Space exploration and the meaning of life

 Olivia Rathbone


Professor Chris Done, from the Durham University Department of Physics Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, is the newest member of ECLAS’s steering group. She is also one of two scientists chosen by the European Space Agency to participate in leading the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM) programme with the Japan Space Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA. On 7th September 2023 the XRISM rocket launched from Japan to observe some of the most energetic objects and events in the cosmos. Prof Done was interviewed by ECLAS Communications Manager Olivia Rathbone on 3rd October, shortly before leaving for Japan.

Olivia Rathbone: Could you start by giving me a brief overview of your own faith background: what you grew up with and how you got to where you’re at now?

Chris Done: I grew up in the UK where there’s culturally a historical Christianity. Our primary school was a church school. The vicar would come in and do assemblies sometimes. I got interested in singing in the choir: I enjoyed singing, but as I grew up I really wanted to be a scientist and I really thought, as a teenager in the 70s, that you couldn’t be a scientist and a Christian, that you actually had to choose. So that wasn’t a hard choice because I thought Christianity was about keeping rules. I really wasn’t interested in rules, and science was something that really interested me. I grew up watching Star Trek: just the ideas about black holes as time travel. I just thought it was wonderful. Actually, I thought adventure was wonderful: they would go every week and have adventures.

My dad was also a TV repairman and he was my hero, growing up, so technical stuff was really interesting to me, and I thought you had to make a choice, so I chose that I would be a scientist. I thought scientists had to be atheists, so I was going to be an atheist, but I enjoyed singing in the church choir, and if there isn’t a god to offend, then it’s not a problem, so I kept on singing in the church choir while being a card-carrying atheist, but I wouldn’t be confirmed, because obviously I didn’t believe.

I was a card-carrying atheist and I became a Christian. It was the most surprising thing that ever happened to me, becoming a Christian. A friend of mine was baptized and invited me to her baptism, and it was a church that was very different to the church I’d grown up in and sung in the choir in. It was a church where there was something very exciting about the worship. There was a sense of the presence of God and to an atheist that’s really quite disturbing. So, to make myself feel better, after the service I went to the pastor and told him what a bad idea Christianity was, and he let me rant and then finally got a word in edgeways and said, ‘Well, so, Jesus: who do you think Jesus is?’

And I came out with what I now recognize as the classic bad answer, which was, ‘Good teacher.’

‘Yes, clearly he was a good teacher, but he let people worship him as God. That’s not a good teacher, going around saying that you’re God and accepting people’s worship, especially in his culture: in Judaism it’s absolutely, completely forbidden to worship anything other than God. So you have a choice. You think he’s God so worshipping him is the right thing to do, or you think he’s a nutter thinking he’s God and isn’t, or you think he’s manipulating people. Those are your choices.’

No one had ever talked to me about the evidence of Christianity. No one had ever explained to me that there was evidence for Christianity, and no one had ever explained to me that these were your choices, so that made me actually dig into it. I am a scientist and I am a sucker for evidence, and so I went and tried to look for evidence. Or rather, I went and tried to look for different ways of interpreting this that meant being an atheist was okay still, but the more I looked, the more evidence I found that Jesus was who he said he was, and who he claimed to be.

So after some time wrestling with this, I, my 17-year-old self, came to the conclusion that I was wrong, which was a devastating thing to admit at 17, and that Jesus was who he said he was, and that that was the most likely explanation of all of this evidence that I was looking at.

I was still thinking of faith as this kind of intellectual assent to a set of beliefs, and so it came as a bit of a surprise to me that it was more about a relationship with a God who was living and active in our lives. That it wasn’t just, ‘Okay, I sign up to this set of beliefs now.’ So that was the start of my journey of faith, which was much more exciting than I had expected it to be. But also at that point I started thinking about science and faith and thinking, ‘Well, okay, now I am a Christian, but I am still a scientist. And how does that work?’ So, coming into that science and faith space from a very different perspective of thinking, ‘Well, you don’t have to choose. The God who made the entire universe: there is nothing in the whole of creation that could possibly threaten the existence of God who made it, so what is the problem?’ And that that is where I’ve been ever since.

Olivia Rathbone: So, what would you tell people who find it difficult to reconcile science with their faith, or feel that their faith is threatened by science? Or the other way around: the atheist who maybe ridicules people of faith?

Chris Done: Oh, I love talking to atheists because I absolutely understand their perspective and where they are coming from. I love it. And in fact, there’s so many bridges you could build talking to hardcore atheists, because often they’re really motivated by truth and that’s a really good place to start a conversation. Atheists don’t tend to think that truth is relative. No, they understand there is truth, and they think they have found it, that there is that no God, but they are motivated by truth, and that I can deal with. Not this fluffy ‘true for you, not true for me’. No, I’m sorry. Questions of existence are not ‘true for you, and not true for me’. Questions of existence are simply true or false.

Questions of relationship: now, that’s much more relative. My husband is the most important person in my world. Hopefully, he is not the most important person in anyone else’s world, but hopefully he is important to other people. But questions of relationship are relative. Questions of existence are not. I’m sitting on a chair: it’s either here or it’s not. And if it’s not, I’m going to fall on the floor.

Olivia Rathbone: And in terms of people who feel that their faith is threatened by science?

Chris Done: Sometimes I just want to say, ‘The God who made the entire universe: how can anything we discover in science threaten the existence of the God who made it all? Get some faith.’ But that is not a good way to address the discussion. A much more productive way to address the discussion is to try and unpack it, because sometimes science is presented in a very anti-faith way because scientists are people, and if they happen to be atheists, then they’re going to say, ‘Evolution happened, hence there is no God. The Big Bang happened, hence there is no God.’ I have absolutely no trouble with the first part of the sentence. Yes, the Big Bang happened. Yes, evolution happened. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a God. There is a God who made it and sustains it, it’s just not a God who lights the blue touch paper and stands back. No, it’s a God who’s dynamically involved in his creation.

Sometimes science is presented in a conflict narrative, because the people doing it are people: scientists are people. We come with our faith, whether that’s faith in atheism or faith in science or faith in God or a religious context. We come with baggage.

Olivia Rathbone: You’ve spent most of your career looking at black holes. What do you think the existence of black holes tells us about the nature of the divine?

Chris Done: That he likes fun! It’s kind of like that cartoon of a duck-billed platypus: ‘That’ll give them something to think about!’

On a more serious note, without black holes, without dramatic stellar collapse that leads to black holes, you wouldn’t have the spread of the chemical elements that you need for life. The way the universe works, the structure of the universe on the very largest scales depends on what happens in physics on the very smallest scales, and if you didn’t have the possibility of massive stars collapsing, you wouldn’t have the possibility of elements spread throughout the universe, and then you would not have the possibility of life.

Olivia Rathbone: And how does one reconcile what is often presented as the Biblical perspective of eternity with the heat death of the universe?

Chris Done: I’m not sure they’re the same thing. I love the fact that we can get some sort of a grip on the past history of our universe, that we have this incredible beginning of time and space, as well as matter and energy and evolution: that there’s a change and a growth. I think we are all very bad at change: we are afraid even of good change and yet the whole universe is changing around us, it will change in the future, and our best models of what the future holds for our universe is heat death, that you have an infinity of future time in a universe of darkness.

I think that speaks to the reality also of our lives. We understand that our life is finite, we will die, and our culture is very bad at trying to get a grip on ‘we will die’, and the reality of there will then be an infinity of future time without us and the universe isn’t going to blink, and that, I think, is a very difficult concept. I think people found more comfort in the idea that the universe will always go on, but the universe itself is changing, it will not always go on in its current state. There will not always be a new generation of stars with a new generation of possible life forms. The universes are heading for a heat death. We look for meaning, and in the light of, in some sense, eternal pointlessness, people could feel very threatened by that.

Olivia Rathbone: You’ve just launched this amazing satellite, and you’re off to Japan tomorrow. What do you hope will be discovered by space exploration?

Chris Done: I want to understand more about the way material falling towards the event horizon of the black hole in this incredibly strong gravity, heated to enormous X-ray temperatures: I really want to understand how that works. It connects to larger scale questions, because as this super-hot material is falling in, that actually powers some material that splats outwards and for black holes in the centres of galaxies that actually controls star formation: the next generation of stars and planets. Whole galaxies are sculpted by this accretion-powered, X-ray hot, super-massive black hole disc in the middle, and that’s a lot of fun. So with this new satellite, I want to start to understand how those outflows are really launched. What’s the physics of powering those outflows that sculpt entire galaxies?

Olivia Rathbone: It’s the ultimate in the human desire to know how stuff works and how we work.

Chris Done: Yes, that’s right. We are curious. It’s built into us: anyone who has seen a toddler knows it’s built in.

Olivia Rathbone: With all the work do you do, do you find you have a longing to actually visit these places? If you do, how do you deal with that over a career, knowing that probably in our lifetimes it won’t happen?

Chris Done: I’d love to go into space. Just to be in orbit: that would be that would be amazing to be able to look back and see the Earth. The way the Apollo astronauts described it as this really profound understanding of the unity, that it’s this tiny speck in their window. That’s everything that we have done and built and everyone we’ve known.

I’d love to be on the Star Trek enterprise. That’s not anything in our lifetime we’re going to see. The distances between stars are just way beyond our current technology. Maybe in a hundred years’ time.

Olivia Rathbone: But I suppose with the work that you do, you get closer to that wide angle perspective more than any of us do.

Chris Done: That’s right. And the sort of stuff I work on, even in the next 100 years the only technology we could possibly develop would only get us to the nearby stars. In my book, the only good star is a dead star, and that’s a lot further away and you don’t even want to go closer to them anyway!

Olivia Rathbone: From that human meaning-making angle, it’s a perspective that most of us never get to see.

Chris Done: I’m human, and I get my sense of meaning from being loved. I’m loved by God, I’m loved by my family. And I do get some of my meaning from the work I do. I get to think new ideas. I get to try and convince my field that this new idea I’ve had isn’t just some kind of flash in the pan, but actually describes something about the nature of reality. And it’s nice to stand up on stage and have people applaud your ideas: who doesn’t like that? But as humans, we find our meaning in who loves us, because the things that I do: okay, one day I’m going to maybe get old and gaga, at which point the meaning I find in being at the forefront of my field – I mean in 20 years’ time I will not be at the forefront of my field. I will be retired. If we put our meaning in these things, then we end up with nothing.

Olivia Rathbone: A final bonus question. If you could suddenly jump on the Starship Enterprise, or travel faster than the speed of light, where in the known universe would you go?

Chris Done: I’d go to two places: I would go to Cygnus X-1, which was the first black hole to be discovered in those early space rocket experiments. I would look at the material sliding towards the black hole event horizon: I would just go and look at it and ask, ‘What are you doing?’

And I would do something similar to one of these super-massive black holes. The one in our galaxy isn’t particularly interesting. It’s doesn’t have very much material sliding onto it. I’d go to one which has got a huge amount of material piling on and go and have a look at it. That would be amazing.

Olivia Rathbone: Yes, sounds like a good night out.

Chris Done: Of course, what we’d all really like is to discover life elsewhere in the universe, and not just bacterial or algae but some sort of self-aware, self-conscious being, because we’d love to ask, ‘What do you think about God? What do you think about science? What do you do for sex?’ These are the questions that we would love to ask. We would love to find some self-aware, self-conscious alien lifeform like Spock, where we could just sit down and talk. Just fantastic.

Olivia Rathbone: Well, it brings us back to meaning and relationship, doesn’t it? Thank you very much. All the very best in Japan.

Chris Done: Thank you. I’m sure I’ll have a fabulous time.



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