If you have any different insights on these topics, please share them. Maybe some day some of these ideas will make it to the big leagues and become pro-verbs. I also have a blog for technical computery stuff - zachstechnotes.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

perfect composition

The symphony of creation echos the glory of the LORD;
He has composed the story of His love with perfect skill.

[I couldn't get the large version of this picture to stay, so go here to view it]

Creation is like a huge symphony composed by the Creator. The most basic components of creation are indeed very much like musical notes. Every elementary particle has a frequency (de Broglie wavelength) related to its energy, just like each note of a symphony has a sound frequency related to its pitch. But when we listen to a symphony, we don't think about the frequencies of the notes; we hear each note as an individual object in a phrase, like a pearl on a string. We imagine the universe around us the same way. We think of particles interacting to form the things we see, but their frequencies (energy) that make them what they are are hidden from the mind.

A human composer uses chords and phrases to build his symphony. He chooses notes that have special interacting frequencies to form chords. God has designed the laws of nature such that the electrons of certain atoms with special energies (related to their frequencies) interact to make molecules and crystals. He uses these "chords" to build "phrases" that are the objects that we see and interact with. The difference is that, while a human composer uses hundreds or thousands of notes in his compositions, our creator uses 10^25 (1 with 25 zeros after it) particles. A biological system with DNA, protiens, buffers and hydrocarbons all interacting to do something amazing like turn sunflowers to follow the sun for example, are infinitely more complex than a musical phrase.

Now I know that many of you readers (if there are in fact many readers of this blog) did not revel in the beauty of what I was talking about in those last two paragraphs. That means you are a normal person. Normal people do not love music for the technicalities of individual notes or chords, they love it for the entire song. Only musical theory geeks love the notes and the key signatures, just like people who study physics love the quantum mechanics and chemistry that governs the basic elements of creation.

The real beauty that everyone can appreciate is in the music and the song as a whole. The real beauty that can be universally appreciated in creation is the personal stories that God writes. I think that God works personally in every person's life, and he uses this creation that he has composed so brilliantly to teach them about himself (Romans 1:20), so, using his already beautiful chords and phrases, he writes symphonic movements in everyone's life. Each of these movements is filled with expressions of his love.

The symphony of God's love is the whole of creation and history, and its parts come together beautifully. He wrote the story of Israel as a microcosm of the human experience (credit John Piper) to show how much humans fail at being good. He made the stars and galaxies so vast that we can barely comprehend them and can see his power, and he defined the physical laws for the universe so that physicists would be dumbfounded by their complex and simple elegance. He made the planet earth special to provide for his composition of life, and envisioned DNA to store all of the information needed for a human to spontaneously grow inside a mother's womb.

The conflict and rising action in this symphony is man's rejection of God. From Adam to Noah's contemporaries, to Israel, people have rejected him. We deserve no good and kindness from him. Yet the climax of the symphony comes as a stunning surprise. In the central act of God's love, he sent his son into creation. His son, though human, could compose parts of the symphony of nature and history. He was born impossibly from a virgin; he changed molecules of water into the alcohol of wine; and he gave life to dead bodies. And then this composer sacrificed himself to be punished by death for our transgressions, so that we, undeserving scum, can taste a relationship with him. The resolution of the symphony has yet to come, but the composer has told us that he will one day come to punish the wicked and give joy to those who know him. The timpani of the stars are rolling in anticipation of this finish. It is going to be epic, and those who are listening are excited.

This is the most beautiful song ever written. In the words of Switchfoot, it is all around us and running through us. In some ways, the meaning of life is simply to hear it.

Now that I have gone on about this for a while, I will get to the picture above. It is a picture of hurricane Earl taken from the international space station. It certainly displays an epic part of the symphony. But what I want to point out is the audacity of some common Christian beliefs. I say, and I hear other Christians often say, things like "That was a hard thing and it stressed me out, but God did it to teach me something." Does God really orchestrate entire movements in his symphony - hurricanes (figurative, and sometimes even literal) - just to teach someone a lesson? Has he really arranged the components of the universe from the beginning just to humble you? That is an extremely audacious thing to believe - that he would make all this happen for one simple human who might even reject him. If we just sit down and consider the epicness of that thought for a minute - that God created galaxies hundreds of lightyears across and atoms less than a nanometer in size all to show us his love, can we still believe it?

I do, and it makes me love my creator more every day.

An ancient king of Israel did, and he wrote this (Kevin, thanks for having it tatooed on your arm, or I probably wouldn't know of it):

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The ordinances of the Lord are sure
and altogether righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.

By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can discern his errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.

Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then will I be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

- Psalm 19

Saturday, August 28, 2010

simple answers

The ways in which the universe works are not obvious. The things we think about rarely have simple thinkable answers.

When we talk about the issues that are important in our lives, it seems like we work under the assumption that there is a simple answer that we can work out with our minds. When we argue about whether there is a God or whether an ethical issue is wrong or right or whether something like global warming is really a problem, we think that we can prove that we are right by just stating a few facts. The fact is that people have been arguing about these issues for years. Are we really going to solve them with our limited minds?

I have come to believe that we are not able to know the answers to many of these questions. Can we know for sure that there is a God (we can, of course, declare this plausible because of evidence and accept it by faith) or what He is like? Why should we believe that we can comprehend Him or the reason for His existence? One thing that I learned this summer in my modern physics class is that the universe itself is fundamentally incomprehensible.

Any chemistry student will tell you that there are about 6.022 x 10^23 atoms in a 26 gram sample of iron, but can anyone really comprehend that number? I doubt it. Even if you say that you understand it, I would say that you cannot even come close to imagining that many of anything. There are less than 10 billion people on earth. 10 ^ 23 is ten billion times ten billion times 1000. It is impossible for the human mind to imagine this number.

This is even a very simple example of something we cannot comprehend. At the subatomic level, nothing is really intuitively comprehensible by the human mind. the states of subatomic particles are governed by probability distributions only. We cannot define the exact position and momentum of an electron at a given moment*. Physicist Werner Heisenberg said
"The atom of modern physics can be symbolized only through a partial differential equation in an abstract space of many dimensions. All its qualities are inferential; no material properties can be directly attributed to it. That is to say, any picture of the atom that our imagination is able to invent is for that reason defective. An understanding of the atomic world in that primary sensuous fashion . . . is impossible."
and Richard Feynman said
"I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, 'But how can it be like that?' because you will get 'down the drain' into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that."
If we cannot understand or comprehend the most basic pieces of the universe, why should we expect to be able to understand everything else? Perhaps God did not intend for us to be able to prove Him or understand His thoughts and motives. There is so much knowledge that we do not possess; we should not presume to know so many of the answers. We can only stand in awe of the infinite greatness of the mind of God. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 11,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!

“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”

“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

*This doesn't simply mean that we don't have accurate enough means to measure the position and momentum of an electron, it is a statement about the very fundamental nature of an electron. Even if we were the size of an electron we wouldn't "see" a ball flying through space - we cannot even imagine what we would see.

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A man rarely has all of the guidance that he needs to make a decision beforehand, but a wise man still decides without worry.

Earlier in my life, decisions were really troubling for me because I don't have all the information that I would like to have before making them. "How will it turn out if I go this way?" and "What will I feel like if that does not work out?" are the kind of things I would ask myself. Of course I can't know these things, so I must make a decision without knowing these answers.

In a graduation address at Stanford, Steve Jobs (Apple computer founder) said "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something
: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever." He is right that you do have to pursue a path and trust in something. As Christians, we have something to trust in that is far more trustworthy than the things he mentioned. We can trust that the Creator of the Universe is going to use our lives for His Glory. So should we not be totally confident in our decisions? That is one thing that I have seen clearly in my life. Even when I have not known what decision to make, or even made the wrong decision, I have been put in the place where I need to be, so now I don't worry (as much) about those things.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

artificial barriers

A wise man only considers the the truly relevant facts when he makes a decision.

"Don't let artificial barriers get in the way." This is something my dad always told me. What are artificial barriers? Its anything that your mind or the culture, or any other entity puts in the way of the right decision that is not really important. Things like "I can't marry the girl I love because we're still in college" or "I can't get accepted into that research program because I won't get the application in on time" or "I can't exercise because I don't have enough time" could all be examples. Your mind can put artificial barriers in the way when you are uncomfortable with something, and others can put artificial pressure on you when they are not comfortable with it. If you want to do great things with your life, you need to push these things aside and be radical in making the best choices based on truly relevant facts. If you are late in getting that research program application in, petition the people in charge anyways. If you are passionate, they might let the deadline slide. If you know that you want to marry someone, but you're still in college, don't let only cultural norms stop you; it has worked many times before. If you have a good plan, don't let artificial barriers stop you. You can always come up with a reason not to do something, but wise people only consider what is truly important.

supporting ideas

If an idea lines up with the ultimate conclusion a man wants to reach, he will believe it even if there is little real evidence that it is right.

The other day, a friend and I were going mountain biking at a trail that we knew probably had rattlesnakes. The best time for us to fit it into our schedules was at about 4pm. We reasoned that the rattlesnakes would probably go back into their holes around this time, so it would be a safe time for us to go. Did we have any real evidence to lead us to believe that rattlesnakes really do go back into their holes at 4? No. Did we want this to be the case? yes.

One issue where I think that this principle can be seen over and over again is with regard to global warming. I don't know for sure if global warming really is a problem (I think that it probably is), but on both sides people grab onto any data that seems to support their conclusions, even if it is barely valid and not conclusive. The argument has devolved from considerations of facts leading to conclusions to a battle between people with entrenched conclusions selecting data to try to support themselves.