Science science feature

The languages of science and faith

A conversation with Professor Jeremy England

Jeremy England, associate professor of physics, was ordained as a rabbi mid-winter this past year. However, he is a scientist by trade, and he plans to continue his scientific work.

His research group studies, in his words, the question of how energy flow creates “certain kinds of self-organized fine-tuning of structures that form in the nonequilibrium regime.” England’s group does not necessarily study life itself, but rather looks for “glimmers of life-like behavior” in the way some non-living things self-organize.

In particular, England studies how the way in which things absorb energy matters. Bacteria, as well as humans, are fine-tuned to their environment in a way that allows them to keep absorbing energy. England compares a colony of bacteria, which can consume food and grow exponentially until there are many bacteria, to a wine glass, which can only absorb energy until it shatters.

“You don’t say, ‘I need energy to live. And so instead of eating breakfast today, I'm just going to get a bunch of gamma radiation, and I'll be fine,’” England said.

So why did England study to become a rabbi? He did not have a particularly religious upbringing, and he became more interested in Judaism in adulthood, so he was in some sense playing catch-up in his community. His children, who attend the religious Maimonides School in Brookline, will grow up surrounded by much of the knowledge of Jewish law, such as why you use separate utensils with meat and milk. He wanted to have a greater familiarity with the law, which can be quite complex at times.

He had always assumed he would have to wait until his kids were older to pursue study as a rabbi, but after his second son was born in the fall of 2015, he realized he could learn with online classes and podcasts. He listened to many of the lessons during his commute to work or while bouncing his son to sleep in the dark and completed the correspondence course on, earning his rabbinic designation in mid-winter of this past year.

As a rabbi, England won’t necessarily lead a congregation. He compared rabbinic ordination, called smikha in Hebrew, to passing the bar — it marks a level of familiarity with Jewish religious law, or halakha. Just as passing the bar doesn’t mean you will necessarily start giving oral arguments in a courtroom, smikha doesn’t mean you will be in charge of a synagogue. Since completing his studies, he mostly appreciates having a deeper knowledge of the Torah and being able to speak more confidently about issues in Jewish religious law.

In terms of career, England sees himself first and foremost as a scientist, and he will continue to do research and teach as a biophysicist.

He likes to consider what he calls the “different languages” of different fields, and how they contribute to different understandings of the world. For example, the language of physics is about “certain kinds of quantifications you make and the relationships between them — distance, time, mass,” etc., and the language of biology is about whether “something’s alive or dead, healthy or unhealthy.”

He believes that we “create the world differently by deciding which language to speak about it in.” Consequently, his approach to science is to think of himself as an inventor creating ways to think about nature rather than an explorer uncovering the hidden truths of the world.

This means that the model a scientist makes, England emphasized, does not have a “freestanding truth independent of its relationship to people who talk about numbers.” It doesn’t make sense, for example, to assert that there is such a thing as the number of people currently reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That is, numbers do not inherently exist –– rather, numbers are results of a process of measurement.

This idea, England said, is what’s behind the famous Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox of quantum mechanics. The crux of the paradox is that two particular particles do not have a definite quantum spin until they are observed by a human –– rather, these particles are in a superposition of possible states. Measuring one particle sets the spin of the other. Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen wanted to say that the behavior of the particles was a property of the system itself, independent of the choice of the observer. “They're disturbed by the fact that quantum theory is telling them, no, actually the choice of the observer” about how to make measurements is “part of the process of determining what's true about it,” England said.

If scientists create the world differently by speaking about it in different ways and making different measurement choices, that means that it doesn’t make sense to talk about replacing models with more accurate models. For example, many of us think of General Relativity as what’s “really true,” and Newtonian gravity as just an approximation. Instead, England argues, you can think of a “Newtonian paradigm” and a “Einsteinian paradigm” and each has “its own merits.” There are also cases where you won’t get a “clean subsumption of one theory into another,” and then you have to decide which model to use in which case.

England drew a lesson about the languages of science from the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. In the story, people with one language are building a tower together to reach the heavens, and then God gives them many languages because of their presumption, and the tower falls down because they stop working together. The Torah contains an “elaborate discourse” about the question of “what you sacrifice by only having one language for talking about the world versus what can be accomplished when you have a common language,” he said.

For example, theoretical physicists face this tradeoff when they create grand unified theories of physics. These theories, written in the language of distance, mass, time, and other quantities, are impressive, but they are only one way of understanding the world, and it’s easy to get trapped inside that one understanding. “I think like the mysteriousness and the grandeur of theoretical physics is real catnip for a certain kind of intellectual personality,” he said. However, there are some dangers inherent in “drinking too deeply” of the “grandeur and scope” and the “totality of the vision” of theoretical physics.

England will be employing yet another language — that of the layperson — in a book he’s currently writing. He wants to bring his group’s biophysics research, which uses statistical mechanics and thermodynamics to describe processes living things undergo, to a popular audience. His book will also weave in discussion of the Hebrew Bible’s natural philosophy about the difference between life and non-life, and how that connects with examples of non-equilibrium self-organization we observe in nature. He expects to finish a draft by the end of this year.

“I think that there's often this tendency people have to think that because of all the things that we've discovered in modern science in the last several hundred years, anything that comes from before then must be not up to the task in a serious discussion of some of these issues,” England said.

The Hebrew Bible speaks its own language — one with different, but still relevant, intellectual insights. You don’t use the Bible to learn about the chemical elements, or any quantitative theory, he explained, “because that’s not the language that it’s speaking.” However, it does understand scientific reasoning, and it’s “interested in the everyday perspective of human experience,” and how we as ordinary people understand what is alive and not alive.

He wants his book to connect to the language of ordinary people, who might not know the language of modern physics, but do have everyday experience. The book will compare living things and things that are not alive but have similar physics to living things, such as a snowflake or a river flowing through sediment.

“It’s a big mess right now, but I’m working on it,” he said of the book.

England’s scientific career is taking him away from the Institute starting this month. His lab will be delocalized over the next year as he completes a sabbatical fellowship. England will remain in Cambridge in the interim, but will officially be joining a new research collaboration at Georgia Tech.

Update 6/8/19: England's title was mistakenly reported as assistant professor. He is an associate professor.