Humility in Science

milky-way-stars night sky 916523_1920 Skeeze pixabay copy
Skeeze, Pixabay

What qualities does it take to be a great scientist? You might think of intellect, great experimental technique, original thinking, and endless hard work. Humility may not be the first thing that springs to mind. Nevertheless, humility is a very helpful virtue in science, and I think it has played an important role part in leading some scientists to discover God for themselves. Continue reading

A Different Kind of Teaching

shho, www.sxc.hu
© shho, http://www.sxc.hu

Last week I met Francis Edward Su, a Mathematician who is on sabbatical in Cambridge. I have written recently about the challenges of teaching science (in Questioning, and Ignorance). Su has a PhD from Harvard, is the Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, and is the President-Elect of the Mathematical Association of America, so he could be tempted to take himself too seriously to teach well. Teaching takes time, and students ask too many questions, but Su has given himself to his students in a way that recently won him an award.

According to Francis, giving an acceptance speech for a teaching award is a bit intimidating – people expect you to do something extraordinary (or at least keep them awake). Rather than reel off a list of teaching tips he decided to focus on just one, explaining what motivates him to teach well. His talk had such an impact on his colleagues that it’s Continue reading

Ignorance

Piotr Lewandowski, www.sxc.hu
© Piotr Lewandowski, http://www.sxc.hu

To follow on from my post about asking questions, I’ve been thinking about how much we don’t know. Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist from Columbia University, has written a book called Ignorance: How it drives science.[1] In Ignorance, Firestein describes how he loved lab science, but found teaching undergraduates a bit of a struggle. The problem was that he spent the whole time teaching what was known, filling the students’ brains with knowledge. He had forgotten that as well as following the textbook, he could highlight the gaps in knowledge or the rival theories, showing where the opportunities are for young researchers to push back the boundaries themselves. Those are the really interesting parts. Continue reading

Questioning

Bensik Imeri, www.sxc.hu
© Bensik Imeri, http://www.sxc.hu

When I was a PhD student in Edinburgh I went to a church that was located conveniently next to a number of good pubs. A bunch of us used to pile into one of these establishments after the Sunday evening service. The ensuing conversation ranged from ‘Who are you?’ (it was a big church), to discussions of the sermon we had just heard and other more philosophical issues. One evening I sat next to a photography student, and when I introduced myself as a PhD student in genetics she said something along the lines of, ‘All those facts and figures are not for me, I’m an arts student.’  Rather than just moving on, which would have been infinitely easier, I tried to explain why I thought science was interesting. I think I won, but you can judge for yourself.

We started out by talking about textbooks. No matter how well written one of these tomes might be or how lavish its illustrations, it’s unlikely to make it onto anyone’s bedside table unless it’s exam time. I pointed out that textbooks have their place – a student has to get up to speed in their chosen field – but by the very nature of science they’re out of date before they’re printed. Continue reading

God and Zoology

© Hardin lab, http://worms.zoology.wisc.edu

This post is an extract from an interview with Jeff Hardin, Professor of Zoology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Part 1 here, part 3 here.)

“The first time I peered down a microscope at a living sea urchin embryo when I was a graduate student at Berkeley I was absolutely hooked on developmental biology. Christians, when they’re doing science, are experiencing something that I call ‘doxological fascination’.  In other words, they’re locked in on the minute details of something – which academics tend to do – and yet they’re doing it for God’s glory, in the same way that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) in all the margins of his manuscripts. [I know a scientist who writes SDG on all her lecture notes and in her lab book – Ruth]. They’re trying to, in Keplerian fashion, ‘think God’s thoughts after him’.

I teach two main courses, cell biology and developmental biology.  In each of these courses I start by telling the students that my main goal for the semester is that they would think cells, or embryos, are cool. They laugh, but I go on with this quote that I love:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.

Albert Einstein, from The World As I See It

I want them to be much better than dead by the end of the semester! My students don’t yet understand how incredible embryos are, and my goal in teaching biology is that they would not be the sort that are sitting around ‘picking blackberries’. I think that this is a new idea to some of my students, and it’s a touch point that I have in common with them, whatever their faith commitments are.

In my introduction to developmental biology I use some ancient Hebrew poetry, from Psalm 139, where David is musing about embryonic development. Even when he was developing in the womb, God was there and David uses poetic language to talk about how his own body was formed. He doesn’t understand that process, but he knows it’s fearful and wonderful. So I tell my students, whether you share David’s worldview – as I as a Christian happen to – or you don’t, by the end of the semester I want you to share this sense of wonder about the incredible intricacy of developmental biology and the processes that we have the privilege of studying. Usually in the teaching evaluations at the end of the semester there are lots of comments saying, ‘Wow, he actually cares about this material’.”

I love this example of someone who is passionate about his work, and who works hard to transmit that passion to his students. I meet so many people who are surprised that a scientist might think in this way – they feel as if science somehow squashes all the life and meaning out of things – so the more people who get to hear stories like this one, the better!