Friday, December 26, 2014

Book Review: Letters from Father Christmas by JRR Tolkien

This book isn't quite a book. It was never meant to be. It is just the letters Tolkien wrote to his kids as Father Christmas over a span of a couple of decades. They are sweet and funny, although my little ones didn't keep interest. (Kids these days.) They do combine history and literature to keep the interest of my older ones, one of whom pointed out a connection to Lewis and Narnia that I totally missed. For me as the reading father, it's fascinating how Tolkien's academic work was integrated into the letters -- for example, he has different characters annotate the letters like they are one of his Beowulf manuscripts, but for comic effect, resulting in the best jokes. So, not the best read-aloud book, but an intriguing window that humanizes the sometimes-prickly, sometimes-idolized Tolkien, a sweet Christmas delicacy and a good reminder of tempus fugit for this professor and father of four.

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

I really wish I had read this book a month ago. If so, many of my techie friends would be getting it for Christmas. The best blurb description is "Apollo 13 times ten." In Apollo 13, astronauts had to improvise a way back to earth from orbit. Here, one astronaut is left behind on Mars and has to survive a much longer time in much more dire straits. The cleverness and detail is amazing, the pace is lightning-fast (with a few exceptions that seem to disappear as the book moves on), and there's even a narrative shape with a high-stakes, explosive ending that had me talking to myself as I read it.

The only shortcoming is that I don't think the psychological stress of the situation is carried out fully, and so many difficulties are overcome it starts to numb the reader (and the constant wisecracks by the stranded astronaut start to wear just a little thin). You recapitulate the psychological stress in yourself, I suppose. But you don't ride a rollercoaster for psychology. This book is a better roller-coaster than Michael Crichton, without Crichton's quasi-pseudo-science. Anyone with an interest in engineering, space, how things work, chemistry, science, etc. would be advised to set aside some free time because you'll be compelled to finish.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Book Review: The Stand by Stephen King

This book needs no introduction. It is one of the touchstones for the entire post-apocalyptic strain of movies and literature. As such, I delayed reading it because I assumed I'd already seen it all. Actually, there were a lot of new things in it, probably because King did them so well in this one that the genre moved away from it as a result. The book itself is divided into three "books," which I think of as 1.) Decline and survival; 2.) Community; 3.) Confrontation. From my post-"post-apocalyptic" reader's perspective, it gets better as it goes along. The version I listened to was the expanded version put out in the 80's, and I think I'd recommend reading the original version, because I didn't feel the need for the additional character moments.

The real value of The Stand comes from its spiritual side. Especially in Book 3, the characters encounter some genuine spiritual formation. Even though I disagree with some of King's theology (especially his theodicy), the mere fact that he has a theology and thinks it's important enough to drive his book is a source of astonishment to me.

I also want to remind anyone complaining about the way LOST ended to compare their complaints about that series to the near-universal praise for The Stand. Both sagas are telling stories with a similar shape, and when I put the two series side by side, I actually prefer LOST's plot choices (in every area but the "spiritual formation" one that surprised me most in book 3). I think you can argue that LOST was clumsier in how they presented the mythic elements, sure, and introduced them too late to the story for most viewers' credibility meters -- but both stories start with science and end with spirit. I just think the conventional wisdom that LOST somehow failed is showed wrong by comparing it to The Stand. They are similarly successful in terms of story, which is the most important category to me.

In the end there's too much extra stuff and too little of the theological "meat" that really makes the story worth it for me to rank The Stand in the upper echelon of King's work (which would be 11-22-63, Joyland, and The Green Mile). But it's awfully close to that pedestal, and if I had read the edited version it may have made it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book Review: Models of Atonement by George L. Murphy

In my years of attending and listening to American Scientific Affiliation conferences, I've found that George Murphy gives reliably repeatable and ponderable talks. He is a Lutheran pastor with a Ph.D. in physics, and is one of the clearest voices on the (positive) implications of evolution for faith.

This most recent book of his is a high-water mark. With the precision and concision of a physics textbook, Murphy surveys the different ways theologians have thought about Jesus' reconciling work and lays out how he thinks these can brought together with the scientific discoveries since Darwin. This isn't trying to mix oil and water together -- this is a genuine reconciliation on the level of science and religion. I found many resonances with NT Wright's recent huge book on Romans.

The book is so short that I'm left wanting more. For example, Murphy argues for a faith-first view of atonement rather than other views in which love is primary. But what about "the greatest of these is love"? This book opens up a fascinating and helpful avenue for thinking about the sacraments, and makes a strong case that the future is more important than the past when it comes to theology.

I feel like these ideas are the "equations" suggesting application through sanctifying "homework problems." I hope theologians find this book and read it because it opens up so many theological scholarly projects that I can't even keep track of them in my head. A wonderful (if short) book.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Book Review: Darwin's Pious Idea by Conor Cunningham

This book breaks down apparent divides: between organism and environment, between mind and matter, and (most obviously from the title) between Darwin and God. It's even published by a prominent evangelical publisher, although from the title itself you can see that it's intended to challenge evangelicals, so there's an attempt to break down a wall there as well.

The best two chapters are easily those on the concept of progress in evolution and how early church fathers like Irenaeus would have had no problem with evolution. For some reason that latter chapter is placed last, which makes for a nice climax but you have to wade through too much to get to it. Other long chapters include attacks on evolutionary psychology and eugenics, which seem out of place -- I can't imagine anyone is actually defending those and knocking them down doesn't do much to show that evolution is somehow "pious." I would prefer that those chapters be shunted to another book and this one focus on the positive parts of bringing evolution and faith together.

Cunningham gets big points in my book for referencing both Conway Morris and RJP Williams (if he had referenced Eric Chaisson, that'd be the trifecta). He touches on tricky topics like panpsychism and veers close to hand-waving, but sitting back now I think he struck a helpful tone overall. Still, the topic seems a little half-baked, although I can't help but think of Owen Barfield when I read it. I myself am lurching back and forth and don't want to go there now.

So this is a long, sprawling book with a very good aim, but with me, Cunningham's preaching to the choir. I'd like to know if this book could convince a hostile audience, whether one of the ultra-Darwinists or the creationists of the subtitle. I found lots of good ideas that go along with my in-progress manuscript ... and maybe my next one as well.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chemistry: The Motion Picture (Animated Version)

Todd Martinez and colleagues at Stanford have become directors on the smallest movie set of all time. The paper they published describes how they animate chemical reactions using computer models. The unique angle they take is to watch a simple chemical reaction zoomed in to a medium point. At this point they are focused neither on just one molecule nor on an incomprehensible flaskful of molecules. At this Goldlocks level of complexity, they can see atoms reacting and can catch fleeting side reactions that wouldn't be seen by other techniques -- yet are certainly important. Most of all, the motion of the atoms is as mesmerizing as a lava lamp. I spent decades learning how molecules move so I can have movies like this in my head when I read about a chemical reaction. You can skip to the back of the book and see what's in my head by watching the movie at this link. Try it and let me know what you see.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book Review: All You Need is Kill

This is the book that led to the movie Edge of Tomorrow (which is now retitled Live Die Repeat or Eat Pray Repeat or something). I haven't seen the movie, and I've heard that the ending is significantly different, which makes sense, because the book's ending is not terribly Hollywood, while it makes perfect sense in the universe of the book. Reading this book is like watching a foreign movie -- the translation and character moments are all just this side of awkward, but that's part of its charm as well. I don't find the combat or combat prep descriptions to be completely convincing, but it moves so quickly and takes so many twists and turns that it's best to just put your head down and go where it takes you. The good ideas outnumber the bad or unconvincing ones, and it's got a vivid comic-book sensibility that worked for me. If the movie lives up to the book, it'll be a good one, and there's room to improve on the book while retaining the twisty plot that makes the book good.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

An excellent dark fairy tale by Neil Gaiman, illustrated, about two men on a journey to find some cursed gold. The story feels old in the best way. It is about greed, sin, prophecy, family, journey, and justice. For adults, not kids, in the same way that Ocean at the End of the Lane was. There are even elements of Tolkien glimmering in the mist, elements that run deeper and more true than many novels a hundred times longer. It only takes an hour to read, but I wanted to read it again immediately.

Book Review: Powers of Two by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Powers of Two has a fascinating premise and a wide, interdisciplinary reach -- but in the end, I'm not convinced that it's any more than a museum collection of good examples.

The fascinating premise is that the primary unit of human creativity is not the Great Man or the Great Society, but what I'll call the "Great Dyad" of a pair of people relating. One of the great joys of the book is seeing the huge range of examples that Shenk gives to support his hypothesis. The obvious ones include the ones double-billed from the beginning: Lennon and McCartney, Stone and Parker (South Park), Tolkien and Lewis, the Wright brothers, and the Coen brothers. Shenk extends his examples to not-so-obvious pairs: Van Gogh, Wordsworth, and even Tiger Woods had hidden partners that he argues makes them the more obvious members of what is really a creative pair.

As an example of how things can work and how things did work, especially with the Beatles, this book is worth a read (it may contain the best account that I have read of why they broke up ). I'm not so convinced that it's how things MUST work. Shenk dilutes his hypothesis by mentioning how talking with yourself constitutes a dyad, and that each dyad is surrounded by a network of dyads at higher levels, where, for example, Stone and Parker act as one half of a pair with their lawyer, etc. All true, but not easily summable as a book title.

I think that this points to a deeper truth, that reality is relational, and Martin Buber's I and Thou came to mind. But Buber was only referenced briefly in the final section and very few of the vast resources that theology provides for this kind of deep thinking make an appearance in this book. The concept of the Trinity is unmentioned. In the end, it's too practical and too specific, where theology would make it more practical.

I don't want to nitpick on whether the dyad is the basic unit of creativity, which seems a moot point. Rather, I want to know if reality is ultimately relational and subjective rather than rational and objective. But this gets into the area of philosophy and theology, and a how-things-work book like this is not interested in getting into the deep end of things. It may be a failure of the genre.

So I find this stimulating enough, but more like a sugar rush from chewing gum than like a deeply satisfying intellectual meal. Still, it's clever enough, expansive enough, and in the end, it's onto something. This would form a good basis for further discussion. Wonder if my book group would be interested?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Well, that turned out much better than the last book I read on the strength of a superlative-laced Stephen King review (The Accursed). The Goldfinch deserves most of the praise heaped onto it from many quarters. The themes it weaves together -- art, guilt, work, lies, growing up unrooted, family, modern life, and above all prose so lush it counts as a theme in itself -- are driven forward by a narrative almost so strong it belongs in the thriller section. I say almost because the second quarter of the book wallows in teenage aimlessness so much that the reader is likewise confounded. But in the end, some of the aimlessness turns out to be very important, and the book wraps up with an incandescent philosophical meditation on Platonism, meaning, and, of course, art. It's easier to read than I thought it would be, and it's more meaningful than I thought it would be, yet it really could have used a stronger editorial hand. Almost every scene could have been cut by 25%, which would have made this book a much more normal length. I'm hovering between three and four stars and will probably opt for three (because of the lack of editorial focus) but it's a tough decision.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a modern journalist walks into a Creationist seminar in Australia, notebook in hand, ready to observe and ridicule. Nothing he sees there convinces him. But something stops the joke before the punchline. He can't follow the script because his own eyes tell him that there is a log in his own eye. It's not that the creationists are right. It's that they aren't stupid and that they are sincere. They are wrong, but the journalist isn't equipped to really engage with how they are wrong. He recognizes that his take on what is true, despite its rootedness in science, is nearly as tribal as the creationists he is trying to mock.

This bothers the journalist (Storr) so much that he visits a dozen or more of different categories of intellectual warriors, including the usual targets (homeopathy, ESP, alien abductions, repressed memories) but turning the same methods and spotlight on his own beliefs and those of the militant materialists (a skeptics convention and James Randi himself). This is not so much about these sundry paranormal beliefs as it is about the nature of knowledge, of certainty, and of doubt itself.

Storr's cosmic scope, his true fairmindedness, and his dogged insistance on interviewing the personalities behind bizarre ideas is what sets this book apart. It's also what sets it back in a few places. He's a bit shaky on the science (brain science especially) but I don't think it's on the substance of matters, and mostly, I'm impressed by how he is clearly willing to step out and learn. He also doesn't really acknowledge the silent majority, both today and yesterday, who have struggled with these same questions and come away with a much more nuanced view than the militants on either side. He briefly alludes to Plato and Aristotle but I think some more reading in the classics and philosophy could be fascinating as he continues on his journey. In particular, many of his questions are theological, but due to his history as described in this book, he doesn't really know how to break into that literature. I think he'd love Owen Barfield for example.

For all its breadth, this book is just a beginning. But as an honest and searching beginning, I recommend it as an example of what it's like to try all these diverse paths. In the end, I think orthodoxy has some surprisingly satisfying answers to Storr's questions -- and I'm also confident that if he continues to ask them the truth will out. May he keep at it.

Book Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

About halfway through this book, I realized it wasn't the best for reading aloud to my preteens. Not because it was inappropriate -- even mild profanity is only alluded to and the jokes are solidly PG. Not because it wasn't funny -- they'd laugh out loud every few pages. But simply because of the general sense of cynicism and the constant memento mori. It's the gallows humor that ultimately did me in for this as a read-aloud book. Maybe that translates better through the eye than the ear. Regardless, my kids and I will each finish this on our own. I did so quickly and it was fun, but there's also a reason I don't remember the plot years after initially reading it. The best part is the incidental humor, the word play that Adams puts in and the sudden surprise humor. This really is a funny book, but I'm also glad this saga is divided into 5 parts because I'm ready to read something completely different right now. Man does not live on satire alone.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review: Unruly Places by Alastair Bonnett

Unruly Places is geography popcorn. It's about all those "in-between" places in the world: enclaves, secret cities, floating towns, WWII military platforms off the coast of England turned into sovereign countries, you know, that sort of thing. Each entry is just a few pages long, so that it reads more like a collection of blog posts than a book, but Bonnett makes it work by asking big questions and thinking about what all this means at the end of each section.

Since he's a professor of social geography, this must be what the field is about, and this book packages the insights of the field very well. I would have liked a few more illustrations (although my iPod helped search for pics of the abandoned metropolises) and the connective tissue between sections isn't enough to make it an actual narrative. It's not more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are very interesting parts and it's a lightning-fast read.

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Site with Beautiful Chemistry

How is chemistry like a snowfall?

To find out, see the "precipitation" videos at this wonderful website:

Other great videos include the Chemical Garden and Hydrogen Bonds in Water (which I used in class today).

Here's a video that combines science and art:

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Book Review: The First Brain by One Pagan

There's a novel technology on the street that allows you to teleport yourself into someone else's classroom. It allowed me to sit in on J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf class and now it has allowed me to sit in on One Pagan's class on the flatworms called planarians. Of course, it's a book (it is new on a geological timescale, having only been around for 2,000 years!).

In this book, Professor Pagan is an engaged and excited teacher about these fascinating little worms. Pagan writes in a conversational style, and scattered throughout the book are clever teaching moments that I am going to borrow in class, such as how evolution is more a capital-T Theory than a theory, how Bugs Bunny cartoons introduce everyone to the rhythm of Latinized species names, and how there is a Planarian Man comic book.

Pagan writes with prose as clear as glass, and is able to bring even centuries-old insights on flatworms into the light. I especially like his bulleted lists that show me immediately where there were aspects of nerve function that I, in my biochemistry context, haven't encountered. I'm left with a few questions, like what is the difference between plant growth and flatworm regeneration (if there is one), but since I'm connected to Pagan online, I'm going to virtually "raise my hand" and ask the professor that question!

I would like to see so many more books like this, from scholar-teachers in science. Many of us who teach at liberal-arts colleges are too strapped with obligations to write a book like this, but it would be great to have a library of books written by these teachers, and Pagan's would be an excellent acquisition for the biology shelf. Could this book start a movement?

There is an issue with the genre that I'm not sure how to address. To write for a general audience you have to build up their scientific knowledge. You can't assume they know DNA from RNA or proteins from protons. But the consequences of this requirement is that the first half of any book like this is essentially review for a scientist, even in an unrelated field. I would like to have the second half expanded and updated. Maybe another edition? In general, it would be nice to have some "pre-req" books so that books like this could jump to the meaty stuff, like what exactly the First Brain is, before page158 out of 200. Or maybe there's a creative online solution to this dilemma. I know I've faced it myself in my own writing.

I encourage you to attend Professor Pagan's class. The cost of this book is a lot cheaper than tuition, and the learning-to-dollar ratio is particularly favorable.

(By the way, check out Pagan's blog at, too.)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book Review: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

A health professional wanders the landscape of modern life and ancient religion, unable to fit in yet unable to be at peace with not fitting in. It sounds like Walker Percy but it's Joshua Ferris. This book combines multiple fascinating elements: a clever plot-driver involving identity theft (both today and yesterday), an ancient religion founded on doubt and contrasted with Judaism, a science-type struggling with life and faith (in Percy he's a doctor, but here he's a dentist), New York City, and even baseball. It's very funny and sad in alternating and simultaneous moments. It's just plain well-done. I don't think the ultimate resolution is all that satisfying (nor do I think it's supposed to be) and the main character is a little too cartoonish to be completely convincing. That's where Percy has one up on Ferris. Still, this is like the second-best phad thai in town -- it's still very good. But if you're allergic to one of the elements listed above, you may want to pass on this dish.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin

In Sunlight and In Shadow is both parallel and a counterpoint to Helprin's previous Winter's Tale. Despite the fact that Sunlight's the lesser work and should be read second, I have to give it four stars, I have to say I "really liked it."

Sunlight is set in post-war New York City, while Winter's Tale is set in a mythical 20th-century New York City. Both are about people in that city (this one focusing on a single couple that may wear out their welcome, while the other shares its focus among three or four couples and many more around them), but they are really about the city itself. I would only recommend reading them after a trip to New York itself.

Helprin's prose is sometimes purple, but always vividly colored. He is a Stoic through and through in the ancient Greek sense, sensing the interconnectedness of things and valuing all experience, romanticizing even death and war. For that reason, he's hard for some to take, but I love his writing in the same way that I love The Fisher King as a movie -- despite its flaws, there is nothing else like it, and there is something deeply true in the way Helprin sees the world.

Helprin occasionally oversteps, and antagonists can cherry-pick overbloated or even callous sentences from the 700 pages of this book, but that is patently unfair. In Sunlight and In Shadow is a waterfall of emotion, sometimes sentiment, sometimes even mushy, but sometimes hard and painful as well. I think this is the kind of book Dickens would have written if he was around today.

As a whole, Winter's Tale is more successful than Sunlight because Helprin's hyperbole fits exactly with a fantastic New York which lets the stained-glass colors of his emotions shine. In Winter's Tale, the bad guys are really bad and his good guys really good; in Sunlight they can seem unnuanced when set in the real world. The poetic lyricism of Helprin's writing here clashes with the realism of the world around it. But that's just the point he's trying to make -- that with those for eyes to see, the real world can indeed look like this, even without the flying horse and the cloud wall and the gigantic building project that play major roles in Winter's Tale. The fact that Helprin very nearly succeeds in bringing that sweeping myth into the real world in this book through his language alone is reason enough to dive into it.

Even if it doesn't quite fit at the shoulders, this coat is luxurious and warming, and it does something few other books published this century dare to do -- it looks you in the eye, challenges you to a fight, and knows that the act of reading can still instill virtue in the reader. Helprin wants to transport you, strengthen you, and ennoble you. He wants you to appreciate the heroic element in the everyday choices you make. No, he's not perfect, but even the imperfections highlight the beauty of this world. We need writers like this, and I hope there are more to come.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Chemical Faithfulness, Part 3: Natural Laboratories for the Origin of Life

In the past two parts of this series I described how liquid water is living water, its special chemistry shaping geology and biology to give us the world today. Water’s life-giving power extends even deeper than this, as deep as a few billion years back in time. We saw how liquid water’s chemical power created the Puget Sound and sustains deep-sea ecosystems today. Likewise, water could have participated in creation long ago.

The chemical ingredients life needs come together at the deep ocean vents: carbon, sulfur, hydrogen, iron, nickel, and especially energy from within the earth.  Long ago, water’s chemical power may have brought these ingredients together to shape the first life forms.

I once avoided these ideas because I felt that a chemical bridge from non-life to life threatened God’s creative sovereignty. But now I’ve changed my mind. If God came up with the ideas, then they actually convey God’s creative sovereignty. The more I appreciate the dynamic elegance of water’s chemistry, the more I think that God appreciates dynamic elegance, too. All origin of life experiments have an important role for the chemical power of flowing, liquid water.

For example, some deep-sea vents form rocks with holes that look suspiciously like small cells. These cavities naturally stockpile and separate chemicals, like natural laboratories with billions of chambers. They are lined with iron and nickel atoms that react with the sulfur and hydrogen streaming out of the earth like Champagne bubbles.

One of the central molecules in all metabolism, pyruvate, forms spontaneously in these vents, as well as other related molecules that look like the breakdown products of pyruvate found in every cell. It’s as if a biochemical network is budding from the rocks. The holes in the rock can hold different mixtures of chemicals in place, like the 96-well plates scientists use to run 96 experiments at once. In the rock, simple circular chemical cycles could have formed and started to turn, fed by gas bubbles.

Or maybe the heat was more gentle, the toasty temperature of a hot spring at the earth’s surface. This makes a different kind of natural laboratory, where holes in the rock act as gas condensers, collecting steam and letting it drip down in a purifying cycle. Every organic chemistry lab contains complex glass sculptures built to condense and distill. Some hot springs have rocks that do the same chemistry.

Experiments in a similar environment found conditions where simple 4- or 5-atom molecules naturally rearrange into the complex, three-part nucleosides that make up DNA. In an elegant flourish, this fascinating set of reactions is catalyzed, not by a rare element or molecule, but by the very common bio-molecule, phosphate. DNA has phosphate in it, meaning this important molecule may incorporate its own catalyst.

Origin of life chemistry as a field is full of successes like these but also its fair share of failures. One major failure is summed up by Steven Benner as “the asphalt problem”: undirected reactions tend to make tar. What’s interesting to me is where the failures may come from. I think most experiments were too simple, too purified, and too dilute. If the experiments are made dirtier, in many cases with actual “dirt,” they work better. The deep-sea experiment above can’t make pyruvate without the iron and nickel from rocks. In the DNA-making experiment, the DNA nucleosides are not made from a sequence of reactions, but by mixing everything together in one pot and running thousands of reactions at once. The more the experimental conditions mimic the geological complexity of the early earth, the more the resulting chemicals look like biological complexity (that is, pyruvate or DNA nucleosides).

This experiment is run with chemical ingredients provided by the periodic table and the physical forces of mixing and geology, which are mediated by liquid, living water. If God gave the chemical laws, then God gave water this power, and this could be how God created. God works with me patiently and through the world around me – perhaps he did the same at the creation of life.

If we can imagine God giving his power to God’s creation, then origin of life chemistry experiments have no necessary conflict with a strong theology of creation. The first biochemical cycles would have obeyed the rules of chemistry, and we know Who made those rules. Even the deepest part of the sea at the far extent of Earth’s history is part of God’s creation and ordered by God’s Word.

Water is the medium of life-giving grace, and we can see through it to the one who ordered the atoms with the rules of chemical bonding (and the math that sets those rules). In Greek, such rules would be called the logos -- the wisdom and Word by which worlds were created. As a chemist, I am called to seek out the subset of those rules called chemistry, and to understand that God is at work providing and upholding them.

The world looks different if flowing, living water is seen as a chemical gifted with the potential to create life. We know water is powerful enough to carve landscapes, form gemstones and ores, and support fantastic microbes. Now to these powers is added the ability to make life by reacting with rocks, and the story of creation becomes that much more amazing.

The length of this story is incomprehensible to our small experience. Our experiments show that Earth held an ocean of life-sustaining water on its surface for 4 billion years, not boiling it into steam like Venus or losing it to a barrage of asteroid impacts, like Mars. The word for that duration of constancy is faithfulness. Through eons, God has cared for us by upholding a universe with constant chemical laws, rules that convey the simple grace of living water.

I am writing a book that recounts the story of these chemical laws, this logos, that shaped the world around us. Water is so important to that story that I changed the book’s title halfway through to give water a place of honor – now it is called River of Life: How Chemistry Shaped Biology. A river is living water, and water, despite its small size, is the chemical cornerstone of life.

The angle of science and the angle of theology fit together and co-illuminate in the story of “living water.” The creator who emptied himself of power and became so small at Christmas also made the small but powerful molecule H2O, then gave us oceans of it. The more things we discover about that molecule, the more we can delight in the hand that gave it yesterday and continues to give it today.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Chemical Faithfulness, Part 2: How Water Shapes Geology and Biology

In Part 1 of this series I wrote about the chemical power hidden in a glass of water, and how, chemically speaking, water is truly the “living water” of Scriptural metaphor. Living water is creative -- its flow shapes both your feet and the ground beneath them.

Every place on Earth, even the driest desert, has been shaped and washed by the power of water. Twenty years ago when I moved from Florida to Seattle, I moved from one place shaped indelibly by water to another.

In Seattle, our rainfall is famous. Our familiarity with water also runs deep in time. Long ago frozen water carved the landscape of the Pacific Northwest with flowing, “living” glaciers. Long ago, an advancing ice sheet from Canada traveled southwest and ran into the Olympic mountains around where Vancouver is today. The mountains stood firm, cracking the ice in two. One sheet turned west and joined the Pacific, carving the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The other turned south and scooped out the Puget Sound.

In Florida, the water is different, both temperamental and constant. Routine 4pm summer thunderstorms suddenly pour down rain that pools in your sandals, then just as suddenly stop. There are no glacial valleys in Florida, but there are miles of beaches, rock atomized by surf. The water has also carved deep aquifers underneath Florida, which would stay hidden if not for the occasional sinkhole.

All this power is wrapped up in a tiny package. Water is the mustard seed of molecules. It is composed of two hydrogens and one oxygen, bonded with electrons, as H2O.

You can make a molecular model of water with two grapes (for the hydrogens), two toothpicks (for the shared electrons), and a plum (for the oxygen). If you can make the grapes stick out from the plum with an angle of 104.5°, then you have just made a scale model of the molecule that carved Seattle’s valleys and fills Florida’s aquifer. In a sense, you’d be making the model of water from water -- the fruit that you’d be using to make this model is mostly water itself, sweetened with some natural sugar.
Water may be small but this makes it more exceptional, because it is small yet liquid. It’s always easier for a bunch of molecules to go to extremes than to sit in the middle.  It’s easy for big molecules to stick together tightly and freeze (to become solid) or for small molecules to fly apart in a thousand directions (to become gas). It’s not easy for a molecule to find an inbetween state, neither too hot nor too cold, close enough to touch and yet energetic enough to slide around, flowing as a liquid, condensing into an ocean. Life needs to be in this inbetween state, its atoms coherent yet always in motion. Therefore, life as we know it needs water, and you are alive because of the liquid water in you.

If liquids are living, then the universe is mostly dead, because liquids are rare. Looking at the periodic table, only two elements out of more than 100 are liquid at room temperature: mercury and gallium. Likewise, most molecules as small as water are gases. Big, complex molecules are harder to make. Here on earth, only water is the only molecule that combines liquidity with simplicity, and we literally have oceans of it.

Oceans are Earth’s defining characteristic in the solar system, a gift to our planet that changes its distant color to that of a “pale blue dot,” perceptibly different from yellow Venus and red Mars. Oceans made our rocks different as well. The geologist Robert Hazen estimates that the action of water on the Earth brought about more than 3000 new minerals when there were only about 500 before, a multiplication of diversity in the rocks from this one chemical.

Jade, sapphire, emerald, all were made when water mixed and reacted with the Earth. Mother lodes of ores are found by following the ancient paths of water to where precious metals were deposited. Panning for gold requires a stream of running, living water.

Look at a drop of water in a microscope and you’ll see another way it is “living” water. Even the most crystal-clear pond water is home to thousands of undulating, spinning, pulsing amoebae and protozoa, a microscopic menagerie. Remove all of these, looking even closer at the atoms in water, and you would see that water is constantly moving around itself, forming, unforming, and reforming bonds, in what Bill Bryson described as a “quadrille.” This movement is unbridled, even joyful.

Liquid water hosts life even in extreme conditions. In the deepest parts of the oceans, ecosystems hidden from the sun cluster around bubbling clefts where hot, energy-laden gases escape from the earth. These vents are rich with crabs, lobsters, octopi, pale white dappled with red. Six-foot-long tube worms waving like ghostly grass. These animals bask and feed on the sulfurous energy of the earth itself, mediated by the water, which is only kept liquid at such intense temperatures by the massive pressure of the fathoms above.

The DNA of these animals can be read like a book, and it matches the DNA of more familiar species. The pale creatures near the vents came to that place without sun long ago, and were kept alive by the water and the earth’s energy. Eventually they lost what they didn’t need -- pigments, eyes, and in the case of the tube worms, even mouths (they let the bacteria that live inside them eat for them, which is just as strange as it sounds). Life can live without sunlight, but it cannot live without water’s liquid flow.

Life needed water and energy to survive, and it changed its form to survive, morphing in ways unthinkable and amazing. Through liquid water, life was able to fill what had previously been empty, to thrive and to surprise. That sounds like grace to me.

Deep-ocean vents may shed light on another dimension to water’s power. At that extraordinary place, living, liquid water may have shaped the first living things on this planet, bringing a good creation to life 4 billion years ago. I will describe experiments that point in this direction in part 3 of this series.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

My brain wants to give this five stars. My heart wants to give it less, but my brain's going to win this one. That's because this book manages to walk an impossible line: it jumps around in time yet somehow keeps a driving, disjointed narrative; it is harsh as war yet gentle as an epitath (and so it goes); it is an absurd circus to the tune of a classical dirge. Every word is true, but I don't believe the sum of the words, and I believe I'm right to do so. Still, no one writes of devastation better than Vonnegut. This voice needs to be heard and this book needs to be read. In the audiobook I listened to, Ethan Hawke gave a masterful, hushed reading, so I recommend listening to that even if you've already read it.

But what about my heart? Well, near the end of listening to this I started reading In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin, which describes a WWII veteran upon his return, much like Billy Pilgrim. But the voice is a bit different. Light-years, in fact.  It was like reading through 3-D glasses: Vonnegut was the blue lens and Helprin the red (the color of roses, iron, and blood). I want to set Helprin's words next to Vonnegut's:

" He straightened in his seat, lifting himself until he seemed taller, unconsciously positioning his upper body as if for a fight -- not with Catherine, but with an idea. His eyes narrowed a bit as they seemed to flood with energy. " ... People like that always want to show you that they're wise and worldly, having been disillusioned, and they mock things that humanity has come to love, things that people like me -- who have spent years watching soldiers blown apart and incinerated, cities razed, and women and children wailing -- have learned to love like nothing else: tenderness, ceremony, courtesy, sacrifice, love, form, regard ... The deeper I fell, the more I suffered, and the more I saw ... the more I knew that women are the embodiment of love and the hope of all time. ... Love of God, love of a woman, love of a child -- what else is there? ... those are the things that lacerate and wound, and make you suffer incomparably, because in the end, you lose them." "

Helprin and Vonnegut are not diametrically opposed. Vonnegut's words can be tender, he has his ceremony (and so it goes), he is courteous to his characters, at least to Billy. But love is as hard to find in this novel as free will -- it is nowhere. It is not in Billy's marriage, or in his friends, or his children. I don't think this is just because Vonnegut was in Dresden when Helprin was a child. It's because of a choice each of them made and one everyone has to make. That choice has rarely been put so clearly as in these two books side by side. That's why you should read Vonnegut. Just make sure you read something like Helprin too.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Chemical Faithfulness, Part 1: The Power of Water

The most ordinary things are also the most incredible. Every day I have to relearn this. This truth is so big, it can only fit into my neurons when it’s cut down and reduced to a particular angle. Science can give one angle. So can history, or visual arts, or music, or theology. What’s really fun is to take two of those angles and put them together again. As a biochemistry professor and a Christian, I can “see” how atoms and proteins work from the science angle, and I can “see” how this relates to how I love God and neighbor from the theology angle. Both angles come together to bring light to even the most seemingly mundane of subjects: a cool drink of water.

Consider the power in a drop of water. If given to a dehydrated infant with cholera, it extends life. If it pushes a turbine around inside the Hoover dam, that pushes electrons and creates electric power. The electrons in water even carry power that is evoked through chemical rearrangement. If the sun’s power can be focused by the right catalyst into that drop of water, then the H2O molecule can be split into H2 hydrogen and O2 oxygen – which are later recombined to release energy. Right now water is split inefficiently. If water could be split efficiently, then a bottle of water could make enough hydrogen to ignite in a generator and power a house. Who would have anticipated that water could burn?

You are thirsty when you need this power. More than anything, it’s the liquid state of water that provides the power. Liquids flow and change, giving biochemistry the ability to detect outside information through sense receptors, and then to respond to that information through flowing change. Flowing water has always been a fitting metaphor for life -- physically, and by extension, spiritually.

“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” cries Isaiah. Jesus answers Isaiah, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.” To the woman at the well, Jesus gave living water, but not like she expected. From John the Baptist to the water basins in the Tabernacle to the Temple’s brazen circular sea, for thousands of years the flow of water has washed bodies, souls, and minds.

Speaking as a chemist familiar with molecules of all sorts and sizes, there is no molecule more deserving of the scriptural adjective “living” than the water molecule. No other single molecule is as intimately associated with life.

The rain that falls on the just and the unjust is truly living water, and is truly good. Liquid water is “living” on all scales, whether large as a solar system, small as a protein, or old as the Earth. Geology, chemistry, and biology show connections between water and life both obvious and hidden.

Water gave life when this planet was created. Water is a unique and life-giving gift, and very often we see right through it, until taking the time to look closer. Looking closer with science always surprises me. My original beliefs about how the world works are challenged and corrected. Old hypotheses are traded for new. But my core beliefs, the beliefs that are truly deserving of that name, they are not destroyed by this challenge. They are washed and grown, even baptized. The more I learn about water, the more I see it “live” around and in me, and the more I can see in Scripture’s metaphor of “living water.”

I see chemical evidence for “living water” today, yesterday, and even a billion yesterdays ago. This consistency in the universe is one sign of God’s chemical faithfulness across ages. In the next two posts, I will describe the chemical signs of this faithfulness at two times: today in places and creatures, and in the distant past, at the origin of life itself.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Parts 3 and 4 (Book 2) by NT Wright

Looking back on it, I had to train for this book like a climber has to train for Mt. Rainier. I've read and listened to Wright's other books and lectures (including the first three in this series), but I'm happy to announce I didn't fall into a crevasse or anything. There's no way that a few sentences here can really express what I got out of these 1519 pages (or 50 hours of reading), but I have a few scattered thoughts upon completion:

-- Wright's intention to describe theology as a narrative rather than propositions is parallel to what I try to do in science. I learned a lot from him in how to disagree and argue with a broad range of other academics. Whatever you think of his conclusions, theology is stronger for Wright's arguments, and I think science can be stronger if similar narrative arguments are made in it (it also helps that I think those arguments are essentially right). Therefore I wrote a book.

-- The decision to lop off a lot of the arguments and put them into a separate book (Interpreters) is much appreciated. That said, there were several places where I drifted along because I just don't have a dog in that fight, or I already know where my "dog" sits. These amount to maybe 100 pages at most. In other books that would bog the book down. In this one it's 5% of the book so the point may be insignificant.

-- What I appreciate most is how Wright integrates history into the narrative and insists that we need to use the historical categories, not modern ones, to understand Paul's train of thought. And things that before I thought were intrusions or leaps of intuition turn out to be much more solid and make perfect sense in the light of the history. He did this for Jesus in Book 2, and now he does it for Paul in Book 4. Paul makes sense in new ways for me.

-- Wright writes well. Allusions to Pride and Prejudice and Midsummer Night's Dream play major roles in particular chapters, and he is a master of the biblical allusion (big surprise there). At the end he brings in Walter Benjamin, a philosopher friend of Hannah Arendt's I have never heard of but intend to find out more.

-- Wright's pastoral care is also integrated into the book. This is not just about the mind, but it is about practice and the entire life. So, if you care to train, this mountain is worth climbing. Excuse me while I decompress.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book Review: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes reads more like a novella than a novel, or a good two-part TV show, perhaps. It's a typical crime story but Stephen King shows his masterful writing in the pacing and suspense throughout (as well as the plot convolutions needed to involve a retired detective rather than an active one). The most amazing character, as usual, is the (all too human) monster, very much evil and very much human at the same time. King completely explains his character's evil without excusing it, and you can easily see how this guy got to be so messed up that you're almost sad for him. Almost. This is too "normal" of story to reach the heights of Joyland or 11-22-63, but it's very well done and a master class in writing.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Second time through on this (and second time reviewed on this blog). This time the story was read aloud to a 10 and 11-year-old. The second half was read in the car on a long drive and it pulled in the 43-year-old mother of those two as well, especially with its themes of growing up and finding, then leaving, home. To anyone turned off by the book's dark beginning, I'd say, read it through to the end, see where it's going. The pacing and storytelling of the long climactic chapter seven is a writer's workshop of skill, and then chapter eight is a melancholy coda that brings it all home. This is simply a good book, as good in its way as its inspiration (Kipling's Jungle Book). For a book about ghosts it has more humanity in it than many books about the living. It deserves the Newbery it won.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Does a Contingent Foundation Imply an Unpredictable House?

Fascinating new paper in Nature by Joseph Thornton's lab titled "Historical contingency and its biophysical basis in glucocorticoid receptor evolution." In my opinion, Thornton's one of the best scientists out there and this paper shows why. It looks at the history of evolution with a biochemist's eye for detail and also speaks to the big-picture questions. This paper is going to require some repeat reading and digestion, and for now, I'll start at the end, with big-picture thoughts. I find the experiments illuminating and important -- but I disagree with some of the interpretations of the experiments.

The experiments leave no doubt that, for this hormone binding this receptor, there are only a few small roads through the forest of possibilities that led from the original, less-picky receptor to the later, more-picky receptor. Also, there were no signs leading to those roads, that is, no evolutionary pressure that could have helped pick these rare mutations out of the crowd of possible mutations. This is similar to how DNA can change randomly if a water molecule hits it the wrong way. The specific hormone-receptor interaction we have is shaped by randomness and it very well may have a different shape if the tape of life was run again. (The surprise for me is the tight relationship between overall protein structure and the specific hormone structure, which is more intense than I thought it would be -- in other words, I expected proteins to be able to do more with the multitude of shapes they could adopt.)

But, as Simon Conway Morris might say, so what?

The key to the interpretation of this study is that the evolution we're talking about is the specific arrangement of oxygens around a constant, central 4-carbon-ring sterol core. What separates cortisol from the other hormones is the placement of an oxygen over here and not over there. In a dance of co-evolution, this specific arrangement of cortisol's oxygens was chosen out of a welter of possible arrangements and the protein changed alongside, taking a very limited number of roads to do so.

But if those improbable permissive mutations for our cortisol system never happened, then a different arrangement of oxygens on the same carbon core could easily send the same cortisol signal. The specific molecular structures may be unpredictable and contingent, but the fact that some specific arrangment of oxygens will send a specific signal like cortisol can be predicted and repeated. Presumably that's why we have so many signals built around 4-carbon-ring cores decorated with oxygens at different places. The variation in the oxygens isn't as interesting as the constancy in the carbon core, and the fact that all these hormones sending very different signals follow this same, predictable pattern.

Also, the fact that there are only a few roads (2 out of thousands or even millions) that can develop into this specific system doesn't account for the variable speed with which the system can develop to explore those roads. If mutations can be accelerated by stress, could they be accelerated enough to make this improbable path probable? After all, there are only a handful of mutations that are required to change the specificity, and if the rate of mutation for this receptor gene speeds up, the improbable becomes more probable.

Other carbon-based, water-loving organisms on other planets therefore probably have a very different cortisol shape. But although the oxygens may be differently placed in their cortisol, I would predict that there would still be oxygens placed around a carbon-ring core.

The oxygens can flit around the central carbon core and the receptors can mold themselves to those oxygens in many different ways, reshaping the circuitry of the hormone system. But from a more distant perspective, where the exact placement of oxygens can't be seen, the system would adopt much the same shape, using oxygen and carbon in much the same way to send much the same signal. The shape of the foundation is contingent, but the overall style of the house is predictable.

What this paper does is that it clearly places hormone-receptor interactions (within the sterol class of hormones) in the "contingent" category, but I maintain that the chemistry of the signaling system would remain much the same, whichever path the hormone-receptor interactions took. The hormone may be contingent, but the overall shape and chemistry of hormone system is predictable.

All A-Twitter

I finally broke down and opened a Twitter account. You'll find me there at @BenJMcFarland. Still learning the rules of etiquette there, but it seems to be a great format for passing around science news and quick conversations. I'll focus on science and books on Twitter, while here I have the space to hold forth at more length. From this starting point, let's see what evolves ...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Art of Eden

Check out this article about an exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art build around the theme of the first three chapters of Genesis. Most of the pieces are very interesting and gain a lot from the synergism between faith and science. I especially like the Explosion picture at the top of the article. However, the "Serpent Before the Fall" sculpture seems underwhelming to me. It's like I always envisioned and doesn't seem to add anything. Perhaps it's different for someone who imagined the serpent in a different way. The artist and I may simply see the world in ways that are too similar.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Book Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Read this aloud to my 11 and 10 year olds and it worked surprisingly well for that age. (Had to do far less verbal "editing" than with Ender's Game, for example. If this was a movie it'd be a solid PG.) The first chapter was funnier than I remembered, and the next quarter of a book was less funny than I remembered -- it's hard to make light of the destruction of the Earth when you're reading out loud to children -- and then once we got to the Babel Fish it picked up again. My favorite part still must involve the sperm whale and pot of petunias, which even made it into the movie.

If you want evidence for how the Dawkins/Adams/Doctor Who crowd is a mirror of the Young-Earth/Ken Ham crowd, this little book actually provides it. There's even a literal young earth involved in the plot! Also, bits about the proof of God show that the reasonings of the two groups run in parallel. The difference is that Adams is intentially hilarious, and he never takes himself too seriously.

When I was in high school and still of the young earth persuasion, this book actually didn't challenge me at all, and may have even reinforced my erroneous belief that old earth implies an disordered and irrational universe. The humor that bothers me the most is the humor that verges on nihilistic and pessimistic, not the humor that takes on religion. But when it's all taken lightly enough -- when you fall and forget to hit the ground, as from later books in this "trilogy" -- it works overall and may turn into one of the best uses of humor. And there's something kenotic about that.

In fact, I would argue that there's more depth and compassion in this book than in all of Dawkins' writing. Behind all the truck about probabilities and irrationality is a yearning for the certain and rational, wrapped up in a human narrative. The theme of falling and humanity that runs throughout the trilogy is one example of a strand that could provide some interesting literary analysis. But no time for that -- for today, I just enjoyed having a laugh with my boys.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why I Teach Where I Teach

I teach at a small Christian liberal arts school for a number of reasons. One of them is given in this probably overlong but still entertaining and pretty much right article titled "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League". For example, I'm working with a nation-wide group that is trying to bring real knowledge-generating research into the teaching laboratory for ordinary science classes. None of us is at an elite school, and I think all of us are teaching our students in ways that the elite schools don't attempt.

But even at my institution, especially in conversations with those "above" me in the administrative order/Great Chain of Being, I find myself slipping into technocratic, job-focused justifications for what I do. It's one of those things where the playing field is so tilted that unless you put forward active effort you slip into the default pattern of thinking, even if you've consciously built your career around thinking differently. Don't be conformed -- be transformed.

Here's the quote that stands out to me:

Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocraticthe development of expertiseand everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms.
Religious collegeseven obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coastsoften do a much better job in that respect. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Review: The Crying of Lot 49

Here's another short classic of science-related literature, but I just didn't get into it. The main problem may be that it just doesn't make a great audiobook. The story is deliberately disjointed and even hallucinogenic at times, and while I felt the visceral descent into paranoia and doubt, and then doubt of doubt, I could recognize that it was expertly done and yet don't feel I got much more than that out of it. I like how the ending twists in on itself, and I like what's left open and what's closed ... when I step back and look at the elements of this book I liked a lot of leaves on the tree, but the tree itself was surprisingly sparse and disconnected. I prefer Vonnegut, I suppose. Pynchon didn't cohere.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review: Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien

For years I have wanted to sit in Tolkien's class on Beowulf and hear him talk about the poem and culture he knew so well. If only they had MOOCs back then! But now I feel that my wish has been granted. Christopher Tolkien put together a book of his father's translation of Beowulf and the accompanying lecture notes.

This is actual academia, so it may be an uphill battle for those without a deep interest in Tolkien. But I found an invaluable window into the mind of Tolkien between the lines of these notes. In addition, at the end is appended Tolkien's own fairy-tale version of Beowulf (without all the Geats/Swedes/Danes history stuff and actually beginning "Once upon a time ... ). I just read that to my older boys and they enjoyed the parallels with Rohan in the Lord of the Rings, although neither they nor I were expecting quite so many decapitations in a fairy-tale.

My favorite part of all this was reading Tolkien being a professor, discussing academic claims and translations and historical debates. Ultimately, academic discussions are very similar, and even if I didn't care about the debate, I did care about the debater.

Tolkien had a sharp mind and an amazing grasp of Anglo-Saxon literature. For example, he could tell you if a word was used or a name alluded to anywhere in the literature, such is his love for the field. But for all his ability to parse out the trees, what truly amazes me is Tolkien's ability to always remember the forest as well. Tolkien often solves tricky translation problems by appealing to the piece as a whole and how this part works within the entire poem.

He also spends a lot of time talking about the faith of the author and how that author applied his own Christian theology to the pre-Christian history/myth he was writing in this poem. There's some fascinating theology in there for someone interested in that to chase down with a dissertation, in how that aligns with Tolkien's Catholicism and Biblical passages on this topic like Romans 2. Most important, Tolkien never checked his faith at the door, but brought it in robustly, with academic skepticism where appropriate, but with the obvious conviction that this matters. And he's right -- those (to me) are the most interesting parts of the lecture notes.

So I'm not sure how someone else would react, but I loved the chance to sit under Professor Tolkien. I just wish I could have heard him in person declaim the opening "Hwaet!" of the poem. Some things books cannot do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book Review: Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman

I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I opened this book. I think that's exactly what Gaiman intended, so I won't give away too much of the story, except to tell you it's a fast-paced Doctor-Who-style* story for kids, with dinosaurs, aliens, pirates, and a volcano. It's fun and funny, and it can be read out loud in half an hour. The frequent illustrations are a nice touch too, and are nicely expressive. Get this book from the library and read it to your kids or your self.

*(The Doctor Who connections may not be obvious to non-fans, by the way, but to those with ears to hear they are unmistakeable.)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Review: Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Parts I and II)

Not often is Page 570 the break point in a book and one not even half through at that. This book continues on up to around 1500 in Parts III and IV. Not since I've read fantasy novels have I encountered a story this long. But, as with the previous NT Wright books, this story is worth it.

I'm struck by how NT Wright is bringing multiple stories together into a coherent narrative here. What I'm trying to do with my own manuscript is not that different. And this book feels just slightly expanded from time to time. For one thing, Wright took most of his arguments with other scholars and put them in a whole 'nother book, which I'm very grateful for, because that's what exasperates me most about other writers like Hauerwas. I want you to talk to me, not those other writers over there. I'm selfish.

Wright returns to his beloved six-part diagrams here, too, but at the end of Part II they come together in a way that, I'll begrudgingly admit, is indeed illuminating.

So far this book looks to do for Romans and 1 Corinthians what the previous book (The Resurrection of the Son of God) did for the ends of the 4 Gospels. It does tell a story, and Wright does show how that story is both continuous and discontinuous with what went before. The story makes Paul make sense in a deep and lasting way. I love that.

This book is doing what it should, and since Wright had lofty goals in writing it, to make that statement is high praise. I'm looking forward to Parts III and IV, although I may need to rest my brain first. I'm not even halfway up the mountain yet.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Chemistry of "Old Book Smell"

One day I'm going to be able to teach a course entirely built around wonderful infographics like this:

Here's where I got it. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book Review: The Stench of Honolulu by Jack Handey

Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts and I go way back. But I wasn't sure that a book (albeit a short book) written by Handey in that same style would sustain the sublime silliness of those snippets. The answer is that yes he could. (Also, it's a delight to hear Handey himself reading the book to you on the audiobook.) It's a Deep Thoughts novel, and I had heard a few of these before, but they don't get old so even that's not a problem. A nice little story to cleanse the palette between other novels.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: Life After Life

I tried to like this book. The premise is intruiging: a character born in England in the early 20th century lives her life repeatedly, with faint memories of her previous go-rounds. It surprised me by having her assassinate Hitler in one of the first scenes. But after that, it didn't seem to know what to do with its intriguing premise. This is not really a book about time travel or second chances -- it's a book about life as a woman in the early 20th century of Britain. Some scenes are expertly done, especially some of the deaths of the main character and some of the World War II scenes, although personally I'm getting a little bit of Blitz fatigue. The scenes (lives?) that take place in Germany are potentially intriguing windows into ordinary life under the Third Reich, but the insights are not particularly memorable. At the end the story fragments rather than coheres. Great pitch, weak follow-through.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Best Stained-Glass Pictures are Not All Glass

glory window spiral stained glass window

This link has some stunning pictures of stained glass from across the world. I've seen a few of these and hope to see more someday.

I'm struck by how the best pictures are not of the glass by itself, but also include the walls nearby. The light from the glass paints the walls in a diffuse reproduction of the original, stamping the surface with color. The real power of stained glass is in its context and how it changes the entire space, its secondary effect rather than its primary effect. The point is not the glass, the medium is not the message. The point is the light.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Book Review: The Green Mile by Stephen King

The Green Mile follows the rules for finding my favorite Stephen King: 1.) It's historical; 2.) It's light on the (non-human) monsters; 3.) It has a theological side to it. It lived up to what I expected and had some very meaningful moments in it. Yet it wasn't more than I expected and it didn't surprise me in a good way, the way Joyland or 11-22-63 did. As usual, Stephen King packs the story with the maximum amount of suspense and thrill possible (for a story confined to a Death Row cell block) and also sets up a very nice modern-day narrative flashforward. I appreciate some of what he has to say about healing and pain here, but it just doesn't add up to be one of his best. The seams show in a few ways. King's theology of healing makes for a great story but wouldn't actually work, I don't think -- still, it's very much worth thinking about, about why it wouldn't work, and the ways in which the character with the initials J.C. is both like and unlike his obvious religious allusion. It worked very well as an audiobook, too, like the radio dramas that the characters listen to. In the end, the serialized nature of its publication worked against it rather than for it, I think, because the themes he develops at the end aren't foreshadowed the same way as they usually are. Still, this is why I read Stephen King, and it was well worth it.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Data on How Much Professors Work

Finally, someone is tracking how much and what professors do all day. Here's a graph for "How much do professors work each week"?
This fits with my experience. If anything, after becoming full prof I have worked more, not less. It's because I love doing what I do and the security of tenure actually gives me the chance to do it more.

(So ... maybe I shouldn't be so worried about the time crunch of becoming chair after all? Something tells me that bar may not be true for all institutions!)

The graph that subdivides each day shows that my experience is slightly different from others'. In my experience the teaching bar is more than 50% and the service bar is closer to 20-25%. But then again, the research bar and the teaching bar can blend together in some cases for me. The bottom line is, for a complex subject, this feels accurate to me:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Quotes from Infinity and Perspective

Haven't done this in a while, but Harries has some quotes I want to remember, so here they are in my digital memory banks:

"Anamorphosis [the process in which changing your perspective reveals a previously hidden message or image] thus would seem to function as a metaphor for the world, which first presents itself to us as meaningless and confusing; only a change in point of view reveals its deeper order and meaning ... " -- p. 96

"But what Descartes must have found more significant is that such effects rest on a precise science. Magic has been replaced with optics; the demons that were supposed to have aided the magicians have been replaced with mathematical calculation." -- p. 109

"Reflection on this theological difference, more especially meditation on the infinity of God and his distance from finite human knowers, leads to a renunciation of the claim that the human being is capable of seizing the truth. Meditation on the infinite power of God thus readily leads to a certain cognitive resignation. A conceptual link thus joins late medieval nominalism and mysticism to Renaissance or Mannerist skepticism." -- p. 129

The Condemnation of 1277 in its critique of Aristotle allows the new hypotheses against Aristotle's belief that the earth does not move: "[God] is both the most remote and the most proximate cause." -- p. 133 "To save the omnipotence and freedom of God, the Condemnation of 1277 challenges both hierarchy and order. ... a collapse that paves the way for the more homogeneous conception of the cosmos that we meet almost two hundred years later in Cusanus and that was to triumph with the new science." -- p. 134

"In this connection it is interesting to note that the impetus theory, which appeals to the momentum of the moving object, first appears in a discussion of the effectiveness of the Holy Sacraments -- in a Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard by Franciscus de Marchia, in 1320." -- p. 135

"The climb up the mountain thus not only leads to a recognition of the human power of self-trancendence, but at the same time fills Petrarch with a profound sense of homelessness. Curiosity and homelessness belong together." -- p. 159

Paul III began the counter-reformation with the Council of Trent the same year that Copernicus's main work appeared: "Or is there perhaps a more intimate connection between the two, between a science that in the face of theological reservations has regained confidence in the human ability to know and a Church that, confronted with challenges to authority, had reformed itself? We should, at any rate, keep in mind that it was only in 1616 -- seventy-three years after its appearance -- that the Church placed De Revolutionibus on the Index, where it remained until 1822. At first, opposition came more from the Protestant camp, including from Luther himself." -- p 230

Quoting Cicero: "In such a manner the philosophers may perhaps have been confused when they first beheld the world. However, as soon as they saw that its motions are finite and equable and every single one organized in a precisely calculated order and in immutable consistency, they were compelled to understand that there is someone in this heavenly and divine mansion who is not merely an inmate but a ruler and supervisor and, as it were, the architect of this huge work and monument." -- p.232

"The very fact that the Copernican system could effectively challenge the Ptolemaic, that Luther could challenge the traditional faith, that a Paracelsus could offer a new science of medicine intended to overthrow that of the ancients, shows to Montaigne the lack of clear, compelling evidence to settle such matters. Crucial to each skepticism is a thought he shares with Copernicus: the insight into the eccentric position of the human observer and knower. But, as I pointed out, part of the humanist faith of Copernicus is the confidence that this place is not a prison. And to this confidence Galileo adds another certainty, that the inadequacy of our senses need not be accepted as a natural condition: we can take steps to improve ourselves." -- p. 268

"For one, [nature] must be sufficiently stable. If nature were an ever-changing chaos, we would never get hold of it. If, for example, the way gravitation worked constantly changed, neither Kepler nor Newton could have formulated their laws. But what reason is there to believe that nature and her laws will not change? Time is thus one source of cognitive dread, threatening to undermine Cartesian confidence in the reliability of the cosmos. Another condition is that nature cannot be infinitely complex. It must be possible to interpret it as a manifold built up from a manageable set of elements we can comprehend." -- p. 288

"For as Nietzsche saw, the process that celebrates its triumphs in modern science and technology is necessarily attended by the specter of nihilism." -- p. 314

"A tendency toward self-displacement, toward self-decentering, would seem to be inseparably bound up with human freedom." -- p. 322

"A whole series of Copernican revolutions may have called into question our position at the center of the cosmos, but that questioning has not robbed us of our home." -- p. 324

Book Review: Infinity and Perspective by Karsten Harries

Reading this book I kept thinking of Owen Barfield.  Like Barfield, Karsten Harries combines history, science, philosophy, and theology into a coherent whole. Like Barfield, Harries is critical of modernism and postmodernism. But unlike Barfield, Harries finds a place for technology and even modern objectivity, and in my opinion more clearly points to what it might mean to "put things back together." Not only does this book remind me of Owen Barfield, I think in some ways it's actually better than Barfield. It's a challenging but rewarding read, like a steep Alpine trail (another metaphor used in the book itself for the process of knowing).

Harries starts with the theological/scientific speculations of Nicholas of Cusa, showing how a theology of the infinity of God led to the hypothesis of the infinity of the universe. (Bruno gets his own showing showing how derivative his ideas were from his predecessors like Nicholas ... and Harries depicts Bruno as a general irresponsible hack of an academic, not exactly the same picture as the 20-minute cartoon hagiography of Bruno on Cosmos). It was theology that inexorably led to a view of the universe that knocked down the old Aristotelian understanding. The theological speculations of the nominalists paving the way for Descartes, Copernicus, and Galileo. (Similar again to the 20th-century story told in Naming Infinity.)

Barfield's problem is that he stays in the middle ages. In his book Saving the Appearances, Barfield (if I recall correctly) attributes the preface to Copernicus's book to Copernicus himself, and takes the theme that all science is doing is "saving the appearances" as the theme of his book, drawing a line back to Copernicus for validation. This always bothered me. I like some of what Barfield does with this but it has always seemed too extreme. Harries points out that the preface was written by Osiander, not Copernicus, as a sort of fig leaf or olive branch, and Copernicus himself wrote as if the scientific observations were reality, not just appearances, like I assume a scientist would (as did Descartes, as did Galileo). Harries finds the right balance between expressing the incompleteness of our knowledge (the ways in which hypotheses indeed only "save the appearances") but also noting that some hypotheses are better than others, a distinction I don't remember finding in Barfield.

At the end of the book, Harries argues that modern objectivity allows us to step outside our own perspectives and worlds for a bit, but that if continued this motion will lead to nihilism (this sounds almost exactly like Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos). Harries instead proposes that we return to earth as our special, unique home -- something I've found that my own writing has tried to do. Harries calls this a "postpostmodern geocentrism" and a new Copernican revolution or recentering of the universe. What Barfield calls "putting things together," Harries identifies as a homecoming. In the end, the story of the history of theology and science is that, after a long journey, the prodigal returns.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Alan Lightman on Faith

"And here we come to the fascinating irony of the fine-tuning problem. Both the theological explanation and the scientific explanation require faith. To be sure, there are huge differences between science and religion. Religion knows about the transcendent experience. Science knows about the structure of DNA and the orbits of planets. Religion gathers its knowledge largely by personal testament. Science gathers its knowledge by repeated experiments and mathematical calculations, and has been enormously successful in explaining much of the physical universe. But, in the manner I have described, faith enters into both enterprises." -- Alan Lightman (physicist, science writer, atheist) in a book review of Why Science Does Not Disprove God

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

The book that this biography of Jim Henson reminds me of most is one I just read, Furious Cool (a biography of Richard Pryor). Although the Henson biography is longer and more focused on the procedure of showbiz, it feels like Furious Cool in that the biographer drops away and the subject of the biography takes center stage in a thoroughly entertaining telling of the story of someone's life. Brian Jay Jones hits exactly the right level of detail and pacing. Like Furious Cool, Jim Henson: The Biography tends toward the hagiographic at times and ultimately is mostly about the surface of things. It doesn't reach the heights of surprising you with what Henson's life means. But it covers all the bases and does exactly what it's supposed to.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Coffee Bean Wall Shows the Science and Color of Coffee

If you're vacationing in Orlando at the newly opened Cabana Bay Hotel (Universal Studios), you might accidentally run across some colorful science in the Starbucks there. They have a "coffee bean wall" that shows the progression of beans, from green to red (peeled) to light and dark brown (roasted less vs. more). It makes for a nice-looking wall but the science of coffee is behind it. Well, I don't know what's actually behind it because I haven't been there but maybe I'll fix that on a future vacation. For example, the dark-roast beans have less caffiene because the heat has burned the caffiene right out of them. [Thanks to Theme Park Insider for the photo tour that showed this.]

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Book Review: Many Dimensions by Charles Williams

The second book by Charles Williams shows many of the unique qualities that stood out in the first, and it is better written and easier to read, yet it just gets three stars from me while the first got four. There's a lot to like here: a supernatural artifact that is a character rather than a MacGuffin; a resolution that is more along the lines of virtue and spirit than it is about cleverness and brawn, in fact, that is more about weakness than it is about strength; and some very interesting theology to chew on behind the typical thriller twists and turns, so that it feels more like George MacDonald than anyone else despite some superficial differences. But it's not as much of a step forward from the last book as I feel like it should be, and so for all the plusses I just listed it seems like Williams's sophomore slump. (Complicating all this is that I haven't been able to read like I should for a few weeks and that fragmented my appreciation of the narrative, which can't be helped.)

Behind all this is a fascinating story that I'm convinced, in the right hands, could make a great movie that has many ordinary Hollywood aspects but is done differently, in ways that make the cliches fresh again. But I can't see Hollywood ending it like this ends (and I like very much how this book ends). Still, in the right hands, Charles Williams may be able to enjoy a movie renaissance. For now, the books will remain our little secret.

In addition: Owen Barfield's ideas show up very clearly in one passage identified with Lord Arglay (a protagonist). There's some deep thinking to be done about the evolution of ideas among the Inklings and Williams may have played a central role in that.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review: Mockingjay

The final volume of the Hunger Games was aboout what I expected, and it was nothing like I expected. In the arc of the trilogy, this is the time that the rebels try to take the Empire down. I expected the Empire to be despicable, and I expected some "maybe the rebels are just as bad" rhetoric. What I didn't expect is the intensity. Collins makes the ending so dark and disturbing that I was seriously thinking near the end that some parts would end up being hallucinations. I don't know how they're going to film some of the struggle at the end, because it seems to point toward an R rating no matter how you slice it.

This is not a Young Adult book by the end, and to her credit, I was genuinely disturbed in a way that I haven't been disturbed by even writers like Stephen King. But again, the moral backbone usually to be found in King is very difficult to find here. Katniss finally gets to be truly heroic (after spending some of the early chapters moping way too much), but in the plot's resolution, I'm not sure what her heroism actually achieves. Again,Katniss runs around and does her thing but the real power resides and real "progress" is made elsewhere.

I give Collins credit for taking the story to the horrible places that a story about making teenagers kill each other should go, but personally, I'd like a little more "what does this do to the people in general" rather than "which boy will she choose?" drama. I could have told you that going in, too, so I'll just chalk that one up to the fact that I'm not a teenage girl and move on. But the lack of moral reflection after all the horrible events does trouble me a bit. Another way in which this book is genuinely disturbing.

When I picked up The Hunger Games I was wondering if I'd recommend it to my 11-year-old boy. When I finished Mockingjay I was wondering if I'd even recommend it for an 18-year-old, not because of quality or originality, but simply because of intensity, and intensity that I'm not entirely convinced is worth it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Comedians Show Us Why MOOCs are Doomed

I just finished Furious Cool, a book that argues that Richard Pryor was a genius. Before I read the book I knew he was funny, and a brilliant performer, but a genius? The guy from Superman III and Brewster's Millions?

But he was a genius, and the book shows how, as well as a book can for demonstrating the genius of a live art like stand-up. (Surprisingly well because stand-up is about words.) The fact that Pryor's work didn't translate to Hollywood is a general rule. The best stand-up comedians have always had a hard time transitioning to TV and movie screens, and this is true for this century's comedians as well.

The Procrustean box of the screen doesn't just cut off the top, bottom, and sides of the comedian's act. It is a Procrustean cube that erects an impenetrable 4th wall between the performer and audience, severing the ties and feedback loops between the two. Because TV is sanitized, you know that it's not true that anything can happen, and the best comics like Pryor and the others mentioned in that article thrive on that unpredictability and connection to the audience. The best comedy is a relationship, even if the direct manifestation of that relationship is the duration of the laughs and the occasional heckler. The audience is always in on the joke.

TV desperately tries to compensate for this disconnect with laugh tracks and live stunts like Carrie Underwood's Sound of Music -- viewers tuned in not for the perfection, but for the imperfection of a stumble or stutter. Audience voting in something like American Idol also attempts to break down the wall of the Procrustean cube, but the more successful the show, the more the 4th wall slams shut against any illusion that you have an actual say in what happens next.

The most successful TV compensates for the impenetrable 4th wall not through comedy but through drama. A long story arc can show a character developing (like Breaking Bad or George Clooney back when ER was good). Even more, it can set up long philosophical mysteries like those on LOST, even if delivering on those mysteries is a debatable point (which I have debated earlier on this blog, I'm mostly in the pro-LOST camp). The audience participates when it empathizes with the growth of the characters, and chatters about what might happen on next week's episode. This is what an episodic form of spectacle like TV can do.

And this is why MOOCs are doomed if they intend to become anything but supplemental, vocational education.

Teaching is like stand-up. Even on a day when the lecturer is lecturing non-stop, there is still student participation and feedback. I even get a laugh once in while, and I can tell you that the best jokes are not the ones that are deliberately funny, but the personal ones or the ones that personalize something else (like giving emotions to a protein). This is what Richard Pryor did so well, and why no one could steal his jokes. He wasn't about jokes, he was about observing and inhabiting everything else around him. A teaching professor should do that, too, but focused on a single subject and bringing centuries of knowledge together to intensely dissect that subject and challenge the students to a new level.

So taking a teacher and putting her in a screen for a MOOC is like throwing a script at Richard Pryor and expecting him to rekindle his stand-up magic on a screen. It can happen, but it takes more than a camera and a routine and a genius. It takes specific work to make the MOOC work for that medium, and even then, I'm convineced that real learning, like real laughter, requires a real connection that cannot be replicated through a screen. Online comments are different from conversation. Even multiple choice testing is different in person.

 I think MOOCs are very useful for topics where the student has a direct interest in making money from the information given, or for direct low-level instruction that can be reduced to the resolution of a video screen. I hope to use them myself to expand my knowledge in a few fields. But lasting upper-division education is about the person and about the relationship, just like stand-up is about the whole environment and music is about the performance. MOOCs have their place but they can never supplant the Biochemistry class.