Science is a quest for truth about the natural world, and for the scientist this search for understanding an exciting adventure. In much of my work it begins with a search for patterns: patterns which are consistent and from which meaning can be extracted. This consistency coupled with a straightforward way of uniting and integrating the data they provide underlies much of scientific logic and draws heavily on the idea of an ordered world. For the scientist who is a Christian, this is God’s ordered world, and understanding the natural world leads to a better understanding of how God works. Continue reading
What would life be like if British society had taken a different path in the mid-nineteenth century? What if science was seen as having all the answers, subjects like phrenology continued to be taken seriously, and other branches of knowledge were outlawed completely? A number of things might have gone off the rails: asking questions about meaning or belief in a deity could have been seen as so shameful they were made illegal, perhaps women would have been denied any kind of education, and people of other races might have been treated with even more suspicion than they were already.
This scenario is the setting for The Curious Crime, 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
To follow on from my post about asking questions, I’ve been thinking about how much we don’t know. Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist from Columbia University, has written a book called Ignorance: How it drives science. In Ignorance, Firestein describes how he loved lab science, but found teaching undergraduates a bit of a struggle. The problem was that he spent the whole time teaching what was known, filling the students’ brains with knowledge. He had forgotten that as well as following the textbook, he could highlight the gaps in knowledge or the rival theories, showing where the opportunities are for young researchers to push back the boundaries themselves. Those are the really interesting parts. Continue reading