Saturday, September 22, 2007

On the Third Day, Part 2: Fencing a Fluid, Sowing a Seed

Have you heard the story of King Canute? About a thousand years ago he ruled Denmark, Scandinavia and England for about twenty years, and his reign sounds like it was relatively stable and just. He's famous for holding court on the beach one day, staring out at the waves and commanding them to retreat. They didn't retreat -- as powerful as he was, he couldn't mold the wind and waves with his word. That may have surprised his courtiers, but it didn't surprise him in the least. That's why he dragged all of them down to the beach, for that precise object lesson, that as powerful as King Canute was, and as large as his kingdom was, he couldn't turn back the waves from their borders, so don't expect too much from him. It wasn't an ego-centric display (if it was, all he had to do was make sure he held court when the tide was going out, right?). It was always intended to be a statement of his own limitations, and of what true power entailed.
The limits of the ocean were set earlier in this day, according to Genesis. This was a powerful act in the ancient world, where the sea was the embodiment of danger and capriciousness, something that could hide monsters, destroy ships, drown sailors. Appreciating the power it takes to corral the sea requires a full appreciation of the power of water. I think of it (naturally!) on the atomic scale. Water is unusually powerful because it's small but also very unbalanced: its two hydrogens are in a constant tug of water with its oxygen, and the result is a molecule that sticks together extraordinarily well despite its compact nature, so that it can sit in a glass as a liquid instead of spreading out like a gas. A single water molecule can be a chemically powerful tool with two "sharp ends" that can do chemistry; a mass of them forms the oceans, which we still haven't explored; the expansion and contraction of water can crack concrete or ruin a house; a frozen mass of water can gouge out valleys, leaving gigantic skid marks behind. Water can do a lot of things, and it doesn't care what you say to it. According to Day 3, it does care what God says to it.
So this is where life came about, first in this ocean and then on dry land. To do so it had to perform its own microscopic version of King Canute's proclamation: it needed to have boundaries set within this huge mass of water so that its chemical reactions wouldn't float away and disappear into the far reaches of the sea. This is the knife-edge that life has to walk: we need water for its chemical power, but its chemical power can break us down. Sam, about a month ago you insisted on getting some sugar in a cup, adding water, and watching it disappear. Congratulations on your first chemistry experiment, that sugar dissolves. And that's what water does to most everything, it disperses it and breaks it up. Now, there's certain advantages to the breaking up, because fluids have certain advantages. For example, it's very easy to send sugar from your stomach to your muscles through the blood. Also, once you have one little living chemical factory set up, you can make another one fairly easily. The trick is setting up the factory in the first place, like trying to pitch a tent in a driving thunderstorm.

What's also remarkable is that we keep finding evidence that as soon as the earth cooled enough, some kind of life popped into being. In the 1950s, we had rocks with 600 million-year-old life. In the 1970s, there was evidence for 2.5 billion-year-old life. Recently, there's been several lines of evidence for 3.85 billion-year-old life. To quote Bill Bryson, "Earth's surface didn't become SOLID until about 3.9 billion years ago. 'We can only infer from this rapidity that it is not "difficult" for life of bacterial grade to evolve on planets under appropriate conditions,' Stephen Jay Gould observed in the New York Times in 1996. Or, as he put it elsewhere, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that 'life, arising as soon as it could, was chemically destined to be.'" Let me put it another way: the seed of life came about on Day 3, just as the oceans reached their current size, just as the sea and dry land were formed.
Life was springing up like flowers in a field as soon as the earth cooled, and the key act was building the wall needed to enclose it. That wall is the cell membrane, which you've likely seen in biology class. Cell membranes are made up of oily molecules that look a little like soap and act a little like water: they are unbalanced too, but they are very long and skinny, and they line up automatically like slats in a fence, with an "outside" and an "inside," just like bubbles. Aidan's favorite thing right now is hunting down bubbles, so you boys already know how soap forms bubbles in air: this isn't too different from that, just in water. You enjoy bubbles because you can run around and smash them with the slightest touch. A finger might be able to do that, giving you a sense of power as a three-year-old ("Did I ever tell you that you are very strong?"), but atoms are so small that to them, the "cell bubble" is hard as iron. So oil makes a great fence, but also notice how it is still a fluid fence, how one oil puddle can merge with another. Bubbles can bump together and join, and they can split apart too. Everything's doused in water and can float around on the scale of the simplest life forms.

Some creation event happened, and just had to happen once, to make life in a soapy bubble. You need a way to burn energy and to maintain yourself, inside a fence, and you have life. Because cells are like bubbles, once one was established and chugging along, consuming energy and maintaining its insides, all it had to do was make two of everything it needed (like a tiny Noah's Ark? the metaphor breaks down!) and it could blow another bubble from inside it. Voila: you had a father cell and a son cell. I'm sure the son took after his father, or to put it another way, was of the same "kind" as his Dad, just like each of you looks like me (and even more so as you age, I'm afraid). Good thing you look like your mom, too.

Wait a second. Aren't you raising your hand yet? You should have the urge to stop me here, because I've just glossed over a major point. How did all these chemical reactions get put into a single bubble? To keep the chemistry going, some chemicals had to cross that iron fence of a membrane, so how did they do that? What kinds of reactions were these? All I can say is that I have the same questions you do. The initial formation of life is, like I said, a case of walking a knife-edge, and how all that complexity got into one place we honestly have no idea. Maybe this is a secret God's keeping to himself. Maybe he intervened with a miracle there, because life certainly qualifies as a miracle. On the other hand, maybe he caused life to spring out of the mix of elements naturally, so that life was set up at the beginning and didn't require any tweaking to result. If that latter case is true, then maybe he'll let us figure out how he did that trick. It's still amazing, to live in a universe that begets life so easily, in that case. I do know he set a lot of other stuff up beforehand, so I wouldn't be surprised if he set this up too. On the OTHER other hand, we don't have any evidence for other life yet. I'd say that's for him to know and us to find out.

Let me quote a physics friend of mine: "Either there's life somewhere else in the universe, or there's not. Either way, it blows your mind."

What I know is that we have evidence for very, very old life that must have been complex enough to eat, move, and reproduce, right away. That's the same image you get from the latter part (the afternoon?) of day 3:

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass / the herb that yields seed / and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind / whose seed is in itself on the earth” / and it was so / And the earth brought forth grass / the herb that yields seed according to its kind / and the tree that yields fruit / whose seed is in itself according to its kind / And God saw that it was good / So the evening and the morning were the third day.
We haven't got to grass, herbs and flowers yet, but this tiny bubble of life is definitely a seed. There are some differences in order between Genesis and the scientific consensus. Those don't bother me. The point I'm trying to make here is that you can use the days in Genesis, in order, to talk about the scientific side of creation, and it tells a true story. More about this in Day 4, because if you think you have issues now ... but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Let's talk about the seeds in this passage, seeds that lead to life and allow it to keep on keepin' on. For all the fluidity to life, there's also a remarkable stability. You can live on hamburgers or on lettuce, and your body pretty much stays the same (if you find a minimal amount of essential vitamins somehow!). You are recognizably "you," but you're also always growing and changing. So life is defined by fluidity on the one hand, and stability on the other. Something that mutates your DNA is a dangerous thing because you need your DNA to stay the same, to stay stable: it is the essential component in both telling your cells what to do and in passing on these instructions to your kids. So don't mess with it unless you have to!
The most important scientific observation of stability, which we get from this passage as "reproduction of kind after kind" was made by a monk, Gregor Mendel. He was a gardener, so he bred plants, and systematically noticed what happened when he bred different plants. Each of these produced "after their own kind": peas made peas, flowers made flowers, of course. What Mendel's eyes caught was that some traits got passed down in different amounts, some traits would always dominate over other traits, some traits couldn't be seen but then would show up in the offspring of two particular plants. In short, Mendel saw some of the details in how plants made other plants "after their own kind," and he worked out some rules that provide "stability" within the "fluidity" of these changing traits. He got some attention but had to wait for twentieth century for this work to find its true importance. What he was seeing was the interplay of two sources of DNA, and that DNA splicing and recombining in predictable and powerful ways. To talk about how exactly, you need a genetics class, but the point for now is the stability of predictable rules of heredity, along with the stability of the message that DNA: the pea plant's essence, down to the traits.
But obviously some things change with DNA and heredity. You boys may look like me but you are most assuredly not me. Sam looks like equal parts mom + dad, and Aidan looks like neither (although he has a striking resemblance to his mom's family). Some things change from generation to generation: You need to change, and you need to move. So DNA is very stable and can carry changes from generation to generation, but when you look at it close up, you see "islands" of stability and also a surprising amount of fluidity. For example, some DNA looks just like an old, broken-down virus. In fact, there is more DNA in your cells that looks like an old, broken-down virus than there is that looks like typical, useful genes. It looks like viruses have been integrating themselves into our genomes, like little meteorites hitting a planet and leaving tiny craters behind. You can find these yourself with a DNA sequencer. (I've got one in my lab, by the way, for trying stuff like this if we can work out the safety issues!) That's a change, and it's a pretty big one. More than just a letter or two here or there, it's whole paragraphs of change.
Looking at the tiny bacteria that are the simplest form of life, you see that DNA itself is a fluid molecule, in that it physically flows around inside the cell. It is a long string of information that floats around in the bacterium. If you collect the DNA in biochemistry lab and accidentally shake the tube too hard, you can shear the DNA into bits, so be careful. Bacteria actually send messages to one another using circular snippets of DNA, like little frisbees of genetic info they cut out and toss back and forth. This is how resistance spreads in hospitals if one doctor gets a little too loose with antibiotics: once one bacterium figures out how to survive, it "emails" all its friends with the "cheat code" and then you have antibiotic-resistant infections. Bacterial DNA is so fluid that essentially bacteria share one big gene pool. "It's rather as if a human could go to an insect to get the necessary genetic coding to sprout wings or to walk on ceilings." (Bill Bryson, p. 304) There are even some processes in our own immune cells that shuffle DNA around in big chunks, a bit like these bacterial frisbees. Not to mention, HIV works by shoehorning its own viral DNA into yours, and then using that cell to make more baby viruses. If that's not violation, I don't know what is. But the main point here is that DNA is fluid enough to allow all this chemical traffic.

So you've got the stability of heredity, but also the fluidity of traits that can change, or "hide out" for generations. You've got the stability of DNA that makes a son like his father, but also the fluidity of viruses that have sidled up to our genomes and slipped in a big chunk of DNA to hijack our cells, more times than you can imagine. Compare this to the first half of Day 3: the earth is stable, as stable as the ground we stand on, yet there is a fluidity underneath it all, a fluidity that tells of the creator's energy and dynamic nature, and one that shapes our world.

Even the earth is fluid. If that's so, then it's reasonable to see that life, and its chemical foundation DNA, is decidedly more fluid than the earth. Don't think of DNA as a rock, it's more like a river.

For a long time, the earth was dominated by bacteria. Most bacteria kept the same DNA and kept reproducing after their kind. Once in a while the fluidity in DNA would result in a bacterium that did things differently, maybe a little differently, maybe a lot. Eventually, some bacterium got a protein that would change when light shone on it, and this change could be put to use in making a molecule that couldn't be made otherwise. This allowed the bacterium to "eat" light and live off the sun (photosynthesis), and to spit out this unusual molecule. Because these bacteria could grab energy from the sun, they could live off of carbon dioxide and spit out carbohydrates and oxygen, even though they're spitting out something more reactive* than they're taking in. With photosynthesis, light energy could be stored as matter.

As the oxygen bubbled into the atmosphere, it didn't stay there for long. First it combined with excess iron to form orange rust, which sank to the bottom of the sea. You can find these deposits by digging down, as great brownish bands of iron oxide, which you can refine and put to use. These are evidence that the earth slowly rusted for millions of years.

After the iron deposits, we begin to find interesting fossils: large flowery mattress-type things called stromatolites, after the Greek word for "mattress." The bacteria started to make surfaces that would stick together. When sand got caught in the stickiness, it would harden into something a lot like concrete, and colonies of these bacteria would form the weird, artsy fossil structures we find today. These were thought to be lost forever till 1961, where people began to find living stromatolites in remote corners of Australia, then Mexico. They're easy to miss because they just look like rocks:

But these rocks spit out oxygen bubbles (it's alive!!). For a long time, perhaps 2 billion years, this process was the most important thing happening on this planet. Stromatolites releasing tiny bubbles of oxygen. (Maybe Don Ho was onto something.) Slowly, eventually, this tiny action completely changed our atmosphere and charged it with oxygen. Oxygen was a chemical gift just waiting to be opened, because independent life can be built around using that one molecule, including, obviously, ours. There was so much oxygen that more complex life could use it to grow, and didn't need to be fixed onto the sun like the photosynthetic organisms. So stromatolites ultimately made it possible for college professors to be able to survive holed up out of the sun in a dark office, typing about stromatolites. Hooray for stromatolites.
There's an interesting word chemists use when gas bubbles out of a liquid. I guess "bubbles" doesn't sound impressive enough, so we say the gas "evolves" out of the solution. If gas evolved from the stromatolites, then the atmosphere evolved, too, although I'd have to use "evolution" in the sense of "change" for that. Both of these uses are probably not what you first think when you hear the word "evolution," but they're both correct uses of the word. More on the rest of it later.

Since we're putting all these processes somewhere between the poles of "stability" and "fluidity," I think it's important to point out that science itself is inherently fluid, but also stable. Science, especially at first, is fickle and will change its mind back and forth. Plate techtonics was still mocked in textbooks in the 1950s. The exact date of the cooling of the earth is still up for grabs in terms of millions of years, but not in terms of billions of years. Don't let the incidental "fluidity" fool you, because these debates take place around established points that are very stable. Even though it's only a hundred-year-old theory, I don't expect the Big Bang to change anytime soon, in part thanks to the background radiation observation in Day 1. Remember, I think that's a good point for theists. I also don't expect to be find out that the earth is young, because there's just too many different experiments that make it look old, mentioned in Day 2. One experiment is a debating point; 100 experiments make a theory that can stand the test of time, if interpreted properly. And there's the really fun part, the offspeed pitches of science (in baseball language), the issue of interpreting results. Don't be afraid to debate anything, but do be aware if there's 100 experiments that point in a certain direction, you're going to have to have a similar amount of evidence pointing the other way to convince most scientists -- or something truly special about your explanation. It had better cure cancer or something!

The amazing thing to me is that this evidence I've been running on about for three days now, this evidence can be fit with Scripture. Some interpretations have to fall away as a result, but the essence remains and it assembles into a "true story." This is powerfully deep to me. Even when what you thought was stable falls away, God will remain your stability. His reality is stable even when the continents shift:

God is our refuge and strength / A very present help in trouble / Therefore we will not fear / even though the earth be removed / And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea

If you have faith as a mustard seed / you will say to this mountain / 'Move from here to there' / and it will move

The fact that God is the creator of all is what Genesis says. I'm trying to fill out the details with my crayons, although I must warn you that, like you, Sam, I've never been too good at coloring within the lines. But I'm telling you, if you want a stable, simple text that will stand the test of time, read Genesis, and know those words by heart, just be open (fluid!) in your interpretation of the words. If you want to delve into more than that, then keep reading my letters, and use them as your own starting point, as you wish. The real stability is found in the words of Genesis, not my words. The real rock is the truth that God made all this, and it was very good.

So continents crashed, mountains shifted, oceans formed, bubbles replicated, oxygen bubbled, and the atmosphere evolved. I'd call that a day, and God did too. It was evening, and it was morning. The third day was done.

* Technically, this should be "oxidative" rather than "reactive" to point out what kind of reaction we're talking about, but I believe that's a technical point. I thought about leaving it in just to see if I'd get any indignant chemists, but that would be tricksy of me. Besides, there's already enough indignant chemists in the world!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On the Third Day, Part 1: A Plate That Can Move Mountains

Then God said / “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place / and let the dry land appear” / and it was so / and God called the dry land Earth / and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas / and God saw that it was good.

One of the perks of scientific study is the chance to go to conventions in far-flung places. I just got back from one near Munich, and yes, Sam, as you kept reminding me before I left without you: "Daddy, I've never been to Germany." (Substitute: Austria, Switzerland, etc.) You've never been on a plane for 14 hours in one day and disembarked at 11am, either, Sam. You'll get your chance soon enough.

So your mom and I rented a car and drove south from Munich, toward the Alps, to the small town near a lake where the convention took place. The airport is on very flat land, and by the time we got south of the city, the land began rippling in green waves a little like a bedsheet, but in a easy farmland-pasture cowbell kind of way. But that was nothing compared to the green wall ahead of us; even the smaller, eastern half of the Alps looms over the mountainscape like a sudden escarpment. It's the reason the border between Germany and Austria is where it is: there's just this big, sudden wall that's hard to get over. Good fences make good neighbors, for countries too. Here's the best picture I could find, although even this doesn't do full justice to the sudden, looming nature of the Alps:

This border is geographical and political, and it's sudden. On the southern side of the Alps (all the way into Italy), it's not nearly so sudden. I like to have an idea for why the land looks like that. The best current idea is that we were looking at the back side of a "continent crash." To imagine what this might be like, take a look at Google Earth and click on a "hybrid" view that will superimpose roads and city names onto the satellite view of the mountains and lakes. On the highest zoom level, look at the Alps. and imagine that a very large hand is pressing Italy into the rest of Europe. Imagine that the Alps are the ripples from that continental attack. Click back and forth on the view, zoom in and out. With Google Earth, you can look at it from any angle you like. Also, look at India pressing up into Asia: the Himalayas are a larger version of the same phenomenon. I'm not sure if this is geologically sound, but I like to think that because Italy is pressing northward, the ripples on the north side of the Alps are more sudden, and it's more like a wall on that side, but for now that's just a hunch.

Now, I realize this may seem like a lot to swallow. After all, something moving too slowly to observe is something that must be taken on faith. This idea, that Italy and India are scooting around on the earth like cards on a playing table, is just about 100 years old to science, and it was understandably controversial at first. I'll save you the debates, and just show you the ideas that are the current, uncontested results: the Alps for one, the Himalayas for another, and for another provocative idea, look at the east side of South America and the west side of Africa. Not only do they look like puzzle pieces that have been torn apart, there are also mountain ranges/types of rock and even fossils that match on each side, separated now by an ocean but hinting that the two were once together. I know how much you like puzzles, and it's kind of satisfying to think of the Earth as a giant, moveable puzzle. I mention this now because the third day of creation describes the land separating oceans, the definition of borders, and land and sea becoming defined. These things are geology, and we see that geology has been very active and dynamic, much like God's hand is described on the third day.

I think that to accept such an outlandish idea as dancing continents, it helps to have a reasonable scientific mechanism, preferably chemical. It might be just because I'm a chemist, but there actually is a chemical -- well, at least atomic -- reason to adhere to this theory. The hand of God shuffling land is an interesting idea: what if he left fingerprints? He did, but in his typical, low-key, intricate and natural way, a way that we can retrace by being chemists and looking at the atoms.

It all has to do with why Lord Kelvin was wrong. If you recall from Day 2, Lord Kelvin was the venerable old scientist who calculated the age of the earth by assuming it had cooled down from a molten state and asking, how long would it take to cool off to the current temperature? His answer was it would take millions of years to cool off. Yet the Earth's age from the pitchblende experiments is in the range of BILLIONS of years old. How could Lord Kelvin be so wrong when his basic ideas were right? The problem is he didn't know his chemistry. (Take this as a lesson, young sons!)

To be specific, he didn't know his nuclear chemistry. In Day 2, the message that "atoms fall apart" is actually a statement of "nuclear" chemistry, because the part of the atom that falls apart is the hard core in the middle: the nucleus. Lord Kelvin didn't know about the nucleus because he was a 19th-century scientist and the nucleus wasn't known at all until the early 20th century. Once it was found, scientists studied how it falls apart, with the result being one of the most ambiguous yet defining discoveries of all time: the atomic bomb. Clearly when an atom falls apart, it releases energy. When lots are made to fall apart at once, you get an extraordinary, even demonic?, amount of energy. When you have a big ball of tons of atoms, which is what the earth is, there's a few falling apart deep inside, releasing little bits of energy. They act like tiny spaceheaters, because the energy warms its surroundings just a bit (much more gentle and spread out than a bomb). This means the decay of atoms deep within the earth keeps it warmer than it would be without that decay. This warmer earth means it took longer to cool down and is therefore older than the most prominent 19th-century chemist could calculate. It also means the earth, deep down, is still pretty warm. In fact, it's still liquid underneath its crusty shell.

Although we can't yet drill down and scoop this liquid up for examination, we can see it (from a healthy distance) when it shoots out of a volcano and we can observe its effects by just rubbing a magnet on a floating needle: the magnetic field that keeps a compass pointing north is caused by the liquid inside the earth. The crust is actually very thin compared to the rest of the earth, like the skin of an apple. If you think of it that way, it's possible to see how the continents are floating on a sea of magma and, very slowly, can move about. The chunks of dry land are wide and flat and eventually came to be called "plates." The movement of the plates is "plate techtonics."

And so, there's the theory that as the surface of the earth cooled, and as rains fell and seas formed on the lowest parts of that surface, that continents became defined and moved about on the million-year scale. One theory is that a huge land mass formed first and then broke apart along the line of the African-South American coast. I can read the third day of creation in the Bible and see that happening in my head, with God commanding it (perhaps from the very beginning of time) and the radioactive nature of atoms causing it. Or, if you prefer, of God causing the atomic cause. It's all chain-of-command detail once you identify the source.

The clincher for me is that we have GPS systems and laser measurements where we can actually measure movements as short as the wavelength of light, and using these fine tools we can actually observe Greenland moving west at about an inch a year, for example. We can work on the details of what moves where and when -- but it looks pretty clear that the continents are moving and have moved. (By the way, did you know that GPS does not work unless you account for "relativity" in the math? As strange as physicists may seem when they talk about relativity, you need to account for it to get the resolution that a GPS system provides, or GPS simply does not work.)

So the seas formed around the land, and continents separated waters from waters. "Seas" and "dry ground" were defined. Then something really remarkable began to happen, too small to see at first, but an event so amazing we're still having a hard time trying to see just how it happened. That event is the subject of Day 3, part 2, coming next. Let me give you a hint: it has something to do with chemistry.

To be continued ...

Friday, September 14, 2007

In Memoriam, Scott Becker

My friend died yesterday morning. He was my pastor at Bethany from about 10 years ago. He wasn't yet 50.

He taught me to read Stanley Hauerwas. He taught me Romans from N.T. Wright's perspective before I knew N.T. Wright from A.W. Tozer. He watched Laurie and me come together -- our evening fellowship group was a useful pretext. He knew how to teach with questions, not statements, something I'm still trying to figure out. He played "Rainbow Connection" in the church Talent Night with a spot-on Kermit voice. I thought the second verse about being half-asleep was his personal joke at first, but there it is in the original lyrics. He did have that kind of humor. He co-presided over our wedding. He taught me to make omelets. He gently pushed me into teaching Sunday School classes when I didn't feel quite ready (and I wasn't quite ready). It was those classes, not my graduate education or chemistry-teaching assignments, that actually taught me how to teach. That's what I do every day now. At his prompting I taught the Psalms, a post-September 11 course with Kevin Hilman, and a History of Church and State course. I would not have done them without his prompting, or even known how to teach without his example. I wouldn't even be able to read the books I'm reading now without what he gave me.

He had moved to California a few years ago to get his Ph.D. at Fuller Theological Seminary. About a year ago he was diagnosed with cancer. He had always been riddled with health problems, and this was the worst of all. Last Thanksgiving he and his wife were visiting and we were able to host an after-church party for him. Our old fellowship group came over and played Boggle and ate food. Halfway through the afternoon snow started to fall, without warning. It kept falling and started sticking. Then the power suddenly went out. We still said goodbye slowly, in the dark, and people filtered out in the quiet. (Although part of it was waiting for a nearby 4X4 to arrive to push some people's cars up the snowy hill by our house.) I was hoping that wasn't a sign, but I'm afraid it was.

Chemo wasn't working, so he chose to quit it a few weeks ago. His last blog post is open, hopeful, but not really optimistic. He could feel the tumors inside him. Still, my reaction is one of surprise. I wish we all had more warning, one more time together, one more hug. Now, part of me looks forward to the last trumpet that much more. One more thing is broken. One more silence calls out from the ground, waiting to be made right. One more wound, one less friend.

We miss you, Scott.