Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fall Leaves

I remember when I was growing up my elementary school teachers always had activities where we would draw pictures with brightly colored leaves on the trees during fall. Also the teachers would decorate their rooms with bright oranges, reds and yellows with leaves made out of construction paper. During this time our red, yellow and orange crayons would get most of their use. So I grew up learning all about the brightly colored leaves on the trees during the fall, and thinking about how that's what fall was like. The only problem was that I grew up in Arizona and in Arizona the leaves on the trees don't change color (much). About the closest it got was the leaves on the pecan trees in my front yard would turn slightly yellow before most of them just turned brown and fell off. A few other trees would also turn a slight color, but most would just turn brown and fall off. I never really saw real fall leaves, like the ones I always drew in my classes.

It was not until I moved to North Carolina that I finally saw the fall leaves I had been drawing every year in elementary school. It was only then that I finally understood what I had been drawing for all those years.

Monday, November 22, 2010

An explanation of the problem with "The Kolob Theorem"

[Update 2/13/11: I have significantly rewritten my critique of The Kolob Theorem. My first review of the book was perhaps a little too harsh and short on details. Hopefully my second post will be better at informing anyone who reads this of the fundamental problems with The Kolob Theorem.]

[Update 9/10/12: I answer some general questions about this review and also common comments that I have read about The Kolob Theorem in a new post "Revisiting the Kolob Theorem".]

[Update 9/10/13: Because people have asked I made a post that deals with specific scientific problems. I only managed to get through the first 9 pages before I gave up. There were way to many problems. Read that post by following this link.]

Previously I had written a post entitled The Problem with "The Kolob Theorem", and in revisiting the topic I thought that I should expound on why I think The Kolob Theorem to be problematic. This post is intended to replace my previous review of The Kolob Theorem, but I will leave the other post up for anyone who cares to read it, but I will say that I wrote it in one of my less charitable moments. This post will hopefully be a little less harsh, but more instructive of why The Kolob Theorem presents a problem in LDS theology. For reference, I have recently been reading the book Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology by Erich Robert Paul, which has prompted me to recast my critique of The Kolob Theorem in a different light.

The first time I encountered The Kolob Theorem I was at my wife's grandparents house. Someone had loaned my wife's grandmother the book and I saw it sitting on a table and was intrigued by the title and wanted to know what it was about. I only took a quick glance through the book but it was enough to make my skin crawl. There were in fact two reasons for my seemingly severe negative reaction to the book. The first was that there were critical scientific errors in the book that effectively invalidated the whole argument, and the second was that I realized that most people would be unaware of these critical errors and thereby base their understanding of scripture on a foundation of incorrect science.

What made this second reason so problematic was that as an astronomer I would most likely be asked about it (and I was) and I would have to very carefully and politely explain that while the science was extremely off base the religious aspect of the book was not. In other words, I realized that whenever I would be asked about this book I would be faced with the dilemma of having to state quite clearly that the book was wrong, and do so without destroying someone's faith in the scriptures or causing the person to also reject all of science in the process. Essentially the dilemma is that on the one hand I want to emphasize the problems and misconceptions that went into the theorem, without causing people to react and go to the other extreme of rejecting everything that went into the theorem including both the science in general and the specifics of the revelations. This dilemma is much more difficult to deal with than people realize, and it also comes up more frequently than most people are aware of. Perhaps I am just a little more sensitive to this problem due to my being an astronomer, and therefore I become the local "go-to guy" to resolve these issues and thus I have to deal with things like this on a semi-frequent basis.

The Kolob Theorem is part of group of theological writings that are called natural theology. Strictly speaking, natural theology denotes a fundamental approach to theology as opposed to a specific theology. Thus natural theology is not confined to any one religion or church. The main trust of natural theology is to verify one's religion using arguments from the prevailing scientific theories and observations of the day. It is in effect an attempt to argue that one's religion is true based on the latest and greatest theories in science. This is problematic because if the latest and greatest theories are shown to be wrong then that automatically calls into question the theology and religion of the natural theologian.

Dr. Hilton's book is a prime example of the process, and problems, of natural theology. Starting with some basic astronomy, he moves on to make a theological argument about where God lives and where the three degrees of glory are located. As Erich Robert Paul pointed out in his book on Mormon cosmology, Joseph Smith never attempted to reconcile the knowledge of astronomy from the Book of Abraham, or the three degrees of glory with any contemporary astronomical observations. Thus Dr. Hilton is attempting what Joseph Smith never attempted. This may be very commendable and courageous, or more likely it may prove to be premature and problematic. To consider why this is problematic we need to consider other failed attempts at natural theology.

In the middle ages there was a type of world map called a T-O map that was common in the religious books at the time.
A reconstruction of a T-O map. Image from Wikipedia. Usually the map is represented with Asia (east) on top.
The purpose of the T-O map is to show the general layout of the world and how it reflects Christian theology. These maps were made to show how certain Christian doctrines are symbolically part of the world. The world is laid out in such a way that the cross of Christ is evident, with Jerusalem at the center (the cross being formed by the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile and the Don rivers). There was more symbolism in the O of the ocean surrounding the land (the complete, eternal circle of God, and water from the water and the blood). While the map may have been useful to teach certain religious doctrines, it is not very accurate when compared to an actual map of the world.
The T-O map superimposed on a modern map. Image from Wikipedia.
The way Dr. Hilton attempts to show the location and structure of the three degrees of glory only makes sense when using a very simplified map of the galaxy. Much in the same way that the T-O map of the world is only theologically useful when you assume a very simplified structure to the world. While the T-O map may be theologically instructive, it is rather useless as an actual map that may be used to get from point A to point B.

The end result is that the theological argument gets based on a very simplified, and very inaccurate, map of the world. The same happens with The Kolob Theorem. Dr. Hilton uses an excessively over simplified "map" of a galaxy to make a theological argument. The end effect of the theorem is to place the veracity of the revealed word, the scriptures, on a specific scientific theory or observation. To a natural theologian this is the desired result, but this has the unintended result of making revelation depend on something that may not be true, or that may change as our understanding changes. This is precisely the problem that plagues The Kolob Theorem.

For example, Dr. Hilton includes a quote from a famous astronomer, Fred Hoyle, to back up part of his theorem. The quote, found on page 25 of the book, comes from 1955 and at the time it expressed the current understanding of how stars formed in galaxies. But our understanding of astronomy has changed since then and parts of the view as expressed in Fred Hoyle's quote no longer reflects our understanding of star formation.

By basing part of his argument on a specific scientific theory, or insight, Dr. Hilton does himself a disservice because he places the interpretation and veracity of revealed scripture on something that can and will most likely change as we gain greater understanding of how the universe works. He is in effect setting himself up, and setting up his faith and by extension, the faith of others, to be disproven when the next largest telescope gets built and we find out more about the universe. That is, for me, a very problematic result to his theory. I would not want members of the Church to base their faith, testimony, or understanding of the scriptures on something that is already demonstratively false and will become more so as we gain new insights into the universe though our astronomical observations.

So in his attempt to make the latest and greatest astronomical observations into something "faith promoting", Dr. Hilton enters the realm of natural theology which "opens up a whole new can of worms" which may be more troublesome than Dr. Hilton realizes. Because the current astronomical observations are just that, current, they will grow old and become yesterday's observations and then last century's observations, and all the theories that they produced will have changed. This does not mean that we should reject all astronomical observations and untrue, unimportant or insignificant, but rather we should resist the temptation to base our faith on something that has proven throughout history to change. There should be a better foundation to our faith than the latest and greatest theories of science.

Also as a final note, I realize that many people are impressed with this book mostly because they have never considered the implications of what is written in the Book of Abraham and in the Doctrine and Covenants. Many of the positive comments posted on about the book are from people that say that the book "opened their eyes" or "made them think about their religion in a different way" and how it made "the plan of salvation more real". While I can't argue with their own personal feelings (and if the book did prompt them to investigate the scriptures more, then good I'm all for that), I do wish to temper their enthusiasm with the realization that to base our theology, faith and religion on something like The Kolob Theorem will ultimately result in a challenge to our faith and will not be "faith promoting" in the end. The truth of God is more amazing than anything that you will find in The Kolob Theorem.

[Want to read some more? Try the comments below and also my new post "Revisiting the Kolob Theorem".]

Place Holder Title

Probably the biggest problem with The Kolob Theorem by Dr. Lynn M. Hilton is that it is impossible to fully explain in a single blog post why it is wrong. The worst part is that it is written so that it sounds semi-official and it deals with a subject that few people understand, but many people are familiar with, namely Astronomy. This creates a problem because while the author is writing about things that many people have heard about (i.e. stars, the milky way, and black holes etc.) he is making assertions or assumptions about how galaxies, stars and black holes work that most people cannot verify, let alone understand. And it is precisely these assumptions that contain the problem with The Kolob Theorem.

Dr. Hilton is in effect using a Wikipedia understanding of galaxies as the basis of The Kolob Theorem, which means he is writing about things that many people have heard about in 8th grade science class, newspaper articles, magazines and word of mouth. This means that the words he is using (i.e. stars, dust lanes, color (this is an important one), Milky Way, black hole) are words that people have heard and have a colloquial understanding of the definition the words. The problem with this is that it creates a false sense of understanding and an inflated perception of the truthfulness of what he is saying. He does this by having the minor facts correct (yes, the center of the galaxy is in the direction of Sagittarius) but the overall, and arguably more critical facts, he gets wrong, very wrong (such as interpreting the colors in pictures of the Andromeda Galaxy).

The most annoying part of this is that it makes it impossible for someone like me to explain why it is wrong. The only reason why I can read Dr. Hilton's book and immediately recognize what is wrong with it is because I have been studying physics and astronomy for many years. I already have one degree in physics and will have my second within a few months. This means that it has taken me 7+ years of college to get to the level where I can read The Kolob Theorem and immediately recognize it as factually misguided. So don't expect me to be able to explain everything, or even a small part, of what is wrong with The Kolob Theorem in a single blog post. If someone wants to understand exactly what is wrong with The Kolob Theorem, perhaps the easiest way is to get a degree in astronomy (or physics will do) and then it will be easier to understand what is wrong with the theorem, at least from a scientific standpoint.

I have reservations about saying that because my readers my think that I am expressing an elitist view of things, and that I am saying that those who have not "paid the price" should not be allowed to express their views. I sincerely think that this is not the case. I definitely value the opinion and views of experts, while at the same time acknowledging their fallibility as humans, and recognize that in some aspects we have a limited understanding, but this does not in anyway lessen or invalidate my criticism of The Kolob Theorem. What makes Dr. Hilton's book so wrong is that he gives the impression that he is giving an accurate and authoritative view of astronomy when in fact he is not. His many quotes from astronomers, such as Fred Hoyle, give the impression that the astronomy aspect of the book is "correct" and authoritative. As an example of why this is a false impression, taking Fred Hoyle's quote from page 25 of the book, the quote comes from 1955 and at the time it expressed the current understanding of how stars formed in galaxies. But our understanding of astronomy has changed since then and parts of the view as expressed in Fred Hoyle's quote no longer reflects our understanding of star formation. To someone who is not familiar with the field of astronomy, like Dr. Hilton, this important point would be missed. And even by saying this I do not mean that everything Fred Hoyle said is now considered incorrect, just parts of it, and to explain which parts would take an entire blog post.

In the end the thing that kills The Kolob Theorem, from a purely scientific standpoint, is that while Dr. Hilton mixes in a lot of correct factual information, which can easily be verified by consulting any standard undergraduate astronomy textbook, with either outdated, or flat-out incorrect ideas of galactic structure and star formation. Part of this is due to the fact that of the sources used by Dr. Hilton the most recent astronomy source was published in 1982. A lot has changed in astronomy since then. If Dr. Hilton wants some reliable books to learn about galactic dynamics and structure, I would suggest Binney and Tremaine and Binney and Merrifield (two different books) along with Carroll and Ostlie to start. That would get a basic understanding of galaxies and astronomy which would greatly alter the way he views the subject and would show why his theory suffers from so many intractable errors.

As a final note, my assessment of The Kolob Theorem only touches on the astronomical aspects of the theory and in no way addresses the religious aspect. The only errors and failings I have talked about deal with Dr. Hilton's use or understanding of astronomy and not anything dealing with religion or religious interpretation. My purpose in writing this is to point out, to put it bluntly, that his understanding of astronomy is severely lacking and that his use of so much factual astronomical information hides the gaping errors in his reasoning that obfuscate the problems to the point that only someone who has spent several years in research astronomy (and not astronomy as a hobby) could see the failings in his theory. None of the reviews I could find online were written by anyone who had any serious training in astronomy and thus could not comment on the veracity (or lack there of) of the science being presented.

PS: If anyone has any specific questions regarding the astronomy found in Dr. Hilton's book, feel free to contact me or leave a comment with your question and I will try my best to explain it. I realize that that is a rather open ended request for questions so you can also ask me list a few of the specific errors I found particularly egregious in his book. I just won't take the time unless someone actually wants to know.

PPS: To just throw out two things that are problematic; Dr. Hilton's basic concept of galactic structure as shown on page 46 is incorrect (by the way, the Milky Way is probably a barred spiral). And galactic structure is a lot more complex than Dr. Hilton puts forth. This includes: dwarf galaxies, ultra compact dwarfs, barred spirals, ellipticals, mergers, galactic cores etc.

[Original comments]

Cartesian: "I am not a Mormon and I have not heard about this book, but for the galaxies, it seems that it is possible to think that there are different stages in the life of a spiral galaxy and that the different types are these different stages."

EDL: "Admitting at the outset that I am neither a physicist nor an astronomer (I am a Ph.D. psychologist), I nevertheless feel compelled to share two observations that came to mind as I read your critique of Dr. Hilton's book, a book which I have found extremely thought-provoking in terms of its attempt to reconcile the scriptural and astrophysical bases for past and future changes in the earth's state and its orbit within the galaxy. My first observation is this: in graduate school, one quickly learns that there are two ways to gain scholarly recognition---(a) put forth a new theory or paradigm; or (b) disprove an existing theory or paradigm. While both (a) and (b) are essential in the ongoing scientific process, (a) usually requires much more time, effort, and persistence, comparable to that of constructing a building---shovel by shovel, board by board, brick by brick. On the other hand, (b) largely consists of pointing out flaws in the brickwork or the notion that newer materials should have been utilized, etc. Such seems to be the case in your criticism of Hilton's "building." If you truly believe you don't have sufficient blog space to provide a definitive or adequate critique---but just enough space to flash your credentials---then perhaps you should remedy this deficiency in a future blog (or series of blogs if necessary). Otherwise, you are committing a condescending, self-serving injustice: you are discouraging potential readers from discovering a paradigm which, though imperfect, provides the single most cogent attempt thus far for reconciling astrophysics with the references in ancient and modern scripture regarding past and future changes in the earth's state and orbit. 
My second observation is this: what your Hilton critique focuses on, contrasted with what it ignores, is comparable to the city slicker who walks into the Sistine Chapel and proceeds to exclaim, "Just look at these dusty, pitted floors!"---totally oblivious to the breath-taking expanse overhead. While you continue gazing at the floors, I (and many others) will continue gazing at the ceiling. 

Ed Lauritsen"

quantumleap42: "Ed thanks for your comment.

Perhaps I should clarify a few things about what I wrote. Using your building example, my criticisms of Dr. Hilton's book are not merely a cosmetic critique of the building, i.e. I am not concerned about the color or lay of the bricks, but I was expressing my concern of what I saw as a fundamental flaw to the entire argument. At the risk of over extending your analogy (something which is very dangerous) the "dusty, pitted floors" that I am commenting on is an observation of the unstable state of the foundation, which if it were to fail would obviously nullify any grandeur and beauty that the ceiling has to offer.

I would not have offered such a strong criticism if it were not for the fact that I viewed the problems with Dr. Hilton's astronomy to be singularly detrimental to his overall theory. Again I should emphasize that my criticisms are of his presentation of astronomy and have nothing to do with his explanation of our theology. The fatal error comes where he tries to support the theology using astronomy. In my opinion the religious writings of Joseph Smith can stand on their own, and I whole heartedly accept them as truth. So do not mistake any criticism of the astronomy for a criticism of the spiritual.

I strongly commend Dr. Hilton for his courage in attempting to reconcile astronomical understanding with spiritual understanding, but I also wish to point out that it is dangerous to mix true revelation with thinly supported and not well understood scientific understanding. The reason why I was so strident in my criticism was that I did not want anyone to base their testimony or even their understanding of true things (revelation) on an argument that cannot be supported by any scientific consensus. While The Kolob Theorem is certainly "thought-provoking" the danger lies in the direction the thoughts take afterwards.

Because of the great growth of our astronomical understanding I was well aware that at some point the issue of what has been revealed by Joseph Smith would have to be reconciled to what we know through science, but unless the conversation is started in the right direction it will ultimately lead to nowhere. Thus while I am glad that someone started the conversation and wrote "The Kolob Theorem" I am concerned that unless someone pointed out that there were problems with the astronomy then the conversation would continue on in the wrong direction creating problems later on. So my comments should be considered a course correction, and a warning, and not as a desire to kill the conversation."

quantumleap42: "I would also like to add that the reason why I did not try to explain everything that is wrong with the astronomy is because, as I pointed out in the post, I could only understand what was wrong after having taken 7+ years of physics and astronomy classes. That knowledge is surely not something that could be condensed down to a few blog posts, a series of posts, or even a series of blogs. If Dr. Hilton were willing I would like to help him and get him pointed in the right direction with regards to the astronomy. It is much more desirable that this discussion be directed in the correct direction than it is to be ended."

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Going Blind

No I am not going blind, but that laser shot that I took in my right eye as an undergrad didn't help any, but that's a different story. What I am talking about is going blind by looking at the sun. While this is not something I regularly do, or even do at all, it is something that happens occasionally to most people. Most people when they look at the sun they have a natural reflex that causes them to blink and to look away. This natural reflex usually prevents any major or long lasting damage to the retina. But occasionally people will look at the sun for extended periods of time and not realize that they are permanently damaging their eyes. Usually they do this when there is something interesting in front of the sun, such as a cloud, a planet or the moon. Sometimes with sufficient protection people can look directly at the sun and observe these interesting phenomena, but without adequate protection these short periods of solar investigation can cause serious or permanent damage.

It is for this reason that whenever there is a solar eclipse we are always advised to not look directly at the sun. When I was young I specifically remember two solar eclipses where I was very sternly warned not to look at the sun because I would go blind almost instantly. According to my siblings and classmates this danger was so severe that if we even looked anywhere in the general direction of the sky we would all be smitten with instant and permanent blindness. I distinctly remember walking through a grove of aspen trees during a family reunion being very conscious of the sky and mindful of the damage to my eyes if I so much as raised my eyes to even see the blue of the sky during the partial eclipse. Such was the power of the sun's rays during an eclipse (or so I thought) that even to see the blue sky was taboo.

I also remember a second experience where we all got out of class to go see the eclipse. Well, actually we didn't see the eclipse because we were all instructed in no uncertain terms that we were not to raise our eyes to the sky. Any young child who was so unfortunate to even see the blue of the sky would be instantly smitten with blindness, or worse, expelled. We had to use pin holes through paper to resolve images of the disk of the sun partially covered by the moon, and that was how we "saw" the eclipse. For the fortunate few who thought to bring very "special" sun glasses ($5 at Walmart) they could, for a very short time look directly at the sun, but for the rest of us unworthy folk we had to be content with our rudimentary pinhole cameras and look at the tiny images of the partially eclipsed sun.

Of course this was all overkill, because I would not have gone blind by looking at the sky, or even in the general direction of the sun, but I definitely would have if I had stopped to look at the sun for any extended period of time, which may have been significantly easier considering I had something interesting to look at, namely the eclipsing moon. But back then in my mind it was oh so very dangerous to even see the sky. For the more critical minded of us the obvious question was, "If we can look at the sun, even for an instant, and not have any permanent damage, why would it be more dangerous to look at the sun when it was being partially blocked?" A good question, to which the ready response was usually something like, "Because during an eclipse the corona of the sun glows brighter. Brighter even than normal, and brighter even than the whole sun normally does." This is of course hogwash, but so many of us believed it because we knew that under no conditions were we to look at the sun. To do so would bring about instant blindness, or so we were told. So we went on creating any number of "logical" reasons for why could not look at the sky, let alone the sun during an eclipse.

No matter how intelligent or informed the reasons seemed at the time, in retrospect they were all very foolish because they were all justifications for things we did not yet understand. For me and my classmates, our reasoning was sound, we could not look at the sun during the eclipse because corona was brighter, or the atmosphere made the part of the sun that was still visible brighter, or the light bent around the moon making the light from the sun more concentrated, or there were more UV rays during an eclipse because of the corona/atmosphere/moon/monkeys etc. In our minds it was all true and perfectly reasonable. What we failed to realize was the obvious answer, we were children and we didn't have a lot of common sense. Our teachers didn't want to have to deal with making sure that each child only looked at the sun for no more than one or two seconds, so they put the fear of God into us and told us not to look at the sun, or even to look at the sky. Can you imagine herding 30 kids (aged 9 and 10) outside and then making sure none of them were sitting there frying their eyes because they didn't have enough common sense to look away from the very, very interesting partial eclipse?

So of course they told us not to look at the sun, not because it would cause us INSTANT blindness, as many of my classmates kept insisting, or because the corona was especially bright during an eclipse, but because even though part of the sun was blocked by the moon, the rest of it was still just as bright and could easily damage our eyes. Normally us children would not sit there and stare at the sun, but suddenly we had a very good, and a very interesting reason to forget common sense, if we ever had any, and stare directly at the sun. What our teachers and parents were trying to protect us from was not the INSTANT blindness caused by the vast number of reasons we could think of, but rather the inevitable blindness that would result from too much curiosity and not enough common sense.

Perhaps if I had been older when I saw my first two eclipses then I might have had a different experience. Perhaps I may have seen through the clever arguments of my peers to see that they were just an ephemeral attempt to justify the hard-and-fast rule of "Do not look at the sun." If I had been the rebellious type I might have justified looking at the sun because the reasons my peers gave for not looking were unfounded and untrue. But this would have put me, or rather my eyes, in jeopardy because even if the reasons for not looking at the sun were entirely untrue, the fact remains that looking at the sun, especially when it is the object of curiosity such as during an eclipse, can be especially dangerous. This is not because of any increase in the amount of light but because I would override my natural instinct to look away and would slowly and steadily end up going blind.

Explanation:Now in writing this I could just leave it at that and I will have made my point, but because I always like to clarify what I write, I will continue writing and explain why I wanted to write about going blind by looking at the sun. My little story that I told about (not) seeing an eclipse is an analogy for morality. At times we are given rules to follow and they are hard-and-fast rules with little leeway. For those of us who are spiritually immature we may not understand why we are given these rules and we may even try to come up with some explanation as to why we should follow these rules, things like, "You'll be struck by lightning if God sees you!" or "The Devil will come and get you!" or "You'll be cursed with misfortune for the rest of your life." Most of these reasons rely on the assumption that anyone who breaks the rules will be instantly smitten with punishment and misfortune.

But there are those who hear these arguments and still "look at the sun" and break the rules. When no lightning bold is forthcoming they assume that the reason for the rule is silly and pointless and promptly assume that they can proceed to break every single rule and get away with it. What they fail to realize is that there was a reason for the rule, it just was not the simplified and instant reasons often given as justification. The true reason being to prevent very real and very permanent damage to ourselves or our souls. The instant lightning flash reasons for keeping the rules, aren't always the real reasons to keep the rules (sometimes the lightning does strike, but not always).

As in the case with the eclipse it is true that looking at the eclipse can cause blindness, it may not be the instant blindness like I was lead to believe in as a kid, but it will still be blindness just the same. Thus it is with the rules of God, if we break them we may not be smitten instantly or the Devil may not jump out from behind the next bush and drag us down to hell, but those who violate God's rules will be smitten (not necessarily by God, but in most cases by their own sins) and the Devil will come for their souls.

The most common result from breaking the laws of God is to be smitten with spiritual blindness and to be left to oneself to fend against the things of the world. And eventually those who do not progress and keep the commandments will lose that which they have. This is the meaning behind my story of "going blind".

Facebook is mocking me

About once a year I get a slew of emails from Facebook telling me that so and so has just written on my wall wishing me a happy birthday. This year I had about 12 emails in one day where normally I average about one every other week. So I figured that I should actually go check out my Facebook page (Yes! I do have one!). I thanked everyone for wishing me a happy birthday and confirmed the 12 or so friend requests that I managed to stack up over the past few months. I looked at what a few of my friends were up to, "liked" a video that my dad had posted and then went on my merry way, until I got another email from Facebook. I thought at first that it was someone who had noticed my recent posts or something and was commenting back. So I opened up the email and this is what I read:
First off, I have no idea who "Erika" is since I don't have ANY Facebook friends named "Erika" so why would I want to say "Hi!" to someone I don't even know after being absent from Facebook for about a year (since about my last birthday). And secondly, does Facebook really have to rub it in that I'm not using their product? I mean, I am well aware of the fact that I just went onto Facebook after about a year's absence, do they really need to tell me that obvious fact. It's like getting a letter from your hair-stylist after you go see them for the first time in a year. It's like Facebook is a needy, overly dependent "friend" who goes into a deep depression every time I leave for more than a few minutes. I mean, get a life...ok so maybe a computer program can't do that, which is why it keeps sending me desperate emails trying to get me to come see it. If I keep this up Facebook will start sounding more like an old, troublesome girlfriend...which I really don't know that much about, anyway, moving on...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Oberá District Disbanded

A number of years ago when I was serving a Mission for the LDS church I served for a few months in the city of Oberá, Misiones in Argentina. It was a very beautiful city and I really enjoyed my time there. I was sent there along with five other missionaries to help fix the district of Oberá. Normally a district will have several branches (congregations), even as many as 10 or 12, but when we got there the Oberá district (which encompassed more than just the city of Oberá) had only one branch meeting in Oberá and one group (a unit smaller than a branch) meeting in a township just outside of Oberá. Officially there were ~2400 members on the membership list for the entire district of Oberá in more than 10 towns and villages, but there were only a consistent number of about 60 people attending each week in the branch and about 10 more in the group meeting. This is an activity rate of about 3%, compared to the normal activity rate in other areas of my mission which ranged from 20% to 50%.

At the time I was sent there there were only two missionaries there but they brought the total to six for the special assignment of trying to find every member officially listed on the membership roll and determine if they still wanted to be a member of the Church. They gave us the membership records of everyone in the district and told us to go find them.

I was amazed at the number of people that we actually found, but there were also some terrible addresses that were a nightmare to find. The city of Oberá was a hodgepodge of random streets and even more random addresses. While part of the city was very well layed out, there were others that were not. On top of that there were sections of the city that were orderly with very disorderly sections inbetween, and sometimes the orderly sections had grown to the point where they were now overlapping, thus creating disorder out of their individual order (by this I mean that there were neigborhoods that were layed out in a very nice grid pattern, but the different grid patters did not line up so when they met there was a mess of cross and diagonal and crooked streets). To give you an idea here is a screenshot from Google Maps of part of the city:
Imagine walking those streets without a map and trying to figure out how they worked, using only your mental map of where you have been. On top of that each organized neighborhood had its own numbering system which did not use a city wide reference but used an internal reference. For example, if we were on Avenida San Martín and the numbers on the houses were in the 400's then we could walk for 100 meters and cross over into the next barrio, and while technically we were still on San Martín the numbers would now be in the 100's. In some cases the postal service took it upon itself to redo the numbering system, but as they were reissuing house numbers in some neighborhoods they got partway through the neighborhood and stopped before all the houses got new numbers. There was one street we were on that started off numbering in the 100's. We went to the next block at it went to the 200's. The next block was the 300's but partway through the fourth block the numbers went back to the 100's, but only on one side of the street about halfway up the block. We wandered up and down the street for a few minuets noticing that some of the houses we had passed had some odd or random numbers. We eventually clapped at a random house and asked the lady of the house how the numbers worked. She explained that a few years previously the post office had been renumbering the houses but they never finished. She then directed us to the correct house that we were looking for.

Another time we were looking for a house numbering somewhere in the low 100's. We got to the end of the street and we began to walk down it looking at the numbers. They started at about 200 and went down from there. When we got to about where the house should have been there was no house, just a deep ravine with a stream at the bottom. We continued on thinking that it must be on the other side. When we got to the other side of the stream the next house number was lower than the one we were looking for but we kept walking anyway. Pretty soon the numbers went below 100 until it got to about 76 where the numbers began to rise again all the way to the 170's and then proceeded to fall again until finally we got to the right house (number 113 I think, right between 89, on the up number side, and 103 on the down number side). We talked to the people there and commented on the numbers they explained to us in a very matter of fact way that they used to live up by the ravine but a number of years ago they moved and when they did they took the house number with them, as if that were the logical and natural thing to do. It seems like many people on that street did the same thing.

Finally the six missionaries got fed up with the addresses and streets so we went to the municipality and asked the people working there if they had a map of the city. They did not have a map to give us but they did have a large map on their wall that they maintained to show things like utilities and power lines. That day we were looking for a particular street that no one had ever heard of. We asked the municipal workers about the street and they had never heard about it, nor had it on their map. We continued our investigation and went to the local tourist visitor center. Remarkably they had a map. It was not complete but it would do. We also asked them about the mysterious road that we were trying to find. They had not heard about it. This continued one day until we were talking to a member in the branch who had actually heard of the street we were looking for. He said his mother and some other members of his family lived on it. He then proceeded to explain where it was and we realized that we had actually been there. Many times. We had actually walked down the street we were looking for about 20 or 30 times already. The reason why it did not show up on any maps was because it was not an official street, but the odd thing was that it was a very well established street, just not official. We went there and talked to people that lived there and found out that they had been living there for about 20 years. In other words this street had been in use and had well established houses on it (with power!) for about 20 years and the municipality had never known of its existence! Below I have marked the "non-existent" street in red and marked some of the recognized and "official" streets in green around it.
It was quite the adventure to try and find all these people, but there were some remarkable stories where we in a random neighborhood and we stopped at a random house and it turned out that just the person we were looking for happened to be there (as in the person that was literally next on our list to find). Officially their address was in another part of the city, but they just happened to be visiting there that day and had been wondering how to get in touch with the missionaries because they were thinking about coming back to church, but didn't know how. There were many, many of these stories that we had.

After walking the city for months we had finally taken about 500 people off the membership lists. That was just in the city of Oberá where we had ~1600 members on the membership rolls. So overall I actually decreased the total membership of the church on my mission, quite significantly actually. When I got to Oberá they were talking about disbanding the district and having it become part of the Stake in Posadas. Apparently last year they finally did it and now they have officially disbanded the district. Somehow I'm not surprised. The branch in Oberá will continue, and they have a beautiful chapel now, but it will be some time before there is another district there again.

Here is Oberá on Google Maps if you want to explore.

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