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Interview: Eric Priest, mathematician

02 November 2012

'The equations of magnetohydro-dynamics are as beautiful and captivating as anything in nature'

The patterns and beauty of mathematics fascinate me. I am an applied mathematician who builds mathematical models in order to try and understand in a deep sense the nature of complex physical proces-ses. Thus, mathematics is a language for understanding, in a deep way, what is going on.

I apply mathematics to understand complex processes on the sun, such as solar flares and sunspots. Most of the world around us is in one of the three main states of matter - solids, liquids, or gases - and you go from one to another by raising the temperature. Well, if you raise the temperature of a gas sufficiently, eventually it will become the fourth state of matter, namely, a plasma or ionised gas.

We on earth are in a tiny bubble of solids, liquids, and gases, but are surrounded by a mainly plasma universe. Most of the universe is in the plasma state, and it begins at the ionosphere - beyond that, the matter between us and the sun is plasma, as is the whole of the sun and most of the galaxy.

Plasmas behave completely differently from normal gases in one important respect: they interact in complex, subtle ways with any magnetic field that is present. In the sun's atmosphere, for example, the magnetic field creates all the structure and dynamic behaviour that we see from space satellites - and it is that dynamic interaction between magnetic field and plasma that I have spent my scientific life trying to understand.

The field of solar plasma physics, or magnetohydrodynamics, is right at the junction of applied mathematics, astronomy, and physics.

The equations of magnetohydrodynamics, which describe the intimate subtle interaction between magnetic fields and plasma, are as beautiful and captivating as anything in nature. It's all to do with the complexity and yet the simplicity. I've been exploring the properties of those equations for 30 or 40 years, and yet there's still more to discover about them.

We get lots of observations from spacecraft, and we see new things. Usually what happens is that you might build a simple model from your observations, and, if things agree, the model can be made more sophisticated. But sometimes you find that the old ideas have to be completely replaced, and you start again with a new paradigm.

The core parts of science you can really rely on; but then there are the newer aspects. The fringes of knowledge can change from one month to another. It's very dynamic. You're balancing what you know and have trust in with new possibilities. If you don't have that openness, you'll never see the new things, even though they're there, staring you right in the face. That's very like the life of faith.

God set up this wonderfully balanced earth with lots of subtle effects going on, but mankind, because of its greed, is changing this. In the past, you could track back the climate of the earth and could relate variations to variations on the sun. Over the past 70 years or so, humanity has produced so much carbon dioxide that it has affected the way the climate is changing.

I'm very worried about the future, because I don't see humanity getting to grips with the problem and cutting down the carbon it's putting into the atmosphere. There will be more drought in Africa, more extremes. We've been given the responsibility to care for this beautiful environment, and it fills me with despair, the way we're not doing this.

I came to St Andrews as a lecturer in 1968, after doing two years towards my Ph.D in Leeds, thinking I would stay a couple of years and move to somewhere less remote. But I fell in love with the place, and with my future wife, Clare, and have been here ever since as part of a research group that has become one of the best in the world in its field. I was appointed a professor in 1983, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2002, and retired in 2010.

This means that I stopped having a salary, and having to be in local university committees, but I still have an office, keep the same hours, and are writing a big monograph - still as active as ever. I have lots of ideas, lots of creativity. I'm fortunate that I'm still pretty fit and healthy.

There are 282 Munros in Scotland - mountains over 3000 feet - and I've done all of them. The vitality comes from my family, and being able to sing, and exercise.

When I ponder the nature of reality, of life, or of the universe, I wonder at the mystery of God. In my everyday life, I feel encouraged and prompted and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Some would say there is no overlap between science and religion. Others say they are in competition, at war with one another. But, to me, this misunderstands the nature of both science and religion. I feel that there are many similarities between them, and a deep unity, which we occasionally glimpse.

In the core of my being as a scientist, there are several key aspects. One is creativity: leaps of faith, intuition, and imagination. Openness and questioning is crucial to the nature of a science, which leads to a feeling of humility about how much we know. Trust and integrity, and a sense of community are also important.

My own life of faith is affected in a deep way by being a scientist, and so it has similar aspects, such as the creativity which leads to wonder, and the openness which implies that I am on a pilgrimage,.

Pure maths is very different: you're able to prove ideas and concepts which are absolutely true, and they're true for all time. There are different realms: the physical reality of matter, space, and time - which are much more mysterious than we realise; of personal consciousness and relations between people; and of cosmic consciousness. Although they are separate, these different realms interact with one another.

You're not solid. Millions of neutrinos are passing through you every second. The world of matter, space, and time is not simple when you look at the extremes - when you look at very tiny scales. That's what the Higgs-boson discoveries are all about. Space and time - are they continuous? Are they granular? We just don't know.

What we understand about the nature of God is so minute that we have to accept that other people and other faiths might get other glimpses, which will be valuable to us. We can't be arrogant about what we understand about God. So I think it's wrong to force our own views on someone else: their views may be just as important as ours.

I recently organised a series of public lectures, and we have had 500 people to each one. I invited a Muslim to one, and took him into the local schools for an open session with sixth-formers. A young lass asked him: "Why do you think Islam is better than Christianity?" He replied: "I don't know if it's better or not. It appeals to me personally, but I think we are sister religions. We are walking up a mountain by different paths, and I believe we shall meet at the top." I thought that that was a beautiful answer.

The main divisions in society are not between Anglicans and Catholics, Jews, Muslims and atheists, but between those of an open mind and those with a closed mind.

An applied mathematician seeks to build models of reality, and to ask whether a model is consistent or not with the observations. In a similar way, as a Christian, I cannot prove that God exists, but I can ask whether his existence or lack of existence is more consistent with my experience. For me personally, the existence of God is consistent, and so I am happy to live my life, following the example of Jesus.

We have four wonderful children, including twins, who are living interesting and fulfilled lives as a medical physicist, a mental-health worker, an agriculturalist in Kenya, and a speech therapist.

Without Clare as constant support and companion, I would have been able to do very little. We have our holidays in the Scottish islands and Highlands. Every year, we hire a self-catering cottage for a couple of weeks, and most of the family come along and join us.

I'd like to be remembered as someone who cared, who tried to foster a sense of community; and as open-minded.

I love the sound of a Scottish burn up in the hills.

My old Ph.D supervisor, Tom Cowling, showed me the importance of integrity in science, wrestling with deep questions, and trying to do high-quality, not superficial, science. He was a deep Christian, and it shone through in the way that he behaved.

I love to contemplate the events of Jesus's life imaginatively; so my favourite parts of the Bible are the Gospels.

I pray for peace, for being open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in my life.

I don't believe in locking church doors. I would like to go on a walk in the Scottish Highlands with Jesus, and ask him about all the missing parts of the Gospels.

Professor Eric Priest was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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