Quantum Hope

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Oh, no, not THAT word!

Put the word “quantum” in a title or sentence and people get nervous.  Perhaps their eyes glaze over and they hope that it will go away.  Some stop reading and skip to another article.  Others are so disconcerted by the mere appearance of the term they can’t read another word and turn on their TVs, frantically looking for reruns of The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or better yet, Oprah.  Comfort food delivered by cable. Having placed “quantum” in both the title and the first sentence, however, those folks won’t have gotten this far.

So if you are still reading, you are among a small minority who are surprisingly brave and tenacious.  For most of you, however, I still need to allay one other fear: math.  Take a deep breath.  No math.  Please, though, don’t turn off your brain.  I’m going to suggest something that is indeed within the realm of quantum theory, but from a perspective few quantum physicists would entertain.

Consider this a treat.

If you aren’t sure what the quantum in quantum physics entails, I can provide a basic definition by offering a simple word picture.  It’s a matter of scale to describe the universe.  On the very big end is cosmology.  That’s what the giant earth-based observatories,  optical, radio telescopes, and space telescopes (like the Hubble, and the Kepler and the soon to be launched James Webb), look deep into space to better understand.  Cosmologists are interested in our  Milky Way galaxy, the galaxies in our neighborhood (we have a really BIG neighborhood) and further out from there to the whole universe.  Astronomers and astrophysicists study the cosmos, the biggest stuff out there.

Quantum physics studies the small end of the universe, smaller than atoms: subatomic particles with great names like quarks, Fermions, leptons and bosons, down to the smallest of the small, called a “bit” (The bit is still theoretical and is also considered a function of entropy. Click here for an explanation [Warning: Contains math formulas]).  They also study how those subatomic particles fit together and work to make the matter we can see.  And that is what a particle accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN straddling the border of France and Switzerland is designed to do.  Remember in The DaVinci Code, where the story starts in this giant underground building?  That’s CERN.  Particle physicists and quantum physicists study the small stuff and the forces that make them work.

What does this have to do with hope?  Everything, actually, but you’ll have to read just a bit more.

Quantum physics and cosmology have one goal in common.  They both want to figure out how the very large relates to the very small.  They want to discover how the smallest quantum bit is the building block for the universe (and maybe a whole bunch of other universes, too, but we’re not going there in this post).  This great quest is called the search for the Theory of Everything, or for short, The Big TOE.  Seriously.  Yeah, you can laugh.

Everything, however, is not scientifically measurable.  Life is one of those things.  I know we can create machines that can detect life and perhaps how much life exists a one place, but life as a phenomenon in the Universe is not measurable.

The whole notion is confounding, and has been the topic of debate among we humans well before the beginning of the Scientific Revolution with the publication in 1543 of Copernicus‘ manuscript, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.”   For example, Aristarchus of Samos, who lived CA 310-230 BCE, published the first treatise on the heliocentric model of the solar system, On the Sizes and Distances of Sun and Moon, which was then suppressed by the Greek religious authorities of his time because it did not match their beliefs about their gods and life in the universe.  That has a familiar ring to it.

For Half a Millennium…

The past half a millennium, from Copernicus to the present, we have struggled to decide not just what the universe is made of, but what it is at all.  It is the driving force in cosmology and quantum physics.

For those of us who are people of faith, we have also struggled to decide not just what life is made of, but have equally struggled to assign meaning to a concept that seems pervasive to all humans that we label spirituality.  And the greater challenge has been to assign meaning to our religious beliefs and their long-held sacred foundations.   As our understanding of both the Universe and Life have changed (yes, I am deliberately capitalizing both words to communicate that in this context I am seeking to convey a sense of cosmic wholeness) our search for meaning has not gotten any easier.  Why after thousands of years of consciousness in this earthly setting, do we still not understand either?

Diarmuid O’Murcho, who has written extensively about defining a “quantum theology“, states,

The universe knows what it’s about.  That it does not make sense to us humans, that it often baffles us to extremes and undermines all our theories and expectations, is not a problem for the universe; it is a problem for us.  We, therefore, impetuously conclude that the universe does not care about us or about anything else…Instead of viewing it all as mindless, why not work with the idea that it is mindful? (Evolutionary Faith, p. 199).

Even as I write the words of O’Murcho’s quote, I admit they sound strange, foreign, even counter-intuitive to me.  My intellectual world has never regarded the universe as mindful.  Neither has my theological world.  Perhaps, though, that has been the problem, my problem: I have viewed these two worlds as separate, distinct, and although I may have been able to conceptualize them as meeting, like two pieces of plate glass. When pressed against each other they have a cohesiveness, but they are still to pieces of glass stuck together.  In the world of the quantum reality, there is no reason for that to always be so.  In fact, it may be that it is only rarely so, because in quantum theory, boundaries and internal existence are not bounded or exist in the way I perceive them.

Spirituality, Cosmology & the Quantum Conundrum…

I come, then, to my most difficult and confounding question.  If I can believe in a mindful God who created a quantum universe, why do I assume that this mindful Creator did not create a mindful Universe in the same way that humans (therefore, me) were created: In the image of God?

If I allow myself to just for a moment to adjust my reality to that perspective, I realize that I see, though in a glass darkly as St. Paul says when he talks about hope (not just love, 1 Co. 13:15), a reason for hope in a universe otherwise devoid and incapable of such mindfulness:

Life is the universe’s sole expression of hope, for without life the universe cannot contemplate its existence, and without hope the universe does not exist.

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The First Image of the Universe as We Never Can See It, Because Our Eyes Cannot See in Microwave Wavelengths. Image: COBE, Goddard Space Flight Center, http://mather.gsfc.nasa.gov/cobe/science.html

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!

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.

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.

^^^^^^^^^^

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!”