The Beauty of Being a Scientist and a Christian
In one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, "Lisa the Skeptic," a plot involving a supposed "angel" pits scientists against naïve religious townfolk. The episode ends with a trial at which the judge puts a "restraining order" on religion, keeping it "500 yards away from science."
Many people say that science and religion need to be even further apart. I disagree, however. And there are many scientists who agree with me.
I am a Christian. I believe that God is the ultimate reality and that the world, including me, was created by God. But this is not just an idle affirmation, a faith statement to be recited in church on Sunday. I find my experience of the world enriched in several ways by my belief in God.
For starters, my first contact with the world that God created is through its great beauty. I write these words from my desk in a sunroom on the back of my house. Outside my window a row of Newport plums is in bloom, their delicate pink flowers lighting up the landscape. My andromedas are also blooming. The dogwood, whose branches brush my window when the wind blows, is starting to bud. Directly in front of me the sun is coming up, visible through the forest. New spring foliage at the tops of the trees is becoming illuminated. In a few minutes I will have to pull my blind to keep the sun out of my eyes.
A choir of birds is singing, celebrating the arrival of the new day. I can tell from their joyous song that they must not be Red Sox fans. The sound of the birds is so welcome, in contrast to the traffic noise from the front of my house, which starts up shortly after the birds each morning.
Scientific explanations exist for all that I see and hear outside my window. And explanations can be proposed for why humans enjoy nature so much. But faith is God is not about explanations. We do not believe in God because we need to explain this or that feature of the world. That is what science is for. We believe in God because we see something deeper in the world, something that transcends the scientific explanations.
The experience of natural beauty is available to everyone, and only the flattest of souls cannot enjoy scenes like the one outside my window right now.
As a scientist, however, there are other layers to this experience. Underneath the artistic beauty of nature lies the deeper beauty of a system of natural laws. All the wonders in front of me are built from a few dozen different atoms -- hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen. They combine and recombine to make life possible. Their molecular arrangements are the pixels of nature's most beautiful scenes.
These atoms are all built of protons, electrons, and neutrons. In all the atoms, electrons hum about tiny nuclear cores, following an amazing set of mathematical laws. I can still recall those giddy undergraduate days, decades ago, when I learned to solve the equations that specify what these electrons can do. The solutions were difficult and required the better part of a math degree to produce, but they were elegant beyond belief.
I remember working into the wee hours of the morning, losing track of time, hoping that I wasn't making mistakes along the way. And then finally a solution appeared on the paper in front of me that was so breathtakingly beautiful that I knew there was no way I had made a mistake. The solution was so simple. All you had to do was plug numbers into the final result -- simple integers like one, two, three -- and electronic arrangements would pop out. It was Sudoku on steroids.
The beauty of these mathematical patterns is a rich part of the scientific experience of nature. It is what draws people into physics and often turns them into detached and marginally functional mystics, like Newton and Einstein.
What seems the most remarkable of all, though, is the way that the whole system works together. That sun coming up in front of me is 93 million miles away. It takes eight minutes for the light generated by its fusion reactions to make the long trek to earth. Some of the light arriving outside my window is absorbed by chlorophyll molecules in the plants and becomes stored energy. Some of this energy was in the lettuce I ate last night in my salad. Now that energy is driving my metabolism, keeping me alive, letting me experience this new day, powering my fingers now on my keyboard. Some of the sunlight warms the ocean after a long New England winter, coaxing summer into existence. The light makes it possible to view the scenery outside my window. Everything I see becomes visible only when light strikes it.
I also note that this same multi-tasking sun provides the gravitational force that keeps the earth in its stable orbit, tracing out a mathematically perfect ellipse several billions times in a row.
The full experience of a new day is a complex mix of wonder and science, facts and beauty, mathematics and color. Science explains much of it, and what is left over is not so much in need of explanation as it is in need of celebration.
My belief in God provides a framework for this celebration. In some way that I cannot articulate, I praise God for each new day, dimly aware that I am sharing the experience with the artist who put it all in place and put me here to enjoy it.
This piece originally appeared April 21, 2010, on The Huffington Post.