Saturday, June 20, 2009

Who Are Your Scientist Heroes of Faith?

A new Twitter friend asked me a question the other day, somewhat innocently I suppose: "Who are your scientist heroes of faith?" In other words, who are the scientists who have managed to integrate their scientific lives and spiritual lives and, in so doing, inspired me in my own quest to do the same?

I had to think a long time about this question because, alas, there weren't many. Or any, if truth be told (which it always should be).

There are scientists who write about science and either spiritual or religious topics, of course. Examples include John Polkinghorne, David Bohm, Fritjof Capra, Ken Wilbur, Arthur Peacocke and Francis Collins.

However, I find the writings of many of these scientists (with the exception of Peacocke and Collins) to be dull and uninspiring and I can't say that I consider any of them to be one of my "heroes." Peacocke's ideas are more interesting than the others (to me) but none of them have inspired me in the way a true "hero" would.

It isn't that I can't name people who have inspired me. I do have heroes and heroines. Carl Sagan, Lynn Margulis, Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong are just a few who lead my list of heroes and heroines.

You might be surprised to see Carl Sagan, an avowed agnostic, on my list, but he was fearless in his pursuit of basic questions about our place in the universe and his work has inspired millions. Merely hearing the opening bars of the Cosmos theme song can spark something like a religious experience for many of us.

Lynn Margulis, who happened to be Sagan's first wife, was also fearless in her pursuit of a theory of life that became known through her work with collaborator James Lovelock as the Gaia Hypothesis. I have closely followed her work, not only because it is extremely interesting from a scientific point of view, but because of her tenacity in pursuit of the truth, even if it upset accepted scientific hypotheses.

Joseph Campbell is on my list for much the same reason as Sagan, although he taught us that we had only to look inside ourselves to see the same majestic universe Sagan saw through his telescopes. And Karen Armstrong, not a scientist at all, but a person who exemplifies the essence of scholarship as a way to know the divine. I never tire of reading what she writes and have every single one of her books.

Who are your scientist heroes or heroines of faith? How do they inspire and lead? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday


My oak-leaf hydrangea starts off with white flowers that gradually turn deep red by fall. Here it is in early summer.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Evelyn Underhill, Mystic


Today is the Anglican Feast Day for Evelyn Underhill. I first learned of Underhill's work when her 1911 classic "Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness" practically fell off a shelf in a bookstore into my hand.

At the time this happened, I associated the word "mysticism" with the occult, but as I was soon to learn from Underhill's book, mine was a commonly-held misconception. As Underhill explains in her classic text, mystical experience occurs when direct and immediate contact is made with the divine.

Those who have such an experience use terms to describe it that are remarkably in accord with descriptions given by other mystics in many places and over vast reaches of time. This universality of mystical experience led Underhill to conclude that there is something in the mystical experience that reveals fundamental truths about the nature of the divine and our relationship to God.

It turned out that Underhill's book came into my possession at just the time I needed to read it. While it was the first book I had ever seen on the topic of mysticism, it was certainly not the last. My bookshelves are now filled with many books on mystical experience and theology and I have become something of an amateur-scholar on the topic.

Even though Evelyn Underhill lived in a foreign land decades before I was born, I feel a closeness to her and a profound sense of gratitude for her work that introduced me to a fascinating topic that has now occupied about twenty years of my own life. So, tonight, on Evelyn's Feast Day, I will light a candle especially for her.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Little Quiet on the Complexity Simplified Front


Okay, it is time to admit to you (as well as to myself) that I am having a hard time blogging lately. I wrote that long post on Monday about Erice, the Mountain of God, fully intending to get back in here and write more about the trip.

And I would love to do that, if only I could find my notes. My office is a shambles, with tall, teetering stacks of books and notebooks and papers covering every horizontal surface. And since I took those notes last October, chances are they are at the bottom of one of these piles - if only I had the energy to begin the excavation.

So, I was starting to despair about ever being able to blog again, when Joanna Young's post 10 Things To Do When You Lose Your Blogging Voice popped into my reader.

All I can say is: thanks be to Joanna Young!

Her post let me know that I was not alone, and that all bloggers go through these ups and downs. That all bloggers sometimes feel like a stranger to their own blogs. And that this inability to show up at my blog just might be a sign that something is rolling around under the surface in my writing life.

As it is. I have, after all, just cut my hours at work to half-time so I can focus on writing a book this summer. No wonder I find it hard to blog right now. No wonder my thoughts seem to be everywhere but on Complexity Simplified.

So, dear Reader, I will be here as much as I can be over the next weeks and months, but when I'm not, you'll know it's because I'm writing.

And that, after all, is the whole point of blogging.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Erice, Mountain of God

Last October, I attended a scientific conference in Erice, a small medieval-era town perched atop a mountain on the western coast of Sicily. On my first walk around Erice I encountered two priests as they hurried along the town's cobble-stone streets. I vividly remember those two priests because they seemed to perfectly personify the place the locals call "Erice, Mountain of God."

The narrow winding streets and crumbling buildings provided an interesting backdrop to our conference on the most modern of topics: how science might inform policy decisions on urgent and pressing issues such as climate change, financial market dynamics, the spread of epidemics, and on and on.

The first priest I encountered as I searched for the lecture hall emerged wearing robes and a large cross from a small Italian car, his robes flapping in the wind, the unmistakable sound of hip-hop music blaring from the radio. The second priest dashed out of a church and pulled a cellphone from somewhere inside his also-flapping robes that he proceeded to talk into in rapid-fire Italian. These two, the hip-hopping priest and his cellphone-connected colleague, seemed to hold within themselves the mix of ancient and modern, sacred and secular that I soon learned permeated all of Erice.

Our meetings were held in the P.A.M. Dirac auditorium located in the completely-refurbished interior of the San Domenico church, shown here. When looking for our meeting room, I walked by the building several times when I first arrived, not believing that this crumbling structure which was so obviously a church could hold an auditorium named after one of the most famous quantum theorists in scientific history.

But it did. And this church was not unusual. Other churches in this tiny pre-medieval town looked their age on the outside, but tucked away in their interiors were lecture halls, computer labs and gathering spaces for the hundreds of scientists who collect in Erice every week to discuss topics ranging from nuclear physics to molecular biology.

My room was in an old convent, with floor-to-ceiling doors that opened onto an interior courtyard. I learned, later, that I had been placed in the Abbess' room, although I am quite sure that my hosts, the Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture, or EMFCSC, had no idea how appropriate this room assignment was! (See sidebar, if you don't know what I'm talking about...)

The EMFCSC are key participants in a major civic project called "Erice: Mountain of God," which seeks to renovate and restore the many churches and monasteries in Erice, some dating to pre-medieval times. For their part, the EMFCSC have built a modern scientific conference facility within the city's ancient churches and convents.

My room was in the San Francesco monastery and housed the Eugene Wigner Institute and the Enrico Fermi lecture hall. Posters on the walls of the three monasteries that contain the EMFCSC summarized its history. Founded in 1963 by a group of scientists concerned about the ethical and moral issues posed by the discovery and use of nuclear energy, the EMFCSC is open about its interest in issues at the boundary of science and faith. The following statement can be found on their
website:

"To conduct Science means to discover the Fundamental Laws of Nature. The applications of great scientific discoveries almost always slip out of the control of Science itself. This is why technological development almost always contradicts the values instilled by Science: love for Creation and respect for life and human dignity. “Science and Faith are both gifts of God”, said John Paul II. No Pope has ever before had the courage to put Science and Faith on pedestals of equivalent dignity, and it is out of this truth that the new role of Science is born."

The documents go on to claim a central role by the Center's president, Antonino Zichichi, in bring the Catholic Church and the Pope to a place where they did an about-face on the case of Galileo Galilei after more than 400 years. Zichichi is a somewhat
controversial figure and it is still not entirely clear what role he actually played in Galileo's rehabilitation by the Church.

Our meeting in Erice was held in early October, 2008 as the financial markets of the world crashed and tumbled all around us. It was both fitting and ironic, as I was soon to find, that this calamity happened at the same time as our conference.

But that part of the story will have to wait for a later time, as this blog post is already getting to be too long. More next week about my visit to Erice, Mountain of God.

Monday, June 1, 2009

God's Fingerprints

I have been reading Barbara Bradley Hagerty's new book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," and enjoying it very much. I hope to write a longer, more complete review when I finish reading, which will be any day now as I can't seem to put the book down.

Hagerty is NPR's religion correspondent and has written a book that interweaves her own amazing story with that of dozens of people she has interviewed, including scientists who study faith and spiritual experiences. She is a wonderfully engaging writer and a good journalist and, so far, I can recommend the book.

More when I finish reading!