Professor Russell Stannard, OBE
Interview by Nigel Bovey
He knows how nuclear bombs work. He believes there could be life in other galaxies. He reckons science doesn’t have all the answers and calculates cricket to be the best thing since split atoms. His love for both started while he was a pupil at the school which overlooks the Oval cricket ground. Surrey CCC fan Russell Stannard went on to read physics at London University. What he discovered – the work of Albert Einstein – hit him for six. He became a high-energy nuclear physicist.
For 26 years, Russell was Professor of Physics at the Open University. In 1989 he published The Time and Space of Uncle Albert, a book in which he explains the wonders of Einsteinian physics to children. Rocket science it is, and two other Uncle Albert adventures followed, along with books on science and religion for adults and children.
Now in retirement, he is as inquisitive and adventurous as ever. When he’s not relating relativity theory to schoolchildren, he’s shaping abstract sculptures in his garden workshop.
Russell, Isaac Newton’s career took off after the fall of an apple, yours seems to have begun with the fall of a wicket. How did you get interested in science?
I was a pupil at Archbishop Tenison’s School next to the Oval. I was mad keen on cricket and there were only two sets of windows that overlooked the ground – the staff room and the physics lab. So the only way I could keep an eye on my heroes was to do physics. Then at university I came across Einstein’s theory of relativity. It completely blew my mind.
Could you give a swift analysis, please?
Relativity is all to do with what happens when you go very fast. You can’t travel faster than the speed of light because the faster you go, the heavier you get, which makes it harder to go any faster. Einstein said that time slows down the faster you go, so if you could go fast enough you could live forever.
It was the most wonderful thing I’d ever heard. I knew right away that I must spread the word that the world in which we live is much more interesting than we would gather from the sorts of science lessons we had at school. Most of the people I talked to didn’t believe me: How can you live forever? I went on to do some experiments on subatomic particles, where we make things go at about the speed of light and time does slow down. I saw it for myself and knew I must get relativity across to unprejudiced minds – to children.
Why do things get heavier the faster they travel?
They’re gaining energy and energy has mass – heaviness. Even stationary things – a coffee cup, for example – have mass. It comes from a locked-up kind of energy. In fact, a cup has enough locked-up energy to blow up a town, if it ever got out. A coffee cup is safe because its materials are very stable, but uranium, for example, is very unstable. By rearranging the material, the nuclei, you can release some of the locked-up energy. Just a tiny fraction is enough to create a nuclear bomb. The energy of a nuclear bomb comes from a matter that has been transformed into another form of energy – heat and light. And that affects us all.
Where did your Christian faith begin?
As a child I seldom went to church. My first sort of religious awakening came when I was in the sixth form. As school captain, I had to read the lesson in our annual Founder’s Day service in St Martin-in-the-Fields. It just had an effect on me. I can’t really describe it. I started going to St Martin’s, occasionally at first and then every Sunday. I felt at home there, I felt I belonged, that this was a natural place for me to be. I was confirmed when I was about 19. I can’t remember a thing from the confirmation lessons, but there was something about the curate who took those lessons, Austin Williams, that impressed me. For the first time in my life I was in the presence of a man of God and I wanted to be like him. He had something I wanted. It was a classic case of religion being caught rather than taught.
In 1966 I met another vicar – Father Nad, who was a converted Hindu. He suggested that I ought to become a reader in the Church of England. There was no conversion point – no one moment when I was born again. It was more of a process. I’d be preaching on a Sunday and be in the laboratory Monday to Friday. To many people, the two didn’t go together. How could you be a Christian and a scientist? One of my responses was to write a book, Science and the Renewal of Belief.
What would you say your faith gives you?
My faith gives me strength in times of trouble. Purpose. Vision. It makes sense of the whole of my life and gives me hope for the future. To me, believing in God just makes good sense. I can make more sense of my life in the context of believing in God, than having to account for my life if I assume there isn’t a God.
To what extent can science prove the existence of God?
Many people are searching for something spiritual but feel they cannot look to traditional religion because it has been caught out by science in the past. They think, for example, that Christianity has been shown to be untenable for any intelligent, well-informed person. And if they are to have a spiritual life, they want one with intellectual integrity. So if ‘becoming religious’ entails accepting the Adam and Eve story literally and turning one’s back on evolution, Big Bang and stuff like that, they feel they cannot make a stand because it would be living a lie.
Science is not an obstacle to religious belief. Much of science is as irrelevant to religious belief as it is irrelevant to the likes of music or poetry. Science cannot, for example, account for the resurrection. Science supports religion but not in the sense that you look to science for proof of God. There are interpretations of the Bible which are completely consistent with modern science.
Once you embrace the findings of science – as scientists reveal more about God’s world, the same God that you encounter in your prayer life – then you start to see an enormous amount of enrichment coming into your understanding. Nobody ever gets argued into a loving relationship with God. Science neither proves nor disproves his existence. The strongest evidence for God comes from your own experience, what you get out of your relationship with him. That is something a person has to try for themselves. Unless you have honestly tried to pray, to enter into that relationship and sense the presence of God then arguing is a waste of time.
How would you describe your style of faith?
I am an orthodox (with a small ‘o’) Christian. I believe in the resurrection of Christ. I believe in life beyond death. I see great value in the doctrine of the Trinity. I believe Jesus was fully man and fully God. Perhaps, as a scientist, it’s easier to believe these two states can coexist. After all, Einstein once showed how, under certain conditions, a particle can be both confined to a point and at the same time a spread-out wave.
I have difficulty with accepting the literal truth of the virgin birth, mainly because accounts of it didn’t come into being until many years after the birth of Christ. The earliest writings we have are Paul’s letters. In them Paul makes great arguments that Jesus was someone absolutely special, that he was the Son of God. I find it curious that Paul didn’t support his argument by mentioning the virgin birth as evidence. However, I still find great value in the story because it contains a very deep spiritual truth – Jesus was truly God and truly man.
I also believe God knows the future. I have no difficulty with this idea because it is part of relativity theory – we recognise that space and time are much more similar to each other than we had originally thought. People used to think of three-dimensional space as being one thing, and one-dimensional time, going from the past to the future, as something different. They believed that in space things moved along a time axis. Einstein showed us that this is completely wrong. Time is the fourth dimension. God, therefore, sees time – all of past, present and future – along with all of space as one block. Again because of science, it is easier for me to understand the future as something that is out there waiting for me to come across it, and that God already knows it.
I believe in heaven, but I’ve no idea what it’ll be like. I hope God’s got something better in mind than what I can dream up. My tongue-in-cheek view would be to get to the Pearly Gates and St Peter says: ‘Thank goodness you’ve come, Russ. God’s got a lot of jobs for you to do and you are already behind schedule!’ That would be wonderful. I hate being bored.
So would boredom be your idea of hell?
I don’t see hell as being a deliberate place of torture. Everything we know about God points to the fact that he is not vindictive. Hell is unbelievers being in heaven and simply not understanding why the others are having such a good time. I once went to a Wagner opera with a friend. He thought Wagner was the business. For three hours he sat there in raptures. He was gone. Me, I was bored out of my mind. I couldn’t get on the same wavelength. For him it was heaven, for me it was hell.
What about the heavens, black holes and all? In your Uncle Albert stories, you have Einstein calculating that the universe contains 100,000 million galaxies, each with 100,000 million stars. Is there life out there?
We don’t know. The only way we’re going to find out is by making contact. The SETI – Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence – project is trying to do that right now. The fact that we’ve found nothing yet doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. There are probably billions and billions of Earth-like planets out there. But is there intelligent life? I tend to go along with the idea that we are nothing special, that it is arrogant to think that the universe was made on that scale just for us here on Earth. So yes, I would say there probably are many examples of forms of life, at least as intelligent as humankind.
They won’t necessarily look like human beings. There might, for example, be great survival benefits in having an eye at the back of your head. Or, if you want to survive buffet parties, in having three hands. And two long legs would be useful for the odd game of intergalactic cricket!
Staying with planet Earth, though, how do you read the biblical account of Adam and Eve – as true or as truth?
The Adam and Eve story tells us important spiritual truths about ourselves. Perhaps the most important of which is that basically people are selfish. Self-centred. Greedy. We are disobedient to God’s will. We want to do things our way rather than his. Adam and Eve have access to all the fruit trees apart from one. And yet that is the one they want to go for. Why? Because they think they are the only ones who matter. Because of their disobedience, and because we are their sons and daughters, humankind is tainted with the same brush. From the moment of conception, we have this tendency to be sinful. What the Adam and Eve story shows us is that no matter how hard you try to cocoon a baby away from evil influences, that child will be selfish and will rebel against God – will sin.
What insight can science give us into the concept of sin and its origin?
Until the theory of evolution came along, the doctrine of original sin was something people had to accept on trust. Evolution tells us that humans are evolved animals. Our genes contain DNA coding which, in common with other evolved species, describes our physical characteristics. All these characteristics have been honed over the years in the struggle for survival. In the animal world it’s the sharpest clawed and fastest runners that survive. In the case of humans, the survivors are those with the greatest intelligence.
But also coded into the DNA are certain behaviour characteristics. There is, for instance, no point in having sharp claws if you don’t know what to do with them. So an animal which is programmed to strike out at a prey and spike with a claw is the one that is going to get the meal, survive and pass on to its offspring that predisposition to strike without thinking. As soon as we recognise ourselves as being an evolved animal, then we’ve got to expect that encoded in our DNA will be certain behaviour characteristics which were conducive to the survival of our ancestors. Those in the main would be selfish, self-centred behaviour patterns like grabbing what food and shelter are available.
But aren’t humans more than just highly selectively programmed animals?
There is an important difference between ourselves and other animals. Because of our intelligence, we have the ability to reflect on what we are doing. We have self-awareness. We can choose to act differently from our basic instincts if we feel there is sufficient reason. Animals are genetically determined. We are genetically influenced. Unless you consciously decide, ‘No, I am not going to do that,’ you will be selfish. (It is the legacy of original sin.) But we can consciously decide to be unselfish.
So evolution and Adam and Eve are complementary rather than competitors?
The Adam and Eve story was never meant to be a scientific account of our physical origins. It is purely concerned with timeless spiritual truths like, for example, Eve being made from the rib taken out of Adam’s side. All that means is that man is not complete without woman and woman is not complete without man. It is talking about marriage. It is not talking about how women physically came into being. And you use either the scientific accounts or the Adam and Eve story, depending on the question.
Science is not in competition with faith. Science helps us understand that the Adam and Eve story got it right about our basic human nature. This is very exciting because it then opens up the possibility for one’s scientific understanding to enrich one’s religious belief, and that is how I see the relationship. But you have to start off by realising there’s nothing contradictory between science and religion. And you have to start taking religion seriously.
What about the creation of the universe? Does believing in the Big Bang mean there isn’t a creator God? Or is there no contest because it was God who caused the Big Bang?
It is more complicated than that, because in scientific terms the Big Bang is a very special kind of explosion. At first we might think it is like the biggest explosion that has ever happened in the world; that it went off at a particular point in space and at a particular point in time. And if you’re lucky you might get into a spacecraft and go off into outer space and eventually come across a blue plaque that says: THE BIG BANG HAPPENED HERE. It’s not like that at all, because the Big Bang marked not only the coming into existence of the contents of the universe, but also the coming into existence of space and the coming into existence of time.
Before the Big Bang there was no time, no space. In fact, correctly speaking, we can’t even use the phrase ‘before the Big Bang’, because that supposes a time before time. This changes one’s whole attitude to the Big Bang. Cause is followed by effect. Now in this context the Big Bang is the effect. So what caused the Big Bang? But there’s a problem. The cause must happen before the Big Bang and there is no time to accommodate a cause!
How does this help our view of a God who created the universe?
Well, it gets rid of a very commonly held view that God, who has existed through all time, at some point decides to create humans and somewhere for them to live by lighting a blue touch paper and boom, we’re on our way. That idea has to be scrubbed. Scientifically, there is no time before the Big Bang so there is no God before the Big Bang. It doesn’t make sense. Linguistically it seems to make sense to think of God existing before the Big Bang but scientifically it doesn’t make sense.
So does that get rid of a creator God? No, because what one has to do is make a very clear distinction between two words, which in normal everyday conversation we muddle up. Those two words are ‘origins’ and ‘creation’. If we’re thinking about origins, then we’re asking how did something originate. If we’re asking how did the universe originate then go to a scientist and he’ll talk about Big Bang.
If on the other hand we’re talking about creation, we have totally different questions in mind: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are we here now? What is responsible for our existence, what is keeping us in existence? And the religious answer is the Ground of All Being – that which we call God. And, as such, God sustains us through time. This is why when theologians talk about God the creator they normally couple it with the idea of God the sustainer, because God’s creativity is something that is required throughout time. I see the world as past, present and future and that God is upholding it all equally at all instances of time.
For some people the Adam and Eve story says that God handcrafted humankind, while evolution says that we’re descended from lower life forms. Are we handcrafted or evolved?
I believe we are descended from the same ancestors as apes. Ancestors which we would regard as more ape-like than ourselves. You have the original ape-like ancestors which then split up and become chimpanzees and baboons and humans so we are just one of the branches if you like. All the branches eventually go back to primordial slime. The religious question is: Where in this continuous evolutionary chain does the spirit come in? Traditionally one has always drawn a distinct line between humans and animals – that humans have a spirit and animals don’t. Humans can go to heaven and animals can’t because they don’t have a spirit. In the light of evolution I think the distinction is more blurred than that, and that just as we have had an evolution of our physical selves, we perhaps ought to be thinking in terms of a parallel evolution of our spiritual selves. By this I mean that our very primitive ancestors were concerned with little more than basic survival – sex, food, shelter.
At some stage one of our ancestors reached the level where they had sufficient thinking power to go beyond that and ask, ‘Is there anything more than what I am naturally doing and seeing at the moment? Ought I to be doing this and is there some purpose to life?’ As soon as that first ancestor started to have those sorts of thoughts, we get for the first time just a glimmer of a possibility of a rudimentary relationship with God. Today our understanding of the Almighty has grown immensely and much of that understanding is thanks to science.
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Is it possible to believe in God in the modern era of scientific discovery? In a series of in-depth interviews, scientists from fields as diverse as botany, immunology and physics talk about their scientific research and their faith in God.
All the interviews on these pages were conducted by Major Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The Salvation Army newspaper The War Cry © The Salvation Army. For further reprint permission, please contact The War Cry.
Read these interviews and others in God, the Big Bang and Bunsen-burning Issues by Nigel Bovey (£8.99, Authentic Media)
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