generally stressful experiences in the time between the destruction of Jerusalem and the approach of the end of the age, and (c) the traumatic distress of nations at the return of Christ. Commentators have made efforts to interpret these passages. Their comments are helpful but very specific information on events, times, and places is not generally appropriate, to the disappointment of some students of scripture prophecy. Interpretation of end times prophecies is not an exact science.

The recent planetary spectacular may be explained in purely scientific terms. 

Following the rare December 21 close conjunction, the visual distance between the bodies slowly increased daily because of their absolute movement and Earth’s motion in relation to the planets. But on December 21 and succeeding days the display of combined light from the two planets was not exceedIngly bright as pictured on many Christmas greeting cards. 

Sky watchers are interested in visual events. Astrophysicists may focus more on effects of planetary revolution resulting from gravitational forces and laws of motion. Observers of unusual events such as the planetary display of December 21 have a plethora of scientific causes and effects to help explain the wonderful event. For example, we pose this question: Why are planets of the Solar System coplanar? Answer: Planets were formed from dust surrounding the ancient Sun. The dust began to spin and collapse into a flattened disc. Later the coplanar Solar System planets formed within this disc.

The prophecies in Luke and Matthew serve to remind us that our Creator is in control of all things, including physical events in our environment. Laws of nature were authored by God. The manner in which God uses natural events to carry out His will or foretell the future are not always in our purview. We posit that unusual or awe-inspiring astronomical events occur to focus attention on the workings of God in our physical world, to inspire our sense of beauty and worship, and sometimes to call attention to His authorship of future events.  



Thursday, December 17, 2020

Star of Wonder 2020?

 “We Three Kings” is a popular Christmas carol composed in 1857 by John H. Hopkins for a New York City Christmas pageant. The Bible in Matthew 2:1-12 refers to the visit of the Magi, wise men from the east who visited the Holy Land and presented Jesus with gifts. They stated, “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” Matt. 2:2b (NIV). “We Three Kings” musically chronicles the visit of the Magi.

The star of Matt. 2:2 is called the “Christmas Star” or the “Star of Bethlehem.” In this Christmas season 2020 many commentators see significance in the current appearance of an astronomical phenomenon that very rarely appears in our skies. Has the original Christmas star made a return visit during this Advent season? Is it the same “Christmas Star” that appeared at the birth of Jesus? Many are fascinated by this prospect—its timing together with its astronomical rarity.

To what astronomical rarity do we refer? Jupiter and Saturn, largest planets in the Solar System, present a beautiful sight in our dark skies. Jupiter, the largest of the four ‘giant planets,’ and Saturn, a close second, possess significant brightness in dark skies, but rank second and third to the brightness of planet Venus. Individually, Jupiter and Saturn are magnificent to the naked eye. Their orbits are generally coplanar: they revolve about the sun in more or less the same plane. On some occasions their coplanarity is responsible for providing a visual meeting, but they are not really close to one another. Their visual proximity is known as a conjunction.

All celestial conjunctions are not equal. Conjunctions between astronomical bodies are fairly common. For instance, sky watchers are fascinated when the moon in its movements appears to come close to a visible planet or a star. Conjunctions between bright planets are more noteworthy. Very close conjunctions generate the most excitement among astronomy buffs. When an extremely close conjunction between two of the brightest planets in the heavens occurs, public excitement is heightened. 

On December 21, 2020 an exceedingly significant conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occurs. Coincidentally, that date is the date of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, an important astronomical event. It is, in addition, the heart of the Christmas season. The two planets will be merely 0.1 degree away from each other, not enough to visually separate the combined light for many people. Others with outstanding visual acuity may be able to separate the planets’ light. Since November 1 the planets have been closing the visual gap between them.

The 2020 event is the closest Jupiter/Saturn conjunction since 1623 AD, but it was not as observable as a similar conjunction in 1226 AD owing to a more favorable distance from the sun’s brightness. A conjunction this close will not occur again until 2080. Conjunctions are not rare, but a combination of circumstances makes the event extraordinary.

Returning to the possibility that the “Christmas Star” of Matthew 2 has made a return visit, we have discovered many possible physical and spiritual explanations for the ancient coincidence of Jesus’ birth and the appearance of a “star.” Much speculation has centered around the unusual appearance of a planet or planets, a comet, or even a supernova. There is plentiful speculation about unusual appearances of conjunctions or other unusual astronomical phenomena, especially within this time frame. Several planetary conjunctions occurred around the time when Jesus was a young child.

Matthew 2 refers to a star the Magi had seen in the east which also went ahead of them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to guide them to the child Jesus. In their home country they may have focused on an astronomical/astrological heavenly object “at its rising.” It is called a “heliacal rising,” related to the progression of seasons.

We are more confident that the star which “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” is an example of a transcendent miracle. Such miracles are sometimes referred to as manifestations of the Shekinah Glory: a phenomenon denoting the visible presence God among men.

Should we assign the marvelous conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21, 2020 to a spectacular return of the “Christmas Star?” We prefer to join with Reasons to Believe president Dr. Hugh Ross. He states, in reference to the star and the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus, “What strikes me as the most important part of the account is its illustration of the hope and faith the Magi placed in the promised Messiah.”                 


Friday, December 11, 2020

Wonders of Water Solubility

 Our last two posts emphasized two substances—salt and water, two of the most vital substances on Planet Earth. Water is the most common liquid on Earth while salt water is the most common aqueous solution on the planet. Scientific knowledge concerning water is plentiful. Unique properties and characteristics of water are well known. We published seven posts on water in 2012, including this one:

When water acts by itself it manifests changes in density related to temperature and phase, cohesion and adhesion characteristics, and thermal properties related to weather such as specific heat and heat of vaporization. Another all-important characteristic is solubility—its ability to form solutions when other substances dissolve in it. We believe the properties mentioned above, along with its ability to dissolve various other substances, is a product of divine design by the Creator/Designer of All Things. Water, the universal solvent, dissolves thousands of substances. More substances dissolve in water than in any other known liquid. Water is able to dissolve many substances at the same time.

The solubility of many substances in water is a physical characteristic making possible many chemical changes on which our lives depend. Most chemical reactions occur in solutions. If water did not possess unique properties such as solubility, other necessary life processes would be impossible. “Ordinary” water is a compound whose molecules are composed of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Water is an example of a polar compound. Each water molecule has a positive charge on one side and a negative charge on the other. This fact is merely the beginning of a fascinating, complex story. Water’s polarity results in its ability to dissolve many substances.

Why is the water solubility characteristic so important? Our bodies’ digestive processes function to convert food into usable, absorbable forms. This means combining the food with materials that convert it to soluble substances. In digestion, food nutrients are altered to soluble substances which are then absorbed through the walls of the small intestine and into our blood stream for transport to trillions of body cells. Our cells metabolize food, synthesizing proteins and creating energy. Soluble waste products from cell activity are later carried to the kidneys to be filtered out of the blood and later removed from the body. CO2 is also a waste product dissolved in blood and must travel to the lungs to be exhaled. 

The human body is 60-70% water. Human blood is about 92% water, about 55% of which is plasma. Oxygen is dissolved in plasma after absorption in the lungs and quickly becomes dissolved in the water of plasma and red blood cells. The oxygen combines with hemoglobin molecules. The oxygen is then carried to human cells via hemoglobin. This exemplifies the solubility of gases in water. Solubility includes water’s ability to dissolve solids, other liquids, or gases.

Studying a physical property such as water solubility and the solubility of gases, solids and other liquids in water may seem tiresome or even boring. Reviewing this topic and researching related issues triggered renewed personal interest in a rather mundane topic. We all have experiences with the subject of solubility—for example, when we prepare meals in our kitchens. Perhaps we did not realize how important the topic was in relation to human body systems and bodily processes in all living things.

We link one more post from our 2012 series on water. Our prayer is that readers will acquire a heightened interest in the multiple design features of our universe. These features are not chaotic, random, or incoherent. When we study multiple physical systems and the orderly physical laws governing our lives, our conclusions concerning God’s creative works are inescapable.




Monday, November 30, 2020

Saltwater to Salt and Water

 Planet Earth has been called a Water World. Seventy-one percent of Earth’s surface is covered by oceans. These are saltwater oceans making up about 97% of all water on Earth. The average depth of the ocean is almost 2 1/2 miles. Only 3% of Earth’s water is fresh (non-salty) water. Ocean water contains about 3.5% salinity. One liter of ocean water weighs 33.81 ounces of which 1.2 ounces is dissolved salt. This is how we calculate 3.5% salinity. Dissolved salt in one cubic mile of seawater amounts to an incredible 120 million tons. That amounts to 500 feet of salt piled upon each square foot of Planet Earth if all its water were to evaporate—enough to almost cover the Washington Monument!

Scripture contains many references and spiritual object lessons involving salt and water. Contemporary knowledge supplies an expanded scientific foundation for many biblical references to those substances. Both salt and water are necessary for life on Planet Earth. The most common aqueous solution on Earth is saltwater in our oceans, home to millions of different species of life. Almost 250,000 known species live in the ocean along with many more undiscovered species. Most ocean-dwelling species survive solely in salt water. A few are able to adapt to fresh water for portions of their lives. Therefore, it is appropriate to connect ocean saltwater with a substantial portion of life on our planet.

Our discussion relates to three substances—saltwater, salt, and water. The interrelationship of the three substances puts metaphorical “meat on the bones” of many science unit lessons from elementary school to graduate school.

Saltwater oceans cover 71% of Earth’s surface. There are 332.5 million cubic miles of liquid water on Earth of which 321 million cubic miles consists of saline water. Only 3% of Earth’s water is fresh water located in ice caps, glaciers, groundwater, swamps, lakes, and rivers. Potable fresh water is but a tiny fraction of the world’s supply of fresh water.

Humanity discovered long ago that pure salt and pure water are essential for human thriving. In modern times, we have discovered the processes of separating salty ocean water into safe, potable water and useful pure salt. Both water and salt are compounds—chemical combinations of two or more atoms forming a compound. Ocean water is the most common chemical solution of two compounds on the planet. From it we may derive pure salt and pure water.

Our last post briefly mentioned the process of salt production on the island of Bonaire in the Caribbean. ( We introduce a few terms to trigger your memory of former science classes: If a solute (salt in this case) dissolves in a solvent (water in this example) we obtain a solution, a homogeneous mixture of salt in water. Chemically, mixtures are reasonably easy to separate if you apply the correct method. Heating the salt water to its boiling point evaporates the water quickly. The water becomes increasingly concentrated with salt as the water boils away. Eventually the solution becomes saturated with salt. Further boiling causes the salt to precipitate—crystallize into its solid state. Eventually the water evaporates completely and only pure salt is left behind. On Bonaire the warm trade winds naturally evaporate the water in shallow salt water pools over several months. A harvest of salt is soon in prospect. Evaporated water, in a sense, is a waste product.

With respect to separating pure water from ocean saltwater, there are several technologies to accomplish the task. They include thermal distillation by boiling away the water and condensing the vapors to a liquid by cooling. “Reverse osmosis” may provide the best explanation for an ever-present modern problem faced by many countries involving their need for fresh water. We leave the explanation of the reverse osmosis process for a future post.

The Island of Bonaire currently supplies its residents with fresh water primarily with technology which utilizes “reverse osmosis.” This technology is currently used by many countries. In particular, the nation of Israel is becoming a source of water, not only for itself, but also for some surrounding nations. Water may be more vital than oil in many Mideast nations. Israel currently derives 55% of its water from desalination technology.

Availability of salt? Availability of pure water? Our God has supplied a virtually unlimited supply of both compounds—an example of the provision of our infinitely generous Creator.   




Thursday, November 19, 2020

Gospel Radio and Salt Mining

 On the Caribbean island of Bonaire, a unique salt mining operation still exists. Bonaire was formerly part of the Caribbean country known as The Netherlands Antilles. The country consisted of several island territories and was a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Some islands of the former Netherlands Antilles have recently become autonomous municipalities. Since 2010 Bonaire has transitioned politically and is currently a municipality of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. It is the home of TWR (formerly known as Trans World Radio). TWR is a powerful source of Christian broadcasting. Our current post’s thread of Bonaire, the ministry of TWR, salt mining, and several personal family recollections begins here…..

TWR maintains a powerful radio transmitter of 440 kW (440,000 watts) on the Island of Bonaire to broadcast Christian programming to the Western hemisphere 24 hours/day. It broadcasts programs on Shine 800 Bonaire AM—a medium wave AM radio outlet. Understanding of how the TWR ministry acquired this capability provides several hours of challenging reading and study.

Dr. Paul E. Fried was a visionary for spreading the gospel of Christ. Dr. Fried was raised in the Mid-east by missionary parents. As an adult he became enthused about radio as a modern vehicle for reaching many of the world’s population with the Christian gospel. He initially purchased a limited-power radio station in Tangier, Morocco in 1954, and radio facilities in 1962 on Monte Carlo, Monaco. Later, Fried championed a leap of faith—building the most powerful radio transmitter in the Western Hemisphere on the Caribbean Island of Bonaire. Operational since 1964, the Bonaire TWR ministry began broadcasting at 440 kW, only to reduce its power in 1998 to 100 kW. Dr. Fried died in 1996, but his legacy remains.  

In 2018 the TWR leaders undertook a leap of faith and raised several million dollars to construct a new transmitter in order to restore its broadcast power to 440,000 watts. Much of the construction work was supplied by volunteers, matching the ministries of givers who sacrificed financially.

Why was Bonaire selected as the ideal location for a radio transmitting site? In all of the Caribbean there may be no better physical location than the island of Bonaire for a 440 kW transmitter. There is excellent ground conductivity—a term for propagation of radio signals resulting from a number of constituent radio waves. For example, the signal from TWR’s 760 foot tower complex is aided by the presence of a low-lying limestone layer which is permeated with ocean water and located very close to the seashore and salt ponds. Bonaire is an outstanding location for high quality salt production. The water and air on Bonaire are exceedingly clean. When ocean water evaporates from the solar saltern (a series of salt ponds) only solid salt of high purity remains!

The island of 288 sq. mi. is home to about 20,000 people. The island is of interest to church congregations because of the TWR gospel radio ministry and the many fascinating natural characteristics of the island and its unique linkage to salt production. For instance, the American flamingo breeds on Bonaire, one of only four places in the world. Its pink color is due to the bird consuming beta carotene in the brine shrimp and algae they consume. Several commentators made the statement, “You are what you eat.”

We close with personal recollections of our association with Bonaire. My father, Paul Virkler, concluded his pastorate of a small church in Northern New Jersey in 1967 with a “mission trip.” TWR had recently begun their radio ministry on the island. Their leaders were constructing a new studio building and reached out to volunteers to help complete the work. My dad, physically skilled in many ways during his productive life, agreed to install insulation in the new studio building. He stayed two months. We possess letters he wrote from Bonaire. He used a motor bike to access the work site. Once he wrote that the salt company, before the days before Cargill assumed leadership of the salt works on Bonaire, expected a salt “harvest” soon. After two months he took a plane to Peru, re-connecting with treasured old-time friends who were serving as missionaries.

Several years later, my uncle and I visited Bonaire with my parents. The trip was a memorable return to the beautiful island for my father. I recall enjoying some of the same Bonaire features he described in late 1967: goats prevalent, wonderful friends at the TWR office, the view of Klein (little) Bonaire, the memorable auto trip to the northern and eastern part of the island, saving a few unique “square nickels,” and snorkeling in the ocean behind our “guesthouse.”

Shine 800 AM Bonaire reaches a potential 100 million listeners with the message of Christ’s redemption. TWR has several radio outlets worldwide and other types of media outlets. In 1865 brilliant visionary physicist James Clerk Maxwell proposed the theory of electromagnetism, including the future potential of the generation of radio waves to travel at the speed of light. We wonder how James Clerk Maxwell would respond if he were alive today and able to see the fulfillment of radio’s potential to reach the world with the message of eternal salvation. Maxwell was a devout Christian. 

World population has increased from <1.5 billion in 1865, to slightly less than 4 billion in 1967 when the Bonaire TWR ministry was coming to fruition, to over 7.8 billion in 2020. Radio is a vehicle for spreading the message of God to humanity’s teeming billions. People like Dr. Paul E. Freed and countless other visionaries have used their divinely given talents to accomplish things of eternal importance. We thank God for the inspiration of far-sighted visionaries to convey the Gospel message. 



Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Science and Psalm 148

Psalm 148, a “Hallelujah Psalm” written several millennia in the past, provides readers with an opportunity to praise the Lord for events in our environment which currently may be considered in a scientific context. Contemporary commentators promote diverse views of how our science and faith are (or are not) connected. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne strongly promotes his belief that there is no room for both science and theological faith within a scientifically informed understanding of our world. Reasons to Believe president Hugh Ross promotes the belief that science and faith both exist compatibly in the pages of Holy Scripture. Coyne uses the term accomodationism to express his view, claiming that there is no room for science and faith/religion to be mutually supportive.

Hugh Ross has successfully distinguished between science and theistic faith by using other terms—hard concordism and soft concordism. Hard concordists look to make nearly all scientific discoveries agree with some scripture passage.” In the same blog post (6/22/12) Ross describes soft concordists who agree that “…a literalist hermeneutic does not apply to all Bible passages.”  

The 148th Psalm is not scientific in the modern sense. It does not enumerate huge distances (verse 1), locate the domain of angels or the hosts of heaven (verse 2), or describe the physical processes occurring at this moment on the sun, moon, and shining stars (verse 3). Neither does it mention (verse 5) the process of the original creation act—a divinely produced, instantaneous flash of energy and matter inflating from an infinitely tiny singularity. (Psalm 148:4 warrants special commentary later in our post.)

Verse 5 commands us to “Praise the Lord,” imploring us to focus upon the fiat creation: “For He commanded and they were created.” Fiat creation occurs by decree…an act of the Creator. Sometimes the decree is carried out instantaneously; sometimes it is executed over time. We remind readers that God is timeless—not constrained by human time frames. Therefore, even when galaxies, stars, the sun, and planets condense from dust and gas to solid bodies over enormous periods of time, they may still be considered acts of divine creation by fiat. 

Verse 6 conveys awareness of time: forever and ever. Human time is linear, advancing from past to present, and from present to future. Time is a scientific concept. The ancients conceived of time long ago. The concept has been refined in our modern day. So have concepts of ‘the sciences.’ Oceanography is a modern science with early origins in Old Testament times. Sea creatures and ocean deeps (verse 7) have been contemplated for thousands of years.

Topics in meteorology have often been referenced in scripture. In particular, in verse  8 we become aware of fire (perhaps a geological/volcanic connection?) followed by hail, snow, mist, and stormy wind. These topics delight today’s meteorologists. Geologists identify with mountains and hills (verse 9). Not to be overlooked, biological scientists are inspired to study fruit trees, cedars, beasts and livestock, along with creeping things and birds (verses 9-10).

The science of Psalm 148 is an example of phenomenology—experiences we enjoy from our senses. Some scientists connect the term to an early 20th century philosophical movement highlighting experience and consciousness. In the interest of “keeping it simple,” we revert to our pure sense experiences to define the term: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. Phenomenology is not a science, but it is closely related to careful observation. Phenomenology requires skills of observation, part of the backbone of modern scientific method.

Verse 4 contains a reference to the “waters above the heavens.” In ancient Middle East cosmology many writers described a solid vaulted dome called the firmament which separated the ‘waters above’ from the ‘waters below.’ Earth itself was a flat disc on which the dome rested. Many civilizations utilized this imagery in that pre-scientific day. Also conceived were the “pillars of heaven.” The Hebrew Scriptures were focused on the purpose of God’s creative work rather than scientific details we have uncovered in the 21st century. 

Detailed scientific knowledge of the chronology of physical events relating to the initial stupendous creation event—the beginning of time, space, matter, and energy—was not known by physical cosmologists until late in the 20th century. Much more knowledge remains to be discovered. Ancient scribes did not pretend to be  scientifically accurate in the days when scientific method was yet to be formulated in the 2nd millennium AD. We need not wonder why they incorporated metaphors and imagery in their writings.  

Meanwhile, we rejoice worshipfully at the phenomenological descriptions of Psalm 148 and many other Old and New Testament Scripture passages. We minimize naysayers who complain that the Bible is not “scientifically accurate” in the face of the paucity of scientific knowledge three millennia in the past. The Hebrew ancients were pre-scientifically attempting to understand their universe.

Psalm 148 closes with exhortations to the Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers, young men and maidens, old men and children! They are to ”Praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. (Scripture translations from ESV.)   





Monday, November 2, 2020

Plague, Pestilence, Pandemic, and Immunity

Many world residents are immersed in fear during the current coronavirus pandemic. At this writing many European countries are imposing renewed lockdowns. The United States has not imposed national lockdown rules, but local jurisdictions have done so. Spirited discussion has been generated regarding the efficacy of rigidly detailed regulations, social distancing, and on-line learning requirements for our students. In spite of a plethora of detailed rules, observations persist that COVID-19 cases, somewhat slowed, occur notwithstanding our finest medical efforts to control the spread of the novel virus. Public commentators describe it with terms such as plague, pestilence, or pandemic. 

Humanity has coped with pathogens—infectious agents—from the beginning of human habitation on this planet. Each pathogen has its own pattern of characteristics, including means of spread, incubation period, symptomology, virulence, speed of recovery, treatment protocols, and degree of lethality. Bioscientists are currently focused on developing a remedy for the COVID-19 pathogen as rapidly as possible. Informational lists of viral pathogens and their characteristics are available on websites such as ViralZone. Such lists can be overwhelming, causing us to wonder why we are not victims of viral illnesses regularly!

Human pandemics have sickened and killed millions of people in the last three millennia of human existence. Plague, a bacterial disease, wiped out the greatest number, upwards of 250 million souls. Bubonic and pneumonic plague have largely disappeared from the Earth, due to improved hygiene, better control of disease vectors such as rodents, and quarantine. Smallpox, a viral disease which killed over 56 million people, was banished from planet Earth in 1977—a medical triumph.

Native American population, variously estimated to be up to 60 million in pre-Columbian times, lost up to 90% of their population from Old World pathogens, largely smallpox. It devastated a remarkable civilization. New World Indian population may have exceeded the population of Europe at the time, some experts believe. European explorers of the New World in the middle of the millennium were intent on finding new trade routes and riches. New World native people were unaccustomed to horses and warfare using metal swords and armor, rifles and cannons. With their inferior technology and unconventional warfare, they always lost military battles to the Europeans. They did not yet possess the wheel. More horrors followed for Native Americans for many years to come. 

The Europeans’ most lethal weapon may have been the onset of viral pathogens which devastated the Indian culture and society. Never having been exposed to Old World pathogens, native populations possessed virtually no natural resistance to Old World diseases. The explorers/conquerors had acquired some immunity in their Old World homes by virtue of many having been infected by these diseases, later to recover, but Native American Indians had virtually no immunity. According to Charles C. Mann, author of 1491—New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, “…there is some scientific evidence that Native Americans were for genetic reasons unusually susceptible to foreign microbes and viruses…”   

We quote two scientists who recently commented that viruses are ever present. Vincent Racaniello, researcher in the Department of Microbiology at Columbia University says if we want to understand life, human health, and human disease, we need to know more about viruses. Racaniello states, “We live and prosper in a literal cloud of viruses. Viruses infect every living thing on the planet. Nothing escapes a virus infection. We regularly  eat and breathe in billions of virus particles on a daily basis and viral genomes are part of our genomes as well. They are truly pervasive. They are everywhere.”

Dr. Hugh Ross, president of Reasons to Believe, presents realistic statements in his blog post of 3-30-20 concerning viruses—an ever-present reality on our Planet. We reprint Ross’s statements from his March blog post:

“Life forms on Earth larger and more complex than microbes would be impossible without an abundance of viruses. Without viruses, bacteria would multiply, and, within a relatively short time period, occupy every nook and cranny on Earth’s surface. The planet would become a giant, bacterial slime ball. Those sextillions of bacteria would consume all the resources essential for life and die.

“Viruses keep Earth’s bacterial population in check. They break up and kill bacteria at the just-right rates and in the just-right locations so as to maintain a population and diversity of bacteria that is optimal for both the bacteria and for all other life forms. It is important to note that all multicellular life depends on bacteria present at the optimal population level and optimal diversity. We wouldn’t be here without viruses.” 

Are all viruses detrimental? Some viruses, such as COVID-19, have devastated world health and economy. At this writing the virus has taken the lives of 233,130 US residents and 1,191,326 in the world. The good news: 33,170,857 have fully recovered. The fatality rate of those infected with COVID-19 is 0.07%. The fatality rate of those who contracted Bubonic Plague was 50-70%. For smallpox, the fatality rate was 30%.

We could quote multiple citations of Old Testament references to disease. The diseases resulted from disobedience to God and weakness of the Israelites’ moral fibre: Matthew 24:7-8 refers to pestilences and the “beginnings of sorrows.” Deuteronomy 28:58-63 refers to many plagues brought on by the Lord. The Israelite people, however, bore substantial responsibility for the onset of disease: They did not obey the voice of the Lord. They were disobedient. They did not practice hygiene and they did not observe dietary regulations established by God. For example, pigs were unclean and their meat was forbidden. This and similar regulations are not understood by most people in modern times. 

We examine this phenomenon in terms of Native American pre-colonial times in America. Hernando DeSoto, a brutal Spanish conquistador in the 16th century, was part of a company of conquerors “who traveled in a porcine cloud.” The Europeans brought with them animals such as pigs and other mammals. “Unlike Europeans, Indians did not live in constant contact with many animals…By contrast, swine, mainstays of European agriculture, transmit anthrax, brucellosis, leptospirosis, trichinosis, and tuberculosis.” (Quotes from Charles C. Mann’s 1491). In human history and in modern times many viral diseases have their origin in animals. The pathogens have jumped to people and now are transmitted “people to people.” There are clear indications that the most devastating human pandemics originated in animals, including Black Plague, smallpox, Spanish flu and HIV/AIDS. Modern medicine has discovered how to treat and immunize the population against these diseases. Vaccination provides remarkable immunity from disease by injecting into the body a form of the pathogen.  

In the Old Testament Numbers 21 describes an incident where God sent venomous snakes to bite the complaining and disobedient Israelites. When they pleaded with Moses that the Lord would take away the scourge of snakes, Moses obeyed divine instructions to install a bronze snake on a pole and instructed the people to merely look at the bronze image. Anyone who obediently looked at the bronze serpent was miraculously healed, protected from the fatal effects of the venomous live serpents.

There are many accounts of serpents in ancient mythology. The serpent symbolization  is utilized by dozens of modern medical organizations in their choice of a logo for their literature. Serpent symbolization relates to medical healing in various ways. In ancient Israel, the serpent was the cause of their bodily misery. The remedy was provided by God only if victims would acknowledge the healing powers of appropriating the very agent that caused their bodily grief. Likewise, there is a parallel in modern medical practice: the vaccination process uses the offending agent to confer immunity from specific diseases. 

In Christian theology, we are immune from death caused by our sin by “looking upon” the remedy of Jesus Christ—His death on the Cross of Calvary.           



Friday, October 16, 2020

Autumn Weather and Wildlife Wonders

Autumn provides notable changes as calendar weeks advance. The season is transitional at mid-latitudes. In the Northern Hemisphere, meteorological autumn begins on September 1 and ends on November 30. (In the Southern Hemisphere September 1 marks the start of meteorological spring.) In contrast to autumn, Northern Hemisphere summer temperatures are not transitional—it is more or less warm throughout the season. Winters are more or less cold all season.

Let us consider autumn from the perspective of your blogger’s mid-latitude location—40º north latitude. Over half of the entire human population occurs between 30º and 60º north latitude. When meteorological autumn begins on September 1, we are in store for surprising environmental changes. Leaves change color, falling in great quantities into the forest and onto our lawns. We take note of how the current year’s leaf colors compare with previous seasons. Perhaps we recall some information on deciduous plant physiology. Autumn leaf colors vary according to geographic regions owing to different types of deciduous tree species present.

Concerning other transitions of autumn, we mention a few obvious statistical changes. Autumn is the season of falling temperatures. From September 1 to November 30, the average daily high temperature falls 28º F. The average daily low temperature also drops 28º F. In three summer months, average daily highs and lows vary only 3º F for the entire season. 

Autumn is the season of decreasing daylight hours. We “lose” four hours of daylight during this season. Why? The tilt of Earth’s axis is responsible—23.4º away from perpendicular to the plane of Earth’s orbit. With no axis tilt temperature and daylight lengths would not vary seasonally because there would be no seasons. Life on Planet Earth would not be the same. Two posts of October 2017 discuss Planet Earth with and without seasons in some detail:

A favorite passage in Genesis 8:22 expresses the wonder of changeable weather, its effect on planting and harvest, and our enjoyment of variable environmental conditions. We perceive each descriptive condition mentioned in this verse as a blessing to humanity from our Creator: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (ESV)

In conversational exchanges we are prone to discuss the weather—sometimes happily satisfying and diverse, at other times unhappily or irritatingly alike. We also enjoy relating the wondrous unique behavioral changes of neighborhood plant and animal life with the progressive flow of seasonal weather events. Bird behavior has currently transitioned to autumn harvest abundance as temperatures decrease. Many scriptural themes relate to the autumn grape harvest.

In our back yard we have been blessed with a natural wild grape vine (vitis riparia) which has recently overtaken a 40 foot chokecherry tree. Such grape vines commonly ascend to over 50 feet in their voracious growth habits. They often overtake host trees. Several years ago this vine had not yet appeared. In the last two years the vine has become a natural back yard bird feeder 35 feet outside our ‘sun room’ windows. This year the vines produced an estimated 3-5 bushels of grapes (all inaccessible). At this writing we believe the plentiful grape supply will not survive another few days at the current rate of bird consumption. As we write, dozens of neighborhood birds, mostly robins and cedar waxwings, are providing entertaining avian bedlam and mayhem with grapes the focus of their attention. Their enthusiastic response to the current vintage is a joy to behold. Matthew 6:26 provides a background for our current grape tale: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (ESV) 

Before continuing this discourse, we quote Job:12: 7-10: “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.” (ESV)

These verses need no further elaboration. Nevertheless, we comment: The grapes sometimes provide an overly sated condition: Robins sometimes eat more grapes than they should. They sometimes squabble over food with other robins but get along quite well with cedar waxwings—a different avian species.  This year pileated woodpeckers (one so far), sparrows, cardinals, and flickers (a few of each) have appeared at our grape vine feeder. We recall one unusual visitor a few weeks ago: Young turkeys are currently approaching their full growth. Recently, a mother turkey suddenly flew up with great effort to perch on unsteady branches in order to eat her fill of grapes while her young watched at a distance. The property owner was startled. The turkey managed her meal with substantial success. How did the mother turkey know the grapes were hidden in the high branches?

Perhaps the turkeys mentioned in the previous paragraph were a party to a front porch incident a few days before. Turkeys frequently take dust baths to preen their feathers. Instead of shaking off their dust in the woods, they opted to shake off the dust on our front porch, leaving behind turkey footprints in the thick dust. Do turkeys have a sense of humor as they relate to their human friends? And how do they know that their preening dust bath behavior helps maintain beautiful feathers? 

We challenge readers to contemplate the meaning of verses from Genesis 8, Matthew 6, and Job 12. Intellectual and emotional awareness of our environment and sharing our enthusiastic responses is an important way to call attention to God’s multidimensional divine glory.    





Monday, October 5, 2020

Life on Planet Venus?

One popular speculation among ordinary citizens and some science specialists is whether life exists anywhere but Planet Earth. If there is agreement that life may exist elsewhere but Earth, further questions are triggered: What sort of life could it be? Simple one-celled life? More complex multi-celled life? Even life similar to sentient human Earth life? Such questions have broad mass appeal. These questions provide literary fodder for imaginative science fiction novelists.

Recently there has been a media buzz concerning the possibility that the Earth’s twin, Planet Venus, manifests a signature of past life. The planet’s surface temperature is currently hot enough to melt lead and its atmospheric pressure is 92 times that of Earth. In the past three billion years however, conditions supportive of life existed in terms of more favorable temperatures, atmosphere, and the presence of water. Russian and US space probes have visited the atmosphere and surface of Venus many times in the past 50 years. Surface probe vehicles have quickly been destroyed by the currently harsh temperatures and dense atmosphere. Until now little speculation concerning life on Venus has been put forward. Mars has garnered most attention in that regard.

When research uncovers the possibility of life on another planet, considerable enthusiasm is generated among astro-biologists. When the news leaks out to the public, enthusiasm multiplies exponentially. With respect to possible Venus life, public fervor has been generated by an esoteric discovery. The upper atmosphere of Venus  possesses lower temperatures than its surface. It is there that the compound phosphine was detected in quantities that may be a signature of life. Phosphine (chemical formula PH3—one phosphorus, three hydrogen atoms) is a by-product of life processes. The compound is present in the Venus atmosphere at concentrations far above the level that non-biological processes could explain.

Is the presence of past or present life on Venus therefore, proven? No, but these are curious results, perhaps nothing more than “anomalous and unexplained chemistry.” Mars researchers have the same problem as they also attempt to find potential signatures for life on Mars in sedimentary rocks several billions of years old.

Earth was blessed with the initial appearance of life starting about three and one-half billion years ago. It arrived on our planet suddenly—morphologically simple, but biochemically complex. Today’s biologists have no explanation for the mysterious sudden origin of biologically complex life. Theistic scientists such as Dr. Hugh Ross, president of Reasons to Believe, believe the sudden appearance of life approximately 3.5 bya is the signature of a creation event produced by the God of the Bible.

Enthusiastic secular scientists promote the concept that life may have originated spontaneously and naturalistically on billions of planets in our vast universe. So far such enthusiasm and optimism is unwarranted. Dr. Ross’s popular volume The Creator and the Cosmos, fourth edition, (2018, pp. 243-266)) lists 150 separate parameters a planet, its moon, its star, and its galaxy must manifest for life of any kind to exist. If even one of the parameters is absent, life is impossible. This requirement is known as “fine tuning”—precise conditions which must be present for the operational existence of a living physical system. 

Dr. Ross has also proposed that primitive microbial life forms could have been transported from Earth’s atmosphere to other planets such as Mars and Venus by asteroids and meteoroids colliding with our planet. Earth material could thereby be deflected to another planet in our Solar System. This is known as interplanetary panspermia. The process was recently described by technology/science reporter Chris Ciaccia: A meteoroid from outer space grazed Earth’s atmosphere in December 2017. The resulting fireball travelled more than 800 miles through the upper atmosphere of southern Australian and then skipped back into space. In earth’s long history the above scenario may have occurred thousands of times. Microbes are known to exist in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Bio-scientists admit that a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life does NOT exist. Many explanations have been proposed but none can be proven. The processes of life as it exists are majestically and wonderfully complex. People who believe in God recognize the origin of life as a divine miracle. Likewise, life processes are sustained by a divine miracle. Many works of literature and music contain the sentiment that Life Is a Miracle.

Does life presently exist on Venus or Mars or did it exist in the past? It is possible. We are positive that life on Planet Earth is the result of dozens of unique, fine tuned physical conditions. Life on our planet is described by theists as a signature product of the divine Creator. The more we discover about the wonders of life, the more we intuitively sense the reality of the Creator.

Here is a link to the first of four posts from July 2018. We discussed many related questions on life in our vast universe and the human curiosity whether life of any sort exists at any other location than our own home Solar System:




Saturday, September 19, 2020

Wildfires--A Planetary Feature

Wildfires enable us to gain knowledge of our planet from unique perspectives. Currently one of the largest wildfire episodes in modern history has devastated the US west coast. Upwards of six million acres have burned in California, Oregon, and Washington. Tragically, the current known death toll is 36 with thousands of homes and other structures destroyed. Smoke from this conflagration was detectable across the country, even causing the sun to assume an unnatural appearance. 

The Creator designed our Earth system with divine wisdom. Some may pronounce Planet Earth “a place to thrive.” Others may see our planet as “a place of brokenness and despair.” In describing Planet Earth we have used the phrase “a place to thrive” eleven times in our past blog posts. In contrast we have used the phrase “a place of brokenness and despair” four times to describe what we feel is an errant description of our planetary home. 

Wildfires have been a feature of our planet for millions of years, as evidenced by the presence of fossil charcoal. Earth has been blessed with a just-right amount of CO2 to promote plentiful plant life. Animal life is sustained by plants with the support of a stable atmospheric composition of 21% oxygen. Taken together, we are blessed with plentiful carbon based plant life and plentiful oxygen—also just right amounts for the occasional combustion of plants in wildfires. 

But wait! Would we wish for less CO2 to provide less human food? or less oxygen in order to reduce wildfires? Atmospheric oxygen combines with carbon fuels such as petroleum and natural gas, increasing the atmospheric composition of CO2 ever so slightly. CO2, a so-called greenhouse gas, has contributed moderately to the world temperature rise of about 1ºC in the last century. There are other factors causing rising world temperature. This 1º change does not explain the proliferation of current wildfire events. Blaming west coast wildfires on global warming is an error of unprecedented dimensions.

We return to the fact that wildfires have occurred on Earth ever since land plants appeared eons before the creation of humanity. Evidence exists that thousands of wildfires occurred long before CO2-driven global warming was touted as a ‘scientifically proven’ cause of wildfires. Today’s media catchphrase is “Look at the science.” There is much unsupported propaganda concerning ‘climate change.’ Today’s science does not demonstrate that west coast wildfires are caused by global warming. Science has, however, identified a multitude of weather conditions in the American west. Primarily, wildfires are driven and exacerbated by periodic drought, high temperatures, wind, and low humidity. These conditions are common on the west coast and always have been seasonally present. Wildfires could be up to 85% human-caused—campfires, smoking, equipment malfunction, and arson—depending on site proximity to humans. Natural causes of wildfires commonly include dry lightning and rarely, volcanoes.

A search of the history of western wildfires before 1850 reveals fewer devastating fires equal to current west coast events. California was basically undeveloped in the first half of the 19th century. There were only about 8000 non-native colonists in 1840. If there were wildfires in the forests of California, no one sought to extinguish them. There was minimal loss of life and structures. Today many California residents live in hilly, wooded regions deemed to be beautiful and desirable for home placement, but prone to extreme fire danger. The problems of dense urbanization are exacerbated by deficient community planning and building codes. Annual coastal weather patterns should be carefully studied with an awareness of the existence of long term weather trends.

There are multiple examples of wildfires in our day. Fire plays a vital role in many ecosystems. One outstanding example is the 1988 fire which occurred in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, burning through 36% of its area. Prior to 1988 the spectacularly scenic Yellowstone ecosystem possessed unique charm but forests and diverse plant species quickly re-established themselves after the fires. Resilient wildlife survived better than expected. Our family visited Yellowstone both before and after the fires. We recall observing many areas of lodgepole pine in the process of natural re-establishment as we travelled through formerly burned areas.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, especially since 1972, controlled fires have been encouraged as a beneficial factor in forest management. These actions are opposed by some environmental groups who advocate against (1) harvest of mature trees (2) thinning of excess biomass, and (3) removal of dense underbrush. This results in over-accumulation of biomass and subsequent vulnerability to raging, fast-moving fires. In studying forest management issues we realize the matter is complex and far from simple. Large populations, mountainous topography, and unique weather patterns in California make forest management especially challenging.  

There were many other historic tragic wildfires. In 1910 three million acres burned in Montana, Washington, and Idaho. It was dubbed the “Big Blowup.” Before that, the 1871 Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin and Michigan was the deadliest: 1200+ killed, 3.8 million acres burned. The Great Hinckley Fire in Minnesota (1894) killed 418. In the same state 453 perished and 250,000 acres destroyed in the Cloquet fire of 1918.

Wildfires may be considered either natural or man-caused disasters. We have reported  natural disasters over which humans have no control. Examples are hurricanes, floods, droughts, volcanoes, and similar events. With wildfires, however, we possess a measure of control, either by avoiding careless fires or by wise implementation of controlled burns for reducing the severity of future fires and improving current forest conditions.  According to Marc Abrams, professor of forest ecology in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State University, “Native Americans knew that to regenerate plant species that they wanted for food, and to feed game animals they relied on, they needed to burn the forest understory regularly.”

We have quoted Genesis 1:28 many times in our posts: God instructed humans, “…..Be fruitful and increase in number: fill the earth and subdue it…..” We posit that modern humans must actively study and manage the creation for their own benefit and for the glory of the Creator. This amplifies the meaning of subdue in terms of inspired creation care.