Tag Archives: education

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.

The Quick Way To Become A Physicist

So you want to become a physicist, right? Problem is you don’t know much physics. Maybe you did some in high school. You might even have read a few physics blogs. But despite your enthusiasm, the road to the research frontier looks perilously long!

But I reckon it can be hiked in less than a year, just by dedicating a few hours of your weekend.

Thanks to the sterling work of Leonard Susskind, anybody can now learn enough physics to dive straight into research. In a series of video courses he explains the theoretical minimum you need to dive into modern research. There’s even an accompanying set of popular science books.

So challenge yourself to cover each of his core courses in a month. If you watch a lecture every Saturday and Sunday you’d manage it, more or less! Supplement your viewing with some problem questions and you’ll be well on the way to a firm foundation in the laws of nature.

Be warned – physics isn’t always easy to learn. Things can get tough, particularly when you’re studying on your own. But with the power of the internet, help is never far away. I suggest you hang out at Physics StackExchange. Asking and answering questions is the lifeblood of research culture, so don’t be shy!

Once you’ve burned through the core courses it’s time to step up a gear. Take a look at Susskind’s advanced courses. Although these are harder, there also infinitely more exciting! Plus, you can just pick and choose the ones you want to. Few research physicists start out with a encyclopaedic knowledge of every area.

If you keep up your twice a week lecture strategy, you’ll be equipped with the theoretical minimum within 9 months. Novice to expert in less time than it takes to train for a marathon! Sounds pretty good to me.

There’s one final step – read real life papers. This is pretty scary at first, so I usually start by browsing the introduction and conclusion. Once you’ve done this a few times you can take a deep breath and dive in properly. Remember to have a pen and paper handy – you’ll only learn by actively working out what’s going on!

Where to start? I think you could do worse than tackling the top 40 most cited papers of all time. Okay, this list is biased towards high-energy theory. But between you and me, that’s the coolest part of physics anyway!

Three months of reading real papers won’t give you enough time to get through all 40! But even if you just browse two or three, you’ll still be intellectually fraternising with the greatest academics of our generation. Your journey from layman to physicist will be complete.

So get inspired and give this project a go! I’ll be fascinated to hear from anybody who tries out some new physics, whether it’s for 24 hours or a whole year. I firmly believe that science should be available to everyone. Now more than ever before that opportunity is open to you!