Listen again to the story of Sir John Polkinghorne. He started off as a humble post-masters son, turned into a brilliant scientist, and dedicated the later years of his life to caring for others as a priest. Broadcast on Songs of Hope program on 88.3 Southern FM on 8 July 2012 at 8:45am
Our Christian who has made a difference today is a man who started life as the son of a British post master, became a top physicist, and assisted with discovery of the quark sub-atomic particle. But he changed career direction after 25 years as a physicist and became a Christian clergyman. He was knighted in 1997. In 2002 he also won the £1M pound Templeton Prize. This was given to him for affirming life’s spiritual dimension. This was given at a time when atheistic views dominated the media. His name is Sir John Polkinghorne.
John Polkinghorne was born in a little seaside town in west England in the county of Somerset in 1930. He had a brother, Peter, and a sister, Ann. Ann died when she was six, one month before John’s birth. His brother Peter died in 1942 while flying for the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Following National Service in the Royal Army Educational Corps from 1948 to 1949, Polkinghorne studied mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1952. He then earned his PhD in physics in 1955 at the age of 25. He was part of the group led by the famous physicist Paul Dirac.
He joined the Christian Union club while at Cambridge and met his future wife Ruth Martin there. She was also a mathematics student. They married in 1955, and at the end of that year sailed from Liverpool to New York and made their way to California. Polkinghorne had accepted a postdoctoral fellowship with the California Institute of Technology. Then in 1956 he was offered a position as lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. So they returned to the United Kingdom.
After two years in Scotland, he moved to teach at Cambridge. He was promoted to reader in 1965, and in 1968 at the age of 38, was offered a professorship in mathematical physics. He held this position until 1979. For 25 years, he worked on theories about elementary particles. He played a role in the important discovery of the sub-atomic particle the quark. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974, a great honour for any scientist.
Polkinghorne decided to train for the priesthood in 1979. He said in an interview that he felt he had done his bit for science after 25 years, and that his best mathematical work was probably behind him. He said that Christianity had always been central to his life, so ordination offered an attractive second career. So he studied for the ministry and became an ordained priest in 1982.
He worked for five years as a curate in south Bristol, then as vicar in Blean, Kent. He then returned to Cambridge in 1986 as Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall. He became the president of Queens College that year, a position he held until his retirement in 1996. He also served as canon theologian of Liverpool Cathedral from 1994 to 2005.
In these later years of his life he has worked tirelessly to show that science and religion can co-exist. He has written 34 books, which have been translated into 18 languages. 26 of those books concern science and religion, often targetted at a popular audience.
He believes that nature, unlike controlled scientific experiments, is open to many influences and hence may have many possible outcomes. He believes there may be higher-level causes which choose which event occurs. Or in other words, there is room for God to act. He has also used chaos theory to back up his position.
Sir John Polkinghorne is now 82 years old and has been a fine defender of the Christian faith. He had humble beginnings, shone with outstanding mathematical ability, and became a carer for others as a Christian clergyman in later life. We salute John Polkinghorne, a Christian who has made a difference.