Saturday, 6 November 2010

On being a Quaker and a scientist -- Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an active Quaker: former clerk of Britain Yearly Meeting, and current clerk of Friends World Committee for Consultation. She is an astrophysicist who discovered neutron stars and quasars, winner of numerous awards, a role model for women in science, President of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics, mother of an astrophysicist, and grandmother of two. (1) In 2006 Joan Bakewell interviewed her for the BBC program "Belief". This is an excerpt:

Q Today, I talk to someone who comfortably combines distinction in the world of astronomy and physics with a strong religious faith and a belief in God. Scientists with such beliefs hold a fascination for many people who feel that somehow science has ousted religion as an explanation for the world and by logic and deduction, and managed to prove that God does not exist.
pulsar in Crab nebula: combined Xray-optical
Jocelyn Bell Burnell believes resolutely in God. She was born into the Society of Friends - the Quakers - and still regards Quaker worship as central to her life. She's also one of our most distinguished astronomers, having in 1967/68 with her colleague Tony Hewish, discovered 'pulsars', a new kind of star which was until then entirely unknown. She added new knowledge to our understanding of what is 'out there'. And for that discovery, her male colleague was awarded the Nobel Prize. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, what does it mean to be a Quaker? Is it a sect of Christianity?

JBB It came out of the Christian Church... These days it's probably not as firmly Christian... But it is religious, it does believe in a God, and worships that God.

Q But not necessarily a Christian God?

JBB For some Quakers it would be, for some Quakers it would not. We are a denomination that puts a lot of emphasis on the individual's understanding and experience, and therefore doesn't have a strong dogma that one has to believe in.

Q Is there a teaching that is handed on?

JBB There are ways of living that are commended to one I think, rather than a teaching. For example, one of the tenets that you'd find many Quakers hold is the belief that there is that of God in everyone - even in apparently the most heinous person, there's something good in them - and one is encouraged to look for that....

Q So there's no creed, there's no dogma and there's no priesthood. Is there a scripture to which you refer, other than the Bible?

JBB I don't want to give you a whole treatise, Joan. But it's perhaps worth just for a moment thinking about where authority in religion comes from. Holy writings, the scripture is one possible place, another possible place is the tradition, the history of the denominational faith, and a third possible place is God speaking to the current generation - what's called 'continuing revelation'. And Quakers are particularly strong on that third one, and they're lighter on the first two. So we don't place great emphasis on holy writings. What we do look for is what people's understanding is of what's required of us today by God.

Q Let's talk of this personal revelation. That revelation must change from generation to generation simply because people's mindset is so different... so God Himself must change from generation to generation. (2)

JBB Mm yes, our understanding of what is required of us does change. Indeed, it can change within one's lifetime. But for example Quakers will revise their book of discipline once a generation, every thirty years or so, partly because our articulation of things changes. But it can also change within one's lifetime, one's understanding can grow. And just as when one's a research scientist, you have to hold lightly to what you believe as a Quaker or what as a research scientist you understand about the star you're studying. And as the Quaker gets more experience, and as the research scientist gets more experimental data you are supposed to revise your picture in the light of that new data. So nothing's fixed....

Q What was your earliest interest in astronomy?

JBB My earliest interest came through some of my father's library books. He was very widely read, used to bring home all sorts of interesting books from the library, and I would scan them. The astronomy ones caught my attention. I didn't just scan them, I purloined them - they went up to my bedroom until I'd finished reading them. (Laughs).... it just seemed so amazing... I particularly remember Fred Hoyle's book 'Frontiers of Astronomy', which was very well written, very exciting, and showing the areas of the unknown...

Q How much unknown do you think there is?

JBB Oh, an awful lot. At the moment we're trying to nail some stuff called 'dark matter', which seems to make up about ninety five percent of the universe. We don't know what it is yet (laughs).

Q Now when you looked through the first telescope in your life and saw what was 'out there'...

JBB ... I don't think it rocked my faith in my religion. It's obviously a very awesome experience, coming to appreciate how big the universe is, how myriad it is - how beautiful it is as well - and to realise that we are on a very small planet in a universe that beyond our planet is quite inhospitable for humankind. Mm, sobering.

Q And what effect does that have on you? Did you feel despair ever, or depression, or panic?

JBB I don't think so. I think I was more thrilled. And to think that one could understand how stars were born, lived and died, how galaxies came about, how they was intellectually stimulating and thrilling.

Q But did [that] ...make you feel that the meaning we ascribe to our own lives is really rather insignificant and unimportant?

JBB I don't think as a teenager I had a very strong feeling of the significance of my life. I think a lot of the time as a teenager, I suffered from an inferiority complex and confidence has only grown as I've got older. So I don't think I thought I was particularly important to begin with (laughs).

Q Now you went to Cambridge, and you were a research scientist. You built your own telescope!

JBB Yes. I actually went there as a research student, working for my doctorate, and traditionally research students are used for all sorts of fairly menial tasks. So I was involved in building a radio telescope which looks like four acres of hop field. Thousands of wooden posts, with wire strung between them. The wires are the operative bit. I bit like early type of television aerial, y'know those old H shaped TV aerials. If you could imagine about two thousand of those strung up between wooden posts, you'd sort of have the picture.... I and four or five others. I did all the cabling, put plugs on cables. It was a hundred and twenty five miles of wire and cable in that radio telescope.

slide by Giampaolo Pisano, Pulsars

Q Now this was moving towards the discovery of 'pulsars'.

JBB Yes that was one of the things that kind of rolled in when we started operating the telescope. Were about half a dozen of us building it, and then when it was built the rest of the group disappeared onto other projects and I was left to run the telescope. And we were doing a regular survey of the sky and up popped, at a rather low level, this strange signal. The analogy I use is imagine you're at a viewpoint making a video of a nice sunset. And somebody comes along and parks their car in the foreground and leaves those double flashers, the hazard warning lights going, which spoils your video. I was focusing on some of the very distant things in the universe, and something kind of popped up in the foreground and went 'Yoohoo!'

Q And that was it?

JBB And that turned out to be this totally unimagined kind of star.... [but] Scientists always have to be very cautious, and when you come across something really unexpected, you start by saying 'Right, what's wrong with the equipment, or what's wrong with our method?' And I spent a very anxious week or two while they checked out the wiring which I had been responsible for, 'cos I was afraid I had literally got some wires crossed, and that I was about to be discovered as an incompetent, untrained scientist and kicked out of Cambridge.

Q But no, it was something you called a 'pulsar'. Was it your name?

JBB The name was given by the science correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, who came to interview us, and said 'What are you going to call these things?' And we had more serious issues on our minds, and hadn't addressed that question. And he suggested 'pulsar', because it was a pulsating radio star.... We didn't have many computers in those days and my project did not have a computer. So the signal from the radio telescope was a squiggly, red line on moving chart paper, a pen recording. And as the student, I was responsible for analysing this squiggly, red line. And some of the squiggles were what I were looking for, and some of the squiggles were radio interference. you'll be aware you're listening to the radio and suddenly it goes 'Tsss!' That's interference. And radio telescopes pick that up as well as your radio at home. So some of it was interference. But there was another bit of squiggle that didn't make sense. It took up about a quarter inch on this chart paper out of the four hundred feet that it took to do a complete sky survey. And it wasn't always there, but it was there sufficiently often that my brain clicked and said 'You've seen this unclassifiable squiggle somewhere before haven't you?' And I found it on previous recordings and er, it turned out to be a source that was going 'Blip, blip, blip, blip, blip, blip...' Very, very regular beat, at a rate of about once every one and a third seconds.

Q Now you, you say a star, but this isn't 'Twinkle, twinkle little star,' is it?

JBB This isn't a star that gives out light. But alongside light there's a whole family of other kinds of radiations, like radio waves, X-rays, ultraviolet, infra-red. Our human eyes actually respond to a tiny, tiny fraction of this family of radiations. We're really quite disabled in that respect. But astronomers have learnt that the stars and the galaxies, besides sending out light, send out radio waves and X-rays and gamma rays and infra-red and what have you. And these are objects that send out radio waves. So if you're listening with a very good radio telescope and radio receiver, you can hear the 'Psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst!' as the pulses come in.

Q Was it a great moment?

JBB The - finding the first one was disturbing, scary, because we weren't sure what it was. Worrying perhaps, more than anything. After about a month when we had sorted out that it wasn't crossed wires and it wasn't interference and it wasn't this, and it wasn't that - so what was it - I found the second one. And that was a marvellous moment - that was sweet. That was y'know, the 'Eureka' point, because that showed that it had to be some new family of stars, some new type of stars that we'd never seen before. And I'd stumbled over the first and the second of them, and in fact I found the third and the fourth as well.

Q Amazing, amazing story. But it was your colleague who got the Nobel Prize...did it hurt?

JBB My colleague was in fact my supervisor. I was a research student, working for my doctorate. And in those days, it was believed, felt, held that science was done, driven by great men... the leaders of research groups got both the prizes and the blame, if there was blame.... Our picture of science has changed since then - we now see it much more as a team effort with different people contributing different aspects of the work.

Q But did it hurt at the time?

JBB ... this was the very first time that a Nobel Prize had gone on any astronomical topic, and therefore politically that was very, very important. And there have been a number of astronomical prize winners since then. But it also came at the stage where I had a small child. He must've been about a year old then, a year and a half. And I was struggling with how to find proper childminding, combine a career - all these things that my generation struggled with before there were nurseries and crèches in the workplace, and before it was acceptable for women to work. And so I think at one level it said to me 'Well men win prizes and young women look after babies'....

Q Let me just ask you a more general question. I mean what events in your scientific career, apart from this discovery, stand out as moments of real significance for you?

Uhuru Xray astronomy satellite, 1970
JBB I'm not sure that there are anything that can come within a mile of the pulsar stuff, and I think it's probably not reasonable that there should be. People don't often get the chance to make mega discoveries like that. But I've certainly had some very exciting times. The Nobel Prize that we've just been talking about was awarded the same day as a satellite with which I was working was launched. If I put this in a novel, nobody would believe it. But we all went into work eight o'clock one morning, to hear the transmission from off the East Coast of Kenya from the control centre where our X-ray astronomy satellite was launching. And it launched, and by ten o'clock, eleven o'clock in the morning, we drifted off back to our desks. And on the twelve o'clock news was the Nobel Prize (laughing) announcement. (Laughs)....That X-ray astronomy satellite was incredibly successful. I was responsible for running it for the laboratory. And you'd get to the stage when you'd say 'Satellite, for God's sake stop making discoveries till we've processed the last three!' (Laughs) It was frantic, but it was hugely exciting....
a modern VLA radiotelescope
Q Let's talk about the interface between this science and, and your God. Because science - and I frequently get this wrong. Science works by a hypothesis which requires...verification... God is a hypothesis. Does He require evidence?

JBB Well for me, God is a hypothesis. But I'm not sure that everybody would agree with me on that one. I think for some God is much more...present (laughs). It's definite, (laughing) it's er...

Q But you see, people would say 'That's not a scientific statement.'

JBB No. I would agree with that. I as a teenager was looking for proof of the existence of God, and of course didn't find it. And gradually came to the realisation that I suspect we're not meant to have proof of the existence of God. I suspect we are meant to act without proof, on probabilities - but ultimately with 'I don't know' as the bottom line. And I made the conscious decision to adopt the hypothesis that there is a God, and to run with that hypothesis and see what happened. And I haven't felt the need to abandon that hypothesis yet. But it could happen - who knows?

Q And are you vigilant in your scrutiny? Do you constantly examine this hypothesis?

JBB Yes I do. The proof - that's not really the right word - the data, the evidence is sufficient to convince me. Would not convince anybody else, I don't expect - and I don't know that it's meant to convince anybody else. But I have enough evidence that there is a God from experiences in Quaker worship, for example. I'm also aware that quite a lot of my experience of God comes in a Quaker meeting for worship when a number of other people in the same room at the same time will have similar experiences in so far as one can describe these experiences to one another.

Q ,,,can you try and describe it to me?

JBB It's difficult because it is a very deep and intimate experience. It is at the level of sense, nudging, prompting is a word that, that Quakers will use.... if there is a strong sense of the presence of God, I find that intellectual questions float away as being irrelevant, and one is just wanting to be there.

Q What then do you say to your scientist colleagues, who denounce religion...and say 'Superstition is on the way out...

JBB ... in taking that position they are denying even part of their own discipline, science. Intuition and imagination play quite a large part in science. It's not always taught, this, but I believe it to be true. We talked earlier about developing a hypothesis which we then tested. How do we develop a hypothesis? We imagine, we dream. Some of it literally comes from dreams, the shape of the benzene ring came to a chemist who had a dream about a snake swallowing its own tail, which I think is a Jewish Kabbalistic symbol, so it's not unusual. But that was the first ring molecule, and suddenly he understood from this dream - intuition and imagination matter a lot. Also having been involved in a significant discovery, I know that in the discovery process, things are not straightforward. It's not a linear process. You dart backwards and forwards, you develop pictures which will take account of some of the data you have, but maybe not all of it, and then you try a different picture, and so on.

Q So for you, science, the imagination and religious insight are all part of one great mystery?

JBB And a different kind of mystery too.... The God that I experience is a loving, caring, enabling God. A God who helps one see things, one's own action, or the world, or whatever, in a particularly true light. A God who acts through people, inspires in that sense. But as an astronomer, I do not believe in a God who was the prime creator of the universe. So I get quite twitchy when people talk about 'God the Creator' and how God made that beautiful sunset, that kind of thing.

Q (Laughs) As an astronomer, what d'you think brought the world into existence?

JBB As far as I can see, it did it itself. It didn't need a God to do it. And it runs itself as well, and here we're getting close to some of the problems of suffering, because suffering doesn't make sense if you've got a loving God and a God who's in control of the world.... The explanations that we have around in the Christian Church for suffering I think, are nonsensical. They cast God as somebody for whom the means justify the ends, for example, and I don't buy into that I'm, I'm afraid. It just doesn't work for me.

Q But for you, God is an authority...

JBB Guide perhaps, more than authority, because one can ignore or deny.

Q Are you allowed to be angry with whoever He is?

JBB Yes, oh yes. Yes. I, I think (laughing) that's quite important (laughs).... God as I understand it chooses not to intervene in the world. So it's no good praying to God for good weather tomorrow, for example - God just doesn't play that game....

Q What's the future? What, do we have a future as the human race? Is the end of the world on the way?

Hubble image: star birth in M16
JBB As we understand what's happening in the universe at the moment, the galaxies are still flying apart, following the Big Bang. In these galaxies there are stars being born and living and die. And at the same time, because of those stars being born and living and dying, there are changes in the chemical balance in the universe. Some of the hydrogen is being used up and the materials that we need for life, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, iron, are being created out of that hydrogen by the stars. And that's fine. But if you carry this on to its logical end, there will come a time when new stars get formed, or try to get formed, but can't light, because there's no longer enough hydrogen around. And hydrogen is basically the fire lighter. So in about a million, million years' time in galaxies all over the universe, old stars will go out and new stars will not be able to light. So the galaxies will go out. Now we depend on starlight - sunlight in our particular case - for our very existence, for energy, for growth, for food ultimately - everything. And so in that dark, dark universe, the black holes will have a field day. But everything else - us included, will be dead.

Q How do you feel about that?

JBB Well it is a bit bleak, and I have found that quite difficult to reconcile with a sense of hope. And it's actually led me to think quite hard about what we mean when we hope about something. And I think I've got to the position where I no longer believe that hope means that everything'll come out OK in the end. I don't think that's what hope is actually about. I think hope is about recognising that there are things in this world that have worth, that are good, and that it is worth putting effort into them, working at them, helping them along.

1. see Wikipedia biography of Burnell; BBC video interview and podcasts about her discovery of quasars. Astronomer Marcia Rieke explains Xray and radiotelescopes.
2. cf. a recent book by a lay author, Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (2009).

No comments: