Fanning the flames: Science and Faith in New Zealand

new-zealand-1182764_960_720-crop
Pixababy. CC0 – Public Domain

Author: Ruth Bancewicz

This week’s post is from a young scientist who has played a key role in galvanising a new science and faith initiative in New Zealand. Jacob (Jake) Martin is a PhD student who has just spent a year studying in Cambridge, but he has also been working hard setting Continue reading

Recipe for a human

© Ayse Kongur, freeimages.com

The Faraday Institute summer course is in full swing, and on Tuesday morning evolutionary biologist David Lahti presented some reflections about his own work on human behaviour. What he said was fascinating, and raises all sorts of questions regarding human personhood. The analogy that he used was the baking of bread. The ingredients he focused on were the ‘flour’ of genetics, the ‘water’ of the environment, the ‘yeast’ of agency and the heat of development. Not all of the ingredients are apparent in the finished product, but all are essential.

It would be easy to think that genetics is unimportant in the determination of behaviour. Over 90% of the prison population possesses a y chromosome, but being male is not considered a reasonable defence against criminal charges, and neither has anyone taken steps to prevent further violence by incarcerating all those in possession of such a chromosome (and perhaps that’s a good thing…)

Lahti spent the first part of his talk outlining some recent findings in the field of behavioural genetics, including alcoholism, trust, mate choice and political preferences. Amazingly (to me) there are indications of heritability for all of these traits, although because they are such broad categories it has proved difficult to find genes that play a major role in determining these characteristics. Continue reading

Process

© H Berends, freeimages.com

This week’s post is from an interview with Cale Weatherly, a PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’ve chosen extracts that focus on the practical process of doing science and the scientist’s enjoyment of that process. My hope is that for non-scientists it will open a window on a different world, while for scientists it may provoke some thought (and comments) about their own experiences in the lab.

I’m coming to the end of my first year as a PhD student in synthetic organic chemistry. This is a branch of chemistry that’s been around for quite a long time, and chemists are pretty good at turning simple carbon-based molecules into more complex ones for pharmaceuticals and other practical applications (see comment below for more detail). There’s an enormous amount of room, however, for making the process more efficient (cheaper, less time consuming and more environmentally friendly). What we’re doing in our lab is not so much making the complex molecules ourselves but expanding the toolbox of chemical transformations that other people can use.

There’s a lot of – I use this word very deliberately – beautiful chemistry involved in turning molecule A into molecule B, and every organic chemist that I know has an aesthetic appreciation for what we do. The practical aspect of our research is important, but that’s not usually what draws people to the field or motivates us on a day-to-day basis. It’s the process that’s exciting.

Everybody brings a different kind of artistry to the process of making a molecule. Often several papers will be published describing different ways to make the same molecule, because everybody employs a unique strategy. What I like about organic chemistry is that there are different ways to approach a problem, and I often think that questions with many possible right answers are more interesting than those with only one.

The atmosphere in the lab where I work is very informal. It’s kind of messy and it’s very much our own space. I can’t imagine it being otherwise. We have to put in a lot of hours, and in the course of that time we get to know each other well. If we were formal all the time I don’t think anybody could survive long enough to accomplish any work! We work long weeks and there are days when I don’t get to do much apart from chemistry and eat. The first time you actually achieve something promising in the lab there’s a tremendous feeling of excitement. I am (if not in every little task, at least in the big picture) happy doing something that I find interesting and that will allow me to do something of service to the world in the future.

A lot of work that’s published in my field is an incremental improvement on what’s been done before, but occasionally you come across work that’s conceptually very different. Someone gets from A to B in a way you would never have anticipated. They take you through the process step by step, where each step can be shown to make good chemical sense.  Those papers are always a lot of fun to read.

I think among non-scientists in general, and Christians specifically, there’s a tendency to value product rather than process. It can be difficult to explain my work to friends and family because they often want to know the practical value of what I’m doing. I’m trying to put another tool in the toolbox so that down the line somebody might be able to use it to make something useful. But it’s not the ultimate practical value of what I’m doing that I find interesting – it’s the process of getting there, and what I love about organic chemistry is thinking about the process.

The distinction between process-driven and product-driven points of view is fascinating. Of course goals are important, but anyone who has been a Christian for a while will have begun to realise that God is far more process than product minded – which is why Christian life is described as a journey. (Besides the fact that product-driven people are more likely to be unhappy perfectionists…) This is the last interview from my trip to Madison this summer, so keep your eyes peeled for some new interviews next year.

10 things I wish people knew about my science and my faith

Copper(I) based inorganic compound. © Emily Dry

This is a first attempt at communicating the things that I’ve found are most important to Christians working in scientific research. The idea (and some of the content) for this post came from a visit to the one of the departments at Cambridge University, where a small Bible study group meets every Wednesday lunch-time. The passion with which some of them spoke about how they were misunderstood by many people, both in and outside of the lab, made me realise that there’s a dire need to communicate the reality of life in science for a Christian.

So here goes. Some of these points are issues the group I visited wanted to address, some are from scientific friends and colleagues, and some are my own. I hope that readers who are scientists of faith will add their own comments to this list. Obviously writing a piece like this involves many generalisations, but hopefully I have captured something of the personality and motivations of a scientist who also has a Christian faith.

  1. There’s a reason why I spend most of my life on this work. It’s not primarily to make money (I could earn far more in another profession), and it’s certainly not for job security. Exploring the world is my vocation. Studying this incredible universe is a demonstration of my gratitude to God who created it, and leads to the incredible benefits of technology.
  2. There will be practical outcomes of my work, but at times these may be very far off, difficult to explain or frustratingly intangible. My faith might motivate me to work on projects that lead to more immediate technological outcomes, but even then progress towards such outcomes can be painfully slow. My faith might give me the hope required to work in a field where possible outcomes may only be realised far in the future.
  3. My work has intrinsic value. I get a real sense of satisfaction from a job well done. Often this is a love of tinkering and getting an experimental system to work. This is usually a more important factor in my motivation on a daily basis than longer-term goals.
  4. I love the process of discovery. I have to be patient, resilient, and tenacious. This has helped me to grow as a person and in my relationship with God. What do I do when I realise that six months work has been lost, or my latest paper has been scooped? The lab is a crucible for spiritual development.
  5. I think my experiments are beautiful. One of my main drivers is the sense of wonder that comes from scientific discovery, and that leads me to worship.
  6. Another big driver is curiosity. Science helps me find answers to the questions that made my teachers sigh.
  7. In my experiments I deliberately limit my attention to a small number of factors.  This is unique to my scientific work, however. In the rest of my life I am open to different sorts of evidence – not least in the area of relationship with people and God.
  8. I can do my experiments without my faith affecting what I do (although it will affect my ethics). People of all religions and none can work in a lab, and that actually helps the process of discovery – you need many personalities to make a successful research group.
  9. There is a high level of creativity in my work. I need to have original ideas, solve problems, make do with what equipment is available, and present my data in a way that’s easy to digest. My creativity reflects my being made in the image of God, who is mind-bogglingly creative (just look at quantum mechanics!)
  10. My faith makes me open to new scientific discoveries. It was belief in an independent Creator that drove the first scientists to get out and examine the world in the first place – who are we to predict how things will be!?

In short, my faith inspires my science and my science inspires my faith.

I’m sure there is much to add, and clarify. Please do!

Wishing away the Higgs Boson – Reflections of a PhD Student

CMS detector, Large Hadron Collider, by Square87, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

This post is the result of an interview with Anna Walker, a PhD student in Physics at University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s interesting to hear the thoughts of someone at the very beginning of their career in science, and to see some familiar themes emerging.

A lot of people come into grad school thinking they’ve got everything figured out, but by the end of the first year you realise that you know nothing. I think it ought to be that way, especially in a field like physics.  I can make predictions and I can do experiments, but in the end I have to be humble about what I actually know. There’s a sense of awe that hits me when I read through a paper or textbook and learn about the way the world works. I try to keep my eyes open so I can see ways in which the physics that I’m studying is actually bringing glory to God. If I’m jaded it’s very easy for me to lose that sense of childlike wonder at the universe and dismiss what I’m seeing as simply mechanistic.

I’m studying the interaction of atoms with each other and with light. The ultimate aim is to make measurements in different technological applications. For example, one of my fellow students is attempting to detect a foetal heartbeat by using atoms to measure changes in magnetic fields. I am developing a system that uses a tiny volume of rubidium vapour, the atoms of which are aligned and controlled with a laser in order to detect changes in magnetic fields. It’s precise and time-consuming work, but I really like tinkering with things and working with my hands. At the moment I’m trying to create the right sort of magnetic field. It’s interesting because I’ve come up against several brick walls where I can’t seem to go any further. With all the circuits I’ve built before it’s been fairly well known how to deal with the problems, so it’s been exciting to go through the process of starting from the basics. In principle what I want to do should be possible, so it’s a matter of finding the best way to do it.

Of course physicists will recognise that we don’t know very much about the way the world is, but I find that a lot of them don’t think about that on a day-to-day basis. They’re thinking more along the lines of how much they actually do know. Scientists are always trying to get to that next level of understanding of the universe, and they think that if we go just one more step further we’ll understand why everything is the way it is. I find that ironic. At the beginning of the last century, physicists thought they had everything figured out – but it was just the tip of the iceberg. The quantum mechanical revolution came along and changed everything. Now I think we’ve pushed the boundaries as far as we can with what we know, and there’s probably going to be another revolution of the quantum mechanical sort that will blow our minds and we’ll realise that we really had no idea what was going on. Take the Large Hadron Collider. I’m sure that part of every physicist wants there to be no Higgs Boson [the particle that the LHC is hoped will discover]. Either this particle has to be there or we have to revolutionise everything we know about physics. It would be exciting to witness that revolution.

Beauty – The Weight of Glory

I’ve just read CS Lewis’s ‘The Weight of Glory’, in which he considers heaven, and explains his understanding of reward and future glory in Christian theology. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Alister McGrath references this essay quite extensively in his book on natural theology, ‘The Open Secret’.

In the first part of the essay – the part that McGrath quotes so extensively in his book – Lewis explains why he thinks we all long for heaven, sometimes without realising it. Some of the subjects we learned at school may have seemed boring at times, but opened the door to a wealth of enjoyment in the future (hopefully!) We might have had a glimpse of that future from time to time, but often it was a hard slog, learning things seemingly for the sake of it. Lewis says

‘if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.’

If we are fascinated by what we see in nature, find it beautiful, or if it awakens something in us that we can’t put a name to, Lewis would say that that is a ‘desire for our own far-off country.’ But if I were to lose myself in nature-worship I would be disappointed because I would inevitably find suffering and death lurking around the corner.

‘The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not yet found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.’

Lewis would insist that this ‘desire that no natural happiness will satisfy’ is evidence, of a sort, for the existence of this ‘far-off country’.

A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.’

That’s not something I’ve considered before, but it’s an interesting thought!

Expecting the unexpected

I Cor 3:19 says

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”

The Christian faith is counter cultural and full of surprises, even looking at it from within our present culture which is so influenced by Christian values: leaders are servants; guests are welcomed equally regardless of their social standing; no ‘sin’ is worse than any other; and forgiveness is free.

So when we do science should Christians – who believe that God who in his relationship with us is wise enough to turn things upside down (as far as most human wisdom is concerned) and come up with things that are better than we imagined – not expect the same thing to happen when we look at the world? That’s certainly the world that science reveals.

Those who have faced the challenge of research know very well that nature does not obey their imagination. (From Galileo to Gell-Mann, Bersanelli & Gargantini, Templeton Press, 2009)

Quantum physics, evolutionary biology and cosmology are full of surprises that turn our theories upside down. What we observe is certainly consistent with the God that Christians believe in – a great big God who surpasses all imagination. I’m not sure if this is a new idea, but in my recent foray into natural theology I’ve not come across it, and I’d like to know if it’s been considered!