John Charlton Polkinghorne

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16 October 1930
Weston-super-Mare, England
9 March 2021
Cambridge, England

John Polkinghorne was an English mathematical physicist, an Anglican priest and a theologian. He worked in quantum mechanics.


John Polkinghorne's father, George Polkinghorne, had a career with the Post Office and, at the time of his son's birth was working at the Post Office in Weston-super-Mare. John's mother, Dorothy Charlton, was the daughter of a groom who was a skilled horseman both as a rider and a trainer. John was the third of his parent's children: Peter was the oldest, then a girl Ann who sadly died at age six months before John was born. When he was five years old, his father became postmaster in Street, a Somerset village famed as the place where Clark's shoes were made.

John attended the local primary school in Street, but when his progress in reading was below par his parents had him taught at home by a friend who was educating her own son. At age seven John entered the local Quaker school which had been set up by the Clark family who were staunch Quakers. The school only took pupils up to the age of eleven, and at this stage in his education John was sent to Elmhurst Grammar School in Street. Soon after World War II began in 1939, John's father was promoted to Head Postmaster in Wells, but the family continued to live in Street, and John remained at Elmhurst. Peter was nine years older than John and when the war began he had joined the Royal Air Force. After training in Canada, he returned to England and flew missions over the North Atlantic. In 1942 he died while on a mission over the North Atlantic.

In 1945 John's father was promoted again, this time to Head Postmaster in Ely. After the family moved to Ely, John attended Perse School in Cambridge, travelling there every day by train. He excelled in mathematics, and took his advanced school examinations in pure mathematics, applied mathematics, and physics. He won a Major Scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, and left Perse School in 1948. His family now moved to Grantham in Lincolnshire, where his father received his final promotion to Head postmaster. Polkinghorne had to undertake a year of National Service before entering Cambridge which began with basic training with the Royal Hampshire Regiment. After a three-month course at the Army School of Education. he then taught for the final part of his time in military service at the Army Basic Trade Centre outside Malvern.

Polkinghorne entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1949. Among his contemporaries reading mathematics were Michael Atiyah and James Mackay. His pure mathematics tutor was Besicovitch while in applied mathematics he was tutored by Nicholas Kemmer. Polkinghorne took Part II of the Mathematical tripos in his second year, then took Part III in his third year, specialising in quantum mechanics. The core course in this topic was given by Dirac [1]:-
His style of lecturing was non-rhetorical and it was totally free from the slightest degree of emphasis on how he had made his own very important discoveries. Yet so profound was the material, and so closely structured was the argument, that one was carried along enthralled by the experience.
At Cambridge he met Ruth Martin, a mathematics student who, like Polkinghorne, was a member of the Christian Union. Their friendship blossomed and they married on 26 March 1955, three years after they both graduated in 1952. Polkinghorne had spent these three years as a research student at Cambridge, supervised first by Kemmer, then after Kemmer left Cambridge, by Abdus Salam. He completed his doctoral thesis and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1955, being elected to a fellowship at Trinity in the same year. Towards the end of 1955 he left with his wife on a liner from Liverpool bound for New York. His trip to the United States was to take up a postdoctoral Harkness Fellowship at the California Institute of Technology.

At Caltech he worked with Murray Gell-Mann and attended lectures by him and by Richard Feynman [1]:-
You could hardly find two people more different in temperament and manner than Feynman and Gell-Mann. Each cultivated a public persona. For Murray it was the cultured polymath; for Dick it was the fun-loving, bongo drum-playing person who just happened to be a brilliant physicist.
The last three months of the fellowship were spent in travel through the United States which was a necessary condition of acceptance. During these last months he received an offer of a lectureship in theoretical physics in Edinburgh, Scotland, so on returning to the UK he went straight there to take up the post. Polkinghorne particularly enjoyed teaching at Edinburgh and also began supervising research students, another part of being a university teacher that he found very satisfying. While in Edinburgh his first child, Peter, was born in 1957. After two years at Edinburgh he was invited to return to Cambridge as a lecturer. He did so taking up this appointment in 1958. Ruth and John had two further children in Cambridge; Isobel was born on 1959 and Michael in 1963. He was promoted to reader in 1965 then elected to a newly created professorship in Mathematical Physics in 1968. During these years he was able to spend periods at Princeton, Berkeley and Stanford in the United States, and at CERN near Geneva in Switzerland. In 1974 he was honoured for his outstanding contributions to mathematical physics by being elected to the Royal Society.

Polkinghorne's contributions to mathematical physics were truly outstanding. Let us look briefly at some of the papers he published. In 1954 he published An identity for the S matrix for a finite time interval, Renormalization of the transformation operators of quantum electrodynamics, and Normal products of Heisenberg operators. The second of these, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, was reviewed by Freeman Dyson who wrote:-
The result is closely related to the proof of finiteness of operators in the "Intermediate representation" defined by the reviewer. In particular, the author gives a simple motivation for the complicated definition of the transformation used by the reviewer. In general, the author's argument is much simpler and more direct than the reviewer's.
Dyson, reviewing the third of the above papers, writes:-
A new definition is given for the "normal product" of a set of field operators in the Heisenberg representation of quantum field theory.
In 1955 Polkinghorne published several important papers. Dyson, reviewed Temporally ordered graphs in quantum field theory:-
A graphical representation of the perturbation-theory expansions of quantum field theory is defined, in which the vertices (points at which the interaction operates) are given a definite order in time.
Dyson also reviewed On the Feynman principle:-
The equivalence of the Feynman method of setting up a quantum field theory with the usual canonical formalism is here proved. This is not a new result, but a clear statement and proof of it is hard to find elsewhere in the literature.
Also in 1955 he published Temporally ordered graphs and bound state equations and On the classification of fundamental particles. Then he published General dispersion relations in 1956 and Causal products in quantum field theory in the following year. Also in a joint paper in 1957 he published Cauchy's problem in quantum field theory which explores the relation between the classical and quantum versions of field theories. We give the titles of a few further papers which were fundamental in the development of a mathematical theory of elementary particles: On Schwinger's variational principle (1957), On the strong interactions (1957), Causal amplitudes and the Yang-Feldman formalism (1957), Generalized retarded products (1958), Higher order spinor Lagragians (1958), Unstable states and the separable potential model (1959), and The analytic properties of perturbation theory (1960, 1960, 1961). As well as three papers on analytic properties in perturbation theory, he lectured on that topic at the 1961 Brandeis Summer Institute in Theoretical Physics and these lectures were published in the following year. Polkinghorne continued to publish a remarkable number of important papers. Much of this work is put into a broad context in the four author monograph The analytic S-matrix published in 1966. Polkinghorne's group at Cambridge continued developing the so-called "Cambridge program" of formulating and exploiting the concept of maximal analyticity. In 1980 he published Models of high energy processes which bring the earlier 1966 text up to date, then set out the achievements of the programme over the following years. Delbourgo writes in a review:-
The subject matter is one in which the author has made deep and lasting contributions, and it is easy to discern his expertise from the exposition.
In 1977 Polkinghorne had made a decision to make a major career change when he decided to enter the ordained ministry of the Church of England. He writes [1]:-
The most fundamental reason for thinking about such an unconventional move was simply that Christianity has always been central to my life. Therefore, becoming a minister of word and sacrament would be a privileged vocation that held out the possibility of deep satisfaction.
He spoke of his career change in the following way in an interview in 1997:-
I didn't leave science because I was disillusioned, but felt I'd done my bit for it after about twenty-five years. I was very much on the mathematical side, where you probably do your best work before you're forty-five. Having passed that significant date, I thought I would do something else. Since Christianity had always been central to my life, the idea of testing my vocation and seeking ordination seemed a suitable second career.
After being accepted at a selection conference, he then went about telling his children and colleagues. Of course it was a move that had to be taken slowly and so he continued to hold his university position for another two years, allowing time for him to continue to supervise his doctoral students. In 1979 he resigned his professorship and began training for the ministry at Westcott House in Cambridge. He spent two years there during which he attended courses, finding that "it was odd becoming a student again after so many years as a university teacher," and received practical training. During this time he retained his status as a fellow of Trinity College, and remained a part-time tutor in mathematical physics.

He was ordained a deacon in Ely Cathedral in June 1981, and was a part-time curate at St Andrew's, Chesterton, in Cambridge. After a year he became a curate at St Michael and All Angels, Windmill Hill, Bristol, in a large working class parish. This was convenient since it enabled him to be near his mother following the death of his father in his early nineties. He spent two years in this curacy, but during this period he became seriously ill. Following surgery he had a slow return to full health, made longer and harder by some set backs. He was then appointed as vicar of St Cosmas and St Damian in Blean near Canterbury being inducted in 1984. After about two years as Vicar of Blean, he was invited to apply for the position of Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall, a small Cambridge College. Then in 1989 he became President of Queens' College, Cambridge. He held this position until he retired in 1996.

Polkinghorne is famed as an author of many highly successful books: there are 29 listed in [1]. These include the research level texts The Analytic S-Matrix (1966) and Models of High Energy Process (1980) mentioned above. There are also a number of popular books on mathematical physics such as The Particle Play (1979), The Quantum World (1984) and Rochester Roundabout (1989) and Quantum Theory : A very short introduction (2002). The majority of his books, however, are on science and religion and it is almost certainly for this area that he is best known. Such works include One World : The interaction of science and theology (1986), Science and Creation : The search for understanding (1988), Science and Providence : God's interaction with the world (1989), Reason and Reality : The relationship between science and religion (1991), Science and Christian Belief (published in North America as The Faith of a Physicist) (1994), Searching for truth : A scientist looks at the Bible (1997), Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998), Faith, Science and Understanding (2000), Science and Trinity (2004), and Quantum Physics and Theology (2007).

Another important contribution made by Polkinghorne is service on several government committees. These include a committee to review the code of practice for the use of foetal tissue, the task Force to review services to Drug Misusers, the National Treatment Outcome research Study, and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission. The reports of these committees have played, and are still playing, an important role in determining the boundaries that ethics should place on scientific research.

In 1997, he was knighted for distinguished service to science, religion, learning and medical ethics. In 2002 he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize; here is an extract from the citation:-
John C Polkinghorne is a mathematical physicist and Anglican priest whose treatment of theology as a natural science invigorated the search for interface between science and religion and made him a leading figure in this emerging field. Dr Polkinghorne resigned a prestigious position as Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge in 1979 to pursue theological studies, becoming a priest in 1982. Since then, his extensive writings and lectures have consistently applied scientific habits to Christianity, resulting in a modern and compelling, new exploration of the faith. His approach to the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy creation, using the habits of a rigorous scientific mind have brought him international recognition as a unique voice for understanding the Bible as well as evolving doctrine.
Also in 2002 he became the Founding President of the International Society for Science and Religion.

In addition to the honours mentioned above he has been awarded honorary degrees by several universities: Kent (1994), Exeter (1994), Leicester (1995), Durham (1999) and Marquette (2003).

References (show)

  1. J Polkinghorne, From Physicist to Priest, an autobiography (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007).

Additional Resources (show)

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update July 2008