Professor Sir Colin Humphreys is a materials scientist. Among the posts he holds are the Director of Research at Cambridge University and Professor of Experimental Physics at the Royal Institution. His research has included work on electron microscopy, semi-conductors, superconductors and ultra-high temperature aerospace materials. He also pioneered the development of energy-saving LED lights. Sir Colin has also published two books on events in the Bible.
Sir Colin’s parents were Christians and he decided to follow suit as a teenager but rejected Christianity on arriving at university, concluding it was ‘all fairy stories’. He changed his mind after going to church services with a college friend who announced he wanted to be a Christian and asked for Sir Colin’s help. ‘It got me thinking,’ he remembers. ‘I sat up all night. His question challenged me. Was I a Christian or not? That night I decided I would become a Christian, and I started reading the Gospels and Christian books. I confirmed this decision later.’
Sir Colin believes his Christian faith has an impact on the how he deals with people and the conflicts which can arise as a scientist. He says science has affected his faith too. ‘I think scientists see the world slightly differently. To me, Christianity is a very logical and reasonable faith. When I read the Bible, I tend to look for natural explanations. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in miracles but that I think God often works in and through nature to achieve his purpose. Often the miracle is in the timing of an event. And there are some things, like the resurrection of Jesus or the virgin birth, for which we can’t give a scientific explanation and which certainly are miracles.’
‘I think scientists see the world slightly differently. To me, Christianity is a very logical and reasonable faith.'
Miracles and answered prayers
Sir Colin believes that God uses nature to accomplish his purposes. ‘Aristotle spoke about prime movers and agents. He said that God is the prime mover and agents can be things like natural events. So how do you know an event is a miracle or not? It is determined, said Aristotle, by the timing. (But) if prayer is meaningful – if prayer can change things – then there has to be flexibility in the system.
‘I think that some things are fixed. God plans things. I believe, for example, that God planned that Jesus would come into history at a certain point of time and would be crucified when he was. I also think that God leaves a number of things flexible, that he interacts with us to achieve his purposes. Because God has given us free will, life cannot all be rigidly planned. For example, the Bible says that God wills for the whole world to be saved. But it hasn’t happened yet because humans exercise their free will and reject God. And God allows that.’
Creation, evolution and scientists ‘playing God’
‘As a Christian, I believe God is in charge. He worked with his created order for the emergence of life, including humans. He planned from the beginning that humans would emerge at a time and in a way of his choosing. I was brought up to believe that the Earth was around 6,000 years old. But I now believe that evolution is the way God developed life. Evolution does not say that humans evolved from apes. It says that humans and apes share a common origin. For non-believers, evolution is taken as evidence that life is nothing more than a series of blind chances and is, therefore, meaningless. From a faith perspective, I see evolution consisting of a lot of events which look like chance but which are part of a process guided by God.’
'From a faith perspective, I see evolution consisting of a lot of events which look like chance but which are part of a process guided by God.’
Sir Colin believes that, in future, science will continue to throw up difficult ethical issues and it is important for Christians to be at the forefront of its progress. ‘Scientists will increasingly have the ability to play God, especially in the biological realm,’ he says. ‘We will be able to do remarkable things which can be used for good or evil. It is vital that there is moral guidance.’
Researching the Star of Bethlehem in the Christmas story
Sir Colin’s notion that God often uses natural events rather than the miraculous is seen in his spare time research into one aspect of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Bible book Matthew tells how Babylonian astrologers or Magi came to see Jesus as an infant in Bethlehem after seeing a star in the east. The Bible account suggests that the star was new and travelled in the sky – leading the Magi first to Jerusalem then south to Bethlehem. The Bible book, Matthew, says the star then ‘stopped over the place where the child was’. Sir Colin says this would suggest it was actually a comet. This is supported by the accounts of two historians of the era and Chinese astronomers.
‘Between 20BC and 10AD Chinese astronomers recorded three comets – just one was a long-tailed comet,’ says Sir Colin. ‘It appeared in 5BC and was visible for 70 days. It is an indication that Jesus really lived. It helps place him in history.’
Sir Colin believes the Magi were encouraged to come to Jerusalem by three astronomical events which they would have seen as very significant. These were the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter three times during 7BC; that alignment happening in the constellation of Pisces, which the Babylonians associated with Israel; and the alignment of Mars, with Jupiter and Saturn in 6BC.
To me, it speaks of how God uses natural phenomena,’ he concludes. ‘He could have made a special, miraculous star, but he didn’t. He used what he’d already created: planets and stars. Significantly, God chose to use foreigners to herald the birth of Jesus. This speaks of God being inclusive. He sent Jesus for the whole world and whole-world citizens are represented in the events of his birth. Being able to identify and date the star adds scientific weight to the fact that Jesus was born where and when the Bible says.’