Archive for category Media Criticism

Crossing the Red Sea is indeed a miracle

I have come across yet another blogger who has gotten the idea that the purpose of my scientific research on Moses crossing the Red Sea was to refute the miracle. This time it’s blogger Nick Foust and “Science Explains How Moses Could Have Actually Parted The Red Sea”. If you decide to look up the original post, you are hereby warned of foul language.

Crossing the Red Sea

Cover of “Between Migdol and the Sea” by Carl Drews (2014)

Ancient Hebrew writers and we modern Christians have always viewed Exodus 14 as a miracle. Unlike us, the writers of the Old Testament did not quibble over which laws of physics were temporarily suspended and which held fast. They focused on the Israelites’ deliverance from certain death at the hands of Pharaoh and his army of pursuing chariots. They praised God when they ended up alive on the other side of the sea, and we should also praise God for His salvation.

According to Exodus 14, God sent the east wind at just the right time to part the Red Sea and reveal a path of escape for Moses. The miracle is in the timing, and in the advance notice given to Moses. The Bible states that God used the natural agent of wind to deliver His chosen people. Nick Foust apparently comes around to this view (theistic meteorology) in his final paragraph, but you’ll have to wade through some disparaging comments about me and science before you get there.

It is entirely appropriate for science to study this mighty work of God (Psalm 111:2). To the ancient Hebrews, God is in charge of the natural world and all its forces. To modern Christians, science is the study of God’s creation. My research reveals the mechanics of this great miracle, and locates the site where it happened in the eastern Nile delta. Commenter Sam has it right – God is amazing!

Carl Drews, author of “Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science

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Movie Review: Exodus Gods and Kings

Yesterday morning I caught the early bird showing of the new movie “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by Ridley Scott. Regular readers of Funmurphys: the Blog already know that I have written and published a new book about the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, focusing specifically on crossing the Red Sea. The book is titled: Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science (2014), by Carl Drews. This review is written from a book author’s perspective.

Spectacle and Grandeur

A good biblical epic should provide jaw-dropping spectacle and majestic grandeur. Exodus: Gods and Kings provides these in abundance! Some of the earlier scenes show the great sweep of the Nile delta, with pyramids rising along the banks of the great river, while Bronze Age citizens bustle about under the stern watch of the Pharaoh’s foremen. Ancient Egypt was a marvelous place! This movie really brings out the grandeur of the New Kingdom in all its glory.

Ten Plagues

The Ten Plagues are depicted graphically in the film, and the result is disturbing. A week ago I would have not imagined an infestation of frogs to be all that bad, but I just about jumped out of my theater seat to see all those slimy amphibians crawling over everything! Yuck! Then there came all manner of flies, more flies than I have ever seen even in Alaska. We saw the movie in 3-D, and we were recoiling and trying to get out of the swarm. The plagues are very well done by the cinematographer.

Exodus: Gods and Kings brings out a theological point: During the Ten Plagues, a lot of people suffered greatly. According to the narrative in Exodus, Pharaoh suffered because he refused to let the Israelites go. Ridley Scott makes the point that many common Egyptians suffered as well, through no fault of their own. What kind of god would strike dead all the first-born sons? Modern Christians continue to feel uncomfortable about these episodes, and we debate various resolutions. Generally we conclude that Jesus doesn’t do things that way any more, and we follow Jesus.

God as a Petulant British Boy

God Almighty is portrayed in Exodus: Gods and Kings as a boy about 8 years old with a British accent. I can accept God speaking to Elijah as a “still, small voice” in 1 Kings 19. I believe that God became incarnate in the baby Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem. But the surly attitude of the God-boy in this movie was jarring, and I was left wondering why Moses would accept the commands from such a manifestation of the Almighty. At least the boy should have had more gravitas, and should have spoken to Moses with graceful majesty. Was Morgan Freeman not available?

Goblins and Chariots

There is a scene in The Hobbitt: An Unexpected Journey where Gandalf and the dwarves kill the Great Goblin and escape from the underground goblin kingdom. When my family watches this sequence at home, we usually keep a body count of goblins, yelling out the numbers as they fall. Our total usually comes out to about 140.

During the pursuit of Moses by the Egyptian army, Rameses II charges with all his chariots down a narrow mountain road after the fleeing Israelites. Naturally some careless chariot driver careens off the edge and tumbles down the mountain. Then another chariot hits a rock, and within a few moments there is a huge landslide about 30 chariots behind Pharaoh, and all the remaining vehicles in the column either tumble to their tragic and untimely deaths, or are blocked by the now-impassable road. So – Rameses is left with about 30 chariots out of the 1,000 that departed the Egyptian capital. 400,000 Israelites ought to be able to make quick work of them.

But when Pharaoh reaches the beach somehow all his 1,000 chariots have miraculously re-appeared. Someone was not counting properly! Yeah, I know it’s just a movie. But I was chuckling over the movie’s continuity error while still enjoying the action. And the action in Exodus: Gods and Kings is superb!

Crossing the Red Sea at Nuweiba, not the Straits of Tiran

At one point Moses brings out a hand-written map showing his planned route from Egypt back to his wife Zipporah in Midian. Maybe nobody else in the audience cared, but I instantly recognized the route after studying that geography for five years. Moses, generations of biblical scholars would gladly trade several chapters of Leviticus for just one glance at your map! The traditional route of the Exodus is generally agreed, but there are other proposals.

Between Migdol and the Sea (Drews 2014) Figure 11-1 with lines added in cyan showing routes from the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). Copyright 2014 by Carl Drews.

My book Between Migdol and the Sea (Drews, 2014) provides a map of the Sinai peninsula in Chapter 11 (right). The traditional route is marked here in red and green. In Ridley Scott’s Exodus, Moses plans to take the cyan (light blue) route down the west coast of Sinai and cross the Straits of Tiran (dotted cyan). But he takes a detour through the Sinai mountains and gets stuck at Nuweiba instead (solid cyan). In the movie the Israelites cross the Red Sea from Nuweiba over to modern Saudi Arabia.

There are a couple of problems with this scenario. An earlier scene shows Moses splashing across the “Straits of Tiran” on his way to meet Zipporah. But this strait in real life is not like Adam’s Bridge across the Palk Strait from India to Sri Lanka, oh no! The Enterprise Passage in the Straits of Tiran today is 250 meters (820 feet) deep.[Between Migdol and the Sea, page 179] Nobody will be splashing across there.

The underwater ridge at Nuweiba is 765 meters (2,510 feet) deep.[Migdol, page 179] That would be quite a hike.

How Not to Communicate Science

This little vignette was actually pretty funny, especially for me. Rameses is getting understandably tired of the Plagues, and he calls in various advisors to learn how to stop the plagues, or at least to predict when they will end. Bad advice results in immediate execution. One of these advisors is a Scientist who has not taken the seminar on How to Communicate Science. He gleefully launches into a technical discussion of how the crocodiles churned up the water and made it turn red, how all that extra sediment caused the fish to die and the frogs to multiply. Rameses knows this already and scowls at Scientist, wondering when he’s going to come to the point. “And what comes next?” asks the Scientist happily. “Flies!” retorts Rameses in disgust, swatting at the hundreds of flies swarming around him. “Yes!” answers the Scientist, obviously pleased that his students are following the lecture.

The next shot shows the Scientist on the scaffold about to be executed.

In science communication we talk about Framing the Message. Framing means to go beyond the facts; your audience wants to know why these facts matter and how they are relevant to their own concerns. In climate science, a government audience wants to know how society will be affected, not just how many degrees the temperature will increase.

Meteorite and Tsunami

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, the parting of the Red Sea is accomplished by a flaming meteorite that falls into the sea beyond the horizon. This impact causes a tsunami in which the sea draws back for the Israelites to cross, then returns in a giant wave while the Egyptian chariots pursue. In the movie God sends the meteorite at the right place and time for Moses to lead his people across, so of course this is full-on theistic astronomy. Ridley Scott does not fall into the “God of the Gaps” fallacy that seems to plague certain atheist bloggers! Good for him.

The Bible says the east wind drove back the water all night long (Exodus 14:20-21). But would a meteorite impact also work? The answer is: not likely. For the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Indonesia, there were three huge waves over 1.5 hours. The wave period from drawback through the return surge was about 30 minutes. There have been some tsunamis with a longer wave period, but the basic wave cycle is measured in tens of minutes, not hours. At the Nuweiba crossing Moses and the Israelites would have to descend 2,500 vertical feet and then crank up the other side back to sea level, all in 30 minutes. The Colorado Mountain Club uses 1,000 feet per hour as a rule of thumb when climbing fourteeners (Between Migdol and the Sea, page 166). A tsunami simply does not provide enough time to make the crossing.

But the wave action is spectacular! Exodus: Gods and Kings does action very well.

Go see it!

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God’s role in crossing the Red Sea

Certain bloggers have begun to misrepresent my religious views on how God works through science and the natural forces. It’s time to post a clear statement (again).

Exodus 14:20-21 states:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
(Exodus 14:21 ESV)

We may summarize the Exodus passage as follows:
1. God sent the east wind.
2. The wind moved the water.

Part 1 is the realm of Theology since it involves Divine action. I would love to know if God used a low-pressure system here, but without further description I cannot tell.

Part 2 is the realm of Science. Wind moving water is what the COAWST ocean model calculates, and this is what I published in PLoS ONE in 2010.

If anyone wishes to replace Part 1 with a scientific statement and hypothesize how Moses knew where to stand at just the right time, they are free to submit a manuscript to their favorite scientific journal. Since the Bible says God sent the wind, I’ll stick with Part 1 as stated.

For readers of Funmurphys: the Blog who wish to know how God works through science, I recommend the following books:

“Finding Darwin’s God” by Kenneth Miller.
“The Language of God” by Francis Collins.
Anything by Karl Giberson.

These three Christians (and others) receive harsh criticism from Young-Earth Creationists and New Atheists alike. I am proud to be in their august company in one small way.

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The Science Behind Biblical Events

That was the title of the article in Newsmax magazine, December 2012, pages 64-66. The subtitle was:

Researchers use new technology to search for the truth behind the stories in the Bible.

This article gave several examples of scientific research that supports certain biblical accounts. Newsmax reporter Jack Penman led off by describing my research about Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. I published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE describing the meteorological phenomenon of wind setdown occurring at a place called the Kedua Gap in the eastern Nile delta. A strong wind blowing overnight can indeed cause the waters of the yam suf to recede and divide.

Newsmax covered the following research topics:

  • Parting of the Red Sea during the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt
  • The 10 Plagues
    Author Graham Phillips attributes the plagues visited upon Egypt during the Exodus to the eruption of the volcanic island Thera (Santorini) in Greece. I am more familiar with biblical scholar Kenneth Kitchen, who points out that the first nine plagues correspond to a physical sequence of catastrophic natural events following a high Nile. (See “On The Reliability of the Old Testament” (2003), Table 18 on page 251.)
  • Resurrection of Lazarus
    The article cites the resuscitation of a woman declared medically dead. To me, this example does not match the details of the story recorded in John 11. Nevertheless, we Christians are supposed to follow Jesus’ example, and if we can prevent premature death by medical means, that’s all to the good!
  • Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
    The article mentions a hypothesis that the two sinful cities were destroyed by an asteroid, and the event was recorded on a Sumerian clay tablet. You can read more at this article, or search for these keywords: Sodom Gomorrah asteroid Sumerian astronomer Alan Bond Mark Hempsell Köfels.
  • Burning Bush
    Colin Humphreys suggested in his book “The Miracles of Exodus” (2004) that the burning bush was above a volcanic fissure emitting hot gases.
  • Noah’s Flood
    The article cites William Ryan and Walter Pittman and the Black Sea Flood as being the probable source of the Flood story in Genesis and the Gilgamesh Epic.

Whether these ideas will withstand further research and scientific scrutiny remains to be seen, and this is true of all hypotheses. What is notable about the Newsmax article is that they have taken neither extreme position:

  1. Every biblical event occurred exactly as some fundamentalists interpret the King James Version of the Bible.
  2. The Old Testament contains no valid history prior to the Babylonian exile; it was fabricated by Hellenic Jews to create a fictional glorious history.

With regard to extreme position 1, Ryan and Pittman understand the Flood to be a local flood, not a global one. The Black Sea flood was a traumatic event for the people of the time, and they carried those memories forward in their oral history. There is no young-earth Flood Geology here.

Extreme position 2 is rejected by the findings of science. Not only are the biblical narratives scientifically plausible and difficult for ancient bards to fabricate, but research confirms important details of the stories. The plagues follow a natural chain of environmental events; the author of Exodus is not merely stepping through the Egyptian pantheon.

Reporter Jack Penman concludes: “maybe science and religion can better coexist.” Amen to that!

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What Open Access Does For Me

On August 30, 2010 I published a scientific paper in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE entitled “Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta”. This post is a follow-up to my earlier post of August 31, which focused on Open Access. So – what happened?

Plenty! My employer issued a press release on September 21, 2010, which is our standard practice for research that we think will have popular interest. There was extensive media coverage during that week, including segments by ABC News, Fox 31 KDVR in Denver, National Public Radio,, and the BBC. After working hard on this research for years as a graduate student, it was gratifying to receive the attention! The number of article views at PLoS ONE is now at 39,009. Our animation of Parting the Waters has been viewed 542,928 times on YouTube, and my verbal explanation there has been viewed 58,618 times.

What role did Open Access play in the publication of my research results?

1. Open Access is ideally suited to inter-disciplinary topics of popular interest.

Many scientific journals focus on a single area of science, and reject manuscripts that are judged to fall outside that discipline. Is my research: oceanography, meteorology, archaeology, history, coastal oceanography, biblical studies, numerical modeling, geology, or what? A limited access journal tends to exclude from its readership those scientists who do not subscribe to the journal, placing a barrier to experts outside the journal’s focus. That same barrier to readership also discourages interested amateurs who are willing to brave the paper’s scientific rigor and try to understand what it’s about. I recognized that the Exodus problem is highly inter-disciplinary, and this publication might spark great popular interest. I didn’t want to exclude anyone from reading the paper, even with a small download fee.

2. Open Access increases the number of article views.

PLoS ONE includes a number of useful metrics, including the number of article views. As noted in my previous post, I want lots of people to read my paper. Although I don’t have extensive metrics on article views between Open Access and limited access, my colleagues tell me that 39,009 views is a lot for a scientific paper! We think it would be hard to get those numbers with limited access. Unfortunately, I cannot re-run this publication experiment with a traditional journal and count up the views again.

But I can plot the article views on a daily basis and try to extract some meaning out of the graphs! Here the cumulative and daily views on a log scale (see figure at right):

Plots of article views on a daily basis.

Cumulative and daily article views.

Obviously the press release and subsequent media coverage had a huge effect on article readership. Over two weeks the number of article views zoomed up from 500 to over 35,000! Since the graph doesn’t shoot up until the press release, people must be reading the news first and then looking up my scientific paper. It is safe to say that the media coverage caused a jump in article views, not the other way around. Media coverage drives people to my research; Open Access lets them in the front door. 35,000 people became interested enough to look at the original paper, and indeed they could (with some repeat visitors). Open Access works together with media publicity to increase drastically the societal impact of scientific research.

3. Open Access assists helpful amateurs to educate the general public.

In comments and blog posts I have noticed about 1 in every 20 posts is from a knowledgeable person who is trying to educate the rest of the folks on the forum. Often they have posted a link to the original paper, with the remark that it’s open access. These knowledgeable people are “amateurs”; and I use that term in the sense that they love science! They take time to educate themselves, they read technical articles, and they provide helpful references for everyone else. They look up facts instead of just typing in something and hitting the Post button. They verify the details and correct mistaken assumptions. Helpful amateurs are very important in communicating science. Professional scientists cannot do it alone. I can make the amateurs’ job easier by providing open access to my scientific publications. I appreciate their valuable efforts.

Open Access increases my impact as a scholar. Scientific research is hard work! The societal impact makes it all worthwhile.

Weatherwise magazine

On a related note, I have just published an article in Weatherwise magazine as a follow-up to the earlier scientific paper. This magazine article “Could Wind Have Parted the Red Sea?” explains the parting of the sea to the general public. So if you don’t want to read about drag coefficients and Mellor-Yamada mixing, that’s where to go!

UCAR Policy

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer. UCAR has adopted an Open Access Policy, and has implemented that policy by the creation of an institutional repository of scholarly works known as OpenSky.

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Once In A Lifetime

You may ask yourself


how did I get here?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tom Daschle, head of HHS.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

PS Still in the tank as much as ever


A Question

When I grew up, the standard example of oxymoron was “military intellegence.”

Can we change that to “journalistic ethics”?

Bonus: I looked up how to punctuate the end of both sentances here.

Newspapers Dying Before Our Very Eyes

Newspapers used to make economic sense. In the age of mass production of uniform product, they were an efficient ay to transmit timely information. Additional copies were cheap compared to the fixed costs associated with printing, so it made sense to include everything in order to appeal to the the widest readership possible, which spread the relatively large fixed costs over the widest possible subscribership. The inefficiency of having much, if not most, of the paper no of interest to a particular reader was made up by spreading the fixed costs over as many people as possible. The two big advertisers – department stores and classified – also wanted as large an audience as possible. In the age of mass communication the newspapers had advantage over competitors – first radio, then TV. The first is that reading is much faster than listening. Second, people can access the information in a newspaper on their terms – TV and radio require you to sit through the broadcast to hear what you are interest in. So in the one size fits all world of mass communications newspapers ruled.

The economy of scale also drove to monopoly. Only a few of the largest cities kept more than 1 mass circulation daily newspaper. When I was a kid the St. Louis Post Dispatch became the St. Louis’s only daily newspaper when the Globe Democrat owners decided it would be more profitable to run the printing presses fo the Post than it was to print and distribute the Globe. Two attempts were made later to create a second newspaper: first a revival of the Globe, and then the brand new Sun. Both were failures. With the monopolies came a drop off in quality. The Post was never a better paper in my lifetime than when it was tying to fend off The Sun. Quality all across new media has fallen as a result. But poor quality isn’t the biggest problem facing newspapers.

The problem for newspapers is that with the advent of the internet, newspapers are no longer an efficient way to distribute information. Instead of pushing out the same universal product to every customer, consumers can pull only what they want when they want it via the internet. The problem for newspapers is that everything they know about the newspaper business, as opposed to the news gathering business, hurts them in this new model. The internal power structure is set up all wrong for the new model. The culture of the newspaper is geared to putting out the product every 24 hours and providing as little product support as possible once the newspaper is in your hands. Didn’t get your copy – they are only too happy to get a copy in your hands as fast as possible. Provide corrections, clarifications, or follow up once you have it in your hands – not so much. So the typical newspaper website is just like the newspaper, although they have been adding more interactivity and faster updates with time.

Now newspaper advertising is drying up, never to come back. What they are going through is not a downturn but the end of the mass circulation metropolitan daily. The classified ads are going to Craigslist (once you’ve used Craigslist, you’ll never buy another newspaper classified ad) or Monster for jobs. All that’s left are car ads and the car companies are having their problems, just like the department stores. Every advertiser has to be pondering the high cost of untargeted advertising – the same revolution in universal push versus targeted pull.

Technology created newspapers; technology is what is killing them.

You Go, Grandma

So I’m perusing the post election results at Instapundit when I come across his link to a NYT story – kids are safest under grandparents care – and I have to take a look. The key:

The study is important because grandparents are a growing source of child care for working and single parents. Some health researchers speculated that grandparents may be out of touch with modern safety practices, and as a result, they worried that children being cared for by grandparents might be at higher risk for injury.

But the opposite appears to be true. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed caregiving and injury data from the National Evaluation of the Healthy Steps for Young Children Program. The program includes information about 5,500 newborns in 15 United States cities during 1996 and 1997, with follow-up over the next three years.

The analysis showed that having grandparents as caregivers cut the risk of childhood injury by about half. Compared to organized day care, care by other relatives, or even care by a mother who doesn’t work outside the home, children who were cared for by a grandmother were less likely to be injured.

When I read this, of course my first thought is “You go, Grandma”.

But I noticed how drably they wrote this. They would have willingly thrown grandma under the bus had the results been what I daresay they were hoping for, with a headline like “Killer Grandmothers” or “Grandparents – the hidden peril”, or even “Grandparents: We knew they lost their touch when they let the grandkids eat in the living room!”. And they buried a couple of other things, two. Like just how good are these “modern safety practices”, anyway. My generation rode bikes without helmets, rode in cars without seat belts, and those of us who survived into crabby middle age are just fine. And you have to go to the primary source to discover that single moms are a menace, OK, show a higher rate of injury.

Civic Hubris or Keep Your Opinions to Yourself

So I’m at Google News about to search for an article to link for the entry I want to write and I have to read about the flooding in Cedar Rapids – last summer when we went to Northern Tier a good chunk of the drive through Iowa was along the Cedar River – and I come across this:

Most of downtown Cedar Rapids was underwater. That includes City Hall, the county courthouse and jail, all of which, in acts of civic hubris, were built on an island in the middle of the river.

Um, so “in acts of civic hubris” is part of a straight news story now? And from the New York Times, which is located on Manhattan, which is an island in the middle of tworivers. Funny, did the New York Times call New Orleans an act of civic hubris, seeing as how the parts of it that flooded from Katrina are below the river they are right next to? I just want to know what the standard is for civic hubris.