An Impossible World

Cararr, www.freeimages.com
© Cararr, http://www.freeimages.com

This month’s guest post is from writer Emily Ruppel, Associate Director of Communications for the American Scientific Affiliation, and Web Editor at BioLogos. Here, Emily tells about her unusual route into the science-faith arena, which began with a nun.

A few years ago while studying in the science writing master’s program at MIT, I heard about something rather brilliant from a friend at Harvard University. Brilliant things happen at Harvard all the time, of course, but this was ‘brilliant’ in a different way—unexpected, illuminating, and challenging, for the people it happened to. It opened up a course of conversation previously unavailable to its participants. It was controversial, too, in a quiet way.

What happened is this: a graduate student studying astronomy sent an email to her department announcing her imminent departure from the program. Continue reading

The Magnitude of God

E. coli

Another talk that I heard at the ASA meeting a couple of weeks ago was on ‘The Magnitude of God’ by Pamela Bryant. The whole talk was an attempt to comprehend the scale of the universe, from the very large to the very small, along the lines of the video ‘Powers of ten’. The slides are here (60 MB…), complete with references, and are well worth a look.

It often seems that in our search for knowledge we are only limited by the power of our imaginations. Nano scale research and applications are the perfect example of scientists playing with technology that many people in the world use without having a clue how it works. You can buy a 32 Gigabyte micro SD card a few millimetres long that holds  720 hours of movies, but compared to what is already out there our technology looks very clunky indeed. The bacteria E. coli are ten times smaller than the average micro SD card and they compute about a thousand times faster, their memory density is a hundred million times higher and they need only a hundred millionth of the power to operate.

There are some fun details in there too. If you took all the people alive in the world today and removed all the empty space from all the atoms in their bodies, they would fit into a space the size of an apple (originally posted on John Topley’s blog – has anyone checked!?)

Pamela also told some of her story – she is from Texas originally, where she studied chemistry and became a high school teacher. 20 years later she moved back into the lab, completed a PhD in chemistry, and found herself as a postdoc at MIT, doing work on nanomaterials that she said was beyond her wildest dreams. After some time as a postdoc she returned to Howard Payne University in Texas, to give something of her experience back to her students. And Pamela’s own reaction to the torrent of scientific information she delivered in her talk?

‘Humility, wonder and a sober understanding of God’s magnitude.’

God’s Providence in Nature

I was at the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (the fellowship of Christians in Science in the USA) a couple of weeks ago. One of the talks that I heard was by Gregory Bennett, a geologist – and I’d be interested to hear what the theologians and philosophers think of it.

God’s providence – the way in which he acts in the universe – provides a basis for science and technology. The fact that an experiment gives the same result today and tomorrow has to be taken for granted or you couldn’t do science – it just happens, and that’s why we have ‘laws of nature’. But within a Christian worldview that makes perfect sense.

Gregory Bennett put forward a detailed analysis of providence:

  1. God constantly sustains the world so that the properties of things are preserved.
  2. God cooperates with created things, directing their distinctive properties to cause then to act as they do.
  3. God directs all things to accomplish his purposes.

So God is very hands on and ‘does’ everything – even making my pen fall to the ground when I drop it. This is a very active kind of sustaining, and is consistent with the language of God sustaining and providing rain, food and so on that occurs throughout the Bible.

I have sustained him with grain and new wine (Genesis 27:37)

He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. (Psalm 147:8)

He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call. (Psalm 147:9)

Bennett described ordinary providence – working through ‘secondary causes’ that we can understand scientifically in terms of the regular operation of things in the world, and extraordinary providence – where no secondary cause can be seen. Extraordinary providence would be a miracle (in my opinion not the only kind of miracle – I think miracles of timing also happen) – something that draws attention to God and his interaction with us.

You can listen to the whole talk here.

The Creativity of Chemistry

I have to admit that until now I have not really interacted with chemists – at least not in the field of science and faith. Some of my best friends are chemists (really!), but we have never talked about the faith implications of what they are doing in the lab. I think we usually assume that because there’s no cosmic fine-tuning, big bang, evolution or bioethical issues in this field, there’s not much to say about chemistry and faith. It took a trip to the US last week to make me change my mind*.

When I get the transcripts back from the interviews I hope to write at more length, but here’s a brief taster. I visited several scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, including a PhD student in the chemistry department. Chemistry is an extremely creative subject. The tools of chemistry are, on the whole, well studied: collections of atoms and molecules. The interesting bit is what happens when you combine them in new ways to make different compounds. This student is in synthetic organic chemistry lab. He works on finding new ways to build compounds that are useful in all sorts of applications – pharmaceuticals being an important one.

Human creativity is astounding. In organic chemistry there comes a point when someone comes up with a truly unique way to solve a problem – skipping over several steps in a synthetic pathway to make a compound in a truly elegant way. It all fits into place and makes such sense all of a sudden. How can people do that? This is not simply a survival skill – somehow we can understand these complex reactions, and use them to make new products. The chemist’s joy at the elegance and beauty of the solution is also worth thinking about. Beauty in chemistry? The simplicity of the solution, the symmetry and the mathematical elegance of the equations could all be called beautiful.

What’s more, working in this sort of environment often helps scientists to appreciate the organisms that ‘create’ similar compounds without the benefit of piles of expensive glassware, huge quantities of metal catalysts, or extremely high temperatures. What we can do in our labs is still, after hundreds of years of scientific endeavour, not a patch on what happens out there all the time in the big wide world.

(*I should point out that I was in the US primarily to attend the ASA annual meeting so, although it would seem to be more cost-effective to talk to my friends in Cambridge, adding a couple of days onto the trip to talk to a few scientists was a good use of the air fare. I hope my sustainable living credentials remain intact!)