Magnetic attraction in science and religion

Dr Mark Harris, our Senior Lecturer in Science and Religion, has collaborated in empirical research which has just been published in Nature Physics.

Dt Mark Harris

It is usually assumed that science and religion are in conflict, but Dr Harris continues to work in physics alongside his theological interests. Collaborating with scientists from University College London and Switzerland, he has recently made an important breakthrough in research into novel magnetic materials, published in Nature Physics.

He explains:

“Solid substances are made of atoms or ions, which may be arranged in an ordered pattern, like in a crystal, or they may be completely disordered, like in window glass.

“Although the ions in our new material appear to be disordered, the disorder obeys a hidden mathematical rule. The ions connect to form closed loops of many sizes, analogous to the loops of magnetic field that we saw in our science class as children, when we sprinkled iron filings around a magnet.

“The loop structure is called the ‘Coulomb phase’ after the 18th century French scientist, Coulomb, who studied electric fields. Our new material displays Coulomb behaviour in several different ways, so it is the first example of a 'multiple Coulomb phase’.

“Just as we’re learning that science and religion relate in many subtle and constructive ways, rather than simply being in conflict, so this new research gives us an insight into the amazingly-subtle complexities of nature. Here is a material that transcends our old categories of solid, liquid and glass. It has something of all of them, while being a new thing in itself."

Physics and theology

As a physicist working in a theological environment, Dr Harris is interested in the complex ways that science and religion relate to each other.

“Midway through my scientific career I discovered theology,” he says, “a moment of awakening not unlike that provided by my first chemistry set at the age of ten.

“After ordination as an Anglican priest, and spells in university chaplaincy at Oxford, and cathedral ministry in Edinburgh, I now combine my academic interests in physics and theology by running the Science and Religion programme at Edinburgh.

“My research interests include the relationship between the physical sciences and theology, and the impact of science on modern views of the Bible, especially in thinking on miracles and divine action.”


January 2019 (hard copy) issue of Nature Physics

Original article: 'Multiple Coulomb phase in the fluoride pyrochlore CsNiCrF',  Nature Physics (October 2018)

Dr Harris’ webpage