Science


Last night I had received a text from a young man wanting my opinion about a very disturbing thing he’d run across. Apparently, an “engineer” is saying that on the date of the winter solstice this year (21 December 2012) our pale blue dot will align perfectly with the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, passing through the Dark Rift, which will set several catastrophic events into motion which perfectly align with the terrible judgments we read about in the Book of Revelation.

It took me several texts in response to assure this young man (who I congratulated for being Berean enough to want to double- and triple-check his facts before panicking) that this “engineer” is a complete, utter, total, unqualified flake. Not only does he betray a singular lack of scientific understanding, he also (apparently) doesn’t believe the Bible he refers to.

Basically, my quick-shot texts examined and then dismissed the “engineer’s” claims.

  1. Neither the Winter Solstice or the Summer Solstice (which happens to be June 20th this year) have any bearing whatsoever on any imagined alignment with any point in the sky. The solstices (and the equinoxes) involve the axial tilt of our planet relative to our orbital plane around the sun. During the Summer Solstice, as perceived in the northern hemisphere, our axial tilt (currently approximately 23.5°) appens to increase our obliquity of the ecliptic – which means we’re “tilted toward” the sun. The angle of insolation (the infall of sunlight) becomes steeper, which means that more of its energy is absorbed by our world in the form of thermal energy and less is reflected back into space. I.e., it gets warmer. This clears up a common misperception about our seasons, BTW; many people think that our closeness or farness from the Sun causes the seasons – untrue. We still had Winter this year, even though we were at perihelion (closest approach to the sun in our not-quite-circular orbit) the evening of January 4th this year. Granted, that helped make Winter less severe than usual, but we still had a winter – hence the snow in my driveway. So, the fact that the winter solstice corresponds with an imagined “alignment with the center of the galaxy” is about as important as whether or not it happens on a Tuesday.
  2. The “engineer” made a huge to do about the “Dark Rift.” He made it sound like some deeply ominous thing – when in fact if there was anything headed our way, the “Dark Rift” is our bestest friend. The Great Rift (the more correct phrase to use) is simply a vast conglomeration of light-absorbing molecular clouds which happen to partially occlude (block our view of) one of the galactic arms – not even the galactic center. The Rift is a visual phenomenon; the band of the galactic plane itself – from which our Milky Way galaxy derives its name – is the result of the starshine of billions of other suns, and corresponds with the bulk of the plane of the galactic disk. The Rift stands between us and part of the Sagittarius Arm (we currently inhabit the edge of the Orion-Cygnus Arm); it is what we see, in our line-of-sight, of several vast clouds of interstellar dust (probably something on the order of one million solar masses’ worth). Therefore, if it truly was between us and the galactic core, it (really, they) would serve to absorb ionizing radiation. Making a big deal out of the Dark Rift is like making a big deal out of a thousand thousand dust bunnies.
  3. I have no idea what anyone would even mean by an “alignment” with the galactic core. We are always in alignment with the galactic core…since we are always in line-of-sight of it. If conjunctions and superconjunctions of the planets in our own solar system don’t measurably affect us, then any supposed “alignment” with the galactic core would also be noteworthy for its very lack of measurable affect.
  4. Which brings up the inverse square law. Essentially, any force (such as gravity) reduces in strength by a proportion which is inverse of the square of its distance with whatever it is acting upon. In other words, the closer you get to a source, the stronger its effects become by geometric proportions. Likewise, the farther you get from a force, the weaker its effects become, until they drop off entirely. That is why Mars, which is a little more than half an AU farther from the Sun than is the Earth, receives only 36% the insolation of our home world. Gravity, being a fundamental force, obeys the same law. This is why the Moon, which is only 1.2% as massive as the Earth, has a more direct affect over the tides than does the Sun, which is roughly 333,000 times more massive than the Earth (and thus unimaginably vastly more massive than the Moon) – because the Moon is closer. Yes, Sagittarius A* (the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy) is probably 3.7 million times more massive than the Sun; but the Sun is on average 93 million miles from us, whereas Sagittarius A* is probably something close to 147,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 147 quadrillion miles, or 147 million million) miles away. So whereas its gravity does affect us, it does so by helping constrain our solar system’s orbit around the center…and that’s pretty much it. In fact, it’s more the aggregate mass of all the stars in the galaxy (especially closer to the core) which affect our system’s orbit than it is the relatively much smaller mass of Sagittarius A*. If you can imagine that.
  5. Finally, even if Sagittarius A* did affect us, we’d know the affect was coming long before it arrived – we’d see evidence of the shockwave front propagating outward from the galactic core. Any effect must travel slower than light, and at that distance (25,000 light years) any core event’s light cone would far outrace whatever wavefront it originated from. That’s why we can detect distant supernovae, then wait for the neutrino shower that followed them. The light from any supernova outpaces the neutrinos ejected during and from it – which is mind-boggling, since neutrinos travel very, very fast.

I won’t even get into the “engineer’s” odd views regarding gamma ray bursts (he apparently thought that we were looking down the barrel of a GRB from Sag A, even though GRBs propagate from the poles of quasars rather than from their equators, which is more of what we’d be in the line of). Or his misunderstanding of the hypothesized internal structure of a black hole (which he kept referring to as “opening up,” as if the event horizon was a physical barrier of some sort).

But I will comment on his misunderstanding of Scripture.

The “engineer” was apparently tying all of this to Bible prophecy – that the supposed catastrophic events which are going to be brought on by our “alignment” with the galactic center correspond with the terrible judgments of Revelation.

First, Jesus specifically stated that we can know neither the day nor the hour in which He is returning – and therefore any attempts to pinpoint the timing of the Rapture (which is what pinpointing the timing of any Tribulation judgment involves by mathematical necessity) is automatically doomed to failure – and equally automatically invalidates the one doing the pinpointing.

I can appreciate a desire to “prove” the Bible by showing how the Bible anticipates modern science. But vastly more harm than good is done by taking barely understood facts grossly out of context and slapping them together in a faux-scientific chimera of an explanation to “prove” the Bible. We don’t need to “prove” the Bible. We simply need to believe it and let it say what it says where it says it. Besides, I think a desire to “prove” the Bible shows that we fundamentally lack an abiding trust in it and its Author – we’re looking for “outside verification,” as if God Himself wasn’t trustworthy enough.

Yes, true science always winds up validating the Bible (or rather, the reverse is true).

Emphasis on true science.

Evangelasticity does nothing but confirm the atheists’ canard that we as Christians are anti-science by our very misuse of science.

We can do better than that.

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I’m in chapter 10 of Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Impossible, and he includes a quote from Isaac Asimov which I thought very funny…and very profound:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” (I found it) but “That’s funny…”

Two of my hobbies are history and physics.  Unsurprisingly, two of my favorite TV channels are History and the Science Channel.

I especially love it when my two hobbies collimate.

Probably my favorite show right now (and I have to be very choosy of the shows I watch, given my ridiculously packed schedule) is The Universe – incredible show.  One of the recurring guys on the show is Michio Kaku, who is perhaps my favorite current theoretical physicist.

Yes, I’m a physics groupie.

I have read other things by Michio, and when he became a regular on The Universe, especially on the Parallel Universes episode, I found out he’d released a new (at that time) book – Physics of the Impossible.  I had intended to buy his book – I really, really had – but for a variety of reasons put it off.

Mostly because I’m already reading several other books, including John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life and Starlight, Time and the New Physics, with a truckload of other books on tap (most  notably, The Race Set Before Us – thanks to Michael Newnham – and The Orthodox Church, with a smattering of books on Lutheranism, as well as painfully and slowly working my way through Summa Theologica and The Ante-Nicene FathersI have no spare time…)  Those books, while interesting, I read because they expand my thinking related to my calling as a pastor.  Physics of the Impossible is my mind-candy – something I read for the pure joy of it, a book to unwind with at the end of a hectic day.  But given that I’m (a) dirt poor [did I mention that I’m a pastor?] and (b) very extremely short on discretionary time, to add another book to my stable of “currently reading” for a long time was just too much to reasonably consider.

So it’s taken me quite some time to pull the trigger and pony up the Washingtons to buy Michio’s book.

Over a fleeting break during my day-job-to-support-my-habit, I finally bought & downloaded it.

I’m only in the preface, and I’m absolutely hooked.  Some quotes to give you the flavor:

I was just a child the day when Albert Einstein died, but I remember people talking about his life, and death, in hushed tones.  The next day I saw in the newspapers a picture of his desk, with the unfinished manuscript of his greatest, unfinished work.  I asked myself, What could be so important that the greatest scientist of our time could not finish it?  The article claimed that Einstein had an impossible dream, a problem so difficult that it was not possible for a mortal to finish it.  It took me years to find out what that manuscript was about: a grand, unifying “theory of everything.”  His dream – which consumed the last three decades of his life – helped to focus my own imagination.  I wanted, in some small way, to be a part of the effort to complete Einstein’s work, to unify the laws of physics into a single theory.

Given the remarkable advances in science in the past century, especially the creation of the quantum theory and general relativity, it is now possible to give rough estimates of when, if ever, some of these fantastic technologies may be realized.  With the coming of even more advanced theories, such as string theory, even concepts bordering on science fiction, such as time travel and parallel universes, are now being re-evaluated by physicists.  Think back 150 years to those technological advances that were declared “impossible” by scientists at the time and that have now become part of our everyday lives.  Jules Verne wrote a novel in 1863, Paris in the Twentieth Century, which was locked away and forgotten for over a century until it was accidentally discovered by his great-grandson and published for the first time in 1994.  In it Verne predicted what Paris might look like in the year 1960.  His novel was filled with technology that was clearly considered impossible in the nineteenth century, including fax machines, a world-wide communications network, glass skyscrapers, gas-powered automobiles, and high-speed elevated trains.

Not surprisingly, Verne could make such stunningly accurate predictions because he was immersed in the world of science, picking the brains of scientists around him.  A deep appreciation for the fundamentals of science allowed him to make such startling predictions.

Ironically, the serious study of the impossible has frequently opened up rich and entirely unexpected domains of science.  For example, over the centuries the frustrating and futile search for a “perpetual motion machine” led physicists to conclude that such a machine was impossible, forcing them to postulate the conservation of energy and the three laws of thermodynamics.  Thus the futile search to build perpetual motion machines helped to open up the entirely new field of thermodynamics, which in part laid the foundation of the steam engine, the machine age, and modern industrial society.

We ignore the impossible at our peril.

The purpose of this book is to consider what technologies are considered “impossible” today that might well become commonplace decades to centuries down the road.

Already one “impossible” technology is now proving to be possible: the notion of teleportation (at least at the level of atoms).  Even a few years ago physicists would have said that sending or beaming an object from one point to another violated the laws of quantum physics.  The writers of the original Star Trek television series, in fact, were so stung by the criticism from physicists that they added “Heisenberg compensators” to explain their teleporters in order to address this flaw.  Today, because of a recent breakthrough, physicists can teleport atoms across a room or photons under the Danube River.

I’m hooked.

If you’re as fascinated by these things as I am, you will love this book.

So say we all.

Probably one of the chiefest reasons modern evangelicalism is wholesale abandoning Biblical inerrancy is the discomfort many have with the plain reading of the Biblical account of Creation.

This has led some to put forward the idea that the Creation account was simply an observational statement which is not itself an actually accurate description of the real events – much like when we say “the sun rose” – obviously, the sun don’t rise none; our world, caught in a stable orbit within our sun’s gravity well revolves around our parent star exactly once each solar year.  It is simply a statement of observation; from the perspective of the viewer, the sun seems to rise while the horizon appears from our frame of reference to remain fixed.  It is technically inaccurate to use the phraseology, “the sun rose,” but even planetary scientists use the term descriptively; it is an idiomatic peculiarity of the human experience expressed in language.

Those who seek to accommodate current scientific assumptions, to help the Bible out and excuse what they view as an obvious contra-scientific view of origins, try to argue that the first several chapters of Genesis are obviously in the same category; they are observational, phenomenological descriptions only which are something more than myth but less than strictly accurate.

You have several galactically massive problems with that view.  Not the least of which is that the Creation account is given in such exacting detail down to an explicit chronology, that the Spirit sure does seem to have Himself at least at one time believed that He was accurately recording the events He claims to have not only been witness to but actually the active agent in.  Too bad the Holy Spirit didn’t have the benefit of modern science, there, eh?  Poor divine Guy…

The Spirit’s not the only Person of the Trinity Who suffers from this myopia, either; Jesus apparently didn’t have that information, either.  He certainly seems to have been victim to the mistaken idea that Genesis is accurate and trustworthy.  He didn’t have the advantage of living in the modern era, here in the Year of Our Lord Darwin 200, where such silly misconceptions could have been corrected and He could have spared Himself (to say nothing of His less conservative followers) considerable embarrassment.

The bottom line for me, and one which those who hold this sort of view vigorously deny is the case, is that it all boils down to a question of authority.

Either the Bible is the final authority for the Christian, or it isn’t.  You can’t have it both ways, and there is no via media.  If it is the final authority, then all things must be viewed through its lens.

The modern (and the postmodern, ironically enough) view Scripture through a lens other than itself.

The modern views Scripture through the lens of current scientific understanding.  The idea is that the Biblical authors were genuine and sincere, but also ignorant, and while the Bible is accurate in the message it seeks to convey, the particulars must be viewed through our much more complete understanding of the way of things and must be redacted to fit more comfortably into the worldview we now know to be established scientific fact.

Except…that it’s not established.

Science, by its very nature, is constantly (dare I use the term?) evolving, constantly learning new things which put the older, “established” things into a different light, allowing for wholesale reinterpretation of previously unquestioned tenets.  We are vastly more ignorant than our premodern ancestors if we think that we have things so nailed down scientifically that we can now offer editorial help to God.  Even previously understood laws of science are vulnerable to reinterpretation in light of new information.  Just in the previous century, our entire understanding of the physical nature of creation had been turned on its head – not once, but several times.  In another hundred years (should the Lord tarry) I expect that our current understanding of physics (and with it, cosmology) will be again completely revolutionized.

By contrast, the Bible is fixed, unchangeable.  And given its origin (the God who created all things and exists wholly outside of Creation), is the only viable lens through which the Christian can and should view the world.

The modern views Scripture though the lens of our current, limited understanding of science; the postmodern views Scripture through the lens of culture.

Even worse an option.

I view both through the lens of Scripture.

So when the Bible sure does seem by every internal indication to teach that God created the universe in six consecutive chronological days, I have no choice but to accept that, and to view all data through that presupposition.

As Dr. Morris states in this tremendous article:

The difference is this: we believe the Bible must take priority over scientific theories, while they believe scientific theories must determine our biblical interpretations.

The issue is, categorically, one of authority.  If I view Scripture through any external lens, that lens is my true authority.  If I accommodate Scripture to culture, culture is my authority.  If I accommodate Scripture to current scientific understanding, then that is my authority.

If I instead accommodate both culture and current scientific understanding to Scritpure…then Scripture is my authority.

Read the article “Old-Earth Creationism” and consider its arguments.

Yes, yadnom.

I figure that makes about as much sense as the über-hep-cat-yo-dog-g-money ECMmer “Manic Music Monday” type of spiffy-artsy, My incredible cultural relevance can beat up your honor student blogpost.

So…let’s get our yadnom on.

Yo.

Some of the things round ’bout the ‘net that have piqued my interest, and should pique yours

And there you have it.  To both of my readers: enjoy.

George Musser talks about his new book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory.

[Again, WordPress won’t let me embed the blasted video. Click here.]

Interesting retro-look-back article here that gives a pretty interesting look at what life was prognosticated to be like by futurists* in the year 1968.

*Futurist: Someone who predicts what the future will be like based on extrapolations from present-day conditions and reasonable trends. Not to be confused with theological futurists, who (correctly) interpret the Apocalypse as being mostly yet-to-be-fulfilled.

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