Professor Bob White, FRS
Interview by Nigel Bovey
Seismologist Bob White is Professor of Geophysics at Cambridge University, where for more than 30 years he has been studying volcanoes and earthquakes. His work takes him all over the world. His speciality is studying what happened when continents broke apart to form new oceans, making dramatic natural features such as Fingal’s Cave and the Giant’s Causeway in the process.
Bob, what is geophysics?
Geophysics is the study of how the Earth works. Geology tends to look at what happened in the distant past to create the rocks we see, whereas geophysics looks at what is going on now – for example, earthquakes which are making faults today – from which we can work out what happened in the past. Geophysics also gives us the ability to study things which are too deep to see otherwise. By studying seismic waves, for example, we know what the middle of the Earth is like.
And how old is Planet Earth?
The Earth is about 4,566 million years old, give or take a few million years. The simplest way of dating the past is to count tree rings. We can go back more than 10,000 years by counting them. Counting annual ice layers in the Antarctic takes us back more than 700,000 years. For older rocks we use more than 40 radiometric decay systems. These give us coherent and consistent calculations on the age of ancient rocks and of the planet itself. The oldest life on Earth that we know of is about 3,500 million years old.
Counting tree rings is one thing. But how do scientists date the universe?
The technique depends on computer modelling. One way is to use the microwave background that was created at the Big Bang and observe how it is distributed. From that you can tell how long the universe has been expanding and hence its age. Current calculations suggest that, give or take a few per cent, the universe is about 13,700 million years old.
Your research focuses on Earth at its most turbulent. Was your discovery of the creator a dramatic experience?
No. My parents were churchgoers and, growing up, I went to church every week. When I left home for university, I came to Cambridge to read natural sciences. It was here, in my first year, that for the first time I met people who talked about having a relationship with Jesus in a real way. At first I thought it was a bit weird to be talking about having a relationship with somebody who was dead and somebody who was God. But I was impressed by the way these same people behaved. They were friendly, supportive and loving towards me. What I didn’t realise until later was that they were modelling the love of Jesus. It was the reality of their love which made me think: ‘There is something to their lives that is different from mine.’
Then, one Sunday evening I went to hear the Revd John Stott preach. In a very matter-of-fact way he described what the world is like, explained what God had done in sending Jesus and said that God asked us to respond. And I responded. It was not a big emotional moment; it was more an acknowledgement that Christianity made sense of the world, made sense of my experiences, made sense of my interactions with science and my personal interactions with other people, in a way that nothing else did. And 35-odd years on, the more I walk in the Christian faith, the more sense it makes of the world in which I find myself.
But are there areas where, like moving tectonic plates, your faith and your science collide?
No. They don’t collide. They are just different ways of looking at God’s world. Some people talk about science as explaining how things work and faith as explaining why things work. Science can never tell you why God made the world. Science and faith are complementary; they are different ways of looking at the same truths. It is, to a large extent, the media that like to show them as being in conflict, mainly I suspect because they think it makes a more sellable story.
Does the same spark that causes some people to reach out in science also cause people to reach out to God?
Yes, I believe so. There are many similarities between the way we do science and the way we develop our faith. Scientists are looking for the truth behind the observations; Christians are looking for truth behind their everyday experience. That’s why so many Christians are scientists. I also believe that our ability to understand the world, whether we believe in God or not, is a capability that God has given us – we live in a rational, understandable world.
One of the subjects you’re working on is global climate change. Talk in Britain increasingly centres on carbon emissions, footprints, quotas and credits. Globally, politicians are divided about whether global warming contributes to climate change. How serious is climate change?
Climate change is something we should take very seriously. The Earth has already heated up by nearly 1C, and it is headed for more increases. That may not sound like a huge amount, but the average difference between an ice age and the present day is not much more than 5C. And 11 of the 12 hottest years on record have happened since 1990. The Earth is already hotter than at any time since humans first walked on it. Perhaps an even greater concern is the rate of temperature change. The Earth is getting warmer faster than it has in the past. And it will be the people who are least able to respond who will be worst affected – those who already live marginal lives. Some will die from flooding. Others may starve through drought, or succumb to illness, or be made homeless.
Filling recycling boxes and cutting carbon emissions has a moral dimension. The prosperous, high-income regions such as Europe and North America have caused the problem, yet the poorest nations in Asia and Africa will be among those to suffer worst. What we do in this country really does affect our neighbour on the other side of the world. Another dimension is who has the moral will to bring about change? Politicians are elected for four or five years at a time. Without wanting to sound cynical, politicians generally do what it takes to get themselves re-elected. They are bound by short-termism and will do only what they think the electorate will allow. Climate change is likely to be with us for the next 50 to 100 years.
Britain is responsible for about 3% of the world’s global warming pollution. We should be setting an example and encouraging other countries to change their habits too. It is time for the Christian community as a whole to wake up and get their MPs to push for measures that will slow global warming.
What is the answer to climate change?
There is hope for the future and we should be looking for ways to do things that don’t damage other people – loving our neighbour. Maybe because it produces less carbon, we should look again at nuclear energy. Maybe we should travel less, or use cars less. Other simple practical measures include using low-energy light bulbs.
For some people, their world ends not because of gradual global warming but through a dramatic event such as an earthquake, volcanic eruption or a tsunami. As someone who studies these things close up, have you worked out why God allows nature to wreak destruction, often killing thousands of people in the process?
Earthquakes and volcanoes are not bad things in themselves. Actually, if it weren’t for earthquakes and volcanoes, we wouldn’t have all the nutrients that we need to survive. It is because the Earth is mobile and things move around – plate tectonics – that the Earth is not a dead, sterile planet. The oceans are active. They contain nutrients which allow things to grow. If it weren’t for movements in the Earth’s lithosphere – its crust and mantle – this would probably be a lifeless planet. Volcanoes are very fertile areas. One of the reasons why people live on volcanoes is because of the fertility of the soil. So they are a positive part of the planet’s make-up.
When natural disaster strikes, there is often an element of human sinfulness that magnifies the suffering. In 1999, the Izmir earthquake in Turkey killed more than 17,000 people. Some of the photos at the time showed 300 year-old minarets standing while surrounding modern tower blocks had collapsed, killing hundreds of people. An investigation later found that, although building codes to protect against earthquakes were in place, some builders had cut corners by bulking out the walls with old oil cans to save on concrete. Had those buildings been built to standard, many fewer people would have died. But somebody got greedy.
In the 2004 tsunami, a lot of deaths were due to the fact that people had cut down mangrove swamps and were living in places they shouldn’t have been. So it is a more nuanced subject than people sometimes give allowance for.
Nevertheless, why does God allow suffering?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that God did not create humankind as puppets. He could have but he didn’t. He chose to make the world one where we have the ability to respond to him. But humankind as a whole has chosen not to respond to God – what the Bible describes as the fall. One of the consequences of that is that the whole of creation – including the natural world – is somehow out of kilter with God because of humankind’s sinfulness.
God made a good world but we are not free of the consequences of our actions. God also offers hope in the form of a new heaven and a new Earth where, as the Bible puts it, for those who have put their trust in him, there will be no more crying and no more pain.
Some people look to the Bible to provide a timetable as to when the world is going to end. One of the signs they suggest is an increase in earthquakes. Is the frequency of earthquakes on the increase?
No, not at all. It’s just that we have better instruments now so we can detect them better. It’s possible to plot the size of earthquakes against the frequency, so a magnitude above 8 happens on average once a year. I investigate very small earthquakes – magnitude 2 and less. These are hundreds of thousands of times smaller and they happen millions of times every year. In the past there have been magnitude 9 earthquakes, like the one that caused the 2004 tsunami. There is no evidence that their rate of occurrence has changed. Using the Bible to work out when the world will end is an abuse. Jesus said he didn’t know when the end would come, so why should we expect to know? He did say, however, that we should live as though it was going to happen tomorrow. Which seems good advice to me.
Global warming will not bring about the end of the world, but it would mark the end of many communities. The planet will survive, but its poorest inhabitants may not. One of the striking things about the Earth is that throughout the past 4,000 million years it has maintained an average temperature between 0C when water freezes and 100C when it evaporates. The sun has got about 30% hotter during that time, but the Earth has maintained that narrow temperature band, which makes it possible for life to exist here. That is amazing. Indeed, over the past 80 million years, the average temperature has remained within an even narrower range, varying by less than 10C from the present temperature, making it possible for mammals to flourish.
The universe is extremely finely balanced. The anthropic principle, which is a subject of scientific study, is concerned with some of these incredibly precisely tuned parameters that make life possible. Someone once suggested that the tuning of some of the physical constants is as accurate as hitting a one centimetre square target with an arrow fired from the other side of the universe. There has to be the right force of gravity, the right force of attraction in the nucleus, the right electrical forces and so on, otherwise life could not exist. One way of looking at that is to say that we’re here just by chance. But as a Christian I see it as evidence that a gracious and loving God created a place just right for us to inhabit.
Would you use such an insight as proof of the existence of God?
No, not really. If there were a knock-down proof for God, presumably we would all be Christians. The theological reason why we’re not is that our eyes are veiled – misted over – so we can’t see the spiritual reality that is in front of us. We depend on God to remove that veil and enable us to see the reality. That is what God does when people become Christians. While I can tell people about God’s goodness – tell them the good news of Jesus – I cannot myself convince them of the reality of God. Only God can do that. I can’t prove that God exists, but I can say that everything I know about this physical world, my own nature and my interactions with other people is consistent with God’s existence and with what the Bible tells us about God’s purposes for us and for his creation. To me Jesus, and only Jesus, makes sense of this life.
Science offers us a number of theories or models about how the world came into being. Do you believe that God created the universe?
Yes. My faith depends on knowing that God is sovereign, that he made this world and that he will remake it in the fullness of time, as a new heaven and a new Earth. It’s important that God created it, because the alternative is that life is random and meaningless. To live with that kind of hopelessness would be dreadful.
A ‘new heaven and a new Earth’ is a phrase straight from the Bible. How do read it – as a metaphor or will it happen physically?
I think it is real. The Christian view is an holistic one – you can’t be a person without a body and a soul. We will not be floating about in heaven as disembodied spirits. Obviously, when the Bible talks about a new heaven and a new Earth, it is describing things that are beyond our experience. But it uses very down-to-earth terms. It says that there will be meadows, trees, animals and people. Interestingly, there will also be a city. Cities are places of human creation. The Bible even gives a sense of continuity between this world and the next when it says that the honour and glory of the nations will be taken into the new creation. It means that what we do now, in this world, has eternal significance.
I’m looking forward to watching volcanoes and earthquakes that won’t kill anybody. What a marvellous sight they will be! I imagine the physical world of the new creation will be rather different from this one. After all, the only person who has come back to this world from the next – Jesus himself – could walk through walls. But he also did normal things – he ate meals and chatted with friends. Jesus also bore the scars of his crucifixion, so something that had happened to him on Earth was carried through after his resurrection.
Another biblical image is of humankind being made ‘in the image of God’. What do you understand by it?
To me, it means we have some of those attributes that God himself has, such as the ability to love and be loved, great creativity and a concern for justice, which is one of the big things that differentiates humans from animals. These aspects mean that we can relate to God. It also means that we should be stewards of the Earth, ruling over it on his behalf, as his first command to humans made clear in Genesis 1:28.
One of the theories that tries to explain how life works is evolution. Darwin gets a bad press in some sections of the Church. How do you view evolution? Is it necessarily atheistic?
Richard Dawkins thinks it is, but I think he’s wrong. Part of the reason some people don’t like evolution is the idea that it is completely random. But if as a Christian you have a strong view of God’s providence, then ‘random’ needs redefining. Things happen in my life, for example, which I see as providential but which someone else might say is mere coincidence. If I have a strong view of God’s sovereignty, then who am I to say he could not choose evolution to create all living things?
Did humankind evolve from something in the primordial slime or were we created by a special act?
I believe in an historic Adam and Eve. I believe in the fall. I also believe that evolutionary scientific theory is a very powerful way of explaining the relationships between all living organisms. The theory of evolution has been around for a long time. We keep getting more tests on it and the theory gets stronger each time. For example, we can test the human genome (something Darwin had no conception of being able to do) and discover that it is 98.5% the same as that of chimpanzees in terms of DNA. We also have retroviral inserts in our genomic structure that can be tracked back through our ancestral species. But I believe passionately that humans are more than just animals. We are animals plus we’re made in the image of God.
I believe in God’s intervention, but I don’t think God parachuted onto the planet two ready-made people who had DNA very close to the animals. That would have been trickery. My view is that he breathed life into animals and turned them into humans – made them have the ability to respond and relate to him, made them morally responsible for their actions – and human history goes on from that moment.
How do you view the creation accounts in Genesis?
Genesis was not written as a scientific account of the world coming into being. The message of Genesis is that God is creator and that he purposely made a perfect universe. It is written as a narrative of a workman who does a hard day’s work, sits down at the end of each day and says: ‘That was good.’ When he finishes by creating humans, he says: ‘That was very good,’ and has a rest.
Genesis 1 is full of arguments against the prevailing views and myths of how the world came about. It says that the world is not an accidental place, that humans weren’t just created as slaves or playthings by the gods, that the universe has meaning and purpose behind it. There are also many little clues that it is foremost a great theological statement. For instance, when Genesis 1 was written there were perfectly good words around for ‘sun’ and ‘moon’. But at the time, people worshipped the sun and the moon as gods. So the writer says that God created the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night, making it clear that God didn’t create other gods.
Another hint about the theological purposes of the creation account is that in those days people were scared of the sea. But Genesis says that God created the sea and its creatures, so there is reassurance that he is in charge of them too. Genesis 1 answers some contemporary myths. A New Age attitude is to worship the creation, but Genesis points to the creator as the rightful object of worship. Postmodernism says that meaning in life comes only by what you make of it. Genesis 1 says that God created the world for a purpose. He meant to create it and it was good.
And did God do all this within six 24-hour days?
The six days are a literary device of a week’s hard work. In any case, as a geologist I find it amusing to reflect that when the Earth was created it was spinning much faster than it does now, so one day lasted only about five hours. Due to the gravitational pull of the moon and the tides, which absorb energy, the Earth’s rotation has been slowing down ever since, so actually six 24-hour periods wouldn’t fit either!
Having travelled the world with your work, what insight does science give you into miracle?
It doesn’t surprise me that God uses his creation to work his miracles. The Bible actually explains how God did one of the great miracles, when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. It says he made a strong east wind to blow and make the waters stand back. God is the creator of this universe, so you would expect him to use his creation to work his purposes. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan, the river dried up and they walked across on dry land. The Bible says that the river was blocked further upstream. As a scientist, I know that earthquakes occur in that region that cause landfalls that dam the river upstream from where the Israelites crossed. To me, such an explanation does not take away the wonder of God’s timing and intervention.
What is your working definition of a miracle?
A miracle is something outside normal scientific happening. There are miracles that we can’t explain, supremely the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is pivotal to Christian belief. It is God intervening in human history and saying: ‘I have a plan for the future of this Earth – a new creation where everything will be put right.’
Bob, how does what you learn in science affect your life as a Christian?
As a geophysicist I spend my life talking about things in millions and billions of years old, yet humans have been around only for the last little fraction of that time. This makes me realise that God considers humankind as very special. The psalmist talks about God flinging stars into space. Science tells us that we need the billions upon billions of other stars in the billions of other galaxies so that conditions for life here on Earth are just right. Science also tells us that our bodies contain carbon and other atoms that were created in stars billions of years ago. All that time was needed to get things just right for humans to live here on Earth. That is awe-inspiring. Things like this make me realise how fruitful and generous a creator God is.
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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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