Guest Post: Not a Clock Maker – Randomness and order in science and faith

just-like-clockwork-1192669-1599x1254 Dominic Morel freeimages
© Dominic Morel, freeimages.com

When we think of God’s creative activity, Christians are sometimes reluctant to think that randomness and disorder may form part of his toolkit.  Motivated by an honourable desire to only associate him with the very best and most perfect means, we limit his creative activity to Victorian clockwork. But I disagree. Continue reading

Why We Need Disorder: A physicist’s perspective on the living world

10248755515_7859b0be20_k
Cropped from From Chaos to Order By Sebastien Wiertz. Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

The Genesis creation story may seem to be all about God getting rid of disorder and turning it into order, but that’s not how a physicist sees it. In her lecture at the Christians in Science conference in Oxford a few weeks ago, Dr Rhoda Hawkins explained why.

Hawkins studies how unpredictable events on a microscopic scale can produce something very predictable and useful on a larger scale. For example Continue reading

The Fascination of Science

Photo from Test of FAITH. © The Faraday Institute

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

The Beauty of Shalom

© Ruth Bancewicz

I think that the beauty seen in science falls into four broad categories. First, a scientist may find beauty in their experimental system, whether it is a model organism, a certain diagnostic printout, or an aesthetically pleasing series of molecules. Secondly, there is the cleverly devised experiment carried out with skill and patience that results in good clear data: the molecular biologist’s sharp DNA bands on a gel, the organic chemist’s high yield, or the physicist’s precise measurements. Third, the data and the theory that gathers them into a coherent whole may have an intrinsic beauty that is both striking and satisfying. Physicists have appreciated beauty in symmetry, in order, and in complex systems that are reducible to a series of ‘elegant’ mathematical equations. Biological systems are more complex and difficult to describe mathematically, so the beauty observed in the life sciences is more often to do with colour, pattern, shape, movement, or detail. At times, complex biological systems are understood at a level that does reveal their mathematical simplicity. When order emerges out of apparent chaos biologists begin to use words like ‘striking’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘astonishing’. If a theory is developed that can be used to predict further experiments and explain other data, that is also beautiful in its own way.[1] We appreciate the order, unity and simplicity that it brings to our understanding of the world. Continue reading

Atmospherics

On my recent trip to the US I visited Kathy Strabala, who works in meteorology & remote sensing in the Space Science & Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Here are some of her thoughts on awe, wonder and worship.

How can you not see God in the power of a storm? The energy that’s created is more powerful than an atom bomb, and it all comes from the processes of the sun and the earth and the atmosphere and the ocean – talk about green energy! A storm rolled through Madison this morning that had spectacular power and energy in just one strike of a lightening bolt. We are powerless to stop it, and we can’t harness it – it’s too much energy. I see God in that. It’s exciting to me that I know what the structures are in the atmosphere that cause that storm. These structures are ordered, so we can study them. It’s not chaos, but that doesn’t mean we can control them.

During a big storm there’s no work done in our building. One time there was a tornado across the lake and the tornado warning sirens were going off. People were going into shelter areas, but everyone in our building was on the roof watching it. A small tornado doesn’t really ever show up in the satellite data, so the best observation is your eyes. When I see something like that I feel nothing but awe and respect, and am to a certain extent grateful even to witness something like that.

I teach workshops on how to use satellite data. We have a tool that allows the students to plot scatter diagrams that describe different spectra in the atmosphere: the clouds, the atmosphere, and the surface. The patterns that are revealed through these plots are just amazing. The student’s eyes get bigger and bigger as they think, ‘Look at this, wow this is exciting’, and that’s what happens when I look at that type of data too. I love being able to say ‘Look at this data, look at what you can see, look how beautiful this is. Look at these patterns that arrive in nature.’

There is no way that this field of study would exist if we didn’t have an ordered, structured environment. The more I learn the more I can believe that God is good. Even looking at the balance of our atmosphere is amazing. It’s so thin – just a tiny little layer – and yet we exist.

I love hearing this sort of reflection from a scientist, and hope – perhaps in another medium – to write in more detail about their work so that others can share the wonder.

God’s Providence in Nature

I was at the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (the fellowship of Christians in Science in the USA) a couple of weeks ago. One of the talks that I heard was by Gregory Bennett, a geologist – and I’d be interested to hear what the theologians and philosophers think of it.

God’s providence – the way in which he acts in the universe – provides a basis for science and technology. The fact that an experiment gives the same result today and tomorrow has to be taken for granted or you couldn’t do science – it just happens, and that’s why we have ‘laws of nature’. But within a Christian worldview that makes perfect sense.

Gregory Bennett put forward a detailed analysis of providence:

  1. God constantly sustains the world so that the properties of things are preserved.
  2. God cooperates with created things, directing their distinctive properties to cause then to act as they do.
  3. God directs all things to accomplish his purposes.

So God is very hands on and ‘does’ everything – even making my pen fall to the ground when I drop it. This is a very active kind of sustaining, and is consistent with the language of God sustaining and providing rain, food and so on that occurs throughout the Bible.

I have sustained him with grain and new wine (Genesis 27:37)

He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. (Psalm 147:8)

He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call. (Psalm 147:9)

Bennett described ordinary providence – working through ‘secondary causes’ that we can understand scientifically in terms of the regular operation of things in the world, and extraordinary providence – where no secondary cause can be seen. Extraordinary providence would be a miracle (in my opinion not the only kind of miracle – I think miracles of timing also happen) – something that draws attention to God and his interaction with us.

You can listen to the whole talk here.