Fewer Posts

November 16th, 2009

While I am in school, I will be making fewer posts.

Goodbye Shroud

November 1st, 2009
The face from the Shroud of Turin

The face from the Shroud of Turin

Some years ago, I researched and wrote a piece for Christian History Institute in which I brought out a number of facts which suggested the Shroud of Turin was a hoax. Holy Shroud, Mysterious Relic.) These included contemporary statements, radio-carbon testing, pigmentation errors, and misleading reports on the shroud’s pollen content. A couple shroud believers wrote me angry emails.

My skeptical approach was right. Luigi Garlaschelli, an Italian professor of inorganic chemistry, has reproduced the shroud, using only methods available in the 13th-century. Carbon dating tests had established that century as the most probable era for its creation.

Garlaschelli was not the first to produce such an image. In Spring, 1982 Skeptical Inquirer also printed pictures of images reproduced using 13th-century techniques.

Intriguing Alternatives

October 18th, 2009
Alfred Wegener, founder of plate tectonic theory.

Alfred Wegener, founder of plate tectonic theory.

In Proverbs there is a wise observation that says, The first to present his case seems right until another comes forward to question him. History has shown this to be true in the sciences. Scientists are not always the best practitioners of the scientific method. Like the rest of us, they can ride hobby horses and develop blind spots.

One of the things I love about this universe that God created is its many possibilities. And I am glad that he makes Galileos who question reigning paradigms.

Three new proposals ask if we have the picture right. Whether their proponents will prove to be Galileos is doubtful; nonetheless their opposition to the Big Bang, Wegnerian plate tectonics, and dark matter are intriguing.

Those who dispute the Big Bang seem to me to be in the weakest position. Led by pioneers such as Irving Langmuir and Hannes Alfven, this coterie of scientists suggest plasma currents in space as an alternative explanation for many of the features we see in the universe. However, their theory does not seem to offer the simplicity and predictive power of the Big Bang.

The great weakness of plate tectonics is its non-intuitive demand that plates are subducted. Somehow a large, floating mass must be forced or drawn down to occupy a smaller, denser space, as if forcing icecubes under water into a tray smaller than they emerged from. This has led to an alternate proposal that expansion of the earth and rotation of plates can better explain observed changes than the dominant theory—especially the chronological record of sea-floor spreading. I like this idea, put forward by Karl Luckert and others, which seems to offer no more insuperable difficulties than those demanded by subduction.

Another interesting alternative proposal to a dominant idea is put forward by physicist Georgi Dvali, who says gravity leakage into extra dimensions can explain cosmological observations better than the problematic theory of dark matter.

Will any of these theories supplant the reigning wisdom? Will the questioners prove more right than the first to present their case? I do not know, but as long as scientists are allowed to question, tests will suggest themselves, and truth will advance.

Violent Entertainment

October 4th, 2009

Isaiah, one of the prophets who spoke against violence.

Isaiah, one of the prophets who spoke against violence.

A repeated lament of Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel was that violence was being done in Israel and Judah. The New Testament also rebukes violence.

Not just doing violence but being entertained by it is dangerous. The Universities of Michigan and Iowa State undertook studies which showed that violent media numb viewers to the suffering of others.

Different studies were conducted by Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson. They demonstrated that exposure to violence in media and in video games makes people slower to respond to others who are being attacked, and to downplay the seriousness of violent actions such as fights.

In a backhanded way these findings endorse the wisdom of David, another Bible writer, who, in one of his psalms, vowed to put no evil thing before his eyes.

Optical Illusions

September 20th, 2009
This optical illusion should squirm under your gaze.

This optical illusion should squirm under your gaze.

Friday I was looking for 3D optical illusions for an art class. I found a web full of wonderful 2D illusions in the process. The ones that intrigued me the most were those that appear in motion because of the automatic responses of the brain.

To know theoretically that the brain is constantly making calculations unnoticed in the background to process the input of my eyes is one thing, but to see its actual attempts to adjust to the impossible—the illusions wiggling and squirming—is another. It points up what an amazing organ we are dealing with.

The system is so complex it begs for a designer. What is more, it serves a higher purpose, giving fair warning that not everything is as we see. Now why should nature build a metaphysical lesson into our seeing process for us?

P.S. If you know who deserves credit for the illusion above, let me know.

Group Well-Being

September 13th, 2009

Small group in a church.

Small group in a church.

Jesus, by his teachings and by the training he gave his disciples, created the church. The writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews urged Christians not to quit assembling together. Paul’s letters contain many descriptions and admonitions regarding “the body of Christ.” The history of the early church shows that the practical application of these principles was an energetic and indestructible social group which at various times came to dominate the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.

Where Christianity has gone, associations and organizations, often loosely modeled on the church, have abounded and flourished—for evidence, see the Encyclopedia of Associations and the International Encyclopedia of Associations. (As an aside, it is notable that some of the governments within the United States were based on organizational structures derived from various Protestant churches.)

Recent work by Australian and British sociologists at the University of Queensland and the University of Exeter has documented that belonging to good groups tends to improve mental and physical health. A number of studies shows that participation in groups is a higher factor in a favorable health prognosis than is the actual progress of a disease.

Among the researchers were Professors Alex Haslam and Dr. Catherine Haslam of the University of Exeter and Professor Jolanda Jetten of the University of Queensland. Not surprisingly, given the interlocking nature of truth, their findings tend to confirm the wisdom of the Bible.

Biological Wisdom

September 7th, 2009

The design of DNA from the U.S. government's genome project.

The design of DNA from the U.S. government's genome project.

Gerald L. Schroeder, in The Hidden Face of God, discusses the wisdom scientists are finding as they dig into the hidden workings of biology (and other sciences). For example, a few strands of DNA, invisible to the eye, carry sufficient information that a complete human being, with all its different cells and capabilities, can form from their blueprint. Or consider our thinking process and the working of nerves which carry information to the brain, a system which is exquisitely simple on one level but extraordinarily complex on another, and certainly indicative of brilliant design to anyone without a closed mind.

I find intriguing Schroeder’s continual references to the wisdom of nature which reminds him of Old Testament wisdom references, including Proverbs 3:19—”With wisdom God founded the world.”

I would take it a step farther, however, and say that the most sensible explanation of everything that exists (including Christian history, the cross, and the resurrection), is found in the writings of Paul, who says that Christ is the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24) and that it was through him and for him all things were created, visible and invisible (Colossians 1:16ff).

Paths of the Seas

August 30th, 2009

Christian oceanographer Matthew Maury mapped the seas.

Christian oceanographer Matthew Maury mapped the seas.

Matthew Maury believed the Bible. He read in Psalms 8 and 107 of “paths in the seas.” His attitude was “If God’s word says there are paths in the seas, they will be found.” Having circumnavigated the globe before he was thirty, he was familiar with ocean currents, tides and winds.

His break came when he was given a post considered a sinecure: Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments in Washington, D.C. He found many old logs gathering dust and saw the chance to convert them into maps of winds and currents. He also solicited information from captains world-wide, promising them free publications in return. Millions of his forms were returned to the Depot, enabling him to revise and update maps, and advise the entire world on shipping lanes. He advocated many farsighted advances which are documented in my book Scientists of Faith.

Like many scientists before and after him, Maury’s Christian faith played an integral part in advancing knowledge. He is an example of why thoughtful faith should not be disparaged in scientific circles.

Appendix by Design

August 23rd, 2009

Diagram showing the appendix in a human.

Diagram showing the appendix in a human.

The appendix is still erroneously reported in some textbooks as proof of evolution. This traces back to Darwin, who called it a vestigal organ—the remnant of a previously-existing organ which evolution had outdated. Darwin thought it was all that was left of a larger bowel called a cecum.

Evidence has mounted against this evolutionary proposal. Studies since Darwin’s day show that 70% of rodents and mammals have groups with appendices—including several which have the larger cecum bowel, which raises the question, what is their appendix a vestige of? Furthermore, appendices appear in species which are unrelated by evolution. How and why did the same organ appear in unrelated species? Did evolution strike in the same way twice? What are the odds of that?

Actually the appendix is now thought to serve a unique and necessary function. The bowel needs certain bacteria to function properly. If these are wiped out, they must be repopulated for the health of the host. This led Maryland researchers to propose that the appendix serves as a “safe haven” for such bacteria and allows the re-population of these benign symbiotic forms in their hosts. Thus the appendix turns out to be beneficial and there is more than a hint of good design.

But what about appendicitis? Again this turns out to be a function of changes in human society, which have set it up for inflammation, rather than faulty design in the organ.

Retrograde Planet

August 16th, 2009

Imaginary planet.

Imaginary planet.

Almost every one of the more than 300 planets so far discovered orbits its star in the direction the star rotates. This has to do with the way planets form. According to the British Wide Area Search for Planets, working in collaboration the the Geneva observatory, they have discovered the first planet to orbit in a retrograde manner—opposite of its star’s rotation.

The star and its planet are about 1,000 light years from earth. The team who discovered the planet theorize that its unusual motion is owing to a near-collision with some large body. The planet is also bloated, probably because of an eccentric orbit that brings it quite close to its star at times.

The point of this is that every new discovery shows just how unlikely the stable orbit and just-right conditions of our own earth are, suggesting the hand of a designer in its preparation and maintenance for the support of human life.

Book Review: A Step Farther Out

August 9th, 2009

Pournelles ever-timely essays

Pournelle's ever-timely essays

Jerry Pournelle’s essays, A Step Farther Out, were published as a book in 1979—thirty years ago. A bit late for a review, you say? Do you belong to a procrastinators club? No and no. My justification for reviewing this “old” book is two-fold. One, I just ran across it; and two, the themes of its opening essays are so timely they could have been written for today.

Now I am going to confess that I have read only the first third of the book. The remaining essays may turn out to be dogs (although I doubt it), but the opening essays are electrifying.

In “Survival with Style” and “A Blueprint for Survival” Pournelle points out the doomsday mentality of American intellectuals and the danger of losing our nerve. He shows that our problems are soluble if we think big and allow innovation.

I was especially interested in his defiance of the Club of Rome’s doom-and-gloom. Not only are those guys wrong on almost every testable count, but their solutions point directly to the ten-headed dragon-state of Revelation. Pournelle saw straight through them.

Unfortunately, we seem to be taking the path Pournelle begged us to avoid: we lost our nerve. We are following the nay-sayers of the Club of Rome. Pournelle was calling us to faith—faith that with clear thinking, big dreams and hard work we could triumph over our obstacles. As a Christian I see those virtues springing from trust in God (which is why intellectuals by and large have no vision; they have jettisoned God).

Not many looks at social issues hold up so well as Pournelle’s. I rather think every such book ought to be reviewed in thirty years. We’d see then who were our Wormtongues and who talked straight.

Mind Reading Becoming More Scientific

August 2nd, 2009

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of a human brain.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of a human brain.

Research at Rutgers and UCLA is enabling scientists to “read” the mind. When people perform selected tasks, their brains tend to alter functional MRI (fMRI) images in predictable ways. By studying control images of subjects known to be performing one or another of eight actions, the researchers can then predict which action another subject is performing based on an fMRI. They guess right 80% of the time (chance would be 13%). Eventually, researchers hope to use fMRI to determine whether a person is lying or telling truth.

This research is still a far cry from real mind reading. True mind reading would be to know someone’s thoughts and motives the way the Bible says God can. However, the movement of science toward being able to do with crude mechanical apparatus what God is said to do through spirit goes some way toward confirming the plausibility of the Biblical claim. Allowing for a moment the hypothesis that God designed the brain, it would be surprising if he could not provide himself some means of retrieving information from it.

Real Science Fiction

July 26th, 2009

The cover of an old <em>Amazing Stories</em> magazine.

The cover of an old Amazing Stories magazine.

Science fiction afficionadoes, imagine harnassing stars and moving them from place to place. Or contemplate living on a planet where everyone pays one another in good deeds. Think what it would be like to meet aliens for the first time, or to live for eons upon eons. How wonderful it would be to terraform a world! Or suppose you could set your foot into the fabric of space and “feel” your way into another dimension. Think of the implications of a time machine which permits you to examine the past and answer historical questions. What if the great figures of yesteryear could be brought together in one place and you could meet them? What if you could live forever?

For many years I was an avid reader of science fiction. From Balmer’s When Worlds Collide to Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld I read fascinating speculations and longed to enter the authors’ worlds. As I grew in my Christian faith, however, science fiction began to turn me off because of its increasing trend toward hubris, occult, pornography and atheism. It was no longer the delight it had been.

However, all was not lost. Fulfillment of all the desires evoked in me by science fiction is promised in God’s word.

Jesus was able to pass through walls. Clearly he moved through other dimensions. We are to have a body like his with the same ability.

To us angels are aliens. We will meet them.

And we will meet every person ever saved by the blood of Christ. Imagine what histories of God’s dealings with men we will learn! Mathematics shows us that we can spend an infinite amount of time with every person in heaven even if we see each person only once every billion or trillion or quintillion years, because an infinite series (such as prime numbers), no matter how far separated or how sporadic, remains an infinite series.

It appears we will terraform worlds. Paul teaches us that all creation groans until the Sons of God are revealed. Evidently at that time we are going to fix some broken things.

In heaven it seems we will pay our way in love and praise.

And there will be ages upon ages of new experiences (the Hebrew for “forever” is “ages of ages.”) Paul speaks of “ages to come.” Apparently God has planned many different learning levels, each encompassing an age, until at last everything is put in God and God is all and in all. Then the inventor of everything, the creator of the longings which find dim expression in science fiction, will be our eternal delight.

What promises these are! No wonder Jesus compared the kingdom to a pearl of great price which we ought to sell everything to obtain. “Make every effort to enter the kingdom of heaven,” he said. No wonder those barred from the kingdom will go with weeping and wailing.

Lord, let us put nothing in this ephemeral world above gaining that kingdom.

Hats off to Robert Boyle

July 19th, 2009

Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle

It is hard to underestimate the importance of the Protestant thinker Robert Boyle to modern science. After his conversion to Christianity, Boyle struggled against thoughts of suicide. The problem lay with the science of the day, which was infused with elements of astrology, alchemy, and Aristotalian physics, a concoction utterly at odds with Bible teaching. Both could not be true and their conflict caused him mental anguish.

Boyle did not commit suicide. Instead, he determined to investigate truth in a new way, banishing the obscurity of the alchemist’s laboratory. As a result, he improved the scientific method, writing the first papers in the modern scientific style, listing hypotheses, conditions, equipment and results. His careful experiments soon relegated alchemy to the dust bin. (See my article on alchemy.) In response to a bit of Aristotalian reasoning by Hobbes regarding vacuum, Boyle developed the law of gases which bears his name. He also was a founding member of the Royal Society.

If more scientists would set out to resolve their crises of faith in Boyle’s spirit, starting from the premise that Christ as the agent of creation is responsible for both biblical revelation and natural truth, we’d have better science.

Artificial Intelligence and the Eye

July 12th, 2009

The marvellous human eye.

The marvelous human eye.

Artificial means something created by human art rather than occurring in nature. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a computer program designed by humans to handle problems creatively, that is in the manner that the higher animals or humans would handle them.

An enormous amount of brainwork goes into successful AI developments. And the most efficient solutions generally come from the study of nature. For example, Boston College researchers Hao Jiang and Stella X. Yu recently revealed an improved method for getting computers to recognize moving objects.

Not surprisingly, their method more closely imitates the working of the human eye and brain than previous methods had.

When the most intelligent minds in our labs find it necessary to model their hardware and program designs on nature’s designs (and still can only roughly approximate nature’s successful designs), one is compelled to consider the overwhelming likelihood that nature itself has an intelligent designer of far superior ability.