Kepler Pursued God. He Found Him in Pomegranates.

How the ordered nature of the fruit found its way into modern computing.
Kepler Pursued God. He Found Him in Pomegranates.
Paul Edmonson / Mint Images / Getty

Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), the talented astronomer whose work paved the way for Newton’s Law of Gravity, ate pomegranates with curiosity. Rather than simply eating the fruit mindlessly—as an animal might—Kepler was drawn to the shape of its seeds. He was intrigued by the fact that they tended to have 12 flat faces and wondered what the cause might be.

Is curiosity such as Kepler’s an essential ingredient of the human experience? Is there a longing for knowledge somehow hard-wired into us?

Aristotle might think so. More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle described a clear distinction between humans and animals. We are, he says, unique when it comes to thinking about things—only humanity has any real “connected experience.”

As insightful as he undoubtedly was, Aristotle was beaten to the punch here. We can find the same assertion in a far earlier document—the biblical book of Job. In chapter 28, Job turns his thoughts to mining, and the search for treasures. Here, Job claims that the invention, insight, and curiosity of the human miners outshines that of the animal kingdom completely. When animals dig, it is pure survivalist instinct; when people dig, they “put an end to the darkness” and “bring hidden things to light.”

The Astronomer and the Seeds

Kepler’s interest in pomegranate seeds led him to some mathematical analysis. He decided that each individual seed would rather be a sphere, but that it was constrained and flattened by its neighbours as it the pomegranate grew. Twelve flat faces suggested a very particular configuration of seeds, and Kepler became convinced this was the most efficient way of getting spheres close together: “(This) packing will be the tightest possible, so that in no other arrangement could more pellets be stuffed into the same container.”

Nearly 400 years later, Kepler’s conjecture—which had become known as the “sphere packing problem”—was shown to be correct. In 1998, Thomas Hales of the University of Michigan used a computer to prove it. His program searched exhaustively through every conceivable arrangement, and it turned out that the pomegranate won. As remarkable as this story is in isolation, Kepler’s work has had far greater impact on humanity than just its beauty—in fact, you happen to be using it yourself, right now.

In the early days of computer science, a serious problem surfaced—that of misread information. Computers had been designed to speak to each other in words made entirely of 1s and 0s. If a 1 was read as a 0 or a 0 as a 1, the result would be nonsense. Could there be a way of teaching a computer to autocorrect any errors?

This seemingly impossible task was taken on by Richard Hamming of Bell Laboratories in 1950. As he played around with the maths of computer communication, he was led to a stunning realisation: The equations involved turned out to be identical to those in the sphere packing problem. Reimagining the 1-and-0 words as tightly packed seeds, Hamming could show that the solution already existed. Computers could indeed be taught to efficiently self-correct—by using Kepler’s pomegranate formulas.

Knowing God Through Science

This fascinating tale of interconnectedness in science, maths, nature, and technology is all well and good, but what deeper truth is there about who we are and who God is? Does God, for some special reason, want us to be scientific?

Besides Job, other biblical stories suggest we indulge our creative, connective curiosity. In 1 Kings, Solomon asks God for wisdom, he is granted it—and immediately spouts the wisdom of a botanist-zoologist: “He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.” (1 Kings 4:33–34)

Why are we made this way? If God has put science in our hearts, what is his reason for doing so? The answer is found in an unlikely place: Paul’s highly theological letter to the Romans. In the opening chapter, he explains why God might want us to study the universe: “ For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20)

The ultimate meaning of human life is this: know God. This is the core message of the Bible, repeated over and over again. The same story-arc appears throughout it pages: We were made to be in relationship with him, and yet our sinful rebelliousness complicates that. God, however, does not readily abandon us to our sin or leave us on our own: He has, always, made himself knowable again.

The most obvious example of this is Jesus—God himself coming down to our level to bring us back. Yet he has, in his kindness, also placed other clues and pointers all across creation.

As we study pomegranates or abstract mathematics or the treasures in the ground beneath us, we gain more of an understanding of the majestic character, power, and wisdom of God himself.

As such, science is a holy calling, one which God planned, endorses, and aids. Christians who are professional scientists are vital members of the God community. Scientific discoveries can tell us more about our mighty God and help us to know him better—which is the very reason he made us in the first place.

Kepler—himself a truly committed Christian—explained all this in his own worshipful words:

“For the theatre of the world is so ordered that there exist in it suitable signs
by which human minds, likenesses of God,
are not only invited to study the divine works,
from which they may evaluate the Founder’s goodness,
but are also assisted in inquiring more deeply.”

Amen!

David Hutchings is a high school physics teacher at Pocklington School near York, England. He is the coauthor of Let There Be Science—Why God Loves Science and Science Needs God(LionHudson, 2017). A regular preacher and speaker at churches, universities, and youth events, David lives in York with his wife, Emma, and their two young daughters.

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Kepler Pursued God. He Found Him in Pomegranates.