Friday, 21 March 2014

Durham Cathedral is awesome...



Ken Follett’s fascination with cathedrals led to his book The Pillars of the Earth. This is what he wrote on his website:

When I started writing, back in the early Seventies, I found I had no vocabulary for describing buildings. I read a couple of books on architecture and developed an interest in cathedrals. I became a bit of a 'train spotter' on the subject. I would go to a town, like Lincoln or Winchester, check into a hotel and spend a couple of days looking around the cathedral and learning about it. 1

I was brought up in Paignton, Devon, so our local cathedral was at Exeter and I remember it as being an imposing sight on the hill to the right, viewed from trains approaching Exeter St David’s railway station from the south. I also remember being struck by the interior during occasional visits, as it was so much larger, and contained so much more imagery, than the small and plain Baptist chapel our family attended. However, my interest as a child was more on real train spotting than in looking at cathedrals in the way that Ken Follett describes. 

Durham Cathedral looks even more impressive than Exeter Cathedral when viewed from the railway line. I first visited Durham when I went to the University to be interviewed for a PhD studentship. Much as I was interested in the research programme, it was Durham itself that made the stronger impression on me and I’d never seen anything quite as dramatic as the cathedral and its setting. This is what Bill Bryson wrote about Durham in Notes From A Small Island: 2

I was heading for Newcastle, by way of York, when I did another impetuous thing. I got off at Durham, intending to poke around the cathedral for an hour or so and fell in love with it instantly in a serious way. Why, it’s wonderful - a perfect little city - and I kept thinking: ‘Why did no-one tell me about this?’ I knew, of course that it had a fine Norman cathedral but I had no idea that is was so splendid.. 


He goes on to write this about Durham Cathedral - “Everything about it was perfect” - and that describes well my first encounter and I still feel that way over forty years later - a very short time compared to the nearly 1000 years since the majority of the cathedral was built.

Fortunately, I was awarded the research studentship, so had three years to get to know the cathedral (it turned into six years, as I followed up with an Academic appointment at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, just a few miles up the road). It is a magnificent building that dominates the small city and I enjoyed walking past it on my way to the Science Laboratories, sometimes popping in to experience the tranquillity that the huge interior provided. I also attended music concerts held there, and listened to the organ being played, and the sound of powerful music in this setting brought other emotions. To those who are religious, it must bring a sense of the majesty of God and the scale of His Creation and that was the intention of its builders - that and to convey the power that the Church held. Imagine how people felt when they saw the cathedral from miles around and walked to it (it is a place of pilgrimage, as the bones of St Cuthbert are buried there) and then became awed by the magnificence of the building? We are now familiar with many large and tall buildings, but Durham Cathedral remains awesome.


Like Ken Follett, I’ll continue to be fascinated by cathedrals and always love visiting them. Yet, even though they provide religious experiences for many, I don’t feel tempted to believe in the supernatural as a result. I’m happy to see cathedrals as magnificent, enduring monuments to human achievement.

2 Bill Bryson (1996) Notes From A Small Island. London, Black Swan.



Friday, 14 March 2014

Families and religious differences





Real Scientists Real Faith is a collection of essays written by scientists about their Christian faith.1 To me, one of these essays stood out - that by Andrew Gosler, a biologist at Oxford University who became a Christian in middle age. His contribution is affectionate, thoughtful and accessible and its lack of dogma may result from having a non-believing wife and a liberal upbringing.

Dr Gosler was raised in a Jewish household and his essay contains this lovely passage about his early life:

I rarely spoke to my mother about God, but I believe she felt his presence strongly in her life. My father’s Judaism is more social and cultural; he has for many years considered himself an atheist, partly because of what he perceived as bigotry and hypocrisy within religion, two things about which he warned us children (I am the second of three sons). Despite all the inconsistencies that I might have experienced through all this in my childhood, I now regard the open-mindedness that I inherited from my parents, which has now allowed me to find faith, as one of the greatest tributes to them. My brothers and I were nurtured in a free-thinking, loving atmosphere for which I shall always be grateful.

As a young boy, Dr Gosler developed a passion for birds and their Natural History and this led to a fascination with form and function, ecology, systematics and evolution. Visits to the Bird Section of the Natural History Museum, described by Dr Gosler as a “cathedral to natural history”, gave him a powerful sense of the presence of God. Evolution was not a problem as:

..I had.. ..been taught (consistently on this point) at school, home and in the synagogue, that the Genesis text was not to be taken literally: its meaning and value lay in the relationship between God, humanity and the natural order that it revealed through allegory. It therefore came as a shock in later life to discover, probably from reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, that some people regard Genesis as historical fact..

It was understandable that Dr Gosler would study Environmental Biology at University, perhaps less predictable that he would also study Plant Taxonomy (given the earlier near exclusive interest in birds), but no surprise that he became an assistant at the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at the University of Oxford, where he took a doctorate and then became a Research Lecturer, a position that he still holds.

It was about fifteen years ago that Dr Gosler became a Christian, having almost by chance started reading the Gospels after finding a Bible amongst the books that he and his wife were packing for storage:

What I found was a Jesus who sounded like my father: hot on the issues of religious bigotry and hypocrisy, and not at all what I’d been led by the atheists to expect.

Dr Gosler then described how he attended a local church and, in time, became baptised as a Christian. His parents attended the service and the sermon was intentionally inclusive in discussing Judaism as well as Christianity, so it must have been a very happy occasion for all who attended.

While identifying that anthropocentricity has been a major cause of destruction and extinction in the natural World, Dr Gosler now found cause for hope:

The present environmental crisis is ultimately a consequence of human greed, of selfishness, of the poverty and criminality that arise from these, and of ignorance. Consequently, and contrary to the assumptions of my youth, I have found that Christ’s teachings have much to offer us by way of salvation from this crisis.

I certainly agree with his sentiments regarding the dangers of anthropocentricity and have entertained friends and family on that subject for many hours. However, as an atheist, I’m not sure that Christianity provides a means of getting out of the mess, although I recognise that Christ’s teachings repeat general messages, in addition to unique spiritual ones.

The aspect of the essay that so strongly appealed to me was Dr Gosler’s liberalism and compassion; the very qualities that were instilled by early family life. As you may know, I am fascinated by the Victorian Natural Historian Philip Henry Gosse and his relationship with his son Edmund. 2 That provides a strong contrast to the upbringing of Dr Gosler and it ended in upset, disappointment and alienation. Henry Gosse was far from liberal in outlook on religious matters and he was immovable in having a belief in the literal truth of the Bible. Of course, this applied to the account of the Creation, something that was at variance with developing ideas in Biology and, especially, the time scales now becoming accepted in Geology. Gosse produced a solution to the conflict between the account in Genesis and developing scientific thought in his theory of prochronism, where he accepted the idea of geological time, but proposed that this was apparent rather than real, the whole being part of the sudden Creation. His theory was published in Omphalos, 3 where he also tackled the idea of the creation of plants and animals, each being unique. It is perhaps unfair to condense Omphalos into so short a mention, but it does give an example of Henry Gosse’s rigidity when it came to the interpretation of The Bible. Omphalos ends triumphantly with this (Gosse’s capital letters):

“IN SIX DAYS JEHOVAH MADE HEAVEN AND EARTH, THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IN THEM IS.”

This rigidity came between father and son and, after Edmund moved to London and became involved in the world of The Arts, there developed a deep antagonism between the two men. Henry believed in the imminence of The Second Coming of Christ, so was always concerned that Edmund should be ready and he badgered him about his friends and his views in general. It is all recounted by Edmund in Father and Son 4 and, while this is a one-sided view, and may contain some imaginative descriptions of events, it shows how difficult family relationships can be when there is a lack of acceptance of another’s views and, especially, where these concern religion.


It was against the background of the Gosses that I viewed Dr Gosler’s account of his own upbringing and subsequent development of belief in Christianity. It’s true that there is well over a hundred years between the two families, but there are those who still have as rigid a view on religious belief as Henry Gosse. I have great admiration for his many important contributions to Natural History and recognise that he was loving and caring, but my real fondness for the man stops at his religious views. Henry’s rigidity inevitably resulted in conflict.

To an atheist like me, it is puzzling that the same Bible and the same basic belief in its contents can spawn such divergent views and opinions. It is very human, of course, but it emphasises the personal nature of belief. Trying to say one’s own view is the correct one always ends in trouble and how can this stance be justified?


1 R. J. Berry [editor] (2009) Real Scientists Real Faith. Oxford, Monarch Books.

2 Roger S Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

3 Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: An attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst.

4 Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: A study of two temperaments. London, William Heinemann.


I would like to thank Professor Sam Berry for sending me a copy of Real Scientists Real Faith. It is unlikely that I would have read Dr Gosler’s essay had he not been kind enough to do so.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Moules marinières





Moules marinières is one of my favourite seafood dishes and so simple to prepare. This is my version:

1. Wash recently-collected mussels under running water, clean off anything attached to the shell valves and also “beards” (called byssus threads by Biologists). Ensure that all mussels are closed tightly, or close when the shell valves are tapped with the blade of a knife.

2. Chop 3-4 shallots coarsely and sauté them in butter in a large pan until they are softened, but not coloured.

3. Add a half bottle of white wine (Muscadet works very well) and bring it to the boil. Add a little freshly-ground pepper and pour in the mussels, immediately covering the pan with a lid.

4. Turn down the heat and allow the mussels to cook for 5 minutes, shaking the pan from time to time. Pass the whole contents through a sieve, before returning the strained liquor to the pan and reducing vigorously. Keep the mussels warm.

5. Place 10-20 mussels in a deep dish and pour over some of the reduced liquor and garnish with chopped parsley. Use a shell valve as a spoon to eat the mussels and mop up the remaining juices with crusty white bread.

The rest of the white wine makes a fine accompaniment and a second bottle is usually needed if the meal is shared with others - and sometimes another bowl of mussels each, too. Fortunately, the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) is very common on coasts and in shallow seas, and mussels are also farmed, so they are easily acquired.

Byssus threads ensure that these bivalves are attached firmly to the substratum, or to other mussels, and this provides anchorage to withstand the effect of waves and the tide when they are found in the intertidal zone. In this habitat they must also withstand exposure to the air twice a day, as this brings both the threat of drying and, during warm periods, of dangerous overheating. Drying is prevented by keeping the shell valves tightly closed by means of adductor muscles and the main one of these, the posterior adductor (A, in the photograph below), is kept contracted when the animals are not covered by water. They can keep this up for some time, as we know from looking at fishmongers’ slabs, and the mussels are thus living in their own little marine world and they can withstand quite high temperatures without harmful effects. Unfortunately, the temperature of boiling Muscadet means a quick denaturing of muscles and of proteins in other tissues, so the mussels gape open by the action of the hinge and we separate the valves (held together only by the hinge) to provide us with the spoon we use to eat the cooked animal. It is worth noting that the wonderful liquor we mop up with bread consists of wine, oil, shallots, pepper, parsley, sea water and mollusc waste products.


When living molluscs are covered by the sea, the adductor muscle is relaxed and the shell valves open by means of the elastic hinge. To grow, the mussels must feed and, perhaps surprisingly, the main organs of food capture are the gills, with two pairs on each side of the animal (visible as large translucent structures [G, in the photograph above]). The gills have many filaments and the surface of each gill is covered by millions of tiny hairs called cilia that beat with a power and recovery stroke. 1 Cilia are ubiquitous in the Animal Kingdom and serve many functions, but the millions on the mussel gill create a current that draws water into the cavity formed between the shell valves and the water then passes between the gill filaments. Particles trapped on the gills are moved by further cilia to a food groove on each gill and yet more cilia transport the food, by now wrapped in mucus, to extensions of the mouth (the labial palps), where potential food is sorted for ingestion, the remainder being “dropped” into the exhalant current.

The anatomy of a mussel shows the evolution of extraordinary structures: the byssus threads produced from a gland on the foot; the two shell valves; the adductor muscle; the elastic hinge opening the shell valves; the gills for respiration and for feeding; the labial palps for sorting. These, in addition to the evolution of the rest of the body, with its tissues, organs and organ systems, the whole having started out somewhere in very distant time as a single cell. How did all these structures, most of which are common to all bivalve molluscs, develop? Of course, I don’t think of that question when I kill mussels in boiling wine or when I eat them, satisfying myself that they are killed rapidly. The death of oysters and scallops is different. Oysters are usually chewed, or pressed against the palate, whilst still alive and living scallops are cut up to obtain the adductor muscle, 2 the commonest part that we eat. Although this is little different to the fate of these animals when attacked by a predator in natural conditions, there is something about humans eating live animals, or chopping them up while they are still alive, that makes me feel uncomfortable. Why is that? Is it because I have a sense of wonder at their extraordinary evolution and that they shouldn’t suffer this fate? I have never had a problem with dissecting live bivalves in practical classes for undergraduate students, although we were focussing on their fascinating biology. Did that overcome my apprehension?