Science and Technology Blog
This blog contains articles about science, technology and a life of faith.  Written by the rector of Grace, these articles first appeared as the trailer articles in the Weekly Grace email newsletter.

Hubris, Ignorance and just plain Foolishness

My uncle wrote his physics Ph.D. dissertation in 1939 at the University of Chicago on nuclear fusion.  Fusion is the nuclear reaction that powers the sun and nearly all suns in the cosmos.  Only a decade before did scientists realize that lighter elements such as hydrogen and helium could fuse together to form a heavier element and give off energy in the process.  There was great confidence in the 1920s and 30s that figuring out how to harness the energy of the sun was just around the corner.  Soon the world would be powered by abundant, inexpensive, non-polluting energy sources.  Today, 77 years later, the optimism has been tempered with the sobering and very challenging scientific and engineering realities along with massive amounts of investment.  We still have not achieved sustainable nuclear fusion in the laboratory.


Fear of the Lord

Our Daily Office scripture today includes a passage from Isaiah that may be relevant to our national political process.

For the Lord spoke thus to me while his hand was strong upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying:  Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread.  But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.          (Isaiah 8:11-13)

Wikipedia makes a useful distinction between “fear of the Lord” and “fear of God.”

“Fear of the Lord” generally refers to a specific sense of respect, awe, and submission to a deity, while Fear of God suggests apprehension of Divine punishment.


S0410 – For the Sake of Unity

Sermon 10 April 2016 GEC Muskogee OK
Acts 9:16 (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

For the Sake of Unity

We need to do some teaching, preaching and proclamation today.  We will start with some history of the development of the Nicene Creed and then we will talk about human sexuality.  Somehow we will tie this all together with the abundant haul of fish.

First the creed:  Ancient historians wrote that in the fourth and fifth centuries, you could not go for a haircut on the streets of ancient cities like Rome, Corinth, Alexandria or Jerusalem with getting into a heated discussion with your barber whether Christ was fully human, fully divine or both.  Christianity in its first four centuries was as diverse and divided as it is today.  Each geographical region had its own understanding of the nature of Christ, who Jesus was, why he was crucified, what the crucifixion/resurrection meant and so on.  There were never any outright wars because the occupying army of the Roman Empire kept a firm grip even on local flare ups.  But there were heated disagreements about the nature of Christ and his relationship to God the Father.

Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire with Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313.  Although the Council of Nicaea was convened twelve years later, paganism was legal and flourished throughout the empire.  Four years before Nicaea, Sunday was declared the Empire-wide day of rest in honor of the Roman sun-god, Sol Invictus we maintain that pagan tradition even today although the Christian god has replaced Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun.

Constantine did not want religious unrest to become civil unrest in his Empire so the Council of Nicaea was called with over 300 bishops attending from all over the Empire.  Constantine paid for the travel expenses and two months of lodging for the hundreds of bishops and their delegations.  He arranged the meeting hall and called the meeting to order saying “Let all contentious disputation be discarded; and let us seek in the divinely-inspired word the solution of the questions at issue.”  He then exhorted the bishops to “unanimity and concord.”

Eventually 315 of the 318 bishops all agreed to the wording of the Creed.  The move was as brilliant politically as it was theologically.  Not everyone was happy with every detail, but the Empire was at least united behind a single doctrinal statement.  Interestingly that ecumenical council took up a number of other topics such as:  separating the date of Easter from the Jewish Passover date, the ordination of eunuchs, the prohibition of kneeling on Sundays, the validity of baptism by heretics and the re acceptance of lapsed Christians.

Why do we take time today to mention this?  Because when the church makes a correction in doctrine, not everyone agrees.  Many of the bishops who originally opposed but later voted for the Creed did so “for the sake of unity.”

Twelve hundred years later, Elizabeth the first will come to the throne and preside over a contentious church in England.  Half the clergy had very Protestant sympathies while the other half leaned in a Roman Catholic direction.  “What will be the church of the realm?” they asked their new queen.  “Catholic or Protestant?”  The queen blinked and said “Both.  We will all worship in one house with one Book of Common Prayer and you will all agree to get along.”  Like Constantine’s creed, the Elizabethan via media  or “middle way” was brilliant politically and theologically.  It served a greater good; for the sake of unity.

When it comes to marriage, weddings and blessings we are bewildered with a confusion of terms.  ONLY the state can marry a couple.  A marriage is a legal contract that bestows certain legal rights on the couple.  When a couple comes to the church for a wedding, the first half of the service involves vows the couple make to one another.  Once the vows are completed, they have done everything the state requires for them to be legally married.  They could leave the church at that point and sign contracts.  A priest or minister acts on behalf of the state up to this point to ensure that they are legally married.  After a wedding, I complete the marriage certificate and mail it to the County Recorder of Deeds.

The ONLY thing a church does sacramentally is to bless the couple.  It is a blessing of their life together and it is an implicit recognition that their love for each other reflects Christ’s love for the church.  When I was interviewing in 2010 with the vestry at Grace for this position as rector someone asked me what I thought about same-gender marriage.  I explained the important distinction between the state marriage and the church’s blessing.  I was tired.  It had been a long two days and I replied, “Let’s put this in perspective.  I have been to Groton Connecticut and seen Episcopal Navy chaplains break a champagne bottle over the bow of a nuclear submarine.  In that commissioning, an Episcopal priest blesses a piece of military hardware that could incinerate a continent.  Most people seem to not have any moral difficulty with that blessing but some do when it comes to blessing two people who love each other!  Which one of those would you be willing to bless?”

In the next two months we will begin discussions around the issue of blessing same-gender couples.  Please leave the issue of marriage out of the discussion because that has been decided by the civil courts of our land.  Please leave the term “wedding” out of the discussion because that is just a term we use for a particular kind of church service.  We are only going to talk about whether this church supports blessing any two people who love each other and who will vow to continue that.

We will also take up the issue of diversity in this church and how people of all social classes are welcome into the full life, ministry and leadership of the church.  Yes, we hold leaders to higher standards, but we also know that none of us are saints and we are never called to judge.  We are called by the Bible to welcome, to accept, to encourage, to teach and to love our leaders and members just like Jesus did.

These two issues of same gender blessings and diversity are little more than speed bumps on our journey.  We have a mountain to climb in front of us that is the very survival of this church.  When we can get past the speed bumps for the sake of unity, then we can begin to encourage, support, accept, teach and love each other like the disciples did.  And when we do that, we will haul in an amazing catch of fish.

Perspective 2

In the Manhattan Project to produce the first atomic weapons, one of the projects my uncle supervised was “Monte Carlo calculations” of the properties of neutron shields and deflectors.  No they weren’t gambling.  Monte Carlo calculations are statistical methods of simulation.  When you have to lift a five-ton weapon with a propeller driven, 1940’s vintage aircraft, it is critical to know how much lead is needed.  Too much and it literally won’t fly.  Too little and the weapon won’t work.  Uncle Bob once described to me what it was like to have a building with 500 math and physics graduate students sitting at desks with calculators cranking out computations.  Today, an undergraduate could do those same computations (all of them that took 500 students several months) on an average laptop in a few minutes.

If you want a nice break from touristy San Francisco, take the ferry over to Angel Island.  If you climb around the military fortifications on the west end of the island, guarding the entrance to San Francisco Bay, you will find an historical plaque.  The plaque talks about how Congress in the early 1800s authorized $5M to build these guns and fortifications.  About three years after the guns were in place, the introduction of steel cladding on military ship’s wooden hulls rendered the entire gun emplacement obsolete.  Such is the nature of progress.  Today’s edge on the enemy (or the competition) becomes tomorrow’s scrap for the recycle bin.

Since the advent of transistors in the 1970s, electronic computing has been marching along to Gordon Moore’s Law (founder of Intel) that states memory capacity and CPU speed will double every 18 months.  People have predicted the demise of Moore’s Law several times in the last decade, but it continues to march on towards the fundamental limits of physics or until something radically different comes along.

Quantum computing is radically different.  Today’s quantum computers must be cooled to near absolute zero (-473 degrees Fahrenheit or really really cold) and they must be completely isolated from radio waves of all kinds.  These machines are the sci-fi of today but it appears that in the next few years to a decade ahead, practical quantum computers will be built that are millions or billions of times faster than any computer existing today.

Sadly, one major push for quantum computing comes from the financial industry that just wants a bigger calculator to predict market trends.  Another major use for these ultra-fast computers will be encrypting messages and decrypting secret data.  Those who rely upon conventional style computers for encryption of data will someday find that quantum computers will be able to break their “unbreakable” encryption.

Someday in the future, the recent FBI square off against Apple regarding the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone will seem as quaint and silly as an old rotary dial telephone is today.  It is always helpful to have some perspective on what we call “progress.”

Perspective 1

Although most people outside of the church tend to think the opposite, theology always plays catch up ball with the faith and actual practices of the people.  For example, toward the end of the period of Roman persecutions of Christians, many people in north Africa watched while some bishops and priests apostatized (disavowed) their faith or turned in other Christians to the Roman authorities in order to save their skins.  That some priests and bishops were still alive after a persecution while other families lost loved ones who refused to deny their faith did not go unnoticed by the people.  After the persecutions stopped and North African people went back to their pre-persecution lives, many faithful Christians understandably questioned whether a priest or bishop could continue to celebrate holy Eucharist or baptize after they had denied their faith (these were called “traditors” the Latin root of our words for 
traitor and treason
).  Some people believed that the traditors who had denied their faith to save themselves were no longer “valid” in presiding in the sacramental life of the church.


Listening to Each Other

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

We’ve all had those moments.  Our spouse waxes on passionately about a topic he or she is closely following.  The receiving spouse smiles and nods at the appropriate moment and then there is this big thud in the monologue.  The talker stops and says to the listener, “Are you hearing what I am saying? … Are you even listening to me? … Hello in there.”  It’s like when you drive through one of those cell phone blackout zones and you keep talking when the line is dead.

But a faith community listens to each other in love and trust.  Real listening is hard work because it requires that for a moment we set aside who we are with our bias, prejudice, background, social location and emotional baggage.  Real listening requires that we willingly step into the other person’s shoes for a minute and walk in those shoes.  Real listening is never about interpreting what you hear based upon your own situation in life; instead it is about understanding, literally standing under, the other person.

Real listening demands that we hang in there.  Sometimes we are going to hear things that are uncomfortable or challenging.  Before slavery was abolished first in England and later in the United States, Anglican and Episcopal priests taught and preached pro-slavery sermons to their churches for over a century.  Their interpretation of the Bible was all based upon a slave-owning, slavery-is-ok point of view so of course they used the Bible to justify everything about slavery.  When slavery was abolished, the priests, preachers and their congregations on the slave-owning side were forced into some very difficult dialogues.  All of a sudden, everything they had been taught based upon the Bible, was wrong.

Real listening only takes place in real communities.  It is very easy to create a collection of like-minded people.  Set up the single authority as being the pastor.  Establish the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible as the only valid interpretation and then see to it that anyone who disagrees with that interpretation is uninvited.  That is not a community in Christ.  It is a group of people who all like to agree with each other.  There will never be any real listening or difficult dialogues in such a place because that has all been eliminated by the authoritative pastor.

Take a look at our own culture for a minute.  We have subjugated the rights of women since ancient Greece where women were excluded from full citizenship.  Ancient Rome was similar in that women had no public voice or public role although they had some legal protection that did not extend to slaves or foreigners.  By the time we get to the Middle Ages, the Church of England and English culture regarded women as weak, irrational and vulnerable to temptation.  The medieval church promoted the Virgin Mary as a role model for women to emulate by being innocent in sexuality, married to a husband and eventually bearing children.  Women were referred to in conversation as “his daughter” or “his wife.”

By the 17th century in Europe and the American colonies, who can ignore the famous witch trials where at Salem Massachusetts over XX women were crushed or burned to death?  By 1869 an English philosopher commented that “We are continually told that civilization and Christianity have restored to the woman her just rights.”  He goes on to say that in practice the wife is the “bondservant of her husband” no less than that of slaves.

In the United States, women earned the right to vote in 1920, fifty years after many European nations.  Today women in all professional categories still earn less than men performing the same job by 20% or more.

So what does this cultural tour of the history of women’s right mean?  If we were to have a difficult dialogue about the role of women in our society, in combat, in professional work or in the home, I would FIRST need to acknowledge that I am biased by 2500 years of cultural history.  I need to work hard and examine my own cultural baggage before I could even listen to a woman talk about her situation.

The strength of real dialogue and listening in community is that more wisdom and faith emerges from such work than any individual in the group could imagine.  The strength of the whole community is greater than the sum of its parts.  That is why Jesus constantly referred to us as sheep.  A flock of sheep has hundreds of eyes scanning for danger in all directions.  A flock of sheep is far stronger and more resilient than one individual sheep.  A faith community is like that too.  We have hundreds of hearts open not only to the possibility of danger but also to the possibility of opportunity.

Thomas was not just a doubting Thomas, he violated the trust of the community.  He did not listen to his colleagues but instead listened to his own inner voice.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Whenever we think we have all the answers and whenever we refuse to really understand others in our community with opposing or difficult positions, we become like Thomas depending only on ourselves; listening only to our own voice.

But when we are willing to admit that maybe we don’t know all the facts and we don’t have all the answers and we can sit down to really listen to our community then we are like the other disciples.  We don’t need the physical evidence.  We only need the testimony of our community.  “We have seen the Lord!”

Garbage by the Numbers

In 1971 while in college, I helped create a community-wide recycling center (paper, glass, metals) for Rolla Missouri. We used a donated, abandoned grocery store and we repurposed donated agricultural conveyors and other equipment. Trash compactors were rebuilt and cleaned to use for paper and aluminum can compaction. I have recycled my household trash ever since.

The average American generates 1,600 pounds of trash per year. This means that in my adult life to date, my household as a typical American household would have discarded 135 tons of trash or about 10 full garbage trucks. This volume would fill a two bedroom apartment floor to ceiling with compacted trash. I estimate that we have recycled more than half of our household trash for more than forty years.

Residential trash contains materials that could easily be recycled by those in the household. This amounts to roughly 60% of the trash volume. The amount that American residential households ACTUALLY recycle is 13%. By contrast, Europeans recycle 50-64% of their residential trash. We have a long way to go.

Here’s a more vivid image – If you took the 72 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste that goes to the landfill every year across our land, the garbage trucks to transport that waste would be lined up bumper to bumper from here to the moon. We could shrink that by 60% if we only cared enough about future generations to do so.

On top of the recyclable trash, about half of our domestic food waste can be composted. This saves energy, reduces investment in sewage infrastructure and provides useful gardening soil. Studies vary in their measurements but 20-28% of American households actually compost some or all of the 36 million pounds of food waste they send to the dump each year.

It takes 20 times the amount of energy to create new aluminum from its ore (bauxite) than it does to melt an aluminum can and recycle it. For glass the number is about 3. For plastic it is about 1.6. Here are some more tangible ways to look at it: The energy saved in recycling ONE aluminum can could run a 14 watt CFL light bulb for 20 hours or power your desktop computer for 3 hours. Five 2 liter recycled PET bottles (mainly soft drink bottles), produces enough fiberfill to make a ski jacket. The energy saved recycling one glass bottle would run a 14 watt CFL bulb for 28 hours. Broken glass in the environment takes 1 million years to break down.

Manufacturing one ton of office paper products with recycled paper saves between 3,000-4,000 kilowatt hours of energy or about the entire output of the Muskogee power plant for one hour. Grace uses a ton of paper products every two years (most of which gets recycled).

If we really care about the “unborn” or those who come after us, we might ponder these numbers in prayer and resolve to do what we can about it. The future is literally in your hands.


A Christian Community

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” was the start of Paul’s admonishment to the small church community he founded at Philippi.” The community was founded based upon a dream that came to Paul to evangelize in what is now western Turkey or Macedonia in Biblical times. Even after arrival he endured stonings and imprisonment so this wasn’t a cakewalk mission for Paul. He did not live in a $10M mansion nor did he have a private jet. He suffered for his faith and he was often misunderstood.

When Jesus saw the demoniac chained to the wall at the Gerasene cemetery, he didn’t think to himself, “Uh oh, this is a crazy man. I’m gonna go somewhere else.” No, Jesus stayed, had compassion for what was tormenting the guy and he managed to transfer a legion of unclean spirits into a herd of pigs. I sometimes feel sorry for the poor farmers (unmentioned) in this story who owned the pigs. All their bacon went over the cliff but staying around even in the face of physical danger and opposition is something both Jesus and Paul did repeatedly.


Sometimes the bad comes with the good

Nobel Prize (chemistry) winner, Linus Pauling, once hailed the [economically feasible] development of synthetic fertilizer in the early 20th century as the most important technology of the 20th  century.  That is not an overstatement.  Affordable, synthetic fertilizer made with fossil-fuel generated energy forestalled the inevitable collision of population and food resources.  Demographers and biologists predicted a food catastrophe sometime in the late 20th century that never happened.  The reason – fertilizer.  US crop yields outstripped farms in the rest of the world by a factor of 10 to 20!  But there is a cost that we are beginning to pay for this chemical blessing.

Let me admit that in late January and February when I am tired of a brown landscape, the sight of luxuriant green winter wheat makes my heart leap and I look forward to the colors of life in a resurrected spring time.  Unfortunately, much of that lovely green color comes from various forms of nitrate (NO3) applied to the fields.

In the past few years, peer-reviewed studies throughout the Mississippi basin have shown that excessive amounts of fertilizer have been applied to agricultural fields and much of that excess has been accumulating in the soil.  No big deal right?

When excessive nitrogen is applied, the plants do not take it up and use it.  So the nitrate dissolves in water and runs off the field.  Here’s what happens next.

  • Mississippi basin runoff all goes into the Gulf of Mexico which now has a “dead zone” of 6,500 square miles (the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined) located off the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. No fish can live in the dead zone because the nitrate causes a bloom in algae which then consumes all the oxygen in the water.  The technical term for this is hypoxia.  The economic term for this is no fishing industry.
  • Des Moines, Iowa and other towns in the Mississippi basin have been forced to spend millions of dollars upgrading their water treatment plants to reduce nitrate levels in drinking water to safe standards. (Remember Flint Michigan and lead?  This is just as bad.)
  • The same Des Moines water company is suing three upstream counties for failing to address harmful surface-water nitrate levels that are more than twice the US federal drinking water standard.
  • Nitrates are being found below the “top plow zone” which is one to three feet below the surface. We now know they will persist there for decades while slowly leaching into agricultural runoff water.
  • People who live in the Mississippi basin and who depend upon shallow, improperly constructed or improperly located water wells often have nitrate levels exceeding safe levels. This leads to a potentially fatal blood disorder in infants under six months called methemoglobinemia or “blue-baby” syndrome; in which there is a reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood.  The symptoms can be confused with other diseases and except in extreme cases (where the baby is actually blue), the disorder can be difficult to diagnose.  Many state public health agencies have not added this disease to their “reportable disease” index so accurate incidence records are difficult to find now.  Nonetheless many counties have information about this disease on their websites.
  • This last item is a chemistry argument of mine, but NO3 is pretty high on the electromotive force table. That means it will outcompete other trace elements (in their anionic forms) in the uptake by plants.  Long term this displacement of other important elements for human life could lead to various types of malnutrition like scurvy in 18th century British sailors (which was solved by adding citrus fruit to their diet).

Linus Pauling was certainly right in his assessment of an important technology.  But that was in the 1960s. Today we need to be smarter about our use of technologies of all kinds.  That would include taking the long term perspective and not just blindly label things universally good before we truly understand all sides of the issue.

Ideology 101

Ideology: “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.”  Sadly, among the items recovered in the ISIL bomb factory in Brussels last night was a Wahhabist manual.  We mourn today for all the victims of terror attacks throughout the world.

Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabist sect of Sunni Islam lived during the century of the American Revolution, 1703-1792.  This of course was also the heyday of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment.  Rationalism was all the rage across the globe.  One can now see the seeds of today’s globalism in this nascent intellectual development.  Hindu clerics in the jungles of Malaysia as well as Muslim clerics in the deserts of what is now Saudi Arabia feared this movement.  It could undermine their totalitarian control over the people.

Not unlike the Protestant Revolution in Europe of a century before (which sowed both liberal AND ultra-conservative versions of Christianity) al Wahhab sought to “purify” Islam by taking it back to its original roots or “
salaf.”  He thought that the intervening eleven centuries since the founding of Islam had brought corrupting influences that were either “religious” innovation or polytheism.  (Does this sound like Martin Luther or other Protestant reformers?  Digression:  Recall that W. H. Auden once defined a [Christian] Puritan as someone who suspected somebody else, somewhere was having a good time.)  So far so good.