Monday, August 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

A: Here’s my list:

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What is Lucy’s mistake?

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

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

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

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

Q: What is Lucy doing wrong here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Dad

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