“Ladies and Gentleman, the captain has just switched on the seatbelt sign in anticipation of upcoming moderate turbulence.” A string of words never followed by a cheery, “enjoy it!” When the bumps start I instinctively look out the window, just to make sure the wings are still there. I’m suddenly rudely aware of the extent that I’m not in control. Additionally, the thought occurs to me that if airplane disasters are simply statistics then every flight is a reduction in my odds.
So just how dangerous is turbulence? To answer that question, I turned to that master of knowledge, the Discovery Channel. Three words: airplane disaster documentaries. I was hooked. Human error, mechanical failure, unpredictable weather – I soaked it all in. You may think it an odd way to deal with undesirable high-altitude stress. Maybe so. My rationale was that the more I understood the more I would feel OK (as if my knowing that human error was the number one cause of airplane crashes was going to help me when I was strapped in to seat 49J with as much command over the elements as an Englishman with his BBQ hoping for that “perfect summer evening”).
My obsession with these re-enacted disasters did however bring some consolation. Through these dramas I learnt that airplane crashes are taken very seriously. They are investigated at great depth with the knowledge gained from the studies used to make future flights safer. As I learnt about the resulting developments in airplane technology my fascination with the complexity of airplanes grew and grew. I am in total awe of how advanced these modern vehicles are.
Men have sat in rooms and thought and schemed and sketched and calculated and come out with things like Concorde. Absolutely incredible. Airplane designers have my total respect. Airplane economy-section planners on the other hand … I digress.
As with my marvels at airplane technology I am profoundly in awe and wowed by scientific discoveries. As I write, NASA’s Martian rover, aptly named ‘Curiosity’, is scrambling around the Red Planet at the beginning of its two-year mission to see if conditions were ever suitable for life. Utterly fascinating.
Science describes the world we live in. It unravels mysteries that stun us with their complexity and beauty. Now, some have said, that with all of our acquired collective scientific understanding there is no need today for God to explain things. We can comprehend our world now in ways we couldn’t possibly fathom a century ago and therefore science and knowledge have replaced faith and superstition.
But science is what science is, a description of the way things are. Science relates theories and laws and provides a deeper understanding of what is physically there. Science enhances my understanding of the greatness of the makeup of the world but to conflate my knowledge of the way things work with the question of the existence of God, who explains why things exist, is to make a serious category mistake.
Being in increasing wonder of the way it all works only serves to enhance my utter awe of God. John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, writing in the Times put it this way, “The more Newton understood of the mathematical structure of the universe, the more he admired the creative genius of God, not the less.”
Science is the poetry we use to articulate the genius of God expressed in the creation of the universe. It is a language to explain what exists, not an explanation to the question of why it exists. Just as understanding how a well-designed plane keeps me safe at 36,000 feet goes no way to understanding what I’m doing in the plane in the first place.
This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec edition of Sorted Magazine.