Malcolm Guite takes the funeral of a distinguished astronomer, who saw wonder in faith and science

09 March 2018

Malcolm Guite takes the funeral of a distinguished astronomer, who saw wonder in faith and science

I RETURNED recently to my old church of St Edward, King and Martyr, in Cambridge to take the funeral of a faithful and much loved member of the congregation. As a sidesman, Donald Lynden-Bell had always been a genial, kindly, welcoming presence, ushering people in, handing them their order of service — setting himself aside and gesturing inwards towards the beautiful, numinous space of the church.

He was also, as it happens, one of the greatest minds of our time: an astronomer and mathematician who had established the link between black holes and quasars, and shown their role in the formation of galaxies.

As the church began to fill, not only with his family and friends, with the many distinguished scientists who had been his students, and as the tributes began, it became clear that he had also been a kind of doorkeeper in his work as a scientist and teacher: ushering people in, explaining what they needed to know — but ultimately setting himself aside and gesturing upwards towards the beautiful, numinous space of the firmament of heaven.

He had been one of the subjects of the wonderful documentary film Starmen: Bringing the universe down to earth. Alison Rose, the filmmaker, had flown over from Canada so that she could be at the funeral and read the lesson from Ecclesiasticus, from Lynden-Bell’s own well-worn copy of the Apocrypha: “The beauty of heaven, the glory of the stars, an ornament giving light in the highest places of the Lord.”

Lynden-Bell had been so absorbed in his attention to, and wonder at, the cosmos, and at the beauty of the mathematics that he discerned underpinning it, so glad to share that knowledge and enthusiasm, directing the eye and attention of his hearers away from himself and towards the immense mystery on whose surface we live, that he seemed scarcely aware that he himself was a wonder — that he, too, was “an ornament giving light in the highest places”.

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He was the same man in his faith as he was in his science: open, attentive, keen to ask questions and explore, not willing to press propositions further than he thought they could go, but never losing his sense of wonder. In my address, I read a passage from Coleridge, another inveterate stargazer, which seemed to link Donald’s worlds together. At the end of his Biographia Literaria, his own personal testament, Coleridge affirmed:

 

that Religion passes out of the ken of Reason only where the eye of Reason has reached its own Horizon; and that Faith is then but its continuation: even as the Day softens away into the sweet Twilight, and Twilight, hushed and breathless, steals into the Darkness. It is Night, sacred Night! The upraised Eye views only the starry Heaven which manifests itself alone: and the outward Beholding is fixed on the sparks twinkling in the aweful depth, though Suns of other Worlds, only to preserve the Soul steady and collected in its pure Act of inward Adoration to the great I AM.

 

And so a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord, a doorkeeper in the house of Science, passed at last through the door of the cosmos and was welcomed into his Father’s house.

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