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God and the Big Bang Conference

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Pupils in Year 10 and above were entertained and fascinated at the ‘God and the Big Bang’ conference, held at Bolton School. The event was organised for those taking Religious Studies at GCSE and A Level, and aimed to debunk the myth that science and religion are incompatible.

Dr Althea Wilkinson gave the keynote address. She is currently the Project Manager of the Signal and Data Transport (SADT) consortium for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a multi-purpose radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, and has many years’ experience of exploring the universe through the study of astronomy.

Dr Wilkinson began by looking at the huge scale of the science she is involved with. She gave the pupils a tour of the universe, moving outwards from the Earth, past the moon and the solar system, to look at the 1,000,000,000 stars in the galaxy, and then further to show the clusters and networks that are formed by galaxies beyond that. She outlined the history of the universe, beginning with the Big Bang, and how matter was formed immediately afterwards. During her address, she suggested there are many questions that cannot necessarily be answered. For example, the possibility of one billion Earth-like exoplanets and potentially 100,000 intelligent civilisations – if they exist, where are they and why they haven’t made contact?

While discussing a variety of theories and concepts about the universe which cannot be proved, she noted that some scientists say that they are so beautiful that they don’t need proof. She added that these scientists are moving away from science and towards faith.

She went on to explain that while science answers the question of ‘How?’ it does not address ‘Why?’ and this is where faith can step in, as the search for God is the search for meaning. She explained how she became a Christian at the age of 55 and how the wrong idea of both science and faith can lead to the assumption that they are incompatible. However, she suggested that from her experience, it is not only possible to put the two together, but also that they can reaffirm one another.

Following the keynote address, the pupils took part in three interactive sessions over the course of the morning.

One of these was run by Dr Matt Pritchard, an award-winning magician, comedian and science communicator who works with organisations such as The Royal Society, Royal Institution and British Science Festival, and has previously conducted atomic physics research at Durham University. He combined magic, science and philosophy in his fascinating talk, which pointed out that people with different world views will come to different conclusions when they see particular pieces of evidence. He also talked about how the simplest things can create a sense of wonder, and asked where that feeling comes from and why it exists. He ended his talk by discussing how science and faith alike require risk-taking.

George Hawker, a third year Astrophysics student at the Cambridge University, ran the second session, in which students were asked to categorise questions as scientific, philosophical, or both. This generated a lot of discussion, and got them thinking about what each discipline is concerned with, and where they overlap.

The third session was run by Lizzie Coyle, a Cambridge University graduate who specialised in Evolutionary and Behavioural Biology and also covered Geology and the History and Philosophy of Science. She now works for the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Her workshop, ‘Fossils and Faith’, looked at how life forms have evolved, and drew together some of the themes introduced by the other speakers. She explained how science and faith have always worked well together in her experience: “A combination of the two gives a beautiful and fulfilling view of the world”.

After lunch, there was a question and answer session with Dr Wilkinson, the leaders of the interactive sessions, and Stephanie Bryant, the conference coordinator, also a Cambridge University graduate who studied Natural Sciences, specialising in Zoology and Physiology. She had a nonreligious upbringing, but became a Christian during first year at university. The pupils questioned the guests on a range of topics that had been addressed over the course of the conference, and generated a very interesting and thought-provoking discussion. A Level students had their own question and answer session later in the afternoon.

The day gave a really interesting insight into the intersection between faith and science, and how the two are not in opposition but can work together. The sessions certainly gave pupils a lot to consider and discuss, and will help to inform their thinking as they continue their studies.

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Pupils with the conference guests

Pupils with the conference guests: Dr Matt Pritchard, Michael Harvey (executive director of the project), Dr Althea Wilkinson, Stephanie Broad, Lizzie Coyle, and George Hawker

Dr Wilkinson

Dr Wilkinson's keynote address was fascinating and informative

Pupils discuss scientific and philosophical questions

Pupils discuss scientific and philosophical questions