What is it like to be a person of faith and a scientist? In a video interview the theologian and former biophysicist Alister McGrath commented that we need Christian scientists who are “prepared to enter into the public arena in debate, in comment, and in the writing of books showing how faith enriches their science.”
This blog has been one such attempt to show the positive effect of science on faith, and judging by the comments over the years, it has encouraged a number of people in that direction. On the 15th of this month, Monarch will publish my book God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith, which draws together these themes into a more coherent whole.
God in the Lab comes out of my enjoyment of science, my interest in hearing other scientists’ stories, and my desire to share the experience of working in a lab. It shows how creativity and imagination are vital to the practice of both science and Christianity. It looks at the ways in which beauty, wonder and awe can raise deeper questions about the world, and it gives six working scientists a voice in the science-faith arena.
When I interviewed Harvey McMahon, Ruth Hogg, Jennifer Siggers, Jeff Hardin, Rhoda Hawkins and Bob Sluka, I asked them about their work and beliefs, how the two fit together, and how science enhances their faith. Alongside these conversations, I explored the literature on each topic, in both science and theology. Thankfully, when I married the two sets of material together and showed it to the scientists, they were happy with my portrayal of their life and the way in which I had woven together their comments with my gleanings from the library.
My aim in this project – the blog and book, my talks and other activities over the last three and a half years – was to start some new discussions. I wanted to bring to the fore some areas of human experience that we can all identify with, whatever our religious or educational background. I wanted to show that Christianity is not just complementary to science, but it can also be enhanced by our exploration of the world.
When I started working for Christians in Science back in 2004, I was encouraged by something that Oliver Barclay, former General Secretary of the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship, wrote to one of our committee members after a request for help in dealing with certain science-faith issues. He suggested that one of the things we focus on is the wonder of the world that science reveals.
Regardless of our views on Genesis, or even the existence of a God, we can all identify with the sense of awe that hits us when we see something vast, beautiful or complex. The night sky, an ancient forest, microscopic organisms, or an equation – these all affect different people in different ways, but most of us will find something in nature or our exploration of it that is arresting and inspiring.
I deliberately finished God in the Lab with a chapter on awe because it leads most directly to questions of God for some, and worship for others. This is the part of the discussion on science and faith that often affects people most deeply. Some find a bleak world that we must find our way in, enjoying awe and wonder when we can. Others experience spirituality, and many encounter a personal God. My hope is that this book will start discussions that help us to hear each other, find points of common interest, and learn to appreciate the life of a scientist-believer.
What happens when two aspects of a person’s life seem miles apart? In this series of extracts from God in the Lab, Dr Ruth Hogg tells how she learned to reconcile her beliefs about God and her scientific work.
Ruth has always been interested in exploring the connection between science and faith. In Cambridge she was a founding member of the local Veritas Forum, running events to help students and faculty members to discuss – as the Veritas Forum website says – “life’s hardest questions and the modern relevance of Jesus Christ”.
While scientific evidence is important for some, many scientists actually find God outside of the lab: at home, at university, or later in life. Ruth is one of those who discovered God early on, though it was only as an adult that she realised faith and science can fit together.
Growing up in rural Northern Ireland, it was easy for Ruth to accept what she learned about God. “Faith was always part of the way my parents looked at life. Even at school, in my area where the majority of people still went to church, having God as part of your life was very common.” With this example, Ruth decided to become a Christian.
Later on, at high school and then university, Ruth came across people who didn’t believe in God. She heard arguments against Christianity that challenged her faith, but in a positive way. As she worked out answers to those questions and objections, her understanding grew. “Having made a commitment quite young, I did then gradually come to ‘own’ that decision more myself.”
One question remained, however. “I did have a very uneasy feeling about science and Christianity. It was like a Pandora’s Box that I was afraid to open, but I knew I had to.” This sense of uneasiness remained with Ruth until she spent time as a postdoc in Australia. “That was a time when my faith was probably tested the most, because I realised I was somewhere I could easily leave the whole thing behind if I wanted to. Various personal circumstances had also left me feeling a bit jaded about the goodness of God.”
Everything changed when Ruth joined a church in Melbourne. “I had the shock of being in a very evangelical Anglican congregation in Melbourne where I met a lot of people who were really passionate about their faith, yet science just wasn’t an issue for them.” Ruth was encouraged to read The Language of God by Francis Collins, the former Director of the Human Genome Project, who is also a Christian.
In this book Collins told of his personal journey from atheism to Christianity. The writing conveyed a fervent faith in Christ as well as a passion for science, which Ruth could identify with. It also included a helpful contrast between the three basic options for a Christian trying to make sense of the human origins issue, namely Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design and Theistic Evolution. Ruth had previously read the Intelligent Design literature and felt underwhelmed by its scientific rigor, but this was the first time she had encountered an argument for Theistic Evolution. She read more and more, and eventually became comfortable with the position.
“It was so revolutionary to see that I could happily combine my passion for science with a renewed passion for my faith. It was just a huge relief that I didn’t have to live in denial.” Now, as the leader of a lab, Ruth has more confidence to be open about her faith. She is also able to fully enjoy the “Wow moments, when things fall into place and it’s hard not to get a feeling that you’re somehow seeing into the mind of God.”
I was privileged to grow up in the country. I was raised in rural Merced County, right in the center of the state of California. My dad was a teacher, so he didn’t have to make a living from the cattle we raised or the fruit we grew; he just did it for fun, and to give us kids the chance to grow up in the country. I will be forever grateful for this. Those early experiences – wandering in the fields behind the house, helping Dad move the irrigation pipes that kept the pasture green, playing with the innumerable batches of kittens the barn cats produced, wanting to be a meadowlark when I grew up – nurtured my love for living things and the out of doors. On a more basic level, it gave me my love of fruit. I owe that to Dad’s wisdom in planting one of each kind of fruit tree that would thrive in the San Joaquin Valley. Nothing can beat fresh figs or plums or apricots or peaches, straight off the tree into the mouth.
My favorite tree on our ten acres of Merced County was a sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. Although I knew that sycamore was the correct name of my favorite tree, I always thought of it as simply the monkey swing tree. This tall, sturdy tree, equipped with numerous broad branches that reached out from the trunk at various climbable positions, was the home of the simple swing that provided fun for hours on end. A thick slab of wood about ten inches across with a hole in the center, sanded thoroughly to avoid any scrapes or pinches, was suspended from a branch by a long sturdy rope with a fat knot on the bottom side. It hung from the tree about two feet above the ground and could be jumped upon by any approaching child with ease. The emboldened child, after becoming bored with simply swinging about by kicking herself into motion, could then grab the swing and climb the tree, stopping at any of various points to mount the seat and hurl herself into the air. I knew every inch of that sycamore; I had jumped off every jumpable place with joy, puzzling and yet glad about the fact that I never pendulumed back far enough to hit the tree.
Besides growing up in the country in an era when kids were encouraged to play outside, I was also blessed as a child to be raised in a church. To this day I recite the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm from the King James Version, a legacy of my memory verses in Sunday school several decades ago. The story of Zacchaeus, the “wee little man” who climbed a tree so he could see Jesus, was as familiar in Sunday schools then as I suppose it is now. One Sunday when I was about ten and we were reviewing this story, I was quite startled to notice a detail in my Bible that made me sit up and take notice. The tree that Zacchaeus climbed was a sycamore! It said so right in scripture! (Luke 19:4) I was linked to Zacchaeus not only by a shared appreciation of sycamore trees but by our mutual desire to see and know Jesus. This undoubtedly contributed to my decision to give my heart to Christ the following year.
For the first time, the natural world and the world of the Christ-seeker came together for me. That partnership has grown to become my life work. I now seek ways to draw students into the love of Christ through the witness and the story of the natural world. The legacy of the monkey swing tree and the man who climbed it back in Galilee abides. May we welcome Christ as gladly as Zacchaeus did.
As an undergraduate at the University of Southern California majoring in Astronomy, I dreamed of specializing in cosmology. The then chairman of the Department of Astronomy suggested that I work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for summer employment prior to even receiving my bachelor’s of science degree in Astronomy. Ultimately, I spent many years at JPL as a senior engineer and a science investigator on several NASA planetary exploration missions. In March of 1979, during the Voyager 1 mission to Jupiter, I made the discovery of the active volcanism on Jupiter’s moon Io.
My interest in the next generation of scientists eventually brought me to an adjunct teaching position in mathematics and astronomy at Victor Valley College, in the high desert in Southern California. By 2012, my original aspirations in astrophysics were realized, when God directed me to assist a Cern physicist who has made some promising breakthroughs while at Cern in the search for a Theory of Everything to unify quantum mechanics with General Relativity.
I have had the privilege of meeting and working with some of the finest scientists in the world, while fulfilling many of my lifelong dreams in space exploration and cosmology, in a truly blessed career. However, over time, seemingly in contrast to this, I learned about some tragic events that my family had been involved in during my very early childhood. Once I had fully researched the events in part through Canada’s RCMP, I became aware I had been blessed by many miracles in regards to our Lord and Savior of the Bible, that had helped me to survive my early childhood. Since the Lord uses all things for good, my calling is to reach out to my fellow scientists who are not Christians, for their salvation in Jesus Christ.
As scientists who are Christians, my husband astronomer David Meyer and I have been fortunate enough to learn about the ASA/CSCA and CWIS (Christian Women In Science). We have recently read “How You Can Help Young Christians in Science” by Jennifer J. Wiseman. The report was originally published as part of a longer edition of the “Young Scientists’ Corner” of ASA’s journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.1 It can also be found in a CWIS blog of the same title.
Dave and I are extremely impressed by this report as we are with so many of the resources on the ASA website. Despite being written in 1999, “How You Can Help Young Christians in Science” directly addresses our current motivations for reaching fellow scientists with the Gospel. I find some of the points in the report raised about this outreach to nonbelieving scientists have taken on an even broader context through my experiences with science students in our classes, and with fellow scientists in the places where I have participated in science research.
In the report, a contributor is quoted as saying, “I think the most important outreach of the ASA is to nonbelieving scientists.” I could not agree more. I would venture that this contributor may know first-hand how troubling it can be to young and aspiring scientists when they come face-to-face with an influential and established scientist who sees antipathy between science and religion. I find it is still the case that any young scientist will encounter or read about influential, established scientists who do not see themselves as stewards of a Universe created by God.
Each semester, one or more students have approached us independently with concerns that include what another science professor has expressed to them in class. One young woman even shared that her biology professor had requested that Christians identify themselves by raising their hands on the first day of class. He then informed them that by the end of his course when they had learned the material he intended to teach them, they would not be Christians anymore.
More than 60 percent of the aspiring young scientists who have approached us are women, but both men and women share these types of concerns. The majority of the students, both men and women, also question the role of the science of evolution vs. the creation of the Universe and all living things within it, by God, and the age of the Universe as has been determined by astronomers, that appears to be completely inconsistent with the age of the Universe as determined through Genesis. They are desperately seeking insight that makes sense to them to respond to these issues raised by Christian peers not in the sciences or by their own doubts about their faith or about science.
In the context of outreach specifically designed for nonbelieving scientists, if young students find means of support through the ASA and mentors who are established scientists who are Christians, they will be enabled to stand strong against discrimination against them in secular academic institutions or in purely research settings. However, whether entering science or not, young Christian students by their Christian beliefs are saved.
On the other hand, established unbelieving scientists who may possibly seek to intimidate young Christian scientists, are not saved. As a Christian woman in science who is aware of so many scientists who are not Christian, I have wondered if God might be missing His scientist children in heaven. I am fond of many of my nonbelieving colleagues and respectful of their work in science. Because they have resisted the Holy Spirit’s work to know that Jesus is the Son of God, it is difficult for me to even think about their eternal life in light of the beliefs we hold so dear in our Christian faith, without trying to do something about it.
A Brave New World
In terms of choosing a scientific vocation in a changing world, the report states, “Young Christians in the sciences can no longer simply follow the conventional steps of a scientific career path without understanding the bigger picture of the direction and global implications of science and technology.” Aptly, the report addresses the implications of the motives of those providing the funding and support that inevitably direct science. It is possible that my most recent experiences in research are contained within the various considerations the report mentions that might sway a young scientist’s need for stable job support, such as money and job availability. But, to state it explicitly because of its importance, young Christian researchers must remember what science is.
Recently, some scientists are seeking to define scientific truth through hypotheses that are being advanced to the status of theory that are not supported by experiment results, but by criteria of truth based upon mathematical elegance, for example.2 One effect of this seems to be that alternative lines of reasoning in physics tend to dry up in a climate where thought processes (what we perceive as truth) dominate explanations of the workings of the physical universe. Researchers rush to new directions before questions have even been addressed on previous directions that arise and fall quickly, as time is not a factor when experimental guidance on physical properties of the universe is no longer a prerequisite for scientific truth.3
To compound the complexities of seeking a career in scientific research young scientists who wish to pursue alternative thinking to scientific truths deemed so by elegance might indeed become casualties against a large majority, as they try to preserve the integrity of science itself. In this brave new world of self-interest, it is possible that such missteps in entire global communities of physicists or other researchers can take place because of a paradigm where a moral compass or a goal of blessing humanity as discoverers of the Universe’s truths to glorify God, is absent.
The issues that young scientists must deal with and overcome are complicated to the extreme when established researchers leave “proven “ science behind and become philosophically guided on what the future of science holds, often in opposition to belief in the God of the Bible (scientism). Scientism and extreme self-interest may not flourish in scientists who recognize a different responsibility through their Christian beliefs. Established scientists hold many keys to the doors to their own fate and the fate of others.
What Can be Done?
Astutely, the compiled report states, “… we recognize that some popular methods of sharing the Gospel are not appropriate or helpful for our scientific friends,” and goes on to state, “clear materials, which would introduce our friends to the Christian faith while embracing modern scientific discoveries are needed.” I could not agree more that in thoughtful consideration, scientists who are Christians manifestly need such materials when they speak at churches to familiarize Christians with God’s glory as seen through scientific discoveries about this wondrous Universe God has given us to explore. Christian children and our religious leaders must be given an understanding of how science, medicine, engineering and mathematics have contributed to aid the human condition all over the world.
The issue is much murkier, however, for scientists who have the power of their minds, their main instrument for discerning scientific discovery to apply their human logic to situations in regards to Christian faith they might ironically find incomprehensible. They may have encountered historical claims misguided human beings have made when they do very bad things in the name of God. Scientists will point to tragedy in the world and reason that no loving God would have allowed things like natural disasters or catastrophic illness to happen. They see dismissive attitudes on the part of some Christians toward “what seems clear from scientific discovery.”
The nature of science is perhaps more easily communicated even to those who may reject it, because it has been reaffirmed historically as “(ideally) devoted to the pursuit of Truth” on Earth. Again, consider too, that a rejection of science by a Christian does not affect whether or not they are saved. Ironically, it is these most intellectually powerful of individuals who have worked diligently throughout their lives to improve their understanding of the Universe and upon whose shoulders we as scientists stand, that in the absence of any contemporary understanding of science as the stewardship of God’s Creations to His Glory, make them most at risk for not comprehending what the nature of our Christian faith really is.
With so many perspectives stemming from naturalism, relativism, and within Christianity itself, in what way might it be best to reach out to scientific peers? Certainly, for a nonbelieving scientist to know that the findings of science are not rejected by a particular faith is welcoming. However, is that truly the basis upon which a scientist will not reject The Holy Spirit’s work that we seek for these fellows we call friend and whose scientific minds we cherish as much as our own?
I do not believe that Christians go to church to learn about the latest scientific discoveries. Nor do I believe that scientists wish to check their latest findings in research for accuracy within the Bible. In our own lives as Christians each of us has been able to mix our Christianity with our scientific endeavors likely because we have resolved any conflict for ourselves between science and our faith. Only then do we become comfortable worshipping God by performing our research and teaching science in the context of giving Glory to God. How can we remove the conflict in the minds of nonbelieving scientists?
Dave and I have done our best to disarm the nonbelieving scientist with a look within Genesis to remove the conflict between science and religion. This helps the young Christian scientist to diffuse the intimidation from scientism as a misguided endeavor that reflects that the particular scientist is not up on the latest perspectives and is therefore speaking from ignorance. From the perspective of our colleagues it might pique enough curiosity our nonbelieving peers may have to continue to read on; just a few more pages in a very short book, written by two scientists. Frankly, we believe our non-believing peers are curious by their scientific natures as we all are, and anxious to debunk anything we perceive as nonsense or nonsensical.
They have a powerful sense of logic and their curiosity may find what they have read so far is logical. They may continue on to find what is more easily debunked in the coming few pages. What they read may resonate within them apart from the religious aspects that to that point have no relevance to them anyway. If some of the personal insights into their thinking ring true within a book on Christianity, a tiny amount of change might be affected within them. These personal insights are based upon the Truth that resonates in Jesus Christ, who is the Way and the Truth. Perhaps the next time God reaches toward them to take His hand, the work of the Holy Spirit might be done in them. Our contribution is a small book we have entitled “The Invitation; Christianity for Men and Women of Science, A Miracle for our Time” written for nonbelieving scientists who receive the book from caring fellows.4
I am wondering if like our young counterparts, Christians just entering science, some of us might be willing to question a colleagues’ potential failure on cosmic scales to find salvation in Jesus Christ? Can we take our example from young scientists questioning us about things that concern them in regards to careers in science? If we take the concern for our nonbelieving colleagues as if it were concern for ourselves, can we act as the brave young students who do speak up about the reservations about their own future? Should we tell our nonbelieving colleagues about our concern for them at the end of their days? The answer to this and all things is in the Bible.
In 2 Corinthians Paul expresses to the Corinthians there are consequences if they did not understand the nature of the Gospel they had been told about, after trying to guide them tirelessly in 1 and 2 Corinthians. “So, whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor 10:31)
1Jennifer J. Wiseman, “How You Can Help Young Christians in Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol. 51, No. 1 (March 1999).
2George Ellis & Joe Silk, “Scientific Method: Defend the Integrity of physics,” Nature, Vol. 516, Issue 7531, Comment (16 December 2014).
3M. Shifman, “Reflections and Impressionistic Portrait at the Conference “Frontiers Beyond the Standard Model,” FTPI, Oct.2012” (22 November 2012) http://arxiv.org/abs/1211.0004
4David Meyer and Linda Morabito Meyer, The Invitation; Christianity for Men and Women of Science, A Miracle for our Time (California: Heavens an imprint of SciRel Publishing 2014).
I recently had a conversation with a man named Toshio who wanted to know how I came to the conclusion that Abraham was a descendant of Nimrod. He was not satisfied by my answers:
Nimrod was a Kushite ruler, the son of Kush, according to Genesis 10. He was a sent-away son like Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David and Jesus Christ. It is to the sent-away sons that God delivers a kingdom. These sons are the heroes of biblical history. Nimrod was such a son. This means that he was not in line to ascend to the throne of his father Kush. He and his brother Raamah (Gen. 10:6-12) established themselves as rulers in territories to the east. Raamah ruled in Southern Arabia. Nimrod's relocation to the Tigris-Euphrates Valley represents the Kushite migration out of the Nile Valley, something that has been confirmed by DNA studies and by evidence in other sciences. This migration of the Kushite rulers out of Africa was driven by their marriage and ascendancy pattern.
Linguistically, the language of Nimrod's kingdom - Akkadian - has close affinity to the languages of the ancient Nile Valley as has been demonstrated by Christopher Ehret's research. Ehret also recognizes that cattle were domesticated in Sudan as early as 9000 year ago. These cattle-herding Proto-Saharan or Saharo-Nubian peoples were among Abraham's ancestors.
Molecular genetics also confirms the Biblical data that points to the cradle of modern languages being between Lake Chad (Noah's homeland) and the Nile Valley. See this from the European Journal of Human Genetics advance online publication 26 March 2014; doi: 10.1038/ejhg.2014.41
Y-chromosome E haplogroups: their distribution and implication to the origin of Afro-Asiatic languages and pastoralism
Eyoab I Gebremeskel and Muntaser E Ibrahim
Archeological and paleontological evidences point to East Africa as the likely area of early evolution of modern humans. Genetic studies also indicate that populations from the region often contain, but not exclusively, representatives of the more basal clades of mitochondrial and Y-chromosome phylogenies. Most Y-chromosome haplogroup diversity in Africa, however, is present within macrohaplogroup E that seem to have appeared 21 000–32 000 YBP somewhere between the Red Sea and Lake Chad. The combined analysis of 17 bi-allelic markers in 1214 Y chromosomes together with cultural background of 49 populations displayed in various metrics: network, multidimensional scaling, principal component analysis and neighbor-joining plots, indicate a major contribution of East African populations to the foundation of the macrohaplogroup, suggesting a diversification that predates the appearance of some cultural traits and the subsequent expansion that is more associated with the cultural and linguistic diversity witnessed today. The proto-Afro-Asiatic group carrying the E-P2 mutation may have appeared at this point in time and subsequently gave rise to the different major population groups including current speakers of the Afro-Asiatic languages and pastoralist populations.
Analysis of the Lamech segment shows that the lines of Cain and Seth intermarried, which means that Abraham is a descendant of both rulers. The lines of Ham and Shem intermarried also, which means that Abraham is a descendant of both those rulers.
Analysis of the marriage and ascendancy pattern of Abraham's ancestors reveals a fixed pattern for the ruler who ascends to the throne. That pattern applies to Lamech the Elder, Nahor the Elder, Terah, Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Amram, Moses and Elkanah, Samuel's father.
Here is the diagram showing the intermarriage of the lines of Ham and Shem and Nimrod's marriage to his patrilineal cousin. Note that she named their first born son after her father, following the pattern of these rulers. This is called the "cousin bride's naming prerogative." According to the marriage and ascendancy pattern of these Biblical rulers, Nimrod married a daughter of Asshur (Ash-Ur means throne of Ur). She would have been his second wife and this marriage took place shortly before he ascended to the throne of his father. His father was likely Sargon I. They were great kingdom builders of the ancient world.
Toshia was concerned that I cannot point to a place in the Bible that says Nimrod married the daughter of Asshur. I have reconstructed this based on the unchanging Horite marriage and ascendancy pattern that is found in Genesis. I am a scientist and I have to go by the best data available, especially when there has been consistent repetition of the marriage and ascendancy pattern. I apply the tools of anthropology to the Biblical text. I am a Biblical Anthropologist. Anthropology is a relatively new science, but it has developed some reliable methods and principles.
Science require observation of details and record keeping, and there is always the possibility that the next experiment might not provide the same results or conform to the hypothesis as did earlier experiments.
This radical doubt poses a problem for scientists. It means that the scientific method cannot be said to ascertain beyond doubt. This is Hume's problem of induction. Inductive methods predict or infer and are essential in scientific reasoning. One cannot assume that something is immutable and necessary because it has always or usually been reliable in the past. Though 20 experiments produce the same results, we have no certainty that the results will be the same after experiments 21, or 32 or 45. Though the sun has risen daily since the founding of our solar system, we have no certainty that it will always do so.
In 1953, Richard Rudner published "The Scientist qua Scientist Makes Value Judgments,” in which he argued that since no hypothesis is ever completely verified, in accepting a hypothesis the scientist must make the decision that the evidence is sufficiently strong to warrant the acceptance of the hypothesis. The problem of induction which David Hume framed so precisely is really a problem of decision about which action to take, not proof of the fallibility of science in general.
I assure my readers and Toshio that I have not tried to impose on the text something that is not there. My method is to begin with the Biblical text, trusting that it is reliable and truthful. Indeed, that is my working hypothesis.
Here is a wonderful podcast in which Dr. Nola Stephens speaks about language and faith. In the beginning was the Word ... the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...
She expresses her enthusiasm about her discipline: "a linguist gets to study how words work."
Here is a wonderful podcastin which Dr. Stephens speaks about language and faith. In the beginning was the Word - The Word became flesh and dwelt among us... She expresses her enthusiasm about her discipline: "a linguist gets to study how words work."
Ainu elder with his wife, pet bear, and a Japanese visitor, circa 1930
Alice C. Linsley
For many years I have been pursuing the evidence of a connection between the Annu of the ancient Upper Nile Valley and the Ainu of Hokkaido and Okinawa. With the help of a Canadian Ainu informant additional pieces of the puzzle were produced. Now I feel confident to share the results of this anthropological investigation into the mysterious Ainu.
I thank ASA member David Wilcox for his contribution to this article.
Today I went to the National Science Teachers Association annual conference on the West Coast. I went with a student of mine who aspires to be a middle school science teacher. She was a big reason for my going – it’s always fun to introduce someone to something that you know they will love, and that was the case today with Maddie. So many booths of science toys to play with! So many people who are just as happy being science geeks as Maddie and I are! It’s an atmosphere of fun and learning for teachers, encouraging and supporting them in their efforts to create atmospheres of fun and learning for their students, regardless of age. No one but a biology instructor would get excited over winning the door prizes Carolina Biological was offering today, such as a live tarantula or a bucket of fetal pigs – but there was genuine enthusiasm there when such prizes were awarded. Love it.
“Fun and learning” seems oversimplified in describing what I hope for the students in my classes, and yet this is indeed a legitimate component of my goal. This illustrates the dilemma I face, working exclusively with students who are not science majors and maybe don’t even like science at all. (Maddie is a happy exception.) Convincing them that biology or earth science are worth their time and attention can be an uphill battle, so part of the point of my courses is to demonstrate the amazement and joy of discovering the natural world. Along with that, however, they need to understand what science is and how it works. They need to know mitosis and Mendel, weather and Wegener, and so much more. I walk a fine line, balancing between cheerleader and drill sergeant.
The most effective way to walk this line seems to be on field trips. Field trips meet both my goals at the same time. They offer the “wow” factor of experiencing God’s bountiful creation up close and in the real world, and they provide a vast outdoor laboratory where students can make for themselves the connections with what they are seeing and what we have discussed in class. Walking among the completely chaotic rubble of a three thousand year old landslide after looking up and seeing the slumped depression in the hillside teaches them more than reviewing landslide types in lecture. The same is true for types of plant growth. Terms like apical meristem and cambium layer mean a lot more when a student is counting the rings on the stump they just sat on to eat their lunch, and admiring the bright soft yellowy green of this year’s brand new growth.
My Ms. Frizzle nature – pun intended! – delights in field trips. The NSTA conference is a field trip workshop, a laboratory containing pieces and components and schemes for those, like me, who assemble field trips. I get to select the appropriate pieces and assemble the puzzle of the whole, and then I pray for safety and successful reading from the Book of Nature. The Author of that book loves to see it read, and He writes His story well. Because of Him, the whole of the field trip is greater than the sum of its parts.
2% of biologists in the UK are female, with an average age of 37, and 47% are not from the UK. Not many labs keep a stock of funky pink lab coats, but the cartoon here is a reminder that the iconic picture of a Caucasian male (preferably with a mop of white fuzzy hair) is no longer representative of the average lab worker.
On the other hand, when sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and her collaborators surveyed the population of British biologists, they found that gender, age, rank and institution seem to have no effect on whether a person is likely to feel a sense of religious belonging.* Some of the preliminary findings of this survey were presented at the Faraday Institute’s Uses and Abuses of Biology workshop in September, and it’s worth reading the full paper, co-authored with Christopher Scheilte.
Ecklund’s earlier study on religion among scientists in the US showed that there are a significant number of scientists who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (see earlier blogs). In the UK this group does not seem to exist. Perhaps, suggested Ecklund, the Church of England is so widely accepted as a cultural institution that people do not feel the need to distance themselves from religion.**
When he came to Faraday in October 2012, Meric Srokosz brought Biblical scholar Dr Rebecca Watson on board, and together they have been looking at ‘the sea in Scripture’. Their aim is to study the Biblical material on the oceans in order to develop a theology of the sea, and think about how Christians should treat the ocean, the creatures living in it and the resources it contains.
One of the things Rebecca has looked at in this study is the great fear and vulnerability that the Old Testament writers felt in relation to the sea. Here were forces over which they had no control, and they relied on God to protect them. There was also a sense that trying to completely master the sea is an act of pride against God – that we are most at home on land, and can’t fully ‘own’ the sea.
More positively, there was a feeling of wonder and awe in some passages, and an appreciation that the great dangerous beasts in the sea could be a source of pride and enjoyment to God, even though they seemed to offer nothing useful to humankind. Job and the Psalms are great examples of this, with ‘Leviathan’ frolicking in the waves. Finally, some of the biblical writers saw the fish in the sea as a finite resource that needs protection.
Having lived in ships for months as a time, Meric can identify with the Biblical writers’ sense of vulnerability and awe. “You realise how big the world is and how puny human beings are… Scientifically we know a lot more, but it’s [still] beyond our control… When you’re stuck in a force eleven storm in a rather small research ship in the middle of the North Atlantic and there’s not much help around, you get an impression of the majesty of creation, the scariness of some of it, the force of the waves and the winds … and then you see a pod of pilot whales swimming around, and they appear to be enjoying themselves, body surfing down the front of breaking waves!”