Category Archives: science and faith

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.

Spacewalker Ross visits shuttle trainer in Seattle

Jerry Ross

Astronaut Jerry Ross flew on seven space shuttle missions. He spoke March 1 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Photo: NASA

Retired astronaut Jerry Ross figures he spent upwards of 1,200 hours in the NASA Full Fuselage Trainer preparing for his seven space shuttle flights. It was with mixed emotions that Ross spoke earlier this month at a dinner in his honor, held next to the trainer, which is now on exhibit at Seattle’s Musuem of Flight.

“It’s kind of sad to see it here, frankly,” Ross said of the trainer. “I’m glad that you have it; I’m glad that it didn’t go to a scrap heap somewhere. But I know that the fun years of the space shuttle program are behind us.”

Still, Ross acknowledged that the space shuttle, in use for more than 30 years, was getting a bit worse for wear.

“It was probably time to retire it and go on to something else,” he said. “Unfortunately, that something else hasn’t happened yet.”

Ross spent a couple of days at the museum promoting his new book, Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer. He said that a main reason he wrote it was to encourage young people to chase their dreams.

“I wanted them to understand that I had a dream as a young person, and I felt that God had designed me to be an astronaut,” Ross explained. He kept scrapbooks about space as a kid in Indiana, and learned from the news articles that he clipped that engineers and scientists, especially  those from Indiana’s Purdue University, were playing an important role. Ross said his dream was crystallized when Sputnik went up.

Spacewalker“I was in fourth grade, and based upon what I knew I decided I was going to go to Purdue University, that I was going to become an engineer, and that I was going to become involved in our country’s space program,” he said. “I really didn’t know what an engineer did, but I knew it was engineers who were doing what I wanted to go do.”

He did it, and flew on as many space missions as anyone. Space runs in the family—his daughter is a Purdue engineering grad and works on space suit design, and his wife, who majored in home economics at Purdue, eventually headed up the program that made food for the shuttle flights.

“I’ve told people for many years the only time I got a home-cooked meal after she took that job was when I flew in space,” Ross joked.

Ross said that being launched into space aboard the space shuttle was an incredible experience.

“One-hundred-eight feet tall, weighed four-and-a-half million pounds,” he said of the shuttle. “We generated over six and a half million pounds of thrust at liftoff. And that’s a real kick in the pants. Disney would have had to get a double-E ticket for that!”

Ross said that he was well prepared for his first flight, but that it was really impossible to actually know how it would feel.

“About 15 seconds after lifting off, I thought to myself, ‘Ross, what are you doing here?’ There was much more shaking and vibration, there was much more noise as the wind was just screaming by the windows of the orbiter, it was much more exciting than I expected.”

Dinner

Ross drew a nice crowd to the Museum of Flight for his March 1 talk in the shadow of the Full Fuselage Trainer, on exhibit in the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

He said he wasn’t exactly afraid, but added, “You can’t strap on six and a half million pounds of thrust and not be a little bit apprehensive about it. If you aren’t, then you really don’t understand what’s happening.”

“I went back six more times, so it wasn’t too bad,” he added.

Ross said the only time he came close to quitting was after the Challenger disaster. He had a young family to support, and they discussed it at length.

“It took some serious thought and prayer,” he said, but they decided not to quit. “If we did we would let down our friends who we lost on the Challenger. To allow them to die and not pursue with even more vigor and dedication what they had done would have been a mistake.”

The Museum of Flight held the dinner next to the shuttle trainer in homage to a similar event NASA hosted for Queen Elizabeth II in Houston in 1991. The dinner with Ross was well-attended, and indications are that the museum will host more such events to allow some low-key and more personal conversation with celebrity aviation visitors.

 

Making peace between science and faith

Conflict between faith and science is a popular narrative, but Dr. Jennifer Wiseman isn’t buying the story line. Wiseman, senior project scientist for the NASA Hubble Space Telescope Program, spoke last week at a forum on faith and science at Seattle Pacific University.

Dr. Jennifer Wiseman

Dr. Jennifer Wiseman doesn't find faith and science to be in great conflict. “Science can give us a better understanding of ourselves and our place in creation.” Photo: AAAS.

“I don’t think that through traditional scientific study that we can suddenly prove the activity of God,” Wiseman said during a keynote address at SPU’s Day of Common Learning. “I don’t even think that’s a positive way to do science. But I do think that if one is inclined to faith in God, for reasons that I think are well founded, you can learn something about the nature of God by looking at the nature of nature.”

Wiseman is well versed in the dynamic as director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She sees three basic models for that dialogue.

The conflict model holds that science and faith are incompatible. Science tells us what can be measured, while religious belief is superstition that relies on faith without proof. The contrast model finds little overlap, as faith and science are pursuing different questions. In the contact model the two sides learn from and inspire each other. It’s the last two models that Wiseman, a Christian, follows personally.

“Science is focused on the natural world. Science tells us how things work in terms of physical cause and effect,” Wiseman said. “Our scripture and our faith focus for the most part on the bigger, even more important questions: Why? Is there a purpose? Who? Is there a God? What does God want of me? How should we live?”

When Wiseman talks about the amazing dicoveries in astronomy, God is there. She refers to stars as God’s factories for creating heavy elements, and to gravitational lensing is God’s magnifying glass. But while she finds in science the inspiration for praise and worship, she says that religion doesn’t color her eyepiece or alter scientific fact.

“The beauty of science is that it shouldn’t matter what your faith is,” she said. “I do science experiments with colleagues from many different faiths and cultures, and we all come to the same scientific conclusions. If we don’t, we look into the science and see who’s doing the wrong kind of analysis. Do we have the same philosophical conclusions after we get the scientific conclusions? Not necessarily. That’s when you get into these other non-scientific but important questions of is there evidence for God’s beauty and handiwork and what’s our role in life.”

Wiseman acknowledged barriers for understanding between faith and science. She said lack of good science education can make it difficult for some to find the relevance of science, that it can be tough to disentangle political views from science, and that some theologians are driven into a tizzy by the notion that there may be life elsewhere. Natural disasters also often prove to be a stumbling block.

“Plate tectonics allows life to thrive and our atmosphere to be refreshed,” Wiseman noted. “But say that to someone who has experienced an earthquake. They’re not going to say, ‘Praise God for plate tectonics.’”

“We don’t quite understand the mysteries of how the natural processes of the world that can bring so much good can also bring so much suffering, and that’s a major impediment to faith in God for many people,” she said.

Wiseman spoke glowingly of Hubble and the volumes of data and images it has produced both for scientists to study and for people to enjoy. She said she often gets questions about whether gazing out into the cosmos is worth the expense and effort, given the challenges we face at home on Earth.

“We need a balance between addressing the difficult problems on our planet while also inspiring people and looking out into the big picture of what it means to be human,” Wiseman said.

“Science can give us a better understanding of ourselves and our place in creation.”