An atheist and a Christian walk into a laboratory. The atheist points to a test tube containing a bright red solution. “What is that stuff? It looks like blood.”
The Christian, who happens to be the chemist, answers. “No, it’s not blood. It’s a cationic polymer containing tris(bipyridine)ruthenium(II) units. That is the characteristic color. It has to do with the electron configurations.”
“What are you doing with it?”
“We are using it as a photosensitizer to absorb light and produce excited electrons so we can mimic natural photosynthetic reaction centers.”
His interest piqued, the atheist continues: “Oh, cool! I love science, but I am surprised to know a Christian can love science, too. Aren’t you all about faith and belief rather than facts and logic?”
“My friend, I am about both. My faith inspires my love for science and science enriches my faith. You were asking about this research project?”
“Right! Photosynthesis takes energy from the sun and turns water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and other molecules. If you can capture solar energy and turn it into electrical or stored chemical energy, then you can produce alternative energy sources. Is that what you are doing? It’s quite noble.”
“Exactly. Plants use carbohydrates (starches, sugars, cellulose) for energy and structural components. When we eat fruit, for example, our bodies receive fiber and energy that plants capture from the sun.”
“Awesome! What does the body do with the products of photosynthesis?”
“Lots of things. Other biomolecules for various metabolic functions are made from the products of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis fuels the work of life on this planet.”
“Isn’t photosynthesis really complicated though?”
The chemist gives a few specifics. “Oh yes. Energy from the sun arrives on earth as photons, which excite electrons in the natural photosensitizer pigments. Electrons enter the Z-scheme, a complex dual system of electron transfer pathways that directs energy for chemical reactions. The pigment molecules that lack electrons in turn grab electrons off water, and that in turn generates oxygen gas. Meanwhile . . .”
“Okay, okay, back up. What exactly are photons?” the inquisitive atheist continues.
Boy, the chemist thinks, this atheist has a lot of questions. The chemist smiles nevertheless because he is happy to talk about his research, anytime, anywhere.
“Photons are light! They are discrete quanta whose energy is given by Planck’s constant times the frequency of the wave. Photons come from the sun as it burns hydrogen.”
“And they are absorbed by pigment molecules?”
“Right. Chlorophyll and other similar pigments with slight chemical differences absorb photons.” Pointing to the test tube, the Christian explains, “In a blood red photosensitizer there is a chemically similar pigment for making nanocomposites. But real photosynthesis occurs in chloroplasts where protein complexes orient various pigments in membranes at exactly the right atomic-scale spacing so that when photons excite electrons, the electrons are passed to reactions in less than a tenth of a nanosecond with an efficiency of >90%. We’re lucky to mimic a measly fraction of the process.”
“Wow! And it just clicks away out there in leaves. And then . . . what did you say . . . oxygen forms?”
“Yes, over the eons photosynthesis generated the oxygen gas in the earth’s atmosphere. This will blow your mind. In every square millimeter of a leaf resides about a half-million or so chloroplasts—little nanofactories! It’s a beautifully orchestrated system, all made from elements on the periodic table.”
The atheist gets very excited. “Where do elements come from?”
“Elements form in stars like our sun. Gravitational forces collapse gases and dust into nebulas. Hydrogen nuclei (1 proton) fuse to produce helium (2 protons) and release enormous amounts of energy, which is the stage our sun is in.”
“When do the other elements form?”
“When the hydrogen is nearly gone, the core contracts, then its exterior regions cool and the red giant emits red light. In this stage, helium nuclei fuse to produce beryllium (2 +2 = 4 protons). But then something curious happens! Beryllium is less stable than helium, but just stable enough to hang out for a while. If beryllium collides with another helium, carbon (4 + 2 = 6 protons) forms. If a helium collides with carbon, oxygen (6 + 2 = 8 protons) forms. Thus, there is a high abundance of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen in the universe—the elements photosynthesis uses to fuel life.”
“Get out of here! It’s almost like life was meant to happen! What about the other elements?”
“As stars cool, the cores become denser to form a white dwarf. Heavier elements fuse until the cores are mostly iron. Then stars collapse under gravity, a supernova explosion occurs, and elements heavier than iron fuse together.”
“So, that’s why they say we are stardust?”
“Yes. And amazingly the elements are lined up on the periodic table, one increasing proton after another with no missing spots and multiple patterns of properties. Quantum mechanics predicts the properties of elements, based on the expectation that nature follows physical laws with layers of mathematical symmetry.”
The atheist thought for a moment. “So, the work that scientists do in labs to make our lives better is based on a confidence that nature is organized and interconnected down to every particle since the beginning of time?”
It was as if the chemist had escorted the atheist to the brink of a cliff, and a chasm opened before him. The atheist almost took a leap, and almost asked: So where does all this order come from? Who caused it? Who sustains it in existence?
But he was an atheist, and atheists don’t go there. So, he shut his eyes and left the lab.
The Christian was ready to answer had the atheist asked. He would have said:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. All the way back to Genesis 1:1, this belief forms an unbroken worldview for Christians. Because we grant intellectual assent to divine revelation, we know that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word is the Logos, rationality, so we expect that in the beginning there was order and relationship in creation. It is extremely logical.
We also accept that we are made in the image and likeness of the Triune God, so we are made to know and seek truth and mystery. We learn the order in nature so we can aid humanity and bring about progress, but we also study science because we want to know God more so we can love and serve him more. It all begins with love.
Because we love God, we want to know and be known, to love and be loved, to be in communion with others. Because we have faith, hope, and love, we practice the virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance for that is how to be fully human. Practicing science, you see, only makes sense in the light of Christ, who became man and conquered death to set us free. Science is but part of a greater reality that includes our origin and destiny.
The last part, however, was for another day. The atheist was not ready to ask the biggest questions of all, so he had done the only thing an atheist can do: he ignored the expanse of truth beyond the cliff and turned back to science alone in search of morality, meaning, purpose, and all answers to life’s questions, his disbelief darkening his path as he walked away from the eternal truth he had dared to glimpse that day in the lab, when he almost saw beyond science.