Teaching the Beauty of Biology: Jeff Hardin

Belief in God can lead to a greater appreciation for science. This is the experience of Jeff Hardin, author of this week’s guest post. In today’s podcast he shares how for him, scientific discovery leads to worship. He also speaks about the work of Abraham Kuyper, and C.S. Lewis’s idea of ‘patches of Godlight’.

To find out more about Jeff’s work and faith, and the importance of beauty in both science and Christianity, see God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith (Monarch, 2015).

Guest Post – On Seurat, Science, and Faith: The Value of Theology in the Lab

Source: webexhibits.org
Source: webexhibits.org

How does theology contribute to science? This is a question that developmental biologist Jeff Hardin has answered many times. I met Jeff several years ago when I first interviewed him for the God in the lab book, and was immediately intrigued to learn that he has studied both of these subjects. In today’s guest posts, he explains his own perspective on science and theology.

As Americans go, I’m a bit of an odd duck. Before my PhD in Biophysics at the University of California-Berkeley, I received a Master of Divinity degree, focusing on theology and philosophy. For me, it is important that theology and science fit together, not just as an intellectual exercise, but Continue reading

Faith and Beauty in Science

Jeff Hardin is a zoologist who believes that beauty in science is important. In today’s videos, Hardin shares his thoughts on what life in the lab means for a scientist with a theology degree, and how he shares his passion for biology with his students.

  Continue reading

The Human Side of Science

How can a scientist who is also a person of faith communicate their experiences of working in a lab? In this video five scientists express how science has helped their faith to grow.

In a further series of videos, I explain my motivations behind writing God in the lab (Monarch, Jan 2015), and describe my favourite parts Continue reading

Mountaintops

Dolomites cropped 2
The Dolomites, © Ruth Bancewicz

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

Beauty, Science and Theology. Part 2: Understanding Beauty in Science

This series of more extended posts sums up my recent work on beauty in science and theology, and is reproduced (with permission) from the BioLogos blog.

Beautiful Brain © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009

Understanding Beauty in Science

It is of course possible to appreciate the beauty of creation[1] intuitively, simply delighting in a scene full of colour, pattern and variety. We instinctively enjoy wide-open vistas, long stretches of clear water and high lookout points.[2] We also seem to value symmetry and order. But there is great pleasure to be had in training the senses to a higher degree of observation, and this is something that poets practice as well as scientists. W.H. Davies’ poem ‘Leisure’ encourages the cultivation of a deliberate habit of unhurried observation. I also love Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s slightly caustic observation:

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Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries… Continue reading

Embryos are beautiful

Crawling C. elegans. Goldstein lab, http://labs.bio.unc.edu/Goldstein/movies.html

This is the message that developmental biologist Jeff Hardin tries to get across to his students. Hardin constantly sees beauty in his work, so I thought I would spend some time explaining what he does. 

One of the best tools for studying development is the tiny roundworm C.elegans, which must be one of the most studied organisms in the world. Adult humans have around 30 trillion cells in their bodies, but human development is so complex and our bodies are so large and vary so much in size, that estimates vary from 10 to 100 trillion. C.elegans, on the other hand, is a relatively simple organism with about 1,000 cells.

One of the most striking (and useful) things about C. elegans is the ‘invariant lineage’ of its cells. As the embryo grows, development proceeds along a minutely prescribed pattern. A cell in the growing embryo replicates its DNA and divides in two. The ‘daughter cell’ will now follow instructions, either keeping the character of its parent or developing a new trait to form part of a different tissue. Each new cell has its fate mapped out in advance, so there is no room for teenage rebellion among the cells of the C. elegans embryo.

The other useful thing about this worm is its complete transparency, which has allowed biologists to trace the lineage of all 959 of its cells*, including the 131 cells that died along the way.

The life of a small organism can be completely prescribed: hatch, grow, moult four times, then mate. Most C. elegans adults are hermaphrodites – they make sperm, then switch to making eggs, and fertilise themselves. One could find this cycle depressing, but that’s not the take-home message for Hardin.

Biologists always seem to find their chosen organism beautiful, perhaps because they have come to appreciate its features in great detail. It certainly helps if you find beautiful the thing that you spend most of your days staring at. Being able to understand an organism in such detail is beautiful in itself. And the elegance of an animal that is so tiny and yet so detailed is astonishing. Long gone are the days when cells were thought to be homogenous, gelatinous blobs.

The world we inhabit is highly ordered and that order brings complexity. Creatures in some way make themselves, and reproduction is the best example of our being granted some part in the creative process. Even if we don’t completely understand the details, we get to ‘make’ whole new living things – worms on a Petri dish, geranium cuttings, kittens, children…

* Excluding the gametes, which have variable cell numbers If you want to know more about C. elegans, you can read to your heart’s content in this online text book, http://www.wormbook.org, to which Jeff Hardin has contributed a chapter on epidermal morphogenesis. 

(Previous series with Jeff: Part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here.)