Lateral Thoughts Physics World  January 2019
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Recipe for a miracle

Why don’t miracles happen in science labs? As someone who identifies as both a scientist and a Christian, this is a question that has often occupied me, and doubtless many other scientists, whose religious beliefs are founded on various claims of miraculous events. My own faith is based on a combination of historical and experiential evidence, but I often find myself feeling that it would be convenient if I could vindicate my belief with scientific evidence too. History, and the Internet, are awash with reports of people claiming to have witnessed or performed miracles. Yet these miracles continually evade scientific observation, as if they are somehow afraid of microscopes and lab coats.

A miracle – defined by Chambers Dictionary as “an act or event that breaks the laws of nature” – is notoriously difficult to study scientifically. But the joy of Lateral Thoughts is that we are able to side-step the narrow confines of lab time, funding and human patience and we can undertake hugely ambitious studies from the comfort of our own minds. So let’s have a go at studying the miraculous transformation of water into wine, under scientifically controlled conditions. This particular miracle lends itself nicely to our purposes, as it is both a flagrant breach of the laws of nature, and is also readily observable using modern tools of chemical analysis.

Aim: To record the miraculous transformation of water into wine, using reliable scientific tools.

Method: 100 ml of deionized water, measured with a volumetric flask at room temperature, is added to a 250 ml conical flask. A 1 ml control sample of the water is extracted with a pipette and placed in a fused silica vial for analysis using Raman spectroscopy, and further analysis with mass spectrometry (instruments traceably calibrated to national standards). The transformation of the water into wine is conducted by multiple suppliants invoking their preferred deities. A diverse selection of individuals participate to represent all the major faiths, and a period of 10 minutes is allocated for the performing of the miracle (it is claimed that Jesus turned about 100 litres of water into wine instantly, so 10 minutes for 100 ml should be adequate). When the 10 minutes elapse, a further 1 ml sample of the fluid is pipetted out for spectroscopic analysis. A comparison of the spectra recorded for the sample extracted after the supposed miracle, against those of the control liquid, should reveal any changes in the chemical composition of the fluid. Repeat until miracle is observed.

It is claimed that Jesus turned about 100 litres of water into wine instantly, so 10 minutes for 100 ml should be adequate

In this thought experiment, we can take experimental control to the impractical extreme, so let us take all measures (both reasonable and unreasonable) to ensure that the conditions are well characterized and controlled. We want to be absolutely certain that our findings will be unchallengeable from even the most zealous peer-review process, and from the closest scrutiny of the scientific community at large.

Results and discussion: Financial support for this study has not yet been secured, but it is nevertheless interesting to think about the possible outcomes. The least interesting outcome is if no change in the composition of the fluid is detected, in which case we conclude that no miracle has occurred. Since there is no expectation that any number of prayers will necessarily result in a miracle, we can reach no deeper conclusion, and our results will be difficult to publish.

More interesting is the case where the chemical analysis reveals indisputably that the water has indeed been transformed into the complex mixture of water, ethanol, flavonoids and other organic compounds that we generally refer to as wine. When we have recovered from the initial shock, we may well feel compelled to accept that a miracle has indeed occurred, since our careful experimentation has ruled out any natural explanation with vanishingly small uncertainty.

However, as good scientists, we must entertain an alternative interpretation: perhaps we have stumbled upon a new natural phenomenon previously unknown to science, where water spontaneously turns into wine? Unlikely though it seems, we cannot discount this possibility unless we are sure that we already have a complete understanding of the laws of nature – a claim no scientist would ever dare to make. So when it comes to publishing our findings, we will not feel able to state that we have recorded evidence of a miracle. Instead we must simply conclude that we have observed a phenomenon that we cannot explain and posit the need for a fundamental revision of our scientific understanding (in itself, a rather exciting outcome, but hardly the scientific vindication of religious belief that we were looking for). Theoretical chemist Charles Coulson puts this rather more neatly: “When we come to the scientifically unknown,” he said, “our correct policy is not to rejoice because we have found God; it is to become better scientists.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that miracles are not observed in science labs – the scientific method has a blind spot for them. Admittedly, all this depends heavily on the problematic definition of a miracle, which I have no intention of tackling. However, it is interesting to note that when Jesus turns water into wine in John’s Gospel, it isn’t actually described as a “miracle” – instead, it is called a “sign”. While it clearly defies our normal experience of nature, the choice of words invites us to look beyond the question of whether or not it violates the laws of nature and to search for a deeper significance.