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Entries in science (4)



I was thinking about the atheist thing. You know ... there's a surprising number of people who don't believe in God. That always bothered me when I was younger, in high school or even in my early college years. I had a tendency to try to "convince" folks. I formulated complex but "unbeatable" arguments, as if I could somehow logic an atheist into believing. 

Shocker—you can't.

If someone doesn't believe, nothing you say is just going to magically convert them. But logic arguments, in particular, are going to fail. Because frankly, atheists have logic in their favor in an argument about God. They can point at hard evidence for anything they "believe," and all you have is "faith." 

Key words here. Read closer.

If you can point to something as a fact, you don't "believe" it.  You know it. You have evidence, concrete and verifiable. You can pick up the object of your knowledge, or touch it, or demonstrate it. Not so with God. 

Kicker for Christians—you either have "faith" or you don't, but if you do, then you don't just "believe." You also know. Logical arguments against the existence of God don't really work for persuading you, because even with the "evidence of your eyes" you still, deep down, somehow, know the truth. You've seen too much. You've felt too much. 

Some of the atheists in my life like to bring out this little gem: "You only believe because you were raised in a Christian household, here in the U.S. If you were born in another culture, you'd have different beliefs."

I think that's true. I think that being a Christian is in large part a matter of where you were born, how you were raised, what you encountered as you made your way through life. So you can pretty easily persuade me that my "Christian-ness" is a factor arising almost exclusively from my upbringing.

Don't know if you noticed, but the argument just shifted.

Go back. Re-read. You see it? It's right there in front of you.

We're no longer arguing the existence of God, but whether or not we'd be Christians in another culture. The argument changed, but the subject is close enough that most people shrug the change off as semantics. It ain't. 

Semantics would be arguing over the name of God. I say God, you say Jehovah, she says Jesus, he says The Eternal One, that guy says something else entirely (or says nothing at all ... some belief you can never utter the name of God ... so does not speaking His name mean he doesn't exist?). Bickering over how to refer to God is a semantic argument. It gets you nowhere. It's definitions of terms, nothing more. A rose by any other name would smell as omnipotent.

The logic trap from above is the subtle turning of the argument of existence to the argument of your particular flavor of religion. I'm a Christian because I was born into a Christian household, I was raised in a Christian home, I attend a Christian church and I participate in a Christian community. But I'm a believer in God and in the Word, and that is independent of my upbringing.

There's a reason that, universally, it is considered wrong to steal, bad to murder, unacceptable to hurt a child. "Human decency" is one of the semantic names we throw at these universal truths, but what makes them universal? What makes even the cultural "exceptions" to these rules somehow offensive to the rest of civilization? How many cultures were conquered and destroyed because they veered away from these universal truths, and why would that happen? Why should we care, we who live on this side of the globe, what people are doing to each other on the opposite side?

People are inherently good? Then what defines good? People are inherently a bunch of ignorant, angry jerks? Says who? Humanity? We're not fit to judge each other. We all have our hang-ups, right? How can I point at you and say, "You're wrong! You're evil!" and at the same time be unconcerned that someone else is pointing at me and saying the same thing?

So humanity isn't a good judge of good and evil, right and wrong. Those concepts are somehow outside of us, above us. And that's the rub for Christians, or people of any faith. We see that as evidence of God. Atheists see it as evidence of ... what exactly? Evolution of personality? We all spontaneously decided, as a species spread far and wide, at times with no contact with each other whatsoever for thousands of years (if ever), that "these are the rules by which we shall all abide?"

Ever heard of Occam's Razor? 

The principle (attributed to William of Occam) that in explaining a thing no more assumptions should be made than are necessary. (Pulled from Google, 5 April 2013. "Define: occam's razor")

Or put simply, "All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the most likely explanation."

What's simpler? Man evolved a universal sense of right and wrong despite little to no contact with each other across oceans and continents for thousands and thousands of years? Or universal rules for right and wrong exist because a higher intelligence established them?

Logic again. Sorry. That won't work to persuade anyone. It's just an exercise in showing how smart I am (Answer: Not very, when considered on the whole of my life). But there's a reason why logic doesn't win a faith argument. It comes down to "choice."

In Matthew 13:10-17, the disciples ask Jesus why he's always goin' about and speaking in parables. His reply reveals a lot about why logic can't win a faith argument, and what it takes, exactly, to believe in God:

10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
    though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

Matthew 13:10-17

It's there. You can pray for wisdom to understand it and it will probably pop out at you. I'll do my best to nudge that along with my pitiful and inadequate summary:

God hides the truth in plain sight, but to believe in Him you have to choose to believe. Faith is, in the end, the choice you make to believe, even when all evidence and all logic tells you it can't be.

And suddenly, miraculously, this goes from being "choosing to believe" to "knowing the truth!"

Seriously. I can't explain it any better than that, because God actually designed the Word so that it cannot be understood until you believe.

You can logic it all you want. You can scoff and eye-roll and sneer. But it's right there in front of you the whole time, waiting for you to notice it. And the only way you can is to choose it.

It's a little like germs.

Bear with me, this works.

Germs are there. We know they're there. But how? We see their effect, sure. People get sick. We know a lot about germs, these days. But before their discovery, no one would have ever believed in the existence of tiny bugs that live everywhere and make people sick. Still, there they were, whether we believed in them or not. 

Then, one day, someone says, "I bet if I take this powerful set of magnifying lenses and start looking at stuff, I'll find all kinds of things." And they did. They chose. They took action. They built something that let them start looking closer, and then they saw them. Germs, never having existed before in all the knowledge of man for centuries, suddenly came into existence.

Now you can buy soap for a buck that helps you kill germs on contact. Thank you, science. We live because of your endeavors. But frankly, the majority of the Earth's population, throughout all of history, has never actually seen a germ. We believe they are there, and we take actions to prevent them from harming us. We make a choice to behave as if they are real, whether we can see them or not, and that protects us from their machinations. 

Believing in God is a little like believing in germs. Not the best analogy I've ever come up with, but let's put a little thought into it. 

God is there, whether we know it or believe it or not. Right now, we don't have the tools to see Him. No microscope. But even if we can't see Him, we can make a choice to behave as if He is real. We can study His Word, we can commune with His people, we can seek His will for our lives. And when we do that, something starts to happen within us. 

God responds.

Suddenly, we are watching a movie we've seen a million times and some small throw-away line takes on new meaning, maybe even shapes our life a bit. A book we're reading about the invention of the printing press suddenly opens our eyes to how people work together. We hear someone utter a Bible passage we've heard a million eye-rolling times, and suddenly WE UNDERSTAND IT.

Our tiny, insignificant, mustard-seed-sized act of faith is suddenly blossoming into the bud of a tree, and that bud is starting to grow, and suddenly it fills our whole life with the truth of what WE see but what otheres CAN'T see, even though it is RIGHT. THERE. IN FRONT. OF. THEM.

That's why logic doesn't work to convince an atheist about the existence of God. It can't. They're smart. They have that tool on their side, all sewn up. All we have is He who invented logic in the first place. They're arguing from within, where the rules are established and make no allowances for anything that doesn't fit. We're arguing from outside and above, where the one who made the rules is keeping the next level of knowledge, unbound by the rules of the system.

The Kingdom of God is hidden right in plain sight, and we can only see it when we choose to see it. That's why it's so hard, even impossible, for some people. They argue that if you have to "believe" something for it to be true, then it isn't true."The great thing about science is it's true whether you believe or not!" That's brilliant. I couldn't agree more! Science is about facts! Provable facts! 

That's right. It is. And Faith is about Faith. It's a paradox that people can't live with. Until they do.

And that's just about as plain as this Wordslinger can make it.



I was reading Following Your Bliss, Right off the Cliff on the New York Times website. Long and the short of it, "Following your dreams is risky and sometimes you fail." 

Duh. But yeah, it's true and it's something to think about during the planning process for your business (or your side business, or your community program, or wherever your dreams fit in the scheme of things). Sometimes the dream isn't enough.

There's some science in this article, about the part of the brain that controls worry and the pain that comes from it. And to overcome that physiological reactionso that we can take action and attempt to make our dreams come true, despite the risk of pain and failurewe feel hope.

I love this line from the article:

As paradoxical as it sounds, [Michael Derring] said, “If you stop worrying about the outcomes, you will achieve a better outcome.”

Stop worrying about the outcomes? Yikes! Most of the time, it seems like "worrying about the outcomes" is all we do! But there's a sweet sort of logic here.

The article is more or less saying, "Don't let your emotions become invested in the business." Don't put your self-worth on the line for a shoe store or an auto shop or a novel. If you fail, you'll believe you are the failure. But that's not how failure works. A person isn't a failure. Only actions can be failures. A person is a decision-making, action-taking, hope-and-faith-having machine. We make decisions, we take action, we have hope and faith that it will work out. And if it doesn't ...

If you approach a business or any other endeavor with the attitude that, should it fail, it isn't the end of the world, you can pick up and recover, you're chances of success actually increase. You're willing to take more risks, for starters, and risk is the price of momentum. You may take actions you wouldn't have taken before, in a more cautious mindset, and those actions lead to results, and those results may end up bringing you increased benefits. Or they may blow up and fade out. It happens.

From a financial standpoint, this is why you want to be smart about the way you invest in a business. Make the decision early on to stay away from debt. Take on investors, but don't take on loans. Investors know that they're taking a risk, and that it may not make a return. Lenders don't care either way if you succeed or fail, they expect repayment with interest and they'll try to destroy you if you don't follow through. Investors empower, lenders enslave. 

Trust me on this one ... I'm enslaved to a lot of lenders at the moment.

From a spiritual standpoint, this is why you want to ensure that your business is built to glorify God. God likes it when we do things that are empowering, that build something that brings good into the world. Staying focused on God's Ultimate Rule—Love your neighbor as you love yourself—means you're doing everything right. You won't have to worry about mistakes coming back to bite you in the ... assets. The business may fail, due to a lack of demand or bad timing or myriad other reasons, but it won't take you with it. 

So what happens after failure? Learning. This is the point where you pray and ask for wisdom. "Show me, Lord, where it went wrong. Show me how I can pick up and start again. Show me how to change my plan and build something that glorifies you." God never denies the request for wisdom. He just requires you to commit some brain power and effort to it.

This article ... I'm on the fence about it. I get a real "don't pursue your dreams because they're risky" vibe from it. But there are points made that are more encouraging. Hope—that's a good message. So read it as a cautionary tale. Have hope, but also have a plan. Have a goal, but don't worry about the outcome. Invest, but don't enslave yourself to the dream. You belong to a greater power than dreams.


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How the Lightrail works

Kara is reading “Citadel: Paths in Darkness” for the first time. She seems to be enjoying it (and particularly enjoying pointing out my typos and omissions … look for a second edition down the road). But over the weekend she came to the part of the story where I explain some of the physics behind the Lightrail.

I’m no physicist, even if I might pretend to be in some of my geekier fantasies. I do read a lot about the latest breakthroughs in science and technology, which is where a lot of this stuff comes from. The ideas I wrote about in “Paths in Darkness” were centered on some pretty basic principles of Newtonian and quantum physics. What I did with the scraps of information I know and used in the book, however, was really something of an intuitive leap. I thought I might walk through some of that, to try to explain how I think the Lightrail would work (or at least how it works in my universe, which may have drastically different laws of physics than the real one).

To start, the lightrail isn’t really a continuous beam of light. If you’re standing to the side, you aren’t really going to see anything. Unless, of course, you are standing to the side of one of the lightrail relays, in which case you would see a continuous glow of light with occasional flashes as a ship enters and exits the relay at near light speed.

The beam is “near coherent,” meaning it has enough density that the particles of light are able to push another object, in this case a spaceship, along at the same speed they are moving. Over a great distance the particles would lose their momentum, the power of forward movement, and whatever they are pushing would start to slow. To keep the party going, as it were, the lightrail network relies on a series of relays.

These relays are special. They are complete science fiction, because as far as I know there really is no way to take a signal in at one strength and push it back out at exactly the same strength. Not exactly. There’s something called “the law of diminishing returns,” and another thing called “the law of conservation of energy.” Together, these things mean there’s a constant loss in the exchange. The lightrail goes into the relay, and it may be boosted and retransmitted, but it would lose “something” in the exchange.

In my universe, however, some clever physicist came up with a way to mitigate that, or at least marginalize it to the point where it’s negligible. The lightrail relays, then, are the key to faster-than-light travel.

In “reality,” I think that the relay is really “generating” the lightrail, rather than transducing it. It’s as if the lightrail starts for the very first time in the core of the relay. Instead of passing through it, the lightrail (and the ship it’s pushing) become the start of a process in which everything is created brand new and starts a new journey altogether.

The key is “quantum tunneling.” So far, here on Earth and in our own time, physicists have managed to discover a way to entangle particles on the quantum level. The result, basically, is that whatever you do to Particle A will also happen to Particle B. That’s cool, and easy enough to understand (well … maybe not “understand,” but it’s easier to imagine).  But here’s the fun part … this effect happens regardless of how far apart these particles are.

That is mind blowing. Particle A can be in the U.S., while Particle B is in China, or even on Mars, and whatever we do to A will happen to B. Why, you may ask? Well, whoever figures out the answer to that question has a Nobel Prize and a place in history coming their way.

But there is this idea of quantum tunnel. And the way I’ve used it in the book is to say that somehow, on the quantum level, Particle A and Particle B are connected to each other through a tunnel that exists outside of space and time. Effectively, this means it exists outside of the known universe.

This is where the idea of “wormholes” comes in. A wormhole would essentially be a quantum tunnel that connects two points in space. Think about a sheet of paper. On either end of the paper is a dot. If you wanted to connect those dots, you could fold the paper until they overlap. But if you wanted an ant to move from one dot to the other, you would punch a hole through both, allowing the ant to tunnel through. Effectively, the ant has moved through a plane of space instantly, just by passing through the hole that connects the two dots.

Since we can’t bend space, we have to use some outside type of medium to make the “fold.” In this case, we’re stepping outside the laws of physics all together, outside the universe itself, so that we can travel between Point A and Point B instantly. We’re “folding space” to overlap two points of locality, then moving between them.

So here’s where the lightrail relays come in. These are our points in space. They’re the points on the pond’s surface where the stone hits as it skips. The light rail starts from one of these relays, pushing the ship ahead of it, and is picked up by another relay on the same “path,” then sent along to the next.

So remember that “slowing down” problem we discussed? That’s where things get tricky. Because in this scenario, there’s a sort of “imperfection” to the quantum tunnel. Actually, there’s a rule, and that rule is that you must be moving at the speed of light to stay in the tunnel. Over greater distances, the beam’s power starts to fade, and the ship starts to phase back into the universe. To get around this problem, the early colonists would drop more relays, which would pick up the beam, strengthen it, speed it back up, and send it back out.

This is how the network came to be built. It’s a little like sinking pylons into the bed of a lake in order to build a bridge across it. You bring the pylons with you as you travel, and drop them off at intervals. That way, you’re leaving behind a route that’s much easier for the next guy to travel.

So Earth Colony Fleet sends out a vessel on the light rail, to an area of space that isn’t already part of the network. The ship travels until it slows down enough to drop out of lightspeed (and back into the universe). It then drops a relay, which it can use to get back up to lightspeed (and back out of the universe) again. Then the cycle repeats. These forerunner ships are actually exploring the universe and cutting roads as they go.

This is dangerous, of course. If you come out of the lightrail too close to a planet or a star, you could be in trouble (as our heroes can attest). So there are safeguards. There are systems in place that keep that from happening. Essentially, feedback from the beam would tell a relay to adjust the power of the beam, therefore adjusting it’s “length.” If the beam is meeting resistance from a planet or some other celestial object, the relay will sense it and turn down the power. When the ship slows down in order to drop another relay, the next beam will more or less “tunnel through” the object, keeping the ship from being destroyed. Unless, of course, someone tampers with the system.

The relays aren’t unidirectional, by the way. They can transmit in any direction. The beam can even be “bent” to change course in mid flight. If you think about it, this makes sense. The ship is moving through non-space, but is generally moving from Point A to Point B. If the Captain decides they actually need to be at Point C, he can change direction by changing the way it affects the ship in motion. He’s still moving at the same speed, he just chooses a new place to end up. The only limitation is range. If the ship is already close to Point B, it will have to “double back” or otherwise extend its course to get to Point C.

In our story, the problems started when Captain Alonzo realized that they were not on the course they thought they were. He tried to alter course, but met with a saboteur’s handiwork.  If there’d been no sabotage, however, he could have changed the course of the ship and taken them to their original destination.

So here’s the basics:

  • ·      The lightrail is a quantum tunnel through which a near-coherent beam of light is pushing a spaceship
  • ·      The beam’s strength fades over time and the tunnel collapses, pushing the ship back into real space
  • ·      A relay picks up the weaker beam, strengthens it, and retransmits it back into “outside space”

Once the ship leaves the lightrail it can use its engines to push it to a local destination. So if the lightrail delivers it to the same solar system as a bunch of colony worlds, it can putter along to those worlds a fast but less-than-lightspeed pace.

And when the ship is ready to get back into the lightrail network, it uses it’s own built-in lightrail relay, otherwise known as a lightrail “conduit,” to generate a starter beam, which opens a quantum tunnel and pushes the ship into it, on its way to the next drop point or relay.

So why doesn’t the ship just keep generating lightrail jump points indefinitely, skipping the relays? Good question!

This fact hasn’t come up yet, but it probably will. Each ship carries enough charge in its lightrail conduit to get it back to the lightrail. This charge is depleted in the process, however. So each time it hits a relay in the network, it recharges itself back to full.

The lightrail relays that the ship is carrying also have a charge. Enough for one jump, essentially, until they recharge using various sources such as solar power and the stream of the lightrail itself, once the relay is part of the network. So it’s true, if you found yourself stranded, you could conceivably use the relays to jump back to civilization, barring any further complications.

So basically, each ship carries a set of “spares,” just in case. And in exploring the universe, once a ship gets down to its last relay, it turns around on the network and goes home to “reload.”

Now, doesn’t that clear everything up?

I know, it’s a mouthful. But you’ve made it this far, so I have to think that you’re interested. And yes, there are all kinds of holes in this idea. But I’ve put a lot of thought into it, and I continue to do so. And as the story evolves, some things change ever so slightly, so maybe this explanation will go right out the window. But until that happens, I hope this at least clears up some of the thought behind the lightrail network. It has for me!