When the physicist Russell Cowburn reached the end of his PhD studies, he had a choice to make. Having become a Christian at the age of eighteen, he thought deciding between a job in science or the church was choosing between the spiritual and the material. Several decades into his career as a scientist, he isn’t quite so sure difference between the two options was as stark as he thought at the time. Continue reading
How can we understand some of the social and cultural factors that influence our attitudes to science and religion? This is one of the questions that social anthropologist Caroline Tee is asking as she begins to study the ways in which Christian and Muslim scientists interpret their scriptures. In this month’s podcast (transcript below) Ruth Bancewicz met up with Caroline at the Faraday Institute, to catch up with the latest on her research and find out what motivates her in her research. Continue reading
3 years ago I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. 5,925 injections later, I find it difficult to describe it in a factual, scientific way. Although the biology is fascinating, Type 1 is so much more than that. It’s the joy of having hot chocolate to treat a medical emergency. It’s the awkwardness of Continue reading
All scientists get to feel a sense of wonder at some point in their career, whether it comes from the interpretation of a new data set, the observation of a surprising phenomenon, or something particularly beautiful. They may come to different conclusions about what they’ve seen and what it points to, but wonder seems to be part of the package for a scientist.
I remember wondering as a child how my food and drink knew where to go in my body when I swallowed them, in order for their waste products to exit so neatly from different places. I was clearly destined to be a biologist. The answer provided by my medical parents – that food and drink were swallowed down the same ‘tube’ and mixed up in my stomach – was not as satisfying as a the complex series of pipes that I had imagined, and I lost interest. But when I studied biology in more depth at university I learned about the exquisite physiological detail and complex biochemistry of the gut, liver and kidney, and my sense of wonder at the way my body works returned.
When I ask scientists about the positive interaction between science and faith, awe and wonder nearly always play a large part in the conversation.
Awe is the mixture of overwhelmment, wonder and fear that we often feel when we encounter something larger, more beautiful, powerful or complex than anything we see in our everyday lives. Sometimes even reverence, or respect come into it. The night sky, vast landscapes and the mighty forces of wind and sea are accessible to most people on this planet, and frequently leave us speechless.
Wonder, on the other hand, is a more active and hopeful emotion. When we’re confronted by something new, unexpected, or especially beautiful, we often want to examine and understand it. We might doubt what knowledge we thought we had about it, and enjoy the process of asking questions and beginning to untangle its mystery. Continue reading
The beauty of mathematics is in its ability to model reality. Our ability to do mathematics is equally astounding. Is there a theological aspect to this experience, and does it have its limitations? This is the second part of my interview with Enrique Mota, a mathematician from Valencia, Spain. (Part 1 here)
Mathematics, for me, is beautiful. It shows me that the God I believe in is great. In mathematics we have a tool that models structures and events that are deeply embedded in the fabric of the universe. You can write the problem as an equation, add some constants, and find a solution. It works. Continue reading
As I write, the Faraday Institute summer course is in full swing. On Tuesday I attended a lecture by MIT physicist Professor Ian Hutchinson on James Clerk Maxwell. A text of the talk, given at MIT, is here.
James Clerk Maxwell was quite a character. He grew up in the country, running away from his tutor by sailing a washtub across a pond, and finally being sent to school in Edinburgh. He published his first scientific paper when he was still at school (he invented a method for drawing ovals, and published it in the proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh). He later went to Edinburgh University, and I love this extract from a letter around this time.
… So I get up and see what kind of day it is, and what field works are to be done; then I catch the pony and bring up the water barrel … Then I take the dogs out, and then look round the garden for fruit and seeds, and paddle about till breakfast time; after I that take up Cicero and see if I can understand him. If so, I read till I stick; if not, I set to Xen. or Herodt. Then I do props, chiefly on rolling curves … After props come optics, and principally polarized light. Do you remember our visit to Mr Nicol? I have got plenty of unannealed glass of different shapes …
Here is someone working hard at something he enjoys so much that it feels like playing. Maxwell then moved to Cambridge, where he devised a scheme to test his Christian faith.
Now my great plan, which was conceived of old, … is to let nothing be wilfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative… Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden. …
Christianity – that is, the religion of the Bible – is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations. …
The Old Testament and the Mosaic Law and Judaism are commonly supposed to be “Tabooed” by the orthodox. Sceptics pretend to have read them, and have found certain witty objections … which too many of the orthodox unread admit, and shut up the subject as haunted. But a Candle is coming to drive out all Ghosts and Bugbears. Let us follow the light.
Maxwell’s idea was that if Christianity was founded on something true, it should withstand proper scrutiny. I come across this approach again and again among scientists of faith, and it doesn’t see the light of day very often in media discussions of science and faith – I hope this small contribution helps…