Famous TV-Professor kick-starts new project with talk at Plymouth University
The well-known geologist Professor Iain Stewart sounded the starting gun on his latest media-project by giving a talk on Tuesday evening at Plymouth University, hosted by Plymouth Humanists.
Professor Stewart, who is known as the host of numerous BBC documentaries and the author of several books, hopes that the project can shed light on the gulf that is often found between science and religion and show examples of how the two can sometimes work together.
Professor Stewart delivered his talk, called ‘Can God save the planet?’ in front of a packed Jill Craigie Cinema in the Roland Levinsky building.
“It is unusual for me to hold a talk like this at the beginning of a project. I would usually do it during a project or after I have finished it, but this is something that has been circling around my head for years now,” Professor Stewart said.
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He talked about how experiences from travels around the world had made him think about how religion could sometimes lead people to make irrational decisions, putting them in harm’s way. However, religion could also at times be the social glue that made a society stick together in hard times or pass information down from generation to generation.
“For example, I once filmed in Indonesia where people worshipped a volcano they thought was the home of a deity. When the volcano erupted back in 1963, many locals chose to stay on its slopes and pray to what they thought was an angry God, meaning that they were narrowly missed by a lava flow that they should have been miles from,” Professor Stewart said.
“At the same time, they believed that the God would usually send monkeys running through the villages to warn them before eruptions, giving them time to escape. Now a scientist would say that the monkeys –that were usually were shy and avoided contact with humans - were reacting to tremors and other natural signals, but in the end, both the religious and the scientific explanation would lead to the same course of action.”
Iain Stewart, who is a professor of Geoscience Communication at the University of Plymouth, said that science could benefit from thinking about how it could be framed in a way that connected with people’s belief systems.
“For example, only seven people out of a population of 70,000 died on one of the islands that was hit hardest by the big Pacific tsunami in 2004. The reason was that their island had been hit by tsunamis before and their religion and culture had given them a very simple rule to live by: when the earth shakes, move to higher ground,” Professor Stewart said.
“I believe that a simple rule like that would work better than any sort of earthquake warning system, and it is not really necessary for indigenous people to know that there is natural science behind it. If an organization like Christian Aid wanted to help people in the aftermath of a tsunami and included this in their religious messages, then it would be a good example of how the two can work together.”
Professor Stewart said that he thought it was essential that science did not compromise on central values like the scientific method or rationality when working alongside religion.
He said it was still unsure if the new project will be for TV or radio.