(As a scientist for many decades and a Christian for even longer, I have no problem blending the two perspectives. I wanted to come up with something to write specifically for this Daily Prompt, but instead, I will supply this short story which should provide insight into how I would view faith.)
“Special delivery for Dr. Pennefather. Can you sign for it?” Having been very busy all morning, the student hadn’t heard the knock. The man seemed to come from nowhere. Will Sanders looked up from his lab bench to see a short, moustached man in his early twenties wearing a brown courier suit.
“Sure,” said Will, “I can sign.” Though he felt as if he’d done this before, he couldn’t remember ever getting a package delivered this way at the lab.
The delivery man left, and Will decided to walk down the hall to check his box for regular mail. A secretary stopped him in the hall.
“Oh, Will. There’s another box for Pennefather’s dating service. It’s by my desk.” The joke had long since lost its punch. A few months back Will and Dr. Pennefather had published an article describing a new technique for identifying the age of – or dating – fossils, bones, or other historical artifacts. The technique was found to be more accurate than carbon-14 dating, but its major advantage was that the test could be performed in a manner that completely nondestructive. The process involved merely reflecting microwaves of a certain frequency off the material to be tested, and then collect the residual energy which bounced off, using a special sensing device developed by Dr. Pennefather. The age of the material could be estimated to within a few decades after only a few minutes of testing.
The new test was of interest to archeologists, paleontologists, historians, as well as to physical chemists who were awed by the simple elegance of the technique. Will considered himself lucky to have joined the chemistry graduate school when he did. Now Colin P. Pennefather and William A. Sanders would forever be inscribed in the literature as the developers of the microwave dating technique. Requests for reprints of the paper had slowed somewhat, but they still came in at a rate that far exceeded anything the department had seen in twenty years. And now the requests for dating of materials outnumbered the requests for reprints. Scientists from all over the world sent packages of petrified bones, plant fossils, ancient artwork and literature with requests for estimation of the age. As long as this testing did not seriously interfere with Will’s thesis project, Dr. Pennefather wanted Will to go ahead and test these materials in his spare time. After all, it was good PR for the university and for Dr. Pennefather.
Back at the lab, Will opened the box he picked up from the office.
“What’s in the box?” asked Dr. Pennefather. He had emerged from his office a bit blurry-eyed, with an unlit pipe held tightly in his teeth.
“It looks like some cave drawings on a couple rocks,” answered Will, “or else it’s something my little nephew did on our camping trip last month.” Dr. Pennefather did not see the humor. He marched out the door on his way to lunch. There was little you could say to him, save an exciting experimental finding, that could detour him off course to the faculty club this close to noon.
Will’s stomach growled. Lunch sounded like a great idea. On his way out the door to grab his lunch, he remembered the special delivery box. Why, he had placed it between two machines on the lab bench and had forgotten all about it. It was about the size of the smaller machine: a rectangle about 2 feet by 6 inches by 6 inches.
He walked over to it and looked at the label. It was from Rome, Italy. Probably something from some ancient ruin. But no, the box was too light to contain the usual broken pottery or bones. Will tore off the strange black tape around the outside, and he attempted to pry open the top. Then he noticed the top was split so that only a third of the top could be lifted off. In the open third of the box was a piece of paper with some very detailed instructions on dating the material. Under the instructions was a cellophane wrapper housing what appeared to be a piece of cloth, old and yellowed, but with no designs or inscriptions. Will couldn’t tell for sure without investigating further, but the cloth looked as though it was protruding from a hole that would open into the larger compartment of the box. His stomach would not afford him the luxury of further investigation now; the mystery would have to wait until after lunch.
Often Will ate lunch with some of the other students, but today he felt solitary. Opening his brown bag under the shade of an elm, his thoughts drifted to a discussion he’d had with Dr. Pennefather at the Dusty Rose bar and grill last week. It wasn’t widely known, but after some long days in the lab – and there seemed to be no shortage of them lately – Dr. Pennefather and Will, Dr. Branigan and his favorite student, Rob Johnson, would head out for drinks and peanuts. Rarely, if ever, would a professor-student pair allow themselves to be seen in such a setting, but the presence of another such pair seemed to legitimize this meeting, especially as a reward for a long day’s work.
Early in the evening, Rob mentioned something about a new finding he’d heard about on the news. Bad move, Rob, thought Will. The finding had to do with the power the mind had over the body.
“Apparently in people with multiple personalities,” Rob went on, “if one of these persons is allergic to something, and then eats it, he’ll get hives. Then if another personality takes over, the hives clear up…apparently within minutes.”
“Then if the allergic person is psychic, too, will his spoon bend when he tries to pick up the offending food?” asked Dr. Pennefather out of the side of his mouth. He chuckled slightly and noticed that Dr. Branigan was smiling.
Rob hesitated awhile and then fired back.
“It means that we may actually have the power to heal ourselves.” Rob would not quit. Will looked away. In spite of the fact that the paper would appear in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, and with high praise from the reviewers, it wouldn’t matter to Dr. Pennefather now. Any finding that would show up in the popular press before it appears in a scientific journal has got to be suspect, he would say. At least that’s what he would say if he was completely sober. Dr. Pennefather’s normally skeptical tone was being transformed by scotch to a biting sarcasm.
“Maybe that would explain how Oral Roberts does his healings, don’t you suppose, Will?” Dr. Pennefather knew that Will usually went to church and could not be found in the lab on Sunday mornings, but he usually kept his opinions about religion at least partially veiled. If Will could only make the professor understand that he shared some of the same agnostic beliefs, that he disagreed with many of the church’s doctrines, that he was only seeking a form of truth that included his scientific world, and that of all of the personalities that fall under the heading of Religion, he particularly abhorred the evangelists of the Oral Roberts type. Will doubted that Dr. Pennefather would ever allow himself to consider these topics for even a few seconds.
“Yeah, maybe so,” answered Will, “Wish Oral could heal the NMR so I could identify that sample from Duke.” Dr. Pennefather’s laugh dimmed. The nuclear magnetic resonance spectrophotometer, or NMR, had been broken for two weeks. Dr. Pennefather promised to have it fixed when Will first noticed the problem, but thinking he might fix it himself, and then finding more important things to do, he had let it slide. The conversation quickly changed to Dr. Branigan’s impending sabbatical.
Will slid a little against the rough bark of the shade tree and smiled. As he thought back on that evening at the Dusty Rose, he was proud of the way he had asserted himself over Colin Pennefather. It’s not something he would want to do very often. Although he was concerned, of course, with simply making it through the graduate program – a feat that is always easier if one has an amiable relationship with one’s advisor – he truly admired the man. Still, it was good to know he could stand up to the professor should the need arise.
Folding his brown sack, Will looked toward the building near where he was sitting. Construction workers had begun their afternoon’s work. Will’s eyes fell upon a black box with a handle on top near a ladder. Someone was descending from the ladder and reached to open the box. Will straightened up. The experience seemed uncannily familiar. He watched carefully as the man unfastened the latch and opened it to retrieve a wrench. Will sighed, looked over at the river in the distance, and then he remembered the box he had left in the lab. What was in it? And why had it come by special delivery? The answers could wait no longer.
Will was back in the lab in five minutes. He opened the lid to reveal the beige cloth in cellophane, but then he decided he should read the instructions before he investigated further. He read on:
Aug. 3, 2010
Dear Dr. Pennefather,
I am an archeologist studying the ancient ruins of the city of
Pompeii. We recently came upon this cloth which was discovered by
a colleague of mine among rare artefacts in a museum in Rome.
Since the design on the cloth is similar to that found in the
vicinity of Pompeii before the Mt. Vesuvius buried the city, we
believe it might belong to that culture.
If you would be so kind, he would like for you to date the
piece with your microwave technique. We have wrapped it in
cellophane under nitrogen to protect it from moisture. In
addition, as per the instructions of the museum, much of the cloth
(the part containing the design), is concealed within the box. The
paint used on this cloth is very sensitive to light. We trust that
you will not attempt to open this section of the box. Serious
consequences may need to be imposed should there be evidence of
The letter went on describing how to send the box and the results back, and it was signed by a Dr. Memex. Nothing unusual, thought Will. Except for the threat of “consequences”. He looked back at the box, now open to reveal both the large and small compartments. How could this be?, thought Will. When he left for lunch the covering over the large compartment seemed impenetrable. At least the cellophane maintaining the cloth under nitrogen appeared to be intact. Will could not resist. He took the cloth out of the box and gave it a quick glance. There was a crude image of a person, more dense and identifiable as such in some places than in others. An instant later he thought about the light-sensitive paint and quickly but carefully placed the cloth as it had been in the box.
On the way to tell Dr. Pennefather, Will remembered where he had seen another cloth with a similar image. Time magazine had recently run a story on a cloth reported to be the burial garment of Jesus Christ. What was it called? It had a funny name. Something like “cloud”. Will slowed up. His eyes widened. He had to sit down and think over a few things. Should he tell Pennefather? After a few seconds, it was clear to him there was no choice. The question was how. Although he wanted to treat it like any other specimen, that would be impossible. The “Shroud of Turin.” That’s what it was called.
Will found Dr. Pennefather in his office updating his literature files. It was a good time to interrupt him; he hated this task, and usually welcomed any diversion. Dr. Pennefather looked up from the paper he was reading, smiled, and said in a quizzical tone, “Hello.”
“Sorry to bother you,” started Will, “but a specimen came in today for dating, and I think you should look at. I have reason to believe that the person who sent it is not the rightful owner.”
It was not entirely honest, but Will was hoping this angle would get the professor’s attention.
Dr. Pennefather scowled over the top of his reading glasses and set down his paper.
“What makes you think that?,” asked the professor.
“Well, only part of the specimen–an old cloth–was intended to be accessible for testing,” said Will, “and the instructions indicated that there would be dire consequences if there was any evidence of our tampering.”
“Uh, that’s not all. There’s more,” continued Will.
“I’m not sure how it happened. I just left for lunch and came back to open the package. After reading the letter I noticed the whole box was open, exposing the whole specimen.” In spite of his efforts, Will’s voice became shaky. “It’s not just any old cloth. I believe it may be the Shroud of Turin…you know…the cloth said to be the burial cloth of Jesus. They want us to date it to establish or refute its authenticity. But they didn’t want us to know what it was.”
There was a flicker in the professor’s eye which quickly went out. He immediately focused on the paper in his hands.
“Let me finish this article and I’ll come to the lab for a look.” Dr. Pennefather did not look up. Will left and ambled down the hall.
Once back at the lab, Will stared at the box. He began to lift a corner of the large compartment, but then he put it down. In order to keep busy, he washed some lab glassware that had been sitting in the sink. He wondered what was taking Dr. Pennefather so long. This had to be the most interesting specimen they’d examined, and yet to Dr. Pennefather the Shroud of Turin was just another old cloth. Then he heard footsteps.
“Where’s the letter?” The professor had hardly entered the room when he spoke. Will handed him the letter, which Dr. Pennefather scanned briefly.
“So what’s the big deal?” blurted out Colin Pennefather. Then the tired professor read the letter a second time, sitting down, more slowly. His reading speed seemed to decrease and his attention increased with each line. When he had finished, a grin on his face had turned to a hint of a smile. He looked up at his student colleague.
“Will, I’ve got a faculty meeting this afternoon. Why don’t you spend a little time in the library and find out about this…”shroud.” Just get me anything on it.”
‘Anything?…everything!’ thought Will. But all he said was, “Yes, sir.”
The library would not be open long enough for Will. He began by looking for the Time article. Then he did a computer search of newspaper articles. Although an article on the shroud appeared in some major newspaper every few months, there was usually very little new. Most of them discussed how many Christians believed
that it was the burial cloth of Christ and hoped that this was a modern-day revelation from God. Skeptics pointed out that it could have been painted by a clever artist in the middle ages, although no one could explain the exquisite three-dimensional quality of the image of the man on the cloth. Fiber analysis indicated that the cloth could well have come from pre-Christian Palestine. Close examination revealed that the image was of a man in his early thirties that had apparently been crucified. Blood stains existed in all the places that would be predicted from the Biblical account, including those below the hairline where presumably a crown made of thorns had been. Nearly all the news clippings detailed these things, and nearly all of them conceded that the main problem for establishing its authenticity was that the cloth had never been made available for dating.
Will moved on to more scholarly sources. Although journal articles were almost nonexistent, he did come across several helpful books. He learned that no pigment had been found in the cloth, but that it did contain iron oxide, a constituent of blood. He also found a great deal about the history of the shroud–who originally owned it, when it had been stolen, when it was rescued from fire. For about 150 years–between 1204 and 1353–there were no reliable records of its existence. Other than that, and especially after that period, the records were so detailed that Will could not keep them straight. After a day and a half in the library, he headed to the lab. He felt like a pack mule under the weight of the books in his backpack, but he marched like a crusader.
Will could have predicted it, but for his own fresh zeal: Dr. Pennefather only wanted a picture of the shroud to compare with the cloth in the lab. He was not the least bit interested in the details.
“So let’s run the test,” said Colin Pennefather. Will brought the specimen to the dark room, while his advisor calibrated the equipment. Will was careful to take out a small portion of the cloth, as instructed, and ironed it carefully with gloved hands.
Nearby, Dr. Pennefather scribbled a few notes into his notebook. He said that he was almost ready.
“Take out the whole cloth,” said Dr. Pennefather. His tone of voice indicated that he meant business.
“But the note said…”
“I don’t care. I have my reasons.” Will could not guess what those were, but he ceased his protest. He wanted another look at the shroud anyway.
“I want to take readings from all portions of the specimen,” said Dr. Pennefather, “That will require use of this makeshift collector, and we’ll have to leave the beam on for about two seconds. I brought these glasses to protect our eyes.”
They mounted the large, curved piece of metal on the wall. This improvisation was designed to bounce the residual microwave energy into the machine’s detector. After extinguishing the lights and turning on the infrareds, Will lifted the lid of the box and placed the cloth on the table. Each unfolding was slow and intentional. Finally it lay flat. The image was ghostly enough in the daylight, but it took on an especially eerie quality in the red light. It appeared to float for a bit. Will blinked. His eyes must be playing tricks on him.
“Turn on the beam, Will, and I’ll adjust the collector,” Dr. Pennefather’s voice caused Will to jump.
“Sorry. Were you expecting somebody else?” Will didn’t appreciate humor at this time. He turned on the microwave beam and watched the collector as it was being adjusted. Once adjustments were made, the two stood back, like two boys standing in line for their first roller coaster ride. Quite by accident, Will bumped into the frequency knob so that the wrong frequency microwaves were bombarding the cloth.
“Damn,” said Will, “Sorry, I bumped the knob.” He reached to set the knob back.
“No! Leave it.” Colin Pennefather’s voice was higher pitched than usual. “Look!”
Will looked up at the metal mirror with incredulous eyes. There before the two of them lay a holographic image of the man on the cloth. It was no longer a two-dimensional specimen; it had depth and perspective. Colin Pennefather turned to glance at Will, his eyes as big as baseballs. The look made Will shiver. Their two mouths hung open like giant steam shovels. Will noticed that when he tilted his head slightly, he could get a different side view – and not just a slightly different view, as can be observed on modern holograms. Moving his head only an inch allowed him to see a great distance around the side of the body!
Colin Pennefather apparently had not noticed this phenomenon. With intense, slightly squinted eyes, he studied the face as if he were an art critic.
“…the bruise on the forehead…the faint, worn appearance given by the few wrinkles, the painful grimace…the tightening around the lips…all these things give testimony to human suffering.”
Will had never known the professor to have a propensity for art, but then he had to confess there were probably many things he did not know about this man. Will’s eyes wandered over the image and came to rest on the legs.
“…and those eyes…even closed they look warm and peaceful,” droned Colin Pennefather. “No artist could capture these qualities in such depth.”
And then Will noticed something inexplicable about the image. It took a few seconds to sink in. At first it seemed like something was just a little bit askew. But then his discontent grew into a joy that obliterated everything else. Will looked up at the image and back to the cloth. He was right.
“The…the eyes on the specimen…they’re open!” Will’s words brought the professor out of the museum and into the laboratory. Sometime during the discovery, or during his relating it to the elder scientist–Will could not be sure–he bumped the frequency knob again. The image on the metal mirror was gone. In the commotion Will had missed Pennefather’s reaction to the open eyes.
“Turn it back.”
“I’m trying but it won’t come.”
“Let me try it.” But in spite of their efforts, the image could not be restored.
“Well, let’s begin the dating,” Dr. Pennefather said in a monotone. Will adjusted the frequency knob and gave the specimen a two second blast of microwaves.
“What’s the reading?” he asked.
“Fourteen-point-one-zero,” came the answer. Although he had calculated it before, Will wasted no time double checking it. Yes, indeed. The number translated into the year 10 A.D. Since the technique could only insure correct dating within 50 years, the date for the cloth could be anywhere from 40 B.C. to 60 A.D., dates contemporary with the time of Christ.
“It’s true, then,” Will blurted out, “This is the burial cloth of Christ.”
“Not so fast,” said Dr. Pennefather, “we need two more readings.” Sure we need two more readings, thought Will. It was a precaution they had only recently implemented. But in Will’s experience, no reading had been more than 30 years from the average.
It was not to be this time. The second reading translated into the year 2900 A.D. The two scientists stared at each other for only a fraction of a second. Dr. Pennefather averted his gaze. Wild with speculation, Will thought about the so-called second coming of Christ. Could this reading indicate the year of that event?
The third reading indicated the year 1000 A.D. Will’s heart sank. But what could these disparate numbers mean? This had never happened.
“We better recalibrate,” said Dr. Pennefather. The professor and his student worked together, but in vain. After recalibrating, they could not get a reading from the cloth. Will retrieved two other specimens he had dated earlier that week; the readings checked out fine. The two left the darkroom, each dealing with the dilemma alone and in silence.
After two days of silence, Will could no longer keep quiet about the cloth. He promised himself that he would tell only one person–Rob Johnson, his closest grad school friend. But when Rob found out about the cloth, he couldn’t keep quiet. Soon rumors began to circulate that the Shroud of Turin was being housed at the most state-of-the-art center for dating. It didn’t take long for reporters to descend upon those hallowed halls. At first Dr. Pennefather declined to be interviewed. Then when he decided he would grant an interview, the media wanted a press conference. Dr. Pennefather consented.
When the professor told Will about the press conference, Will was elated. Just the thought of his advisor getting this kind of attention gave him his first flutter of excitement. Next came the more burning desire to see his faith validated by scientific evidence. Not just the dating, which was somewhat suspect, but the holographic image and the miraculous opening of the eyes. Colin Pennefather, of all people, was shaken by the events that took place in the darkroom, distinguished scientist that he was. Think of how valuable his testimony would be to the Christian faith among the scientific community. Colin had not been his usual boisterous self. He had kept to himself most of the time. Reflecting, Will thought.
But the day before the press conference, Will was uncomfortable with Dr. Pennefather’s behavior. The man again looked smug and all-knowing.
“Last Friday this reporter received word that the famed Shroud of Turin, the cloth said to have been wrapped around the body of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion, had been dated by Dr. Colin Pennefather. Dr. Pennefather was the inventor of the modern microwave dating technique…”
The reporter’s voice trailed off in Will’s mind. Will thought he should have been given some of the credit for the technique, but he figured this is the way it would always be.
“In a few moments the public will finally know whether the cloth is authentic. The Christian world is holding its collective breath.”
Brother, thought Will, what a crock! Even though he could scarcely contain his own thoughts about what Pennefather would say, such sensational journalism was not easy to stomach. Furthermore, he doubted whether this announcement would have anything to do with the faith of people like his devout grandmother. Surely she wasn’t holding her breath.
Will sat near the back of the auditorium, biting his lip. Rob was on his left.
“This is a better turn-out than when Hubel came,” said Rob. The Nobel laureate had drawn plenty, thought Will. But he could say nothing. Dr. Pennefather had begun to field questions.
“Tell us about the appearance of the cloth. That is, can you be sure it is the alleged Shroud of Turin?”
Dr. Pennefather explained that the resemblance of the cloth to published accounts made it highly unlikely that it could be any other.
“We have heard rumors about an unusual image from the cloth during the dating process. Can you comment on this?”
“Uh…yes. The detail on the cloth is extraordinary. If you saw it in person, your first impulse would be to conclude there was a real person under a transparent cloth. It is especially engaging under the red lights we use during dating. Other than that, there was nothing unusual about the specimen.”
“The floating image, sir.”
“There was no such image.” After a pause, the professor continued, “Any such ‘floating image’ could only be the product of the unusual lighting situation required for such a large specimen, or the product of overactive imaginations.”
Dr. Pennefather’s wry smile was brief. He looked down at his notes, and then his eyes searched into the audience. Will could not believe it. The pressure had gotten to old Pennefather. He would not alter his comfortable life, no matter what had happened to him. Will wondered if a heart attack would make a difference. Then he thought of the dating. How could he escape those questions?
“Dr. Pennefather, for once and for all, please tell us what you found to be the date of the cloth.”
Silence filled the large room.
“My very competent graduate student, Will Sanders, and I worked together on the dating. For a more accurate analysis, we attempted to assay the whole specimen. To do this, we made a special larger collector to funnel the radiation from the whole cloth. And as we do for every specimen, we took three readings. Its just a part of the scientific method. We found the average date to be 1300 A.D. Now the technique is accurate to within 50 years, meaning that the cloth could have been made any time between 1250 and 1350 A.D.”
Whispers and hushes flew everywhere.
“Are you saying sir that this could not have been the burial cloth of Jesus?”
“I am a scientist. I can only supply information on the date of the specimen. I do not pretend to be an expert on Christian history.”
Will could not take it any longer. He got up, allowing the bottom part of his cushioned seat to flip up noisily, and went for a long walk, with no doubt what he believed.