The failure of ‘Sunshine’ and why Dawkins hates us

By , 31 August 2007 5:00 pm

Some time in spring I heard that there was this science-fiction film coming out called Sunshine. The plot was interesting, if far-fetched; let me quote: “In the not-too-distant future, the sun is about to smoke out. A crew is sent to re-ignite it with a nuclear bomb; when they fail, a new team sets out to finish the job. But they find that flying to the least hospitable place in the solar system and staying sane and alive is no simple matter.”

The director had a good track record, what I could pick up of early reviews sounded very promising (it got over 70 odd percent on the indispensable ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ scale and the British press mostly gave it four out of five stars). Yet somehow (rather like the real sunshine this year) it never materialised in Swansea. Well, maybe it did but it must have come and gone very quickly because until yesterday, I was still waiting for it. However, in the supermarket yesterday evening, I saw that it had already come out on DVD. I checked up on Wikipedia (careful to avoid plot spoilers), and found out that it really hadn’t done very well and certainly can’t have recouped the cost of the special effects. Sad. Okay, it didn’t have alien battle fleets by all accounts, but it sounded pretty worthwhile.

Now I find the demise of Sunshine very significant. It is yet another indicator that actually we do not find science very interesting. We pay lip service to science: we give scientists awards, we let them have their breakthroughs on the news (albeit mostly slotted in at the end) and we say, ‘Isn’t science wonderful?’ Yet, on the whole, increasinglywe find science uninteresting. In my own field of geology there are only a handful of areas that will arouse general interest: dinosaurs, earthquake or volcano prevention, meteorite impact, finding more oil, and that’s about it. If you don’t believe me take a look at the science section in the average bookshop and compare it in size to the sections devoted to history, politics, travel and tourism, and even pets, and you will see how low the interest in straight science really is. (Interestingly enough, many of the science books that do sell are frankly over-the-top in their chatty popularity.)

There is, I think, an extraordinary paradox here. The scientific method has been enormously successful and for, all its problems, delivered stunning results. (The fact that this blog can be read worldwide not the least of them.) Yet increasingly, it has failed to grasp the heart and the imagination. We find almost anything, including pseudoscience, more interesting than science itself. Sometime I may go into why I think this is, but here, I simply want to note the fact that most people find science, even scary science like the Sun dying, desperately unexciting.

And here I bring in Professor Richard Dawkins, with his well established loathing of faith. The cause of his extraordinary animosity to the faith community has often been speculated on. (I prefer the view that as an infant he was dropped on the way to the font.) But I feel sure that one thing that is driving him is the knowledge that, for all its vast achievements, science is unloved. It is like some distinguished uncle in a family: respected, honoured but not liked; someone we prefer not to spend time with. As a result, Dawkins lashes out at those he thinks are responsible and Christianity gets it. Well, isn’t that simple, and if the good professor knew a little more history, he would know that Christianity provided both the seedbed and the nutrients for the blooming of science in the 17th and 18th centuries. If he is indeed driven by a fear that a dark and superstitious pre-science era is returning, I, and most other scientists who are Christians, share his concern. We just think that in trying to blast the culprits, he has woefully misaimed.

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On a separate note, for those wanting to know news about The Infinite Day, the manuscript has been well-received at Tyndale and I have been allocated someone who, is by all accounts, an excellent editor. Very soon, I ought to be able to give you a publication date.

Have a good week.

On facing death and disaster

By , 24 August 2007 4:55 pm

I hope this blog doesn’t sound too intellectual, but after last week’s mean swipe at the Irish weather, perhaps a little bit of seriousness won’t hurt.

On the way back from college today I was listening to the famous American minimalist composer John Adams talking about his work commemorating 9/11, called On the Transmigration of Souls. It’s an interesting piece (it won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in music), but it was evident in his comment on it that Adams was distancing himself from anything like a requiem. It was, he said, ‘a “memory space” where each listener can find a personal response to the events’. It struck me that by saying this he was actually admitting that he had very little to say. What he seemed to be expressing in the piece itself was something along the lines of: ‘This was awful but these things happen and we need to accept that fact.’

Further thought suggested that in Western civilisation a response to tragedy, whether natural or man-made, has gone through four phases.

Phase 1 was common during the Christian period. Here the response was simply, ‘Help me, O God, to understand and come to terms with this tragedy that you as an all-wise and all-loving heavenly Father have inflicted on me.’ This is firm faith.

Phase 2, which occurs later at the end of the Christian period has a very different note. ‘Why O God, are you doing this to me? What are the reasons for this action?’ (This response neglects the well known fact that God generally does not give justification for his actions.) Here faith has been replaced by questioning. This is faith mixed with doubt.

Phase 3, which I think dates from the start of the Enlightenment (around 1750), expresses a deeper question: ‘Is there anybody up there all or are these events simply random?’ This is scepticism.

Phase 4, which really comes in the latter part of the 20th century, takes the absence of God as much for granted as the first phase took his presence. The best we can hope for is a sad resignation to this tragedy that a blind and unthinking fate has inflicted on me. A non-musical illustration of this would be the epitaph on the poet W. B. Yeats’ gravestone at the church at Drumcliff, County Sligo, with its chilling lines ‘Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman ride by’. It is this sort of attitude (long the standard viewpoint in the East) that Adams and others seem to hold. This is a sort of post-Christian faith: we have returned to acceptance, but it is now without God.

For Christian writers this poses a challenge: we agree with our contemporaries that death and suffering should be accepted; but for very different reasons. Their faith and our faith are two very different things. I know which I prefer.

These are difficult matters, but they are worth thinking about. As someone wise or good probably said ‘nothing in life so concentrates our minds as death’.

Back from holidays

By , 15 August 2007 8:37 pm

Just arrived back from two weeks in Ireland to find a small cheque for book royalties and about half a dozen encouraging e-mails and blog entries. Thanks for both! Our time in Ireland was largely centred around a big family reunion, which went well.

Two things relevant to writing emerged. One was that two young men had a chance to read the manuscript of The Infinite Day and were embarrassing in their praise. It seems to work. The other thing was that I began to put down a lot of notes for a new series, which is a sort of spin-off from the Lamb among the Stars. It is tentatively called the Seventh Ship series and as I envisage it, it will run to three volumes. What was happening when I was writing notes was that characters and situations seem to be popping into my mind saying ‘Could you use me?’ or ‘Would I be able to play a part?’ This was very encouraging because I felt I had covered so much ground in the Lamb among the Stars that I was worried I had exhausted interesting scenarios and people. Anyway, it doesn’t look like it: there’s any number of fun plots, heroes and villains. However, I have too much on at the moment to do very much with it other than make odd sketches and outlines. But I am open to offers.

Now back to Ireland. I’m afraid we got badly hit by the weather. The trouble is, we live in a cool, wet, Celtic coastal region and found that we had traded it for something very similar. Having lived in a Mediterranean country, and got used to the warmth of France on previous holidays, we felt the cold dampness didn’t help. I was moved, therefore to come up with a few tongue-in-cheek rules on how to know that you are in the wrong place for a holiday if you like the sun. So with apologies to the Irish tourist board (and I’m told last year was lovely), here we go.

You know you are in the wrong place for a holiday when:

  • Shops sell more insect repellent than suntan lotion.
  • Picture postcards major on waves breaking violently against cliffs.
  • Sports outlets are full of wetsuits.
  • The area you are in is covered by more lakes and bogs than dry land.
  • The guidebooks talk about ‘the luminous light’ and the ‘clean air’.
  • Shops sell scarves and waterproofs in August.
  • The traditional architecture is low buildings huddled behind hills and stone walls.
  • The area has been a centre of emigration throughout history (ever asked what drove them to leave?).
  • There seems to be no indigenous word for air conditioner.
  • You arrive at a bed and breakfast to find that the heating is on in mid summer.
  • Reptiles have given up the unequal struggle and become extinct.
  • There are no ‘help us to conserve water’ signs.
  • The sheep, plants (or people) are described as hardy.
  • Trees lie at an angle to the vertical.
  • The tourist brochures describe the landscape ‘cut by the waves, lashed by the wind and washed by the rain.’ Hmmm.
  • Notices on beaches talk about the danger of exposure, rather than sunburn.

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