John Polkinghorne

I was sorry to learn of the death of John Polkinghorne in the recent college magazine Trinity Review. John was my director of studies in Applied Mathematics in the early 1960s, the only director of studies I can really remember from my time at university – which says something. He was very approachable and human, although I must record that he did not in the end succeed in inspiring me to a career involving Applied Mathematics.

I subsequently intemittently followed John’s career at a distance, with interest. Although a physicist specialising in quantum mechanics, John “baffled many of his fellow scientists by believing that advances in his field in the 20th century had made it easier to believe in God… he thought it was no less an article of faith to believe that atoms moved according to some hidden law of nature, as many other scientists did, than it was for him to believe they moved according to God’s will.”

In 1979 John left academia to take holy orders, eventually becoming the vicar of Blean, near Canterbury. He later became dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge and a prolific writer about the intersection between science and religion. He was knighted in 1997, but as a clergyman was not called “sir”.

As well as being a fine human being, John was yet another example of the long parade of quantum physicists who have stressed the importance of reconciling science and religion/spirituality, in direct contradiction of the materialistic beliefs of many of today’s so-called scientific disciplines. See eg my post on Mystical Scientists.

It was a privilege to have known him.

Featured image of Trinity College, Cambridge by Mahyar-UK, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reality Is Not What It Seems

reality coverI recently discovered Carlo Rovelli’s book Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. This was among the big sellers at Waterstones, and I soon discovered why. Rovelli is very good at communicating ‘difficult’ scientific ideas. His subject matter is physics, that most basic of sciences, and this book gives a good overview of the implications of the current thinking of some physicists.

His story begins with the Ancient Greeks and particularly Democritus and his atomism, the essential granular quality of the universe. Although no work of Democritus survived, the essential ideas were rediscovered at the time of the Renaissance, ultimately inspiring Isaac Newton and his model of the existence of particles in space and time, and of forces between them, action at a distance, what became known as gravity.

The next great step was the ‘discovery’ of electric and magnetic fields between particles by Faraday and Maxwell.

With his special theory of relativity in 1905, Einstein brought together space and time, into space-time, and in 1915 his general relativity further integrated spacetime with fields, as covariant fields.

The amazing story of quantum mechanics, developed by many collaborators including Planck, Heisenberg and Dirac, then simplified the physicists’ model of the universe to two things: Spacetime and Quantum fields. And then the ultimate aim of Quantum gravity is to reduce this to just one building block of the whole universe – Covariant quantum fields.

Yes it’s a great story and well worth reading for insight into where the physicists are at, but without the incomprehensible (to most people) maths that lies behind it.

But always remember this. It’s only a model; it’s not reality. And the model doesn’t really understand the interiority of things, life, consciousness, the mystery of existence… i.e. most of what’s important.