Many years ago in Alaska, I had a discussion with a biologist who was studying the Alaskan soils. His study revolved around the fact that Alaska has very little soil and what it does have is developing. The lack of soil in Alaska has limited plant growth and made the ecology dependent on migrating salmon. Soils are complex mixtures of organic matter, minerals, water, air, and billions of organisms that form over hundreds of years. Good soils are vital for survival. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”
Research has shown that plants are designed to “call” for nutrients from the soil. A plant will release molecules called flavonoids, which cause bacteria in the soil to migrate into the plant and form nitrogen nodules on the roots. The nitrogen nodules generate food for the plant. If ample nitrogen is already available for the plant, it will not release the flavonoids.
This “hunger” by plants is vital to understand because many natural and human-caused processes can deplete the soil. Forest and brush fires, hurricanes, pollution, and climate change can deplete soils’ nitrogen content and kill plants. Studies of the giant sequoias in California have shown that the soil under them has twice as many bacteria as the soil under nearby sugar pines. We all know that bacteria influence human health, but bacteria also affect plant health and growth.
As our population increases and world climates change, it will become increasingly important to understand how soil allows us to feed our growing population. God’s design of the Earth includes providing the soils necessary to produce food. Good soils are vital for survival.
One of the many things that make our planet uniquely well designed is the atmosphere. Our atmosphere has the right density to burn up the 10,000 plus meteors that speed into it every year. It’s also dense enough to scatter the cosmic rays and X-rays from space, so we are protected from this deadly radiation by our Earth’s atmospheric design.
Also very important, the atmosphere is thin enough to allow light to penetrate so plants can grow. It contains the proper mix of gasses for all living things to use. There is enough oxygen for us to breathe, but not enough to cause dangerous, uncontrolled combustion. It has the right amount of carbon dioxide to allow plants to live and give us the right amount of the “greenhouse effect.” This proper amount prevents too much heat from radiating off into space, keeping Earth at a temperature that promotes life.
The atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, which is relatively inert, but plants need it to grow. Because nitrogen is inert, it’s released to the soil by bacteria and certain plants, such as legumes or by lightning or tectonic activity. The atmosphere is topped off with a layer of ozone that absorbs ultraviolet energy from the Sun to keep us from being overexposed to the harmful effects of UV rays.
There are many chemical wonders in our world, but few are as important and complex as the chemistry of nitrogen. Nitrogen makes up 78% of our atmosphere. It combines with oxygen to form nitrates and with hydrogen to produce ammonia, both of which are essential for growing our food. Nitrogen fixation, which is how nitrogen gets from what we breathe to what we eat, is an amazing demonstration of design.
First, let us review a little high school chemistry. The atoms of all elements have electrons which give them their properties for forming compounds. The electrons are arranged in pairs with their magnetic poles designed so that in a stable arrangement, one electron’s north pole is matched with its neighboring electron’s south pole. The electrons have various orbitals with different energy levels. The atom is stable and chemically inert if an orbital is filled with all the paired electrons it can hold. For example, neon has 10 electrons. The first two orbitals each have two paired electrons, and the last orbital has six electrons in three pairs. This pairing of electrons makes neon an inert gas which does not combine chemically with other elements.
Nitrogen has an uneven number of seven electrons. So how does nitrogen become chemically stable? The answer is that two nitrogen atoms share three electrons, giving them stability. The two nitrogen atoms bond together to form a diatomic molecule that cannot be easily pulled apart to bond with other elements. How strong is the bonding? To break up a nitrogen molecule into two nitrogen atoms requires temperatures of 400 to 500 degrees Celsius and pressures of 200 atmospheres. So with nitrogen as the dominant element in our atmosphere, the atmospheric gases are stable and inert. Also, nitrogen is not a greenhouse gas that could threaten our temperatures on Earth. How then has God built a system that takes these stable nitrogen molecules and breaks their triple bonds to produce nitrates and ammonia?
If you think this isn’t an important subject, ask yourself where your food comes from? The answer is that 50% of the American diet is produced using artificial fertilizers containing nitrogen, which has been “fixed.” Nitrogen fixation combines that inert gas with oxygen and/or hydrogen to supply the soil with the chemical needed to grow the plants we eat, and which the livestock eat to provide us with meat.
Bacteria accomplish God’s method of nitrogen fixation. The bacteria turn nitrogen into ammonia, which is a nitrogen atom sharing electrons with three hydrogen atoms instead of with another nitrogen atom. Plants known as legumes such as soybeans and peas, as well as bayberry and alder trees, attract bacteria which concentrate in nodules on the plant’s roots. The bacteria turn nitrogen gas into ammonia and nitrates the plants can use. Cyanobacteria in the ocean and cycad plants on the land are also major nitrogen fixers. Scientists are also discovering tropical plants that contribute to the wealth of nitrogen compounds in the soil.
Most of our fertilizers have nitrogen fixed by a method called the Haber-Bosch process. It uses massive amounts of energy to break the triple bonds of nitrogen gas. Producing 500 degrees and 200 atmospheres is expensive, and that is why you pay so much for the fertilizer you use in your garden. God’s methods are free. Scientists are trying to figure out how to recreate God’s nitrogen fixation method to save energy and produce more food.
Many bacteria are beneficial in various ways, and nitrogen fixation is only one of them. This is a great apologetic for God’s wisdom and design in preparing the Earth to provide food for us to eat.
All life forms on planet Earth need nitrates to build proteins and DNA. We get our nitrates from the plants and seeds that we eat. Plants absorb nitrates from the soil through their roots. The nitrates in the soil come from rain that has absorbed nitrates from the air through which it falls. The nitrates in the air come from the action of lightning. Our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, and lightning takes some of the nitrogen and catalyzes it into a bond with oxygen to make nitrates. That is why we need lightning.
A surprising thing about this complex system is that the lightning is far more abundant than we realize. Lightning strikes the Earth around 1000 times every second. Above the clouds, in the upper atmosphere, there are continuous lightning types that we don’t see from Earth’s surface. They are called elves, sprites, blue jets, and gigantic jets, depending on their color and shape. There is a voltage difference between the ground and the ionosphere, which varies from 200,000 volts to 500,000 volts. Even in fair weather, there is a constant flow of current, which scientists believe is caused by the spinning of Earth’s core. All of this adds up to a total of over three million lightning strikes a day, and each produces nitrates to sustain life. The jet stream carries these nitrates around the planet, providing a natural fertilizer in places where electrical storms rarely occur.
Science has made significant progress in understanding many things about the universe and our planet and the life on it. However, there are many, many things that we have not yet begun to understand. There are also many things we think we understand, but we are still working on better understandings. One question involves how the elements were created.
At the time of the cosmic creation event (widely called the “big bang”), there were atoms with one proton and one electron and some with twice that many. We call simplest element hydrogen, and two hydrogen atoms combine to form helium in the process of nuclear fusion. More and more fusion took place and still is happening in our Sun and other stars. The process requires intense heat and pressure to fuse the atomic nuclei into a heavier atom.
In stars much more massive than our Sun, heavier elements up to iron can are being formed by fusing more and more atoms together. When you go beyond iron, and all the way up to uranium, even the biggest, brightest, and hottest stars can’t squeeze those atoms together. Scientists believe that the heavier elements are created in exploding stars known as supernovae. When they explode, the theory goes, ripples of turbulence form as the supernovae toss their stellar material into the void of the universe. The forces in that turbulence press more and more atoms together to make the heavier elements. As those atomic elements fly off into space, gravity pulls them into lumps which eventually become planets, such as the one on which we live.
A problem with that explanation is that when the atoms are blasted from the supernovae, they are all traveling in the same direction at perhaps the same speed. How can that produce enough force and heat to fuse them together? An alternate explanation is that the explosion within the supernova is not symmetrical, creating areas of greater density. Ultradense and ultrahot regions concentrated in small areas of the exploding mass perhaps give a better explanation of how the elements were created. (See a paper on that published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.)
Carbon is the basic building block of all living cells. Nitrogen and oxygen, which are the next steps above carbon, bond with it along with other atoms to form living molecules. A little higher on the atomic scale are sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, and other elements which are essential to life. Iron, nickel, copper, and other metals are in molecules within our bodies, and we use them in pure form to build our homes, cars, and electronics. The heavier radioactive elements such as uranium deep within the Earth generate the heat that creates a molten iron core that generates a magnetic field which surrounds and protects us. This is a very simple explanation of a very complex system that makes it possible for us to be here.
We have often mentioned many of the conditions that must exist to make a planet habitable. The number is large and growing as science learns more about Earth’s special life-supporting features. Now NASA has awarded $7,700,000 to Rice University to conduct a five-year study to see what it takes to create a “recipe for a habitable planet.” The project has been named CLEVER Planets, an acronym for Cycles of Life-Essential Volatile Elements in Rocky Planets.
The award comes from NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NexSS). The research team will include experts in astrophysics, atmosphere and climate science, geology, geochemistry, geophysics, and organic chemistry. The investigators are from Rice University, NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the University of California-Davis, UCLA, and the University of Colorado-Boulder. This will be the most in-depth study of what it takes to create a habitable planet.
The lead investigator of CLEVER Planets, Rajdeep Dasgupta of Rice, wrote: “A recipe for life as we know it requires essential elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.” Of course, that is not all that is required to create a recipe for a life-supporting planet. There are also many other conditions including liquid water, the right temperature with stable conditions, a proper atmosphere, and shielding from dangerous radiation. Having an atmosphere requires a planet of the right size to have the right amount of gravity to sustain an atmosphere. To have liquid water and the right temperature requires that the planet must be the right distance from the right kind and size of star. The planet needs a magnetic field to shield from dangerous particles coming from the star. To have a magnetic field, there must be magnetic elements inside the planet. The list goes on and on.
We look forward to seeing the results of the CLEVER Planets study five years from now. The bottom line is that it is very, very difficult to get all of the right ingredients required to create the recipe for a habitable planet. Earth is an exceptional place in the universe.
Here are some questions that are often asked by those who are skeptical of the existence of God: Why such a huge universe? How can we believe that a Creator cares about us when we are so insignificant in this vast cosmos? Those questions are worth considering.
There is no doubt that the cosmos is fantastically large. The Hubble Space Telescope aimed at a small area of sky no larger than one-tenth of the diameter of the Moon to take this Hubble eXtreme Deep Field photograph. The few bright spots with points of light radiating are stars. All the rest are galaxies—more than 10,000 of them in this picture! Some of them are as far away as 13 billion light-years, meaning that they were among the first galaxies formed.
If there are 10,000 plus galaxies in this tiny area of sky, that means there are 200 billion galaxies in the visible universe. Each of those galaxies contains an average of 200 billion stars. So why such a huge universe?
There were two critical factors at the beginning of cosmic existence—mass and expansion rate. If the total mass of protons and neutrons had been any less during the first moments of creation, hydrogen would not have fused into any elements heavier than helium. Then the nuclear furnaces of the stars could not have generated the elements carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium, which are essential for life. If the mass of protons and neutrons had been any greater at the cosmic creation, all of the original hydrogen would have fused into heavier elements like iron, and life would not have been possible.
The mass also affects the expansion rate. If the cosmic mass density had been less, the expansion rate would have been too fast to form stars like the Sun and planets like Earth. If the density had been greater, the expansion rate would have slower and all stars would have been much more massive than the Sun and would give off radiation too intense for any orbiting planets to sustain life.
One of the great mysteries of the past 1000 years of soil studies has apparently been answered. The great nitrogen mystery is how nitrogen gets into the soil. Plants need nitrogen, and they need it in the form of nitrates and other compounds essential to plant growth.
Most of us put fertilizer on our plants to make them healthy and don’t think about the fact that while our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, plants can’t absorb the nitrogen directly from the air. In high school, we learned about “nitrogen fixation” and were told about nitrogen-fixing bacteria and the role of lightning in transforming atmospheric nitrogen into forms that could be used by plants.
Plant scientists have known that this model was not complete. The nitrogen cycle clearly had some missing parts, and our knowledge of how nitrogen gets into the soil was obviously lacking. Scientists have now discovered that a significant portion of getting nitrogen to plants involves seeping through bedrock. Nitrogen becomes trapped in sedimentary rocks in the oceans. When tectonic activity lifts the sedimentary rocks, so they are at the surface of the Earth, they begin to release their nitrogen to the soils above them, Studies in California show that soils above sedimentary rocks contain 50% more nitrogen than soils above volcanic rocks.
We all know that lightning can be dangerous. Each year people are killed, and a great deal of property damage occurs because of lightning. We don’t usually consider the benefits of this powerful force. Nitrogen in the soil is essential for plants to grow and lightning is a natural method of adding nitrogen to the soil.
Although lightning can be dangerous, it also produces materials that are critical to life. All living things depend on the chemical element nitrogen. Your body contains molecules known as proteins. Proteins are made up of several elements, including nitrogen. Nitrogen is essential for proteins, but it is very hard to make nitrogen into proteins. Even though nitrogen makes up 78 percent of our atmosphere, we don’t get any nitrogen from the air we breathe. With each breath, we inhale and exhale nitrogen without using it. The nitrogen in the atmosphere has three electron bonds between the atoms, and that is a very strong and stable chemical arrangement. It takes an enormous amount of energy to break those bonds to free the nitrogen.
When lightning slices through the atmosphere, it knocks electrons from nitrogen atoms. The atoms are then free to combine with oxygen and hydrogen in the atmosphere forming nitrates. Rain carries this new compound to the ground enriching the soil with nitrates which are the building blocks of proteins. Plants synthesize the nitrates into proteins. When animals eat the plants, they get proteins. When we eat the plants or animals, we get the proteins we need to build more proteins.
Most of us have had some experience with lightning. The chances are that our experiences have been terrifying and destructive, and we may view lightning as a bad thing. You may wonder if we need lightning. The short answer is, “Yes.” Lightning is a good thing, and there are many things we are still learning about it.
Lightning helps produce the nitrates and other nitrogen compounds that are needed by all living things on Earth. The process is called “nitrogen fixation, ” and it is vital to our very existence. Water droplets in the air carry an electric charge. That charge can accumulate to dangerous levels unless there is a way to neutralize it. That’s where lightning comes in.
One of my favorite demonstrations as a physics teacher was to get a very small flow of water going from a faucet and then bring a charged rod up to the column of water. The stream of water will bend in response to the charge. That is because the polar nature of the water molecule allows it to have electrical properties. Because of water’s electrical property, lightning is generated to release nitrogen from the air and deposit it in the crust of the Earth as nitrates and other nitrogen compounds that plants need to grow. The plants then feed and protect the animals and us.
Low Earth orbit satellites and high flying airplanes have recently made us aware of other properties of lightning. We have learned that red sprites occur and they have been photographed above large thunderstorms. Other upper atmosphere lightning phenomena include blue jets and terrestrial gamma flashes. Scientists are studying the highly complex nature of lightning to understand how the system works.
The Bible makes many comments about lightning. It tells us that lightning is made with water (rain) even though people at that time totally ascribed lightning to supernatural causes. (See Jeremiah 10:13 and 51:16). Lightning is referred to as a tool of God. (See Job 28:26; 36:30; 37:3, 11, 15; 38:24, 25, 35.)