Friday 2 October 2009

Outside the box

A university sermon by Kim Fabricius

Reading: II Corinthians 5:11-21

At the beginning of a new academic year, I thought it would be good to begin at the beginning with – with faith: with suggesting that an essential dimension of faith, which is not foregrounded nearly as much as it should be, is that faith is an imaginative vision of reality, that faith begins with seeing, with seeing the world differently, sub specie aeternitatis – “from the perspective of the eternal” – which, for Christians, means from the perspective of the future of which the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the apocalypse now.

Or, in the jargon, faith entails thinking (and feeling and acting) “outside the box” of what has been called the contemporary “social imaginary” – of democratic liberalism, consumerist capitalism, and scientific fundamentalism – those construals of reality that purport to define reality, and amount to the default human ecology in which we all live and move and have our being. Faith is the habit of the heart and mind of Christ that re-construes, re-configures the world in the light of our new creation in Christ.

For the rest, I simply tell you a parable of “thinking outside the box”. One day Scot Ernest (Lord) Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, received a phone call. It was from a colleague who was about to fail a student in an exam but for the fact that the student himself claimed a perfect paper. The colleague and the student agreed to ask if Rutherford would be the deciding examiner.

The exam question was: “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.” The student had answered: “Attach a long rope to it, lower it to the street, and then pull it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.” And the answer works. However it wasn’t the expected answer, the conventional answer: namely, that you use the barometer to measure the atmospheric pressure at the bottom and the top of the building; the pressure is less at the top, and factoring in the weight of the air, you calculate the height of the building.

So the student was offered another try. He was given six minutes to provide an answer that demonstrated some knowledge of physics. After five minutes, the student’s paper was still blank. Asked if he wished to give up, he said, “No, I’ve got several answers, I’m just thinking of the best one.”

In the next minute he dashed off the answer: “Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula for the rate of the fall of a body, calculate the height of the building.” The student was given almost full credit.

As he was leaving the room, the examiners called him back. They were curious: what were the other answers he had to the problem? “Well,” the student said, “there are many ways to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the length of the building’s shadow, and the height of the barometer itself and the length of its shadow, and then by using simple proportion, you calculate the height of the building.

“Or,” he said, “there is a more direct method. Take the barometer and walk up the stairs of the building. As you climb the stairs, mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer-units.

“Or,” he said, “you could take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to just above the street, then swing it like a pendulum. You then calculate the height of the building by the period of the swing.

“There are still other ways of solving the problem,” the student continued. “But probably the best way is to take the barometer to the basement of the building and knock on the superintendent’s door. When he answers, say, ‘My dear Mr. Superintendent, I have here an excellent barometer. If you tell me the height of your building, I will give you the barometer as a gift.’”

Well, the examiners were gobsmacked. When they recovered their composure, they asked the student if he knew the standard answer to the question. “Of course,” he replied. “But I am fed up with high school and university teachers trying to tell me how to think.”

And the name of the student of this perhaps apocryphal story? Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to quantum theory.

Finally, from a physicist to a poet. Williams Blake said: “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” Yes, and a Christian sees not the same world that a non-Christian sees. We see “Easter in ordinary” (Nicholas Lash), the world transformed by grace, generously sprinkled with signs of God’s coming kingdom. It is on the basis of this imaginative vision that we are called to think differently and act differently, called to radical discipleship in which we begin to live tomorrow’s life today.


Ross H. McKenzie said...

Great sermon, particularly for a university!
Nice Bohr anecdote.
Great cartoon.

A.J. Smith said...

Rhetorical question alert:

Has Kim Fabricius ever written anything that was not eminently witty, clever and informative?

Unknown said...

"Generously sprinkled"? Would I not be thinking outside the box if I failed to see a ton of sprinkles?

Great stuff here. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

any chance of a photo of the lovely Kim?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Anon: you can see a photo of Kim (and some general info about him) here.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Very nice, Kim! Just to register an old Protestant point to compliment your first paragraph: faith may go about "seeing" things differently, but faith comes from hearing something profoundly different (Rom. 10.17).

Anonymous said...

If "faith is an imaginative vision of reality," then how do we know that we are talking about the truth and reality of God and not simply the imaginative prowess of our own consciousness? In this case, we will not only have no assurance of our own salvation and knowledge of God, but we are still not thinking outside of the box that sits atop one's own shoulders, namely, your own head!

J said...

Religious thinking begins not with ecstatic visions or nature mysticism, but with the acknowledgement of death, fallenness, despair: a point the zealous marxist--even putative christian one--routinely overlooks.

Ross H. McKenzie said...

After further reflection, I raise the question
Did the elder Bohr STOP thinking outside the box?

Anonymous said...

Though I applaud the students' creativity, he would indeed fail on the basis that he used materials other than the barometer. If the question is "use X to solve problem 1", you must not answer with "using X, Y and Z, I can solve problem 1".

Phillip Fayers said...

For a nice analysis of why this story isn't about Rutherford and Bohr see the following:

Tell it as a parable if you like - but remove the people's names as there's no reliable evidence indicating that either of them had such an incident in their lives.

tortoise said...

Ah, quantum physicists. The trouble is, you never know whether they're thinking inside or outside the box - until you open the box.

Richard Hall said...

I knew the parable - and have told it - but I've never heard it associated with Rutherford and Bohr before. But that's missing the point, surely. Kim did indicate it was an apocryphal story. In any case, a sermon is a spoken affair: once it is out, there's no taking it back.

Tortoise: :o) !

kim fabricius said...

For the record, I first read the story in an article by Lewis Wolpert, now Emeritus Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London, in the Independent, 10 March 2000. Wolpert specifically mentions Rutherford and Bohr, while acknowledging the good chance that the story is apocryphal. I suspect that Wolpert, himself a scientist, would yet, like Richard, say that the factuality of the matter rather misses the point. I would direct the pedantic to the famous scene at Prophets Corner in Life of Brian.

Ben Myers said...

Tortoise, if there was a "comment of the month" prize, you just won it.

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