Sir Hermann Bondi
The funeral of Sir Hermann Bondi takes place at midday today in Cambridge. Sir Hermann was 85. He was a staunch supporter and former President of the British Humanist Association, and was Vice-President when he died.
Sir Hermann came from Vienna to study at Cambridge in the 1930s, just before Hitler took over. There isn’t time to detail his distinguished career now, but his obituaries are worth reading. He’s described as a mathematician, astronomer, civil servant, and teller of homespun jokes. As an astronomer, he worked with Fred Hoyle on the origins of the universe. As a scientist and civil servant, he was responsible for getting the Thames Barrier built. He was Director General of the European Space Agency and Master of Churchill College, among many other roles.
Sir Hermann spoke about “the arrogance of certainty” in relation to atheism and religion, and encouraged co-operation between people of different faiths. The BHA obituary quotes his address at a Spanish humanist conference in 1995:
“Our humanist attitude should be to stress what we all have in common with each other and relegate quarrelsome religion to the private domain where it can do less harm… I tend to think that perhaps the greatest importance of science is that it has taught us that people of different religions, different ideologies, different race or gender can work together successfully in science. This is the case because all scientists accept the supremacy of the empirical test of observation and experiment, and firmly refuse to be swayed by arguments that are based on a ‘holy’ text of an alleged ‘certainty’.”
Those words are especially relevant today, as science is being challenged by theories about “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution. American schoolchildren are being taught that evolution is only one explanation for the origin of life, while businessmen with fat cheque books are taking over British schools to peddle the same falsehoods. People who champion this nonsense say the Earth was “created” a few thousand years ago. Sir Hermann the astronomer would have told them that the evidence collected through the Hubble Space Telescope shows that the universe is between 12 and 14 billion years old, and that we are made from space dust – or elements – that date back to that time.
Sir Hermann didn’t expect an afterlife – no humanist does – but his influence in the development of science and humanism will persist long after he’s gone.