Epiphany and Science

On Christmas day, Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted a little gem that stirred up some sentiment…or at least, some social media air time.  In case you missed it, his now infamous tweet was: “On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642”

While one can infer a host of things about that message (irrespective of whether a “heavenly host” was involved) what clearly comes across in his message is a linguistic and intellectual positioning of science and religion as separate, side-by-side entities which may co-exist, but do not co-mingle.  Many responses to that tweet perpetuated a sentiment that religion (here, Christianity) and science are in some sort of competition for existential meaning and importance on December 25.  Personally, I don’t believe that the two are distinct, nor in competition, but I realize and respect that some people might.  Regardless of how you may feel about Dr. deGrasse Tyson’s December 25th tweet, I hope this blog post offers something new to this conversation.

Today…January 6th…is Epiphany.  Epiphany is for scientists.

Let me explain.

The one common feature that I notice in every one of my scientifically minded colleagues is that there is an unmistakable awe in the possibility of discovery.  That moment of discovery…which in the realm of translational science we even refer to as “T-Zero”…is when something happens that takes us by surprise, and makes us reject the null hypothesis when we didn’t have another hypothesis that we were observing and expecting to occur.  It could be the moment that a cancer cell dies in the presence of a newly introduced substance; it could be an observation of a potentially different species or the prospect of a new element that exists even for a fraction of a nano-second; it could be an intervention that produces a desired effect three times faster than anything else that has been tried. It isn’t yet “proven” through testing, re-testing, and challenging contextual limitations but there has been discovery.  Any scientist who loves what they do will have a “discovery” story to share that has hooked us in our field and keeps us asking the next question, examining the data a little more deeply, considering alternative hypotheses, holding out the prospect of meaning in emergent design.  We can study people, cells, robotics, plants, art, cognition…the list is endless.  The moment of discovery is Epiphany; it is where wisdom meets knowledge and creates a spark.

Today is that day…Epiphany…in the Christian calendar.  By tradition, Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Magi…the “We Three Kings” of song and legend…to deliver gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the young Jesus and his family.  Although we are not told a great deal about this visit in scripture, the inference that we have is that these visitors traveled from far away; they were educated, wise, and used all the evidence around them to chart a course toward something that inspired their intellectual curiosity.

We aren’t told that the Magi had any kind of conversion experience.  We don’t really know if or how their world views changed after their moment of discovery.  Like most scientists, they likely didn’t make an instant pronouncement, and they most certainly would not have discussed it with any sources likely to report on it out of context; that happens without scientific effort.  But, like all those of scientific mind and intellectual curiosity, they were seeking to find something…yet, they were also holding out the realization that they might find nothing.  That is one of the hallmarks of science.  As Albert Einstein so succinctly put it (at least according to the plaque in my office): “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.”

The one aspect of the Epiphany Gospel from Matthew stands out to me:  “…and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”  We are told the magi chose a different direction; this is a response to discovery, to new information, to an unsettling of the status quo.

The one thing that all scientists have in common is the prospect that we will find nothing.  So, when we have a moment of discovery…when we can reject the null hypothesis…when an emergent finding materializes from within an inquiry…wisdom touches knowledge.  We are transformed.  Knowledge is generated.  Epiphany.

I’m not suggesting that any person has to believe that three smart men rode camels across a desert and found a baby laying in a manger the way that carved crèche might suggest.  But, I am holding out the possibility that even in the midst of a religious story, scientific discovery can occur.  And, that during a life of scientific pursuit, a spiritual experience of wisdom can emerge.  In both situations, we are transformed. We will likely go home by another road.

Epiphany: where wisdom and knowledge meet each other, and we are transformed.

With gratitude, as I close this Epiphany, for transformation that has allowed me to travel home by another road.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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