Looking East at Sunset

Wotjow, commons.wikimedia.org
Anticrepuscular rays, 2011. Wotjow, commons.wikimedia.org

I have written about science being creative, and here’s a great story along those lines: the poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins published in the scientific journal Nature*. Hopkins’ contribution to science took the form of two letters, A Curious Halo and Shadow-Beams in the East at Sunset, that were published in November 1882 and November 1883, based on observations he had made of the setting sun.

Hopkins did something most people don’t think of, and turned his back to the setting sun. What he saw was a series of rays that looked as if they were coming from the horizon at a point opposite the sun. This light-effect had already been observed by meteorologists, and is simply the shadows of clouds in front of the sun, cast from one horizon to the other. Perspective makes these shadows appear to be converging in the east, but they are in fact parallel. The technical name for them is ‘anticrepuscular rays’. 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

A unique rapper

Anyone heard of  Baba Brinkman? He calls himself a ‘rap troubador’ (I expect this title was inspired by his studies in Medieval and Renaissance English Literature). His first project was ‘The Rap Canterbury tales’, and then he tackled ‘The Rap Guide to Evolution‘. There can’t be many rappers out there dealing with scientific subjects so he’s worth a look, and I hope others will follow suit in a similarly creative fashion.

From what I’ve seen on You Tube Baba Brinkman is funny, original, controversial, and thought provoking. Of course I don’t agree with everything he says, but his work has got to be a fun teaching tool for high school teachers! (Although they will no doubt need to avoid the ones with explicit lyrics.)

His latest album ‘The Rap Guide to Human Nature‘ was released last year. I didn’t like it as much the videos I’ve seen of the guide to evolution – it seems to be targeted towards the more inebriated audiences of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it  toured last summer… But you should definitely check out his work on evolution which could be a fun starter for a discussion group, though it comes from quite an anti-faith stance. It was developed at the invitation of Mark Pallen, a microbiologist at the University of Birmingham and was funded by the British Council. It includes a good amount of scientific detail, and has been thoroughly vetted for scientific and historical accuracy, so it’s pretty unique. But his interpretation of the science is very reductionist, so it’s a good way to get people thinking about what they really believe about the interface between science and faith.

There’s a great video of Baba Brinkman rapping to a very illustrious audience in front of King’s College, Cambridge, last summer entitled ‘Performance, feedback, revision’.

What a star is

As the film of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is about to grace our screens perhaps it’s good to point out the science-faith questions raised by this, the fifth book in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. Eustace spends much of his time at sea looking at only the scientific explanation for events, and I’m sure a slightly more thorough study of the book would be interesting from a science-faith point of view. But this quote has been burning a hole in my pocket since I heard it mentioned on a BBC programme about ‘The Narnia Code‘ in 2009.

Here, Eustace is reminded of a great truth by Ramandu, the keeper of Aslan’s Table at the world’s end.

‘I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare at one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star had ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.’

‘Golly,’ said Edmund under his breath. ‘He’s a retired star.’

…’In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’

‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of…’

CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn treader, 1955.

From chapter 14: The beginning of the end of the world


Mr Darwin’s Tree

Last Friday the play Mr Darwin’s Tree was performed in Cambridge (one of two performances sponsored by the Faraday Institute as part of Cambridge University‘s Festival of Ideas). It’s  a one-man show written by Murray Watts and performed by Andrew Harrison, and was commissioned by the think-tank Theos, as part of their ‘Rescuing Darwin‘ Project in 2009. It lasts 70 minutes, and I was a bit worried that – it being Friday night – I would be likely to fall asleep. But Andrew Harrison was superb as Darwin (at various ages), Darwin’s father, Darwin’s wife Emma, his Daughter Alice, the captain of the Beagle, and a number of other characters. The young Darwin’s list of pro’s and cons of getting married is hilarious!

It was almost completely historically accurate, though I’m sure interpretations of events and Darwin’s papers will vary. Watts, I think, has picked out the essentials of Darwin’s life, and retold them in a very immediate way. There is much to empathise with, and the use of some of Darwin’s letters adds another layer of immediacy. The play focuses in on Darwin’s development of evolutionary theory (without delving into the scientific details) and parallel loss of faith, as well as the responses to his new theory from a number of different people. It brings out the tension between science and evolutionary theory that people felt at the time, but also shows the nuances in the various responses. Watts clearly wants to challenge the standard simplistic ‘science at war with faith’ myth.  In the end, the play has a positive message from both a faith and a scientific perspective. Very entertaining, very thought provoking, it will probably make you cry – and they’re open to booking more performances around the country…