If the first talking snake had kept shtum, we wouldn't be here. Eve wouldn't have eaten the forbidden fruit. But she listened and was curious. So she fell into humanity, thank God. Good old snake, say I. I celebrate its independence of mind. Satan? Neh, that's a later interpretation. The snake was part of the divine purpose. God allowed it into the garden, aware of its linguistic abilities. He knew what would happen. Jesus commended dove-like innocence. AND the wisdom ... of the snake.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Mind boggling numbers

Imagine yourself standing by the seashore. Fill a glass with water from the ocean, then tip it out again.

Five years later come back and fill your glass again. Question: what are the odds that it will now contain ANY of the molecules that were present before? Take into account all the adventures that might befall any molecule of water - it might have evaporated, been whisked off by currents to anywhere on the planet, it might have been absorbed into a living creature - and you’ll think: a million to one against.

And you’d be wrong, for a reason that should make you gulp, as I gulped when I was first told this. There are more molecules of water in a glass than there are glassfuls of water in the world’s oceans. So, the odds are better than evens that at least one of the molecules will have been present in your previous sample.

My formal science education ended before I ever heard of Avogadro’s number, and I’ll be honest: the only context in which I’d come across it since was in an obscure Steely Dan song called "Let George do it". (That’s "obscure" as in "never released on a proper album", though it’s available as a demo. I don’t mean "somewhat opaque in meaning" because in that sense nearly all Steely Dan songs are obscure. But I love them anyway).... to return, I looked it up. Turns out to be relevant to the glass of water puzzle.

Avogadro’s number indicates the number of molecules in a gram-molecule, or mole, of any substance. And it’s big. 6.022 x 10 to the power 23 to be exact. And how big is that? My favourite analogy is that an Avogadro’s number of Coca-Cola cans would cover the surface of the earth to a depth of 200 miles. Or try this: a modern computer, counting at the rate of 100 million numbers per second, would take almost two billion years to reach Avogadro's number.

Do not even begin to persuade me that you can get your head round this. You’re lying and we both know it. Boggle, oh mind. Be in awe. And bear in mind that when you’ve reached Avogadro's number that’s scarcely the beginning so far as the total number of molecules of all substances on earth is concerned. Then think how tiny the earth is by contrast with the whole universe. If one’s hypothetical computer had started counting at the dawn of time it would only by now have reached about seven Avagadro’s numbers; seven moles of water is barely a sip.

Creationism trivialises creation. The Bible doesn’t know about tiny things like molecules, any more than it knows about huge things like galaxies. It is as ignorant of microscopic organisms as it is of red giants; it seems to think stars are small (well, they look small, don’t they?) and has no idea that the sun is one. By scaling down creation to what we can readily comprehend, leaving out the unimaginably huge and the unimaginably minute, it reduces that very wonderment which it should be the role of truly spiritual narrative to inspire in us, and which science abundantly supplies. One of the deep ironies here is that the militant atheist Richard Dawkins speaks of nature as awesome; while oh-so-religious creationism treats it as a job that only took God a few days. That humanity’s parents are placed not in some place the size of a national park but in a mere garden, readily encompassable and managed, is part of the same reducing process.

I have to say, lest I be misunderstood: pondering the smallness of physical reality’s building blocks, as illustrated by Avogadro’s number, in no way diminishes my awe at God’s creation; quite the reverse. It is false teaching about creation that paves the way for Dawkins-like atheism. Poor man, he’s met far more creationists than is good for him.


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