Professor Tom McLeish - in memoriam
The Committee of the Science and Religion Forum registers its deep sadness at the recent death of Professor Tom McLeish, one of our two serving Vice-Presidents.
The Service of Memorial and Thanksgiving for Tom can be viewed on York Minister's YouTube channel.
Prof Mark Harris (former chair) writes: -
Tom rose to prominence in the UK's science-and-religion scene relatively quickly, through his many public lectures on natural science and its interface with Christian faith, music and poetry, following from his two ground-breaking monographs published with OUP: Faith and Wisdom in Science (2014), and The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing Creativity in Science and Art (2019). In these latter years Tom became a fully-committed member of SRF and an energetic contributor to our conferences. We greatly valued his keynote presentations and what he taught us in them. We remember Tom's staunch championing of the book of Job as a key resource for the exploration of wonder in creation, and all of the scientific resonances he uncovered in that ancient text along the way. And in the mid-2010s, at a time when the problem of the relationship between science and religion seemed near-intractable, we saw a new way ahead when Tom pointed out that the problem wasn't either 'science' or 'religion' but the 'and' in between. His solution was to propose a theology of science as a more meaningful future endeavour for our field, a point that I have taken to heart myself. In heading up the Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science project (with Prof David Wilkinson) Tom brought these insights to a much wider audience through his conviction that church leaders could play a key role in facilitating the much-needed cultural shifts in attitude towards science and faith. We were delighted when Tom agreed to become a Vice-President of SRF in 2020.
If only the above was the sum total of Tom's achievements as a figurehead then he would leave an impressive legacy indeed. But there was much more. Tom's main academic career was spent in theoretical physics, working at the interface between physics, chemistry and biology in soft condensed matter research. He was a leading expert in the properties of polymer solutions, and received one of the greatest of scientific honours when he was elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society in 2011. Tom held professorial posts in physics at three universities: Leeds, Durham, and then most recently York, where he was appointed as its first Professor of Natural Philosophy, an apt title for Tom's enormous range of interests. But even this does not exhaust Tom's abilities and influence. He was active in academic administration, for instance, as Pro Vice-Chancellor of Research at Durham, and worked as a trustee with the John Templeton foundations. Also, as a lay reader, Tom was a regular preacher to Anglican congregations, and was recognised by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2018 with the Lanfranc Award for his outstanding contributions to the conversation between science and religious faith.
All of this is to say that Tom's intellectual and spiritual stature was formidable, and he was a leading light of SRF. Personally though, I remember Tom especially warmly for his sparky effervescence and infectious enthusiasm for the riches of science and for the joys of the classical and choral music repertoires. More widely, I often noticed his humility and warm wit in conversation, which allowed him to communicate on a level footing with whomever he was talking to; Tom would never 'hold court', in spite of his many honours and achievements.
In the last few years, I persuaded Tom to join me in an academic network exploring new directions in quantum theology. Tom was reluctant at first, insisting that he didn't know anything about quantum mechanics. After some effort I persuaded him to join us, and sure enough Tom's work in the network was transformative. Tom's contribution was published just before his death, as a jointly-authored article in Zygon with Wilson Poon (another long-standing friend of SRF). In that piece, Tom and Wilson point out that much of what theologians have valued about quantum mechanics can be found in classical statistical mechanics. The supposed distinctiveness of quantum mechanics for theology is no such thing, therefore, they argue, but this point can be turned towards exciting new avenues for a participatory theology of science. Tragically, Tom will not be able to tell us, now, what lies further along those avenues, although he has shown us where to find them. As we begin to see his life in its fulness, I hope that many of us will take inspiration from Tom's example and develop his leads further, which would be a fitting legacy to such a singular colleague and friend.