Another Atheist-Turned-Christian

Dr. Sarah Salviander has a Ph.D. in astrophysics and is currently a research fellow at the University of Texas Department of Astronomy.
Dr. Sarah Salviander has a Ph.D. in astrophysics and is currently a research fellow at the University of Texas Department of Astronomy.
As regular readers of this blog know, I collect interesting stories about atheists who have become Christians. This is partly because I was once an atheist myself, and it is partly because I find it fascinating how God reveals Himself to people in so many different ways. Recently, I ran across the testimony of Dr. Sarah Salviander, who holds an earned Ph.D. in astrophysics and is a research fellow at the University of Texas Department of Astronomy. She has a healthy list of publications in the peer-reviewed literature and characterizes herself as a scientist, apologist, and author.

In her testimony, she says that her parents were atheists who preferred the term “agnostic” and that religion played no part in her life as she grew up. Indeed, only three of the people she met by the time she was 25 had identified themselves as Christians. She says:

My view of Christianity was negative from an early age, and by the time I was in my twenties, I was actively hostile toward Christianity. Looking back, I realized a lot of this was the unconscious absorption of the general hostility toward Christianity that is common in places like Canada and Europe; my hostility certainly wasn’t based on actually knowing anything about Christianity. I had come to believe that Christianity made people weak and foolish; I thought it was philosophically trivial.

This is something Dr. Salviander and I had in common. When I was an atheist, I viewed religion as a crutch. It was okay for people who didn’t have the intellectual fortitude to face reality, but for someone who was knowledgeable about science and philosophy, it was absurd. Like Dr. Salviander, I eventually learned how wrong such a position is.

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Mathematics and Science

This is one way to visualize the meaning of the irrational number "pi."  If a wheel has a diameter of 1, it will travel a distance of pi when it makes one complete revolution. (click for credit)
This is one way to visualize the meaning of the irrational number “pi.” If a wheel has a diameter of 1, it will travel a distance of pi when it makes one complete revolution. (click for credit)

Was mathematics discovered or invented? That might seem like an odd question, but it is an important one. I haven’t seen any official poll on the matter, but I suspect that most mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists would say that it must have been invented. After all, math is a tool. We use it for accounting, parceling out land, etc. Surely people invented this tool and then improved on it over time. If that’s really true, however, there is a deep mystery that is awfully hard to explain. Nobel laureate Dr. Eugene Wigner (a theoretical physicist and mathematician) put it this way:

The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.

Think about it. We didn’t invent the natural world. We simply study it. If we invented mathematics, why does it play such an integral role in our understanding of the natural world?

In my opinion, there is no mystery as to why mathematics is so useful in the natural sciences. That’s because I don’t think we invented it; I think we discovered it. Indeed, I think it is the language of creation. As Galileo wrote:

[The universe] cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.

I was reminded of Galileo’s wise words when I read a short paper by two professors from my alma mater, the University of Rochester.

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In Honor of Veterans Day

My dad (Howard Edmund Wile) as a naval aviator.
My dad (Howard Edmund Wile) as a naval aviator.
I don’t typically do many holiday posts, and when I do, they are about Christian holidays. However, later on today I am going to attend a Veterans Day ceremony in which my father, Howard Edmund Wile, will be honored for his service. He is 89 years old and was in the Navy during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He was a turret gunner on a PV2 Harpoon and an aviation ordnanceman on four different aircraft carriers. He retired with the rank of Chief Petty Officer. This, of course, has made me think about Veterans Day and how important it is to remember those who have served. In honor of all veterans, I give you “A Nation’s Strength” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.

Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly…
They build a nation’s pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.

A Chemistry-Based Special Effect for Stage

A picture of the special effect in action.  (Credit: Lucas Collett, a fellow actor in the production.)
Me as Abraham Van Helsing, using the special effect.
(Credit: Lucas Collett, a fellow actor in the production.)

This post is a bit different from the standard fare you find on my blog, but it is about two of my passions: acting and chemistry. As longtime readers are probably aware, acting is a hobby of mine. I write Christian Dramas, most of which are best characterized as “skits,” and I also act in them. In addition, I do some community theater. Most of it is done at Anderson’s Mainstage Theatre as well as a new local group, The Alley Theatre. However, I have done some shows with other groups. In 2006, for example, I played Maurice (Belle’s Father) in Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s production of Beauty and the Beast. You can see a couple of scenes from the show here and here. The young lady who played Belle is one of the best actresses with whom I have ever worked, and I have worked with a lot of actresses!

In any event, I recently played the role of Abraham Van Helsing in Anderson Mainstage Theatre’s production of Dracula. The script is a relatively new one, but I think it is the best one I have seen. In the scene where Van Helsing confronts Dracula with a crucifix, the script says that Dracula is suppose to touch the crucifix, and it is supposed to briefly catch fire. I asked the director if she wanted that effect, and she said, “Yes, as long as it doesn’t look stupid.” I took that as a challenge.

Based on my past experience in the theater, I know of a substance called “flash cotton,” and based on my knowledge of chemistry, I understand that it mostly consists of a chemical called nitrocellulose. I had learned to make it for another show I was in years and years ago, so rather than buying it, I made it myself. The recipe is really simple, as long as you can get the ingredients.

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Put Away the Laptop. Take Longhand Notes.

Medical students using laptops in class (click for credit)
Medical students using laptops in class (click for credit)

In the fall of 2014, I taught a chemistry class at Anderson University. While I had been a guest lecturer for several university-level courses over the years, it was the first time in 19 years that I had taught an entire, semester-long class. As a result, I experienced some things I had never experienced before, and one of them was students using laptops to take notes. It wasn’t incredibly common in my class, but every day, a few students would come in, sit down, and open up their laptops.

I wasn’t crazy about the students using laptops in my class, mostly because I think they can be distracting for the students using them. If a student sees an e-mail message or Facebook notification, it is easy for the student to flip over to those things rather than concentrate on what is happening in class. However, I strongly believe that at some point, you need to start treating students as adults. Thus, I didn’t tell them that they couldn’t use laptops. I did note who the laptop users were and, when I processed test scores, I would compare the average of the students using laptops to the average of the rest of the class. Each test, the laptop users had a lower test score average.

Of course, my sample size was very small. As a result, the statistical error kept me from making any firm conclusion regarding laptop use in class and performance on the tests, but the results did correlate with my “gut feeling” regarding laptop usage, so I became even more convinced that laptop usage in class harms a student’s performance. Little did I know that there is actually a large body of statistically-significant research on the subject, and the studies are in general agreement: taking notes with your laptop is simply not as effective as taking notes longhand.

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Did We Really Save the Ozone Layer?

Ozone hole size and worldwide use of ozone depleting substances (click for credit)
Ozone hole size and worldwide use of ozone depleting substances (click for credit)

A reader sent me this article and asked for my thoughts on it. It discusses the fact that the ozone “hole” over Antarctica grew 22% from 2014 to 2015. It presents the graph shown above, which demonstrates that despite the fact that the worldwide use of chemicals known to destroy ozone has dropped to nearly zero, the size of the ozone hole has not really decreased. It points out two studies that claim the ozone hole will shrink in size by either 2020 or 2040, and it concludes with this sentence:

But the longer the hole persists, the greater the likelihood that the ozone layer is dominated by natural factors, not human CFC emissions.

So what’s the story? By banning the use of CFCs, which we know can destroy ozone in the ozone layer, did we really fix the ozone “hole” problem? Or did we, as this story seems to imply, try to fix something that is probably the result of earth’s natural variability?

The first thing you need to know is that the ozone “hole” isn’t really a hole. It is a reduction in the amount of ozone that exists within the ozone layer, a portion of earth’s atmosphere that is roughly 15-35 kilometers above the surface of the earth. While all portions of the atmosphere have some ozone in them, this portion has the highest levels. Ozone’s molecular structure allows it to absorb some of the ultraviolet light that comes from the sun. That’s good for us, because ultraviolet light is energetic enough to kill living tissue. You can therefore think of the ozone layer as a “shield” that protects us from most of the sun’s ultraviolet light.

The amount of ozone in the ozone layer is measured using Dobson Units (DU). The larger the number of Dobson Units, the more ozone there is in the ozone layer. Globally, the average amount of ozone in the ozone layer is about 300 DU, but in Antarctica, that number fluctuates significantly with the seasons. While there are times the amount of ozone in the ozone layer above Antarctica is 300 DU and higher, there are also times it is significantly lower. The lowest recorded level of ozone in the ozone layer above Antarctica was in September of 1994, when there were only 74 DU of ozone. That reduction of ozone is what scientists refer to as the ozone “hole.”

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