Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Star, A Star Dancing in the Sky

NASA Photo, retouched

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2) So said the wise men to King Herod as they mistakenly sought the newborn king in Jerusalem. When they were directed by the religious leaders to the small, nearby village of Bethlehem, “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star they were overjoyed.” (verse 9) We do not know how many wise men (magi) traveled to see the Jewish king but biblical scholars think they were from Persia and familiar with the Book of Daniel. God had revealed to Daniel, an exiled Jew in Babylon (530 BC) many mysteries and secrets, which were part of the wisdom literature or astrological records in Persia.

The Magi: Could it be that the magi, while observing the heavens and studying the book of Daniel, noticed an astronomical phenomena which they associated with the impending birth of a Jewish king in Judea? Did they see a conjunction, which occurred on June 17, 3 BC, between Venus and Jupiter in the constellation of Leo, near the star Regulus? Leo was the tribal sign of Judah. Jupiter was the king planet for the Babylonians and the name for Regulus was Sharru the king. Also Venus, named Ishtar, was the chief Babylonian goddess associated with femininity.  Note that they did not follow the star but rather told Herod that they had seen the star in the East. This portion of their trip then could have been based on a natural phenomenon (with the timing ordained by God; see Gal 4:4).

The historical records: There are several historical reference made in the Bible related to the birth of Christ: a census ordered by Caesar Augustus; the rule of Quirinius, governor of Syria; and finally Herod, the king of Judea in Jerusalem. The death of Herod while young Jesus was in Egypt together with his parents is also mentioned. All these point to a time period that extends between 6 BC and 1 BC. The traditional date for Herod’s death has been set around 4BC, which in turn sets the birth of Christ at 6BC. However, a recent exhaustive study has brought the date of Herod’s death closer to 1 BC, or even 1 AD (see PSFC December 2012). During the period 3-2 BC , some astronomical data has identified the occurrence of  a number of planetary conjunctions one of which could have been the star that the magi saw in the East.

Trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem: The star reappears during this segment of the trip and seems to be a supernatural  phenomenon.  Why? Because it seems to have led them and stopped over the place where the child was. All this happened only after the magi were willing to travel to Bethlehem, away from center of power, in obedience to what the scripture had predicted in Micah 5:2. A miracle then occurs as a result of their perseverance. God honored the faith of the magi by directing them to the exact location of the Christ child. The Wonder of the Star is God’s providential timing, including both natural events and supernatural guidance, in order to fulfill his grand purpose for mankind: “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son that all those who believe on him shall not be lost but have eternal life” John 3:16  

For a short, more detailed description of the Star of Bethlehem see: What was the Star of Bethlehem?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Living Forever

Turritopsis Nutricula

The question of eternal life has intrigued humans from the beginning. In fact, concern about life beyond death seems to be one of the distinguishing marks of being human. Although we live within a linear time framework with a beginning and an end, our souls long for more, for eternal significance, meaning and life. God has made us in his image and given us his ‘nephesh’ (breath of life) which pulls us toward Him as the source of all that is eternal. Perhaps at one time mankind had the potential to live forever. After sin entered the Garden of Eden through Eve and then Adam, God said, “Man (Adam) must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”  (Genesis 3:12) What was this 'Tree of Life’? How would it have enabled Adam to live forever? Could it be something genetic and could the science of genetics eventually unlock this key?

There is a member of the animal kingdom that can potentially live forever? It is a tiny hydrozoan (about 0.18 inch maximum diameter) that lives at the bottom of the ocean and is called the ‘immortal jellyfish’ (Turritopsis Nutricula). When adverse conditions threaten the Turritopsis, it is able to reverse its sexual mature medussa stage and return to the immature polyp stage through a process called cellular transdifferentiation, where one type of cell changes into another type. In this way it is able to begin the growth process again, like the fictional character Benjamin Button, who began to grow younger after reaching maturity. The process is poorly understood by scientists and it is not known whether stem cells are involved.

The author of Ecclesiastes looks long and hard at the meaning of life, often with a skeptical eye. He writes, “For everything there is a time, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot....” Following a poetic description of the significance of the passage of time, he adds,  “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” (Eccl 3:1-3, 11)

Although the idea of living forever in my physical body on earth is not particularly appealing, nor is the idea of endless cycles of reincarnation, the vision expressed by Apostle Paul offers a hope that gives meaning and direction to my life. “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (I Corinthians 15:54)

To learn more about the Turritopsis nutricula (or dohrnii) see the New York Times article: Can a jellyfish unlock the secret of immortality?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Biomimetics: Learning from Nature (continued)

Peregrine Falcon in flight

Electric eels: When an eel locates its prey, it opens a series of cellular gates, through which ions (potassium) flow. This movement of charged ions creates an electric current when the eel is in a conductive solution, such as water. Researchers have experimented with artificial proto-cells that, like real living cells, have membranes that control the flow of ions similar to the eel’s. As reported in Advanced Materials (see News in Science), the researchers were able to generate electricity, which could eventually be used in a new battery design.

Insects and Aerodynamic Maneuverability: There are insects that are capable of taking off backwards, flying sideways, and landing upside down. The physiological and anatomical specialization of these insects is poorly understood. However, the greatest puzzle is how flapping wings can generate enough force to keep the insect in the air. Wind tunnel tests of insects show that simple flapping of the insect wing does not generate enough force to let the animal fly. Their secret was found to lie in the fact that insect wings add two rotational mechanisms that provide a potent force for the insect to remain aloft (Science 18, June 1999, Vol 284, pp 1954-1960).

The Peregrine Falcon is considered the fastest creature in the animal kingdom. When the falcon locates its prey while in flight, it tucks in its wings and dives towards the prey at speeds exceeding 150 miles an hour! With that speed, the falcon reaches its prey with precision, catches it with its claws and takes off. This bird’s flight skills are the envy of pilots, who are limited to rigid-wing aircraft. In a previous Blog on feathers, we described the unusual aerodynamic features of bird feathers, which are partly responsible for the falcon’s speed. The Goshawk on the other hand, can fly through dense forests inches above the ground with great speed and such delicate maneuverability that its wings do not touch the trees through which it flies. This allows the hawk to literally cruise through a challenging obstacle course with ease. ThIs 3 minute video (Peregrine Falcon & Goshawk in flight) shows these two hawks in flight, captured by Australian photographers. The capabilities of these creatures demonstrate again God’s design and care for His Creation, the wonder of his works.  

Psalm 104:24 speaks of God’s special care for all his of creatures. “In wisdom you made them all, the earth is full of your creatures”. As we study nature, we find many designs that can be mimicked by engineers and scientists in their work. It would be wonderful if these scientists would also give credit and honor to the ‘patent holder’ – God.