Travel in Space

Travel in Space
Popular movies portray travel in space as just being a matter of solving simple propulsion problems. The truth is that cosmic radiation is now better understood as a huge risk to space travel. In Scientific American (February 2017, page 54) Charles Limolihas wrote an excellent scientific discussion of the dangers of cosmic radiation.

Galactic cosmic rays are charged atomic nuclei flying at nearly the speed of light, probably coming from the supernova remnants of dead stars. Our Sun generates a great amount of radiation, but the cosmic rays are much more of a hazard. When these atomic nuclei hit molecules in our body, they ionize atoms, knocking electrons off the atoms and causing the atoms to become charged. These charged atoms hit other atoms, and there is a domino effect that is greatly magnified because of the extra energy involved. In human bodies, there are clusters of damage from such radiation, and just trying to duplicate the process in the laboratory has turned out to be incredibly difficult. Limolihas and his fellow researchers have shown that there is a much greater effect on brain tissue than anyone imagined.

The Earth is designed to handle this huge radiation by having two levels of shielding. The Earth’s magnetic field sweeps galactic cosmic rays away from the areas of the planet where most people live, and the atmosphere stops much of the rest. The amount of cosmic radiation we receive on the surface on Earth’s surface is relatively harmless. When you travel in space beyond Earth’s magnetic field, you, have virtually no protection, and that is going to be a huge challenge for space engineers to solve.

The lesson we would bring from this is that God’s design of Earth becomes more and more amazing as we learn of the complexities that have to be taken care of for you and me just to get up in the morning.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

The Mountains and the Sand

Mountains
One of the interesting studies available to students of geology is the way in which various structures on the surface of the Earth are formed. Where does sand come from and what message does it carry for us? Where we live in the Great Lakes area, there are massive amounts of sand. Areas to the south of us have lots of rocks, but relatively small amounts of sand compared to our area. This has not always been true, however, because deep underground in that area there are massive amounts of sandstone–the same sand we have around the Great Lakes but cemented together into rock.

Sand can be produced by the smashing of rocks. In places like Hawaii, there are beaches made up of black lava pounded into sand by the waves. There are even green and pink sand beaches made from rocks that contain colored minerals like olivine. Most sand, however, is made of quartz and is the by-product of the breakdown of volcanic rocks. Granite is made up of three basic minerals: orthoclase, hornblende, and quartz. There can be smaller amounts of other materials, but these are the dominant ones. These minerals have different hardness levels and are eroded at different rates. Orthoclase is quite easy to erode and has a pinkish color to it. This material erodes to become clay. The dark colored hornblende is also fairly easy to weather and erode. Quartz is extremely hard and durable. The result is that when weather and physical processes work on granite, the orthoclase and hornblende are carried away and what is left is quartz sand.

The massive amount of sand seen around the Great Lakes has come mainly from the granite that makes up the Canadian shield–the bedrock underlying much of North America. Any mountainous area will ultimately be reduced to nothing more than sand. One lesson that comes from mountains and sand is that nothing in this physical world is permanent. Jesus stated this eloquently when He said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break through and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19, 20).

When I studied geology at Notre Dame University, we had a professor who would take us on a field trip to the cemetery. Headstones erected in the early 1800s already had disintegrated into piles of sand. One has to be reminded of James 4: 14, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Through all of this, however, there is the message of purpose and design by God. The mixture of sand, hornblende, and clay lead to soil. Life could not exist on a planet made of rock that could not be eroded. The waters that erode the granite sustain life, and the erosion process produces the topsoil that feeds us. The change of mountains into sand makes Earth a vibrant, living thing of beauty. So too, our lives can be beautiful if we allow God to mold and shape us. That is one of the key messages of 1 Corinthians 15:51-55. As the writer tells us about the most beautiful change of all:

“Listen, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will all be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must be clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
–John N. Clayton © 2017

How Long Does it Take to Make a Canyon?

Yellowstone Canyon
Yellowstone Canyon

Yellowstone National Park is one of our great American treasures. During several summers at Montana State University, we spent a lot of time wandering around this huge wilderness. Most people think of Old Faithful and the geyser basin when they think of Yellowstone, but the canyon and falls are some of Yellowstone’s most beautiful places.

What does it take to make a canyon like this, and what does this tell us about the history of the Earth? The answers to these questions are remarkably simple. You need something that is capable of cutting down through a material, and you need a material that can be cut. On planet Earth, the primary geologic cutting agent is water. When water is frozen, it gouges and cuts a wide U-shaped channel. This is called a glacier, and the shape of its canyon is easy to identify. In the liquid form, water makes a V-shaped channel like the Yellowstone Canyon. How long the channel is and how deep it is cut are determined by how much water flows, how long it flows, and how hard the rock is. In Yellowstone, most of the rock is geyserite, a soft yellow rock easily cut and eroded by water. This soft rock is produced by volcanic processes, and deep canyons can happen quickly when flooding occurs.

In other places like the Grand Canyon and most of the eastern part of the United States, the rock is much harder and takes much longer to erode. Yellowstone is a young topography caused by recent volcanism. The sedimentary rocks of the eastern United States and the Grand Canyon took a long time to deposit and a long time to erode. All of this points to God’s patience and timelessness. We should not try to lock God into a time-frame that makes God look small and trivial. Remember that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Global Warming Nonsense

Global Warming Thermometer
The “hot button topic” for a wide variety of people today is the issue of global warming. It is easy to understand why political figures want to use this issue to manipulate their followers, but followers of Jesus Christ seem to be getting swept up in the paranoia also. Jesus said, “Take care that no one misleads you. For many will come claiming my name and saying, ‘I am the Messiah’; and many will be misled by them. The time is coming when you will hear the noise of battle near at hand and the news of battles far away; see that you are not alarmed. Such things are bound to happen; but the end is still to come. For nation will make war upon nation, kingdom upon kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes in many places. With all these things the birth-pangs of the new age begin” (Matthew 24:5-8 NEB). We need to be informed, but global warming is not of eternal significance. Some people try to make a religion of climate change. We can get involved scientifically or politically if we so choose, but let us not get involved religiously.

So what are the facts?
#1. Climate change is happening. Anyone can look at climate data worldwide and see the changes on a global scale. This is global–not local. We just had the warmest winter here in Michigan that I can remember, and I have lived here almost 60 years, but that is not directly due to global warming.

#2. This is not the first time. The Earth’s rocks show periods of warming and cooling. Natural processes cause changes in the Sun which affect the Earth. Geologic events such as volcanic eruptions can affect climate for long periods of time.

#3. Humans have altered the planet. This isn’t even worth commenting on, and what we have done has effects that are still unknown. God told us to “take care of the garden” (Genesis 2:15), and as custodians of the planet, we need to take care of it. Releasing greenhouse gasses indiscriminately would seem to be failing to do that.

#4. There are consequences to what we do and what we don’t do. As an example, cancer is mostly caused by human actions. The list of diseases human actions have caused or catalyzed is enormous. Not managing Earth’s resources well has cost us dearly in the past, and it will do so in the future.

Jesus said not to let these things disturb our minds. As Christians, we need to keep our eye on the cross and on our journey to an eternal home free of global warming, war, and all the other things that concern people about the physical world in which we live. The physical is important, but the spiritual is far more significant.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Bioethics and Playing God

DNA Molecules
DNA Molecules (Illustration)

Over the past several months, the media has published dozens of articles about a new genetic technique of modifying DNA called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). This method can be used to edit the embryonic or reproductive cells of human beings, passing on genetic changes to future generations. It makes altering our DNA faster and easier. The media has emphasized the possible positive impact of this technique. The Week magazine (March 14, 2016) called it “genetic research nearing a breakthrough that could transform the world.” We know that many diseases are genetic in nature, including sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy, and some forms of cancer. The problem is that with some 20,000 genes involved and the fact that genes interact, the possible negative consequences of making permanent changes to human DNA are very high. This technique could potentially be used to alter the genomes of a child to suit parental preferences. The question is whether CRISPR will be used for therapy or enhancement or both. This bioethical question cannot be answered by science alone.

For almost 50 years, this ministry has tried to demonstrate how science enhances faith. At the same time, faith can answer questions that science cannot answer. The question of shaping the human body to suit our desires is an issue of science and faith because we are more than just a body. We were created in God’s image, but we are not God. Whether humans use CRISPR in a constructive way or in a potentially destructive way will be answered by the moral and religious belief systems of those who decide how this new technique will be used. An interesting article on this subject is in the March 2017, issue of Christianity Today, pages 49-51.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

The Beauty of Change

Accepting Change
A common denominator in all of life is the difficulty of accepting change. We establish a procedure to do something that works for us. Any change in that way of doing things is likely to involve work and adjustment. We tend to oppose work or adjustment. Driving in a rut is easier than trying to get out of it, but sooner or later you have to either get out of the rut or rebuild the road. If you stay in the rut, it gets deeper and deeper until it brings the vehicle to a total stop!

One of the lessons we can learn from our planet is that change is a design feature built into all aspects of the creation by God. When the sperm meets the egg in conception, change begins to take place at an incredible rate. From a single fertilized cell, a human develops over nine months. This change continues after birth until a seven-pound baby has turned into a teenager weighing over 100 pounds. When physical growth stops, change continues in different ways. Every seven years we get a completely new body. One by one, cells are replaced with new cells continually rejuvenating your physical body.

The changing seasons require accepting change. As fall comes, plants shed their worn and tattered leaves. Small animals enter their safest time of the year as predators have a harder time finding them under the-snow. The insect domination of the world is brought to a halt. During the winter the soil is covered with humus to provide for next year’s plants, and all is made ready for spring when even more dramatic changes take place. Change is seen in many positive ways in the natural world. Our muscles grow stronger through hard use. Caterpillars turn into butterflies. Breeding techniques have produced a bewildering number of new kinds of roses, tulips, dogs, cattle, fish, and vegetables.

We also see change in the surface of the earth as erosion, volcanoes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and gravity constantly alter the planet on which we live. All of this geological change brings us new soil, new land, and nutrients to sustain the plants on which we depend. This was dramatically driven home to me many years ago as I walked beside a lava flow on the big island of Hawaii. I saw a man with a wheelbarrow full of warm lava. When I asked him why he was collecting lava, his response was to grow orchids. He found that orchids grew better in the new soil he made out of ground up lava and seaweed. The value of volcanic change and rejuvenation of soil through lava flows is a good demonstration of beneficial changes. The world around us shows the benefit and beauty of physical change.

Christianity is a religious system of change. One of the original complaints about Christians in the early days was that they “were turning the world upside down” (Acts 17: 16). The concept of repentance involves change. The lifestyle of Christians is to be change-agents in the world around us. Why would people who are a part of God’s tool to change the world be resistant to accepting change themselves? Somehow we seem to forget Paul’s example that he “became all things to all men that I might by some means change some” (1 Corinthians 9:21-22). Seeing a person change from a destructive, selfish, egotistical way of life to a serving, caring, God-directed life of love and graciousness is the most beautiful change of all. That is the highest beauty to which Christians are called.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Setting Standards

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale 1791
Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale 1791

One of the more convincing evidences that the Bible is inspired and not the work of human minds is the fact that it gives a proven, workable, testable, logical standard of conduct that improves the condition of all humans and brings real meaning to life. Skeptics and atheists do not like to hear that, and they will argue vociferously against it. In modern times, we have had a parade of philosophers from Ayn Rand to the secular humanists of the American Humanist Association that have suggested alternatives, all based on the “virtuous nature of humankind.” It is easy to show from a historical standpoint that such standards are doomed to failure.

Thomas Jefferson founded The University of Virginia in 1819. Jefferson dreamed of a public college which would have no regulations nor rules. Students of “good report” would be admitted and expected to practice “good will and judgment” that would respect the rights and property of others. Jefferson called it the “Grand Experiment” in which democracy and public education were brought together. It is important to note that it had a faculty and student body composed of the “cream of the crop.” There were no religious values imposed on the students and no rules concocted by previous generations that could be construed as an attempt by elders to manipulate, control, or restrict the younger generation. The University of Virginia offered an opportunity to see where highly educated, intelligent people would go with a lack of external rules and regulations.

The University of Virginia experiment of the 1820s was a total failure. Students did not go to class, drinking became a major problem, all kinds of offensive sexual conduct was carried on, and violence escalated. One night, 14 students high on alcohol went on a rampage assaulting professors with bricks and canes. The trustees of the University held a special meeting with the 82-year-old Jefferson in attendance. In his speech, Jefferson called the grand experiment “the most painful event of his life” and sat down with tears of grief unable to finish his speech. The board of trustees then enacted a series of rules and regulations along with a code of conduct that was rigidly enforced.

One might argue that a total lack of rules and regulations is unworkable, but that the Christian system is only one of hundreds of systems which will work equally well. To see the fallacy of that argument, look at what other systems have done. Look at what communism, as practiced in Russia, China, or North Korea, has produced. See what monarchies over the millennia have done to and for their subjects. Consider how women have been treated in Muslim cultures or how science and technology have fared in animalistic ancestor-worship cultures. While it’s true that some horrible things have been done in the name of Christianity, those atrocities were done in diametric contradiction to Christ and his teachings.

The Christian standard calls for serving others and putting them first. The Christian system rewards love, service, generosity, gentleness, and self-sacrifice. Other systems emphasize loving material things and using other people to get those things. The contrast between the teachings of Christ and all human systems is dramatic. We are surrounded by a culture trying every standard for successful living except real Christianity. The superiority of Christ’s example and teaching is always there for us to see.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Music of the Spheres

NASA Spitzer Space Telescope Photo of Galaxy NGC 1291
NASA Spitzer Space Telescope Photo of Galaxy NGC 1291

Around 500 B.C. there lived a famous Greek philosopher by the name of Pythagoras. He gained a sect of followers in a place called Crotone in southern Italy. The Pythagoreans taught that the planets (including an Anti-Earth on the other side of the Sun), the Moon, and the Sun were fastened to great spheres of crystal, rotating around a central fire. They believed that the motion of these spheres created an exquisite harmony which ordinary people cannot hear. Pythagoras and his followers believed they could tune instruments by mathematical calculations so the instruments would resonate with the spheres. Dancing to the music of the spheres was an activity that occupied much of the time of the ancient Pythagoreans.

Although the ideas of the Pythagoreans were not accurate in many ways, from a scientific standpoint, we can see the harmony of the spheres of stars and planets today. You could say that the music to which the spheres dance is loud and clear. Our solar system moves with definite rhythms, following a “musical score” written with incredible precision and purpose. As our knowledge and understanding has improved, the incredible complexity of the musical score has become obvious. Isaac Newton gave us the original score, and Albert Einstein fine-tuned it. Both gained their understandings by looking at the grand design. We have learned that the Moon helps to hold Earth at the proper tilt. We have seen that the large Jovian planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) help to shield Earth from intruding comets. We know that the very substances of which we are made had their origin in the stars.

Dean Overman in his book A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization showed the fallacy of trying to explain everything we see in the cosmos by chance. It has been suggested that a large number of monkeys typing on a large number of typewriters would eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. Overman shows that the chance of monkeys typing a section from Macbeth containing only 379 letters would have a probability of 10 to the 536th power. When you consider that there are only 10 to the 80th power atoms in the known universe, you can see that the chances are very small. Mathematicians consider anything with a probability of 10 to the 50th power as a mathematical impossibility.

The dance of the spheres and the music to which it moves is nothing like what Pythagoras thought. It is much more complex. It is also very real, and it speaks to us in beautiful ways about our own design and purpose.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Mind as a Miraculous Healer

Mind as Healer
It is difficult to have discussions about the validity of Christianity without the question of miracles coming up. Some skeptics would flat-out deny that miracles happen today or that they have ever happened.

When you get into a discussion about biblical miracles, there is no physical way to verify what happened. You either accept that it happened by faith or you reject it the same way. Miracles that happen today are a different matter. The kind of miracles Jesus did don’t happen today. No one has verified that a person was raised from the dead. By the same token, there are numerous claims of healings by people that seem to be verified by family and/or friends.

A very useful article appeared in National Geographic (December 2016) titled “Mind over Matter.” The basic thrust of the article is that the brain can have chemical stimulation that is natural or artificial which can make a healing take place. Belief, even if it is false, can be a cause of healing. A Parkinson’s victim in a trial at Stanford was given what he believed was a surgery to alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms. The surgeons did nothing to him, but he believed they did and was “significantly improved.” His comment is “Whether it was placebo or some kind of a drug doesn’t matter to me.”

I have learned in my many years of talking to people about miracles they believe they were given, that it doesn’t do any good to try to discredit the miracle. The important questions are: “What was the cause of the miracle?” and “What we are going to do with the new life that has been given?” Healing can happen in many ways. Mental and spiritual parameters can make things happen that we might assume are of a supernatural nature, when they may be a product of the awesome way our minds, souls, and bodies were created by God.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Earth’s Oldest Fossils?

Stromatolites in Banff National Park, Canada
Stromatolites in Banff National Park, Canada

It’s always interesting to see how the media distorts scientific material to make it more sensational. The front page of USA Today for March 2, 2017, carried a headline saying: “3.8 Billion-year-old Bacteria May Be Earth’s Oldest Fossils.” The article goes on to state as fact: “The bacteria lived near hydrothermal vents…” There are so many issues here that it would take several pages to point them all out, but the interesting thing is the actual discovery. Stromatolites are layered structures that may be produced by algae or bacteria, and some are ancient deposits, although others are still being produced today. I have seen these formations in the Gunflint Chert in Minnesota near a cabin owned by my brother. Those formations are circular and contain a mineral called hematite, an iron mineral that may have been a part of the biology of microorganisms.

This new find is an iron carbonate rosette that is circular and contains hematite. There is some evidence that it was formed near an undersea thermal vent. Since we see life around sea-vents today, it might be assumed the formation is of biological origin. There are chemical, non-biological processes that can produce similar structures. The problem with this kind of media headline is that it gives a false impression of how science works and what has actually been found. It may be that these structures were biologically formed, and they may be 3.8 billion years old. The Bible doesn’t date or describe bacteria and how God formed the ecosystem that would support humans on planet Earth. This same process may even be going on elsewhere in the universe, but it will take exhaustive research to verify or deny whether this is ancient life.

Real science does not announce possibilities as fact. The exaggeration of scientific discoveries does a disservice to science and makes modern-day readers believe things as proven that are simply speculations. Stay tuned for what future study of these structures reveals as truth.
–John N. Clayton © 2017