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National Science Week

Ordinary Sunday 19, 13th August, 2017
Prof. Andrew Wood, Department of Health and Medical Sciences, Swinburne University.

Matthew 13:44-52

Through the written word and the spoken word, may we hear the Living Word, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen

This week is National Science Week, so we are looking today at an aspect of the intersection between science and faith, the Christian faith in particular: what we can learn from God's creation to inform our technologies and to lead to a more sustainable future.

It seems the tradition in some quarters to start a sermon with a joke, so here is a science joke.

The eminent 20th C physicists Heisenberg and Schrodinger were driving along in a car when they were stopped by a police patrolman. 'Do you know what speed you were doing' asked the policeman. Heisenberg answered 'I know my location exactly, so I am uncertain of my speed'. The policeman looked at them suspiciously and asked them to open the boot. 'Did you know you had a dead cat in your boot?' asked the policeman. Schrodinger answered 'well it's dead now'. They were both arrested.

If you did not get this joke and if you did not think it funny, then you are in the majority. It's about two extremely important concepts emerging from 20th C science: uncertainty and observation determining an outcome [1]. Science still passes most people by, and may scare them even. The high priests of New Atheism seem to offer a gospel of science eventually giving understanding to every known phenomenon. They suggest that religion has had its day and that faith lives on as a 'mind parasite'. They brand believers as 'faith sufferers', needing rational scientists to 'cure' them. No surprise that there is a common belief that science and religion (Christianity in particular), are irreconcilably opposed, science representing progress and religion representing a dangerous illness of the mind. The fact that scientists like Francis Collins, the former director of the Human Genome project is a committed Christian just gets the New Atheists angry and they are dismissive of them as naïve, just because they dare to be both scientists and Christians.

But my question to you this morning is: do you pray for scientists and scientific endeavour? When people are ill, we routinely pray that surgeons and physicians will be able to exercise their skills to bring about healing, but do we think it necessary to pray that scientists will bring about good science to make the planet a more equitable, safe and sustainable place? I think we should — and I hope to convince you of this in the next few min or so.

My text is Ps 139: 10-16

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
*I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
*Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

It reminds us of the intimate knowledge God has of each of us, including our individuality and the length of our days. But I would like to concentrate on v14 'I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful' I think we agree that God's creation is wonderful, even though there are aspects, such as natural disasters, that require us to come to a mature view of providence. But 'fearfully made': what does that mean? Some commentators translate this phrase as 'made with great reverence or uniquely set apart, separated or distinguished'. Others suggest that 'fearfully' refers to the anguish of childbirth. However this verse is to be read, it emphasises that we are each special, brought forth with birth-pangs. For each of us who have held a new-born baby we have often been overwhelmed by the miracle of it. We are inspired by new birth and we should be inspired by the works of God's hand in all creation. As a scientist I am continually struck by the elegance, complexity and economy of biological design, including elements of self-assembly and regulation by feedback control. As I hope to show, we have a lot to learn from so-called 'life's solutions'.

My own background is biophysics, that is, the application of the physical sciences to biology and medicine. Sometimes I consider myself a biomedical engineer. I teach how single heart cells have self-generated electrical rhythms and mechanical contractions. I teach how really complicated computer simulations have been put together to simulate this behaviour and continually marvel at the way it has all been put together, even at the single cell level. In other parts of the body, we learn that retinal receptors respond to single photons of light and hair cells in the inner ear respond to movements similar in size to molecules. Migrating birds are able to sense small variations on the Earth's magnetic field to aid their journeys across the globe. Fish can detect minute electric fields produced in the muscles of nearby prey, as indeed can the platypus. Bats skilfully navigate in the total dark using ultrasonic radar. So the list goes on.

All of this has recently opened up a new sub-discipline in engineering: Bio-inspiration, biomimicry or Biologically-inspired technology — the recognition that biological phenomena can provide elegant solutions to engineering problems. Here are some examples: silica, a constituent of glass and cement, uses high temperatures, pressures and acidity in commercial production. In natural organisms which produce it, it is done at normal conditions in a way that does not harm the organism itself or its environment. Lotus leaves have unique surface properties that separate dirt from pure water. These properties are now being copied in self-cleaning paints. Syringes are borrowing designs from the proboscis of the mosquito to minimise trauma. Seal whiskers are inspiring sensors to measure turbulence in fluids. The self-sharpening teeth of rodents are being copied in cutting technologies. At my own institution, Swinburne, insect wings are giving a method for preventing bacterial infection.

In addition to the elegance of these biologically-inspired designs, there is also the dimension of being eco-friendly (almost by definition). The human brain is so much more economical when compared to super-computers (consuming 20W rather than 20 MW). In fact, there is a multi-centre research project in Europe seeking to build computers modelled on synthetic nerve cells rather that digital circuits. An essential ingredient is plasticity, the ability to adapt to differing conditions — something our brains do all the time but conventional computer hardware doesn't. The flight mechanisms of birds and insects produce amazing endurance on modest amounts of fuel.

The atheist viewpoint seems to be that these wonders are all an illusion — they are just how things are. Dawkins writes: 'what we see today is the product of billons of years of evolutionary processes taking place. It could have been different'. As people of faith, we should recognise that biological design is something brought into being and sustained into being by the Creator. Evolutionary processes may well have been used along the way, but we should recognise that 'the Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof' (from Ps 24).

As Galileo wrote: 'We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word'. ' God created two books, the book of Scripture and the book of Nature, and both books are true'.

So the book of Nature can offering a better and more sustainable way to live than current technology. We need to be able to discern how this is to be done. Scientists deserve our prayer support, but on a more practical level, we can play a part in changing public opinion. There is a significant amount of anti-science and mistrust of 'experts' out there. The post-modern narrative of science regards it as being 'opinion' rather than 'fact' (we just hope engineers who built a new road bridge used 'fact' rather than 'opinion'). There's an amusing example from a recent novel by David Nichols:

(Jake the trapeze artist) 'I think it's wrong to tamper with nature....pesticides, fungicides, I think they're evil....Carrots should taste of carrots...it's all these chemicals'.
(Douglas the molecular biologist) 'but...everything's chemical. The carrot itself is made of chemicals, this salad is chemical. You, Jake, you're made of chemicals'
Jake looked affronted. 'No, I'm not' he said.

An article in last week's 'The Conversation' puts it this way: 'science can be viewed as an elite endeavour.' [a survey] shows people increasingly prefer the views of "people like me" to those of experts. Bombarding people with more facts doesn't work to change their mind, particularly if they see those with the facts as part of a "cultural elite".

Wanting science to be more open and encouraging of public participation is one of the themes of a recent book by Prof Tom McLeish FRS, from Durham U. In 'Faith and Wisdom in Science' he writes: "the ability to do science, to deploy the 'love of wisdom of natural things', endows us with extraordinary authority and responsibility. [The centurion (mentioned in Luke 7) was able to use his] authority in service rather than domination; to create reconciliation rather than antagonism; to invoke power to heal rather than to hurt [...there are two very different ways of being a community of science. Can we choose the way, in wisdom, that deserves to be called 'great faith'.]"

The heart of the Christian Gospel is reconciliation: God in the person of Jesus Christ. As St Paul writes in 2 Cor 5: 'Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.'

Part of the ministry of reconciliation, surely, in addition to promoting personal faith is to promote sustainable technological solutions to world problems such as widespread disease, resource allocation and recovery after the depravations of warfare. If biologically-inspired engineering can contribute by doing this in a cost-effective eco-friendly way, then it is to be applauded. But in general, if by taking inspiration from the wonders of God's creation, we develop technologies which are less damaging to the environment, then we should go for them and support those who are endeavouring to deliver better solutions in a sometimes quite hostile and distrustful socio-political environment.

For our closing prayer, I am using some words from Colossians 1, and some additional words from the Prayer Book:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Jesus), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Give respect and dignity to all who labour,
discernment and skill to those who develop new technologies
and wisdom to all who carry great responsibilities.
You have given us the knowledge to produce plenty; give us also the will to bring it within the reach of all, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.


Notes:

  1. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle states that it is not possible to be simultaneously precise about both position and speed (or momentum). In fact, the uncertainty in position times the uncertainty in speed is a very small, but fixed number. Schrodinger's cat was an illustration of a principle of quantum mechanics: that matter can be in more than one state until an act of observation forces it into a definite state. Thus a cat in a box with a vial of poison activated by a weak radioactive source can be both alive or dead until observation takes place. There is now sufficient experimental evidence to confirm both of these principles (but in highly controlled systems, rather than cats and cars!).


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