Celebrating a life of faith and wisdom in science
If there is one person whose career has embodied the vision of Church Scientific, it is surely Tom McLeish. A Christian preacher and a pioneering physicist, a polymathic scholar and an award-winning specialist, an academic leader and an unpretentious family man: Tom McLeish’s callings and achievements were many. He had a remarkable career, albeit one that was sadly cut short by illness.
Tom McLeish’s first specialism was in soft-matter physics, and from there he moved to biological physics, working on protein dynamics and other questions. His skills in mathematical modelling were central to his many theoretical contributions, which in turn led to fruitful experimental work. But from 2014 and probably earlier, he took an interest in medieval writings on natural phenomena, such as the treatises of Robert Grosseteste (c.1168 – 1253), who was Bishop of Lincoln. This interest led to strikingly inter-disciplinary collaborative projects, where Tom tested a mathematical model for Grosseteste’s theory of cosmogony, expressed Grosseteste’s account of optics in terms of lenses, and more generally explored the development of scientific thinking through times, places and communities in which it is often assumed to have been dormant. This latter theme takes in ancient Hebrew literature when Tom studies the text of Job in his first book, Faith and Wisdom in Science (2016).
Tom received many honours and awards, especially that of being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (where he recently served as chair of the education committee). He spent several years as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University, before becoming professor of Natural Philosophy at York in 2018, taking up a chair that was surely created especially for him in recognition of his understanding of the long continuity from ancient wisdom through natural philosophy to what we now call science. Indeed, Christian thinking is the thread that runs through his diverse scholarly activities witnessed on academic web pages (e.g. at Durham, York and the Royal Society). The breadth of Tom’s broad thinking on the history and practice of scientific work is also evident from his later books, Let There Be Science (coauthored with David Hutchings) and The Poetry and Music of Science. The possibility that Tom may qualify as a public intellectual dawned on me when I heard that Emmanuel Macron had cited him. (Tom’s characteristically playful tweet said “Just call me le penseur anglais“, with a text clip showing that the French president had referred to him with exactly those words.)
Tom McLeish holds a special place in the story of Church Scientific. It was he and David Wilkinson who set up and led the project Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science, in which Church Scientific was one of the first batch of projects funded (and which continues its work). Tom then recorded a short clip for our inaugural meeting in 2016 when international commitments prevented him from joining us in person, as he had hoped to. While Tom’s developing vision of a “theology of science” differed in expression from the vision of our project, we were united in the conviction that Jesus is creator and lord of all creation’s intricate structure and functionality and that Christ must therefore be acknowledged by his followers as lord in scientific work as much as in any other area of life.
Tom’s loss is a cause of great sadness to very many people. While his legacy of influence and mentoring is incalculable, so much of his work must seem unfinished in the present age. We may trust, however, that when Christ commends him “good and faithful servant” at the resurrection, there will be files ready for Tom to take up again – with so many more wonderful insights to be discovered, written and proclaimed.