One popular conception of science holds that its aim—literally its end—is to get to the bottom of things, to find definitive answers and explanations. In this way of thinking, the promise of science is that if we seek the most exquisite accuracy, the most precise measurements possible, we will eventually understand how things really are. Most recently, in describing the search for the Higgs Boson and attempts to re-create the physical conditions present in the first milliseconds following the creation of the cosmos, public conversation seems to center on the implication that there will come a time when we will have no more need of investigation because we will know how things really work. We will have finally arrived at a Grand Theory of Everything. We will have fit all the pieces into the puzzle at last.
But in practice, few scientists expect that sort of grand-scale closure. For even if this kind of surety is possible in principle, it is only possible in principle. That is, the power of theories, of formulas, and of scientific images and analogies, is that they help us make sense of the specifics we have already seen while suggesting where next we should look. Affirming the trustworthiness of God’s self-revelation in creation, theories give us a framework within which to continue to explore and investigate the world as it is, with all its beautifully messy specificity and variation. Rather than ending the possibility of surprise and wonder, the practice of science should help open our eyes to what God has done, but also direct our sight forward to what he is yet doing in the world.
Despite the confident connotations of the familiar “advance of science,” then, careful investigation of the natural world instills a habit that should be both familiar to and well-practiced by Christians whether they are professional scientists or not—that of “following” after the creator. Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis makes that connection between study of the world and the practice of faith in her short poem, “Small Brown Job,” below. Both personally and professionally, Lewis is well-acquainted with scientific ways of imagining the world, and with the interplay between science, art and faith. As fellow poet Malcolm Guite observes, Lewis has the distinction of having been “poet in residence at a school of physics and astronomy [and has] formally acknowledged a Nobel Laureate for his advice on stem cell technology, and the influence it had on the composition of her poetry.” Guite also notes “her gift for discerning significant metaphor in the findings of science, and for expressing the exhilaration and wonder at the core of ‘hard science.’”
While elsewhere Lewis has pondered physics and astronomy, here she offers a benediction for birdwatchers, of sorts, both affirming our desire to know and the limits of that desire. In her image of a small creature at once familiar and mysterious, always just out of reach of perfect identification, we find an apt metaphor not only for the pursuit of understanding of the specifics of the material world we inhabit, but also for the life of faith. The image does not suggest that knowing God is impossible (for we have seen God’s face in the person of Christ), but rather that with every step we take towards Him, we discover how much more we have to learn. Most significantly, though, her last line locates the desire that drives us forward as originating outside of ourselves, in the Spirit. Echoing the words Jesus said to his disciples at both the beginning and end of His earthly ministry, her invitation and challenge remains a good and challenging word to us now.
“Small Brown Job”
by Gwyneth Lewis
May you be lead on all your walks
By an unidentified bird
Flitting ahead, at least one branch,
The tease, between you
And it. Is that an eye-
Stripe? Epaulette? Your desire
For a name grows stronger.
Chaffinch? Warbler? This is spinning
Gold from straw. You're in good hands.
Shut up and follow.
from Sparrow Tree (Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 2011). ©Gwyneth Lewis.
In 2005, Gwyneth Lewis became the first Poet Laureate of Wales, writing in both English and Welsh. In addition to two works of non-fiction and an opera libretto “that explains the basic principles of particle physics”, she has published eight books of poetry. The poems from three of her English language collections (Parables & Faxes, Zero Gravity and Keeping Mum) were brought together as Chaotic Angels: Poems in English (Bloodaxe Books, 2005), while “Small Brown Job” is from her most recent, Sparrow Tree. Lewis lived and worked in the United States first as a Harkness Fellow at Harvard and Columbia Universities in the 1980’s, and then from 2008-2010 as the Mildred Londa Wiseman Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard, and as a Joint Sica/Stanford Humanities Center Fellow in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford. More on her life and work may be found on her website, and Malcom Guite’s extended talk on the connections between science and poetry in her work may be found here.