In the fall of 2011, I was invited to give The Vivian J. Lamb Lecture on Science and Religion at Villanova University. The text of my hour-long talk ran to more than 6,000 words, and as far as I know it was never published anywhere. I’ll be publishing it here in three parts, over the next three weeks.
This past summer  I did a bit of traveling…
First, there was the “Living Theology” workshop at the Jesuit parish in Liverpool. I gave a bunch of talks, heard a bunch of talks. Got lost one day driving through Liverpool, and found myself crossing Penny Lane.
Following that, I went to Greenwich for the annual meeting of the Meteoritical Society. I heard a bunch of scientific presentations about meteorites, those bits of rock from the asteroid belt that occasionally fall to earth. It’s really cool to be able to hold and touch a piece of outer space. Of course, when you present a scientific paper, you have to be able to say more than, “it’s really cool!” But never mind…
And then, right after the Meteoritical Society, I flew off to Reno, Nevada, for the annual World Science Fiction Convention. That’s where they hand out the Hugo Awards for the best science fiction stories of the past year. I didn’t win. I hadn’t written any stories to be nominated. Maybe next year…
Anyway, I heard plenty of talks about the life and business of writing science fiction. I appeared on a few panels where they asked me about the latest in astronomy (so I got to talk about meteorites).
I got interviewed by a British guy, Paul Cornell, who writes for DC comics and Doctor Who. He wanted to know about my life in science and religion. Turns out, his wife is an Anglican curate, so it was mostly a case of us comparing notes, about living in worlds that a lot of people think don’t have much overlap.
I think they do have an overlap. That’s what this talk is all about.
The last stop of my trip was back in Tucson. I had dinner there with a grad student in meteoritics from the University of Arizona who was about to defend her PhD thesis. (She’d borrowed some meteorite samples from me, which is how we got to know each other.) She was all worried about how she should present her work at her final defense.
I guess I was still thinking of science fiction, and the meteorite conference papers, and Beatles songs like Penny Lane, so what popped out of my mouth was, “tell it like a story.”
A scientific paper that works, one that is remembered, one that advances the field, is one that tells a story.
A story starts with a setting –- where are we? who are the protagonists? A place and people we care about… the poor orphan with the funny scar living under the stairs at Number 4, Privet Drive; the peaceful countryside with lovable hobbits. A story lures you in with a problem, a conflict, a mystery; it makes you want to know what happens next, what happens when the wizard visits the orphan, when the wizard visits the hobbits, and drags them all away from home.
A story has a central point, a climactic moment, when the main character makes a crucial decision, when someone uncovers the key piece of information and everything you thought you knew is changed.
And the decision, the information, the main moment has consequences. It matters. We know how it matters, within the realm of the story, because we’ve been given the set up in the first place, back when the story began. So we know about the evil wizard who killed the hero’s parents, we know about the evil ring that can control all the other rings of magic but corrupts one’s soul in the process.
But it also matters, outside of the universe of the story, inside our own personal universe, it matters in a different way; it matters enough that we want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. We have to see how the decision plays out.
And then we come to the end, the resolution. For a story to satisfy, you need to have a moment at the end to step back, catch your breath, and just take in the scenery… look over the landscape now, where Middle Earth will never be the same; where a new generation boards the train to Hogwarts.
Now, if you’re going to write a scientific paper, you need the same parts. You describe the problem. You describe why it’s a problem – and why you needed that clever or difficult or special thing you did, to make it all work. You describe your brilliant contribution. You describe what came of it. And then you sit back, see how it changes all our ideas about the origin and evolution of the universe, and why you’ll be asking for another grant next year to keep up the good work.
So where does religion fit into all this? In a couple of ways.
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First of all, think back to that science fiction convention. What is a convention like that all about? Well, you start with some piece of fiction, the creation of some clever author, that has really grabbed you. For some reason – we’ll get to why, later – it resonates with you. You love watching that movie, you love re-reading that book, you stand in line to see the sequel, you haunt the bookstores looking for your favorite writer’s next book.
Then one day you run into someone else who has the same obsession as you, and you share your insights and speculations about your favorite book with your friend, and you listen to their crazy rantings about it. And you both have a great time doing this.
A convention is all that, and more. You can get together with lots of other people interested in the same kinds of stories and created universes that you love. You learn from these people all sorts of fun facts about your favorite stories… you hear about new stories to try out…
And you get to know the people who came up with those stories. Their creators. How they came up with their ideas; what’s going to come out next. Sometimes they give readings from works in progress – how delicious!
If you are lucky, you may even get to meet the authors themselves, face to face.
A creation you love. A desire to share that love with others who also love it. And a desire to get closer to, or even get to know, the creator. Sounds like religion to me!
Sure, for some people science fiction fandom – or an obsession with sports teams or pop stars or food – that can be a religion substitute. But I would put it in a more nuanced way: it can be, at its best, a religion parallel.
If you’re a scientist, presumably you love the stuff you are studying (meteorites, or bugs, or dolphins, or galaxies). It is this love that keeps you showing up in the lab every day. And so it is wouldn’t be surprising if, perhaps, you wanted to hang out with others who also do what you love. Indeed, you really can’t work in a field without going to conferences and sharing what you’ve done with everyone else in the field. If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen. If you don’t tell anyone else what you did, it didn’t happen.
Here’s a tip, by the way, for anyone who knows they love science but are torn about what field to specialize in: go to some of these meetings and find out where you encounter people you actually enjoy being with. There are, sadly, some fields that are dominated by people who are more interested in money and power and showing up the other guys, than in just having a wonderful time getting to know The Stuff, whatever the stuff may be. Keep away from those fields. You don’t need that. If it’s not fun hanging out with those guys, it won’t be fun working with them, day after day. Don’t waste your time, or your life, fighting that. There are too many other wonderful fields that you can go into, instead.
You have to do this work of science out of love. It sure won’t be for the money. Or power. Or to attract girls. (That didn’t work for me, anyway.)
I really want to know how my meteorites were put together. And I also just love having an excuse to handle them, to touch them, to know that I am holding a piece of outer space that can remember in its grains back to the beginnings of the solar system. I love this stuff. I love this physical universe, this creation. And I hope you love your stuff, too – why else would you want to spend your life studying it?
And so it would not be surprising that if – a big if – if you believe there was a Creator behind this creation, the source not only of the stars and planets but also of the inexpressible joy you feel when you get to play with the stars and planets – then you just might want to do things that let you get closer to this Creator, hang out with people who know that Creator, share experiences, find out cool bits of trivia about Him.
Now, you don’t necessarily have to translate a love of the universe into a love of a Creator. You don’t necessarily have to follow up on your love of dolphins or galaxies by getting all religious about it. Doing the science might be just enough. It’s the same for the vast majority of fans who enjoy going to science fiction movies or reading Harry Potter books without ever wanting to set foot in a convention hall.
Indeed you might feel that science fiction conventions are Not For You. Maybe you’re just a little embarrassed about the depth of your passion for those trashy movies, these silly kids’ books, and… you know… everybody knows that people who go to conventions are Geeks who Don’t Have A Life. It would be mortifying to be associated with People Like That. I mean… what if someone you knew saw you there?
Like I say… religion parallel.
Of course this points up another interesting common point among science fiction, science, and religion. They are all activities that you could be satisfied just to “consume” – buy the books, watch the documentaries, attend the worship services.
But you can actually participate, try it out, do it yourself… to a greater or lesser extent, depending on your time and interests and ability.
Do you like reading science fiction? It’s fun to try writing the stuff. You don’t have to be a professional writer, you can write just for yourself and your friends without trying to sell anything. There’s even a whole genre called fan fiction, where you try to write a story in someone else’s universe… Mary Sue Goes to Hogwarts. Once you try doing it yourself, you understand in all sorts of ways the nuts and bolts of how your favorite books are put together. You can appreciate them even more, when you realize it’s a whole lot harder than it looks, to do it right.
Do you like looking at the stars? You don’t have to be a professional astronomer; you can have a little amateur telescope (by the way, if you do get a little telescope, buy my book!)… or you can be a bird-watcher, a gardener, or someone who just likes going on hikes and knowing about the rocks and the trees that you are walking among. Learning the discipline of noticing details – and learning, as well, the pitfalls of collecting data and spinning theories – that can give you a new appreciation of the latest result that you’ve read about online. (And how the news report probably missed the point.)
Do you like the idea of being closer to God? You don’t have to enter a religious order; you can still volunteer with your church, take (or teach) religious education classes, participate in the liturgies as a lector or a cantor or a eucharistic minister. On your own, you can undertake spiritual exercises, take up a prayer or meditation practice, read some theology; not to “find Jesus on your own” but rather to plug into a virtual community of believers, the people who devised those prayers and wrote those books. In the process, you’ll find yourself encountering God in places and ways, and with a depth, that I guarantee you will surprise you.
This is how you break down the barriers that alienate us from Big Science or Big Science Fiction or Big Religion: find exactly those places where the amateur makes a contribution… and which serve as gateways into the inner workings of the Big Whatever, where eventually you can have an impact. (Or get co-opted… you might actually see why headquarters makes those decisions that seem so crazy from the outside.)
And actually… who’s to say you couldn’t do any one of those things professionally? Every pro was born an amateur. You could even do more than one, professionally. (Looks at self. Scientist? Check. Religious order? Check. Science Fiction writer? Well, two out of three…)
It turns out that much the same skills apply to all three activities. [As we’ll see next week.]