Wonders of the Living World

Curiosity, awe, and the meaning of life


Stephen Freeland, Biochemist – finding God in unexpected places

13th January 2022 | One in a million?

This month’s interview in the Wonders of the Living World series is with Professor Stephen Freeland, Director of Integrative Studies at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Steve is fascinated by the question of whether the genetic code is close to optimal – in other words, if life evolved on another planet would it have a similar biochemistry to the one we know on Earth?

What got you into science?

I did well academically at our local state school and went to Oxford. The grandeur and beauty of that place was overwhelming. I especially loved the gardens at my college, Lady Margaret Hall, and South Parks. To me academia was a life that looked exciting and meaningful – more so than anything I was shown through school career guidance counsellors. All of that being said, a deeper answer to this question might be “vocation” – listening to my best understanding of God’s call for my life. It took a while for a brash, young spiritual life to believe that God might call someone to something that specific and remote compared to, say, mission work overseas.

Can you tell us a bit about your faith journey?

I was a ‘preachers’ kid’, raised in Methodism with parents who were also very active in the charismatic scene of South East England in the 1970’s. Having been through a charismatic and evangelical chapter in life, I have ended up in a much more high church tradition. Most recently I find myself in a place of quiet reflection and prayer and the place characterized by Philip Yancey’s book “Finding God in Unexpected Places”.

What role does wonder play in your scientific work?

Wonder is what drives my research, so any time I find it slipping away I know it’s time to change direction. By chasing wonder I have found an effective weapon with which to fight hubris, an enemy of all research scientists. I find that remaining curious drives better science in me, as opposed to doggedly trying to demonstrate something that I predict. For me, wonder is the continuous gentle presence of a question, often one I’ve been asking for years.

Data from a recent study[1] show that biologists tend to find complexity beautiful, while physicists are more likely to admire simplicity. Which aspects of the things you study do you find beautiful?

That sounds about right to me! I’m at the maths end of things so perhaps that is why I am a simplicity man all the way – in fact simplicity might be at the centre of where I find awe. It is most certainly where I find respect for others and for God’s infinite power. For me as a theoretical biochemist it’s all about finding simplicity through the computer models we produce. Personally I find myself frustrated by any focus on complexity. It feels essential for scientists to simplify so as to increase communication: talk less, edit more, reject unnecessary terminology – that’s our job. I believe that simplicity in communication is a moral obligation close to what God is calling us to do, so as to bring what we find into meaningful dialog with others.

The same study found that 66% of scientists feel a sense of reverence or respect about the things they discover, and 58% feel as if they are in the presence of something grand, at least several times a year. Can you describe a time when your scientific research gave you a similar sense of awe?

I definitely feel a sense of awe when I’m considering the timescale of the universe, from the Big Bang to this conversation – it’s the whole story of everything, if you limit your vision to the material. I’m amazed not just by the enormity of the universe, but by the paradox between our sense of its great size and also its smallness in relation to the infinite. I suppose that I resonate here with the ancient Pythagoreans: numbers, and especially the relationship between them, can somehow express truths covering the whole 13.7 billion years – and perhaps even a glimpse to the greater reality beyond. Something about that comparison is a very deep theme for my mind to explore.

When Wonders of the Living World was written you mentioned some big questions about meaning and purpose that your work raises. Are you still asking similar questions today, or has your thinking moved on in any way?

The science I’m doing leads me to ask theological questions. The main point of reflection for me in recent years is just how much of time and space doesn’t involve humanity. I find myself warmly invited to a bigger party than the one I thought I was at. Pastor Richard Mouw preached at a BioLogos event some time ago, saying that however you read Genesis 1 it is clear that the majority of creation events didn’t involve us. It’s not like we were created at the beginning in order to see and be a part of each succeeding step. Nor are we told that those days’ creation were in order that the next day could then proceed. Each was declared good in its own right at the close of God’s activity. God had a relationship with and enjoyment of the universe long before we arrived. That doesn’t challenge our special relationship with God, because we are told we are made in God’s image, but there are also bigger truths about God being in relationship with everything else.

What sorts of questions do you think you will be asking, or would like to be asking, in your work in ten (or twenty) years time? Might your future discoveries raise even more big questions of meaning or purpose?

I would hope so! The question is, will I let God in enough to see them? How much are my eyes open to the meaning and purpose of what I’m doing? I love it when he throws me a surprise, for example when one of our basic experiments goes in a direction we weren’t expecting – then it’s game on! Any research done with a godly spirit allows a way for God to come into our lives. I hope I’ll still be doing that in 10 or 20 years time, because it never lets me down. I’ll probably be playing a small role by then compared to the rising stars of science. It may be proper that after my turn at the frontiers as a younger man, my vocation in middle age is to work in administration that, in part, creates and sustains spaces for younger, sharper minds to go further than I ever could. But direct involvement in research does feed me in a way that other activities rarely do. Above all, and whatever I am called to next, I know that the more I let God in when we ask a question, the more interesting it all gets. God’s plans have a way of being rather better than mine.

[1] https://workandwellbeingstudy.com