Tide Charts and Compasses
“Science relies on the assumption that we live in an ordered Universe that is subject to precise mathematical laws.” i
Arithmetic was never my forté. Story problems in grade school were my bane. Please don’t pose one to me, even to this day. In high school, I got C’s in algebra as well as in geometry. I did not like algebra, which could explain that, but I did like geometry, though I could never quite grasp it. I can add and subtract. What more do I need?
Fortunately for me, the mathematics of the universe is intact without me understanding it.
For five glorious days several years ago, my friend and I celebrated our birthdays on the Isle of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, hardly bigger than a pin-dot on a map of the English Channel. We had flown in a tiny prop plane from Birmingham, a bumpy hop and a jump, and were transported to a world all its own, from the crowded lanes of St. Peter Port and out onto lonely windy cliffs where the scrubby trees were all slanted landward and the yellow gorse was thick.
A causeway—underwater twice a day—led from the mainland to an island with a ruined priory, and we determined to investigate. We walked gingerly over squishy seaweed and rocks and puddles of seawater to get to it. Of course, we noted the urgent warning signs that we must adhere to the times in order not to be caught by the incoming tide.
Once across the quarter mile of the causeway, we examined the priory and then climbed the cliffs, losing ourselves in their wild beauty. We ate our picnic lunch surrounded by a panorama of the sea. The tide was to come in at 3:10; we timed our twenty-minute return journey to get back at 3:00, “closing time,” according to the sign. Once safely there, we parked ourselves to leisurely begin watching the tide. But—within that ten-minute buffer, it had already cut off part of the causeway. We gazed at each other in astonishment. We had assumed it would be hours yet—and pictured ourselves sleeping that night in the priory ruins if we had waited any longer! “Closing time” was no joke.
The cliché “Time and tide wait for no man” was probably coined by someone who didn’t take the sign seriously. But there were tide-charts available all over Guernsey for the careful tourist as well as for the seasoned inhabitant. Clearly, no one was to chance their luck.
Tides are fascinating to me and mysterious—like math. It is a wonder and wonderful that they can be timed to the minute years in advance.
But the “mystery” lies exactly there—in the mathematics of the universe. “As we know the position of the Moon and the Sun very accurately, we are able to compute the tides many years ahead…” ii
Indeed, it is the preciseness of the relationship between the sun, moon, and earth, as well as the effect of gravity at any given time of day or night that makes it possible to do this math. (This is not my own personal deduction, you understand.)
Note the scientist’s statement again: “Science relies on the assumption that we live in an ordered Universe that is subject to precise mathematical laws.”
We live in such a well-ordered, intricately regulated, breathtakingly meticulous world that, if its meticulousness were even slightly askew, it would not support us or any life at all. “That demands an explanation,” says John Lennox, Oxford University mathematics professor.
Lennox notes that Galileo—who was the first to discover that the tides could be predicted with accuracy—believed in God. According to Lennox, “Galileo was a firm believer in God and the Bible and remained so all of his life. He held that ‘the laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics’ and the ‘human mind is a work of God and one of the most excellent.'” iii Thus, Galileo’s human mind could discover something of the work of God.
Likewise, Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer and mathematician of the same century, reached a similar conclusion: “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” iv
A current scientist, the physicist Max Tegmark, who claims to be an atheist, says this: “If I’ve learned anything as a physicist, it’s how little we know with certainty. In terms of the ultimate nature of reality, we scientists are ontologically ignorant.” v
If Tegmark gave the Bible some credibility, he might discover what the man Job discovered when personally quizzed by God: “Who enclosed the sea with doors when, bursting forth…I placed boundaries on it and set a bolt and doors, and I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but not farther, and here shall your proud waves stop’?” vi
Such is the arithmetic of the seas, charted by their Creator.
Not only am I deficient in math skills, I confess to having trouble finding directions. I know left and right, but don’t ask me north or south. My family knows this. My husband laughs. Thus, this past Christmas, I asked for a compass. My son, who has lived with me and ridden in the car with me, graciously—and possibly eagerly—fulfilled my wish. I had to ask how to use it.
As everyone (else) knows, the magnet in the compass easily finds north. I’ve known about the magnetic north pole since high school science, but I didn’t know why it was magnetic or how it got its magnetism. (Quite possibly, I was taught this also. There are gaps in my scientific memory.)
I can keep this little wizard in my purse and consult it, if need be. But, another fascinating question for me is: how do our birds—much less intelligent than I, wouldn’t you think? —find their way along migratory paths, some crisscrossing our nation, some flying thousands of miles across oceans to get to warmer weather or to breeding grounds?
The proposed answer to that enigma is stunning.
According to The Wildlife Society, 2021, “Physicists have hypothesized since the 1970’s that a light sensitive molecule in birds' eyes helps them sense the earth's magnetic field through quantum mechanics, the math that describes the process of atoms and
What? Birds know math? Quantum mechanics?
“Migrating birds use celestial cues [their emphasis] to navigate, much as sailors of yore used the sun and stars to guide them. But unlike humans, birds also detect the magnetic field generated by Earth's molten core and use it to determine their position and direction. They get a sense of direction—their compass—from environmental cues.” viii
A built-in compass! Which they have been relying on for thousands of years before the human mind figured out what they knew and how they knew it.
Another scientist comments: “Studying quantum mechanics years ago, I never would have thought or even believed that quantum mechanical effects could be housed within the eye of a bird. That is a big surprise…” ix
“We cannot ask the bird!” laughs Henrik Mouritsen, a little sheepishly, of the University of Oldenburg, Germany.
They, too, might well have consulted Job: “Ask the birds and they will tell you, or the fish of the sea, and they will tell you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” x Job was not asserting himself as a scientist, but he was convinced that the creatures possess a certain “knowledge” given them by their Creator—which should give us pause.
We live in an ordered universe, whose laws we can rely on, whatever else may go awry. That thought brings wonder and worship.
As for me, I need to keep my compass handy and a tide chart in my pocket.
i Paul Davies, New Scientist, newscientist.com
ii National Oceanography Centre, U.K.
iii John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker, Has Science Buried God? 2007.
v Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, 2014.
vi Job 38:8-11
vii The Wildlife Society, thewildlifesociety.org, 2021
ix Erik Warrant, Lund University, Sweden
x Job 12:7-9