Monday, July 30, 2007

On the First Day

Dear Sam and Aidan,

As I write this, Sam, you're almost 5, and Aidan, you're just above 3. It's hard to believe that (assuming you'll go to college at 18) Sam's time at home is almost 1/3 done already. Thirteen years from now you'll be more or less on your own, and I can already tell that you both will face many of the same questions and challenges I did growing up. So I want to write you these letters for you to read someday, for that day when you're at college and learning new things left and right (maybe even some of them in the classroom).

Some of what you learn will challenge and surprise you. It wouldn't be much fun learning if it didn't. You've already found out that many people "don't believe in God" anymore, although I don't think you've heard that at the moment I'm writing this. I don't think you know just how strange your Dad is. (You'll find out in a few years, don't worry.) A lot of people don't think faith and science can even be in the same room, much less in the same head. What I want is for you to know why I believe what I do, in the hopes that you'll be able to take some of it along yourselves. I don't know as much as I want to about most of these things, but I'll tell you what I have heard, and what I think right now. Some of it will change or become obsolete or embarrassing over time, but some of it is true with a capital T.

And this is not to assume you will be interested in science. Sam, just the other day you told me you wanted to be a scientist. Of course, since then you've let me know you changed your mind and want to work in a balloon factory. If you're saving up for that factory down payment now, let me tell you, balloons do have something to do with this. In fact, everything has something to do with this. But balloons are specifically important.

This is on the level of most blogs, that is, one person's perspective unimpeded by the constraints of editing or grammar. I think of it like the bulletin boards for "Lost" (oh, let me tell you about the television show Lost sometime, because you're not allowed to watch it yet) or "Harry Potter", where people spout their crackpot theories about how everything fits together, and eventually the show or book, if it's any good, explains everything in a way that's somewhat predictable and somewhat surprising. I wouldn't have an unfolding narrative of mystery turn out any other way. I think the world is a little bit like "Lost," with an underlying narrative and mystery about free will and fate, and that's one of the reasons why I spend about an hour a week on it.

I want to pass on what I see, so you can absorb it in a single chunk, not as occasional questions over dinner or during commercials. I know of no better, more lasting way to make a complex argument than in a letter. So happy high-school graduation (plus or minus ten years) and here's part of what I have to tell you about the world.

(Just a side note before we start: If you're choosing between two colleges, look at the "tuition" line and pick the one with the smaller number. Just an idea.)

So what do I want you to know about this world we live in? Everything takes place between two simple, pliable phrases: at first, it was "Let there be light." Later, it's "Fear not." These are two points on a line that define everything inbetween. It's not a straight line ... in fact, if I continue to describe it as a line I'd have to say it's multi-dimensional and sometimes hidden from sight. But it defines everything else. And it doesn't start with you, or with me, or anyone, or everyone. It starts from somewhere else entirely.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth / The earth was without form, and void / and darkness was on the face of the deep / And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters / Then God said, “Let there be light” / and there was light / and God saw the light, that it was good / and God divided the light from the darkness / God called the light Day / and the darkness He called Night / So the evening and the morning were the first day.

There's a lot of things that you just can't know. The size of the universe is one of them. You might be able to calculate it, but what you get is only a number with a lot of zeros behind it. How about 28 billion light-years? That works if you have a good intuitive sense for the speed of light, but, well, I don't. Trying to fit that number into my head gives me the same sensation as standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and trying to drink it all it. It's too much for these neurons. If the concept of the Trinity is hard to fit in your head, well then, so is the distance to the Orion nebula.

More on the size thing in day two, but for now, trust me, the universe is big. About a hundred years ago scientists knew the universe was really big, and really old. (Now we can put a few more reallys on there, but they were basically right. Really.) There was so much stuff and it had been around for so long that they assumed that it had always been this way, that we lived in a static, flat universe of rocks and gas clouds and comets running around, occasionally smashing into each other and burping out small life forms or whatever, but essentially What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get for the big picture. The Creation Myth of science was that there had been no creation. They were very comfortable with that idea.

The problem is, they kept collecting data, and they found out they were wrong.

The first hint of trouble came when galaxies were discovered. All astronomers knew from looking at the sky that stars are sharp points of light, but if you look hard enough you find many blurry clouds of light, the photogenic nebulae, which are glowing poofs of dust. Some astronomers thought that a few of these nebulae could actually be clouds of stars that were so far away they looked like dust. Other astronomers thought the Milky Way was already so unimaginably big that it was unreasonable to imagine that the universe was too much bigger. In the mid-1920's, the biggest telescope yet opened at Mount Wilson in Arizona, and this was so powerful you could look at some of the closer galaxies and make out the individual stars in them. The first person to do so was a former track star and Rhodes Scholar named Edwin Hubble. That effectively settled the debate: the universe had galaxies upon galaxies. Now we can make out clusters of galaxies, and maybe even clusters of clusters.
Here's one of Hubble's original photos, so you can see for yourself. It's a negative, so the stars appear black:
(photo from

Hubble was in the right place at the right time, and for this and other accomplishments (see below), he got a space telescope named after him. Do you ever wonder what would happen if you took the most powerful telescope we have and trained it on the same blank piece of sky for a long time, letting it soak up more and more light and look deeper and deeper into the universe? Here's what you'd see:

(photo from

This what NASA calls its Ultra Deep Field experiment, and just in that one "blank" speck of sky near the Big Dipper, they found 10,000 very distant, dim, and old galaxies. 10,000 star-clouds like the Milky Way. Before the original Deep Field experiment, some people thought that you wouldn't be able to see anything and it would be a waste of money and time on the telescope. Now, no one thinks 10,000 galaxies was a waste of time.

Did I mention the universe is big?

Edwin Hubble's job wasn't done yet. He had seen lots of stars in other galaxies, but just from that it's not clear how far away the galaxies are. Obviously tape measures aren't much good -- but Hubble figured out a way to use the light from these galaxies as a cosmic tape measure, and when the numbers came in, the scientific community was in for a fundamental shock.

To be continued ...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Christian Allusion (spoiler warning)

(I will do my best to avoid specific spoilers regarding the seventh Harry Potter book, but I can't avoid GENERAL SPOILERS with this post. I won't tell exactly how it ends in any case, who lives/dies, but ... if you don't want to know anything about the book, go ahead and read it already! Incidentally, I hear that in parts of India the first question anyone asks on hearing that you've seen a movie is: how does it end? They want to know the ending so they can judge whether they want to see it or not. So suspense is a cultural phenonemon!)

After reading Harry Potter and the Dealthy Hallows, I can firmly announce that J.K. Rowling has finally shown her true colors. All these years of stories about good witches and potions and secret tomes and treasures and unicorns were a front for something far more important lurking behind them. Behind it all, she lived a closeted existence. And now she finally comes out, like Voldemort from the shadows, to tell us what we should've known all along:

She has a Christian worldview.

Hide the children!

I've suspected something was up for a while now, and JKR herself hinted that the seventh book would make her opinions about God clear. And, to me, it did. The only thing missing from this book is the name of Jesus (it does actually quote him, but unattributedly). In every other way he shows up on every page, in actions rather than words.

I won't talk specifics (although comments are welcome), but here's what I saw, beyond the normal motifs of truth, love and friendship that have already taken center stage in the story:

Baptism: In a wonderful conflation of Arthurian legend and Christian symbolism, Harry sees a silver cross and must go underwater, dying from his own sin-nature. He is pulled out not by his own power but by an external power, and is literally saved.

JRR Tolkien reference: Speaking of that sin-nature locket, it's a golden thing that you wear and warps your perspective, and it's difficult to destroy. Also, when it's time to destroy it, an intense personal struggle is required (probably my favorite "Ron" scene, by the way).

CS Lewis reference: The last chapter, after Harry returns from King's Cross, compare to the climax of the first Narnia book. Because of the personal connection of who's carrying Harry and the unusual usage of "nails pierced", this may even be better than Lewis' depiction in certain ways. Lewis' depiction always seemed a bit wooden. Here the sense of loss was (to me) more real.

Choices and struggles: Several times Harry and friends are literally lost in a forest, wondering why they have so little to go on and why the memory of Dumbledore is so distant. This is the classic Western "Where is God" kind of moment. I just read an article by a disillusioned former Christian who lost his faith because of his assignment as a religion correspondant for the LA Times (that's another whole topic). His struggles and the struggles of Harry Potter are very similar. Hopefully he reads this book, and sees he's not alone.

Graveyard scene: Not only does the warmth and color of the church come out in this scene, but two direct scriptural quotations are found on tombstones. Harry and Hermione puzzle over them, and never really solve them. But talk about a clue that leads you outside the book to a real-life mystery! Hermione attempts some typical exegesis, which doesn't really work (it doesn't really explain the quote) but it's OK as far as it goes. Not to mention, if you told me I'd be critiquing exegesis in the seventh HP book, I would not have believed you for a second.

Is there anything I'm missing? I realize many people have not had the chance to read the book yet, but I get excited when the last volume answers so many questions, including "How does the author think about the world?", in such a positive way. Just as she's maintained all along, the witchcraft is not really witchcraft. It's kind of a substitute for science. And boy am I glad the poor "chemistry professor" played a major role in the resolution of all this!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Criminal Isomer

One of my readers has pointed out that most of my news posts seem to be about food. Since it appears I've found my voice in that respect, here's another food-related news item: it seems our county (King County) is considering outlawing trans fats. This makes about as much sense as banning all liquids from airplanes. (Oh, wait ... ) The worst of it all is it may change how local institution Dick's Drive In makes their fries:

Let me just make one simple point here. If trans fats are so bad that they must be outlawed, why is it that Dick's Drive In has prospered selling these things for decades? Why force them to change? Is the cost that hidden? Or are we making mountains out of molehills?

I don't doubt that trans fats are bad for you, but I doubt they're so bad for you they require government intervention.

"I don't care if you eat French fries," said Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark, a member of the health board. But when they're fried in trans fat, she said, "I end up paying for your heart disease. It's costing us money."

My question in response is, how do you really know, and how much of an extra economic burden can be traced to trans fats? There's a hidden cost to government regulation, especially if it's of something that doesn't need to be regulated. And I don't want my council members turning everything into a monetary calculation. If you want to get down to that, the atoms in each human body is worth, what, 93 bucks or something? Just because you can put a number on it doesn't mean you've correctly assessed risk.

What's next? The ATF becomes the ATFTF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Trans Fats)?

The chemistry behind this is that trans fats are artifically formed isomers of real fats: they're real fat twisted just a bit. Flipping a real fat (a cis fat) into a trans configuration actually only takes a small amount of energy, the amount required to break and re-form a carbon-carbon double bond. In fact, even in wholly natural substances, regular heat is enough to flip a few of those bonds. Therefore, a trace amount of the unsaturated fats will have isomerized and turned into trans fats. Depending on how the ban is worded, we could be outlawing ... pretty much everything with fat.

Come on, then. We all need some fats for our cell's membranes. Or as a friend of mine used to say, we need enough cholesterol to make sure our arteries don't start collapsing from lack of wall structure.

All I can say practically is, I will be watching very closely how any ban is worded, and I will vote accordingly. Scary, I know. Oh, and I can blog about it. That should at least lower my blood pressure. Thanks, blogspot. Think of how much money that just saved the community at large!!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Scientist's Favorite Psalm

I belong to an organization of Christian scientists called the American Scientific Association (ASA). When I say that, I always have to carefully point out that I don't mean Christian Scientists/Mary Baker Eddy (although I must say, they had a very interesting habit of just numbering their churches, so you'd often see the seventh or eighth Christian Science "church," for example -- very scientific of them!). Rather, it's an organization of a bunch of practicing scientists who are also Christian. It's very ecumenical, both in denomination and in science-faith philosophy. There's a few young-earthers and flood geologists, a larger number of intelligent design types, but I'd say the majority are (for lack of a better world) theistic evolutionists. Francis Collins (head of the Genome project and perhaps the association's most famous member) proposes in his book The Language of God that a better term for "theistic evolution" would be BioLogos, with logos referring to the active word of God ala John 1. Would that make an adherent of that view a biologician?

One of the things you notice about the ASA in a very short time is the number of times Psalm 19 is quoted. It happens at least once a newsletter:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork.

Scientists love that stuff, at least verses 1-6. It's part of the reason why we do science, the universality, grandeur, and regularity of the scientific method. This week's sermon was on "Inhale: Creation" and the chosen text was, you guessed it, Psalm 19. The interesting thing is if you just went from the way the psalm was quoted in the ASA newsletter, you'd probably think the psalm was just 6 verses long. But that's not the half of it. After a stirring description of the sun and the stars, verse 7 seems jarring to the scientist:

The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul/
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

And on it goes through verse 9, extolling the virtues of the Torah. The second half of the psalm centers around the revealed Law rather than the natural Law, Karl Barth rather than Rene Descartes. My own internal sensors cause me to read through this faster, because it seems less central to my life.

But the two halves do go together, and are deliberately related. Reading this psalm as a whole is important, just like the points I made about intergration of faith and science in the post "Introduction Part 4." To put that into practice, here's just a few things I see in relating the first half to the second:

The second half is more personal, but it still extols the universality, grandeur, and regularity of the Torah. "Nothing is hidden" = universal, like the sun's light or the heavens' declaration.

Verse 10 explicitly compares Torah to nature, and check out who "wins":

More to be desired are they than gold, yes, than much fine gold/
Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

If the Psalmist must pick, he'll pick Torah over nature (or at least nature's consumables) any day.

The universality and regularity of the Torah quickly lead to the realization that, oops, it's more righteous than I am. This reminds me of the transition from Romans 1 to Romans 2. In Psalm 19, verse 12 is a confession, and verse 13 is a remarkable request:

Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins/
Let them not have dominion over me

This essentially is saying "save me from myself" -- the light of God's revelation, the sun of the Torah, clearly illumines all my inadequacies. I can't even control myself, and sin eventually takes away even my own choices about myself. Verse 14 completes the thought with hope and a return to eyes on God:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart/
Be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord/
My strength and my redeemer

The overall movement is from creation to revelation to confession to redemption, starting at the cosmos and zooming in to the choice centers of the brain (Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults), returning at last to a reliance on God's ability to save from anything. Even myself.

A God who created a good creation has not abandoned it, and can save. He can save us, and he can save it. That's a good thing to hope for, while working in the lab and investigating the regularity and intricacy of nature.