The Magnitude of God

E. coli

Another talk that I heard at the ASA meeting a couple of weeks ago was on ‘The Magnitude of God’ by Pamela Bryant. The whole talk was an attempt to comprehend the scale of the universe, from the very large to the very small, along the lines of the video ‘Powers of ten’. The slides are here (60 MB…), complete with references, and are well worth a look.

It often seems that in our search for knowledge we are only limited by the power of our imaginations. Nano scale research and applications are the perfect example of scientists playing with technology that many people in the world use without having a clue how it works. You can buy a 32 Gigabyte micro SD card a few millimetres long that holds  720 hours of movies, but compared to what is already out there our technology looks very clunky indeed. The bacteria E. coli are ten times smaller than the average micro SD card and they compute about a thousand times faster, their memory density is a hundred million times higher and they need only a hundred millionth of the power to operate.

There are some fun details in there too. If you took all the people alive in the world today and removed all the empty space from all the atoms in their bodies, they would fit into a space the size of an apple (originally posted on John Topley’s blog – has anyone checked!?)

Pamela also told some of her story – she is from Texas originally, where she studied chemistry and became a high school teacher. 20 years later she moved back into the lab, completed a PhD in chemistry, and found herself as a postdoc at MIT, doing work on nanomaterials that she said was beyond her wildest dreams. After some time as a postdoc she returned to Howard Payne University in Texas, to give something of her experience back to her students. And Pamela’s own reaction to the torrent of scientific information she delivered in her talk?

‘Humility, wonder and a sober understanding of God’s magnitude.’

Testing Faith

First colour photopgraph, Maxwell, 1861

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…