When the physicist Russell Cowburn reached the end of his PhD studies, he had a choice to make. Having become a Christian at the age of eighteen, he thought deciding between a job in science or the church was choosing between the spiritual and the material. Several decades into his career as a scientist, he isn’t quite so sure difference between the two options was as stark as he thought at the time. Continue reading
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 new Cambridge Professor of Physics, Russell Cowburn, gave a seminar at the Faraday Institute last month. The advantage in waiting a while before publishing this post is that the mp3 and video are now online, so you can watch/listen for yourself.
Cowburn’s work is in the area of nanotechnology (thin film magnetism, to be precise). In his seminar he gave a fascinating introduction to the world of nanotechnology research, it’s practical applications, and (realistic) safety concerns. It was the first time that I have actually heard someone explain the techniques of nanotechnology clearly, and it’s an incredibly elegant science.
The most interesting part for me was his assessment of the field from a faith point of view. His argument was that nanotechnology is neither hugely dangerous, nor a whole new science that will change the science and religion dialogue completely. From his perspective, nanotech is simply an extremely useful tool for humankind – ‘ a finer tool to tend the garden with’. I left the seminar feeling a little jealous of bench scientists…