Beauty, Science and Theology, Part 2

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July 24, 2012 Tags: Worship & Arts

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

Beauty, Science and Theology, Part 2
Fluorescent image of Chlamydomonas algae showing location of Fa2p enzyme at the base of the cilia, courtesy Dr. Lynn Quarmby.

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 do have the opportunity (and training) to appreciate different kinds of beauty than do 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. Today, in Part 2 of a three-part essay, Ruth Bancewicz explores some of the ways beauty, science and theology intertwine.

Understanding Beauty in Science

It is of course possible to appreciate the beauty of creation1 intuitively, simply delighting in a scene full of colour, pattern and variety. We instinctively enjoy wide-open vistas, long stretches of clear water and high lookout points.2 We also seem to value symmetry and order. But there is great pleasure to be had in training the senses to a higher degree of observation, and this is something that poets practice as well as scientists. W.H. Davies’ poem ‘Leisure’ encourages the cultivation of a deliberate habit of unhurried observation. I also love Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s slightly caustic observation:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

The discipline of science, with its long hours of observation and careful scrutiny of data, has helped generations of scientists to appreciate natural beauty. Jeff Hardin is Professor of Zoology at the University of Wisconson-Madison. He spends his days working on cell migration and development in the tiny (1mm long) worm C. elegans.

When Hardin teaches courses on cell and developmental biology, he tells his students that his main goal for the semester is that they would think cells, or embryos, are beautiful. He uses this quote from Einstein:

‘The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed’.3

In his introduction to developmental biology Hardin uses some ancient Hebrew poetry: Psalm 139, where the writer is musing about embryonic development. David doesn’t understand the process of how his body was formed, but he knows that it’s fearful and wonderful. Hardin tells his students, “Whether you share David’s worldview – as I as a Christian happen to – or not, by the end of the semester I want you to share his sense of wonder about the incredible intricacy of developmental biology.”

Beautiful brain © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009. Everyone’s brain is unique and beautiful, and Lizzie encourages others to learn about the parts of the brain while building up their own brain sculpture.

The Beauty Revealed by Science

At right: Traces within © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009. Drawing on paper, each 12” x 8”. Gentle drawings
based on brain sections to allude to the intricacy, complexity and secret beauty of the organ
that contributes so much to who we are.

The things that scientists find beautiful might not be immediately attractive to the uninitiated beholder – though perhaps you can appreciate their enthusiasm. This is illustrated wonderfully in American Naturalist John Muir’s account of his travels through the Californian Sierra.4 One particular episode shows his detailed observation and appreciation of nature, and also his great sense of humour and interest in (or tolerance of) people. He travelled in the company of an insalubrious shepherd, whose lunch every day consisted a piece of meat tied in a cloth and hung from his belt, dripping grease all over his clothes.

‘His trousers…have become so adhesive…that pine-needles, thin flakes and fibres of bark, hair, mica scales…and indeed bits of all plants, animals and minerals of the region adhere to them and are safely embedded, so that though far from being a naturalist he collects fragmentary specimens of everything and becomes richer than he knows…Man is a microcosm, at least our shepherd is, or rather his trousers. These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance.’

It takes a born naturalist to go to such pains in describing a revolting old pair of trousers, and to even find beauty in them!

More seriously, physicists have appreciated beauty in symmetry, in order, and in complex systems that are reducible to a series of ‘elegant’ mathematical equations.5 Biological systems are more complex and difficult to describe mathematically, so the beauty observed in the life sciences is more often to do with colour, pattern, shape, movement, or detail. At times, complex biological systems are understood at a level that does reveal their mathematical simplicity. When order emerges out of apparent chaos biologists begin to use words like ‘striking’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘astonishing’.6

The eminent theologian Jürgen Moltmann was fascinated by science and mathematics as a teenager, but the onset of WWII changed the course of his life, and after spending time as a prisoner of war he devoted himself to theology. According to Moltmann, beauty in science can be experienced as symmetry, simplicity, or unity. Beauty is seen most clearly when systems are moving from chaos to order, or vice versa. Moltmann is convinced that while scientific beauty is not worth seeking for its own sake, it is a sign that you are nearer the truth, and is not subjective. Beauty may be useless from a utilitarian point of view, but it is meaningful in itself.

Several of the ancient Greek philosophers taught that beauty is closely related to truth, and one could make a case for this in science and mathematics. A number of successful physicists and mathematicians have followed beauty in their search for truth, or see beauty as a confirmation that a theory models reality.7 The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar has even claimed that scientists with a highly developed sense of the aesthetic are more likely to make significant discoveries.8 On the other hand, philosopher James McAlister has pointed out that there are trends in scientific or mathematical aesthetics, and scientific revolutions often involve a revolution in aesthetic perception. For beauty to model truth, the aspect of beauty in question must relate to some fundamental property of the universe.9

The exercise of working to understand a system and make sense of a collection of ideas and observations can be beautiful in itself. If a theory is developed that can be used to predict further experiments and explain other data, then it has its own intrinsic beauty.10 We appreciate the order, unity and simplicity that it brings to our understanding of the world.

It was a sort of act of faith with us that any equations which describe fundamental laws of Nature must have great mathematical beauty in them…It was a very profitable religion to hold and can be considered as the basis of much of our success. –Paul Dirac

I think that the beauty seen in science falls into four broad categories. First, a scientist may find beauty in their experimental system, whether it is a model organism, a certain diagnostic printout, or an aesthetically pleasing series of molecules. Second, there is the cleverly devised experiment carried out with skill and patience that results in good clear data: the molecular biologist’s sharp DNA bands on a gel, the organic chemist’s high yield, or the physicist’s precise measurements. Third, the data and the theory that gathers them into a coherent whole may have an intrinsic beauty that is both striking and satisfying. Finally, there is the beauty that the scientist themselves brings to the data: the black and white telescope images that are coloured to distinguish between different wavelengths of light, elegant graphs, or a carefully crafted PowerPoint presentation filled with photographs of microscopic organisms.11 Each of these four types of beauty involves characteristics that are intrinsic to the natural world, but also require observation, imagination and creativity on the part of the scientist.

Gonatrophin Releasing Hormone © Dr Lizzie Burns/MRC 2004 Oil-on-panel 32” x 23.5”. Atoms shown in standard colours used within chemistry. While relatively small for a protein, it has a powerful function in controlling the release of both male and female hormones.

Christian theology provides what I think is a satisfying explanation for our experience of beauty. The Bible describes a God who creates order out of chaos, and sets creatures in it who are capable of understanding and appreciating its harmonies and beauties. When we work with our head and hands to create beautiful and useful things, we are fulfilling our calling as people made in the image of God.12

CS Lewis understood our experience of beauty as a foretaste or reflection of the beauty of God’s restored kingdom described in the book of Revelation. If we are fascinated by what we see in creation and find it beautiful, or if it awakens something in us that we can’t put a name to, Lewis would say that we have a ‘desire for our own far-off country.’ The beauty of creation awakens something in us, and we want to find its source.13

We enjoy scientific beauty - the startling elegance of the mathematical solution, or the model that makes sense of what seemed to be a muddle of data - in the same way that we enjoy the serenity of a garden or carefully tended olive grove on a summer’s day. It’s the beauty of shalom: not only is the prospect attractive, but it is also deeply satisfying, ordered and harmonious. To achieve that state the scientist, gardener or farmer has expended time and energy. Bringing order from chaos, watching things develop and become chaotic again and bringing order once more using reason, creativity and imagination, is one of the most fulfilling experiences in life. The process is usually protracted, complicated, expensive and often painful, but we somehow have the drive to do it over and over again. To me, the Christian teaching that God has made us in his image using a long and complex process in order to work out our own processes in the world, makes perfect sense of this experience.

Tomorrow’s post: Beauty and the Character of God

Notes

This post features illustrations from Dr Lizzie Burns. Following a doctorate and research fellowship in cancer research, Lizzie became a full-time artist in 2002. She has been commissioned to create artwork and run educational workshops for a wide range of organisations. Though not a Christian, she uses art to convey the beauty and wonder of life and the hope that medical research brings.

1. 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.
2. Wilson, E.O. On the Origin of the Arts, reprinted from The Social Conquest of Earth, Liveright, New York, 2012. Carroll, N. On Being Moved by Nature: Between Religion and Natural History, in Kemal, S. & Gaskill I. (Eds) Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pages 244-266.
3. From Einstein, A. The World As I See It
4. My First Summer in the Sierra, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, USA, 1911
5. Williams, J. Symmetry in Science. Bluesci, 2012; Byers, N. E. Noether’s Discovery of the Deep Connection Between Symmetries and Conservation Laws. Israel Mathematical Conference Proceedings Vol. 12, 1999; Chandrasekhar, S. Beauty and the Quest for Beauty in Science. Fermilab, 1979; McGrath, A.E. The Open Secret. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2008, pp273-277
6. Crick, F.H.C. Elegance in scientific theories & The beauty of the double helix model; Conway Morris, S. Does the evolutionary narrative tend to support theism?
7. Hackel, T. Physics and Christian Theology: Beauty, a Common Dialect? Pursuit of Truth: A Journal of Christian Scholarship, 2007; Chandrasekhar, S. Beauty and the Quest for Beauty in Science. Fermilab, 1979; McGrath, A.E. The Open Secret. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2008, pp273-277.
8. Chandrasekhar, S. Beauty and the Quest for Beauty in Science. Fermilab, 1979.
9. McAllister, J. Is Beauty a Sign of Truth in Scientific Theories? American Scientist, 86 (2), 1998, pp174-183.
10. Alexander, D.R. Truth and Beauty in Science. Lecture delivered at the C.S. Lewis Symposium, Cambridge, 2008.
11. Ibid. 12. Ibid. 13. Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory. SPCK, 1942; McGrath, A.E. Surprised by Meaning. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2011, pp91-100.


Ruth Bancewicz is a 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.

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Francis - #71330

July 24th 2012

As was noted in Part 1: Basil of Caesarea, Hugh of Saint Victor, Albert the Great (“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.”).

Amen.

And thank goodness the Church, to which each of these men belonged and pledged allegiance, not only allowed but encouraged such investigations. It even was a pioneer in women’s education. From wikipedia:

Following the Fall of Rome, it was the Catholic Church which gradually re-established scholarship in Western Europe. Monastic settlements were for centuries the only bastions of literacy ... The Church emerged in the Middle Ages as the unifying force in Europe and became the founder of its first universities, which were preceded by schools attached to monasteries and cathedrals, and generally staffed by clergymen. Convents too permitted a rare avenue for women to pursue scholarship. At this time, the Church acted as patron for some of Europe’s most admired engineering achievements, in the form of Cathedral architecture; and through its internationalist outlook aided by Latin as a lingua franca, its well-integrated network of universities encouraged enquiry and produced a great variety of fine scholars and natural philosophers…  including Saint Albert the Great, a pioneer of biological field research… It has been common for clergymen-scholars to also work as scientists”

 


Francis - #71331

July 24th 2012

Ruth Bancewicz,

Your last sentence:

“To me, the Christian teaching that God has made us in his image using a long and complex process in order to work out our own processes in the world, makes perfect sense of this experience.”

That’s a stunner to me. And I think it would be also to Basil, Hugh and Albert, among others.

Whose Christian teaching states that God used a long and complex process to make man in His image?   


George Bernard Murphy - #71338

July 24th 2012

I love Biologos forums.

 My hat is off to all of the fine bloggers.

BUT YOU SEEM TO AVOID A LOT OF PLAIN SIMPLE FACTS,... THAT A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T KNOW,... AND SHOULD KNOW.

For instance,“Where does the radioactive material come from that provides fuel for our nuclear power plants?”

  Well it all comes from supernova,.. exploding stars.

SOoo where are supernova?

Answer: In the sky!

We have a nuclear power generator in the center of our earth and like all nuclear fuel those radioactive atoms were made in the center of a star.

so…. THE SKY MUST HAVE BEEN MADE BEFORE THE EARTH!

So in the original creation story God did NOT make the earth and then make the sky over it.

 The sky must have been made first,.... before there was an earth.

 This could then lead to a discussion of steller nucleosynthesis,... and plate tectonics. [And for emotional impact the conversion of Noted astronomer Fred Hoyle is very inspirational.

AND IT IS ALL JUST BASIC STUFF.

But instead we have one blog after another of thois touchy, feely stuff.

How aboiut a little hard science,...[but the simple stuff. We ain’t geniuses here.]

 

 Why does the earth rotate? There is a simple question with a simple answer which 90% of people don’t know.

 I think we need more of that.


Francis - #71367

July 25th 2012

Ruth Bancewicz,

Regarding, again, what you wrote - “God has made us in his image using a long and complex process” - a recent science news item seems to agree with you.

The big news appears to be on common ancestry. But forget about monkeys and talk of man’s most recent common ancestor. They’ve now got a handle on the LUCA (last universal common ancestor for man and everything). (They make no speculation, yet, on what image and likeness, if any, the spineless sea creature was in.)

Even bigger news – it was all due to a mistake!

http://www.livescience.com/21830-dna-mistake-evolution.html

 

P.S.

Although the article says MacKintosh is a professor in the College of Life Sciences, it doesn’t indicate what her PhD was in. It may have been in life sciences or genetics or evolutionary biology or creative writing or something else. I just don’t know.


ruth-bancewicz - #71465

July 30th 2012

The point about ‘a long and complex process’ that I was hoping to make is that God usually doesn’t seem to work in the way we would if we were in charge. He often takes a long time to teach us things, lets us learn by our mistakes, does things that are a bit mysterious, and generally acts like a loving parent who knows what’s best for their child (but please don’t infer detailed analogies from each of those points - it’s the general point of process that I want to make). Just look at prayer as an example of that. Why should God’s creation of the universe be different? I think that is a broad Biblical principle that - when I come to look at origins - makes sense. I think we need to be careful that we don’t try to ‘make God in our image’.

I generall don’t engage in debates about creation - I try to spend time on other things -  but this is important. The ‘From the Dust’ documentary is very helpful http://fromthedustmovie.org/


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