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Science

They are twins. They are astrophysicists. And they agree on almost everything. Except God

Portrait — Johan and Hans Uldall Fynbo both do research on the universe as professors of astrophysics at different universities. Their life trajectories have followed each other closely. But at one point they each took a different path: One believes in God, the other does not.

The gravel crunches under their feet when Hans Uldall Fynbo and Johan Uldall Fynbo walk up the path from the car park to the small church.

The church is in Herslev, 10 km west of Fredericia, Denmark. Hans Fynbo rubs his hands against each other for warmth.

»It is always cold here, probably because the church is on a hill. I remember standing here and waiting for mass or a funeral and just … freezing.«

We have agreed to meet at the church in the village of their childhood. This is where the two twins were baptized and confirmed. It is this church upon whose land their father was a tenant. And it is this church that remains a white-washed symbol of what is often a topic of conversation between them: Can you believe in God and science at the same time?

The two brothers have followed each other their whole lives. They have been in class together, at university together, and they have, since then, both worked themselves up to positions as professors of astrophysics. But at one point they chose different directions in life. One of them has kept Christianity in his life, while the other no longer has his childhood faith.

A special connection

On a wall in Herslev church, there is a board that lists all the priests affiliated to the church since the Reformation. Hans Fynbo points to one of the later priests.

»I think I dated his daughter,« he says. Johan Fynbo laughs and gives his brother a friendly poke.

You have a strange connection as twins.

Hans Fynbo

You cannot see that the two men are identical twins. Johan Fynbo is slightly taller than Hans Fynbo, who, on the other hand, has a slightly narrower face. But their noses and eyebrows have the same shape, and their voices are so similar that it is difficult to hear the difference in the resonance of the church.

During the first 30 years of their lives, they thought that they were non-identical twins, each with their own genes. Their mother was told as much by the midwife at birth.

But then they took part in a project to map out the origins of humans, and found out that they were completely the same.

»It’s not because it means that much, but it does matter a bit. We thought it was a mistake, and that they had mixed up the samples, but they said that they had not,« says Hans Fynbo. Johan Fynbo takes over.

»Then we wrote an email to the Danish registry for twins where we are registered. But they wrote back that they knew this all along. They could have told us,« he laughs.

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It is in their tone of conversation that the cohesion between the two twins is noticeable. They finish each other’s sentences, tease each other, and always seem to know what the other person is going to say. It is as if they are one unit, even though they have grown up and now live at two different ends of the country.

»You have a strange connection as twins. We certainly have. We have often been seen as ‘them’ and have been referred to as ‘the little ones’ because we were not that tall. Or as the plural ‘Johans’, because our first names are so similar. You have to thank your parents for that,« says Hans Fynbo.

Because they’ve followed each other a whole lifetime, it’s no wonder that they ended up in two almost identical professorships at two different universities, they say. Johan at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Hans at Aarhus University. This is just a natural consequence of two lives that have followed the same course.

Teenage doubts

There are about 300 people living in Herslev. When the twin brothers were children, all of the fields around the town were distributed between a handful of large farms, and the surnames and the size of the gravestones in the cemetery all bear witness to the status and local influence of the families. The farm owners were on the parish council and kept company with the priest. Now they all lie there on the front row. And most of the farms are now shut down.

The Uldall-Fynbo family was not wealthy, but lived in the managing residence affiliated with the vicarage. Today this small house has been converted into a room for confirmations.

»Our parents were what you would call small-time, ordinary folk. Just the fact that our father did not own his own land, but was a tenant, that really meant a lot at the time,« says Johan Fynbo.

If you were a child in Herslev, you played soccer. There were no options like badminton or guitar, and even though there was one year when a handball team was set up, it was not a success. The brothers went to Sunday school at the village baker’s house and to a Christmas tree party in the church as well at the missionary house of the conservative Danish Inner Missionary congregation.

I see existence as enigmatic.

Johan Fynbo

»This was where the real believers turned up. One part of the village met in the village hall after mass, the other part met up in the missionary house. Sometimes the two groups could not be in the same room together,« says Hans Fynbo.

The brothers’ mother was brought up in the Inner Mission group, but did not have the energy or desire to pass on this brand of Christianity on to her children.

»Our grandmother, in particular, was very active in the Inner Mission. She was very preoccupied with Evil,« says Johan Fynbo.

»Our mum was not allowed to go to the cinema,« Hans Fynbo interjects.

»Yes, for them everything was either black or white, no grey, and it probably had an effect on our upbringing that our mother wanted to do things differently. We said our prayers with her in the evening, but compared to the rest of the family, we were not that religious. My own religiosity is probably very similar to hers,« says Johan Fynbo.

After many years of Christmas tree festivities, evening prayers, and nicknames, the two twin brothers realised that they differed from each other on at least one point. When they became teenagers and reached confirmation age, the seeds of doubt started to grow in the mind of Hans Fynbo.

»I started thinking about why there is suffering in the world. Why people can be evil, but also about natural events like tsunamis, where 200,000 people can die. I couldn’t get it to make any sense that there should be a God when these things happen. That’s when I started thinking that there’s something here that does not make sense.«

Johan Fynbo nods. He has heard his brother describe these thoughts to him before. He just doesn’t feel that way.

»This is something we have discussed quite a lot, because it is actually the only place where we ended up choosing different directions. Religion means a lot to me, and it’s something that I seek. I have even joined the council of my local church, but it is, I admit, mostly because nobody else wanted to take up the place.«

Visited the pope

It is as if the two brothers have come a long way from the church in Herslev. And they were not predestined to be interested in the heavens in a more scientific sense. And certainly not end up as astrophysicists at a university.

Johan Fynbo: »We were not even supposed to get to upper secondary school.«

Hans Fynbo: »No, this was not on the cards.«

Johan Fynbo: »We kind of had the feeling that we were not good enough for this. It was probably our mum’s inferiority complex that she passed on. So it was a bit surprising that things turned out after all.«

I can easily live with the fact that there are some questions that I cannot answer.

Hans Fynbo

»You mean that we were actually good at it?« says Hans Fynbo and laughs. When the two brothers laugh, it comes from deep down.

For some time, they considered becoming farmers like their dad, and his dad before him. Instead, they chose to continue their studies on the physics programme at Aarhus University. The idea was that they would always need physics teachers for upper secondary school.

Today, Hans Fynbo is researching nuclear astrophysics and conducts experiments on the behaviour of particles smaller than an atom. Johan Fynbo researches how the first elements arose in the early life of the universe. When Hans Fynbo went to summer school at CERN, the European organisation for nuclear research in Switzerland in his third year of study, Johan Fynbo went to a summer school at the Vatican.

»I was down listening to the Pope talk on the fruitful interplay between religion and science. He did not see the two as being in conflict, like many people do. What is important is that we can have a respectful dialogue, and find a way in which the two frameworks of understanding can co-exist without a struggle,« he says. There are a few seconds of silence within the large church space.

»I’m not religious. It’s not a choice you make, it’s just something you are, or are not. In any case, I didn’t sit down one morning and decided on one or the other. That’s not how it works,« says Hans Fynbo.

He points to the Jesus figure hanging over them on the wall beneath the beams on the ceiling, pale and with a crown of thorns.

»I have looked up at this guy quite often. The whole idea of God being a person. This I cannot link up with science. That’s why we also disagree a bit about whether there’s a conflict between faith and science, because I get my worldview through science. Johan does not believe that you should see science as a worldview.«

Johan Fynbo laughs. This is not the first time he hears his brother’s arguments.

»But I don’t think you can run away from it,« Hans Fynbo insists. »We know how life arose, and we can’t get around that.«

»We know that, sure, I do not deny that. I just don’t think it’s the job of science to create an overarching worldview,« says Johan Fynbo.

Who has the answers?

It may seem paradoxical to be researching the Big Bang, while at the same time believing in the Christian story of creation. But one does not exclude the other, according to Johan Fynbo.

»For me, they are pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. I see our existence as enigmatic, as something that we gradually reveal to ourselves. And once in a while, something completely shakes us up. And we have seen this many times in the history of science. So I don’t think we’ve reached a state where we can say, ‘so now we know how the world is’. That’s why I have no ambition to behold a complete representation of the world. There are things that don’t really fit together.«

He often meets other scientists who believe in a deity.

»It is not rare that scientists are religious. I have heard that physicists do not have a low percentage of believers. Biologists are very atheist though,« Johan says.

It makes no sense, however, to use scientific methods to look at religion, according to him. The Bible should not be read literally, so there is no reason to try to attempt a study of the genetic composition of Jesus or try to find evidence that the Earth arose with Adam and Eve. It would just be nonsense, Johan Fynbo thinks.

»There are other things that are much more fruitful to discuss. What is a human being? These are the larger questions that steer me towards religion.«

Hans Fynbo may well miss the church. The church as a space for community and tradition, but not as a place where he learns new things about the world. Now he only goes to church when someone has to be buried. It is not because he is not as curious about life’s big questions as his twin brother. They just can’t be answered by religion, but by scientists, he thinks. With objective empirical data, and with experiments that can be reproduced.

»I agree that there are the big questions that we still need to answer. What is consciousness? We’ve not come far in understanding what this is. But I see it as a scientific question. Why does the universe exist? We don’t know either, but I’d rather let this remain unanswered. I can easily live with the fact that there are some questions that I cannot answer.

Johan Fynbo looks at his brother.

»That was pretty much also what I said before,« he says.

“Yes, I guess it was,« says Hans Fynbo.

The two twin brothers will probably never finish discussing the existence of a deity. But when you’re completely the same, it doesn’t mean that much when there is one thing that diverges. And their academic gaze is focussed on the same place: Out in space.

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