Michael Faraday would no doubt be acutely embarrassed if he had lived to see an Institute named after him. He was one of the greatest experimental scientists of all time but he also gave himself to public education, shunned wealth and fame, and belonged to a small Christian denomination called the ‘Sandemanians’. This week at the Faraday Institute we hosted the chemist and former director of the Royal Institution, Sir John Meurig Thomas, who spoke about the Genius of Michael Faraday.
Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was the son of a blacksmith. He received a very basic education as a child, and was apprenticed to a bookbinder at the age of 14. Faraday was extremely bright, and finding himself surrounded by books, decided to educate himself – inspired by Isaac Watts’ ‘Improvement of the Mind’. A customer noticed his intelligence and gave him tickets to a series of lectures by the great chemist Humphrey Davy.
In the early nineteenth century the chemical revolution was in full swing. Successful experimentalists like Davy were celebrated figures, and drew huge audiences. Faraday was gripped. He wrote up his notes from the lectures – three hundred pages including illustrations – and sent a bound copy to Davy, asking for a job. Davy was so impressed by Faraday’s work that he employed him as a secretary, and found him a job at the Royal Institution the following year. Continue reading →
The well-known geneticist Francis Collins is in the habit of breaking into song on special occasions. The only other person I have known to sing during a science-faith presentation is environmental scientist Calvin (Cal) DeWitt. At the 2007 conference of Christians in Science and the ASA in Edinburgh, DeWitt concluded his talk by leading us all in song. You can hear it here (fast forward to the last 2 minutes, unless you want to hear the whole talk which is very good). It was a moving moment, and a significant one. Here was a scientist wearing his heart on his sleeve and expressing himself through art as well as scientific jargon.
I wasn’t at all surprised – though I was pleased – when DeWitt published a new book this year entitled ‘Song of a Scientist’. This ‘song’ is a weaving together of different stories: autobiographical, ecological, and ethical. The autobiographical story is of DeWitt’s life in science: some initial work in zoology, a switch to environmental science, and his part in making the Town of Dunn a sustainable development. Woven through this account are stories of animals, plants and whole ecosystems that sing their own song. The ethical part is what DeWitt does best; his knowledge of the natural world and its destruction is encyclopaedic, but he has also been involved in putting into action practical methods to care for the earth that are both sustainable and acceptable to its human inhabitants. This isn’t a hair-shirt way of living: it’s a living of life to the full in the most joyful way possible. Continue reading →
This is the second part of my interview with marine conservationist Bob Sluka. Here he explains how he gradually came to realise the importance of his work from a faith perspective, and is now combining the two in a unique way. (Part 1 here)
I’ve been on a journey. I come from a fairly conservative American evangelical background, with all the good stuff and also some of the baggage. I think my experience is probably similar to that of many Americans, where at first science seemed to have no relevance to my faith. At university I joined the InterVarsity Christian student group and was involved in different activities on campus – but that was the only implementation of my faith at the time. Continue reading →
I’ve always found theology a little difficult. At times I find myself thinking, ‘This is God they’re talking about. If he’s anything like what they’re describing, shouldn’t they sound more excited?!’ I recently came across a theologian who expressed this problem in a way that I found helpful. He said that studying God is something of a balancing act. At times the theologian has to hold their breath, as it were, and suspend their sense of the sacred in order to understand deep truths. They should also spend time on their knees – perhaps mentally in this instance – revelling in the presence of God as they study his attributes.* I feel the same about natural theology. It’s fascinating to look at examples of fine-tuning in the universe: here, perhaps, is evidence for the existence of God. Logical analysis of the cosmological constants requires a good deal of spiritual breath-holding, but it’s possible – at least for a time – to remain focused on the physics. It’s when I look at what the universe reveals of God’s character that I begin to find it difficult to operate on a purely academic level. On Father’s day you didn’t confine yourself to writing a logical treatise about your dad, and the same applies to a relational God.
Psalm 111 is often called the ‘research scientist’s psalm’.
Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Psalm 111: 2
I’ve already told the story of how the second verse of this psalm came to be on the door of both the old and new Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge. James Clark Maxwell’s successor as Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics was the Nobel Prize-winning Lord Rayleigh. Rayleigh was also a Christian, and he had the famous verse printed on the front of each volume of his collected papers. Geneticist R.J. Berry writes in the journal Science & Christian Belief that Psalm 111 demonstrates wisdom rooted in the study of reality. If verse two is the scientists (and artist’s) charter, it needs to be balanced by verse ten.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. Psalm 111: 10
God’s provision comes on God’s terms. In other words, the correct response to a study of nature is ‘reverence mingled with delight, gratitude and trust’. This psalm also demonstrates that wisdom is best shared in community: scientists should communicate their findings so that others can ‘delight in them’ too.
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Johannes Kepler may have had Psalm 111 in mind when he wrote his now famous prayer, which came at the end of one of his scientific works:
If I have been enticed into brashness by the wonderful beauty of your works, or if I have loved my own glory among men, while advancing in work destined for your glory, gently and mercifully pardon me; and finally, deign graciously to cause that these demonstrations may lead to your glory and to the salvation of souls, and nowhere be an obstacle to that. Amen.
This Christmas post is taken from ‘Nature’s Witness’ by Daniel Harrell. This series of extracts is from chapter 6: ‘God is great, God is good, but maybe I’ve misunderstood?’, that explores the vastness of the universe, God’s creation of it, and the presence of suffering. I’ve chosen some portions that I thought were appropriate to the season – that ask why God created the universe and why did he care about us?
When I consider the works of your hand, which you display in all you have created, I am at once awed and bewildered. I believe, yet sometimes I need help to believe. I wonder at your creativity, and at the same time I wonder why your creativity looks so different than I would expect. I wonder why the earth evolved instead of simply appearing, and why life has taken such a long road to get to where it is. I would have expected you to act more immediately and efficiently. Yet I know that my expectations are extensions of my own desires. And though you may be the author of my desire, I am the one who distorts it and imposes those distortions on you, I know that I must humble my understanding to your unveiling. Yet to observe your world and your ways creates a collision within my mind, a dissonance that I desperately long to resolve.
You’re infinite, and I’m finite, confined by time and by my sin and thereby limited in perception and understanding. Your eternity dwarfs my capacity to comprehend it. Your holiness outshines my feeble faith. Any claim to know you sounds presumptuous. And yet as a God of love you unveil yourself so that I can know you. Revelation is part of your character. You show us yourself in order to draw us to yourself. Your work and your word extend love and beckon our response of love. Relationship is your essence and you invite us to partake of it. You are love and your love is magnificently splashed across the universe and intricately wired into our souls…
Life itself your gift and yet each life hardly registers as a whisper in the vastness of time. And time itself registers as barely a whisper in the vastness of eternity. I and every other living thing are but insignificant moments in an unsearchable string of moments that are swallowed up within an infinity where no moments exist.
By your power you made the heavens and the earth. You created reality, breaking open existence with divine and furious heat. The dust of the starry heavens became the dust of the earth, the dust from which you made every living thing…
Were you so intent on making creatures in your image and granting them a world to inhabit that you’d spend thirteen billion years of cosmic and planetary life to make it happen? All for the slight blip of relationship you enjoyed with humanity before we fell from your favour? Who are we that you would go to such lengths, not even sparing your own Son, but giving him up, and with him, giving us all things? This is too great. I can’t understand it. We don’t deserve it…
Your handiwork is like a potter’s art. But my mind is like a potter’s wheel; round and round and round I go.
I have been reading Nancy Frankenberry’s book ‘The Faith of Scientists’. The first four scientists covered – Galileo, Kepler, Francis Bacon and Pascal – were all Christians, and then the definition of faith gets somewhat broader. Einstein, Dyson, Dawkins and others are included, some of whom are vigorously against any kind of faith… I want to focus here on Francis Bacon, well known for his contribution to the development of experimental science, and whose understanding of science and Christianity is fascinating. His faith informed his thinking and writing in a very overt way, though he was largely in favour of keeping science separate from theology. (Bacon would have been shocked by Kepler, ten years his junior, whose science was so obviously driven by his theology.) In his writing Bacon highlighted the importance of some things that are now taken for granted, and contribute to the pursuit and transparency of science.
1. The need to ‘ask the right questions’ in approaching new fields of study
2. Appending methods to scientific papers
3. Publishing errata
Bacon saw science as an act of Christian service, and took truth-telling very seriously. He was keenly aware of our ability to deceive even ourselves.
May God never allow us to publish a dream of our imagination as a model of the world, but rather graciously grant us the power to describe the true appearance and revelation of the prints and traces of the Creator in his creatures.
Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration, 1620
if in anything I have been either too credulous or too little awake and attentive, or if I have fallen off by the way and left the inquiry incomplete, nevertheless I so present these things naked and open, that my errors can be marked and set aside before the mass of knowledge be further infected by them; and it will be easy also for others to continue and carry on my labours.
Francis Bacon, the New Organon, 1620
Finally, I want to share this prayer, taken from Bacon’s ‘New Organon’. This is a great attitude for work of any sort, let alone science, which can feel so fruitless at times.
And therefore, Father, you who have given visible light as the first fruits of creation and, at the summit of your works, have breathed intellectual light into the face of man, protect and govern this work, which began in your goodness and returns to your glory. After you had turned to view the works which your hands had made, you saw that all things were very good, and you rested. But man, turning to the works which his hands have made, saw that all things were vanity and vexation of spirit, and has had no rest. Wherefore if we labour in your works, you will make us to share in your vision and in your Sabbath. We humbly beseech that this mind may remain in us; and that you may be pleased to bless the human family with new mercies, through our hands and the hands of those others to whom you will give the same mind.
Francis Bacon, the New Organon, 1620 (my paragraph divisions)