Posts Tagged Exodus

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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Bo Hellström and copyright protection

I have at my desk an interesting and rare book: “The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea”, by Professor B. Hellström, published in Stockholm in 1950. Bo Hellstrom was a professor of hydraulics in Stockholm, Sweden from 1914-1955. From Ian Larsen’s paper:

In 1923 he [B. Hellstrom] receives a grant to study wind driven seiches in lakes, a subject that he will follow on and off for a long time to come. In 1924 he suggest that it was a well timed wind-generated seiche that was to allow Moses and his tribe to cross the Red Sea and subsequently to drown Faraoh and his army. The reader of the Bible will see that Bo Hellstrom’s theory is well covered in the actual text. Hollywood on the other hand got it completely wrong as usual. (Larsen 2003)

A remarkable thing about this particular book is that it contains a hand-written dedication on the inner page by Hellstrom himself. “Professor A.E. Bretting, with best wishes for Christmas and the coming year, from Bo Hellstrom”. He touched the same page that I am touching! I like that.

The study of physical laws underlying the parting of the Red Sea has a long history. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in 94 AD urged people not to wonder if the strange narration in Exodus 14 “happened of its own accord”. But as any parent knows, as soon as you tell kids not to do something, they go ahead and do it! Generations of scientists have ignored Josephus’ advice, preferring to follow Psalm 111:2 instead. Samuel Bartlett in 1879 suggested that Moses might have taken advantage of wind-lowered water levels, crossing on a shallow ford southeast of modern Suez. Sir Alexander Tulloch actually observed a wind setdown event on Lake Manzala, which led him to conclude in 1896 that the famous passage took place between the Great Bitter Lake and Lake Timsah.

Professor Hellstrom brought the science of hydraulics to bear on the Exodus problem in 1924. In his lab he constructed a wind tunnel over a trough containing water, roughly modeling the topography of the northern reaches of the Gulf of Suez. He used an underwater sill to provide a dry crossing with water on both sides at Serapeum, the same site suggested by Tulloch. His book shows maps and detailed diagrams and photos of the water-level gauges that he built on the side of his wave tank to measure the water surface accurately. Bo Hellstrom was quite the experimentalist! His diagrams look a lot like mine.

Thus, by means of this laboratory experiment, which admittedly is only approximate, proof was obtained of the fact that it may very well be conceived that the wind uncovered the bottom of the Red Sea at Serapeum. It was possible by means of these experiments and exhaustive theoretical investigations to establish the natural laws which prevail. (Hellström 1950, p. 21)

So I have this fascinating book in my hands, and I would like to share Hellström’s scholarship with the rest of the world. As Dr. Frank J. Little, Jr. has stated, “Our purpose is to return Hellstrom’s Exodus hypothesis to the scientific community, plus quantify and update it in light of newly synthesized evidence.” How can I do that? Bartlett’s book is available through Google Books, and anyone can read it on-line. I had to get Hellstrom’s book through an Interlibrary Loan with California State University at Fresno. That’s a big difference in terms of ease of access! People will find and read Samuel Bartlett quicker and more often than Bo Hellstrom.

Samuel Bartlett died in 1898. His work is now in the public domain, and this is why Google can legally digitize his book and make it available on-line. Bo Manne Hellstrom died in 1967. Sweden has a copyright term of 70 years after the author’s death, so his copyright will not expire until the fair year 2037. And until then, “The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea” will languish in Interlibrary Loan Land. Ick.

If Hellstrom’s book suddenly became an overnight sensation, and if scads of people were clamoring for it and paying thousands of dollars to obtain one of the rare copies, then the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm would take notice and starting printing a new edition of the book. They would make lots of money and send royalties to Hellstrom’s heirs, wherever they are now. That’s why copyrights endure long after an author’s death, and the system works well for people like Mark Twain and Walt Disney.

Unfortunately, the copyright system is not serving B. Hellström very well. His book contains scholarly and historical interest, but with all due respect, “The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea” will never be a best-seller like “Huckleberry Finn”. Nor does anyone expect that – scholars are valued for their intellectual contributions, not necessarily for their popularity with the general public. Bo Hellstrom’s work will remain locked up for another 26 years where only a few determined scholars will read it; unlike his predecessor Bartlett, who can be read by any high school student who enters the right search string into Google.

Professor Hellstrom would have benefited from Open Access. It would have increased his scholarly impact. We would still be reading his work and he would get all the credit. Too bad the Open Access movement came too late for him.

Special thanks to Professor Ian Larsen of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm for supplying additional information on Bo Hellström. Larsen adds, “A E Bretting was professor in Hydraulic Engineering in Copenhagen and retired around 1958.” I would love to know how Hellstrom’s book made its way from Copenhagen to Cal State Fresno, but I have enough historical mysteries for one lifetime already!


Bartlett, Samuel Colcord, 1879. From Egypt to Palestine: through Sinai, the wilderness and the south country. Harper, New York, New York, USA.

Drews, Carl, and Weiqing Han, 2010. Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta. PLoS ONE, 5(8): e12481. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012481

Drews, Carl, 2011. Could Wind Have Parted the Red Sea? Weatherwise, January-February 2011, 64, 30-35. doi:10.1080/00431672.2011.536122

Hellström, Bo, 1950. The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea. The Institution of Hydraulics, The Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. First published in the Swedish language in 1924.

Larsen, Ian, 2003. A La Recherce du Temps Perdu: The times of J Gust Richert and thereafter. Zentech Belgium, Brussels, Belgium.

Tulloch, Alexander Bruce, 1896. Passage of the Red Sea by the Israelites. Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute (now Faith and Thought) 28, 267-280. The Victoria Institute, London, United Kingdom.

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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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Crossing the Red Sea with Moses and Open Access

Yesterday the scientific journal PLoS ONE published my article “Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta”. This publication represents a portion of my Master’s thesis, which was announced here last year. We now present this research in a peer-reviewed journal. Here is the paper’s Abstract:

Wind setdown is the drop in water level caused by wind stress acting on the surface of a body of water for an extended period of time. As the wind blows, water recedes from the upwind shore and exposes terrain that was formerly underwater. Previous researchers have suggested wind setdown as a possible hydrodynamic explanation for Moses crossing the Red Sea, as described in Exodus 14.

Since the paper is about dynamics instead of biblical history, the contents focus on fluid mechanics instead of on Moses and the Hebrew refugees. But for those readers who are interested in the Exodus, Point B in Figure 8 is Pi-hahiroth. The famous crossing is from Point B across to Tell Kedua. My Tanis hypothesis suggests where and how Moses crossed the yam suf. When remains a thorny issue. As with any new hypothesis, scholars from many disciplines will have to consider the proposal from all angles (history, linguistics, military science, archaeology, meteorology, refugee movement, sociology, oceanography, etc.).

What Open Access means for me

PLoS ONE is an Open Access journal, meaning in a general sense that access to the publications is not restricted. You don’t have to pay a download fee or a subscription fee to download and read the articles. It’s free Free FREE! For what Open Access means for the world of science at large, Google for the term and do some reading. Go ahead and peruse some of the debates. I’ll describe here what it means for me.

It means that my co-author and I paid a publication fee to cover the cost of reviewing and preparing the document for on-line publication. Some journals (Open Access or not) are free to publish in, and others require certain page charges. PLoS ONE follows the “author pays” model.

The “Dynamics of Wind Setdown” article is of general interest. I want oceanographers to read it, I want journalists to read it, I want high school students to read it. I want teachers, gardeners, Norwegians, mechanics, historians, kids, pastors, marketing directors, software engineers, physicists, Australians, poor people, airline pilots, retired people, shepherds, and checkout clerks to read it. I want you to read about the parting of the Red Sea. Skip right to Figure 8 if you want! I don’t want any barriers to readership. I want the paper’s exposure to be as wide as possible. And I can achieve that goal by opening up access.

Peer-reviewed articles are read by scholars, who cite previous research when they publish a subsequent study. The citation count is a measure of the impact of a paper – the importance that a paper has on its field. Open Access papers are supposed to have higher citation counts, so this publishing model will presumably be better for my career.

What Open Access means for you

Open Access means that you can make use of the material that we published. The content at PLoS ONE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License. This means that you can use the article in ways described by the license, so long as you properly cite the authors and the journal. The idea behind the CCA license is that scholars’ work should be used and extended, with due credit given to the original publication. You don’t have to get our written permission. Please refer to the Creative Commons web site for further information.

Open Access means that you don’t have to pay $30 or even $15 to download the paper and read it. Your institution or library doesn’t have to pay thousands of dollar$ in subscription fees to get the document. You just have to click. That’s right, you simply have to click on this link. What are you waiting for? Click! Download and read it now!

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Academic and Choral Achievement

Here is an update since Kevin updated the blogging software. In May 2009 I graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a Master’s degree in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. Wow, five years is a long time! There were quite a few speeches during the graduation ceremony, but I didn’t mind a bit! It took a lot of work to get to that ceremony, and I just sat there in the sunshine with my Master’s robe and mortarboard cap and drank it all in. John Roberts (a CNN correspondent) gave an inspiring address about making your dreams come true. When you come up against a wall, this is your opportunity to show the world how much you want something. If you want your goal bad enough, you will go over, under, around, or through the wall to reach your goal! I feel that I have so much potential, and opportunity, and rich possibilities ahead of me. I don’t ever want to lose that feeling. My sister and family came to see the graduation. Maybe someday when my kids get frustrated with school and homework and term papers and exams they will remember the bagpipes and the funny academic gowns and their Daddy graduating and they will understand that it’s all worthwhile.

Kevin, I don’t know if you wrote a thesis when you got your Master’s degree from Stanford University, or if the co-terminal program had some other option. I wrote a 110-page thesis describing my research and model results:

Title: Application of Storm Surge Modeling to Moses’ Crossing of the Red Sea; and to Manila Bay, the Philippines

Storm surge occurs in low-lying coastal areas when strong winds blow the sea surface up onto the land. The resulting inundation can pose a great danger to lives and property. This study uses an Ocean General Circulation Model and the results from a mesoscale atmospheric model to simulate storm surge and wind setdown. Two case studies are presented. A reconstruction of the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses and the Israelites, as described in Exodus 14, shows that the eastern Nile delta of Egypt matches the Biblical narrative and provides a hydrodynamic mechanism for water to remain on both sides of the dry passage. The vulnerability of Manila Bay and the surrounding areas to a Category 3 typhoon is evaluated and shows that the simulated surge heights depend heavily on the wind direction and the coastal topography.

The thesis document is published electronically by ProQuest, and anyone can download the PDF for a fee and read it. I classified the thesis under Biblical studies in addition to Physical oceanography and Atmospheric sciences. It would be cool to hear a little bell every time someone reads my thesis, but scientific publishing has not reached that stage yet.

I also made the national news for having sung in the Boulder Messiah Sing-Along for 17 consecutive years now. On November 3, 2009 the Associated Press published a news story on Messiah Sing-Along events, featuring the Boulder Messiah Chorale and Orchestra. Hallelujah for Handel’s ‘Messiah’ is by reporter Ann Levin. I am the Enthusiastic Choir Member in the story. If that link ever ceases to work, you can Google for: “Carl Drews” Messiah. Nobody has recognized me on the street yet (“Hey, you’re that Messiah choir dude!”), but it is nice to see that our sound is gone out into all lands, at least electronically.

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