Songs about…biology?

Astrocyte (type of nerve cell) by Karin Pierre

I’ve been blogging about astronomy recently. It’s an easy target really – anything that involves staring at the night sky is likely to move people to worship. But what about my own subject of biology? The living world is a lot messier, but it is just as amazing.

Our own development from sperm and egg to squalling baby takes just nine months. During that time, the instruction manual for a unique physical human being is read off from the DNA code that resides in every cell in our bodies.* It’s incredible that the information is all there in the 2 metres or so of code in each cell. DNA is about a billionth of a metre (2nm) wide, and is not visible with even the best light microscopes (these can only see things as small as about 50 nm). Inside the cell DNA is coiled up, in a number of complex stages, into a tiny mass that fits inside the nucleus of the cell.

Until recently I believed that we had enough DNA in our bodies to take us on an amazing journey.  I was told that if all the DNA in each cell of your body – all 2m of it – was extracted and added end to end it would reach as far as the moon and back. That’s quite a thought.

But then I checked the numbers for a children’s talk that I was preparing and discovered that the story I had been told was way off the mark.

  • We have about 50 trillion (50 x 1012) cells in our bodies.
  • Multiply that by 2m, and you have about 100 trillion metres, or 100 billion (100 x 109) kilometres of DNA.

So yes, we do have enough DNA in our bodies to take us to the moon and back, but you can go much further than that – to the sun and back more than 300 times! I can’t even begin to comprehend that, but it’s very impressive. And I’ve ended writing about astronomy again…

I’ve been criticised for making the leap from ‘wow that’s amazing’ to belief in God. But that’s not what I’m doing. I don’t believe in God because of anything to do with science (see my earlier post for more on this). The point is that I believe in a big God, and learning more about how incredible the universe is helps me to understand a little more about just how big God is.

*Except mature red blood cells or the lens in our eyes – in these cell types the DNA would get in the way so it’s broken down.

Songs about science…?

Following on from last week’s post, I’m looking for material for new worship songs using scientific discoveries, in the hope that someone might take the bait…

What about the amazing discoveries made through the Hubble Telescope? The pictures from this incredible piece of technology in the sky grace our coffee tables, computer monitors and television screens every day. Hubble has filled in many of the gaps in our knowledge about how planets form. Before high-resolution images were available astronomers could only guess some of the details, but now a clearer picture has emerged – quite literally!

Planets form in vast clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. A new planetary system forms when part of the cloud clumps together and begins to collapse under the force of gravity. The compression at the centre of the cloud is so great and causes so much heat to be generated that a new star is formed. The remainder of the dense cloud rotates around the star and begins to flatten into a disc. Planets begin to coalesce within this circulating dust ring. The new planets grow larger and larger, gathering up the remaining dust until a new group of planets is formed orbiting around its own star.

It’s incredible that we can know about star formation in such detail, given that it happens so far away, and over such a long period of time. The discoveries from space telescopes such as Hubble provide plenty of fuel for the imagination, and increase our picture of how big our creator God is. Our universe was created through the same Jesus who appeared to a small nation on the tiny planet that we call home. It’s hard to keep those two things in your head at the same time…

And I can’t write on Hubble without mentioning that Dr Jennifer Wiseman, the chief scientific officer of Hubble Telescope, is a Christian and has written her own thoughts down in a paper for BioLogos about science as an instrument of worship. She also appeared on BBC’s Women’s Hour, speaking about a talk she was about to give at the Faraday Institute on life on other planets.

Worshipping God with science

The writers of the Psalms wrote about stars using the most up to date science of their day. Cutting edge astronomers in Israel in the first millennium BC knew that the stars were created (nothing was known yet about how that might have happened), they had their places, and they (on the whole) kept to those places and danced their set dances every year.

He determines the number of the stars
and calls them each by name.
Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
his understanding has no limit.

Psalm 147: 4-5

There is a wealth of hymns and songs that echo this theme but while science has moved on, the language in the songs hasn’t. I’m not suggesting that we do away with the old hymns, or that we use lyrics that might be divisive in a church context, or even that we tie ourselves in knots with technical jargon (I don’t think I could sing about DNA transcription with a straight face!) But what would it look like if we praised God in song for some of the things we have discovered in the last couple of centuries?

Here is an example of a hymn that uses up to date scientific knowledge, written in 1967 when the space race was at its peak.

God, who stretched the spangled heavens,
infinite in time and place,
flung the suns in burning radiance
through the silent fields of space…

We have ventured worlds undreamed of
since the childhood of our race,
known the ecstasy of winging
through untraveled realms of space…

Catherine Arnott Cameron

What would it look like if more writers of worship songs and hymns started to include references to slightly more contemporary science?

Bethlehem star

I watched the film The Nativity Story a few weeks ago. I picked it up at a well-known supermarket for just £3 so I was a bit dubious about what it would be like, but I was pleasantly surprised. The production values are great and the story is told well. Of course a lot of detail was added to the gospel accounts but the extra content was – as far as I can judge – pretty much in keeping with what we know of the period historically, and the original message was faithfully preserved. I thought the film makers did well in creating the atmosphere of an occupied country, showing Mary and Joseph’s developing relationship and, though everyone knows the story (?),  introducing some suspense. I objected to the very cheesy birth tableau, but perhaps that was to be expected…

There is a definite science and faith link in the story of the birth of Jesus. Colin Humphreys is Professor of Materials Science at Cambridge University, and is one of the people who has helped to date the birth of Jesus more accurately in recent years. I’ve heard him tell the story of how he saw in his daughter’s ‘Great Men of History’ book that the dates of Jesus’ birth and death were not known very accurately. Being a Christian, he thought it was important to know a bit more about such momentous happenings as the nativity and crucifixion of Christ.  He got together with an astrophysicist from Oxford University, WG Waddington, to work out the most likely dates of both events. The Nature paper that he and Waddington then wrote on the date of the crucifixion is his most cited scientific paper – a somewhat unusual thing for someone whose stock-in-trade is electron microscopy.

There’s a good summary of Humphrey and Waddington’s work on the date of the birth of Christ in the journal Science and Christian Belief.  There are debates about what the ‘star of Bethlehem‘ might be, so it’s harder to pin down the date of Jesus’ birth. But Humphreys says that ‘The evidence points to Jesus being born in the period 9 March-4 May, 5 BC, probably around Passover time: 13-27 April, 5 BC’. Happy Easter?

And finally, a Christmas cracker joke to finish the year off in style. Q: Why did the Rooster crow before daybreak? A: His cluck was too fast.