chapter  1
12 Pages

Reflections of a Bottom-up Thinker

ByJohn Polkinghorne

I spent more than 25 years of my life working as a theoretical elementary particle physicist. It happened to be a particularly interesting period in the subject, for it saw the discovery of the quark structure of matter. Being part of that community at that time was an enjoyable experience for which I am grateful. However, research in science is pretty hard work. As in all worthwhile activity, there is a good deal of somewhat wearisome routine to be got through and a fair share of occasional frustration to be endured, as the good ideas of the morning prove less convincing in the cold light of the afternoon. So why do we do it? I believe that the prime motivation for work in pure science is a deep desire to understand the world. The hard work involved receives its reward in the occasional experience of wonder as some new and beautiful aspect of the order of nature is revealed to our enquiry. Yet those imbued with a thirst for understanding will not find that it is quenched by science alone. The truth is that science has achieved its very considerable success partly by the modesty of its ambition. It does not seek to ask and answer every necessary and meaningful question, for science contents itself to limiting its enquiry to investigating the processes by which things happen, while bracketing out questions of whether there is purposeful meaning and value to be found in what is happening. The focus of science’s attention is on events that are sufficiently impersonal in their character to lend themselves to repetition at will. This affords science its great secret weapon of experimental testing. I was a theorist – a paper-and-pencil chap – but I gladly acknowledge that during my time in particle physics the subject was largely experimentally driven by a wave of remarkable and unexpected empirical discoveries. However, there are many other kinds of human encounter with reality that are fundamentally personal in character and so are irreducibly unique and not open to manipulated repetition.