Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On the Fourth Day, Part 1: Brother Sun, Sister Moon

The hero (who looks a lot like a certain governor of California) is trapped in an elevator. Outside hovers a menacing helicopter full of bad guys, with a big Gatling gun on the left side and two small guns on the right side. Change to a close-up of the hero in the elevator. Switch back to the helicopter, still outside hovering ... but wait a second, the big Gatling gun is now on the right side? It's too fast, we're back in the elevator and the hero's planning his escape. Now cut back to the helicopter again, and ... the Gatling gun is back on the left. What's going on here?

The movie I'm remembering is the mid-90's The Last Action Hero. In the tradition of other movies such as The Purple Rose of Cairo, this is a movie about movies: characters step into and out of movies thanks to some "magic" device. To help promote the sense that you're "in a movie," the director deliberately introduced continuity errors like that flipping Gatling gun.

I mention this because sometimes errors have a purpose. (It's debatable whether they accomplished that purpose in The Last Action Hero, since it never caught on with audiences and is not one of the highlights of that actor-politician's career, who shall remain unnamed. However, I've talked with film students who waxed eloquent about the depth of the artistry and irony set up in that movie -- but I never detected it. That's why they're the art students.) It is certain that there was at least an intended deeper meaning to the apparent error.

So to the 21st century scientifically literate reader, Day 4 induces a similar sense of whiplash (and the end of Day 3 did as well). Let's read the passage and then discuss the alternatives.

Then God said, “Let there be lights / in the firmament of the heavens / to divide / the day from the night / and let them be for signs and seasons / and for days and years / and let them be for lights / in the firmament of the heavens / to give light on the earth" / and it was so / Then God made two great lights / the greater light to rule the day / and the lesser light to rule the night / He made the stars also / God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth / and to rule over the day and over the night / and to divide the light from the darkness / And God saw that it was good / So the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

So in Day 3 I mentioned that flowering plants are a "flash-forward" of sorts in the Genesis account. Day 4 might be a "flash-back" and/or something else is going on here.

1.) Literary rearrangement. This is one way to take the passage. The Bible says the sun was made after the earth in Day 4, and therefore the material must have been rearranged, because our best physics tells us the sun was made before the earth even cooled. This doesn't bother many theologians, who say it's not intended to be a sequence, but an example of Jehovah's dominion over other gods. Adding to this theory, Days 1-3 have significant parallels to Days 4-6, so it looks like material was rearranged to give it a three-day parallel structure.

Ok, so far, but I think this sells short the parallels between the Biblical account and the scientific account that we've seen to this point. The exact sequence is at least possible to align with the scientific account, as long as you start from the science and work from that to understand how the Bible fits into that. This is fair to do because God gave us reason and experimental ability to test and figure out the order of the world's creation, and gave us just a little detail in Genesis about the visual order of the process, with some rearrangement for literary purposes. Personally, I see more parallels than rearrangement, as should be clear from my discussion so far, and I'll bet there's a reason for every rearrangement. So to remain consistent with my interpretation for pretty much everything else in this series, I'll try to find some way the scientific account can fit with the main account. Maybe it's stretching a bit, but if the glove fits nine fingers and leaves a little wiggle room for the tenth, it's still a functional glove, especially compared to the alternatives.

So what could fit with this? What if, as I mentioned before, these are visions given to the author about the creation of the universe? If so, they would have to be visual, and they would be anthropocentric -- that is, they'd be from the perspective of man, the end point in creation. So they would be from the perspective of the surface of the newborn earth, which gives us a second theory:

2.) Atmospheric unveiling. Do you remember how the stromatolites were spitting out oxygen and changing the composition of the atmosphere in Day 3? At some point in this conversion, scientists think the atmosphere transformed from an opaque, cloudy mess to one that was finally transparent to sunlight. The earth's surface felt the kiss of direct sun for the first time. Someone "watching" from the primordial oceans would see the sun come out (no need to bet your bottom dollar), and the moon. This is about the right timing for this transition, and the Venus-like veil of clouds would be lifted to reveal the sun and moon.

If this were multiple choice, I'd like to take none of the above. I'm not certain in my advocacy of option #2. But I feel that option #1 is unnecessarily extreme in divorcing the Biblical account from the scientific. There's too many points that I can put together (primacy of light, separation of "waters" by gravity, etc.). If I'm uneasy about number 2, it's because I feel I have to stretch the text, which says "made" right there, into "appeared." A part of my dramatic nature does like the idea of the "ta-da" moment, and it fits with the idea of 7 days, 7 visions. I just don't want to rest my faith on the opacity of the atmosphere 2 billion years ago, so for the record, either option is fine with me, depending on future developments in the exciting field of ancient atmosphere opacity. I won't lose my faith if I'm wrong about this.
One more option remains, that I don't even list; that somehow the science is badly misguided and the sun really was made after flowering plants. Unfortunately, this involves ignoring the evidence I mentioned previously (and will mention in the future). This requires a God who hides truth so deeply that no one can know it without revelation (contrast this to Paul's description of natural theology in Romans 1). That simply will not do, because I worship a God of the truth, and although man is sinful, I can't invoke a worldwide conspiracy theory that would involve hundreds of faked papers a year from every continent on earth just to fit my specific interpretation of the first page of the Bible. So I try to bring the two together, and I keep my mind open to options #1 and 2.
I also note, speaking of metaphors, that the unveiling of the sun and moon fits with a biological insight that comes from what happened in the development of life at about this time -- something too small to see, but of great import and similar to the demarcation of the sun, moon, and stars. More on that later.
Now that I've established my agnosticism about when this day took place, I can ask, why was God doing that? What's the point? There's a deep parallel. Let's read the text without trying to prove it, and ask "why would God do this?" So scroll back and re-read it.

No, really, you go ahead. I'll wait here. I'm not going anywhere.

Ok, now that you read it again, the question is, what does it mean? God carves up light like he carved up planets with gravity. He reveals the source of light, the great glowing ball of gas that is his servant, and He also reveals the "perfect" sphere of rock that mirrors that light. Before this point, the earth was alone and shrouded. Afterwards, it had two lanterns in the sky for company, and all the starry host. This set up a relationship between the earth and the sun and moon, and two other relationships: the sun + the day, the moon + the night. Two other "powers" in the sky, countless smaller stars, with God above and beyond them all. The sun is below God but above us.
I was just walking through my darkened house last night and looked out through the window. The moon is nearly full now and the sky was clear (which doesn't happen often around here in Seattle). I gave a bit of a start when I looked out the window because it was so bright. By the moon's blue light, I could see the blades of grass, the (finally) trimmed bushes, the toys tumbled across the lawn ... and it was all thanks to the moon, a reflective dirt mirror, placed just far enough away that it looks the same size to us as the sun, much bigger but also much farther. The moon was ruling the night.
I think Francis of Assisi wrote about these relationships in his Canticle to Brother Sun:
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made /And first my lord Brother Sun, Who brings the day / and light you give to us through him / How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor! / Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars / In the heavens you have made them, bright / And precious and fair.
The sun and moon are part of our family, siblings under a powerful and loving Creator. The earth first "saw" them on Day 4.
Let me sum this up in my over-analytical way = God : sun :: sun : moon. God gives the sun light as the sun gives us light, and so God gives us light through brother Sun. Stop me before I start speculating on the fact that earth + sun + moon = 3, which happens to be one of God's favorite numbers ...
The sun is a sign of God's power and faithfulness. It puts out more energy than we could ever use, and much of it speeds away, untouched, into space. If we could just capture a fraction of merely what hits the earth we'd solve all sorts of energy problems. The sun is a prodigal brother, like God is a prodigal father.
In the Israel of the psalms, the nations around them worshiped the sun, but the Israelites worshiped the invisible God who made the sun. Consider how the gift of the sun was praised and connected to God's general faithfulness:
Psalm 89: I will sing of the mercies of the LORD forever / With my mouth will I make known Your faithfulness to all generations / For I have said, “Mercy shall be built up forever / Your faithfulness You shall establish in the very heavens / I have made a covenant with My chosen, I have sworn to My servant David / ‘Your seed I will establish forever / And build up your throne to all generations.’” / (Selah) / And the heavens will praise Your wonders, O LORD / Your faithfulness also in the assembly of the saints.
Psalm 85: Mercy and truth have met together / Righteousness and peace have kissed. / Truth shall spring out of the earth / And righteousness shall look down from heaven / Yes, the LORD will give what is good / And our land will yield its increase.
It all ties together, the earth, sun and moon, faithfulness and righteousness, the rains on the just and unjust. God flings his word out like seed, and he accomplishes his purpose, the creation and re-creation of people to know and love Him.
That's just on the surface. Pan down again: In the churning of the waves a bunch of little blobs of life were about to take another step and set up a new relationship that would change everything, and harness the power of the sun. Without this, the earth could not respond to its Brother Sun. It was too small to see, but it changed the history of life, and it, too, was all about setting up a relationship that wasn't there before. More about that ... in part 2.

Friday, October 19, 2007

James Watson Does It Again

James Watson was one of the people (I was about to say two people, but it was at least four and really more than that) who figured out the structure of DNA. He did this as a brash young scientist, and doing Nobel-Prize-winning work when you're barely out of high school transformed him into a brash old scientist. Personally, I think his colleague, Francis Crick, handled the transition with a bit more grace, but it is both a blessing and a curse to be a famous scientist. Watson always has seemed to enjoy it, and he's always been ready with a quick, sharp quote.

Recently, Watson's been in the news more for his talk than his walk. For instance, fellow scientists chose to sequence his entire genome to demonstrate new DNA sequencing technology. That's very cool, but he didn't do much beyond the donation process. Yet he got in the news for it. Watson's never shied away from the spotlight. But today's headlines tell a story of how he went too far, gave quotes that were too quick, and too sharp, and hurt a lot of people for no reason at all.

I won't repeat them here, but the executive summary is that Watson's 1.) worried that Africa will never catch up because blacks have less inherent intelligence; 2.) says that anyone who's ever worked with a black knows they're less intelligent on the whole; 3.) implies through all this that intelligence is genetically based and that the intelligent have more value than the unintelligent.

Where do you start to respond to that? Again, I will let the others more qualified than myself deal with the scientific refutation of these arguments, while commenting on the irony that in holding himself out to be an authority on intelligence, Watson has shown very little of that same quality in his comments. Just like with the baseball pitcher John Rocker a whle ago, a love for the spotlight kept Watson thinking that the more outrageous the comments, the wider the coverage. Like Rocker, he stepped way over the line and is feeling the repercussions (he has been suspended from his leadership role at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, for one).

What I think about when I hear such easily refutable and reductionistic comments is, where does this stuff come from? We seem to have created a class of scientific provocateurs who are happy to hurt entire classes of people for a quote. You start off making straw men of theists, you end up making straw men of African-Americans. I have always wondered about the neo-atheist writers, what they do with the Christian nature of African-American (and continental African) communities. Their arguments that Christians are dumb feed right into this racism, because many Christians are poor, and many Christians are black or Latino or "other." The general intellectual strategy that Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris/etc. follow is to make caricatures of Christians. This same "oh, look, how outrageous!" strategy led to Watson's comments.

Francis Collins, evangelical Christian scientist (look, I just typed those three words together!!), is a friend of Watson's and was quoted in the article I read, with him stating how Watson's comments were "hurtful" to a large group of people. At first I thought that was just too simple, but stepping back I think that's the best word to use to characterize Watson's speech and to point out a huge rhetorical flaw in the entire public face of science. It's hurtful.

Let's set some Robert Fulghrum-style ground rules here. It's not OK to hurt other people. It's not OK to suggest genetic superiority of the people who are like you. It worries me that these naturalists can't seem to stay away from an implicit social Darwinism. But then again, when you worship the intellect, you denigrate the other aspects of life, and you lose the complexity of what humans really are.

I don't know what really motivates Watson, what was a slip of the tongue and what was a deliberately outrageous comment. I do know that in the intense pressure cooker of academic science, reviewers are encouraged to be hurtful with reason, and that has a place. But it doesn't have a place outside the system of peer review, and it doesn't have a place when dealing with real people. I constantly worry about idolatry with scientists, idolatry of reason and the intellect. I don't know exactly how that applies here, but I take it as cautionary, because saying something that's not just wrong, but hurtful and wrong, is not the way to win any arguments.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Marmite Chemistry

You never know what new chemical experiment you'll find on the web. Here is Exhibit A:

What this shows is that if you hit a blob of Marmite for half an hour, it will turn white. Or whitish.

And you know what? Part of me wants to find out why (maybe a little gas chromatography/mass spec). On the other hand, I probably have to prioritize this project really low. Unless the Marmite-making company has money for this. Let me know if it does, and I'll be there with my Marmite and a ball-peen hammer.

As Neil Gaiman's blog points out (where I got this), what kind of person does it take to discover this effect in the first place??

If you don't know what Marmite is, apparently some benighted cultures consider it food. I have tasted it myself and don't think it's edible. But it apparently is good for batting practice. Learn something new every day.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Congratulations Parents With Flat Hats!

My friend and fellow blogger, Girl With Flat Hat, finally has her Baby With Flat Hat (aka Auletta, which I like because as a chemist it reminds me of gold = "Au"), and somehow got a picture that's cuter than any of our early baby pictures:


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

First-Century Purity and Twenty-First Century Health

I'm reading Rabbi Jesus by Bruce Chilton right now, which is a fascinating book because I don't think I've ever gotten quite so much out of a book that I've disagreed with so often. The book puts together what we know from history with what we read in the Gospels. Much of the historical and political reconstruction of the world around Jesus is fascinating, such as Caiaphas' complex relationship with Pilate and his innovation to sell sacrifices outside the south court of the Temple. I never thought about this before, but the Sanhedrin was kind of like the church council!

The biggest problem with the book is that Chilton reconstructs Jesus' ministry according to a very specific timeline based on very little evidence. I'd just like to know where he's basing some of his assumptions on in many cases, because often I'll find assertions that I just don't buy -- sometimes a small phrase can support a whole theory of his, while other times an entire section of the Gospel must be thrown out or severely modified to fit his theory.

Nonetheless, it's worth it to think about the politics behind Jesus' ministry, and what his group would have looked like to the powers that be. Chilton points out that Jesus associated with all sorts of people because he understood purity to be contagious: his purity would overcome their uncleanness. Chilton states, and I think rightly so, that Jesus was actually very concerned with purity and the Temple, but that he had some radical (yet Scripturally based) interpretations for it. Once again, that funny little book Zechariah shows up as central to his ministry.

So I started thinking, what would the church look like if we thought of purity the way Jesus thought of purity? How would things change? I fall into Pharasaical patterns of thinking myself. When the Tabitha homeless ministry started in the church basement, right next to the nursery, I actually caught myself worrying once about the possibility of disease getting to our vulnerable kids. Then I realized this was classic clean/unclean thinking in a modern guise, and that Jesus wouldn't worry about it at all.

Yet, in continuing to think about it, I started thinking about Paul's letters. I think Paul's attitude toward purity is one of the reasons people say "You can take the boy out of the Pharisees, but you can't take the Pharisee out of the boy" for Paul. It seems that this powerful purity, contagious holiness that Jesus lived out was not the same for Paul. Or was it?

Consider 1 Corinthians 7, where the wife can "sanctify" the unbelieving husband, and the children are precisely described as "clean." How baptism and purity go together in Paul's thinking. And yet, in 1 Corinthians 5, the man living with his mother-in-law (wink wink nudge nudge) is commanded to be put out of the church because a little leaven leaveneth the whole loaf. And yet again, in the early part of 2 Cornithians he pleads with the church to take back a repentant, exiled member -- is this the same man?

Jesus' phrase from John 8: "Go and sin no more" echoes here. He says something much the same to the "sinner" who washes his feet with her tears, something along the lines of "Proceed, for your faith has cleansed you."

We don't think as much in terms of cleanness and purity anymore, except when we're telling teenagers to control their sex drives. It's that and more, because it has to do with a whole-body healthiness. And since we're so obsessed with health as a nation, is this a way to talk about the Gospel?

Lots to think about, and few answers, but in the past I have found that apparent differences between Jesus and Paul start to fall away when they're put into context. I think I'll have a lot to think about as I finish this book.

If these thoughts jar any questions or answers or comments loose in your head, that's what comments are for!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Perfect Checkers

Science marches on. First the computers solved Connect Four, now they have solved checkers. Here is the full, and very readable, abstract from a paper titled "Checkers is Solved" from Science:

"The game of checkers has roughly 500 billion billion possible positions (5 × 10^20). The task of solving the game, determining the final result in a game with no mistakes made by either player, is daunting. Since 1989, almost continuously, dozens of computers have been working on solving
checkers, applying state-of-the-art artificial intelligence techniques to the proving process. This paper announces that checkers is now solved: Perfect play by both sides leads to a draw. This is the most challenging popular game to be solved to date, roughly one million times as complex as Connect Four. Artificial intelligence technology has been used to generate strong heuristic-based game-playing programs, such as Deep Blue for chess. Solving a game takes this to the next level by replacing the heuristics with perfection."

As someone who never was a big fan of checkers, I am most impressed by the sheer effort put into exploring the computational space for this game, and I am also impressed by the clarity of the writing for this paper. They even translate the scientific notion into more colloquial terms ("billion billion", sounding like Carl Sagan on "repeat"). Also note the way "perfect" is used. It carries the connotation of "complete," just like in the Sermon on the Mount ("be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect").

Of course, the ultimate question always is: I wonder where you get grant money for things like this? (The answer is to move to Canada: Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Alberta’s Informatics Circle of Research Excellence (iCORE), and the Canada Foundation for Innovation funded this study.)

And how long until we solve perfect chess?

Monday, October 1, 2007

One More Post About Scott

I was asked to speak at Scott's Seattle memorial service on Saturday. I'd like to post what I said here so that those of you far away who weren't able to come, but knew Scott, can read it.

It's funny how important that ceremony was, and just how appropriate. I was at the library book sale yesterday and I picked up a copy of "The Gospel According to the Simpsons" because it reminded me of him!

Here's the text of my speech:

I’d like to talk about Scott’s gift for equipping. Teaching is not a sufficient word: what Scott did was “equipping.” Our fellowship group, Poiema, would meet at a house shared by four women that Dwayne called the “she-Castle.” Scott offered to lead us in once-a-week Bible study in about 1997. The topic was Romans. I inwardly groaned because I thought of Romans as a dense book that I’d already been exposed to 15 times over. But Scott brought out the book as I had never known it before. Each week I left with a head swimming from new ideas that tied familiar phrases into a coherent story. I also finally understood that chapters 9-11 is not an aside, but a climax.

Some time later, Scott approached me and asked me to teach a Sunday morning Bible study on the Psalms. I told him a.) I didn’t know what I was doing and b.) I’m a chemist, not a theologian. I ended up teaching that class anyway. Scott took care of my objections (a and b) by just making me do it, persuasion so effective that to this day I don’t remember exactly how he did it. After that, he made sure neither objections a nor b could be raised again. Scott started a short “equipping class” where our group would get together for dinner and drinks, discussing theology from Stanley Hauerwas through Karl Barth (although I still don’t understand him). This wasn’t class, it was dinner. Although the reading was the most difficult I had ever encountered (and this includes the Journal of Biological Chemistry), the learning was effortless.

I spent 5 years in graduate school, 2 years as a post-doc, and 4 years ongoing as a biochemistry professor. Funny, that teaching thing Scott threw me into without my precise consent happens to be what I do for a living now. He equipped me for Sunday morning teaching that ultimately taught me more about being a professor than my academic study. Even the Journal of Biological Chemistry comes more easily now, because anything’s easy after Karl Barth.

Scott eventually continued his education and could have become a professor (I was already trying to recruit him for SPU). But he was already successfully “professing” here at Bethany. He equipped me to read history as a story, and there’s one such story I’d like to close with. Appropriately enough, it’s about the letter to the Romans. Romans was written when Paul was laying the groundwork for a mission to Spain. The letter to the Romans is such an amazing and complete capsule of Paul’s theology precisely because he was trying to prepare them to be a new “Antioch” for him, a home base for missions further west.

Paul dreamt of preaching in Spain. But as far as we can tell, he never got there. Imperial Rome, on the other hand, became Christian Rome. God thwarted Paul’s travel plans, but he used Paul’s letter to give new life to Rome in 60 A.D., new life to Wittenburg in 1517, and new life to the “She-Castle” in 1997. Likewise, Scott didn’t reach all his goals before the cancer came, but God used him for greater ends. The people Scott met along the way give testament to his faithfulness, and God will use Scott’s unfinished work to accomplish more than we can imagine.

Paul wrote these words to the Romans, and Scott echoed them: chapter 8 verses 18-23 “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.”

So Scott continues to teach, equip, and profess, a very hard lesson. We now have another reason to wait for restoration. We are equipped with the hope that someday Scott’s body and ours will be redeemed. Today he is free from the tumors that invaded his body; he rests from his labors; and he is with Jesus.