Uncovering the Nature of the Universe

April 25, 2014 | 11 a.m.

Bethel alum works as astrophysicist and professor at University of Toronto 

Culture | Rachel Wilson

It is no shock that among a large sector of Christian America, tension exists between science and faith. The two, almost inherently, appear mutually exclusive among evangelicals today. However, for Bethel alum, astrophysicist and professor Barth Netterfield, science and faith go hand in hand. The two expand, challenge and grow one another. 

“A lot of people are under the mistaken impression that the discoveries of science are somehow in opposition to God—which is a clear lie,” Netterfield explained. “It is important for Christian academics to keep people honest in this whole area.” 

Today, Netterfield’s passion for science and faith has led to monumental discoveries in experimental astrophysics that have forever changed the course of science. 

Netterfield graduated from Bethel in 1990 with a degree in physics and later completed graduate work in astrophysics at the prestigious Princeton University. Currently, he and his wife, Susan, along with their three children, live in Toronto, Ontario, where he works as a professor at the University of Toronto. 

Because he was interested in building things and figuring the nature of the universe, physics was a fit for Netterfield at a young age. When he began studying astrophysics, many considered the Big Bang theory questionable. “Perhaps even a ‘threat to God’—as if that were even possible,” Netterfield joked. “So it seemed like an amazing opportunity to find out what was really going on.” 

While at Bethel, Netterfield’s passion for science grew under the tutelage of several physics professors—Beecken, Greenly, Peterson and the late R.W. Carlson. “Peterson, in particular, encouraged me to pursue experimentation and actively found opportunities for me to be involved in research,” Netterfield said. 

Today, Netterfield works in experimental astrophysics alongside a team of exceptional students and collaborators. The team builds telescopes weighing up to four tons, flying them on stratospheric balloons above most of the atmosphere. The group has prolific goals ranging from revealing star formation in our galaxy to discovering early universe cosmology. 

When participating in major science projects, each country gets to choose a project investigator. PIs function as the country’s leader in the project, responsible for grant writing and locating proper funding. Netterfield has been Canada’s PI for both the BOOMERANG and BLAST projects. 

As a PI, Netterfield’s research has played and continues to play a defining role in the science community and beyond. The BOOMERANG project determined the age, geometry and content of the universe. Boasting nothing less than monumental results, the project found that the earth is 13.7 billion years old, the geometry of the earth is “Euclidian” and earth is largely dominated by dark matter and dark energy. 

First launched in 2003, BLAST is an instrument weighing three tons, equipped with a two-meter telescope. Most significantly, BLAST determined the history of star formation over the last 10 billion years and detected the origin of the far infrared radiation in space. Netterfield and his students were intricately involved with BLAST’s flights, the analysis of data post-flight and the inclusive integration of the powerful instrument. 

Currently, Netterfield and his team are investigating data from the last BLAST flight in order to determine the rate at which stars form. The group will also send out two new telescopes within the next year. 

As a Christian academic, Netterfield’s challenge is to continue cultivating the values of God when the values of the world are so prevalent. In scientific research, practicing such values could mean the difference between humility and self-promotion. 

Ultimately, through his passion for astrophysics, Netterfield seeks to bring glory and honor to God. “What we -- my group and broader community -- have learned about history and nature of the universe has definitely kept the question of the origin of the universe on people’s minds,” he explained. 

Netterfield’s grandfather offered encouragement when he expressed interest in science, stating, “You will see that God will show himself there.” 

For Netterfield, those words ring true today; indeed, He has. 

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