Friday, September 15, 2017

Book Review: But What If We're Wrong?

I'm generally in favor of pop philosophy, because ultimately philosophy is always worth talking about. In this book, essayist Chuck Klosterman tries his hand at actually following the cliché "question everything." If you can take it as the low-key conversation that it's meant to be, it's enjoyable. Klosterman is at his best when he talks about music and movies, which is his wheelhouse -- he used to write for Spin, after all. When he veers into science and history, his status as an outsider means that he's more interviewing others than thinking on his own. Not much original in those sections. The one thing I'd like to propose is that an area that's too overlooked now that may produce works of future importance is an area that Klosterman himself overlooks: theology. It basically gave us Sufjan Stevens and I know there's more artists like him who could be discovered. But my point is that this is an interesting question to ask from anyone's perspective, and if more people ask this same question the way that Klosterman does, or in more depth, I would welcome that.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Book Review: Babylon's Ashes (The Expanse Book #6)

(Spoiler-free review) In the six books of The Expanse so far, we've been through every subgenre of sci-fi that I can imagine. Babylon's Ashes mixes in extra doses of political intrigue and genuinely thrilling space battles. It's the details that really make it sing, and the humor. One political chapter is just a minor character going through a series of meetings, but it may be my favorite talky chapter since The Council of Elrond. Another involves a minor scientist character under interrogation whose courage provokes a surprise. The climax is so well-plotted that it takes a scenario that in the hands of another writer might be a letdown, and then turns it into a set of cliffhangers that kept me up hours past my bedtime. This book is mostly concerned with wrapping up the second trilogy of Expanse books, and doesn't have the major turnarounds of most other books, so it's average for the series, which means that somehow, after six books, this story is still excellent and far above comparable fast-reading realistic sci-fi.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Book Review: The Uncontrolling Love of God

I'm faced with a dilemma: how do I interact on a deep level with a book that challenges a central tenet of theology when I listened to the book as a free audiobook? One thing's for sure: I'm not going to be able to give a coherent contribution to this debate, so I'll settle for bullet points! Better yet, listen to Thomas Oord read his own book for free by downloading the book here, then join the conversation.

-- When I met Tom, I knew right away that he was a theologian to take seriously, because his very manner is not too serious. He exudes grace and life. This aspect of his personality shines through in his book. Tom argues that God's love comes before God's power in everything. Which includes his ability to control the natural world. God's nature of love makes it so that He cannot stop certain evils from happening. Tom makes it clear that God is still "all-mighty" and that miracles happen, but that God's love prevents him from coercing anything created because love comes first in the nature of God.

-- The word study I appreciated most was of the word "kenosis," which literally means "emptying," but Tom's preferred "pouring out" is better. This fits very well with Robert Spaemann's definition of life as being that "which exists in itself and pours itself out." Pouring is a dynamic process and there's lots to unpack for a chemist in that very definition.

-- Chapter 2 is an excellent summary of randomness and chaos. I think I may use it in class someday.

-- Tom's argument is fundamentally that God is near, being active in the very regularities of nature. That the regularity of nature is itself a manifestation of God's faithfulness. This is a fundamental tenet of theology that we have lost somewhere along the way, and this book helps us recover it.

-- I have several "what-about" questions: What about the Trinity (it's more implicit than explicit)? Why is explanation of evil so important when a large majority of evil is explainable, especially if we consider the risks we willingly take on when we move through this regular universe? (Tom refers to an example of a rock through a windshield, but I think this is a consequence of the technology that allows our soft bodies to move so quickly down the road. Expecting God to stop every fatal rock would be "putting God to the test" as much as Jesus flinging himself down from the Temple parapet.) He writes about Scripture and power later on but I think that should come earlier because it is so prevalent a theme that dealing with it feels tacked-on in so short a book. For example, when Jesus says "All authority is given to me in heaven and earth" what does that mean in terms of uncontrolling love? And most of all, what about the resurrection and eschatology?

-- Ultimately I agree that God is near and God is love. Tom's solution may be rooted too much in a modern view of the universe. Justifying evil events involves causation, and causation itself has become a slippery concept, and which makes blame and explanation slippery as well. Tom writes about chaos theory and the unpredictable results of small events, but then he comments that we may soon know more about chaos theory, when chaos theory says these things are by definition unknowable. This is where I wish I could engage exactly with this section, because to me chaos theory is like the uncertainty principle: it's not that we can eventually reduce the uncertainty but that the uncertainty is by definition irreducible. I don't think we'll ever know more about chaos theory in a way that would address that question (but I'm not sure from listening!).

-- What if this theology makes us more fearful? There is no fear in love. But uncontrolling love at first blush makes me more afraid. Is that my failing or that of the theology?

This is a thought-provoking book that is good for Christians to talk about, as long as we keep all our conversations grounded in the truth of both books (nature and scripture) and as always permeated with love. If we do that God will be there among the two or three gathered. In that spirit I look forward to the conversations that will result.

Movie Review: Song to Song

I almost didn't watch Song to Song last night. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is one of my top-10 films, but To the Wonder and Knight of Cups tested my patience too much between their moments of transcendence. The only thing I really remember from Knight of Cups is Natalie Portman's searing performance and that was about 10 minutes of the movie. I remember nothing from To the Wonder except a few images. (I enjoyed the IMAX Voyage of Time but in an entirely different way -- mostly because I could take my kids to a Terrence Malick film!). So, I had Song to Song from the library for two weeks and I almost didn't watch it.
I'm glad I did. Song to Song is not the masterpiece that The Tree of Life is, but it doesn't try to be. It has a strong enough plot and more importantly strong enough performances from all four leads to carry it through. There's enough similarities between the "post-Tree" films that To the Wonder and Knight of Cups seem like rough drafts, pointing toward Song to Song as the finished product.
The cameos from various musicians and the songs from all types of genres help color in the corners, too. The musicians are more real than the actors sometimes. The real center of the movie to me was Patti Smith, who tells her story of loss and sings a beautiful song about God.
Ultimately, this movie is a scattered journey through a moral universe. In fact, I feel like the morality is a little too open-and-shut, but I much prefer that to the wandering solipsism of Knight of Cups.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Dr. Lucy Van Pelt, Scientist (Part 3/3)


I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing Lucy count so many things and ask the question why they happen. She won the science fair by counting and writing down what she saw, after all. She’s good at it.

But sometimes Lucy goes too far and says things that sound pretty ridiculous! Here’s one example:


(It might help to know that today we call a “man-made moon” a “satellite”, so Lucy is talking about satellites. I was confused myself on this at first!)
Q: What’s wrong with what Lucy is thinking here?







A: Here’s my list:

1.) The satellite isn’t falling toward the Earth (it actually is falling, but the Earth is falling too – it’s a long story for another time!).

2.) It’s so small that it would burn up if it did start to fall toward the Earth.

3.) It’s so big that it would cause a problem for more than just one poor little dog if it did make it to the Earth!

You can tell Charlie Brown is thinking at least one of these things.

Here’s another one where Lucy makes a different kind of mistake. 


Q: What is Lucy’s mistake?






A: Lucy knows what a lava formation is and what one looks like, but again, she chooses a complex explanation when a simple one will do. If Lucy wanted to test her driveway, she’s find out soon that it’s only a little bit like an ancient lava flow.

At this point I wonder what tests Linus could do to show Lucy that their driveway is not an ancient lava flow. If you start thinking about these things, that’s thinking like a scientist. It’s all about arguing based on evidence of the things you can take apart.

(Or you could just decide to laugh at the comic strip and move on. That’s good too!)

Here’s a third kind of mistake that’s different from the last two. 


Q: What is Lucy doing wrong here?






A: The Earth does not revolve around Lucy! It’s not a good idea to put yourself at the center of anything. But sometimes it’s simpler to talk as if the sun rises rather than the earth spins. Or you can talk like Sally in this strip:


This next strip may be my favorite. Lucy is wrong, wrong, wrong, in every single panel. You’ll recognize these from the song “Little Known Facts” in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.


But here’s my main point: Even when Lucy is wrong, she’s always thinking like a scientist. That means she can be proved wrong and learn the right thing!

Since Lucy is a fussbudget, she’s making it up and enjoying the “authority” of science for a second. Once Linus is older, he starts to take things apart and put them together for himself, and he thinks more like a scientist too. Then he joins Charlie Brown in realizing when Lucy’s explanations don’t add up.

This works even when the cartoonist, Charles Schulz, thought the wrong thing. What do you think of these comic strips?




Schulz heard in school that no two snowflakes are alike. For many decades, that’s what scientists said and what students learned.

But recently a scientist at Cal Tech named Kenneth G. Libbrecht found a way to grow identical snowflakes in the lab. So much for that idea. Also, as that last strip shows, even if two snowflakes were alike, how would you know?

The story that “no two snowflakes are alike” is probably not true, but when Charles Schulz wrote his comic strips, it was something “everyone knew.” Charlie Brown says “it’s the truth” but, actually, Lucy’s right. It’s more of a legend.

So, you see that thinking like a scientist isn’t so simple, and you have to do it differently at different times. It’s not a simple game like checkers, it’s more of a complex game like chess.

Scientists say a lot of things. Once in a while, like Lucy, they go too far. But in those cases, you can be a scientist yourself by asking three right questions.


1.) Ask “What did they measure or count?”.

Sometimes, like Lucy counting twelve suns, a scientist can measure carefully, and then get the explanation wrong. But their measurements are usually right.

I trust a geologist who looks at rocks, counts the chemicals in them, and says they are billions of years old. (That’s chemistry and I can check some of it myself.) I trust a paleontologist who measures dinosaur bones and puts them in order. They can also pull DNA out of living animals and read information off of that.


2.) Ask “How many scientists are saying this?”.

If, like Linus and Lucy counting snowflakes, two scientists have found the same thing, you can trust it more. There are times when a lot of scientists are wrong, but the way they find out they’re wrong is by measuring or counting something new, not by arguing over the old measurements.

Thousands of geologists and biologists think that our planet is very old. I agree with them and with the thousands of scientists who think that every living thing is related through evolution. We can talk about all the reasons why when you’re older, but for now, this is what I think after decades of thinking about it. Evolution adds up and makes sense of how animals, plants, and even minerals work.

Through it all, I’ve kept an open mind to God’s sudden action in making life. That’s because I’ve seen His action in my own life – even on the day you were born.

I know God can work any way He wants. It looks like God made us in a way that we can understand, looking back. We can follow along through billions of years of evolution from the evidence, learn how He did it, and even control some parts of it. He gave all of that history and possibility to us.


3.) Ask “Is this a question science can ask?”.

This boils down to asking the question at the beginning of the first letter: “Is it something I can take apart and put together again?”. We can take apart a lot of things: computers, chemicals, bacteria, rocks, even things that were put together long ago, like old fossils or very old DNA. In this way we can take the past apart and put it together again.

But I cannot take you apart and put you together again. Only God can do that. When you were born, after five years of waiting for you, I couldn’t claim that I did very much at all in putting you together. God did that, and then He gave you to us. I thank Him every day for that.

The love God gave me for you on that day is like the love Linus showed to Lucy when she couldn’t count her blessings. Science cannot measure that love.

On your first day, God gave you breath and opened your eyes. He did that on this day, too. He gave you the gift of waking up this morning, of the food you ate today, of the videogames you played, and of the minutes you’re taking to read these words.

I know as a scientist that some of those gifts came through the oxygen in the air and the sugar in the food and the electrons in the electronics, because I can take apart the chemicals in them. Those gifts came through the atoms, but the gifts came from God.



There’s so much more to say, but this is enough for today. We can only think so many thoughts in one day, after all. (Which might be one of the reasons why the story of God creating the whole earth in Genesis 1 is so short!)

I wanted to take some of God’s gifts to me and use them to tell you about His gifts to you. It can get pretty mind-blowing, but at the end of the day, it’s pretty simple.

Every bit of life is a gift from the Maker of Life.

That means air, food, dinosaurs, DNA, the moon, the sun, others moons and suns around other planets … You can’t put your arms around God’s love. You can’t measure its size, because it’s too big. You can’t measure its speed, because it includes every second of every day.

You can trust in the world to act the same way when you take it apart. That too is a gift from God.

You don’t have to be afraid of what you’ll find when you ask questions about dinosaurs or DNA. Even when we refuse God’s gifts, He forgives us because He is love. So be bold and explore the park by the creek. (Just be safe when crossing the creek!) Take the things apart that you can take apart. Breathe in every bit of air God gives you. When His time for you is done, He will hold you in His arms even then.

Today He’s given me the chance to hold you in my arms. That is the best gift in the world and it is all that I need.

Love, Dad




Dr. Lucy Van Pelt, Scientist (Part 2/3)


Let’s talk more about why I think Lucy is the scientist in the Peanuts gang. In the last letter I showed you how Lucy won the science fair. Can you think of other comic strips where Lucy acts like a scientist?

Of course, since Lucy’s a bit of a fussbudget she can be kind of an annoying big-sister scientist. But I still think she’s a scientist at heart.


Here’s one that shows how much Lucy cares about watching the world around her very closely:


Q: What word did Linus use that probably made Lucy mad?






A: Linus calling the bugs “stupid” didn’t help that conversation start well. I think when Lucy looked at the bugs she was probably counting them.

I say this because there’s many other comic strips where Lucy carefully counts things in the world around her.

Or, at least she tries to. She counts the stars:


Then she counts the raindrops, although she may be a bit over her head with this project:


Then she counts the snowflakes:


Linus can count the snowflakes, too:


Q: Do you think that 13,000,004,003 is the right number of snowflakes?





A: If Lucy said it by herself, I wouldn’t believe her, but Linus got the same number. I wonder if it is the right number?

When two different scientists do the same experiment and get the same result, I’m much more confident that it’s the right result. If they’re both counting snowflakes and they get the same number, then they’re more certain that it is probably the right number. So it’s always important for scientists to talk to each other and see where they agree and disagree. And everyone knows Lucy’s not shy with her opinions.


Lucy’s always counting something. Like a scientist, Lucy counts how many times she’s “fallen in love” with Schroeder:


Lucy counts the electrical outlets in her house:


Here Lucy counts how many times she beats Charlie Brown at checkers:


But sometimes Lucy makes mistakes in her counting. Here she tries to improve her position to count the stars better:


Q: Can you think of a reason why the chair won’t help Lucy count more stars?





A: I’d say the distance to the stars is so big that the chair doesn’t make any difference.

Here’s another set of strips where Lucy gets an explanation wrong, but I think she’s still thinking like a scientist thinks.


Q: Can you tell what’s wrong with Lucy’s counting in this next series of strips?










A: I think Lucy’s problem is that she’s trusting too much in what her own eyes see! She won’t listen to Charlie Brown, who has a simpler explanation. It’s simpler to have one sun than to have twelve, with a new sun being made every day. After you count and make careful observations, you still have to listen to other people. Lucy still needs to learn to listen, in this area and in many other areas as well. So do I!

There’s one more way that Lucy thinks like a scientist and it gets her into trouble. It’s hard to count the things you can’t see. Think about what Lucy is trying to count in this comic strip:


Q: How does Linus help Lucy count her blessings in this? Does he help her count something she can see?




A: Lucy’s problem isn’t that she needs to count better. She needs to know that her little brother loves her (despite all the fights they have). Linus is right. That is the right thing to say.

When you say this to your brothers, it gives life to my heart too. Lucy needs to see and count her brother, and that’s what really counts here.

So Lucy is a scientist at heart because she likes to look closely at the world and count the things around her. This helped her win a science fair. Lucy is good at counting. She gets the right answer (or least an answer that agrees with Linus’s answer) when counting the snowflakes.

Sometimes she can have the right answer for one question and still get something wrong, like with the sun and Charlie Brown. But she’s wrong because of what happens after she counts. Her counting is still right.

In the last letter, I’ll tell you about some of the strips where Lucy plays the scientist. She usually gets one thing right and other things wrong. Those are some of my favorites, and I think you’ll laugh at them, too.


Dr. Lucy Van Pelt, Scientist (Part 1/3)

Note: This letter is for a first-grade student. Click here to read a similar letter that I wrote for my high-school son last October. (Since I have four sons I have two more chances to get this right!)


Dear Brendan,

I heard your favorite class in first grade is science. I’m so proud that you’re interested in the same type of class I teach. As you learn about scientists, I thought I’d let you learn something from me about what science means to me. If you want to really understand science, you have to know how to listen to scientists. It’s like if you really want to understand how God works, you have to listen to Him (in the many different ways that He speaks!).

So to understand science, first you have to understand the words scientists use. You’re learning the words scientists use in science class. Sometimes the words are long but that can be part of the fun. Then the real fun begins, when you use those words to look at the world around you.

A scientist can take the world apart and put it back together again, like a LEGO set. It’s great fun, but there are some things that you can’t take apart like that. (For example, you can’t take God apart, right?) It’s hard to tell “what you can take apart” from “what you can’t take apart.” I’m not always sure which things are which myself. But this is also part of the fun of science -- you’re never quite sure.

To really understand science, you have to understand scientists. I’ve watched you read through our Fantagraphics Peanuts comic books. I think one of those Peanuts characters is surprisingly close to being a scientist, or at least thinking like a scientist: crabby big sister Lucy, of all people, thinks like a scientist!

It’s OK if you don’t think of Lucy as a scientist. I only just realized it myself. Let me show you why I think this:

For one thing, Lucy plays at being a psychiatrist with her “Psychiatric Help” stand. But she actually does science at one point. Did you know that Lucy is the only Peanuts character to win a science fair?

It’s true! First, she looked at the world around her and decided which part of it to study (click on it to read the whole thing):


Of course, I think you should ask him (and us) before you run any experiments on your little brother. Linus isn’t exactly happy to be Lucy’s science project, but Lucy takes charge:


Then, Lucy starts her experiment and takes careful notes, like a good scientist:


Then Lucy reverses what she did and sees something change. She writes this down, too:


Did you notice how much Lucy is enjoying what she’s doing? Yes, she enjoys annoying her little brother, but, other than that, it seems like she really likes science. Once Lucy finishes her experiment, she makes a poster and presents her project:


Q: What do you see on her project that the other ones don’t have? (Other than a sighing little brother.)





 A: I see more words and squiggly-lined graphs than on the other projects. It looks like good science to me. Notice the ribbon. Lucy won first place!

 On the other hand, Peppermint Patty is not quite the scientist that Lucy is:

Q: Which do you think is the better project? Why?






A: I think Lucy ran a good science project. Peppermint Patty’s wasn’t as good.

But you can make it better!


Q: Maybe you can come up with a better project to run with toast? How could you do that?





I think you could come up with a pretty good project if you did it like Lucy:

-- changing things one by one,

-- watching closely,

-- writing down what you do, and

-- measuring it.

It doesn’t matter so much what part of the world you’re looking at. You could experiment on a piece of toast, or on your little brother, or anything inbetween. (Just be sure to be nice to him, and pay him with candy or something, please?)

What matters in science is that you do your experiment back and forth, many times, and measure what happens carefully. In this story, that’s exactly what Lucy did.

Even without this story, you could tell that Lucy’s a scientist at heart from other comics. Did you know that there are many other comic strips where Lucy acts like a scientist? I’ll tell you about those in the next letter.