The well-known geneticist Francis Collins is in the habit of breaking into song on special occasions. The only other person I have known to sing during a science-faith presentation is environmental scientist Calvin (Cal) DeWitt. At the 2007 conference of Christians in Science and the ASA in Edinburgh, DeWitt concluded his talk by leading us all in song. You can hear it here (fast forward to the last 2 minutes, unless you want to hear the whole talk which is very good). It was a moving moment, and a significant one. Here was a scientist wearing his heart on his sleeve and expressing himself through art as well as scientific jargon.
I wasn’t at all surprised – though I was pleased – when DeWitt published a new book this year entitled ‘Song of a Scientist’. This ‘song’ is a weaving together of different stories: autobiographical, ecological, and ethical. The autobiographical story is of DeWitt’s life in science: some initial work in zoology, a switch to environmental science, and his part in making the Town of Dunn a sustainable development. Woven through this account are stories of animals, plants and whole ecosystems that sing their own song. The ethical part is what DeWitt does best; his knowledge of the natural world and its destruction is encyclopaedic, but he has also been involved in putting into action practical methods to care for the earth that are both sustainable and acceptable to its human inhabitants. This isn’t a hair-shirt way of living: it’s a living of life to the full in the most joyful way possible. Continue reading →
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.
Understanding Beauty in Science
It is of course possible to appreciate the beauty of creation 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. 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:
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 →
I have heard the naturalist John Muir quoted in the past, but have only recently discovered what a fabulous writer he was. I am reading a selection of Muir’s writings published by Birlinn. He’s an interesting guy, hugely talented in many areas: helping his father to carve a farm out of the Wisconsin wilderness, creating huge clocks out of wood, teaching himself enough of the high-school curriculum to qualify for university, and studying botany and geology (he never completed his degree) before setting off into the wildest parts of North America. It seems that he abandoned traditional Christian faith largely because, sadly, his exposure was to the rather dour Scottish Presbyterian brand of Christianity, and a religious father who opposed science and failed to encourage his quite exceptional talents. Instead he turned to worship of God through nature.
Muir’s delight in the beauty of nature is infectious, and inspired me to observe and enjoy my surroundings more acutely during my (almost) daily walks on a recent trip to the US. The enthusiasm in his book ‘My first Summer in the Sierra’ actually becomes rather wearing – everything just seems too perfect – but I think that simply reflects his excitement at encountering true wilderness for the first time.
This extended quote about a shepherd exemplifies Muir’s detailed observation and appreciation of nature, but also displays his great sense of humour and interest in (and tolerance of) people. It takes a born naturalist to go to such pains in describing a revolting old pair of trousers – and to even find beauty in them!
Following the sheep he carries a heavy six-shooter swung from his belt on one side and his luncheon on the other. The ancient cloth in which the meat, fresh from the frying pan, is tied serves as a filter through which the clear fat and gravy juices drip down on his right hip and leg in clustering stalactites. This oleaginous formation is soon broken up, however, and diffused and rubbed evenly into his scanty apparel, by sitting down, rolling over, crossing his legs while resting on logs, etc., making shirt and trousers water-tight and shiny. His trousers, in particular, have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin that pine-needles, thin flakes and fibres of bark, hair, mica scales and minute grains of quartz, hornblende, etc., feathers, seed wings, moth and butterfly wings, legs and antennae of innumerable insects, or even whole insects such as the small beetles, moths and mosquitoes, with flower petals, pollen dust and indeed bits of all plants, animals and minerals of the region adhere to them and are safely embedded, so that though far from being a naturalist he collects fragmentary specimens of everything and becomes richer than he knows. His specimens are kept passably fresh, too, by the purity of the air and the resiny bituminous beds into which they are pressed. Man is a microcosm, as least our shepherd is, or rather his trousers. These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance.