Greatest in the small things

Planktonic foramenifera. © F.S. Caballero

Scientists experience awe in very different ways, depending on the systems they study. In the second part of my interview with Spanish Palaeontologist Fernando Caballero Santamaria, he describes how he processes his experience of awe in his own work. (Part 1 here)

When you work with stones, as I do, sometimes it’s difficult to feel the sense of awe that more biological scientists often talk about. But when I’ve finished cleaning up my specimens and look at them under the microscope – that’s when I see real beauty. One of the greatest experiences of my career was when I was working with an electron microscope. The magnification was so high that I could see fossilised nano-plankton sitting in the pore of another plankton that I was studying. They’re so small, and so beautiful!

Outside of the lab, I often experience awe when I look at geological landscapes. For example, there’s a spectacular glacial valley in the Ordesa National Park in Northern Spain. Standing at the top of the valley, I have fossils under my feet, and in the distance I can see the limit of the Palaeocene period, the Eocene period, and so on. In my mind’s eye I am able to follow a three-dimensional reconstruction of these rock layers all the way to France in one direction, and towards what used to be the sea bed in the Basque country (where I live) in the other. It’s breathtaking. I’ve had similar experiences in Yellowstone National Park, and in Shark Bay in Australia where I studied stromatolites. To be there, just walking among the fossils…those are great experiences.

When I see a fossil, or when I am on top of a mountain looking at beautiful landscapes, I always think, ‘Grace to God’, because it’s his creation. I have no problem with saying that God is behind what I’m seeing, in the same way that I have no problem in saying we receive food from God when I understand how the water cycle and other factors produced it. By faith I believe that God created the natural laws that produced the geological structures I see.

Spending time in such awe-inspiring landscapes makes me think about how great God is and how small we are. My scientific studies have made me aware of how flawed I am. I move from the ecstasy of seeing the beauty of creation in the field, to being painfully aware of my faults. That duality is important to me. Sometimes I come home from a glorious experience at the top of a mountain, and I’m emotionally floored – conscious of my inability to live well unless God helps me. To be honest, I must deal with this confrontation every day. It’s not at all easy to be a Christian and a palaeontologist.

In the dedication at the end of my PhD thesis I wrote, ‘Soli Deo Gloria [Glory to God], because He was the one who said that the stones will speak‘. After my thesis examination we had an informal lunch with the examiners, and the conversation centred around this quote. All the people there were asking me, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘What do you believe?’ One of my examiners was very confrontational with me, because he couldn’t understand how a scientist could believe in God today. Later on, one of the other examiners wrote to me. At first I was afraid that he was also upset with me, but he said, ‘To your ‘Soli Deo Gloria’, I say ‘Magnus in magnis, maximus in minimis‘’, which is a quote from Augustine:  ‘God is great in the big things, but is greatest in the small things.’ I was very surprised that he should encourage me in this way, because he was not a religious man. At the time he was the Chairman of the stratigraphy sub-commission of UNESCO. It was strange that this person who I admired scientifically thought the same as me: that these small fossils are so great, and reveal something about God.

4 thoughts on “Greatest in the small things

  1. michala June 11, 2013 / 1:51 am

    The most beautiful sight is the metamorphasis of the butterfly from caterpillar.this clearly is not evolution at work or how we interpret the theory I.e . Slow incremental stages as it completely dissolves and re configures its whole body within the chrysallis.this is not random mutation and the beautiful butterfly has meaning and purpose.evolution cannot explain this little natural miracle and is perhaps an indication of another process( unknown ) at work as intelligent design of the butterfly is evident not by evolution or mutation.if it was just random chance then why give the butterfly colour.mutation does not demand creatures to be beautiful or have purpose.mutation is functional practical and unpredictable like evolutionary cannot predict what a creature may have looked like in the past or in the future.speculation is not evidence.


  2. Ruth Bancewicz June 11, 2013 / 12:28 pm

    I don’t normally reply to evolution/creation comments, but you’re clearly very interested as you’ve made similar comments on a number of my posts. A couple of books explain my point of view very well – that God created through evolution. They’re written by talented biology lecturers who are also Christians.


    • michala June 11, 2013 / 12:51 pm

      Thank you ruth.i will try to read the books mentioned.I understand your view and in a way it does make sense.evolution does happen but there are various views on how the process works to produce different interested in new theories and cannot ignore evidence contrary to evolution.there is perhaps an unknown process working with evolution.


Leave a Reply to michala Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s