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Dordt College News

Keeping his head above the clouds

March 14, 2014

When he isn’t teaching chemistry to his students at Dordt College, Dr. Channon Visscher is trying to help figure out what the weather is like on other planets.

Admittedly, that’s an over-simplified description of Visscher’s chemical research. Under a $55,685 grant from the National Science Foundation, Visscher is creating models to help scientists understand the chemical makeup of the atmospheres of planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, as well as the growing numbers of exoplanet images being recorded by sophisticated computer-controlled cameras on the Hubble Telescope. Exoplanets are planets orbiting stars other than the sun.

The goal of the research project, titled “Collaborative Research: Characterizing Cloudy Exoplanet Atmospheres,” is to help Visscher and a team of astronomers from the University of California-Santa Cruz learn more about other planets, including those outside of our solar system.

“The chemistry of these atmospheres is influencing what we can actually see when we look at exoplanets,” said Visscher.

Visscher doesn’t fit the classic image of a chemist bent over a beaker, with a pipette in hand and wearing a white lab coat and safety glasses. A theoretical modeler, he sits behind his computer and develops chemical models using a program that simulates cloud formation. Because clouds can be formed by more than water (they might be made of ammonia, iron, or other materials), he runs chemical models to see how clouds form from a variety of substances.

The models can be petty exotic, but so are some of the cloud formations scientists are observing. When the models match the observations, scientists know they are on the right track.

“All of this was theoretical until the 1990s when better techniques started becoming available to look for and study these planetary systems,” he says. In fact, new and better images are coming in each day. Visscher points to a January 7 Facebook post by a colleague showing a new image of planets orbiting a big, hot, and young system.

“We’re finding that as the number of discovered exoplanets grows, so does their incredible diversity,” said Visscher. “We’re using chemistry to try to explain what astronomers are seeing.”

Visscher’s field of research is relatively new. The first confirmed exoplanets were discovered in the early 1990s and most of what is known about them has been inferred by indirect evidence gained from tiny wobbles in their orbits or dips in the light when their host stars pass between them and earth. Visscher’s study will focus on exoplanets that can be directly imaged by large telescopes.

Visscher’s models and those of other scientists are based on the assumption that the laws of physics and chemistry behave in other solar systems as they do in our solar system. That’s not a hard assumption for him to make. While he knows that there are significant differences within creation, he also believes that the laws of nature are trustworthy and consistent because they are the work of a sovereign Creator who holds his creation together.

“The discovery of exoplanets has been transformational in helping us understand planetary systems, including our own solar system,” Visscher says, noting that planetary systems are continually forming and changing.

“As we watch these systems that come in all shapes and sizes, we find that our solar system is likely not as static as we may have once thought.” He adds, “We now know that the orbits of young planets may shift and things can get violent and chaotic.”

“It’s exciting to figure out what’s going on in this vast universe,” he says. “I find the amazing scale of creation and how it works to be a powerful witness to God’s creative power and to who he is.” He knows full well that many scientists do not see the world this way and, in fact, believe that the way the world works disproves God’s existence. He also knows that many young Christians find it difficult to reconcile science and Scripture.

He recalls serving on a panel about origins and having a long conversation with a scientist who was raised as a Christian but became an atheist because he felt he had to choose between being a believer and a scientist.

“It breaks my heart when people accept the false choice of faith or science,” he says, “when we know that God is the author of both Scripture and creation.” He believes both are trustworthy. 
And, he believes it is critical for Christians to talk about these topics to better understand how to read the physical evidence we see in creation and how we read Scripture.“

We all bring along our theological, philosophical, and even scientific presuppositions with us when we read the Bible, or in anything else that we do,” Visscher says, noting that how people read Scripture is different after Copernicus than it was before him. He finds wrestling with these issues to be challenging and exciting and believes they need to happen on Christian college campuses like Dordt’s where both faith and science are taken seriously.

“I sometimes tell my students, ‘I’m less interested in what you believe than in how you got there,’” he says. He challenges his students to consider this as they read both Scripture and read creation.

“For me, the Hubble images bring praise to God, they don’t threaten his existence. The vast scale of the universe is a powerful witness to his greatness. We should not confine that universe to our understanding of it. This is God’s world. We should never stop exploring it.”


SALLY JONGSMA

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