Mariana Cook’s book, “Faces of Science,” portrays 77 scientists who have made many of the most important discoveries of our time. Each photograph is accompanied by a personal essay written by the scientists. The portraits in this online series are accompanied by excerpts from those essays. For more information, please visit Mariana Cook’s website: www.cookstudio.com.
I grew up in a Shropshire village—rather remote and beautiful country in the west of England—where my parents were schoolteachers. I can’t claim to have had any special infatuation with science during my childhood. I was interested in numbers, and in natural history, but shifted toward mathematics and physics more because I was bad at languages than for any positive reason. However, I was fortunate in my schooling, and gained entry to Trinity College, Cambridge. By the time I graduated, I realized that I wasn’t cut out to be a mathematician, so I tried to find a subject where a more synthetic style of thinking was needed—for various extraneous reasons, the choice narrowed down to economics or astrophysics.
I chose astrophysics, which proved a lucky choice for two reasons. First, this was a time (the mid-1960s) when the subject was just opening up. There was, for the first time, genuine evidence for a Big Bang, and perhaps even for black holes. When a subject is new, the experience of older people is at a heavy discount, and it’s easier for young people to make a quick mark.
Second, I was fortunate to be in the research group led by Dennis Sciama—an inspiring and charismatic scientist, who had attracted a lively research group. (Stephen Hawking, for instance, had joined it two years before me.)
And I’ve been lucky that astrophysics and cosmology have surged ahead at an exhilarating rate. Although the 1960s were exciting, the rate of discovery has been even greater in recent years. We’ve discovered that there are planets orbiting hundred of other stars, we’ve probed back to the earliest stages of cosmic history, and subjects that were once on the speculative fringe are now part of the mainstream.
I’m often asked what impact the amazing discoveries about the universe have on religion. My answer is a dull one —I don’t think they have any distinctive impact. I think there should be peaceful coexistence between science and religion, but there’s limited scope for dialogue between them. Among my colleagues, there’s a wide variety of religious attitudes. One thing I’ve learned from science is that even the simplest-seeming things—single atoms, for instance—are hard to understand. I’m therefore skeptical about any dogmatic claims to know the complete truth. But I’m filled with wonder at the complex cosmos we’re part of, and that our brains are somehow attuned to make at least some sense of it.