Surprised by Science

Traces within – © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009
Traces within – © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009

One thing I always try to do on this blog is explain what it’s actually like to do science: the fun parts, the challenges, and the mundane – in other words, the human side of science, and particularly biological science.  To back up my ramblings with some perspective from someone who’s spent longer in the lab than I did, I recently interviewed Harvey McMahon. He runs a very successful lab at the prestigious MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. McMahon studies the brain, and has spent time looking at the mechanisms behind the incredibly fast communication between brain cells, or neurones. He has also spoken at the Faraday Institute recently (see previous posts).

We get to hear about the discoveries of scientists in the news, but we don’t often get to find out how those discoveries are made. Like all professions, the every day is very unglamorous. In science there is more than enough interest and excitement to keep people coming back to work day after day, putting in the hours in the evenings and at weekends.

I was interested to find out McMahon’s views on science: what makes good research, what makes a good lab tick, and how is it possible to learn anything new in biology? Continue reading

Science is culture

A few weeks ago I heard writer Andy Crouch speak at the Everything Conference. His three talks on creating culture are well worth a listen. Andy’s premise is that Christians spend far too long either critiquing culture or simply going along with what is produced by others. We should be cultivating the good that is present in wider culture and creating our own cultures – not in a ‘head-in-the-sand Christian subculture way, but in a way that speaks to the whole of society. I was particularly struck by his talk on creating culture together. Some of the best projects start with two or three people around the kitchen table and expand as they bring others on board. It’s not about the genius alone in their study (though I’m sure lone geniuses – genii? – have their place).

New cultures can take time to develop. Andy quoted Patrick Shaw: ‘We greatly overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in ten years’. A prime example is the growth of Christianity. On a global scale the resurrection of Jesus Christ had a minimal impact to begin with, but as churches were established and the effects on people’s lives became apparent, Christianity spread so rapidly that within a few hundred years entire nations called themselves Christian.

Of course science both operates within and impacts culture, and all of the above is extremely relevant to scientists, as Andy Crouch knows because he is married to one! Catherine Crouch is a physicist based at Swarthmore College who works on microphotoluminescence and is currently engaged on a sabbatical project studying curvature in cell membranes.

Catherine has written a ‘meditation on light’ that draws on her own work in physics as well as her Christian faith. It communicates beautifully the process of discovery leading to worship. Science clearly contributes to the creation of culture: new discoveries lead to deeper knowledge about the way the world works and helps us to develop new technologies. But, as Catherine so clearly describes, science also shapes other aspects of culture in subtle yet far-reaching ways: a deeper understanding of the world around us impacts the way we see the world and what we believe in.