Merry Christmas!

Thank you to all our readers and guest writers in 2018. We’re looking forward to the new topics we’ll get to explore in 2019. This year’s Christmas photos are a perspective from the fields of Cambridgeshire (and Germany), from a local breeder of seeds for agriculture. Enjoy!

© Leon Jonck

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Guest Post – Stranded: Life and death in the ocean

stranded-1
Images © Ackroyd & Harvey

Do you go to an art exhibition to be soothed and delighted, or challenged and disturbed? Science uses highly creative approaches to investigate the natural world, but art can perhaps offer a deeper, more personal engagement. Continue reading

Considering Beauty

Lime tree, microscopic view. K Szkurlatowski, 12frames.eu
Lime tree, microscopic view. © K Szkurlatowski, 12frames.eu

I have often written about beauty here, and Francesca Day mentioned it last week, but without defining the word itself. William Edgar is a musician and theologian based at Westminster Theological Seminary, and in his lecture Beauty Reconsidered he gave a history of the concept of beauty and proposed a form of aesthetics that I think will resonate with the ideals of many Christians working in the sciences.

In the 1960s, it was said anyone who pronounced something ‘beautiful’ was trying to exert power over it. That power was rejected, and the concept of beauty went into hibernation – at least in academic circles in Europe and North America.

It’s impossible, however, to suppress our sense of beauty. In the 1990s, philosophers started Continue reading

Beauty, Science and Theology. Part 2: Understanding Beauty in Science

This series of more extended posts sums up my recent work on beauty in science and theology, and is reproduced (with permission) from the BioLogos blog.

Beautiful Brain © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009

Understanding Beauty in Science

It is of course possible to appreciate the beauty of creation[1] intuitively, simply delighting in a scene full of colour, pattern and variety. We instinctively enjoy wide-open vistas, long stretches of clear water and high lookout points.[2] We also seem to value symmetry and order. But there is great pleasure to be had in training the senses to a higher degree of observation, and this is something that poets practice as well as scientists. W.H. Davies’ poem ‘Leisure’ encourages the cultivation of a deliberate habit of unhurried observation. I also love Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s slightly caustic observation:

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Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries… Continue reading

Beauty, Science and Theology. Part 1: Perspectives on Beauty

This series of more extended posts sums up my recent work on beauty in science and theology, and is reproduced (with permission) from the BioLogos blog.

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek:that I may dwell in the house of the LORDAll the days of my life,to gaze on the beauty of the LORDand to seek him in his temple.

                                        Psalm 27: 4

I belong in the ranks of those who have cultivated the beauty that is the distinctive feature of scientific research.                                                                                                                                                                                                     Marie Curie[1]

All of the biologists I know are undeniable lovers of their objects of study…                                                                                                                  Konrad Lorenz[2]

Beauty in Science

Fluorescent image of Chlamydomonas algae showing location of Fa2p enzyme at the base of the cilia,. © Dr. Lynn Quarmby.

As a biologist, I am fascinated by the fluorescent-on-black images of cells, 3D rotations of protein structures, and cross-sections of colourful tissue samples that grace the covers of scientific journals. I have spent whole weeks staring down a microscope at the beautifully transparent bodies of developing fish embryos, and whenever possible I illustrate my written work with photographs of the natural world. I’m not alone. In the institute where I did my PhD we had a basement full of microscopes and imaging technology, and it was considered important to have beautiful images in your presentations—movies were even better. The journal Nature: Cell Biology always features striking images on its covers, and in an editorial these photographs were described as works of art in their own right. In fact, ‘scientific art’ has become a recognised genre, and displays of science-related images are increasingly popular in research institutes, museums, science festivals and other public spaces. Continue reading

The Beauty of Shalom

© Ruth Bancewicz

I think that the beauty seen in science falls into four broad categories. First, a scientist may find beauty in their experimental system, whether it is a model organism, a certain diagnostic printout, or an aesthetically pleasing series of molecules. Secondly, there is the cleverly devised experiment carried out with skill and patience that results in good clear data: the molecular biologist’s sharp DNA bands on a gel, the organic chemist’s high yield, or the physicist’s precise measurements. Third, the data and the theory that gathers them into a coherent whole may have an intrinsic beauty that is both striking and satisfying. Physicists have appreciated beauty in symmetry, in order, and in complex systems that are reducible to a series of ‘elegant’ mathematical equations. Biological systems are more complex and difficult to describe mathematically, so the beauty observed in the life sciences is more often to do with colour, pattern, shape, movement, or detail. At times, complex biological systems are understood at a level that does reveal their mathematical simplicity. When order emerges out of apparent chaos biologists begin to use words like ‘striking’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘astonishing’. If a theory is developed that can be used to predict further experiments and explain other data, that is also beautiful in its own way.[1] We appreciate the order, unity and simplicity that it brings to our understanding of the world. Continue reading

Theological Aesthetics

© Ruth Bancewicz

I have often written here about aesthetics in science, and recently I’ve been exploring the same theme in theology. I’ve been reading Richard Viladesau’s Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art, and trying to understand the contribution of theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar to this area. Balthasar is most famous for his work on aesthetics, and his multivolume work ‘The Glory of God’ has been hugely influential for both Catholic and Protestant theologians.

Aesthetics is a relatively new term, coined by German philosopher Alexander Gottleib Baumgarten in the 1750s. The goal was to develop a ‘science of cognition by the senses’, and beauty was the ‘perfection of sensitive cognition’. This way of thinking was adopted by other Enlightenment thinkers, with the result that aesthetics was separated from the fields of logic and ethics – something that Balthasar lamented. If beauty is no longer connected to usefulness or the life of the mind, it becomes only a product to be consumed. It’s time to redress the balance.

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