Tuesday, August 26, 2014

There's Nothing There - Part 1

We tend to think that there's something there. That is, when you look around, you see stuff, and we assume that the stuff is actually made of stuff. Well.

The numbers below are mostly and necessarily approximate, and they change all the time, and I had to figure some of them out, and I don't guarantee my figurin', and I left out the interstellar gases. But it'll do.

The Universe
  • The observable universe is ~93 billion light years across and has ~1 trillion galaxies.
  • There are more stars in the observable universe than grains of sand on earth.
  • The Milky Way contains 300 billion stars.
  • It’s 100,000 light years in diameter and 1000 light years thick.
  • That’s (600,000,000,000,000,000) 600 million billion miles in diameter, and 6 million billion (6,000,000,000,000) miles thick.
  • The nearest star to us is 4+ light years away, 24 trillion miles of empty space - 24,000,000,000,000 miles of nothing between us and them.
  • Star density in a globular cluster (right up there)(very dense) is about 1 star per every 800 billion trillion trillion cubic miles of space.
  • Star density in the Milky Way - about 1 star per every 3 thousand trillion trillion trillion cubic miles of space.
  • Space is empty. There's nothing there.
The Solar System
Just pretend like Pluto's not really there. I mean, it is, but, well, you know.
  • Our solar system has 8 planets (that's an old old model =>)
  • It’s 2.8 billion miles to Neptune (4.5b km)
  • That’s 8 planets spread over 2.8 billion miles 
  • That’s 1 sun and 8 planets in about 91 billion billion billion cubic miles of space. (382 billion billion billion cubic km)
  • The Solar System is empty. There's nothing there.
Matter (the solid stuff)
  • There’s about 1050 tons of matter in the universe.
  • There’s about 4 hydrogen atoms per cubic meter of space on average.
  • Nobody’s ever seen an atom.
  • 4 cubic meters is about an average living room with a vaulted ceiling.
  • There's nothing there.
Atoms (what matter is made of) and You

  • What is an atom? Protons, neutrons, electrons, and emptiness.
  • If a proton is blown up to 1000 pixels (about the size of a large grapefruit), the nearest electron would be 11 miles away (18 km).
  • There’s a million billion times more empty space than matter in an atom. (1,000,000,000,000,000)
  • You are made up of 72 trillion cells. Each cell has 100 trillion atoms. That’s 7 thousand trillion trillion atoms in you. (7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000)
  • There’s a million billion times more nothing than something in you. You are almost entirely empty space.
  • There's nothing there.
Protons etc.
  • Protons are made of 3 quarks
  • Each quark is 107 times smaller than the atom.
  • 3 quarks make up only 1% of the mass of the proton.
  • The rest?
  • Virtual particles that flit in and out of existence, particles and anti-particles that instantly annihilate each other. It's e=mc**2 all the time.
  • 99% of your mass is virtual. 
  • 99% of the you that is actually there, is only temporarily there in a constant sort of way.
  • There's nothing there.
Particles etc.
  • Particles are just energy anyway.
  • Particles have no real position in space or time - they are just probability waves.
  • Protons and neutrons are made of quarks.
  • Quarks have no real existence.
  • Everything solid is made of things that don’t really exist.
  • “Everything we call real is made up of things that cannot be regarded as real.” Neils Bohr, the father of Quantum Theory, the theory of what matter actually is.There's nothing there.
Back to the Universe
  • There’s really just nothing in the universe but an occasional bit of something that’s not really there made out of energy that becomes matter.
  • How much energy is in the universe?
  • None. There’s no net energy in the universe.
  • At Big Bang, the universe divided zero energy into two types of energy - positive and negative. 
  • Positive energy became matter. 
  • Negative energy became gravity. 
  • They exactly cancel each other out.
  • There’s no net energy in the universe.
  • There's nothing there.
That would be really depressing if it were true. OK, it's true. But it's not depressing. Watch this space.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Desperately Seeking Simon Bolivar

Some people, most people, when they visit foreign countries, go to museums, churches, cathedrals, palaces and castles, quaint little villages, night markets (foto left), mountains and waterfalls, stuff like that. I teach and ride around in cars. So you don't get stories about, you know, cathedrals and stuff. You get stories about riding around in cars.

The last time I wrote about riding in cars was in Shanghai, where, oddly enough, the taxi drivers seem to speak only Chinese, and the directions are all in Chinese.

So. I'm in San Jose, Costa Rica. Or at least, I was when I wrote this. I'm excited. I'll be able to read the street signs. I'll know where I'm going. I can even speak a little Spanish. I can say, look, there it is, the school we're looking for! Drive past it and I'll hit you in the cabeza with a stale burrito! Don't mess with me, hombre! I can read here! None of this Chinese character stuff. Real letters and real words. OK, not being culturally sensitive here, but cultural sensitivity means squat when you're being sold into white devil slavery in Shanghai.

I arrive in Costa Rica totally pumped. Street signs! Letters! Real words!

Hah! is what the driving demons say to that.

Here's the thing about San Jose. The streets have no names. 

Not, they have no street signs, though of course there are no street signs. The streets have no names, except for downtown and a few upscale neighborhoods. Nothing has a name, and nothing is written down in any language anywhere. Chinese would be a breath of fresh air. Klingon would be a breath of fresh air. (That's the Klingon alphabet. Of course there's a Klingon alphabet.)

So when you get directions, they look like this:

"Colegio Palabra de Vida, 300 metros norte de la Panasonic, San Antonio de Belen, (entrada opuesto de la entrada de la Panasonic, entre la venta de carros y el lava-car.)"

Here's what I think it says (I'm fractionally better at Spanish than Chinese): "Word of Life School, 300 meters north of the Panasonic building in San Antonio, Belen, (entrance opposite the entrance to the Panasonic, between the used car place and the car wash place.)" No address to anything, no street names, no house or building numbers, just landmarks. 

I was driven from my friend Michael's house to my hotel. He looked it up on Google Maps. His wife Beatriz said, go to Envio Park and drive around. It's there somewhere. Ask somebody. Sometimes the landmarks aren't even there any more. You know. Turn left where that big tree used to be. It's just across from where Simon Bolivar beat the barbarians and conquered Latin America and broke that poor girl's heart her mother was sooo upset.

It's like being on a roller coaster with blinders. 

My drivers turn right or left at every corner, going up and down steep gullies, just like they're secret agents trying to see if anyone is following them, for hour after hour. I think I've seen the whole town, and I don't remember any of it. It's very nice, very pretty, interesting. But it's like the movie 50 First Dates. Every time I drive in San Jose, it's like a brand new town that I've never seen. 

And of course, I never have any idea where we're going, because every time the driver hits a corner, he turns. And then we get within, like, a square mile of wherever it is we're going, and the drivers are stopping to ask people where it is. And they go, Simon Bolivar? No, that's the next block over, I think. This is where the Aztecs used to throw the virgins into the volcanoes. Those are gone now. Now it's the Panasonic building. 

It takes so long that if I had some virgins and volcanoes handy, well, I'm just sayin'. 

BTW, I'm thinkin' they call it "lava-car" because there used to be volcanoes. Right there.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What I wish my pastor had told me.

Someone asked me to write 1000 words on what I wish my pastor had told me. First, I should give you some context. It matters.

I moved around a lot. My dad's job moved us constantly, and I managed to move even more within the moves. So I was in my 10th school by the 10th grade (this one in Switzerland), attended 5 or 6 universities, I've lived in 26 cities or villages, and I'm living in my 42nd home - I lived in 29 cities or villages 6 months or longer, 13 or so places for less than 6 months. I've lived in 19 normal (-ish) houses, 1 Swiss chalet (below), 1 traditional Japanese home, 17 apartments, 1 long-term hotel (2 months), 1 series of hotels (5 months) and 2 dormitories. I was kind of homeless for awhile - not really, but I lived with three sets of friends on and off, while owning two cars. I've owned one house. The one we're in now.
So I've been to a crap-load of churches, and I've had an army of pastors. Baptist ones, Bible ones, Presbyterian ones, non-denominational ones, missionary ones. I've visited jillions more churches, all over the world. I've preached at some of them. Lutheran, Methodist, Church of Christ, Catholic, Chinese 3-self, a Chinese house church of sorts, a charismatic church in the YWCA in Hong Kong, Pentecostal, Anglican, Episcopalian, a church or two in Africa. Churches in beautiful buildings, churches in living rooms, movie theaters, cowboy revivals in tents, churches without walls, churches in warehouses. Churches in French, Chinese, Amharic, Swissgerman, German, Japanese, and tongues. It's a long list. It would be hard to ask all of those pastors to have told me something useful. Eventually, though, I expect that I heard something useful from some of them. That many preachers, sooner or later, someone's gonna say something good. Here's some good stuff. BTW, I'm older. I've got more than most.

Rules are easy. Grace is hard. Don't hear that much.

Salvation for teenagers is not reached by not having sex and not drinking. Neither is salvation manifested by teens who don't have sex and don't drink. Never really hear that one.

Nobody really understands salvation. Now that one, I never heard from anyone.

Everyone understands God and faith through each his own cultural filter. Thus, nobody really understands God or faith. Every now and then, you might hear that one.

Everybody's got some bad theology somewhere that they don't know about, and would get really hacked off about if you were to point it out. Everybody's wrong about something that really matters.

America is not God's chosen nation, and Americans are not God's chosen people. Once or twice, I heard that.

Fighting for our right to be Christian is not very Christian.
God is as upset over the deaths and tragedies that don't make the papers as we are over those that do. 9/11 was as great a tragedy for God as any other tragedy in all of history. No greater. Never heard that one, at least not in the US.

9/11 was not the moment when the rules all changed and everybody in the towers went straight to heaven just because they came to work on the wrong day in the wrong building.

The 10 Commandments are Jewish. The 2 Commandments are Christian. Those are ours. Nothing wrong with the Big 10, but Jesus changed all that.

There are things we believers are supposed to do to manifest our faith. They include believing (duh), and as an outgrowth of that belief, they include loving God, loving others, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and so on. They do not include being right about everything, protesting loudly to protect our rights, finding others to hate (like Muslims, Jews, liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, and so on), and fighting about evolution, Big Bang, abortion, homosexuality, drug use, immorality, pornography, stuff like that. It does include loving those who believe in evolution and Big Bang, those who've had abortions, who are gay, who use drugs or pornography, who are immoral, stuff like that. They include grace, forgiveness, mercy. They don't include revenge, anger, bitterness, lying, destroying reputations, hating. It includes sharing our faith, but not like people selling cars or insurance, but more like people loving other people and finding a way in that context to share one's faith. It includes loving people even when they reject that faith.

Church is supposed to be inclusive. Tends to be exclusive. That's not good. The people we don't feel comfortable seeing at church are the ones God walked in with. 

Real, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians have done terrible things. Racism. Slavery. Genocide. Anti-immigration. Consumerism and materialism. Nationalism. Patriotism. Xenophobia. Lynchings. Putting people in camps. Killing people in camps. Exploiting workers. Under-tipping. We try to change them into not-really-Christians retroactively. Tragic. Keeps us from recognizing ourselves in them, which in turn prevents us from seeing the terrible things we might be doing right now as real, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians.

God does not have a wonderful plan for your life. He has a wonderful plan. Get on board, if you want.

It's not about you. It's about God. Your salvation and walk in faith are not your story. It's part of God's story.

God has no interest in keeping you healthy, wealthy, happy and wise. God is not about your comfort. God is not about protecting you from suffering. God is about building the kingdom on earth. Get on board, if you dare.

God does not offer you salvation. He offers us salvation. There's a difference.

It is entirely possible to find God just by looking at his universe. Not all of him. Just the parts he wants us to know about. We'll never have access to all of God.

Once you get ahold of Big Bang, evolution is just details.

There might be more. I forget. This will have to do, even if I might be a few words short.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Lost in Translation. Really, just lost.

There is a thing in China that demands intense faith and on-going prayers. It's not communists or atheists.  It's not air or water pollution. OK, it is pollution, but that's not the main thing. It's not the food, which can be something that the exterminators missed but the cooks found. It's not the horrendous traffic, but that's close.
It's the taxi drivers.
It's not the way they drive, though there will be cause for praying when they drive, because they tend to drive like there are recruiters from NASCAR watching every move to try to find the next Dale Earnhardt, Jr, Jeff Gordon, or Danica Patrick, only this one called Xi Hu Fat. They drive like the roads are slalom courses, the other cars are moving gates, and they are Lindsey Vonn, only, you know, with cars and lots and lots of speed.
No, that's not it. It's more basic than that.
It's not really knowing if they're taking you where you actually need to go.
See, even though China has the largest English speaking population of any country, none of those people are driving taxis. They're all hacking into our emails. The taxi drivers all speak Chinese. So here's what happens. You give them the address of where you want to go written on a piece of paper by someone from the place you want to go, like, a school, or the hotel. Here's a recent example from my personal life:
First, the address in English: Yew Chung International School of Shanghai, 18 West Rong Hua Road (near Shuicheng Road), Gubei 201103
Now the address in Chinese: 耀中国际学校荣华西道18水城路附近), 古北 201103
So. The driver looks at it. Then he mumbles a bit. And you start to wonder. Chinese is really hard to learn to read, you think. Thinking is your first mistake. I mean, there are like 20,000 characters you have to learn. And what do you suppose happens to all of those students who never really learned to read all the characters? They're probably not out there hacking into my email. They might be, you know, driving taxis. So you're never really sure whether or not the driver can read what you've given him. And then he starts driving. And mumbling.
Shanghai is huge. Enormous. 21 million people. All the signs are written in English (which the driver doesn't read) and Chinese (maybe ditto). Every now and then he'll say something like this: 耀中国际学校. Not helpful. You note that West Rong Hua Road looks a lot like West Wrong Way Road. Not helpful. Gubei sounds like it might be in Mongolia. Plus, there are three campuses of the Yew Chung International School, and each one has maybe two separate campuses of its own, so there are six possible places you could be going, if he can read the directions at all. They are miles apart. Many many miles.
So you drive, like, forever. In your imagination, people in the streets are starting to look vaguely European, like you might be invading Hungary again by taxi. You are being sold into white slavery. After awhile, it starts to feel like the better option.
And then. You see a street sign. It says "Gubei"! Yes! And then, Shuicheng Road! Yes! And lo and behold! West Rong Hua Road! Yes! Salvation is at hand! God answers prayer! And look! There it is! The Yew Chung International School! I'm saved, safe at last!
And he drives right by it without stopping. 
I say, look! There it is! The school! Here's what he hears: "Meaningless words from the white devil." And he says to me, 耀中国际学校. And keeps on going. And gets lost.
He drives around aimlessly for awhile, mumbling, and every now then looks at me and says 耀中国际学校. Finally, he gives me the ancient, traditional sign for "can I use your cell phone?" I call the school, he chatters for much longer than it should take, and drives me right to it. It was another campus.
How could a loving God allow such a thing?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tonight's Menu ... you don't wanna know.

So I was in Jakarta, and I walked over to the local mall to find some dinner one evening. Found a dim sum place that looked like the food hadn't come directly from the floodwaters that were scattered around town. Ordered three different wooden bowls by pointing at the pictures on the menu, since I can't read any Indonesian. 

Two were great. The third was supposed to be bbq chicken. As indeed it was, after a fashion - it was bbq chicken feet. 

Though I had nobody to impress but the waiter, I manfully decided to eat them. So I had a couple of bites. I could pretend like I just didn't like the sauce. 

But the truth is, eating a chicken foot is like eating fat on a toe bone. There is no there there. There is nothing useful about a chicken foot. Taste - nasty. Texture - nasty. Leftover toe bone on your tongue - nasty. Appearance - seriously, looks like something left by Hannibal Lecter. It looks like a gory, slaughtered foot. 

Hamburger doesn't look like a cow. Pork ribs don't look like a pig. Chicken legs don't look like a chicken. But chicken feet look like feet. Dead, murdered, bloody feet. Looks like a crime scene from the TV show Bones. 

And then when you put it in your mouth, it feels like a foot. Chicken legs don't feel like a leg. But chicken feet - just like a foot. Looks like a foot. Feels like a foot. Tastes like a foot. A nasty bit of foot fat on a toe bone.

I was so grossed out, I had to follow the ancient, traditional cure for being grossed out after eating a chicken foot. I went next door and bought a Wendy's hamburger. Almost had to get a Frosty, too, just to purge it all from my system.

Monday, August 4, 2014

What a great universe.

Just to offer an editorial comment on the marvelous state of our understanding of the universe:

1. It's been ~40 years since String Theory was proposed, and there's still not a single thing we know to be true about it. There is not one String Theory fact.

2. It's been ~30 years since Inflationary Theory was proposed, and there's still no evidence in support of it. Almost, but still nothing definitive.

3. It's been ~40 years since we discovered the need for Dark Matter to exist, and we still haven't a clue what it is.

4. It's been 15 years since we discovered a need for Dark Energy to exist, and we still haven't a clue what it is.

4.5 Dark Energy is 69% of what the universe is made of. There's 5-6 times more Dark Matter than regular matter, so Dark Matter is 26% of the what the universe is made of. Thus 95% of the universe is a complete and total mystery to us. Maybe even 96%. (They haven't even had time to update the chart yet.)

5. It's been ~80+ years since Quantum Theory appeared on the scene to explain how the universe is put together at the level of the very small, and it explains it perfectly, and there are legions of facts and supporting evidence, and it's never wrong and it's always right, and it still makes no sense to anybody and nobody likes it and everyone wishes it would just go away. And it's the finest scientific theory known to man.

6. It's been ~80+ years since Special and General Relativity arrived on the scene to explain how the universe is put together at the level of the very large, and they explain it brilliantly and they're always right and never wrong. And they still don't make any sense.

6.5 General Relativity led us to Black Holes and Big Bang. There are legions of facts and supporting evidence for Big Bang, and there's no evidence against it, and most scientists who really understand it are not happy with it and wish it would just go away, and most people of faith refuse to believe in it because they don't really understand it. And Black Holes don't exist. They almost exist and they'll be at the edge of existing forever, or until they evaporate, which apparently they will all do, so actually, Black Holes don't exist and never will.

7. It's been ~80+ years since General Relativity and Quantum Theory arrived on the scene to explain the way the universe works in its entirety, and they're both perfect and they're never wrong, and they're the two finest fields of science known to man, and they are still entirely incompatible and don't get along with each other.

What a great universe.