A Wild Beast of the Wood

June 26, 2008

We’ve enjoyed the last year of living up in the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains.  It’s been a nice respite from the giant pulsing populace of humanity that surrounds us.  We’ll be moving out of our apartment in the woods this weekend and down into Redwood City.  However, as I finished my last few days in the apartment (where I normally work) I got a treat.  I was sitting on my bed working on my laptop when I saw something moving out the window.  About 20 feet from the house, in broad daylight, a coyote was working his way across the yard.  He stopped right in front of the window long enough for me to get this shot.  Unfortunately, the flash went off and created a haze on the window.

I then dashed outside and hid out quietly to get a few more shots. Eventually he saw me, but didn’t seem too worried and continued to go casually along his way.  We see these guys all of the time at night, but it was strange for him to be so bold in the middle of the day.  Elizabeth says a coyote actually ran at her car (like some dogs do) just the other night, and that he had very similar coloring.

-Matt, the elder brother

Well…it all started like this, you see…(Part II)

June 23, 2008

Before diving into more recent theological history, I would like to amend my previous post, with the fact that at least three other early church fathers echoed the views of Philo and Augustine: Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-216) and Origen (c. 185-254) (Contra Celsus 6.60).

Although Biblical scholars have grappled with OT history for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1650s when James Ussher (1581-1656) John Lightfoot (1602-1675) separately calculated the day of creation to 23 October 4004 BC and August 26 3929 BC, respectively. In order to calculate these dates was a massive feat in literary and Biblical scholarship requiring a thorough knowledge of the texts, history, and ancient languages. The Protestant Reformation saw the rise of a more Biblical, and consequently more literal, hermeneutic, which paved the way for a more literal interpretation of Genesis and a six-day creation. 100 years later, Biblical scholarship on OT chronology (that is, Ussher & Lightfoot) was reflecting this interpretational shift.

Whereas early Churh Fathers and Christian theologians have defended an allegorical interpretation of Genesis into the distant past, it is only over the past four-hundred years that the literal interpretation has begun to gain a foot-hold in main-stream Christian theology. A second impetus for the young-earth/literal view was the rise of Darwinianism beginning in 1859 when Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his On the Origin of Species. As I mentioned several months ago in our review of Ben Stein’s movie Expelled, Darwinianism easily leads to an atheistic world-view, because i) it seems to eliminate the need for an explanation of human life and ii) it seems to imply an arbitrary or relative system of morality. Both of these ideas are obviously a threat to Christian theology, so I would suggest (although I am by no means an expert on the history of Christian thought and its developmental patterns) that fundamentalists, fearing the potential implications of evolutionary anthropogeny, have reacted in favor of a literal interpretation of Genesis, riding on the tidal wave created by the Biblical emphasis of the Protestant Reformation and the work of Biblical scholars such as Ussher and Lightfoot.

This line of thinking began to blossom in the 20th century. George McCready Price was an early proponent of creation science, well known for his 1923 book, The New Geology. Later Henry Morris and John Whitcomb adapted Price’s theories into their own famous book The Genesis Flood, in 1961. They focus on Noah’s flood in Genesis as a geologically formative period in the history of the world, saying that most of the earth’s current structures were developed at that time. Morris went on to establish the Institute for Creation Research in Dallas, Texas in 1970.

Due to scientists and pseudo-scientist/theologians, these ideas began to permeate the masses of Christendom, particularly among the fundamentalists. Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, this truth is obvious to me, because I don’t really recall being taught anything other than the literal interpretation of Genesis, that God actually created the universe in six days. I was never told that it wasn’t really until the 20th century that this view began to take hold in the Church, and largely as a reaction to Darwinian anthropogeny. I don’t think that I was ever taught about other views because I was intentionally being programmed, but because young-earth creationism had rooted itself so firmly in the Church that the lay-people really weren’t aware of its recent origin or alternative Christian views.

To recap, for the first 15 centuries of Christianity, young-earth creationism was rejected by the leading scholars and theologians, who favored an allegorical interpretation of Genesis. During the Protestant Reformation (16th century), more emphasis was put on the authority of Scripture and literal interpretation. In the 17th century (1650s) Ussher and Lightfoot published their chronologies, which indicated a relatively short history of the world, establishing the point of creation around 4000 BC. In the 19th century, however, young-earth creationism arose as a counter-attack to the mounting threat of Darwinianism, and in the 20th century, Christian theologians and scientists lent more formality to the view, and are responsible for its dissemination throughout the fundamentalist majority as one of, if not the primary view.

Now that we have given some thought to the historical development of interpreting the creation account of Genesis, we are prepared to dive into the text itself and look for interpretive clues, feeling out each view and trying to decide the advantages and disadvantages of taking either one. This is where I will begin in my next post.

-James, the younger brother

A Response to “Creation: The Story from Science (Part I – Astronomy)”

June 17, 2008

I personally found Matt’s article really interesting. As you may know, I had to write a physics paper earlier this semester to be exempt from the Honors UPII requirement at the U of A. Inspired by this very topic, I chose to do a little research on Big Bang cosmology, relating it to the philosophical argument for God’s existence known as the “Cosmological Argument.” What I liked about this post is that none of the astronomical points supporting the old age of the universe raised by Matt were ones that I explored in my own paper. Perhaps this is because I don’t really understand the important points, or perhaps it is because Matt was bringing up those most interesting and impressive to him. I have little to comment, except to say that I agree that this is, at least, compelling evidence, and my recent skimming research has pointed me in the same direction. (Of course, I am no expert, and my opinion carries little authority on this subject). At any rate, I thought this would be a good opportunity to publish the work I did this last Spring. Although I can’t vouch for my scientific accuracy, I think this paper presents some other issues that support this view in a relatively clear way. If you wish to read it, click the link: In the Beginning: A Scientific and Philosophical Inquiry. You also may want to skim to the end and read about the Cosmological Argument, since we will be covering that in the weeks to come.

-James, the younger brother

Creation: The Story from Science (Part I – Astronomy)

June 17, 2008

This post continues our discussion on Science and Creation, and will be the first of several posts from me looking at the point of view of mainstream science. Science is a major force within our society. Its advances have taken us to the moon, have opened entire new realms of medical treatments, and have brought us technologies that our ancestors could never had dreamed of. Science, perhaps because of its immense practical benefit, has come to occupy a venerated position within modern culture. However, sciences deals not only with the practical. Science provides tools and methods for attacking many of the questions of origin that have so long occupied men’s minds. Where did we come from? How did life originate? How did the earth and universe come to reach their present state? What are we made of? Many of these are questions for which religion also has answers – or at least they look a lot like questions addressed by religion.

Over the past century, science brought incredible technological innovation, but it also has made revolutionary discoveries that led to overarching theoretical frameworks within the fields that study origins. Perhaps the most important of these are big bang cosmology, plate tectonics, and DNA. In each of their respective fields, these discoveries have led to all-encompassing theories that are woven into intricate tapestries with vast explanatory power. Observation after observation bolsters the framework and adds another thread to the cloth. Because of its methodology, science really isn’t in the business of certainty, but theories with such explanatory power drive scientists to expound their certitude. As I present the scientific picture, I will only have space to touch on a few individual evidences, and it will be difficult to convey the full force of the overarching theories. The reader will have to understand that we are viewing only a few pieces of the expansive puzzle of the current scientific paradigm.

For ages humans have pondered the meaning of the starry night sky, but in the last 30 years the science of cosmology has converged on a coherent picture that explains the broad strokes of the evolution of the Universe since its inception. Cosmology has grown from a speculating theoretical science, where arguments were made only to an order of magnitude, into what is being deemed “precision cosmology,” where global properties of the Universe are known to within a few percent. The observed universe is full of evidence of antiquity, but I will share a few that I am most intimately familiar with.

In order to advance beyond the realm of speculation, observational cosmology had to address the major problem of determining scale within the Universe. That is, we can see all of these stars and galaxies out there, but how do we know how far away they are? This problem was solved over a long period of time with many different techniques that apply on various overlapping scales. This is referred to as the “cosmic distance ladder.” Each successive technique makes up a “rung” of the ladder that overlaps a bit with the previous technique, allowing us to ultimately measure very large distances. Near the base of the ladder is a technique called parallax. This is an easily demonstrated technique. Hold a finger out about a foot in front of your face and close one eye. Now switch and close the other eye. You’ll see that your finger appears to shift from one place to another. Now hold your finger way out at arm’s length and repeat the same process. You’ll see that it still shifts but not as much. By measuring this shift (and knowing how far apart your eyes are) you can calculate how far away your finger is. Astronomers do a similar thing with nearby stars. Except they use the solar system as their “face.” They take pictures of the night sky when the earth is in one location. Then they wait until the earth moves all the way around to the far side of the sun and take another picture of the sky. If the stars are close enough, then they will appear to move slightly from one picture to the next. By measuring these movements, astronomers can measure distances to the stars. However, this technique only works for stars that are pretty close. Most of the other techniques used to determine distances rely on what are called “standard candles.” Basically, there are certain types of objects that we know how bright they should be, either based on standard physics or on observations of many other objects of the same type. The further away an object is, the dimmer it will appear to us (falling off with the distance squared). Therefore, if we know how bright an object appears, and we know how bright it really is, then we can calculate how far away it is.
What cosmologists have found by applying these techniques is that the universe is a REALLY big place. The sun is about halfway between the center and edge of our galaxy, the Milky Way. The Milky Way is so big that it takes light 100,000 years to travel from one side to the other, and it takes 220 million years for the sun to make one orbit around the center of the Milky Way. The nearest galaxy similar in size to our own is the Andromeda Galaxy, which is 2.5 million light years away. That means that any light we are seeing now from Andromeda left the galaxy 2.5 million years ago. However, these galaxies just make up part of a small collection of galaxies called the Local Group. The Local Group is somewhat isolated from other galaxies, and the nearest “crowded” part of the Universe is the Virgo Cluster. The center of Virgo is roughly 60 million light years away. However, again this seemingly vast area of space is only a very small fraction of the observable universe. The edge of the observable universe is roughly 50 billion light years away (Note: This may confuse those who know that the Universe is only about 14 billion years old, but at such large distances the expansion of the Universe plays a large role such that there is no longer a 1-to-1 correlation between how many light years away something is and how long it took that light to get to us. You can think of it this way. The light is not violating its speed limit, but rather when the light was emitted, the object was much closer so the light really didn’t have to travel 50 billion light years). For a really cool movie that shows a fly-through of the stellar and galactic location data in the nearby universe see this link. The movie starts at earth, flies through several features in the Milky Way, and then goes up out of the disk of the Milky Way, flies by Andromeda, and ultimately makes its way to the center of the Virgo Cluster. This really helps one to appreciate what an incredible and huge place the Universe is. To me it is actually very inspiring.  I will warn you that this is a really huge file (230 Mb), but it is worth the wait if you have a relatively fast connection. You can find a lower resolution version without music here.

There are countless processes observed in the universe that apparently require millions or billions of years to occur. My thesis work is on galaxy mergers, which typically take a few billion years to occur. There are many ongoing galaxy mergers that have been observed. Since they take so long, all we see are snapshots somewhere in the middle of the process. One of the neat things that happens in a galaxy merger is that tidal forces pull long “tidal tails” out of the galaxies. Much in the same way that the moon causes the oceans to bulge, one galaxy passing another galaxy will cause the stars in each galaxy to get pulled out. Unlike the daily tides in the ocean, because galaxies are so large, it takes hundreds of millions of years to raise tides. I think that merging galaxies are one of the most incredible sights to see in the Universe. Here is an image of two merging galaxies with tidal tails. These particular galaxies are called The Mice.

The Mice, two merging galaxies with tidal tails.  Hubble Space Telescope.
Computer simulations constructed using well-understood physics allow us to calculate the process of a galaxy merger. The most important influence is simple Newtonian gravity. Here is a computer simulation intermixed with comparisons to a number of observed galaxy mergers. As you can see, the simulation is capable of creating images that look almost exactly like what we observe.

In addition to ongoing galaxy mergers, we can also observe mergers that happened some time ago. If we look within the Milky Way we see long streamers of stars near the outskirts of the Galaxy. The stars in each group are moving all together, and we can tell that they don’t belong within the Milky Way. They are the ripped apart remnants of small galaxies that fell into the Milky Way a long time ago. It takes a long time for galaxies to be ripped apart like this. Remember, that one revolution around the Milky Way takes 200 million years, and the merging process would take at least several revolutions.

Modern cosmology has provided us with an overarching theory, that each year is confirmed by more data coming in from observational astronomers. It really is amazing the extent to which we now understand how galaxies form and change over time and also how the universe as a whole has changed over time. There are still many details to be worked out, but it seems unlikely that cosmology will see any other paradigm shifts. This leaves the young earth creationist with quite a hurdle to overcome. It is difficult to explain how light could have even gotten here from such distant locations, much less to come up with an equally successful overarching theory for how galaxies form.

Some young earth creationists have suggested that the speed of light may not be constant. Perhaps it was much faster in the past. However, the speed of light is intimately tied to many other processes in physics. If you change the speed of light by very much then the Universe as we know it would cease to exist. It seems that the only possible way out is to claim an “appearance of age.” God created the light from distant galaxies en route. While this can’t be disputed scientifically, it seems to me to be theologically unsatisfactory. All of this light is telling us a complex story of things that happened in the past. If it were created en route, then all of this story is fabricated. Not only that, but the character of light itself changes as it flies through the Universe. Light becomes stretched out from the expansion of space, and also becomes redder as it passes by more and more dust particles. We observe both of these effects in distant starlight. The further the light has traveled, but more we see of these effects.  Thus, this created light not only would be showing us events that never occurred, it also would have to be modified to look like it had traveled very large distances. A God who creates with this sort of manipulation and deception doesn’t sound to me like the God of the Bible.  As a Christian, I feel that I have to take both the Bible and the evidence within God’s creation seriously.  As an astrophysicist, it is clear to me that creation tells us of its antiquity.  In fact, I think the unexpectedness, the immensity, and the beauty of the observed universe speak to God’s boundless creativity, His awesome power, and His care for the creation.

-Matt, the elder brother

Casa Revisited: A Pair of Vignettes

June 13, 2008

The following are two vignettes written by me and my wife, Allison, respectively. Perhaps these will be entertaining and insightful, and I hope they give you a better idea about what our recent experiences in Guatemala were like. Perhaps they will even be a springboard for you to reflect on the things that you do and don’t have.

-James, the younger brother

Most of the children at Casa come from backgrounds of abuse, but that is hard to imagine when you are playing with them, smiling and laughing, making jokes and having a good time. In many ways, they just seem like kids: happy. While there, I often found myself thinking that I didn’t want to know about their past for fear that an overwhelming sense of pity would obscure my mind and hinder our relationship. It is almost surreal being at Casa, because there are simply so many children. They are always running around doing something: playing a game, chasing each other, or trying to find a gringo to talk to. The thought occurred to me during the week that Casa is like a children’s paradise, something like a Christian Pleasure Island (Pinocchio) or Neverland, where there are all kids and no (or very few) adults. Life was never boring, because there were always so many other kids to play with. On the other hand, though, it caused me grief to consider that every one of those kids was separated from his parents and deprived of a loving family to nourish him, whether he had been abandoned by his own parents or removed from an abusive situation. Most of those kids never had experienced, and never would, the same nurturing and loving family-environment in which I was raised. Despite the apparent abundance of joy in the kids’ faces, this fact made me sad.
These thoughts were swimming freely and unexpressed in my mind until a conversation on Wednesday helped give them form and substance. After working hard one morning, I followed Allison over to the campo (playground) where the kids like to climb around on the jungle-gym and swing on the swing-set. There was a young teenage girl sitting in the swing at the campo, barely pushing herself back-and-forth with her feet. She sat alone in silence. Many, if not most, of the kids at Casa are rather outgoing with gringos, and will come up to you unprompted and begin a conversation or game. Even if they can’t talk to you, they seem to enjoy just being near you. This girl, Sarai, was not that way at all; she just sat in apparent reflection. At that point I recalled hearing a staffer say earlier in the week that there are many kids who will run from half-way across the compound just to play with you, but those are not the ones who are in the greatest need of gentle care and affection. He said this as a challenge to us to reach out to those kids who seem to be hurting. Prompted by this, I sat down on the swing next to Sarai and tried to start a conversation with her. I told her my name was Diego, and asked hers. Then I asked her how old she was, after telling her that I was 21 and married to Allison, who had just left the playground to go over to the baby-dorm. Many conversations at Casa start this way, and throughout the week, I periodically wondered whether the kids got tired of telling gringos their names and ages. I then found out that she had several siblings, but that none of them lived at Casa, and Sarai told me that she had just arrived a few days earlier. Feeling like I was getting somewhere with her–who, as I was discovering, was really more lonely than shy, as I had wrongly assumed at first–I asked if she liked living at Casa. She told me “poquito.” Wondering why, I then asked if she had many friends yet. She said “no“. My heart sunk.
For the next quarter-hour, we continued to talk and share, although I was much better at telling her about myself than I was at understanding what she was trying to say to me. I learned that she liked school, and she allowed me to look in her notebooks. After sitting for awhile talking, Allison returned, and we left together to go visit another friend we had made earlier in the week, but the conversation with Sarai lingered in the back of my mind. The fact that kids, at least partially, don’t want to be there took me by surprise, although it probably shouldn’t have. How could they not enjoy the companionship of all the other kids there? Didn’t they appreciate the great opportunity they were getting to receive a decent education? What about the roof over their heads and the food they were fed so generously? In a way, this seemed like ungratefulness. The conversation with Sarai, however, caused me to think otherwise. Casa, although it is a great good for the children of Guatemala, is not a kids’ paradise. What those kids desire in their heart of hearts is to be loved; to have a mother and father who care for them; to have brothers and sisters to play and joke with; to be “normal”, and the sad truth is: that is something that none (or very few) of them will ever have. If anyone, it is I who am ungrateful.


In many ways, this trip to Guatemala was like other mission trips I have taken in the past: a combination of physical labor and loving on children who are less privileged than I am. On previous mission trips (all in Mexico), a common element has always been the realization that I have been blessed with so many things that I often take for granted: a loving family, good friends, a car, a house, etc., etc. Seeing people live in conditions that I have never witnessed here in the States, has always made me feel thankful for the material blessings that I have, while at the same time making me feel slightly guilty for enjoying these physical blessings when others have so few of them. In Guatemala, however, these ideas were turned upside-down just a little bit.

On our last day at “Casa”, I was hanging out and talking with two little girls, neither over age 11. I am unaware of their individual backgrounds, but I assume that despite their young age, they have both suffered more than I have and experienced things that I wouldn’t even dream of. It was difficult, though, for me to imagine the suffering they might have endured, because they seemed so happy. I can’t quite remember how our conversation got here, but all of a sudden these two girls were both telling me the whole Gospel story. Susie explained that we were all sinners, but that Jesus came to die for our sins, bearing a crown of thorns. The other girl nodded in agreement and added that we would be “muertos”, meaning dead, were it not for Jesus. They seemed so excited to share with me this message, probably much more excited than I would have been at their young age. It was at this moment that I began to realize that these children are not nearly as deprived as I think they are. Sure, they lack many things, including families and homes, and in no way do I want to discount their suffering, but many of these children have the only thing that truly matters: Christ. All they really need is the simple, yet powerful, message of the Gospel. Through this experience, I learned that not only do I take for granted my material blessings, but that I also have the tendency to take for granted the power and sufficiency of Christ.


Beneath the Black Hills

June 12, 2008

Part of the reason James and I have posted so sparsely lately is that we have both been traveling a lot. Right now I’m sitting in the Denver airport on my way back from a karst conference in Rapid City, South Dakota. I flew into Rapid City last Thursday and went on my first caving trip into Jewel Cave. Larry Shaffer led the trip. He’s a caver I met at last year’s NSS convention who shares a number of mutual caving friends.

The edge of Jewel Cave (the 3rd longest cave in the world at 142 miles) is getting very remote from the entrance, and exploration out at the edge requires camping trips. However, because it is a tough cave, and the trips are very remote, the park requires that one make a day trip half way to camp (to a chamber called Cloud Nine) before one is qualified to do an overnight trip. My main goal for the trip was to get qualified for a future camp trip. However, there is also lots of passage still to be explored in less remote parts of the cave. Thus we headed out to survey in some leads near Cloud Nine. This trip requires about 4 hours of fast caving to reach the survey area (traversing about 3 miles of cave). You also have to negotiate an infamous passage called The Miseries. This passage has a lot of tight spots and lots of crawling. There is also a huge amount of wind blowing through this part of the cave. Jewel Cave has large barometric winds that are caused by changes in air pressure on the surface. This area of the cave has place names like Hurricane Corner, The Humdinger, The Calorie Counter, Slim Chance, and Fat Chance. It was both a tough and rewarding trip. The cave is also full of manganese oxide which is a black coating that gets all over everything. You end up with it all over your skin, and it’s really hard to wash off. Our leads turned out to be pretty good and we got 640 feet of new survey, most of which was in pretty good-sized passage. We left a number of intriguing leads that we didn’t have time for as well. The trip was 16 and a half hours long and we got out at about 3:30 am. I can’t wait to return for more caving here. To save on space and weight I didn’t take my camera, but I did get this after shot.

After sleeping late I went into Rapid City for the beginning of the conference. The conference was also a lot of fun, and I learned a lot. Most of the well-known karst researchers in the US were there and many others from other countries. I got to spend a lot of time meeting karst researchers, discussing caves and karst, and making connections for my future as a karst scientist. It was a busy time though, and I’m looking forward to getting back home. Probably the highlight of the conference was a day-long field trip through the Black Hills, learning about the geology of the area.The field trip included tours in both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave. Here is a picture of some boxwork in Wind Cave, the type of formation that Wind is most famous for.

Here is a picture of a crystal-lined solution pocket in Jewel Cave. Much of Jewel Cave is covered in calcite crystals. The quality of these photos isn’t great as I didn’t have any off-camera flashes to use.

-Matt, the elder brother

An Important “Metric Milestone”

June 9, 2008

As many of you know, I recently participated in another expedition in Lechuguilla Cave. The expedition included participants from all over the US and 3 cavers from France. One of our main objectives was to do a series of exploratory climbs, in a recently discovered area called Emerald City, in order to see if they led to more passage. This year, our team had two climbers, James Hunter and myself. This allowed us to make quick work of the climbs by switching off when one of us got too tired or freaked out by the route. Two of the three climbs netted some new passage, but only a few hundred feet.

I also go the opportunity to make trips to two far-flung locations in the cave which have hardly been visited at all: Dire Straits and Here Be Dragons. These locations are very high up in the cave at nearly the same elevation as the entrance and therefore require a lot of climbing up ropes in order to reach them from camp. Neither area had been visited for about 15 years. Both areas had leads that could possibly connect into the top of a large shaft discovered last year in Emerald City. Climbing this shaft will possibly be the objective of a future trip, but we first wanted to see if there was some easier way to get there. Perhaps the most noteworthy accomplishment of the expedition is that we surveyed 4,800 feet of new passage and this brought the total length of the cave to just over 200 kilometers. We all thought that this was an important “metric milestone.”

-Matt, the elder brother

P.S. I haven’t had much time to sort through my photos, but here are a few. I’ll eventually put the whole lot up on my website. Actually, I just got a new camera right before this trip, a Canon G9. It has fully manual capabilities and has 12 mega pixels of resolution. It was fun to finally have a decent camera.

P.P.S. I now have the other photos up on my website.  You can see them here.

Here is a self-portrait of my camp spot.

Here James is climbing up to a lead while I belay. I’m balled up in a small alcove in order to get out of rock fall.

James and I are preparing for a climb.

A large gypsum rim in the Western Borehole. We walked through this area of the cave every day between camp and the areas we were exploring.