Good Vibes to Be Had in the Science World

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The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 9 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Because SCIENCE.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.

Think of someone who is a “die-hard.” We all know the people who have their likes and fancies, but try to think of someone who really stands out as a fanatic for that thing. Ah, that thing they love. Maybe they paint their sports team’s colors all over their body for the big game. Or it is the friend who has collected 98% of all the memorabilia available for that one movie? It could be the homie that knows every lyric and factoid from a favorite artist. It certainly could include the person you have never actually met, who shamelessly posts 10-plus items for a particular justice cause on social media every day.

One dictionary definition describes a die-hard as someone who shows or possesses extreme, absolute, or complete loyalty even if facing defeat or hopelessness.

These die-hards—we need them. And I want to say, we need to be them. I get a certain type of buzz when I am around people who know what they are passionate about, and they live in it. I am especially drawn to the people who may not be loud about what they love, but you can identify what it is they are all about. You can find it in their laser focus and simple repetitive actions. I might even oppose what the die-hard loves, but I still love that they love it.

Scientists are the sort of die-hards we need to carry out the Cultural Mandate from Genesis 1 and the Great Commission from Matthew 28.

I saw this evidenced in my early teens, as I grew up with a hoop dream. This meant one thing was always clear to me—ball is life. I practiced continuously and closely followed the NBA. I showed dedication to practicing the sport because of the deep joy and clarity it brought into my life. I cheered for the team, soaked in the stats, collected cards, and cut out pictures. And then there were the behind-the-scenes looks. Nothing inspired me quite like the documentaries and profile articles. When I had a chance to peek behind the curtain and sense the vibes of an athlete’s personal story, it fueled me. Their passion fired my zeal. Someone loved the sport more than I did, and that fortified me.

Athletes are some of the most highly motivated individuals, committed to excellence and possessing a sort of spirit that makes them appear, to some degree, out of their mind. But somehow, by some indirect flow of consciousness, their zeal helped fuel my work ethic in all other parts of life. Living in that world and breathing that culture has spurred me on toward true upside-down kingdom of Christ greatness. To this day, some of my strongest moments of focus, work ethic, and joy flow from a charge I received as a little girl who just loved basketball.

Being around basketball die-hards changed my life, and it causes me to be on the lookout for other groups of people fixated on a particular endeavor with that same fervor. Recently, I have discovered a collective of people set on innovating and developing the world. You know them as scientists, and I only recently know them as enthusiasts. Of course, since my youth I have heard about scientists on TV or in school. Back then I paid little attention, but lately I have been asking more questions about them. Why do they do the things they do? For many, there is a passion that gets them where they want to go, and I want to be around it. They remind me of those basketball players I have learned so much from. But these scientists? I long to be around them because they take the Cultural Mandate in Genesis 1 seriously (whether they realize it or not).

***

Scientists are producing mind-blowing outcomes that forever alter society. Yet, these die-hards are unknown to the general public. I am not sure it is important for scientists to be known in a super-star sort of way, but I do think their stories should be heard.

Thinking back to high school classes and college courses in biology, physiology, and chemistry, lessons did not include many stories of the people behind the science. Sure, I definitely had to memorize some historical points, but I did not get a sense of their essence, the core of who they were.

Another main vein where scientists are featured is in sci-fi stories. So often, scientists are portrayed as evil, or at least lacking some moral and ethical bearings. This makes for a good story, but what about the real scientists? Are they really all bent toward evil? We may be quick to misunderstand their motives because our exposure to scientific exploration is limited to fiction.

I currently am on a hunt for stories about contemporary scientists, to learn more about what motivates and inspires them in their work. And I want to suggest that believers are missing out on something desperately important without being acquainted with this group.

***

Several months ago, I saw that British developmental biologist Kathy Niakan had received permission to edit the genes of human embryos using the Crispr technique. Crispr is a new gene editing procedure that allows researchers to “cut-and-paste” DNA with unparalleled precision and efficiency. In the United States, Congress has restricted the government from funding and supporting research in which a human embryo is destroyed. In Britain, however, researchers are not held to the same restrictions. Making advances in developmental biology is not a new occurrence.

Dr. Niakan does not plan to implant the altered embryos into the womb. The pronounced goal is to gain knowledge in the biology of development, which may lead to a better understanding of infertility. Thus, the altered embryos will be allowed to expire during the implantation stage at seven days old. This stipulation was most likely crucial in the approval of Dr. Niakan’s application. Just recently, in December 2015, a joint statement was released by leading scientific establishments in the United States, Britain, and China that urged researchers worldwide to wait on altering the human germline. There is a general consensus that we are treading on new territory and should proceed with caution. Deciding what that caution should be, however, has yet to be determined and agreed upon internationally.

As I was processing the ethical implications and thinking about how to apply scriptural principles to this news, I was struck with this thought: Who is this woman? Who is this person heading up the team that will embark on new territory? I want to sit down and have coffee with her to learn how her life has led up to this landmark project. How remarkable must she be in her vocation that she was selected. Although I disagree with some of the terms of the operation, I want to know her. I want to ask what motivates her and what has been the most difficult part of her work. She has to be a die-hard, and I want to ask her what is driving her obsession.

***

Kathy Niakan is just one person contributing to tomorrow’s landscape. The plurality of these contributions is astounding. Shocking, beautiful, questionable, and crucial work is happening every single day. Innately so, people are curious and sense that they should develop the world. The common grace of God has funneled herds of curious people—scientists—out through gorges of discovery. And none of this takes God by surprise. He knew at Creation that one day humanity would figure out glimpses of how large our universe is and how He packed the books of our genetic code into such a small space. He knows what we will discover next. He may even be the One prompting the next discovery, whispering clues into the ears of die-hards whose curiosity cannot be satiated.

To be sure, within the scientific field there are countless decisions and wasted opportunities that have grieved God as well. But this reinforces the need for Christian involvement in scientific research and discovery. We need to become more involved, more acquainted with the leaders in the field.

We need to hear stories of leaders such as George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. He represents another trailblazing mission. Just this month, it was reported that scientists met together to discuss the potential round two of the Human Genome Project. Instead of reading human DNA, the task would be to write the blueprint of human life. The 3 billion letters in the sequence would be synthesized from chemicals. Unprecedented!

Again, many ethical questions arise and George Church, one of the organizers of the project, attempted to correct potential misunderstandings. He said that their purpose was not toward creating people, but gaining knowledge in how various synthetic genomes respond in cells. The current name for the project is HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells. Alongside a proposed project of this magnitude are lines of bioethicists opposing the work and wisely suggesting that more people need to weigh in and give more thought to the potential consequences of the work. Pioneering work tends to be radically controversial, of course. This is yet another reason scientists are the die-hards we need: They are willing to risk everything for their vision.

Despite the turmoil surrounding Church’s project, the work and vision is truly astounding. How does one become the bioethicist in flagship leadership over building human code? And how does someone like George Church handle the criticism and continue to be passionate about his vision?

This is why I want to know these people.

***

Promoting the diversity of popularized stories by including scientist profiles is beneficial to our calling as culture makers. We are called to make a home for society out of the creation, and following scientists more closely can help us do that.

Following the Great Commission (from Matthew 28) and the Cultural Mandate (of Genesis 1), I think one of the most important questions we can ask is how: How are we going to go about spreading the gospel and building this world? Science has the potential to sum up so much of what we are placed here to do. Broadening our understanding of the various groups who shape our world will help us know how to apply the answers to that question. Widening the spread of their stories will build a more robust culture. Lifting up the skills and passion of scientists would produce a die-hard-esqe approach in other fields as more people are inspired by them.

As a Life Science teacher to 7th graders, I know that sharing stories is a game-changer. The students need to know that science is so much more than memorizing facts and processes and expanding their vocabulary. Stories of scientists engage them and show more vividly how awesome it is to observe the world God created and bring about its maximum flourishing. We also discuss the far-reaching affects that scientific advances have; reality is, we all will make important decisions in the future based on the discoveries made by scientists today. When I present the work of scientists to my students, it connects their learning today to the world they will live in tomorrow. Sadly, finding inspiring narratives of scientists (outside of science fiction) has actually proven difficult. With the stories I have found, I hope to teach them to respect and enjoy the journey scientists are on and the die-hard attitude they bring to the world.

The psalmist declares, “O, how manifold are you works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24). Many, many folds of creation are teeming with praise to God. Scientists are unfurling these manifold works, bringing them into the open where we can stand in awe of the One who spoke it all into existence.

We must follow scientists, for they afford us the opportunity to watch God’s plan unfold. He wants us to continue exploring, discovering, and building, and scientists are leading the way on this front. God has riddled the entire created order with so many treasures yet to be found. Die-hard scientists are giving us riches untold with their discoveries through dedicated, passionate pursuit. I, for one, do not want to miss this ride.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


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