Sunday, April 5, 2009

Life Giving Fire of the Covenant

John A. Widstoe, in his book "Rational Theology", writes of the Temple Endowment: "Those who receive this information covenant to obey the laws of eternal progress, and thereby give life to the knowledge received." I love the thought that covenants give life to knowledge. What a powerful description of an eternal principle.

One of the most touching episodes of church history is the valiant effort the Saints put forth in finishing the Nauvoo Temple. Even though they realized that they would be leaving, they spared nothing in completing the sacred edifice because they knew it was God's command and that it would be a strength and protection to them.

Finally, in 1846, many of the Saints had traveled west but some still remained along the Mississippi River, in squalid and almost unbearable conditions. When word of the condition of the poor Saints came to Brigham Young in Winter Quarters, he rallied the Priesthood with these words:

"Now is the time for labor... Let the fire of the covenant which you made in the House of the Lord, burn in your hearts, like flame unquenchable." (Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 28 Sept. 1846, 5;). They responded immediately and began the trek back East to rescue the trapped Saints.

Why has God provided the covenant mechanism to His children and why is it such an essential part of the restored gospel? I don't believe there is anything mysterious about its power. I think it is, quite simply, a way for the faithful to have a personal and individual relationship with God.

There are many ways to develop and strengthen our relationship with God - prayer comes to mind, for example. But the making and keeping of covenants with God binds us to Him in a way that transcends our daily discipleship, or rather, defines what our daily discipleship should become.

As we solemnly promise to be faithful and true, dedicating ourselves and our resources to the furthering of God's purposes, a change comes over our heart. We realize that we are an important part of the great mission of the Restored Gospel, which is that everyone in the world deserves a chance to hear that Christ lives, that prophets once again walk the earth, and that God's Kingdom has come anew.

It is a great blessing to understand that God's people have always been a covenant people. It is remarkable to realize that the power inherent in making and keeping Godly covenants is once again available to each of us if we lose ourselves and seek to do His will.

What a powerful force for good we could be in the world if give life to the truth we know to be true and to rededicate ourselves with a determination to serve him "like flame unquenchable."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

And God Said: "Let There Be Iron!"

According to the Big Bang theory, after the initial "explosion" the universe began to cool due its rapid expansion. As temperatures decreased, the simplest possible atomic structure formed: a single proton which makes up the hydrogen nucleus. When the universe's temperature dropped below about 3 billion Kelvin several minutes after the Big Bang, an isotope of hydrogen known as deuterium (one proton and one neutron) could form and remain stable. Soon the deuterium collected another neutron and became tritium, yet another isotope of hydrogen. As the energy continued to dissipate, tritium molecules collected a proton to become a helium nucleus.

This process, known as cosmic nucleosynthesis, continued to convert elemental hydrogen into helium. After about 15 minutes, the temperature of the universe had decreased such that there was not sufficient energy to maintain the nuclear reactions that fuse helium into heavier elements. Soon, not even hydrogen reactions could be sustained. At this point, the universe was approximately 90% hydrogen, 10% helium, with traces of of the next two elements, lithium and beryllium. That leaves 88 naturally occuring elements unaccounted for and uncreated.

As the universe aged, stars formed and began the creation of elements anew. In fact, the nuclear reactions (and sometimes violent explosions) that occur within stars create all of the naturally occuring elements except hydrogen. Not only do stars give birth to the heavier elements, but they have a seeding mechanism to spread the elements throughout the galaxies. In turn, this dispersed matter forms other stars, their companion planets, and us. I find it quite interesting that the process is not really that different from the processes that perpetuate and spread life on our planet: birth, growth, maturity, procreation, death.

Stars are initially composed primarily of hydrogen. As a star forms, the gravity compresses the matter in the star until sufficient pressure and temperature is reached to initiate nuclear fusion. The process converts hydrogen to helium, releasing energy. The energy that reaches Earth from our sun is caused by the fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium atoms. The gas pressure caused by high temperatures within a star counteracts the gravity pulling the star's matter into its center. For most stars, this balance between collapse and explosion is maintained for billions of years.

Stars evolve differently depending on their mass. A star like Earth's sun has modest mass and will burn for about 10 billion years. Stars that contain about 10 times as much mass as our sun, however, burn through their fuel very quickly when compared to our sun. These stars last only about 35 million years before turning into what is known as Type II Supernova.

As the massive star's hydrogen decreases, the star contracts, resulting in higher temperatures. This, in turn, fuses helium atoms into carbon and oxygen atoms. As the helium is exhausted, the star continues to contract and the carbon and oxygen atoms are fused into neon and magnesium. Eventually, the neon and magnesium are fused into silicon and sulfur. The silicon and sulfur then fuse into iron.

During this process, the heavier elements displace lighter elements at the center of the star and the star continues to contract. If a cross-section of the star could be examined, it would look much like an onion with the heavier elements at the core of the star and the lighter elements composing layers further and further from the center.

At the point of iron-creating fusion, however, the situation changes. The nuclear properties of iron are different than the lighter elements from which it came. Although iron can fuse with other elements, the reaction does not generate enough energy to sustain itself, so nuclear fusion stops. Now the delicate dance between gravity and pressure is disrupted. With no expanding gas to counter the effect of gravity, the iron core collapses within a fraction of a second. It collapses to its maximum density and then rebounds, accompanied by titanic shock waves.

As the shock waves move through the layers of the star, they cause a huge explosion to occur. The explosion completely blasts the outer layers away at about 10,000 miles per second. The tremendous heat caused by this explosion allows iron to fuse into even heavier elements. Indeed, a Type II Supernova is the only way that elements heavier than iron are created and seeded throughout the universe. All the gold, lead, silver, and uranium on earth was, at one time, iron atoms seething in a distant star.

The story of a Type II supernova does not stop with the explosion however. A huge amount of matter is left behind after the explosion. This completely collapses onto itself until all atomic structure is broken and the electrons and protons are combined into neutrons, resulting in a rapidly spinning neutron star.

A Type 1a supernova, on the other hand, begins as a star about the same size as our sun (but no more than about five times its mass) orbiting a second, similar star. This is known as a binary star system.

When a binary star about the size of our sun begins to run out of hydrogen, the balance between gravity and the expanding gas within the star shifts. As a result, the star begins to expand, eventually turning into what is called a red giant. The core of the red giant continues to contract however, fusing helium into carbon and then into other elements, pushing the outer layers of the star away. Eventually only the dense, luminous core remains as a white dwarf.

Eventually, its partner star in the binary system also turns into a red giant. As the second star expands, however, the gravity of the white dwarf draws the outer layers of the red giant towards itself, much like water circling a drain. Over time this process continues until the white dwarf has a mass about 40% more than our sun. At this point, a runaway nuclear reaction causes the white dwarf to explode.

Type 1a supernova are very important to astronomers because they always explode at 1.4 times the mass of the sun and all have the same characteristics, including how bright they shine. This allows astronomers to measure the distance to a Type 1a supernova by simply measuring its brightness.

The explosion of a Type 1a supernova is about 15 billion times brighter than our sun and completely destroys the white dwarf. The core of the red giant is catapulted out of orbit and its outer layers are blown into space where they will, over time, collect and create yet another star system.

Recently (December 2009), evidence has surfaced of another type of supernova known as a pair-instability supernova. Observation and analysis of a 2007 supernova (SN2007bi) indicate that a star containing about 200 times the mass of the sun exploded with a brightness 50 to 100 times that normally seen in a supernova.

This event seems to validate that super-massive stars can form and that pair-instability supernovii are possible. In such a supernova, the super massive star has exhausted its supply of hydrogen and helium, leaving a core of mostly oxygen. In smaller stars, this process continues until the core is iron and it explodes in a Type II supernova. In this case, however, while the core is still oxygen, super energetic photons are released that create electrons and positrons (electron anti-matter opposite particle). When the matter and anti-matter meet, they completely annihilate each other, reducing the star's pressure and forcing a collapse and burning up the oxygen so completely (in a run away nuclear explosion) that nothing of the star remains. The gas and material generated by the explosion spreads throughout its immediate stellar neighborhood. 

God has created a mechanism by which the stars regenerate themselves through a process remarkably similar to the organic processes we see on earth. Everything we touch or see around us, including the elements that make up our own physical bodies, was transformed in the nuclear crucible of a distant star into something new and then blasted into space in an ongoing process of solar and planetary genesis.

The creation story in Abraham 4 (http://scriptures.lds.org/en/abr/4) is quite interesting in its wording. In verses 10, 12, and 18, the creation seems to be defined more as a process than an event. The Gods started a process and watched as they were "obeyed". I believe these eternal processes are still in operation as they continue to obey God's initial commands. What a blessing it is to live in a time when we're understanding more and more of God's majestic creations.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Science & God - No Contradiction

Cosmology has always fascinated me. Graduating from high school, I was planning on earning a Ph.d in Astrophysics. Although my career took a different path, mostly because I realized I wasn't as good at math as I thought I was, my interest in the creation and structure of the universe continues unabated.

I served a mission to Japan. Before I left I took a year's worth of classes at the University as a declared Physics major (I changed majors after I returned to school). The Japanese are a wonderful people, generous to strangers, and always eager to talk to young Americans. When we met someone new we'd talk a little about ourselves, sometimes even bringing out a picture or two. During these introductions, I usually mentioned that I attended college for a year and was planning to study physics. Almost without fail, the next question was "How can you study physics and still believe in God?"

My heartfelt answer to the question was always the same: "The more I learn about our world and the universe, the more I believe in God." The response to that was usually "Ah so desu ka", roughly translated as "Is that so" or "I see." Sometimes I could tell it was just a polite response and sometimes it was said with an understanding nod. More than 30 years later, my awe and wonder at God's creation has only increased.

I don't really understand all the energy expended and good will lost by evangelicals (and others) fighting battles over intelligent design. Neither side will persuade the other by any meaningful measure. The line drawn in the sand by many evangelicals only results in a harsh backlash, doing more harm than good to all involved. A better approach, I believe, is simply to acknowledge the difference of opinion and move on. We don't fully understand the timeline of creation nor do we understand the root processes of creation. But one thing we can be sure of is that the creation occurred to further God's purposes and pretty much everyone would benefit by spending their precious time learning about those rather than fighting meaningless battles.

I personally see no theological problem with a universe and/or earth that is billions of years old. Nor do I have a problem with current theories such as the Big Bang, String Theory, Dark Matter, etc. They may turn out to be true, partially true, or only man's attempt to define something that is not fully understandable by intellect and experiment. Regardless, I don't think that we have the right to restrict God's ways to a box bounded by our own limited perspective. I value truth discovered through science as helping me understand God's creations better and I hope that I am a better steward of those creations as a result.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Faith & Mormons at Harvard

If you ever worry about the youth of the church or wonder if education at a non-BYU campus destroys faith, take a look at this interview with Rachel Esplin, a young LDS woman from Blackfoot, Idaho. She speaks eloquently and unashamedly of her faith, of the doctrines, and how her experiences at Harvard have strengthened her testimony.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Saint in Deed

Keepapitchin has a wonderful article about Laura Rees Merrill, a saint not only by heritage by also by deed. Click here to read the article.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Life's Lessons in a 10-mile Hike

The Deacons went on a camp out and 10-mile hike last weekend. We timed this camp out just right and had only a little rain as we were going to bed Friday evening. If the weather had moved in one day earlier, we would have been the victims of freezing rain and sleet, which probably would have stopped our Saturday activity - a 10 mile hike.

Saturday's weather was a little cool, but great for a hike. We went to Prince William Forest Park in Virginia - about 35 miles south of Washington DC. In contrast to our last 10-mile hike which was along the C&O Canal to Great Falls, this hike was on small trails with lots of rocks, roots, climbs, and descents. As a result, it took us a lot longer than the flat C&O Canal towpath.

Initially we made good time and stopped about half-way for lunch. As we departed with renewed energy, it was a little hard to tell exactly where we were due to a lack of landmarks but we took a guess after reviewing the map and figuring out how long we'd been hiking.

About an hour or so after lunch, we came to a signpost that pointed the way to a trail that was part of our hike. We were a little confused because we saw no trail intersection on our map at what we thought was our location. It was quite demoralizing after a few minutes to finally figure out that we weren't nearly as far as we thought we were. There was some discussion about whether to just take this shortcut or continue on the planned hike. We decided, with some dissent, to continue on for the full hike.

We did eventually make it back to our camp. As usual, the scouts didn't seem to be affected much, but the adults stiffen up and ache quite a bit. Everyone was tired though and I'm sure we all slept well that night in our beds.

The next day was Fast Sunday. During the testimony portion of Sacrament Meeting one of the Deacons that went on the trip shared his feelings about the hike. He told us that he'd been thinking that the ups and downs of the hike were a lot like life's challenges and that we just needed to keep hiking to overcome difficulties we faced. One of the members in our Stake Young Men's presidency asked me after the meeting if we talked about that on the hike and I had to say that the adult leaders had nothing to do with planting that idea in his head. His thoughts and conclusions were totally his own.

It was good to hear that one of the youth gained something more than a requirement for a merit badge. It caused me to think that as a leader of young men I should be more diligent in looking for opportunities to plant those seeds. In this case, however, it was not necessary. The seed was planted and bore fruit with no encouragement other than the whisperings of the Spirit.

Although I should have learned by now, I'm always surprised by the thoughtful nature and spiritual sensitivity of our youth. It helps me realize that I need to look beyond the weekly problems with discipline and attention span during our Scout activity and look at our small group of 12 & 13 year old boys through the eyes of the Lord, who knows the potential and glorious destiny of our youth far better than I.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

All Spirit is Matter

There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter. (Doctrine & Covenants 131:7-8)

Where Is the Spirit World-Is the spirit world here? It is not beyond the sun, but is on this earth that was organized for the people that have lived and that do and will live upon it. No other people can have it, and we can have no other kingdom until we are prepared to inhabit this eternally. (
Discourses of Brigham Young, p.376)

Spirits are just as familiar with spirits as bodies are with bodies, though spirits are composed of matter so refined as not to be tangible to this coarser organization.
(
Discourses of Brigham Young, p.379)

When you lay down this tabernacle, where are you going? Into the spiritual world. ... Where is the spirit world? It is right here. (
Discourses of Brigham Young, p.376)

The material world we live in - i.e. those things we can sense through our natural senses, is made of baryonic matter. Baryonic matter includes all atoms and so constitutes virtually everything we can experience. Dark matter, on the other hand, is hypothesized to be non-baryonic. This means that dark matter has absolutely no interaction with normal matter and is completely transparent to electromagnetic radiation. Trillions of dark matter particles could be streaming through your body (and most likely are) and you would sense nothing. They would not interact with atoms in your body and you could not change the dark matter in any fashion.

The only way that the existence of dark matter can be inferred is through the study of gravitational effects such as the rotation speeds of galaxies. Research on distant galactic structures indicates that we can directly sense only about 4% of the mass/energy in the universe. Of the invisible 96%, about 22% is estimated to be dark matter with the remaining 74% consisting of what is termed "dark energy".

Could it be that dark matter and dark energy are the "more fine or pure" spirit world that surrounds us? There is no evidence for such conjecture, but it's an interesting thought experiment.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book Review: Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card

I had put off reading Orson Scott Card's series of novels known as The Tales of Alvin Maker for years even though the general theme fascinated me - a loose retelling of the Joseph Smith story in an alternate world of folk magic. Last year I realized that rather than listening to news and weather for 45 minutes during my daily commute, I could check out audio books from the public library. The Alvin Maker books were prominently displayed on the shelf, so they became my initial choice.

I'm glad I listened to them rather than read them. The superb voice acting coupled with Card's wonderful writing made it a real treat. I actually looked forward to getting in the car each day to and from work because I was captivated by both the storyline and the dramatization. The fact that Card writes in the vernacular of the time also adds immensely to the pleasure of the journey. I can't recommend these audio books highly enough.

The Tales of Alvin Maker currently consist of six novels, with a final seventh still unpublished. The novels, in order of publishing, are Seventh Son, Red Prophet,
Prentice Alvin, Alvin Journeyman, Heartfire, and The Crystal City. The concluding novel in the series will be Master Alvin. In recorded author's notes on one of the audio books (I believe it was Red Prophet), Card affirms that there will be only one more book in the series though "it may be 3000 pages long".

The books are set in an alternate world of folk magic.
The tales revolve around Alvin Maker, a seventh son of a seventh son, who has extraordinary gifts. In fact, he is a Maker, destined to build the Crystal City as he fights The Unmaker, who seeks only to destroy. Race plays a large role in the books with Whites, Reds (native Americans), and Blacks each having their own powers and playing their own roles in the unfolding events.

Alvin's powers are not seen as religious in nature, but rather accepted as an extraordinary manifestation of the routine spells, hexes, and magic that pervade the land and its people. Although religion plays a role in the story line, its presence is not overbearing. However, it is clear that Card deeply understands the religious experience and uses that understanding to good effect in these books. Although readers interested in a good fantasy story will like the Alvin Maker books, the perceptive Church reader will recognize much in the book that alludes to LDS practices and doctrine.

Card has a wonderful writing style and a deep understanding of relationships and the human condition. All of his writer's gifts are brought to bear in this series. The sensitive writing brought tears to my eyes multiple times. One of the most touching is a scene where Alvin and his brother-in-law, the adopted former slave known as Arthur Stuart, are running from slave finders. The slave finders have a "cachet" that allows them to track the escaped slave wherever he goes because it contains things (such as hair) that are unique to Arthur Stuart. Alvin realizes that he can change Arthur Stuart from the inside out so that the cachet will not match him anymore. Essentially, Alvin realizes that by changing the "tiny parts" of him, he will become a new person. To do that Alvin changes Arthur Stuart as they are in a river and then immerses Arthur Stuart fully to wash the residue of the "old man" away so that only the "new man" remains. The allusion to baptism is clear and makes the scene powerful in ways that only a faithful Church member can fully appreciate.

Whether you read or listen, you will come away from Alvin Maker better for the experience. Now if Card would only finish Master Alvin!!

An ongoing list of Sparsile book reviews

Sunday, February 22, 2009

More Than Human

I just finished watching an interesting presentation by Juan Enriquez at TED.com (http://tr.im/gEOJ). As I watch the bio-engineering revolution unfold around us, I wonder what the future holds for those who deem our bodies a sacred gift from God. Certainly the ability to do such things as growing our own replacement organs and enhancing (or rejuvenating) failing body systems (hearing, eyesight, etc.) is exciting. To be able to extend our years of productive work and service will open up new opportunities.

Should there be a limit to how far we allow biological, robotic, and genetic sciences to extend our innate human form and function? Some years ago I listened to an interview given by Zbigniew Brzezinski where he posited that the great question of the 21st century would be "What does it mean to be human?" Revealed religion tells us that humans are the spirit children of God, created in his image. I fully believe this.

However, what about human clones? Are they spirit children of God? Is it immoral (i.e. against the desire of God) to extend human lifespan beyond "the age of a man"? Is re-engineering humanity the Tower of Babel for our post-technological civilization?

The recent leaders of the Church have (very wisely) been cautious about defining the boundaries of science and religion. This is in part, I believe, because Mormons believe all truth comes from God. Scientific truth is just as valid as revealed truth. Furthermore, the truths discovered by man will only complement truths revealed through prophets. But just because we understand how (i.e. discern scientific truth) to make someone more than human does not necessarily mean that we should put that science into practice. That was the horror of the Nazi eugenics and medical experiments.

The next ten years promises to be an exciting ride for the biological, robotic, and genetic sciences. Will we also develop the ethical and moral capacity to keep up?


Friday, February 20, 2009

The Destruction of American Will

It is with dismay that I read of the passing of the "Stimulus Bill". The reliance on the federal government to provide "bailouts" when the economy hits a trough is taken to obscene extremes with the unimaginably huge debt that is levied on the current and future generations of productive citizens. The lack of leadership of both the former and current president in this time of economic uncertainty is distressing. The cries of both Bush and Obama will linger in the hall of shame for years to come. What happened to leaders who espouse principles such as "The only thing to fear is fear itself" or "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country" or "I don't believe in a government that protects us from ourselves"? Instead, we hear fear-mongering from our presidents. We hear calls for personal responsibility, but instead see the irresponsible rewarded with other's tax dollars.

Those who caused this economic crisis are crying for help because they made ill-advised and greedy, selfish decisions. I'm not just referring to the dishonest bankers who invented investment strategies so "sophisticated" that no one really knows what they are worth or Detroit car companies who seem to lack the most basic understanding of what American consumers want and need. I'm also referring to the millions of Americans who revel in credit card debt and purchase houses larger than they can afford. And we can't forget Clinton and his cronies in the Congress who pushed lenders to provide mortgage loans to those who could not afford them. Lack of accountability, at the corporate, government, AND the personal level, caused this crisis. Unfortunately, those who live within their means and practice prudence in their financial dealings have also been sucked into the black hole.

We are reeling from 8 years of a president who thought that stubbornness equaled principle and who was manipulated by his senior advisers. Now we are embarking on a journey with a president who speaks with a golden tongue but has little or no idea on how to solve the pressing problems that face this country. Change is coming, alright. It will be a change brought about by the lack of will of the American people to sacrifice for a cause greater than self. It will be change that comes at the cost of liberty - first the loss of economic liberty, which leads to the loss of personal liberty, which will, in the end, lead to a weak, rudderless nation.

Here's a few tips, Mr. President: Let the automobile manufacturers go bankrupt; let the state and local governments realize that taxpayer money is not an endless stream of gold; let individuals who are mired in debt because of their own poor decisions reap the consequences. If we do that, we'll have pain, but we'll emerge as a stronger and vital people who have a clear vision to a bright future. If we continue down the "bailout" path, we'll be a fractured, miserable socialist state.

It's time to start thinking about who to vote for in 2012. Mitt Romney anyone ...

Book Review: "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell

An interesting examination of people that are outside normal experience. It discusses those who are extraordinarily successful, and sometimes those who had the innate potential for greatness, but didn't get the right "breaks". Gladwell conjectures that "outlier" success is primarily due to two factors: 1) being fortunate enough to be born in the right place at the right time; and 2) hard, meaningful work. He suggests that there are many people who have the ability to be wildly successful (Bill Gates, world-class gymnasts, etc.) but were not given the opportunity to succeed.

Interesting facts abound: 1) almost all the Canadian junior hockey system's great players are born in the first three months of the year; 2) Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Bill Joy - perhaps the preeminent pioneers in the PC or workstation computing industry - were born in 1954 or 1955.

Gladwell also conjectures. My favorite: Asian's stereotypical prowess in mathematics is due to the Asian language linguistic rendition of numerical systems and the culture that came from thousands of years of wet-rice farming!


Gladwell's bottom line: Successful people do not achieve greatness despite their backgrounds (Horatio Alger's take) but BECAUSE of their backgrounds. It is an interesting hypothesis and certainly true to some extent. However, Gladwell seems to choose evidence that only supports his theory. Certainly not EVERY Canadian hockey player born in January, February, or March reaches the NHL. Certainly not every computer geek born in 1954 or 1955 founds companies like Microsoft or Apple. Nonethless, it is thought-provoking book.