Science and Belief

Braids, biogas and banana skins

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J.K. Østergaard, freeimages.com

© J.K. Østergaard, freeimages.com

Some scientists are driven by answering questions about how the world works, and others are more interested in applying that knowledge to new problems. Before I interviewed Mike Clifford, I knew him as an engineer who works on appropriate technology at the University of Nottingham. What I found was that he is actually committed to both very technical mathematically-based research, and developing simple solutions to pressing problems. Our meeting was at a Christians in Science conference, and Mike is another example of someone whose faith and work are not so much complementary as indistinguishable.

I chose to study engineering at university because I wanted to do something practical. I was told that I would enjoy a combination of physics and maths, but I found myself enjoying beautiful equations more than anything else, so I rebelled and went on to do a PhD in maths. After several years doing computational modelling and braid and knot theory, I got a job modelling traffic pollution in an architecture department. That was followed by a project on chaotic mixing, and another on composite materials.

I could have easily stayed on the pure side of maths, but I rediscovered my desire Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

September 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

For the love of wisdom of natural things

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Photo by John Bryant

Galapagos tortoise, © John Bryant

One of the people who set Charles Darwin along the road to evolutionary theory was not a scientist, but the Governor of the Galapagos Islands, Nicholas Lawson. When Darwin and the Beagle crew landed on Charles Island, Lawson invited him to dinner. As they talked, Lawson mentioned that the giant tortoises for which the Galapagos chain was named varied noticeably between islands. In fact, said Lawson, if any tortoise was brought to him, he could identify which island it came from. It turns out that the tortoise-naming party trick was not exclusively Lawson’s. Whether he was just repeating what the locals said, or had actually studied the tortoises personally, the fact remains that the person who set Darwin on the course of studying variation among species on the Galapagos islands was not a scientist. John Bryant, the author of last week’s guest post, told this story during his lecture at this year’s Faraday Summer course, and I enjoyed it because Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

September 4, 2014 at 10:10 am

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 copy

Cologne Cathedral. © Rudy Tiben, freeimages.com

What 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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Martin Walls, http://www.freeimages.com

© Martin Walls, http://www.freeimages.com

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

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