The Stories We Tell: Science, faith, and cultural distinctiveness

Tiamat
Babylonian cylinder seal. Ben Pirard at nl.wikipedia CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, there was a goddess called Tiamat. Tiamat was the ocean, chaotic and powerful. Tiamat’s husband, freshwater, was bothered by the noisy younger gods and wanted to kill them but Tiamat disagreed and warned her son. When Tiamat’s husband was then killed by the younger gods she wanted revenge, so she made eleven monsters to hunt them down – including her own children. In the end, the young champion Marduk challenged Tiamat to a battle and killed her. Marduk cut Tiamat in two, using one half of her body to make the heavens, and the other the earth.”

When the people of Israel were exiled in Babylon, if any of their youngsters ever got to receive an education they might have been taught the Babylonian creation poem Enuma Elish. The highly abbreviated version I have given here is just a flavour of this extremely – to my ears – bloodthirsty and violent epic. I wonder what the parents might have thought about their children being exposed to stories like this? Continue reading

Litter: a fresh perspective on life under the leaves

Autumn leaves
© Ruth M. Bancewicz

Next time you take a walk through a forest, sit down on the fallen leaves, rustle a hole in the top layer, breathe deeply, and take in the aroma of fresh earth. Sterilised soil smells somehow wrong to our noses –  it lacks the homey feel of childhood dens and freshly ploughed fields. But on productive land, like an ancient forest or well-tended farm, it smells right. Our noses know what to look for – the rich earthy scent of microbial decomposition. Continue reading

How Biofriendly is the Universe?

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Kepler-186f: artist’s concept. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

It’s obvious that our own planet is friendly to life, but what about the rest of the universe? Is the rest of space too cold and dark – or hot – to allow life to develop? Was the development of life on earth a hugely improbably event, or pretty much a forgone conclusion? The Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Christian de Duve spent the last few years of his career investigating this question, and came up with a surprising answer. In this post I’ll share five of the characteristics of life that he studied. Continue reading

A Reflection for Lent

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John 19:19-22 – The King of the Jews. Image source: http://jesusisgod316.blogspot.co.uk/

As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha (which means ‘the place of the skull’). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him:

this is jesus, the king of the jews.

Matthew 27:32-37

Some of the most beautiful things in the world have an ugly side. I was recently Continue reading

Book Preview: Is there more to life than genes?

dna-helix-background-image-1-1632628 formateins freeimages

Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. If the foot says, ‘I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand’, does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the ear says, ‘I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye’, does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole  body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? But as it is, there are many parts but one body. So the eye can’t say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you’, or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you’. Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary.

(1 Corinthians 12.14  –22, CEB)

In this passage, St Paul is referring to parts of the body that we can see, but equally important are the millions of molecular machines and processes that we cannot see but nevertheless sustain our every Continue reading

Rare Earth: Why ‘simple’ life may be common in the universe, but animals may be unique to our planet

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Cropped from: Artist’s impression of a M dwarf star surrounded by planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Anyone who has watched enough nature documentaries will know that life can exist pretty much anywhere on Earth. One episode of the Blue Planet II series showed a hydrothermal vent – a crack in the mid-ocean ridge where hot gases and water pour out. Bacteria thrive in the scalding water around the vents, getting their energy from chemicals like hydrogen and sulphur, and enabling a rich ecosystem of bacteria-eating crabs, shrimps, and other animals to build up to such a density that it rivals Continue reading