Written by Gracie Lawrence
I have always been attracted to research laboratories. Walking past them when I was younger and at university, I would peer in as I walked down the halls. Shelves cluttered with clear bottles, scribbled labels with acronyms I didn’t understand, tools on bench tops- many whose shape gave me no clue to their purpose. What goes on in there? What is in that ice bucket? It seemed mysterious, like a secret club of sorts and I wanted to learn the password. I wanted in.
I have since worked in research laboratories for the past 10 years.
Many people do not realize, that despite advances in technology, a lot of biological/medical research can still be very labor intensive, and of course, by its nature, repetitive to an exhausting end. And although much of the reagents and tools have now become as familiar to me as the ingredients in my kitchen cupboard- there is always that excitement about a new project or experiment.
But let’s be honest. Science, I am calling you out in public- you’re a tease.
Answering one question leads to hundreds more. Obtaining a piece of the puzzle leads you to realize the puzzle is much bigger than anticipated. It toys with you, and that is the fun in playing on the periphery of knowledge. You have to be prepared that anything may be correct or that everything may be wrong.
That is how the boundaries get pushed, and if you are lucky- you get to witness it.
Never in the course of a study, have I or a colleague ever thought, “Here we go, I think we know it all now!” With practically infinite number of potential variables for every experiment complied upon study, after study, how could we ever feel this way?
Science is not in the business of proofs- leave that for the mathematicians- what we do is compile data, upon data, and as each new piece is acquired, the stream twists and turns until we are able to step back and develop a theory of what we see- knowing all the while we may only be seeing the tail of the elephant.
Science is humbling.
And yet I see something different happening in society.
Yes, it is true; many scientific discoveries have been made, and for many individuals in the modern century it has made nature feel all but mysterious. Confident with past success, we envelop ourselves in a sense of security and pride. God is needed less to explain the wonders of the world, religion begins to be seen as primitive and ridiculous and the fashion of Atheism emerges.
But how does the success of one diminish the other? Understanding and describing the world around us does not tell me the “why” anything exists at all. People have tried to convince me that religion is not needed when each one of us can become enlightened on our own, inspired internally to a higher level of ethics without the need to acknowledge a creator. Are we as humans all on the same intellectual plane to even make that a possibility?
Religion is more than just about motivating an individual to “do good”. It is about society and a set of laws and beliefs that can possibly encompass this strange and mutable species of ours.
And it is easy for those who 1. know they err 2. and because they know they are prone to error- look for guidance outside of themselves. Life, much like a board game, is played much smoother when there is a really great rule book.
It is the most probable way that I can hope to play reasonably well- which is easy to do since I can acknowledge that I did not create the game in the first place.
Can I convince you that there is a higher power that has sent us guidance in one form or another? Of course not.
I simply appreciate the limitation of my senses, I acknowledge that science is still in its infancy despite our advances, and in that knowledge comes the possibility of, well … just about everything.
Yes, in this I include the possibility that God and religion is still very much true and needed in this world and serves a purpose whether others choose to believe in it or not.
To better appreciate this, it is nice to have examples of just how limited we are- if nothing else we can appreciate just how far we have come with the abilities we have been given.
I could begin with fact that in recent years, scientists have discovered that 95 percent of the cosmos are invisible to all current methods of direct detection (see Dark Matter and Energy).
But I have decided to keep this closer to home (planet Earth that is)- introducing my favorite…
3 Senses We Fail At
1. Sight(This gets first place for more than one reason)
A. We Don’t Detect Much
Yeah, we’re practically blind, but before you pull your inferred/night vision goggles out on me as proof that you are not (and hopefully you just have those for hunting) let’s consider the entire light spectrum.
The electromagnetic spectrum -or entire spectrum of light- span light waves that are miles long to waves that are extremely short. The light we see (visible light) only spans about 1.5% of the entire light spectrum. For an awesome example of how that might compare in real life- see the mountain and man picture example.
That does not only limit what we can detect with our own eyes, but distorts how we see the world around us. A simple example, flowers depend much more on honey bees to help pollinate and perpetuate their species than humans.
Honey bees (that can detect ultraviolet light) can spot the bull’s-eye of flowers that we can’t and make use of an awesome little landing pad for honey bees to spot- where we just see just a bunch of yellow. I say, what else can that those little buggers see? Hopefully not dead people.
B. Size Limitations
Things that are too big or too small are hard for us to see. But because I promised to stay on Earth, let’s talk about microorganisms- you know those tiny living things that are all around us and even within us that outnumber our own human cells 10:1. See Humans Carry More Bacterial Cells than Human Ones
As a semi-side note: Well into the late 1800’s (which is really not that long ago) women died from child bed fever to such an extent that it actually was much safer to give birth in a manger than in a hospital. With no knowledge of germs, entire wards of women would fall victim to certain kinds of staphylococci- pass away and leave their babies behind.
The main culprit were the doctors who believed that “gentlemen hands are never dirty” and therefore, there was no real reason to wash-up- thereby infecting woman, after woman, after woman. Thankfully as microscopy began to improve and an understanding of germ theory started to develop, healthcare professionals finally began to implement safer practices in hospitals and by 1935 there was a cure. See The Doctor’s Plague.
Though, interestingly to this day, there still exist germ theory deniers.
Scientists continue studying microorganisms to better understand how they work with us and against us. In fact, new microorganism continue to be found- and with less than 5% of the oceans having been explored and the amount of biodiversity within- I am sure we still have a long, long way to go.
It’s how organisms detect the Earth’s magnetic field. It’s how birds know which way they need to go when traveling north for the winter. I can’t readily detect it; but supposedly people do poses a bit of a magnetic mineral at the back of our nose, between our eyes.
But does it help us navigate better? I don’t know and neither do the experts. Although as a kid, my dad never seemed to ever be lost even when in a new area- though I highly doubt that is the reason why.
Errrr….I think this graph is pretty self explanatory.
I could also go on about other senses, such as our sense of smell which is far inferior to our canine friends, but I think I have made my point here.
Science is an incredible field, it has left me more modest, it has left me more spiritual. But the fact that it itself is done in the minds of humans means it is not error free. It’s limitations lie on our intrinsic short coming both of our intellect and our senses. As technology improves, hopefully more will be understood with time.
Believing in a creator is not about believing in a ‘big man in the sky’. It is about believing that there exists something more powerful than us, acknowledging that we error, and getting our guidance from something other than ourselves.
Taking the best of science does not prompt me to discard my faith. Understanding that God has created more than what I can imagine just makes me a better scientist.
What natural wonders still inspire you? Let us know below.
Want to dig deeper? See Why science cannot explain why anything at all exists (understanding the limits of science by Dr. Luke Barnes).
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