Category Archives: Science

Noah’s Phone

The world-wide flood is a great story. We find it in many cultures, so the idea obviously captured the attention of ancients as well as moderns. What’s strange is that, with the development of human knowledge so many people continue to accept it literally. The only science that can be bent enough to make it work is one where God breaks all the laws of physics and biology to kill everyone, just to make a point. Why bother to make it rain 40 or 150 days? Why not just create the requisite water instantaneously? It would be just as believable. Nevertheless, literalists look for explanations for how this might’ve happened. It’s not to convince God, of course. The goal is to convert unbelievers by showing that the myths of Genesis are literally true.

When I came across a story on Mysterious Universe by Paul Seaburn titled “Academic Claims Noah had Cell Phones, Drones and Nuclear Power,” I was hooked. The academic is a Turkish professor of marine sciences. Using modern technology—rather like the detritus seen scattered in the background of Darren Aronofsky’s recent movie version—he postulates that this could’ve happened. The real issue is why. Not why the flood; the Bible answers that. Why would a scientist feel the need to prove a myth scientifically? Biblical scholars call the flood story an etiology. An etiology is a story to explain the origins of things. That’s its purpose.

Noah’s flood explains why it rains. It also explains why this dome that covers our flat earth doesn’t fill all the way up anymore. It explains why animals are sacrificed and why rainbows occasionally appear to grace the sky after it rains. We also know that the story borrows from an even earlier Mesopotamian myth where the god who causes the flood isn’t even Yahweh. The people of Israel were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians and they told flood stories about their gods. The Bible counters with two stories (yes, just like the creation accounts) mixed together in this snow-globe universe of Genesis. Is it easier to believe this or to claim that Noah had access to Verizon, steel manufacturing, Einsteinian physics, remote-control flying machines, and artificial insemination (to help the animals recover)? It’s like when someone suggests natural explanations for the plagues of Egypt. Such special pleading doesn’t prove miracles, but rather it demonstrates that all this could happen without any gods involved. And you’re still going to have to mop up all that water when it’s over. I’m sure it will make for a great story some day.

Plain Speaking

When the president of the United States utters words too vulgar to print here, I think of the old They Might Be Giants’ song “Your Racist Friend.” The song is all about the indefensibleness of racism. We knew that back in the 1980s. What has made it acceptable now, in the highest office in the land? The fact that Trump is a racist was known to most of us well before he was “elected.” And, of course, the Republicans stand beside him. I feel sorry for the GOP, I really do. Those who simply wanted a fiscally conservative leader (wrongheaded in my view, but understandable) decided to go with a man who would want to revisit 1776, if he knew the meaning of the date, to ensure that this would always be white-man’s land. Hear this Republicans—by standing by Trump now you’re declaring, “He’s only saying what I’m thinking.” There’s no way to defend what he’s said about Africa, along with several nations elsewhere.

As we watch this bizarre space opera of an administration do its best pratfalls we don’t even have to go back all the way to the 1770s to wonder what went wrong. Bill Clinton was impeached for having an extramarital affair in the 1990s. Less than 30 years later we have a misogynistic, racist bully who’s on his third wife running this country like a casino. And the “Party of Lincoln” laps it up. They refuse to censure anything this bumbling excuse for a leader does. They’d be embarrassed, of course, but they haven’t considered, and refuse to consider, the consequences. I’m wondering what the musical 2016 will be like, but I have a guess.

As the Russia probe gets closer, the GOP tries to shut it down. That’s how we handle facts we don’t like now. Who would’ve thought that three decades on we’d be saying “mere adultery” was grounds for impeachment? Perhaps there were good people on both sides of that affair too. Science has demonstrated that “race” is a fiction, a human construct. But science no longer matters. Anything we disagree with we call “fake news” and FOX will be there to slurp it up and spew it wide. As Friday unfolded after 45’s statement about the status of an entire continent, his verbal incontinence still dribbling, his party rushed to defend “what he really meant.” What he really meant, he said. And what he said, if you don’t denounce him, is what you’re thinking too.

How Did We Get Here?

Where do we come from? Leaving aside the puerile snickers of our younger selves, we eventually learn “the facts of life” and get on with it. The funny thing is, conception wasn’t really understood until the late nineteenth century. Obviously people had been reproducing from the very beginning. Chances are they were curious about the matter even then. Scientific investigation was a long way off, however. Edward Dolnick tells the story of the discovery in a wide-ranging, entertaining, and informative way in The Seeds of Life. The subtitle gives an idea of the range and quirkiness of the account: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From. I used to tell my students that using the Bible for sexual ethics was difficult because biblical writers really didn’t understand what was going on “down there.” I think Dolnick would back me up on that.

Ancient people generally made the connection between sex and babies, of course. What was actually happening, however, wasn’t understood because sex cells require a microscope even to be seen, and that doesn’t make it obvious what they’re doing. Dolnick’s tale looks at advances in various sciences and, perhaps more importantly, the religious constraints under which they operated. The idea of the atheistic scientist is a fairly new one. Up through most of the nineteenth century scientists tended to share the worldview of others that God was assumed and that religious rules applied to such mysteries as life. That’s amply demonstrated in this book. True insight was slowed down considerably by religious presuppositions.

That’s not to say Dolnick blames religion—this book is much too congenial to do any blaming. A number of ideas had to coalesce, however, before it was understood that both women and men contributed to the developing embryo. Medicine was often looked down upon by science, and religion often crossed its arms and stood in the way. Despite all that, careful observation, and putting unexpected things beneath a microscope, finally led to the answer. It was sea urchins who finally yielded up the mystery’s clue. This book will take you some strange places. The individuals described are a curious lot. For the most part they’re also a religious lot. Persistent theorizing and persistent peering through a microscope and a willingness to question convention all had to combine to answer a question as basic and profound as where it is we come from.

Middle Age Demons

One of the consequences of watching horror movies is the interest in the origins of various monsters. Since many such films feature demons, their backgrounds and origin stories have always been a point of curiosity. Time is always an issue and Juanita Feros Ruys obliges that hurried sense by packing a lot of information into her short book Demons in the Middle Ages. Covering the basics in the introduction, she moves on to discuss demons in the desert—the bane of the early monastic, and demons in the monasteries of populous Europe. A chapter on the Scholastics describes how early science was applied to incorporeal beings, and a final chapter on learned magic, i.e., raising demons via magic books, finishes off this brief study.

What is particularly striking here is that the Bible says surprisingly little on the topic. It says, however, just enough to kickstart the Late Antique and Medieval interest in the subject. Vast amounts of speculation were raised in the Middle Ages concerning what exactly demons were and what they were made of and what they could or couldn’t do. Ruys points out the trajectory of the male necromancer giving way to the female witch just as early modernity was getting started. The results, we all know, were horrific. Throughout it is remarkably clear that belief in demons was strong. People took them very seriously—the Bible says they’re there, so there. Belief, as always, has consequences. Beginning with the Scholastics, however, a reasoned understanding of the spiritual world was deeply desired.

Reason and faith aren’t really the strangers they’re often portrayed to be. Medieval monks could be quite clever and scientific in their outlook. Human mental faculties, created, as they believed, by God, were necessarily good. Something I’d never considered, but which Ruys explores, is the belief that God cannot experience emotions. Being an “unmoved mover” meant not experiencing emotion (which, she points out, includes a noun of movement). This also meant that demons, according to some, had no feelings. This is a very cold spiritual world, particularly when it’s put into conflict with the human one. Spiritual, rational beings subjected to emotions, we’re the ones at the mercy of supernatural beings more powerful than us, yet incapable of the warmth we crave. About a millennium and a half of shifting beliefs in demons crowd this tiny book. Although not intended to be especially profound, it gives the reader plenty to ponder. Including why some of us watch horror movies at all when religion can do the trick all by itself.

Science and

Do science and religion have to fight? It’s not evident that they do, but some on each side of this divide like to keep the conflict going. Many religious believers feel threatened by the incredible success of scientific explanations. The gods who used to explain everything are now responsible for so little that it’s easy to feel foolish for believing. It doesn’t help that the most vocal scientists have made religion their personal court jester, adding ridicule to the mix. Krista Tippett’s book of interviews with scientists, Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, is a refreshing counter to this trend. Although it’s a few years old now, the book just landed under my tree, so I started off the new year with it.

A blend of interviews with scientists, quotes from their books, and personal observations, Einstein’s God is a fascinating and quick read. Covering topics from the wonder many scientists feel about their discoveries to medical understandings of how spirit effects healing to the ongoing debates about evolution, this book looks at the big picture. The scientists Tippett interviews, although some are atheists, don’t dismiss religion. In fact, many of them suggest religion in some form is necessary for healthy human living. As scientists they don’t dismiss science either. It’s refreshing to read about how those with scientific bona fides sometimes come to the same conclusions that those of us without the credits have surmised.

Once I began working at age 14, one of my earliest purchases was a subscription to Discover magazine. I was a charter subscriber. I was also a Fundamentalist. Not realizing that science and religion should be squabbling, I read science that could be digested by someone without professional training. Until I felt the tug of the ministry, I had intended to be a scientist. The only professional religionist interviewed in Tippett’s book is John Polkinghorne. A physicist cum priest, Polkinghorne has come to prominence among those involved in the debate between how we know what we know (the fancy term is epistemology). I wondered as I read this how it might differ from the other direction. Some of the interviewees were raised religious—Jewish and Hindu, notably—but none started out as professional religionists who went into science. That, I learned after college, is a much harder transition. Perhaps it says something about the nature of reality that to move into science as a career you must start with the undergrad prereqs if you ever hope to make the switch. Otherwise, those who start out with A’s in high school physics end up watching from the sidelines while others set the terms of the conversation.

All Is Calm

For those who prefer their solstice celebrations in Christian flavor, today’s Christmas Eve. As various denominations warn us to keep Christ in Christmas, secular NORAD provides a radar tracker to follow Santa through the skies. One hopes he’ll be cautious over North Korea this year. He may skip the White House altogether. And yet some will insist that there was no Christmas before Christ. But there was. Celebrations of the lengthening of the days began when humans reached temperate zones, at the very least. Prehistoric monuments throughout the British Isles were aligned with the sun’s position at solstices even before the Bible was scribbled on its first bit of parchment in warmer climes far away. We eagerly await the light.

Many religious traditions tell of that light within. Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, and some Asian religions focus on the divine spark, or secular light, within humankind. We are light-bearers, no matter what our religion. Back in my Nashotah House days, when Evening Prayer was a communal, daily expectation, the hymn Phos Hilaron, “gladsome light,” or, in the more liturgical mode, “O gracious light,” was the part that moved me most. We observe the coming of darkness with the hope that light might somehow continue. When days grow brief our hope grows fervent that the light will miraculously return. That it does so by the working of nature makes it no less of a wonder. We have been living in nighttime, and that light within us seems to flag at the persistent gloom. Then solstice. Christmas Eve captures that light in angelic voices.

Those who insist it’s all fake—the Tiny Tim crutch of feeble minds—need only look at NORAD today. The defense system built to keep the northern hemisphere safe from the endless winter of the nuclear species today shows a mythical object streaming across the stars with good will and cheer. Not just for Americans. Not just for Christians. Not just for true believers. No, Christmas Eve, the solstice, is for all people. Not just men. All people. Perhaps I’ve let my guard down just a little, and I’m letting my naiveté show just a bit much, but I do believe in that light. It may be that the tilt of the planet’s axis makes it inevitable, but a night when shepherds are startled and a woman brings hope to the entire world, we bask in what we deem a silent and holy night, knowing dawn will bring a longer day. And hopefully a world at peace.

Why Horror?

Some people wonder why I like horror. Well, “like” is hardly the proper verb here, I’d rather go the passive route—why I’m compelled by horror. That fits better. But isn’t compel a transitive verb? What’s the object? It really depends on the circumstance—compelled to read, watch, or look at. Quite apart from grammatical imponderables, I keep finding myself coming back to horror and I frequently wonder why. Mathias Clasen may have answered that question for me. Why Horror Seduces is a fascinating study that considers biological and psychological explanations for why we’re compelled to watch or read or play horror, even when we find it distasteful. And it’s not just excusing bad behavior!

As fairly weak creatures that are prey as well as predators, human beings have always placed a high value on security. We’ve driven most of our predators to extinction, but we still have other people to worry about. And microbes. And things that come from space. And, after all that, we still die. These are, realistic or not, things we must face. Horror allows us to confront them and assists us in considering “what would I do if…?” Clasen delves into an evolutionary theory of horror—we’ve evolved to need it. Negative emotions are some of the most ancient, leading us to self-preservation in a hostile environment (something our own government is teaching us anew even now). Watching or reading how people cope in such settings provides us with valuable information. In other words, horror is a learning opportunity.

From that perspective, it doesn’t feel so bad to have written a book about horror movies. I’m participating in the long struggle of humankind against forces that are out to get us. As with most things evolutionary, we need not know why we do them for the whole thing to make sense. Our brains reward us for behavior that is conducive to survival—we like to eat, sleep, and reproduce. Reward centers in our heads go crazy. Then we go to the theater to see the latest, greatest horror film. What may seem counterintuitive here is that we are engaging in a similar kind of activity to other atavistic survival techniques. Watching these movies, reading these books, (and for those who do so, playing these games,) has a basic biological utility. Who knew? And once I get brave enough to crawl back out from under the bed, I may feel better about myself for admitting I like horror.