My testimony

I’ve had numerous requests over the years to write down my personal testimony and post it here. I was asked to give my testimony at a local church here in Austin as part of their Easter celebration, which finally compelled me to write it all down. What follows is an adapted version of that Easter talk. (Spanish translation of this testimony is here.)

I was born in the U.S., but grew up in Canada. My parents were socialists and political activists who thought British Columbia would be a better place for us to live, since it had the only socialist government in North America at the time. My parents were also atheists, though they eschewed that label in favor of “agnostic.” They were kind, loving, and moral, but religion played no part in my life. Instead, my childhood revolved around education, particularly science. I remember how important it was to my parents that my brother and I did well in school.

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when science fiction was enjoying a renaissance, thanks largely to the popularity of Star Wars. I remember how fascinated I was by the original Star Wars trilogy. It had almost nothing to do with science—it’s more properly characterized as space opera—but it got me thinking about space in a big way. I also loved the original Star Trek, which was more science fiction. The stoic and logical character of Mr. Spock was particularly appealing to me. Popular science was also experiencing a renaissance at that time, which had a lot to do with Carl Sagan’s television show, Cosmos, which I adored. The combination of these influences led to such an intense wonder about outer space and the universe, that by the time I was nine years old I knew I would be a space scientist someday.

Canada was already post-Christian by the 1970s, so I grew up with no religion. In retrospect, it’s amazing that for the first 25 years of my life, I met only three people who identified as Christian. My view of Christianity was negative from an early age, and by the time I was in my twenties, I was actively hostile toward Christianity. Looking back, I realized a lot of this was the unconscious absorption of the general hostility toward Christianity that is common in places like Canada and Europe; my hostility certainly wasn’t based on actually knowing anything about Christianity. I had come to believe that Christianity made people weak and foolish; I thought it was philosophically trivial. I was ignorant not only of the Bible, but also of the deep philosophy of Christianity and the scientific discoveries that shed new light on the origins of the universe and life on Earth.

As a young person struggling to understand the world without the aid of religion, I got involved in Objectivism. Objectivism is a philosophy built on the idea of rational selfishness. It is based on the work of the devoutly atheist philosopher, Ayn Rand, who lived in Soviet Russia before she immigrated to the United States. Unlike my parents, I had embraced capitalism by my early twenties instead of socialism. Objectivism appealed to me, because of the belief that my life was my own, and that I could make of it what I wanted. It seemed like a strong, logical philosophy.

In my mid-twenties, I moved to the United States to go to university and to prepare for a life devoted to science. I enrolled in the physics program at Eastern Oregon University, located in the same little town where my brother and I had been born. As I began to experience life as an independent adult, I started to find Objectivism a barren and sterile philosophy.

It had failed to answer the big questions: What is the purpose of life? Where did we come from? Why are we here? What happens when we die?

It also suffers from an ironic lack of internal consistency. For all its focus on objective truth, the philosophy of Objectivism had no source for that truth except human opinion. And, for all their focus on enjoying life, Objectivists didn’t seem to experience any joy at all. Instead, they seemed preoccupied with angrily guarding their independence from all outside pressures.

I had been indirectly supporting the Ayn Rand Institute with a subscription to an Objectivist magazine, but by this time was starting to regret it. Even though I still thought Christianity was silly, ARI’s relentless bashing of Christians was starting to grow tiresome. And when one of ARI’s most prominent public figures mounted a public defense of partial-birth abortion as being “pro-life,” I canceled my support and no longer identified myself with the philosophy. I realized I had outgrown Objectivism.

I began to focus all of my energy on my studies, and became very dedicated to my physics and math courses. I joined campus clubs, started to make friends, and, for the first time in my life, I was meeting Christians. They weren’t like Objectivists—they were joyous and content. And, they were smart, too. I was astonished to find that my physics professors, whom I admired, were Christian. Their personal example began to have an influence on me, and I found myself growing less hostile to Christianity.

In the summer after my sophomore year, I participated in a physics research internship at the University of California – San Diego. For the first time in my life, I was no longer in the center of mass of science—the realm of long-accepted scientific truths—but had moved to the frontier of science, where new discoveries were being made.

I had joined a group in the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences (CASS) that was researching evidence for the big bang. The cosmic background radiation—the leftover radiation from the big bang—provides the strongest evidence for the theory, but cosmologists need other, independent lines of evidence to confirm it. My group was studying deuterium abundances in the early universe. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen, and its abundance in the early universe is sensitive to the amount of ordinary mass contained in the entire universe. Believe it or not, this one measurement tells us whether the big bang model is correct.

If anyone is interested in how this works, I’ll describe it, but for now I’ll spare you the gruesome details. Suffice it to say that an amazing convergence of physical properties is necessary in order to study deuterium abundances in the early universe, and yet this convergence is exactly what we get. I remember being astounded by this, blown away, completely and utterly awed. It seemed incredible to me that there was a way to find the answer to this question we had about the universe. In fact, it seems that every question we have about the universe is answerable. There’s no reason it has to be this way, and it made me think of Einstein’s observation that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it’s comprehensible. I started to sense an underlying order to the universe. Without knowing it, I was awakening to what Psalm 19 tells us so clearly, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

That summer, I’d picked up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and was reading it in my off hours. Previous to this, I’d only known it as an exciting story of revenge, since that’s what the countless movie and TV adaptations always focused on. But it’s more than just a revenge story, it’s a philosophically deep examination of forgiveness and God’s role in giving justice. I was surprised by this, and was starting to realize that the concept of God and religion was not as philosophically trivial as I had thought.

All of this culminated one day, as I was walking across that beautiful La Jolla campus. I stopped in my tracks when it hit me—I believed in God! I was so happy; it was like a weight had been lifted from my heart. I realized that most of the pain I’d experienced in my life was of my own making, but that God had used it to make me wiser and more compassionate. It was a great relief to discover that there was a reason for suffering, and that it was because God was loving and just. God could not be perfectly just unless I—just like everyone else—was made to suffer for the bad things I’d done.

For a while I was content to be a theist and didn’t pursue religion any further. I spent another very enjoyable summer with CASS, and then during my last year at EOU I met a man I liked very much, a computer science student from Finland. He’d been in the special forces in the Finnish Defense Force, and was just about the most off-the-wall character I’d ever met. But he was also a man of strength, honor, and deep integrity, and I found myself overwhelmingly drawn to those qualities. Like me, he’d grown up atheist in a secular country, but he’d come to embrace God and Jesus Christ as his personal savior in his early twenties through an intensely personal experience. We fell in love and got married. Somehow, even though I wasn’t religious myself, I was comforted to be marrying a Christian man.

I graduated with a degree in physics and math that year, and in the fall, I started graduate work in astrophysics at The University of Texas at Austin. My husband was a year behind me in his studies, so I moved to Austin by myself. The astrophysics program at UT was a much more rigorous and challenging environment than my little alma mater. The academic rigor, combined with the isolation I felt with my family and friends being so far away, left me feeling pretty discouraged.

Wandering through a bookstore one day, I saw a book called The Science of God by Gerald Schroeder. I was intrigued by the title, but something else compelled me to read it. Maybe it was the loneliness, and I was longing for a deeper connection with God. All I know is that what I read changed my life forever.

Dr. Schroeder is a unique individual—he is an MIT-trained physicist and also an applied theologian. He understands modern science, has read the ancient and medieval biblical commentaries, and is capable of translating the Old Testament from the ancient Hebrew. He was thus able to give a scientific analysis of Genesis 1. His work proved to me that Genesis 1 was scientifically sound, and not just a “silly myth” as atheists believed. I realized that, remarkably, the Bible and science agree completely. (If you’re interested in the details of this, you can either go through my slideshow here or read Dr. Schroeder’s book.)

Schroeder’s great work convinced me that Genesis is the inspired word of God. But something told me to keep going. If Genesis is literally true, then why not the Gospels, too? I read the Gospels, and found the person of Jesus Christ to be extremely compelling. I felt as Einstein did when he said he was “enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.” And yet I struggled, because I did not feel one hundred percent convinced of the Gospels in my heart. I knew of the historical evidence for their truth. And, of course, I knew the Bible was reliable because of Genesis. Intellectually, I knew the Bible to be true, and as a person of intellect, I had to accept it as truth, even if I didn’t feel it. That’s what faith is. As C. S. Lewis said, it is accepting something you know to be true in spite of your emotions. So, I converted. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.

Maybe that sounds coldly logical. It did to me, and for that reason, I sometimes worried whether my faith was real. And then I had a chance to find out a couple of years ago. That year started with my cancer diagnosis and an unpleasant course of treatment. Not long after, my husband fell ill with meningitis and encephalitis, and it was not clear if he would recover; we didn’t know if he would be paralyzed or worse. It took him about a month, but, thankfully, he did recover. At that time, we were expecting our first child, a baby girl. All seemed well until about six months, when our baby stopped growing. We found out she had Trisomy 18, a fatal chromosomal abnormality. Our daughter, Ellinor, was stillborn soon after.

It was the most devastating loss of our lives. For a while I despaired, and didn’t know how I could go on after the death of our daughter. But I finally had a clear vision of our little girl in the loving arms of her heavenly Father, and it was then that I had peace. I reflected that, after all these trials in one year, my husband and I were not only closer to each other, but also felt closer to God. My faith was real.

I don’t know how I would’ve coped with such trials when I was an atheist. When you’re twenty years old and healthy, and you have your family around you, you feel immortal. I never thought about my own death or the potential deaths of loved ones. But there comes a time when the feeling of immortality wanes, and you’re forced to confront the inevitability of not only your own annihilation, but that of your loved ones.

A few years ago, when I was researching an article on the nature of time, I was surprised to discover that only the Abrahamic faiths and their offshoots hold to linear time. All other religious traditions hold to cyclical time. Not only does cyclical time seem more intuitively correct—our lives are governed by many cycles in nature—but it offers a comforting connection to the Sacred through the eternal return. The modern, secular version of this is the Multiverse.

Georges Lemaître was a Belgian priest and physicist who solved Einstein’s general relativity equations and discovered that, contrary to the prevailing philosophy of the last 2,500 years, the universe wasn’t necessarily eternal and static. He discovered in his solution the mathematical evidence for an expanding universe, and pursued it vigorously. For that reason he’s considered the father of the big bang (which he called “the hypothesis of the primeval atom”). Shortly before he died, he was told that his hypothesis had been vindicated by the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, the most important prediction of the hypothesis. This discovery also vindicated the very first words of the Bible after 2,500 years of doubt—there was a beginning. And that beginning meant the universe had a transcendent cause, for nothing in nature is its own cause. Atheists have been dismayed by this and forced to retreat to the idea of the Multiverse.

The Multiverse idea posits that there is a huge number—possibly an infinite number—of parallel universes. It’s an interesting, but ultimately unscientific, idea. Science can only study what we can observe in this Universe. It cannot ever hope to study the Multiverse. Nevertheless, some atheists cling to the idea, because it’s the only serious alternative to God as the creative force behind the Universe and it’s a way to cope with mortality in the absence of God. The problem is, most proponents of the Multiverse haven’t seriously explored its logical implications. I think, when they do, their worldview leads to despair.

Hugh Everett is an example of this. He was a brilliant physicist who is known for what’s called the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. He sought to explain the strange, almost mystical, effects of the quantum world by rejecting its dependence on probabilities. He proposed instead that every possible outcome of every experiment really happens, but they happen in alternate universes. This was the first scientific incarnation of the Multiverse.

Everett was not motivated solely by mathematics. He understood the implications of his atheist beliefs, and was looking for a way to escape the annihilation that is inevitable in the atheist worldview. For him, the Many Worlds idea was a form of immortality. He wanted to believe that there were an infinite number of Hugh Everetts, all inhabiting these alternate universes, because it was a way to avoid the terror of annihilation. But, as Jesus told us, we must judge a tree by its fruits. Everett’s worldview did not appear to offer him, or his family, any real comfort. He was a depressed alcoholic who ate, drank, and smoked himself to death at the age of 51. His daughter committed suicide years later, and indicated in her suicide note that she hoped she would end up in the same parallel universe as her father.

In the Multiverse, we are not unique; there are many “copies” of each of us. If it’s real, then we have lived, and will live, an infinite number of lives. In fact, we have already lived this exact life an infinite number of times. All those lives are lost and pointless. We will live them an infinite number of times again. Everett and others who believe in the Multiverse have not conquered death; they think they’ve found a way to cheat it, but this form of “immortality” is really just a prison from which there is no escape. Does that sound awful to you? It sounds awful to me. As with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, the Multiverse is ultimately barren of hope and purpose.

I do not believe we are locked in that sort of prison. But the only way we are free is if the universe and everything in it was created, not by some unconscious mechanism, but by a personal being—the God of the Bible. The only way our lives are unique, purposeful, and eternal is if a loving God created us.

****

I love my career as an astrophysicist. I can’t think of anything I would rather do than study the workings of the universe, and I realize now that my lifelong fascination with space has really been an intense longing for a connection with God (“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” [Romans 1:20]). But I also feel a strong calling to minister to others through this same work.

I will never forget the student who got me started on this path. When I was a graduate student, not long after I had converted to Christianity, I was leading a help session for an astronomy course, and we were going over big bang cosmology. After the session, the student came to me and asked, very timidly, if it was okay to be a scientist and believe in God. I told her, of course; I was a scientist and believed in God. She was visibly relieved, and told me that one of her professors in another department had said she couldn’t be religious and believe in science, too. I was haunted by this, and wondered how many other young people were struggling with similar questions about science and faith. I decided to help others who are struggling with doubts. I also wanted to help people answer false atheist arguments confidently. I’ve struggled with this, because I know it will be a difficult road to travel. But the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice leaves no doubt about what I have to do.

When I was in the process of becoming a believer, two things drew me to God—the overwhelming evidence of his involvement in the physical world and his perfect justice. I can help people to see God’s handiwork in the physical world, but I am not capable of perfect justice. None of us are. God’s perfect justice demanded atonement for sin, but because of our flawed nature, we aren’t capable of atonement. God sent his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to atone for us. Jesus was crucified, He died and was buried, and on the third day He rose. Perfect justice was achieved.

Jesus triumphed over temptation, sin, and death. If we choose to accept the gift of salvation, we are reconciled to God: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whomsoever believes in Him should not perish but have life everlasting.” (John 3:16) I don’t know who you are, dear reader, or what your background is. Perhaps you are a believer; if so, you already know the power of those words. But if you are still seeking God, perhaps you will choose, as I did, to accept this great gift of salvation and be reconciled to God.

Confessions of scientists

I get the sense that a lot of the general public sees scientists somewhat as caricatures, with cold, Spock-like intellects, genius IQs, and, unfortunately, an almost super-human ability to understand the natural world. Atheists, in particular, have a tendency to regard scientists as members of an infallible priestly class. But we are not. We are merely human, which means we are fallible and susceptible to the same limitations in our thinking and behavior as anyone else. As we’ve discussed here at SixDay, there is a structure built into science that helps overcome those limitations (see here and here), which is why the hard sciences, since the time of Copernicus, have had an impressive track record of helping to lift humankind out of ignorance.

Now, without tooting my own horn, I will admit that scientists are exceptional in a few ways. First, most of us love science, enough to devote our lives to it, and so we’re motivated to do it well. Second, we have an above-average ability to do science. That said, we are all-too-human in every way, as this confessional from a Ph.D. scientist (in biology) shows:

There are some things I need to confess. This isn’t easy to say, but after working as a real scientist with a Ph.D. for 6 years, I feel it’s finally time to come clean: Sometimes I don’t feel like a real scientist. Besides the fact that I do science every day, I don’t conform to the image—my image—of what a scientist is and how we should think and behave. Here’s what I mean …

He goes on to list several traits that show how he doesn’t conform to his image of a scientist. This list isn’t a confessional to the general public, but rather to his scientific peers, who pretty much all have their own images of how a scientist should think and behave. I think the big secret is that most of us sympathize with this biologist, and people not employed in the sciences can benefit from hearing about it.

What follows is a selection of his confessed points with my own perspective added:

I don’t sit at home reading journals on the weekend.

I don’t, either, unless I’m preparing to submit a journal paper. Not very many scientists enjoy reading journals. I know one well-respected scientist who admits that he can only read journals in front of the TV.

I have skipped talks at scientific conferences for social purposes.

I went to a conference in Honolulu a few years ago, and I think I attended a grand total of three talks, including the one on which I was a co-author. A lot of science conferences are held in attractive locations in order to draw more attendance, but sometimes I think they should hold these things in the middle of nowhere.

I remember about 1% of the organic chemistry I learned in college. Multivariable calculus? Even less.

I remember most of what I studied in college, because I either use it or teach it. That said, I have forgotten a significant chunk of what I learned in my grad courses, because a lot of it I simply don’t use. This is not unusual. I have heard some professors admit that if the more seasoned professors in any department had to take the qualifying exam, they probably wouldn’t pass.

I have felt certain that the 22-year-old intern knows more about certain subjects than I do.

Of course s/he does. Nobody can know everything about everything. Only a prideful fool doesn’t acknowledge it.

I have gone home at 5 p.m.

One of my professors told a story in class about a colleague of his, who was a student of a famous Nobel laureate. The Nobel laureate fit the caricature of a scientist in that he spent an inordinate amount of time working (yes, this is exactly the sort of person who wins a Nobel prize). One Sunday morning, the colleague got a call from his Nobel laureate advisor, who said, “I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well.” Not understanding his meaning, the student told his advisor he was feeling fine. “Oh,” said the Nobel laureate advisor sarcastically, “I just assumed the only reason you wouldn’t be in the office is that you were ill.”

Anyway, yes, I, too, have gone home at 5 pm.

I have asked questions at seminars not because I wanted to know the answers but because I wanted to demonstrate that I was paying attention.

I suspect a lot of scientists do this. Personally, I stopped doing it after I got my Ph.D. As a grad student, I had to take seminars for credit, and was expected to participate, i.e. ask questions that showed I was paying attention. These days, I figure if I show up and am not fiddling with my phone or falling asleep, everyone knows I’m paying attention.

I have never fabricated data or intentionally misled, but I have endeavored to present data more compellingly rather than more accurately.

I’m not sure how much this happens, and I guess I’m naive enough to assume that most of the time my peers are presenting their data in a responsible manner. This is an ethical issue I’ve discussed at length with my Ph.D advisor, and I have since adopted his style: present all of our data in one set of tables and graphs and then present a “select” sample in another set that more compellingly makes our case. Anyone reading our papers can decide for themselves if we’ve made our case.

I have pretended to know what I’m talking about.

All I can say is that I’ve not gone out of my way to draw attention to the fact that I sometimes don’t know what I’m talking about.

I sometimes make superstitious choices but disguise them as tradition or unassailable preference.

I’ve never consciously done this, but I know others who do.

When a visiting scientist gives a colloquium, more often than not I don’t understand what he or she is saying. This even happens sometimes with research I really should be familiar with.

This only happens with visitors who speak on topics outside of my area of research. In such cases, I only feel like a dope when a scientist in my field proceeds to ask intelligent-sounding questions of the visitor, which happens more often than I’d like to admit.

I have called myself “doctor” because it sounds impressive.

To paraphrase Dr. Evil, I didn’t spend all those years in grad school to be called “Ms.”, thank you very much. There are times I’ve forgotten I’m a “doctor,” and other times when I’ve milked it for all its worth.

I dread applying for grants. I resent the fact that scientists need to bow and scrape for funding in the first place, but even more than that, I hate seeking the balance of cherry-picked data, baseless boasts, and exaggerations of real-world applications that funding sources seem to require.

I don’t know a single scientist who doesn’t dread applying for grants. The process is unpleasant at best, and the odds that you’ll get funded get worse every year. That said, I don’t resent the fact that scientists need to ask for funding. There is no reason scientists should expect to get other people’s money without making a compelling case for why they should get it. It’s frankly unsettling that any scientists believe they are entitled to funding.

I have performed research I didn’t think was important.

This can happen for at least three reasons: you’re part of a research group and have to participate in certain projects; you’re beholden by stipulations in a grant or something; or if you are pressured to publish a minimum number of papers every year. Thankfully, I’ve never had to do this. I may be doing work that in reality no one else thinks is important, but I never take on a project unless I, personally, think it will add to the sum of knowledge in my area.

In grad school, I once stopped writing in my lab notebook for a month. I told myself I could easily recreate the missing data from Post-it notes, paper scraps, and half-dry protein gels, but I never did.

I once thought I could piece together what I did on a project by just remembering what I did — after all, it was so obvious at the time — and, boy, did that not work out well. A month later, I couldn’t recall half of what I did, and ended up doing the whole thing over.

I do not believe every scientific consensus.

Neither do I. However, that this is being confessed rather than proudly declared is of great concern. Not because this particular person feels this way, but because probably a lot of scientists feel this way, and they shouldn’t. See Surak’s recent commentary on this.

I do not fully trust peer review.

Neither do I, and nor should anyone fully trust it. Our peers are just as fallible as we are. But if you are in a field that’s devoted to the pursuit of truth, mostly proceeds without a lot of politicization and money and emphasis on consensus, then it’s probably good enough.

When I ask scientists to tell me about their research, I nod and tell them it’s interesting even if I don’t understand it at all.

I wonder how much this happens, especially when I’m asked about my own research. Personally, I rarely feign interest. If I don’t understand anything they’re saying, I try to identify something I can at least ask an intelligent-sounding question about.

I was never interested in Star Wars.

Sacrilege! Actually, I know quite a few scientists who have no interest in Star Wars, Star Trek, or any other sci-fi, but they tend to be older. Most younger scientists I know are big fans of sci-fi.

I have openly lamented my ignorance of certain scientific subtopics, yet I have not remedied this.

We all do this. There just isn’t enough time to pursue every subtopic of interest.

I have worried more about accolades than about content.

This is perfectly natural, and there’s nothing necessarily hideously horrible about it, unless a person is primarily motivated by accolades.

During my graduate-board oral exam, I blanked on a question I would have found easy in high school.

One of my friends, who is not a scientist, sat in on my doctoral exam and really enjoys reminding me of the very simple question I blanked on that even he knew the answer to. It happens. The stress of the exam, the exhaustion from writing your dissertation, preparing your presentation, cramming the week before, the committee members all staring at you with the intent of showing you that they still know more than you do, it’s easy to miss a simple question. I know a well-respected scientist who was so irritated about missing some easy questions on his exam that he claimed to have plotted the murders of his committee members for about a week before he finally let it go. It also happened to Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, and his committee almost didn’t give him his Ph.D. because of it. I figure we’re all in good company.

I have feigned familiarity with scientific publications I haven’t read.

Who hasn’t? The open secret is that a lot of scientists just read the abstract or a summary of the work written in another paper. Part of the problem is the sheer volume of publications coming out these days. My advisor recalls a time when he could sit down and at least read the abstracts of every single paper in the Astrophysical Journal, if not entire papers. These days that would be impossible; there are just too many papers, even in a subtopic, to keep up.

I have told other people my convictions, with certainty, then later reversed those convictions.

Me, too, and it’s a good thing. If this never happens, it means your convictions have petrified into dogma.

I have killed 261 lab mice, including one by accident. In doing so, I have learned nothing that would save a human life.

So has your average barn cat. I don’t really see this as a problem. A lot of science consists of “no result,” which is still a result. That being said, one of the nice things about being an astrophysicist is that I don’t have to kill anything, I don’t have to break anything, and I don’t have to create anything hazardous in a laboratory.

I can’t read most scientific papers unless I devote my full attention, usually with a browser window open to look up terms on Wikipedia.

Most papers in my particular topic I can read more casually than this. Anything more broad in scope, however, does require my full attention and some kind of reference material. I am not too proud to admit that I’ve gone back to undergrad textbooks to figure something out I read in a paper. One thing that really helped with this, ego-wise, was listening to one of the world’s greatest scientists at a conference talk about how he struggled with a particular math concept on his way to solving Einstein’s field equations, and that the only way he could figure it out was to study an undergrad textbook on the topic.

I allow the Internet to distract me.

This turns out to be a big problem for a lot of scientists. I have a colleague who keeps a sticky note on her computer monitor reminding her to stop surfing. When I find the Internet too distracting, I make a game out of not allowing myself to read my favorite websites until I accomplish a task, and then I limit the surfing to 10 minutes.

I have read multiple Michael Crichton novels.

Most of us have. Well, in my case, only one Crichton novel, but I have read my share of pulp fiction.

I have used big science words to sound important to colleagues.

Most of us have fallen into this habit.

I have used big science words to sound important to students.

A lot of scientists/professors do this, and I’m not sure why. Some jargon is unavoidable, and serious students have to learn it. However, we’re already in a position to be respected by students, and the focus should be on conveying ideas to them. Personally, it’s much more satisfying to see the light go on than to have students be impressed with me.

I sometimes avoid foods containing ingredients science has proved harmless, just because the label for an alternative has a drawing of a tree.

This made me laugh out loud. We’re all human. Marketing works. If it’s any consolation to my colleagues, it’s at least somewhat based on the science of human behavior.

I own large science textbooks I have scarcely used. I have kept them “for reference” even though I know I’ll never use them again. I intend to keep them “for reference” until I die.

So do I. I can’t bear to part with books, even ones I haven’t read and will probably never read.

I have abandoned experiments because they did not yield results right away.

We all have. Sometimes we go back to them, sometimes we don’t.

I want everyone to like me.

I’m not sure what to say about this one. Is he talking about personally or professionally? There are many scientists who, judging by their behavior, clearly couldn’t care less if anyone likes them personally. But I very much doubt anyone wants to be ostracized professionally.

I have known professors who celebrate milestone birthdays by organizing daylong seminars about their field of study. To me, no way of spending a birthday sounds less appealing.

I dunno. I like my field of study, and my colleagues, well enough that this does sound like a lot of fun.

Sometimes science feels like it’s made of the same politics, pettiness, and ridiculousness that underlie any other job.

It feels like it, because it is. There is nothing about science that removes human nature from the endeavor. That said, I have found the environment in academic science to be a bit less susceptible to this stuff—at least enough that I find my current job a lot more enjoyable than any other job I’ve ever had.

I decry the portrayal of scientists in films, then pay money to go see more films with scientists in them.

For me, at least half the fun is identifying all the ways the movie screws up the portrayal of scientists and science in general. And sometimes, the portrayal is a lot more fun than reality. Actually, most of the time. I remember being tickled by Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact. Her big discovery was portrayed very dramatically in the movie, but Carl Sagan, being a scientist, had written it much more realistically in the book—her pager beeped when an automated algorithm detected a possible signal, and she checked it out when she got back to the office.

I have worked as a teaching assistant for classes in which I did not understand the material.

Yeah, but that’s a great way to learn the material. I know a Nobel laureate who claims that whenever he wants to learn about a topic, he teaches a class on it.

I have taught facts and techniques to students that I only myself learned the day before.

Most professors have taught classes in which they are only one or two steps ahead of their students. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since, by the time we get to where we are, we have the ability to learn things quickly and disseminate them adequately.

I find science difficult.

If a scientist doesn’t find science difficult, he’s probably not trying hard enough. That said, if he finds it overwhelmingly difficult, he’s in the wrong field.

I am afraid that people will read this confession and angrily oust me from science, which I love.

Nah. Most people in science will read this and think, “Thank goodness someone else said it.”

I have felt like a fraud, not once, but with such regularity that I genuinely question whether anyone has noticed I don’t belong here. I am certain that one day I’ll arrive at work, and my boss will administer a basic organic chemistry test, which I’ll fail, and he’ll matter-of-factly say, “That’s what I thought.”

I felt like this through the first half of grad school, but after I finished my coursework and started producing some good results, I finally started feeling competent and like I belonged. I also realized a lot of other grad students and young scientists felt this way. I remember the shock I felt when one student, whom I regarded as particularly competent, said he felt like a fraud. A lot of us live by the motto “fake it ’til you make it.”

I know I have arrived where I am through privilege, good fortune, and circumstance. Anything I genuinely earned could not have been earned without those precursors.

Anyone born in the West, especially in the U.S. or Canada, at this particular point in history is extraordinarily fortunate. Privilege and circumstance? Not sure what he means by that. I was very focused about getting where I am today and worked pretty hard for it. Most people in the sciences did the same.

I can’t be the only scientist who feels like a fraud. But we don’t talk about it. No one volunteers to proclaim their inadequacies. In fact, scientists go to great lengths to disguise how little we know, how uncertain we feel, and how much we worry that everyone deserves to be here but us. The result is a laboratory full of colleagues who look so impossibly darn confident. They’re the real scientists, we tell ourselves. They can follow the entire seminar. They read journals for pleasure. Their mistakes only lead them in more interesting directions. They remember all of organic chemistry. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

I’ll venture to guess that a lot of people in just about any profession feel the same way. But maybe the reason this hits scientists particularly hard is the near-deification of scientists in this increasingly post-Christian age. It’s a lot to live up to. I think it was easier for scientists to be at peace with their fallibility in decades and centuries past, because many of them believed that what they were doing was fulfilling a sacrament in discovering and revealing God’s Truth. This sounds lofty, but it’s actually a pretty humbling idea.

Maybe the idea of science is easier to love than the minutiae of science. Or maybe the veneer of professionalism is important to protect the integrity and authority of scientists. Or maybe that’s a cop-out.

It’s not a cop-out. First, the idea of anything is always easier to love than the details. This is as true of institutions and professions as it is of people. But I don’t think there is a mere veneer of professionalism in science—there is true professionalism, and that’s vitally important. It’s as important to science as manners are to civilization. It’s just that it’s not perfect, but when it comes to human beings, nothing ever is.

Questions from Christian Students, Part 9

Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. All of the questions are listed in the Intro to this series. See also: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7; Part 8

Since becoming a Christian and living in an environment where your faith is tested every day, have you experienced doubt? If so, what has brought you through those doubts?

I have never had my faith tested in my work environment. Science is fully compatible with the Christian faith; in fact, modern science is not possible outside of the Christian framework (as will be discussed in future posts).

However, my faith has been tested numerous times by the increasingly secular humanist culture in America. Mostly that takes the form of concern over the state of the country and the world, material concerns, and worrying about the mortality of my loved ones and myself. What brings me through those doubts every time is: 1) remembering that ours is a fallen world, and realizing how fruitless it is to worry about things none of us can possibly change; and 2) trusting in God’s promises, that Christ will return, and the paradise we all long for will come. 

How hard is it to work in the field of academia in an anti-Christian environment from a faith perspective?

I can only speak from my own experience. It’s not difficult at all for me to conduct scientific research in my current environment. I’m not in a tenure-track position, so I don’t know how difficult it might be from the perspective of Christian faculty trying to gain tenure, e.g. if compromises have to be made. Personally, I find the academic environment—in the STEM part of campus, anyway—pleasant and comfortable, and have so far been able to ignore the anti-Christian sentiment that generally pervades most university campuses.

How do you recommend Christian students react to professors who are intolerant of their Christian faith?

It depends on how this intolerance manifests. If a professor merely expresses his/her own personal negative opinion of the Christian faith in the classroom, you could decide whether you want to use this as an opportunity to initiate a class discussion or just let it pass if you think it won’t interfere with your ability to succeed in the class. However, if a professor is actively discriminating against you on the basis of your faith, this is the time for formal action. If you are concerned that you are being harassed and/or punished by your professor (e.g. through grade reductions) because of your faith, then you should immediately take your concerns to the Office of the Student Ombuds.

Questions from Christian Students, Part 7

Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. All of the questions are listed in the Intro to this series. See also: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5; Part 6

What was the most difficult specific objection to faith (particularly Christianity) that you had to get past? / What was the biggest stumbling block to faith that you had to overcome? / For new believers, how do you get past the line of ‘the Bible is just a story’ into faith? I’ve accepted that there is a God, but I’m struggling with accepting Jesus.

As a scientist, I know that the opening book of the Bible is confirmed by science: the Genesis account of creation makes at least 26 statements that are testable by modern science. These statements are not only consistent with our current scientific understanding, but, amazingly, in the correct order. This could not be the result of some lucky guesses. The most reasonable explanation is that it is not ‘just a story,’ but was divinely inspired. Many other stories of the Bible are likewise confirmed by archeology and historical accounts.

But what about the claims about Jesus in the Gospels? I sympathize with new believers who are struggling to accept Jesus, because I’ve been there. I initially had great difficulty believing the Gospels are true, that Jesus really was the Son of God, and that he was sent to Earth to pay for our sins and reconcile us with God. But I was able to reason my way to accepting the truth of the Gospels.

There were two main things that led me to accept Jesus and become Christian. The first was the observation that everything I value in this world is a product, either directly or indirectly, of the Christian faith: science, prosperity, and freedom. History demonstrates that without Christianity there would be no individual rights to protect people against abuses of power, no modern science to raise humankind out of ignorance, and no free market economy (Weber called it rational capitalism) to free billions from abject poverty. Other things, such as widespread literacy, the end of the worldwide slave-trade, and the sense of optimism that invigorates much of humanity, is the result of Christianity as well. As I observe events around the world and throughout history, it is obvious to me that the Christian faith generally acts as a brake against humanity’s worst tendencies and as the inspiration for people to consistently rise above their base nature. As a scientist, I had to acknowledge that there must be something real about the beliefs and faith that motivate people to behave in these extraordinarily good and productive ways.

This doesn’t prove the central claims of Christianity, but it should nonetheless give us great confidence in their truth. It is somewhat the same way that we know the fundamental assumptions of high school geometry are true. (I know that sounds weird, but stay with me.) Euclidean geometry is based on ten basic ideas (five postulates and five common notions) that can never be proven to be true—we just accept them to make the mathematics work. But, we don’t accept them blindly or in the face of evidence to the contrary. We are confident of their truth, because whatever we try to do in plane geometry based on those postulates works out in useful ways. Likewise, we can observe that whatever people try to do in this world based on the principles of the Christian faith tends to work out more often than not in wonderful ways.

The second thing that led me to believe was that the Christian faith is the only faith/philosophy that explains evil. If you accept that there is evil in the world, the Christian explanation is not only the only one that makes sense, it’s the only one that offers hope of eventually overcoming evil.

I finally realized it came down to accepting Christ or accepting that nothing matters. I chose the former, partly on the basis of reason and partly on hope. I’ll admit, the day I was baptized I felt like a bit of a fraud, because I wasn’t feeling it deep down inside. My intellect had come to terms with the commitment, but my heart hadn’t. So, I accepted Jesus on faith. Contrary to what atheists claim, it wasn’t the sort of faith that insists you proceed in the absence of knowledge or in spite of evidence to the contrary. Rather, it was the sort of faith C. S. Lewis described when he said we hold onto a belief we have accepted through reason in spite of our transitory emotions.

Now, some years after my conversion, I no longer feel like a fraud. I have fully embraced my identity in Christ, and my faith has been internalized to the point that it has given me a degree of peace in my life and guidance through all the confusion. I know my faith is real, because it has sustained me through some very difficult times.

Questions from Christian Students, Part 5

Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. All of the questions are listed in the Intro to this series. See also: Part 1Part 2Part 3; Part 4

What was it about Christianity that made you feel hostile towards it before you read the Bible?

There were three childhood experiences that I think set the stage for the hostility that would manifest later. The first was an experience with some overtly Christian children in my elementary school. They belonged to a denomination that didn’t allow participation in any of the holiday celebrations at my school or celebration of birthdays at home. As a kid whose entire kid-existence revolved around holidays and birthdays, this got me thinking that Christianity must be pretty dismal.

The second was one of the TV shows my brother and I were allowed to watch. (Even though my parents weren’t religious, they carefully scrutinized everything we watched on TV.) The show was called Little House on the Prairie, and most of the characters were good, moral, church-going people. But I remember thinking these people were fairly wimpy when it came to dealing with the jerks and evil-doers who would appear in their community from time to time. Because of this, in my mind, Christianity came to be associated with weakness.

The third experience was with a friend of mine, who would occasionally lecture me that hers was the only true church and everyone who didn’t belong to her denomination would not go to heaven. I remember thinking, if God is that picky about his believers, he must be rather petty.

If those had been the only influences, I doubt I would have felt as hostile towards Christianity as I did later on. I strongly believe my hostile feelings were further influenced by popular culture and public schooling, both of which were already becoming aggressively humanist and propagandizing by the time I was a teenager. When I was about 16 or 17, I had also developed an interest in Objectivism, a philosophy that has some good principles, but is extremely hostile towards religion. This hostility is based on a very flawed and myopic view of religion, particularly Christianity. Foolishly, I believed some of the claims of Objectivists without investigating them for myself.

What is your colleagues’ biggest reason for thinking the Gospel is not worth believing?

There are lots of reasons many educated people reject the Gospel, but in my estimation the two biggest reasons are that they: (1) find Christianity philosophically weak or trivial; and (2) they don’t want any restrictions imposed on them.

With regard to (1), the problem is that many of them have not studied scripture in depth, and instead rely on myths and Christian stereotypes to form their opinions. Unfortunately, some Christians have fed the stereotype of Christianity as un-scientific and anti-intellectual, and this has tainted scripture by association. As Nobel laureate George P. Thomson once said, just about every physicist would’ve accepted the idea of God by now if the Bible hadn’t unfortunately mentioned it a long time ago and made the idea seem old-fashioned.

As for (2), I think even the most intelligent and educated people don’t object to the Gospel on purely logical grounds. Believing the Gospel means taking a narrow path in life, and few people enjoy having restrictions placed on them, particularly if those restrictions seem arbitrary. I think (2) is actually the root of most people’s objection to the Christian faith (or just about any religion)—it certainly was the root of mine. And, in my case, the ‘logical’ reasons for rejecting Christianity were mostly after-the-fact rationalizations.

Questions from Christian Students, Part 3

Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. All of the questions are listed in the Intro to this series; Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here

Has an effort by students to share their faith with you ever made an impact on you in any way?

Yes.

I had a student approach me after a lecture to ask if it was okay to be Christian and a scientist. She was a devoted Christian, and was interested in science, but had been told by one of her professors that she could not be religious and believe in science. She was distressed by this professor’s proclamation, and it struck me then that most students do not have the training or resources available to them to counter such attacks. It was after talking to this student that I decided to start a ministry to help people like this young woman maintain their faith.

Have you ever had a student challenge an idea during class?

I never had a student challenge an idea with respect to religion. I did have students very occasionally challenge a scientific/philosophical idea, but it didn’t happen very often in the intro classes I taught, which is not good. A lot of what is taught in science—particularly in physics and astronomy—should seem weird to students who are introduced to it for the first time, and they should be asking serious questions about it; but it was rare for students to challenge ideas. I did have one student who was annoyed when I explained that no scientific theory is watertight, and that all ideas are subject to refinement and replacement with new ideas. He (not unreasonably) responded to this by asking why he had to bother learning science at all, when its ideas were subject to change at any time. This started a fruitful discussion, and hopefully got other students in the class to think about the nature of human knowledge.

Do you wish you could talk about your faith in the classroom / office hours? If so, what keeps you from doing it?

When I was teaching, I had no desire to bring up my faith in the classroom, aside from a brief statement on the first day of class that I am a believing professor. My approach is not to push—I prefer students to initiate the discussion. If any student had wanted to start a discussion about science and religion in class, and it pertained to the subject of the lecture, I would have obliged; but it never happened. I did, however, have students approach me outside of class time to discuss how science relates to the Christian faith, and I was always happy to do so.

Our year from heaven

What follows is a reflection on personal events of 2012. It also serves to explain why not much blogging has taken place in the last several months. After a little more time to rest and recuperate, I plan to resume regular posting in the new year.

My husband and I have lived through what most people would think of as a year from hell. First, I found out in late 2011 that I had early-stage breast cancer. I’m part of the roughly 2% of women every year who are diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40. I had to have surgery to remove the nascent tumor, and starting in January of this year I had to endure weeks of daily radiation treatments. When I finished the treatments in the spring, and all signs of cancer were gone, my husband and I rejoiced, thinking the worst was behind us. Even better, we found out three months later we were expecting our first child. We felt utterly blessed. 

With everything seemingly okay, my husband decided to take a summer trip to his native Finland to visit his father and do some fishing. I made the decision to stay home, since I was experiencing morning sickness and significant fatigue. About halfway through his vacation, my husband began to manifest flu symptoms. He didn’t think much of it, but when, a few days after coming home, he became incoherent and developed a life-threatening 106-degree fever I took him to the hospital.

There we discovered he had what is referred to in Finland as Kumlinge disease, a rare tick-borne virus that results in meningo-encephalitis in 20-30% of those who are exposed to the virus. For days, my husband was in and out of consciousness (mostly out) as his physicians monitored him. All they could do was mitigate the symptoms and try to prevent the fever from rising to the point of causing permanent damage or death. Once my husband emerged from the fog of encephalitis, it was not clear whether he would have partial paralysis from the nerve damage and/or permanent problems with his memory and thinking. Fortunately, and owing a great deal to his strong constitution, he made a good recovery in about two months and was able to return to work and playing hockey. Again, we thought the worst was behind us.

By November we were starting to prepare for the arrival of our baby. We discovered we were having a girl, and chose a Swedish name for her — Ellinor Kjerstin — to honor our mutual Swedish heritage. It was a perfect name: Ellinor means “shining light,” which she certainly was for us, and Kjerstin means “follower of Christ,” which we hoped she would be. During all this time, I had been reflecting on how lucky we were in conceiving a child so quickly; it was obviously ‘meant to be.’ The pregnancy had gone very well until we found out at five months, during a routine screen, that our baby was no longer growing. 

We were referred to a perinatologist, who told us that our little girl had a fatal chromosomal abnormality and was not expected to live. We were devastated. A week later she passed away. I gave birth to our precious daughter the morning following her passing, and we held her all day. We finally had the little family we wanted, brief as it was. My husband, who has seen firsthand the agony written on the faces of those who suffer terrible deaths, had found his peace in the serene countenance of our girl; she had gone to her heavenly Father without suffering. However, I found no peace at all. I had bonded with the little body I had held for those precious hours, and now she was gone. For a while, tormented by the loss, I wondered how I could go on.

What saved me was the peace I found in the idea that Ellinor was in the arms of God. We know she was sent to us for a reason, and while I will not reveal here what that reason was, those who are closest to us know it has been lovingly fulfilled.

These were horrible experiences to live through, but they have turned out to be tremendous gifts that I am thankful for. First, because they have taught me and my husband how precious life and love are. Holding our baby daughter for the few hours we had her has taught me more about unselfish love than all the previous experiences of my entire life. Second, because, as my husband has observed, each of these trials has actually strengthened our marriage. I feared that these experiences, particularly the loss of our child, would tear us apart. We had heard of people who suffered similar tragedies and lost their marriages as well. Our faith has sustained us, and I have never felt closer to my husband, and he to me. Third, it has shown us the unbelievable love of our family and friends. We are truly humbled by the outpouring of kindness and sympathy we have received in the wake of our trials. But, most of all, I am grateful because these experiences have brought us both closer to our Creator. I finally understand what it means to experience God’s protection and provision.

People often wonder why bad things happen to those who seemingly don’t deserve them. While I cannot claim to have any knowledge of who does or does not deserve such trials, I do know that those who truly understand the principal tenets of the Christian faith don’t wonder why these things happen. Ours is a fallen world, and we will all suffer because of it; but one of the blessings of our faith is to know that it is not for nothing. The great Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis, observed that a loving, compassionate God would not prevent his earthly children from experiencing pain, but would allow them to suffer in order to prepare them for the perfection of spiritual life. Through our earthly suffering we are all allowed to share in the experience of Christ, who suffered to ultimately save us all from the imperfection of this world.

This year has been a time of anguish for my husband and me. But we have passed through the fire and I know we are better people for it.  For that reason, I will not think of 2012 as the year from hell, but as a year in which we drew closer to heaven.