a cup of coffee
a cup of coffee

Of Coffee, Equations and the Scientific Sacred

I had just come from my undergraduate partial differential equations class and was in serious need of caffeine. We had completed our fourth straight day of lectures on the equations of a vibrating membrane. My head hurt and my hands where cramped from taking notes. Partial Differential Equations (PDEs) appear everywhere in mathematical physics. They provide scientists with the language to describe the evolution of collapsing clouds of interstellar gas, the nature of oscillating electromagnetic fields, and even the flow of traffic on a four-lane highway. By solving these equations in all their abstract glory the behavior of the real system can predicted, described, understood. It was very cool.

The going was tough though. Like constructing an invisible house of cards we had to spend the last few days building up a story based on theorems and postulates. Then, finally, we had enough background to really get started. The vibrating membrane was a general problem. The membrane could be a drumhead, the surface of a lake, or even the surface of a star. The professor taught us to use simple vibration patterns as a kind of grammar. He showed us how to add these simple patterns together and describe complex oscillations. Imagine, for example, the quick smack of a drumstick on a drum. Using what we had just learned we could, exactly and explicitly, describe every detail of the drumhead’s complex, evolving pattern of vibration by adding up lots of simple patterns.

I had filled up half a notebook with these four lectures. Now I was tired and needed a caffeine jolt. In the student cafeteria I got a Styrofoam cup, filled it up and the got in line to pay. In search of my wallet I put the cup down on an ice cream freezer. After extracting the needed $1.25, I reached for the cup and was stopped dead in my tracks. There it was, laid out with exquisite perfection, right in front of me.

The freezer was gently vibrating, set in motion by its small motor. Resting on the freezer, my coffee cup picked up these oscillations. On the coffee’s surface I saw the exact pattern I had just learned about in class. The ordered flow of the surface reflected florescent light from above revealing tiny circular ripples superimposed with crisscrossed radial stripes. The pattern was complex but ordered and stable. Ten minutes ago I had seen the exact same pattern represented as a long string of mathematical symbols or as a diagram drawn on graph paper. Now it was real. Now it was “true”. Suddenly the abstractions were alive for me. The mathematics was made manifest in motion. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen or ever would see. There was a long moment before I was willing to exhale and get on my way. I had, in my way, just had encounter with the sacred character of human experience delivered to me through the prism of science.

Spirituality vs. The Sacred

“Spiritual But Not Religious” is the way many people describe themselves these days. It’s a term that drives a lot of others crazy. For those who happily describe themselves as religious, “Spiritual But Not Religious” can imply a dilution of faith and a rejection of the creed and doctrine which, for them, is an essential aspect of spiritual life.

Yet for people who happily describe themselves as atheist, “Spiritual But Not Religious” is a dodge—an attempt to get “the warm cozy feeling” of religious life without making the intellectual commitment to what they see as the central question: Does God exist?

Where should science lie on this spectrum of debate? Can someone still call themselves “spiritual” and hold fast to the principles of science?

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