Our Unique Planet

our unique planet
Earth is very different from any other planet we have discovered inside or outside of our solar system. One key factor that makes our planet habitable is our Moon. The Moon serves several important roles, including holding Earth in a stable rotation. The Moon can be a stabilizer for Earth because of its relatively large size. Other planets have moons that are much smaller in comparison to the planets they orbit. Also, other planets in our solar system have multiple moons which make conditions less stable.

Many of the planets discovered outside of our solar system are huge and located incredibly close to their stars with highly eccentric orbits. A solar system in the constellation Serpens was found with a planet seventeen times as massive as Jupiter. Someone might respond with the observation that we can only see the big planets because those systems are so far away. That observation misses the point. These huge, Jupiter-sized and larger planets are located as close to their stars as we are to our Sun or closer. If there is a small planet in the vicinity, it would be twisted and wrenched about by the influences of the large planet. The problem with highly elliptical orbits and life is that there would be too much variation in the amount of energy that the planet receives from its star. Earth’s orbit is only slightly elliptical giving us stable temperatures. If we had only one planet in our solar system with a radically elliptical orbit, there would be a danger of it crashing into our planet. Circular orbits are important for stability. The instability produced by highly eccentric orbits of large planets would make the area sterile and void as far as life is concerned. Everything we see indicates that our solar system is a cosmic oddball.

There are many properties of our planet, Sun, solar system, and the galaxy in which we live that have to be exactly as they are for any kind of life, not just intelligent life, to exist. The galaxy has to be the right type of galaxy, we must be in the right position in the galaxy, and our Sun has to be the right type of star and at the right age in its life process. Our planet must have the right size, mass, tilt, magnetic field, distribution of land masses, chemical makeup, atmosphere, distance from the Sun, and much, much more.

To calculate the overall probability, you must multiply the probability of each of the dependent variables. Every time scientists find a new variable that has to be precisely determined for a life-sustaining planet to exist, that probability is multiplied by all the other probabilities. Considering all of the required factors and the probability of each and multiplying them all together, the total probability of another planet like Earth is exceedingly small. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth” takes on a whole new level of meaning as we continue to gain knowledge about the cosmos.
–John N. Clayton and Roland Earnst © 2017

Caring for the Environment

Admiring the Beauty of Earth
Admiring the Beauty of Earth
We live at a time where there is great concern about the environment. We have seen the effect of human carelessness in dumping wastes into the atmosphere, rivers, and lakes. As an earth science teacher in the public schools, I always was disturbed by the complacency of students and administrators toward this critical issue. In my lectureships, I have sometimes had skeptics suggest that the problems of ecology are due to Christianity. In Genesis 1:28 God told the first humans, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Someone has commented that this is the only command God ever gave that man completely obeyed, and there might be some truth to that. Atheists have maintained that this is the cause of human abuse of the natural world in which we live.

From a biblical standpoint, this is a misuse of the message of the Scriptures. Any statement in the Bible can only be properly understood if you look at who write it, to whom, why, and how the people it was written to would have understood it. Genesis 1:28 was written to let us know that God expects us to control the Earth and its resources, but it gives no indication of how to do that. In Genesis 2:15, God told the man to, “take care of the Garden, to dress it and to keep it.” In Genesis 3:23 we are told that after the man had left the garden, he was to “work the ground from which he was taken.”

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, a great emphasis is placed on the beauty of the creation and the great wisdom and power that created it. Proverbs 8:22-31 puts an emphasis on the wisdom involved in all that was done to prepare the Earth for human life. The Psalms are full of references to God’s creation, and Jesus in Matthew 6:26-30 calls his followers to consider the beauty of the creation. Even more important, throughout the Bible humans are viewed as caretakers and guardians of what God has given us. Nowhere is there an instruction or suggestion that the creation is to be exploited or abused.

We are bringing enormous pain upon ourselves and on our children by the way we have mismanaged what God has given us. A great amount of disease, including cancer, is caused by man-made poisons and carcinogens dumped into the environment. The medical effects of mercury, lead, and asbestos cannot be denied. Most of the entry of these materials into our oceans, lakes, and rivers has come from human greed and irresponsibility. God does not cause these things, and a failure to live as God has called us to live is a major part of why these problems exist. Christians are called to take care of the environment, and Christian teachings are not the cause of our ecological issues. We are, however, even more concerned about mental, emotional, and spiritual pollution. If we could bring men and women into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, their change in attitude would resolve most of our social and environmental issues.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Soil Studies Speak of God’s Preparation for Humans

Healthy Soil
Healthy Soil
There is an economy of language in the Hebrew descriptions of the Bible. In Genesis 2:8-9 for example, the Bible says: “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees to grow out of the ground…”

We can learn a lot from those verses. They tell us that the Lord planted something, he did not “zap” something into existence. Later the man was told to tend the garden (verse 15), suggesting that it needed care to continue to provide for the man’s needs and later for the woman’s needs. How long was it after God planted the trees before they began to produce fruit? What did Adam and Eve have to do to take care of the garden? How long was it before Adam and Eve sinned? What else did God need to do in the process of planting the trees?

This last question opens the door to a great deal of understanding that science has gained in recent years through the study of soil chemistry. Plants do not grow in sterile sand. For soil to nourish plants so that they can feed us, much careful science has to be applied. Modern soil scientists refer to “healthy soil” meaning that it is rich in organic material, is crumbly, and has the right chemical profile. To have these things, the soil must contain microbes including bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa. A teaspoon of healthy soil can hold more microorganisms than there are people on Earth.

We now know that there is a symbiotic relationship between plants and soil microbes. Plants use the sun’s energy to pull carbon dioxide from the air and create a carbon-rich nutrient packet to allow growth. Oxygen is released in that process. The plants also leak nutrients to the microbes, and the microbes supply plants with other nutrients they have extracted from the minerals in the soil. The fungi produce an underground network that brings water and carbon to the plants. When insects begin to feed on a plant, fungi filaments called hyphae help the plant bring tiny soil nematodes that feed on the insects.

When humans abuse the soil and interrupt this system, we have to artificially add chemicals to do what organisms in the soil were designed to do. The chemicals of modern farming could be reduced or eliminated if farmers worked on building healthy soils. The Garden of Eden was a place of healthy soil. God used incredible wisdom and intelligent design to build a system that would meet human needs. This was done in God’s time and was not a magic show, but a consciously built system that has sustained all living things for a very long time. Proverbs 8:22-31 tells us that wisdom was involved in all of this planning and design, and Romans 1:18-22 lets us know that all of this is a testimony to the existence of God.

There is a wonderful article in the April/May 2017 issue of National Wildlife page 35 (available online http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Gardening/Archives/2017/Soil.aspx) that documents all of this and shows us the complexity of God’s soil science.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Missing the Beginning

Earth, Moon, and Sun
Earth, Moon, and Sun
The first word in the Hebrew text of Genesis is reshith, translated into English as “In the beginning.” For hundreds of years, atheists have tried to dispute the notion that there was a beginning. Until the latter part of the twentieth-century scientists didn’t know that there was a beginning. There is an old joke that says, “What did Moses know that Einstein didn’t?” The answer: “That there was a beginning.” The problem is that if a person admits that there was a beginning, they are faced with the question, “What was the cause of the beginning?” It is much simpler just to deny that there was a beginning and maintain that everything has always been–not necessarily as it is today, but in a form that could change into what we see today.

In the 2003 version of the Humanist Manifesto, the statement was clearly made, “The universe is self-existing and not created.” Older versions had the word “eternal” in the statement. It is obvious that the question of origins is evaded by the use of “self-existing” so the word “eternal” is not needed. Atheists will usually respond to this point by saying that religious people claim God is self-existing, so there is no reason why atheists cannot make the same claim about the universe. Carl Sagan in his book Cosmos said, “Why is it any more reasonable to say that God has always been than to say that the cosmos has always been?”

The answer to this challenge lies in the nature of God and the nature of the cosmos. When we measure light, we measure its frequency in cycles per second. When we measure speed in space, we measure it in meters per second. Force, mass, acceleration, energy, momentum, and inertia are all measured in space/time units. We are limited to understanding things in terms of time and space. Various scientific measuring tools have verified that there was a beginning to time and space. The cosmos is expanding at an ever-increasing rate, suggesting that it has accelerated away from a place where it began.

Since research in all areas of science has made it increasingly obvious that the cosmos had a beginning, science seeks to explain the beginning. The result is that theories are being proposed such as String Theory which suggests that there are multiple dimensions beyond our own. Since String Theory and proposals of multiple universes cannot be tested scientifically, they fail to give an answer to the beginning. We are limited by our inability to devise experiments to measure and test these theories. The biblical term “In the beginning” refers to the origin of all of reality. Whether God created the universe using strings of energy or a big bang is not relevant.

The atheist will say that being unable to explain origins does not necessarily mean that God did it. We are not proposing a “God-of-the-Gaps” argument in which we say, “God did it because we have no other explanation.” What we are saying is that the Bible makes it clear that God is outside of all other dimensions. God is described as the creator of time and space. God is described as a being with no time/space dimensional limitations (1 John 1:5; 4:8,12,16; 2 Peter 3:8; Colossians 1:16-17). Also, the biblical description of God shows a number of properties that are clearly seen in the cosmos and which blind chance would not produce. These include love, care, design, patience, personality, purpose, wisdom, and planning. More and more evidence is coming to light showing that our universe was designed and fine-tuned to sustain carbon-based life. Atheists and skeptics may try to counter this evidence, but they have no real alternative to offer.
–John N. Clayton and Roland Earnst © 2017

The Design of Basic Chemistry

Chemistry Class
Chemistry Class
I enjoyed teaching basic chemistry. Once we got over the fear factor that came from what other people had told them, young people became as enthralled as I am with the way chemistry works. Just the basic concept of acids, bases and salts was a revelation to most kids. They had visions of acids being stuff that could eat your arm off and had a hard time understanding that the salad dressing they put on their lunch was primarily an acid. When they saw that their soda pop would turn litmus red indicating it had acid in it, they were incredulous. Understanding that ascorbic acid was vitamin C and that there was acid in their stomach made kids realize that acids serve us in many benign ways.

The next revelation was that bases also have many important uses. Household ammonia, ammonium hydroxide, is a base. Sodium hydroxide is a strong base able to do amazing things to grease, making it a classic soap. Calcium hydroxide is lime, and some kids knew it was used on their lawns and gardens. The real surprise for kids was what a salt is. When I pulled out the salt shaker, I would ask them what kind of salt was in it? Most of them knew it was sodium chloride, but I had twenty salt shakers all of which were labeled “salt, ” and none of them contained sodium chloride. Some were potassium chloride, and some were calcium chloride. Some were different colors such as copper chloride, iron chloride, and cobalt chloride. It was interesting to watch them test the salts with litmus paper as they discovered that salts could be acidic or basic.

The next step was to make salts. We would take hydrochloric acid (a strong acid) and mix it with sodium hydroxide (a strong base) and get sodium chloride and water–two things you take into your body. If you mixed the hydrochloric acid with a weak base like aluminum hydroxide you would get aluminum chloride which would turn litmus paper red indicating an acidic nature. What do you put on your plants to make them grow? Some plants like an acidic soil. If you pour hydrochloric acid on the soil, you will kill the plants, but acid salt will make such plants flourish.

One day after doing all of these tests and writing all of this down, one of my students looked at the board and all the equations we had written and said, “Who thought all of this stuff up in the first place?” That question is always out there, in every science class, every experiment, and every view we make through a microscope or a telescope. Romans 1: 20 tells us that “we can know there is a God through the things He has made.” Science is knowledge, and the more we know of the creation, the closer we can get to the Creator.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Exoplanet Data Goes Wild

Alien Planet Fantasy
Alien Planet Fantasy
An exoplanet is a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun. At the time that I am writing there are 3,565 known exoplanets, but by the time you read this, there could be over 4,000. In spite of what the media says, there have been no “Earth-twin,” “habitable,” or “Earth-like” planets found. These are cliches the media throws around which have very little scientific validity. When a scientist identifies a planet as being in a habitable zone, it simply means that water could exist on the planet in a liquid form. Scientists consider water, carbon, and oxygen essential for life. But there are many other variables that must be carefully chosen before an “Earth-like” planet could actually have life on it.

The exoplanets that have been discovered so far are an incredibly varied group. Most are too big, too hot, too gassy (like our gas giant Jupiter), or they have orbits that are too eccentric (ovals, not circles) to support life. Some planets are so hot that they rain glass. Others are so cold that no biological organism could exist on them. The stars around which these planets orbit are also an incredibly varied group with enormous ranges in size, activity, temperature, and radiation levels. In most cases, those stars are orbiting other stars making life nearly impossible.

Every day new discoveries are reported. We now understand more about how planets form, and that tells us how special our planet is. We need to take care of it, because moving to another planet is not feasible now, and may never be possible. Data from Discover magazine, April 2017, pages 40 -45.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Another Lesson from (Recent) History

Mir Space Station photo by NASA
Mir Space Station photo by NASA
The older I get, the less confidence I have that the history presented by the media is correct. I was in high school from 1951 to 1955, and the sitcoms and movies that I see of things that supposedly happened during that period are so far from what really happened that I wonder where the people who make these programs got their information.

The April 2017, issue of Astronomy magazine, contains an article by Bob Berman telling of what actually happened in the Russian Mir space station from 1986 to 2001. The media reports at that time painted a very idealistic picture of great cooperation, wonderful technological achievements, and trouble-free living in space. We know now that the Russians controlled reports by cutting the pay of anyone who complained about what was happening on Mir or told of any negative events.

This is the twentieth anniversary of the time when United States astronauts inhabited Mir. When medical doctor Jerry Linenger arrived on Mir in 1997, he found clutter and leaky pipes. Propylene glycol was leaking into the air so the astronauts had to wear breathing masks and were not allowed to exercise because they couldn’t breathe deeply. The climate-control was dysfunctional, so the temperature stayed around 90 degrees. On February 23, 1997, an oxygen-generating canister exploded creating a fire that nearly killed everyone on board. On June 25, 1997, a supply ship rammed Mir once again nearly killing everyone on board. Berman calls Mir “a bit of a death trap.”

Media portrayals of what happened in biblical times are even more difficult. The portrayal of Noah’s Ark in the “Ark Encounter” and the movie Noah as well as movies about the Passion Week, and the entire Genesis account have been embellished, westernized, and modernized by the media and entertainment industries leaving completely erroneous concepts of what really happened. The biblical narrative uses an economy of language because the focus is not on the event itself but on the meaning of the event. We can trust the biblical narrative, but we need to be careful about buying into the media presentations of biblical events. There is a difference between history as revealed in God’s Word and history as shown in modern media portrayals.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Travel in Space

Travel in Space
Popular movies portray travel in space as just being a matter of solving simple propulsion problems. The truth is that cosmic radiation is now better understood as a huge risk to space travel. In Scientific American (February 2017, page 54) Charles Limolihas wrote an excellent scientific discussion of the dangers of cosmic radiation.

Galactic cosmic rays are charged atomic nuclei flying at nearly the speed of light, probably coming from the supernova remnants of dead stars. Our Sun generates a great amount of radiation, but the cosmic rays are much more of a hazard. When these atomic nuclei hit molecules in our body, they ionize atoms, knocking electrons off the atoms and causing the atoms to become charged. These charged atoms hit other atoms, and there is a domino effect that is greatly magnified because of the extra energy involved. In human bodies, there are clusters of damage from such radiation, and just trying to duplicate the process in the laboratory has turned out to be incredibly difficult. Limolihas and his fellow researchers have shown that there is a much greater effect on brain tissue than anyone imagined.

The Earth is designed to handle this huge radiation by having two levels of shielding. The Earth’s magnetic field sweeps galactic cosmic rays away from the areas of the planet where most people live, and the atmosphere stops much of the rest. The amount of cosmic radiation we receive on the surface on Earth’s surface is relatively harmless. When you travel in space beyond Earth’s magnetic field, you, have virtually no protection, and that is going to be a huge challenge for space engineers to solve.

The lesson we would bring from this is that God’s design of Earth becomes more and more amazing as we learn of the complexities that have to be taken care of for you and me just to get up in the morning.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

The Mountains and the Sand

Mountains
Mountians
One of the interesting studies available to students of geology is the way in which various structures on the surface of the Earth are formed. Where does sand come from and what message does it carry for us? Where we live in the Great Lakes area, there are massive amounts of sand. Areas to the south of us have lots of rocks, but relatively small amounts of sand compared to our area. This has not always been true, however, because deep underground in that area there are massive amounts of sandstone–the same sand we have around the Great Lakes but cemented together into rock.

Sand can be produced by the smashing of rocks. In places like Hawaii, there are beaches made up of black lava pounded into sand by the waves. There are even green and pink sand beaches made from rocks that contain colored minerals like olivine. Most sand, however, is made of quartz and is the by-product of the breakdown of volcanic rocks. Granite is made up of three basic minerals: orthoclase, hornblende, and quartz. There can be smaller amounts of other materials, but these are the dominant ones. These minerals have different hardness levels and are eroded at different rates. Orthoclase is quite easy to erode and has a pinkish color to it. This material erodes to become clay. The dark colored hornblende is also fairly easy to weather and erode. Quartz is extremely hard and durable. The result is that when weather and physical processes work on granite, the orthoclase and hornblende are carried away and what is left is quartz sand.

The massive amount of sand seen around the Great Lakes has come mainly from the granite that makes up the Canadian shield–the bedrock underlying much of North America. Any mountainous area will ultimately be reduced to nothing more than sand. One lesson that comes from mountains and sand is that nothing in this physical world is permanent. Jesus stated this eloquently when He said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break through and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19, 20).

When I studied geology at Notre Dame University, we had a professor who would take us on a field trip to the cemetery. Headstones erected in the early 1800s already had disintegrated into piles of sand. One has to be reminded of James 4: 14, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Through all of this, however, there is the message of purpose and design by God. The mixture of sand, hornblende, and clay lead to soil. Life could not exist on a planet made of rock that could not be eroded. The waters that erode the granite sustain life, and the erosion process produces the topsoil that feeds us. The change of mountains into sand makes Earth a vibrant, living thing of beauty. So too, our lives can be beautiful if we allow God to mold and shape us. That is one of the key messages of 1 Corinthians 15:51-55. As the writer tells us about the most beautiful change of all:

“Listen, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will all be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must be clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
–John N. Clayton © 2017

How Long Does it Take to Make a Canyon?

Yellowstone Canyon
Yellowstone Canyon
Yellowstone National Park is one of our great American treasures. During several summers at Montana State University, we spent a lot of time wandering around this huge wilderness. Most people think of Old Faithful and the geyser basin when they think of Yellowstone, but the canyon and falls are some of Yellowstone’s most beautiful places.

What does it take to make a canyon like this, and what does this tell us about the history of the Earth? The answers to these questions are remarkably simple. You need something that is capable of cutting down through a material, and you need a material that can be cut. On planet Earth, the primary geologic cutting agent is water. When water is frozen, it gouges and cuts a wide U-shaped channel. This is called a glacier, and the shape of its canyon is easy to identify. In the liquid form, water makes a V-shaped channel like the Yellowstone Canyon. How long the channel is and how deep it is cut are determined by how much water flows, how long it flows, and how hard the rock is. In Yellowstone, most of the rock is geyserite, a soft yellow rock easily cut and eroded by water. This soft rock is produced by volcanic processes, and deep canyons can happen quickly when flooding occurs.

In other places like the Grand Canyon and most of the eastern part of the United States, the rock is much harder and takes much longer to erode. Yellowstone is a young topography caused by recent volcanism. The sedimentary rocks of the eastern United States and the Grand Canyon took a long time to deposit and a long time to erode. All of this points to God’s patience and timelessness. We should not try to lock God into a time-frame that makes God look small and trivial. Remember that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).
–John N. Clayton © 2017