This week’s post is by guest author Colin Bell, who is a Research Associate of the Faraday Institute and works on issues related to environmental sustainability.
One of the most active areas of scientific research over the past twenty years has been the study of our planet’s environment. How is it changing? What has caused it? What can we expect to happen in the future, and what effect would changes in human behaviour have on it? Much of this study is focused on climate change, which has grown from a fairly obscure side-interest to a major field of study – but that’s only one of a number of ways in which we fear we may be damaging the planet we live on.
Our planet and the variety of life on it form an immensely complex system with countless intricacies to discover and marvel at. Studying these things helps us to see planet Earth as something to be respected, wondered at and cared for rather than unthinkingly exploited. Similar sentiments come from most of the world’s religions Read the rest of this entry »
I have written about science being creative, and here’s a great story along those lines: the poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins published in the scientific journal Nature*. Hopkins’ contribution to science took the form of two letters, A Curious Halo and Shadow-Beams in the East at Sunset, that were published in November 1882 and November 1883, based on observations he had made of the setting sun.
Hopkins did something most people don’t think of, and turned his back to the setting sun. What he saw was a series of rays that looked as if they were coming from the horizon at a point opposite the sun. This light-effect had already been observed by meteorologists, and is simply the shadows of clouds in front of the sun, cast from one horizon to the other. Perspective makes these shadows appear to be converging in the east, but they are in fact parallel. The technical name for them is ‘anticrepuscular rays’. Read the rest of this entry »
The development of the Big Bang theory is an example of how faith responses can contribute to the scientific discussion in a positive way. Rodney Holder, an Anglican priest and former cosmologist, has contributed to this conversation for a number of years. He has just published a new book, ‘Big Bang Big God: A Universe designed for life?’ that aims to bring the debate to a wider audience.
Until the 1920’s, the scientific consensus was that the universe is a static entity: it has always been there, and it always will. Einstein’s general theory of relativity linked matter, time and space and Einstein came up with a solution which gave a static, eternal universe. In 1927 the Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaitre came up with another solution, in which the universe was expanding.
A couple of years after Lemaitre came up with his new model, Edwin Hubble discovered astronomical evidence for an expanding universe – the famous redshift. Then in 1931 Lemaître came up with a further solution in which the universe expanded from a highly compact initial state which he called the ‘primeval atom’. Some scientists objected to Lemaitre’s proposal. Einstein thought it was ‘abominable’, and the Cambridge Professor of Astronomy Fred Hoyle derisively called it the ‘Big Bang theory’, Read the rest of this entry »
Last week I met Francis Edward Su, a Mathematician who is on sabbatical in Cambridge. I have written recently about the challenges of teaching science (in Questioning, and Ignorance). Su has a PhD from Harvard, is the Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, and is the President-Elect of the Mathematical Association of America, so he could be tempted to take himself too seriously to teach well. Teaching takes time, and students ask too many questions, but Su has given himself to his students in a way that recently won him an award.
According to Francis, giving an acceptance speech for a teaching award is a bit intimidating – people expect you to do something extraordinary (or at least keep them awake). Rather than reel off a list of teaching tips he decided to focus on just one, explaining what motivates him to teach well. His talk had such an impact on his colleagues that it’s Read the rest of this entry »
The Greek philosophical idea of the disembodied soul has affected the way we view ourselves, even at a scientific level. We still have the very deeply rooted idea that it’s the mind or brain alone that does our thinking, despite evidence showing that the rest of our bodies also affect the way we think. For example, it’s harder to understand sad or angry statements if you can’t frown (because of Botox injections), and children find it easier to learn when they act a story out rather than just read it.
The evidence for embodied thinking hasn’t been given very much attention, because our dualistic model of the person as ‘body plus mind’ is so deeply rooted Read the rest of this entry »
As a young child I detected the cosmic microwave background – the radiation left over from the Big Bang. That doesn’t mean I was a child prodigy, it just shows that we had an old fashioned dial TV. About 10% of the static in between channels is caused by the remnants of that first explosion. I am staggered that even a five year old can detect the whisper of the universe’s origins.
The Astronomer Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell shared this fact during her presentation at the Wesley Methodist church as part of their Science Meets Faith lecture series this month. It was a fascinating talk, and she was very honest about her own faith and how her science had affected her beliefs.
In the beginning, said Bell Burnell, all of space, matter and energy was contained in a space smaller than a grain of sand. Then time began with bang, and space unfurled like a new leaf from its bud. As space expanded and the radiation from the big bang cooled, energy converted into mass and particles formed. After millions of years, those particles came together and began to form stars Read the rest of this entry »
Studying the origin of life is an intractable problem, a little like navigating the misty trackless waste that is central Dartmoor. For an event that happened so long ago, we are unlikely to find a ‘smoking gun’. If life originated on another planet and then somehow seeded life on Earth – a possibility that is being taken seriously at the moment – we have even less hope of finding a solution. This was Christopher Southgate’s impression of the field of origins research until a few years ago. Chris is a theologian and former biochemist based at Exeter University, and in his Faraday seminar on New Approaches to the Origin of life: Scientific and Theological last week, he explained why he is now a little a more hopeful. He also described a very unique research programme that combines both science and theology.
Life is generally easier to describe than define. Any description that tries to be all-inclusive will inevitably leave something out. Southgate’s own definition includes three properties: Read the rest of this entry »