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God in the Lab: How science enhances faith

Caroline Berry

Ruth M. Bancewicz Monarch, 256pp

If you are not a scientist what is your view of those who spend their days doing laboratory research? Do you imagine them to be somewhat dull, over-rational and generally rather geeky? Does their evidence based worldview leave any room for belief in a God who is both within and ruling the universe? Ruth Bancewicz's book challenges these ideas. It is neither a textbook or an account of miracles. As a PhD student she studied the development of the tiny zebra fish, which stumbles at the first hurdle by having stripes running in the opposite direction to those of real zebras! She describes her personal excitement at watching its development and seeing how one stage follows another. She could not fail to be excited by the harmony and intricacy of what she saw. As a Christian she could delight in discovering the way God works in this small corner of his creation and could praise Him in that even an embryonic fish is 'fearfully and wonderfully made'. She goes on to speak to other scientists, well established in their field of study and finds they too are frequently blown away by the excitement of what they are discovering. Like the 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler, they see themselves as privileged at having the opportunity to 'think God's thoughts after Him'. One of those interviewed explained that alongside the excitement of making a new discovery came the sobering realization that God had known about it since the beginning of time. The second chapter outlines some of the routines of laboratory life, much of it tedious as experiments giving potentially exciting results have to be both repeated and re-analysed in order to be sure that the findings are correct. Usually this involves teamwork, with opportunities for jealousy, competitiveness and disheartenment. Good team leadership is much more essential to-day than in past times when one man (or occasionally woman) could more easily make major discoveries on their own. Much of our culture sees a chasm between practising science and believing in God. Chapter three specifically addresses this issue but really the whole book illustrates the interrelation of faith and science. After the introductory chapters, most of the book examines five concepts more usually associated with art than science: beauty, creativity, imagination, wonder and awe. Dr Bancewicz has interviewed scientists from different disciplines. She uses their thoughts and observations to demonstrate the importance of these apparently non scientific attributes in the life in the laboratory. She shows that not only are they indispensible for innovative research but they can also enliven the difficult days when experiments fail, never mind supremely enhancing the rare and treasured 'eureka' moments. Creativity is clearly an essential part of research. Without it there would be no new ideas and solutions to apparently intractable problems might never be found. Scientists using their imagination sounds odd but from where do new ideas come unless people use their imagination to think outside the box? We are given good examples of this bearing fruit. Perhaps beauty is less expected in the laboratory but the regularity of natural cycles and the intricate processes of early development have long been seen as beautiful by both scientists and poets. The colours and patterns that emerge from laboratory experiments can delight the eye. For many mathematical equations give rise to heart sink but to those whose work relies on them a significant equation or formula has a beauty inherent in itself. Then we come on to wonder and awe. Dr Bancewicz is careful to distinguish between the two. Any new discovery should fill the finder with a sense of wonder, even looking at a fossil in a broken stone, knowing that it last saw the light of day millions of years ago. She finds a sense of wonder is common among scientists; both Christian and non Christian are likely to marvel at the order and complexity of the world. A geneticist is quoted as saying 'The most amazing thing about mammalian development is… that it ever succeeds!' For Rhoda Hawkins as a Christian that wonder is enhanced by seeing the cells which she studies as part of God's creation. That such awe can lead to worship of the God who is so beyond our understanding is a recurring theme of the book. Enjoyment of God's creation enhances our worship in both the psalms of old and our marvelling at outer space to-day. Throughout the book the author re-iterates her points with quotes from a very wide selection of scientists, theologians, and literary figures from all periods of history showing that the current concerns about conflict between science and religion are very much a modern phenomenon. Even to-day conflict remains a minority view. Scientists who make no profession of faith still stand back in wonder at the order and complexity of the solar system and the fact that we can live in and understand it. As Einstein is quoted to observe '…the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility'. All the sources quoted are readily accessed in the 244 notes listed on 17 pages at the end of the book and there is a good index. This is a good book for a non scientist to read. It should lead to a fresh and surely enlightened understanding of the scientific life. It is also a reminder for those who work in labs of a perhaps lost first love, and a prompt to look up from the grind of endless grant applications to see God at work in everyday routines. For all of us the sense of wonder vibrating through the book is an excellent antidote to cynicism and world weariness. Caroline Berry