Mountaintops

Dolomites cropped 2
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

Tremendous Trifles

© Cavell L. Blood, freeimages.com

The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.

– GK Chesterton

A colleague helpfully sent me this quote a couple of weeks ago. When I followed up its source I discovered a fabulous piece of writing that is of great relevance to my work, and the work of any scientist.

In Chesterton’s essay Tremendous Trifles, two boys are playing in a tiny suburban garden that consists of ‘four strips of gravel, a square of turf with some mysterious pieces of cork standing up in the middle and one flower bed with a row of red daisies’. A fairy happens to pass by in the guise of a milkman and offers the boys, who are called Paul and Peter, each a wish. Paul chooses to be a giant, roams the world in a few strides, and finds that the world is not as exciting as he had hoped. Continue reading

Testing Faith

First colour photopgraph, Maxwell, 1861

As I write, the Faraday Institute summer course is in full swing. On Tuesday  I attended a lecture by MIT physicist Professor Ian Hutchinson on James Clerk Maxwell. A text of the talk, given at MIT, is here.

James Clerk Maxwell was quite a character. He grew up in the country, running away from his tutor by sailing a washtub across a pond, and finally being sent to school in Edinburgh. He published his first scientific paper when he was still at school (he invented a method for drawing ovals, and published it in the proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh). He later went to Edinburgh University, and I love this extract from a letter around this time.

… So I get up and see what kind of day it is, and what field works are to be done; then I catch the pony and bring up the water barrel … Then I take the dogs out, and then look round the garden for fruit and seeds, and paddle about till breakfast time; after I that take up Cicero and see if I can understand him. If so, I read till I stick; if not, I set to Xen. or Herodt. Then I do props, chiefly on rolling curves … After props come optics, and principally polarized light. Do you remember our visit to Mr Nicol? I have got plenty of unannealed glass of different shapes …

Here is someone working hard at something he enjoys so much that it feels like playing. Maxwell then moved to Cambridge, where he devised a scheme to test his Christian faith.

Now my great plan, which was conceived of old, … is to let nothing be wilfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative… Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden. …

Christianity – that is, the religion of the Bible – is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations. …

The Old Testament and the Mosaic Law and Judaism are commonly supposed to be “Tabooed” by the orthodox. Sceptics pretend to have read them, and have found certain witty objections … which too many of the orthodox unread admit, and shut up the subject as haunted. But a Candle is coming to drive out all Ghosts and Bugbears. Let us follow the light.

Maxwell’s idea was that if Christianity was founded on something true, it should withstand proper scrutiny. I come across this approach again and again among scientists of faith, and it doesn’t see the light of day very often in media discussions of science and faith – I hope this small contribution helps…

What about suffering?

If I’m going to encourage the use of science in worship, I really need to tackle the issue of suffering. You can’t go far in biology without finding insects that eat each other from the inside out, dinosaurs with arthritis, or children dying of horrific diseases. Some Christians believe in a ‘fall’ that affected the very fabric of creation, and some believe that the world was created fit for purpose (rather than perfect) and that the fall affected relationships. Either way God has created a beautiful world and allowed suffering to happen in it, and we have to figure out how to survive – physically, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally.

I will not begin to tackle the question of suffering right now, but I will offer a series of extracts from the first chapter of Annie Dillard‘s ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek‘. I first came across Dillard through Philip Yancey‘s book Soul Survivor, and have found that her writing provokes those questions of ‘why?’ in the face of so much beauty and so much suffering. (Though I haven’t finished the book yet, so please don’t spoil it for me by replying with detailed criticisms…)

That it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. But at the same time we were also created.

Pascal uses a nice term to describe the notion of the creator’s, once having called forth the universe, turning his back to it: Deus Absconditus. Is this what we think happened?

It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.

Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?), there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous. About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-storey building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.

We don’t know what’s going on here. If these tremendous events are random combinations of matter run amok, the yield of millions of monkeys at millions of typewriters, then what is it in us, hammered out of those same typewriters, that they ignite? We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of a mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, (Canterbury Press 2001 edition, chapter 1, p9-11)

View from the Biology Lab: Worshipping God with Science

He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.

He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight.

He covers the face of the full moon, spreading his clouds over it.

He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness….

And these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!
Who then can understand the thunder of his power?

Job 26: 7-10, 14

As a biologist I have seen some very beautiful things. My own area of research was eye development and genetics in the small tropical ‘zebrafish’ [as featured in my gravitar]. Every developmental biologist tends to love the organism they work on, and I was no exception!

I am not the only scientist who has been awestruck by what they see at the lab bench. Many people, of all faiths or none, have had the experience of seeing new data and feeling a sense of wonder.  They may come to different conclusions about what they see and what sort of truth it points to, but the experience of wonder and spiritual awareness seems to be common to all humankind. Konrad Lorenz, a zoologist and author of King Solomon’s Ring, said that

Every human who can become sentient to and experience joy in creation and its beauty is made immune to any and every doubt about its meaning… Close acquaintance with the beautiful precludes the erroneous belief…that only what can be exactly defined and neatly quantified is real.

From Galileo to Gell-Mann: The wonder that inspired the greatest scientists of all time, in their own words. M Bersanelli & M Gargantini (Templeton Press, 2009)

In my work at The Faraday Institute I have the privilege of meeting many scientists and hearing about their own experiences in the laboratory. John Bryant, a Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at Exeter University, has said ‘When you’ve made a new discovery, depending on how long you take to tell people in the coffee room, there’s a period of time when only you and one or two other people know this. It’s sitting in front of you; here are some new data which nobody else has ever seen, and it means something completely new that nobody else has ever realised. You have to add to that the experience of being a person of faith and thinking, ‘I’m seeing God’s work here as I uncover these new facts.’ Being, for a short time, one of just a handful of people outside God who know that information is a real privilege. I’m not going to deny that an atheist feels awe and wonder, because they do. I think that is just increased when you realise that these intricate mechanisms you’re seeing are the work of an awesome Creator.’

Test of Faith: Spiritual Journeys with Scientists, Ed. Ruth Bancewicz (Paternoster, 2009)

[This post is an extract from a longer article, reproduced here with permission, from The Reader, Winter 2010 (Vol 107 No 4)]

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


Pascal

Pascal said that ‘We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart.’ I think that in the science-faith dialogue we must always be aware of our assumptions. And reasoned arguments should always be put forward with humility because they rest upon these assumptions. Unless the whole world shares the same assumptions, we cannot claim to have proved our case beyond any doubt.

I love this section from Pascal’s ‘Pensées’. Perhaps one of the most widely shared experiences (which might lead to certain assumptions, maybe not always exactly the same as Pascal’s) is awe.

The Milky Way Galaxy (NASA)

…Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full and lofty majesty, let him turn his gaze away from the lowly objects around him; let him behold the dazzling light set like an eternal lamp to light up the universe, let him see the earth as a mere speck compared to the vast orbit described by this star, and let him marvel at finding this vast orbit itself to be no more than the tiniest point compared to that described by the stars revolving in the firmament. But if our eyes stop there, let our imagination proceed further; it will grow weary of conceiving things before nature tires of producing them. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible dot in nature’s ample bosom. No idea comes near it; it is no good inflating our conceptions beyond imaginable space, we only bring forth atoms compared to the reality of things. Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In short it is the greatest perceptible mark of God’s omnipotence that our imagination should lose itself in that thought.

From Belief, Francis S. Collins