Francis Collins and his God – but no, not more of that New Atheist stuff…
[Well, not really. This is the pre-edited version of my latest column for Prospect.]
The unanimous praise for President Obama’s scientific appointments is faltering. When in January he offered the position of surgeon general to the ‘media doctor’ Sanjay Gupta of CNN, many considered it a lightweight choice. In the event Gupta declined, and Obama’s new nominee, Alabama community physician Regina Benjamin, has raised no eyebrows.
But the nomination of Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health, the US biomedical research organization, is more controversial. At face value, Collins looks an obvious choice: former leader of the Human Genome Project, he has a proven track record of large-scale management, and commands respect from peers by remaining scientifically active rather than becoming a pen-pushing adminstrator. Geneticist Eric Lander has called him ‘a superb choice for an NIH director’, while others praise him as a ‘scientist’s scientist.’
So what’s the problem? In a nutshell, Collins’ 2006 book The Language of God. He is outspoken, even evangelical, about his Christian faith. Even that might not have been a problem if Collins had not appeared to equivocate about ‘old-time religion’ issues such as the interpretation of the Fall and the possibility of divine intervention in evolution. Some scientists are troubled by what one can find on such issues on the website of the BioLogos Foundation, established by Collins to reconcile science and religion.
Collins will step down from BioLogos before taking up his new role, and some of his colleagues offer reassurances that they have never seen his scientific judgement clouded by his religious beliefs. But with the crippling religious opposition to stem-cell science in researchers’ minds, this may not be enough to dispel concern. Collins has become a figure of almost obsessive loathing among the ‘New Atheist’ scientists seeking to combat the religiosity of American life.
Biologist P.Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota, whose Pharyngula blog is a flagship of New Atheism, calls Collins’ BioLogos ‘an embarrassment of poor reasoning and silly Christian apologetics’ and worries that ‘he will use his position to act as a propagandist for Christianity.’ Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls Collins ‘an advocate of profoundly anti-science beliefs.’
But Myers offers what might be in the end a more compelling reason to question Collins’ appointment: ‘he represents a very narrow, gene-jockey style of research, which… often exhibits a worrisome lack of understanding of the big picture of biology.’ He’s not alone in fearing that Collins’ enthusiasm for ‘big science’ – especially genomic stamp-collecting – will leach funding from smaller but more intellectually guided areas, such as environmental and systems biology. Collins will initially have plenty of cash to spread around – the NIH was granted a one-off sum of $10.4 bn as an economic stimulus until September 2010 – but things will get leaner, and it will take boldness and vision to find space for innovation rather than more safe but dull genome-crunching.
It’s disconcerting astronomers almost to the point of embarrassment that a scar the size of the Earth has turned up unexpectedly on Jupiter. The dark ‘bruise’ in the giant planet’s dense atmosphere is evidence of some gigantic impact, presumably an asteroid or comet. The last time this happened, in 1994, it was widely anticipated and supplied a cosmic fireworks display both exhilarating and sobering: the fragmented comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 ploughed into the planet, leaving a trail of scars each of Armageddon proportions. But this wasn’t exactly a case of ‘there but for the grace of God’, so much as a reminder of Jupiter’s role as our guardian angel. The strong gravitational tug of the gas giant is thought to suck up many lumps of wandering debris that would otherwise pose a threat to Earth. Some researchers even think that the existence of a big brother to mop up impactors could be a condition of habitability for Earth-like planets around other stars.
All the same, we’d like to see such events coming. But no one foresaw the dark smudge in Jupiter’s south polar region until it was spotted by an amateur astronomer in Australia on 19 July. Word spread almost at once, and within less than a day two large infrared telescopes in Hawaii had seen the same spot, glowing brightly with sunlight reflected by the material thrown up through the jovian atmosphere.
We still don’t know what caused it, however. It could have been a faint icy comet, or a rocky asteroid. Jupiter also acquires blotches from storms, but none tends to look like this. It’s going to be tough now to figure out how big the impacting body was, or how much energy was released, especially as Jupiter’s winds will soon wipe away the traces. The similar ‘holes’ left by Shoemaker-Levy 9 were probably made by fragments several hundred metres wide: on Earth, that wouldn’t wipe us out, but it would make an almighty bang.
Has anyone visited the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics recently? It’s well worth it: led by some heavyweight astrophysicists, it hosts seminars for specialists every Friday, as well as regular public talks and outreach events open to all. But you won’t get there by air, road or rail, because MICA exists nowhere on Earth. It is the first professional research organization to be based exclusively in virtual reality, in Second Life. The potential of virtual worlds to bring together scientists for meetings and conferences without leaving their desks has been much heralded. But MICA takes that more seriously than most. Its seminars happen in a pleasant, wooded outdoor amphitheatre looking conspicuously like the Californian coast. It has to be said that the audience is rather better looking than it tends to be in reality too.