Science and Faith – The Arts of the Unknown

I spent this morning singing a Sunday service at St. George’s Church in Borough. An odd occupation for a scientist perhaps, especially given the high profile of several atheist researchers! Yet a large number of scientists see no contradiction between faith and science. In fact, my Christian faith is only deepened by my fascination with the natural world.

Picture a scientist. Chances are you’ve already got in your mind a geeky, rational person, calibrating a precise experiment or poring over a dry mathematical formula! As with any stereotype, it has it’s merits. But it misses a vital quality in research – imagination.

To succeed as a scientist, you must be creative above all else. It’s no use just learning experimental techniques or memorising formulae. Every new idea must necessarily start off as a fantasy. Great painters are not merely lauded for their 10,000 hours of practice with a paintbrush. It is their capacity to conceive and relay vivid scenes which ensures their place in history. And so it is with science.

So why are scientists seen as cold and calculating and exact, rather than passionate and original? The problem lies in education. While young children are encouraged to express themselves in Literacy, Numeracy is all too often a trudge through tedious and predictable sums. In “arts” subjects, questions are a magical tool enabling discussion, debate and opinion. In “sciences” they merely distinguish right from wrong.

After 15 years of schooling, no wonder the stereotype is embedded! As a teenager, I very nearly ditched the sciences in favour of subjects where expression was free and original arguments rewarded. I’m eternally thankful to my teachers, parents and bookshelf for convincing me that the curriculum was utterly unrepresentative of real science.

So what’s to be done. For any budding scientists out there, your best bet is to read some books. Not your school textbooks – chances are they are dull as ditchwater and require no creative input at all. I mean books written by real life mathematicians, physicists, biologists… These will give you an insight into the imagination that drives research, the contentious debates and the lively exchanges of ideas.

You might not understand everything, but that’s the whole point – science is about the unknown, just as much as art or faith. It is exactly this point which we must evangelise again and again. Perhaps then fewer people will write negative reviews criticising science for being complex, poetic and beautiful.

As a wider society, we can take action too! We must demand better science teaching from a young age. Curricula should emphasise problem solving over knowledge, ideas over techniques and originality over regurgitation. This is already the mantra for many traditionally “artistic” discplines. It must be the battle cry for scientists also!

A better approach to science would democratize opportunity for the next generation. No longer will the relative creativity of girls be arbitrarily punished – an approach which can only discourage women from entering science in the long run. No longer will there be a tech skills gap threatening to undermine the thriving software industry. The UK has a uniquely privileged scientific pedigree. For future equality, economy and diversity, we must use it.

In the service this morning Fr Jonathan Sedgwick talked of the danger of applying scientific laws to the world at large. The concepts of “cause and effect” and “zero sum games” may well work in vacuo, but they are artificial and burdensome when applied to interpersonal relationships. Quite right – as Christians we must question these human rules, and look for a divine inspiration to guide our lives!

But this is also precisely what we must do as scientists. A good scientist always questions their models, constantly listening for the voice of intuition. For science – like our own existence – is ever changing. And it’s our job to search for the way, the truth and the life.

My thanks to Margaret Widdess, who prepared me for confirmation two years ago at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge and with whom I first talked deeply about the infinity of science and faith.

Why does feedback hurt sometimes?

Research is hard. And not for the reasons you might expect! Sure, my daily life involves equations which look impenetrable to the layman. But by the time you’ve spent years studying them, they aren’t so terrifying!

The real difficulty in research is psychological. The natural state for a scientist is failure – most ideas simply do not succeed! Developing the resilience, maturity and sheer bloody mindedness to just keep on plugging away is a vital but tough skill.

This letter, written by an experienced academic to her PhD student is a wonderfully candid account of the minefield of academic criticism, both professional and personal. What’s more, it lays bare some important coping strategies – I certainly wish I’d read it before embarking on my PhD.

Above all, this letter is an admission of humanity. As researchers, we face huge challenges in our careers. But the very personal process of responding to them is precisely what makes us better scientists, and perhaps even improves us as people.

The Thesis Whisperer

This letter was written by an experienced academic at ANU to her PhD student, who had just presented his research to a review panel and was still licking her wounds.

The student sent it to me and I thought it was a great response I asked the academic in question, and the student who received it, if I could publish it. I wish all of us could have such nuanced and thoughtfu feedback during the PhD. I hope you enjoy it.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.27.05 PMA letter to…My PhD student after her upgradeWell you did it. You got your upgrade. But from the look on your face I could tell you thought it was a hollow victory. The professors did their job and put the boot in. I remember seeing that look in the mirror after my own viva. Why does a win in academia always have the sting of defeat?

Yeah, it’s a…

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Mathematica for Physicists

I’ve just finished writing a lecture course for SEPnet, a consortium of leading research universities in the South East of Britain. The course comprises a series of webcasts introducing Mathematica – check it out here!

Although the course starts from the basics, I hope it’ll be useful to researchers at all levels of academia. Rather than focussing on computations, I relay the philosophy of Mathematica. This uncovers some tips, tricks and style maxims which even experienced users might not have encountered.

I ought to particularly thank the Mathematica Summer School for inspiring this project, and demonstrating that Mathematica is so much more than just another programming language. If you’re a theorist who uses computer algebra on a daily basis, I thoroughly recommend you come along to the next edition of the school in September.

Using Thunderbird Client with Office 365

I’ve just wasted a good half hour trying to migrate my email to an Office365 SMTP server. It seems that QMUL have decided to discontinue their in-house email server, but have not provided sufficient details about the new settings needed for email clients.

So here they are, in case anyone else runs into difficulties.

SMTP server : smtp.office365.com
Username : <your-id>@qmul.ac.uk
Port : 587 (not the default)
Encryption : STARTTLS (not SSL/TLS)

I imagine that similar settings should work for other institutions which have moved to an Office365 system.