Guest Post: God, Bubbles and the Origin of Life

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Bubble by zacktionman. Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

There is something about the sight of a bubble hanging effortlessly in the air that excites a childlike wonder in us, whatever our age. Perhaps it’s their delicate beauty, almost transparent, glimmering with a rainbow of colours? Perhaps it’s the temptation to pop them? For me, the most amazing thing about bubbles is that they make themselves. Continue reading

The Atom and the Atonement: Why we need models in science and theology

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Atoms by Cezary Borysiuk. Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

If you ask a 14 year old, an 18 year old and an undergraduate to describe an atom you will get different answers. Ask them to draw an atom, and the discrepancies become even more noticeable.  A 14 year old will have no issues producing an image like the one below. The undergraduate is likely to look at you quizzically. “Draw an atom? You must be joking!” Continue reading

Worshipping God with Science: Beauty from the Earth

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Grossmünster in Zürich By Roland zh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
 I’m always keeping my eye out for ways to bring science into a church context, and I recently found a new one in Switzerland. Two buildings in the centre of Zurich, the Grossmünster (great minster) and Fraumünster (women’s minster) are decorated with the most incredible stained glass, designed by the artists Marc Chagall, Augusto Giacometti and Sigmar Polke. I had already seen examples of scientific themes in stained glass, such as the windows by David Hunt in St Crispin’s, Braunstone, but some of Polke’s windows took this idea to a new level. Continue reading

Water and Life: The Unique Properties of H2O

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A New Voyage by Brooks Bailey – Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Water is a strange thing. The unique structure of its molecules allow it take on three different forms: a liquid that is easily absorbed into porous substances (i.e. it’s wet!), ice that floats, and a gas. In the book Water and Life: The Unique Properties of H2O, the biophysicist Felix Franks has contributed a chapter explaining some of these properties, and how they may have played a part in the origin of life.

The chemistry of life has adapted to water and become very dependent on it, so that even ‘heavy water’[i] is toxic in Continue reading

New Approaches to the Origin of Life

Mike Melrose, flickrcc.bluemountains.net
Mike Melrose, flickrcc.bluemountains.net

Studying the origin of life is an intractable problem, a little like navigating the misty trackless waste that is central Dartmoor. For an event that happened so long ago, we are unlikely to find a ‘smoking gun’. If life originated on another planet and then somehow seeded life on Earth – a possibility that is being taken seriously at the moment – we have even less hope of finding a solution. This was Christopher Southgate’s impression of the field of origins research until a few years ago. Chris is a theologian and former biochemist based at Exeter University, and in his Faraday seminar on New Approaches to the Origin of life: Scientific and Theological last week, he explained why he is now a little a more hopeful. He also described a very unique research programme that combines both science and theology.

Life is generally easier to describe than define. Any description that tries to be all-inclusive will inevitably leave something out. Southgate’s own definition includes three properties: Continue reading

The Vocation of Robert Boyle

© H Berends, http://www.sxc.hu

Robert Boyle was a great experimental scientist, still famous for his ‘law’ about the behaviour of gases, and yet he wrote as much about theology as he did about science. Boyle was fifteen years older than Isaac Newton, and he developed many of the laboratory techniques we still use today, including scrupulous note-taking and writing methods sections in scientific publications so that others can repeat the work. He contributed much to modern chemistry, but he was also a pioneer of science-religion dialogue.

Edward Davis spoke about Boyle, his religious life, attitudes and vocation at last week’s Faraday Institute summer course. The video and mp3 of his lecture and the other lectures at the course will be appearing on the Faraday website over the next few weeks. Two newcomers to Faraday who are well worth listening to are Noreen Herzfeld on ‘Are Humans Computers?’ and Russell Cowburn on ‘Nanotechnology, Ethics and Religion’.

Davis’ lecture on Boyle was a fascinating insight into the life of a very unique man. Boyle was the seventh son of one of the wealthiest men in the British Isles. His siblings (he had 13) were married off to powerful allies, and Boyle narrowly escaped the same fate. Along with two of his sisters, he discovered a deeper form of Christianity than the one he had been taught as a child. So while his other brothers and sisters were living the courtly life, he developed a strong sense of vocation – at first for writing, and then for science. He believed that even those wealthy enough to support themselves must work, saying that Continue reading

Faraday

Michael Faraday. Wellcome Images (cropped), Creative Commons License 4
Michael Faraday. From Wellcome Image Library (cropped), Creative Commons License 4

Michael Faraday would no doubt be acutely embarrassed if he had lived to see an Institute named after him. He was one of the greatest experimental scientists of all time but he also gave himself to public education, shunned wealth and fame, and belonged to a small Christian denomination called the ‘Sandemanians’. This week at the Faraday Institute we hosted the chemist and former director of the Royal Institution, Sir John Meurig Thomas, who spoke about the Genius of Michael Faraday.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was the son of a blacksmith. He received a very basic education as a child, and was apprenticed to a bookbinder at the age of 14. Faraday was extremely bright, and finding himself surrounded by books, decided to educate himself – inspired by Isaac Watts’ ‘Improvement of the Mind’. A customer noticed his intelligence and gave him tickets to a series of lectures by the great chemist Humphrey Davy.

In the early nineteenth century the chemical revolution was in full swing. Successful experimentalists like Davy were celebrated figures, and drew huge audiences. Faraday was gripped. He wrote up his notes from the lectures – three hundred pages including illustrations – and sent a bound copy to Davy, asking for a job. Davy was so impressed by Faraday’s work that he employed him as a secretary, and found him a job at the Royal Institution the following year. Continue reading