Wonders of the Living World

© Ruth Bancewicz
© Ruth Bancewicz

God in the Lab has been well and truly launched, and I am now turning my attention to some new topics. One of the questions I will be asking over the next few months is, what are the best metaphors we could use to describe the development of living things?

We are used to hearing about ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘the fruit of chance and necessity’ and ‘the blind watchmaker’. Continue reading

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.’

Songs about…biology?

Astrocyte (type of nerve cell) by Karin Pierre

I’ve been blogging about astronomy recently. It’s an easy target really – anything that involves staring at the night sky is likely to move people to worship. But what about my own subject of biology? The living world is a lot messier, but it is just as amazing.

Our own development from sperm and egg to squalling baby takes just nine months. During that time, the instruction manual for a unique physical human being is read off from the DNA code that resides in every cell in our bodies.* It’s incredible that the information is all there in the 2 metres or so of code in each cell. DNA is about a billionth of a metre (2nm) wide, and is not visible with even the best light microscopes (these can only see things as small as about 50 nm). Inside the cell DNA is coiled up, in a number of complex stages, into a tiny mass that fits inside the nucleus of the cell.

Until recently I believed that we had enough DNA in our bodies to take us on an amazing journey.  I was told that if all the DNA in each cell of your body – all 2m of it – was extracted and added end to end it would reach as far as the moon and back. That’s quite a thought.

But then I checked the numbers for a children’s talk that I was preparing and discovered that the story I had been told was way off the mark.

  • We have about 50 trillion (50 x 1012) cells in our bodies.
  • Multiply that by 2m, and you have about 100 trillion metres, or 100 billion (100 x 109) kilometres of DNA.

So yes, we do have enough DNA in our bodies to take us to the moon and back, but you can go much further than that – to the sun and back more than 300 times! I can’t even begin to comprehend that, but it’s very impressive. And I’ve ended writing about astronomy again…

I’ve been criticised for making the leap from ‘wow that’s amazing’ to belief in God. But that’s not what I’m doing. I don’t believe in God because of anything to do with science (see my earlier post for more on this). The point is that I believe in a big God, and learning more about how incredible the universe is helps me to understand a little more about just how big God is.

*Except mature red blood cells or the lens in our eyes – in these cell types the DNA would get in the way so it’s broken down.

The compatibility of science and faith

I’m starting with a very short article that I wrote for the Everything Conference  website, because it sums up so much of what I think about this area: awe and wonder at the world that science reveals to us, and the Creator who made it all. To get the full impact you really need to read the last 15 pages of Dawkins’ book.

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If you have been paying attention to the press in recent years you will no doubt have been bombarded by the message that science and faith are in conflict with each other. Some would say that science and faith are incompatible because science is about reason, while faith is about believing in things that don’t exist. But I am a scientist and a Christian, and for me Christianity is the worldview that makes the most sense in the light of everything I know and experience in the world – including the historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection.

Let me share an insight with you. As I finished reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’, I was inspired by his last section entitled ‘The mother of all burkas’. If you ignore the obvious anti-religious allusion (you could think of being in a gigantic post-box instead) and focus on Dawkins’ wonderful description of how science opens our eyes to how incredible the world is, this piece of writing can actually be a powerful call to worship the creator who made everything revealed to us by science.

“Our eyes see the world through a narrow slit in the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light is a chink of brightness in the vast dark spectrum, from radio waves at the long end to gamma rays at the short end. Quite how narrow is hard to appreciate and a challenge to convey. Imagine a gigantic black burka, with a vision slit of approximately the standard width, say about one inch … The one-inch window of visible light is derisorily tiny compared with the miles and miles of black cloth representing the invisible part of the spectrum, from radio waves at the hem of the skirt to gamma rays at the top of the head. What science does for us is widen the window.  It opens up so wide that the imprisoning black garment drops away almost completely, exposing our senses to airy and exhilarating freedom”.[1]

Dawkins then goes on to show how science turns our everyday perception of things upside down. Science opens a window on an invisible world more fantastic than we could ever have imagined. This is the world that I believe God made.

I immediately turned to my daily Bible reading in Luke’s gospel about Jesus’ healing of a dead girl. With my imagination still in the invisible world of science, I saw Jesus as the one who knows that invisible world inside out and – more importantly – spoke it into being. How does Jesus’ awesome power relate to his ability to raise people from the dead? Obviously we won’t be able to understand how that works in scientific terms. We can’t routinely study dead people coming back to life in a lab. A miracle is a one-off event, usually in response to prayer, when God shows us how incredible he is and how much he loves us. But this healing and others like it show me that God is the creator of the universe and has the power to transcend everything, including the knowledge we’ve gained using the tools of science.

The view of the world that I have outlined here is a huge incentive for Christians to do science. We need to understand the world God has made and learn to use all the rich resources that are available to us through science and technology in the most appropriate, fair and sustainable way. And what better way to provoke a sense of awe and worship than to share scientific discoveries about the universe? Lastly, the knowledge that God is sovereign and can transcend everything we know is deeply humbling, and a reminder that he is our ultimate teacher. From where I’m standing, good science and genuine faith are definitely compatible.