Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Audiobook Review: Paradise Lost read by Ralph Cosham

I wasn't sure how it would be listening to Paradise Lost, but it went better than expected. The audiobook by Blackstone, read by Ralph Cosham, hits a good middle ground between poetic rhythm and shaped-phrase listenability. I was able to follow most of the action as I drove, and any classical or biblical allusions that I missed are fully mea culpa. The one thing that was hardest to follow was when a new character spoke or when the subject of a long passage changed, and my one thought as a listener is something in the shape of phrase or rhythm might be able to convey that better. But as it was, this was as clear as listening to a good rendition of Shakespeare.

As for the content, well, how can I review that? It is interesting to note that what Milton's doing here is similar to midrash or to the book on the resurrection by Fabrice Hadjadj that I just read: he's filling in the gaps between the bible verses and interpreting them. He is asking the big questions, like Dante, and I wish I had read more of this stuff growing up, although I probably wouldn't have appreciated it nearly as much. But for teenagers asking the big questions, shouldn't they be exposed to these things?

Milton's vision of the Fall has shaped us much more than we know. I've always been a little mystified by how insistent some people are that there could be no death of any kind before the Fall, because it's not really emphasized in scripture in my reading as much as people seem to think. Well, it IS emphasized in Milton, but I noticed a few indications that it's not as important to Milton as people seem to think, and that the presence of animal death before the Fall shouldn't be as big of a stumbling block as it seems to be.

Also, the language is gorgeous, and the character of Satan is diabolically intriguing. Hollywood screenwriters should take note -- THIS is how you write a good villain, entirely believable, entirely inventive, yet also entirely evil. The treatment of Eve is a low point for me. I just can't interpret some of her character as anything but misogyny. I don't get nearly as much of that vibe from Shakespeare, for example, and it was the part that bugged me most as a modern reader.

At the end of the day, this gets me thinking about the big questions and arguing with Milton, and I think that's the way he wanted it. That's what literature is for.

Book Review: The Resurrection by Fabrice Hadjadj

I was alerted to this little book by a fantastic quote about how God surrounds us like a mother:
God envelops us so thoroughly that we almost have good reason to think that he does not exist (and, in fact, he does not exist in the same way as creatures do). ... The fetus does not see his mother; and if he can think that he has no mother, it is just because everything is a sign of of her presence, because she is present everywhere–and not only somewhere inside her belly.


It took a long time to get a hold of this book, translated as it was from French and only available online as an e-book (and with a kind of weird cover I must say), but with the help of my librarian friend we tracked it down, and I'm here to say it was worth it. The whole book is like that quote.

Hadjadj is a French Catholic philosopher with six kids -- so I "get" his life -- and he meets the challenge of portraying deep, paradoxical theology in ordinary language as well as anyone since C.S. Lewis. This stands out against the modern "default deism" thinking and shows how faith brings the world alive. Particularly, a whole section on how you should preach to your mobile phone like St. Francis preached to the birds stood out to me.

One of Hadjadj's main points is that God is present in the ordinary, making it extraordinary. His book takes ordinary language and metaphors and makes them extraordinary as well, so you could describe this book as a fruit of the resurrection down to its very style. Wonderful, profound stuff here.

Podcast Interview with Matthew David Brough

I was just interviewed by Matthew David Brough, a Canadian author and pastor, about science and faith. It was a good talk starting with BioLogos and ending with the meaning of the title of my book.

Here's the link to our chat:
https://www.spiritualityfornormalpeople.com/ben/

And Matthew's summary of our topics:
How can there be a harmony between science and faith
Where does the perceived conflict between faith and science come from?
The philosophy of scientism
How interpretation is present in both science and theology
Understanding the “book of God” and the “book of nature.”
What to say to people who believe that science is all there is
What to say to Christians who reject certain scientific ideas (e.g. Big Bang theory, evolution)
How is it that we read Genesis 1-3
J.R.R. Tolkien leading C.S. Lewis to Christ
Listening to various theological voices
The importance of order, sabbath, being part of your community
Reminding yourself to pray, and how God brings you back from a “default deism”
The origins of the title for Ben’s book, “A World from Dust”

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Chemistry of Pie



A little pre-Christmas last-day-of-class treat: 20 minutes on The Chemistry of Pie.

Poured Out Like Water

A guest post I wrote for the Science and Belief blog put out by the Faraday Institute was just published. Click here to read it.

Here's the first few paragraphs:

My calling as a scientist is to produce and analyse protein structures, which are complex arrangements of atoms. These structures are beautiful, messy things. Because atoms have no colour, we protein scientists can paint our structures any colour we want. Most of us, myself included, choose bright, bold, primary colours, the colours of children’s toys. In our computer-generated models, the atoms are polished and shiny, reflecting virtual spotlights as if placed in a tiny photography studio.

When I think of life, I think first of proteins and their atoms, stacked up and shiny like baubles in a store window. This image of life is accurate in its details, but incomplete. Just like an old yearbook photo is an accurate but incomplete representation of you, a protein structure is a single, static image of a much more dynamic whole.

Those shiny atoms don’t belong exclusively to that protein structure. Before the carbon atoms were in the protein, they were brought into the animal as food. Before that, they may have been carbon dioxide gas that were tied together into a sugar molecule by sunlight and photosynthesis. Long, long before that, the twelve protons and neutrons that made the carbon atom were fused together inside a star.

... click to read more ...

Monday, November 27, 2017

Building with DNA Origami "Legos"

Here's the last 20 minutes of class today in which I discuss how DNA origami has been used to build tiny structures, cellular armor, and even molecular machines. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Book Review: The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America

This is a book about how the subtle power of consumerism in the 20th century gave way to the crises of the 21st century, written in the style of a 19th-century essayist (down to the emphasis on speaking to America as a nation and quoting Melville repeatedly). It's a challenging and rewarding, important read. This quote near the end gives the best summary of the multiple targets attacked by David Bosworth here -- or, more accurately, the multiple heads of the hydra:

"An anti-imperial imperialism, a conservative avidity, a multicultural illiberalism, a cynical sentimentality, a spiritual materialism, a liberating bondage: together these conceptual, ethical, and emotional nullities have been skewing the compass of our collective judgement. Their internal incoherencies have animated a Virtual America, within whose baffling spaces traditional symbols, beliefs, and rituals have been thinned to masks that conceal, in fact, an accelerating allegiance to their near opposites."

There's a chapter against Disney; a chapter against Reagan; a chapter against pharma; a chapter against NEA-funded artists; and, perhaps most obviously but no less necessarily, a chapter against reality TV. My one complaint is the distribution of the charges. Bosworth's ultimate target is both sides of the political spectrum, and against nostalgia as well as futurism, but he seems to throw more charges at the right than at the left, and more at the future (utopian technologists) than the past (gauzy nostalgists). The worst chapter is near the beginning because it's all about how childhood has changed, when the best is at the end when he moves from diagnosis toward treatment -- but there's not enough of that. His strongest statements are like the one above that draw unexpected, broad, provocative connections, because it's those connections that show the true nature of the problem and might show the way toward its solution.

Ultimately, this is a screed in the best sense of the word and well worth reading slowly and chewing over. Bosworth is onto something.