Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: Faith, Science, and Understanding

(Nice Escher-inspired cover, by the way...)

John Polkinghorne was a scientist who helped discover the quark, and then he became a full-time Anglican priest. Needless to say, he puzzles Richard Dawkins. He is probably the best example of starting from science and moving to theology in how he thinks as well as how he lives. The "problem of measurement" and chaos/complexity theory provide his starting material, and then he thinks about what these say about God and how God acts. This leads him to the verge of "open theology," which sounds disturbingly unorthodox, but on everything else he's very orthodox, so that leads me to want to mull over his open theology a little more.

This particular book is a grab-bag of responses to others, follow-ups to previously pubilshed lectures, a miscellany like R.E.M.'s Dead Letter Office or the 77's Sticks and Stones. And just like those albums, this book stands on its own and may even be a favorite. There's a chapter titled "Design in Biology" which is succinct, probably a little too much so, but my favorite part of the book. Then there's some long exposition on different theories of time, which was too detailed to follow but not detailed enough to learn from for this non-physicist. In any case, enough of Polkinghorne's thinking shows up that, if you're willing to sacrifice coherency, this may actually be a good place to start reading him, especially if you have an interest in education (the first two chapters argue that theology has a place in the modern university and automatically hooked me, though I realize it may not do so for everyone).

I'll definitely be reading more Polkinghorne as I gear up to write the upcoming lecture (ten months of preparation suddenly seems very short ...)

Camille Paglia Quote of the Month

"The problem facing international security is that people who believe something will always be stronger and more committed than people who believe nothing -- which unfortunately describes the complacent passivity of most Western intellectuals these days."

From, including a nice review of the new U2 album.

As usual, she closes her article with a paragraph or two on the Brazilian singer Daniela Mercury which I simply don't get. Maybe it's her version of ritual.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

How to Help Your Grandma with General Chemistry

When I was visiting my relatives in southeast New Mexico last week, I was asked to solve a chemistry problem with real-life impact. All my reasoning came from freshman-level chemistry.

The thing was my grandma had run out of potassium chloride solution that she needs every day. For some reason the pharmacy didn't have it or something. To make up for it she was eating bananas but they didn't have much of an effect and she was feeling sick. So I was asked if there was something in the pantry they could try.

Ok, any guesses? Potassium chloride in the kitchen?

I remembered that some salt substitutes were potassium (instead of sodium) chloride. They had one, and while there were a few trace ingredients, it was mostly potassium chloride. So then I just had to figure out how to make a 10% solution of that.

The useful rule of thumb is that water weighs 1 gram per milliliter, so a 100% solution would be 1 gram per milliliter of water. (I'm skipping a few things here but it's close enough.) Of course, the salt was measured by volume, not weight, but on the back it said 1/6 tsp = 1 gram. I figured 30mL of a 10% solution would require 3 grams of salt, so would take 3/6 tsp or 1/2 tsp of salt substitute.

The uncertainties? Those trace elements are weird, and I know too much potassium can hurt or even kill a person (potassium is part of the lethal injection regime), but when the answer came out to be just 1/2 a teaspoon of salt, I felt a little better. But still a bit nervous.

Anyway, the next day grandma was feeling much better. Looks like the chemistry did the trick. And now I have a "real-life application" calculation problem for the next time I teach freshman chem.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Belated Father's Day Post

[A good article on fatherhood was posted at First Things this month. Here's an excerpt that particularly stood out to me, having just flown halfway across the country with three children, because the article specifically references that type of experience (Laurie, look! We're not alone!):]

Most fathers-to-be suppose that their old ego-centered lives will continue more or less unabated after the child arrives. With the exception of a few more obstacles and demands on their time, their involvement with their children is envisioned as being something manageable and marginal. Nothing like a complete transformation—an abrupt end to their former life—really enters men’s minds.

But then the onslaught begins, and a man begins to realize that these people, his wife and children, are literally and perhaps even intentionally killing his old self. All around him everything is changing, without any signs of ever reverting back to the way they used to be. Into the indefinite future, nearly every hour of his days threatens to be filled with activities that, as a single-person or even a childless husband, he never would have chosen. Due to the continual interruptions of sleep, he is always mildly fatigued; due to long-term financial concerns, he is cautious in spending, forsaking old consumer habits and personal indulgences; he finds his wife equally exhausted and preoccupied with the children; connections with former friends start to slip away; traveling with his children is like traveling third class in Bulgaria, to quote H.L. Mencken; and the changes go on and on. In short, he discovers, in a terrifying realization, what Dostoevsky proclaimed long ago: “[A]ctive love is a harsh and fearful reality compared with love in dreams.” Fatherhood is just not what he bargained for.

Yet, through the exhaustion, financial stress, screaming, and general chaos, there enters in at times, mysteriously and unexpectedly, deep contentment and gratitude. It is not the pleasure or amusement of high school or college but rather the honor and nobility of sacrifice and commitment, like that felt by a soldier. What happens to his children now happens to him; his life, though awhirl with the trivial concerns of children, is more serious than it ever was before. Everything he does, from bringing home a paycheck to painting a bedroom, has a new end and, hence, a greater significance. The joys and sorrows of his children are now his joys and sorrows; the stakes of his life have risen. And if he is faithful to his calling, he might come to find that, against nearly all prior expectations, he never wants to return to the way things used to be.

[I, for one, never want to return ... and life has indeed completely changed. Old things have passed away.]

[Let me note that the best hint I got about life that is along the lines of the Dostoevsky quote is not from reading, but from music: the music of a band called The Choir, which is all about "active love" versus "the love in dreams." Should be required listening for any 20-year-old!]

Book Review: Auralia's Colors

Jeff Overstreet, the author of Auralia's Colors, works for SPU (like I do) and was in the SPU honors program in the early 90's (like my wife was) and so I'd like to meet him someday! For now I'll just have to settle for reading his first novel.
This is a fantasy novel and so I'm very familiar with most of the conventions of the genre. The good news is, as far as plotting, character, and underlying philosophy, this novel is about as original as they come. One of the first things a fantasy novel reader wants to know is "what is the system of magic like?" and this one's got potential, with a natural, even artistic vibe that resonates with the setting, although it's not spelled out very much. Hey, Tolkien never spelled out magic much either. When it all comes together at the end there's quite a few plot surprises that make this a decent fantasy novel for the 21st century. This novel is "deep" and "thick," definitely more so than the average fantasy offering. It has a theology that is as deep and original as that of the Narnia books, perhaps even more practical than those.
The thing it lacks is narrative drive. Perhaps in the storytelling there's a little bit too much originality -- sometimes the plot jumps around in time, introducing us in the middle of a scene and jumping back to the beginning. I'm just not personally a fan of too much of that. Neal Stephenson is somebody who does this a lot, too, and it can end up being more confusing than intruguing, especially if done too much. For the first half of the book, the pieces don't really connect and the characters aren't quite differentiated enough to pull the reader along. What are they doing? There's no quest, really. That's partly good because it's original, but the reader always needs a reason to keep reading, and I didn't feel like I had one till about 2/3 of the way through the book.
So overall it's a very good first novel, and my advice is to stick with it, the strands really do come together in the end. I'll be searching out the sequel some day soon.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Politicizing Random Violence

I have read four different columnists (or blog columnists) for the New York Times in the past week connecting the shooting of Dr. George Tiller with the Holocaust Museum shooting, citing both as evidence of far-right domestic terrorism. I think the connection is more spurious than factual, a coincidence of the calendar rather than a movement. (Not to mention that there isn't really much ideological ground the two shooters shared, other than that they probably didn't vote for Obama.) Where was this speculation when a pastor was shot in the pulpit in Illinois this past May? Note that Tiller was shot in church as well, but rightfully, no connection is made on those grounds. There was another church shooting in Tennessee last July, and before that the December 2007 shootings in Colorado. Were those shootings evidence of disturbed, violent individuals, or a connection to a wider societal trend?

Well, of course it was both. But I think it's telling that not a single NYT columnist mentioned any of those incidents that I can recall, and definitely there was no "connect-the-dots" type reasoning.

I'm going to keep reading the NYT daily, but every time something like this happens I'll have to correct for the ideological blinders of those columnists. I mean, the point of columnists is that they write with ideological blinders on, and it's the reader's responsibility to account for them. But they lose credibility with this reader when they don't at least try to consider other points of view.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Amazing Energy Plot

This is from the Whitesides talk (see previous post), and was originally made by the DoE. You'll have to click on it to read the words, but it's an amazing plot. It shows where all of our energy comes from on the left, and where all of our energy goes on the right. Without reading any words, just look at the gray colors on the right, that's all the wasted energy. More than half of our energy is wasted! Each of these processes, when you look closely at it, involves at least some chemistry.

Oh, and whoever picked the color for petroleum must have a twisted sense of humor -- they made it GREEN. I do understand that black was already taken for coal. Maybe they mean petroleum once was green stuff?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Nanotechnology in Adolescence

The nanotechnology sessions from the recent American Chemical Society meeting have been made available for free on this website:

In particular, I'm listening to the talk by George Whitesides, one of my favorite scientists, titled "Nanotechnology in Adolescence." If you want a good 40-minute talk about what "nanotechnology" actually means, and what it's good for, check out his talk, number 090-1.

Note that the way it's presented is the audio + slides, you never get to see George himself. That tells you what's important to chemists!

PS: About halfway through the talk he mentions something I teach my Capstone students: nanoparticles will glow different colors when illuminated. The first people to take advantage of this fact? Medieval stained-glass artists. They didn't know it, but the techniques they used suspended metal nanoparticles in glass. The fact that these particles were tiny enough, pure enough, and similar enough to make the colors red and yellow was noticed and used. So the church housed the first nanotechnologists.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Book Review: Mouring into Dancing

This is a book to read slowly ... but maybe not so slowly as I did. It was sitting half-read on my bookshelf for about a year. The thing is, Henry Nouwen writes in such a way that you HAVE to read his writing very slowly, it's deceptively simple and you'll skate right past the importance of it unless you savor each word. I took that to an extreme, but I guess better that than to read it too fast. This book is a collection of Nouwen's writings that was made by someone else after he died in the mid-90's, and it does read like a collection, with many jumps and lots of white space, but it works. It's very good and the kind of thing you need to read from time to time just to try and correct mental habits of thinking. This book is itself a spritual discipline (and a lot more tolerable than a hairshirt).

Monday, June 8, 2009

Coming Next Spring: A Lecture!

Just what the world needs, another lecture, right? Well, I for one am pretty excited. The proposal I submitted for the 2010 Weter Lecture here at SPU was accepted, so in about 11 months I'll be holding forth for the university community on "The Chemical Constraints on Creation: Natural Theology and Narrative Resonance." And I'm also a little nervous to be doing a high-profile lecture -- I forgot my title when I was called up in front of everyone today as the lecture was announced. I just remembered there were a lot of "C"'s in it. Click here for a description of the Weter Lecture and list of past lectures. Below I'll paste the proposal I submitted, although I'm not sure how the footnotes will turn out. Comments are as always welcome (after all, I have 11 months to prepare for this):

Thesis: The periodic table of the elements and the laws of thermodynamics provide chemical constraints on how life could happen, to the point that we can know much of the procedure of creation. Retelling this story in the context of scripture and the Christian community helps build a renewed, limited natural theology.

Lecture summary (2 pages): The May 14, 2009 New York Times broke the news that a “Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be the Starting Point for Life.” Such news of “creation mechanisms” forces Christians to confront the possibility that life emerged by a mechanism from a material universe. This lecture addresses this dilemma, retelling the story of creation from a Christian chemist’s standpoint, because the act of recounting how we were created brings glory to God. This story is an example of renewed , limited natural theology, with the following three emphases:[1]
i.) Resonance, not proof.
ii.) The Big Picture, not the gaps.
iii.) The suggestive but not conclusive argument of the Anthropic Principle.

This chemist sees the formation of the universe as constrained by surprisingly simple physical/inorganic chemistry, resulting from the periodic table of the elements.[2] I propose a story of seven chemical stages of life’s creation, through the lenses of the periodic table and the thermodynamic laws:
I.) The universe started as light, from which math and physics formed the single possible periodic table for our universe. (Narrative element: Humble beginnings)
II.) Our universe is so vast that the thermodynamic law of “spreading out” (entropy) could continue even as matter cooled down and clumped together. (Narrative element: the beauty and wonder of vastness)
III.) The earth was “born” in a special place with a special mix of elements and phases of matter, causing invisible electromagnetic protection from the solar wind. (Narrative element: unseen protection, fortuitous birth)
IV.) Land, sea and sky formed according to the chemical rules laid out in the periodic table, providing diverse, flowing environments, while the temperature of the entire system became “set” at 300K and did not deviate from this for billions of years. (Narrative element: the odd couple and the balance of change vs. constancy.)
V.) The dominant element of the earth shifted from hydrogen to sulfur and then to oxygen. Entire classes of species arose and then died out, such as the ancient “methanogens.” (Narrative element: Change and surprise, and tragedy. This story has catastrophes!)
VI.) Oxygen was produced when sunlight was captured, which initially was a waste product and poison to much of life, but was changed into a useful and biogenic element by a chemically logical series of steps. (Narrative element: redemption of poison to become essential)
VII.) Oxygen allowed new things: new chemistries that made new molecules that provided new communication modes between new compartments: the first “organs,” up to and including the incredible capabilities of the brain, namely, mathematics and worship. (Narrative element: communication, elaboration and baroque expansion)

The common thread to these seven stages is that chemistry is a constraint that narrows the possibilities of where and how life can form. Combined with the concept of constrained, convergent evolution of species,[3] this gives the picture of a vast, deep, old universe in which life is constrained to follow a logical sequence of chemical development. Scriptural passages about the constraint of chaos align with this interpretation of nature. Evolution itself is given a direction by chemistry (ever-increasing oxidation) and thermodynamics (ever-increasing entropy).

This view of the universe will be presented not as antithetical to the Biblical account, nor as “separate but equal” non-overlapping magisteria,[4] but as a distinct yet complementary story of creation from a unique viewpoint. This can be explained by the physical metaphor of “dual vision” in the sense of stereoscopic “Magic Eye” images; by a metaphor of the overlap of earth and heaven in Second-Temple thought;[5] and by the metaphor of “the unfolding of a still-unfinished story,”[6] supported by the manner in which many of the dramatic elements of narrative found in books and movies have analogues in the story of creation (as demonstrated in the narrative elements aligned with the seven stages of life). When the story of creation is told in this way, based on public data, it gives glory to God, the first Author. Speaking humanly, it lends Christians confidence to stand like Paul on the Areopagus proclaiming that there is One Creator God, a foundation for the claim that this Creator was seen incarnate in history as a crucified King.

[1] This sort of project and 3 categories after Alister McGrath in The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology.
[2] With emphasis on the writings of R.J.P. Williams and J.J.R. Frausto da Silva.
[3] As proposed by Simon Conway Morris in Life’s Solution.
[4] In the words of Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages.
[5] After N.T. Wright.
[6] Quoted from John Haught, in The Deep Structure of Biology.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

No, Nein, Nyet, Etc.

(With apologies to Karl Barth.)

The word "no" is a fact of life for a scientist. The whole point of peer review is to have an anonymous set of scientists read your research and look for any way possible to say "no." They assume what you're telling them is true, but within those bounds they push until they find a reason to say "no."

(This is one of the reasons Richard Dawkins is so strident: he is "peer reviewing" God. Take note that the very phrase is problematic and shows that he's making a category mistake. But it explains his demeanor at least, even if I think he's completely wrong about it.)

That simple fact is one of the hardest but also most valuable things about being a scientist. You're told "no" a lot in one area of life, and you learn not to mind it so much when it happens in other areas. When I'm in a committee or council meeting of some sort of a "no" comes up, it still bothers me, but I push back with my own argument, to see if the "no" can change into a "yes." Because that's the other thing about being a scientist: if you have enough evidence you can force a "no" to become a "yes." Sometimes it's far more evidence than it should take, and it only applies to scientifically reducible categories, but you can theoretically do it. So the "no" is more of an invitation to keep knocking on the judge's door at midnight with more evidence, not to slink away and just accept that the other person won't listen to you.

(Note to self: This applies to professional relationships. A different attitude is usually necessary for personal relationships ... But moving on ...)

I've been thinking about many situations where a well-placed "no" would probably have been a good idea. If you have sextuplets and the TV crews want to film you and give you lots of money and a nice house in exchange for your family's soul, consider saying "no" before the expanse of gifts changes EVERYONE involved. If you're a college fighting for applicants and you're tempted to add all sorts of mid-level staff positions to act as tuition-funded concierges and life coaches for students, it may increase the number of students who sign on in good economic times, but consider saying "no" before the times turn bad and then you have a bloated academic product and you have to lay off staff in order to keep it moving. (This is not necessarily my college, it's colleges across the country according to the Chronicle of Higher Ed.) If you're in any institution with a leader who focuses on "vision," no matter how high or how noble the vision, make sure there's someone there to occasionally say "no" to him or her -- a Roy Disney to their Walt. Etcetra ad infinitum.

(To quote U2's song "So Cruel": "I gave you everything you ever wanted // It wasn't what you wanted")

This is why Simon Cowell and Suze Orman are famous (I don't think it's for their fashion sense). Both have simple shticks.* They can and do say "no" to people, many of whom act as if they've never heard the word before. Good for Simon and Suze, as far as it goes. We need more "no"s so that "yes" retains some value.

* (After watching two or three of her "Can I Afford It" segments, it's pretty easy to come up with a formula that Suzy follows to say "Approved" or "Denied": 8 mo's emergency fund? Retirement OK for age? No outstanding credit card debt? Anyone can guess 9 times out of 10 what she'll say based on those three numbers.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Book Review: The Lost City of Z

This is as close to Indiana Jones as you'll get in the non-fiction section. David Grann is a New York reporter who started writing a story about Percy Fawcett, perhaps the last famous British explorer (think khaki outfit and pith helmet), who explored the Amazon basin several times in the early 20th century and disappeared without a trace on one of his expeditions, in which he was looking for a fabled lost city -- El Dorado, really, but he called it Z. With the help of a few only-recently-made-public clues, Grann traces Fawcett's path and finds more than a few new things that help us end his story ... and answer the question of El Dorado.

The best thing and the worst thing about this book is its pacing. Grann jumps back and forth between the past and the present, tracing Fawcett's life and Grann's search for answers in parallel. He pulls it off nimbly, but the problem is it saves all the truly interesting scientific stuff for the very end, when he finds hints of the Lost City of Z. Now, this stuff is cutting-edge archaeology and is only now being figured out ... but surely there's more to say than can be crammed into 5 pages at the very end of the book?! This book is about the journey, not the destination ... but the destination is very, very interesting and I want to know more.

In any case, at least his way of doing it keeps you in suspense, and there is an amazing payoff at the end. I'm sure there's people who will like this book more than the recent Indiana Jones movie (I liked that movie just fine, myself). It is very diverting and a great story, and best of all, it's true. So even though I'm kind of sick of non-fiction with my recent reading list, I enjoyed this book immensely, and it's just the scientist in me that wants to know more about the science. Guess I should read the journal articles, then.

And yes, my next book review will probably be fiction. :)