Tag Archives: physics

Book Review: Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Lisa Randall

I must confess that in reading this I have been guilty of tokenism. Last year, I took a look through the list of authors who I have read over the last few years and noticed a paucity of women writers. So, having asked around for some recommended reading, I added a whole swathe of extra books to my reading list (of which this was one which ultimately ended up on my Christmas wishlist and which I was subsequently gifted by my little sister and her family). This is the last of the science books I was given for Christmas. I still have the last two parts of The Forsyte Saga to work through as well as finish Paul and the Faithfulness of God which I got for my birthday (at the time of writing this, I am on page 1,284 out of 1,519 of the main text).

Enough about other books, though. What of this one? Subtitled ‘How physics and scientific thinking illuminate our universe’ it definitely falls into the category of ‘pop science’ and is described early on as a prequel to her earlier work, Warped Passages, which I have not yet read.

It is mainly about the large hadron collider (LHC), the work that it is intended to do and the theories underpinning it, as well as a look to what may come later. Randall’s writing style, though, isn’t exactly linear. She takes us down various side avenues for some time before returning to the main theme. Looking at some of the reviews on Amazon, this seems to have irritated some readers, as did some of the diagrams. I can’t say I agreed with those other reviewers. So long as you expect a slightly idiosyncratic take then what you get is not just another rehash of A Brief History of Time, Cosmos or The Elegant Universe. Indeed, given the heavy focus on the LHC, I would liken it far more to Paul Halpern’s Collider, though with both a beginning and a conclusion regarding scale, there is also more than a hint of You Are Here by Christopher Potter.

After a gentle opening chapter, Randall looks at scientific thought. In so doing, she attempts to contrast scientific thinking with other modes of thinking, though instead of offering a balanced approach which might take in history, philosophy and art, she takes some cheap and rather unwarranted pot shots at religion. Given her rightful advocacy of rigour in scientific thinking, it is clear that she has not applied such rigour to her analysis here. Such is evident when one’s starting point is Dictionary.com 

She tries to strike up a reconciliatory tone (so as to not deter the many scientifically minded people who also might be considered, however, loosely, “religious”) but ultimately ends up in a bit of a muddle. I cite: “Religious adherents who want to accept religious explanations for how the world works as well as scientific thinking are obliged to confront a tremendous chasm between scientific discoveries and unseen, imperceptible influences – a gap that is basically unbridgeable by means of logical thought…Either way, it is still possible to be an accomplished scientist….But any religious scientist has to face daily the scientific challenge to his [sic] belief…They are simply incompatible.” So that’s clear, then. You absolutely can be religious and a scientist, as well as the two being incompatible. No confusion there at all. No wonder one of the endorsements on the back comes from Richard Dawkins! [Late edit: Having now finished the book, I note that in the acknowledgements in the back, she admits this was not her area of expertise and that she thanks some who helped her with this section. As such, perhaps the trouble was that she took poor counsel]

After this, the book improves considerably. In terms of a book intended for public consumption, Randall does a good job of clear communication without patronisation. We get a fairly detailed picture of the history of the LHC as a progression (culmination?) of investigations into particle physics. In doing so, we get to Randall’s case for why the investigation is important though she doesn’t quite delve into the economics and politics of it to the same extent that Halpern does in his account. By steering clear of any controversy and presenting a rather idealised account of how science progresses (contrast this with the more realistic/cynical view of Lee Smolin) I would encourage any reader of this to take Randall’s relentless optimism with a big pinch of salt.

Over and above the other works referenced, what we get here is a fairly detailed description of how the LHC works, along with the particular experiments, with particular focus on ATLAS and the LMS. The precision with which Randall examines the inner workings is a symptom of the passion that she has for the experiment, which is evident throughout the book. Along the way, we get sidetracked a bit, but though these diversions resulted in some negative reviews I thought they rather enriched the text. The only downside here was one passage where Randall posited that good ideas will always find an audience, citing as an example a single instance where someone who wasn’t part of the scientific establishment had their work noticed by someone who was, and that idea flourished. What surprised me was that a rationalist like Randall didn’t recognise this as an example of a variation of Survivor Bias.

The culmination of the book is a good description of how the Higgs mechanism works. While much has been said about the Higgs boson in recent years, I have read far too many second-rate descriptions of the science underlying the theory. This is absolutely not second-rate. Randall gives a very clear account which anyone with an A-level in physics should have no problem grasping. Of course, at the time of writing, the discovery was still not confirmed and was a tantalising opportunity which was expressed with what by now I realised was Randall’s customary rosy-tinted exuberance.

It would not surprise me in the least if Randall were either writing another book giving more details about the discovery or if the chapter in this book were being re-written for a later edition. This reader, though, may be more inclined to give John Butterworth’s new book a spin.

The book ends with a look beyond the then hoped-for Higgs discovery to look at what may well be the most pressing issues in physics: dark matter and dark energy. Randall stays with the standard terminology but rightly points out the names are a little misleading. I had not really thought about them too hard, but when you do, you realise that “dark matter” doesn’t convey the meaning quite as well as “transparent matter” does. It is here that the reach of physics stretches beyond our experiments and where theorists like Randall come to the fore. My personal view is that theorists should be at the vanguard of physics, with the experimentalists following on behind, trying to falsify or (as far as possible) confirm the work of the theorists, whilst keeping in mind Popper. Randall differs from this slightly with a slightly confusing take on “top-down” versus “bottom-up” approaches, though her usage seems topsy-turvy compared to what one might naturally think those terms mean.

At over 400 pages, it’s not the briefest of takes, but Randall’s writing style makes it quite easy to get through without getting bogged down. There are a few sections alluded to above that could do with trimming or revising, but on the whole it is a very creditable work that I would recommend to anyone interested in particle physics.

Advertisements

Book Review: The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose

This was another of my ‘books of shame’ that I felt the need to re-read. I actually got quite a long way into it first time and I can’t recall why I put it down. The aim of the book is to explore the notion of artificial intelligence (AI), whether or not machines can truly “think”. In order to get to this question, Penrose first spends a lot of time (most of the book, in fact) looking at a wide variety of seemingly unrelated topics.

After an initial discussion of AI, Penrose launches straight into what is probably the hardest chapter to get your head round. It’s all about algorithms, Turing machines and the computability of mathematical problems. He doesn’t spare the detail with pages of binary digits and computer programming languages. It takes a long time to work through, but if you can brave it, there is much easier, and more enjoyable, science in later chapters.

Once you get over the initial hump, we ease back into some gentle maths with Penrose first outlining his neo-Platonic view of notions of reality (one I admit that I share with him). He does this via some very basic complex analysis, looking at the detail of the Mandelbrot set, though without going into too much depth for the casual reader. From here he looks at the world of classical physics and then quantum physics, giving the reader a general grounding in the basics of modern physics whilst every now and then alluding back to the premise of the book, essentially asking if a machine could ever be constructed that would be capable of making the intuitive leaps that humans have managed in coming to our present understanding of the cosmos.

For the most part, this should be readily understandable with a modicum of scientific education, though to someone who didn’t do maths or physics at A-level, much of it may be new and take significantly longer to get to grips with. But even the expert reader shouldn’t get complacent. Penrose’s approach takes much which we may be familiar with and turns it sideways, giving good reason to scratch our heads and think things through anew. The 2nd half of the chapter on quantum mechanics is, admittedly, a bit tougher to get through; the section on spin was where I found my bookmark from the first time I tried to read it and gave up.

After finishing with quantum mechanics he looks at the thermodynamics of the universe, a line of thinking which led, many years later, to Cycles of Time. He ponders over some ideas of quantum gravity but not to any depth that one might be satisfied with. For other takes on that, I’d recommend The Road To Reality (also by Penrose), Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe or The Three Roads To Quantum Gravity by Lee Smolin.

Eventually, Penrose comes back to the question of AI. In order to do this though, he needs to look at the basic physiology of the brain. Now Penrose is a mathematician and a physicist; he’s not a neurologist. As such, this section of the book doesn’t come across anywhere nearly as strong as the rest of the book. It is clear that this is a written by an educated amateur in the field rather than an expert. For much more detail on how the brain works, I would recommend John Ratey’s A User’s Guide to the Brain.

One fascinating idea that Penrose puts forth is that what may distinguish human intelligence and consciousness is not our rationality, but our irrationality. If all people behaved in accordance with a strict rationality (though even most rationalists, myself included, exhibit some irrational behaviour from time to time) then the strong AI proponents might have more of a case. But the very evidence of irrational behaviour is what Penrose finds most interesting.

Ultimately, no firm propositions are put forward in this volume. The book ends with some musings and a tentative point of view. I intend to follow up, albeit not for a while, with Penrose’s later volume, Shadows of the Mind. In the meantime, what we have is a book which is very loosely about artificial intelligence, but which is really a book about the foundation of computing, along with a tour of some of the great ideas of maths and physics.

Book Review: Collider by Paul Halpern

From the outset, it has to be said that the book is already a little out of date. First published in 2009, the version being reviewed was published in 2010 with a revised preface. As such, while there is much talk about the search for the Higgs boson, the book doesn’t include the detail of the research that culminated in the announcement in July 2012 of the confirmation of its existence. I do not know if the book is to be further revised or if the author intends a follow-up to include an account of the latest research.

With that forewarning, I ought to move on to what the book does contain, rather than what it doesn’t. It is the story of particle physics and the machines that have been built in order to test the theories. Since I was a teenager, I was long fascinated by the fundamental constituents of the universe. I was able to follow this through by continuing to study physics through A-levels and on into university. For someone like me, this is a great book. However, for those who aren’t interested in fundamental physics, I doubt it will be of much interest.

The scope of the book is very broad, ranging from the testing of the “plum pudding” model of the atom through to brane-world scenarios and Hawking radiation of black holes. With such breadth, it is inevitable that the technical depth is, to some extent, lost. Halpern doesn’t provide the reader with many equations, tables or technical diagrams, though a few more wouldn’t have been amiss in my opinion, especially with regard to Feynman diagrams which are described but not shown.

In telling the history of particle accelerators, there is a political history thrown in, which is unusual for a physics book but which is not an unwelcome addition. The idea of the cost of such large scale accelerators in weaker economic times is certainly worth some consideration, especially when thinking of what other things public money might be spent on. In this aspect, the author does betray a slightly jingoistic bias; the reader being left in no doubt (if they were in any beforehand) that the author is an American, though the poor spelling gives this away in a few places. 

That slight criticism aside, however, this is a very engagingly written book, accessible to most lay readers. Though some of the detail has been omitted, I don’t think this hinders its readability too much. If anyone wished to get an introductory overview of particle physics, then this would be an excellent place to start.

Einstein, falsification and the spirit of science

There has been much written over the last few days in reaction to the news coming out of CERN that some neutrinos may have been observed breaking the “cosmic speed barrier.” I won’t go into too much detail here, as there is plenty to be found elsewhere on the web, though of varying qualities. One of the things that has bothered me is that many of the news sources refer to c as “the speed of light.” This is incorrect as the c which is used in relativistic notation is specifically “the speed of light in a vacuum.” Everyday experience tells us that the speed of light varies in different media. When you’ve seen a straw or stick in water appear to be bent, this is due to refraction. Refraction occurs because the light has a slower speed in water than it does in air.

My second slight gripe is over the fact that the result has not been confirmed. At the time of writing (Friday night/Saturday morning) the results are still subject to further scrutiny. For me, I wonder if the experiment which produced the result has been repeated. The best science must always be reproducible, given the same setup. This, of course, does assume invariance under time translation. Now *THAT* would shatter the scientific paradigm, if it were falsified.

There is also a slight laxity when discussing the idea of neutrinos breaking the speed barrier. The special theory of relativity doesn’t actually prohibit faster than light travel. If you actually work through the equations, what you end with is that you cannot accelerate a massive particle (that is, a particle that has mass, it’s nothing to do with it being exceptionally large) to c or beyond, from a speed which is less than c. The reason being that as it accelerates, it actually gains mass. The more mass it has, the harder it is to accelerate and you end up that as the speed approached c, the mass is unbounded (or in other words, it tends to infinity) and so cannot be accelerated any further. In theory, if a particle, at the point of its creation, travels faster than c, then it will remain faster, though it does throw out a whole host of other problems which I shan’t go into here.

So what if Einstein was wrong? He was still a hell of a lot smarter than I am. He wrote the paper “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies” when he was 26, younger than I am now. I still find it amazing at how much others achieve at a comparatively young age, and to be honest I find it quite depressing at how little I have achieved given that I am fast approaching 30.

If Einstein’s theory does need to be superseded, you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You have to remember the historical context in which he worked. The Michelson-Morley experiment had falsified the idea of the ether, so something new was needed. Building on the work of Lorentz, Einstein’s view not only needed to be radically different from the prevailing Newtonian viewpoint that had dominated physics (or natural philosophy as it was originally known) for the previous few hundred years, but it also had to incorporate the well-tested Newtonian model in the vast majority of cases. In other words, for massive particles travelling at significantly less than c, the theoretical predictions between Newtonian and Einsteinian dynamics should differ by an unobservably small amount.

If Einstein now needs to be revised by another paradigm shift, any new model will also have to incorporate the results that have supported Einstein’s work over the last hundred years. Einstein’s remains a very accurate model of reality. Had it been a poor model, it might have been found out much sooner.

All this points me towards falsification. I think I have mentioned in another recent post that I am currently reading through Popper’s The Logic Of Scientific Discovery. Towards the start, he makes a very good demolition of positivism, and makes his proposal that scientific theories ought be falsifiable, rather than be built up via a kind of inductive method based on verification.

While this is my first time reading it, the general philosophy is very familiar, having been woven into the fabric of my scientific education.

All of science is provisional. The work of the great scientists represents our current and best understanding of the universe we live in. As Richard Feynman put it, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Nothing is to be deemed unquestionable, whether it be the work of Newton, Rutherford, Dalton, Darwin, Maxwell, Einstein, Feynman, Witten or Hawking. All are fair game.

To claim that to challenge any scientist or any theory is a kind “heresy” is a claim that could only be made by someone who has little to no understanding of the spirit of science. No theory of nature should be beyond question, even if we don’t have the answer. In fact, the nature of science is to state that there we don’t have the answer. All we can come up with are models of how the universe works that line up as closely as possible with reality. Of course, not everyone holds this view, as was demonstrated by Hawking & Mlodinow last year when they published The Grand Design in which they proposed a bizarre model of “model-dependent realism” though, thankfully, this seems not to have caught on. Yet I applaud them for at least challenging the spirit, which in itself is a spirit to challenge. A merry-go round of Russian dolls, perplexities and unknowns, and so the confidence of an earlier generation may be shown to be no more than hubris, and the quest for truth continues.

Book Review: You Are Here by Christopher Potter

I was first made aware of this book some time ago by an article in the Guardian which interviewed him. I cannot find the link for the particular article in question, nor can I recall the details of it. What I do recall, however, is that it piqued my interest and sounded like the kind of casual science reading that is right up my street. So I bought it, and then it sat on my shelf for a couple of months, unread, while I got on with other reading (just hit the tag “book reviews” to see all the others I have done lately).

The opening chapter was a bit mixed, where he talks a little bit about his own history, plus a fairly random smattering of other things, with no real structure to it. It turns out that Potter had a very similar background to me, being as he did his undergraduate studies in maths, before going on to pursue other things for a career, while maintaining an interest in science. There did seem to be a metaphysic which he laid on top of what he regarded science to be which I have only ever come across in those who are entirely untrained in science and yet talk it about confidently as the answer to everything. However, the rest of the book showed that if were ignorant about science, that that was entirely hidden.

He does a whistle-stop tour of the major philosophical developments of science over the last 2,500 years or so, along with a brave and noble attempt to summarise quantum mechanics and general relativity for the lay reader; a task which he does with some aplomb and not a little dexterity.

From here, there was a slightly peculiar list of seemingly random things which were listed in order of size. Potter’s aim was to look at bigger and bigger scales, effectively zooming out from our world to look at the wider universe. From here, Potter takes on a parallel journey, though instead of going from the smallest size to the largest size, he wants to take us from the earliest time right through to the present day, taking in an overview of the developments in cosmology and high energy physics.

Overall, the book is very much at the lightweight end of science writing, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. It is spoilt a little by technical errors, though these are relatively minor (for example, he states that “Humans are often carnivorous” when he should have said omnivorous). The other drawback that is has, which is specific for his advocacy of the scientific method, is that he does not include references. All we have is a bibliography of further reading, where there is no linking between the books referenced and the relevant passages. The reader is left to work this out by the titles, I think. However, that would not stop me from recommending as a great book, especially a “starter” for someone not overly familiar with ‘pop science.’

Did you know that there was an 19-digit number that has never been spoken by any human ever?

Well, it’s true. I want to show you why it is true. Before I do that though, I have to explain why I am writing this. During my time studying maths at university, I was never particularly impressed by most “existence theorems.” On the whole, I don’t find it particularly exciting or helpful to set about proving the existence of something without any prospect of actually calculating it (Examples of these include the Ham Sandwich Theorem and the Hairy Ball Theorem). The exception to this is the pigeonhole principle, which I first came across on an open day at Leicester University. The day sticks in my mind because it was pouring down with rain and one of the first guys we spoke to said that he didn’t expect many of the applicants present to go on there, on the basis of the poor weather. His idea was the first impressions were lasting and that bad weather left an overall bad impression, in spite of whatever efforts made by the university staff on the day, the applications would likely think of Leicester as a rainy place, compared to another university they may have visited on a sunny day.

I did not end up going to Leicester University.

But in their open day they did introduce me to the pigeonhole principle, by which one may prove all sorts of odd things. One of these, for example, is that there are at least two people in Newcastle with the exact same number of hairs on their head.

You can look up more details of the pigeonhole principle here, as I would rather assume it is known and then use it rather than recapitulate the whole thing.

A while ago I came across a number called Graham’s number, which was a peculiar for the fact that it was immensely large, no one has calculated it, but we do not that it ends in a 7 (when written in base 10, at least), which is the kind of quirky thing that really piques my interest. [I ought here to note that the episode of QI on which I first saw this was repeated on Monday night, after I wrote most of this, but before I put it online]

So I got thinking what is the potentially the smallest number that no person has ever written down, spoken aloud or actually even thought about. I wanted to ensure that I would be right so where I have had to make estimations, I have erred on the side of caution, leading me to suspect that though I am convinced I am right, I have over-shot the mark in at least one respect.

The first trouble was to estimate how many people have ever lived. Here, we are instantly presented with a problem of trying to define the demarcation of the first homo sapiens as opposed to an earlier ancestor and to then consider at what point in human evolution numeracy developed. As I had no idea I resorted to Wikipedia, who gave a statistic cited from an American study that estimated there had been between 100,000,000,000 and 115,000,000,000 people who have ever lived. So naturally, I added on a bit (just to be on the safe side) and assumed for the purpose of my calculation 120,000,000,000.

Next, I had to estimate how long they live for. Again, without any detailed research to hand, I made a guess by using the current average age of around 80 years. I suspect that over the course of human history, it has not been less than this, so my estimate is suitably conservative (if that phrase is not an oxymoron).

Of this, there are likely to be times (such as childhood and old age) when the ability to count to large numbers will not be present. So I took off 10 years, which I think is not unreasonable.

Next, how much of that time is spent asleep. I have heard that people spend a third of their lives asleep, and that the average person gets 8 hours sleep a night. Personally, I don’t know where these people get the time from. I get 6 hours a night, so I estimated that each person was only awake for 52.5 years.

Of course, most people do not spend every waking moment thinking about numbers. As a mathematician by training and an accountant by profession, I probably do it more than most, although even then I would estimate that I don’t spend more than 5% of my waking time thinking about numbers. There are far more everyday concerns that take up much of my thinking time. Again, erring on the side of caution, I plumped for 10%.

This means that on my grossly optimistic assumptions, the average human can spend 165,672,864 seconds in their lifetime thinking about numbers. Given our earlier estimate of the number of people, this gives the total thinking time to date as somewhere in the region of 19,880,743,680,000,000,000 seconds.

Now, even though it can be very quick to count to 10, the numbers we are interested are not likely to be small. So how long does it take to say them? Of course, this will depend on language, so I admit my figure is a plucked out of thin air. I would opt for 2 seconds. I think when you get the scale of the hundreds of thousands, that’s not unreasonable. Order of magnitude higher than that will probably take considerably longer, so 2 is a fair estimate to use for a conservative guess.

So what’s the answer then? I believe that there is a number which is less than 9,940,371,840,000,000,000 which no person in human history has ever spoken, written or thought about.

I am sure that this is far too high an estimate, as we have considered numbers like a googol and googolplex which are many orders of magnitude larger and I haven’t taken into account repetition. Goodness knows how many times the number 100 has been considered by humans over the years!

I know for certain that the number in question cannot be 4,724,557,109,087,242 because I just thought about it. In fact, any number I think about is, by definition, the wrong answer, because as soon as I think of it, it can no longer remain “un-thought-of.” I’d love to think that I “discovered” a number by being the first one to think about it. Of course, by continuity, we know that it must have existed, but I have no way of verifying if I was the first one to think of it.

It strikes me a little bit of quantum mechanics where a system will collapse into its eigenstates as soon as it is observed. Truly fascinating and enjoyable.

That’s why I love science!

On creationism/ID

I would like to thank Lewis S for his well-considered post in reply to an earlier post I made. Lewis had clearly thought through the issues discussed and the challenges he raises deserve an equally considered response, I feel. They also touch on a number of subjects which I think concern a lot of Christians and critics of Christianity. Of those, I will choose to look at one in particular

Creationism/ID

For the record, I do not subscribe to young earth creationism or to the Intelligent Design (ID) hypothesis. I think there is a quite profound difference between the belief that God created the world and the belief in a particular method of how He/It did it. As you will be able to read elsewhere, I recently read through Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and found that apart from the introduction which was not written by Darwin, there is nothing overtly atheistic about it. It seems to me that the idea of “special creation” has been bound up in many people’s minds with the core of the Abrahamic religions, and that by undermining the former, that the latter is then consequently undermined too. I do not agree with this view, as I consider it to demonstrate a poor grasp of theology (which I think is true in a lot, though not necessarily all, creationists) and a stretching of the good science into conclusions where the evidence does not reach.

I have no issue with creationists or ID proponents believing what they do, and am perfectly happy to worship in church alongside them. While I believe them to be mistaken, it is no reason to break up personal relationships or to adopt any kind of haughty attitude. To me, the core of Christianity is the person, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, along with the subsequent soteriology that that entails. Anything else is a distraction and I would not want anything petty to break apart such relationships.

One of the labels that is often applied to YEC/ID proponents is “anti-science” which I personally think is a bit harsh, particularly on the ID supporters. To quote Richard Feynman,

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

Those who dissent from scientific consensus tend to fall into one of two categories: genius or crackpot. It is by questioning what we commonly accept that a lot of progress may be made. But there may also be a lot of wayward pot-shots that happen along the way. In my experience, there are often a few gems hidden within the criticisms of YEC/IDers that deserve serious consideration, but given how far their main hypothesis lies from mainstream science, they are disregarded wholesale.

Where I see the failings of YECers is that while they may well accept scientific methodologies, their conclusions are biased, based on a pre-existing paradigm. IDers are merely pursuing a route of falsification which Darwin mentions several times in Origin. So the fact that they keep coming up with possible examples of potentially irreducibly complex structures which do turn out to be explainable by means of natural selection, I think, adds to the body of evidence supporting Darwin. All too often in debates around creationism and evolution, I think those on the side of evolution don’t put up the best possible argument but instead refer to rhetoric and name-calling, unwilling to engage with those who disagree with them. At times, it seems as though it is a default position to adopt simply because of their distaste with any possible alternatives. To me, scientific integrity means it should be questioned and challenged; if it can be falsified, then it is important that serious attempts should be made to pursue such lines of enquiry.

I find it interesting to compare the approaches taken by creationists such as Ken Ham to that of Fred Hoyle’s view of the Big Bang theory. Ham objects to evolution, not because of any particular flaws in the theory but because he disagrees with a particular conclusion that may be reached from it; namely the undermining of his worldview of the creator god. Hoyle objected to Big Bang theory because he felt it accorded too well with the Judaeo-Christian view of the world having a beginning, which may then imply a creator (c.f. Thomas Aquinas and the “first-mover” idea). Both of these men start out by objecting to a possible corollary and then went in search of the evidence to undermine the theory. As far as I know, Hoyle never adopted the big bang model of the origin of the universe, in spite of its near universal acceptance in modern science (an interesting recent exception being the severe modification proposed by Roger Penrose’s conformal cyclic cosmology hypothesis). While I do not agree with Ken Ham, I think he sometimes given a rougher time than he deserves, as some of his critiques are not without basis.

To my view, the problem with Christians who reject evolution is shared with some atheists who reject Christianity. It is the problem of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I fully acknowledge there are problems with Christianity, and I will touch on one or two of these later on. At the same time I acknowledge that there are problems with evolution. If there weren’t, there would be no need for research; we would know everything. But the fact that both have their difficulties does not mean that I will reject them outright. Indeed, I am happy to embrace both as working hypotheses.

To return to what I think Lewis S was getting at, even though he didn’t phrase it quite as such is this: how do I reconcile the creation account in Genesis with evolution? To me, the key is about trying to understand Genesis in the context in which it was written and what would have been observed by the writer(s) and readers. Without an extensive knowledge and study of biology, as Darwin, Russell and their contemporaries had, it would be highly surprising indeed if the author(s) of Genesis would have come up with a description that mirrored our current understanding of the development of life. They were merely expressing themselves in the best way they possibly could. There is some indication, though I would not like to stress the point too much, that the civilisation which produced the book of Genesis had a grasp of what structures in nature were more complicated. This is given by the “order of creation” in the genesis account which, with a few exceptions, broadly mirrors the current scientific consensus.Andrew Parker has recently written a book entitled The Genesis Enigma which goes a lot further than I would consider reasonable along this route, though I shall say no more about it here.

It was also long before Darwin that Christian scholars and apologists warned against taking the start of Genesis in what we would not call a literalist manner. Augustine of Hippo wrote a piece called De Genesi ad litteram in which he advocated such a view. And this was written in the late 3rd/early 4th century!

I have to say that I am not a biologist, so can boast no evolutionary training beyond the average. Instead, my master’s degree was in mathematics, with a very heavy dose of physics (in the last couple of years, subjects covered included quantum mechanics, general relativity, twistor theory, string theory, fluid dynamics and electrodynamics). For that reason, the particular areas of creationism that I felt most able to look at were their physics explanation for a young earth. The two dominant ideas here were the slowing down of thespeed of light (which, if true, could help explain the red-shifting of galaxies and get past the rather awkward fact of any object being more than 10,000 light years away) and the decreasing strength of the earth’s magnetic field (where an extrapolation is taken and an argument is made than with a much stronger magnetic field, life could not exist on earth). The former argument was dependent on a single paper that has since been debunked, as the author cherry-picked his data and made an arbitrary cut-off date at which light stopped slowing down. This happened to coincide with the most accurate measurements of the speed of light. The author also supposed that all measurements (including those where the only available light was a candle!) were entirely accurate. The latter theory may have seemed more promising, were it not for the mathematical uncertainties that creep in when using any form of extrapolation model. Here, I think of the GCSE experiment in Hooke’s law using a spring where the students discover that you can’t extrapolate your results, as it misses a change in the molecular structure that changes the deformation from elastic to plastic. Also, the discovery of geomagnetic reversal was the final nail in that particular coffin.

This was roughly the route by which I largely came to reject creationism. One line I have heard a few times from creationists who cannot fathom that someone can both be a Christian AND be persuaded by the evidence for evolution is “well, if you don’t believe the first chapters of the Bible, how can you say you believe it?” I consider this argument to be both fatuous and vacuous. It fails to recognise the Bible as a compendium of books, not a single book by a single author. It also draws on some strange form of logic whereby rejection or acceptance of one part (in a literalist manner) compels you to reject or accept the whole. It is rather like saying you disagree with an editorial piece in a newspaper, and thereby being forced to reject the entire contents of the said paper.

So what shall I say in conclusion, then? The fact that I am persuaded by the evidence for evolution in no way diminishes my Christian faith. It would be truly astonishing if the authors of the book of Genesis had given an account that was technically accurate, as it would have required a breadth of study and technology that was far beyond what was available at the time.