Archive for the ‘creativity’ Category
David Vosburg is associate professor of Chemistry at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, California. Here he writes about how his faith enhances, and is enhanced by his science.
A friend once asked me, “What does Christ have to do with chemistry?” He was challenging me to see how my faith might inform my plans to pursue a PhD in chemistry, and also how my understanding of chemistry might enrich my faith. I did not have a ready answer for him, so the question lingered in my thoughts for several years.
My answer developed over the following years, through Read the rest of this entry »
In Science, Faith and Creativity I explained how science can be creative, and that a Christian working in the sciences might see that as part of their relationship with God. Apart from a brief description in The Creativity of Chemistry, I haven’t yet given an example of what creative science looks like, so I will attempt to remedy that here. (This is a longer post than usual because I have included a basic explanation of molecular biology for the non biologist.)
I personally came to appreciate the creativity of science while studying genetics. Creative people generate ideas and make new things, and I discovered that lab-based research involves both of those activities. My favourite part of the genetics course at Aberdeen University was molecular biology: the study of DNA and proteins. I enjoyed the challenges of problem solving, lateral thinking and visual model making that were involved in exploring the micro-world of cells and molecules. I also appreciated that fact that we were learning about solutions to real-life issues. Read the rest of this entry »
So far my writing about creativity has been very optimistic. But not everything we do is good. There are two ways of looking at human creativity: ‘sacramental’ and ‘dialectical’. In sacramental creativity we are seen as co-creators, because what we do continues God’s act of creation in the world. A dialectical view of creativity concentrates on the fact that human beings are not perfect: we do wrong, and as such are not capable of co-creating with God. What we make is always corrupted in some way. Only through re-creation can we create well, with God’s help. I find the dialectical view more helpful, because it highlights both the responsibility and the vulnerability of being human.
Thomas Merton was concerned about the corruption of creativity in art. Though writing in the 1960′s, much of what he says is no doubt applicable to contemporary art in the 2010′s. The first part of his essay ‘Theology of Creativity’, describes how a modern artist can sometimes be elevated to a priestly role Read the rest of this entry »
My theologically trained colleagues tell me that the Hebrew Scriptures are very concrete in their use of language. It’s not surprising, then, that a rather abstract concept like creativity never appears in the Bible. The creativity of God, however, is a strong theme running behind the whole text. There are images of God creating like an artist or craftsman, and one of the most famous is a beautifully poetic passage in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom is such an important part of God’s character that it is personified in Proverbs, and in Proverbs 8 wisdom is said to have been like a master craftsman (or workman) at God’s side as he created the universe.
Jesus is the Son of God and reflects God’s character perfectly, so we should expect to see creativity in his life. He was a carpenter’s son, and in those days a boy learned his father’s trade so there’s no reason to doubt that he learned to make things out of wood. Jesus began his ministry as a travelling teacher when he was around thirty, so he must have been a fairly proficient craftsman by then. We don’t read in the Bible, ‘Jesus fixed the table, and then they all sat down to the Passover meal’, but it may have happened! Read the rest of this entry »
Do scientists and ‘creatives’ have more in common than they think? I recently interviewed Dr Ruth Hogg, a vision scientist at Queen’s University, Belfast (part 1 here). During our conversation I compared the scientific lifestyle with more overtly creative artistic professions, and Ruth said there was ‘probably a closer relationship [between the two] than the general public would realise’. The freedoms and constraints, and the hectic schedule with intense periods of creativity, development and travelling sound very similar to the lifestyle of many artists.
Once you’re leading a lab, a significant part of your time is spent trying to think up new ideas for grant proposals. You’ve got to know where the field is going and how you can contribute to it. You have to be quite innovative to find ways to fund your research interests in the context of available funding streams, and that can be a good thing because it makes you broaden your horizons and think a bit more widely. Teaching students and trying to get the best out of them requires a kind of creativity as well. It’s also quite a chaotic life: it’s not a nine to five job and involves a massive amount of variety. It’s a very challenging job but there’s a level of freedom over your time and the content of your work, even for PhD students, that isn’t available in a lot of careers. For Ruth, that is one of the real advantages of science. Read the rest of this entry »
When I started working on creativity I wasn’t sure how many people would share my view that science is a very creative activity so I approached Dr Ruth Hogg, a vision scientist from Northern Ireland, to find out what she thought. I first met Ruth when she was living in Cambridge. She had trained as an optometrist, and decided to focus on research rather than purely clinical work. After a PhD in Belfast and a couple of years postdoctoral research in Melbourne, she joined the Vision Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. She was also a founding member of the Cambridge Veritas Forum, running events to help students and faculty to ‘engage in discussions about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life’. When I next contacted Ruth she was lecturing and running her own research group at Queen’s University in Belfast.
The first thing I discovered on talking to Ruth is that she is an accomplished pianist. In her mid teens she wanted to be a musician, but eventually settled on science instead. Read the rest of this entry »
We value creativity very highly – in science and every other area of life – but what makes a person creative? Creativity is not correlated to the much-contested score of mathematical and linguistic ability, spatial awareness and memory that is IQ. It also seems that one does not inherit creativity, at least not biologically. What we do know is that creativity can be nurtured. Children who are encouraged to be creative are more likely to be creative as adults, adults are more likely to be creative in certain environments, and the people around us are a vital source of inspiration.
Susan Hackwood was a department head in the famously creative Bell Laboratories, the US telecommunications industry research lab that produced seven Nobel Prizes, and is now a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California. She has taken a professional interest in the cultivation of creativity, and has contributed to the recent book, Exceptional Creativity. Her research has revealed two personality traits and two abilities that must be encouraged in order for creativity to flourish. Read the rest of this entry »
I think that the beauty seen in science falls into four broad categories. First, a scientist may find beauty in their experimental system, whether it is a model organism, a certain diagnostic printout, or an aesthetically pleasing series of molecules. Secondly, there is the cleverly devised experiment carried out with skill and patience that results in good clear data: the molecular biologist’s sharp DNA bands on a gel, the organic chemist’s high yield, or the physicist’s precise measurements.
Third, the data and the theory that gathers them into a coherent whole may have an intrinsic beauty that is both striking and satisfying. Physicists have appreciated beauty in symmetry, in order, and in complex systems that are reducible to a series of ‘elegant’ mathematical equations. Biological systems are more complex and difficult to describe mathematically, so the beauty observed in the life sciences is more often to do with colour, pattern, shape, movement, or detail. At times, complex biological systems are understood at a level that does reveal their mathematical simplicity. When order emerges out of apparent chaos biologists begin to use words like ‘striking’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘astonishing’. If a theory is developed that can be used to predict further experiments and explain other data, that is also beautiful in its own way. We appreciate the order, unity and simplicity that it brings to our understanding of the world.
This is the message that developmental biologist Jeff Hardin tries to get across to his students. Hardin constantly sees beauty in his work, so I thought I would spend some time explaining what he does. (Part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here.)
One of the best tools for studying development is the tiny roundworm C.elegans, which must be one of the most studied organisms in the world. Adult humans have around 50 trillion cells in their bodies, but human development is so complex and our bodies are so large and vary so much in size, that estimates vary from 10 to 100 trillion. C.elegans, on the other hand, is a relatively simple organism with about 1,000 cells.
One of the most striking (and useful) things about C. elegans is the ‘invariant lineage’ of its cells. As the embryo grows, development proceeds along a minutely prescribed pattern. A cell in the growing embryo replicates its DNA and divides in two. The ‘daughter cell’ will now follow instructions, either keeping the character of its parent or developing a new trait to form part of a different tissue. Each new cell has its fate mapped out in advance, so there is no room for teenage rebellion among the cells of the C. elegans embryo.
The other useful thing about this worm is its complete transparency, which has allowed biologists to trace the lineage of all 959 of its cells*, including the 131 cells that died along the way.
959. The life of a small organism can be completely prescribed: hatch, grow, moult four times, then mate. Most C. elegans adults are hermaphrodites – they make sperm, then switch to making eggs, and fertilise themselves. One could find this cycle depressing, but that’s not the take-home message for Hardin.
Biologists always seem to find their chosen organism beautiful, perhaps because they have come to appreciate its features in great detail. It certainly helps if you find beautiful the thing that you spend most of your days staring at. Being able to understand an organism in such detail is beautiful in itself. And the elegance of an animal that is so tiny and yet so detailed is astonishing. Long gone are the days when cells were thought to be homogenous, gelatinous blobs.
The world we inhabit is highly ordered and that order brings complexity. Creatures in some way make themselves, and reproduction is the best example of our being granted some part in the creative process. Even if we don’t completely understand the details, we get to ‘make’ whole new living things – worms on a Petri dish, geranium cuttings, kittens, children…
* Excluding the gametes, which have variable cell numbers
If you want to know more about C. elegans, you can read to your heart’s content in this online text book, http://www.wormbook.org, to which Jeff Hardin has contributed a chapter on epidermal morphogenesis.