The development of the Big Bang theory is an example of how faith responses can contribute to the scientific discussion in a positive way. Rodney Holder, an Anglican priest and former cosmologist, has contributed to this conversation for a number of years. He has just published a new book, ‘Big Bang Big God: A Universe designed for life?’ that aims to bring the debate to a wider audience.
Until the 1920’s, the scientific consensus was that the universe is a static entity: it has always been there, and it always will. Einstein’s general theory of relativity linked matter, time and space and Einstein came up with a solution which gave a static, eternal universe. In 1927 the Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaitre came up with another solution, in which the universe was expanding.
A couple of years after Lemaitre came up with his new model, Edwin Hubble discovered astronomical evidence for an expanding universe – the famous redshift. Then in 1931 Lemaître came up with a further solution in which the universe expanded from a highly compact initial state which he called the ‘primeval atom’. Some scientists objected to Lemaitre’s proposal. Einstein thought it was ‘abominable’, and the Cambridge Professor of Astronomy Fred Hoyle derisively called it the ‘Big Bang theory’, Continue reading →
To follow on from my post about asking questions, I’ve been thinking about how much we don’t know. Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist from Columbia University, has written a book called Ignorance: How it drives science. In Ignorance, Firestein describes how he loved lab science, but found teaching undergraduates a bit of a struggle. The problem was that he spent the whole time teaching what was known, filling the students’ brains with knowledge. He had forgotten that as well as following the textbook, he could highlight the gaps in knowledge or the rival theories, showing where the opportunities are for young researchers to push back the boundaries themselves. Those are the really interesting parts. Continue reading →
Climbing mountains brings perspective. Looking down from the top of a high peak, you can see the whole of the surrounding area laid out like a map. You can plan where you want to go next, or maybe even your whole route for the next few days. The feeling of achievement that comes from climbing a mountain is wonderful. Chairlifts and funicular railways are great – especially if you can’t manage a climb – but standing on the summit is many times more exhilarating if you’ve plodded very step of the way up from the bottom. John Muir was unusual as a scientist because his fieldwork actually involved climbing mountains. A career in most branches of science involves working indoors, sometimes in windowless rooms. As a PhD student in Edinburgh I spent many days examining Zebrafish embryos in the basement, but I could see the Pentland hills from my lab bench – until Cancer Research UK built a research centre that blocked out the view (and I am clearly still nursing a grudge against them for it!) Actually climbing the mountains on my doorstep was a refreshing reminder that the world was going to carry on revolving whether my experiments worked or not. Over the last year I have noticed that mountains are a popular source of metaphors for describing the scientific journey. Being interested in mountains myself, I began to collect these passages and thought they would make an interesting blog post and source of quotes for others. Continue reading →
At the beginning of this piece I mentioned my growing realisation of the size of the scientist’s task. The seeming inexhaustibility of the created order can be overwhelming, but many see this as something positive. There is so much more to explore. As the Jesuit philosopher Enrico Cantore has said, the mystery of the universe lies not in ignorance, but in dazzling intelligibility. Where do these thoughts of transcendence, reality and mystery lead? For Einstein, they were a religion. A Mind other than our own was somehow responsible for this world that we can make sense of using the language of mathematics. For others, the reality we see in the world leads to ideals that transcend differences of language, culture and religion. Continue reading →
The physicist Ernst Mach didn’t believe in wonder. He thought it was the preserve of children and the ignorant, and that proper scientific discovery would reveal the true nature of all surprising phenomena. Of course reducing astonishing events to mere calculations can lead to disillusionment, but Mach thought that was a necessary part of science. Einstein disagreed. He thought the most surprising and fascinating thing about the natural world is that we can make sense of it. A scientist might start with a jumble of data, but after some patient sorting and calculating they notice a pattern: maybe a mathematical description or a link between one process and another. To discover that pattern for yourself is stunning – it was there all along, just waiting to be found.
Olaf Pedersen was a well-known Danish historian of science, but he began his working life as a science teacher. In his essay, ‘Christian Belief and the Fascination of Science’, he describes two very different lessons which demonstrate the fascination of scientific discovery. In the first, rather unsuccessful lesson he followed the textbook. He described the ‘specific gravity’ (a measure of density) of lead to his class of eleven year olds, then gave them pieces of lead to weigh and measure. Of course Pedersen’s students weren’t able to weigh and measure with absolute precision, so they failed to come up with the exact figure for the specific gravity of lead quoted in the book. They became discouraged and lost interest. Continue reading →
Science is like all creative endeavours, in that having different personalities in a research group increases your chances of doing something really productive – something that I mentioned in a recent post. I’d go as far as saying that to have a really successful lab you definitely need that diversity.
Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974) was a physicist who worked with Einstein on the unified field theory (aiming to unite the four fundamental forces of particle physics), and gave his name to the Boson. Gosling suggested that Hindu philosophy had a significant effect on the development of science in India during the nineteenth century. Vedantic thought – the dominant strand of Hindu philosophy back then – taught that there is a unity underlying all phenomena. This philosophical undercurrent may have led many Indian scientists to work at the boundaries between different branches of science, in the hope that science may reach some level of unification. This search for unity may have influenced Bose in his choice of research topic. A single unified field theory has not been recognised by the world of physics so far, but some of the fundamental forces have been linked in meaningful ways as a result of the work begun by Einstein and Bose.
We have a diversity of worldview or religion in the world, and it definitely has its benefits. For Bose, it may be that his beliefs prompted him to choose a field of research that he might not have considered otherwise. Even the Christian church is sufficiently global to provide enough diversity to keep life interesting.
There is a tendency to portray science as a monochromatic community. The very opposite is true. In a lab, it’s vital to have people with different personalities and worldviews as well as specialties and skills. Diversity of people means that you’re less likely to succumb to groupthink – or boring research.
“The first time I peered down a microscope at a living sea urchin embryo when I was a graduate student at Berkeley I was absolutely hooked on developmental biology. Christians, when they’re doing science, are experiencing something that I call ‘doxological fascination’. In other words, they’re locked in on the minute details of something – which academics tend to do – and yet they’re doing it for God’s glory, in the same way that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) in all the margins of his manuscripts. [I know a scientist who writes SDG on all her lecture notes and in her lab book – Ruth]. They’re trying to, in Keplerian fashion, ‘think God’s thoughts after him’.
I teach two main courses, cell biology and developmental biology. In each of these courses I start by telling the students that my main goal for the semester is that they would think cells, or embryos, are cool. They laugh, but I go on with this quote that I love:
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.
I want them to be much better than dead by the end of the semester! My students don’t yet understand how incredible embryos are, and my goal in teaching biology is that they would not be the sort that are sitting around ‘picking blackberries’. I think that this is a new idea to some of my students, and it’s a touch point that I have in common with them, whatever their faith commitments are.
In my introduction to developmental biology I use some ancient Hebrew poetry, from Psalm 139, where David is musing about embryonic development. Even when he was developing in the womb, God was there and David uses poetic language to talk about how his own body was formed. He doesn’t understand that process, but he knows it’s fearful and wonderful. So I tell my students, whether you share David’s worldview – as I as a Christian happen to – or you don’t, by the end of the semester I want you to share this sense of wonder about the incredible intricacy of developmental biology and the processes that we have the privilege of studying. Usually in the teaching evaluations at the end of the semester there are lots of comments saying, ‘Wow, he actually cares about this material’.”
I love this example of someone who is passionate about his work, and who works hard to transmit that passion to his students. I meet so many people who are surprised that a scientist might think in this way – they feel as if science somehow squashes all the life and meaning out of things – so the more people who get to hear stories like this one, the better!