MEanderthal: Fun With the Past–Ice Ages Past–From the Smithsonian

Homo Neanderthalensis, Reconstructed by John Gurche, Smithsonian, Hall of Human Origins

It Has Always Been About More Information: Survival vs Extinction.

A few months ago I got a smart phone.  The name I soon learned was very appropriate for at least two reasons.  First, it can do things that even ten years ago only the most expensive PDAs (personal digital assistants) could do, and second, it really is smarter than I am.  The learning curve is pretty steep on this device, and not being of the Digital Generation; actually that’s not quite true.  The first computer I remember being introduced to was in my senior year of high school, which used computer punch cards to run formulas.  It was about the size of a large suit case, had no monitor and had to be rolled around on a heavy cart.  It was like being given the chance to examine a treasure chest full of jewels, a coup that my math teacher had pulled off to get it on loan for a few days.  It looked something like this, except without the cassette disk drive:

Early WANG 600 Computer. Credit: Computer Museum, Grongingen, NL.

I remember clearly the assignment was to decide on a formula to punch into the cards and then feed them through the machine to get an answer.  The formula I chose was E=mc².  It’s a good thing the Homeland Security hadn’t been thought of yet, or I might have gotten a late night visit from a bunch of guys driving a big black Suburban with darkened windows.  However, once they got a look at my math grades (always my nemesis), they would have undoubtedly left laughing hysterically at the very idea of my being any threat to national security whatsoever, which remains true to this very day.

Back to the Smart Phone.  I spent several months deciding which phone I would purchase.  My daughter, the brilliant young up and coming media  guru has opted for the Apple/Mac world of computing and of course, loves everything about her iPhone.  I, however, have never been responsive to Steve Job’s siren call, because throughout my career, the organizations I worked for always used PCs.  But in a moment of uncharacteristic daring, I decided to take the leap on my phone and bought a Motorala Droid™.  All right, I like it.  A lot.  Even if it is smarter than I am.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Now, on to the fun stuff.  The question, “What does it mean to be human?” has been asked in every generation since humans reached the point of being self-reflective sentient beings.  The question is no less important today, as the digital revolution continues to transform our lives in ways unimagined even a decade ago.

One of the most important contributions to this search for meaning has been in the area of genomics.  Unlike the racist roots of the Eugenics Movement a century ago, the development of genomics has been been a set of initiatives based on several different areas of research.  One has been researching the molecular structure of the genes that populate virtually every living cell either as DNA or RNA.  Another has been medical research to discover the causes of certain diseases and conditions (everything from diabetes to cystic fibrosis to birth defects) and attempt to develop new treatments for these debilitating and often life-shortening diseases  (Eugenics is a concern in this area, of manipulating zygote fertilization to create “desired” human offspring, or artificially designing species, among others).  What I am most interested in in this post is how the mapping of  the genome of a single species gives us an enormous storehouse of information of what happened prior to the modern form in its evolutionary development.  That leads to the tantalizing question:  What were our distant ancestors like, which hominid (or hominin, if you prefer) line did we descend from, and how far back can we read those genetic sign posts to better understand who and what humans are now?

The Human Nucleotide Molecules. Image: Public Doman

I am aware that this is an unsettling question to many people who are conservative Christians (and other faith groups, too), but I have stated in numerous posts as well as my blog on science and faith, DÎSCÎ, the Disciples Institute of Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry, that I accept the scientific evidence for cosmic, geological and biological evolution.

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, under the leadershop of Dr. Francis Collins, MD, who is currently serving as the head of the National Institutes of Health.  Earlier, just this year, however, the long-awaited Neanderthal Genome Project was completed.  Here from Wikipedia:

At roughly 3.2 billion base pairs,[3] the Neanderthal genome is about the size of the modern human genome. According to preliminary sequences, 99.7% of the base pairs of the modern human and Neanderthal genomes are identical, compared to humans sharing around 98.8% of base pairs with the chimpanzee.[4] The researchers recovered ancient DNA of Neanderthals by extracting the DNA from the femur bone of a 38,000-year-old male Neanderthal specimen from Vindija Cave, Croatia, and also other bones found in Spain, Russia, and Germany.[5] Only about half a gram of the bone samples was required for the sequencing, but the project faced many difficulties, including the contamination of the samples by the bacteria that had colonized the Neanderthal’s body and humans who handled the bones at the excavation site and at the laboratory.[3]

Additionally, in 2010, the announcement of the discovery and analysis of Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the Denisova hominin in Siberia revealed that this specimen differs from that of modern humans by 385 bases (nucleotides) in the mtDNA strand out of approximately 16,500, whereas the difference between modern humans and Neanderthals is around 202 bases. In contrast, the difference between chimpanzees and modern humans is approximately 1,462 mtDNA base pairs. Analysis of the specimen’s nuclear DNA is under way and is expected to clarify whether the find is a distinct species.[6][7] Even though the Denisova hominin’s mtDNA lineage predates the divergence of modern humans and Neanderthals, coalescent theory does not preclude a more recent divergence date for her nuclear DNA.

Although more work will be done to clarify the findings, the implications of this research will only lead to a better understanding of the lineage of the human race.

Anatomical Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal Skulls. Credit: Creative Commons License

With the publication of the Neanderthal Genome Project results, the Smithsonian Institution opened a new exhibit called “The Hall of Human Origins.”

Hall of Human Origins. Image: Courtesy Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Reconstructions are: Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, & Homo neanderthalensis.

An exhibit with such revolutionary displays of explaining the history of the human race had to be more than set pieces with little placards explaining what this bone or other is what.  And the Smithsonian came through!  They developed an application for both Android and iPhones that would allow you to take a picture and using digital morphing, transform any face into one of several of our extinct ancestors.  Fun?  You bet!

Before you click on the links below to see me, enjoy this short YouTube video on how the app works:

Now, on with the show: David Devolving!

A Tale of Two Planets

"No one would have believed..." Photo: JPL/NASA

 

A Tale of Two Stories

My dear readers might expect the opening lines of a post bearing the title with such an obvious play on the most-published original English story in the world to follow the path of Dickens’ immortal words.  In this case, however, I ask your indulgence to open with the words of another world-famous piece of literature, known for its dramatic presentation, but far fewer have ever read its introductory sentence:   

NO one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.   

These words written in 1898 by the equally immortal English author, H.G. Wells, open his universally known War of the Worlds. I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that like many, if not most contemporary Americans, I know Wells’ story through its radio and cinematic productions, but have never read the book.  I had to look up a copy of the text on-line, because unlike Dickens’ opening salvo in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, Wells opens his   

War of the Worlds, 1st Edition, 1898. Image: Public Domain

 

at a much more subtle and cerebral level, “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched…”  Watched by whom?  Martians: perhaps the first modern depiction of alien life prescient of the field of astrobiology.  Amazingly, many would have believed it; millions did.  Mars was the planet of fanciful speculation, with good reason.  But I will return to that later.  Nevertheless, the universe was still a relatively small and cozy place.  Science, as we know it today, was a toddler awkwardly running to and fro, counting and building things.   

Yet a revolution was brewing, pushed by industry through the 1700s and 1800s, astonishing breakthroughs on how to build things big, how to make an inconceivable jump from the strength and power of humans and beasts to the harnessing of natural elements into machines with the power of a thousand beasts and ten thousand laborers.  That however was prelude, for another force was being created and directed, a force that would not only create power but carry information.   

Though this revolution grew, another vortex formed like a gathering tropical storm, from an unexpected province, not over the consequences of the growing industries that were rapidly building on each step of the toddling sciences, but from the increasing rotation of the storm creating winds and havoc–its target–the very ground and the life that lived upon it:  Geology.  Biology.  Evolution.  The age of the earth.  The origin of life.  Bones, now stone, dug from the ground.  Ocean shells on mountain peaks.  That confluence of the science of the human mind and the science of the divine mind created a cyclone that like the Great Red spot on far distant Jupiter’s gaseous oceanic atmosphere, has now raged for over a century and a half.   

As the turmoil over the origin of the world and life raged across the world, something much more quiet and solitary was happening after dark.  For 300 years, since a Dutch oculist placed two pieces of curved glass into a tube and realized it could magnify the image at a distance, and soon after an upstart Italian mathematics professor pointed it at the sky, a select group of men, (almost always supported by women, from a sister who was devoted to her brother’s work, to a room filled with highly educated astronomers, but denied access to the telescopes even as these instruments were growing in sophistication), began counting what they saw in the sky.  What they saw amazed them.  Very slowly it began to dawn upon them that these views of the heavens were going to change the universe in ways so profound that the debate over evolution or divine creation would pale almost to insignificance.  Now, if they could just figure out why.   

War of the Worlds Title Page, 1st Edition, 1898. Photo: Public Domain

 

In the three decades that followed Wells’ words, Science matured at staggering rate, accomplishing more in those thirty years than perhaps had been achieved in the previous thirty centuries.  It is difficult to describe in words the sheer magnitude of the transformation of reality itself.  The universe was not small, it was huge beyond comprehension.  It was not young but old, so old that nothing in the cherished scriptures of three of the world’s greatest religions gave the slightest hint of that age.  And that included an ancient age of the very Earth itself.   

That was only the beginning of the stunning revelations.  As the discoveries of science accelerated through the Twentieth Century, Edwin Hubble in 1929 proved the Milky Way galaxy was but one island universe among, not thousands, but billions, and they were not suspended motionless in the cosmic void, but were moving, and moving at speeds unimaginable previously to any human in history.  Away from each other. Which led to only one other even more stunning conclusion: There had been a beginning.  But what that beginning looked like was so close to being beyond human comprehension that nearly a century later, millions of people still cannot bring themselves to accept it.   

It would make no difference though to those who stepped into the staggering reality of the universe.  Within that one stupendous century powered flight was invented and human technology leapfrogged from aircraft barely able to climb into the air, to a machine of such great power and thrust, that humans broke the gravitational bonds of Earth.  A scant 40 years after Hubble discovered the true nature of the universe, two humans would step upon the surface of Earth’s moon.   

By the end of the 20th Century, these two stories, one by Dickens and the other by H.G. Wells still command the literary attention of the world.  At the same time, the two stories of reality, one guided by a devotion to a divinely inspired word, and the other guided by an inspired effort of humans to describe in words what they observed still have not found a way to comfortable accommodate each other, although growing numbers are searching for that integrative spark of the fusion of the two.  It is among these seekers that the tale of two planets becomes a revelatory event, a new genesis, indisputable in its truth and its impact.   

A Tale of Two Planets

Earth and Mars to Scale. Photo: JPL/NASA

 

When H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, the photos above did not, could not, exist.  What Wells had at his disposal were maps such as this drawing by the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877:   

Mars Map by Schiaparelli, 1877. One of the first attempts to map the Martian surface. Originally published in "Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (German encyclopaedia), 1888." Photo: Public Domain

 

A century later, through the combined efforts of NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) satellites orbiting the Red Planet, using sophisticated imaging equipment, the true topography of Mars has been revealed:   

Mars Composite Topography Map of the Surface. Photo: JPL/NASA/ESA

 

The story, however, is a tale of two planets.  In similar fashion, Earth-orbiting satellites have also mapped the topography of our own blue planet:   

Earth Composite Topographic Map. Image: GFSC/NASA

 

One of the most interesting facts about Mars and Earth is that Mars has almost the same amount of land area as Earth.  The difference is that Earth’s oceans cover about 71% of the planet.  Land accounts for 148.94 million square kilometers  on Earth.  Mars has 144.80 square kilometers of land.  Where, then is the water?  That’s a question that has been relentlessly pursued since, well, Schiaparelli labeled surface details on his map “canale”, which was inaccurately translated into English as “canals” rather than “channels.”  Earth-based telescopes could see that the north and south poles of the planet had what appeared to be ice-caps, which grew and shrunk with the seasons (which are about twice as long as Earth’s due to Mar’s orbit being about 80 million km on average farther from the Sun).  But was it enough to have once given Mars vital oceans?  Those hopes were dashed (though prematurely) when in 1964 NASA’s Mariner 4, the first space probe to make it to Mars sent back pictures of a dry, dead, world.  Still, the prospect of a once wetter Mars remained tantalizing.  Over the course of the next half century as more robotic missions were flung toward this enigmatic world, the possibility of water, in great quantities continued to lurk just under the surface.   

The breakthrough finally came in the first decade of the 21st Century, as ever-increasingly sophisticated space probes, some in orbit, some as landers, photographed, radar-probed, scratched the soil, traversed the surface testing thousands of samples of rock and soil.  The chemical hints of water were everywhere, but the proof seemingly nowhere.  Schiaparelli’s channels were there, as were volcanoes of a height that stunned planetary scientists.  Mars bears the scar of the largest canyon known in the solar system, Valles Marineris, as wide as the continental United States, deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon on a scale so massive as to make the great rift in the Earth look like a scratch by comparison.  Ice on the poles was confirmed, too, although the amount of carbon dioxide ice “dry ice” mixed with the water is substantial.  Still, the volume of water seemed too small, even accounting for evaporation and sublimation (liquid turning from ice to gas without going through a fluid state).   

Mars: Valles Marineris with U.S. Map Overlaid. Photo: NASA

 

In 2008, JPL/NASA/University of Arizona in partnership with multiple countries and international companies successfully landed Phoenix at 68.2° North.  Although it was not designed to traverse the martian surface like the wildly successful rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, it had a shovel to scrape through the soil.  On July 31, 2008, in a trench dug no deeper than a child might dig in the sand on a beach, images from Phoenix proved, once and for all that Mars had water:   

Evaporating Ice on Mars, Phoenix Lander, 31 July 2008. Photo: JPL/NASA/Univ of Arizona

 

Ice exposed in the trench on Sol 20 (the designation of a day on Mars), had evaporated/sublimated away on Sol 24.  What if the Red Planet had once been the second Blue Planet?   

Mars with Oceans Current Topography. Image: MOLA & NASA/JPL/MSSS

 

And all this brings us to this photo of an unassuming-looking rock.  Looks, however can be deceiving, for this rock is a meteorite, and it is from all places, Mars.   

ALH84001,0. A Meteorite from Mars. Discovered: Antarctica, 1984, Wt: 1930.9g, Photo: JSC/NASA.

 

Although meteorites confirmed from Mars are extremely rare (only 12 have been verified), the most astonishing possibility as slices of three of these extraterrestrial rocks were subjected to electron microscopy, structures were present that appeared remarkably like microfossils found in earth rocks.   

Possible Fossilized Nanofossil from ALH84001. Photo: NASA

 

And this one from the Nakhla, Egypt Martian meteorite:   

Complex biomorphs appear on another Nakhla chip shown in this scanning electron microscope (SEM) frame. This image contains three basic forms: Broad smooth knife-shaped features, elongated features with rounded endcaps and transverse compartments or dividers, and donut shaped small features, each about 1 micrometer in diameter. One possibility is the donut-shaped features are derived from the compartments present in the elongated features (Wikipedia):   

Mars Meteorite, Nakhla Egypt, Possible Nanolife Markings. SEM Image: David McKay/NASA

 

And, finally, this electron microscope image also from the Nakhla Martian meteorite of a possible nanofossil:   

Martian Meteorite Nakhla, Possible Nanolife Fossil Image. SEM Image: David McKay/NASA

 

Does it not seem oddly paradoxical to recollect H.G. Wells’ opening sentence when he wrote,   

…perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.   

We, the humans of Earth are examining the rocks of Mars, scrutinsing them for “transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water,” even if that drop of water existed billions of years ago.  We know we have found Mars’ water.  Now, are these structures the remnants of life when Mars was the second blue planet?  If that turns out to be the case, the indisputable fact that life existed on both planets, the tale of two planets will require not a new chapter, but whole new book.  For those who cling to the accounts of the Divine Word as given to a one and only act of creation, from which Homo sapiens sapiens is the capstone of the cosmic plan, they will have to grapple, as never before–regardless of the tirades of the past 150 years–with the realization that the Creator they worship is more clever and speaks with words never heard by human ears, not only on our planetary sibling, but throughout a Universe too large to comprehend, but begging us to do so, nonetheless!   

First Photo of Earth Taken from Mars' Surface by Spirit Rover. Photo: NASA

 

This is the first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. It was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit one hour before sunrise on the 63rd martian day, or sol, of its mission. The image is a mosaic of images taken by the rover’s navigation camera showing a broad view of the sky, and an image taken by the rover’s panoramic camera of Earth. The contrast in the panoramic camera image was increased two times to make Earth easier to see.   

The inset shows a combination of four panoramic camera images zoomed in on Earth. The arrow points to Earth. Earth was too faint to be detected in images taken with the panoramic camera’s color filters. Source: NASA.   

Little did H.G. Wells ever imagine that the first Martian to look at Earth would be through robotic eyes sent from Earth.   

   

Looking Up–Seeing the Past and Pondering God

This week I inaugurated a new blog called “DÎSCÎ,” which is the Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry. (It is pronounced “dye-sigh”). The address is: http://www.disciforum.wordpress.com.  DÎSCÎ’s homebase is on The Intersection, which is a companion site for members and friends of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), sponsored by DisciplesWorld, an independently published print and online magazine for the Disciples.

I have, for some time, wanted to create a forum, an online institute in which people of faith could discuss the many issues regarding religion and science.  But my idea was to move beyond the creation-evolution debate and start a conversation of what it means to be a person of faith, particularly from the Judeo-Christian perspective in a universe that is very large, very old, and to give genuine credit to the advances in science over the past nearly 500 years.

I am grateful for the assistance of Rebecca Woods, who created The Intersection and serves on the DisciplesWorld staff, for her interest and encouragement in launching DÎSCÎ.  Here, then is the Inaugural Post of the Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry.

DĪSCĪ Space Theme

Looking Up–Seeing the Past and Pondering God

Day and night. The most important cycle that governs our lives. Our bodies are finely attuned to the light of day and the dark of night.  It is as natural as breathing.  We think of that 24 hour cycle as very simple.  The earth spins on its axis; part of its surface is always in light and part is always in dark.  It has been this way since the creation of the world.  Both of the creation stories in the Bible, in Genesis 1 and 2 use the word “day” to describe God’s creative activity.

There is, however, nothing simple about it at all.  The complex set of forces that keep us safely spinning around the life-giving warmth of the Sun are only now beginning to be understood.

Yet, because of its constancy, we take it for granted.

Let me ask you a question.  When was the last time, when you left your home after dark, that you actually looked up at the sky?  Not just a glance, but looked up with intention to see what, well, what you could see?

I’ll venture a guess: Probably only rarely.  If you live in an urban setting, the combination of light pollution and air pollution might make it nearly impossible to see much of anything.  If your home is in a rural part of the country, you may very well be able to see the starry arc of the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon.  And if you are fortunate enough to live or visit well away from a population center, the night sky can be so bright you hardly need a flashlight to move around safely.

Whatever you can see, though, when you look up into the sky is not the present but the past.  The photons hitting the retina in your eyes are all different ages even though every one of those photons is traveling at exactly the same speed–the famous speed of light, which is about 186,000 miles per second, or 300,000 km per second.  Astronomers call this “look back time.”

The light reflected from the moon takes just a tick over one second to reach Earth.  The Sun, some 93 million miles away, takes around 8 minutes. The farther the object is from me, the older the light is when it reaches my eyes.  When Earth passes by Mars (which is the fourth rock from the sun), the light takes anywhere between three and about six minutes to reach us, because both orbits of Earth and Mars are elliptical, just slightly egg-shaped.

If I point my telescope at the Andromeda Galaxy (also called M31), which even in my suburban backyard I can easily see, I am looking at light that is over 2.5 million years old!  And Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way.  In fact, Andromeda and the Milky Way are moving toward each other and some billions of years into the future, they will collide and merge.  Astronomers call it, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Milkomeda.”

Milky Way with Annotations. Generated from Spitzer Space Telescope Images
Milky Way with Annotations. Generated from Spitzer Space Telescope Images.  Our Solar System lives in the Orion Arm.

You get the idea.  The farther away the object is, the older the light is when it reaches Earth.

The other key concept is that everything in the universe is moving, and not just moving haphazardly, but expanding away from each other (the trajectories of some galaxies, like the Milky Way and Andromeda, will cause them to collide).  That’s what Edwin Hubble proved in 1925, using the Hooker 100 inch Telescope on Mt Wilson just up the hill from Pasadena, California, that was threatened by the huge “Station Fire” just last week.  This discovery led to the realization that the universe was expanding from a beginning point in space and time, which we now call the Big Bang.  And just a few years ago, astronomers discovered that the universe is not just expanding, it is accelerating.

What we’re interested in, though, is the Beginning, not the End.  Astrophysicists have wound the cosmic clock backward and come up with an age that the Universe is about 13.7 billion years old.  That’s old. Really old.  Can we see anything that old in the sky?  No, we can’t.  But modern telescopes have gotten so powerful that we can see a long way away and therefore back in time.  On September 2, 2009,  Prof. Tomatsugu Goto of the University of Hawaii released this photo of the most distant galaxy with a central black hole, and therefore oldest object ever observed.  It is 12.8  billion light years from us and the mass of the black hole is estimated to be  a billion times that of our sun.

QSO (Quasi-Stellar Object) The Largest and Most Distant Black Hole Galaxy Ever Imaged
QSO (Quasi-Stellar Object) The Largest and Most Distant Black Hole Galaxy Ever Imaged. 12.8 Bn LY Distant.  Photo: T. Goto, University of Hawaii.

Ponder this image for a few moments, as pixelated as it is.  This is the image of a real galaxy with a real black hole at its center (just like our galaxy has, by the way) that existed  billion years ago.

Here on Earth, which by comparison is only 4.5 billion years old, we humans–in particular we humans of the Judeo-Christian heritage–have viewed our universe as being, well, kind of cozy.  As the old saying goes, “God’s in his (sic) heaven and all’s right with the world.”  And although about 500 years ago that coziness began to be challenged and started unraveling when Copernicus published his “On the Revolutions” in 1543, we have been mostly content to think and talk about God in the way we always have.

Enter the dawn of the 21st Century. We are struck by the enormity of what  astrophysics has revealed to us; new discoveries make the news every week.  The universe is not cozy.  It is huge, old, complex, colder than we can imagine and hotter than we can imagine.  The very molecules that make up our bodies were born out of forces we can barely describe when stars blew themselves apart.

How do we talk about God in this kind of reality?  And life? Life on one planet in a universe that stretches 46.5 billion lights years in every direction?  How do you talk about God in this reality?

This is where we will start.  The Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry is officially open for discussion.

Before you answer, if you can, go outside and look up into the sky for a while, and ponder what is out there, as ancient photons hit your retina, and your brain translates them into the points of light we call stars.

Galileo’s Telescope: the 400th Anniversary, August 25, 1609

August 25, 1609, Galileo presented a telescope identical to this one to the Doge of Venice.  First thought to be primarily of military value, very soon Galileo pointed his scope at the moon over Venice.  Modern astronomy was born, and by 1610, he had proven the Copernican model of the sun-centered universe relegating the Ptolemaic geocentric model to history.  He was hailed as a genius and a hero.
Galileo's Telescope, 1609.  The objective lens was only about 2" with 2-3X magnification.  He soon made improvements and bigger scopes up to 20X.

Galileo's Telescope, 1609. The objective lens was only about 2" with 2-3X magnification. He soon made improvements and bigger scopes up to 20X.

And what of the conviction for heresy in 1633? The mantra repeated by astronomers and scientists alike is Galileo was convicted of heresy for believing in the Copernican model, where the Sun is the center of the universe (it would take some more time for astronomers to properly define the Solar System).   That is not historically accurate. Wade Rowland, in his book, Galileo’s Mistake shows quite convincingly by analyzing the letters and transcripts of the trial, that, in one very real respect, Galileo’s ego got him into trouble.  When Galileo published his apology for Copernicanism, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, commonly referred to as The Dialogue, he went much further than just presenting the arguments for both theories.  He challenged the authority of the Church.  Rowland writes,
The problem was that as Galileo framed the dispute, its resolution demanded nothing less than the Church’s acquiescence in the dismembering of philosophy into two separate disciplines, moral and natural.  And it demanded religion’s complete withdrawal from the field of science and the interpretation of scientific knowledge.  Here was the ultimate challenge to the Church’s authority, beside which all others paled (p. 258).

The photo below gives a good sense of scale when the telescope was put on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in April 2009:

Show is Galileo Galilei's telescope, during a press preview for the Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy exhibition at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Thursday, April 2, 2009. The exhibition is scheduled to open Saturday, April 4.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Show is Galileo Galilei’s telescope, during a press preview for the Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy exhibition at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Thursday, April 2, 2009. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

And here I am in the backyard in January 2008 with my “small” Orion Apex 90mm (3 1/2″) Maksutov-Cassagrain telescope (freezing my a— off, by the way; the temp was 28 degrees F.), that has the ability to see details that Galileo could only dream about, with a magnification range, depending on which eyepiece I use, from 48-160X.  He would have been stunned.  And my 90mm is a mere toy compared to the scopes that are available to amateurs, with refracting telescope lens up to 6 inches in diameter, and mirrors for reflecting telescopes up to 18, even 24 inches if you have the cash.  (If you go to my link  “About Extreme Thinkover” there is a picture of me with my Meade 6″ Newtonian reflector.)

David in the Backyard Observing with his Orion Apex 90mm Maksutov-Cassagrain Telescope

David in the Backyard Observing with his Orion Apex 90mm Maksutov-Cassagrain Telescope

Finally…How far we have come in 400 years:

Galileo's Telescope & the Hubble Space Telescope.  Photo: Institute and Museum on the History of Science.  A replica of the telescope was launched aboard Space Shuttle STS 125 in May 2009.

Galileo's Telescope & the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: Institute and Museum on the History of Science. A replica of the telescope was launched aboard Space Shuttle STS 125 in May 2009.

For information about the Galileo Telescope aboard STS-125, click here.

God: Darwin got it right.

Update:  A day ago, I posted this blog with the title, “Perfect Scripture, Perfect Belief, Perfect Answer–A Parable.”  The more I thought about it, the more I realized I had come up with the perfect example of obscurity.  Obscurity can be intellectually satisfying at times, but, you know, if nobody gets it, as an author, I’m not getting it either.

The controversy between science and religion over evolution has been filled with a century and a half of heated debate.  It has been as contentious as any ideological issue in human history, a cultural war of biblical proportions. So I changed the title to one appropriate for Extreme Thinkover.

I got your attention, huh.  I dare you to read on!

There lived a people in a time in which the sky was constantly clouded.  The sun and the moon were never visible at all.  They knew nothing of the stars.  They were prosperous and devoted to God, who they believed had created all things.   The people studied the Scripture and found great comfort in the words.  For generations they taught their children that those words had been given directly to them by God, and that its description of the world was perfect.

One day a band of travelers came to the land and told of climbing to a place so high that the clouds became thin.  They described the sun and the moon as having light of unimagined beauty.  They claimed to have caught a glimpse of the sky by day in which there appeared a blueness beyond the clouds and by night a sprinkling of lights in velvet darkness.

The elders of the land called the people together and for many days they discussed what the travelers had told them.  Opening the scriptures, they studied what God had said about the earth and sky.  Daily they questioned the travelers, arguing with them, challenging them in every detail which they had reported.  The travelers, excited about what they had seen, retold their story over and over, and in the debate suggested that the Scriptures did not reveal everything that was possible about the world and the sky.

These words were received with shock and dismay by the Elders and the devout.  The idea that the Scriptures were not perfect in every detail was looked upon as being unthinkable.  God had given the writings directly to the people so they might perfectly understand what and how to believe.  And those words declared that the sky was cloudy and no other description of the sky was possible.

Finally the Elders and the people gathered to make a decision about what to do about the story the travelers were telling.  A few of the faithful wanted to go with the travelers to the high place and see for themselves, but this idea was met with great consternation by the Elders and the faithful because it gave assent to the notion that the travelers might be right and that would be in direct contradiction of the Scriptures.  Some left the assembly, however, and joined the travelers.

After long discussion the Elders and the faithful came to a decision.  They must live their lives in such a way that there could never be the remotest chance that they would have to deal with heretical unbelievers again.  So, the people began to excavate huge caverns under the hills in which to live.  Being very clever, they built cities and farms to sustain themselves into the future.  The Elders were pleased with this because they knew that now they could teach the scriptures perfectly that the sky was always cloudy, for in their great caverns, their “sky” would never change and they could say with complete honesty that the only sky any of the faithful had ever seen outside the cavern was cloudy.  This was the word of God and it would remain perfect.

So, with great celebration the Elders and the faithful marched into their caverns and sealed the entrance, confident that they had defended their faith and their God against unspeakable heresy.

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Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.  This year, 2009, is the 400th anniversary of the official invention of the telescope, in 1609.  2009 is also the 30th year since my ordination to ministry.

I actually wrote the Parable in 1998, a point in time when various fundamentalist Christians were attempting to force school boards (in Kansas, if I remember accurately) to teach “scientific creationism” or “intelligent design” as scientifically equivalent alternatives to evolution in biology, geology and astronomy.  Although some of those battles are still going on (Texas being in the news most recently), the higher courts have refused to rule in favor of the creationists.

That is good. The brilliance of God’s ultimate cleverness in creating the universe is not a topic for the scientific method, scrutiny and modification.

Discovering the mechanisms of that cleverness, however, is.  I recommend my readers visit the website for the American Scientific Affiliation which is devoted to dialogue among people of faith regarding science and religion.  The views below, although linked to ASA, are mine alone.

Scientific creationism is wrong because astronomy, astrophysics and quantum mechanics have discovered the mechanisms of the universe are very old and very large.

Intelligent design is wrong, because of not only what astronomy has taught us, but when integrated with geology and molecular biology and genomics, the mechanisms of the universe are based on explaining simplicity not complexity.

Both are wrong in insisting Biblical scripture is the final word on understanding God’s ultimate cleverness in creation, because if that is so, then every “scientific” discovery of those natural mechanisms, by which this universe operates from that cleverness, can lead to only one conclusion: God lied to us by creating a universe that we cannot perceive.

What does that leave us with?  After 150 years of debate since Darwin published, Origin of Species (which, yes, I have read), the concept of evolution, of change through time, the evolution of the universe, the evolution of galaxies, the evolution of stars and solar systems, the evolution of matter and energy, the evolution of atmospheric and geological forces on our planet, correctly describes the forces and the physical nature of what we perceive.

And life?  What turned on life?  And did life turn on only here on Earth?  Those are honest questions with no definitive answers.  Yet.

But once life appeared, it participated in the evolutionary engines that run the universe.  We find life folded into the evolutionary record of our planet into the past for at least 3.5 billion years.  Comings and goings.  Expansions and extinctions.  Changes and setbacks.  Life in the fossil record is always made of the same stuff.  Star stuff.  Carbon based life forms.  From the microscopic to the huge.  Complexity out of simplicity.  Changing size, changing form.  Cleverness out of cleverness, ever adapting.  Made of star stuff; feeding on star stuff; living on star stuff.  Dying.  Dying?

Then, us.  You.  Me.  All of us.  Apparently late in the process.  No, not late, just recent.  Recent by the way we regard the universe.

Now, that’s clever.  We regard the universe.  Even if life is seeded throughout the billions of galaxies we can now see with our telescopes, as common as ants are here, there is nothing apparent in the structure of the universe that predicts one species of that life would be able to regard the universe.  We can think about thinking.  That self-awareness that there is “I” and “Not I” and I can tell the difference, and here’s the really clever part, “I” can think about what “Not I” means.  Okay, I know I’m beginning to sound like Martin Buber.

What then, do I believe about creation?  First, I believe that God did not lie to us and create us unable to accurately perceive the universe he created for us.  Second,  being Ultimately Clever, I believe God expects us to pay attention to the universe he created, since through whatever mechanism embodied in his Word, we have the consciousness to believe in God and ask the question, where did we come from?

In the contemporary debate over creation and evolution, a new perspective is emerging in this century and a half old debate.  The term (which, I don’t find all that attractive, but it will do for now) is “theistic evolution.”

The most articulate proponent of theistic evolution is Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.  Dr. Collins and his team mapped the human genome, and revolutionized our understanding of both life and human life in particular.  I share his comments from a Time Magazine interview, February 12, 2009, reprinted on the website, Beliefnet.com:

I see no conflict in what the Bible tells me about God and what science tells me about nature. Like St. Augustine in A.D. 400, I do not find the wording of Genesis 1 and 2 to suggest a scientific textbook but a powerful and poetic description of God’s intentions in creating the universe. The mechanism of creation is left unspecified. If God, who is all powerful and who is not limited by space and time, chose to use the mechanism of evolution to create you and me, who are we to say that wasn’t an absolutely elegant plan? And if God has now given us the intelligence and the opportunity to discover his methods, that is something to celebrate.

I lead the Human Genome Project, which has now revealed all of the 3 billion letters of our own DNA instruction book. I am also a Christian. For me scientific discovery is also an occasion of worship.

Nearly all working biologists accept that the principles of variation and natural selection explain how multiple species evolved from a common ancestor over very long periods of time. I find no compelling examples that this process is insufficient to explain the rich variety of life forms present on this planet. While no one could claim yet to have ferreted out every detail of how evolution works, I do not see any significant “gaps” in the progressive development of life’s complex structures that would require divine intervention. In any case, efforts to insert God into the gaps of contemporary human understanding of nature have not fared well in the past, and we should be careful not to do that now.

Science’s tools will never prove or disprove God’s existence. For me the fundamental answers about the meaning of life come not from science but from a consideration of the origins of our uniquely human sense of right and wrong, and from the historical record of Christ’s life on Earth.

The parable I wrote in 1998, ended with the Elders and the faithful closing themselves up in the great caverns they had constructed to protect their absolute beliefs from ever being challenged again.  What I failed to do was write the ending to those who followed the travelers:

The travelers led the faithful remnant to the place where they had seen the clouds part.  They mostly walked in silence.  The faithful had doubts they had chosen the right path.  Some wondered if they returned to the place they had lived if the Elders would let them in again.  A few turned back.  A few saw a road to a place that looked promising, where the land was rich with food and water, and they took that way.  Those who remained with the travelers read daily from their scriptures and pondered the stories.  Each night they asked the travelers questions about how such a thing could be.  The travelers shared what they knew and admitted what they did not.  Each morning they walked higher into the wilderness.

They arrived at the place, a small plateau, late in the afternoon and made camp.  The sky was cloudy.    Below them in the distance they could see a blanket of clouds covering the land from which they had journeyed.  But the sky above them was solid grey.  That night around the fire, the faithful questioned the travelers hard and long.  Had they been deceived?  Had they given up their very lives for a lie?  The travelers’ urging for patience, that they too had been at the place for some time before they saw the sky, was little consolation.  Weary from their trek, they agreed to wait, to rest a week, as was their custom, and if nothing happened they would leave.

The first two days, the rains came.  The whole party sat huddled, chilled in their tents, trying to nurse their fires to keep burning for a little relief from the wet.  Few words were spoken.  The faithful and the travelers kept to themselves, the mood dismal, the day, gloomy.

Then the wind came up, strong, biting, whipping at the tents and all had to scramble to secure them from being ripped from the lines and blown over the edge of the plateau.  The gusts seemed to grow stronger with every passing minute.  One tent caught fire from embers blown into it.  Faithful and travelers alike rushed to beat it out and rescue the people caught inside.

Without warning, the wind calmed.  They stamped on the burning tent to kill the flames.  And then, a brilliant flash erupted, driving everyone face down into the mud. For an eternity, it seemed, blinding silence.  The smell of smoke gone.  A growing warmth upon their backs.

The voice of one traveler broke the silence, “The sky, look at the light in the sky!”