Mountaintops

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The Dolomites, © Ruth Bancewicz

Climbing mountains brings perspective. Looking down from the top of a high peak, you can see the whole of the surrounding area laid out like a map. You can plan where you want to go next, or maybe even your whole route for the next few days. The feeling of achievement that comes from climbing a mountain is wonderful. Chairlifts and funicular railways are great – especially if you can’t manage a climb – but standing on the summit is many times more exhilarating if you’ve plodded very step of the way up from the bottom. John Muir was unusual as a scientist because his fieldwork actually involved climbing mountains. A career in most branches of science involves working indoors, sometimes in windowless rooms. As a PhD student in Edinburgh I spent many days examining Zebrafish embryos in the basement, but I could see the Pentland hills from my lab bench – until Cancer Research UK built a research centre that blocked out the view (and I am clearly still nursing a grudge against them for it!) Actually climbing the mountains on my doorstep was a refreshing reminder that the world was going to carry on revolving whether my experiments worked or not. Over the last year I have noticed that mountains are a popular source of metaphors for describing the scientific journey. Being interested in mountains myself, I began to collect these passages and thought they would make an interesting blog post and source of quotes for others. Continue reading

Transcendent Science

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Image courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu

There is great beauty in science, whether in the experiments themselves, the data produced, or the presentation of that data. There is also great wonder, and that is what drives science forward. How does a seed grow into a plant? What is a star made of? Can we describe the movement of a cell using mathematical equations? At times wonder gives way to open-mouthed awe as we see something vast, incredibly complex or highly ordered.

Awe is enjoyed and cultivated by all scientists, despite their different personalities, and popular science writing is invariably full of awe and wonder – whatever the beliefs of the author. Continue reading

Why Awe?

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Antarctic Icebreaker leaving McMurdo Station, 2006. © SailorJohn, free images.com

Antarctica reminds me more than anything of the hidden artwork in medieval cathedrals created by sculptors and painters to the greater glory of God. One is unaccustomedly hypersensitive here to the act of Creation. Elsewhere on earth, man is the most successful mammal: in Antarctica, wonderfully, he has only a precarious toehold.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, Composer

Where does our sense of awe at the beauty and immensity of nature come from? We climb mountains to enjoy vast panoramas, go outdoors on a chilly night to gaze at the stars, or spend hours glued to a TV screen watching a nature documentary, delighting in the complexity of the world around us. Are these emotions simply the result of cultural conditioning or are they a sign of something deeper? Continue reading

Awe in Science, Part 3: Spirituality in Science

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Window at St Crispin’s Church, Braunstone. © St Crispin’s

At the beginning of this piece I mentioned my growing realisation of the size of the scientist’s task. The seeming inexhaustibility of the created order can be overwhelming, but many see this as something positive. There is so much more to explore. As the Jesuit philosopher Enrico Cantore has said, the mystery of the universe lies not in ignorance, but in dazzling intelligibility. Where do these thoughts of transcendence, reality and mystery lead? For Einstein, they were a religion. A Mind other than our own was somehow responsible for this world that we can make sense of using the language of mathematics. For others, the reality we see in the world leads to ideals that transcend differences of language, culture and religion. Continue reading

Awe in Science, Part 2

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Window at St Crispin’s Church, Braunstone. © St Crispin’s

Awe is an important part of the experience of science – one could almost say it’s a universal. When a scientist feels awe it is usually in response to something complex, precise, ordered, powerful or beautiful. There is an element of unexpectedness and delight, maybe even respect, fear or reverence. Awe always involves the need for some sort of mental adjustment or accommodation: we need to make room in our internal map of the world for this new and amazing experience. The physicist Werner Heisenberg vividly described this process of taking on board a startling new concept when he wrote of his discovery of atomic energy levels:

In the first moment I was deeply frightened. I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a deeply lying bottom of remarkable internal beauty. I felt almost giddy at the thought that I had now to probe this wealth of mathematical structures that nature down there had spread before me. Continue reading

Awe in Science, Part 1: Life in the Laboratory


You must have experienced it, too – one is almost frightened in front of the simplicity and compactness of the interconnections that nature all of a sudden spreads before him and for which he was not in the least prepared.

Werner Heisenberg, in a letter to Albert Einstein[1]

for many people, science invites awe and religion invites insight. When awe and insight engage, science-and-religion happens.

                                                                                                                 Ron Cole-Turner[2]

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Window at St Crispin’s Church, Braunstone. © St Crispin’s

If we can understand the experiences of the people who work every day in the lab, our dialogues concerning science and religion will be far more fruitful than they would be otherwise. I realised this when someone recently asked me what the highlights had been during my own time as a biologist. I explained that what I appreciated most was the privilege of experiencing science first-hand. My horizons have been expanded, and I now have a better understanding of how vast and complex the natural world is. Appreciating the grandeur of the universe seems to be a universal for humankind, including research scientists in their own peculiar way. Everyone has something to add to a conversation about experiences of awe, as I discovered when I blogged on it recently and invited a number of friends and former colleagues to comment. This sense of awe is a perfect starting point for discussions of science and theology. Continue reading

Being Human

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© Max Brown, free images.com

The more neurologists find out about the brain, the more awestruck we can become at the complexity of what goes on inside our heads. How does neuroscience fit in with spiritual experience? Is a neurologist likely to struggle with the idea of God?

Alasdair Coles has had a unique career path. An academic neurologist, conducting research into multiple sclerosis in one of Europe’s finest teaching hospitals, he has recently been ordained in the Anglican church. He is now a hospital chaplain, in addition to his clinical and teaching roles. Alasdair’s experience as a Christian in neurology has been a very positive one, and as he begins to minister in both the church and the workplace he is discovering some valuable connections between faith and science. Continue reading