Into Thin Air
By: Jim Virkler
The popular idiom “Vanish into thin air” has acquired meaning in our modern experience. It refers to a mysterious disappearance of something which is no longer visible but may still be present and real. Not always does the expression apply to a literal physical substance. It could indicate, for example, the peculiar disappearance of funds from a bank account or the loss of a large lead in a game of basketball. In the sphere of science there are some examples of visual vanishing such as the evaporation of water or sublimation of ice or snow. Visible clouds may vanish as condensed micro-droplets of clouds re-evaporate into the air.
How thin is air, we might ask? Compared with most solids and liquids in our daily experience, we answer, “Very thin.” But not until we begin studying and experimenting do we realize that air may not be all that thin. The layer of air which envelops the earth is almost all within ten miles of earth’s surface. In relation to the distances we travel to our local supermarket, the layer of air surrounding our planet is actually rather “thick.” Air fails to meet another common definition of thin: “Having few parts or components in relation to a given area.” In terms of “parts” in relation to a given volume such as one cubic meter, air has 2.5 septillion parts (molecules). We cannot see air molecules so how do we know they exist? Is there any way we may perceive the effects of these invisible molecules—2.5 septillion of them in only one cubic meter?
Let’s answer a few other questions about our proverbial “thin” air. One cubic meter of air has a mass of 1.3 kg—about 2.9 lb. In our home’s small office which also serves as a library and computer room, the 53 cubic meters of thin air has a mass of about 150 lb. This air surrounds us from every direction—top, bottom, and from every side angle of our bodies. The invisible, real, thin air which surrounds us has a number of powerful, sustaining effects on our lives.
Air is invisible matter. On our planet most matter is visible. Air, along with other types of visible matter, has mass and takes up space. Another invisible factor in our environment is energy. Energy is not matter, but it also has strong effects on our lives. Energy is the capacity to do work. This simple definition does not tell us very much about energy, its forms, or the quality and quantity of its effects. For now we will let the definition stand on its own. Other invisible factors in our environment relate to the phenomena of mind and spirit. Power of mind and spirit is not matter-based. God is Spirit (John 4:24). His existence is elevated above our matter-based existence. The power of our human mind helps us access the concept of God as Spirit. As humans we share awareness of the element of mystery concerning the reality of both mind and spirit.
Returning to the thin air surrounding us invisibly, we continue with a brief introduction to “air pressure.” Molecules of air—2.5 septillion of them in a single cubic meter—are continually zig-zagging around with kinetic (motion) energy. Our bodies and everything in our environment are being bombarded by constantly moving air molecules. The force of this bombardment is called “air pressure.” In our upcoming posts we will deal with some fascinating phenomena of air pressure, the invisible force on our bodies exerted by the impacts of billions of moving air molecules surrounding us.
A scripture verse comes to mind relating to moving air—wind: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 NIV). Air moves because of differences in air pressure from place to place. But even if there is no pressure differential capable of producing breezes or stronger winds, the pressure exerted by trillions of impacts of moving air molecules provides dozens of fascinating, impactful phenomena sustaining our everyday life.
We conclude with a family incident involving the concept of “invisible, but real.” During the Easter visit from our children and grandchildren, the conversation turned to many “invisible but real” experiences of our lives. Several days later our 3 1/2 year old grandson noticed an unusual event while taking his daily bath. His mother texted us with the ensuing conversation: “I made up another invisibility reality—air molecules! In the bathtub he put a cup upside down and I noticed that it didn’t fill with water. We talked about why, and the invisible reality of air. Then (our grandson) mentioned that God is real even though we can’t see him. Such a fun science lesson…that points to our Creator.”
The forces of constantly moving air molecules pressing back against the water from the inside of my grandson’s bath cup kept the water out of the upside down container. It balanced the force of outside air molecules pressing the water inward. Had no air been inside the cup at the beginning of the “cup experiment” the water would have immediately filled the cup. Instead, the considerable force of thin air inside the cup opposed the considerable force of the thin air outside the cup. The forces were balanced when the appropriate water level was reached.
We disclaim that our references to the invisible but real qualities of God or the many analogies of invisible but real phenomena in our experience is conclusive proof for the existence of God. The New Testament book of Hebrews offers a well argued case for the certainty of “what we do not see,” however. Taken together passages from this epistle offer thoughtful support for our theistic belief system. “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Heb. 11:3 NIV). The worldview of naturalistic, atheistic materialism becomes increasingly difficult to defend as we observe the wonders of our environment—both the visible and the invisible.
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.