Guest Post: Scientists are childish (but in a good way)

child-1244531_1920Children are delighted by living things that most adults think are icky or mundane. Last spring my daughter Lucy, now age 6, found a large earthworm and named it Cinderella. She played with it for hours. Not a week later my son Josiah, 4, caught a big brown toad in our backyard and squealed repeatedly, “He’s adorable!” (Not everyone would pick that adjective, but I agreed.) They fixate on the fish tank at the dentist’s office or our family’s ant farm, taking in every detail and pestering me with a steady stream of questions.

Some of the questions they ask are profound. We were almost to school the other day when Lucy asked, “Is there any number bigger than infinity?” and then, “Is God bigger than infinity?” I paused, breathless with parental joy, before I responded.

As a Christian, I believe it brings God glory when we take pleasure in the things he has made. In fact, I think it’s one of the (many) ways God wants us to be like little children (Matt 18:3). Unfortunately, most grown-ups forget to look around and be delighted.  We stop asking so many questions. Not scientists, though.

Scientists, from astronomers to zoologists, have a child-like obsession with observing, touching, encountering, and wondering about the natural world. They sometimes spend decades of their lives studying a single protein, or galaxy cluster, or physiological process, and never tire of their subject. They ask great questions.

When my non-scientist husband and I first started dating, I was in graduate school, and I would bring him to lab parties and events.  He soon realized that the best way to get a scientist talking was to ask, “So, what protein do you work on?” Even if they didn’t work on a protein, they would recognize the invitation to geek out over their area of interest. They are not self-conscious at all about this. They are childlike. They are persistent in their work, because they have questions: There’s something just beyond the horizon of human understanding that they want to understand. Is it this? Could it be that? What happens if we poke here?

My area of interest in graduate school was the cytoskeleton, a messy network of microscopic filaments that gives cells their structure. Like the three little bears, these filaments come in three sizes: actin (the baby), intermediate filaments (the mama), and microtubules (the papa). While I dabbled with actin, I was captivated by microtubules.

Fluorescent_image_fibroblast-crop
Credit James J. Faust and David G. Capco, Arizona State University (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US)

Microtubules are long, hollow cylinders made of protein subunits. They are constantly on the move, growing and shrinking under the influence of molecular cues, like a dog sniffing out the trail of a squirrel.

In a dividing cell, after the DNA has been duplicated, microtubules organize into two teams on opposite sides of the cell for a game of tug-of-war: the microtubules on each side lasso the DNA-containing chromosome pairs and pull back and forth, until the pairs separate and each team has a complete set of DNA. Everybody wins! It is a beautiful dance.

In a resting cell, microtubules look a bit like the undulating arms of an octopus; they emanate outward from the cell’s center, growing and shrinking in a randomized pattern, exploring the periphery of the cell. Molecular motors walk along microtubules, ferry cargo back and forth.

I was drawn to math and computer science (and a lifestyle that didn’t require coming into the lab at inconvenient times to check on my cells), so I chose to do my PhD research in a lab that specialized in computational methods of studying cells.

My wet-lab colleagues across the hall would grow cells in which microtubules were labeled with a fluorescent probe. They would then take movies of living cells under the microscope. Because it was known that microtubule behavior was critical for a lot of activities in the cell, biologists at that time painstakingly tracked them manually, frame-by-frame, getting a few dozen microtubule trajectories over a couple of weeks’ time.

My job was to make a computer do, with a few clicks of the mouse, what would take a researcher months to accomplish. The software I developed extracts hundreds or thousands of trajectories in just a few seconds (see Movie 10 for an example). This advance enabled more sophisticated kinds of experiments.

I was in graduate school for 5.5 years, and I spent about 4 of them staring at movies of microtubules in living cells. I never called them adorable, but I did marvel at them every day. It still blows my mind that the behavior of individual microtubules is stochastic, or random, yet their collective behavior contributes to highly orchestrated events like cell division. There is no commanding officer telling microtubules where to march, though molecular messages and feedback loops deliver directional cues. Microtubules and many other protein complexes self-assemble and accomplish the basic functions of life. In each of the trillions of cells in our bodies. Every day.

This self-organizing effect also happens at the level of organisms. Without anybody shouting, “turn left now!” a flock of starlings or a school of fish can change directions on a dime. Without instructions, worker bees produce an exquisite pattern of hexagonal cells in honeycomb. (The queen is too busy having babies to tell them what to do.) Ants efficiently find food by wandering in random directions and depositing pheromones along their way; fruitful paths are reinforced with more pheromones, while unfruitful paths dissipate. Nobody yells, “Banana peel, over here!”

Is there somebody behind the curtain, pulling the puppet strings in all of these cases?  No, I don’t think God is a micromanager, pushing microtubules and ants into position at every moment. But neither do I believe creation is a vast cosmic machine, ticking along independently of God. Creation is robust and responsive; it knows and obeys the Creator’s voice, though we—like children—have selective hearing. (Disobedience is decidedly not one of the ways in which we are to be like little children!)

Staring at microtubules makes me wonder: how exactly does God interact with and sustain the world he has made? How does he grant agency and freedom to created things, and yet accomplish his sovereign plans and purposes for the universe? Does God number every microtubule like the hairs on our heads? Were the microtubules in Jesus’ resurrected body the same as ours? Will our glorified bodies be made of cells, and will some of them die, as they do in our bodies millions of times every day? If they do, what implications does that have for our understanding of life and death and goodness and evil?  These are some of my child-like questions.

Most scientists, at least those at elite research universities, aren’t Christians. They aren’t asking these particular kinds of questions. But many of them consider themselves to be spiritual, and their spiritual intuitions are rooted in wonder and the praiseworthiness of this beautiful old world we live in. They may not know it, but as they struggle through long days and failed experiments, scientists all over the world “image” God. Their delight in the created order—and their many, many questions—bring him glory.

kathryn-applegate-s
©BioLogos

Kathryn Applegate has degrees in biophysics and mathematics, and a Ph.D. in computational cell biology from The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California. As the Resources Editor at BioLogos, Kathryn works with scholars and educators to develop new web and print resources. From 2010-2016 she served as Program Director at BioLogos, managing the BioLogos Evolution & Christian Faith grants program among other activities. Kathryn co-edited (with Jim Stump) How I Changed My Mind About Evolution (InterVarsity Press, 2016).  She is a member of the BioLogos Voices speakers bureau. Kathryn enjoys an active involvement in both the science and faith community and in her church. She and her husband Brent have two young children and enjoy exploring the state parks of Michigan together on the weekend. Their dream is to move to Cambridge, England, and hang out with Ruth Bancewicz and the Faraday team for a year, but will likely have to be content with British dramas on Netflix.

Guest Post: The Incredible Beauty of Cells

Cancer cells-crop
Cropped from original. Credit: Annie Cavanagh. WellcomeCollection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

I am an ex-cell biologist. Whilst I was a PhD student, it felt like cells were involved in every aspect of my life. I would grow cells, study cells, read about cells, spin them in centrifuges, look at them down a microscope, and visit them at 2am to take timepoints for particularly gruelling experiments. When I spoke to my relatives, the question ‘How are you?’ was often followed by: ‘How are your cells behaving?’. Continue reading

Thoughts on Discipleship from a Marine Conservationist

Cara-edit
Cara Daneel. Naifaru, Maldives

When I left university, I was a budding conservationist armed with good intentions, theoretical head knowledge, and an enthusiasm to change the world. I then entered a real world where human hearts were not so easy to sway. After firsthand experience in a variety of contexts, I was left wondering how to negotiate that space between understanding facts and inspiring a sacrificial love which is powerful enough to change our ways. It is not a simple step, but our Christian faith can help this conversation, and possibly the whole planet, in a big way.

My introduction to practical marine conservation began in the tropical waters around Madagascar and the Maldives. Here…

Continue reading this article now (free, no signup required) in Christianity Today.

Finding our Place in the World: Belonging, Limits, and Abundance

Picture2 by Lauren Stark Adams of Spokane, Washington
© Lauren Stark Adams of Spokane, Washington

What is our place in the world? In his seminar at the Faraday Institute last month, Dr Jonathan Moo described the current movement towards ecomodernism, which involves a separation from nature. If you want to understand this trend in more depth you can listen to the recording of Jonathan’s talk. In this post I will focus on the last part of the seminar, where Jonathan presented his own ideas about how limits can help us to flourish. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Magnitude of the Minutiae

God’s splendour is a tale that is told by the stars. Space itself speaks his story every day through the marvels of the heavens. His truth is on tour showing his skill in creation’s craftmanship. Each day gushes out its message to the next. Without a sound, without a word, without a voice being heard, yet all the world can see its story.

Psalm 19: 1-4[1]

I am repeatedly amazed how powerfully Continue reading

Praying with Creation: How an engineer learned to meet God outdoors

Lee Abbey snowdrops
© Ruth Bancewicz

If all creation praises God, as it says in the Psalms, how can we join in? This is something that Rachel Oates, has thought about quite deeply over her years as the Environmental Coordinator at Lee Abbey. I met up with Rachel a few weeks ago when I was leading a conference at Lee abbey, and she led a ‘praying with creation walk’ as part of that week. Here, she explains the thinking behind the concept. Continue reading

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