Science Corner: Zooming Out on the World

Photo of a hand holding a lens in front of a field of sunflowers. The lens provides a wide angle view of the sunflowers.

Using technology to make the sunflowers smaller brings them closer together. (Photo by marcomagrini )

Please stick around to the end for a couple of announcements.

While discussing the AI & Christianity series, I talked about artificial intelligence being a tool to spread one’s influence farther. I also noted how that was not a unique property of AI, computers or modern technology. Plenty of past inventions enabled an expansion of reach. A reminder of that came this past week in a story about the linguistics of tea. Apparently the words for ‘tea’ can be placed in one of two groups; they are either very similar to te or very similar to cha. Which kind of word you use depends on whether tea was exported to your country (or the country of your language’s origin) by land or by sea.

The significance of the route traces back to the origin of the routes. In both cases, the tea came from China, just different parts of China. Different populations who share the same written language and the same written character for te/cha nevertheless pronounce it differently. The cha variant is common with many populations and spread over land, while the te variant was used by the people operating the ports where tea was exported by sea. Thus the technology of ocean-going vessels made it possible for seaside Chinese people to have a linguistic influence on much of western Europe and the western hemisphere. In the process, the world got a little smaller as we all cultivated a taste for the same hot beverage.

Of course, bringing people closer together doesn’t always bring people closer together, as it were. Proximity can reveal details about each other that are unfamiliar and surprising and possibly make us uncomfortable. Our psychology can’t always keep pace with our technology. I think we’re seeing that play out now, in our conversations about immigration and where jobs belong and the vastly divergent and apparently irreconcilable views of the world that social media deliver to us.

Fortunately, a shrinking world is not uncharted territory and we are not without the wisdom of those who have gone before us. Earlier this week, I was reading what Martin Luther King, Jr. had to say about science and religion, both to learn more about the man and to potentially add a theologian’s voice to our historical context. He saw them as complementary in the sense of needing each other, particularly that science needed some guidance from religion. Not surprisingly or unjustifiably, he was critical of certain applications of science such as nuclear weapons. What struck me most, however, was this quote from a commencement address at Oberlin which I found to be insightful and remarkably relevant half a century later:

Now it is true that the geographic togetherness of our world has been brought into being, to a large extent, through modern man’s scientific ingenuity. Modern man, through his scientific genius, has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Yes, we’ve been able to carve highways through the stratosphere, and our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and months. And so this is a small world from a geographical point of view. What we are facing today is the fact that through our scientific and technological genius we’ve made of this world a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment we must make of it a brotherhood. We must all learn to live together as brothers – or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together.

Tonight at 7:30pm EST is the science communication panel discussion with Christianity Today science editor Rebecca Randall, Illinois Public Radio producer Christine Herman, and me. As a follow-up, next Wednesday at the same time (1/24, 7:30pm EST) I will be hosting a video chat to give folks a chance to talk about their research, discuss some science news that excited them, or share their own thoughts on making science accessible. It’ll be a chance for all of us to practice some science communication in an informal setting.

I also want to let you know that I will be starting another round of the blog book club on February 7th. We’ll be reading When Science and Christianity Meet edited by David C Lindberg and Ronald L Numbers. It’s a collection of essays by various contributors, spanning pretty much the entire history of modern Western science from its Medieval foundations through to 20th century conversations. I expect the separate essays will be distinct enough to warrant discussing each in turn, so we’ll start with a post on the first chapter on 2/7 and go from there.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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