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The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate By Adam Frank

Reviewed By Robert Magrusso

Two years ago, in my first virtual reality experience, I heard Adam Frank describe the book he was writing at the time, which became The Constant Fire. It was exciting on many levels and this excitement comes across very well on the written page for Frank is not only a first-rate scientist but also an excellent science writer. He conveys the spirit of doing science, not simply as profession, but as vocation. At that early talk, in a seminar-like format, in a virtual environment developed by Piet Hut and Steve Tainer, Frank spoke about cosmology, the Big Bang, the mythological roots of scientific thinking, the psychology of C.G. Jung, climate change and the kind of stale thinking into which the science versus religion debate had evolved. With a passion borne of frustration that this debate had become so narrow, he had embarked on a path of discovery during a year's sabbatical to enlarge the perspective. The Constant Fire is kind of a report of what he discovered and put together. He writes not as an expert, but as a committed scientist who is a keen observer with the courage and ability to cross boundaries.

Step by Step with Silence

His unifying symbol is the "constant fire."

The constant fire is the aspiration to know what is essential, what is real, what is true. It emerges from the elemental experience of the world as sacred. Mythic narratives are one expression of that aspiration. Scientific narratives are another.

While he does not equate the two, he has a good feel for the role of narrative both in science, where it is easy to think we've gotten past such primitive ideas, and in religion, where it is easy to think narratives are literally true. You may or may not agree with his premises, but he presents them very clearly and supports them with specific examples, as one might expect of an evidence-based practitioner. While it is easy to think of religion as a belief system, he posits the notion, well explicated by many, including the great psychologist William James, that at the core of religion is not belief, but experience. In this one deft move, the "debate" between religion and science gets moved onto a completely different field. He posits that experience within science can be as much of a gateway to the sacred as religion and that the experience of the numinous-a word coined by the theologian Otto Frank-occurs regularly in the course of science.

The author describes an experience he had as an undergraduate, coming from a class on partial differential equations to get a cup of coffee. The class had spent four straight days of difficult lectures learning the mathematics of a vibrating membrane. A "membrane" is a general term that in real life covers such phenomena as a drumhead, the surface of a lake or the surface of a star. As he put his Styrofoam cup of coffee on a vibrating ice cream freezer:

... my coffee cup picked up the 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 fluorescent light from above, revealing tiny circular ripples superimposed on crisscrossed radial stripes. The pattern was complex but ordered and stable. Ten minutes ago I had seen the same pattern represented as a long string of mathematical symbols or as a diagram 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 would ever see.

There is a famous Einstein quote that "the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility..The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle." One imagines the young student really seeing and understanding that the language he is learning, mathematics, is indeed the language of physics, and he participates anew in that miracle of comprehensibility. It is a kind of revelation, a satori moment when a veil is lifted and one can see in a glance the unity of the phenomena of the physical world and the miraculous creation that is mathematics. As a former physics major, I can remember such moments myself.

In the last few chapters, Frank reviews some of the myriad of myths from many different cultures on floods, and shows how our current very real challenge of climate change is not only a scientific issue but one that touches us humans deep in our collective psyches. He describes myth as providing meaning and guidance particularly at times of transition and that we are clearly in one of those times. "Myth has always connected people with their deeper sources of wisdom as they navigate the uncertainty of change. By serving as a connection to the sacred, myth transformed the terrifying experiences of transition into experiences of power and compassion." He posits that myth has never left us and that "within myth we find braided threads of what became the modern domains of science and religion."

I really like that image of "braided threads," for clearly one could imagine the power that could come from perceiving our planet, Earth, not as an exploitable resource or as a place to play out some divine drama of good and bad, us and them, but instead as our sacred home.

If you are interested in science and in spirituality, and confused about how science and religion relate, this book will not answer all your questions but you will have an informed and articulate companion to accompany you on what is our modern journey.