Saturday, September 22, 2007

Simulating Life?

I don’t often read Uncommon Descent, but Tom Gilson pointed out an excellent post by mathematician Granville Sewell, called “My Failed Simulation.” He asks:

In my 2000 Mathematical Intelligencer article I speculated on what would happen if we constructed a gigantic computer model which starts with the initial conditions on Earth 4 billion years ago and tries to simulate the effects that the four known forces of physics (the gravitational and electromagnetic forces and the strong and weak nuclear forces) would have on every atom and every subatomic particle on our planet. If we ran such a simulation out to the present day, I asked, would it predict that the basic forces of Nature would reorganize the basic particles of Nature into libraries full of encyclopedias, science texts and novels, nuclear power plants, aircraft carriers with supersonic jets parked on deck, and computers connected to laser printers, CRTs and keyboards?
Before you balk at his gross ignorance, make sure you read the whole thing. ;)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Jesus I Never Knew

For the second year in a row, my wife and I are leading an adult "Home Group" for our church. This year we're reading The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey. I have read it before (probably a decade ago), but I'd forgotten how good it was. Here is an excerpt from the excellent opening chapter:

Once, for a two-week period, I was snowbound in a mountain cabin in Colorado. Blizzards closed all roads and... I had nothing to do but read the Bible. I went through it slowly, page by page. In the Old Testament I found myself identifying with those who boldly stood up to God: Moses, Job, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, the psalmists. As I read, I felt I was watching a play with human characters who acted out their lives of small triumph and large tragedy onstage, while periodically calling to an unseen Stage Manager, "You don't know what it's like out here!" Job was most brazen, flinging to God this accusation: "Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as a mortal sees?"

Every so often I could hear the echo of a booming voice from far offstage, behind the curtain. "Yeah, and you don't know what it's like back here either!" it said, to Moses, to the prophets, most loudly to Job. When I got to the Gospels, however, the accusing voices stilled. God, if I may use such language, "found out" what life is like in the confines of planet earth. Jesus got acquainted with grief in person, in a brief, troubled life not far from the plains where Job had travailed. Of the many reasons for Incarnation, surely one was to answer Job's accusation: Do you have eyes of flesh? For a time, God did. (pgs. 17-18)
Though I would object that, even in the Old Testament, God is much more than just a cosmic Stage Manager -- barking orders from on-high but never actively participating -- he is in fact the central character of the play. Even so, there is a certain sense in which it still feels like we're down here muddling through, while God is way up there doing who knows what. It is encouraging to know that even the greatest saints felt that way, and were not condemned for it, but it is especially encouraging to know that God did something about it. However it may be true that God is the central character in the Old Testament, in the New he truly did learn "what it's like." No more could he be accused of ignoring our plight, for he had taken it upon himself.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Eyes Wide Open

Tomorrow, I say goodbye to summer and begin a new year of graduate school. This time of year is always melancholy for me, but also rather exciting. In keeping with that mood (and my newly busy schedule), here is another of my favorite old posts, Eyes Wide Open:

Psychologists tell us the human brain is wired for novelty. In the flood of information that bombards our senses, we unconsciously sift out what is new or different, focusing on the most pressing aspects of our experience.

We see this with particular poignancy in children. For them, everything is new, and they can scarcely take it in. The flowers hanging in the window, the music from the radio, even someone making dinner or a stupid plastic toy – each holds a kind of magic when they first experience it. Sometimes, my four-month old can entertain herself with nothing more than a mirror and a rattle.

But there is a dark side to this drive for novelty: boredom with the everyday. The brain’s innate curiosity is still so strong in the young that monotony can feel like torture. The spot where she loved to sit last week, makes her scream this week. The toy that made her giggle this morning, goes unnoticed this afternoon. The face she couldn’t stop staring at a moment ago, makes her cry now.

And this doesn’t end in childhood. As we grow, this tendency grows with us, pressing us to the limits of our environment. As kids we explore our neighborhoods and greenbelts. As teens we rebel against the limits of authority. As adults we reach for success, travel the world or seek out new experiences and ideas. All in an endless drive to find “the next thing.”

Sometimes this ends tragically. Even when it doesn’t, we find a constant struggle between the thrill of novelty and the obligations of life. School is exciting in September but drudgery by October, almost miserable by December. The woman who once occupied one’s every thought, is soon taken for granted. The cause that once seemed so important, now feels hollow. The situation hasn’t changed, but you have.

And it all happens so fast! When I started grad school last month, I began commuting a significant distance for the first time in my life. I had intended to illustrate this post with various observations that had fascinated me on the first few drives. But in just a month I’ve already grown so thoroughly familiar with the routine that I can’t even remember what those were, nor why they seemed significant. When the experience was new, it was filled with wonder – the views were grand and the oddities amused me – but in time the scenery grew dull and the quirks became frustrating. It’s a familiar pattern.

For all this, our tendency to seek out novelty remains a great gift. No matter how monotonous life gets, there is always this quiet voice telling us something better is possible. Our deep-seated need for originality drives much of what is best in life. From the adventures of Calvin and Hobbes, to the mysteries of romance, to our quest for scientific advance – our increased attention for novelty not only drives us to improve, it also helps us do so.

Like all our traits, it is up to us whether to use them for good or evil. If we become too enamored with what's new, we become unreliable and incapable of follow-through. If we ignore this need, we become disillusioned and incapable of progress. Virtue lies in the balance.

Either way, there is something deep within us that longs for something more than we have, something better that we can taste but never quite find. Perhaps this was part of what the author of Ecclesiastes meant when he wrote: “God has made all things beautiful, but he has set eternity in the hearts of men” (3:11). Or as C.S. Lewis put it: “Aim for heaven and you get the Earth thrown in, aim for the Earth and you miss both.”

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The World Clock

I find this just fascinating. It's called "The World Clock" and it keeps a running tally of various stats by the year, month, week, or day. Assuming the figures are at least reasonably accurate, they are startling. For instance, as of 10:30 this morning (PST), there have been over 31 million abortions, nearly 3 million new HIV infections, and over 18 thousand extinctions since January 1st. There have also been more than 90 million births.

Since most of the figures recorded are tragic, it's a rather negative way to view time, but watching the little numbers climb is rather more humbling than just seeing a final total.

HT: Think Christian