Dr. Heino Falcke: Wondering What Lies Beyond
The leader of the Event Horizon Telescope project, Heino Falcke talks about his faith, physics, and the adventure of capturing the first image of a black hole.
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Heino Falcke is a professor at Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands. In 2000, he proposed using a network of millimeter-wave radio telescopes to image the shadow of a black hole. Falcke was co-founder of the Event Horizon Telescope and chair of its science council.
You are most well known for the Event Horizon Telescope that finally captured the first image of a black hole. What was that experience like?
It was an amazing 25-year journey: From the first idea, to the build-up of a global collaboration, to seeing the first image of a black hole and then presenting it to the world. This was a roller coaster ride of emotions, hope, disappointment, drama, discovery, anxiety, success and exhaustion. It was the experience of a lifetime, where the seed of a small idea grew to something big, creating an iconic picture that is now living a life of its own.
Can you tell me about your faith journey?
I grew up in a traditional Christian environment, where we would go to Church occasionally and participate in some activities, but it didn’t really dominate my life. My grandparents were very faithful people, who would pray extensively and host a Bible study group at their home. God was present for me, but somewhat distant until one day, where God became very personal for me. I loved reading the Bible, asking questions, discussing it, and later even was ordained as a lay minister in our church.
What made you interested in becoming a scientist and how did you select physics?
I was a nerd, really, spending day and night with the first generation of home computers and secretly mixing gunpowder trying to build rockets. The latter was a stupid idea, but thankfully I kept all my fingers! Initially I wanted to go into particle and quantum physics, where all these famous physicists had worked, addressing fundamental questions. But then I realized that astronomy was booming and a new era of discovery was looming. Literally an entire universe was still to be discovered and the answer to some of the pressing questions of modern physics might lie there in outer space.
Were you ever exposed to the “conflict narrative” that science and Christianity cannot be compatible?
I personally never had that issue. In fact, it always felt like a constructed conflict to me. If God is the creator of the universe, then science just means understanding God’s creation better. It is as simple as that. If God made that universe there is nothing that can disprove God. Sometimes you just need a little bit of patience to figure out what it all means. On the other hand, it always struck me as bizarre, if not arrogant, that some people think that just because they have read the Bible in excruciating detail, they know exactly how that universe works. Would you be able to build an airplane, after a few years of Bible study? The universe is much more complicated than that and teaches us, above all, humility.
You wrote the book, Light in the Darkness: The Black Hole, the Universe and Us. It covers not only your story, and physics, but also the harmony of science and religion. What are you hoping to achieve with this book?
I wanted to tell our amazing journey to the first image of a black hole, but then I realized that our story was part of a much bigger and older journey of humanity to explore our universe and to go to the edge of our knowledge. So, I try to take the readers by the hand and lead them through “my universe,” from the first view of the stars, all the way to the beginning and end of space and time. “What lies beyond?” is the ultimate big question in the last chapter. I want to encourage people to dare to think about God again—people who are also in science. This is primarily a science book, but I don’t hide that I am a Christian, because that’s part of who I am. I want people to ask questions and seek their own answers. The book has opened some doors to talk about science and faith again. I hope it can continue to do so.
Does the field of astrophysics leave you with more questions about God?
I have always been curious and asking more and more questions leads you to the fundamental issues that lie at the origin of our life and this universe. When you think about the beginning and end of space and time, you ponder things like the Big Bang, black holes, and the event horizon, and you inevitably wonder what lies beyond all of this; you wonder about God. Throughout its history, astronomy has been associated with some of the deepest questions of humankind, and it still is. The sheer size, and beauty of the universe tells you also something about the unfathomable size of the creator.
Why should Christians who aren’t scientists care about the field of physics and astrophysics?
We were put into the garden of Eden to “dress and to keep it.” You can only keep well what you understand, so it is important also for Christians to keep up with some of the basic findings that come out of science. Physics gives us enormous possibilities and enormous responsibilities as well. Some new physics we will learn in space. However, above all, looking out into space is just awe-inspiring. It will help you appreciate who God is and how truly special it is that God cares about you.
What would you say to any young Christian people that are interested in pursuing physics?
I think as Christians we are called to seek the truth and to use our talents. If you are gifted with a curious mind, with patience, and with a passion for science and physics, it is your calling to do physics to the best of your abilities. We honor God by doing good science. Christianity should get a reputation for producing some of the best and most caring scientists and academicians we have. So, be an example and excel in what you are good at.
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About the authors
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