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Hermann Bondi

Mathematician and astronomer, former Master of Churchill College, and distinguished humanist

”I think we all belong together, and that in the interests of cooperation we should put our religion or philosophical convictions on the back burner. We must try to do our best and not look for a firm foundation where there isn’t one.”

Humanists UK was very sorry to hear of the death of its ex-President and staunch supporter, Sir Hermann Bondi, on 10th September 2005, aged 85. Sir Hermann was an extremely distinguished scientist and a long-term friend of Humanists UK .

As a scientist, he worked and advised on projects as varied as the origins of the universe, the European Space Research Organisation, the Atomic Energy Authority, the Thames Flood Barrier and global warming. He was adviser on scientific issues to successive governments, and was passionate about science education and promoting the scientific method. He was widely respected as a scientist of great integrity with a strong sense of social responsibility. One Conservative Minister, after meeting him, described him as “the kind of man I’d go into the jungle with.”

His humanist beliefs were intertwined with his scientific outlook. He saw the collaborative search for the truth, setting aside individual differences of worldview, as fundamental to science and a valuable human capacity: “Our humanist attitude should be to stress what we all have in common with each other and relegate quarrelsome religion to the private domain where it can do less harm,” he told a Spanish humanist conference in 1995. “…I tend to think that perhaps the greatest importance of science is that it has taught us that people of different religions, different ideologies, different race or gender can work together successfully in science. This is the case because all scientists accept the supremacy of the empirical test of observation and experiment, and firmly refuse to be swayed by arguments that are based on a ‘holy’ text of an alleged ‘certainty’.”

He was president of Humanists UK from 1982 to 1999, and then a vice-president till his death. He was always an accessible and active participant in the affairs and conferences of the humanist movement, with a particular interest in education and moral education; he was a founder and chair of the Social Morality Council (later the Norham Foundation). Staff and friends in Humanists UK will greatly miss his good-humoured wisdom, support and kindness.

The West Chapel of Cambridge Crematorium was full of friends and family for his humanist funeral on Monday 19 September. Two of his daughters, Liz and Alice, and one of his sons, David, gave affectionate and funny tributes, reflecting Hermann the family man, the teller of ludicrous jokes and lover of puns and spoonerisms.

Buy any of his books through this link at Amazon.co.uk  and a portion of the sale price will go to Humanists UK .

See also
Science, Churchill and Me, his autobiography, published in 1990.
His talk on “Science, Morality and Humanism” at a major Spanish humanist congress in Madrid (20-22 April, 1995).
Obituaries:
“Scientist with a sense of social responsiblity” in The Independent  (12/9/05 )
The Telegraph (13/9/05)
“Wide-ranging scientist who as adviser, researcher and teacher exercised great influence on public life”in The Times (13/9/05)
”Mathematician at home with the cosmos, relativity and the worldly concerns of government” in The Guardian (13/9/05 )

Interview: Sir Hermann Bondi FRS talking to Humanist News in Spring 2002

Mathematician and eminent cosmologist Sir Hermann Bondi is a Humanists UK Vice-President, and he and his wife Christine are two of Humanism’s longest standing supporters.

On his upbringing and education
I grew up in Vienna in a Jewish household. My father was a doctor and my mother came from a rather well-to-do family in Germany. Both my parents were non-believers, but as we had many orthodox relatives we always kept the house so that they could eat there. My father enjoyed the form of religion as a kind of social cement, but my mother hated it all. I believe I was named after the first non-believer in her family, and I came to have a dislike of religion very early on.

As a child I had an intense interest in mathematical physics. I found its simplicity and accuracy so interesting. At thirteen I was teaching myself differential calculus and analytical geometry and I got the idea of going to Cambridge. There was, of course, a threatening political situation at that time, in the mid-1930s. It wasn’t easy to get into Cambridge, but my very orthodox great-uncle was a distinguished mathematician, and with his letter I got a place. I came to Trinity College in October 1937, and the story I tell is this.

At Cambridge you could either take years one, two and three or, if you were ambitious, two, three and four. I was quite conceited enough to want the more ambitious course, and was asked in which course I wanted supervision. It was analysis, of which I knew nothing. I was sent to a wonderful man, a Russian émigré whose English wasn’t so good. He asked some questions in analysis but I didn’t even understand the words. Finally he said, “You should take the easier course”. “No!” I said. “Well, maybe you know that best, but I know that you know too little for me to supervise you. Come back to me next term.”

Well I worked on that subject as I have never worked on anything since, and when I returned he asked me three questions and I answered them off pat. “Oh, you know all this stuff,” he said, “let me talk to you about my experiences in the Russian Revolution.” And so I had a very good time there, although I spent fifteen months in internment in England and Canada – which was where I met Thomas Gold.

On his work
I started work on my PhD but was drawn into research on radar. Here I met Fred Hoyle, who directed me towards astronomy, where I learnt about engineering and how difficult it is to take scientific knowledge and turn it into a working piece of equipment. It was marvellous fun.

In 1945 I met Christine who was also a mathematician. Fred was Christine’s research supervisor and I was his colleague. But Fred was usually not to be found and so, hanging around outside his room, by chance we met, and we married on my twenty-eighth birthday. We have published a number of joint papers on the structure of the stars, which is her subject.

Hoyle, Gold and I went on to produce the steady state theory of the universe in 1948. It was one of the easier astronomical theories and that may be why it made such a great impression and was so revolutionary. It certainly was over-simplistic, as later work showed, but that was how I first became well-known.

I also worked on a lot on things like the origin of clouds, the rotation of the Earth, and stellar structure. And in 1953 I came to King’s College London to teach mathematics. In the late 50s the university was starting to get into computers – which they thought meant building them – but I insisted on buying them and so loudly that people started to listen to what I said. I was offered all sorts of interesting positions – two with the Ministry of Defence. One of my most satisfying pieces of work was after the 1953 floods along the east coast of England. London only escaped because the flood defences of Essex and Kent collapsed, and several hundred people were drowned. Some sort of defence was clearly needed, but after ten years the ministers had got nowhere. Then somebody had the bright idea to make me a committee of one on this, and within a few years the barrier was built and at the point I had chosen.

I also chaired a Ministry of Defence committee concerned with British defence interests in space. In 1967 I became the Director General of the European Space Research Organisation, later known as the European Space Agency or ESA. We were, in a way, an unfortunate organisation because all the satellites we built worked, and you can’t get publicity for something that works. I used to sit in my office planning a great space disaster so that people at least would hear of us. The science-based organisation, which I led, built satellites for scientific measurements in space (relying on the Americans to launch them). And there was a launch and development organisation which was a total failure. Lord Carrington asked me to become the Chief Scientific Advisor for the Ministry of Defence, and then Tony Benn asked me to work for the Department of Energy. I went on to become Chief Executive for the Natural Environment Research Council in 1980, and Master of Churchill College.

Russia and America had a nuclear-armament monopoly and NATO was shaking in its shoes. To have a NATO power which had the capability was very important, and I was strongly in favour of it. And then just when we were thinking that the crisis was over, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, we had the Iraqi affair. Even with its unprecedented permission to look, the UN Commission could not decide whether Iraq was building nuclear missiles or not. And so while the first reason for nuclear weapons had finally disappeared, the idea of a non-nuclear-weaponed world became, for me, just a pipe dream.

With regard to nuclear energy, well of course it’s dangerous, but so are dams. They have serious environmental consequences and dam bursts have killed hundreds of people. Chernobyl certainly was a great disaster, but anybody could have foreseen that that way of designing power stations was both mad and reckless. Now it’s true that not everything on our side has gone perfectly swimmingly, but disasters of that scale need not happen – I think one can control the risk.

On Humanism, religion and ethics
Christine and I were Humanists UK members from the beginning. In the 1950’s we attended the Cambridge Humanists group where there were some very good people like John Gilmore, the Director of the Botanic Gardens, who was very strong in the movement. And Christine, who is very energetic, started another group when we moved to Surrey, and restarted the Cambridge group when we got back.

I think in this country we are too impressed by the concept of God. Many religions, like Buddhism and Confucianism, don’t have a God at all. On the other hand, Communism in its heyday had a “sacred text”, the writings of Marx and Lenin, and you justified an argument by referring to these writings. So it seems to me that the important thing is not the concept of God – indeed we cannot quarrel with an undefined God, for how can we disagree with a concept that is undefined. No, what makes a religion is a “revelation”. And it is the belief in a revealed truth that is the source of religious problems – that the Koran is the word of God, or the Holy Bible is the judge of everything. So in arguments with Christians, when you come to the word God you have already lost the battle. You must stress the revelation, that’s where the real disagreement lies, because if you are driven to a position where you have to deny the existence of an undefined quantity you are in a logical absurdity.

Indeed, one of the really irritating things about religion is that because it deals with certainties, humanists are accused of having no firm foundation for their ethics, which is utter nonsense. They accuse us of changing our ethical ideas – well they certainly have changed in my lifetime, for example our attitude towards other races – but Christian morals have changed also. For centuries they drowned witches and invented fiendish punishments like burning alive people accused of heresy. They don’t do that now, although I suspect many of them would like to. And so their attitude has changed too. And, incidentally, burning witches wasn’t something you were allowed to do, you were ordered to do it because in the Old Testament it said “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.

I think ethics must always be rooted in society and culture and change as it changes, and I really hope that we become more tolerant in our attitudes, towards homosexuality for example, which in virtually every religion is just foul. We should bear in mind that they form a permanent minority that is very easy to single out and maltreat – which suits the religious fraternity very well, because they need an enemy to divide the elect. I mean how anyone ever had the sheer arrogance to call themselves the “elect”, as in many Protestant sects. In these areas I am very secular in that I think we all belong together, and that in the interests of cooperation we should put our religion or philosophical convictions on the back burner. We must try to do our best and not look for a firm foundation where there isn’t one.

On the future
I think we face a very worrying world situation. But we know that some old quarrels do get forgotten and things do heal – though not in the Balkans. I would never have meddled with the Balkans, and I agree with Bismarck’s dictum that, “The rule of the Balkans is not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier”. Their hatreds go back hundreds of years and there are too many people uninterested in solving them. In the UK we have the absurd situation that this Government, like the previous one, is supporting integrated schools in Northern Ireland whilst proposing more faith schools over here.

But Humanism still has a number of difficulties to overcome. If you belong to a particular faith and you move you can quickly build up that support again because faith groups have advertised services and recognisable buildings elsewhere. Humanism has no such buildings or services and so we are not good at helping someone put down new roots. I think that if we wanted to find a model it would be the Quakers. The Friends’ Meeting House has its good points and the Quakers also don’t have any creed – in fact they accommodate a broad spectrum from those who are really Christian to those who have the same attitude toward the supernatural as I have. That is a word that really irritates me because it either doesn’t happen, which is uninteresting, or it happens, and then, well, everything that happens in nature is “natural”. That and the word “unnatural”, which is a really wicked word.

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