The Theologian and the Telescope

Jasmaine Mathews,
© Jasmaine Mathews,

The main purpose of this blog can be illustrated by a single story: that of the theologian and the telescope. The theologian is a colleague from another department in Cambridge, and the telescope belonged to some friends of his. As we talked over lunch one day he mentioned that he and his family had visited these friends the previous evening. It had been a clear night, so they spent part of the evening looking at the stars. My colleague was an avid amateur astronomer as a teenager, but over the years he had lost his love for science. He had been involved in abstract discussions about science and religion for so long that he had forgotten that the experience of science itself can foster awe, wonder and – for people of faith – worship. His recent experience with the telescope reminded him how beautiful and fascinating the universe is. He rediscovered his love for science.

The joy of science is the freedom to wonder and ask questions – to exercise imagination and curiosity. It is also the joy of discovering new things, the shock of awe at what is found, and an enjoyment of its beauty. The theologian Austin Farrer said that a scientist may experience ‘constant amazement at the mysterious nature which the world must be supposed to have in itself, so as to be the sort of world which yields such complex and ordered responses to his yardstick method. But this amazement, this almost religious awe, does not find direct expression in his scientific activity; in so far as he entertains such feelings, he is more of a metaphysician than a pure scientist. That is only another way of saying, that as well as being a scientist he is a man; and indeed, most scientists are human.[1]

This blog, and the book that I’m also writing, is about the conversations that happen when science meets spirituality. This encounter with ‘the transcendent’ happens both in and outside of the lab. It’s also about the human side of science: what drives and motivates us, and what we enjoy. My own experience as a Christian has impressed on me the importance of reminding people of faith how exciting science is and helping them to enjoy it. My experience as a scientist and a professional in the field of science and religion has shown me that many scientists appreciate what one might call the spirituality of science. My aim is to combine both experiences in a way that helps people to have a fruitful dialogue about the subjects that matter to them. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a very interesting conversation.

[1] Quoted in Celia Deane Drummond, Wonder and Wisdom, (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2006), p133-151

One thought on “The Theologian and the Telescope

  1. Richard Hosking September 22, 2013 / 12:13 pm

    Hi Ruth, Super stuff! Hope your book’s going well!

    A great example of science’s transcendent nature is the story behind the equations which describe the physics of black holes.

    The German-Jewish physicist Karl Schwarzschild (1873-1916) – regarded by some as the father of astrophysics – served on the German-Russian Front in the First World War.* In his spare time he read Einstein’s newly published general theory of relativity.*

    While at the Front, Karl completed 2 papers based on Albert’s theory, writing to Einstein that ‘despite fierce gun fire (at a decidedly terrestrial distance), I have been able to wander through the land of your ideas.’*

    These papers gave the first exact solution to Einstein’s field equations, and also described the radius of a sphere where, if all the mass of an object is compressed within that sphere, the escape speed from the sphere’s surface would equal the speed of light.*

    However, even Einstein had difficulty believing the implications of his own theory. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that astronomers realised that massive stars at the end of their lives could collapse inside their ‘Schwarzschild radius’, thus creating a black hole.

    So I completely agree that ‘the joy of science is the freedom to wonder and ask questions.’

    Sadly, however, science itself cannot guarantee that freedom. The fate of Schwarzschild’s family demonstrates this. Rising anti-Semitism forced Karl’s 23 year-old daughter Agathe to escape from Germany in 1933. She initially arrived in Cambridge – later moving to Edinburgh – with financial support from the Quaker and astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington.*

    Karl’s eldest son Martin fled the Nazis in 1936. Reaching the US a year later, he became professor of astronomy at Princeton in 1947. Among many other achievements, his Project Stratoscope pioneered the use of balloon-borne telescopes to obtain sharp photographs from high above much of the Earth’s fluctuating atmosphere.*

    Karl’s youngest son Alfred, however, remained in Germany after the outbreak of WWII. Although employed by Siemens in the construction of optical lenses, rising Nazi persecution exacted its toll. Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names includes Alfred on an official List of Deportation from Berlin. He committed suicide in 1943, aged 29.

    So you’re absolutely right to emphasise science as a deeply human endeavour – a much neglected area of the science-religion debate.

    Finally, I wondered how you saw the conversation developing? Perhaps one catalyst could be James Clerk Maxwell – the 19th-century Christian and scientist who laid the foundations of 20th-century physics.* Your blog includes his great quote on the integrity of the Old Testament and the positive relationship between Judaism and Christianity.*

    A current BBC series by historian Simon Schama – ‘The Story of the Jews’ – chronicles the ‘people of the Book’ who gave the world their Hebrew Scriptures – the document on which the Christian New Testament is built (Matthew 5:17).*

    References (*in order)
    Dara O’Briain’s Science Club Season 1 Episode 2 (15:31-16:37)
    J. Crelinsten ‘Einstein’s Jury: The Race to Test Relativity’ (Princeton University Press 2006) p.89
    L. Mestel ‘Martin Schwarzschild’ Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society Vol. 45 (Nov, 1999) pp. 470-484

    B. Mahon ‘The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell’ (Wiley 2004)

    BBC Two ‘The Story of the Jews’


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