How Can a Christian be a Scientist?

scientist-2141259_1920 pixabay luvqs copy
luvqs, Pixabay

I used to ask this question as a student. It took me a while to get to know the University staff who were Christians. I was aware of pressing ethical issues and controversial questions about science and the Bible; I knew science was a demanding career that might compete with church commitments; I knew some high-profile scientists were hostile to Christian faith. I wondered, who could make it in the world of science and still hold onto their faith? Continue reading

The Vocation of Robert Boyle

© H Berends, http://www.sxc.hu

Robert Boyle was a great experimental scientist, still famous for his ‘law’ about the behaviour of gases, and yet he wrote as much about theology as he did about science. Boyle was fifteen years older than Isaac Newton, and he developed many of the laboratory techniques we still use today, including scrupulous note-taking and writing methods sections in scientific publications so that others can repeat the work. He contributed much to modern chemistry, but he was also a pioneer of science-religion dialogue.

Edward Davis spoke about Boyle, his religious life, attitudes and vocation at last week’s Faraday Institute summer course. The video and mp3 of his lecture and the other lectures at the course will be appearing on the Faraday website over the next few weeks. Two newcomers to Faraday who are also well worth listening to are Noreen Herzfeld on ‘Are Humans Computers?’ and Russell Cowburn on ‘Nanotechnology, Ethics and Religion’.

Davis’ lecture on Boyle was a fascinating insight into the life of a very unique man. Boyle was the seventh son of one of the wealthiest men in the British Isles. His siblings (he had 13) were married off to powerful allies, and Boyle narrowly escaped the same fate. Along with two of his sisters, he discovered a deeper form of Christianity than the one he had been taught as a child. So while his other brothers and sisters were living the courtly life, he developed a strong sense of vocation – at first for writing, and then for science. He believed that even those wealthy enough to support themselves must work, saying that Continue reading

10 things I wish people knew about my science and my faith

Copper(I) based inorganic compound. © Emily Dry

This is a first attempt at communicating the things that I’ve found are most important to Christians working in scientific research. The idea (and some of the content) for this post came from a visit to the one of the departments at Cambridge University, where a small Bible study group meets every Wednesday lunch-time. The passion with which some of them spoke about how they were misunderstood by many people, both in and outside of the lab, made me realise that there’s a dire need to communicate the reality of life in science for a Christian.

So here goes. Some of these points are issues the group I visited wanted to address, some are from scientific friends and colleagues, and some are my own. I hope that readers who are scientists of faith will add their own comments to this list. Obviously writing a piece like this involves many generalisations, but hopefully I have captured something of the personality and motivations of a scientist who also has a Christian faith.

  1. There’s a reason why I spend most of my life on this work. It’s not primarily to make money (I could earn far more in another profession), and it’s certainly not for job security. Exploring the world is my vocation. Studying this incredible universe is a demonstration of my gratitude to God who created it, and leads to the incredible benefits of technology.
  2. There will be practical outcomes of my work, but at times these may be very far off, difficult to explain or frustratingly intangible. My faith might motivate me to work on projects that lead to more immediate technological outcomes, but even then progress towards such outcomes can be painfully slow. My faith might give me the hope required to work in a field where possible outcomes may only be realised far in the future.
  3. My work has intrinsic value. I get a real sense of satisfaction from a job well done. Often this is a love of tinkering and getting an experimental system to work. This is usually a more important factor in my motivation on a daily basis than longer-term goals.
  4. I love the process of discovery. I have to be patient, resilient, and tenacious. This has helped me to grow as a person and in my relationship with God. What do I do when I realise that six months work has been lost, or my latest paper has been scooped? The lab is a crucible for spiritual development.
  5. I think my experiments are beautiful. One of my main drivers is the sense of wonder that comes from scientific discovery, and that leads me to worship.
  6. Another big driver is curiosity. Science helps me find answers to the questions that made my teachers sigh.
  7. In my experiments I deliberately limit my attention to a small number of factors.  This is unique to my scientific work, however. In the rest of my life I am open to different sorts of evidence – not least in the area of relationship with people and God.
  8. I can do my experiments without my faith affecting what I do (although it will affect my ethics). People of all religions and none can work in a lab, and that actually helps the process of discovery – you need many personalities to make a successful research group.
  9. There is a high level of creativity in my work. I need to have original ideas, solve problems, make do with what equipment is available, and present my data in a way that’s easy to digest. My creativity reflects my being made in the image of God, who is mind-bogglingly creative (just look at quantum mechanics!)
  10. My faith makes me open to new scientific discoveries. It was belief in an independent Creator that drove the first scientists to get out and examine the world in the first place – who are we to predict how things will be!?

In short, my faith inspires my science and my science inspires my faith.

I’m sure there is much to add, and clarify. Please do!

Learning to fly

© John Nyberg, freeimages.com
© John Nyberg, freeimages.com

This is the second of two posts from an interview with Shannon Stahl, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I love the (slightly) in-depth description of his work, and how that ties in with his wonder at the creativity of chemistry.

I see my work in chemistry as a gift and a vocational calling, and there is an intrinsic joy of participating in this discovery process.

To scientists, engineering can be a dirty word, but there is an element of engineering associated with chemistry. The components – the atoms – are known, as well as a basic framework of chemical reactivity, but there are things that you can’t do yet. It’s not unlike an engineering problem. You need to build an airplane so that you can fly. You have the components, but how do you solve the technical challenges?  There’s a beauty about actually getting off the ground and flying. In this sense, I really enjoy the “engineering” aspects of chemistry. One can learn the basic laws of nature that govern chemical reactivity and combine the chemical building blocks together in unique ways to achieve unprecedented phenomena.

When I teach undergraduate students I present them with what’s known already – they learn it, and then take an exam and regurgitate it. But when I train PhD students, the challenge is to get them to appreciate that they’re there to ask the questions. They have to ask, ‘What is not known?’ and ‘What is it that I would like to do, that no one has done before?’ They embark on a journey of taking what they do know and beginning to approach those unknowns. It’s about pushing beyond that template that they’ve been given. And it’s the unknown becoming known that is just so exhilarating for me as a scientist.

Take for example oxygen, which is ‘my’ molecule – it’s what I live and breathe, figuratively and literally! Oxygen is an amazing molecule, and there are fascinating aspects of its chemistry. According to the laws of thermodynamics, my body should spontaneously ignite in an oxygen-containing environment, yet something in the chemistry of oxygen provides a kinetic stability (i.e. the chemicals ‘want’ to stay in their current states) so that doesn’t happen.

I spend my time thinking about how to control the chemistry of oxygen in such a way that it can combine with organic molecules to produce useful things like pharmaceuticals. The pharmaceutical industry in the US has a big emphasis on green chemistry. For example, a common step often used in the production of pharmaceuticals is to oxidise an alcohol. Historically one would use chemical reagents that produce harmful by-products. But if we use a (reusable) catalyst we can find ways to combine them in such a way that water is the only by-product.

I think that my feelings of awe and wonder when I’m doing chemistry (see previous post) are not unique. Chemistry is at the interface between biology and physics, and there are two different styles of science within chemistry. Among my colleagues are some who are very mathematical and analytically oriented, and others who are much more creativity driven. Everybody experiences the awe but the difference is in how it’s expressed and reflected back. When you’re connected to something that’s beyond yourself – that allows the experience to take on an even bigger meaning.  My own view is that this is part of ‘common grace’. This is something that God has given to all of us as his creation, and what we do with it and how we handle it is part of the calling that we have as people. We can idolise it or we can use it as an act of worship.