St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
Faith, Science, and Understanding by John Polkinghorne
Discussion Led By Prof. George John
Sunday, October 9, 2005
Professor John began the class by explain that in science there are many things that are “real,” even if we cannot detect them with our human senses. He demonstrated this point by passing around cloth mantles from a gas lamp. There was nothing special to see or feel, but when a Geiger counter detector was placed next to one of the mantles, the “bleeps” from the normal background radiation increased in frequency significantly. Thus, in this case, the human ear could judge by the differences in the tonal frequency, that something unique was happening on or around the mantle. George explained that this was because a small amount of the element thorium was embedded in the mantle. It has the property to glow under certain heated and atmospheric conditions which helps to give the lamps their brilliant light. He also showed how thin layers of aluminum or lead could effectively block or absorb a portion of the radiation.
Next, it was explained how other methods could be employed to further show the effects of this type of radiation. A cloud chamber could be simply made and subjected to this radiation phenomenon. Even though the particle or waves cannot be seen, there would be telltale tracks left in the cloud chamber as further proof that the radiation was real. Other tests such as subjecting the chamber to a magnetic or electric field will cause the particles to be bent in a prescribed path. This allows scientists and engineers to further define properties about the radiation. So with the assistance of these detection devices, the properties of the radiation may be shown to be repeatable and verifiable. This, in essence, is what science is all about.
However, as science progresses, theories about the natural phenomena around us can change. A case in point is our understanding of gravity. Sir Isaac Newton was the first to accurately define gravity as a predictable and measurable force field. However, when certain measurements at a distance were taken, things did not always line up exactly with the Newtonian theories. Albert Einstein came along many years later and proposed to define gravity from a more geometric point of view relative to a space-time continuum, which is still the accepted theory to this day.
Yet another example cited was that of defining the idea of the atom as first postulated by the Greeks and what its properties may be like. As man understood the sun to be the center of our solar system and not the earth, it was very logical that a planet-type of description of electron orbiting around a nucleus be accepted as the leading model. However, there were observations that these particle also acted at times more as waves than as true particles. Thus, the concept of quantum mechanics was proposed to better define this type of sub-atomic behavior. Schroedinger was able to hypothesize a mathematical model of wave mechanics, which was subsequently followed by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that noted electron position cannot be exactly defined, but can only be described in terms of probabilities.
Then class discussion turned towards talking about the first section of Polkinghorne’s book. The author, who is a proclaimed Christian, tries to explain the unitary nature of science and religion in that that teaching of theology and the unity of knowledge should go hand in hand. Some of the areas that the class found interesting included the author’s definition of a person, how human suffering may be explained and how to explain why there are multiple religions in this world and how they may all be tied together. There was also an interesting section on how the English clergy first saw Darwin’s theory on evolution as being positive and in line with church doctrine in that God’s hand in creation continues to this day.
Since many in the class found the first section of the book fairly difficult to read, it was decided to review the same section again next Sunday, but in more depth. Everyone should come prepared with a list of questions to help generate more class discussion.