Algebra And The Lungs


Diffusion is a principle considered in many science classes. It is a simple concept, but quite significant in many physical situations. The concept identifies that a substance moves naturally from an area where it is more concentrated to an area where it is less concentrated. For instance, if one puts a spoonful of sugar into a cup of coffee, when the sugar hits the coffee it is in a more concentrated form but then it disperses itself in the coffee as it dissolves. Dissolving is just a form of diffusion. Another familiar term, osmosis, is a specific type of diffusion.

We understand that a function of blood is to transport oxygen to the cells of our body. As the blood goes through the circulatory system, it finds itself in different positions. When the blood is in the lungs, the amount of oxygen in the blood is lower than the amount in the lungs; thus, by diffusion, oxygen moves from the lungs into the blood. When that blood finds itself away from the lungs, it encounters areas (such as the heart or liver) where the oxygen level is lower than in the blood. The oxygen then moves (by diffusion) from the blood to the cells requiring it.

Although diffusion is defined in terms of its scientific worth, one wonders whether there are parallel illustrations in non-science situations.

There once was a high school algebra teacher who was irritated with one particular characteristic of his students. Since the students could all see the classroom clock, they could tell when the class was about to end and the bell was about to ring. Two to three minutes before the class ended, students would prepare to leave by closing their books, laptops, and notebooks.

The teacher made a class rule that students could not close their books or other learning material until the bell rang. His explanation (which, of course, was not convincing to his students) was that in those final minutes of the class some students might glance down at their books and learn something.

As we smirk at that illustration, there is a truth lurking there. That truth is that often something important happens just because of proximity. In the physical world, diffusion occurs because two areas are near one another. It does not seem to be unreasonable to suggest that a fair amount of our growth as humans (and as God’s people) occurs partly because we are in the right place at the right time. Thus, the stage is set for a kind of metaphysical diffusion.

My wife’s father was an orchestra teacher and an early “audiophile.” Virtually every night when she went to sleep, symphonic music was playing in her house. It shaped her personally and theologically. It occurred because she was in that house rather than in some other house.

When I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Scanlan, my teacher, would lead us as we sang “School Days, School Days, Dear Old Golden Rule Days” followed by “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning, Oh, What a Beautiful Day.” I do not know about the other children but being with her singing those songs every day diffused into me a positive expectation of what that school day and life would be like. 

College recruiters readily admit that an important goal is to get prospective students physically onto the campus. When a prospect sees other students, visits a regular class, sees where the students eat and sleep—those experiences are apparently powerful influencers in college decisions. I have had many students tell me that, once on a specific university campus, they know rather clearly and quickly whether it would be a good fit for them. Metaphysical diffusion.

Do you remember important specifics from all those childhood Sundays you sat in a church building with your family? I certainly do not. What was happening, however, was that we were soaking up life-giving, life-affirming, growth-producing perceptions about what was important and good and Godly. Admittedly, we were also getting some questionable theology occasionally, but those were mostly forgotten specifics. 

Regardless of where we are today religiously, those early opportunities for God to diffuse into us His Spirit helped make you and me who we are today. Physically, one cannot make diffusion go backward. Similarly, we have already soaked God up to some extent and that cannot be undone.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain


  • Interesting thoughts, Jim. I couldn’t help but think of those children who must soak up so many negative things from their environments. Hopefully, they have enough positive forces around them to counteract the bad ones.


    • Good point, Nancy. That is somewhat of the “darker” side of what I was trying to say. Like you, I am kind of trusting on the resilience of children and how God can work through the positive forces they do have.


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