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April 2010

Science and religion in harmony says award winning scientist

By Paul Titus

A co-winner of New Zealand’s inaugural Prime Minister’s Science Prize says religion and science are complementary ways of seeking truth.

Dr Jeff Tallon believes religion is concerned with the most fundamental truths we can hold, whereas science is concerned with understanding how the universe works.

Jeff Tallon

Last month Jeff and fellow scientist Dr Bob Buckley received the PM’s Science Prize for their work in the field of high temperature superconductivity. They are affiliated with the Crown Research Institute, Industrial Science Ltd (IRL) and have started two companies to market products that have emerged from their research.

Superconductivity is the phenomenon whereby some radically cooled materials conduct electricity with no resistance or energy loss. The earliest superconductors discovered operate at the temperature of liquid helium (-269°C). In the 1980s Jeff and Bob discovered a ceramic compound that superconducts at comparatively warm temperatures (-163°C) and makes it possible to use liquid nitrogen as a coolant.

After patenting their discovery, they and a team of scientists and engineers at IRL have refined the technology for industrial use.

Jeff now has a number of other research projects on the go. One is exploring ways to use nanotechnology to quickly read DNA.

"We are also establishing a new centre that will carry out research at extreme conditions such as high pressure, high magnetism, and very high or very low temperatures.

"One of the projects addresses the possibility that the origin of life was in undersea volcanic vents, known as ‘black smokers’. We will examine the behaviour of the molecules of life in the high pressure, high temperature conditions that exist in black smokers."

It is ironic that Jeff is involved in research that could show how life spontaneously arose because he thinks the great improbability of such an event points to the hand of the Creator as the source of life.

"We have no idea where life came from. Even atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins say the event has such low probability we have no idea how it occurred.

"To calculate the probability of the random origin of even one protein requires us to think in terms of billions of universes over billions of years. And human beings are made up of a hundred thousand different proteins."

Jeff’s own view is that God created everything we see and everything about us, and science is the means that we can use to discover how he did it.

"Scripture provides no answers about the mechanism of the universe. Science is the only means we have to understand it.

"Christians must have confidence in science. There is no atheistic agenda in science. Science asks what is true about the universe, and we need to be comfortable with whatever truths science turns up."

This includes evolution, which Jeff says is the best explanation science now has for how life has developed on earth. While evolutionary models cannot explain everything, they do integrate the evidence we have from fossils, geology, genetics and biology.

"While science focuses on what is true, the religious project is more concerned with underlying truths," Jeff says.

"These include that God purposefully created the universe. He did so with a view to create human beings, with whom He can have a relationship.

"This is the most fundamental truth we can enjoy as humans. For me this means recognising God is my creator. This is part of my daily being. I live it out by reading scriptures, praying and following Jesus."

He agrees with Galileo, who said that God created two books. One is the Scriptures and one is nature, and they cannot contradict each other – if they are properly understood.

It is vital therefore that we properly understand the Bible and recognise those parts of it that are history, those that are poetry, and those that are allegory. Applying scientific disciplines such as history, archaeology, dating and linguistics can help us achieve this.

For example, recent archaeological evidence confirms the existence of Nebo-Sarsekim, who is mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah as one of Nebuchadnezzar's officials during the siege of Jerusalem.

"I am an orthodox evangelical Christian. I hold to the claim that God was incarnate in Jesus, and that Jesus was the fulcrum of human history. The whole Christian project follows from that. Our ethics and values follow from our relationship with God.

"So whether these historical claims are true or not is important. We can use our scientific tools to understand these Biblical claims.

While Jeff sees no contradictions between science and religion, he says recognising the interplay between them depends on being open.

"We cannot take a rigid approach to the Bible. We should not say something science has discovered cannot be true because of a literal reading of the Bible.

"We should not engage in blind faith but rather pursue a faith underpinned by objective knowledge."