Ancient Tree Rings and a Train Car in Philly

For a news junkie like me, there are times when the news can be inspiring and other times disheartening. That was the case a few days ago.

First, I read the fascinating story of how scientists pinpointed the date that Vikings were living in North America. It was long before Columbus showed up. They proved this by examining tree rings.

Scientists know that in the year 992 there was a massive solar storm on the sun. One of the reasons life is possible here on earth is because our sun is an extremely stable star, far more stable than most other stars. So when the sun flares up it’s quite noticeable even here on earth, 93 million miles away.

The solar flare of 992 was so large that it impacted the growth of the earth’s trees. That has been proven by looking at the rings of trees from around the world that lived through the solar flare of 992.

While excavating a site of Viking activity years ago, scientists saved several tree samples from the excavation. At the time they did not know if they would ever be useful but they kept them anyway and froze them so that they would remain intact. When the discovery about the connection between solar storms and earth’s tree rings was made, the scientists studying the Vikings decided to examine the tree samples they had to see if they showed evidence of the 992 solar flare. Sure enough they did.

The reason they could pinpoint the age of the trees so accurately was because the bark was still on the tree samples. Without the bark still being on the tree samples there was no way of knowing for certain the age of the trees.

The site of this discovery is called L’Anse aux Meadows. It is located on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland in eastern Canada. Viking legends make reference to them being in North America centuries ago but until now independent scientific evidence had not been found to confirm the legends. The tree rings and other artifacts discovered at the site confirmed that Vikings lived there in the year 1021, thus making them the earliest known European visitors to North America.

That is the kind of news story that inspires me. Yet just a few minutes later I read the disheartening story of a woman who was sexually assaulted by an illegal immigrant on a commuter train in Philadelphia. According to news reports, the woman and her assailant were not alone on the train. Other passengers were in the same train car and it appears that, rather than intervene to stop the assault or call 911, some of the other riders used their phones to record what was happening.

The two stories side by side made my head spin.

I wondered if I had been on that commuter train if I would have intervened to help the woman. Another thought I pondered was, what if one of the scientists who figured out the tree rings was one of the passengers who did not intervene when that woman was being assaulted on the train? Just because a person is a brilliant scientist does not mean that person is also morally upright.

We have tremendous scientific knowledge these days but that does not mean we are closer to being kind, courageous people. I wish that progress on being good to each other would keep pace with our scientific progress.

As we move from one scientific breakthrough to another could we also strive, with equal determination, to become better people? Can people of faith such as myself be part of that effort? The story about the sun and the tree rings reminds us that we live in a very interconnected world. The story about the sexual assault reminds us that there is still much disconnect when it comes to our fellow human beings.

And speaking of disconnects, I’m sure Green Bay Packer fans will be quick to point out that, even though we know for certain now that Vikings were in North America long before Columbus got here, they still have not won a Super Bowl!

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