Awe in Science

| By Ruth Bancewicz

Courtesy of St Crispin's Church, Braunstone
You must have experienced it, too - one is almost frightened in front of the simplicity and compactness of the interconnections that nature all of a sudden spreads before him and for which he was not in the least prepared.

-Werner Heisenberg, in a letter to Albert Einstein1

For many people, science invites awe and religion invites insight. When awe and insight engage, science-and-religion happens.

-Ron Cole-Turner2

If we can understand the experiences of the people who work every day in the lab, our dialogues concerning science and religion will be far more fruitful than they would be otherwise. I realised this when someone recently asked me what the highlights had been during my own time as a biologist. I explained that what I appreciated most was the privilege of experiencing science first-hand. My horizons have been expanded, and I now have a better understanding of how vast and complex the natural world is. Appreciating the grandeur of the universe seems to be a universal for humankind, including research scientists in their own peculiar way. Everyone has something to add to a conversation about experiences of awe, as I discovered when I blogged on it recently and invited a number of friends and former colleagues to comment. This sense of awe is a perfect starting point for discussions of science and theology.

Life in the Laboratory

I had always loved finding out how things work, and that was one of the reasons why I chose biology, but actually working ‘at the coal face’ was an eye opener. Living organisms are extremely complicated, so one has to choose only a tiny part of an organism to study: maybe a single gene or a feature of its behaviour. It can take years to understand just one aspect of that tiny part in enough depth to be able to publish an academic paper about it. Experienced scientists describe how the sum of human knowledge is so small as to be insignificant in comparison to what is out there, and I can now appreciate that a little bit. I can also appreciate what fun it is to survey all that un-knowledge, grab a bit of it and try to figure it out.

In the world outside of the lab we hear the headlines about new discoveries, but we have no idea what is behind that one-liner. In reality the story of a discovery in biology may well have started with a graduate student who nervously began their new project, a more experienced scientist who sacrificed precious time to train and supervise them, and the lab head who looked over the data every now and then. There would have been long days and nights in the lab and many false turns before the first piece of promising data emerged. No doubt there were anxious re-runs of experiments to confirm the results, and moments of elation as things started to make sense. The work would have been presented to critical colleagues who suggested further experiments. Frustrating months would have been spent generating the final pieces of data, weeks bent over a computer writing a dense and meticulously referenced paper, submission to a journal, the referees’ criticisms, a few more experiments, resubmission, and a long wait. Finally the paper was accepted and the whole research group joined in the celebration. And this is only the simplest possible version of events – the process of producing successful research can involve large numbers of people over several years, international collaborations, promising leads that go stale, and surprising results from unexpected places.

The ‘real world’ of science is a million miles away from the debates on science and religion that happen in churches, universities and schools throughout the world. Behind every piece of research is a team of people representing different faiths and belief systems, a variety of cultures, social backgrounds and personality types. Perhaps scientists are all a little crazy (who would put in the hours otherwise?), but they’re definitely all motivated in different ways.

The factors that attract people to science are many, though inspiring and supportive parents or teachers can play a large part. The reasons why individuals decide to stick with research, despite all the demands and uncertainties that a life in science brings, are interesting and at times surprising. There is the fascination of understanding the natural world, the value of original research, the prospect of new technologies further down the line, and the privilege of making new discoveries. There is also the opportunity to ask new questions, and the immense satisfaction when things come together and begin to make sense. So far, so predictable. More unexpected drivers are the enjoyable process of tinkering with experimental systems, the opportunity to exercise great creativity, the beauty of scientific data, and a feeling of immense awe when one gets a rare insight into the way the world operates. The rewards for doing science range from the utilitarian to the downright spiritual.

Awe in Science

Awe is an important part of the experience of science – one could almost say it’s a universal. When a scientist feels awe it is usually in response to something complex, precise, ordered, powerful or beautiful. There is an element of unexpectedness and delight, maybe even respect, fear or reverence. Awe always involves the need for some sort of mental adjustment or accommodation: we need to make room in our internal map of the world for this new and amazing experience. The physicist Werner Heisenberg vividly described this process of taking on board a startling new concept when he wrote of his discovery of atomic energy levels:

“In the first moment I was deeply frightened. I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a deeply lying bottom of remarkable internal beauty. I felt almost giddy at the thought that I had now to probe this wealth of mathematical structures that nature down there had spread before me.”

Moments of awe are the rare high-points in science, both rationally and emotionally. Finally something is understood. That understanding and the new possibilities it opens up are wonderful, and the story is told and retold. Scientists, as you might expect, respond scientifically, with new questions and investigations. But they also respond in other ways depending on their personalities: aesthetically, using visual representations of the data in different ways; philosophically, as they discuss the ethical implications of the research or the surprising intelligibility of the universe; or spiritually, as they try to make sense of those feelings of awe and wonder at the immensity and beauty of the world.

When Elaine Howard Ecklund carried out some research into the beliefs of scientists in elite US universities, she discovered a surprising fact: 20% of the people that she and her research team spoke to were not members of any religious group, but considered themselves spiritual. For some of these scientists the experience of beauty, awe and wonder in their work led them to believe that there is something beyond science – one could perhaps call it ‘transcendent’ – an experience that motivated some of them in their research, their teaching, and their lives outside of the lab. I remember having a conversation with a colleague who had experienced something along these lines, so I’m not surprised to hear that many others feel the same.

According to the scientist-theologian Alister McGrath, experiences of the transcendent might involve a sense of the ‘numinous’ – a feeling that something ‘other’ might be behind what one is seeing. Or perhaps someone might encounter a deep truth about the unity of reality that strikes them in a particular way. Perhaps more common would be a moment of unexpected clarity – what some might call an epiphany – where suddenly things make sense. Experiences that might be called ‘transcendent’ are rare, but they leave a lasting impression.

The language used by many scientists when they describe the process of discovery is of a reality that was always there. Perhaps it’s not surprising that scientists are ‘realists’; they think that there is a real world outside of ourselves that waits to be discovered. Science does not answer the ultimate questions about the universe, but scientists are human beings so we just ask those questions anyway – sometimes looking for answers in unexpected places.

Spirituality in Science

At the beginning of this piece I mentioned my growing realisation of the size of the scientist’s task. The seeming inexhaustibility of the created order can be overwhelming, but many see this as something positive. There is so much more to explore. As the Jesuit philosopher Enrico Cantore has said, the mystery of the universe lies not in ignorance, but in dazzling intelligibility. Where do these thoughts of transcendence, reality and mystery lead? For Einstein, they were a religion. A Mind other than our own was somehow responsible for this world that we can make sense of using the language of mathematics. For others, the reality we see in the world leads to ideals that transcend differences of language, culture and religion.

We search for meaning, and we long for more. CS Lewis famously describes the world we live in as a pale reflection of the one to come.3 For those who already believe in God, what we see in science makes sense. We live in a world that operates according to principles that we can understand and describe mathematically. We can utilize what we find for good or evil (and everything in between), and what we discover is both beautiful and awe-inspiring. As theologian Alister McGrath puts it, "We must find the right thread on which to string the pearls of our observations, so that they disclose their true pattern."

For me, what we see in science is not evidence for God, but works well as a thought experiment. What would you expect if God existed? In the context of faith, science increases my sense of awe and wonder and helps me to worship God in a more genuine way. The Christian songwriter Matt Redman said that we sometimes ‘take the extraordinary revelation of God and somehow manage to make Him sound completely ordinary’. Science has the power to expand our horizons and helps us to see how great God is. The dazzling intelligibility of the world increases our humility, as we realise that because we ourselves are a fragile and finite part of the universe, we will never be able to fully grasp what we see in an objective intellectual way.4 Our response to what we see in the world is rational, emotional and active: worship as well as systematic theology.

The highest mountain peaks and the deepest canyon depths are just tiny echoes of His proclaimed greatness. And the brightest stars above, only the faintest emblems of the full measure of His glory.5


The main sources for this piece are Enrico Cantore, Scientific Man: The Humanistic Significance of Science (New York: ISH Publications, 1977); Olaf Pedersen, “Christian belief and the fascination of science” in Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, Eds. Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger & George V. Coyne. (Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory, 1988), 125-140.; Alister McGrath, The Open Secret(Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).

1. From Enrico Cantore, Scientific Man: The Humanistic Significance of Science (New York: ISH Publications, 1977)

2. Ron Cole-Turner, ‘What Do You Find Most Interesting or Surprising About the S&R Discussion Today?’, Science & Religion Today, 21st May 2012,

3. In C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. SPCK, 1942

4. Jame Schaefer, Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic and Medieval Concepts (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009), Chapter 1.

5. Matt Redman, Facedown (Eastbourne: Survivor, 2004).


About the Author

Ruth Bancewicz

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.