Advent post: Human yet Divine

730px-Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622)-cropped
Adoration of the shepherds (1622) by Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,


‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

Luke 2:1-14

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 Magnitude of God

E. coli

Another talk that I heard at the ASA meeting a couple of weeks ago was on ‘The Magnitude of God’ by Pamela Bryant. The whole talk was an attempt to comprehend the scale of the universe, from the very large to the very small, along the lines of the video ‘Powers of ten’. The slides are here (60 MB…), complete with references, and are well worth a look.

It often seems that in our search for knowledge we are only limited by the power of our imaginations. Nano scale research and applications are the perfect example of scientists playing with technology that many people in the world use without having a clue how it works. You can buy a 32 Gigabyte micro SD card a few millimetres long that holds  720 hours of movies, but compared to what is already out there our technology looks very clunky indeed. The bacteria E. coli are ten times smaller than the average micro SD card and they compute about a thousand times faster, their memory density is a hundred million times higher and they need only a hundred millionth of the power to operate.

There are some fun details in there too. If you took all the people alive in the world today and removed all the empty space from all the atoms in their bodies, they would fit into a space the size of an apple (originally posted on John Topley’s blog – has anyone checked!?)

Pamela also told some of her story – she is from Texas originally, where she studied chemistry and became a high school teacher. 20 years later she moved back into the lab, completed a PhD in chemistry, and found herself as a postdoc at MIT, doing work on nanomaterials that she said was beyond her wildest dreams. After some time as a postdoc she returned to Howard Payne University in Texas, to give something of her experience back to her students. And Pamela’s own reaction to the torrent of scientific information she delivered in her talk?

‘Humility, wonder and a sober understanding of God’s magnitude.’

The compatibility of science and faith

I’m starting with a very short article that I wrote for the Everything Conference  website, because it sums up so much of what I think about this area: awe and wonder at the world that science reveals to us, and the Creator who made it all. To get the full impact you really need to read the last 15 pages of Dawkins’ book.

…………..

If you have been paying attention to the press in recent years you will no doubt have been bombarded by the message that science and faith are in conflict with each other. Some would say that science and faith are incompatible because science is about reason, while faith is about believing in things that don’t exist. But I am a scientist and a Christian, and for me Christianity is the worldview that makes the most sense in the light of everything I know and experience in the world – including the historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection.

Let me share an insight with you. As I finished reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’, I was inspired by his last section entitled ‘The mother of all burkas’. If you ignore the obvious anti-religious allusion (you could think of being in a gigantic post-box instead) and focus on Dawkins’ wonderful description of how science opens our eyes to how incredible the world is, this piece of writing can actually be a powerful call to worship the creator who made everything revealed to us by science.

“Our eyes see the world through a narrow slit in the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light is a chink of brightness in the vast dark spectrum, from radio waves at the long end to gamma rays at the short end. Quite how narrow is hard to appreciate and a challenge to convey. Imagine a gigantic black burka, with a vision slit of approximately the standard width, say about one inch … The one-inch window of visible light is derisorily tiny compared with the miles and miles of black cloth representing the invisible part of the spectrum, from radio waves at the hem of the skirt to gamma rays at the top of the head. What science does for us is widen the window.  It opens up so wide that the imprisoning black garment drops away almost completely, exposing our senses to airy and exhilarating freedom”.[1]

Dawkins then goes on to show how science turns our everyday perception of things upside down. Science opens a window on an invisible world more fantastic than we could ever have imagined. This is the world that I believe God made.

I immediately turned to my daily Bible reading in Luke’s gospel about Jesus’ healing of a dead girl. With my imagination still in the invisible world of science, I saw Jesus as the one who knows that invisible world inside out and – more importantly – spoke it into being. How does Jesus’ awesome power relate to his ability to raise people from the dead? Obviously we won’t be able to understand how that works in scientific terms. We can’t routinely study dead people coming back to life in a lab. A miracle is a one-off event, usually in response to prayer, when God shows us how incredible he is and how much he loves us. But this healing and others like it show me that God is the creator of the universe and has the power to transcend everything, including the knowledge we’ve gained using the tools of science.

The view of the world that I have outlined here is a huge incentive for Christians to do science. We need to understand the world God has made and learn to use all the rich resources that are available to us through science and technology in the most appropriate, fair and sustainable way. And what better way to provoke a sense of awe and worship than to share scientific discoveries about the universe? Lastly, the knowledge that God is sovereign and can transcend everything we know is deeply humbling, and a reminder that he is our ultimate teacher. From where I’m standing, good science and genuine faith are definitely compatible.