Guest Post: How can messy and disordered processes produce complexity and life?

ultra-scan-of-SupraPolak
© Suprapolak, freeimages.com

How are babies made in the womb? From a sperm cell and an egg cell, an embryo is formed, which then becomes a fetus, and ultimately a baby. Different cell types for bones, skin, muscles, blood, and brain are just a small part of the complexity of human life. Unimaginable numbers of proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids (fats) of just the right kinds are also precisely located in exactly the right locations. Without knowing any of these scientific details, the psalmist wrote, “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb” (Psalm 139:14-15, New Living Translation). In a certain sense, God makes each baby; in another sense, the baby makes itself—with help from the mother and father, of course! Continue reading

Process

© H Berends, freeimages.com

This week’s post is from an interview with Cale Weatherly, a PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’ve chosen extracts that focus on the practical process of doing science and the scientist’s enjoyment of that process. My hope is that for non-scientists it will open a window on a different world, while for scientists it may provoke some thought (and comments) about their own experiences in the lab.

I’m coming to the end of my first year as a PhD student in synthetic organic chemistry. This is a branch of chemistry that’s been around for quite a long time, and chemists are pretty good at turning simple carbon-based molecules into more complex ones for pharmaceuticals and other practical applications (see comment below for more detail). There’s an enormous amount of room, however, for making the process more efficient (cheaper, less time consuming and more environmentally friendly). What we’re doing in our lab is not so much making the complex molecules ourselves but expanding the toolbox of chemical transformations that other people can use.

There’s a lot of – I use this word very deliberately – beautiful chemistry involved in turning molecule A into molecule B, and every organic chemist that I know has an aesthetic appreciation for what we do. The practical aspect of our research is important, but that’s not usually what draws people to the field or motivates us on a day-to-day basis. It’s the process that’s exciting.

Everybody brings a different kind of artistry to the process of making a molecule. Often several papers will be published describing different ways to make the same molecule, because everybody employs a unique strategy. What I like about organic chemistry is that there are different ways to approach a problem, and I often think that questions with many possible right answers are more interesting than those with only one.

The atmosphere in the lab where I work is very informal. It’s kind of messy and it’s very much our own space. I can’t imagine it being otherwise. We have to put in a lot of hours, and in the course of that time we get to know each other well. If we were formal all the time I don’t think anybody could survive long enough to accomplish any work! We work long weeks and there are days when I don’t get to do much apart from chemistry and eat. The first time you actually achieve something promising in the lab there’s a tremendous feeling of excitement. I am (if not in every little task, at least in the big picture) happy doing something that I find interesting and that will allow me to do something of service to the world in the future.

A lot of work that’s published in my field is an incremental improvement on what’s been done before, but occasionally you come across work that’s conceptually very different. Someone gets from A to B in a way you would never have anticipated. They take you through the process step by step, where each step can be shown to make good chemical sense.  Those papers are always a lot of fun to read.

I think among non-scientists in general, and Christians specifically, there’s a tendency to value product rather than process. It can be difficult to explain my work to friends and family because they often want to know the practical value of what I’m doing. I’m trying to put another tool in the toolbox so that down the line somebody might be able to use it to make something useful. But it’s not the ultimate practical value of what I’m doing that I find interesting – it’s the process of getting there, and what I love about organic chemistry is thinking about the process.

The distinction between process-driven and product-driven points of view is fascinating. Of course goals are important, but anyone who has been a Christian for a while will have begun to realise that God is far more process than product minded – which is why Christian life is described as a journey. (Besides the fact that product-driven people are more likely to be unhappy perfectionists…) This is the last interview from my trip to Madison this summer, so keep your eyes peeled for some new interviews next year.

The Creativity of Chemistry

I have to admit that until now I have not really interacted with chemists – at least not in the field of science and faith. Some of my best friends are chemists (really!), but we have never talked about the faith implications of what they are doing in the lab. I think we usually assume that because there’s no cosmic fine-tuning, big bang, evolution or bioethical issues in this field, there’s not much to say about chemistry and faith. It took a trip to the US last week to make me change my mind*.

When I get the transcripts back from the interviews I hope to write at more length, but here’s a brief taster. I visited several scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, including a PhD student in the chemistry department. Chemistry is an extremely creative subject. The tools of chemistry are, on the whole, well studied: collections of atoms and molecules. The interesting bit is what happens when you combine them in new ways to make different compounds. This student is in synthetic organic chemistry lab. He works on finding new ways to build compounds that are useful in all sorts of applications – pharmaceuticals being an important one.

Human creativity is astounding. In organic chemistry there comes a point when someone comes up with a truly unique way to solve a problem – skipping over several steps in a synthetic pathway to make a compound in a truly elegant way. It all fits into place and makes such sense all of a sudden. How can people do that? This is not simply a survival skill – somehow we can understand these complex reactions, and use them to make new products. The chemist’s joy at the elegance and beauty of the solution is also worth thinking about. Beauty in chemistry? The simplicity of the solution, the symmetry and the mathematical elegance of the equations could all be called beautiful.

What’s more, working in this sort of environment often helps scientists to appreciate the organisms that ‘create’ similar compounds without the benefit of piles of expensive glassware, huge quantities of metal catalysts, or extremely high temperatures. What we can do in our labs is still, after hundreds of years of scientific endeavour, not a patch on what happens out there all the time in the big wide world.

(*I should point out that I was in the US primarily to attend the ASA annual meeting so, although it would seem to be more cost-effective to talk to my friends in Cambridge, adding a couple of days onto the trip to talk to a few scientists was a good use of the air fare. I hope my sustainable living credentials remain intact!)