In the fall of 2011, I was invited to give The Vivian J. Lamb Lecture on Science and Religion at Villanova University. The text of my hour-long talk ran to more than 6,000 words, and as far as I know it was never published anywhere. I’ll be publishing it here in three parts, over the next three weeks.
This past summer  I did a bit of traveling…
First, there was the “Living Theology” workshop at the Jesuit parish in Liverpool. I gave a bunch of talks, heard a bunch of talks. Got lost one day driving through Liverpool, and found myself crossing Penny Lane.
Following that, I went to Greenwich for the annual meeting of the Meteoritical Society. I heard a bunch of scientific presentations about meteorites, those bits of rock from the asteroid belt that occasionally fall to earth. It’s really cool to be able to hold and touch a piece of outer space. Of course, when you present a scientific paper, you have to be able to say more than, “it’s really cool!” But never mind...
And then, right after the Meteoritical Society, I flew off to Reno, Nevada, for the annual World Science Fiction Convention. That’s where they hand out the Hugo Awards for the best science fiction stories of the past year. I didn’t win. I hadn’t written any stories to be nominated. Maybe next year...
Anyway, I heard plenty of talks about the life and business of writing science fiction. I appeared on a few panels where they asked me about the latest in astronomy (so I got to talk about meteorites).
I got interviewed by a British guy, Paul Cornell, who writes for DC comics and Doctor Who. He wanted to know about my life in science and religion. Turns out, his wife is an Anglican curate, so it was mostly a case of us comparing notes, about living in worlds that a lot of people think don’t have much overlap.
I think they do have an overlap. That’s what this talk is all about.
The last stop of my trip was back in Tucson. I had dinner there with a grad student in meteoritics from the University of Arizona who was about to defend her PhD thesis. (She’d borrowed some meteorite samples from me, which is how we got to know each other.) She was all worried about how she should present her work at her final defense.
I guess I was still thinking of science fiction, and the meteorite conference papers, and Beatles songs like Penny Lane, so what popped out of my mouth was, “tell it like a story.”
A scientific paper that works, one that is remembered, one that advances the field, is one that tells a story.
A story starts with a setting –- where are we? who are the protagonists? A place and people we care about… the poor orphan with the funny scar living under the stairs at Number 4, Privet Drive; the peaceful countryside with lovable hobbits. A story lures you in with a problem, a conflict, a mystery; it makes you want to know what happens next, what happens when the wizard visits the orphan, when the wizard visits the hobbits, and drags them all away from home.
A story has a central point, a climactic moment, when the main character makes a crucial decision, when someone uncovers the key piece of information and everything you thought you knew is changed.
And the decision, the information, the main moment has consequences. It matters. We know how it matters, within the realm of the story, because we’ve been given the set up in the first place, back when the story began. So we know about the evil wizard who killed the hero’s parents, we know about the evil ring that can control all the other rings of magic but corrupts one’s soul in the process.
But it also matters, outside of the universe of the story, inside our own personal universe, it matters in a different way; it matters enough that we want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. We have to see how the decision plays out.
And then we come to the end, the resolution. For a story to satisfy, you need to have a moment at the end to step back, catch your breath, and just take in the scenery… look over the landscape now, where Middle Earth will never be the same; where a new generation boards the train to Hogwarts.
Now, if you’re going to write a scientific paper, you need the same parts. You describe the problem. You describe why it’s a problem – and why you needed that clever or difficult or special thing you did, to make it all work. You describe your brilliant contribution. You describe what came of it. And then you sit back, see how it changes all our ideas about the origin and evolution of the universe, and why you’ll be asking for another grant next year to keep up the good work.
So where does religion fit into all this? In a couple of ways.
[In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!]