Guest Post: Theory and Experience

B0007641 Insulin
Insulin by Anna Tanczos, Wellcome Images. (CC-by-nc-nd4.0)

3 years ago I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. 5,925 injections later, I find it difficult to describe it in a factual, scientific way. Although the biology is fascinating, Type 1 is so much more than that. It’s the joy of having hot chocolate to treat a medical emergency. It’s the awkwardness of lifting up my skirt in public to inject. It’s the frustration of having had hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) 8 times this week as I adjust to new insulin ratios. It’s preparing hot meals that go cold by the time I’ve tested my blood sugar, weighed my food, assessed the number of carbohydrates on my plate, considered what time of day it is, whether I plan to exercise later, if I fancy any wine with dinner, if I need to correct my current blood sugar, whether I’ll want more food when I’ve finished and finally calculated how many units of insulin to take, only to realise the cartridge has run out.

Insulin glucose metabolism By XcepticZP [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The cells in our body gain access to the energy they need thanks to one hormone produced by one type of cell in one organ. Insulin is the hormone that allows glucose to pass from the blood to the cells. It is produced by beta cells in the pancreas which release the hormone into the bloodstream when blood glucose levels increase (e.g. after eating) and prevent its release when glucose levels drop (e.g. during exercise). Insulin works in two ways: by binding to specific receptors on cell membranes, causing them to absorb more glucose, and by activating enzymes to convert glucose into glycogen so it can be stored as an energy source for later use.

B0009797 Murine pancreas, SPIM
Murine pancreas [beta-cells (red)] by Jürgen Mayer, Centre de Regulació Genòmica & Universitat Pompeu Fabra . Wellcome Images. (CC-by-nc-nd4.0)
So, insulin’s pretty impressive, and those little beta cells have an important job. But what happens if they don’t function correctly? Type 1 Diabetes mellitus is an autoimmune disease which destroys those precious beta cells, preventing them from producing insulin. It’s a chronic medical condition affecting around 1 in 200 people in the UK[1], and it has short and long term complications. It can be treated by insulin injections or a pump, and monitored by frequent blood glucose tests, but does not currently have a known cure or prevention. I’ve just had to stop writing to treat hypo number 9 but I realise most of you won’t know what that feels like, even if you’ve read the list of symptoms. The experience of living with a diagnosis is very different to having a scientific knowledge of the condition. Hypoglycaemia and hyperglycaemia only scratch the surface of the many highs and lows that come with having diabetes, and to reduce the disease to a biological description cuts out much of what it means to be diabetic. However, the frustrations, joys and awkward moments that diabetes brings are not unimportant just because they aren’t included in the textbook.

This relationship between theory and experience is an important part of scientific study. Although I tend to prefer the theoretical side of Physics, experiments help solidify my understanding and there is a beautiful satisfaction in observing a physical system whilst knowing the mathematics behind it.

Similarly, as a Christian it’s important to have both an understanding of the Bible and an active relationship with God. It is one thing to believe a set of religious ideas, and another to let them impact how you live. For me, to know Jesus is not just to know the accounts of his life and teachings, but to know his transformational power[2], his peaceful presence[3] and his “very present help”[4] in daily life. The Bible discusses diabetes as much as describes the love of Jesus. Although the theoretical study of my faith and my condition seem so separate, I have found that some of my main experiences of Type 1 have also been my main experiences of God. His peace during my diagnosis, his strength to persist when it’s overwhelming, his perspective to see so many positives and his promise for healing – if not now, then in heaven. His love that defines me is more than a medical label, more than an emotion, more than a Christian cliché. It’s more than a theory written in a book, and he freely gives it to be experienced in abundance.

[1] accessed 18/07/16

[2] Romans 8:11

[3] John 14:27

[4] Psalm 46:1, ESV

© Naomi Brehm


Naomi Brehm is currently studying Physics at Durham, where she co-leads the University College Christian Union. She enjoys teaching Science-Faith workshops in secondary schools with ‘God and the Big Bang’ and has recently become the undergraduate representative for the Christians in Science committee.


Blood and Bones: Learning from the dinosaurs

Dinosaur Museum by Andrew & Becky Livesey. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Dinosaurs are often relegated to museums and kids’ t-shirts, but they are far more significant for us today than their comic-book versions might suggest. The next featured speaker in our series from the Faraday summer course is Mary Higby Schweitzer, a molecular palaeontologist from North Carolina State University. Schweitzer started out in education, studying speech therapy and qualifying as a high school science teacher, but began a second career when she went back to university as a PhD student in palaeontology. Since then, she has found herself asking questions that others have often ignored. What happens if you look for organic molecules inside dinosaur bones? What structures are preserved? What can we learn from them? Continue reading

Dinosaurs in your garden: An interview with Lizzie Coyle

Archaeopteryx fossil By James L. Amos (National Geographic Society) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Did you have the chance to explore science and religion when you were younger? A safe place to explore new ideas and questions between subject boundaries? Today we hear (transcript below) from someone who works to create and encourage such a space – introducing Lizzie Coyle and her travelling bag of fossils. Continue reading

Creation: A Celebration

© Sue Symons, and courtesy of the publisher Shepheard-Walwyn Publishers

In 2009, Sue Symons finished 7,000 hours of work on a series of illuminated and embroidered texts which celebrate the theme of creation. I was fortunate enough to catch sight of the original work at the Christian Resources Exhibition in May this year, and in the end I had to buy the book. I was supposed to be working on the Faraday Institute stand at the time, but the level of detail in the pictures made me want to pore over them. Continue reading

The Bible and Human Origins

Great Isaiah Scroll. Photographs by Ardon Bar Hama, author of original document is unknown. (Website of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 Science may have changed the way we read the opening chapters of Genesis, but we still need to respect the historical integrity of the text. This was Mark Harris’s reflection as he opened his lecture on The Bible and Human Origins  at the Faraday summer course last month. When it comes to questions of human identity and where we came from, the focus for most Christians is on the first three chapters of Genesis. Harris spent his talk looking at different interpretations of this text – especially the story of the fall – and the questions those interpretations raise for both science and faith. Continue reading

Cara Wall Scheffler: What anthropology can tell us about the origins of religious behaviour

Before I report back on Mark Harris’s second Faraday course lecture, which was on the Bible and human origins*, I want to think about the science behind this subject. At the same course, the biological anthropologist Cara Wall-Scheffler spoke on Anthropology and the Origins of Religion. I’ll reflect on Continue reading

New Ways of Seeing Science and Religion: Complexity or Prophetic Conflict?

The opening speaker at last week’s Faraday Institute summer course was Mark Harris, Senior Lecturer in Science and Religion at Edinburgh University. He started by showing a picture of his two favourite workplaces. At the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire he focused in on nature in its finest details, and at the Edinburgh Divinity School he’s now involved in looking up to the heavens and asking very broad questions.

Harris spoke about the relationship between science and religion, asking whether there is a clash of worldviews between the two. He started out by Continue reading