Science-based Religion Blog

Science and religion are not intrinsic enemies. Science strives for revelation. It is the revelation of the universe as we find it. The current picture of the universe is in perfect harmony with many religious perspectives and in stark contrast to others. This blog intends to explore these harmonies and conflicts of Science and Religion. Keep an open mind and a gentle heart please.

Location: Richmond, Virginia, United States

My family background is third generation German-American. I was the younger of two sons. My father was an English professor who had also served a Protestant minister and missionary to China. My mother was a nurse and social worker. I went to Purdue University, where I earned a B.S. degree in the Honors Physics program. I got a masters degree in Physics from the University of Southern California and also a masters and Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the USC school of religion. I have worked as a teacher and as an IT professional. I am married, with no children but two cats.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

This I Believe

I was reading some of the series of short essays that NPR elicits from various significant members of society continuing the idea of "This I believe, ..." In his essay, titled Science Nourishes the Mind and the Soul, Brian Greene, a physicist and author, explains how when he was a child and had just been to a planetarium, he was uneasy about what he had just learned. He was told that Earth is not the center of the universe, of everything, but rather a small bit of a very large collection of similar bits.

In this, he echoes the sentiments of adults over the past four hundred years as various facts about our place in the cosmos relentlessly chipped away at the religiously based myth that the earth is the God's only creation of a world, and we (humans) are the most important of the creatures upon the earth. Further, these religious myths imply that God only really cares about a small segment of the humans, those He took the trouble to inform about Himself and His will.

While science has displaced us from that lofty perch, we need not wallow in a miasma of insignificance. As Green puts it, he later came to change his mind about the results of science.

While we are small, my decades of immersion in science convince me this is cause for celebration. From our lonely corner of the cosmos we have used ingenuity and determination to touch the very limits of outer and inner space. We have figured out fundamental laws of physics -- laws that govern how stars shine and light travels, laws that dictate how time elapses and space expands, laws that allow us to peer back to the briefest moment after the universe began.

My study of physics has resulted in similar revelations. People who have not studied science beyond the required classes of high school biology cannot understand the perspective of the scientist, any more than I can understand the perspective of one who has been on the moon or someone who has meditated six hours a day for twenty years or survived the Nazi Holocaust. But I can assure you that spending thousands of hours focused on the equations and experiments of science does change your perspective. It becomes impossible to look at things the same as before one learned all this.

As an example, I can vividly recall a class I took during my undergraduate study of physics, a course in mechanics, the physics of bodies in motion. As this was an honors physics class, we did more than solve simple equations such as F = ma (force equals mass times acceleration, one of Newton's laws). On this day, we set out to understand the Coriolis Force. This "force" is like the so-called "centrifugal force," which we think of as a force that pushes one right when one turns left in a car, for example. What we are really feeling is our body trying to continue to move in the direction it was traveling in before the turn began. The real force is the force pushing the car (and its occupants) off the straight path.

The Coriolis Force is like this, but it is the result of moving parallel to the surface of a rotating sphere. Imagine trying to fly south while the earth rotates beneath the plane. From the perspective of the plane, the surface below is shifting from right to left, from west to east. But we tend to take the perspective that the earth is not moving and so the plane seems to be pushed sideways.

Describing it this way is good for a start, but this class started with a more formal mathematical description of the situation. Motion in an equation is represented as a change in position divided by a change in time. Over a non-moving surface, this is simple. But then the equation is transformed so that it is operating in a frame of reference of a rotating sphere. One gets a rather complex and daunting differential equation which must be solved using various techniques of calculus. The professor began to transform the equation using the rules of calculus and so line by line the equation became longer and longer, but each equation still representing the idea of motion near the surface of a rotating sphere.

At one point, I looked at these long strings of letters, many of them from the Greek alphabet, with another collection of symbols used in calculus.

See this link for some examples. For a moment, I took myself out of my state of mind of following the logic of the derivation. I realized that at one time, years before, I would have looked at this as so much nonsense. But because I had spent the required hundreds of hours studying algebra and then geometry and trigonometry and analysis and calculus and more calculus, coupled with almost as many hours studying other derivations, I actually could make sense of each equation. More amazing was the way that the equation eventually yielded to the persuasions of calculus and changing into a relatively simple equation that described the apparent force as it was related to the direction one was attempting to move with respect to the surface of the sphere.

The result is actually so simple, it can be described as follows: whenever one moves parallel to the surface of the earth in the northern hemisphere, one will experience an apparent force to move one to the right. In the southern hemisphere, the force is to the left. Most of us have now seen the graphic satellite time-lapse images of hurricanes and storm systems. They invariable rotate counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise down-under. This is because in a storm, the center is at a lower air pressure than the surrounding air, causing the air to rush toward the low pressure area. But on its way in, the Coriolis "force" pushes the air right so it eventually circles the low pressure point counter-clockwise. Winds around a high pressure rotate the other way as the air rushes away from the center and is bent right.

So what? I started this entry noting how Dr. Greene felt as he learned the ways of science. What I experienced was the deep internal logic of our universe that links all things at some level to all other things. Not only does this reveal remarkable things that we might never have imagined, but in the process it teaches us what remarkable minds we have (some would say, what remarkable minds God has given us). As one scientist put it, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. "

Teaching science, if it is taught correctly, should spark the sense of awe and wonder at this fact, that we can study just about anything in this vast collection of phenomena of our world, and by patient effort and the sharing of that effort with those who came before and who will come after, we can actually make sense of the whole thing, at least a little bit. If this does not spark wonder and joy at existence, then one has not properly comprehended the enterprise of science.