Galloping wild horses, cranes soaring overhead, beavers splashing in rivers and the howl of wolves echoing through the forest: this is a vision that has led to an explosion of interest in the topic of rewilding. George Monbiot arguably brought rewilding into the public sphere through his 2013 book Feral, capitalising on an unspoken yearning in our society to reconnect with nature. An impressionable biology undergraduate at the time, I recall feeling a thrill (yes, I’m a nerd!) as Monbiot set out a radical new vision for conservation. Fast forward to 2019, and rewilding is an integral component of ever-increasing concerns surrounding environmental sustainability; a recent petition calling for the restoration of British nature has, to date, attracted nearly 100,000 signatures.
So, what is rewilding, and how can I respond as a Christian? Is there a richer theological message from rewilding than simply environmental stewardship; a reconciliation between human beings and God’s creation that points us towards the ultimate restoration to come? Continue reading →
Sheldon, the main character in the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory, is funny because he’s an extreme version of the stereotypical physicist. He’s ultra-geeky, as demonstrated by his approach to a popular game: “Scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock, rock crushes lizard, lizard poisons Spock, Spock smashes scissors, scissors decapitate lizard, lizard eats paper, paper disproves Spock, Spock vaporizes rock, and as it always has, 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 →
What if science can best be described in relational terms? It would certainly open up more opportunities for a dialogue with faith. At a gathering of scientists who are Christians in Cambridge last year, Harvey McMahon gave some reasons why this approach might work. In this final guest post in the God in the Lab series, he explains his thinking.
Last week I spoke to some students about why a scientist should think about Christianity. Here are my top three reasons – see what you think.
1. Science flourished in the Christian west
Science has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy, which could be described as a ‘proto-science’ involving geometry. Greek texts made their way to the Islamic world, where mathematics, philosophy and experimental science were carried out between the 8th and 16th centuries. (After this, science died out in the Islamic world for a while and scholars have not been able to agree why.) Towards the end of the Middle Ages Arabic texts found their way to Europe, were translated into Latin, and people started to do science, or ‘natural philosophy’, as it was called then. Europe in the Middle Ages was Christian, so almost all of the early scientists in Europe were Christians. And today, a good proportion of current scientists are Christians.
2. Christian theology informed the development of science
A number of historians and philosophers of science, Roger Trigg included, would say that science really only flourished once some of the Greek philosophical ideas about the world were replaced with theological ideas. One example is Continue reading →
This week’s post is from an interview with Cale Weatherly, a PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’ve chosen extracts that focus on the practical process of doing science and the scientist’s enjoyment of that process. My hope is that for non-scientists it will open a window on a different world, while for scientists it may provoke some thought (and comments) about their own experiences in the lab.
I’m coming to the end of my first year as a PhD student in synthetic organic chemistry. This is a branch of chemistry that’s been around for quite a long time, and chemists are pretty good at turning simple carbon-based molecules into more complex ones for pharmaceuticals and other practical applications (see comment below for more detail). There’s an enormous amount of room, however, for making the process more efficient (cheaper, less time consuming and more environmentally friendly). What we’re doing in our lab is not so much making the complex molecules ourselves but expanding the toolbox of chemical transformations that other people can use.
There’s a lot of – I use this word very deliberately – beautiful chemistry involved in turning molecule A into molecule B, and every organic chemist that I know has an aesthetic appreciation for what we do. The practical aspect of our research is important, but that’s not usually what draws people to the field or motivates us on a day-to-day basis. It’s the process that’s exciting.
Everybody brings a different kind of artistry to the process of making a molecule. Often several papers will be published describing different ways to make the same molecule, because everybody employs a unique strategy. What I like about organic chemistry is that there are different ways to approach a problem, and I often think that questions with many possible right answers are more interesting than those with only one.
The atmosphere in the lab where I work is very informal. It’s kind of messy and it’s very much our own space. I can’t imagine it being otherwise. We have to put in a lot of hours, and in the course of that time we get to know each other well. If we were formal all the time I don’t think anybody could survive long enough to accomplish any work! We work long weeks and there are days when I don’t get to do much apart from chemistry and eat. The first time you actually achieve something promising in the lab there’s a tremendous feeling of excitement. I am (if not in every little task, at least in the big picture) happy doing something that I find interesting and that will allow me to do something of service to the world in the future.
A lot of work that’s published in my field is an incremental improvement on what’s been done before, but occasionally you come across work that’s conceptually very different. Someone gets from A to B in a way you would never have anticipated. They take you through the process step by step, where each step can be shown to make good chemical sense. Those papers are always a lot of fun to read.
I think among non-scientists in general, and Christians specifically, there’s a tendency to value product rather than process. It can be difficult to explain my work to friends and family because they often want to know the practical value of what I’m doing. I’m trying to put another tool in the toolbox so that down the line somebody might be able to use it to make something useful. But it’s not the ultimate practical value of what I’m doing that I find interesting – it’s the process of getting there, and what I love about organic chemistry is thinking about the process.
The distinction between process-driven and product-driven points of view is fascinating. Of course goals are important, but anyone who has been a Christian for a while will have begun to realise that God is far more process than product minded – which is why Christian life is described as a journey. (Besides the fact that product-driven people are more likely to be unhappy perfectionists…) This is the last interview from my trip to Madison this summer, so keep your eyes peeled for some new interviews next year.
I’ve recently been reading Nigel Bovey‘s book ‘God, the Big Bang and Bunsen-Burning Issues‘. This collection of stories has reminded me that there are huge numbers of scientists who really want to make a difference with their work and haven’t kept their faith and their science in separate compartments. I could quote hundreds of people, but best to make a start with one…
Ghillean Prance (Professor Sir…) is a botanist with a long and distinguished career mainly revolving around the Amazon rainforest. He was one of the first people to highlight that it was bad to chop so much of the rainforest down and try to do a something about stopping the massacre. In his chapters in ‘God, the Big Bang…’, and Real Science Real Faith, Ghillean shows how holistic his approach was – he was thinking of the plants, the environment, and the people who lived in the rainforest, their beliefs and communities. He has certainly not been one to keep his roles in the Christian community and the scientific community separate.
As tropical deforestation has accelerated I have become progressively more active in ecological issues, and as a consequence also in creation theology and the Christian basis for environmental protection.
During my travels around Amazonian Brazil I have always looked for local churches and sought to link up with them and encourage their work in any way possible.
I have seen excellent missionaries who have understood the needs and ways of local people. I have also seen mistakes. Back in the 1970s, I ran workshops and in 1993 I published a book called ‘Missionary Earthkeeping‘ to encourage people to learn the whole of what the Bible teaches about caring for God’s creation – care for the environment and care for individual tribes. Nowadays the approach is better, but that’s the message the West still needs to hear.
I was partularly intrigued by Ghillean’s description in Real Science Real Faith of ethnobotanists who spend a lot of their time with indigenous people. The temptation to embrace the animist beliefs that give such a deep sense of value for the environment is often strong. Ghillean had already experienced Jesus working in his life through the Holy Spirit, so his reaction was to learn selectively rather than embrace the whole package. So he started by using tree climbers rather than felling trees to collect specimens, and spent the rest of his career doing what he could to protect the rainforest. Ghillean also did what he could bring what he had learned to the rest of the church, and he is spending much of his retirement (if scientists ever retire…) helping the church to rediscover its earthkeeping roots.