Archive for the ‘Scientists of faith’ 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 »
Wonder can be one of the biggest drivers for a scientist, whatever their beliefs might happen to be. I have recently been reading the work of John Polkinghorne. He writes that, for him, wonder points to something beyond science.
Revd Dr John Polkinghorne, KBE was a particle physicist, and Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University. He had always been active in his Christian faith but when he reached his mid-forties he decided that he’d “done [his] bit for physics”, resigned from his university position, and began a second career in the Church. After a number of years as a parish priest he returned to the academic world and made a significant contribution to the field of science and religion, something he has continued to do long after his retirement.
How does a scientist define themselves when their work isn’t their primary identity? This month’s guest post is from Emily Sturgess, a biologist who has found a niche in Oxford.
It took me a while to realise that when you introduce yourself to someone you don’t have to define yourself with a single label. As if the supplies in the stationery cupboard were rationed, I felt for a long time that I was allowed only one label to stick on myself to describe what I do. I am the Development Officer for Christians in Science, so I spend a lot of time with people who describe themselves as ‘scientists’. That makes a lot of sense: they actively participate in scientific research, are employed by science departments in universities, and think ‘scientifically’. It is their profession, and the label is wholly applicable.
All the same, I have always been slightly uneasy about declaring myself Read the rest of this entry »
There’s a kind of statistics that has been developed specifically for cases when you can see the effects of something but you don’t understand the cause. You know enough to make some assumptions, and then design some experiments to test them. In the light of those results you do some better experiments, and so on. Gradually you learn how likely it is that your starting assumptions were true.
A number of people have applied this Bayesian reasoning to the existence of God. You can’t measure him, but you can test your starting hypothesis in different ways and refine your thinking each time you find some new evidence. For example if you take the cosmological argument, add consciousness, then morality, throw in miracles and top it off with religious experience, you can begin to develop an argument for the existence of a god.
One thing I always try to do on this blog is explain what it’s actually like to do science: the fun parts, the challenges, and the mundane – in other words, the human side of science, and particularly biological science. To back up my ramblings with some perspective from someone who’s spent longer in the lab than I did, I recently interviewed Harvey McMahon. He runs a very successful lab at the prestigious MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. McMahon studies the brain, and has spent time looking at the mechanisms behind the incredibly fast communication between brain cells, or neurones. He has also spoken at the Faraday Institute recently (see previous posts).
We get to hear about the discoveries of scientists in the news, but we don’t often get to find out how those discoveries are made. Like all professions, the every day is very unglamorous. In science there is more than enough interest and excitement to keep people coming back to work day after day, putting in the hours in the evenings and at weekends.
I was interested to find out McMahon’s views on science: what makes good research, what makes a good lab tick, and how is it possible to learn anything new in biology? 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 »
I recently spent a few days with 50 clergy whose first career was in science. The path from science to the church is a well-worn one, and the Society of Ordained Scientists (SOSc) exists to support those whose identity is scientific as well as pastoral. I was invited to speak at the SOSc annual gathering at Scargill House – a fabulous retreat centre in the Yorkshire Dales with a friendly community, beautiful grounds, and wonderful puddings. Our group was an eclectic one, and I was surprised to meet people from all over the world: Sweden, Ukraine, the Philippines, and a large North American contingent. The atmosphere was very warm and supportive – and compared to many science and religion conferences I have been to, very relaxed.
The enthusiasm of the people that I met those few days in Yorkshire was infectious. One was a chaplain at a North American university who taught courses on science and religion to interested students. Another – a former zoologist – had set up microscopes in his study so his grandchildren could learn to enjoy nature up close. The one that surprised me most was the astronomer who has continued to publish in science after taking up his post in a parish. 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 »
Is doubt a necessary by-product of wonder? This is the second part of my interview with theoretical physicist Rhoda Hawkins (part 1). For Rhoda, the intellectual grappling she enjoys in science is also there in her Christian faith. Wondering, or thinking at a deeper level, is crucial to both.
I love seeing wonder in other people. Sometimes I get to watch the light dawning on a student’s face as they come to understand something for the first time, or it’s a shared experience of wonder with a research student or a colleague. Sometimes those moments are too rare, but if I got them all the time I would take them for granted. Even the struggle is contributing to that sense of wonder, because it’s more amazing if it’s difficult and complicated. If climbing the mountain was too easy, then you wouldn’t feel so happy when you got to the top. It’s more of a long-term picture. Read the rest of this entry »
What motivates a scientist to wrestle with difficult questions? Rhoda Hawkins is a lecturer in Physics at Sheffield University. She uses theoretical physics to tackle biological problems, and her main area of research is cell movement. I recently interviewed Rhoda about the role of wonder in both her research and her faith.
I find cell movement incredible. You’ve got a blob of squidgy material crawling across a surface or squeezing through a gap, and if it’s a white blood cell it might be doing something more complicated like chasing a bacterium. How is a relatively simple cell capable of doing such things? In my research group we try to model the cell and think about its physical properties. I collaborate with experimentalists – mainly biologists and other physicists, who test our predictions. I like hanging out in the lab every now and then to watch what the biologists are doing. If the experiment shows something different to what we predicted, then that might mean the model is wrong so we change the theory, and that informs new experiments. Maybe one day some of my work might be useful in medical applications: perhaps a better understanding of the immune system or the movement of metastatic cells in cancer. Read the rest of this entry »