Mixing science, art, and religion with Adrian Wyard

These days many folks would have the sciences go it alone. Education advocates repeat their mantra of STEM, STEM, STEMMMM while schooling in the arts is reduced or eliminated. Some scientists decry the so-called magic of religion. People of faith shun science because God is the answer. Adrian Wyard—software engineer, artist, astronomy buff, and Christian—believes science, art, and faith get along just fine.

Adrian Wyard

Adrian Wyard

“As a child I always had those three elements in my life,” Wyard said in an interview earlier this month. “I grew up going to church back in England, I had a strong science and engineering interest, which sent me on a straight line into computer science, computer software design. That was my first career.”

Wyard fesses up to a certain level of single mindedness about computers in his youth.

“I had very little time for anything else,” he said, though he had some interest in art in high school, and that crept into his work.

“There was always a design element,” he said. “I was never that good at coding but I loved the big picture, I loved solving problems for real people, so I ended up focusing on designing user interfaces.”

He was the program manager for Word 1.0 at Microsoft.

“I was lucky enough to be there when all the good stuff happened at the beginning,” Wyard said. “That took a lot of my time,” he added in something of an understatement.

Changing course

After leaving Microsoft Wyard decided to reboot and attended Seattle Pacific University.

“I went to SPU to essentially do exactly the opposite of what I did the first time. So I took liberal arts, I took theater, I took English, I took sociology,” he said. “I just got totally enamored by these connections between different disciplines.”

Wyard wanted to learn more about those connections. The research was out there, but it was hard to find. He started the Counterbalance Foundation in 1998 as essentially an online library exploring the intersections of science and faith. The site now has in the neighborhood of 300,000 links and 200 hours of video. The site helps readers of multidiciplinary texts find resources to understand the particular disciplines with which they may be less familiar, and facilitates discussion and education.

“The idea of using interactive technologies to teach, to help people understand multidisciplinary subjects, just struck me as an obvious move,” Wyard said. In a way, he sees counterbalance as pennance for his lack of multidisciplinarianism as a youth.

“The one subject I disliked the most was history, because as far as I was concerned everything happens starting with Turing in 1950 or thereabouts, and that’s it, and I did not want to be distracted from my main interest,” in computers, he said. “Counterbalance is basically me coming to realize the error of my ways.”

He also overcame his dislike of history, eventually going to Oxford to earn a master’s degree in the history of science, studying under John Hedley Brooke. While at Oxford Wyard specialized in the study of the tension between creation and evolution. His adult education gives him a better foundation from which to approach these knotty questions.

A search for the truth

Many people like to depict science and faith as warring factions, but Wyard sees both as having the same goal of seeking the truth.

“There is no religious person, as crazy as they may appear to other religious people, or athiests or scientists, who does not in their heart of hearts want to find what’s true and would be horrified to think that they were being misled. That will forever bind the religious inclination and the scientific inclination,” Wyard said. “On balance, what you find is just a compulsion to find out the way the world works, and almost always be in awe of that. There’s so much common ground, it’s hard to imagine it ever conflicts.”

Yet it almost has to at times. The tension between science and religion is a complicated one, Wyard said.

“If you want to talk about all the sciences and all of the religions, you can easily find examples among that huge landscape, of overt conflict, where one says this is the case and the other says the opposite,” he said.

Conversation at Taproot

Wyard will be giving a public presentation to discuss these ideas at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16 at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood. The theatre is running Lauren Gunderson’s play, Silent Sky, about the Harvard astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. The drama tackles some of these same questions, and Wyard said he’s been thinking about delving a little into postmodernism for the conversation.

“Sometimes that can be a rabbit trail that you really don’t want to go down,” he said of postmodernism. “For some people it’s a keyword for a lot of troubling things.”

But Wyard said that the modernist concept of knowledge, which was very much in play during the time in which the play is set in the early 20th century, held that knowledge accumulates, you reach a conclusion, and then you have the answers. Religion, he noted, sometimes operates in much the same way.

“At least what postmodernism has done is show that in the sciences, that does not work,” he said. “There are precious few lines of scientific inquiry that don’t require you to also understand the perspective” of which questions are asked and the context in which any experiment is being conducted.

Postmodernism, Wyard said, “recognizes that science exists in a socioeconomic political framework, and there is nothing that happens that doesn’t have some connection through to economics or politics or even just social mores and preferences.”

Learning more

Wyard suggests a couple of books that may be of interest to people wishing to delve into this line of inquiry. One is The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2007) by Francis Collins, who was lead of human genome project and is chair of the National Institutes of Health.

“That is a nice introduction because he takes us on the journey throughout his own story, which starts off as an athiest” though now Wyard said Collins identifies as evangelical. “He goes all the way through without losing any speck of his scientific interest and aptitude.”

The other book is Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013) by Terrance Deacon, an anthropologist and neuroscientist at Berkeley. Wyard said it’s a fascinating book, though a bit of a heavy lift at more than 600 pages. He is working with Deacon and his research team to try to bring it to a more accessible level. There are a couple of lectures about the book in Counterbalance’s Bridging the Gaps section.

The Planets Live

Wyard started doing art again about five years ago. He is getting into greater touch with his artistic side, collaborating on a multimedia presentation of Gustav Holst’s composition The Planets. The work, which Wyard describes as a live, choreographed video accompaniment of the piece, was first performed in 2014 at the Highline Performing Arts Center as a project with the Northwest Symphony Orchestra. It hit all the right notes with Wyard, “combining my knowledge of computers, computer technology, space, and also the photography side came in too,” he said.

While The Planets Live stands on its own as art—see the trailer below—Wyard is also excited about it as a “killer educational tool.”

The Planets suite is a very accessible piece of music,” he said, noting that even kids who came in thinking that classical music is boring dug it at the premiere.

“They loved it because not only were the visuals interesting and stimulating, but it allowed them to access the music,” Wyard said. “It was a positive introduction to classical music, plus an introduction to astronomy.”

They did several other performances of the work in Sioux Falls last year with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, one of which was recorded and later aired by PBS. Several other performances are on the schedule for this year Lakeland, Fla. and Ann Arbor, Mich., and Wyard said they hope to bring The Planets Live back to the Seattle area again sometime soon, though this has not yet been set.

Adrian Wyard is an interesting person taking on some big questions. We expect you’ll hear more from him on Seattle Astronomy.

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