Science and Belief

Reflections of a Cancer Biologist

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© Philippa Darbre

© Philippa Darbre

Last week I mentioned that a large proportion of biologists believe in God, so it’s time to hear from one of those people. Philippa Darbre is an Associate Professor in Oncology at the University of Reading. She began her career with a degree in biochemistry from Birmingham and then a PhD from Cambridge. After 5 years at the Molecular Medicine Institute, Oxford, and 9 at Cancer Research UK, she joined the University of Reading in 1991. Philippa begins her own story of of relating science to faith with a verse from Psalm 8.

When I consider your heavens,

the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

which you have set in place,

what is mankind that you are mindful of them?

At its essence, science is about observing the world around us, and exploring how it works, or, in my case in cancer research, trying to understand how things can go wrong. The beauty of the night sky is Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

October 16, 2014 at 10:00 am

Religion among UK Biologists

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Mandie LeScum, freeimages.com

© Mandie LeScum, freeimages.com

42% of biologists in the UK are female, with an average age of 37, and 47% are not from the UK. Not many labs keep a stock of funky pink lab coats, but the cartoon here is a reminder that the iconic picture of a Caucasian male (preferably with a mop of white fuzzy hair) is no longer representative of the average lab worker.

On the other hand, when sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and her collaborators surveyed the population of British biologists, they found that gender, age, rank and institution seem to have no effect on whether a person is likely to feel a sense of religious belonging.* Some of the preliminary findings of this survey were presented at the Faraday Institute’s Uses and Abuses of Biology workshop in September, and it’s worth reading the full paper, co-authored with Christopher Scheilte.

Ecklund’s earlier study on religion among scientists in the US showed that there are a significant number of scientists who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (see earlier blogs). In the UK this group does not seem to exist. Perhaps, suggested Ecklund, the Church of England is so widely accepted as a cultural institution that people do not feel the need to distance themselves from religion.**

I was sad to find, however, that fewer UK-based biologists  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

October 9, 2014 at 10:00 am

Breathe

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Adam Ciesielski, freeimages.com

© Adam Ciesielski, freeimages.com

Every time you breathe, a series of air pockets with a combined surface area the size of a tennis court is bathed with oxygen. In your lungs, the boundary between air and blood is so thin that oxygen and carbon dioxide can diffuse freely from one to the other. So every time your heart beats, the blood rushing around your body is refreshed with enough new oxygen to keep you alive.

A while ago I commented on the lack of current science in Christian worship music, but the very next month a song was released that at least hinted that we know enough about the working of our bodies to show us something amazing about God.

You show your majesty

In every star that shines,

And every time we breathe
.

Your glory, God revealed

From distant galaxies

To here beneath our skin.

excerpt from Magnificent (Kingsway, 2011)

Matt Redman, who co-wrote th song with Jonas Myrin, is an astronomy geek Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

October 2, 2014 at 10:00 am

How to Train Your Dragon

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Jeff Siepman, freeimages.com

© Jeff Siepman, freeimages.com

The film ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ and its recent sequel are reminders of how exciting it is when powerful things are used for good ends. Hiccup and his friends discovered how great dragons are at taking you flying, being your loyal friend, and protecting you from enormous monsters. A couple of weeks ago, Mike Clifford was using engineering to develop low-tech solutions to difficult problems. And at a workshop held by BioLogos this summer, psychologist Justin Barrett explained how the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) is useful for engaging more deeply with Christian ways of thinking. (The link with the film was his original touch, not mine!)

CSR is a growing field of research into the way we think, particularly the processes of our minds that could be classed as religious. One of the recurring themes in this area is the naturalness of religion. Some scholars look at the evidence that faith communities Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

September 25, 2014 at 10:00 am

Notes from a Volcano

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© Robert S. White

© Robert S. White

In the last few weeks, the world has watched as a new burst of seismic activity in Iceland led to a dramatic eruption near the volcano Bardarbunga. Bob White, Professor of Geophysics at Cambridge University, heads up a research team who have been recording earthquakes caused by the massive underground flow of magma. Unusually for a full-time Professor, Bob is also the Director of the Faraday Institute. In this guest post, he describes the wonder of this spectacle and how it relates to his own faith.

We arrived at the eruption site around midnight on 1st September. My team and I were part of just a handful of people allowed into the 10,000 square kilometre exclusion zone – a black volcanic desert 2,000 feet high. The darkness of the night was uninterrupted by any human lights, and we knew there was no-one else Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

September 16, 2014 at 10:00 am

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

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