Moving as a Post-doc with kids

Many of you know it, moving around as a PhD/Post-doc, but maybe fewer of you have your whole family with four kids to bring with. This has lead to some funny stories. Here are three:

Our kids have been vaccinated in different countries (not Covid, the “normal vaccines ๐Ÿ˜‰ ), but the countries differ in what is vaccinated when. To be sure that our kids are vaccinated correctly we went to the doctor with all the vaccines they’ve had and asked, as a consequence she had a minor heart attack. Soo, Arthur was more vaccinated than Johanna, despite Johanna being older. Nora had some vaccines three times, but skipped others. Arthur and Johanna were sent home from the nursery, because our vaccination attestations were too confusing and they weren’t sure whether they’ve been vaccinated against measles (Johanna twice, but Arthur not sufficiently…). But now it appears we’ve got it all covered.

Today (6th September 2022) will be Nora’s first day of school, what a big step. That is for most kids. This will now be her first day of school for the third time. She’s had one way back in Belgium, where school starts at the age of two and a half. And she’s had one back in the US a year ago. That said, she’s still quite exited ๐Ÿ™‚

We recently moved to Landau in der Pfalz, Germany. At some point in our first conversation with a stranger (or better said: a potential new friend), people like to ask:
Stranger: “So, where did you move from?
Wife: “We moved here from the US.”
S: “Oh wow! How did you get all your furniture here?”
W:”Ah well, that actually came from Belgium where it has been in storage for a little over a year.”
S: “Ah ok. That’s where your family is from then?”
W: “Uhm no, we lived in the French speaking part. I am speaking Dutch, my family is from the Netherlands.”
S: “Ah ok!” (By this time they think they have figured it all out ๐Ÿ˜œ… Then they just want to confirm their theory)
S: “So you flew here from the US and had your stuff come from Belgium?”
W: “Uhm no. We flew to Switzerland were my husband is from. His and my parents and siblings live there and we spent most of our lives there. We spent a month there to visit friends and family and then drove to Germany with everything we had with us on the plane.”
S: “Ok. So you are Dutch, lived in Switzerland for most of your life, spent some years in Belgium, then in the US and moved now to this little place in Germany. And you have 4 kids under the age of 7?!.”
W: “Correct ๐Ÿ˜ƒ . Johanna, our 5 year old, has lived in 4 different countries and has been fluent in 4 languages at some point in her life. ๐Ÿ˜‰

The God of creation

Potentially one of the biggest discussions about faith is currently about how the universe came to be. Scientists state that the universe started with the Big Bang and complex life evolved from simpler life. Conversely many Christians hold to a six-day week of creation.

However, as so often the two groups actually talk past each other. Scientists are much more interested in the “how” the universe came into existence whereas the bible is much more interested in the “why”. The text of Genesis talks much more about other details than about the specific details of time.

As scientists we often adjust our papers to the journal we’re submitting our paper. For me, if I write for a general ecology journal I will use much less equations in the main text than if I write for a technical journal. Similarly, Genesis was not directly written to us to answer how old the universe is, rather it was written 1400 BC to answer who God is. Or rather, who is not a god.

The text was written to a people surrounded by polytheistic religion claiming that e.g. the sun or the moon are gods. Specifically the Egyptians believed in many animal deities. Into this environment God speaks: “No, I’m the only God and I have created all these other objects. I am the first and the last. There is no other God besides me”.

Given this, the automatic question is: If a perfect God created the universe and there is no war between gods (as was in many polytheistic religions), why do we see evil? To this God answers with his second story of creation about Adam and Eve. The world was perfect, but you humans sinned by choosing to trust your desires (and eat from the tree) more than you trusted me (and obey my commands).

So instead of misusing this ancient text to discuss the age of the universe, let’s take it for what it is. There is only one God. And the world is not perfect, initially, because Adam and Eve were not righteous, but today, because we, you and me, continue in their path and commit our own sins.

My own (scientific) experiments with God

Every now and then Christians face the accusation of blind faith. While it is true that I would trust God blindly, my faith is not based on nothing. I wouldn’t say it’s founded in science, but it certainly has scientific aspects.

Once during a long bus ride I had an interesting experience. Fanatics would call it a vision, sceptics might call it a mental disorder, probably it was just a day dream. During this, I heard God’s voice (in my head, not audibly), and have heard it since every now and then. So I obviously asked myself whether I became crazy. So I asked God three times to ensure to me, that I’m not. Here’s what happened:

The first time, he told me to look in Zechariah 12, the chapter starts with a pronouncement or an oracle (i.e. what had happened to me in the bus). And the first verse ends with “[God] formed the spirit of man within him”. Exactly what happened to me.

The second time, (I was not convinced yet), he told me to look in Amos 3.7, which states that God does nothing without first talking to his servants and prophets. Again, I felt confirmed. But both these events are subject to strong personal biases.

The third time, he told me to go and play in the lottery (seriously). I played in the swiss lottery and had 4 correct (swiss lottery plays 6 out of 42).

All these proofs were and are sufficient for me, to me they establish both the existence and the communication of God. We could compute the probability of this (the scientific way, which we’ll do below), but this would miss the point. The relationship with God is about a relationship, not about statistics. Way more important than the probabilities are how I felt when I read those passages. Maybe they are vague to you, maybe they are vague to me now as well. But you have to interpret them like a father giving his son a good night kiss before going to sleep. This kiss does not, by all means, establish anything to an objective outside observer (you). But to the child and to the father this simple kiss communicates everything that is needed. So did these bible verses. They are not to convince you (an outside observer), they were to convince me, the child laying in bed.

Two closing thoughts. First, you are most likely interested in the probabilities. The easiest is the last one, no subjectivity is involved, only mathematics, it is an about 1 in 500 chance, well beyond what is needed for a publication. The other two are quite subjective, what would I have counted as a “match”? On the one hand, God speaks a lot in the bible, so maybe taking a random verse and seeing God speaking in it is not that rare? I made a pseudo test and randomly selected (with a computer) 100 verses. I counted about 5 or 6 verses that were comparable to the two God gave me. Which is on the brim of significant. If we were to multiply these two cases, then we would have a very significant result, but that might be misleading. But again, it was (and is) about the relationship, not the statistics.

Second, it is tempting to ask God for a proof and then easily disproof him. That is not what happened. I asked God for a proof and he told me what to do, that is he agreed to the experiment. I did not, as so many do to disproof God, state to what experiment He had to agree. This would be, God, I’m opening the bible and I will read the first verse. At best this could be proof that God is not interested in your experiment. Similarly I can’t disproof the existence of my Toddlers because they don’t clean up their room upon my command. No, in my examples God told me where to look, that I agreed on His terms, not the other way around.

The gospel according to Jesus

While Christianity is the predominant religion in the western community I still often have the impression that very few people actually know what it is about. Rather, very often I encounter (non-Christian) people that disagree with a ridiculous form of Christianity, that I would disagree with as well. This might seem strange, but I bet you are actually familiar with the problem. How often have you encountered non-scientists having very little understanding of evolution, statistics, climate change or the scientific method in general? I think these problems have the same underlying cause, we don’t talk to people that are different from ourselves and overestimate our knowledge.

So here’s the Christian faith in five main points:

  1. God created the universe (this does not mean in 7 days) and he created humans (maybe through evolution, that’s not central to Christianity), because he loved us and wants to be with us.
  2. However, we humans are not perfect. We sin all the time, I for example sin a lot (I’m self righteous, arrogant, greedy and proud, to name but a few). Instead of asking whether you sin, ask yourself whether you feel guilty every now and then. If yes, this is a strong indication that you have an inner moral compass, which standards are higher than your performance. A hint that this moral compass is not actually made by yourself, but by somebody else.
  3. As such, we are not able to come close to God, because He does not tolerate unrighteousness. Exactly how you would not tolerate a murderer murdering in front of you. You would stop them, so he will stop us (Please note, it’s not only because we have done bad things in the past, but because we continue to do bad things, we’re not one-time offenders, but rather serial killers).
  4. To solve this problem and have community with us, God came down in human nature as Jesus Christ. Jesus lived a perfect sinless life and took upon him all the sins of us humans. He offers us to take away our sin and give us His righteousness.
  5. The only thing we have to do, is accept this. Importantly (and this is what so many people get wrong), I’m not saved, because I’m a good person (I’m not), but because Jesus is a good person. We christians are not better people, we are all sinners through and through. But Jesus died for our sins, and he offers to die for yours as well.

This is the Christian faith in a nutshell. Will every Christian agree with this? Most likely not, but most denominations (i.e. churches) would.

Moving across continents during the pandemic with my family

As so many, I’ve finished my PhD during the pandemic (in Belgium), which is mixed with different feelings. But it also comes with an additional very interesting challenge, looking for a new job and (potentially) a new home during the pandemic. I was quite lucky and got a grant for the US. Because it might be an experience that many of you have not had, I’d like to tell a bit about how moving continents in the pandemic was.

We were nervous, so we started the day early to be on time at the airport, 3 hours before departure (as suggested by our ancestors). But, the airport was literally empty, check-in was not possible because nobody from the check-in was working. There were about 10 flights on the entire day (from Brussel airport). Empty airports and planes continued on our entire trip, with quite some advantages. We had enough space in the airplane, we didn’t have to wait at the customs

We were somewhat scared because our kids had to wear masks during the entire flight. For context, different countries have very different regulations. Switzerland and Belgium say kids below 12 years do not have to wear masks at all (this was even before vaccination). So our kids were not used to it at all. Conversely, the US wants kids above 2 years to be masked, including during the flight, so we were stressed whether Johanna (3 years) would play along. But luckily, the flight attendants were very human and accepted behavior as on the right.

All in all, it was quite the experience. Very exhausting, but probably not because of COVID. COVID might the day itself more bearable, but the administration before hand quite more complicated (we needed travel forms and COVID tests of all sorts, and we were not entirely certain whether we had done everything correctly up to the day itself).

The scientific method and the bible

Often we argue that faith is blind, because even if God would exist, we could not prove his existence from our material world. While this is certainly true, my faith is not at all blind. Rather, my faith is built on the bible, a book that records historical events to which we can, to some extent, apply the scientific method. I will illustrate what I mean using three simple examples.

  1. What happened to the disciples? For starters some (historical) facts. We can easily check, that Jesus Christ was a real person who lived and that he died on the cross. Further, the disciples where all afraid when Jesus was captured, they all fled the scenes (this is reported by themselves, but who would put themselves in such a bad light if it didn’t actually happen. Have you ever read an autobiography where somebody deliberately belittles themselves?). Then something happened and the body of Jesus was not found anymore (importantly, the religious and political leaders of the time could not find the body). After this mysterious event, all but one of the disciples died because they claimed Jesus rose again. So the question is: What happened to the body? It can’t have been stolen by the leaders, thes would have shown Jesus to everybody to stop this madness. It’s unlikely to have been stolen by the disciples either, because why would you die for a lie? So whatever happened, I’m 100% sure, that the disciples believed that Jesus rose again, they even died for this.
  2. There are many prophecies in the old testament (written before 400 BC) about Jesus. Most specific is Psalm 22 verses 14-18, it very specifically describes a crucifixion, hundreds of years before crucifixions existed. It includes nails through hands and feet, the dislocation of bones, dehydration through blood loss and the crowds looking at the crucified. But even more so, it is not any crucifixion, but it talks about Jesus on the cross. He’s being mocked by the crowds for being godly, but God doesn’t help. It talks about how after this event many people (the nations) will find their way to God. It talks about how they gambled for Jesus clothes. I’m not the only to see this link, but Jesus himself was the first to make this link, as he cries out the first verse of this Psalm on the cross.
  3. Finally, there are other prophecies, not about Jesus, but about other historic events that we can check whether they are correct. A very illustrative example is the prophecy about Tyre. The bible predicts that Tyre, a city comparable to New York, will be attacked (likely), destroyed (slightly unlikely) and thrown into the sea (highly unlikely). And all this happened when Alexander the great attacked Tyre. There are about 3000 fulfilled prophesies in the bible, if we assigned a probability of even a 90% success rate, the probability for all of them being correct would be 10-138, or said otherwise, impossible.

These are simply three examples of scientifically verifiable passages of the Bible. Perhaps none of these examples alone are sufficient. But I find their combined strength overwhelming. There are many more examples for each of the categories I’ve shown you. Why did Paul, a well established scholar, throw everything he had away if he didn’t see what he claims to have seen, Jesus risen from the grave? Similar passages to Psalm 22 are in Isaiah 53 and similar stories to Tyre can be found about Sidon in Isaiah 23.

Why believe in God is rational

For starters, none of these thoughts are my own, there have been much smarter people, both defending and questioning God’s existence, before me. I don’t think I have actually anything to add to the discussion, except maybe the audience, that is YOU. I simply hope to make these arguments accessible to more people.

One might ask why I, a scientist, believe in things that are outside of the realm of science. That is things that cannot be investigated using the well known methods of science. I want to establish here, that this believe is not a mere possibility, but a most for every rational human. Importantly, this believe is not rooted in the scientific method, but rathe on logic itself. First, we note, that some things exist. Me and you for starters. Second, nothing that exists has ever created itself. As every scientist knows, those papers don’t write themselves.

Turned upside down, if we ever have “nothing”, then we will never ever again have anything. Nothing comes from nothing. But because we now have something, we must always have had something. This something cannot have been created, because then we would need something to create it. Rather, this initial thing is self-existent. Importantly, this thing, whether you believe it to be a thing or a person, must act outside of our understanding of physics. Rather the equations of physics stem from this thing.

So what have we proven? Maybe not too much, simply that there must always have been something. For example, the Bing-Bang as of itself cannot be everything, because you would need something to start create it. That thing could be a Multiverse, or it could be some other in-personal power, or it could be God. Even if it is God, I’ve not at all proven that this is the Christian God. But, that thing that always existed is outside of the reach of our (current) scientific method. You cannot prove or disprove it, it is above and beyond (transcendent). What it exactly is comes down to our belief.