Einstein wondered why is it that we can make sense of the universe. This is a question that today’s guest author, Jennifer Siggers, has also asked. Jennifer is a mathematician based at Imperial College London who applies her skills to biological problems. She is also a Christian, and her faith leads her to ask what mathematics can reveal about God. Whether you appreciate the power of numbers or not, it is fascinating to see where this line of thinking can lead. To find out more about Jennifer’s faith and work, see God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith.
Numbers have fascinated me since I can remember.
We all discover beauty in different things in life, according to our personalities. Many find beauty in music, art and scenery – and some find it in abstract mathematical phenomena and how they link to real life. I think the emotional response to these different types of beauty is similar. From an early age, I began to discover beauty in mathematics.
At primary school I was fascinated by exact powers of 2: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and so on. These numbers have several interesting properties. For example, you can prove that 2^(2n) – 1 is divisible by 3, whereas 2^(2n – 1) – 1 is not.
In sixth form, I developed an interest in complex numbers, which has remained with me. De Moivre’s theorem states that e^(iθ) = cos θ+ i sin θ relates the trigonometric cosine and sine functions to the exponential, which I found difficult to get my head around but curiously appealing.
Later at university, I learned that if you throw a spinning cuboid box and it is rotating around its longest or its shortest axis, it will rotate stably. If it is rotating around the intermediate axis the rotation is unstable. What I liked was that this fact could be both proved mathematically, and also demonstrated simply and convincingly in front of our very eyes using the nearest convenient cuboid (which happened to be a textbook)!
Nowadays, I love the way that even simplified mathematical models done on the back of an envelope can give us insights into the mechanisms underpinning heart disease, sight loss and the like.
My love of mathematics has led me to wonder why these things work out in such a beautiful way. Why are relationships between numbers full of patterns like this? Why can we have a hope of finding them?
The Bible tells us that before God created, ‘the earth was formless and empty’ (Genesis 1:2). So Christians understand that everything (including the laws of nature and mathematics) was created by God in its entirety. Later in Chapter 1 of Genesis we read that everything in God’s original creation was good.
Since we are all created with different personalities, we have our own unique tastes. We are also created in the image of God, and God’s creation is good, so it’s not surprising that we find aspects of his creation beautiful. Indeed we are told in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that ‘[God] has made everything beautiful in its time.’
But what does this tell us about God, and what should we be doing about it? Let me highlight three things.
First of all, seeing this sort of beauty reminds Christians that God is creator. When we see something beautiful, we know that it is only like that because that is how God created it. It is a wonderful method by which God helps us to remember him in our daily lives – not by criticising us as we so often forget him, but by gently showing us something of himself in a way that gives us great enjoyment, as well as pointing to him.
Secondly, it gives us insight into God’s character. Just as listening to a great piece of music reminds us that God is the ultimate composer and musician, so understanding a piece of abstract mathematics shows us that God values order. He makes things work by setting up natural laws that only he can break (since he created them!), and we can learn more about him and get to know him better as we study these amazing phenomena.
Thirdly, the fact that God’s creation displays many examples of beauty points others to the existence of God. As Psalm 19:1 says, ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’, and in fact all of God’s creation declares God’s glory. ‘Declare’ is a strong word to use, implying as it does that God’s existence and purpose is being shouted from the rooftops for all to see. Romans 1:20 states this even more strongly: ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.’
For Christians, therefore, the beauty of the universe can be used to show something about God’s character. If a friend tells me that he or she loves something about the universe, I might say something like, ‘Yes, that is awesome, and for me it is a reminder of the way God works in the world, that he created an orderly universe and loves beautiful things’.
We have an awesome, fantastic God who is more wonderful than we can imagine and who creates amazing things that we enjoy. Let’s make the most of them and give him glory!
Karen E. McReynolds and her husband spent some time in tropical Belize. Part one of this "Ms. Frizzle in the Tropics" series is here. In this account, Ms. Frizzle speaks of a visit to Panama.
On Isla Coiba, and in Belize: Ara macao
Although Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) are present in Panama in only a fraction of their original range, they are prominently present on mugs, t-shirts and other items sold in Panama. Their portraits are often accompanied by some mention of the tropics. They do indeed provide a flashy representation of what comes to mind when most of us think of the tropics: bright, beautiful birds, full of color and raucous noise.
Prior to my visit to Panama’s Isla Coiba earlier this summer, I had seen macaws in the wild only once before. When we lived in Belize – a fabulous place for any bird lover – my husband decided one year that he would like to chase down some Scarlet Macaws for his birthday. They are present in Belize in limited numbers and in remote locations, so our various birding adventures had not yet yielded any of these signature birds. He asked around within the birding community and learned that in early June, they could be found in the central Maya Mountains of eastern Belize, a remote region indeed. So we set off for Las Cuevas, a biological field station operated at that time by the British natural history museum that is located in prime early summer macaw territory. We enjoyed a few days at the station mingling with staff and scientists and spotting impressive birds, but saw no macaws; we just never were in the right place at the right moment. Disappointed, but out of time, we prepared for our lengthy drive out away from the station, following a staff member in his vehicle who was departing at the same time.
After about an hour of driving, still immersed in the dense lush greenery of the rainforest, Miguel in front of us stopped suddenly in a clearing, and raced back to gesture to us to get out of our vehicle. We did, and there they were: four pairs of birds at the top of a tall green tree, dancing in the wind. Within seconds of our arrival three of the pairs flew off, but one remained, shrieking noisily, flapping brilliant wings and clinging loosely to the leafy branches of the top of the tree where they had been feeding. After a minute or so these two remaining birds also departed, but they had left their impression: blue sky and green tree interrupted by avian stoplight red plus yellow, blue, green. Add exuberant motion to the mental picture, with breezy branches blowing and large birds hopping, clinging, fluttering… then throw in the raucous clamor of said birds, matching any jungle soundtrack around. Color, movement and noise combined to leave a deep impression on me, one I turn to when I need a reminder that there are indeed places and creatures in this world that are wild. The prospect of more encounters with Ara macao drew me to Isla Coiba.
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.**
It had been a glorious day. Our whale watch excursion in the morning was exhilarating and yielded enough migrating gray whales to satisfy. After a picnic lunch on the wharf, we drove a little further down the Monterey peninsula to placid Pacific Grove, home of migratory monarch butterflies as well as fabulous tide pools. It was not the season for butterflies, but tide pool creatures are impervious to terrestrial seasons; they remain year round, so off we went to see what we could discover. All of these natural treasures were new to my non-major general biology students, and they were easy to impress this day: perfect weather, great creatures of the deeper sea, and now smaller creatures of the rocky shore.
I had selected a date that offered us a minus tide in the afternoon, and the tide pool creatures were abundant. As our time drew to a close, I gathered all the students together so we could compare notes and assemble our organism count for the tide pools. In reviewing the list of hoped-for organisms that I had prepared ahead of time, I noticed that there were a few that we had not seen. This wasn’t surprising – after all, it’s not the Discovery Channel, as I frequently remind students – but it was still a bit disappointing. Secretive habits, camouflage, and nocturnal preferences successfully hide some creatures from curious humans quite effectively. One of these was the Two-Spotted Octopus, Octopus bimaculoides, referred to in marine biologist’s slang as a bimac. This is not a rare denizen of the rocky shores along the eastern Pacific, but they hide well and prefer darkness, so they are not easily observed. I had only seen one of these on one previous tide pool trip, and it was a fleeting glimpse: a small cephalopod, immediately zipping out of view and into a crevice in the rock underwater, where it steadfastly remained. On this day, however, we had indeed seen a good variety of organisms, so our time at the tide pools had still been valuable.
Within seconds of my comment lamenting the absence of a Two-Spot, one student blurted out, “There’s an octopus!” And lo and behold, we all looked down at the small pool he was standing in front of, and there was indeed a slithery octopus, heading to the deepest edge of the tide pool to hide. Impulsively, the student poked at the general direction of the creature with the point of his pencil, and then the fun began. This octopus, unlike the shy specimen I had seen on a previous trip, was apparently an extrovert. He or she scuttled across the tide pool, shooting a stream of dark brownish ink as it went, and headed up toward the surface at the opposite end of the pool. When it got there, it ascended the rock surface with no hesitation and climbed right out of the water. I can only describe its terrestrial mode of movement as “schlooping,” a word I admittedly made up on the spot, but it seemed to suit the creature well. The octopus schlooped up the rock out of the pool and across a bed of barnacles, skirted a clump of greenish algae, and crossed a fair amount of red-brown rock before it descended into another more satisfactory tide pool. As it moved over each different background, its color changed instantly so that it always matched its surroundings. Its total journey out of the water, as witnessed by a class of gaping students and their equally astonished instructor, was about five feet. It disappeared into the depths of its new tide pool residence shortly after its arrival and didn’t make any further appearance.
What a show! This creature of the not-so-deep gave us a tiny glimpse of creation that none of us had experienced before. And what perfect timing. The Psalmist says, “Yonder is the sea, great and wide; creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.” (Psalm 103:25) None of those students will ever think of “creeping things” in the same way.
Thus, we learn the value of field trips. Textbooks and lab assignments are not the only materials that come to life once we leave the classroom. Nature provides illustrations of scripture as well: in this case, a small, schlooping thing, rainbowing its colors as it scuttled through our lives.
How does a scientist define themselves when their work isn’t their primary identity? This month’s guest post is from Emily Sturgess, a biologist who has found a niche in Oxford.
It took me a while to realise that when you introduce yourself to someone you don’t have to define yourself with a single label. As if the supplies in the stationery cupboard were rationed, I felt for a long time that I was allowed only one label to stick on myself to describe what I do. I am the Development Officer for Christians in Science, so I spend a lot of time with people who describe themselves as ‘scientists’. That makes a lot of sense: they actively participate in scientific research, are employed by science departments in universities, and think ‘scientifically’. It is their profession, and the label is wholly applicable.
All the same, I have always been slightly uneasy about declaring myself a scientist. Aside from the fact that due to an archaic honours system I actually have a BA not a BSc, I do have undergraduate and masters degrees in science subjects (Biological Sciences, and Species Identification, respectively), but I’m still not convinced. Logically, some of this could stem from the fact that I am not actually employed in research. In reality, it’s probably because I don’t want to commit to a single label until people see that ‘scientist’ encompasses so many traits!
I certainly was not the classic ‘born scientist’, but I fell in love with biology as a teenager and pursued it as far as I could. My masters was no strategic career move – I just really wanted to learn to identify plants, animals, and shockingly to all including myself, moss. Honestly, there’s no beauty quite like watching a desiccated moss sample being revived with a few drops of water. The cells dry up when you keep them as herbarium specimens, but that makes them almost impossible to identify because the shapes of the tiny leaves are distorted. If you drop water onto the specimen, however, even if it has been dried and hidden away for years, by what seems some wonderful magic the leaves spring back to life, unfurling under the microscope before your eyes.
So when I speak to other biologists, I also am a biologist. But when I speak to other writers I am a blogger; when I speak to students I am a student leader; when I speak to someone who needs something organising I am an administrator…and through all of those things I am also a Christian, following Jesus whole-heartedly, and hoping that will impact those around me.
So what do you do with an identity that seemingly isn’t tied up in one field, but flits happily between several? Which label are you allowed to wear, when in some ways you’re a scientist but in other ways you’re not? Thankfully for me, I am lucky enough to have found a job that allows me to be a scientist and a Christian, at the same time as everything else.
Working for Christians in Science has been a big release for me, because I love and understand the subject matter and am hungry to know more about almost every aspect of the science-faith dialogue. My role also allows me to be creative and administrative, and gives me time – which I wouldn’t have if I was actively involved in research – to get things done practically for the organisation. Being able to resource so many research scientists, students, teachers, and others, in their walk with God is a real privilege.
It is always humbling to see God taking the eclectic strands of our lives that had previously been wisping all over the place, and weaving them together. It is encouraging that God sees our whole selves – all the facets of our being that he prompts us to invest in – and finds ways to work them together. It always reminds me how much wiser he is than me! He sees our science and our faith and knows how to bring them together. But he sees all the other elements too: our leadership skills, pastoral hearts, discernment, creativity, logical thinking, and everything else that we consider gifts and skills but perhaps haven’t quite known what we are meant to do with them in our professional lives.
As Ruth has blogged before, there is a great call for creativity in science. I believe that there is also a place in science for all our other gifts: being wise when we give advice to others, gracious in our set-backs, and discerning and pastoral in the staff-room. We don’t have to be given a role that specifies those things in the job description to work them into our professional lives.
So for me, defining who I am and what I do was never just a case of how I brought my science and my belief together. More than that, it has been about how I am able to bring all of myself together: in my pursuit of science, in my pursuit of fulfilment, and most importantly in my pursuit of God – covered in as many labels as possible.