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If Planet Earth is really God's handiwork, it must be a rough draft

June 18, 2005 2:20 am

KING GEORGE--James Smiley ["God keeps perfect order on Earth--including marriage," June 12] would be better off getting his science from textbooks instead of those little tracts you see lying around bus stations.

In praising what he sees as the divinely created perfection of the universe, why does he think that the "exact" 23-degree axial tilt of Earth is a blessing? (It is actually 23.45 degrees--not quite as tidy a number as Smiley apparently thinks--and Mars has just about the same tilt, whatever that is supposed to mean.) If Earth had no tilt, there would be a perpetual spring between the two arctic circles and the two tropics.

Over most of the inhabited parts of the globe, in fact, Smiley seems blissfully unaware that it is Earth's axial tilt and its consequent seasons--along with the Coriolis force created by the planet's fairly rapid spin--that is responsible for the great cyclonic storms that ravage our planet. These include the hurricanes that cost hundreds of lives and billions of dollars in damage every year. Yes, nice planning, indeed.

So what if Earth is a neat 93 million miles from the sun? This is not a magic distance--just about anywhere in a broad zone between Venus and Mars would be just as nice.

I have no idea what Smiley is talking about when he says that Earth would be flooded if the moon were at any other distance. True, there would be devastatingly large tides if the moon were closer, but if it were further away the tides would be smaller. (Tides have as much to do with the moon's mass as its distance from Earth--a smaller moon at the same distance as ours would create proportionally smaller tides.)

Speaking of the moon, the Bible says nothing about it having been created to produce tides--it says it was created as a sort of night light. The moon doesn't do this very well, though, being visible at night only two weeks out of the month. Two moons would have been better, and a ring like Saturn's, better yet.

I don't know what Smiley means when he says that the "ocean floor is at a depth that gives us oxygen." Does he think the oceans are at a constant depth? (They actually range from just a few hundred feet deep over the continental shelves to more than five miles deep in the great trenches.) Does he believe that oxygen is somehow produced on the ocean floors? It is actually produced by plants living in the epipelagic zone, where light can penetrate. Below 200 yards, oxygen-producing plants cannot live. So far as oxygen production is concerned, the oceans could be as shallow as mill ponds and do just as good a job.

There is abundant evidence, in fact, that life on Earth evolved in an atmosphere with very little oxygen. It is such a reactive element that it would have been literally deadly to early, simple life forms. As the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere increased, as plants excreted it as a waste product, oxygen-breathing creatures--such as human beings--had to evolve complex mechanisms to avoid being poisoned by it. Another example of superb planning.

Smiley is right when he says that the atmosphere protects us from meteorites--so long as they are no larger than a walnut. Anything much larger will reach the ground--as hundreds do every year. Many have struck buildings, cars, and even people. The atmosphere does protect us from harmful radiation, but it could certainly do a better job of it. Otherwise, we wouldn't require sunblock when we go outdoors in the summer.

Smiley forgets (or is totally unaware of) the beneficial effects of the Earth's magnetic field, which screens us from all sorts of terrible emissions from the sun which get through anyway every time there is a solar storm.

What, he wonders, "keeps people upright on Earth while it turns on its axis?" The same thing that keeps Smiley upright when he walks down the aisle of an airliner traveling 500 miles an hour. (But, then, Smiley also wonders "what keeps the stars from falling out of the sky," so I guess lots of things would puzzle someone who apparently believes the stars are little lamps hanging from a domed ceiling.)

He seems to think that questions that puzzle him are unanswerable questions--in the same way that he seems to think that questions that puzzle science today are equally unanswerable.

A century and a half ago, a prominent astronomer stated that science would never be able to determine the composition of the stars--shortly before the invention of the spectroscope enabled scientists to do just that.

RON MILLER is a science-fiction and science-fact writer and illustrator. His books include, with William Hartmann, "The Grand Tour: A Traveler's Guide to the Solar System," now going in to a new edition.

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