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The Sciences

The Priest-Physicist Who Would Marry Science to Religion

John Polkinghorne leads a disparate group of scientists the controversial search for God within the fractured logic of quantum physic

Carina Nebula (Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/M. Irwin/J. Lewis)
VISTA images of the Carina Nebula show an infrared view we can't see with our eyes. Eta Carinae appears as the bright ball of light just above the "v" of dark material at center; the Keyhole Nebula is to the right of Eta Carinae's glow.(Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/M. Irwin/J. Lewis)

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When he describes his line of work, John Polkinghorne jests, he encounters “more suspicion than a vegetarian butcher.” For the particle physicist turned Anglican priest, dissonance comes with the territory. Science parses the concrete: the structure of the atom and the workings of the brain. Religion confronts the intangible: questions about ethics and the purpose of life. Taken literally, the biblical story of Genesis contradicts modern cosmology and evolutionary biology in full.

Yet 21 years ago, in a move that made many eyes roll, Polkinghorne began working to unite the two sides by seeking a mechanism that would explain how God might act in the physical world. Now that work has met its day of reckoning. At a series of meetings at Oxford University last July and September, timed to celebrate Polkinghorne’s 80th birthday, physicists and theologians presented their answers to the questions he has so relentlessly pursued. Do any physical theories allow room for God to influence human actions and events? And, more controversially, is there any concrete evidence of God’s hand at work in the physical world?

Sitting with Polkinghorne on the grounds of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, it is difficult to regard the jovial gentleman with suspicion. Oxford has been dubbed the “city of dreaming spires,” and Polkinghorne is as quintessentially English as the university’s famed architecture, with college towers and church spires standing side by side. The bespectacled elder statesman of British science walks with a stick and wears hearing aids in both ears. But he retains a spring in his step and a quick wit. (“He will charm you in conversation, as long as you get him in his better ear,” a colleague says.)

Polkinghorne’s dual identity emerged early. He grew up in a devout Christian family but was always drawn to science, and in graduate school he became a particle physicist because, he explains modestly, he was also “quite good at mathematics.” His scientific pedigree is none too shabby. He worked with Nobel laureate Abdus Salam while earning a doctorate in theoretical physics from Cambridge University, where he later held a professorial chair. One of his students, Brian Josephson, went on to win a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1973. Polkinghorne himself joined Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann in research that led to the discovery of the quark, the building block of atoms. But in 1979, after 25 years in the trenches, Polkinghorne decided that his best days in physics were behind him. “I felt I had done my bit for the subject, and I’d go do something else,” he says. That is when he left his academic position to be ordained.

Even as Polkinghorne changed careers, science seemed be making God’s role in the world increasingly irrelevant. In 1988 his Cambridge colleague Stephen Hawking addressed the issue head-on in his wildly successful book, A Brief History of Time, concluding that the universe could have been created without any need to invoke a Creator. A year later Polkinghorne countered with Science and Providence: God’s Interaction With the World, in which he framed the concept of divine action in a way that could be tackled by physicists. “I started with the statement that I believe that God acts in the world, but he is not a show-off conjurer who violates the same laws of nature that he made,” he says. “My question was, Is there a way of describing God’s actions that is consistent with science?”

As a priest with a past, Polkinghorne discussed the question with old friends. “Gell-Mann thought I was crazy,” he says with a chuckle. But Salam, a practicing Muslim and one of the physicists to mathematically unify two of the fundamental forces of nature—electromagnetism and the weak force, which governs radioactivity—identified with Polkinghorne’s quest. Even the most strident atheists from the old crowd enjoyed the debate. Steven Weinberg, who shared the Nobel with Salam in 1979, is a regular sparring partner. “Whenever we meet,” Polkinghorne says, “he’s always the one to put religious matters on the agenda, and though we don’t agree, we always discuss things.”

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