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Beauty, Science and Theology, Part 1

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July 23, 2012 Tags: Worship & Arts
Beauty, Science and Theology, Part 1
Fluorescent image of Chlamydomonas algae showing location of Fa2p enzyme at the base of the cilia, courtesy Dr. Lynn Quarmby.

Today's entry was written by Ruth Bancewicz. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: It doesn't take a scientist to appreciate the beauty with which God has arrayed his creation. Anyone can recognize that the intense colors of tropical flowers, the orderly symmetries of crystals, the fleeting, dynamic movements of waves, and songs of common birds. Certainly the stars, nebulae and galaxies of deep space all speak to the way that not only the heavens, but all the earth "declares the glory of the Lord."

But scientists have the opportunity (and training) to appreciate different kinds of beauty than most non-scientists, whether they are ordinarily "hidden" in the extremes of scale, the elegant processes of an experiment, or in the abstraction of mathematics. Indeed the appreciation of various kinds of beauty has always played a critical role in motivating scientists to investigate the world, and in helping them decipher its workings. In the three-part essay that begins today, Ruth Bancewicz explores some of the ways beauty, science and theology intertwine.

Perspectives on Beauty

One thing I ask from the LORD,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
All the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.

Psalm 27: 4

I belong in the ranks of those who have cultivated the beauty that is the distinctive feature of scientific research.

Marie Curie1

All of the biologists I know are undeniable lovers of their objects of study...

Konrad Lorenz2

Beauty in Science

As a biologist, I am fascinated by the fluorescent-on-black images of cells, 3D rotations of protein structures, and cross-sections of colourful tissue samples that grace the covers of scientific journals. I have spent whole weeks staring down a microscope at the beautifully transparent bodies of developing fish embryos, and whenever possible I illustrate my written work with photographs of the natural world. I’m not alone. In the institute where I did my PhD we had a basement full of microscopes and imaging technology, and it was considered important to have beautiful images in your presentations—movies were even better. The journal Nature: Cell Biology always features striking images on its covers, and in an editorial these photographs were described as works of art in their own right. In fact, ‘scientific art’ has become a recognised genre, and displays of science-related images are increasingly popular in research institutes, museums, science festivals and other public spaces.

A few examples are Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful; Denis Noble’s The Music of Life, and Neil Shubin’s, Your Inner Fish.

Indeed, a number of practicing scientists have devoted their time outside the lab to communicating the beauty and wonder of science to the general public. (See sidebar.) One of these is Dr. Lynne Quarmby, a cell biologist who’s passionate about explaining her work to people outside of the scientific community. She writes a regular column, a ‘nexus of mystery, art, literature, beauty and science,’ for the online literary magazine Numéro Cinq.

If we can recognize and acknowledge that our direct biological senses, as wonderful as they are, give us only a tightly pinched and cloudy view of the world, then we open ourselves to unimagined beauty.

Lynne Quarmby, Numero Cinq, 20113

Biologists often label themselves according to the ‘model organism’ that they work on. I was a zebrafish person, and Quarmby is a Chlamydomonas person. Chlamydomonas is not an STD (you’re thinking of Chlamydia), but a gentle single-celled algae that is in all likelihood swimming around the standing water in your garden as you read. This microscopic creature is easy to grow in the lab (a jam jar on a sunny windowsill will do), its genome has been sequenced, and it is a surprisingly powerful tool for studying human disease.

Chlamydomonas was not an obvious choice for medical research, but the secret is in the cilia. Cilia are hair-thin appendages that wave around in a coordinated fashion to move their owner from A to B. But these algae don’t spend their whole lives swimming around. When they reproduce, their cilia are absorbed back into the cell body (scroll to the 4th video here). When conditions are stressful, the cilia simply drop off. Quarmby and her students studied Chlamydomonas mutants that hold on to their cilia, and discovered a family of proteins involved in the regulation of both cilia and cell division.

At the same time as Quarmby was studying the behaviour of cilia in Chlamydomonas, medical researchers were identifying genes that are mutated in humans. The same proteins involved in cilia and cell cycle control in Chlamydomonas were affected in some patients with polycystic kidney disease. What’s the connection? Cell biologists knew that most of our cells have cilia on them, but assumed that they were not important. Our cells generally do not swim around, unless they’re sperm. It turns out that these tiny appendages are involved in a whole range of vital cell functions. The cilia on kidney cells are important for sensing the flow of urine, and without these the kidney cannot function properly.

Perhaps beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to unicellular flagellates, but what I appreciate is the detail. To see the minutiae of cell structure is stunning, particularly when you know how difficult it is to achieve images like the ones in this article in the journal Cytoskeleton, or even the image of an adult rat head, below. And little Chlamydomonas, a microscopic pond dweller, has advanced our understanding of a devastating human disease. This combination of aesthetic experience and elegant scientific explanation is what I find beautiful. 4

Adult rat head MRI © Gavin Merrifield, University of Edinburgh

Adult rat head MRI © Gavin Merrifield, University of Edinburgh.

It appears to be a universal experience for scientists to find beauty in their experimental systems. Perhaps this is because the daily discipline of examining anything in detail brings an appreciation of its finer points. Or maybe the process of choosing something to study and then spending the greater part of one’s waking hours staring at it provokes something akin to the loyalty of the mother who thinks her child is beautiful, despite the large pimple on its nose. But even bearing in mind the fascination and devotion of the true professional, there seems to be something more in the scientist’s experience of beauty.5 Most, I think, simply delight in the beauty of creation. For some, this gives a sense of the transcendent: a sort of natural spirituality. For a Christian, this encounter with beauty draws them nearer to God.

Christian Appreciation of Beauty in Science

One of the driving forces behind the work of many of the early scientists was their Christian faith. The astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) initially hoped to pursue theology, but was eventually satisfied that science was also a way to glorify God.6 Many others, including the famous naturalist John Ray (1627-1705), were ordained clergy in addition to their academic studies, so their science and theology were naturally interwoven. Others, like James Clark Maxwell (1831-1879), examined Christianity as rigorously as their scientific experiments.

These pioneering scientists (or ‘natural philosophers’, as they called themselves back then) were encouraged by a rich tradition of theology that wholeheartedly encouraged their exploration of creation. The Hebrew Scriptures tell how creation reveals the glory, generosity and faithfulness of God who created and sustains everything.7 The beauty of the land and everything in it is celebrated: mountains and trees, plants and animals, men and women.8 A number of the earliest Christian theologians, the Church Fathers, often expressed their delight in the details of animal and plant life, and what we now understand as ecosystems.

Diversity of beauty in sky and earth and sea…the dark shades of woods, the colour and fragrance of flowers; the countless different species of living creatures of all shapes and sizes…the mighty spectacle of the sea itself, putting on its changing colours like different garments, now green, with all the many varied shades, now purple, now blue.

Augustine, The City of God

Theologian Jame Schaefer has surveyed the writings of many of the Church Fathers and Medieval theologians, and found five broad themes in their contemplation of creation.9

  • Affective appreciation: Simply delighting in what is seen.
  • Affective-cognitive appreciation: A deeper, scientific study of creation leads to even greater joy for the beholder.
  • Cognitive appreciation: Thinking in more abstract ways about the beauty of the interconnected universe. Each part plays its unique role for the greater good of the whole.
  • Incomprehensibility: Being overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of the universe and everything in it.
  • The sacramental quality of the physical world: The world God has created mediates something of God’s presence and character to us.

One of my favourites among the theologians covered in Schaefer’s work was an unnamed Cistercian who in the twelfth century wrote extensively about the grounds of the abbey in which he lived, and the surrounding countryside. He was obviously very happy with his vocation, and had a good understanding of the interconnectedness of the different factors: water, weather and crops - an early ecology. Basil of Caesarea (ca. 329-379) spent time observing animals and plants, noting similarities and differences, and encouraged others to do the same, giving glory to God for everything he saw. Hugh of Saint Victor (1096-1144) delighted in what his senses could tell him about creation, so enabling him to praise the Creator all the more, and lamented that others might pass such an opportunity by.

An important Medieval figure in the early development of science is Albert the Great (ca. 1200-1280), teacher of Aquinas, who wrote on “the importance of observation and experimentation in field and laboratory studies of animals, plants, metals, and inorganic elements”. He carried out field studies, and “legitimised the study of the natural world as a science within the Christian tradition.” For him, appreciation of creation had both cognitive and emotional aspects.

For all of these early scholars, to study creation and enjoy its beauty was an activity that everyone should engage in using their God-given intellect. Their detailed exploration of the wonders of the universe was fuelled by faith in a benevolent creator God, and this deep intellectual study led to heartfelt praise for the one who made it. Is this something we can share?

Protein structure model © Dr Neville Cobbe

Protein structure model © Dr Neville Cobbe

The series continues tomorrow with Part 2: Understanding Beauty in Science.


1. Bersanelli, M. & Gargantini, M. Galileo to Gell-Mann: The Wonder that Inspired the Greatest Scientists of all Time. Templeton Press, Philadelphia, 2009. Page 9.
2.Ibid., Page 10.
3. I should highlight that as far as I know Lynn Quarmby is not religious and has not in any way endorsed this blog.
4. Further reading: http://quarmby.ca/, http://blog.quarmby.ca/, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=Lynne%20Quarmby, http://www.ciliopathyalliance.org/
5. I try to avoid using the words ‘nature’ or ‘the natural world’ as much as possible because of the ambiguity of the word nature, which is often wrongly used to create a divide between natural and supernatural worlds. This is ancient Greek philosophy and has nothing to do with the God of the Bible. When addressing Christians I usually use the word ‘creation’ in its traditional theological sense, meaning ‘everything that exists apart from God’, without connection to any one particular interpretation of Genesis 1-3.
6. Frankenberry, N.K. The Faith of Scientists, Princeton University Press, 2008.
7. For example, Psalm 29, 104, 148; Job 38-41; Joel 2: 18-32, Isaiah 41:17-20, Hosea 14:5-8.
8. Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Holy Bible.
9. Schaefer, J. Appreciating the Beauty of the Earth, Theological Studies 62 (2001), p23-52 & Schaefer, J. Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic & Medieval Concepts, Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC, 2009.

Ruth Bancewicz is a Senior Research Associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge (UK), where she currently works on positive expressions of the science-faith dialogue. Ruth studied genetics at Aberdeen University, and completed a PhD at Edinburgh University. She then spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology, Edinburgh University, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. She moved to the Faraday Institute in 2006 to develop resources on Science and Christianity – a project that generated the Test of FAITH materials, the first of which were published in 2009. Ruth blogs at Science and Belief, and her latest book, God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith will be published by Monarch in January 2015.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #71305

July 23rd 2012

While all this is true, science does have a dark side.  One of them is the survival of the fitess view of Malthusian Darwinism and Social Darwinism.

Today it appears that the field of neuro-biology has been taken over by materialists that seem focused on proving that humans cannot really think and are not free to make decisions.  One of the theorists in this movement is old friend Daniel Dennett.

If the brain is a strictly materialist system, then logically it is subject to simple cause and effect. and humans are not in control of their thoughts and their actions.  This materialist view of the mind is certainly not countradicted by methodological naturalism.  Nor does the traditional Western dualist Mind/Body view offer an alternative expalanation.

While it is too early to offer a concrete conclusion, to me it is quite revealing that the Aurora shooter was a brillant student in the discipline of neuro-biology.   

ruth-bancewicz - #71323

July 24th 2012

Suffering is an important question, but I won’t tackle it now becasue I go into it in post 3! Watch thsi space…

wesseldawn - #71307

July 23rd 2012

So true. There is great beauty in nature but many animals prey on another animal in order to stay alive! One insect eats a smaller insect, who in turn ate a smaller one than it. The bird eats the insects and the cat eats the bird, etc.

Though incredibly complex there is no doubt that for the most part ‘survival of the fittest’ is the law that rules nature!

It’s this law of nature that is so obviously contrary to God’s benevolent character!

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71308

July 23rd 2012


Your Gnostic dualism is showing through again.  Pay attention and you might learn something.   

Survival of the fittest as you describe it is not the way of nature.  Darwinian natural selection is bad science!  The way of nature is ecological diversity and mutual benefit. 

God has designed nature so every species and every individual has a place and a purpose.  We must work together to make it work, as humans have refused to do by selfishly and carelessly misusing our resources.

God doesn’t like ugly and we now have lots of ugly weather as a response. 

Francis - #71315

July 23rd 2012

“Survival of the fittest …is not the way of nature…The way of nature is ecological diversity and mutual benefit.”

So gasped Gabrielle Gazelle as Larry Lion chomped on her throat.


“misusing our resources…God doesn’t like ugly and we now have lots of ugly weather as a response.”

These just in:

-          Ugly, I mean extreme, measures considered to combat “ugly weather”


-          Cool first paragraph


-          One with some punch


Roger A. Sawtelle - #71316

July 23rd 2012


Denial, denial, denial.

wesseldawn - #71328

July 24th 2012

Mutual benefit - yes - they eat each other. And we eat them!

George Bernard Murphy - #71320

July 23rd 2012

The mathematicians believe true formulas are short and simple.

 They love e-mc2 which is Einstein’s famous formula.

 They are still looking for the “theory of everything” and Michio Kaku says when it is found you will be able to write it on a T-shirt.

 but they definitely believe that beauty and simplicity are  indications of accuracy and profound truth.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71324

July 24th 2012

George Bernard Murphy,

How about “God = Love” as the Theory of Everything?

ruth-bancewicz - #71464

July 30th 2012

Yes, mathematicians have famously enjoyed the beauty in th their equations. I found this paper helpful


McAllister points out that there have been trends in mathematical beauty, and suggests that when our ideas of beauty reflect fundamental principles of the universe, they will last.

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