Becoming a science nerd: beginner level.

carlsaganvarietiesMy husband and one of my best friends are science nerds, which is absolutely a term of endearment. Daniel researches radio technology, Julie reads physics textbooks. The plausibility of time travel is constantly on the rotation of dinner conversation. They have both inspired me to study beyond the botanical/ecological/geological science my brain tends to hover around, and I spent the past few months making my way through Julie’s copy of The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan and was fascinated by the questions he asked and the insight he shared in the book, which is a compilation from a series of lectures he gave many years ago, but still hold significant relevance in the field of logic surrounding scientific exploration.

I think what I loved most about reading this book was already captured in the introduction by Ann Druyan, his wife and collaborator: “the more Carl learned about nature, about the vastness of the universe and the awesome timescales of cosmic evolution, the more he was uplifted…he never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire love and awe.”

I mentioned in my post a few weeks ago titled Walking into the Murk, that in my desire for crystal clear answers in the face of existential questions, I haven’t had much luck: all I see in the natural world and the human world leads me to more questions, to more reading, to more wonder–and then loops me back to more questions.  It’s an exercise in the journey metaphor, I suppose. I revisited Anne Lamott’s Help Thanks Wow as I processed all that Carl Sagan had to say, following in her line of thinking about being amazed by what we find in the world around us and my conclusion is that I don’t think I’ll ever be done exploring the beautiful and complex intersection of faith and the natural world.  I did want to share (or place-hold) two of the most thought provoking excerpts from the book, though, which are below:

“Does trying to understand the universe at all betray a lack of humility ? I believe it is true that humility is the only just response in a confrontation with the universe, but not a humility that prevents us from seeking the nature of the universe we are admiring. If we seek that nature, then love can be informed by truth instead of being based on ignorance and self-deception. If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing ? Or would He prefer His votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy ? I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship. My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time. In either case the enterprise of knowledge is consistent surely with science; it should be with religion, and it is essential for the welfare of the human species.”  (31)

“We have a theology that is Earth-centered and involves a tiny piece of space, and when we step back, when we attain a broader cosmic perspective, some of it seems very small in scale. And in fact a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe.”

(And, as a side note, learning more about the cosmos has also fueled a passion for reading fiction that is inspired by it, whether in symbol or actuality.  One book was How To Tell Toledo From the Night Sky, which I read this summer, and I have a few more on deck, which I hope to write about here sometime in the near future.)


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  1. Pingback: Year in Review: 2014 | A Kind of Library

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