The Theologian and the Telescope

Jasmaine Mathews, www.sxc.hu
© Jasmaine Mathews, http://www.sxc.hu

The main purpose of this blog can be illustrated by a single story: that of the theologian and the telescope. The theologian is a colleague from another department in Cambridge, and the telescope belonged to some friends of his. As we talked over lunch one day he mentioned that he and his family had visited these friends the previous evening. It had been a clear night, so they spent part of the evening looking at the stars. My colleague was an avid amateur astronomer as a teenager, but over the years he had lost his love for science. He had been involved in abstract discussions about science and religion for so long that he had forgotten that the experience of science itself can foster awe, wonder and – for people of faith – worship. His recent experience with the telescope reminded him how beautiful and fascinating the universe is. He rediscovered his love for science.

The joy of science is the freedom to wonder and ask questions – to exercise imagination and curiosity. It is also the joy of discovering new things, the shock of awe at what is found, and an enjoyment of its beauty. The theologian Austin Farrer said that Continue reading

Transcendent Science

microscope
Image courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu

There is great beauty in science, whether in the experiments themselves, the data produced, or the presentation of that data. There is also great wonder, and that is what drives science forward. How does a seed grow into a plant? What is a star made of? Can we describe the movement of a cell using mathematical equations? At times wonder gives way to open-mouthed awe as we see something vast, incredibly complex or highly ordered.

Awe is enjoyed and cultivated by all scientists, despite their different personalities, and popular science writing is invariably full of awe and wonder – whatever the beliefs of the author. Continue reading

Antony Hewish: A Life in Science and Religion

The Crab Nebula, with a pulsar at its core. NASA
The Crab Nebula, with a pulsar at its core. NASA

Last month, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Antony Hewish spoke at the Faraday Institute on ‘My Life in Science and Religion – A Personal Story’. Professor Hewish described himself as more of a practical experimentalist than a philosopher or mathematician, and his life story certainly reflects that – though I think he understates his own intellect in a very Cambridge way. He clearly enjoyed his work in radio astronomy very much, and his insights into the compatibility of science and faith are very interesting.

Antony Hewish was the youngest of three boys, and thanks to their parents’ open-mindedness, they created a workshop in the family home – over the bank that their father managed. Hewish’s early experiments with electricity fused the lights of not only the whole house but those of the bank below! Continue reading

Transcendence

© Ruth Bancewicz

I am becoming more and more convinced that the vast majority of scientists value what one could call transcendent realities. I’m not talking about ‘religion’, which for some has negative connotations*. By ‘transcendent’ I mean experiences and ideals that are consonant with but go beyond scientific evidence: that feeling of pure joy when you find yourself discovering something for the first time; delight in the beauty of nature or scientific data; the standards we set for ourselves; or the importance we place on certain relationships.

I think nearly everything that’s fun in life has the potential to get a scientist talking like a mystic. For example, a cell biologist wins a new grant to study a tiny protein involved in signalling pathways, and she starts speaking about getting closer to the truth. A neurologist studying a particular sensory experience understands the neural mechanism but not how the individual perceives it, and he becomes interested in the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Or a developmental biologist is expecting her first child, and suddenly embryology takes on a whole new meaning. Continue reading

People

Photo from Test of FAITH. © The Faraday Institute

I interviewed a number of scientists on a recent trip to Spain, and this is an extract from the first of those conversations. Dr Raul García has a background in medicine and neuroscience, and is a Children and Adolescents Psychiatrist in Madrid.

I started university as a civil engineering student, but I didn’t enjoy my studies. I was more interested in people than numbers and equations, and towards the end of my first year I was looking for something else to do.  At the same time, I was involved in supporting a family friend who was suffering from mental illness, and I went with him to an appointment at the hospital where he was being treated. This person was a Christian, and during the interview he said that his future was in God’s hands. The medical staff laughed sceptically at him, interpreting his optimism as delusional thinking. This incident had a huge impact on me, and I began to think about studying medicine. I realised that I wanted to help people like my friend, and that this was both a scientific and a theological ambition. So I changed track, and studied medicine. Continue reading

Faith and Chemistry?

© Nattawan Decharin

This post is an extract from an interview with Shannon Stahl, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This section highlights the differences for people of faith in different branches of science.

Chemistry is not at the interface of the usual tension spots between science and faith, so the idea of integrating faith and science is not as tangible to me as it is, for example, for the astrophysicist or the biologist. I am more concerned with how my faith relates to all of the principles of living life as a Christian: how I treat my co-workers and colleagues, integrating my family life with my career in a holistic way, and so on. All these things are very real, but it’s not the same as being a Christian and a biologist or an astronomer. One thing I’m well aware of is that, as a Christian working at a research institute, I can encourage young people that there’s some credibility about being a scientist and a Christian.

My research focuses on the chemistry of oxygen (O2): we’re trying to harness the chemistry of oxygen to do useful things. One of the projects that we’re working on is being carried out in partnership with the pharmaceutical industry to develop environmentally benign ways of synthesising organic chemicals.

Funding is tight for scientists like myself at the moment.  We might be tenured, but we need grants in order to do research. Our identity as scientists is on the line. So when I write grant proposals, there’s something about the process of defending my identity that pushes me to the limits of creativity, and is different from any other time for me as a scientist.

Whenever I write a major grant proposal I seem to experience a burst of creativity and inspiration where everything fits together. It’s as if I see the (chemical) world differently – everything fits together in a way that I never saw before. All of a sudden it just makes sense. I don’t deal with equations very much, but it’s as if I have an equation that describes everything. I used to say, ‘It’s like being one with the universe’. Recently I became aware of the Hebrew word for this: ‘shalom’ – where everything is at peace, or in harmony. There is something so beautiful about science and the way that, when you get that inspiration, everything fits and there is a sense of shalom. It’s otherworldly. For better or worse, it often happens in the moments of greatest stress!

I think what drives many of us to science is this beauty – this sense of awe and wonder when you come across a discovery. It’s very rare because there’s so much grunt work involved in the lab, but when all of a sudden things fit, you’re on a high, and that inspires you to keep going. For me, that’s an interface between science and something that’s spiritual, in a sense.  Something that is bigger than myself has all of a sudden taken hold of me and lifted me up.

See part two of this interview here.

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!