David Howard at the Proms…

David Thomson:

I was there when David Howard produced his voice demo with a plastic moulding of his own vocal tract and a buzzer. Amazing. My own interest is in how Grosseteste and later grammarians try to link the shape of the mouth when sounds are produced to the shapes of the letters that represent them – some more successfully than others!

Originally posted on The Ordered Universe Project:

IMG_2834IMG_4619David Howard (University of York), and Ordered Universe stalwart, will be featured in a Proms Concert Interval programme, tonight, talking about his amazing research into human voice production and its reproduction by machines. ‘Singing Machines’ will be broadcast in the UK at about 19.10 and will be available on the BBC Radio 3 website for about 30 days thereafter. David’s fascinating work on reproducing human vocalisation has featured in the last two Ordered Universe symposia, including an illuminating talk involving 3d printed copies of David’s own vocal tract as it formed various vowels. This and much more feature on his YouTube channel. The Ordered Universe group’s reading of the De generatione sonorum and the De liberalibus artibus has been deepened and stimulated considerable by modern investigation on voice production. And consideration of Grosseteste’s 13th century accounts of sound production are proving interesting  and stimulating by turns amongst his modern followers. Watch…

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Science is the very antithesis of religious faith. Not.

Inventing the Universe: An evening with Alister McGrath – an LICC event


“Science is the very antithesis of religious faith.” With this quote Sam Harris sums up what many proponents of New Atheism would have us believe. The rise of this ultra-antagonistic anti-theist movement, which insists that science has essentially disproved not just God but also the value of religion, has certainly further agitated the historically-troubled relationship between science and faith.

Yet in wider society there is increasing scepticism towards Atheism’s often glib and superficial answers, and the big questions about faith, God and science haven’t just gone away. In fact, we seem to talk about them more than ever – articles and blogs, popular TV shows, Facebook threads and Twitter discussions, heated debates at the pub or during a work coffee break.

So what does it look like to be a fruitful disciple in these conversations? How can we engage intelligently, graciously and faithfully with questions about science and God?

At this event you’ll hear Professor Alister McGrath offer a framework for dialogue with all the big questions that Dawkins and others have raised – human origins, the burden of proof, meaning, the existence of God and our place in the universe – as well as share a little more of his own personal journey to faith. Then, after his talk, we’ll have a chance to get more specific: an extended Q&A time will give you the opportunity to ask Professor McGrath, one of the UK’s leading scientists and theologians, the questions that most intrigue, puzzle and challenge you – and those with whom you seek to share life and faith.

Professor McGrath will also be signing copies of his latest book, available for a special price at this event a week before its official public release. Positive, compelling and highly readable, it’s the thinking person’s introduction to the complex and intriguing relationship between science and faith.

DATE: Thursday 1 October, 2015
TIME: 6.30-8.30pm (Light refreshments will be served from 6pm)
COST: £8.00
LOCATION: LICC, St. Peter’s Vere Street, London W1G 0DQ

Book online at Eventbrite here

Can’t make it to London? We’ll be live-streaming this event, so you could host your own group and engage with us on the night. You’ll also be able to ask Alister questions via social media, so you won’t miss out on the interactive element.

Ministry in Social Housing Estates

My first ten years as an incumbent were spent living on large Midlands “social housing” estate, so when I heard that there is now a National Estate Churches Conference which is “a tremendous energizer for these hard-pressed folk” I wanted to pass on the news.  This year there is so much interest that it will be repeated in two venues Leeds (21 October) and London (6 October), and the price kept really low to enable clergy and poorer parishioners to attend. For details of NECN Conferences “Sense & Sensitivity: taking care in Estate Mission” go to http://www.nationalestatechurches.org/conferences.html or text 07933 438304.

There is also now a book Blessed are the Poor? Urban poverty and the Church which is all about the theology of poor housing estates and ministry in those challenging places. Its author Bishop Laurie Green, who also chairs the Network, writes that, “It’s been well received thus far and is based on four years of research as I have travelled the UK listening to the stories and unpacking the theological implications.” For details of  see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blessed-are-Poor-Poverty-Church/dp/033405365X/ref=pd_ecc_rvi_1

Interview: Purpose and Pleasure – Exploring Addiction Science

David Thomson:

This is a really interesting interview. Look out for sensible thinking on sorts of secularism, sense of purpose and the new subject of neuroethics.

Originally posted on Science and Belief:

FreeImages.com/Dean Smith FreeImages.com/Dean Smith

What is the interface between ideas of purpose of science, and in faith – or life in general? This was one of the main topics of conversation during my interview with Alan Gijsbers. I wanted to find out whether medical professionals have a similar sense of wonder or spirituality to some laboratory scientists. Although the challenges are very different in medicine, I found that Alan shared the same combination of curiosity, questioning, and connection with deeper issues that is so important for many other researchers.

Dr Alan Gijsbers Dr Alan Gijsbers

What do you do?

I’m a physician in addiction medicine, which means I deal with people who have got a problem with alcohol and/or other drugs. I work at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia, where I also teach medical students. In all our conversations I try to create a seamless interface between our different faith commitments and the people…

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Jes Salt starts his ministry at Buckden and the Offords

Great Tower and St.Mary's church - geograph.org.uk - 731862.jpg

I’m busy with licensings for clergy taking up new ministries in the Diocese this September. They’re a great bunch and we’re blessed to have such strong applicants. The Revd Jes Salt and his wife come to us from Ingatestone. He will be Priest-in-Charge of the Parish of Buckden and the Offords and also Diocesan Co-ordinator for Social Justice concerns. We all hope that Jes and Jane are very happy indeed among us. Jes chose Matthew 28.16-20 as his reading at the Licensing last night. Here it is with what I had to say about it.

Matthew 28:16-20 NIV

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age .”

It’s good to be back! And it’s a special delight to be here again at Buckden and the Offords, and to be welcoming Jes and Jane into your company and ours. Jes and Jane, we’re blessed to have you with us, and not just here but helping us across the diocese to show our compassion and care for those whom our society can so easily fail, in the wider community and in our own congregations too of course.

The passage we’ve just heard read from the very end of St Matthew’s Gospel is Jes’s choice, and it’s an excellent one. It’s one of the Mountain Moments, like the Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration, that mark the high points in Matthew’s Gospel, and as Jes pointed out to me it’s about endings and beginnings, which are often very important in a story, and are to the point today as together you turn the page and start a new chapter of your own story together.

It was both an ending and a beginning for the first disciples too, saying goodbye to Jesus as an earthly companion and teacher, but now hearing him say to them that ultimate power and authority in both heaven and earth is his; that they have a new purpose to lead people everywhere to him; and that they have a firm promise that he will be with them always, until the end of the age. Power, purpose and promise: it’s heady stuff, and it is little wonder that even some of the first disciples hesitated – a better translation perhaps than doubted here, but in either case reminding us that when we too hesitate or doubt our reaction is understandable – but that such unsurenesses are part of the story of faith not its antithesis, and that the company of Christ is a broad church because it has a broad purpose, the salvation of the whole world.

The challenge of such an invitation, and the need for us to rely on God not ourselves in order to respond to it, perhaps explain a very interesting but easily overlooked feature of the story. It is happening in Galilee, and it is happening in Galilee because Jesus, meeting them in Jerusalem after the resurrection, told his disciples to go ahead of him to Galilee, and wait for him there. So – why?

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T Cells – a wonder and a signpost

New post on Science and Belief

Guest Post: T Cells – a wonder and a signpost

by denisralexander

Human neutrophil ingesting MRSA - By National Institutes of Health (NIH) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Human neutrophil ingesting MRSA – By National Institutes of Health (NIH) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are many amazing complex systems in our bodies, but the immune system beats them all, recognising foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses and parasites and fighting them off.

How do our bodies manage to recognise virtually any kind of foreign invader that we might meet anywhere in the world? The immune system works by using two main branches:

The first (which includes specialist white blood cells like neutrophils and macrophages) is set up to recognise common markers on the surface of harmful bacteria and parasites, and then launch an immediate attack to wipe them out.

The second, known as the ‘acquired immune system’, specialises in mobilising the defence mechanisms that recognise highly specific markers on the invader, including cells that have been infected by viruses. Other white blood cells known as T cells and B cells provide the main defenders that make up this part of the system.

Viral infections provide a special challenge to the immune system because they get right inside cells and take over the cell machinery in order to make more copies of themselves. It’s like a hacker getting right into national defence computers with a computer virus that then makes more copies of itself. But, unlike the computer virus, cells have a nifty way of letting T cells know that they’re in trouble. They chew up the virus and then rush a small piece of it to the cell-surface where it’s waved around by a Class 1 molecule like an SOS flag.

What happens next is even more amazing. T cells are on patrol all round the body looking for SOS flags. There are T cells that recognise pretty much any SOS flag that comes from any virus that you might encounter, especially as you get past childhood. Following recognition, T cells lock onto the SOS flag using the ‘antigen receptor’ on the T cell surface, and the T cell is then ‘activated’ so that it makes millions more clonal copies of itself.

Human T cell, image courtesy of NAID

Human T cell, image courtesy of NAID

Once this ‘T cell army’ is mobilised, it then wipes out the infected cells containing the virus, or organises other cells to do the killing, until the virus is gone. Sacrificially, the T cell army then self-destructs as it’s no longer needed, but it leaves behind a small ‘platoon’ of memory T cells that will remember the same virus if it re-infects in which case T cell mobilisation will be even faster second-time round.

This is why there is no point in giving antibiotics for a viral infection. Antibiotics kill bacteria but have no effect on viruses. So if you have a viral infection, the best advice is to try and stay alive for around 10-12 days at which time the mobilised T cells should come to your rescue.

So how come T cells don’t attack our own tissues?  Until relatively recently this remained a real mystery, but we now know that T cells are educated in the thymus before they are allowed to ‘graduate’ and wander freely around the body looking for foreign invaders. The thymus generates millions of different types of T cell with randomly varying T cell antigen receptors on their surface. The ones that are recognised as ‘self’ in the thymus are destroyed. At the same time, other developing T cells are positively selected for, providing they contain the ‘best’ SOS flag-receptor molecules. So a form of natural selection picks out the best T cell repertoire for your particular needs. 99% of the other T cells are bumped off in the process, so graduation from the thymus is really very selective.

A similar process of ‘natural selection’ happens during B cell development. B cells make antibodies that have to be highly specific in recognising foreign invaders in order to carry out their job properly.

As a Christian, I marvel at the wonder and complexity of God’s created order. I recognise that the human immune system has been part of the evolutionary process for millions of years. It is a costly gift to humankind because so many millions of animals have been involved in the process of its fine-tuning over the years. It is not a perfect system, but it works most of the time amazingly well.

But I don’t go looking for ‘gaps’ in the mechanisms of immune defence so that I can somehow ‘explain’ those gaps by invoking god. No, the God of the Bible is the one who is immanent in all the material and energy of the Universe, guaranteeing its intelligibility and its reproducibility, so making science possible. As scientists we can but stand back and wonder at the artistry and complexity involved in living existence.

Perhaps best of all, we are now beginning to find out how to manipulate the immune system, especially T cells, in order to cure cancers. Christians are called to care for the created order in such a way that we can use it for healing, and healing is linked closely by Jesus to the coming of the fulfilled Kingdom of God. It is great to reflect that T cells, manipulated correctly, can turn out to be a signpost to the Kingdom!

denis_alexanderDr Denis Alexander is the Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He was previously Chairman of the Molecular Immunology Programme and Head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling and Development at The Babraham Institute, Cambridge. Prior to that, Dr Alexander was at the Imperial Cancer Research Laboratories in London (now Cancer Research UK) and spent 15 years developing university departments and laboratories overseas. Dr Alexander writes, lectures and broadcasts widely in the field of science and religion. His recent Gifford Lectures will be published by CUP in 2016 under the title ‘Genes, Determinism and God’.

denisralexander | August 13, 2015 at 10:30 am | Tags: Denis Alexander, immune system | Categories: biology, Complexity, Wonders of the Living World | URL: http://wp.me/pTfWS-SD


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News from Theos

Some snippets from the Theos September newsletter. See the whole thing here.

Who wants a Christian Coronation?

Should the next coronation be Christian, or multifaith, or secular? That is the question tackled in the forthcoming Theos report, which has commissioned ComRes to find out precisely what the British public wants. Click here for more details.

Capital in the 21st Century

Thomas Piketty’s macroeconomic tome took the world by surprise and storm in 2014, making a powerful case about growing inequality and the need for redistributive taxes. Read Nick Spencer’s review.


The Problem of Proselytism

Can religious groups combine proselytism and public service? Watch out for Paul Bickley’s report to be published this autumn.



Event: Faith, Wisdom and Science

What’s wrong with the present “science and religion” debate? Come along to Theos on 26th November where Tom McLeish will be speaking. General admission £7. Register here.