Re-embedding Science in the Human

logo-zwart-poThis title was the one given to me by my hosts in Maastricht this week for the Brightlands Campus spring Science Lecture.  The experience was  rich and fascinating one.

I have been fascinated for many years by the effectiveness of deep collaborations between industrial and university scientists, and have tried several experiments along those lines myself.  For ten years I and a team of physicists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists from six UK universities worked with our industrial counterparts in six global companies in a giant project to elucidate and innovate with the molecular rules that govern the connection between molecular structure of polymers and the flow of their melts.  A number of us currently run an industry-university PhD training centre in ‘Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces’ between the universities of Durham, Leeds and Edinburgh, and 24 companies in polymers, coatings, food and personal care.Print

The point here is emphatically not the usual ‘application of research’, or ‘public benefit of science’ stories.  Told and retold by government departments to justify science spending, these Sheherezade-like tales that are needed every day to keep science funding from being cut-off I have criticized as part of the cultural lack of understanding around science today, in Faith and Wisdom in Science.  No, the truth is that more intellectual traffic flows from industrial screen-shot-2016-01-22-at-8-22-45-amscience into academic in a healthy collaboration – for the industrial research digs deeper than a disconnected academic lab would do, driven by business need into the rich loam of the world’s material complexity. And here new phenomena are discovered. This has been my experience for 30 years of doing science.  The most satisfying fundamental pieces of science that I have bee involved with have all arisen from long-term industrial collaborations.

But the Maastricht folk have taken this to a new level and invested in a shared site – labs, computers, pilot-plants, … academic and industrial groups from several businesses sharing the same campus.  I was impressed!  Even more so that 3 or 4 times a year everyone is encouraged to come to hear an afternoon of two lectures.  One is from an early-career scientist from university or industry, the other from a more experienced scientists.  Topics are of general interest but usually scientific, so I was surprised and delighted when Brightlands asked me to talk on what is really a secular version of my thesis in Faith and Wisdom.

lettherebescienceThe point is that if science is to become recognised as a public and human good in a way that goes beyond the instrumental or the monster, to take two of the poles that Dave Hutchings and I describe in the new Let There Be Science, then the science-religion question needs to be defined anyway.  For it is the theological tradition that leads to a rediscovery of the human purpose for science, and its human value in reconciling our precarious condition in the world.

Question time was fascinating – and one young scientist asked if I were able to stay for the Dutch March for Science – an international event, or series of events, taking place yesterday to appeal for the central importance of science in the face of its political marginalisation, especially in the USA. March for_sciencedcIt’s a good point – science will become truly valued when the science community create other ways in to enjoy and contemplate science, as well as urging its vital role in establishing truth, and good policy.


I also sold out of an entire suitcase supply of both books!

Rather looking forward to going back there again next year, which I think is the plan.

Shakespeare and the Scientific Imagination

What fun it is to roll up the sleeves, make for the Forest of Arden, and join the dance this weekend in celebration of the life of England’s greatest writer, and the greatest writer of English.  All are welcome, and the marvellous universality and plasticity of Shakespeare’s thought and language mean that story, politics, dance, war, love, music – all life, all perspectives play out and discover themselves in the living plays and poems of the Bard.

So what about science? The Guardian’s weekly podcast has invited scholars to unpack the psychology of hallucinations in Macbeth, the meteorology of tempests in – well – of course, The Tempest and the rhetoric of crowd control in Julius Caesar.  But what of science itself?  Does the deepest drawer from the well of English language pour out for us any metaphor, any narrative that might help us grasp what this extraordinary empowering is – that we are able, with our eyes and minds, to comprehend nature inwardly as well as outwardly?



Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania; Scottish National Gallery


Of course he does; but we need to read carefully – not all writing about ‘science’, perhaps even the majority of it, owns the name.  For ‘science’ is a new term for a long human story that is far better referred to by its older name ‘natural philosophy’ – ‘the love of wisdom to do with nature’.  The long case for this long story is what Faith and Wisdom in Science is all about.  It tells a tale of purpose too, of a broken relationship with nature, characterised by ignorance and harm gradually, by a labour of love, receiving healing through knowledge and wisdom.  A ‘sheer inhuman otherness’ of nature, identified in the 20th century by thinkers like Steiner and Arendt is gently rendered ‘commensurable’, one might say ‘imaginable’.  Steiner writes that this is the role of art, but it answers perfectly the question of what science is for.

So let us hear Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream expand on the poet’s work, in his ostensible brush-off of lunatic, lover and poet in one apparently dismissive wave of the hand (Act V Scene I):

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Shakespeare’s ‘poet’ gazes over the entire universe, and in the pattern of the natural science texts from antiquity and the early medieval centuries from the genre De Rerum Natura (Lucretius, Pliny, Isidore of Seville, Bede) starts with the heavens and encompasses all as it falls earthward.  The universe is full of ‘the forms of things unknown’, but the poet give them form – a form that allows their image to dwell with humans.  It is a sort of incarnation – the heavenly and unknown ‘dwells among us’ in its local habitation.  Above all, the nameless is given a name, so that we can know it, refer to it, describe its relations, powers and inner nature.  For Shakespeare, the poet’s task is identical to that of science.

Perhaps that is why Wordsworth (in his preface to Lyrical Ballards) juxtaposed the poet and the scientist, declaring both to be seekers of truth, and predicting that the poet would inspire and light up the new findings of the scientist in ways that would stir the human soul.  Here he is in transcendent mood on the statue of Newton:

… with his prism and silent face

The marble index of a mind for ever

Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

‘Giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’ is a wonderfully rich description of what science does, why it is so deeply human, and why it can stir in us an aesthetic as rich as poetry or music.  Vitally, it also draws on the same aesthetic to power its difficult search for words, names, forms that represent, that re-create, the universe around us.  The Dirac field of electrons is a local (mathematical) habitation in our minds in which electrons can receive a name.  The LIGO experiment and its interpretation in terms of the gravitational waves emitted from merging black holes is our imagination bodying forth, and returning with a form of the wildest ‘thing unknown’ we have yet imagined.

A Christian Voice to the question, ‘What is Science For?’

BBC Radio 4 once nearly caused me a nasty road accident. I had foolishly believed that a drive along the A1M might be safely accompanied by the last of a series of panel discussions on ‘Culture in our Times’ (very ‘radio 4’). All very worthy and improving it was too as I recall – until the last few seconds of the programme when the chair cut in with something like, “Do you think that it’s strange that we’ve been debating ‘culture’ for 6 weeks now and haven’t once talked about science?”. One of the panellists came back immediately with: “Oh no! No – we wouldn’t want to be talking about anything as anoraksic as science in a discussion of culture.” This was of course the point at which I nearly lost control of the car …

It so saddens me – what we have done with science: put it in a little box with ‘geeky’ and ‘weird’, and filtered it for

Why is Science not more like Music?

Why is Science not more like Music?

public consumption in a way that no-one can see the art, the imagination, the love, despair, beauty in it – unless they have gone through years of special training. It stuck me recently that if we had done with music what we have done with science, no-one would ever go to hear a real live jazz quintet, or a symphony orchestra, or an opera. They would happen of course – but only in laboratory conditions away from untrained public ears. We might get the tune hummed to us the next morning on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme and a slightly condescending interview by John Timpson with a conductor or bass player, but the idea that ordinary people might appreciate the difficulties of live harmony and counterpoint would be ridiculous; except of course, that we can – because music is at the heart of being human, whether we just enjoy listening, or can play the Brahms violin concerto from memory.

The 60’s social critique Jacques Barzun once wrote ‘Science with us is not with us an object of contemplation’, and he was right. But it could be. As a lover of creativity and art as well as a scientist I have long felt, long known that science belongs in that ‘basket’ of activities that make us human, where we also find story-telling, song, painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, philosophy, language, … All of these are ‘with us’ ‘objects of contemplation’. You might say that they all have their own human stories – their own ‘social narratives’.

But right now science doesn’t have a social narrative that ties it to the deeply human and creative – the very idea to some here will sound ridiculous – but this strange divorce has many harmful consequences from which I just want to pick out three – in politics, in education and in religion (so two out of three taboo topics – I’m working on making it three out of three with sex as well but you’ll have to stay tuned for that)

nuclearThis first is in the area of science and technology-based policy and its discussion in the public area. Have you noticed that we don’t seem to be able to carry on an adult conversation about this in public and in the press? I’m talking about fracking, climate change and global warming, genetic modification, nuclear power, nanotechnology – we might call them the ‘troubled technologies’. Rather than a reasoned debate on of whether and how to take these things forward, people tend to retrench to their initial positions and lob opinions over the parapet. The politics of conflict, usually fuelled by an intransigent ignorance on all parts, takes the place of informed engagement and convergence. Some of my Durham University colleagues in the faculty of social science have been interested in this phenomenon for a long time, and I was fascinated by their careful research, teasing out the hidden narrative structure of some of these debates. In a large project analysing the fraught Europe-wide discussion of potential nanotechnologies, for example, they found that behind and underneath a conversation ostensibly about appraising risk and benefit lay five unseen narratives:

  1. Be careful what you wish for
  2. Don’t open Pandora’s Box
  3. Don’t meddle with sacred Nature
  4. They will keep us in the dark
  5. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.

Philosopher Jean-Pierre DuPuy calls these ‘narratives of despair’: desire, evil, the sacred, alienation and exploitation. It’s not that science doesn’t have a social narrative – it has actually accrued many contradictory and dark narratives such as these – and all the more powerful and damaging for being silent ones. Like sharks circling under the surface on which the public discussion swims, they control the debate by their fear-inducing presence, without having to surface themselves. Did you notice one thing about them? The ancient ones are all pagan, the modern all grimly secular.

Education. I love to visit schools, especially sixth forms – I sometimes go to their general studies sessions to talk about art and science, or science and faith or something like that. And as in all teaching it quickly becomes apparent by the looks in their eyes who the very bright ones are who are engaging critically with every idea, and who I’m having to work a bit harder for … At some point I like to ask those who did not choose to follow science subjects why they didn’t. The struggling ones sometimes say that they found it too difficult, or weren’t ‘good at it’. That’s itself a sad thing – rather than allow a young person to find an appropriate way of engaging with one of the most astonishing of human accomplishments, we manage to engender a belief that they aren’t good enough for it. But the bright ones never say Eagle Dark matterthat; they say something like, ‘I didn’t see that science would give me room for my creativity or imagination’. It’s like a knife through my heart – what have we done when we have so mis-told the story of human re-imagination of the entire cosmos, from the life-cycle of galaxies to the intricate chemistry of plant cells, that our children don’t see any room there for creativity? And so very likely they never do. I have come to believe that one of the cruellest things you can ask of a young person is, ‘are they on the science side or the arts side?’ It’s one of those nasty questions that entraps and restricts rather than frees and creates possibilities.

The church has not escaped from its own versions of ‘narratives of despair’ when it comes to science – or even of ‘narratives of conflict’. Although historians now recognise that 19th century polemics with titles like Andrew White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom are just that – un-evidenced polemics without a shred of history behind them, yet the myth of those conflicts lingers on at the same time as the real conflict of ‘young earth creationism’ infiltrates a biblically and scientifically illiterate church. On the surface, above the circling of these two very dangerous submerged sharks, is a Christian church in most places keeping its distance from science.

What we desperately need is a true story to tell about science, one that enables us to understand it within the long cultural history of humanity. It will tell us what science is for – a narrative of purpose – the philosophers would say, a teleology. And that is why, even if we are secular, we look to theology for resources here. Of all the humanities, theology is alone in still comfortably talking about purpose when in all others it has evaporated from modern discourse. Now when I say ‘purpose’, I’m not looking for an answer at the level of ‘it helps us make better aeroplanes’. Of course it does that, but I’m interested in where science belongs in the story of being human, and for an answer that might sit alongside an answer to the question, ‘what is the purpose of music?’ What does science do within the project of being human?

For scientists who are also Christians, this is by far the most important and fruitful question to ask at the nexus of science and religion. As a professor of physics and Anglican lay reader I am always being asked, ‘how do you reconcile science and religion?’ – a question that begs so many false assumptions that I never know where to start. It belongs in the class of ‘have you stopped beating your wife yet?’ questions. I’m not even going to recognise the framing. The real question is the one we can allow ourselves to explore if for once we can get off the back foot of apologetics and on to the front foot of thinking theologically about the world. It is the question, ‘What God’s gift of science do, as a means of work within God’s Kingdom?’

REal PresencesI’ll never forget the unexpected source of my first clue towards an answer to this question of purpose. A post-holocaust atheist Jewish thinker of the stature of Prof. George Steiner might be the last person you would think might reach for Christian theological narrative in a critique of the post-modern humanities! But in his deep and moving short book, Real Presences, he does just that – drawing on the three-day Easter shape of lost-ness and despair, waiting in the ‘not-yet’, and future hope, to articulate the human experience. And within this he talks about the purpose of art, in a simple statement that left me breathless:

Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter.

This is a wonderful idea – that the human is special among the animals because in some strange way we don’t feel at home in the physical space and time within which we live. The world frightens us with its ‘sheer inhuman otherness’. But – ‘Only ART?’ Surely this is exactly what science does – bridging this gulf of inaccessibility, and by observation, contemplation, mathematical reasoning and careful experiment, ‘waking into some measure of communicability’ this strange spiritless stuff around us, and of which we ourselves are made?

Steiner points us to a task of reconciliation with the physical world that needs to be done, and to a long extended story that describes its history, its present and its future. For just this idea of learning to see the world in a new and powerful way –of learning to see it in all its solid fabric of rock and water and ice and space – in the same way as its Creator sees it – lies at the heart of what the Old Testament calls ‘Wisdom’.   Here’s an example – the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ in the Book of Job tells us why it is that God knows the way to wisdom:

But God understands the way to it; it is he who knows its place.

For he looked to the ends of the earth, and beheld everything under the heavens,

So as to assign a weight to the wind, and determine the waters by measure,

A special kind of looking, a special kind of seeing, and measuring – this is the ancient ‘way to wisdom’. This deeply physical book, seeped in Nature imagery from beginning to end, has always fascinated me. At its climax we find what surely must be the most striking of all nature poems from the ancient world – in the form of God’s long-awaited answer to Job’s demands for an explanation of his unjust suffering. It is not the answer we expect, because it takes for form of questions – 163 of them – and all about the natural world:

Were you there when I laid the foundations of the Earth?

Do you know the way to the storehouses of the hail?

Where is the way to the abode of light?

Can you bind the stars of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?

Questions about the areas of science we now call astronomy, meteorology, geology, zoology and more pile up in stunning sequence as Yahweh asks Job to think about how to constitute a creation rich enough and delicate enough to support the complexity of the inhabited skies, oceans and land of the Earth. It’s as if he is saying to the angry Job – yes I can make you the comforting, ordered, world you wish for, the world without storms and floods and earthquakes – but it will be as ordered as a stone, as a crystal – it will be a dead world.

I’ve often suggested to scientist colleagues that they read these chapters from Job – and invariably they come back astonished at the probing imagination behind the text. Now one of the reasons that scientists find the Lord’s Answer to Job so impressive is to do with its very form. For we know that, at the heart of science, is not the so-called ‘scientific method’ with its experiments, tests, refutations and all that. For the ‘method’ would have nothing to work with if new ideas, bold hypotheses, possible worlds, were not first imagined. And the central imaginative, creating act in science is the formulation of the creative question. To those school sixth formers who could not see the creative content of science, we need to ask not ‘can you find the right answer?’ but ‘can you imagine the creative question?’

And to the church we need to say, ‘recognise science not as the secular world’s threat to your belief, but as God’s gift in your service of community, nation and world’. And more than that – recognise that the activity we now call ‘science’ is really only the name of the current chapter in a book that humankind has been writing for centuries, whose earlier chapters were called by other names. Only a century or two ago I would not have been called a scientist, but a ‘natural philosopher’ or – if you like – a lover of wisdom to do with natural things. Perhaps it would be better if we still were to call science by that humbler and older name that contains both love and wisdom within itself, to recognise that science has the ancient story of wisdom as its own story.

Then perhaps we could start to go about our work of healing, of mending, of gently and firmly replacing falsehood with truth – and start to work with science rather than in fear of it, and loving away those fearful narratives of desire, evil and the sacred in nature, with the narratives of reconciliation, of knowledge, of wisdom and of hope.

Can Science be more like Music? An Experiment with Light and Song

The_Light_of_Music_by_TWe4ksmallKarl Popper once wrote: “A great work of music, like a great scientific theory, is a cosmos imposed upon chaos – in its tensions and harmonies in exhaustible even for its creator”. If this is true (and it needs some unpacking before we can get to work on that question) then might great music be a source of illumination of great physics? Might physics inform and deepen our enjoyment of music? I don’t know – but I mean to find out with the help of scientific and musical colleagues in Durham this November, when we set out on a musical and experimental exploration for the International Year of Light.

FaWis_450Of course, musical themes and analogies surface frequently in Faith and Wisdom in Science.  I even imagine a nightmare world, in the introduction, where we have ‘locked away’ music from general human enjoyment and celebration in the same way that we seem to have done with science. Music, of course, has its ‘ladder’ of expertise – with international concert soloists at the top, and most of us somewhere towards the bottom – but nevertheless happily enjoying, and critically engaging with, the production of music in its new writing and performance.  The problem with science is that someone seems to have removed most of the lower rungs of its ladder!  Can we get them back by enjoying science and music together?

Perhaps it was hearing about the idea of the International Year of Light that alerted me to the amount of music, especially choral music, which seems to be inspired by the idea of light. Of course one reason for this is that light itself becomes a metaphor for so much beyond: understanding, hope, creation itself, which in turn inform and inspire music.

The first page of the printed score of Hayden's Creation (Novello edn.) - a musical depiction of chaos.

The first page of the printed score of Hayden’s Creation (Novello edn.) – a musical depiction of chaos.

Perhaps the ‘classic’ (in every sense of the word) musical moment that captures light-inspiration is the chorus in Hayden’s ‘Creation’ where order bursts out over the composer’s brilliant musical depiction of chaos: “… and … there … was… LIGHT!” – the chorus tip-toes over the introductory words from the Book of Genesis then explode in a cascade of fortissimo harmonies. Shut your eyes and you hear space filled with coruscating colour and brilliance.

But I think that Popper meant more than this by his musings on music. He is talking about form – that essential constraint on imagination that turns inspiration into art. Here he is surely onto something, for in science too we achieve understanding both through powerful imagination (‘could like be like a wave in some sense?’) and severe constraint (‘what happens if I direct a beam though this tiny hole …?). Could it be in this sense that both art and science fashion the order of form and pattern from the chaos of unfettered wild imagination and ignorance – and is it this that makes both music and science so basically human?

We are inviting all comers to an afternoon of hands-on experimental exploration of light from 2pm at Trevelyan College, Durham on Saturday November 14th. Three themes frame the activities – light as a combination of wavelengths and colour, light

Trevelyan College, Durham University

Trevelyan College, Durham University

as a carrier of information and light and a conveyer of energy for life. It will come as no surprise that we plan to explore the glaring analogy of colour and musical pitch during the afternoon – but we want to go further. Then for one hour from 4pm the Durham Singers will pick up on these same themes in a programme of music from 400 years of history. Two centrepieces to look forward to will be the Bach chorale Jesus, mein Lebens Licht, from the 17th century and a world Premiere of Light by local composer Janet Graham. Graham’s new piece sets words by another North-East artist – poet Gordon Hodgeon, now totally incapacitated by spinal injury, yet still writing. Light carries ‘words’ of information of chemistry and dynamics to us from distant stars. In this piece, Light literally becomes for us the only carrier of the poet’s words, distanced by the light-years of extreme disability. It looks like being a thoughtful and a moving occasion, and also an inspiring one. Come and join us!