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The Unexpected Scientist

Jul 16, 2012
The Unexpected Scientist

Over the last few summers, high-school student Sarah Mims was spending a lot of time driving around, testing the air. Friends wondered why she was so immersed in science that she had little time for the Christian praise concerts and social outings that she loved. In 2003, they were amazed to learn that she had made a major discovery that was later published in a major science journal and featured on two NASA Web pages.

"How can people look around them and see all creation and have their faith dimmed?"

With her parents' encouragement, Sarah started to study the atmosphere in Texas in 2001. She discovered that some of the airborne dust had blown all the way from the Sahara Desert in Africa. But in 2002, she discovered something even more remarkable: Dust from nearby regions was full of soot, and the soot carried bacteria and fungus. These life forms, she found, had escaped from faraway fires. In other words, contrary to what many think, fire did not kill them, it actually spread them. Sarah confirmed her findings in 2003, and they were published in Atmospheric Environment in 2004. If other studies confirm them, the use of burning as a method of clearing fields may need to be rethought. And Sarah, now 18, will be celebrated worldwide for her revolutionary research.

'Are you a real scientist?'l

Not many fathers have a teenage daughter who contributes an article to a peer-reviewed science journal. But for Forrest Mims III, a renowned science scholar, his daughter's achievement stirs more than the usual fatherly pride. Her work, together with his own, is a powerful witness for Christians in science who persevere despite attacks on their faith.

"How can people look around them and see all creation and have their faith dimmed?"

In 1989, Mr. Mims was interviewed to write the column "Amateur Scientist" for the prestigious Scientific American. The deal was pretty well sewn up—until Mims happened to mention, in a list of publications for which he had written, some Christian magazines. The editor asked bluntly, "Do you believe in the Darwinian theory of evolution?" Mims said no. Suddenly, the temperature in the room plunged.

The editors pestered Mims frequently during the following months about his religious beliefs. Ironically, as Mims later told the Associated Press, he had never written about creationism and did not claim to know how old the Earth is. As a man who calibrates instruments as part of his work, he is skeptical of some scientific dating methods but still hasn't made up his mind.

One editor worried that a public relations nightmare might ensue if the magazine published the work of a serious Christian like Mims. The editor was right. When the story broke, a nightmare did ensue—but it wasn't Forrest Mims who was condemned; it was the magazine. While media are not always friendly to Christians, they are not fans of censorship either. Still, while Mims appreciated the wide support, his prized column had evaporated.

It was a hard blow because Mims has always been interested in science. Perhaps the defining event was when his father built a crystal radio for him and his brother when he was 11. He recalls, "My brother and I spent our summers reading National Geographic and The Book of Knowledge when we weren't exploring in the woods."

After college, he pursued electronics and atmosphere studies. He became an instrument designer, science writer, and science consultant. He is probably best known for the books and lab kits on electronics projects that he has developed for Radio Shack over the years. He even had a claim to minor historical fame as a co-founder of MITS, Inc., which introduced the Altair 8800, the first microcomputer, in 1975. He also published several hundred articles in science publications. But did any of that matter? he wondered.

Then, while doing research at the Mauna Loa Observatory (Hawaii) after the Scientific American debacle, Mims was confronted by a tourist who asked him, "Are you a scientist? A real scientist?" The tourist only wanted someone to show him how the instruments worked, but for Forrest, the question meant far more. He realized that the doors that shut us out are not wood and steel but ideas and philosophies, including our own. If he did science, he was a real scientist, and that was enough.

He continued his award-winning science writing from his Seguin, Texas, home. And science became a family affair in the Mims household, with Forrest's wife, Minnie, and their three children all helping with experiments as needed. It's not surprising, then, that one of those children would go on to make a major scientific discovery while still in high school.

The God of science

Does science pose challenges to a young Christian's faith? Sarah, who's now majoring in biology at Texas A&M University, says sure; but she believes it could be a healthy challenge. "If anything, I think it would help their faith," she says. "How can a person, especially a young Christian, look around them and see all creation and have their faith dimmed?" She quotes Romans 1:20, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." In Sarah's view, God proclaims Himself through His creation.

Sarah, of course, doesn't do science all the time. She was president of Business Professionals of America at her high school, and is a seasoned pianist. A member of her youth group and praise team at her home church (First Baptist of Seguin), she hopes to be equally active in Christian organizations at Texas A&M.

As Christians, Forrest and Sarah believe that an intelligent Creator designed the universe, and that therefore they can learn more by looking at it as a planned creation rather than a cosmic accident. For example, Sarah suspected that the fungus that turned up in her samples was not there by chance. Fire is one way that fungus is designed to spread. Scientists who follow this approach are part of a growing movement in science called Intelligent Design.

Does Forrest Mims regret the fact that Scientific American dumped him? Not at all. "Losing the Scientific American column was the best thing that ever happened to my science career," he says. "It changed me from a mere science writer to a citizen-scientist with many peer-reviewed papers." His major interest is still the atmosphere, and his most pressing concern is that citizens get accurate information about it.

Incidentally, things have changed at Scientific American. The magazine has since published a column based on an instrument that Mims designed, as well as a news feature about his study of airborne bacteria in Brazil. Perhaps up-and-coming Christian scientists like Sarah will find the scientific world more open to different perspectives.

Denyse O'Leary is a Canadian science journalist and author of the award-winning book Faith@Science: Why Science Needs Faith in the Twenty-First Century. Her latest book is By Design or By Chance?Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine.
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