How does anyone go about conducting scientific research? It often starts with a hypothesis or an idea that is taken on – you guessed it – faith. Every good proposal I have ever written, or everything my group has ever tried to make, we were never assured it was going to work. In fact, if we only worked on the problems where we knew the answer in advance, we would never do anything meaningful at all. This is the nature of scientific research. You take a risk on an idea with some information suggesting it will work, but not complete information. I would argue that the very best research scientists exercise enormous amounts of faith every single day. That is, in fact, what might make them so successful. I will give you some examples.
So the first example involves my very own Ph.D. … Do we have any graduate students in the room? … You guys will vibe with this. When I entered graduate school I was tasked with designing a new type of fuel cell that incorporated special pumps. Fuel cells work by converting chemical energy stored in a fuel directly into electricity, waste heat, and water. You can think of them as a hybrid between a combustion engine and a battery. Like a battery, fuel cells convert chemical energy directly into electricity. Yet, like the engine in your car, fuel cells do not store energy, they can only operate as long as they have a ready fuel supply. The issue with many fuel cell systems is that there is a delicate balance between the amount of water necessary for operation and excessive water that is produced in the fuel cell which results in what is known as ‘flooding’. Fuel cell flooding lowers energy conversion efficiency and is generally bad for the system. I was tasked as a young graduate student with using special pumps that actually have no moving parts to remove the liquid water from fuel cells. This seemed like a great idea, however, it was very difficult to implement in practice. In principle, we knew that if we could incorporate these pumps, we would have a better fuel cell. The problem was that it was unclear how exactly we could put the pumps into the system.
Before I began working on the project, there were two Ph.D.s – people who had finished their Ph.D.s – who had spent some time trying to solve this problem and were unable to do so. They were unsuccessful and moved on to other work. In fact, one of them actually told me before I began that he believed this project would never work. Not really encouraging for a first year graduate student. Though I knew it would be difficult, I believed I could get it done. You could say that I had faith. After roughly a year of work including several all-nighters and many frustrating moments, I was able to build this special fuel cell that incorporated our pumps. Luckily for me, this fuel cell was in fact significantly better than comparable designs that did not include our special pump. Along the way there were several times when I wanted to quit but something kept me going. That ‘thing’ – I would argue – was faith that ultimately I would make my experiment work. This is the type of faith that you find at the frontier of nearly every scientific endeavor.
Now another example of faith in science is the story of Thomas Edison. So all of you may know, Thomas Edison is famous for being a founder of General Electric and also inventing the incandescent light bulb. Actually, the story of Thomas Edison and the light bulb begins well before him, because several other people had invented light bulbs decades before Edison. Edison was not the first inventor of the light bulb. So, sorry to shatter your dreams …
What he sought to do was to create a low cost incandescent bulb that would make gas lamps obsolete. Others had made incandescent bulbs, but they were fraught with difficulties including excessive power consumption, high costs, and limited lifetime. Now Edison was so sure of himself that he made proclamations to the media claiming the end of gas lighting was at hand before he had ever begun working on it. Before he had a working prototype, he claimed that he had solved the problem. Unfortunately for Edison, nearly 2 years after his proclamation, he still did not have a better light bulb. His many critics began to chastise him, publicly denouncing him as a fraud, a pseudo-scientist, and a con artist. In spite of this adversity, Edison and his team pressed forward. One of the key components missing in Edison’s design was the proper filament material to allow glow discharge without incinerating. Over several months, Edison and his team tested more than 6000 different filament materials until they found a suitable carbon based material. Then, in 1881, at the Paris Convention of Electricity, Edison unveiled his new light bulb and electricity distribution system to the world. The demonstration was a huge success and proved most of his critics wrong. Yet, you have to imagine that along the way Edison must have had doubts. He surely must have wondered if his idea would ever work at all; everyone else did. Yet he continued to work towards his goal in spite of the challenges and risks. What is it that could keep him going even though all the evidence around him suggested that he was going to fail? I would argue that thing was faith.
A modern day example of this is the persistence in the discovery of the Higgs Boson. So this particle, which was first postulated in the 1960s by Peter Higgs, had eluded particle physicists for nearly fifty years. Yet they believed with the right equipment, they could find it. With the construction of the large hadron collider at CERN, a roughly $10 billion dollar project – 10 billion dollars with a B, that is a lot of taxpayer faith – the community finally had the right infrastructure to prove or disprove Higgs’ decades-old theory.
Recently, just a couple weeks ago, the Higgs Boson is believed to have been detected by two different groups searching for it, answering certain important questions in particle physics while eliciting many more. Why would a community of scientists spend 5 decades and countless billions of dollars in search of a particle whose only evidence was mathematical and theoretical? I would argue that the reason is faith. Perhaps it was faith in themselves or faith in their theory, but it was faith nonetheless.
So why do I bring up these stories? It is because some would have you think that faith and reason are like oil and water. This simply is not the case. Some of the greatest minds in history employed faith to advance the frontiers of science. Many of the greatest scientists in history are people with a deep faith, not just in their science, but in also God. Examples include Max Planck, Georges Lemaître, who first proposed the Big Bang theory, and Francis Collins, who led the human genome project and is now Director of the National Institutes of Health… and if you come over to MIT, I could show you a whole hoard of professors who pray together, who also have faith, firm faith, in Jesus.
So my point is this: we do not live in a world where some people employ faith and others do not. Everyone exercises faith, the real question is: where is your faith?
- In the clip, Cullen Buie argues that being a scientist requires you to have faith in the potential success of your projects. Are there any accomplishments in your life that required you to have faith before you achieved them?
- Should the fact that science depends upon some amount of faith – consider theoretical physics, for example – count against it? Is scientific knowledge less reliable because faith plays a role in developing and collecting it?
- Are there any differences between faith in science and faith in God? If so, what are the differences?