Metallurgy and my faith

A Nickel Palladium alloy seen under the scanning electron microscope

How do our studies challenge or inspire our faith?

We begin a series on our church blog in which church members or friends of St C’s who have studied a subject different from religion to reflect on how this has connected with their faith. Fr Ian, whose first degree is in Metallurgy, begins the series:

X ray crystallography and the Scanning Electron Microscope are essential tools metallurgists use to look at the microscopic structure and behaviour of metals. As a student using these tools a new world of wonder and order was opened up for me. Just as beautiful landscapes encourage awe, so I found did the microscopic beauty and order I studied. Mystery and awe, inspired me as a scientist, they inspire me to worship today.

A steel spanner broken by metal fatigue

Using microscopic analysis I worked for a while at the then Central Electrical Research Laboratories investigating the initiation and early stages of metal fatigue. What initiated metal fatigue, how did it grow? It was a fascinating and painstaking study. One very simple result stood out – a tiny fracture, or crack, perhaps not even visible to the naked eye could produce and indeed had produced devastating results in a large ship or plane. Getting it right, taking great care, on a small scale can have enormous and wonderful results. Applying this to another context it encouraged me to realise how even small negative actions can have terrible results, or to put it more creatively, small acts of positive kindness can lead to wonderful results.

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle

Scientists are often portrayed as people of certainty, people who have clear irrefutable answers. A fundamental principle of Physics is expressed in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Basically this says we cannot measure the position and momentum of a particle with absolute precision – there is a ‘fuzziness’ in nature. Closely connected with this is the ‘observer effect’ – the fact that observing something affects or changes how it behaves. Discovering this scientific principle has helped me to question being too certain about matters of faith and belief. My mind, my way of looking, affects how I understand and express faith, and had I been born a few thousand miles away into a different culture I would express my belief and understanding of faith differently. The Uncertainty Principle, I believe extends well beyond Physics!

An image of Kekulé’s dream

Finally, I have always loved the story of Kekulé’s dream. August Kekulé, an organic chemist, had a long period trying to work out the structure of Benzene. Finally it came to him, he said, in a dream as he was riding home on a Clapham omnibus in 1855. He dreamt of a snake seizing its own tail. Scientists, like religious people can have insight and inspiration in unusual places and in dreams!

‘Let us learn to dream,’ Kekulé said, ‘Then perhaps we shall find the truth.’ 


About stchrysostoms

St Chrysostom’s is an Anglican (Church of England) parish church in Manchester, UK. We’re an inclusive, diverse and welcoming faith community rejoicing in our Anglo Catholic tradition, where people of many differing backgrounds make friends. Find our Facebook group at
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