*** DEBUG END ***

Interview: Elizabeth Cole, analytical chemist, businesswoman

03 November 2023

‘We’re walking around in a miracle’

Every science fascinated me. Nothing interested me more as a child than the world around me. I was happiest paddling in streams or ponds looking for minnows, newts, and other wildlife.

I did a degree in chemistry, and then worked in developing advanced technologies for measuring trace toxic and smelly chemicals in air and everyday products, dealing with questions about air quality and workplace safety, checking the authenticity of perfumes, and identifying off-odours in products.

I worked for a big American instrument company for 15 years — in the UK and the US — before my husband and I set up our own UK-based instrument company in 1997. The business still occupies us for most of our time. I’m frequently asked to contribute to relevant test methods like the American Society for Testing and Materials, the International Organization for Standardization and the European Committee for Standardization, which allow scientists to test city air to standard measures. These are the main projects I focus on nowadays.

We need to be careful about air pollution. Those of us around in the ’60s and ’70s will remember filthy cities, with blackened buildings and trees from all the soot and grime in the air. The general move away from coal, plus controls on vehicle exhausts, means the levels of particulates in city air have reduced considerably over the past 50 years. The concentrations of many chemical pollutants in indoor and outdoor air have also been coming down, as environmental regulations controlling industrial emissions have been strengthened.

All good news, but well-intentioned legislation can backfire. Recent regulations designed to reduce energy loss, for example, have led to lower ventilation rates in buildings: great for saving energy, but leading to a build-up of air contaminants indoors if you’re not careful.

The correct scientific response to the ULEZ question would be to own up to not having enough information to answer tklhat properly. My main concern is how difficult it is to reliably link deaths and human health statistics to one particular factor, when there are so many other variables in all of our lives. Most of us spend 90 per cent of our time in our homes, cars, schools, breathing indoor air pollutants, which are typically significantly higher than those outside. It’s difficult to be sure of any direct causal link between outdoor air pollution and health.

Expanding ULEZ places the financial burden on the poorest car owners in the affected area, and encourages new car production, which has an environmental cost of its own. On the other hand, ULEZ expansion will undoubtedly improve outdoor air quality, albeit to a limited extent in some outer-London boroughs. I’d have gone ahead with the expansion, but given people longer to comply, and/or raise charges gradually.

If there is a clear-cut case, yes, I think the UK electorate would put public health before wealth. I’m encouraged by the passion many people now feel about climate change, and their concern about how it’s impacting communities and wildlife. I’m no longer sure that an anti-green agenda is a sure-fire election winner.

Responsibility for many key health and environmental issues doesn’t lie solely with governments, but also with scientists, engineers, companies, and individuals.

I was born into a Liverpool family in 1960, the eldest of three children. My parents always worked hard, and we moved house every couple of years with my dad’s sales job, until we settled in Buckinghamshire and I attended a girls’ grammar school. Despite having several exceptional teachers, and being very academic, I didn’t enjoy it. I really came into my own at university. I loved its freedom, and joined the Christian Union.

We weren’t a regular churchgoing family, but both my parents had a quiet faith. I became a Christian at 11, after a visiting preacher spoke at my Sunday school. I remember a sudden realisation that it was obvious God loved me enough, and would do whatever it took to restore me to him. My world changed that day. My testimony is that God really, really never lets you go. I’m in God’s hand and God’s care. My salvation was God’s work, and nothing I nor anyone else does can ever undo that — thank God.

Nowadays, I combine work for our company with writing and a busy family life. Business has been tough for the last few years, but, thank God, the company has survived. I consider myself one of the most blessed people alive. I’ve been married to Alun for 30 years. We have four children and 11 grandchildren, and both our mothers are still going strong.

I’ve distanced myself from the dogmatic attitudes of some fundamentalist Evangelical sections of the Church. I struggled with their attitudes towards working women, homosexuality, and literal interpretations of the Bible. Christian judgementalism was the opposite of Jesus’s attitude. It is leaping in where the Pharisees left off, and becomes a major stumbling block for people searching for God.

I realised the answer was staring me in the face: we need to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but I’d missed the mind bit. When this dawned, it was wonderful. God had given me a good brain, and I could use it to love and serve God.


Yes, God can save the human race from itself, and, yes, it may take many more catastrophes to change us. Part of the unanswerable mystery of suffering is that we learn more from adversity than from green pastures. Necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s what’s needed now, both in respect to climate change and medical research.


Writing God’s Cosmic Cookbook felt like finding my calling. I’d only ever written specialist scientific papers before, or contributed an occasional scientific book chapter — never a complete book, and never anything for children. But there was a huge vacuum in kids’ literature between Bible stories and science textbooks, and I felt driven to do something about it.


Recent studies show that even five-year-olds think that God and science are two entirely different realms. As science is the study of the real world, it’s a short step from five-year-olds’ separating God and science to teenagers’ thinking God has nothing to do with the real world at all.


The Faraday Institute in Cambridge had just established a project supporting the writing and publication of a series of children’s books embracing science and faith. They twisted the arms of scientists and scholars to ensure that God’s Cosmic Cookbook is as accurate, mainstream, and up-to-date as possible.


There’s nothing simple about making a universe, as the recipe book shows. The chances of ever getting a cosmos to work for a nano-second — never mind the billions of years needed to even start the evolution of life — are essentially mathematically impossible. So many constants, factors, and natural laws have to be just right to the nth degree for things to work; so even some atheist scientists have wondered if a super-intellect might have had a hand in creation.


What amazed me most as I was putting the book together was the very existence of the universe we live in. We’re walking around in a miracle.


I support our church, particularly the lunch club we run for senior residents of the village. Loneliness can be a major issue, and lunch club has become a social highlight, bringing in people that might otherwise never cross a church threshold.


Brexit makes me angry; the support of some American Christians for Donald Trump and all he stands for; the waste of young lives in the awful war in Ukraine and Russia, and similar confrontations elsewhere.


Some of my happiest moments come from getting a sudden hug from one of the grandchildren, or a weekend away with my beloved husband; finding an explanation of something that puzzles me in the Bible; winning a competitive order in work; singing in a concert with our community choir; finding a slow worm in the garden; having a humpback whale come to say hello and swim right under the inflatable boat I was in — unbelievably wonderful.


God is in charge, and God loves me and all of us — that gives me hope; the inherent goodness of most people; the inventiveness of humanity — our ability to solve problems.


I pray every morning if I possibly can, to refocus on God and put things in a better perspective for the day, especially if I’m worrying about something.


If it’s not too greedy, I’d like to be locked in a church with Alister McGrath, Francis Spufford, and Brother Lawrence, to understand their philosophies and faith, and to learn, especially from Brother Lawrence, how he lived his Spirit-filled life despite the noise of the world all around him.


Elizabeth Cole was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

God’s Cosmic Cookbook is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.89); 978-1-39980-648-0.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)