Science and Belief

Magic and Metamorphosis

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Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae), © John Bryant

Small tortoiseshell butterfly, © John Bryant

Children love to watch caterpillars turn into butterflies, and scientists are no less fascinated by this process. I have mentioned biologist John Bryant’s contribution to the science and faith discussion on this blog a number of times. In this guest post, he writes about his sense of wonder at the processes he studies.

I have been fascinated by the natural world for as long as I can remember, and that fascination led to a career in biology. As a professional biologist my main focus has been the way DNA works as genes, and especially the processes by which DNA is replicated prior to cell division.

Regular readers of this blog will know of the excitement, awe and wonder I have Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

August 28, 2014 at 10:00 am

Echoes of a Voice

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cathedral Cologne 1216095_23168992 Rudy Tiben copyWhat is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?

The Christian writer J.W. Sire quoted this line from Annie Dillard[1] in Echoes of a Voice, a new book that explores the phenomenon of spiritual or ‘transcendent’ experiences. What are they, why do they happen, and do they mean anything?

I have written about the more numinous side of science many times on this blog (see Transcendence and Transcendent Science). Scientists often speak of a reality beyond the objects they are studying, and for some this is encountered in powerful – if rare – experiences of wonder and awe. Perhaps my experience in the Smithsonian Museum that I described last week also comes into that category?

I found Sire’s analysis of these experiences helpful. He describes moments that are Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

August 21, 2014 at 10:00 am

Humility

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A few years ago I paid a visit to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History‘s Human Origins exhibition. Our tour guide was Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins Program and curator of anthropology at the Museum. Potts has been involved in activities with BioLogos, and is keen to help Christians understand his research.

The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins follows the history of humankind, starting with creatures that were just beginning to walk upright, and moving right through to the present day. We were shown the development of tools, different types of food, social activities and symbolism. It was fascinating to explore the artifacts and reconstructions of the digs where they had been found, but I also found the experience very moving. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

August 14, 2014 at 10:00 am

More than atoms

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When atoms and molecules come together, the new structures or systems they form can have unexpected properties. This principle is called emergence, and some have claimed that it shows there is more to the universe than material things. Last month at the Faraday Institute summer course, the German physicist Barbara Drossel explained why she thinks emergence is a real phenomena, and why it is so important in discussions about science and faith.

Science uses reductionism to study a system. If you break it down and do what you can to understand the parts, you should understand the behaviour of the whole a bit better. According to Drossel, the reverse is also true. As complex systems come together, new and beautiful properties emerge that are every bit as fundamental as the forces that hold together the atom.

When you put a collection of molecules together, they start to do things that they couldn’t do alone. For example air exerts pressure on the sides of a box; when a fluid is heated from below it forms convection cells; and if you mix certain chemicals together they react in a way that produces beautiful patterns. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

August 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

Considering Beauty

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Lime tree, microscopic view. K Szkurlatowski, 12frames.eu

Lime tree, microscopic view. K Szkurlatowski, 12frames.eu

I have often written about beauty here, and Francesca Day mentioned it last week, but without defining the word itself. William Edgar is a musician and theologian based at Westminster Theological Seminary, and in his lecture Beauty Reconsidered he gave a history of the concept of beauty and proposed a form of aesthetics that I think will resonate with the ideals of many Christians working in the sciences.

In the 1960s, it was said anyone who pronounced something ‘beautiful’ was trying to exert power over it. That power was rejected, and the concept of beauty went into hibernation – at least in academic circles in Europe and North America.

It’s impossible, however, to suppress our sense of beauty. In the 1990s, philosophers started Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

July 31, 2014 at 10:00 am

Symmetry or fine-tuning?

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Hydrogen_Density_Plots, public domain

Why is there so much symmetry in nature? I shared some examples in an earlier post, and questioned whether there was a link between these and the ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe. I asked Francesca Day, a PhD student at the University of Oxford, if she could investigate. Francesca’s own work is on the astrophysical signatures of dark radiation, and here she explains why she thinks symmetry might lead to a more wonderful explanation of the universe than the mystery of fine-tuning.

Many argue that if the laws of physics had been just slightly different, life – or at least life as we know it – would not have been possible in the universe. The fundamental laws and parameters of physics seem to have conspired so as to make the formation of life possible. To many it seems as if science is pointing to a designer of the universe who set all these parameters just right for us – as if science is pointing the way to God. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

July 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

Models

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Last week the Faraday Institute’s annual summer course was held in Cambridge, and we played host to sixteen lecturers and forty-six delegates from all over the world. The lectures will be posted on the Faraday website in the coming weeks, but here is a taster.

The first lecture was from Professor Tom McLeish, a physicist whose work I have described here before, and who is no stranger to posing interesting questions. McLeish’s task was to set the scene for the week, exploring the relationship between science and religion. He spent much of the time looking at two questions: ‘What is science?’ and ‘What is religion?’

The main point of his talk was that the problem with the Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

July 17, 2014 at 10:00 am

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