Sometimes science touches our spirit as well as our intellect, and when it does, it can empower us and spur us on to action. Dr. Dan Weber has experienced that in both his personal and professional life.
"River" - Joshua Mayer (Milwaukee River Floodplain Forest, Wisconsin State Natural Area)
Dr. Weber focused his research on the effects of lead in children, noting that in large cities like Milwaukee, lead exposure is “one of the primary sources of poor health.” He served for many years as the senior scientist for the former Children's Environmental Health Sciences Core Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he studied the effects of lead on fish. “What we have found over the years, when we look at any different kind of behavior that we see in the fish,” he said, “these are the exact same kinds of behaviors we're seeing in humans. And so we know that the fish becomes a really good model for what's happening” with children exposed to lead.
Now semi-retired, Weber works as a staff scientist with the Science Education Partnership Award Program at UW-Milwaukee, developing elementary, middle and high school science modules. Here’s where the connection between science and spirit comes into the story.
“In some of the work we've done with high schools,” Weber recounted, “we have a module where the students actually see the effects of lead on fish behavior. And when we did this module in an inner city school here in Milwaukee, the students after a while started pointing at the tank and saying, ‘That's me in there.’ They understood that the effects of lead on their lives was exactly what they were seeing in the fish, and they made that connection. It was a powerful connection. And with knowledge, of course, you gain power. And that's the idea here. That the students become knowledgeable, scientifically literate, and then they are able to do something with that information.”
In his own life, Weber has experienced moments where science and the natural world has touched his spirit. After his freshman year in college in the 1970s, Weber attended summer school in Israel. While traveling around the country, he found himself overlooking the Yarqon River near Tel Aviv, a river that Weber described as “very highly polluted.”
Near the river was a power plant “that was just belching out smoke. And I had this revelation that here in Israel, this land that I loved ... (was) a collision with what I believed Judaism to be, a religion of life. And here was a river and air being polluted. And it affected me greatly.”
Weber felt that these two perspectives of science and spirituality “had to be brought together, that I as a Jew, who understood that life is important, because God created it, and God doesn’t make trash,” he said. “And we know that from the story of creation, because except for humans, every stage of creation is, ‘and it was good.’ So creation is good. It is inherently good.”
“That point is where I began,” Weber said, “walking on the path to try and understand how does my religion deal with this? And how do I then act upon that understanding, to do something to connect what the science is saying that we're doing and what religion says we must do as moral human beings?”
Dr. Weber grew up just a block away from Estabrook Park along the Milwaukee River, just north of the city of Milwaukee. He often would go to the park and river with his dad. “We would walk along it, and we would identify birds. And I was always impressed with how many birds he knew. And we would learn how to skip stones in the river and just get a sense of just being outdoors,” he remembered. “Early on, I had the sense that being outdoors was a value. It's not so much that my dad said ‘This is a value. This is important.’ He simply did it. One of the things that was really very impressive about my dad is that he never told me, ‘This is important. This is not.’ Simply by his actions, I understood these are things that are important.”
Time spent as a child along the Milwaukee River and living near Lake Michigan gave Dr. Weber, “an appreciation for just the beauty and the ability to use the resources that these two bodies of water could provide.
“Growing up, I knew very well the Milwaukee River was polluted. You didn't go into the river.
And sometimes it smelled pretty bad. As I was growing up, sometimes, Lake Michigan smelled really bad because of the die off, at that time, of the alewives. The beach would just be covered with millions of alewives. But, you know, that kind of seeped into my consciousness as well,” Weber said. “What did we do to these pristine bodies of water, that now we have these dead alewives, and we have this stinky river that I can't go in to swim?”
These experiences, and the questions they created, helped guide Weber to studying ecology in college and his eventual career as a research scientist. For Weber, his work as a scientist complements his Jewish faith. “One would think,” he said, “that the two are very different kinds of things.
“We have to understand, first of all, that science and religion are asking very different questions. Religion is asking, ‘Why am I here? What is my purpose? How do I behave? And how do I relate to others?’ Science is not so much concerned with that information. Science is concerned with how things work. How did it become the way it is? What are the processes in nature and in the universe in general that explain the kinds of things that we see now?
“By asking different questions we come up with very different kinds of perspectives. And yet to understand the world, and to be able to act in this world, you really need both,” Weber continued.
“So for example, in science, what we look at is, how do things connect with one another?
Life is very complex, right? And so by sorting out these complexities, we see all these various kinds of interrelationships. Well, religion talks about that. It talks about it from a different perspective, not from the mechanics of these relationships, but how do we as people build relationships, not only with ourselves, but of course with nature as well,” Weber said. “I can put these things together and find that I don't see a contradiction between science and religion, but rather an amplification of each by being involved with both.”
Here's part two of the conversation with Dr. Dan Weber, examining a Jewish perspective on caring for the environment and the difference between optimism and hope.