John Charlton Polkinghorne - Life and Achievements

(Prepared by Professor Kang Phee Seng, Director of the Centre for Sino-Christian Studies)


Dr. John Charlton Polkinghorne began his distinguished career as a theoretical physicist in quantum field theory at Trinity College Cambridge where he studied under Paul Diraac (Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1933) and others. He took his Ph.D. in Cambridge under Abdus Salam (Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1979) and did postdoctoral work at Caltech with Murray Gell-Mann (Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1969).  After two years teaching at Edinburgh University, he returned to Cambridge, first as a lecturer and eventually as the first holder of a newly established Chair of Mathematical Physics (1968-79), heading the Particle Physics group in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics.


Polkinghorne’s work was in theoretical elementary particle physics, using mathematics to model and understand the behaviour of the smallest constituents of matter.  Its first phase was concerned with establishing the fundamental analytical structure of scattering amplitudes that is implied by the general principles of relativistic quantum theory.  The second phase of research concerned using relativistic models to probe the behaviour of scattering amplitudes at very high energies.  While extreme high energy does produce a degree of simple regularity Polkinghorne showed that the form of this behaviour was more intricate than the original conjectures Tullio Regge had proposed.  The final phase of research investigated a variety of models of deep inelastic scattering, a regime in which both energy and momentum transfer are large.  Polkinghorne was able to show that scaling behaviour can be derived in relativistic models which represent the presence of quark constituents.  Deep inelastic scattering experiments played an important part in the establishment of the Standard model of quark theory.


Polkinghorne wrote two monographs on these issues, The Analytic S-Matrix (1966, in collaboration) and Models of High Energy Processes (1980), both published by Cambridge University Press.  In addition to the many papers in learned journals on elementary particle physics, he has also written two books for the general reader about particle physics (Freeman, 1979 and Longman, 1989) and two books about quantum theory (Princeton UP, 1984, 1989 and Oxford UP, 2002).


In 1974 Polkinghorne was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his work on the analytic properties of scattering amplitudes, fundamental to the use of relativistic quantum mechanics in the subnuclear refraction theory.  He received a Doctor of Science from Cambridge University in the same year. The following year, he became a member of Britain’s Science Research Council.


Few would have contemplated a drastic change in direction at the height of one’s career, let alone resigning an esteemed Oxbridge chair.  But not Polkinghorne.  In 1979, only five years after being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, Polkinghorne surprised friends and shocked colleagues when he quit his Cambridge professorship, walked away from his successful career in mathematical physics, and announced his intention to become an Anglican priest.  This was not because he was disillusioned with science, but rather, as he later explained, “after twenty-five years, I felt I’d done my bit for science, and it was time to do something different.”


Polkinghorne entered Westcott House, Cambridge in 1979 to study theology and was later ordained and served as a curate in Cambridge.  Although he had expected to serve simply as a priest, which he did dutifully, he accepted an unexpected invitation in 1986 to return to Cambridge University as a Fellow, Dean, and Chaplain of Trinity Hall.  He became Honorary Fellow of Trinity Hall three years later when he was appointed President of Queens’ College at Cambridge from which he retired in 1996.


The venture into theological discipline and the return to the academic community provided the scientist-theologian an opportunity to interact intensively with the best minds in both disciplines, and explore deeper into the complex relation between science and religion, especially the role of God within creation. While many are baffled by the gulf between science and religion, Polkinghorne points instead to the common ground. “Both science and religion are ways of approaching the truth,” Polkinghorne says. “And I approach both in the same way — in having respect for the world and sharing in the profundity of reality.”  The result of combining his two academic specialties is a continuous flow of publications of the best quality that helps establish a new and rapid growing interdisciplinary field in the dialogue between science and religion.


Polkinghorne has earned the respect of his colleagues and peers.  His creative and penetrating insights, together with the superb gift of interpretation and articulation, are deeply appreciated by many.  Within a short span of two decades, Polkinghorne has poured out over twenty books on science and religion, half of which were published by prestigious university presses such as Yale and Princeton.  In 1993 he held the prestigious title of Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. In 2002 he received the Templeton Prize, regarded as the “Nobel Prize in Religion”[1]. He was the Founding President of the International Society for Science and Religion (2002-04), whose members include several Nobel scientists.


 Although a scientist and a theologian of the highest order, Polkinghorne is no mere academician steeped in theory alone.  He is also a man of action engaged in social service and public affairs.  He has served on a number of national councils and committees including: Science Research Council, Nuclear Physics Board (Chairman, 1978-79), Task Force to Review Services for Drug Misusers (Chairman, 1994-96), and Medical Ethics Committee of the British Medical Association (1989-98).


 As a physicist, Polkinghorne’s contributions to bioethics is most notable.  He chaired the Committee to Review the Research Use of Fetuses and Fetal Material from 1988 to 1989.  In the UK the uses of fetal tissue, from which EG cells could be derived, are subject to guidance set out in the Polkinghorne Review (also known as “Polkinghorne Report”, 1989). The Review concluded that “ethics committees should examine all proposals for work with fetuses or fetal tissue, whether alive or dead, and whether classed as research or therapy, because of the high level of public concern”.


Polkinghorne was a member of the Human Genetics Commission (1996-2002; known as Human Genetics Advisory Commission from 1996-99).  As chairman of the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing (1996-99), he headed the joint working party on Cloning of the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertlisation  and  Embryology Authority. In 2004 he chaired the Appointments Committee to appoint members to the UK Biobank Ethics and Governance Council (EGC)[2].  For his distinguished service to science, religion, learning, and medical ethics, Polkinghorne was knighted in 1997.


[1] Mother Theresa was the first Templeton Laureate in 1973 who later received the1976 Nobel Peace Laureate; Charles Townes the 2005 Templeton Laureate was the 1964 Nobel Laureate in Physics.


[2] EGC is a newly established body, made up of ethicists, lawyers, scientists and experts on social and consumer issues, to advise UK Biobank on rigorous standards of ethical, legal, and social considerations. UK Biobank is the world’s biggest resource for the study of the role of nature and nurture in health and disease.


Honorary doctorates and fellowships

1954 Fellow, Trinity College Cambridge

1974 Fellow, Royal Society

1989 Honorary Fellow, Trinity Hall, Cambridge

1994 Hon DD, University of Kent

1994 Hon DSc, University of Exeter

1995 Hon DSc, University of Leicester

1999 Hon DD, University of Durham

1999 Life and Honorary Fellow, Queens’ College, Cambridge

1999 Honorary Fellow, St. Chad’s College, Durham

2002 Honorary Fellow, St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge

2003 Hon DSc, University of Marquette


Honours and awards

1997     KBE (Knight Commander of the order of the British Empire)

1998     Von Humboldt Foundation Award

2002    Templeton Laureate


Selected publications

(Co-authored) Analytic S-Matrix (Cambridge University Press 1966)

The Particle Play: An Account of the Ultimate Constituents of Matter (Oxford: Freeman, 1979)

Models of High Energy Processes (Cambridge University Press, 1980)

The Way the World Is: The Christian Perspective of a Scientist (London: Triangle, 1983)

The Quantum World (Princeton University Press, 1984, 1989)

One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (Princeton University Press, 1987)

Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding (Boston: New Science Library, 1988)

Rochester Roundabout: The Story of High Energy Physics (Harlow, Essex, England: Longman, 1989)

Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World (Boston: New Science Library, 1989)

Review of the Guidance on the Research Use of Fetuses and Fetal Material (1989) (Cm 762) (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1989); also known as Polkinghorne Report

Reason and Reality: The Relationship between Science and Theology (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991)

The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker, The Gifford Lectures, 1993-4 (Princeton University Press, 1994)

Beyond Science: The Wider Human Context (Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Quarks, Chaos, & Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion (New York:  Crossroad, 1996)

Scientists as Theologians: A Comparison of the Writings of Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne (London: SPCK, 1996)

Serious Talk: Science and Religion in Dialogue (London: SCM 1996)

Science and Theology: An Introduction (London: SPCK; Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress Press, 1998)

Belief in God in an Age of Science (Yale University Press, 1998)

Belief in God in an Age of Science (Yale University Press, 1998, 2003); a book that won many awards

(Co-edited) The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Theology on Eschatology (Harrisburg, Pa. : Trinity Press International, 2000)

(Edited) The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, Mich. and Cambridge: W. B. Eerdmans; London: SPCK, 2001)

(Co-authored) Faith in the Living God: A Dialogue (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001)

Faith, Science and Understanding (Yale University Press, 2001)

(Co-edited) Quantum Mechanics - Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Vatican Observatory, Vatican City State and Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley; Distributed by University of Notre Dame Press, 2001)

Quantum Theory (Oxford University Press, 2002)

The God of Hope and the End of the World (Yale University Press, 2002)

Traffic in Truth: Exchanges between Science and Theology (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress Press, 2002)

Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality (Yale University Press, 2004, 2006); Selected by Publishers Weekly as a Best Book of 2004 in the religion category

Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion (Yale University Press, 2005)

Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (Yale University Press, forthcoming in Feb 2007)