Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Invisible Power and the Role of the Artist

Fascinating interview with a filmmaker in Artspace that I found inspiring for my own writing. Here's the key quote, which focuses on invisible political power:

"The current system of power is fundamentally pretty invisible to us. It resides in finance, in all sorts of new kinds of management, and within computers and the media, which involves invisible algorithms that shape and manage what information we get. I think one of the most beautiful things artists and journalists can do at this moment in time is to be sympathetic and understanding to the people who voted for Brexit and Trump, and then bring to the fore the invisible power structures that those people feel completely distanced from so that they know where power is. And do it in such a way that isn’t obscure so people like me don’t have to read it three times just to understand it. Do it in a way that really grabs ordinary people’s imaginations."

This is what science writing does, in a way -- it brings to the fore the invisible power structures that shaped our world, although because those power structures are natural and bigger than humans, there's a lot different to the implications than the ones described in this quote or this interview.

As the subtitle to A World from Dust puts it, it tells "how the periodic table shaped life." The periodic table is an invisible power structure! And chemistry is the science of finding it out.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Book Review: Abaddon's Gate

Book #3 of the Expanse manages to elevate the story from a very high level to an all-time-great level. For a series so rich in plot and invention, I struggle with how to review it without spoiling it (even the first sentence of the summary of Book #4 spoiled the ultimate result of this book for me!). Suffice it to say that my minor complaints from the first two books are turned into strengths in this one: in this universe, faith is realistically important, complex enough to be both good and bad, and even crucial to what the book is saying (I actually teared up at the major character turning point of forgiveness and trust). My other minor complaint was the slow reveal of alien purposes and intelligence, but that is mostly because the characters move through so much plot (they really put you through the wringer) that the alien part of the plot seems slow by comparison. I have some hunches about how that will play out, but it's really being strung out masterfully. This whole series is a masterclass in story, and Abaddon's Gate both surprises you and ups the game at the same time while avoiding cliché yet keeping everything thoroughly grounded in the universe we know. This series is very much worth the time for the science-oriented sci-fi reader.

Book Review: The Slavery of Death by Richard Beck

This little book is poor in pages but rich in substance. Part of the reason my book-reviewing pace has been so slow over the past few months is that I read this slowly and deliberately. Beck combines the Eastern Orthodox theology of Christus Victor with the psychology of death neurosis and personal experience (both his own and that of Therese of Lisieux). The result is new and old things brought out from the starting point of the verse from Hebrews that Jesus released us from the slavery of the fear of death. The best book to pair with this volume of the Little Way is NT Wright's huge tome on The Resurrection of the Son of God. Even though on the surface they look very different, both are works through which the Spirit spoke into my life, and I can still hear the resonant echoes.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The $1 Microscope

The Prakash Lab is one of the real sources of creativity and ingenuity in the world today. They've debuted both the "Dancing Droplets" exercise and the Foldscope: a functional microscope made from paper for $1. I've been waiting for the Foldscope to be available publicly... and now it is! The Kickstarter just went live, and yes indeed, you can buy 20 microscopes for about $25. Can't wait to get these into students' hands in the lab! And I'll try to get them to Burundi too, for use in medical education there. Don't get me started on my ideas for outreach with this thing.

Book Review: Caliban's War

The Expanse continues to expand, although this time with a more focused story. Where Book 1 was a detective story, Book 2 is a search for a lost girl and a fight against super-soldiers (both in military and political arenas). I appreciate that the scientist character actually acts like a scientist, politically naïve but good for figuring new things out, and that the politician character solves problems like a politician should. There's even a minor chaplain character that makes more of a contribution than the religious characters in the previous book. My only complaint is that this plays like a "Monster of the Week" episode of the X-files, in that the underlying mythology of the alien technology is not much advanced, although there are some tantalizing hints. If you need a little realistic escapism each day, I highly recommend this series so far.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Book Review: How I Changed My Mind About Evolution

This won't be an ordinary book review, because I personally know or am acquainted with at least half of the people involved in this book and both of its editors, as a result of my involvement with this question for the past decade-plus, and of my participation in the BioLogos Voices team. So this was less "let's find out what other people think" than "let's find out WHY these particular people agree on this thing." As such, I can't really assess its persuasiveness, being already persuaded! However, I did pick up on some interesting parallels as I read through the books, taking each as a letter written in a human heart.

If I had to pick a favorite chapter, it's probably NT Wright's, even though it's the least personal of them all. Wright looks on this phenomenon from the outside and ties it to American history. As a country, we're trying to talk about race and the past, and I personally am finding more ways in which the past lives on today. It actually never occurred to me that both the Scopes Trial and the Creation Museum are in the South, and that evolution is connected to the great American sin, chattel slavery -- and also to the red-state--blue-state cynicism and mutual antagonism. Wright puts all that together in a mere page, much like he puts together ancient history with theology in his other work.

The other stories are much more personal, and each one is kept short enough that the ultimate cumulative effect is all the stronger for it. Most (but not all) start as Christians and then come to evolution. Most (but not all) focus on the personal rather than the data, leaving the actual arguments to other books. What I think would be interesting at this point would be another book about "How I Changed My Mind About Science," in which Christians talk about the positive influence faith has on their scientific work. But this book is a necessary first step to remove the barriers, before we can talk about the synergistic boost that both faith and science can experience when they are put together.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Letter to My Son About Creation

Dear Sam,

Today you are fourteen. I am so proud of how you’ve grown up from a little drooling turkey-sized thing to the young man you are today. I keep thinking about how we really only have four more years with you until you move out to college. I’m left with too many things to say in such a short time.

You inherited half of yourself from me. I see myself in your constant reading, in the way you are interested in so many things that it’s hard to pick a single thing, even in the way you file away the comics in your head. And it makes me remember what it felt like to be fourteen.

I had a lot of questions about how to put all that reading together, especially trying to reconcile the first few pages of my Bible with the first few pages of my science textbooks. After three decades of these thoughts, I’ve tried out just about every possibility to see how it works. When I was your age I read many people who insisted that the stories of the Bible and the stories of evolution don’t fit at all. These people said you have to trust one set of stories and throw away the others. Creationists said throw away the science, and Isaac Asimov (my favorite science writer) said throw away the Bible.

I remember a Saturday afternoon I spent sitting in church learning about how the six days that I read from the first chapter of Genesis were 24 hours long and each creation event was an abrupt creation from nothing. I started out believing them when they said that it gave God the glory to trust His Word over that of the scientists. But the more I learned and did experiments myself, the more I felt like there must be other ways to read all these books. So, I went through an “Intelligent Design” phase, and then a “God created everything else with evolution but Adam and Eve were separate” phase, and now?

I’d like to tell you where I am now in a story. I could tell you my biographical story, of how I changed my mind and why, but instead I’m reminded of the recent movie version of Noah. This movie took a lot of risks, and all of them didn’t work, but one of them worked very well. In the darkened ark, during the 40-day deluge, Noah sits down with his family and tells them the story of creation. In the movie, this is animated beautifully with images of nature, and I’m sure you remember how I’ve shown it to you on YouTube. (I even have a few issues with how the movie did this, but it’s better to tell your own story than correct someone else’s!)

Noah’s children walked out into a new world after 40 days. For you, it’ll be four short years. You need to know where you came from, and that God was here before you, me, anyone, or anything.

Here are a few words trying to capture a fraction of that story. Some of my words will be proved wrong, but the story remains true if it shows you who God is.


The story starts in the darkness. In the beginning, there was God. The Spirit of God fluttered over the empty chaos like a bird over the ocean. He spoke a word, and a pinpoint of something emerged, bright with light. Time and space flashed open, inflating like a balloon, obeying his command. Matter separated into pieces with positive charge and negative charge. These attracted each other like a swarm of magnets and joined into a multitude of indivisible bits that could snap together like so many LEGOs. God called these bits atoms. God set a limit for these atoms: they could not travel faster than light. God saw the atoms obey his limit, and he saw that it was good.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the first part of the story.

God said, let many lights form. God made gravity, and the atoms gathered together. In some places, billions upon billions of atoms pressed down with enormous pressure. God called these places stars, and saw that they were good. Inside the stars, some atoms were squeezed into newer, bigger atoms, and the extra energy leaked out as light. One by one, the stars caught fire, blooming like flowers. They grew, and aged, and burst like seeds, spreading the new atoms across the universe.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the second part of the story.

And God said, let a disc fly out from a new star and let it gather into new planets. After an intricate dance, eight planets obeyed his call. God saw that it was good, and he called that star the sun. Some say that the biggest planet moved in and out around the sun, clearing the space for the four planets inside. God set a limit: the planets settled into cycles, like dancers repeating the same steps again and again around the central star.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the third part of the story.

One of the planets was not like the others. It was wet and open to the sun, warm but not too hot. God called this planet earth. God gave it a single moon that lit up its night sky and pulled the oceans over the dry land. God said, let the water form a cycle of weather, and, look, the water went up into clouds and came down as the rain. The water mixed with the dry land and, like an artist, drew shapes on its surface. And God said, let a cycle of life spring up from these atoms. And the earth brought forth tiny creatures, and they ate food that God gave them from the hot insides of the planet in chemical cycles. God blessed them, and the creatures built shelters and grew and changed. They filled the earth, and God saw that it was good.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the fourth part of the story.

And God said, let the earth bring forth green things. And plants grew from the waters and the earth. These caught the light from the sun that God made, and turned it into sweet sugar and fresh oxygen. Oxygen’s power rusted and reacted with the planet and took away most of the food. There was a famine and life fell back. But, faithfully, the sun kept giving its light, and that light became more oxygen, and the oxygen became new life. Creatures learned to breathe the new air, and to use cycles of oxygen for energy and for building new things. These cells grew abundantly and joined together into animals big enough to see, but there was no one to see them yet.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the fifth part of the story.

And God said, let the earth bring forth different kinds of animals, and the earth brought forth amphibians that crawled from the water, reptiles that basked in the sun, great sea creatures that lurked in the oceans, and birds that flew through the air. Some kinds ate plants and evolved strength and defense. Other kinds ate animals and evolved quickness and intelligence. Together the animals grew into cycles of biology that turned together to make ecosystems, like dancers repeating the same steps. Great extinctions pulled back on life, yet great expansions of new life followed.

Then God said to the earth, let us make humans in our image, after our likeness, male and female. God spoke, and his breath went out, and new cycles formed in the brains of humble primates. Out of those brains emerged minds that could see, understand, and even control the plants, the cattle, and the birds. And these humans became living souls reflecting the Creator into the creation. And God blessed them, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. I have given you all this – take care of it.

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, yes, it was very good.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the sixth part of the story.

In the seventh part, God ended his work. The heavens and earth were complete. God set a limit: God blessed the seventh day of the week, and set it aside, so that we too can enter God’s rest.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass.

Then, something happened that was not good. The father and mother of us all were deceived because they did not believe that God was good. They followed evil whispers and stepped outside of God’s limits. We all followed in their footsteps, and death ruled in us. Brother killed brother in broken, decaying cycles of greed and fear, and we were lost.

Into this darkness, God again brought light. God called a man named Abraham to leave the limits of his father’s country. From this man God called the nation Israel. The name Israel means “struggle,” and they indeed struggled with God. They received stories and limits from God, but they forgot them and failed to trust God. So God gave them judges and kings, but they fell back. One day the light of God’s glory left them. They did not notice.

Then, as a humble carpenter, God’s glory returned. We did not notice. Life ruled through Jesus, a different kind of king. He was full of grace and truth -- yet he was cut off and killed by the people of Rome and Jerusalem together. It was another broken cycle of violence and fear.

But the broken cycle was fixed! On the third day, on the first Easter Sunday, God vindicated Jesus by giving him new life, through the same Spirit that formed the earth, recreating and raising him from the dead, with a new body that goes beyond our limits.

The Gospel of John hints that Easter Sunday was the eighth day of creation, recorded not in rocks or trees but in transformed minds, bodies, and words. Like the first seven days, it was a unique act of God that built on and emerged from the previous events in surprising and creative ways.

This Eighth Day is repeated when Jesus is born again in someone’s heart and mind. Together we look forward to that day when God will raise the bodies of all who believe as he did Jesus’ body, and will restore all of God’s creation, and will reveal God’s Kingdom here on earth.

If you look in the right places, with eyes of faith, you can already see God coming, as God is creating new life and filling the earth with good things through the community of believers. The best part is that you don’t have to just watch -- you can join in as God uses your life to bring more life to this beautiful, broken world. God made you with love, as he made this planet, to be part of the continuing, evolving act of new creation.


I hope this shows you how I have found peace in reading first the Bible and then the science books. God told us some of this story in each book, and part of life is putting it all together. Now, what questions do you have? This story isn’t complete without them.

Love, Dad