There is great beauty in science, whether in the experiments themselves, the data produced, or the presentation of that data. There is also great wonder, and that is what drives science forward. How does a seed grow into a plant? What is a star made of? Can we describe the movement of a cell using mathematical equations? At times wonder gives way to open-mouthed awe as we see something vast, incredibly complex or highly ordered.
Awe is enjoyed and cultivated by all scientists, despite their different personalities, and popular science writing is invariably full of awe and wonder – whatever the beliefs of the author. Read the rest of this entry »
Whether Christian or not, scientists share a reverence for the moment when painstaking lab work blossoms into something almost transcendent. This post is taken from an article that I recently wrote for Third Way, and explains some of the thinking behind my current work on science and faith.
I’ll never forget my first sight of a Zebrafish larva. At twenty-four hours old they are about two and a half millimetres long and almost completely translucent. A simple low-magnification microscope reveals every detail of their anatomy in minute detail. You can see the heart pumping, and tiny red blood cells moving through capillaries. You can trace the outline of muscle fibres in their tails, and see every detail of the developing eye. Later on the eye becomes covered in silvery pigment cells, the transparent lens protruding, beautifully rounded and greenish in colour.
As a teenager heading off to university, I knew that science was compatible with Christianity – but I didn’t expect it to enhance my faith in the way that it has. Read the rest of this entry »
The astronomer Dr Jennifer Wiseman visited Cambridge recently to speak about her work on ‘exoplanet’ discovery. Exoplanets are planets in solar systems other than our own, and until 1989 they were the stuff of science fiction. Now we know there definitely are other planets in the universe, some of which may be like Earth. The discovery of life on other planets – perhaps single celled organisms – in the next few decades is a real possibility.
Our universe is active and fruitful. We live in an abundant universe, and can celebrate that with new knowledge. The changes made to the Hubble telescope in 2009 have brought us beautiful new pictures that show the universe in greater depth than ever before. This one of the Omega Centauri star cluster shows a startling variety of stars.
The universe is beautiful, and the range of telescopes that astronomers use are like a symphony orchestra, with many different instruments contributing to our knowledge of the universe. Read the rest of this entry »
The young researcher Matt Meselson must have been very excited when he pulled a photograph showing a series of grey stripes out of his wallet and passed it round at breakfast on New Year’s day 1958. Most of us might have a limited understanding of what he was celebrating, but his work has since been hailed as ‘the most beautiful experiment in biology’.
Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Watson and Crick’s famous Nature paper describing the structure of DNA. The now iconic helix was a bold idea based on data from the biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, and kick-started a revolution in biology. From the 1960s onwards, molecular biologists, including Matt Meselson, have been unravelling the secrets of the genome.
As a student in genetics I was taught the key experiments that helped scientists to accept that DNA was the molecule of inheritance, understand its information-carrying properties, and figure out how that information is passed on. I’m glad we didn’t have to reproduce this work in the laboratory because it was highly technical, rather tedious, and often involved the use of radioactive chemicals. With my impressive track record of spilling liquids, I’m not sure I would have survived! The resulting data, however, are beautifully simple and satisfyingly visual.
Perhaps the fuzzy grey bands that Meselson pushed under his friends’ noses that day would not look beautiful or simple to most people. To a biologist, however, the clear and visible demonstration of the ‘semiconservative’ replication of DNA by Meselson and his co-worker Frank Stahl is beauty itself. Something that looked rather boring – a series of grey stripes representing DNA with different chemical labels – has changed the way we see ourselves in a fundamental way. Read the rest of this entry »
I often mention the wonders of scientific discovery, but sharing one’s latest finding with a wider audience is difficult. Even the clearest analysis needs a huge amount of translating before anyone outside of the field, let alone a non-scientist, can appreciate it. I recently read The Universe Within, a book that succeeded in getting me genuinely excited about geology, which is a rare feat (apologies to geologists, I just lack the necessary training!) It also got me thinking about human history.
Neil Shubin is a paleontologist who’s fascinated by the deep history of the planet. The main narrative of the book centres on the origin of the universe and our place in it, with a good dose of geology on the way. Each chapter is a story of exploration and discovery, introducing the main—and often colourful—characters involved, and ends by showing what the cosmic or global upheavals described have to do with us. The overall message is that we, our bodies, and everything about them that makes us human, are the products of processes that started when time itself began.
Shubin is a fantastic teacher, and is the first person to get me (a biologist) genuinely excited about geology. He tells a good story, using intrigue and suspense to carry the reader along. Read the rest of this entry »
For most Christians working in science, their work helps them to worship. The theologian Alister McGrath has written a number of books about the relationship between science and Christianity, but he also stresses that our response to what we see in science should not simply be intellectual. A Christian view of nature should recognise the intuitive sense of awe and wonder that we have when we look at the natural world, and our increased awe as our scientific understanding grows. Our response to those feelings is rational, emotional and active: worship as well as theology.
How does a scientist worship? In her writing on wonder, the philosopher and cognitive scientist Margaret Boden captures the experience of a Christian scientist when she says that ‘awe is a high degree of wonder, in which fear and respect are prominent. And worship is a deliberate expression of awe’. Read the rest of this entry »
In his Faraday seminar on teleology (part 1 here), Dr Harvey McMahon suggested that we use more than one type of language to talk about biology. If language is a lens that gives us a certain perspective, then it would be useful to have more than one type of lens in our toolbox. The lens that McMahon suggested we use a little more is teleology, or purpose. He gave three examples of how teleological thinking can be applied.
The stochastic nature of biology
‘Stochastic’ behaviour involves a certain amount of randomness. You could predict the outcome of a stochastic event using statistics, but you would never be 100% certain what was going to happen. That is the nature of most biological processes. The question is, if we were smart enough to study biological systems down to the atomic level, would we find that they are actually completely predictable? Would knowing all the variables make 100% predictions possible? And if we could predict every process in our bodies and brains, would there be room for human decisions? Read the rest of this entry »