The 1997 novel, Einstein’s Bridge, by John Cramer, a working physicist, is an enjoyable science fiction story about the discovery of intelligence in an alternate universe. The scientists learn of the alternate universe and its inhabitants through strange results from an experiment with a nuclear accelerator. Though not the primary focus of his novel, in describing these unanticipated results, John Cramer explains that unreproducible data that don’t fit known theory are called “Snarks.” The term comes from the fictional animal in Lewis Carol’s nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark. Carol’s poem describes “with infinite humor the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature.”

Occasionally, in collecting data, something appears that is just plain weird, falling outside the range of everything else that has been gathered. Snarks are puzzle pieces that don’t fit.

John Cramer says that these sorts of things are “impossible events.” And “we can’t explain it, we can’t reproduce it, and we can’t eliminate the possibility that it was the result of faulty equipment. Therefore, we can’t publish it. It will have to remain as a big one that got away.” (p. 105)

Cramer goes on to write about the French philosopher Poincaré: “He was an excellent physicist, but he had the problem that he was also a devout Catholic. Poincaré was deeply concerned about the implicit conflict between divine miracles and the laws of physics. So he considered a hypothetical phenomenon that occurs, like a miracle, just once in the history of the universe. He argued convincingly that science has no way of dealing with a one-shot physical phenomenon. They have to be reproducible. Poincaré believed that scientists would tend to ignore one-shot events, might even pretend that they didn’t exist.” (p. 107)

The fact that it is a single, isolated thing, is what gets it that designation.

For instance, there is an incident in SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research that can be called a Snark. It is known as the Wow! signal. The Wow! signal was a strong narrowband radio signal detected by Dr. Jerry R. Ehman on August 15, 1977 while he worked on a SETI project at the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University. The Wow! signal bore all the expected earmarks of what a radio signal from another world should look like. Unfortuantely it only lasted seventy-two seconds and has never been detected again. Was it evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence? Was it just a glitch in the recording equipment? There is no way to know. And unless the signal appears again—and can be detected by several other listeners—it must forever remain unverifiable.

We find Snarks in the Bible. Most of us probably have a favorite or two. For instance, in 1 Samuel 28 Saul goes to a necromancer and gets her to “bring up Samuel.” Samuel then appears as a ghostly apparition who tells Saul that within twenty-four hours he will join Samuel in death. No similar stories appear in the Bible, nor does any other part of the Bible reference the odd incident to explain what is going on. On the face of it, it would appear that Samuel’s ghost was brought forth in a manner not unlike the séances that we see in movies. But the whole idea of such a thing seems at odds with what we gain from the rest of the Bible. We simply don’t believe in ghosts and the whole idea messes with our theology as we know it. Trying to explain the ghostly Samuel away, however, is not particularly effective either. Nor do I find the suggestion that we’re looking at a demon convincing.

Another Snark appears in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Paul mentions people being “baptized for the dead” in his argument about the resurrection. What does Paul mean? All the commentators are certain that the Mormon interpretation of Paul is the least likely among the possibilities. Other than that, there’s no agreement: I’ve run across about nine explanations for Paul’s words.

“Baptism for the dead” is a Snark. It appears but once, without explanation, and in apparent contradiction to everything else we know.

As frustrating as the Snark events of the universe are, they are part of the wonderful thing about doing science or theology. Such little unexpected data bits that don’t fit become the raw ingredients for future theories. And when we really figure them out, the answers look obvious and are profoundly satisfying.

For now, however, the Snarks are like the odd puzzle piece you stumble upon while putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You’ve been working away on mostly pink and white bits. All at once, you find a green piece with a trace of blue on one edge. Where did that come from? Where does it go? All you can see is pink and white on the table in front of you. Nothing else is green or blue. So for the time being, you just have to set it aside.

But you don’t ignore it, you don’t forget about it, or pretend it isn’t there, because you know you’ll eventually need it, and eventually it will make sense. If you were to toss it in the trash the final picture would be incomplete.

But you also don’t dare speculate too much or try to force it to fit what you’ve got just now. No taking hammer and saw to it, or repainting it the color you want. Until you get more pieces—until more data arrives—realistically, you simply have to admit that it belongs to the future—that you don’t know how to make it come together for now.

The Snarks in our biblical data gathering remind me of the famous Shakespeare quote from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Or our theology, I would add. We shouldn’t be afraid of not understanding; nor should we hide from it or fear it. It’s okay to be puzzled. Snarks give us something to do, after all—they keep theologians like me off the street—and they help keep us humble. God is like an infinite jigsaw puzzle. That we can see any of the picture at all is the wonder.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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2 Responses to Snarks

  1. Don Patterson says:

    Great post. Makes you think.

  2. Eric Miller says:

    Awesome blog, thanks. Just had a big discussion about stuff that happens once.

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