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Bits & Bytes

A bit is a binary digit, which can only be 0 or 1. A byte is the number of bits required to process or transfer a single character, which is now standardised as 8 bits. Unimaginably huge collections and patterns of these tiny elements govern much of modern life: communication, commerce, transport, industry, research. We’re familiar with terms like kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes and terabytes. Millions upon billions of them — a bit of a mouthful to bite on! (sorry, couldn’t resist it)

I did a double-main at college and although I keep quiet about it, I qualified to teach maths as well as art. Thankfully though (for the pupils and well as me) I managed to avoid a maths timetable during my teaching career. Anyway, in 1967 my college maths group went on a field trip to work with the Harwell Dekatron Computer. One of the first in the world, it was built in 1951 and used in atomic research. Incredibly, it’s still functioning today and although a museum piece now, it’s the world’s oldest working original digital computer.

Back in 1967 we were using slide-rules and log tables. I still have both but I doubt I can remember how to use them. The first pocket-sized calculators appeared four years later, in 1971, and the first personal computers not until 1981. So even though the Harwell machine was sixteen years old, for me and my mates this was cutting-edge sci-fi; maybe Scotty would beam us up to the Enterprise (Star Trek was already a cult phenomenon). The computer filled a whole room, weighed 2½ tons and involved hundreds of valves which lit up when fired. We could visually follow the progress of our programmes, starting at one corner of the room, the relays lighting up in sequence as the calculations progressed around the walls of valves. User input/output was by punched cards and tape.

We’ve come a long way since then. There’s more computing power in my smartphone than that 2½ ton monster. I wonder though, if we’re ever as advanced as we think we are. In another fifty years today’s most powerful computers will seem just as primitive.

Recently my friend Chris Norton spoke about the Creation in a Billingham Ward online devotional. As usual, he caused me some reflection. Our Father in Heaven creates planets, stars and galaxies. He governs infinite worlds and cares for countless billions of their inhabitants. The vastness of his creations is staggering, in fact beyond mortal comprehension. Does God still deal in bits and bytes on silicon chips? I think he works at a far, far more advanced level, involving spiritual as well as physical principles we’ve yet to learn.

The oldest UK schoolchildren recently got their A-level grades, determining their immediate future: university, apprenticeship, employment or alternatives. Some are still deciding which road to take. Some secured places and start in days or weeks; others wait anxiously, hoping sub-standard grades will be enough after all.

Now in my mid-seventies, my own next graduation draws closer. Not too close I hope! I’m not looking for a new career with a harp on a cloud just yet! But I can’t help wondering if my grades are good enough, if I’m ready to step into the Father’s world of creation. In a sense, I’m already in it, of course; I’m an eternal being and this life is part of eternity, but the older I get, the more like a child I feel and the less significant my progress with bits and bytes becomes. Don’t get me wrong: bits and bytes are important. The Lord expects us to search and seek and apply our minds. But I’m quite certain that the most important knowledge is the kind that a few Galilean fishermen two thousand year ago discovered, who knew more about people than programmes, never heard of a byte but all about a widow’s mite. How far on have I got in my own testimony of Jesus Christ? Do I hear his Father’s voice clearly enough yet?


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