Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Day 2 Postscript: The Barrier of the Firmament

I'm going to be traveling soon, and it's been more than a week since I last was able to add to the Eight Days of Creation. Not sure when I'll put together time to write a full post for Day 3 (that one looks like a two-parter too), but in the interim, another quick thought about the firmament:

After Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist, a dove came down and a voice spoke from heaven. It's hard to understand just how big of a deal this was for those who saw it. To them, the sky was a firmament, a hard metal shell. God broke clear through that shell and spoke from his heaven to his son, on earth as it is in heaven. This is a crack opening in the sky and God peeking through. It's not warm and cozy, it's a little scary.

But I think if one of us moderns had been there, and had seen the same thing, the result and message would have been much the same. The same scene to us would mean that God had come from (seemingly) very far away to be very near. His voice would be ringing in our ears. The barrier overcome would be one of space, not metal, but the message would still be that the barrier is broken, and heaven has come to earth in this very ordinary-looking package, Father, Spirit, and Son.

People don't talk as if God is behind a barrier as much anymore. Instead we talk as if he doesn't exist, or is very, very far away -- our cosmology has changed but our symptoms haven't. In all cases, even if it seems he's not here, we look at Jesus and see God breaking through, whether the thickest of shells or the longest of distances, to show himself right here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On the Second Day, Part 2: The "Baby Story" of the Universe

Needless to say, I have two sons who are very different, as was clear from the very beginning. Sam, you were four days late, and your birth was as scary as any first-time experience is, slow to come on, slow to progress, and if I even start to talk about how difficult it was, your mother kicks me under the table to remind me that she was the one who had to go through the actual pain (and to transfer some of that pain retroactively to me). I was reduced to cheerleader for a twenty-hour struggle. Then you came and we enjoyed a first quiet hour together. I held you so you could take your first look and you stared up at me with a bit of a question, maybe a “sorry about that” kind of expression, but I also saw you memorizing my face. Then I remember the TV showed the end of a Mariners game in which Lou Pinella threw a major tantrum and kicked his hat. I’m not sure what that means, but somehow it seemed fitting after all your mother went through.

Aidan, on the other hand, you were ready to go two weeks early, and Laurie asked for an epidural right away. We were so rushed we didn't have time to worry. The epidural worked well – so well that I took a little nap and woke up when the nurse said, in effect, “Here he comes!” This is when I first saw your incredibly red hair (we always knew you were a redhead even though the nurse told us you were a blonde -- actually, you had hardly any hair at first so it was an open question). You were long and stretched-out, and laid back, from the beginning, and we loved you from before that beginning.

Each birth was joyful and painful, but in different ways and with different timing. The important parts of the births were the results – two wonderful little boys – not the exact amount of time it took you to get here. We’re just glad you’re here.

Still, time is integral to the story that we tell. With that in mind, as part of telling the "Baby Story" of the universe, let’s try to figure out the length of its birth-day. We can emulate the “Harvard computers” with their Cepheid stars, and try to find some kind of yardstick for how old things actually are. Let's ask the earth how old it is, and let’s ask several different ways.

In the nineteenth century, geology was the fancy, popular science, much like biotech is today. Lots of hobbyists ran around trying to figure out rocks and fossils, including more than a few scientist/reverends like Rev. William Buckland of Oxford. It's important to start out by noting that everyone agreed the earth was very old, whatever their background, and the only question was, how many years does "very" old actually mean (and, how do you understand Noah's flood)? The most authoritative voice was the scientist Lord Kelvin, who saw from melted-looking rocks that the earth was once very hot, then calculated how long it would take hot rock to cool down in space, ending with a guess that the earth was 24 million years old. Others used different deductions to answer the question with 2300, 153, or 89, all "million years old." (Methods?) The bottom line is, even in the 1800's, many methods gave results confirming that the earth is very old.

But how can we actually measure it? We need something in rocks that is more durable than rock and as common as dirt. The rocks themselves can be split and deformed, knocked around by glaciers or floods, but the atoms themselves last very long time. All we have to do is stay away from the cores of massive stars or supernovas where atoms are created, which, incidentally, is probably good advice regardless. We can measure how fast atoms fall apart in the lab, and moreover, we can tell what should result from an atom falling apart with the certainty of 2 + 2 = 4, or perhaps 4 - 2 = 2.

(Here's an example, actually used in dating rocks: a potassium atom has 19 protons and 21 neutrons in its nucleus. It "breaks down" when one proton falls apart into an electron and neutron, which turns it into an atom with 18 protons and 22 neutrons: this is now an argon atom, because the protons tell us what kind of atom it is. We know how fast this break-down occurs: it takes 1.251 billion years for half of a potassium sample to turn into argon. To put it all together, a young rock will have lots of potassium and a little bit of argon, while an old rock will have lots of argon and a little bit of potassium. Since 19 = potassium, 18 = argon, and 1 = the poor-fated proton, it's 19-1 = 18 when you get down to the heart of it.)

We had to wait for the twentieth century to understand exactly how atoms fall apart. Thanks to the periodic table and work in nuclear physics, we figured out that uranium falls apart into lead, and not just any lead, but a special, unnatural lead with a few extra neutrons. If we can find both of these things in the rock we can tell how old the rock was when it cooled and froze into solid rock.

Clair Patterson is a scientist in the 1950's who tested samples of pitchblende, which has both uranium and lead in it. In 1953, he calculated that the earth is 4.5 BILLION years old. In other words, Lord Kelvin didn't know the half of it. In recent years, scientists scoured rocks where potassium fell apart into argon and rubidium fell apart into strontium, and the oldest rocks we can find always turn out to be 4.5 billion years old. It looks like that's when the earth started to cool, and that would be its birthday (probably, planets call it a "coolday"). (By the way, looking at moon rocks, we get an age just about as old, but a little younger than the earth.)It takes some more calculations to extend these ideas to the universe, which looks about 13 billion years old right now. Once you've accepted the idea of a 4.5-billion-year-old earth, what's another 8.5 billion years? The catch is you have to get your mind around the idea that from day 1 to day 2 of creation, from "let there be light" to the separation of the worlds and formation of the earth, it looks like 8 billion years elapsed.

You may want more information on exactly how these rock-dating methods differ, and how they account for atoms getting dissolved out of the rock or reacting with other atoms, etc. That's why it's good we have at least four very different methods that give consistent dates. I suggest a set of three articles by Davis A. Young, a Christian geologist who taught at Calvin College till his 2004 retirement, published in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith vol 58:4-59:1, the journal of the American Scientific Association (referenced in a previous blog article titled "The Scientists' Favorite Psalm"). Dr. Young compares the many different techniques and talks about the theological implications of a very, very old earth.

Also, let's not forget to ask the physicists and mathematicians if they can work out a model for how the universe expanded, coalesced, and cooled into today's configuration over that long of a time scale. They can, and in fact, they have mathematically consistent theories for how the Big Bang happened down to a fraction of the very first second of the universe. So the chemistry gives us an old age from the rocks, and that gives the physics and math enough time to sort everything out. Everything makes sense scientifically. But ... not everything is reducible to "scientifically" right now, is it?

I expect you're experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance. Doesn’t the Bible say everything was made by God's word in six days? How can it be the word of God if the age of the universe is six days plus or minus 13 billion years? Why do we just see physical processes and no fossilized fingerprints of God in the mud?

It will take this entire series for me to even begin to answer all of these questions. We have to start somewhere, so let's start with the question of time. My immediate response is: don’t ask me, ask the Bible. In particular, ask Moses, who is the traditional author of Genesis.

It actually doesn’t say for sure in the Bible whether he wrote the first five books or not. But did you know there is one chapter in the middle of the Bible with Moses' name on the byline? It’s Psalm 90, which was not written by the usual suspects like David or Asaph, but "A Prayer of Moses the man of God." The amazing thing about this Psalm is that it fits right in with any discussion of Genesis. It opens with praise for God’s consistency and faithfulness, just like we talked about earlier in Day 2:

Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations / Before the mountains were brought forth / Or ever You had formed the earth and the world / Even from everlasting to everlasting / You are God.

You can embellish that with "Before the Big Bang and gravity," and it remains the same basic idea. We haven't got to mountains yet, but they're coming in Day 3. Keep reading the next two verses of the Psalm:

You turn man to destruction / And say, “Return, O children of men.” / For a thousand years in Your sight / Are like yesterday when it is past / And like a watch in the night.

That's an interesting perspective on time. Often people quote 2 Peter on this subject, but it appears that 2 Peter is quoting Psalm 90 (which also makes sense if you read the whole Psalm, because its themes of righteousness and judgment go right along with 2 Peter). So, if we read Psalms alongside Genesis, then the author of Genesis must have had a surprisingly flexible perspective on time, and how God relates to it. This isn’t too different from the findings discussed in day 1, the insight Albert Einstein gave us, that time and space are tied up together and can be distorted, even bent out of shape. Light is the absolute of the universe, and time itself bends to its constancy. I'm not saying that Einstein and Moses were describing the same thing, but I am saying that the same mind can read and assemble the ideas of each without having to wall them off from each other (like in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" for example!).

There’s lots to chew on here. The idea that time itself is not really pinned down is very, very hard to get your mind around. It does free us from having to say that the creation described in Genesis 1 had to happen in precise 24 hour spans. I'm not sure if the phrase "24 hrs" even has meaning here. What's clear from the chemistry of rocks and the physics of the Big Bang is that the universe was around long before us.

In day 1, we saw we live in a very big universe: from that I get a sense of awe, not self-pity or nihilism. Just because I'm small doesn't mean I'm insignificant or unloved. In day 2, we see that the timescale of the universe is very long: from that I get the same idea, of awe, not insignificance. Your Veggie Tales Bob doll is still right, you're still special and God still loves you very much. The scale of the universe does not diminish you, it enhances and even glorifies God. He loves you so much he made you through a billion-year-long process, something incomprehensible to us, but if He made it, it's not incomprehensible to him, is it?

Another side note is that it took 8 billion of the universe's 13 billion years to make the earth. The seven-day creation in Genesis is not evenly spaced. If it was, it might be more accurate science but it wouldn't be even half-decent writing. So the birth of the universe was more like the birth of Sam than the birth of Aidan. It was unimaginably slow. And that tells us something about the God who created it.
Some people don't like the idea of a long creation, and they say it makes God seem weak somehow, that if he's all-powerful, he could've made the earth in seven days. Well, why stop there? He could've made the earth in seven seconds. He could've caused the earth to pop out of nowhere without any process at all. But he didn't; he took his time, and his word did not return to him empty. Who am I to say it's an insult to him if he took his time? He gave me a mind to do my chemistry and count my uranium in pitchblende, and in good conscience I apply that, and I find that the world is old. I could have found that nothing is old, and it would have forced me to conclude that God made the world in seven days. But he doesn't force that, instead, he allowed the gravity he made to quietly scuplt the galaxies, the stars, and the worlds.
Love is patient ... God is love ... and God is patient. The root of patience is "passio," the Latin meaning to suffer along with something. God's patience can be seen in the long wait for the universe to come together according to his fixed laws. It can also be seen in Jesus' suffering on the cross, just a day on the earth but who knows how long to him? The birth of the universe, like your own births, was joy and pain blurred together like a spinning wheel of colors. God could have done it other ways, sure. He also could've fixed the world once and for all on that first Easter morning when Jesus came out of the grave -- but he didn't. Better yet, he could've sent legions of angels to Gethsemane to establish his kingdom in the way everyone expected, using the language of violence everyone (including his closest disciples) spoke -- but he didn't. Think of the reasons why he didn't, and hear his still small voice in the quiet of 8 billion years between the creation of the universe and the formation of the earth. Isaiah, David, and Bono combine to ask "How long, Lord?" for the patience to wait hundreds or thousands of years; God answers with the quiet patience to wait billions. This is part of the way creation groans from Romans 8, waiting for God to set things right. We live in a time where much has been fulfilled, but much is still to come. So we wait, and suffer a little bit more, and the fulfillment comes that much closer.

The previous three posts are about origin, immensity, and nearness. In those topics God appears as Creator and Father. But God as Creator is also the God seen in Jesus, and this fourth area (patience) is the first time that becomes clear. Consider the lengths to which He would go to create a universe elegant enough to produce what we need to know ourselves and to know him, and love him. His provision extends to the centers of the stars where atoms are created. We see a suffering God reaching out to us and patient enough to wait billions of years. God was above time but he also participated in it -- that's part of what it means to say he created "by his Word" and to say that "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God."
As for Genesis 1, it's tantalizingly close to what science shows us in what I'd argue are the most important points. But it's not as if science will eventually prove a 24-hour-creation day right, nor does it need to. I don't think God proves his existence that way, it's just not his style, and I don't think a God provable from nature would be same as the God revealed in Jesus.
As for the structure of Genesis 1, I like the idea that the seven days were the seven visions in which it was given to Moses, perhaps visually accurate, at the very least accurate in establishing each and every one of their essential points. Maybe I'm right on that, maybe I'm wrong and it was a polemic about God defeating the idols of the ancient Middle East. Maybe both are true. What matters is that I can see his hand in the gravity, and his heart in the long silences of creation. That's what science tells me: not an independent confirmation, nor a dissonant conflict, but a coloring and shading of the Genesis story, stretching some parts of it that are not essential to the message, but maintaining that (1) God made it and (2) it was good. I'd say those two points are repeated enough in Genesis 1 to be highly important!
Looking at the Bible with 21st-century eyes, and a full understanding of the experiments done to probe our universe, can pose some brief moments of dissonance, but it can also give dimension to what was unknown before. Consider how the size of the universe underlines the power of God. And while we're talking about the heavens and the Psalms, consider these words from Psalm 103:
For as the heavens are high above the earth / So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him / As far as the east is from the west / So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
In ancient times those were both examples of very far things, but most people considered them to be finite and limited. The firmament was very far away but it was still some kind of metal shell, or so they thought. What's fascinating is that hidden in this poem is an even greater understanding of God, unlocked by recent discoveries. The heavens are not just high above the earth, they're infinitely high (or, if you want to consider the firmament as the limit of the universe, 13 billion light-years away). Because we're on a sphere with a north pole but not an east pole, east and west are not just far, they're infinitely far from each other. So God's mercy is not just big, it's infinitely big. That's how far away your sins are removed: infinitely.
So that's what Genesis 1 says about the waters above; now we can pan down and move our focus to the waters below, the great oceans and seas that still are less explored than the surface of the moon. In them, life appeared almost immediately, as if it could hardly wait for the earth to cool off. But there was still a lot of waiting before it really started to flower, for similar reasons of patience and preparation. But I get ahead of myself, because that story really belongs to the third day. Wait for another post for that part of the story.
So there was a separation of the waters. There was evening, and there was morning. The second day was done.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The First Official McLab Publication

Here it is ... the first official publication entirely from my SPU lab, with undergraduate co-authors and everything:

This paper has been three years in the making and one year in the writing, so I must say I am very relieved that it is on its way into print. Today I have to quickly learn Adobe Illustrator to spruce up the images so they look nice on paper.

It's free till publication, which should be sometime in November. Then it will be nicer-looking but will cost about $30, so download it now!

And congratulations to all my undergrad co-authors. You did a great job!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

On the Second Day, Part 1: Feeling Gravity's Pull

Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters / and let it divide the waters from the waters” / Thus God made the firmament / and divided the waters which were under the firmament / from the waters which were above the firmament/ and it was so / And God called the firmament Heaven / So the evening and the morning were the second day.
The key word for the second day is “firmament,” an old word you don’t encounter much outside of English class. To explain firmament I think of Perry Como and Bobby Sherman: There’s an old song that starts “The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle,” and if you imagine just how solid the blue above you looks on one of those August Seattle days, you can understand the ancient notion that the sky is a big, strong dome above us. (Maybe “dome” for most people and “shell” for the ancients who thought of the world as a sphere – some did, you know.) The firmament was obviously strong, and the ancients supposed it to be made of the strongest thing they knew of, which would be metal. It was also supposed to be the barrier between this world and the next. I can’t report that this ancient conception was scientifically right; but I can tell you is that there are strong things that separate us from everything else (this world from the next one over), and they came about on the second day. It’s not a shell of metal, it’s a shell of blue light, but it’s held together by something that is just as powerful as metal in the long run. When I think of what holds up the heavens, I think of the force that holds the earth together and holds the earth to the sun to keep it from spinning into space. So, on the second day, I’d say God created gravity – and gravity, in turn, created metal in the heavens, rather than a heavens made of metal.

Physicists looking at matter today can see four different kinds of forces, each with different “shapes,” strengths, locations, and other properties. Two of the four are what hold the centers of atoms together, one is the electromagnetism that causes magnets and charged particles to stick together, and the last one is gravity, which it’s not too far wrong to say holds everyTHING together. Gravity is always the odd man out when you talk to a physicist: the two atomic forces and electromagnetism are similar enough that you can see how they go together, mathematically speaking. You can use the same kinds of equations to talk about them (called the Standard Model). Gravity, on the other hand, is so weak that we can’t see it (yet) and can’t fit it together with the other three forces (yet). Mathematically, it’s the problem child. But gravity is special because it’s inclusive: everything that is made of matter can both give and take tugs of gravity on everything else made of matter, and this can be from a significant distance.

Because gravity is so different, it makes sense that it’s the one force that separated from the others first, after the Big Bang. All that expanding matter started to clump up into clouds of dust, and some of the dust started to clump up into bigger clumps. The bigger the clump, the more its gravitational pull and the bigger it became. From this clumping we got stars and galaxies of stars and clusters of galaxies. The dust was very gaseous and nebulous and poorly formed, but gravity pulled it together into spherical stars with the same kind of crisp shape you see in our sun. God set up gravity, at the moment of creation, to shape the stars out of the matter that spilled out of the Big Bang. It’s as effective as if he had rolled the stars out of interstellar Play-Dough, or folded them up like so many boxes, although a little more elegant. When I look at the universe I see that God likes elegance, especially when it comes to the fundamental forces that mold space and time.

Gravity is weak enough that you can defeat it (temporarily) by jumping into the air, even at the young age of three years old. But it is strong, too. Not only did it form the stars, but some stars got so big that deep inside the pressure of all that stuff squeezing down made a furnace where those strong atomic forces themselves start to melt down. Atoms got mashed together so tightly they started to fuse together, making new atoms and a little extra energy to burn (therefore, stars are both hot and bright). The new atoms are more complex, mashed-together versions of the old ones. For example, one atom of hydrogen is made up of two small parts: one proton and one electron. In the center of a star, a bunch of hydrogen gets compressed so tight that the protons start sticking togther, and when two protons stick together, that’s the core of a helium atom. Three protons = a lithium core, and that’s a metal already! In fact, sometimes the stars themselves break down with a huge supernova bang, and the forces from this are so intense that there’s a little mini-creation of very complex atoms bursting out from the site. Metals are complex atoms that may have been formed this way – from weak but persistent gravity overcoming the stronger forces.

The concept of all these stars forming from the amorphous clouds of matter, knit together by gravity, is similar in my mind to God’s word separating waters from waters on the second day. This weakest but most common and least understandable of all forces started to differentiate the fluid universe, creating spiral-armed galaxies, red giants, supernovas, and from these factories we got lithium and carbon and more and more complex atoms. Gravity is still at work today. Here’s a picture of an infant galaxy forming nearby, relatively recently, and you can sort of see gravity pulling it together:

[Image from the Hubble Space Telescope, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Hubble_-_infant_galaxy.jpg]

I want to give you a paradox here: God is wholly other and different from his creation, but he is also everywhere, and if he’s everywhere, he is very, very near. If he’s omnipresent, he knows when the sparrow falls, when the hairs fall, and he knows every time gravity knits part of his creation together. Don’t make the mistake of thinking because gravity is consistent and understandable that he must be very far away somewhere, watching us from a distance. On the other hand, don't make the opposite mistake of putting the two things together and thinking he is the gravity, he is not, he is its master. Rather, think of gravity as his tool, his servant that does his bidding and does it very well. Gravity does its job so well, and so consistently, that He lets us use it: we can figure out how it works, give it an equation, and predict where the earth was long ago, and where it will be in the future, assuming its “mission” doesn’t change. These physical forces are messengers of grace for all, like the rain falling on everyone.

This consistency means that I can do an experiment today, and tomorrow I can do the same experiment and get the same result. If something is different, I can’t blame gravity or electromagnetism changing on me (at least as a biochemist I can’t – most biochemical forces boil down to force #3, electromagnetism). Also, if I see light coming to me from across the universe, I can assume it came to me straight, according to the rules set down at creation. I don’t have to worry about it hitting any “pockets of irrationality” that alter it on its way to earth. I can assume that the universe is wholly rational and obeys the same laws everywhere, and everything we see sure reinforces that idea. When scientists look at the universe and can see things billions of light-years away, we see that everything is consistent with this underlying rationality. If God didn’t make the universe, there’s no reason it should be rational, or understandable at all (side note: I’m going to apply Ockham’s Razor to shred the multiple-universe counterargument). Yet everywhere we see, if not order, then the underlying order of rationality. This is a subtle argument, to be sure, but I think it’s a strong one that we live in a rational universe, the consistency of which is a pointer to God. The very rationality atheists spend so much time defending, in their minds against the evils of religion, is really a gift of grace. In a sense there’s a distorted witness to the truth in their strident arguments about justice and rationality.
I think God's nearness in the universe comes out most clearly in times of solitude. This may be a result of my introverted nature, or it may be more common than that -- I just hope you can find your way to see God all around. For me, in college, I lived next to a large athletic field that was dark and empty at night. I would walk back and forth across that field, sometimes thinking, sometimes praying, sometimes neither, and somehow no one ever called security on me. I could see the stars bright and the rest of the earth in shadows, no one else around, and I would get a sense that God was near. The flat field of grass seemed holy, burning but not consumed, "charged with the grandeur of God," to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins. In that boring, open, clear field, I saw God's hand. I also knew that the grass was made of carbon atoms and water molecules, and that all those stars were very, very far away, and if I tripped in a hole that I would fall in the dark, because gravity was still doing its job. God's nearness negated none of those facts. The God that was faithful to carve out all this, and to give us a universe where we could reliably repeat events, as much as we wanted, that God was closer to me than anything else, and yet different, An Other, at the same time. From these observations of a regular, repeatable world, you can conclude one of two things that are ultimately opposite to each other: (1) God is either distant "upstairs" somewhere, dead or close to it; or (2) he is close, faithful and consistent in the midst of these elements, upholding all these forces by his word. I choose to conclude the latter. Much of the Bible is the story of working out what God's faithfulness actually means.
So time passed after the Big Bang. Waters continued to separate from waters. In the spiral-arm corner of one nondescript galaxy, a spinning disc of dust started to collect around a massive collection of matter. The center of this became a yellow star, and eight smaller spheres started to form from the disc, all more or less in the same plane, moving in the same direction. The third of the eight spheres developed a relatively large, single moon (possibly from something else coming along and whacking into it early on), and became our planet Earth. The sun’s gravity keeps it in place, the sun’s light keeps it warm, the moon’s gravity keeps it from wobbling too much, and somehow it had liquid water and a richness of the chemicals needed for life.

This is what happened. The question is, when did it happen? How long did it take after the big bang for these events to take place? How old is this dirt we’re standing on? That’s something I want to give you some data for, and data takes time (surprise), so I’ll continue with the question of time in part 2.

Friday, August 3, 2007

On the First Day, Part 2: Point of Origin

[continued from Part 1]
Being able to see single stars in other galaxies wasn't just good for proving that galaxies were far, far away. It also proved just how far away they are. Some stars don't burn with a steady light, but they wobble bright, then dim, then bright, then dim, so regularly that you could set your watch to the oscillations. It’s almost as if the stars are breathing in and out. The first person to notice this was a computer: one named Henrietta Swan Levitt to be precise.

(A hundred years ago, Harvard College Observatory hired roomfuls of technicians to process and catalogue the photographic plates that came from the telescopes. Most of these “computers” were women because an early director found they could do the job as well or better than male assistants, and, unjustly, for half of the going rate as the men. Part of Harvard's reputation today must be attributed to the work of these unsung heroes.)

Levitt discovered this regular pattern of star-breathing when she was looking at the constellation Cepheus, so this special kind of star is called a Cepheid. The oscillations are so unnervingly regular they can be used like marks on a ruler to measure how far away each star is. This is how, for instance, the size of the Milky Way was figured out, which so impressed everyone at first, but turned out to be the mere tip of the iceberg. Hubble used Cepheids in distant galaxies to calculate the exact number of “reallys” you have to put in front of “really far away” for his galaxies (assuming a conversion factor of 1000000 kilometers per “really”, of course). This, even more than actually seeing the stars, is what convinced everyone that these clouds were massive and far away, not just splotches of dust.

If you can learn a lot about the size of the universe from looking at the intensity of light, imagine what you can learn from looking at its color! Once bigger and better telescopes allowed us to look at colors of galaxies farther and farther away, these colors started to tell us something hugely important. The farther away the galaxy, the redder it appears, without fail. This is strange, because galaxies should be pretty much the same color, or perhaps if they differed they'd be mixed up in color like a jar of assorted jelly beans. But they only differ based on distance.

An important clue for how this could be comes from Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Don't be fooled by the name: this is actually a theory of absoluteness, because everything in it springs from the one statement that nothing can go faster than light. There is an absolute speed limit to the universe, set to the speed of light itself. (We’ll get to the “relative” part in a few paragraphs.) Light’s speed is absolute, everywhere, everywhen. As a result, if you’re moving away from something that’s glowing, the speed of the light won’t change but its color will. Specifically, it will look reddish, and the faster it’s moving away, the redder it will look. (You’ve never observed this effect in person because, no matter how fast that 1978 Toyota I bought you goes, you’ve never come close to moving at the speed of light. Try and you're grounded.)

This “red shift” is amazingly consistent. When we look around ,we see all galaxies outside of our local cluster running backwards, away from us. The farther away from us, the faster they're going. It’s a bit like being at a crowded party and then realizing that everyone is inching backwards away from you (if it’s any comfort, everyone is also inching away from everyone else). Or as if you’re standing in a room, and you look north, south, east, west, up, and down, and every wall is rushing away from you. Think the entry rooms to Disney's Haunted Mansion on a grand scale.

This gave the scientific community an immediate sense of vertigo. No wonder they developed a sense of nausea. Hubble played a role in putting together the data, and got his name put on the observed “red shift,” but he didn’t really put it together to figure out what it all meant; it was just too weird for him. It took a priest with a Ph.D. from MIT named Georges Lemaitre to say what's probably occurred to you already, “So if everything’s moving away from everything else, doesn’t it follow that at first everything was together, at a single point?” This is just a case of playing “connect the dots” with galaxies and realizing all trajectories meet at a single point. Lemaitre called it a “primeval atom," which, as Dave Barry would say, sounds like a great name for a rock band. The universe is an inflating balloon, with the galaxies as specks painted on its surface. And it’s still blowing up and out. (Sam, there’s your balloon, as promised.)

The very idea that the universe was once mashed down into a single point seemed preposterous to scientists brought up on the Greek idea of a static or flat universe. Fred Hoyle, a brilliant scientist in other respects but one of the leading proponents of the “Steady-State Theory” that insisted something else must be wrong, scornfully called this primeval explosion the “Big Bang.” But the name stuck, and is now the name everyone uses!

It's important to keep in mind that this has all changed in the last hundred years. More experiments in the 1960’s helped the case of the Big Bang theory. Two scientists from Bell Labs were trying to use microwaves to carry phone messages, but they heard a constant annoying static buzz below everything. No matter what they did to clean out their system, the buzz persisted. Then they talked to some astronomers down the road: it turns out one of the predictions of the Big Bang theory is that there should be a constant, low-level “echo” of microwaves in the universe. That is what they were hearing. You can see some for yourself if you tune a TV to an unused channel: about 1% of the static you see is from this background radiation. The exact properties of the static they measured matched what the Big Bang model said we should "hear" at that frequency. (Their measurement is the blue bar on the left side of the blue-and-pink graph below, by the way.) But it was just one point -- and it would take a satellite to measure many more.

The microwave static helped to cement the case for the Big Bang, but the Bell Labs experiment could only see a fraction of the radiation that the Big Bang caused. A satellite was designed called the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) that could better observe the shape of the radiation, from its vantage point in orbit far above the interfering veil of the atmosphere. It was able to systematically scan microwaves from every part of the sky that had never been compared before. A simple event like the Big Bang should produce a simple pattern of microwaves, evenly spread out through the sky. What it saw was this, colored from red to blue over a span equivalent to four degrees Celsius:

Hmmm. Looks pretty simple to me. The reasons for this are pretty complicated, but basically, a big explosion that started the universe should leave a big, even residue of microwaves spread across the universe. And that's what we see!

Better than colors, let's use numbers. If you draw a graph, you can put the prediction of the Big Bang theory on it as a line, and the measurements that we’ve got can be put as points near that line. The better they line up, the better the theory. See for yourself (blue dots are from COBE, and see how they match the pink line exactly):

[both pictures from http://ircamera.as.arizona.edu/NatSci102/lectures/bigbang.htm]

The blue points match the pink line as if they belong there. Therefore, the Big Bang is currently one of the best-proved theories in physics. Since COBE, physicists have learned to accept it.

So we’ve established that there was a Big Bang event. What does it mean? It means if we run the film backwards, we see the birth of the universe, and this expansion started from a point. So all this bigness was contained in something smaller than small. It was nothing.

There was a void. God said let there be light. And there was light. That’s not a bad description of what happened. The universe was wound up like a clock, and exploded like fireworks, or the beginning of Star Wars theme music. There was a starting line to a grand race of galaxies when everything was compressed like a tiny springy snake in a peanut brittle can, waiting to be unleashed. I can try with mixed metaphors like these, but I can't improve on what I hear in the Bible, with ears and eyes that have taken in what science has to give me. I really think that knowledge of Genesis 1 allowed Lemaitre to see what the data meant, and to name the beginning of everything.

By everything, I do mean every thing. Don’t forget that we may be talking about the beginning of space, but we’re also talking about the beginning of time. It’s easy to think of time the way the ancient Greeks thought of the universe: constant, static, even flat. But that is a mistake. According to physicists, time is a fourth dimension that goes along with the three space-dimensions of height, width, and breadth. "Our instinct is to regard time as eternal, absolute, immutable -- nothing can disturb its steady tick. In fact, according to Einstein, time is variable and ever changing. It even has shape. It is bound up -- 'inextricably interconnected,' in Stephen Hawking's expression -- with the three dimensions of space in a curious dimension known as spacetime." -- Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, p. 126. If the three other dimensions had an origin in the Big Bang, then time did as well.

In the Theory of Relativity, Einstein said if the speed of light is always absolute, then other things have to change, time and space in particular. (This is your mind-bending physics nugget for this post; why should time be able to change when light cannot? The key is that you can't work out the math for light changing, but you can for time changing. Weird, huh?) When I hear “let there be light,” I imagine light as the absolute into which everything else, even time, must fit. It is the laser level against which the universe is squared. The “relativity” that Einstein talked about forces us, humans looking at the past of the universe, to understand that time and space are relative (while light was not) and were compacted in a single origin, so that light itself may remain unchanged, insurpassable, framing the universe and giving us the chance to see things as they are: 10,000 galaxies in a speck of sky flying away so fast they've turned red.

In the past century, science has earned its Creation Myth: it tells us "And there was light." Space and time had an origin. In Genesis 1 we hear the words "Let there be light" and as Christians, we hear the Originator, birthing the universe with his word.

So there was light. There was evening, and there was morning. The first day was done.

[to be continued with Day 2]

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Theological Objection to CCM

I enter into posting this with fear and trembling, not only because I have to put "theological" into the title, but also because the points I want to make can seem kind of stogy and killjoy. But I hold them deeply enough that I become incapable of separating out thinking from feeling. My feeling shapes my thinking and vice-versa, when it comes to music. So there's a great big "IMHO" flag over all this. Yet this is a real argument that I'm trying to wage independent of arbitrary tastes or ephemeral fads. It gets pretty "ranty" so if you aren't interested in debate, don't take me too seriously, because I don't really take myself seriously either.

So I'm here to tell you why there's something deeply wrong with the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) world, the CDs and radio stations that peddle it. My objection is not even to the style itself -- the overly produced, simply conceived, ABABCB song structure -- because once in a while that can serve its purpose, and that is obviously a matter of taste. My objection is not to the happy mood often found on CCM, at least not on a song-by-song basis. Nothing wrong with celebration, and I like to point out that one of the goth-rock-type bands most known for being depressing (The Cure) put out one of the happiest songs about being happy ("Friday I'm In Love"), as well as the fact that "Dance Stop" by Daniel Amos is one of the best excuses to dance, anywhere. In the mid-90's, some genuinely good artists were at work in CCM: Rich Mullins and Charlie Peacock immediately come to mind (where did this caliber of creativity go?). But now I'm bored by the whole thing, and it's not just taste that's at issue.

CCM has evolved into its own beast, and it is driven by money. It's a strange, restrictive profit motive, because not only does CCM need to sell records to be successful, but also it has to adhere to the industry-wide "Jesus-per-minute" standard, it has to avoid a whole list of taboo subjects including pretty much anything specific about life, and it has to have either a raspy-voiced male lead with a guitar or a shiny-voiced floppy-haired toned-down female lead with something that might have once been a guitar but has been polished by post-production into something that sounds more like a synth. (Synth-full music!) You can tell immediately that you are on a CCM station by listening for about 2 seconds -- you don't even need to hear a melody, you just hear the production. The closest thing to it is New Country music, which coincidentally enough is another big seller, just with fewer taboos and JPMs.

The funny thing about musical popularity is that the money acts like a rock tumbler with its stars and tunes: everything comes out shiny and pretty and pretty much the same. The playlist shifts, but there's not enough variation to warrant different shows on the radio at different times. In a word, it's monolithic. And that's what bothers me most of all.

Monolithic music implies a monolithic theology. Is it any wonder that when Jerry Falwell spoke, the news media thought he was speaking for all Christians, when it's clear that "Christian music" has its own radio station and its own sound, 24/7? Is it any wonder that because the Left Behind books sell like hotcakes at Costco and Wal-Mart that people outside of the church assume those represent the views of everyone inside? Why are evangelical leaders making a big splash just to write joint letters in recent months stating that a.) it's good to take care of the environment, maybe we could take some steps to reduce pollution and b.) everything the current political state of Israel does is not necessarily OK? (Two recent letters made headlines because it was such a surprise that Christians have internal debates about these things -- the real headline was "Christians are not as monolithic as we thought"! This is not to side with those leaders but to point out that the publication that "theologically-based thinking is diverse" is a good thing -- "good news" of a sort.)

A monolithic system is not a stable or fruitful system. Our computer systems are nearly monolithically PC now, and that's part of why they're vulnerable to a single well-coded virus, and why Microsoft and academia have spent money and energy to have scores of people dedicated to the swift detection of and erdication of viral threats. Here's the nub: despite what Richard Dawkins may tell you, Christianity has never been monolithic (nor Judaism, for that matter). Before Jesus died: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, John-the-Baptists, God-Fearers, etc. After Jesus rose, the church was inaugurated, empowered, inspired and sent forth, and almost immediately became divided into the "Jerusalem church" and the "outside of Jerusalem church." 1st generation: Paul, James, John, Peter, each was different. 2nd generation: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, each different. Acknowledging this diversity requires that I acknowledge that I myself don't have it all down,* and sometimes God is going to speak to me from someone else. The more superficially monolithic Christianity becomes, the more it has forgotten God; after all, God Himself is a diversity of three parts. When is the last time a CCM song really looked into the mystery of the Trinity, or even dealt with any mystery at all? Sarah MacLachlan does a better job of mystery than CCM, and that's embarrassing. Our ancient creeds and the Lord's Prayer do a better job of handling complexity than CCM. Rich Mullins made a memorable CCM song by just setting the Apostles Creed to music!

The last time a CCM song bolstered someone's perception of God was if that person needed healing, needed to know that God is love, or needed to know that Jesus is God. Those are wonderful points (and in a sense, they're everything you need to know -- but you need to apply them and integrate them with your whole life if they are to change you). I don't denigrate CCM for spreading light in this way. The problem is this is all it does, when music/art can and should do so much more. There is a time for joy, but there's also a time for grief. There is a time for milk, but there is a time for meat.

So I listen to KEXP, even though its own brand of secular pretension and musical homogeneity sometimes gets on my nerves. There's actually a Christian or two who get airplay there, although it can be hard to detect. And my own brand of pretention is probably getting on your nerves by now any case! Well, that's what comments are for. I'm sure I've made a few errors in my statements above -- if you point them out to me, I won't take it personally. After all, a diversity of opinion is what the Internet is all about, no?

Oh, and my solution? There's already a ton of diverse, interesting, and good-sounding music made by Christians out there. If I ran a CCM station, I'd expand the playlist. There's a Christian Irish quartet with a two-character name that I hear is selling some records. Black gospel, singer/songwriters, old country, some of that rock music (you know, for kids!) late at night, maybe even the blues, why not? (Blues always took place in a Christian context, even if the blues singer himself did not always sing from a Christian standpoint!) Specific shows could be themed for specific people who were looking for specific things, like with KEXP. Most of all, the diversity of Christianity would then be authentically broadcast, and that would be a witness to the expansive grace of a triune God.

* I realize the irony of taking a certain tone to declare one's own uncertainty. Did I mention I like irony too?