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Photo of Tony Hewish

Posted: 21 March 2012, 9:48

He has spent a lifetime staring into space, pioneering technologies and catching the wonder of the heavens on his radio telescopes. In 1974 he won a Nobel prize for the discovery of pulsars, thinking them at first to be little green men. Rather than focus on intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, astrophysicist Professor Tony Hewish concentrates on the intelligence behind the Universe, as he tells Nigel Bovey.

Professor, how did you become interested in science?

Curiosity. As a boy, I was always very curious about how things worked – taking the backs off clocks and things like that to see what went on inside.

I left school in 1942 and in aid of the war effort was offered a government bursary to study physics with radio at Cambridge University.

I’m afraid I was more interested in rowing than radio. I am not academically brilliant (you don’t have to be brilliant to get a Nobel prize; you just have to be doing the right things at the right time in the right place), so my first year at university was a bit of a flop.

Instead of continuing the degree, I was put on a practical radio course and then directed to RAE Farnborough to work on aircraft communications. After six months, I was transferred to Malvern to work on the development of radar. One of my jobs was to make equipment to jam radar on German night-fighters. After the war, I went back and finished my degree.

And you became an academic?

Yes. Martin Ryle, whom I’d worked under at Malvern, was leading a group investigating solar radio waves, which had been discovered during the war but were considered top secret. Nuclear physics was a fashionable subject but all the research groups were full. When I heard of Ryle’s work, I applied to join his group.

Was this radio astronomy?

Eventually that’s what it became known as, but at the time it was so new that it had no name. All we knew was that there were radio waves coming from the sky. It was groundbreaking technology. We had to develop equipment to detect and measure these waves and develop ideas on how we could understand them.

In 1974 you, along with Martin Ryle, received the Nobel Prize for Physics for your decisive role in the discovery of pulsars. How did that come about?

We were actually looking for quasars, which are a type of radio galaxy. In 1967 I’d set up a brand new telescope – about four and a half acres’ worth of television-like aerials all connected.

My graduate student Jocelyn Bell and I had been observing for less than six months when we discovered that there were places in the sky which were omitting regular, sharp pulses. Something going click-click-click about once every second. It seemed totally artificial.

To begin with I thought I’d picked up extraterrestrial intelligence. We called it the ‘little green men’.

After a few weeks of intensive research, ruling out intelligent signals and radio interference, I realised that this object was smaller than a planet and that we’d discovered the first neutron stars.

Did the idea that you might have discovered little green men excite you?

It kept me awake at night. Martin Ryle and I decided that until we knew exactly what this phenomenon was we would keep our mouths shut. The slightest mention that we might have discovered intelligent life in space would have brought the world’s media to our door, and getting on with the science would have been impossible and lost in intergalactic politics.

I was greatly relieved to discover that I hadn’t. It wasn’t until we’d found four places in the sky where this phenomenon took place that we published the data through the scientific journal Nature.

So what did you find?

I was able to measure the distance to this object and worked out that it was 100 light years away among our nearest stars.

It was a naturally occurring regular signal, a radio beacon more accurate than any time-measuring device in our lab. After three weeks, I discovered it had no discernible Doppler effect – no change in periodicity due to elliptical movement – so that ruled out the possibility of it having an orbit and therefore being a planet.

Neutron stars, in which burnt-out stars have been squashed by gravity into balls only a few miles in diameter, had been predicted theoretically in the 1930s. I thought that our observed pulses might be caused by radial vibrations of such stars. But within one year it was found that rotating neutron stars could emit a beam of radiation along their magnetic axes, acting like stellar lighthouses. There is still much to learn about pulsars but I feel very proud to have opened up this new chapter in astronomy.

To what extent has being a Nobel laureate improved you as a scientist?

Not at all. I get a lot of invitations, some of them to three-day conferences to solve the world’s problems. I’m an astrophysicist – I haven’t anything to offer these occasions.

What do the heavens tell us about our world?

They tell us how it is part of the history of the Universe. By studying stars and planets we can begin to understand how we arrived. They cannot tell us the origin of life but they can tell us a lot about the conditions life needs, the sort of stars Earth needed to be close to, the sort of planetary orbits required for carbon-based life to be possible on Earth.

Knowing where stars come from – and from them the history of the Universe from the big bang onwards – is vitally important. Wanting to know how we emerged is part of being human.

When and how did you become a Christian?

I was brought up in a Christian family and went to a Christian boarding school. As a lad, I sometimes found going to chapel a waste of time, but there was always the sense at the back of my mind that there has to be a God. I only began to think of these things seriously when I got into research. People got to know that I went to church on Sundays. They started asking me how I could be doing physics and believe in God. I had to work out my relationship with God and the relationship between faith and science.

What convinced you that Jesus is who he says he is?

The evidence of the Bible. At first glance, the idea that God revealed himself through a human who walked on Earth may seem impossible. But then I realised that there are things in physics that sound equally impossible. In quantum physics, for example, where we look at things smaller than atoms, we don’t understand how a single electron can simultaneously be a speck of matter and a wave. How can something be in two places at once? Nobody can explain. That is a mystery of science.

If science has mysteries, I am ready to accept religious mysteries such as the Incarnation. If God exists, he has to communicate in the most intelligent way possible. As humankind is the most intelligent life form we know about, God making himself known through human form is logical. In fact, it’s the only way he could have done so.

The idea that science has mysteries – that it doesn’t have all the answers – contradicts the ‘new atheist’ stance that religion is founded on superstition requiring blind leaps of faith. Why are the atheists wrong?

Mysteries are not irrational; it is just that we can’t get behind them. In reality, there is no sharp dividing line between faith and science. It is simplistic to ask whether something is caused either by magic or a machine. Non-intuitive things exist and our brains don’t have the capacity to understand them.

In order to be able to do science, scientists need faith. This is not faith in God but in the fact that physics is repeatable – that if, for example, we drop a book it will fall to the floor and do so at the same rate as every other book before.

Without that faith in the scientific process, scientists will not be able to explain those things that currently appear counter-intuitive.

How have your Christian faith and your science informed each other?

I don’t think they have. They are different arenas that don’t overlap, any more than being a physicist helps me to appreciate music.

To what extent can science prove the existence of God?

It can’t. That’s not its job.

As a scientist, do you see the big bang as the best available explanation of how life has developed through the Universe?

Yes, I do.

Does the big bang conflict at all with your beliefs as a Christian?

Not at all. We are trying to find out how the world operates physically. But whatever we discover doesn’t tell us anything about the way in which we should live. Science is the ‘how’ question rather than the ‘why’ question. We can’t be human without asking the ‘why’ questions, such as ‘Why are we here?’ For that answer, you need to look beyond science.

New atheists would say that science and rationalism provides all the answers we need. Are they right?

No. Just as faith isn’t designed to answer questions on the speed of light, so there are questions which are beyond the scope of science. Science can tell us the how, but it can’t tell us the who or the why. Faith and science are complementary approaches to the world. We need both.

You mention cosmological conditions being just right so carbon-based life could be sustainable on Earth. Is the Universe designed or is it a happy accident?

In some ways, the set-up – distances between Earth and the Sun and so on – is a happenstance determined by the laws of physics. But I like to think that we didn’t arrive completely by chance – that there is a purpose for it all. This leads me to think that without a designer, the Universe doesn’t make sense; that the Universe doesn’t make sense without God.

The Genesis account of Creation speaks of God making Adam from the dust of the earth. Cosmology says that humans are made from stardust. How accurate is it to conclude that science backs the biblical description of how human life came about?

Genesis is amazingly accurate. The human body contains minerals, such as iron, that are found in the ground and in other parts of the galaxy. The Universe was once a blindingly hot gas. As it cooled, hot gas condensed into galaxies, and then into stars. The only place where iron – and other chemical elements – could be made was in core of those nuclear reactors we call stars. Eventually, stars exploded, their chemical components vaporised and were scattered into space. Some of them landed on Earth.

How did those chemical leftovers from stellar explosions become life?

We don’t know. Possibly a development from primitive microbes – but how did they get here? Scientists are still investigating.

You have spent years surveying the distant skies, seeing things most of us will never see. When you look in the heavens, do you see God?

Yes, I do, but not only in the heavens. I see God in a daffodil or in the beauty of an early-morning cliff walk in my native Cornwall. At times like these, it hits me that the world is an amazing place – full of wonder. It is not just the result of happenstance.

Photo: Nigel Bovey

This article first appeared in The War Cry and is reprinted with permission

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