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Karl W. Giberson

My Life with John Polkinghorne

The faith of a physicist.

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Our interview with Polkinghorne took place in May of 1998 in a small basement classroom at ENC. We had worked up a set of questions in advance, intimidated by our first foray into the world of journalism. Our president, Kent Hill—who loved to take off his administrative hat and pretend he was a faculty member—joined us.

We videotaped the interview, thinking it might turn into something interesting, a plan that disintegrated when we saw how stilted and uncomfortable we were on camera. Yerxa painstakingly transcribed the conversation, producing thousands of words of text, most of which were never used. Polkinghorne's clipped British accent and machine-gun delivery posed a few interpretive challenges, the most memorable of which came from the phrase that gave us great difficulty: "evolution from alsathorpe."

"Can you make this out?" Yerxa asked. "It sounds like 'alsathorpe,' but that makes no sense."

"Yes, it does," I replied, tongue in cheek. " 'Alsathorpe' is a Greek term meaning 'undifferentiated potentiality.' "

Yerxa, new to science & religion and inclined to defer to me, was fine for a while with this nonexistent word. I listened to the recording several times and clearly heard Polkinghorne saying "alsathorpe," which, unlike Yerxa, I knew was not a real word. Eventually, and in desperation, I turned to my nine-year-old daughter: "Laura, can you tell what he is saying here?" Laura listened to it once and said "evolution from animals-and-so-on."

Which made perfect sense.

Chapter Three

Both science and faith are means by which we seek to understand ultimate realities. But they are different in how they look at those realities and what questions they ask. Polkinghorne likes the homey and quintessentially British example of making a pot of tea: A person observes a kettle of water on a stove and asks "Why is the water in the kettle boiling?"

One answer—the sort provided by a scientist—is that burning gas is creating heat, which raises the temperature of the water to the boiling point. Another answer is that the kettle is boiling on the stove because I am making tea—and would you care to have a cup with me? Both responses are valid and in touch with reality, Polkinghorne says, and they certainly don't need to cancel one another or even compete. In fact, the two explanations complement each other, providing a more complete picture of the tea-making enterprise, answering more questions, and giving the activity a rich and satisfying description. The two explanations are "friends, not foes" he says. (From Quantum Leap)

Yerxa and I edited down our thousands of words and sent the result off to John Wilson. He liked it very much and saw quickly that our extensive preparation had resulted in a significant conversation, and not just an interview.

Wilson titled our piece "Quantum Metaphysics" and put it on the cover of the September/October 1998 issue. The lengthy conversation inside was embellished with the trademark Klaus Ernst caricature at the beginning of this piece. Polkinghorne later told me it was "ghastly," but I could tell that he liked it. The interview proved popular and the Giberson-Yerxa journalistic duo became a fixture in Books & Culture.

Completely off my radar, some top brass at the Templeton Foundation were elated to see Polkinghorne, one of their favorites, on the cover of a magazine. They watched as my interviews and science essays appeared with regularity. Eighteen months later, I got a call from a VP at Templeton asking me if I would like to edit a new science & religion publication for them.

Science & Theology News came to life in a dank, mildewed basement in a women's dorm at ENC. (Initially it bore the compelling name Research News & Opportunities in Science & Theology.) Working on a shoestring budget, I did almost everything, from writing editorials and book reviews to taking photos. One of my editorial assignments was to attend the press conference at the United Nations for the official announcement of the Templeton Prize award, which always occurred in mid-March, just as the April issue was going to press. (We received an embargoed press release announcing the winner earlier.) We would finish the issue and get our cover story all ready, except for some quotes from the press conference and a picture I needed to take. Polkinghorne won the Templeton Prize in 2002, much to my delight, and I headed off for the announcement.

I spotted Polkinghorne in the crowded room, surrounded by reporters and Templeton brass. I stood uneasily at the edge of the group, waiting to congratulate him. The moment he saw me he dropped his conversation with the reporters, stepped forward and gave me a warm embrace. I realized then that I was actually friends with this great man.

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