Joanne is studying the mighty Thwaites glacier in Antarctica. She drills down through the ice, collecting rock samples from below it for laboratory analysis. Her team will run tests that tell them when the rocks were last exposed to daylight, providing some clues about how the ice sheet has expanded and contracted over the past millennia. Ultimately they hope to gather enough data to be able to predict how glaciers like Thwaites might respond to current and future climate conditions, and the impact they may have on sea level over the coming decades.
Science is all about gathering evidence for physical phenomena by making measurements and observations. Looking at these data, scientists can develop general principles about the way things are, often describing them mathematically. In this way we have learned that glaciers shape landscapes, that water is made out of hydrogen and oxygen, and that energy and mass are interchangeable (described by the famous equation e=mc2).
Science can support our theology, reminding us how wonderful the creator must be to make such amazing things. We can also give theological reasons for doing science. Continue reading →
A mathematician, a judge and an ambassador walked onto a train. It sounds like the beginning of a joke but the mathematician was John Lennox, who is well-known for his lectures about Christianity, and his new friends were completely serious about their investigation of his beliefs. We don’t know what happened in the end, but all three of them clearly recognised the significance of the conversation. Continue reading →
What if science can best be described in relational terms? It would certainly open up more opportunities for a dialogue with faith. At a gathering of scientists who are Christians in Cambridge last year, Harvey McMahon gave some reasons why this approach might work. In this final guest post in the God in the Lab series, he explains his thinking.
When atoms and molecules come together, the new structures or systems they form can have unexpected properties. This principle is called emergence, and some have claimed that it shows there is more to the universe than material things. Last month at the Faraday Institute summer course, the German physicist Barbara Drossel explained why she thinks emergence is a real phenomena, and why it is so important in discussions about science and faith.
Science uses reductionism to study a system. If you break it down and do what you can to understand the parts, you should understand the behaviour of the whole a bit better. According to Drossel, the reverse is also true. As complex systems come together, new and beautiful properties emerge that are every bit as fundamental as the forces that hold together the atom.
When you put a collection of molecules together, they start to do things that they couldn’t do alone. For example air exerts pressure on the sides of a box; when a fluid is heated from below it forms convection cells; and if you mix certain chemicals together they react in a way that produces beautiful patterns. Continue reading →
I recently discovered that a poet is at least partly responsible for the label ‘scientist’. Before the nineteenth century people who studied the material world called themselves natural philosophers.Samuel Taylor Coleridge objected to this title, and although I’m sure he was not the only one who initiated a change, he was certainly involved in the renaming process. Coleridge’s suggestion was opposed by two famous scientists, and the resulting story is a fascinating insight into the real world of science and religion.
Not content with writing innovative poems like Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge was also a philosopher and literary critic. He was great friends with the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davey and a number of other Continue reading →
Some people make it their job to scrutinise the assumptions that scientists make, and check whether what they say matches up with what they do. What are the limits of science? What sorts of questions can it answer successfully, and what are the main features that define science? This sort of philosophy is a valuable source of critical thinking, and essential to any discussion of science and religion.
On exploring the philosophy of science I very quickly discovered that I was not going to get any easy answers. Philosophers love disagreeing with one another, and scientists do not always agree with what philosophers say. I suspect this disconnect happens partly because philosophers don’t always spend time in modern science labs as part of their analysis, and partly because scientists and philosophers speak different languages. Nevertheless, some insights are helpful in thinking about what science is. Continue reading →
The day-to-day scientific process of asking questions and looking for answers is as directed as it can be, but always involves some element of searching in the dark. My post on ignorance used the metaphor of search for a black cat in a dark room. Francois Jacob, a Nobel prize winning biologist, described this as ‘night science’.
In his biography Jacob explained that
night science…hesitates, stumbles, recoils, sweats, wakes with a start. Doubting everything, it is forever trying to find itself, question itself, pull itself back together. Night science is a sort of workshop of the possible where what will become the building material of science is worked out…Where phenomena are still mere solitary events with no link between them…Where thought makes its way along meandering paths and twisting lanes, most often leading nowhere…What guides the mind, then, is not logic but instinct, intuition. The need to understand.
Jacob’s description of night science is rather dramatic but it captures the continuous questioning, the educated guesses that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, and the ‘slow hunch’ that develops as evidence is gathered together. Neurobiologist Harvey McMahon explained Continue reading →