Communication at the The Royal Society Featuring: Professor Sir Harry Kroto, Alexei Leonov, Dr Richard Dawkins, Dr Brian May, Professor Stephen Hawking,
It is with sadness that I write this post having learned of the death of Sir Harold Kroto on April 30, 2016 at the age of 76. He was a scientist of remarkable abilities and a man of great humor too. In this series I posted the Memorial by Richard Dawkins for Dr. Kroto and I also looked at Kroto’s membership in CSICOP and his admiration for Bertrand Russell and his 2 emails he sent to me on 9-18-14. Peter Coles, Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex gave an excellent tribute Dr. Kroto which I posted too.
I did not know Harry Kroto personally but I did have the opportunity to correspond with him in 2014. I sent him a letter in the spring and two in the summer and he responded with an email on 9-18-14 and I thanked him for responding in an email and then he emailed me again and even sent me a letter on 11-21-14. In that 11-21-14 letter he referred me to the You Tube film series Renowned Academics Speaking About God which has over 300,000 views on You Tube and that prompted me on 11-29-14 to start my blog series RESPONDING TO HARRY KROTO’S BRILLIANT RENOWNED ACADEMICS!! Below are the links to the posts I have already done on previous Tuesdays in this series:
Arif Ahmed, Haroon Ahmed,Sir David Attenborough, Mark Balaguer, Horace Barlow, Michael Bate, Sir Patrick Bateson,Patricia Churchland, Aaron Ciechanover, Noam Chomsky,Alan Dershowitz, Hubert Dreyfus, Bart Ehrman, Stephan Feuchtwang, David Friend, Riccardo Giacconi, Ivar Giaever , Roy Glauber, Rebecca Goldstein, David J. Gross, Brian Greene, Susan Greenfield, Stephen F Gudeman, Alan Guth, Jonathan Haidt, Theodor W. Hänsch, Brian Harrison, Hermann Hauser, Roald Hoffmann, Bruce Hood, Herbert Huppert, Gareth Stedman Jones, Steve Jones, Shelly Kagan, Michio Kaku, Stuart Kauffman, Lawrence Krauss, Harry Kroto, George Lakoff, Elizabeth Loftus, Alan Macfarlane, Peter Millican, Marvin Minsky, Leonard Mlodinow, Yujin Nagasawa, Alva Noe, Douglas Osheroff, Jonathan Parry, Saul Perlmutter, Herman Philipse, Carolyn Porco, Robert M. Price, Lisa Randall, Lord Martin Rees, Alison Richard, Oliver Sacks, John Searle, Marcus du Sautoy, Simon Schaffer, J. L. Schellenberg, Lee Silver, Peter Singer, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Ronald de Sousa, Victor Stenger, John Sulston, Barry Supple, Leonard Susskind, Raymond Tallis, Neil deGrasse Tyson, C.J. van Rijsbergen, Alexander Vilenkin, Sir John Walker, Frank Wilczek, Steven Weinberg, and Lewis Wolpert,
A tribute to Harry Kroto, Nobel prize winning chemist
I heard earlier this afternoon of the death at the age of 76 of the distinguished chemist Sir Harry Kroto.
Along with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, Harry Kroto was awarded theNobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for the discovery of the C60 structure that became known as Buckminsterfullerene (or the “Buckyball” for short).
Harry had a long association with the University of Sussex and was a regular visitor to the Falmer campus even after he moved to the USA.
I remember first meeting him in the 1988 when, as a new postdoc fresh out of my PhD, I had just taken over organising the Friday seminars for the Astronomy Centre. One speaker called off his talk just an hour before it was due to start so I asked if anyone could suggest someone on campus who might stand in. Someone suggested Harry, whose office was nearby in the School of Molecular Sciences (now the Chichester Building). I was very nervous as I knocked on his door – Harry was already famous then – and held out very little hope that such a busy man would agree to give a talk with less than an hour’s notice. In fact he accepted immediately and with good grace gave a fine impromptu talk about the possibility that C60 might be a major component of interstellar dust. If only all distinguished people were so approachable and helpful!
I met him in campus more recently a couple of years ago when we met to talk about some work he had been doing on a range of things to do with widening participation in STEM subjects. I remember I had booked an hour in my calendar but we talked for at least three. He was brimming with ideas and energy then. It’s hard to believe he is no more.
Harry Kroto was a man of very strong views and he was not shy in expressing them. He cared passionately about science and was a powerful advocate for it. He will be greatly missed.
Rest in peace, Harry Kroto (1939-2016)
My name is Peter Coles and I’m Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics and Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. My research is in the area of cosmology and the large-scale structure of the Universe.
I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne and educated at its Royal Grammar School. After that I went to Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge to study Natural Sciences, eventually specialising in Theoretical Physics. After graduation I started a doctorate in the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex under the supervision of John Barrow, the famous writer. After completing my DPhil in 1988, I stayed for two years in Sussex as a postdoctoral research fellow. My next move was to London, where I held a number of positions in the School of Mathematical Sciences at what is now Queen Mary, University of London. I was awarded an SERC Advanced Fellowship in 1993 which I held for five years and was eventually promoted to the position of Reader. In 1998 I was appointed Professor of Astrophysics in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Nottingham, a position I took up on 1st January 1999. I helped set up an Astronomy group there, and stayed about eight years in Nottingham until, in 2007, I moved to a position as Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University. I started my current position at Sussex in February 2013.
I’ve published a few books that not many people read, and have been in a few TV programmes that not many people watched. But I’m not bitter…
In case you hadn’t realised “Telescoper” is an anagram of “Peter Coles”, which is quite ironic because as a theorist I don’t know one end of a telescope from the other (especially if it’s of reflecting type). Still, it could have been worse. I might have picked “Tesco Leper”.
Today I had the pleasure of attending three events with Nobel prize winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto. Sir Harry is an atheist with a Jewish father, and a friend of Richard Dawkins. He is not afraid to talk about religion as evidenced during his recent interview with Kim Hill and by numerous remarks during the sessions today.
As for me, I’m not an atheist (although I was brought up as such) so it is usually with some trepidation that I attend lectures and talks such as these, just in case my faith  is shattered. Over the years I have been to many university-based science lectures and found this fear to rarely be justified and the challenges to Christianity to actually be incredibly weak. To be fair, I go to such lectures and talks trying to be as open-minded as I can be, and trying to consider the facts presented both in their isolated form and as part of a larger worldview. Sir Harry’s talks however appeared to present little if anything that would convince me to change my mind, although I would love to have had the opportunity to have chatted with him one-on-one (or any another scientist) and let them try to convince me.
On this point, Dawkins and Sam Harris and others have something to gain by converting me. I’m involved in a church with students, and various other activities with friends and family. If they could convince me that I am wrong and that they are right, then I would join them and become an evangelist for their side. I could make new converts within my church friends and stop pestering my family over their salvation and the “hell” word that Dawkins and Sir Harry seem so offended about.
I should spend a moment on this “hell” topic too since it keeps coming up. What I see regarding this is both a double-standard and a straw-man fallacy. Let’s take the latter first.
Dawkins and Sir Harry have both quoted instances of children being scared by such things as “hell houses” or having children scared to the point of psychological damage in some way regarding hell. Yet this seems intellectually dishonest as I think Anthony Flew has pointed out. For example, take 1,000 church kids and (somehow) determine how many of them have psychological damage from their parents talking about hell. I know numerous kids and none of them to my knowledge live in some disturbed state, and nor do my kids, yet I make it no secret that hell is a reality according to the Bible. What the new atheists and Sir Harry appear to be doing is taking the (perhaps) one or two cases per 1,000 and citing these as if they are normal.
As for the double standard, let’s consider what atheists are teaching young people. Young person: you are part of a cosmic accident, a piece of highly evolved pond-scum. But don’t worry, you are good pond scum. And life is good and has much meaning. We don’t know what it is, but fear not for you can pretend life has meaning which should make you feel better and you will have less reason to follow 500 other New Zealanders each year by committing suicide. Yes, we know that the universe began with a big bang and ultimately will end in a whimpering heat death. But don’t worry, you will be long dead before that happens, and your ashes will be part of that (cough) meaningful utopia picture.
This leads on to another point which is the trouble universities are having recruiting science students. I’m not about to suggest that atheism and post-modernism are the reasons for the disinterest in science, but I think they do play a role. Consider, if you live a life that is ultimately meaningless (born, live, reproduce, die, nothingness), then why would you choose an occupation that is hard and doesn’t pay well? Why ought I live for the good of all and work on great science that helps improve lives rather than just live for myself? Of course atheists counter this by saying that they are philanthropic and good people to which I would often agree. But my question is why ought they be like that rather than be selfish and self centered? Christians (and some other) religious people know how they ought to behave, but atheists have to take a pragmatic view on oughts, yet one persons’ ought may differ from anothers’ought, so which do we choose and why?
I have a lot more thoughts on this topic but will finish on the question of knowledge as this is a biggie when it comes to scientists and their worldviews. As Sir harry pointed out on several occasions, he is not going to believe anything unless it is based on evidence. Yet this claim is itself self-refuting. Does he have evidence for not believing anything unless it is based on evidence? But I think it is worse that that and I should like to expand on this in another post sometime, but here is an outline.
Scientists often make the claim as Sir Harry does that we should not believe anything unless it is based on evidence. Yet it seems to me that non-religious scientists actually believe everything based on faith. For example:
- Do they know the world was not created 5 minutes ago? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.
- Do they use the laws of logic? If so, can they provide evidence that they are reliable? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.
- Do scientists believe in the uniformity of nature? Do they believe that the next experiment will behave as the previous one? Will some experiment behave the same in another country, on another planet, in another galaxy, or at another time? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.
Let me finish now with a few big words and why I believe what I believe.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know what we know, while ontology deals with the nature of existence or being. I fail to understand how the science alone can access reality in any definite way because to do so requires meta-knowledge such as: are my senses are reliable, is nature uniform, am I a brain in a vat, and is the world the creation of a cosmic trickster? Science seems unable even in principle to access such knowledge. Christianity on the other hand begins in ontology with the existence of God and His revelation through the Bible which cuts through the veil and reveals a world created with order and meaning. C.S. Lewis wrote :
(Below: The Inklings of Oxford – C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Their Friends)
Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator. In most modern scientists this belief has died: it will be interesting to see how long their confidence in uniformity survives it. Two significant developments have already appeared—the hypothesis of a lawless sub-nature, and the surrender of the claim that science is true. We may be living nearer than we suppose to the end of the Scientific Age.
CS Lewis takes a walk around Magdalen College in Oxford.
I think a nice way to sum this up is to say that to gain certainty, we must begin in ontology as a grounding for epistemology. The law-giving legislator provides this starting point and provides a basis for science. On the other hand, beginning with epistemology as Dawkins and Sir Harry appear to do leads ultimately to total uncertainty because nothing can really be known for sure about anything. I think Rene Descartes realized this long ago. Should someone tell the new atheists?
- In case you are thinking that I am using “faith” as something that is disconnected from reason, I am certainly not. My faith is firmly anchored using a chain of reason to the historical claims of the Bible. These in turn are treated as other historical claims are, and weighed upon available evidence, logic, reasonableness and so on.
- Lewis, C.S., Miracles: a Preliminary Study, Collins, London, p. 110, 1947.
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, p.132 has a section “The Regularity of Nature” dealing with the problem of induction, David Hume and Bertrand Russell. Keller says that many scholars have argued in the last decades that modern science arose in its most sustained form out of Christian civilization due to belief in an all-powerful, personal God who created and sustains an orderly universe. I would add that reading for example, Homer’s Illiad, would not provide you with such a view of nature.