I have an intense memory of my first lengthy conversation with an artist (also a professor of fine art at my then home university of Leeds) about our respective experiences of bringing to light new work in art and in science. He spoke of his first experimental attempts to realize an original conception, of the confrontation of his ideas with the felt constraints of material—of paint and photographic print, of the necessary reformulation of the original concept, of the repeat of these frustrated assays not once but many times. I found that I could tell the story of almost any programme of scientific research I had experienced in almost precisely the same terms. Continue reading
It is time to shake off a widely believed but mistaken idea of what science is and how it interacts with human life in the round.
For a long time now it has been the habit of science writers to present their discipline as if it was the be-all and end-all of knowledge, and everything else follows in its wake. Particle physicists have written about their forthcoming ‘theory of everything’ as if it amounted to the final word on the nature of reality, the very ‘mind of God’…The same fundamental error is promoted by neuroscientists who, waxing lyrical over wonderful magnetic images of the living human brain, have declared or implied that all the functioning of the brain is about to be laid open, with no input from the arts and humanities required. Continue reading
Where can we go to find out what is true? At the Faraday Summer course last week, the Dutch philosopher Professor René van Woudenberg explained why science cannot be relied upon as the only source of truth in the world. In a sense, he said, this type of argument is ‘kicking at an open door’. Philosophers have known that we need more than science as a source of knowledge for a long time, but it’s worth talking about because many people don’t know the door is open! Science is a great source of knowledge, but it has a number of limitations. Continue reading
Are ethical values real? According to Dr Louise Hickman, a philosopher and theologian from Newman University, this is the question that drove the ‘natural theology’ discussion in the centuries leading up to Darwin. Louise spoke about this topic at the Faraday Institute this summer, and I will summarise her lecture here in my own words.
Left to our own devices, said the natural theologians, people are capable of developing their own awareness of God and knowledge of him. This knowledge is entirely separate from any belief that God has revealed himself to people in any other way, such as God’s relationship with the people of Israel, or arriving on earth as the person of Jesus Christ. Continue reading
My desk at the Faraday Institute has a view of the garden, where a squirrel buries its nuts in the autumn. Running to and from the trees in the hedge, it digs into the carefully tended college lawn, building up its stock for the winter. Work must stop every now and then when Continue reading
In 1800, someone took the temperature of a rainbow. This story isn’t as strange as it sounds because that ‘someone’ was not the sort of person to look for a pot of gold, but a scientist called William Herschel.
Herschel was a German musician and astronomer who became famous for discovering the planet Uranus. He built the best telescopes of his day, was funded by King George III, became a fellow of the Royal Society, first president of the Royal Astronomical Society, and was eventually knighted for his work. So why was such a sensible person taking a rainbow’s temperature? Continue reading
Once, two friends were disputing about the structure of buildings, and why the roof does not fall down. They agreed to do some research, so each set out in search of a good example to study.
Walking in the woods, the first man came across a large and splendid building, and stepped inside. He saw that the structure was made of stones piled on top of one another, with mortar in between. He stayed for a while and made a close study of the stones and the mortar. Continue reading