Category Archives: Science

Sir Patrick Moore, R.I.P.

I want to add my small voice to those paying tribute to Sir Patrick Moore, who died yesterday. I won’t speak about the amateur astronomer whose lunar maps were used by NASA in preparing for the moon landings. I haven’t gone looking for videos of his xylophone playing. I won’t comment on the allegations that he was a racist. Nor will I even make anything of the fact that he celebrated a particularly fine day of the year as his birthday.

I simply want to retell one story.

My father has been a member of the British Astronomical Association for all my life and longer. When I was a child, he took me to London one day to hear a lecture by Patrick Moore. It went above my head, but clearly inspired many adults and children who were present.

Afterwards, a long queue formed of people who wanted to ask Moore questions. I noticed how he took the children as seriously as the adults. Adults were not more important; they had to wait while he gave children’s questions his full attention.

It is an example more churches need to emulate.

Guest Post: Andy Mellen, Facing A Different Future?

I can’t recall ever hosting a guest post before, but this approach seemed both worthwhile and important. Andy Mellen is the co-author with Neil Hollow of ‘No Oil in the Lamp‘, a Christian response to the Peak Oil crisis. About three years ago, I heard Sam Norton give a theological lecture on Peak Oil in Chelmsford, and his blog Elizaphanian is a useful source of informed comment on the problem. Because I had had my eyes opened by that experience, and because I am not myself a scientific specialist in this area, I was only too willing to host a piece on this subject.

Over to you, Andy:

Our ideas about the future tend to be conditioned by our experience of the past, so if you were born in a developed country sometime in the last sixty years, it’s likely that you have experienced a rising standard of living, with increasing comfort and convenience.  Yet we only need to look back a few generations to see how much has changed, and how much we take for granted:  We flick a switch, assuming that electricity will be there to light up the bulb.   We expect to be able to travel long distances quickly, in comfort and at reasonable cost.  We think nothing of sitting down to a meal whose ingredients have been transported across the globe to our table.  These things and many more besides have become basic expectations – and as Christians living within a modern, developed country, we share them.  Whilst we may bow our heads and give thanks for God’s provision at the start of a meal, in many other ways we take the conveniences of modern life for granted.

We might expect the future to look something like a continuation of the past, but what if that isn’t possible?  It takes an enormous amount of energy to make the modern world work.  The average household is using more energy today than at any time in the past.  Globally, use of oil, coal and gas has at least almost doubled since 1970.  The unfortunate thing is, there aren’t unlimited amounts of these commodities to fuel our lifestyles way into the future.  In fact the most critical energy source – oil, which provides 90% of all transport, is already beginning to decline.  So what does this mean?  Well, it’s complicated, but also surprisingly simple:  The good news is that nobody is saying we are going to suddenly run out of oil.  The bad news is that declining oil production will cause us a host of difficulties in the years ahead.  Experts predict a two-stage process: firstly high energy prices (which we are already experiencing) and eventually actual physical shortages.  High prices are already giving the global economy a headache, and straining the finances of households.  Actual shortages would provide an enormous challenge for society, the economy, food supplies and much more.  A smooth transition to green renewable energy is what some people are hoping for – others are looking to science for the answer – new forms of energy, maybe hydrogen?  Unfortunately, no technology is in a position to do for us what oil does today.

So what can we do?  Is it a case of waiting for the Prime Minister, the UN, or someone else to take action?  So far, despite credible voices speaking up, very little attention is being paid to this problem at Government level.  However, at the grass-roots, in communities across the UK and increasingly across the world, something very interesting and exciting is happening.  It is something called Transition.  You may not have heard of it unless it is happening in your area, but the Transition movement is fast becoming the most positive response to the problems of resource constraints and climate change.  Although it may sound a bit wacky and alternative, the heart of Transition is a very simple idea:  we need to move away from oil dependence and instead build resilience into our households, communities and the local economy.  Just how this plays out is different in every community, but the places which have embraced the concept are already starting to reap the benefits in terms of a more vibrant local economy, stronger community and reduced energy use.  So far, I know that many Christians are individually involved in these initiatives, though I have not heard of any church becoming directly linked to Transition.  Yet many of the qualities of the Transition movement overlap with what we might call “kingdom values” – concerns we see in the Bible.  Three spring immediately to mind:  Stewardship of the earth (humankind is given responsibility for the earth in Genesis 1), the principle of justice is seen throughout the Bible, (and particularly in the writings of the prophets, from Amos to Zechariah) and the principle of simplicity as espoused by Jesus, (most tellingly in Luke 17: “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”).  The church in the past has shied away from engagement with environmental issues for fear of contamination with “new age” philosophies.  But it seems to me that the Transition movement offers an opportunity for Christians and the church to engage with something good, wholesome – and urgent.

Andy Mellen

(For much more detail on this whole area, see my book ‘No Oil in the Lamp‘ published last month, or check out the ‘No oil in the lamp’ page on Facebook)

How To Remember Neil Armstrong

When Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, died yesterday, I remembered being a nine-year-old boy in a primary school hall. The whole school was assembled to watch a small black-and-white television that had been perched on the stage for us all to watch recorded footage of the momentous event.

After Apollo 11, Armstrong was famously reclusive. Not for him the celebrity circuit. In one of his rarer excursions into public, he sued a barber for selling some of his hair.

And so it was fitting to read the Armstrong family statement. Their idea about how to remember the great man seems so fitting:

“For those who may ask what they can do to honour Neil, we have a simple request. Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

O that others would seek a similar remembrance. ‘Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty’ indeed.

Evolution, Faith And Apostasy

Read this important lecture by Scot McKnight.

N T Wright Sings The Theology Of Creation And New Creation

It doesn’t get better than this for me. A great theologian – N T Wright – putting theology to music. Here, he sings ‘Genesis’ – words that he and Francis Collins, of the Human Genome Project put to the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’.

(Originally featured at The Rabbit Room.)

Over-35s And ‘The Green Thing’

A blog post entitled ‘Anyone over the age of 35 should read this, as I copied this from a friends status..‘ is trending on Facebook. (Ignore the grammatical error, it appears to be a Scandinavian writing in the foreign tongue of English.)
The gist is this: the author fails to bring some reusable shopping bags to the supermarket and is told off for this by the checkout cashier. The author apologises, not having had ‘the green thing’ when younger. The article then goes on to recount practices from past generations that are actually greener than today’s habits: bottles were recycled for the deposit, they walked up stairs rather than took escalators, they washed and reused cotton nappies, a house had but one small television, they used more public transport for journeys and homes had fewer electrical sockets. Ergo, why should younger generations have a go at older ones on environmental issues?

All the examples quoted are true, and yes, they are greener. The problem is this: things were that way due to lesser economic wealth and greater thrift. Once more prosperity came along, then it carried with it technologies that created more convenient and allegedly labour-saving approaches and devices. When these appeared, they were – ahem – hoovered up.

Economics and technology create these opportunities and more. One of the major issues about sin is opportunity and availability. Moving beyond green issues, are more people prone to slip into pornography because it is more readily available on the Internet and with web browsers that offer ‘private’ or ‘incognito’ browsing modes?

And perhaps another observation worth making about this post is that is true but simplistic. Isn’t that something that many of us have to watch? We want to keep things simple, which is laudable on one level, but we also don’t want to think too hard – or we don’t want others to make us think hard.

For The Beauty Of The Earth

Twenty amazing images of our planet from NASA, starting with this one:

On Being Wrong

What a wonderful talk by Kathryn Schulz from TED2011. Essentially, her reasons why we try to maintain we are right amount to various ugly forms of pride. And the Gospel says, that pride needs to be brought low in the humility of saying in confession to God, “I was wrong.” Then, it is God who makes us right – in theological jargon, he ‘justifies’ us.

I would add to that an issue of fear: when we are afraid of how someone might react, we defensively entrench ourselves in our position of ‘rightness’, even when we know in our hearts we are wrong. So how liberating the Gospel is that we can confess our wrongness to a God of grace and mercy. It is the character of God that makes an admission of our wrong more possible.

Then note how right at the end of the talk she links her theme to the rediscovery of wonder. To quote her exact words:

if you really want to rediscover wonder, you need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say, “Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”

That’s profound, isn’t it? We don’t get to a true sense of wonder through our own rightness. It involves acknowledging we are wrong – just as major scientific advances often happen not by incremental improvement on previous foundations, but on paradigm shifts from what was previously accepted. In Christian terms, it again goes hand in hand with accepting God’s outlook on things.

Or am I wrong? 🙂

Jack Rutter

On Saturday, I had  the privilege of conducting a memorial service for a church member who had recently died. His professional significance was such that an obituary will be appearing in The Guardian, probably next week. This text will soon be cross-posted on our church site, along with the audio of this tribute.

Jack was born within the sound of Bow Bells to Arthur and Amy Rutter. He had three younger sisters, Frances, Cecily (who died in 1989) and Noel. He grew up in Worcester Park and then Guildford, where he attended the Royal Grammar School.

From the Royal Grammar he went to Imperial College to study Botany. He graduated in 1938 and then began PhD research. With the advent of the war, he was called into a reserved occupation, where he studied how to increase crop yield to reduce British dependency on imported food. Alongside this, he joined the Home Guard, where he learned how to make Molotov Cocktails.

During the War, he travelled across the country – difficult journeys that often meant cycling. On one occasion he was at a wedding in Bristol where he met Betsy Stone, a nurse from Bridgwater, who was working at Bristol General Hospital. He was the first of Betsy’s boyfriends to win her mother’s approval! They married in 1944, and had three children: Margaret, Bill and John.

Jack completed his PhD and began lecturing at Imperial. Later, as we know, he would become Professor of Botany, until his retirement in 1979. His research centred on the hydrology of the Scots Pine, and his work would carry him from Forestry Commission land in this country to Rhodesia (as it was) and the island of Aldabra, 250 miles north of Madagascar. He also went on an academic exchange to Pakistan, and was able to take the family with him. While he was there, he had dysentery, only to be cured when a colleague made a goat stew and fed it to him. He and the family also explored up the Khyber Pass to the border with Afghanistan, where they met some ‘interesting’ tribesmen with guns.

He gave an illustrated talk about his work on Aldabra to a women’s meeting here at the church. His knowledge of Botany also meant giving advice to the Queen on her gardens. Then more humbly he ran a garden stall at the church bazaar, assisted by Helen Baker and Robb Peters. He also contributed a Christmas tree to the church for many years, once digging up one from Pauline and Jim Holden’s garden in Mayford. He helped Christine with the cultivation of a Mahonia plant that still flourishes as a bush in her garden. She is offering cuttings from it to anyone who would like one in Jack’s memory.

Back home, the family lived in Brookwood and then in Knaphill, where their house had a one-acre garden. Jack mowed the grass, cut the hedges, took care of the thirty fruit trees and grew fruit and vegetables. Betsy produced the jam. Jack also made wine from the grapes on the vine. He was also a beekeeper and produced several jars of honey a year. Through Marilyn Meller’s involvement in the Guides, he tested the one Guide who was brave enough to take on the beekeeper’s badge.

For all Jack’s professional foreign travel, family holidays were generally taken in England, and usually in locations that offered opportunities for good walking and visiting cultural locations as well as the seaside. So places such as Pembrokeshire, North Wales, Northumberland and the Yorkshire Dales featured.

Betsy was a nurse, and worked with Pauline Holden at the Health Visitors’ Clinic at Pirbright Village Hall. When she became terminally ill, she was under no illusions about what would happen and set about teaching Jack housekeeping and cookery.

Betsy died in 1978, the year before Jack retired, and in his retirement these skills became useful, not only for himself but for others. He cooked for others, and invited people to stay with him in his home. He cared for a teenage girl who had been thrown out of home by her father and stepmother. He fed two or three street people, who sometimes used to stay for two or three days. He took in someone who had had a breakdown, even though he hardly knew the person at the time. He also took over one particular concern of Betsy’s. She had always taken an interested in a lady in the village called Jean who had a son with special needs. The son went to live in a home and Betsy took her to visit him in Botley’s Park Hospital, Chertsey, every Sunday afternoon. When Betsy died, Jack took over these duties until both son and mother died about ten years ago.

Jack was extremely active in church life here. I have just noted his particular care for people, but there are some other incidents to mention. He was a class leader, as we sometimes call them in the Methodist Church, or pastoral visitor. One family he visited was Marilyn Meller’s. He visited her mother, Irene Elliot, in the farmhouse delivering the monthly magazine on a Thursday evening and would help her pack eggs into boxes ready for Marilyn’s egg round the next day. He would visit Marilyn and Tom at White Lodge after he had had his lunch, and talk about farming with them. he took an interest in their family, including their two daughters.

On other Thursdays he attended the Thursday evening fellowship group. Members of the group enjoyed sharing with him, and valued the contributions he made to the discussions. He could recite poetry and biblical passages.

Then there is the Spice Girls story. For those of you who don’t know, the Spice Girls recorded their earliest tracks in Knaphill. They used to have lunch breaks at the King’s House Coffee Shop, which is run by four of the churches in the village. A film was made of their early days, and a scene was recreated in the King’s House. Jack, who worked in there voluntarily, played the rôle of the waiter. He had to reel off a list of the available snacks – cheese sandwiches, ham rolls and so on. Finally, he had to deliver a line, the significance of which he did not understand:

“Tell me what you want, what you really, really want.”

He took an interest in the church youth club, often turning up on a Saturday evening to chat with everyone and make sure that the heating was working.

Indeed, the heating was but one aspect of the church property for which he cared, but the boiler room was the location where one day a fairy godmother left him a bottle of his favourite Guinness. He also made a new wooden gate for the car park and put in posts to hold up the fence around the church building.

However, not all Jack’s adventures with the church property went smoothly. Famously, he was one day climbing through the loft space to change some light bulbs when he accidentally put his foot through the ceiling. How he didn’t fall right down, nobody knows. Later, though, he made an almost invisible repair.

Then there was the time when he once covered the church cleaning for Helen Chamberlain while she was on holiday. During that period, he and Robb Peters decided to sand the church floor. They only did half, due to the sandstorm they created, which took twelve weeks to settle.

Finally on the subject of church work, as well as his pastoral and property duties, Jack was also for a period of time the church treasurer in an age before computerised accounts. He scrupulously kept a contingency fund for emergencies, decades before the Methodist Church required all local churches to formulate a reserves policy.

In the last few years before Betsy died, she and Jack holidayed in the Western Isles of Scotland. He continued to do this after they died, until he was about 90. He planned his routes, travelled light and walked long distances, befriending many B & B owners on his travels. He also continued to travel abroad, visiting relatives in Canada several times and attending a wedding in India.

In 1994, he could see that one day he would not be able to cope with the large garden in Knaphill, and moved to his bungalow in Goldsworth Park. He remained fit, active and independent until around the age of 90. That was when those close to him started to notice a change in his mental powers. He gave up driving a few months before reaching 92.

Jack leaves six grandchildren: They are: Margaret & Adrians’s children: Henry, Thomas and Emily;

Bill and Corrie’s son, Philip; and John and Esther’s children, Jennifer and Jack. He also leaves a great-grandson, Arthur, Henry and Cat’s son.

But he also leaves behind many more friends, and so many others whose lives he touched by his love and through his great gifts and talents. No longer for Jack the confusion of these last two or three years, but the peaceful sleep of rest, and the resurrection to come into a new, healed body in which he can continue to serve Jesus Christ.

And who knows what talents a resurrected Jack Rutter will have in God’s new creation?

You Can Make A Difference: Emily Cummins

Last night I had the privilege of hearing Emily Cummins speak at the Chelmer Valley High School awards evening. I must live in a bubble, because I had never heard of her, certainly not that she won the Barclay’s Woman of the Year prize for 2009. And she’s only 22.

Her speech was an extraordinary inspiration. She has been inventing gadgets since her youth, including a toothpaste dispenser for a grandfather with arthritis. But she is most famous for designing a fridge that does not need fossil fuels. It works on recycled dirty water. It began as an A-Level project, but she became so passionate about it that she delayed going to university for a year to take a gap year in southern Africa. She has given away her design in townships. She makes no money from it. Her satisfaction is in seeing people helped by her invention: children who can at last have fresh milk; adults whose medicines can finally be stored in refrigeration. She is negotiating with pharmaceutical companies about a commercial version of the fridge to help with the transportation of medicines.

She spoke about how she never had real confidence in herself, but how she has learned to have confidence in what she can do. Having presented prizes to some extremely talented students at the school, including one who achieved thirteen A* grades at GCSE and another who had five A grades at A-Level, she told everyone that she would never have attained those standards. She wasn’t good across the board, but she had one particular talent, and nurtured it. She told the students they could make a difference, too, if they were passionate about using their talents for others.

I don’t suppose for one minute she is a Christian. I imagine she might have spoken slightly differently about the self-confidence issue if she were. But I thought she was a tremendous example and challenge to the Church as well as the wider world. As I said, she has not sought to rake in the cash for herself. Her focus has been on the needs of others. I imagined missions organisations deploying her fridge. I imagined the pastoral task of challenging all our people to make a difference in the world with their gifts and talents. In particular, I imagined people starting to do that at a young age, and not being lied to in the church that they are too young to do something significant.

And I began to ask if I have made a difference in people’s lives by using my gifts. Have you? We can. By the power of God surely there should be millions of Emily Cummins in the world, if our faith in Christ is real and radical.

Shouldn’t there?