Call to heal rift between science and religions

September 14, 2007

BA's Festival of Science hears attack on preconceptions fuelled by post-9/11 extremism. Louise Sutton writes

One of the hot tickets at this year's Festival of Science was the debate on whether science is to blame for the secularisation of society and a decline in religious belief and practice.

John Brooke, historian and emeritus fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford, delivered a paper to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) festival at York University in which he challenged people to rethink the confrontation between scientific and religious outlooks.

Professor Brooke acknowledged that scientific rationality, and therefore societies based on scientific rationalism, is often seen as more compatible with a secular mentality than a religious one.

However, he argued that vibrant religious movements of the US are still more than willing to embrace technology and science. There is a lack of evidence for an irreversible trend towards secularity, suggesting that scientific rationality and religion can coexist, he said.

"Much depends on the diverse relations between scientific knowledge and its social consequences, including the local social and religious context in which innovative science is resisted or assimilated," he said.

Professor Brooke said it was important to remember that different countries and cultures have experienced tensions between science, religion and secularisation at different times. He suggested these tensions have been manifested in such different ways that it challenges any preconceptions relating to the relationship between science and religion.

He expressed great sympathy for scientists oppressed by reactionary religious values, but he suggested that it was unhelpful to argue the case for mutual exclusivity.

Current challenges such as terrorism in the wake of 9/11 and excessive claims of fundamentalist movements are more concerned about the way in which religious beliefs can reinforce political values.

"When we understand its relationship to scientific thought, we can make more informed decisions about how fundamentalist thinking ought to be accommodated by education, government and society," Professor Brooke said.

In a pre-event briefing it was pointed out that many religious scientists strongly supported the founding of the BA in 1831. And yet, at the same time, the BA came under attack from the Dean of York and other Christians claiming it to be "ungodly".

Green chemistry punts on use of hemp

Chemistry, for so long focused on petrochemicals, is looking to a greener future, a group of chemists told the annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The growing world population has increased demand for chemicals, thereby fuelling environmental concerns, since so many chemicals are derived from unsustainable sources such as oil. The concept of green chemistry, an approach to chemistry that minimises harm to the environment, has emerged in response to such concerns.

"Green chemistry is both a philosophy and a set of practical techniques for turning the philosophy into practice", said James Clark, professor of chemistry and director of the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at York University.

One promising area of green chemistry is associated with the Cannabaceae plant family, which includes hemp and hops. These plants produce a diverse range of products used as flavouring materials, anti-microbials, antifoaming agents, oils, fibres and pharmaceuticals. "In a world obsessed by climate change, the Cannabaceae may just have the answer," Ray Marriott, technical director of the Kent-based firm Botanix, told the conference.

Festival briefs

Chocoholics are not genuine addicts

"What's special about chocolate is our attitude towards it, not its physical or biological properties," argues Peter Rogers, professor of biological psychology at Bristol University.

People readily admit to being "addicted to chocolate" or willingly label themselves as "chocoholics". But Professor Rogers argues that logic and evidence do not support the addiction theory that chocolate contains mood enhancing ingredients that give it special appeal.

He suggests the "moreishness" of chocolate is better explained as an interaction of appetite control and socially and culturally determined perceptions of its use.

Would-be Olympians get wireless boost

With the London Olympics just five years away, what can wireless technology offer our sporting elite? Nothing less than augmented training sessions, improved performance and reduced injury, claims Robert Harle of Cambridge University.

Dr Harle is lead researcher on Sesame (Sensing for Sport and Mediated Exercise), a multimillion-pound consortium project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council that encompasses the spheres of computing, engineering, sports science and biomechanics.

The Sesame prototype uses a range of sensors and wireless connectivity to enhance the coaching process.

Brave new world of liquid crystals

Human progress and scientific advancement is best exemplified by liquid crystals, a group of internationally renowned experts claim.

Liquid crystals span the gap between solids and liquids. They have a variety of applications from lip gloss to LCD TVs. John Goodby of York University described them as the molecular building blocks of the brave new world, with futuristic applications such as 3D television.

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