And the Trees Clap Their Hands: a book review

And the Trees Clap Their Hands: Faith, Perception, and the New Physics by Virginia Stem Owens (1983, republished 2005, 148 pages)

I recently read And the Trees Clap Their Hands: Faith, Perception, and the New Physics by Virginia Stem Owens. This is a book that addresses the important question “What does it all mean?” with regards to science – what does science really tell us about the world, and how should we respond to that? How can we make sense of it all in a human way?

Virginia Stem Owens was born in 1941 and became a pastor’s wife in the Presbyterian Church (USA), also gaining an MA in English literature from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Religion from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. She has written numerous books.

And the Trees Clap Their Hands was an enjoyable read, but Owens’ lack of scientific experience is responsible for several flaws in the book. I was a little disappointed at the lack of footnotes and at some glaring errors of fact. For example (p. 92), Owens confuses turbulence (a phenomenon of liquids and gases in the “Old Physics”) with Brownian motion (a microscopic phenomenon resulting from the existence of atoms). I also felt that she skipped over some important things, while not getting others quite right. I should point out, too, that the “New Physics” of the subtitle (relativity and quantum theory) is now roughly a century old. On the other hand, Owens’ writing is lyrically beautiful:

The body I am today came yesterday in a crate of avocados from California. India spins in my tea-drenched blood this morning. Minerals dissolved for millennia in a subterranean aquifer irrigate my interior, passing through the portals of my cell walls, which are themselves filigrees of chemical construction. I am really only a river of dissolute stones, the wash of world-water dammed for a melting moment in the space I call my body, some of it ceaselessly brimming over the spillway and flowing on down drains, into other tributaries, catching in some other body’s pond, until one day the whole structure cracks and buckles, giving up in one great gush its reservoir of mineraled water.” (p. 126)

What does it all mean? Answers have come from Plato, Galileo, and the Bible, to mention just three sources (bust of Plato photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Relativity and Time

Since Owens mentions relativity several times, I was surprised to see no mention of spacetime. As Hermann Minkowski wrote in 1923, “The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.

Relativity implies that there is no absolute “present moment” in the Universe, and hence that, of the three theories of time illustrated below, only the Block Universe (Eternalism) can be correct. The philosophical and religious implications of this are huge, and would have been worth discussing.

Three views of time: in Presentism, only the Present exists; in the Growing Block Universe, the past exists as well; and in the Block Universe, also called Eternalism, the universe forms a four-dimensional spacetime “block” in which the future is already written (image © Anthony Dekker)

Quantum Theory and Observation

One of the key aspects of the century-old “New Physics” is that both matter and light exist as waves and particles. The true reality is a combination of two seemingly contradictory perspectives (this has been used by other writers as an analogy for the relationship between e.g. determinism and free will). The wave function of a particle changes over time according to the Schrödinger equation. It can also undergo wave function collapse, changing from something fuzzy and spread out to something far more definite. How and why the latter phenomenon occurs remains quite mysterious.

One of the classic experiments exploring this involves firing electrons at a detector screen through a double slit:

The double slit experiment (credit: NekoJaNekoJa and Johannes Kalliauer)

Being fuzzy waves, electrons go through both slits at the same time, undergoing interference effects characteristic of waves. They are then detected as particles, with comparatively precise locations:

Individual electrons being detected by a screen after passing through a double slit (credit: Thierry Dugnolle)

Physicists used the word “observation” for the electron being detected by the screen (thus having its wave function collapse). Owens takes it for granted that this means “observation by a human mind” and that the human race therefore, in a sense, creates the universe by observing it. However, this use of the word “observation” is not what most physicists mean (indeed, the universe fairly obviously existed before there were any people). It is, in fact, not clear exactly what constitutes a wave-function-collapsing “observation,” but recent work with quantum computing suggests that it happens even when nobody’s looking (and even when you don’t want it to).

Along the lines of Gary Zukav (whom she cites), Owens tries to build a semi-pantheistic philosophy on top of this – something that is not actually justified by the physics. She also makes a big thing of “the impossibility of isolating the observer from the world” (p. 85), which is not actually a huge problem in the physical sciences, if you know what you’re doing. It’s more of a problem with animal behaviour (as in the famous example below) and an enormous problem in psychology and anthropology.

Konrad Lorenz interacting with geese in the 1930s (Are you my mother?)

Religion and God

Owens is writing from an explicitly Christian (Presbyterian) perspective, which doesn’t quite sit comfortably with the New Age Zukavian material in this book (there also appears to be some influence from Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry). And while Owens highlights the issue of nonlocality in quantum theory, she does not explore how this might relate to an omnipresent God “behind the scenes.” There are some beautifully written spiritual reflections, but the connection of the religious material to the scientific is somewhat tenuous. Owens seems to want “and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” to be more than a metaphor, but the physics doesn’t really help with that. In addition, there seems to be some theological confusion regarding the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Goodreads gives this book a score of 3.9. In spite of the beautiful writing and genuine sense of wonder, I can’t go nearly that high (side issue: Goodreads somehow has a cover image with the wrong title!).

* * and a half
And the Trees Clap Their Hands by Virginia Stem Owens: 2½ stars

Boyle’s law

Boyle’s law is the principle that, at constant temperature, the volume occupied by a gas is inversely proportional to pressure (at least until the pressure gets extremely high). In symbolic terms, PV = k, where k is a constant. The pioneering scientist and amateur theologian Robert Boyle published this law in 1662, in his New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Air (2nd edition): Whereunto is added a defence of the authors explication of the experiments against the objections of Franciscus Linus and Thomas Hobbes. The chart above shows the data he collected, together with a diagram of his apparatus and a scan of his original data table (cleaned up from an image in the Wellcome Collection).

Boyle’s apparatus involved an uneven U-shaped tube, sealed at the short end, and with mercury in the “U.” Further mercury was added to the long end, in order to compress the air in the short end to a specified volume. The pressure in each case (in inches of mercury) was the measured amount in the long end of the tube, plus 29.125 inches for atmospheric pressure.

Boyle’s experimental work was excellent, with all errors less than 1% (on my calculation). This is shown visually by the close fit of his experimental datapoints to the line PV = 351.9. His arithmetic was not quite so good – column “E” in his original table showed his predicted pressure, calculated laboriously using fractions. Seven of the 25 entries are incorrect. For example, using his approach, the 7th entry should be 1398 / 36 = 38 5/6, but Boyle has 38 7/8.

Home replications of Boyle’s work generally involve weights, a large syringe, some precarious balancing, and the fact that the air column sitting on a square centimetre weighs about 1.03 kg. Like so:

Powers of 10: the Australian version

In the footsteps of the classic short film, we explore the powers of 10 (click to zoom).

We begin with a classic NASA photograph of the Earth seen from Saturn, with a field of view (in the distance) about 100,000,000 km across. We zoom in by a factor of 10 to see the Earth and the Moon beside it. After three more such jumps (to 10,000 km), the Earth fills the frame. Three further jumps (to 10 km) zooms in on Melbourne, Australia. Two more jumps show us the city centre (1 km) and St Paul’s Cathedral (100 m). Another two jumps (to 1 m) give us a small boy on the grass beside the Cathedral. Two more give us the iris and pupil of his eye (1 cm) and a small patch of his retina (1 mm). Finally (at 100 µm or 0.1 mm), we see red blood cells inside a blood vessel in his retina. Fifteen jumps in all, zooming in by 1015.


Science has a concept called energy, which includes electrical energy, chemical energy, kinetic energy, and other (interconvertible) forms. Energy can be measured, and obeys laws like E =  and E = ½mv2.

Then you have the “energy” involved in “energy medicine.” It does not correspond to energy in the scientific sense, cannot be measured or detected, and obeys no scientific laws. It is obviously not the same as the energy that scientists talk about. Why, one might even think it does not exist

Thermodynamic visualisation

This plaster model was made by the great James Clerk Maxwell in 1874 (the photograph was by taken by James Pickands II, 1942). This historic artefact is one of three copies, held in museums around the world, including the Cavendish and the Sloane Physics Laboratory at Yale.

The model shows the relationship between volume, energy, and entropy for a fictitious water-like substance, based on theoretical work by Josiah Willard Gibbs. The lines connect points of equal pressure and of equal temperature. Maxwell found the model a useful aid in his research. The model prefigured modern visualisation techniques – today we would use computer software to visualise such surfaces, like this:


Ground-penetrating radar and archaeology

Ground-penetrating radar (shown in action above) is a useful application of science to archaeology. Exploring the underground with microwaves saves a lot of digging!

The image below (click for details) is of a “slice” though an historic cemetery. The vertical axis shows depth. Yellow arrows mark probable human burials, while dashed blue lines mark probable lines of bedrock. The upper half-metre is a tangle of tree-roots, which it would have been difficult to dig through (had that been permitted, which it was not).

You can imagine how useful this technique would be in searching for a lost and buried city!


Rainbows are one of the most frequently observed atmospheric phenomena, although double rainbows can still get a strong reaction.

Rainbows form when light is refracted and reflected in droplets of water from rain (or some other source) as shown below. The light emerges at angles of up to 42°, so that the primary rainbow forms a circular halo around the antisolar point, at an angle of 42° from it. For the secondary rainbow, light enters the droplet from below and is internally reflected twice, emerging at angles of 51° or more, thus forming a larger halo (with reversed colours) around the antisolar point.

No light is refracted into the region between the primary and secondary rainbow, and this dark region (shown below in a photo by L.T. Hunter) is called Alexander’s band, after Alexander of Aphrodisias, who first discussed it in around 200 AD, in his commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology.

Blue LEDS nobly rewarded

A blue LED (photo by “Hoenny”)

The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2014 goes to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.” Congratulations!

Gallium nitride and indium gallium nitride were the key materials in making blue LEDs, while cerium(III)-doped yttrium aluminium garnet phosphors convert blue LEDs into white ones.

Blogroll: Carnot Cycle

Carnot Cycle is a thermodynamics blog (yes, it’s great that such a thing exists!). The image above is from a post on the ideal gas equation. Other interesting posts include converting relative to absolute humidity and lessons from science history. Definitely a blog worth reading!

Noctilucent clouds!

The beautiful Noctilucent clouds (photo above by Kevin Cho) are slightly misnamed. The name means “night-shining clouds,” but in fact they are only visible between the end of civil twilight and the end of astronomical twilight (and at latitudes north of 45°N or south of 45°S).

Noctilucent clouds are the visible form of polar mesospheric clouds, made up out of ice crystals in the normally very dry almost-vacuum at extremely high altitudes, around 80–90 km up (see NASA image of a polar mesospheric cloud above).

Noctilucent clouds were first identified as a distinct atmospheric phenomenon in 1885 (see the Google ngram below for uses of the phrase). The ice crystals from which noctilucent clouds are formed require both water vapour and dust for crystal growth nuclei. The sources of these ingredients is still mysterious, although at least some of the dust may come from meteors.

Yet another atmospheric phenomenon for the bucket list!