SCIENCE AND LIFE

The good thing about science is that it is always changing. The more experts observe the world around us and try to understand it, the more they discover and share with the rest of us. From the tiniest elements of creation—the particles from which atoms are made—to the vastness that contains galaxies beyond number, the universe is filled with marvels. New living beings are frequently found in the depths of the oceans, the hearts of the rain forests, and even in our own backyards. Health and disease, gladness and depression, the quality of our environment—they all matter to us, and they all are subject to study, observation, experiment, and the other tools of science. These tools help improve our lives and our care of the world around us.

The bad thing about science is that it is always changing. Coffee and dark chocolate and red wine are bad for us, except when they are good for us. The innards of the atom and the inhabitants of this planet require further study. What seemed true yesterday might be disproved today; what seems true today might be shown to have been mistaken by tomorrow. Science itself is a useful tool for our lives, but it is only a tool. Science lacks the authority and stability to be a foundation for our lives.

When I was young, my parents invested in several series of books. They bought Funk &Wagnall’s encyclopedia set, one volume at a time. They also bought reference books on their hobbies, photography and sewing, that came out once a month for a year or two. To top it all, my parents bought the LIFE set of books about science—those colorful volumes that could be found in many living rooms and studies a number of years ago. I did a fair amount of research in those LIFE books, both for school assignments and for casual learning. As an adult, I was able to obtain a set of the same books for my family library. They look nice on the shelf, but they are heavy to move, and the science in them is old. They are useful to learn the history of science, but they cannot compete with the Internet for up-to-date descriptions of scientific theory and investigation. This reality was reinforced this month when I picked up one of those LIFE books and started reading it from page one.

This book from the LIFE Nature Library, is called “The Poles.” At describes the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the Earth, detailing climate, flora and fauna, human exploration and inhabitation, and research endeavors in the far north and the far south. I was fascinated to learn that the South Pole is colder than the North Pole because of the continent Antarctica; the ocean under the polar ice in the north moderates the temperature of the northern region. Also, because the polar ice sheet moves and shatters and reforms, it is difficult to establish the location of the North Pole at any given time—a flag planted there this summer might be several miles away from the Pole in the future. This book, which was published in 1962, has much interesting information about the polar regions, but science has learned far more information in the past sixty years. For that matter, accounts of human exploration of the north have been reviewed and found inaccurate; Robert Peary did not reach the North Pole in 1908, even though the LIFE editors were still willing to hand him the prize as recently as 1962.

Even sixty years ago, scientists studying Greenland and Antarctica had uncovered evidence that these bodies of land once supported “warm forests and plains.” This led the editors of “The Poles” to write these words in the third paragraph of their introduction to their book: “Today we are entering an era of unlimited power, when science may be able to alter the temperature balance and convert the cold regions to hospitable, productive ones. To do this would require the greatest political courage, for the rewards certainly would not be equally divided over all political borders. But if it were done, the problem of containing and feeding future generations could be solved. Unfortunately we as a nation are not yet confronted with the problem and we give it only token attention; but the world storms generated by hunger are brewing.”

Need I say more? J.

The oxymoron of subatomic particles

Science, like money, is a human invention that is very useful when used properly and very dangerous when misused. Both money and science can be very useful; on the other hand, a lack of either can be very problematic. Neither science nor money has the strength and significance to be the foundation of a person’s life. A human life based only on science, like a human life based only on money, is sadly crippled and unable to handle the crises that can strike a life emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

One of the strengths of science is also one of its weakness: science continually changes. The more effort people put into studying the world, observing the world, experimenting with things in the world, and making predictions based on those experiments and observations, the more likely it becomes that new theories will shape science and direct scientific inquiry on paths that, until that time, were unexpected.

Science was practiced in ancient Egypt, Babylon, India, and China, developing differently in different places. Western science (which drew upon scientific observations and theories from Egypt, Babylon, and India) began roughly twenty-four centuries ago with the philosophers of ancient Greece. Among their efforts was an attempt to determine the basic building blocks of the physical, or observable, world. One early philosopher suggested that everything material is made of water—a reasonable guess, since water can assume so many forms, from ice and snow to liquid water to vapor. Others suggested different basic materials rather than water. Pythagoras and his followers proposed that everything observable consists of numbers. Greek philosophers tended to seek internally consistent explanations of the world, even when those explanations seemed contrary to observation. One group, for example, insisted that motion is logically impossible and is only an illusion—that the true universe is stable and unchanging. Until the invention of calculus many centuries later, scientists and philosophers were not equipped to refute the logic that suggested that motion cannot happen in the world.

A basic teaching of western science since Greek times has been the assumption that all physical items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces. These were named “atoms” from the Greek word for “unbreakable.” For many centuries, most western scientists considered four elements to be represented among the atoms: water, earth, air, and fire. Alchemy—the predecessor to modern chemistry—observed and experimented with physical items with the assumption that all such items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces of water, earth, air, and fire. Modern western science would never have developed without the alchemists of medieval Europe. Far from living in “the dark ages,” the medieval alchemists were at the forefront of science, culture, and civilization.

Chemists eventually demonstrated the existence of far more than four elements—for example, that water is not a basic building block, but water can be divided into hydrogen and oxygen. As they continued to experiment and observe, chemists developed a series of mathematical relationships among the elements, re-suggesting the possibility that number is the most fundamental building block of the universe. Modern physics grew out of modern chemistry; roughly one hundred years ago, western scientists began to find particles that seemed to be building blocks even of atoms.

Understand that subatomic particles are an oxymoron. Atoms are supposed to be unbreakable—the word “atom” was created to communicate that important idea. Finding that atoms contained protons, neutrons, and electrons changed the rules of science; evidence of quarks and other subatomic particles continued the process of demonstrating that atoms, though important, are among the worst-named ideas in all of science.

Huge powerful machines have been built to study the tiny pieces of atoms. Smashing atoms to observe their particles has been compared to smashing an old-fashioned watch to try to guess how it functions. One scientist, Leon Lederer, joked that God “seems to be making it up as we go along,” since every layer of discoveries suggests a new layer of tiny pieces even smaller than those already demonstrated.

Scientists continue to study the world, to try to understand how things work. They observe and experiment, not only with subatomic particles, but with viruses and other disease-causing agents, medicines, genetics, and the climate of the planet. Sometimes most scientists agree with each other about how things work; other times their research seems to contradict the research of their peers. We are all familiar with the constant revision of nutritional studies—first eggs are good for us, then they are bad for us, then they are good for us again. The old tradition of individual scientists plugging away in their laboratories to manage great discoveries has long been supplanted by teams of scientists funded by government grants and by corporate investments. Political agendas and the hope to generate a financial profit inevitably shape the work of today’s scientists. Their work is important and should not be curtailed; but every scientific discovery must also be accepted with the proverbial grain of salt. That salt is as important an ingredient as any other contribution to scientific investigation. J.

Science: likable, but limited

I like science. All through school, I got As in science classes. My book collection has several books on science.

Granted, some of those science books are old… nearly as old as I am. Back in the 1960s, my parents collected the Time/Life collection of books on nature and on science. I was later able to acquire a copy of the same collection. While their information is not up to date, the books are valuable to me for three reasons: they make an attractive display on the living room shelves, they bring back childhood memories, and they allow me to compare current scientific statements with those made a generation ago. The history of science can be as enlightening as its current status.

My library has more recent scientific books. When I see news stories about scientific topics, I click on their links to the source papers behind those articles and read the summaries that the scientists themselves published. I believe that my understanding of science is equal to—and probably greater than—that of the average American citizen.

I dislike seeing science (and accusations of being “unscientific”) used as a political weapon. I dislike seeing science (and accusations of being “unscientific”) used to control conversations about religion and about morality. Science observes the world around us, experiments with elements of that work, and seeks to understand what the world contains and how its contents work. Science cannot measure or evaluate anything outside the material world. Science cannot make ethical decisions about how data regarding the world is used. Science tells people how to create bombs; science cannot tell people whether they should use those bombs.

Science cannot tell us whether we exist in a computer simulation rather than what we would call “reality.” Nor can science tell us whether our lives and surroundings are elements of someone’s dream. Using the scientific method, people measure the world around them. They assess changes in that world. They seek rules to explain those changes. They make predictions about the future, based on those rules, and the accuracy of their predictions measures the accuracy of their rules. Science is based on observation, experimentation, and careful consideration of what has been observed. Considerations of what is right and what is wrong can be based on scientific observations, but those moral considerations are not, themselves, scientific.

Science changes. Scientific rules are adjusted based on new information, new observations, and new experiments. Flexibility is a strength of science. It allows knowledge and understanding of the world to grow and to become more accurate and more helpful. But flexibility is also a weakness of science. People cannot make science the foundation of their lives, the source for meaning of their existences, precisely because science is constantly changing, adjusting, and reacting to new information and new interpretations of information.

Therefore, calling a person’s religious beliefs or political beliefs “unscientific” is pointless. Using science as a measurement of truth or of value is unscientific—using science for those purposes is an act of faith, not an act of science. People who trust science to lead them to all truth have made science the center of their religion; they are no longer thinking and acting scientifically. People who judge the opinions and beliefs of their neighbors according to scientific measures of the world are not acting like scientists. Putting faith in science alone is the kind of intellectual suicide which some devotees of science accuse religious people of committing.

I like science. I enjoy technology, medicine, and other benefits that have come from science. I am grateful to have a scientific understanding of the world in which I live. But my faith is not in science. My faith is in the God who create those things that science studies. My faith is not limited by science; my faith transcends the limits that science cannot break. My world is larger than the world of those who limit themselves to what science and measure and observe. For that I am also grateful. J.

Is it me or is it him?

Everyone who thinks about God and talks about God is a theologian. Everyone who thinks and talks about what is good and what is true and what is beautiful is a philosopher. Everyone who looks at the created world and strives to understand some part of creation is a scientist.

But some theologians and philosophers and scientists are amateurs, while others are professionals.

In the sports world, the distinction between amateurs and professionals is whether they are paid. Amateurs may accept no money for their performances, but professionals are paid to perform. The distinction in other fields is not so clear. Some very amateur theologians and philosophers and scientists are paid well for what they write, while some very professional people in the same fields go unpaid.

One difference between amateurs and professionals is their awareness of what others in the field have written and said. They have read and thought about the writings considered important in that field. The professional does not need to agree with all that the leaders in the field have written. A biologist does not have to agree with Charles Darwin. (Most don’t.) A psychologist does not have to agree with Sigmund Freud. (Most don’t.) But, as professionals, they are aware of what these past masters have proclaimed, and they are able to relate the thoughts of the past masters to their own work.

A second difference between amateurs and professionals is their careful use of words. They are not sloppy in defining terms; they generally use the same words with the same meanings as those who have been professionals in that field in the past. If it is necessary to coin a new word, or to give a new meaning to a standard word, professionals carefully define their terms so readers will not be confused by the new or changed term.

A third mark of professionals is clarity in communication. They do not ramble and wander about their field, but they explain their ideas in a way most adults can understand. The most brilliant mind is useless if its owner cannot speak and write clearly. When a speaker leaves audience members saying, “That is one smart person. I didn’t understand what was being said, but it sure sounded smart,” the speaker has failed as a professional. Audience members who heard a professional speaker say, “I never thought of that before,” or, “I really learned something today,” or, “That’s the first time I ever understood that idea.”

More distinctions could be found, such as sufficient confidence in one’s own ideas to be willing to hear and discuss contrary ideas, and the ability to debate without resorting to insults and condescending language. But those three are enough to lead into my title of, “Is it him or is it me?” If I am reading a famous book written by an acknowledged master in the field, and I am not understanding what I read, does the fault lie with me or with the writer?

I usually begin by assuming that, if I do not understand, the failure is mine. The writer would not be widely regarded as a professional if no one else understands what he or she was saying. On the other hand, I remember a professor in college saying of Immanuel Kant that Kant took great leaps in logic that lesser mortals were not always able to follow. At the time, I took the philosophy professor’s description at face value. But increasingly I wonder if the professor was warning us that Kant was not exactly professional, that his leaps of logic may be, in fact, holes in his system of thought.

This month I’ve been reading Gregory of Nyssa, a theologian of the fourth century, and I have found the reading discouraging. It seems that Gregory wanders and rambles, repeats himself, and does not communicate clearly. Therefore, I ask myself, “Is it him or is it me?” Or—a third possibility—is this just a bad translation? I have flipped ahead in the book and found shorter essays that may be more focused and professional. The first half of the book consists of a rebuttal to an Arian theologian named Eunomias. Maybe Gregory’s writing will be clearer when he deals directly with theological matters.

In fact, Gregory himself has given me that hope. Last night I read, “But I must hasten on, for I see that my treatise has already extended beyond bounds, and I fear that I may be thought garrulous and inordinate in my talk, if I prolong my answer to excess, although I have intentionally passed by many parts of my adversary’s treatise, that my argument might not be spun out to many myriads of words. For to the more studious even the want of conciseness gives an occasion for disparagement; but as for those whose mind looks not to what is of use, but to the fancy of those who are idle and not in earnest, their wish and prayer is to get over as much of the journey as they can in a few steps.”

In other words, this time it’s him. J.

Not everything is a miracle

On a pair of blogs, both written by faithful Christians, I have recently seen the following quote from Albert Einstein: “Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” At first glance it appears that Dr. Einstein was affirming the existence of miracles, but I am afraid that was not the case. That quote does not mean what some Christians think it means.

Consider the source: Einstein was a scientist who studied the principles of the universe—physics—and discovered new aspects of physics that had not been seen before. Religiously, Einstein wavered between Deism and atheism. Sometimes he spoke of the universe as God’s creation and described science as learning God’s rules for creation. But in other cases he stated that he used God’s name as a shorthand label for the order and structure in the universe without considering God to be a personal or accessible Being in the Christian sense of the term.

“Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” Einstein probably believed that nothing is a miracle. Everything happens according to natural law, and the more we study the universe and learn its laws, the fewer things will surprise us. If everything is a miracle, then the word “miracle” has lost its meaning. Deists and atheists disagree about whether there is a god, but they agree that no god interferes with the universe and causes events that are against the natural laws of the universe.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He established the natural laws that scientists like Einstein study to learn, but he did not bind himself by those laws. God’s creation is full of marvels and wonders. We should be astounded every day by the glorious things God has made. But to call created things miracles robs the word “miracle” of its meaning. We must reserve that word for the special actions of God that show him acting within his creation.

We are wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Every human baby born is a marvel and a wonder. But when ninety-year-old Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle. When Mary, a virgin, conceives and gives birth to Jesus, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle.

God sends rain to water the earth, making it grow and flourish. Some of that rain lands in vineyards, where the grape vines soak up the water through their roots along with nutrients from the soil. The vines produce leaves which gather energy from the sun and change carbon dioxide into oxygen to give energy to the vines. That is a wonder. The vines then develop bunches of grapes, which swell and ripen in the sun and the rain. That is a wonder. The grapes can be picked and eaten, or they can be cooked into jelly, or they can be crushed and fermented to produce wine. That is a wonder. But when Jesus calls for six pots to be filled with water and then instantly transforms it into wine, that is a miracle. God is at work in his creation, doing suddenly what his creation requires time to accomplish.

When grain is sown and sprouts, that is a wonder. When it grows in a field until it produces a crop, many times the number of grains that were planted, that is a wonder. But when Jesus takes five loaves of bread and feeds a crowd of thousands, with basketfuls of leftovers remaining after they had eaten their fill, that is a miracle. Once again, we see the Creator at work, going beyond the laws of his creation.

Some people claim that primitive and unscientific people wrote about miracles. They go on to say that we would see the same things today and understand them scientifically; we would not call them miracles. That is far from true. The writers of the Bible described the miracles they saw because they knew those events were special. They knew that ninety-year-old women do not conceive and give birth. Nor do virgins. Water does not instantly transform into wine, nor does a loaf of bread multiply in one day to feed a thousand people. Dead people do not return to life. These miracles were signature events, indications that the Lord of the universe was present, doing good things to help the people he loves.

Miracles show us that Jesus is the Son of God, though whom and for whom all things were created. They show his compassion, his desire to help his people. They show him at work fixing the things that sin and evil have broken in his creation. They foretell what he will do on the Day of the Lord, when all the dead are raised, when every eye will see him, and when the entire planet will be transformed. That new creation will be the ultimate miracle, after which no further miracles will ever be needed. J.

Science, religion, and children

Children are exposed to science far too early. Long before they have the discernment to separate good science from bad science, or true science from fake science, they are already being indoctrinated into the world of science.

Science is not always good. In the last century science led to the Holocaust and to the atomic bomb. Science has caused us to pollute our world and to change our climate for the worse. Science has exterminated dozens if not hundreds of species, sometimes through hunting, but more often through environmental destruction.

Science cannot keep its promises. It offers longer lives, but the mortality rate is still one hundred percent. It speaks of fuller and happier lives, but anxiety and depression are increasing, suicide is increasing, and violent outbreaks without warning seem to be increasing, all during our age of science. Science provides medicines to counter illnesses, but the medicines have side effects, sometimes worse than the illnesses. And medicines are frequently misused, leading to addiction, poor quality life, and early death.

Because of all these problems, we should keep science away from our children until they have the maturity to think for themselves about science. Science should be removed from our schools, and parents should be discouraged from telling their children about science. Far too many people are entwined in science and unhappy because of what science has done to them. If science was not imposed on children during their impressionable years, science would not be such a problem in the world today.

Of course, I don’t mean any of what you just read. But Richard Dawkins does mean it when he talks about protecting children from religion. He carries to an extreme the adage that children should be allowed to mature into adults before being asked to choose a religion, including whether to be religious. Dawkins clearly believes that science holds the answers for all humanity’s problems. He also clearly believes that religion and science are at war with each other. He is determined to win that war, and he expresses the thought that withholding religion from children will preserve those children to make them full-fledged acolytes in the temple of science.

Last Friday, a few miles from the village where I spent my childhood, a man brought a gun to work and murdered five of his coworkers, injuring others, before finally being shot and killed by police. I have seen the names of his victims in the newspaper, and I did not recognize any of these names. But it is strongly possible that I have shopped with one or more of them in the same store, or sat near one of them in the same traffic, or had a conversation with one of them in a public place. Some of these five men had children, and I wonder how science could help these children deal with the loss of their father.

What if these children had been protected from knowing that evil exists in the world, but that evil has been overcome? What if no one was ever allowed to tell these children how Jesus, the Son of God, willingly became a victim of evil to rescue the victims of evil? What if these children never celebrated Easter, at least never in a Christian fashion, with the assurance that Jesus has risen from the dead and promises a resurrection like that to all who believe his promises? Would they be barred from their father’s funeral so that they would not hear these assurances that death has been swallowed up in victory, that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, and that they will see their father again in a new and perfect creation?

What can science tell these children about the difference between their loving father and the bad man who shot him, now that both men are equally dead? How can science give them any hope and comfort in the midst of their current sorrow? What will science say to them when they express a wish to see their father again someday?

Religion is not by nature an enemy to science. Some religious people have attacked science, just as some scientists attack religion. But, because they ask and answer different questions, religion and science do not need to be at odds with each other. And religion is for children. Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to children (Matthew 19:14). “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never inherit the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4). J.

The limitations of science

I am a fan of science. I was a boy at the time of the Apollo missions to the moon, and I watched full coverage of them on television. Over the years, my parents bought me a telescope, a microscope, a chemistry set, and a 100-project electrical kit. I got As in science all through school. I still keep up with the latest discoveries, from the exploration of Mars to the particles detected from split atoms.

Science provides many benefits. Science gives us longer and more productive lives, thanks to expanding knowledge about nutrition, sleep, exercise, medicine, therapy, and the battle against pests, from viruses and harmful bacteria to fleas, ticks, and tapeworms. But science cannot help us beyond death. Science cannot tell us whether any part of our being survives death. Nor can science reveal the destiny of that surviving entity, whether it will go to heaven or to hell.

Science is limited to studying the physical world. It can measure and describe matter and energy, but science cannot observe anything that does not consist of matter or energy. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, angels, demons, or the human soul. It is not scientific to say that science disproves those entities, because the rules of science do not permit science to determine anything about the nonmaterial world.

Therefore, anyone who puts his or her faith in science is as mistaken as someone who puts his or her faith in money, or in political power, or in one’s own good deeds, or in Baal or Zeus or Thor. Money and politics and good deeds all have value; they each have a place in our lives. But none of them can take the place of God. None of them can do what God does for his people.

One of the benefits of science is that it changes. New discoveries invalidate prevailing theories and force the creation and testing of new theories about the material world. Isaac Newton applied mathematics to science. He found the equation that describes how gravity works. After Newton, science grew more and more mechanical, with the hope that one day science could explain everything in the universe. But Albert Einstein and other twentieth-century scientists showed that Newton’s mathematical and mechanical universe only describes matter and energy of moderate size. The rules change with the very big, the very small, and the very powerful.

Because science changes, it is unreliable. One researcher says coffee is good for people; the next researcher says coffee is bad for people. Efforts to eradicate the spread of disease and improve the cultivation of crops have damaged the environment by killing off insects and poisoning the creatures that eat insects. Food additives, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and perhaps even life-saving vaccinations can have damaging side effects, which may explain the increase in recent times of autism, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and intolerance of one another. The poisonous social atmosphere in which we live may literally be poisoned by the same scientific advancements that were intended to improve our lives.

The person who relies on science and scientists to provide all Truth is missing a great deal. The knowledge that our souls will spend time elsewhere when we die—a better place or a worse place, depending upon who we know and trust—and that our bodies will be raised to eternal life at the dawn of the new creation—this knowledge shapes much of what we choose to do today. Knowing the Creator of the universe is far more important than knowing when and how the dinosaurs lived. Knowing that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus provides forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God, and victory over all enemies is far more important than encyclopedic knowledge of all the chemicals or all the planets and planetoids or all the subatomic particles.

One reason science seems to be more valuable than religion is that science has, over the years, provided material explanations for phenomena (such as thunderstorms and epileptic seizures) that were formerly attributed to spiritual causes. One might chart the number of phenomena that are explained by science and no longer attributed to spirits and assume that the need for religion will disappear. But even though science can improve our lives in this world, it gives us no reason to go on living. Nor can science guarantee eternal life in a better world after death in this world. Science cannot lift the guilt of a person who knows that he or she has done wrong. Science cannot teach people how to forgive one another and live in harmony. Science is beneficial, but it cannot replace religion. A life based on science is as empty as a life based on money or politics or entertainment.

I remain a fan of science. But my faith is in God. Science studies the things God made. Theology studies God. God is not too small for science; he is too big for science to grasp, too powerful for science to measure, too grand for science to explain. I thank God for all the things science has discovered about his creation. I praise God for who he is, information which science cannot supply. J.

Polar bears and peacock feathers

For years I have been puzzled when people say that polar bears are not really white; they only look white. They also say that the dots on peacock feathers are not really blue; they only look blue. If polar bears are not white, what color are they really? They look white to me. If those dots on peacock feathers are not blue, what color are they really? They look blue to me.

Philosophical questions about colors and other qualities go back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle. These and other philosophers have tried to examine what an object is other than its qualities and what a quality is apart from the objects that have it. Can you define whiteness apart from indicating something that looks white, whether it is a field covered in snow or a polar bear? Can blueness exist apart from a quality of things that look blue? If something changes in color, how much has it changed? Has it merely exchanged one quality for another, or is it now a different object?

I know that the people who say that a polar bear looks white but is not really white were not engaged in that kind of philosophic discussion.

Among his many accomplishments, Isaac Newton revolutionized science’s understanding of light and vision. By demonstrating that a glass prism or a lot of raindrops could break a beam of white light into a rainbow, Newton showed that color and light are closely related. As understanding of light and vision grew from that observation, scientists realize that objects absorb some wavelengths of light while reflecting other wavelengths. We see the colors that are reflected without the colors that are absorbed. White objects are reflecting all the wavelengths of visible light; black objects are absorbing all the wavelengths of visible light.

But that still doesn’t explain how a polar bear could look white without being white.

I recently read an article about light and vision that finally explained what that means. Many of the colors we see in objects are caused by pigments, which are chemicals on the surface of that object which absorb some light waves and reflect us. Chlorophyll is a pigment in many plants that absorbs some wavelengths of light (using that energy to feed the plant) while reflecting green light. Anyone who has worked with paints understands how to blend different colors of paint to achieve the desired color. The mixture of paints absorbs some wavelengths of light while reflecting those wavelengths that the painter wants observers to see.

Polar bear fur does not contain any white pigment. It is the shape of that fur, especially when it is wet, that reflects white light. Peacock feathers do not contain any blue pigment. The shape of the surface of the feather reflects blue light while absorbing other wavelengths of light, causing the dots on the feathers to look blue.

If only people would have said it that way. Polar bears look white and are white even though their fur contains no white pigment. The dots on peacock feathers look blue and are blue even though their feathers contain no blue pigment. Yes, it requires a few more words to communicate the idea, but the communication is much easier to understand.

Interesting sidelight number one: A young man I know well likes to say that purple is not really a color. In one sense he is right. There is no purple wavelength of light. Look closely at a rainbow and you will see that the inner portion of the color is a deep royal blue, not purple at all. On the other hand, he is wrong. Blend a paint that reflects red light waves with a paint that reflects blue light waves, and you will have purple paint. Whatever you cover with that paint will be purple…or at least the color purple will be one of its qualities.

Interesting sidelight number two: Earlier this year a woman took a picture with her phone of a dress that was blue and black. She sent the picture to her daughter, who looked at the picture and thought that the dress was white and gold. You could blame the camera, but here it gets interesting. When the photograph went viral on the internet, people could look at the same photograph on the same screen under the same conditions, and some people saw a white and gold dress while others saw a blue and black dress. A few people could even alternate the colors they saw in the dress. For centuries, people have wondered whether we all see things the same way. When you and I look at something that we agree is red, are we seeing it the same way? The answer, we now know, is no. The dress photograph of 2015 has had its brief internet fame, but I predict that the photograph will appear in psychology textbooks and philosophy textbooks for years to come.

J. (reposted from April 2015–one of my first posts)

A little bit of science on the occasion of a college graduation

This weekend I was out of town to attend a graduation. The night before the ceremony the family was gathered, visiting, and the graduate shared a recent event from her physics class. The professor described a scenario, asked the members of the class to make a prediction of the outcome, told them that they were all wrong, but was unable to explain why they were wrong.

Here is a scenario: a container of water has an ice cube floating in it, and a pebble sits on the ice cube. The ice cube melts. The pebble drops to the bottom of the container. Does the water level in the container rise, fall, or remain the same?

Along with most of the other family members, I predicted that the water level would rise. I had pictures of Archimedes running through the streets shouting “Eureka!” after realizing that the volume of a solid object could be measured by dropping it into a container of water and measuring the displacement of the water. Moreover, it seems that the water level should rise because of the melting of the ice. The graduate said all the members of the class had made the same prediction and it was wrong, but she still did not understand why.

One family member, an engineer, said that the professor was correct, and he explained why. The explanation puzzled most of the family members, although I caught on after a couple times through the scenario. The engineer wanted to produce a mathematical explanation with paper and pencil, but the rest of the family assured him that would not be necessary. We did try to experiment by creating the scenario with a measuring cup, an ice cube, and a pebble, but we could not find the right size ice cube or pebble to conduct the experiment.

The next day there was a party in the same house after the graduation ceremony. In addition to family members, several fellow graduates and other college students were present. To fill a lull in the conversation, I reintroduced the scenario from the physics class. One of the college students, a mathematician, insisted that the water level would rise. The engineer again countered that it would drop. This time the two of them did resort to pencil, paper, a laptop computer, and information from the internet, including the density of water and ice. The engineer was able to convince the mathematician that the water level would indeed drop.

It happens that the classic form of this scenario involves a boat and an anchor rather than an ice cube and a pebble. When the anchor is removed from the boat and dropped into the water, the water level drops, even though it seems that it should rise. The reason for the counterintuitive answer is that the boat with the anchor in it displaces some of the water in the pond. When the anchor is removed from the boat, the boat rises and the water level falls. When the anchor is dropped into the water, some water is displaced and the water level rises, but not to the height that it had been when the anchor was in the boat. The reason this happens is that the anchor sinks because it is denser than the water. (If the anchor floated and did not sink, it would not be an anchor, said the engineer.) Because of its density, the anchor displaces less water than its weight alone displaced when it was in the boat, being supported by the water.

By the same token, ice floats because it is less dense than water. As it floats, it displaces some of the water. When it melts, the volume of the water that was previously frozen is less than the volume of water displaced by the floating ice. Therefore, the pebble-ice cube combination displaced more water when the ice was frozen and floating, supporting the pebble, than the pebble displaced after the ice melted; even the melted ice did not add enough water to raise the water level to the height it had been when the ice was still frozen.

The rest of the weekend, including the graduation, was also nice. J.

Early medieval Christian writers

Pseudo-Dionysius; John Scotus Eriugena; John Climacus: the names may be unfamiliar, but the writings of these men have shaped the course of Christianity from the earlier Middle Ages to the present.

Western civilization in general and Protestant Christianity in particular perpetuate an image of Europe’s Dark Ages—the Roman Empire fell, and until the Renaissance a thousand years later, Europe stagnated in a miasma of superstition and barbarianism. This myth was encouraged by thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment (a label they chose for themselves); following the religious wars of the Reformation, Europe was allegedly ready to abandon the blind prejudices of religion and emerge into the light of science, reason, and humanistic philosophy. Because of this attitude, many of the treasures of the Middle Ages were buried in libraries and museums. Condemned with labels like “Gothic,” the advances of European civilization during these centuries were all set aside as a bypath to oblivion, barbarism from which the fragile flame of the Renaissance and the more robust furnace of the Enlightenment rescued western civilization.

Even the Great Books of the Western World series acknowledges only three writers from the Middle Ages—Chaucer, Aquinas, and Dante. All three are undeniably great, but they could anchor a new set of books that might be called Great Books of the Western Middle Ages. That set would also include Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and John Climacus.

Pseudo-Dionysius is an anonymous writer of the fifth or sixth century who represented himself as the man named Dionysius who heard Paul preach in Athens and became a Christian (Acts 17:34). His surviving writings include “The Divine Names,” “The Mystical Theology,” “The Celestial Hierarchy,” and “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.” As these titles suggest, the writer organizes the known universe into levels of power and authority, reaching from the lowest forms of created being to the one Uncreated Being, God Himself. Pseudo-Dionysius is known for organizing the angels of heaven into nine levels—three sets of three—and also for describing the levels of church leadership that existed in his time and place. More important, Pseudo-Dionysius recommended humility in the believer who would approach God. The Lord of the universe is far beyond human understanding, and we know him only through what He has told us about himself in the Bible.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Let us hold on to the scriptural rule ‘not in the plausible words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the power granted by the Holy Spirit’ (I Corinthians 2:4) to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from that the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor.”

John Scotus Eriugena was a theologian, philosopher, and scientist of the early ninth century who lived in the British Isles. He preserved and commented upon the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and also wrote a  profound commentary on the Gospel according to John. As a scientist, Eriugena continued the tradition of ancient Greek and Roman science, bridging the time between ancient civilization and the scientists of the High Middle Ages such as Roger Bacon and Nicholas of Cusa. The work of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and their heirs would have been impossible without the contributions of men like Eriugena and Roger Bacon. Yet medieval European science was always grounded in the truth of God’s Word, finding meaning and purpose for all creation in the messages from God which communicate the thoughts he wants known by human beings.

Commenting on the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, Eriugena wrote, “When humanity abandoned God, the light of divine knowledge receded from the world. Since then, the eternal light reveals itself in a two-fold manner through Scripture and through creation. Divine knowledge may be renewed in us no other way, but through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature. Learn, therefore, to understand these divine modes of expression and to conceive their meanings in your soul, for therein you will know the Word.”

John Climacus was a monk who lived in a monastery near Mount Sinai at the beginning of the seventh century. His last name refers to his most famous writing, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” which describes the Christian life in terms of gaining virtues and dispelling vices. One of the virtues recommended by Climacus is apathy or dispassion, detachment from the things of this world. This may reflect a Buddhist influence upon Christian monasticism in west Asia, unsurprising in the centuries before the rise of Islam in that part of the world. John’s description of the ladder, based loosely on Jacob’s dream, was a deep influence on the writings of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches, lasting until the present. John was himself deeply influenced by the Desert Fathers, the early monks of Egypt and the surrounding area, extending back in time to Saint Anthony. While John’s writings appear to tilt toward legalism, he was more interested in prescribing rules for life in a monastery than he was in speaking of the grace of God and the unearned redemption that belongs to all Christians.

John wrote, “We should love the Lord as we do our friends. Many a time I have seen people bring grief to God, without being bothered about it, and I have seen these very same people resort to every device, plan, pressure, pleas from themselves and their friends, and every gift, simply to restore an old relationship upset by some minor grievance…. In this world, when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse, through laziness or inertia, the call to heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods…. Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: ‘How can we who are married and living among public cares aspire to the monastic life?’ I answered: ‘Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.’”

Far from being mired in any dark ages, these writers show themselves to be as intelligent and as relevant as any of our contemporary Christian authors. J.