Critical Encounters: Fava beans, faith and science

By The Columbia Chronicle

by: Pan Papacosta

I must have been 3 or 4 years old when my grandfather, a Greek Orthodox priest and farmer, showed me how to plant fava beans. These brown seeds are so hard they look and feel like stones. I planted them in a pot, placed them in sunlight and watered them regularly.

It was fascinating to see them sprout, grow and bloom. It felt as if I had given them life and I thought of giving each plant its own name. The blooming flowers soon turned into green shells packed with fava beans. For me, this was a miraculous process. Soil, water and sunlight became the magic recipe for making things grow and then “multiply.”

I decided to repeat the process for bigger, profitable returns, only this time I planted coins and candy instead of fava beans. To me, these were no different from those hard-shelled fava beans. I watered them in vain for a few days but nothing would sprout. When I complained to my grandfather, he burst into uncontrolled laughter that lasted awhile. He then went on to explain the difference between seeds and inanimate objects like candy and coins. A lingering question was still burning in my mind: What is it in the bean that orders it to grow into a bean plant and not a tomato or corn plant? “Farmers have faith in the seeds they plant,” answered my grandfather.  Years later, I realized the full meaning of his words.

Even before we knew anything about DNA and genetics, we had faith in the laws not only of botany, but also of all the disciplines in science. Even today’s advanced and sophisticated science demands from us that same faith in the laws of nature. For example, we have faith that the four major physical forces will keep the architecture of the cosmos intact.  Acting like four guardian angels, the gravitational, electrical and weak and strong nuclear forces hold the universe intact and stop it from disintegrating. This means that electrons do not fly away from their atoms, stars and nuclei do not explode and gravity continues to hold us on Earth, keeping the galaxy, the solar system and the sun in balance. We know that the sun will die in 5 billion years, but only because it will run out of fuel and not because gravity will stop doing its job, squeezing its core to enormous temperatures and pressures as it has the last 5 billion years.

A long time ago, I came to realize that “faith” is by no means the monopoly of religion.  Einstein said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. He marveled on how the scientific method, a purely human invention, enables us to discover so much about the amazing architecture of the cosmos. He wrote, “I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith … that the rules that govern our world are rational and comprehensible to reason.”

Faith in science is a measure of our confidence and trust on the laws of nature and the power of the scientific method, whereas religion is an affirmation of a belief system that requires no proof and often has a personal flavor. Whether in science or in religion, faith is often accompanied by hope, courage, humility and the affirmation that all human beings share common qualities and aspirations that transcend time and culture.

One such quality is our insatiable curiosity, our need to explore and ask questions that give rise to science. Another is our yearning to bring out the very best in ourselves through peace, love, compassion and caring for others.  To some extent, we are all people of faith.  Even the artist who claims to be an atheist has faith that people everywhere and at all times will be touched by his or her work. The artist hopes that his or her work will forever stir up emotions, which are deeply rooted in our humanity and will transcend time and culture.

Just as mathematical equations are sometimes the only means by which we can describe features of the universe that are beyond our empirical senses, art and religion help us express some of our most refined and complex emotions for which sometimes there are no words. In my long quest for universal meaning, I was pleasantly shocked to discover many years ago that all religions are founded on very similar beliefs and practices that boil down to three mantras: live in peace, love one another and care for those in need. One wonders as to how thousands of miles and years apart these diverse religions managed to develop such a common core of beliefs and practices such as those of compassion and charity.  Is it possible that these common beliefs are also deeply rooted in our humanity and they transcend time or culture?

My favorable summer salad is fava beans with sliced tomatoes and fresh cucumbers, drenched in olive oil and vinegar and seasoned with dry mint. It always reminds me of my grandfather and his wise words—faith comes in many flavors and it is a wonderful gift that all human beings are endowed with.

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