Faith in Science Education – Wisdom in how we do it

Faith and Wisdom in Science – the blog did take a summer break.  But other things happened.  In particular I had the opportunity to write (at 24 hours notice) an opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper in the UK (published August 14th) on the importance of children experiencing open-ended experimental science while at school.  There is growing evidence that this is enormously beneficial to core science learning, but, as readers of Faith and Wisdom in Science will know, it also touches on a deeply theological nerve.  Becoming reconciled with nature means working with it and observing.  This is something that everyone can experience and enjoy.

The Guardian article as printed is here (it also made the weekly printed Guardian International, to which we have subscribed for years – I was delighted!). But I thought that the full original drafted version, before editor’s cuts, might be interesting to post.  So that follows.  The most important thing is that Job made the final cut!


Science is not just the preserve of stereotypical brainy boffins you see on TV. Speaking to the Times yesterday, head of the British Science Association Katherine Mathieson, said this public image was not helpful and that she’d prefer to “see a few years of genuine open-ended research by pupils, rather than fiddling around with beakers”. She also worries that science is not a topic of common conversation. Rightly so – if we can get our minds around Premier League strategy then complexity is not the issue.’

Mathieson is right to raise concerns. The ability of people to understand the world they live in increasingly depends on their understanding of scientific ideas. Science allows us to learn reliably about nature – if an experimental result does not support a specific idea, then the idea has to be rejected or modified and then tested again. For most people such understanding by imagination and experimentation comes through education. ​Great teachers are the driving force behind the UK’s position as a global scientific powerhouse.

However, overly-tight accountability measures, rapidly changing curricula and burdensome pupil progress monitoring are just some of the enormous pressures on schools that impede creating an environment in which tomorrow’s scientists can learn and grow. Teachers often have to carry out experiments in their own time and beyond the curriculum by joining schemes like our Partnership Grants.

In 2013, a report published by SCORE found that a worrying number of primary students were not experiencing a complete science education due to a lack of resources for practical work, with the average school having only 46% of the equipment needed. The UK is failing to create a scientifically informed society that can confidently hold science properly to account by engaging, enjoying and, yes, criticising it.

Children learn about music by trying their hand at composing a song or joining a jazz trio or string quartet. Others take GCSE Art, where we expect them to try out sketching and use watercolours, mixed-media or creative photography to learn about the subject. Even the most doting relative does not expect these creations to end up in a museum or concert hall, but what they teach our children about the artistic process is essential.

Science should be treated the same way. Humans have always been curious about the natural world and the stuff that makes it up. In the Book of Job, an ancient poem asks why the stars of the Pleiades are bound together, while those of Orion are scattered. Centuries before we formalised the scientific method, we had thoughtful and playful experiments with light, glass and water as well as astonishingly careful observations of the stars. People dreamed up imaginative theories of what might be going on up in rainbows and down inside liquids and solids. It wasn’t always right, but even now science can be a messy business on the path to truth. Why should things be different in 2017?

The Royal Society emphasises ‘experimental’ over ‘practical’ science, where curiosity should go beyond following a simple recipe and people should simply try something – a thoughtful way of looking for answers. We need to reverse recent trends and increase the amount of time and money invested in experimental and problem-solving work in science and mathematics education through access to adequately resourced laboratories and well-trained teachers. To support this activity in primary schools, Brian Cox, the Royal Society’s Professor for Public Engagement in Science, presents a series of video resources to increase teachers’ confidence with experimental science and relate the experiments to the real world.

Before you reach out for your Rousseaus to bash me over the head with, I want to reassure you that experimental science in education complements rather than replaces the learning of core scientific understanding. Sir John Holman found that investigative science improved attainment in core science exams, with greater effect for pupils in less privileged areas. There are other signs of new growth – the new Institute for Research in Schools is right now realising Mathieson’s vision of ‘genuine open-ended research by pupils’.

We currently have many examples of good practice at primary and secondary schools and colleges across the UK. Investing in experimental science in all our schools to help future generations make better sense of the world around them means that one day we will have confident opinions on scientific issues like we do on technical matters like Premier League team strategies.



Theatre, Science, the Book of Job – and Faith in the Questions


FaWis_450A play based on connections between the Book of Job and science!

This is going to be an exciting week (quite apart from a general election in the UK).  Financial support from the Durham-based Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science project has allowed the development of a one-act play exploring the idea proposed in Faith and Wisdom in Science that the Old Testament Book of Job serves as a fundamental text from which we can trace the questions which today underpin the wonderful human cultural activity that we call ‘Science’.  In particular it takes the essential, and paradoxical, form of questions that is assumed by the ‘Lord’s Answer’ to Job in the Biblical book.

Faith-In-The-Questions-poster-423x600A group of us in York have been working with the well-known theatre company Riding Lights and their writer Nigel Forde on the play Counting the Clouds.  To find out more you will really have to get along to St. Michael-le-Belfrey church (hard by York Minster) at 7.30 pm on the evenings of Thursday, Friday or Saturday June 8th, 9th and 10th.  Suffice it to say that the afflicted yet faithful Job is, in the play, a contemporary scientists, and that one of his ‘comforters’ includes a hard-line humanities-trained clergyman for whom science is a spoiler, a destroyer of wonder, and a threat to his faith.  Both have things to learn.

On each evening, the play will be followed by a second hour of panel discussion between the audience and a group of scientists who are also Christians.  It’s not impossible that I will be among them, but so will Steve Smye OBE of Leeds University and the National Institute of Health Research, and others of wide and deep experience.

foi-logoThe event, Faith in the Questions, forms part of York’s current Festival of Ideas, in which there is lots more on art, literature, politics, science, theology and more to entertain, educate and inspire – so get up to York this week, join in the discussion, and experience Counting the Clouds!.

You can find more information on the event and booking here.



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.

NATURE features Christian Leaders and Scientists Project

Nature, the international general science journal, published an article this week about the Christian Leaders in an Age of Science project that I co-lead with Revd. Prof. David Wilkinson, Principal of St. John’s College Durham University. Written by our Project Manager, Revd. Dr. Kathryn Prichard, it’s pithy and personal approach has attracted a long and varied comment stream!

Kathryn tells it how it is from the title on:

kathrynReligion and science can have a true dialogue

She begins with a personal account of the sort of activity that senior church leaders (bishops and equivalent) get up to with the scientists at Durham University when we get them all together for a day:

Eagle Dark matterI work for the Archbishops’ Council in the Church of England, and this summer I did something that many people would think is impossible. I sat in a dark lecture theatre engrossed in a computationally generated 3D journey through the Universe. Virtual stars whizzed past and seemed narrowly to miss colliding with my head as we accelerated through galaxies and past exploding stars. I listened to cosmologists speak on research into dark matter, particle physics, the rate at which the growth of the Universe is accelerating and the possibi­lity of multi­verses. I asked questions and they responded.

Read the open-access article itself to find out more!

The comments have been very varied – from the predictable (the article itself anticipates them) vilifying Nature for dropping its standards, to nuanced and personal comments from scientists who are Christians, and have thought deeply about the relation between their faith and their science.  Those that see only negative tensions between religion and science might bear in mind a few sets of ‘data’:

(1) It is historically uncontroversial that religion, and Christianity in particular, served as a stimulus and support for science. Francis Bacon articulates the theological reasons for the rise of experimental science in the early modern era, to take just one key example.  A great collection of reading here is Galileo Goes to Jail – and other myths about science and religion (edited by Ron Numbers)
(2) The ‘conflict’ notion is, for the most part, a historically invented polemic myth from the late 19th century (see the ‘Draper-White’ thesis), constructed for other reasons (the new book Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison is well worth a read for both these points)
(3) The extraordinary scientists throughout history who have found deep motivation from and connections with, their faith to do science, are testimony to the positive support for science at the personal level (Copernicus, Newton, Boyle, Maxwell, Faraday, Born, … to name a very few)
(4) Our project aims at catalysing the potential support for a healthy understanding of science and scientific thinking that the church can give at personal, local and national level, and which is natural for it to do. We’ve seen great examples of churches supporting science festivals, for example. We are working with senior leaders because they tend to come from humanities backgrounds and lack confidence (but not intelligence, learning or enthusiasm) in science. Their meetings with the scientists we arrange under science themes have been transformation for both, time after time.

Perhaps the most important clue to the ways in which a healthy religious life can support science at its core was given by the Nobel Laureate Isidor I. Rabi when once asked why he became a scientist:

”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me become a scientist!”

As it turns out, ‘Izzy”s mother was displaying the most faithful awareness of her Jewish tradition – for any close reader of the Bible (this ought to include Christians as well of course) is immediately struck by the importance all the writings urge of questions.  One of the tired  and uninformed canards in the science and religion conversation is that the latter cuts off questions in place of acceptance of dogma.  Nothing could be less accurate.  One of the oldest nature-wisdom poems we possess is to be found as ‘The Lord’s Answer’ in the Book of Job. It consists entirely of questions about the workings of the natural world, from the stars to the lightning and snow, to the wild animals and the trees.

The very greatest question, ‘What is Truth?’ appears at one of the most climactic moments of the whole Biblical narrative, in the tense and probing discourse between Jesus and Pilate before the crucifixion. There is no greater gift to those who would seek to know and to understand than a great question.




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.

Science and the Church: Gift, Celebration and Re-Creation

NorwichCathedral I spent Friday afternoon sitting next to Bishop Graham of Norwich in his Cathedral’s spacious conference room, fielding questions about science and faith from a determined field of 6th formers.  Dean Jane Hedges chaired a mixed panel of lay ordained, religious believers (of different kinds) and not, and including two working scientists (I was the physicist – at the other end of the row an Oxford biologist).  What are the top questions young people in Norwich want to explore, when given that opportunity?  Before reading on you might want to see how many you can guess.  Here are five of them…

  • Did the laws of physics spring from nothing? How does this relate to the idea of God?
  • Many churches still preach creationism as a literal interpretation of Genesis. This message is in direct contradiction to evolution and the evidence provided by physics. Is there too great a gulf between faith and reason to reconcile the two?
  • If God is the God of ‘gaps’, what gaps are left for God to fill?
  • How would science explain apparent metaphysical features of the world such as free will?
  • Science is based on empirical evidence and religion is based on ideas. Should religion have to prove itself in order to be valid in today’s society?

This isn’t the place to record our answers – but to reflect on the diverse concerns and assumptions behind these probing questions. Take the last – there is essentially no public grasp of the history of thought informed by anything deeper that the historically-false ‘conflict’ paradigm of Christianity and Science.  The information that not only were all the early modern pioneers of science Christians (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Boyle, and Newton a Unitarian), but that they worked under an explicit theology for why they were doing science [1], comes as rather a surprise.

From that starting point it is not a surprise that faith and science have become tangled in pupils’ minds as competing explanatory frameworks – so God rescues and inhabits the ‘gaps’ in our explanations (until there are no gaps left…). Science itself becomes misunderstood – the notion of ‘scientific proof’ is appealed to (it doesn’t exist) – and a grasp of ‘religion’ also – we found ourselves asserting that Christianity is not just ‘about ideas’ but about practical living that works.  The most troubling questions – troubling because they arose, not because they are hard to answer – were about the conflict of science with young earth creationism (and it came up more than once).  This is a terrible 20th century heresy that is taught in more churches than most people think, poisons young minds and reduces Bible-reading to thin, selective and disrespectful proof-texting.  The Church needs to speak out on this much more strongly, for here is a real conflict – one has to throw out essentially all that we have learned through science to countenance it.


Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014)

So it is a wonderful thing that Churches and Cathedrals are increasingly recognising that they are natural places to host science festivals, such as the Norwich science week in which the debate took place.  Lectures, hands on experiments – even a simulated volcano spewing fire – all graced the festival week.  To move from seeing science as a vague secular threat, towards celebrating it as God’s Gift, is an essential journey for the Church today.  This is not only so that the apologetic questions can be re-framed in proper historical and philosophical light, but because science needs the church to support its mission even more now than it always did.  This is the central point of the book Faith and Wisdom in Science, in which I argue that a ‘Theology of Science’ needs urgently to replace the opposition of theology and science.

To take just one strand of evidence for this claim: examine the fractious and conflictual

Durham Cathedral

The north view of the massive norman nave of Durham Cathedral seen from Palace Green.

public and political debates about science-based issues like climate change and genetic medicine. These discussions need the patient, reconciliatory service of our community of faith if they are to progress.  St. John’s College, Durham University is currently running a project Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science (funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation) to bring senior Christian leaders and scientists together.  Earlier this year it hosted a remarkable workshop on earth sciences, theology and the church in which I experienced for the first time a thoughtful (and prayerful) engagement of opposite views on fracking. Another strand of the project, recently launched, is the offer of competitive funding to churches with imaginative ideas on engaging with science.  The Scientists in Congregations initiative awaits your ideas.


[1] As historian Peter Harrison has written about in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science

Two Years of ‘Faith and Wisdom in Science’? And a question – ‘How did you come to write it?’

I have just returned from a remarkable evening at a small town in the Scottish Boarders called Biggar.  The church there had arranged for an evening community talk and Q&A on science and faith, following the book Faith and Wisdom in Science.  I have given about 40 such talks in the last 2 years, but this was by any measure a rather special one.  the questions went on and on, as did the discussions over the book signing at the end.


Somewhere in mid flow talking about reconstructing a picture of the universe at different lengthscales at a talk on Faith and Wisdom in Science.


It makes a fitting staging-post for reflection after 2 years since the book first came out in hardback, and at the point at which the paperback edition is published.

So I have updated the blogsite somewhat.  There is now a special page for media resources (videos and podcasts).  Another one gives links to the reviews of the book that are still emerging in popular, scientific and theological outlets.

Perhaps more usefully there is now a complete online list of the errata that crept into the first imprint and which I am swatting away as readers kindly point them out.

One question from Biggar got me reflecting deeply – a lady wanted to know the process, or processes by which I had come to write the book.  What were my motivations, sources, hopes?  It’s a while since I had tried to draw all those threads together, and I found it a very helpful exercise.

I think that the first reason was nothing to do with the ‘Faith and Science’ question at all. In fact, perhaps the happiest comment about the book was made to me last year by a colleague – ‘Tom, your book – is isn’t really a science and religion book at all, is it?’ Indeed it isn’t!  It’s a science book – or especially an articulation of how science is at the heart of human culture, and has been there in its earlier forms for many hundreds of years.  I realised that I also wanted to know what science was for.  After all – I was going to spend a long time doing it throughout my life, and some idea of the purpose to aim at would be imp0rtant.  But purpose is not a category that sits easily with the way science is talked about.  That is where theology comes in – it is the one discipline still comfortable with the idea of purpose.  I have said before that were one a believer or not, for that reason alone, theology becomes a resource for social teleology!

Then, of course, there was the public discourse of the ‘religion and science’ debate.  Worthy in its own way, I found it increasingly boxed in, and consistently over-apologetic.  The question, explicit or implicit, always seemed to be, ‘can you reconcile science with religion?’  This for me was never the best question, and assumed too much wrong ‘geometry’ of the relationship between the two.  Very few people seemed to be asking the more fruitful question that leads from the issue of purpose – what does science do within the Kingdom of God, once conceived of as God’s gift?  That became the central quest of Faith and Wisdom in Science.

Job Blake

From William Blake’s series of paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Job. Behemoth and Leviathan Wikimedia commons

Then, finally, there was the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament in general, and the Book of Job in particular.  The notion that the tradition of Wisdom constitutes the tributary stream that became science is suggested strongly by the old name for my disciplines, Natural Philosophy – love of wisdom to do with natural things.  But a close reading of Job convinced me.  The wonderful ‘Lord’s Answer’ has to be the most profound nature poem of ancient literature.  It had long fascinated me, and the idea of making an extensive study of Job as a whole as the centrepiece of a book became impossible to ignore. The ‘Nature Trail through Job’ became the central pillar of the book, it’s highest vantage point.  Climbing up to it through an analysis of science as human story, and through creation stories in the Old Testament, it then provided the vision and the material to develop a ‘Theology of Science’ in consequence.

Purpose, science as a humanity, the theology of (not ‘and’) science, and the tradition of Wisdom.  These became the motivations, sources and energies that turned into the book, and which I hope will become much beside as in the church we embrace science as God’s gift, and in society we learn to contemplate it as part of what it means for all of us to be human.