Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 19 (September 1967): 86-87.

In the last decade or decade and a half there has been a radical change in chemistry teaching in this
turn chemistry, structure, irreversible processes, and nuclear chemistry. These subjects are clearly more country. The change has been a sharp turn towards increasing the amount of theoretical chemistry taught at both the high school and college levels.

In high school, there has been the adoption in many schools of one of the well-publicized, theory-oriented program. Other schools are using texts which have programs, either the CHEM Study program or the CBA years ago have no resemblance to the present ones,  followed the same trend. In college, the texts of twenty and here also the direction of change has been towards a greater emphasis on theory. Furthermore, in a course which has always been primarily theoretical-the physical chemistry course-the kind of theory is much more sophisticated than it once was. For example, in a much used 1966 physical chemistry textbook (and it is assumed that the textbook contents are fair measures of what is taught), 48% of the contents is devoted to quantum chemistry, structure, irreversible processes, and nuclear chemistry. These subjects are clearly more difficult, and perhaps more exotic, than the other subjects covered. By contrast, in a predecessor of this book  writen in 1955 by the same authors, 26% is devoted to these more difficult subjects. One more aspect of the change is significant: fifteen years ago physical chemistry was usually the senior chemistry course, the capstone course in the student's chemistry program. Today the longer, more difficult course is very often taught at the junior, sometimes even the sophomore, level.  There are other, more advanced courses-again with emphasis on theory-for the senior student.

 Thus, today's student of high school chemistry is learning the valence bond approach and the meanings of activation energies and oxidation potentials, where a similar student only a few years ago learned the Frasch process, processes to manufacture sulfuric acid, and very many reactions of the elements and their compounds, "descriptive chemistry". At the freshman college level the emphasis is on thermodynamics, equilibria, and structure, instead of the earlier emphasis on descriptive chemistry. Today an elementary organic chemistry course seems not to be worth the name if carbonium ions, nuclear magnetic reasonance, infrared spectrophotometry, etc., do not comprise a major part of the course.

In this sputnik age science education has become more popular. Even so, I suggest that the profound changes cited have not come about primarily because we have been given the go-ahead signal by the public in the matter of intensifying science education. Perhaps something else has occurred: more and more scientists are becoming actively aware of the inter-related structure of creation, and this understanding is beginning to affect what we teach.

We always knew in principle that mathematics does not depend upon physics; rather, physics in a very beautiful way depends upon mathematics. We also knew in principle that chemistry depends upon physics, and biology upon chemistry. These recent years which have seen the growth of interest in science are just the years in which the interdependence of physics, chemistry, and biology, in order of increasing complexity, has been developed. An analysis of the situation would very likely show that the turn towards theory in chemistry has really been a turn towards bridging the gap between chemistry and physics. Chemistry has seemed to become more mathematical because mathematics is the basis of physics. Is it not also true that as biology has turned more and more to molecular biology, that there has been a bridging between the less complex science of chemistry with biology? In educational circles it has in recent years been seriously suggested that the conventional science sequence in high school should be reversed: sophomores, juniors and seniors should be given physics, chemistry, and biology in that order, since each of the last two depend upon the one which precedes it. A turn towards theory in one of the sciences appears to be the tendency to explain the phenomena of a science in terms of the next-less-complex science in the hierarchy of complexities.

The structure of creation is the structure God has ordained, If we perceive some of this structure, we know more of the work of God than if we do not perceive the structure. When we discover and develop the concept of the inter-relatedness of the sciences, we testify that our Creator-God is a God of harmony, a God who made an unbelievably beautiful universe. The natural man will of course use the unifying principles of science-whetber it is the principles of quantum mechanics between physics and chemistry or the principles of molecular biology between chemistry and biology-to vanquish the god of whom he speaks, the god of the ever-diminishing region of the unknown. Thus we will not learn from the world the basic reason the gaps between the disciplines are being bridged.

It would be something to rejoice about if it could be said that Christians, especially those in Christian colleges, have led the way in bringing to students the idea that science is a structured whole, and the idea that appreciating the very beauty of it all is one way in which we can admire the work of our God. Probably we would have difficulty in showing that Christian high schools and colleges have even kept pace in making the change from the old to the new understanding. It is even less likely that they have both kept pace and that they have taught the deeper philosophical meaning of it all.

Perhaps our Christian scientific community is developing, so that we can be more clear than we have been in explaining to others, especially our students, that science and the creation of which science speaks are not neutral or non-religious. We scientists who are Christians surely ought to be among those who despise the false dichotomy between nature and grace. As we become aware of the subtle structure in creation, the facts we teach will not be isolated facts, as they appeared to be in the older, fact-cluttered textbooks. our students will then see the picture instead of the paint.