I interviewed a number of scientists on a recent trip to Spain, and this is an extract from the first of those conversations. Dr Raul García has a background in medicine and neuroscience, and is a Children and Adolescents Psychiatrist in Madrid.
I started university as a civil engineering student, but I didn’t enjoy my studies. I was more interested in people than numbers and equations, and towards the end of my first year I was looking for something else to do. At the same time, I was involved in supporting a family friend who was suffering from mental illness, and I went with him to an appointment at the hospital where he was being treated. This person was a Christian, and during the interview he said that his future was in God’s hands. The medical staff laughed sceptically at him, interpreting his optimism as delusional thinking. This incident had a huge impact on me, and I began to think about studying medicine. I realised that I wanted to help people like my friend, and that this was both a scientific and a theological ambition. So I changed track, and studied medicine. Continue reading →
On a recent trip to Nottingham I met Mike Clifford, who is an Associate Professor in Engineering at Nottingham University. He’s interested in the role of imagination in science and engineering, and spoke on this topic at the Christian Postgraduate student conference last year. In his talk Clifford described how Scottish philosopher Adam Smith recognised a strong link between memory and imagination. We tend to pigeonhole objects in our memories, grouping them into classes. When we see an obviously new type of object it provokes both wonder and the invention of a new classification category. Smith said that scientists are people “who have spent their lives studying the connecting principles between objects [who] will often note intervals between two objects which more careless observers will think are… joined. [Science] therefore may be regarded as one of those arts which address themselves to the imagination.” Not all scientists are classificationists, but I think that Smith’s principle could be also applied to ideas. Close observation of both objects and theoretical or mathematical models is extremely important in science. The most exciting advances begin when imaginative people spot holes in current thinking. Having a well-developed set of mental pigeonholes also makes lateral thinking possible. Coming up with original ideas often involves connecting different areas of knowledge in ways no one else had anticipated. New syntheses aren’t always arrived at by plodding from A to B – they often happen when someone tries to leap from A to Z in one jump.
I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world…Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.
Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.
John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1929), Ch. XI
Advances were made in physics when Einstein and others began to conceive of conditions where Newtonian laws didn’t apply. Quantum mechanics was born. In mathematics, the use of negative numbers took hundreds of years to catch on. ‘Imaginary numbers’ were just as slow to be accepted, though they have important applications in both science and engineering.
Although to many [imaginary numbers] appear an extravagant thing, because even I held this opinion some time ago, since it appeared to me more sophistic than true, nevertheless I searched hard and found the demonstration…let the reader apply all his strength of mind, for [otherwise] even he will find himself deceived.
Clifford commented that ‘I find it interesting that a failure to fully utilise the mind (including the imagination) may result in deception…it is only through the use of the mind or of the imagination that the truth will be revealed.’
The Christian in the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.
Of course to be useful a scientist’s imagination needs to be rooted in reality. What fascinates me is the contrast between our ability to grasp deep truth (such as imaginary numbers or quantum mechanics) and a different order of deep truths that are at times more or less socially acceptable – those to do with the person of God. Both require deep thinking and are controversial. Our minds are capable of grasping both and it’s important not to be deceived, either in a scientific or a metaphysical sense, through lack of hard thinking. So keep up the comments please, I don’t want to get lazy!
This is the second of two posts from an interview with Shannon Stahl, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I love the (slightly) in-depth description of his work, and how that ties in with his wonder at the creativity of chemistry.
I see my work in chemistry as a gift and a vocational calling, and there is an intrinsic joy of participating in this discovery process.
To scientists, engineering can be a dirty word, but there is an element of engineering associated with chemistry. The components – the atoms – are known, as well as a basic framework of chemical reactivity, but there are things that you can’t do yet. It’s not unlike an engineering problem. You need to build an airplane so that you can fly. You have the components, but how do you solve the technical challenges? There’s a beauty about actually getting off the ground and flying. In this sense, I really enjoy the “engineering” aspects of chemistry. One can learn the basic laws of nature that govern chemical reactivity and combine the chemical building blocks together in unique ways to achieve unprecedented phenomena.
When I teach undergraduate students I present them with what’s known already – they learn it, and then take an exam and regurgitate it. But when I train PhD students, the challenge is to get them to appreciate that they’re there to ask the questions. They have to ask, ‘What is not known?’ and ‘What is it that I would like to do, that no one has done before?’ They embark on a journey of taking what they do know and beginning to approach those unknowns. It’s about pushing beyond that template that they’ve been given. And it’s the unknown becoming known that is just so exhilarating for me as a scientist.
Take for example oxygen, which is ‘my’ molecule – it’s what I live and breathe, figuratively and literally! Oxygen is an amazing molecule, and there are fascinating aspects of its chemistry. According to the laws of thermodynamics, my body should spontaneously ignite in an oxygen-containing environment, yet something in the chemistry of oxygen provides a kinetic stability (i.e. the chemicals ‘want’ to stay in their current states) so that doesn’t happen.
I spend my time thinking about how to control the chemistry of oxygen in such a way that it can combine with organic molecules to produce useful things like pharmaceuticals. The pharmaceutical industry in the US has a big emphasis on green chemistry. For example, a common step often used in the production of pharmaceuticals is to oxidise an alcohol. Historically one would use chemical reagents that produce harmful by-products. But if we use a (reusable) catalyst we can find ways to combine them in such a way that water is the only by-product.
I think that my feelings of awe and wonder when I’m doing chemistry (see previous post) are not unique. Chemistry is at the interface between biology and physics, and there are two different styles of science within chemistry. Among my colleagues are some who are very mathematical and analytically oriented, and others who are much more creativity driven. Everybody experiences the awe but the difference is in how it’s expressed and reflected back. When you’re connected to something that’s beyond yourself – that allows the experience to take on an even bigger meaning. My own view is that this is part of ‘common grace’. This is something that God has given to all of us as his creation, and what we do with it and how we handle it is part of the calling that we have as people. We can idolise it or we can use it as an act of worship.
It’s significant that Peter Clarke, who spoke on ‘Brain, Determinism and Free Will’ at the Faraday Institute this week, is an identical twin. As a twin he will be more acutely aware than most of the factors that are important in defining individuality, personality and choice. Peter is Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Morphology at the University of Lausanne and, unusually for a biologist, his first degree was in engineering science. His supervisor for his PhD on electrical responses in the brain was the well-known (in science & religion circles) philosopher-neurobiologist Donald MacKay. With this background, his approach to freewill was both unusual and fascinating.
Peter Clarke’s approach to the question of whether or not our brain biochemistry is completely determined by genetics and environment was to ask which of the various philosophical solutions that have been proposed for the free-will question fit the data best. His main focus was to test the idea that randomness at the molecular level in the brain leaves room for the soul to act. Some proponents of free will claim that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (that you can’t completely define the position of an atom) means that the brain’s biochemistry may ‘allow’ for individual choice. Peter showed, by looking in detail at the energy involved in neuronal synapses, that the brain is resistant to random forces (such as localised fluctuations in ion concentrations) that are thousands of times greater than Heisenbergian uncertainty. So quantum fluctuations aren’t going to cause neurons to fire, and are not a good candidate for the mechanism underlying free will.
It was interesting to see science being brought to bear on a philosophical problem, and also to see someone picking apart an argument in such detail. But is raises the question that if people believe in a soul, does it matter whether or not we can see where in the brain it acts? I’m tempted to say no, because I think that if ‘soulish’ properties such as hatred and love are outside of science, then how they emerge from our physical body is not a scientific question – just as the ‘tableness’ of a table is not a scientific question. It does leave us with a lot of questions about our brain, consciousness, freewill and so on – which I expect is why so many neuroscientists (and theologians, psychologists and many others) think that the question of the soul is more nuanced than the simple ‘ghost in the machine’ idea.