Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dr. Dean Nelson, professor of journalism, co-authored Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion, a book on John Polkinghorne, the famed physicist who helped explain the existence of quarks and gluons, the world’s smallest known particles. Quantum Leap discusses Polkinghorne’s contributions to research at the interface between science and religion.

Nelson had read Polkinghorne for years and was “drawn to his clarity.” When he became a staff writer for Science & Spirit magazine, Dr. Karl Giberson, the magazine’s editor at the time, had the idea to write a biography about Polkinghorne, and he shared the idea with Nelson. Despite the fact that Polkinghorne himself had written over 30 books, no one had written more than a magazine article about the world-class physicist and theologian. That was when Nelson decided to write the book on Polkinghorne.

“[Polkinghorne] committed his professional life to believing in unseen realities – quarks and gluons – and then committed the second half of his adult life to other unseen realities – the existence of a loving God,” said Nelson “I find that compelling.”

Nelson began “literary speed dating,” meeting with Polkinghorne in Cambridge and around the world at conferences where he spoke. Nelson read everything Polkinghorne wrote. Quantum Leap slowly morphed into the story of not just Polkinghorne, but about the larger relationship between science and religion. 

“By telling the John Polkinghorne story, that gave an entre to talk about bigger issues like, ‘How does a scientist think about prayer?’ or ‘How does a scientist think about miracles or the resurrection or eternity or creation for that matter?’.”

When the book began to take a scientific twist, Giberson, previously a professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College and executive vice president of the Biologos Foundation, began to serve as an expert voice to explain some of the more difficult concepts in the book, thus the shared byline. 

Nelson completed his writing over a sabbatical and through a grant from the Templeton Foundation, from which Polkinghorne received the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2002. 

The experience was both enlightening and encouraging for Nelson. 

“My IQ went up by 80 points just by being in his living room,” said Nelson. “The reason you know [Polkinghorne] is a genius is that he can take really complex ideas and state them clearly. This is one of the things he’s known for – he took the presence of a quark, which no one has actually seen, and explained its presence mathematically.”

Nelson says Polkinghorne exudes the same clarity when it comes to articulating his thoughts on faith and spiritual questions. 

“He can be talking about the Heisenberg Principle one moment and talking about why the resurrection is worth believing at another moment with equal clarity,” said Nelson. “That is what’s so unusual about him.”

Bridging the gap between science and religion – two subjects that are often at odds – is what has made Polkinghorne such an interesting individual. In fact, he would say his science makes him a stronger believer and visa versa, Nelson said. 

In his book, Nelson explains that since both science and religion are searching for the truth, Polkinghorne values that they can inform each other. 

For example, Polkinghorne’s view on creation is one that embraces the possibilities of both faith and science. He articulates the prospect of an ongoing creation story – that perhaps everything is still in the process of being created – a different way of looking at the world than either six 24-hour days or the Big Bang.

In the process of writing Quantum Leap, Nelson says both his scientific knowledge and his faith were strengthened. It also encouraged Nelson that conversations around religion and science don’t have to be unnerving. 

“Hanging out with John Polkinghorne or reading Quantum Leap can show us that science and faith don’t have to be afraid of each other… If you’re really searching for the truth, Polkinghorne would say, then why do you have to be afraid of any of it?”



Read Nelson in USA Today: Why certainty about God is overrated

Listen to an interview with Nelson about his book on KPBS's Midday Edition.