Guest podcast: Meet the speaker – Ruth Bancewicz

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Today’s guest post is the first of a new series of podcasts from The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion called Meet the Speaker. In this recording (transcript below) Eleanor Puttock interviews Ruth Bancewicz, asking about the cultural influences that have affected her career in science and religion.

Today I am with Dr Ruth Bancewicz. She is a senior research associate at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. She studied genetics, and her PhD looked at eye development – particularly looking at fish. We are going to examine five different cultural influences. The first influence is one that I suppose, as a Christian, would be a big influence on your life. I’d like to know if you could choose a passage of the Bible, which would it be?

In this context an important passage is in Acts 3, and it’s a story of two of Jesus’s disciples, Peter and John. They visit the temple as they do every day and see a man who has been sitting there every day, and he is begging. Peter just suddenly goes ‘I’ve got no money, but I’ll give you something. In the name of Jesus, walk’, and he does. That story was significant for me because I read that one day and I thought ‘Yes, you’re right. We do sometimes just have to act.’ That was a morning when something dropped through my letterbox – I got an advert for a job working for Christians in Science. Later on that day I got offered another job which I’d had an interview for a few days before. I can’t remember if I turned it down that day or maybe the next day. I think I asked for some time to think. I saw that job for Christians in Science and I thought, ‘that’s me’! Thankfully I got it, so that is how I got into this field.

Obviously from your beautiful accent people can tell that you’re from Scotland. So you were born in Glasgow? You said you didn’t live there very long and you then went to Manchester. You have a sibling, a brother, who is older than you. What does your brother do?

He is a mechanic for a motorcycle racing team. We do a line of interesting jobs in my family!

Your Mum and Dad have both influenced you in your career. Your father is an academic surgeon and your Mum was an eye surgeon.

Yes, she was half way to being an eye surgeon. She was an ophthalmologist and passed her first set of exams when she had my brother. Then, back in the seventies, she couldn’t get quite the kind of part time work she wanted so she quit. Both of them influenced our wanting to inquire about everything, being interested in science and how our bodies work, things like that.

Did this affect why you wanted to do your PhD in eye development?

No, I got into that another way. My Mum did laugh and say I’d have to learn about the eye now!

Our second thing on the list is a book that has influenced you

This is the first serious book on science and faith I read. I did start reading one that my Granny gave me before I had my interview for CiS, but it wasn’t very good… So this is the first helpful one that I read. It was given to me by Denis Alexander. It’s a book he wrote with Bob White called Beyond Belief: Science, Faith and Ethical Challenges. It was basically my introduction into all the main areas of science and faith, ethics and Genesis and the environment. It took me a long time to read because it was full of things I wasn’t familiar with, but it was extremely useful. I’ve noticed that they didn’t sign it so I’m going to have to ask them do that tomorrow!

Our listeners may not know this but Ruth is fascinated at examining the ways science can inform Christianity and goes around talking to people about it. You must read a lot on this as you are a science and religion communicator – why that book out of all the books that are on your shelf?

I think it just covered all the bases, it was a really helpful introduction. It covered the relationship between science and faith and the way in which they can work together – there needn’t be a conflict. There are the two extremes of scientism (which says science will answer all questions philosophically) and then there’s things like creationism which say that the science is wrong, things have to come about without evolution, there has to be literal interpretation of the Bible. This book was introducing something in the middle which I found very helpful; that science answers scientific questions and faith answers questions about things that are important to our daily lives that aren’t to do with science and technology. The two are perfectly compatible.

So when did your journey to be communicating the two together occur? Did you grow up with a conflict in your mind?

I think my thinking about it was fairly patchy. I was pretty much OK with it, give or take the odd issue I hadn’t quite made my mind up on. As I started working for Christians in Science I realised there were people for whom these questions were really damaging to their faith. They had been told things that made them think that science and faith were incompatible and they had to choose one or the other. I felt that was wrong. I wanted to start helping to encourage people that the two can go together.

This leads us very well onto the play that you have chosen, because science and religion haven’t always gone together. So what is your play?

The play is Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’, which I saw with a friend – actually someone who was working at the Faraday Institute many moons ago. I didn’t like it. I had heard a number of lectures by this point on the life of Galileo and what seemed to be a very nuanced interpretation of what happened, going digging deep into the sources and finding that this was quite a political conflict, and a conflict of egos. Galileo’s freedom was restricted. He was threatened but he was essentially able to carry on with his science so long as he didn’t publish it for a while. Then obviously later on the Roman Catholic Church apologised for putting limits on science.

Of course this wasn’t what Brecht put forward. Brecht put forward this huge conflict between science and religion, with religion wanting to do down science. I felt like standing up at the end of the play and shouting ‘No, it’s ok, stop. He’s not right.’ Obviously I couldn’t but it was so sad to sit there and see all these people going home chattering about what they’d seen. Saying ‘Oh wasn’t it good’ and I’m thinking no it’s not. That’s kind of the thing that drives me in what I do every day.

Have you got a piece of music that helps you chill out when you’re not working?

Actually the piece of music I’ve picked is one that I play a lot when I’m working. I love being at the Faraday Institute but sometimes I just need to knuckle down and stop talking to people and do some hard work writing, reading or answering my emails. Often what I do to help me focus is to play Bach cello suites or something by Beethoven. His fifth symphony, starting at the second movement is good cause it’s just such a nice relaxing piece and it is good background music).

Finally we want to think about food. We’re very privileged at the Faraday Institute that we all have lunch together in our beautiful dining hall at St Edmund’s College. When you’re not here eating with us, if you had to choose a favourite meal what would it be?

I do think that eating together is almost like a sacred act. I think once you’ve eaten together you have a depth of relationship that you didn’t have before; whoever it is: colleague, friend, or whatever. So I actually wrote down in my notes for myself ‘anything eaten with good company’. One thing that the Faraday Institute has influenced me in is through my colleagues who are very interested in what we do with the environment and the planet that we have. I have taken to eating quite a lot of vegetarian food. I am told that the way we look after livestock and produce meat is not very sustainable. That has been a big influence, so I am trying to turn up at barbeques with veggie stuff and influence my friends.

Thank you Ruth for letting us get to know you a bit more. You can, of course, follow the Faraday Institute through Facebook, Sound cloud and twitter.

4 thoughts on “Guest podcast: Meet the speaker – Ruth Bancewicz

  1. DENNIS READ August 20, 2015 / 3:45 pm

    FAo Ruth Bancewicz

    Dear Ruth

    Many thanks for the post from. Ruth Bancewicz .Bought her book “god in the Lab” earlier this week after reading the comments in the Church times. Got through the first few chapters so far, On ly comment so far is that you have only spoken to Academic Reaserch Christians.

    There are quite a lot of us who work or have worked in Industrial Research establishments. who may haeve discreet observation on their faith and work I was a Christian long before I graduated and entered the world of work I was confirmed in the C of E in 1950 and graduated from Durham University in 1959 Please see my attached CV

    AS a Lay minister now I always try to relate my back ground to my faith. You may be interested in the article I recently wrote for our Church magazine (Woldsgate Group, Diocese of Lincoln). Look forward to staying in the loop Dennis Read

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  2. Richard Hosking August 26, 2015 / 12:39 pm

    Hi Ruth,

    Great stuff – I like your thoughts on Acts!

    I listened to Brecht’s play over the weekend, and sadly shared your disappointment. Fortunately, the iTunes version includes an interview with Ed Krupp (Director of the Griffith Observatory), who gives a much more balanced view of the Church’s involvement.

    I guess an important challenge is how to engage audiences for whom Brecht is a luminary, rather than a blindspot. You mention the latter in your book,* and though we all have them, they can be tricky to detect. Ironically – from a physiological point of view – we could not see without them, so it helps if someone gently points them out!*

    For example, I wondered how much Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’ was influenced by Marxism – Brecht was, after all, awarded the Stalin Prize. However, a recent ‘New Humanist’ review of a book on the origins of Western liberalism,* noted that ’modern secularism, far from marking a decisive break with Christian traditions, is actually a product of them, and testimony to their energy, originality and creativity.’*

    Consequently, if Christianity is to be a ‘light shining in the darkness,’ then we must focus on the positives, which is something you do really well. Equally important, however, is to look at the reality of the darkness itself – painful though that is – as that may be where signals of transcendence are also clearly seen.

    An extraordinary portrayal of the consequences of a science bereft of all moral reasoning is included in a superb BBC Radio adaptation of Vasily Grossman’s WWII novel ‘Life and Fate’.* Grossman was a journalist with the Red Army who reported on the battle of Stalingrad and the discovery of the Treblinka extermination camp. His novel is seen as a Soviet ‘War and Peace,’ but it was banned in the USSR, not least for highlighting the similarities between Hitler and Stalin’s totalitarian regimes.*

    Two of the most powerful pieces are a letter written to one of the protagonists – a nuclear physicist – by his Jewish mother, who is fully aware of her fate after falling behind German lines.* (This happened to Grossman’s own mother). The second is a conversation held in a gas chamber, between an SS officer and Adolf Eichmann – an architect of the Holocaust – which alludes to the chemistry, physics and engineering that made industrialised murder possible. (The scene is set in stark contrast with the actions of a Jewish doctor who chooses to accompany a young boy into the gas chamber, rather than save her own life).*

    The depth of such moral darkness cannot be comprehended, and it would be incapacitating, were it not for the extraordinary resilience of the Jewish people themselves.

    One such ‘signal of transcendence’ was a radio interview last week with Ingeborg Rapoport, who at 102 is the world’s oldest person to be awarded a PhD. After studying medicine in Hamburg, she completed her thesis on diphtheria in 1938, but her mother was Jewish so the Nazis refused permission to take the oral exam. She emigrated to the States where she had to repeat her clinical training, and after applying to 48 medical schools was finally accepted by one.

    Although McCarthyism forced her return to Germany in the 1950s, she eventually became a professor of paediatrics, holding Europe’s first chair of neonatal medicine in East Berlin. She was given a national prize for her work in dramatically reducing infant mortality in East Germany, but the legal procedure for sitting her viva was not clarified until earlier this year. Now almost blind, friends helped her review the recent literature on diphtheria over the phone, so that she could prepare for her viva, 77 years later. Needless to say, her examiners were impressed!

    The many personal stories like these provide evidence that science and the moral values rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures are not just complimentary. The 20th century shows that a humanistic science cannot flourish without them.

    ———

    R. Bancewicz ‘God in the Lab’ (Monarch Books 2015)p. 26,40
    http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/The_Blind_Spot
    L. Siedentop ‘Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism’ (Penguin 2015)
    https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/4765/what-the-christians-did-for-us

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/life-and-fate/
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/26/a-book-that-changed-me-linda-grant-vasily-grossman
    Youtube Life & Fate Episode 2 Anna’s Letter
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b014q001 (also on iTunes download – Track 5)

    BBC News PM program 19.08.15 Time: 51:58 – 58:03:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qskw/episodes/player
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-33048927
    http://www.wsj.com/articles/from-nazi-germany-a-tale-of-redemption-1431576062
    (Google ‘Wall Street Journal Ingeborg Rapoport’ for access)

    A. Confino ‘A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide’ (Yale University Press 2015)
    http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/178618/confino-world-without-jews
    M.Perutz, J.Medawar, D.Pyke ‘Hitler’s Gift: The True Story of the Scientists Expelled by the Nazi Regime’ (Skyhorse Publishing 2012)

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