Primitive humans were at a distinct disadvantage in a world of lions and hyenas. In a land ruled by fang and claw, early humans were unarmed. Also, humans seemed to lack the basic strength and athleticism necessary to compete on the savanna. Humans are slow runners being much slower than both their predators and their prey. Humans can climb trees, but not very well. We could never catch a monkey in the treetops. We can swim, but not very well. We cannot fly at all, putting the skies off-limits.
But even so, it is likely that homo habilis, the first tool users, were more scavengers and gatherers than hunters. The bulk of food intake for all primates is gathering, and early humans would follow that pattern.
Habilis became skilled scavengers, giving them an advantage over other primates. They found a way to take sustenance from recent kills even after these kills had been worked over by lions, hyenas and even vultures. Humans were able to use rocks and large bones to crack the skulls of the kills to extract the brains. Also, using the same techniques, humans were able to crack the bones of the kill to extract the marrow. Both the brains and marrow were rich in fat, calories and proteins. And eating fatty brains provide nutrition for growing fatty brains.
And then, of course, there is tool use. Tool use results from the synergy of bipedalism, binocular vision and opposable thumbs. Habilis would have begun by throwing projectiles, sticks, rocks, bones or whatever was at hand. At first this would have been mostly a defensive response to nearby predators. Even a lion would run away confused after being pelted with rocks from a primitive human pack. Later, as their skill levels and coördination improved, such pelting could take on an offensive role as well. A well thrown rock could kill an animal, predator or prey, by a well-placed blow to the head.
The next step in tool use would be a sharp stick. A sharp stick became the missing claws of the humans. Even a charging lion could impale itself upon a sharp stick wielded by the early humans. And the nice thing about using sticks is that even if it is broken or lost in combat, the human remains uninjured and can continue fighting with a new stick.
The next step on the evolutionary ladder was homo erectus. Erectus taller than habilis and with a larger brain size (900 cc vs, 440 cc). While the skull of the erectus had ape-like features, the rest of their skeletons were very much like ours. Erectus was the first species to travel out of Africa, ranging as far as Indonesia.
Erectus were also pack hunters. Humans resemble chimpanzees and bonobos in their basic morphology, but resemble wolves in their social structure. Pack hunting, as displayed by lionesses on the savanna, provide a distinct advantage in hunting prey, especially the larger species.
Humans do, however, have one athletic advantage. We can run for long distances. Other predator species can run very fast in short bursts, but any long distance running is out of the question. Erectus had the ability to run down and exhaust their prey. This form of hunting can still be observed in Africa today. While our bipedal design makes running very slow (Even my little Yorkie can run circles around me), our design is very efficient for distance running.
Walking upright uses one-fourth the energy than a chimpanzees four-legged gate. When you watch a chimpanzee walk it looks awkward with too many moving parts and too many wasted motions.
Other savanna predators tend to overheat easily. This forces them to rest after only a few minutes of exertion. But our hairless bodies enable us to shed heat quickly. Our bodies are long and lean and covered with sweat glands. We have a high ratio of skin area to body mass. Also, our vertical posture means that we absorb less heat from the sun while running. All of these things help us to exert ourselves for long periods of time without by dissipating our body heat quickly and efficiently.
Distance running, combined with pack hunting, does provide us with at least one effective hunting technique.
Now that Curiosity is safely on Mars and ready to begin its exploration, an exploration that could go on for decades due to its nuclear power plant, I would like to propose the next major NASA endeavor.
It is time to return to Jupiter. The Galileo mission (1995-2003) was a tremendous success even though the spacecraft was crippled by the loss of its high gain antenna. Some 90% of the potential data was lost due to the failure of this vital communication link.
It’s time to go back to Jupiter again. Only this time the mission will look more like the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. The next Jupiter mission should include an orbiter to survey Jupiter and its moons. But this time let’s add a lander for Europa. Europa is the most promising venue for extraterrestrial life in the solar system. A rover on Europa could explore the ice floes and run tests on the surface materials. The reddish-brown gunk that emerges from the cracks in the ice floes and spreads across the surface of Europa may be a life form similar to an algae bloom. We need to go there to check it out. Also, the rover could measure the thickness of the ice. This step would be in preparation for a following mission that will melt its way through the ice to place a submarine into the ocean below.
I will begin by saying that the story of Noah’s Ark is patently absurd by any standard. I have no trouble teaching or preaching this story as mythology. I believe that the most significant portion of this story is the rainbow covenant at the end. The rainbow covenant is a symbol of God’s grace and redemption, not just for humanity, but for all of creation.
There is no reason to disparage mythology or even a mythological interpretation of parts of scripture. Myth is often “truer than true.” The best way to explain this is to point to the American psyche and the Paul Bunyan myths. What better way to explain a country that invented heavier-than-air flight in 1903 and then went on to land a man on the moon in 1969.
There is nothing wrong with teaching or preaching scriptures from a mythical or mythological basis. Why let the facts get in the way of a good story? But that is not to say that we should make up or distort facts in order to “prove” a story.
To try and defend the story as history is simply indefensible. I am reminded of a fundamentalist preacher who once declared that, “Satan planted all the dinosaur bones just to confound the faithful!”
The story of Noah’s Ark is greatly similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh and several related myths, such as the epics of Atrahasis and Ziusudra from early Mesopotamian literature. It is possible that the root event for all of these epic legends was the inundation of the Black Sea around the year 5,600 BCE. But this inundation is disputed. And, even if this inundation was the seed of these epics, this certainly does nothing to confirm the historicity of the epics themselves. What these epics do prove is that the story of Noah’s Ark was not Hebrew in origin, but was drawn from the rich soup of Mesopotamian mythology. One common recurring theme throughout these epics is that people had very long lives before the flood, and shorter, “normal” lives after the flood.
At one point it was believe that the accounts of the Trojan War were thought of as totally mythical. Later, the city of Troy was found in what is now Northwest Turkey. But the discovery of Troy does not prove the historicity of The Odyssey and the Iliad. In the same manner, the new theory of the inundation of the Black Sea does not prove the historicity of the Genesis account of Noah.
Whatever scientific accounts of floods that we might choose to present as background for a sermon, it does not change the fact that the story of Noah’s Ark is simply absurd on its surface, and I will begin with that assumption.
Traditional accounts and depictions of Noah’s Ark seem to contain perhaps a dozen species. But a literal interpretation of a global flood requiring the rescue of every terrestrial animal requires a much larger effort than that. There are over ten million species on planet earth. And beyond that there are many varieties within each species.
To fill the Ark with one (or seven? [Gen 7:2]) breeding pairs of every living creature would involve the capture and containment of as many as tens of millions of breeding pairs. And, these would need to be captured from every corner of every continent on the earth. Such an endeavor has never occurred. We could do perhaps do it today, at least for the known species and varieties. But the cost and complexity of this endeavor, even with our 21st Century technology and resources, would be roughly the equivalent to building a permanent base on the moon. I believe that we can safely conclude that Noah and his three sons did no such thing.
Preaching on the Noah’s Ark story is about presenting it as mythology. In teaching mythology, the focus is not on the “historic” details, but rather upon the message that the author, in this case the Yahwist, is trying to teach us.
The early chapters of Genesis contain a collection of “sin stories.” These sin stories begin with the disobedience of Adam and Eve, and continue with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. God sees that the world is evil and considers destroying it. But then he considers Noah and considers him righteous.
Because of this God decides on a “warm boot” to restart creation. As any computer user knows, the best fix for a glitch computer is to do a warm boot. With the operating system, software and files reloaded, a myriad of computer problems will simply disappear.
The “sin stories” describe the depth of human sin, and the effect that one righteous man can have. The Yahwist is teaching us about the struggles of human life, and what it is for us to know God (Yahweh) and to understand what God desires of us.
The Story of Noah’s Ark concludes with the rainbow covenant. This is God’s first covenant with God’s creation. In it he promises to sustain the earth and all of its creatures. And God seals this covenant with the sign of the rainbow. This frequently observed phenomenon becomes the sign of God’s ultimate grace and redemption over the whole creation.
It is hard to understand why there is still any debate about extra dimensions beyond the three spatial and one temporal dimension that are a part of our everyday experience. With Einstein’s description of gravity as the warping of the spacetime continuum, it should be obvious to all that that warp must occur in an extra spatial dimension.
The above is a two dimensional illustration of the spacetime warp. Such an illustration can also be rendered in three dimensions by means of physical models. Many science museums have just such a three dimensional representation shaped like a funnel with curved sides, where steel balls orbit and slowly fall into the center hole as their momentum is slowed by friction. But even such three dimensional constructions are simply a three dimensional analogues of a four dimensional space.
To put it simply, the spacetime warp cannot exist in three dimensional space. Rather, this warping must of necessity occur in an extra dimension that is not part of our normal experience of the universe.
I once had a question about volcanoes that launched a spiritual inquiry. Why are their volcanos? They cause so much death and destruction. What purpose do they serve? And, why are they allowed to exist at all? It seems hard to fathom the destructive forces of nature.
We expect to be safe and comfortable in our “normal” lives. Then suddenly we are overcome by a volcano or another natural disaster. Is this any way to run a planet? But as I delved into this issue, it slowly became clear that the forces of destruction are also the forces of creation and regeneration.
Ask anyone living in Hawaii or Iceland about volcanoes. Without volcanoes neither group would have a place to stand. Volcanoes create new land, but they do much more as well. They release water vapor and various chemicals into the atmosphere. They nourish and enrich the soil with their minerals. They bring diamonds to the surface from their birth place deep in the mantle.
Of course, volcanoes are not alone in their destructive power. When I first moved to California my family back in Iowa thought it was very unwise to move to earthquake country. But then I thought about my boyhood days in Iowa. Iowa has tornadoes, thunderstorms, ice storms, blizzards, and flooding. California mostly has earthquakes. I guessed that more people die in Iowa blizzards each year than have ever died in a California earthquake, mostly from shoveling three feet of wet snow off of their driveways.
From this I conjectured that there is no safe place on the planet. There are hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires, avalanches, landslides, killing droughts, crop failures, floods, meteor impacts, not to mention diseases and epidemics all with the potential to do us in.
Where you live determines which perils you will face, but no place is safe. California does not have hurricanes because of its cold ocean, but it does have earthquakes. Life on earth has its perils. And, when we take a big picture view it becomes apparent that these are just a normal part of the circle of life, of the paradox of creation.
Everything is being created and destroyed, and we are living in the construction zone without a hardhat.
And now, here is the rub. Earth is not the only hazard zone in the universe. Space can host as many natural disasters as can our lowly planet. There are asteroid bombardments which I have already mentioned, gamma ray bursts that can fry a planet from thousands of light years away, coronal mass ejections from the sun. There are blowtorch like jets streaming from pulsars that can destroy whole solar systems from a great distance.
The universe was created from the Big Bang. Does that tell you something? Every element except for hydrogen and helium must be produced in stellar furnaces. The iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, and the oxygen that we breathe are all born of stardust.
Once a star produces iron it is doomed. It then explodes sending its detritus across the heavens. New stars and their planets are then formed from the debris. Elements heavier than iron cannot be formed inside of a star. The heavier elements can only be formed by the supernova explosion itself, an explosion which blows the star apart. This exemplifies the paradox of creation.
Even the cells of our bodies are dependent upon past disasters. And speaking of disasters, did you know that disaster came from the Latin for “bad star?”
Some four billion years from now the Andromeda Galaxy will collide with our own Milky Way Galaxy, and we have no idea how it will affect the earth. In the swirling maelstrom we might be ripped from our sun and flung into the cold darkness of interplanetary space. Or, we might smash into our sun or another nearby object. There is no way to predict the outcome of a galactic collision between two galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars.
And, since we are dabbling in classical languages, did you know that the word galaxy comes from the Greek word for “milk?” We all know that our galaxy is called the Milky Way because it looks like milk spilled across the heavens. But what you may not know is that galaxy means “milk,” and is related to such English words as lactose and lactation.
Even if we should survive this cosmic collision with the Andromeda Galaxy, we know the fate of the earth and it is tragic. In some five billion years the sun will swell up into a red giant. It will expand to fill the earth’s orbit. But long before, earth will be nothing but a burnt out cinder, scorched by heat and sterilized by radiation.
Creation and destruction, two names for the same processes. So how can we survive in this ongoing train wreck? The answer is simple and profound. . We are a part of this cosmic maelstrom. We were born to survive. Life is tenacious and so are we.
In 1961, Frank Drake formulated his famous equation to predict the likelihood of intelligent, technological life in the galaxy. Since that time we have made numerous scientific advances. In 1961 we had not found any extra-solar planets, and were not even sure if they existed. Today we have found hundreds of extra-solar planets and now believe that there are planets surrounding most stars.
Drake made his calculation and came up with the number 10. His answer was that there were ten civilizations in our galaxy with intelligent, technological societies with which we could communicate.
A technological civilization simply means a society capable of building radio telescopes to scan the heavens, for without such instruments any extraterrestrial contact is simply impossible. It should be noted that the first radio telescope on the earth was built in 1931. So, by this definition, we have been a technological society for less than one hundred years, a brief moment in the history of the cosmos.
The Drake equation states that:
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fℓ = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
But now it would appear that Frank Drake was an optimist. Steven Hawking has predicted that we might be alone in the Universe as the only technological society.
The nearest star to us is a red dwarf star named Proxima Centauri at a distance of 4.24 light years. This is our nearest neighbor in interstellar space, but getting there would take us some 80,000 years traveling at space shuttle speed. Just beyond Proxima Centauri is the binary star system Alpha Centauri A and B at 4.37 light years from our sun. And, what if we went there and found nothing? What would be our next destination and how long would it take to get there?
We are learning how hard and slow the process is to evolve from primitive life forms to advanced, technological civilizations. On earth this process took some four billion years. This means that a planetary nursery must be maintained in a relatively steady state for billions of years in order for an intelligent, technological society to emerge.
Humanity went almost extinct 73,000 years ago from the great Toba super-volcano in Sumatra. Some sources say that only around 10,000 humans were left on the planet, while other sources say that the human population dwindled down to a few hundred or even a few dozen. After millions of years of evolution we almost died out, but a few survived and our species went on to build a radio telescope.
There are new factors, not found in the Drake Equation, that may set earth off as the sole technological society:
The earth is big enough to sustain its magnetic field and the shielding that it produces for billions of years. Because the earth’s core is still molten, we have a magnetic shield that protects us from harmful radiation, coronal mass ejections, and the solar wind that could strip our planet of its atmosphere and water. When Mars lost its magnetic shield that planet died of these effects.
The earth has plate tectonics that continuously recycle the continents and continuously bring new minerals to the surface.
The earth has a large moon that provides gyroscopic stability and prevents our axis from wobbling too much. This provided for climactic stability over millennium in order that civilization may develop and thrive in one place without disruption or dislocation. Imagine, for example, if the earth’s axis tilted so that Europe dropped down to the latitude of the Sahara Desert. Any such civilization at that latitude would be doomed.
The moon was originally much closer to the earth than it is now. In the early days the moons tidal pull upon the earth was much larger. The effect of this tidal pool was to stir the waters in the inter tidal zone. This tidal stirring, this mixing of nutrients, proteins, and amino acids may well have aided in the formation of life.
The earth has big brother Jupiter that protects us from asteroid bombardment by corralling many errant space rocks and ice balls before they hit the earth. This was recently demonstrated by the Jovian capture and destruction of the Shumaker-Levi 9 comet.
The earth orbits a single star. Any planets in multiple star systems would be at a distinct disadvantage. It would be very difficult for a planet in a multiple star system, such as Alpha Centauri, to find a stable orbit in the “Goldilocks” zone where it is neither too hot nor too cold. Also, it is likely that at some point in time the planet would be either torn apart by gravitational forces or slung out into the interstellar void.
Our sun will shine for another five billion years. Our technological civilization is flourishing as our sun is in the middle of its useful life. Scientists believe that the world will be habitable for at least the next billion years or so, unless we destroy ourselves earlier. After the next five billion years we know that the sun will swell up into its red giant phase, with its outer edged touching the earth’s orbit. Long before the sun reaches its full expansion the earth will become a scorched, lifeless cinder.
Other planets in our galaxy may not be so lucky.
Carl Sagan worried that we might have reached the required level of technological development (i.e. radio telescopes) just in time to destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons. For today’s generation our main worry might be global warming. It is sad, but it seems that achieving the technological pinnacle of a radio telescope gives us power over nature to destroy ourselves and our habitat.
Steven Hawking said that since we might be the only intelligent, technological society in the galaxy, we may want to survive and continue.
United Church of Cloverdale
Sunday, June 27, 2010
The Work of God’s Fingers
When I was a small boy I loved to sleep out under the stars. I could spend hours just watching the night sky. There were stars and planets, satellites and meteors, nebulae and galaxies. But the sky was more than just a collection of bright lights against a dark background. To me, the sky was alive. As I lay in my lawn chair looking up, I would wonder who was looking back at me. I would probe with my mind, looking for life in the heavens above, and glorifying God’s most extraordinary creation.
The universe is an extraordinary place. It is the work of God’s hands. It is magnificent beyond our wildest imagination, and a testimony to the greatness of our God.
John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Tradition, believed that one way of knowing God was to study God’s creation. Calvin found divine logos in all of nature. The logos is the word of god. It is God’s fingerprints to be found in every nook and cranny of the universe. The logos represents God’s order, God’s laws, God’s pattern laid down for the universe.
John Calvin gave the theological underpinning to all of modern science. Calvin set the stage for Galileo and all that has followed.
Our planet earth was designed to support life. It is our habitat that we were given to nourish us in every way, to live together in communities and to develop cultures. But the greatest miracle of all is our ability to know God our creator.
According to today’s lesson, God has made us a little lower than the gods, and crowned us with glory and honor. The word used to describe the human condition is elohim, which translates as gods or spiritual beings. Elohim is a plural noun in Hebrew. It is used often in the scriptures to refer to God, meaning Yahweh.
Thus, our position in the universe is only a little lower than the creator. And being close to Yahweh, we are able to be in dialogue with God. God has given us dominion over creation, and put all things under our feet. We are stewards of creation, and co-creators with God.
The world is more amazing than we can even imagine. It is a beautiful blue marble full of life. It is our home and our habitation. And there is life everywhere.
When I was in high school, I was taught that all life on earth is solar powered. Plant use sunlight to produce food through photosynthesis. Herbivorous animals eat the plants, and carnivorous animals eat the herbivores.
But now we know of life forms that are not solar powered. There are many life forms that live in the ocean depths, such as tube worms. They live in depths of the sea where no light can penetrate, under enormous pressure and extreme heat. They live beside volcanic vents in the ocean bottom. They live by chemosynthesis, or the production of food from the chemicals spewed out by the volcanic vents.
There are living organisms in the geysers and paint pots of Yellowstone Park. These organisms can survive in boiling water full of caustic minerals. There are organisms that live in rocks, deep underground where the sun never shines, digesting rock for food.
There are microorganisms that live in ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic. And, when the ice sheets break off into the ocean, they provide nutrients that are the bottom of the food chain, supporting many species.
There are life forms that can survive the hottest deserts, the coldest frozen ice sheets, the most intense radiation, and the most extreme environments imaginable. It is now believed that there are even life forms in magma, the melted rock that forms volcanoes.
And as we continue to find new forms of life on earth, we are better equipped to find life beyond the earth.
Mars almost certainly had life at one point. I say this because a meteorite of Martian origin was found in the Antarctic. When this Martian space rock was cut open there appeared to be fossilized, primitive life forms. The scientific community has not officially embraced this development as “proof” of past life on Mars.
We may even find life living on Mars now. We cannot expect to find much more than a few bacteria, or perhaps some lichen on a rock. But finding even the smallest and insignificant life-forms on Mars would be perhaps the greatest discovery in human history.
But there are other bodies in our solar system that have a much greater chance of harboring life, and perhaps much more complicated life forms. In searching for extraterrestrial life, the guiding rubric is to “Follow the water.” And there are several bodies in our solar system that are believed to have even more liquid water than does the earth.
- Europa: 2.9 times earth’s water and ice
- Callisto: 27 times earth’s water and ice
- Ganymede: 36 times earth’s water and ice
- Titan: 29 times earth’s water and ice and a significant atmosphere
Tidal forces on these moons provide enough heat to create oceans of liquid water. Europa is covered with an ice cap, similar to the Arctic Ocean on earth. But below that ice cap there is an ocean of liquid water. One day we will land on Europa. We will then release a heated probe that will melt its way through the ice and into that liquid ocean. On moons such as these we may discover animals as sophisticated and intelligent as squids on earth.
But looking beyond our solar system there is a virtual certainty that we will discover other life forms.
When I was in high school, we were told that every person on earth could have his or her own star. But this was wildly inaccurate. In truth there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each one with hundreds of billions of stars. This means that everyone now living on earth, along with everyone who has ever lived, or ever will live, could be given her or his own galaxy, each with hundreds of billions of stars.
Space is vast beyond all comprehension. The closest star to the sun is Proxima Centauri. Light from that star takes over four years to reach the earth. If we were to travel to that star, it would take us 80,000 years at space shuttle speeds.
With that much real estate in the universe it is a virtual certainty that there is extraterrestrial life. There may also be intelligent life that is technologically advanced. Functionally, we would define an intelligent, technological society as one that has radio telescopes. Through such radio telescopes it might be possible to send and receive signals, although it might take decades, centuries or even longer for these messages to pass between worlds at the speed of light.
We live in a time when the latest scientific discoveries are accessible to us all. Anyone who would characterize television as a vast wasteland does not watch the channels that I watch. There are some exceptional TV channels that provide windows into all of science. These channels include:
- The Science Channel
- The History Channel
- National Geographic
The Internet also provides an awesome window on science and nature. Everything imaginable can be found with ease on the Internet. For example, did you know that LICHEN, which I mentioned earlier, is a symbiotic organism made up of a FUNGUS and photosynthetic partner that can be either a green algae or a cyanobacterium?
Or did you know that in 1977, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), received a radio transmission that was believed to be of intelligent origin? Unfortunately this signal was never heard again.
I found both of these bits of trivia with just a few minutes search on the Internet.
The universe is an amazing place. God’s fingerprints are everywhere. And now we have access to know everything that is happening in the scientific realms. When we study nature and science we are studying the creator, and learning his ways. We were made a little lower than God, and we were created to know God and to explore and understand God’s creation.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?