by William Kopcha
I have passed the point of no return. They warned me this would happen when I started grad school, but I didn’t believe them. The signs, however, are unmistakable: Advertising infuriates me. Newspapers make me cringe. The general population’s assessment of science, whose main tenets are apparently the big bang, evolution, aliens, global warming, and, if you’re a Keanu Reaves fan, cold fusion, makes me smile. Yes, it’s true – I am a scientist. When I’m not enjoying my favorite hobby of walking around in a white lab coat with a clipboard, I can spend some time pondering questions like, “What is science?” Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to announce that I have solved this riddle. Surprisingly, the most apt definition that I have yet to hear has come from not only pop culture, but a sitcom. It is definitely possible to carry the following through to a blasphemous extreme reminiscent of the tower of Babel; however, taken with a grain of salt, I would summarize my occupation with the following response from Dr. Sheldon Cooper when asked, “So what are you doing tonight?”
“…tearing the mask off of nature and staring at the face of God.”
Extreme? Maybe. But consider the following:
Fall 2007, Storrs, Connecticut. A young William Kopcha sets forth from his dorm room at the farthest edge of the campus of the University of Connecticut one day during the crisp New England autumn. His gaze alights upon a distant copse of trees that has turned a brilliant shade of scarlet. Struck by their beauty, he immediately begins to contemplate all of the factors that not only underlie this magnificent change of color from green to red, but also all of the factors that enable the light to be transmitted from the tree to his eye, his eye to receive and detect light, his brain to process this information, for light and color and matter and energy to even exist in the first place. And the factors are many: the structure of the red carotene molecules in the leaves (in which the wavelength of red light doesn’t “fit” so is reflected) versus the structure of the green chlorophyll, the delicate cascade of reactions in an inanimate tree, where thousands of chemicals set one another off like dominoes to respond to a change in the weather, the nature of the parts of atoms (protons, neutrons, electrons) that allows us to have elements so that those chemicals can exist, the interaction of light which is at once electricity and magnetism and both a wave and a particle with the matter in the leaves and in my eye, the physical change in shape that that light induces in molecules in my eye which then sets off another cascade of reactions like more dominoes to bring that signal to my brain…
And the kicker? At the tail end of my 4-year college degree in chemistry, I could just barely identify all of the factors involved in the process. I could give you a rough sketch of a grand total of three of the chemicals involved and a fuzzy overview of the physics. Essentially, it took four years for me to learn what I would need to look up in order to learn about this process. That’s it.
That’s it, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s beautiful to realize that even the simplest thing that we take for granted has an underlying, mind-blowing complexity to it if you take the time to really look at it in the depth that it deserves. Once you realize this about all of creation, what must that then say about the Creator? The words of Psalm 104 take on a whole new dimension: “How glorious are Thy works, O Lord!”
This is all very well and good from an intellectual standpoint. Science is the study of God’s creation, which can reveal the glory of the Creator in ways that little else can. The stresses of the daily grind, though, can make this seem like a distant daydream. Scientists are, by and large, practical people, after all – so what happens when the world doesn’t seem so glorious or when things seem to contradict all that I have come to know and love about God and the way things are “supposed” to work? In times of frustration, I have demanded of God, “You promised that I would ‘have life and have it more abundantly’ … so where is it?” Suffering, in particular, is very easy to explain in the general and very difficult in the specific. It’s simple to regurgitate the “right” answers, like “suffering brings growth” and “suffering brings opportunity to do good,” but then if God loves me, why have I had times where I have suffered and not grown? Where I have been utterly crushed, defeated, changed for the worse? Where I have not overcome, not resurrected, not been strengthened? A plus B does not equal C. My data contradicts my model of the universe as led by God… so how can God still exist?
Most people don’t realize that scientific research is 99% failure. Experiments never work the first time around, and even if they do, you have to repeat them to make sure they weren’t a “fluke,” after which you will most likely get contradictory results that raise more questions than they answer. Lather, rinse, repeat. When I first started my own journey down this particular yellow brick road, I couldn’t understand why my colleagues would spend so much time playing “Spider Solitaire” while waiting for experiments to finish. Finally, it hit me: both were an exercise in futility.
The silver lining, for those persistent and resilient enough to find it, is that failure is a good thing. News flash: science always works. If, for whatever reason, science “isn’t working this week” and you are encountering a string of setbacks and frustrations, science isn’t the problem. You are the problem. Your hypothesis was wrong. You were working with incomplete data. You let your biases overrule your judgment. Your experimental methods were faulty and introduced unaccounted-for variables. You simply weren’t prepared and need to hit the library for a few days until you can come at it again, armed with an arsenal of new information. Your failures in the lab and the doubts stemming from them are therefore sometimes the only way to know what is really going on with your study, your setup, your model, your methods – in short, failure and doubt are the only avenue to the truth. Likewise, when we fail in life – and we all do – and God and the universe seem to be illogical and self-contradictory, God is not the problem – We are the problem. Our hypothesis was wrong. We were working with incomplete data. We let our biases overrule your judgment. We did not take a particular course of action or opportunity that was presented to us. Did my feeling that I did not “have life and have it more abundantly” mean that God had broken His promise? I would wager not, and that the problem was at my end rather than His, but I would never have been driven to even think about that had I not seen what appeared to be a glaring contradiction in the empirical evidence.
Really, arriving at a scientific belief and belief in God is the same process. Science is just a lot easier to measure. A lot of science we can’t see: oxygen molecules that you breathe, the chemical breakdown of glucose from food in your mitochondria, and the existence of atoms, to name a few. You can, however, set up two different situations where you know only one variable is changed, examine the results, and apply previous knowledge and statistics to help interpret them. The results are confusing, so you do some more investigation and revise your hypothesis. God’s lab, life, is confusing, but we often don’t go back and revise our hypotheses – we just give up. The evidence doesn’t fit our preconceived conclusions, so we dump them wholesale rather than bothering to fix them. In 1911, Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford discovered that some of the particles of radiation expected to pass through gold foil were reflected back, remarking that it was “as if you fired a 15-inch shell into a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.” He didn’t dump the idea of the atom; he merely revised it to include a dense nucleus that could deflect the incoming particles. Why should we dump God or the Church, the foundations of our understanding of our spirituality built up and attested to by countless generations of humanity’s best souls and minds, simply because we don’t understand what’s happening to us? Reality is reality regardless of what we perceive it to be; faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” is how we hold on as we reconcile our own flawed hypotheses with the often-contradictory data from God and His created reality – a reality that is at once painfully confusing, beautifully complex, and breathtakingly glorious.