Randomness Keeps You Breathing: A physicist’s perspective on the richness of the created order

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People love order. Whether it involves a garden, a filing system, or an alphabetical bookshelf, we often get a sense of satisfaction from a good tidying-up job. If you’re thinking “That description doesn’t fit me”, I bet there is at least one area of your life where you are geekily, control-freakily, organised. What about your hard drive, the ‘filing system’ that only you understand which extends off your desk onto the floor and any other available surface in the room, or even aspects of the way you store things away in your memory?

Perhaps this love of structure is why Christians tend to see randomness in nature as a bad thing. In the first two chapters of Genesis we are asked to tend and keep creation, and for many of us this probably prompts images of fields full of rows of carefully planted crops surrounded by neat fences, or gardens bordered with well-clipped hedges. That’s all very well, but there are aspects of life that require a certain level of disorder so that order can exist at another level.

Random movements are the perfect tool for creating order. For example, randomness is absolutely vital to the development and sustenance of life. I feel the need to make this point because it comes up so often in discussions about science and religion. Evolutionary biology comes under fire not always for theological reasons, but also because it involves random processes. “Surely”, people ask, “God wouldn’t create in that way?” Predicting how God will work or telling him what to do has never been a terribly successful venture in human history, as the Bible describes very clearly.

In chapter four of the book of Revelation the writer describes how creation honours God: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” So how does this actually play out in the biological realm? In his seminar at the Faraday Institute last month Russell Cowburn, who is Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University and also a Christian, explained why we wouldn’t be able to stay alive without random (unpredictable) events.

Staying alive involves chemical reactions. Green plants turn sunlight into carbohydrates, we eat and digest those carbs, and our bodies convert them into a usable source of energy for our brain, muscles, and other important functions. These reactions are made possible by random energy fluctuations inside the atoms involved. A scientist can’t predict when or in which individual atoms these changes will happen next, but she can make some statistical predictions based on her knowledge of the chemicals involved. Each type of atom has its own particular energy threshold, and if the energy fluctuates above that level then it can react.

Although you can’t predict when an individual atom will fizz away, you can predict very precisely what will happen to a collection of those atoms if you add an extra input of energy – such as a rise in temperature. So in warm weather ice melts, fizzy drinks bubble faster, and food breaks down. If you cooled everything down to minus 273 degrees centigrade you could get rid of all of the chemical energy fluctuations – but that would freeze every living thing to death.

Engineers also use disordered, unpredictable, events to create order. In pure iron the tidy rows of atoms slip and slide over each other, so it bends too easily to be useful for making buildings. If you throw a bit of carbon into the mix the neat layers become a bit more disorganised and less likely to slip over each, so the result is nice strong steel. Nuclear power plants split uranium atoms, which is the most random process identified by scientists so far, but it is so easy to predict the overall behaviour of a collection of uranium atoms that you could set you watch by it. Without randomness a lot of the technology we benefit from would not be possible.

Some of us may have seen randomness as being messy, disorganised, uncontrolled, badly designed, wasteful and lacking direction. But according to the physicists we can embrace it as self-healing, adaptable, understandable, predictable when viewed correctly, possessing hidden order, rich, useful, emergent, creative, and merciful. To get the full picture, watch or listen to Russel’s talk.

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© Faraday Institute

Ruth is Church Engagement Director at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. She studied Genetics at Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, and spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology in Edinburgh, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth is a trustee of Christians in Science, and a Fellow of their US counterpart – the American Scientific Affiliation.

 

6 thoughts on “Randomness Keeps You Breathing: A physicist’s perspective on the richness of the created order

  1. Ray L Bailey November 8, 2018 / 11:33 am

    Good point. I like the idea of everything is essentially random, but is then pyramided up into a perfect “order”. It gives the sense that Elohim God is indeed master while enjoying the beauty of the creativeness of “random order” (if that makes any sense! Hah!)
    Good work!

    Like

    • Ruth M. Bancewicz November 8, 2018 / 12:11 pm

      Thank you Ray, we’re glad you enjoyed it! Life is always this combination of order at a small scale and disorder on a larger scale, which is part of what makes it so wonderful.

      Like

  2. glennmyers November 9, 2018 / 8:28 am

    Really nice piece!

    Like

    • Ruth M. Bancewicz November 12, 2018 / 2:22 pm

      Thank you Glenn! Russell’s talk was fuller but I picked out the parts that I thought would tell a good self-contained story. Glad you enjoyed it!

      Like

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