This is Maria Petersson‘s article in Helsingin Sanomat about me based on an interview she did. In print the article was published with a title “Katse kohti taivasta” (transl. “View towards heavens”) on August 15, 2014. The net version was titled “Avaruustutkija ja mormoni uskoo ihmeisiin, mutta ei evoluutioon” (transl. “I believe in miracles but not the evolution” says a Mormon space scientist).
Helsingin Sanomat gave me a permission to post a translation, with a notice that the pictures by Kai Sinervo remain their property and are not to be passed on.
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
Space scientist Ilkka Sillanpää, 38, is quoting Psalm 8.
– That talks about heavens, stars and the insignificance of man. Everyone who has pointed a telescope to the stars is forced to think what is our place in the universe.
Dr. Sillanpää, a planetary scientist and a Mormon, is searching for his own place and uses particle measurements, simulations of planets, instruments measuring magnetospheres and the Bible to do that.
He studies the physical heavens in his place of work at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.
He is learning about the spiritual Heaven in Mormon temples. A temple is a place where Sillanpää ponders with his coreligionists what consists of a good life. How to know if God exists? How and why are the dead sealed in marriage? Why can a good Mormon use the internet but not have a cup of coffee?
The thinking on higher spheres began already in 1970s in Kokkola, Finland. The family attended a Mormon church on Sundays and studied the scriptures together Monday evenings. In school math and physics were Sillanpää’s prime interests. He got A’s in almost all subjects except sports.
– I don’t really remember when I started to love science and God. The laws of nature and how the world works have always fascinated me, Sillanpää says.
Parents taught him that angel Moroni visited a man named Joseph Smith in America in the early 1800s. Angel’s message was that there were buried in a nearby hill golden plates, seer stones and goggles of miraculous power. Joseph Smith hid the plates in a wooden box and refused to show them to anyone.
Sillanpää was taught that the text on the golden plates became Mormon scripture.
Then it was time for Sillanpää to teach others. After Finnish military service it was time to leave for another, more important service. Sillanpää traveled to Utah to be trained a missionary.
Ilkka became Elder Sillanpää. A shy geekish 20-year-old from Kokkola was ringing doorbells in southern Utah and asking if he could teach about Jesus.
After two years as a missionary Sillanpää got where he wanted next – to study theoretical physics at the University of Helsinki. His dissertation work took place at the Finnish Meteorological Institute that gave him a post as a researcher. He is returning there this fall after a six-year stint in the US.
– Space research was really interesting to me because many new discoveries are still being made and I can study things that haven’t been seen by anyone before, Sillanpää says.
He then explains how the atmosphere of Titan, a moon of Saturn, interacts with escaping particles and Saturn’s magnetic field. He chose Titan in part because it was poorly known.
– Earth’s atmosphere is so close. It has been studied since the 1960s. I prefer to study something completely new.
His friend in San Antonio made a major discover in December. Dr. Roth detected for the first time plumes of water above the surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter.
– He has been very busy with all the attention that followed. It is wonderful to get your imprint in the annals of science like that; to have your publications referenced by many and for other scientists to build their research on something you discovered.
The Bible and scientific knowledge do not exclude each other as Sillanpää sees it. The Bible doesn’t talk about the Big Bang, but Sillanpää trusts the science of the Big Bang. Why couldn’t God create the universe that way?
The scriptures are for Sillanpää partly symbolism and in some parts literally true. For instance, the world was not created in six days.
– Day is used as a symbolic unit of time. The time it actually took was of course much longer.
On the other hand, he believes literally in the story of Adam and Eve. That means also that Sillanpää doesn’t believe in evolution, at least not yet. Change is at the heart of scientific knowledge. Maybe the evolution theory will be one day such that it doesn’t contradict with the beliefs held by Sillanpää. Should this not happen, his faith trumps science.
As a scientist Sillanpää believes in tested, observable facts. Why doesn’t he doubt things that cannot be proved or measured?
– Physics is build on the basic laws of nature. But there are things that I simply can’t explain with scientific knowledge. Miracles are among them.
Sillanpää believes that the miracles in the Bible really happened and that there are still miracles happening. Science has just taken away our ability to recognize them.
– If a person is healed or a broken car suddenly works again, one thinks it’s just a coincidence or because of our knowledge of medicine or the way the car was built, but it may actually be an act of God.
Sillanpää shares an example. When on his mission in the US, he got seriously sick. It was his heart. A dangerous operation was needed.
Local members, whom Sillanpää didn’t know before, came and gave him a blessing. Back in Finland, family and friends were fasting and praying. The operation was successful and the heart valve was fixed with much less tissue removed than was expected before the surgery. Sillanpää considers this and his fast recovery a miracle.
No, there is no logical reason, why it would be a miracle wrought by God and not just medicinal science and a happy coincidence. But Sillanpää doesn’t look for such reasons.
Navigating the scientific community must get hard for a person of faith.
Among the things Sillanpää believes is that a small group of Jews sailed across oceans to North America 2000 years ago. The continent was empty, according to the belief, and these Jews became ancestors for American Indians. A great majority of archeologists do not believe that story.
What does Sillanpää think: are the archeologists lying? Are they mistaken? Or just so inept that they’ve missed all the evidence? How does it feel to be a part of a scientific community that has this part of history so terribly wrong?
Sillanpää thinks about it. He says that it doesn’t bring him down.
– Our scientific understanding is not without its flaws and in these matters I trust the scriptures more.
There are also things that are similar in Dr. Sillanpää’s profession and faith.
You cannot go and see for yourself the effects that Saturn’s magnetic field has, they are not tangible or within the realm of personal experience. God can’t be seen or touched, but to Sillanpää He is as real.
– As an example, the quantum physics is very strange and I really can’t understand it all or to say how real it actually is. And yet it affects everything what happens in the universe.
That you can prove the existence of magnetic fields but not of God’s, doesn’t make God any less believable to Dr. Sillanpää.
– Mormonism gives answers to many of the questions that I ponder as a space scientist: where do we people come from and what is our purpose in life?
Many astronomers, cosmologists and space physicists have spoken about the crushing feeling of nothingness that their field of study brings on them. Faith in God and on the important role of humans among all the creation can make it lighter to bear.
The concepts of eternity and infinity are strongly connected to both religion and the study of space.
– Space is eternal from our human point of view. In religion I also ponder the nature of eternity and infinity. Really large numbers, distances or spans of time are beyond the limits of our everyday reasoning. Our brain and cognition can’t grasp these large-scale matters.
And everything doesn’t have to be understood, yet.
Ilkka Sillanpää believes that physics and religion can form a rational whole in the future. That will probably happen only after death in paradise. There, Sillanpää believes, everything will make sense.
Mormons think that the work done in this world is not wasted, but that we will continue working after death. Sillanpää will take with him into paradise all the research and scientific work he has done in this world.
God created the world and organized the laws of nature, Sillanpää believes. In this life people can see and experience only a small part of all that. Finally, in paradise Ilkka Sillanpää will understand how the laws of gravity and the resurrection of Jesus Christ are both part of the complete whole.
– There everything will be one large, logical and harmonic experience. There we will understand everything.
That is also the paradise of a scientist.
Personal note: I really appreciate Maria’s hard work to make the interview into this great article.
The reactions I read on the HS.fi website and on twitter were a bit mixed: many comments on the article have criticized a scientist having religious beliefs and doubts about evolution. Mormons have liked the article a lot. Others of faith, also scientists, have shown support and appreciated seeing another view on faith and science not often given space in media. The comments I have personally heard have been only positive. The scientists I know haven’t commented much on the content, but have been glad for the opportunity it was for me. – So, it seems scientists themselves don’t have much of an issue with the beliefs or faith of a colleague.
Btw, Joseph Smith showed the plates to 11 others who all bore witness of them (see the beginning of the Book of Mormon).