Dazzled by the Speed of Light and Darwin
In questions of science, the authority of a thousand
is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual. —Galileo Galilei
To introduce myself, I am a recovered evolutionaut—an ex-excited believer in evolution. I have been fascinated with science since my early childhood. I have always been particularly fascinated with the scientific search for our origins and the origins of all living organisms. In this and the next few chapters, I will describe a journey I took from my early religious childhood training to a strong and interested belief in evolution and then to the point of questioning my belief in evolution. My journey has taken me to the point of writing this book. This book will tell you how and why that journey took place.
My fascination with science and the origins of life and the universe began when I was in the fourth grade. I was at a friend’s house in Los Angeles. His first name was Art. I don’t recall his full name, but I do remember the incident I had with Art and his parents that stoked the fires of science in me and probably changed my life. I think the interests of humans are pretty much inborn, but there is usually a defining moment when those interests are sparked, and this is one of those seemingly insignificant but memorable moments. Art and I were discussing how far away stars are. We just didn’t know. A million miles? Ten million? We gave it our best guess. Stars couldn’t be too far. After all, we can see them at night. His father was an engineer and a fan of astronomy and had a pretty big library loaded with
books on astronomy and various other sciences. With the help of his mother, we dug through the astronomy books and found one that had the answer. The closest star was about four and a quarter light-years from Earth. Four and a quarter light-years? What in the world is a light-year? What about miles? Of course, we wanted to know what a “light-year” was, so we did more digging. We discovered that a light-year is the distance light travels in a year. So there you have it. Light must go hundreds, if not thousands, of miles per hour! At least. So just think how far that would be in a whole year! We were dazzled.
The next step in our research project was to look up the speed of light. Of course, we knew how fast our parents drove their cars and how fast the fastest jets traveled at that time, pretty close to the speed of sound. We did have an idea about speed. When we did more research, we were aghast. The speed of light was 186,000 miles in one second. “It’s 186,000 miles in just one second!” Saying that out loud to each other was mind-boggling. Not possible. My head was spinning. We did backward summersaults as kids did when confronted with the astounding. How could anything go that fast? That is seven times around the Earth in one second! Multiply 186,000 miles by the number of seconds in a year and you have the distance in miles for a light-year, which we did. The result: six trillion miles! Nothing could be that far, I thought to myself. Nothing. And the closest star is four and a quarter of those light-years away. We calculated about twenty-five trillion miles! Art’s dad later added to our amazement by telling us that a spaceship traveling at thirty-five thousand miles per hour would take over eighty-eight thousand years to go to that closest star. If it were possible to accelerate a spaceship to the speed of light, it would take a year to do so. It would also take a year to slow it down when it approached its destination. To speed it up to light speed and slow it down on its return trip to Earth would also take two years. Why? Because the crew could not be put under more than 1 G force, which is the force of gravity here on Earth. If the spaceship were accelerated twice as fast, so it could reach light speed in six months, it would expose the crew to a constant 2 Gs of force. A one-hundred-fifty-pound man would weigh three hundred pounds for two years of the trip. The crew would slowly be crushed against the floor of the spaceship. Light entering to the spaceship from the front would turn into gamma rays, and light entering the ship from the rear would turn into microwaves because of the Doppler effect. The Doppler effect is demonstrated by a train going by you. The pitch of the noise coming from the train is higher when it approaches you and lower after it passes. The speed of the train shortens the sound waves on its way toward you and lengthens them as it travels away from you. The speed of the spaceship would shorten the light waves to gamma rays at the front and lengthen light waves to microwaves in the aft. The crew would require immense shields for protection. They couldn’t look out the front or the back of the spaceship. If they could, they wouldn’t be able to see anything. I never forgot what I learned at Art’s house. I am still dazzled by these facts and all those others that Art and I looked up that day and the ones proffered by Art’s dad.
After Art and I finished our “research,” I got on my bike and rode home, my head still spinning. I was so excited and still so dazzled. I thought I had information that no other kid, except Art, had. I felt somehow enlightened, as much as a fourth grader can be. Wait until I tell my parents! My friends! Will they be amazed, I thought. I waited until dinner to announce my amazing facts. I wanted my whole family to hear it all at once so they could be astounded together. At dinner that night, I announced the incredible information that I had found at Art’s house. “Mom, Dad, did you know that light travels at 186,000 miles in ONE SECOND! Seven times around the Earth in one second! At that speed, it would take light four and a quarter years to get to the closest star to us!” I thought they would be as stunned as I was. I waited for the reaction, the stun that was surely to come. My mom asked me what I wanted for dessert. My dad responded that he had to get the Studebaker lubed and oil changed. My brother was five and, for sure, wasn’t interested. And my sister had a new boyfriend. Me? I was still dazzled anyway. This hyper-scientific information would remain with Art and me. We were in a club of geeks with two members.1
When I got to school the next day, I announced the information to my friends during a hot game of kickball. I got the same unexcited response as my family gave me. “C’mon, Steve, roll that ball!” Mattered not to me. My excitement remained then as it has all of my life. I am still dazzled by the value for the speed of light and the distance to the nearest star and the incredible information we are now lucky enough to know, “secrets” we humans have at this time in history that no other humans were privy to not much more than a century ago. In a sense, they are secrets. Because in the whole history of mankind, people who live in this very comparably short span of time that has held the secrets of modern science have that secret. It cannot be told to or known by people who existed over a span of hundreds of thousands of years before the existence of modern science. What a kid learns in the eighth grade today would stun the greatest minds of history: Isaac Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Socrates. Modern science is a secret for the people of our time only and held back from all of the people of all other times only eighty years or so before us.
Art’s and my “research” had an effect on my entire life. It was a catalyst that began a lifetime of interest in science. In the fifth grade, I made the decision that I would become a nuclear physicist. Luckily, that decision was broken by another event in my life: the smashing of my two front teeth by a sidewalk that terminated a rapid downhill descent on my 1950s model skateboard.
My friends and I took short two-by-four boards and attached our metal skate wheels to the bottoms. Those early metal-wheeled skateboards didn’t do too well with cracks in the sidewalk. Stupidly, I went down a hill that none of the other neighbor kids would go down. They knew better, and I paid dearly. My wheels got stuck in a crack at the bottom of the hill. The skateboard stopped instantly. Unfortunately, I kept going and did a face-plant on the sidewalk, or I should say a tooth-plant. I looked down, and there were big chunks of my two front teeth on the ground. My mom, of course, took me to the dentist so he could repair my broken teeth. I watched the dentist working on his models and wax-ups of crowns while we were waiting for my mouth to numb. I was dazzled again. I not only loved science, but I also loved making things with my hands: model airplanes, monster carvings, cars. Whenever there was a kit, wood, or clay around that I could get my hands on, I would be busily working to put something together. I also loved ripping my toys apart so I could see how they worked, then putting them back together. I was always working with my hands and in the throes of building some “thing.” Watching the dentist making bridges and crowns got me so excited. I decided at that moment to change my career choice. What he was doing looked like so much fun; I actually asked him if he got paid for making those crowns and bridges. So at the age of nine, I made the tough decision to drop nuclear physics as my chosen profession and to become a dentist, luckily for me. I don’t think the world of nuclear physics would have long remembered nor long noted what I may or may not have accomplished in that field. I thoroughly enjoyed my life as a dentist. As I grew up, my dentist and I went on to become good friends over the years. We surfed and played handball together. That friendship continued to build my interest in dentistry. When my dentist retired and moved near us, I became his dentist, which was a fun turnaround. My lifetime fascination with science remained intact. And studying to be a dentist allowed me to take the biological and physical science courses in school that really fascinated me, so nothing was lost.
I was raised in a very Christian family. My grandfather was a Methodist minister. My dad should have been. He and my mom were very intense Christians. We frequently had Bible study and “devotions” at night after dinner. Every minute was torture for me. There were much more fun and interesting things to do. I remember my friends patiently waiting outside of our windows while we were trudging through our Bible study. I would give them an embarrassed wink, as I was embarrassed that they were outside having fun, being “cool,” while I was being religious. They would smile and be patient most of the time. There was usually some kind of football or baseball game going on the street, the sun might have been on its way down, and I was usually sorely needed out there.
Of course, my family attended church every Sunday. My dad was so devout. He would get up hours before he really needed to, turn on some depressingly religious music on the radio, be all dressed up—coat and tie and all—and ready to go when he came in to roust us out of bed. “Up and at ’em!” he would say with such glee. The anticipation of going to church really got him into an enthusiastic mood. My brother, sister, and I were usually dying for a little more sleep after our late nights out with friends or dates on Saturday night. But he never missed a Sunday morning waking us up, and we never missed church.
Until I was an early teen, I believed that God created the universe and all of living nature in six days. He then rested on the seventh. I tried so hard to imagine what that must have looked like; if I just could have been there to watch. What an unbelievable sight that must have been. I also believed that Adam and Eve were the first two humans on Earth, that Eve conversed with a talking snake, and that Noah and his family surely collected all of the animals two by two and put them on an ark which was constructed by Noah and his family. Noah saved all of the animals in the world and Noah’s family from a great flood. All other life forms, including all of mankind on Earth not saved by Noah’s family and not on that ark, were drowned. I visualized myself as a person not in Noah’s family, banging on the ark, frantically trying to get in as the rains poured down. I did wonder why Noah was the only person with a boat. Where were all of the other boat owners? Why weren’t they saved? This was a hint of my future skepticism that I had to let go of in those early years of my life. In my childhood and early teen years, I was very much a biblical creationist. I was taught to be. But as my thinking became more mature and independent, I began having lots of trouble with the whole concept of religion and creationism. Outwardly, I did a good job of acting for my family. I wanted to keep my parents happy. My very devout parents would surely have been unimaginably upset if they knew the thinking that went on in my head with regard to the Christian faith they had so thoroughly taught me. I have always been far more skeptical than most of my peers about everything, not just religion. But mixed in with my desire to please my parents, I was afraid to think too negatively as I was told that hell would be my reward if I didn’t believe. I had to keep my parents happy and not give myself a ticket to hell at the same time. Burning in hell forever just seemed so horrible. I had to keep an inkling of my religious beliefs so hell would not be my reward. Fear of hell and my desire to please my parents were the two piston engines that pretty much powered my thinking and kept me going along the straight and narrow.
When I went to college, my dad told me to watch out for those “evolutionist professors” who will teach that we came from monkeys. At that time, he didn’t realize that he and I were not on the same page. I was still a good actor. “What’s an evolutionist?” was my response. And “We came from monkeys?” I had to laugh at that one. My dad told me the evil professor would probably have a gray beard and stand up in front of the class and tell us the monkey story. I really couldn’t believe it. And MONKEYS? I had really never known what evolution was at that time. It certainly wasn’t taught in my high school, Hollywood High, and for sure, not at church. I had heard of evolution, but that was about it. I had seen the rather famous cartoon picture of the Scopes trial, which I thought was some sort of strange ancient legal event. My dad told me about the Piltdown man, a proven hoax whereby a “fossil” was supposedly dug up which was faked to look like a real hominid fossil. The fossil’s bone fragments consisted of parts of a skull and jawbone, said to have been collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex, England. The Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni (Dawson’s “dawn-man,” after the discoverer Charles Dawson) was given to the specimen. The significance of the find remained the subject of controversy until it was exposed in 1953 as a forgery. The actual bones were put together from the bones of modern animals, consisting of the lower jawbone of an orangutan that had been deliberately combined with the skull of a fully developed modern human. After over forty years of being the centerpiece of evolution’s history of mankind, the “find” was exposed as a fake. (Pictured left is Charles Dawson, third from left, and colleagues studying the faked fossil.) Dawson died in 1916 and never knew his hoax had been exposed. My dad made sure I understood the whole sordid affair. The inference was, of course, that all fossils of all ancient men were hoaxes. But evolution was pretty foreign to me at that time, so it didn’t really matter too much anyway.2
On my first day at the University of Southern California, in my first anthropology class, I walked in, and there he was! That evil guy my dad warned me about! He DID have a gray beard! Just like Dad said! He looked exactly like I had imagined. I felt like I was looking at some sort of crazed evil enemy. Was he going to tell us about how we humans came from MONKEYS? Would he be honest enough to tell us about the Piltdown hoax? My walls were up. He wasn’t going to fool me!
Early in our first hour, he asked, “How many in this class believe that Adam and Eve were the first two humans on Earth?” Along with about half of the class, I raised my hand proudly. Not because I really believed that they were the first people, but because this guy was either evil or nuts. I didn’t believe in Adam and Eve so much as I wanted to make a statement. I wasn’t going to go for the “monkey thing” either. Confidently, the professor said to make note of that vote because he would be asking for a vote again in a few days. He said it with an air that he was sure what the results of a second vote would be. I was pretty certain he had done this same scenario dozens of times before.
Actually, in his discussion, he didn’t mention monkeys. But he did discuss, in a very scientific fashion, hominids and common ancestors and apes and how we were similar and both apes and man are from those common ancestors and how the Piltdown man was a hoax, but it was exposed by dedicated evolution scientists. I loved what he said. For me, that was it. I was fascinated. I had finally found out how we humans got here! It wasn’t Adam and Eve, just like I thought! It was a slow process of changes that added up over time, millions of years of it. The professor’s story made complete sense. I was nearly an instant fascinated believer. At the end of the week, the professor asked for the hands of those who now think Adam and Eve were the first two humans on Earth. Not a single hand went up. He had done his job well. And because of him, I spent many years being an avid supporter and studier of evolution. I was sold. That professor, with the gray beard that my dad had warned me about, created another defining moment in my life, just like the defining moment Art and I had in the fourth grade.
In my undergraduate studies in college, I majored in biological sciences. The courses I took as a pre-dental student, along with the courses I took in dental school, gave me enough science units so that I could have attained a master’s degree in biology. I didn’t bother to actually get one, as it would not have been helpful for me as a dentist. It would have been just another plaque for the wall. But now that I knew how all of nature formed, now that I was so empowered, my biological courses were even more fascinating. Just think, I actually now knew how all of living nature formed for certain. I knew how the cells we studied in histology, the biological systems we studied in physiology, the human body parts that I held in my hand in gross human anatomy (the most fascinating of the courses that I took in dental school) were brought into existence. I, along with my team of three other dental students, dissected the entire human body up to the knees and elbows.
I actually held a human brain in my hands. I dissected a human eyeball. I held in my hand all the tubes wires (nerves) and organs that keep us humans alive and are so ingeniously designed, designed I now knew, by a natural system of mutations and natural selection. Everything seemed so clear and, finally, so scientific. I, at last, had the answer to a Puzzle I had wondered about so often.
After my experience with the gray-bearded professor of anthropology in college and subsequent studies in the remainder of
my pre-dental and dental courses, I became a
staunch, dedicated supporter and fan of evolution
and Charles Darwin. Over the years, I have read
many books on the subject. I purchased the
Time-Life book series on The Emergence of Man
and read through every one of them. Not only was
the book on the evolution of man interesting, but
the history of early man and civilization was
fascinating as well. Every newspaper and magazine
article that had any information on evolution was a
sure read for me. I remember how excited I was
when the fossil of Lucy (right) was unearthed, the
3.2-million-year-old australopithecine. Studies of
this skeleton have shown that Lucy and her kind
walked upright, like modern humans. But their
cone-shaped rib cages, short legs, and small brains
resembled those of apes.3 The very early history of
mankind was so very interesting. The older the
fossil was, the more dazzled I was. There were
many PBS, National Geographic, Discovery, BBC, and Nature channel shows on the subject and, of course, a number of good books. I was never out of something to watch or read on the subject of evolution and our origins. I really thought I had the answers. I felt empowered; enlightened. I felt so strongly that I knew what so many people didn’t know, just like that day with Art in the fourth grade. I am now truly amazed when I look back and think what a powerful feeling it was to know for certain how all of living nature formed, how it originated. When I discussed the subject with my friends who still thought Adam and Eve and Noah were true stories, I actually felt kind of sorry for them. They didn’t realize that they were talking to someone that actually KNEW how all of nature formed. Just imagine! I was in an exclusive club. They were not. I didn’t argue vociferously, as I knew what belief systems can do to people. I didn’t want to alienate my religious friends. These Adam and Eve and Noah believers would be difficult to separate from their belief systems. They worked so hard to change me to their way of thinking, which was an indicator to me that I had no chance of changing their minds to the correct thinking—mine! I was the one who was right! I didn’t realize at the time that I was part of a belief system as well, just like they were. I had no clue that I was. The arguments I had with them were nothing but a believer arguing with a believer, an indoctrinate versus an indoctrinate. I was no different than they were. My miracles, the miracles of evolution, were actually greater, more astounding, and less believable than theirs.
I did have a few moments of doubt that I had to deal with. I wondered on one occasion if those early primates and hominids were really our ancestors. Did they really evolve into us, modern humans? But I was always easily placated. On one occasion, this particular doubt was resolved when I picked up a science book on evolution. There was actually a section on “How do we know apes and man have the same common ancestor?” In this case, the answer was simple. Apes had molars that looked just like those of modern humans. We have five cusps on our lower first molars with a Y-shape groove separating the cusps (left, above). Apes have the same configuration. Monkeys have only four cusps on their lower first molars (right, above), showing that humans obviously branched off from apes after our common ancestor evolved the five cusps. Modern monkeys branched off before the fifth cusp evolved, which is evidenced by their four-cusp lower first molar. Simple! That answer placated me so easily. Why would I doubt! How could I with such overwhelming evidence? This is science. Scientists have so many of the answers. This answer mollified me so easily. Why would I doubt! How could I with such overwhelming evidence? This is science. Scientists have so many of the answers. And this one answer worked for me for a very long time. I was satisfied. Why was I, with this puny example of “evidence”, when there was so much evidence against evolution that I ignored?
What makes me angry with myself is the fact that I fell for that answer so easily. I stopped questioning. I stopped being skeptical. I was skeptical of Noah. Why not of the gray-bearded professor’s incredible tale? Was it his demeanor? Was he seemingly so confident in what he was saying that I fell without a whimper? Why was I not skeptical of natural selection? That was a part of the indoctrination that worked very well on me. I was a believer. I was comfortable with evolution. Everything just seemed to fit perfectly, like getting the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
Excerpted from "Evo-Illusion: Why IID Trumps ID and Evolution" by Stephen T. Blume. Copyright © 0 by Stephen T. Blume. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.