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Missing Variable

A couple weeks ago I had my 20wk (halfway through pregnancy) full anatomy ultrasound. This meant that the ultrasound tech used her wand to look at every single part of my baby’s anatomy. Checked to make sure the child had 10 toes and 10 fingers. Checked to make sure all of the organs were there. Basically, she used her imaging machine to make sure that the baby was healthy and progressing on schedule. (The ultrasound also gave us cute pictures like this one)

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After telling us our baby was healthy, the doctor then went on to tell us our child’s height and weight… but… how can they get the weight from just a picture? I actually discussed this question with one of my good friends who is also pregnant. First of all, we had no idea, but we’re both educated women, so we made a guess that turned out to be pretty on the nose. We guessed that they measured the baby’s head size, stomach size, and height; then they knew the average baby density and calculated the weight. First, we had a good laugh at “average baby density”, then I looked it up. The ultrasound DOES take measurements of the head and waist circumference, then instead of taking the full height into consideration, they measure the length of certain bones. Based on these numbers, and with the knowledge of some “standard measurements”, the doctor comes up with an estimate. It was interesting to know that these “estimates” can be off by 10-15%, which is a LOT when your baby only weighs a couple pounds at birth.

All of this got me thinking about how measurements are taken in science. We have a lot of really handy tools that take direct measurements. For example, a scale would be very useful and give you a weight directly with absolutely zero calculation on your part. Unfortunately, the thing we are trying to study does not always fit the needed criteria for the tool to work. In the above scenario, the baby cannot be isolated in order to be weighed on its own. It is at this point where mathematics comes in to save the day!

I’m sure you learned lots of random equations in math/science classes when you were in school. You probably remember some of them to this day. Maybe some of them were: Volume x Density = Weight, OR Force = Mass x Acceleration.

Another commonly used one is PV=nRT when measuring ideal gasses. The variables in this equation stand for Pressure x Volume = # of particles x a constant x Temperature. (R = the universal gas constant = 8.3144 J/mol*K)

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In this equation, as long as you know 4 out of the 5 variables, you can always find the 5th. Most of us use a thermometer to measure temperature, but when you are unable to directly measure that amount, you can still find it if you know the other pieces.

I’ve spent decades learning different equations and committing them to memory. I’ve spent that same amount of time using them to calculate amounts that I wasn’t able to directly measure. Even though I CAN solve for those amounts, it’s so much easier when a tool can just directly give you the answer.

These equations make me think of how we get answers from God. Sometimes God is very straightforward. Think of the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, or the Golden Rule. One line and we have the answer of exactly what God wants from us. Easy.

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Unfortunately, the list of straightforward commands given directly from the mouth of God is pretty small. For all other questions about how God wants us to live our life, we have to put the pieces together like we do with the above equations. Luckily the Catholic faith is over 2000 years old and many brilliant men and women have come before us. These predecessors have already found out a lot of the “variables”. That means all we have to do is put together the different “variables” that add up to the answer we are looking for.

This sounds easy enough, but, often, this means digging through centuries of writings to find all of the different pieces. That is a lot of work and most people don’t want to put in that effort. All too often I see people who dismiss Catholic teaching because they don’t believe that all of the “variables” are there.

For example, imagine the variables in the gas equation are pieces of Church teaching. In this example, if you wanted to know the the Pressure of a gas, you’d need n,V, R, and T. These questioning people only clearly see n and V and so they tell the Catholic Church that it can’t make the claim of P without the two missing pieces, R and T. The Church as a whole, though, is a lot better at sorting through those centuries of writings than your average Catholic and so maybe R and T are known, but not by that one questioning person.

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As a scientist who loves concrete answers, this part of faith is very frustrating. I want to be shown every little piece of evidence for how the Church came to these conclusions/teachings, but I also don’t have an infinite amount of time to spend studying all theological writings from our history. That means I have to have faith that there are people that know better than me and trust them to have all of the pieces of the equation, even the ones I don’t know. There are plenty of Catholic teachings that I don’t understand. I question them. I ask for that proof, those other variables. But when I don’t immediately get those answers or when I don’t have the time to search them out, my job is to believe, to trust. My job is to be humble enough to admit that I don’t have all of the answers.

All of us have questions about Church teaching that we want answers to. All of us probably wish those answers would come from the sky opening up and God just speaking that answer directly to us.

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Unfortunately, that is probably not going to happen. This means it is up to us to put in the effort. This week I would really encourage you to think about what questions you have. What issues are you grappling with? Then, I encourage you to read an actual, printed on paper, book/writing about that topic from a trustworthy Catholic source.

Writings from Popes are always a good place to start. Others are some of the current Catholic publishing companies such as Ascension Press, Ave Maria Press, and Pauline Media. All of these are highly vetted so that their content is not heretical. There are so many writings on every possible topic of the Catholic faith, we just have to take the time to look for them so that we can begin to put together the equation so that we can get the answer we are searching for. We must do this with prayer and with faith. I hope you are able to begin to get clarity on whatever questions you have.