Bridging the divide between science and faith

Science seeks truth in a different way than religion. Scientists ask the question How did life begin? while religion seeks meaning to our existence. Therefore some would argue that there should be peaceful coexistence instead of conflict. Others would take comfort in the fact that inanimate and animate matter are composed of the same basic elements, hinting at the influence of a divine architect using the same building blocks. Karen Armstrong, a religious scholar and former Roman Catholic nun, holds the view that religion is an ethical alchemy rather than a belief in things. Nevertheless, the reality is that differences between the two groups over life/death/evolution have drowned out voices seeking common ground or at the very least making their cases without vilifying the opposition. Gregory Petsko, a biologist from Brandeis University, is one voice making himself heard from the wilderness in a recently published article. He calls for a dialogue stripped of the usual rancor [1].

The road towards a truce between the two camps is paved with many obstacles. Embryonic stem cell research is one area where the battle lines are clearly drawn. Why? John Burn, a British clinical geneticist raised as a Christian, provides insights [2]. The vehement response to stem cell research as an assault on the sanctity of human life has its roots in a papal bull issued in 1869. Pius IX declared that life should, as a precaution, be deemed to commence at conception. Can one ever consider the union of a sperm and egg as life? It depends on where the definition is being applied. When removed from the controversial realm of stem cell research and applied to exobiology, scientists would have no problem referring to any discovery of Martian germs or the successful generation of a synthetic cell as life. However, the religious argument centers on the very essence of humanity ie, the possession of a soul. Burn points out that Jewish and Islamic teaching on the commencement of life differ from that of Christianity. Their scriptures proclaim the commencement of life at 40-80 days – when the embryo has a primitive nervous system. By contrast, Pope Benedict XVI declared that ensoulment occurs at the blastocyst stage. Burn’s article advocates a search for solutions rather than focusing on religious differences. Adult stem cell research may provide a temporary respite from the stalemate. Ultimately he proposes that medical need should trump literal biblical interpretations, as happened when cadaver organ donation was finally accepted.

Evolution is another roadblock and has in fact spawned a pseudoscience, intelligent design (ID). ID attempts to validate the existence of God by looking for examples of irreducible complexity in nature. Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, dissects the scientific arguments for ID in his recently published book [3]. The bacterial flagellum (of E. coli) and blood clotting are often cited as examples of irreducible complexity in nature. About 30 proteins are needed to ensure normal functioning of the flagellum. Similarly, a multitude of steps have to be in place to ensure normal blood clotting. ID proponents argue that such biological systems are evidence of an external architect, because the components of each system could not function independently – they only function together for a unique purpose. Miller brings his prowess as an educator to the table in countering these arguments. Ten of the thirty flagellar proteins can also function in secretory systems necessary for bacterial virulence. In addition, comparative genomics has identified functioning blood clotting pathways in other organisms that lack some of the so-called critical steps. He cites many other examples as evidence of nature tinkering with different species using bits and pieces over time. Miller relishes the to and fro dialogue with ID proponents, suggesting that ID be put to experimental tests. He also cites the conservative, Charles Krauthammer’s remarks (appeared in the Washington Post): How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule, pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of Education (anti-evolutionists), too.

Arguments like those eloquently summarized by Miller and others are effective in pointing out flaws in ID. Does this mean that science and faith are permanently at odds and that scientists cannot be spiritual/believers? The answer is no. Just look at two famous examples: Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton. A brain scientist, Jill Bolte-Taylor, detailed how a rare stroke in her left brain hemisphere (location of the ego) forced her to tap into the right side of her brain, eliciting an experience of Nirvana [5]. While not advocating on behalf of religion, she regularly lectures on her experience and the benefits of tapping into one’s spiritual side.

It seems to be human nature to search for objective reality and revelation. Edward Wilson, famed entomologist and Harvard professor, proposed a unified model to explain everything that humans know and can know (interested readers are referred to his book) [6]. Perhaps an excerpt from the poem, Desiderata [7], best captures the human condition:

You are a child of the universe

no less than the trees and the stars;

you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you,

no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Sources
1. Greg Petsko, The new Manichaens. Genome Biol. 2008;9:105.

2. John Burn, Can a cell have a soul? British Medical Journal, 2008;336:1132.

3. Kenneth Miller, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. (New York: Penguin Group; 2008).

4. John Hurdle, Philadelphia set to honor Darwin and Evolution, The New York Times, June 23, 2008.

5. Jill Bolte-Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, (New York: Viking, Penguin Group; 2008).

6. Edward O. Wilson, Consilience:The Unity of Knowledge, (New York: A.A.Knopf; 1998).

7. Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, 1920.

Disclaimer: This essay, written a few years ago, reflects my understanding at that time and I respect the rights of others to disagree with its content. Since then, many advances have been made in the area of biology (specifically, stem cell research) and I have personally seen the power of faith in helping people to cope with harsh times. Whenever I find the time to craft my evolving thoughts (on science and relgion) into another narrative, I shall inflict those ideas on to an unsuspecting public.

The life that a child deserves to live (First appeared in The Norwalk Patch)

We deserve to live a quiet life without anxiety and fear.

We deserve to know that we don’t need to come back to the shelters today, tomorrow, or next month.

We deserve to stop hearing voices of the missiles.

We deserve to live in our houses, not in the shelter nearby.

The words echoed by Israeli teenagers from the Eye2Israel project reflect their perspectives on an endless conflict that has stymied leaders on both sides of the political and religious divide. However, this post is not about politics or religion. It is about meeting children in Union Square, New York City, and seeing the world through their eyes. It is about hope and idealism, in spite of being faced with adversity. Last year, I was privileged to meet the bright scientific and technological minds that will continue to cement the reputation of Israel as a technology powerhouse. A group of ninth- through twelfth-graders from the Israel Scientific and Technological School network showcased inventions ranging from a mobile application (to alert smartphone users about food allergens) to a prototype for a wearable sensor designed to aid blind people. The high-technology inventions and expertise on display at the Union Square exhibit and the enthusiasm with which students freely shared their knowledge, speak volumes about the results of investing in the education of children. According to the nation’s research and development service, Israel has 135 academically educated engineers and scientists per 10,000 population compared to 81 per 10,000 in the US. Companies such as Intel, IBM, Motorola, Applied Materials, BMC, Creo, Marvell, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Nestlé have research and development centers in Israel.

Where are the future scientists and engineers of the USA? They are undoubtedly being cultivated in charter schools, STEM programs and other nationwide educational efforts. While the experts debate whether US teenagers are lagging in science, technology, and mathematics versus the rest of the world, it is also important to pay attention to theidea that teachers “ought to think in terms of working with – and learning from – their counterparts in other countries so that children everywhere will become more proficient and enthusiastic learners.”

Sometimes it may be as easy as crossing to the other side of Union Square to spread infectious enthusiasm about science and technology. The children I met on separate occasion at the same location reflected the largest untapped human resource in this country. They also felt that they “deserved” something. Unlike the children from Israel, they did not live in the shadows of war. Their war was one waged against poverty and hopelessness. They asked for something that many other children take for granted: love.

We Deserve Love Too!, a youth-led campaign in New York City, attracted my attention with the stories of teenagers who fell through societal cracks and still held out hope of finding a home. One teenager described living in the home of adoptive parents for years before being returned to the foster care system. Thanks to finding loving parents, he was able to complete high school and was accepted at a local university. Imagine if he was there on the same day as the Israeli inventors and had been inspired by their presence. Would it have changed the course of his life or others like him?Maybe Union Square would at the very least have been place where children learn from another under the guidance of adults who truly invest and believe in their futures.

Thomas Young and Vladimir Nabokov

Occasionally I intend to post stories that are unrelated to the main topics in my book, but reflect one of my other passions i.e. history. This is a post that first appeared in The Norwalk Patch:

To many scientists the words “interdisciplinary research” refer to cross-fertilization of ideas and experiments within subcategories of their chosen field, or collaborating with clinicians, engineers, and physicists. Usually, when scientists strayed into areas of music, film, and literature, or when artists strayed into science, it was within the framework of communicating the latest discoveries to laymen or using creative images to transmit the impact of the latest breakthroughs. Another possibility is simply demonstrating the beauty of nature for its own sake. By and large, the motto seems to be “to each his own.”

History has provided us with figures that break the traditional mold, either in the breadth of their scientific expertise or by their achievements in the seemingly separate worlds of science and literature. Thomas Young, an English polymath (1773-1829), is an example of the former, and Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian-American author (1899-1977), is an example of the latter.

Nabokov is, of course, widely known for his novel, Lolita, composed while on butterfly collecting trips in the western United States. He combined teaching “all things Russian” with his interest in lepidoptery at both Wellesley College and Harvard University. Harvard students may be familiar with Nabokov’s collection of male butterfly genitalia stored at the university’s Museum of Natural History and his expertise in microscopic comparisons of these specimens. Several butterfly and moth species, as well as the genus Nabokovia were named in his honor.

Thomas Young broke boundaries in many areas of science. He established the wave theory of light, overcoming a century-old view that light was a particle—an assessment made by Sir Isaac Newton. The roll call of his achievements includes founding the field of physiological optics, establishing the theory of capillary phenomena based on the principle of surface tension as well as related equations, making contributions to haemodynamics, medical writings on consumptive diseases, and developing a rule for children’s drug dosages. Young’s interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics was evidence that this genius did not only confine his mind to scientific matters. His publication,Account of the Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphic Literature and Egyptian Antiquities, may have influenced the Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the Rosetta Stone.

Although Young and Nabokov were completely different in terms of temperament, interests, and accomplishments, one might argue that both flourished as creative individuals because interests and success in one field stimulated success and further accomplishments in other areas. Stephen Jay Gould, noted paleontologist and essayist, held an alternative view that may apply to both Nabokov and Young, namely, success in science and other fields may be rooted in a love of detail, contemplation, and symmetry.

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Young_%28scientist%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Nabokov

ZEN Science Scan newsletter (Feb/March 2015)

Hi everyone,

My newsletter on SlideShare is a supplement (ZEN Science Scan Newsletter, Feb/Mar 2015) to highlight some of the exciting research and challenges in the fields of communicable and non-communicable diseases (with an emphasis on HIV/TB/diabetes as described in “The Heroine Next Door”).

Iraqi-born optical pioneer

Snapshots of ephemeral events that fingerprint different biological phenomena are within reach thanks to the generation of ultrashort bursts of light produced by attosecond (10-18 seconds) lasers. At a cutting-edge laser laboratory in Saudi Arabia, the properties of light will be pushed to this extreme in the analysis of protein and nucleic acids in blood samples from cancer patients and in other studies.1 Since the United Nations has designated 2015 as the Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, it is worthwhile remembering the pioneers that enabled the development of light-based technologies ranging from the bulb to the attosecond laser. In a Nature commemorative issue, Prof. Khalili (University of Surrey in Guildford, UK) revisits the major contributions to optical principles made by Iraqi-born mathematician and astronomer, Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham   (Ibn al-Haytham; born c. 965, Basra, Iraq—died c. 1040, Cairo, Egypt). Imprisoned by a Fatimid caliph, ibn al-Haytham used the time to think and write, particularly about optics. Following his release, he combined this writing with experimental observations in his seminal seven-volume Book of Optics (Kitāb al-manāẓir).2 The book contains the correct model of vision, a complete formulation of the laws of reflection, and a detailed investigation of refraction. In addition, he published other studies on optics, including Ḍawʾ al-qamar (“On the Light of the Moon”), al-Hāla wa-qaws quzaḥ (“On the Halo and the Rainbow”), Ṣūrat al-kusūf (“On the Shape of the Eclipse”; which includes a discussion of the camera obscura), and al-Ḍawʾ (“A Discourse on Light”). Interestingly, it is speculated that the 17th century Dutch master, Vermeer, may have used a camera obscura – the precursor to the camera and photography – in achieving exquisite detail in his paintings. Other polymaths and artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Piero della Francesca have applied his discoveries to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth on canvas and in friezes.2 Together with his accomplishments in mathematics and astronomy,  Ibn al-Haytham has influenced seventeenth-century European scientists such as Johannes Kepler and enhanced our present understanding of classical optics.

Sources

1 Abbott, A. Nature 518, 281-2, 2015

2 Al-Khalili, J. Nature 518, 164-5, 2015