Today’s guest is Professor Matt King. We met at a prayer group at the university, when I was working at the university, which I am no longer doing. Matt’s an outstanding researcher, and I found a bit on the UTAS website page which said that he ‘works within the surveying and spatial sciences group, which is part of a wider University of Tasmania group working on solid earth geophysics and geodesy. And then it said, ‘Fast Fact: Professor King has authored more than 80 peer-reviewed publications including several articles in the leading scientific journals Science, Nature and Nature Geoscience’. Science and Nature, I have to say they’re the really big ones that we all want to get into, so I’m pretty impressed by that. And he was awarded the Kavli Medal and Lecture, which was in 2015, Biennial Award for Excellence in Science and Engineering Relevant to the Environment or Energy at the Royal Society in London – I actually remember that, you taking off to London – for his research in field glaciology leading to the first reconciled estimate of ice sheet contribution to sea level. So, we’re going to get some explanation of that.
It is a mouthful, isn’t it?
So let’s start there: what is geodesy?
Geodesy is the word that, any time I get interviewed people get stuck on, and then it’s a great way of actually talking about what I do, because no one has ever heard the word. It’s actually an old science. It’s about the study of the shape of the earth, the earth’s rotation and its gravity field, and how those things change with time. So the early geodesists were interested, literally, in the shape of the earth. Is it round, is it a squashed ball from north to south, or from east to west if you like –
So they weren’t asking ‘Is it flat?’
No no, I think we’d moved well beyond that at that point. But they were interested in working out the curvature of the earth and hence what its shape was, and since then we’ve moved into things like understanding how the earth changes shape because of earthquakes, or because of ice sheets melting and the earth rebounding as that melts, the earth’s rotation and how that changes as water moves around the surface of the earth, or mass moves around inside the earth, and the gravity field, which changes because of all those things moving around on its surface as well. So that’s geodesy: it’s a measurement science, but it gives us insight into things that are going on on the surface, above the surface, under the surface of the earth –
And you use a lot of satellites and things.
Yeah, so I use a lot of Global Positioning System to measure very precisely, sort of millimetre level displacements of the surface of the earth, or glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland that are moving and how they’re moving, and how they’re changing over time. We use satellites to measure the earth’s gravity field and how that changes over time, and we make measurements broadly in our discipline out to the stars and quasars to look at the earth’s rotation and its wobble, as well.
Wow. There you go! That sounds amazing. And I’m sure there’s a lot of interest in it in terms of climate change and things like that.
Yeah, so there’s a huge amount. As soon as you start working on how Antarctica’s changing and your ability to measure that, then it becomes really relevant to be able to say ‘Well, we can actually really precisely determine how this vast ice sheet is changing over time, and contributing to sea level.’ Same with Greenland. And we now know, largely thanks to geodesic efforts around that world that Antarctica and Greenland are losing more mass than is being replaced by snowfall, and so sea levels are rising partly because of that.
Yeah. Which is not nice to know, but important.
No, but it’s only going to get worse, and the question is how much worse?
Okay, so where we normally start – and I’m going to go back to – is how did you become a Christian?
Yeah, that’s a great question. So I grew up in a Christian family in north-west Tasmania, always went to church, and probably had some sort of faith from an early age. I can certainly remember as a young child sort of going off and getting the Bible and reading the Bible for myself before bedtime and praying. But by about mid-teens I was attending church because my friends were there; faith was a very… I don’t know if I would have been able to talk in any way, shape or form about what my faith was. But I was still going to church, I was keen to go to youth group, all those sorts of things. And it wasn’t really until second year uni when – I was studying at Hobart at that stage, in Tasmania here – and I was sent off to work for a year in industry. Not because I was in trouble, but because that was the way the course worked: we spent second year working in industry. And I was working in the remote west coast of Tasmania in a mining town, Zeehan, and working underground and on the surface doing mine surveying type work. And so that was a year where, as a now-nineteen-year-old, I was thinking – or I think I was led to think – ‘What do I actually believe?’ You know? ‘I’m now no longer a child, do I actually believe what my parents have taught me and what others have invested time in teaching me, formally or informally, or did I not?’ And through that year I started reading books, I read the Bible, I’m sure I prayed, and it was over the course of that year that really the penny very slowly dropped, but most definitely dropped. I did actually believe really what this was saying, and that this was something I should invest my life in.
Fantastic. I’m just taking out of that the importance of having those youth groups and those social times, because if you’d left that much earlier, that might have not gotten to that point.
That’s right. I don’t think the purpose of youth group should primarily be keeping people in church, they primarily should be about teaching the gospel and winning people to Christ. And I’ve got no doubt people were trying to do that, but for me the benefit of youth group was keeping me tagging along, and giving me a structure of friends who were going on in the faith at various different paces: some of them a bit slowly like me, and others more quickly. But when God moved in my heart to put faith in me as an adult, there was an echo system of people around me who could nurture me and I could be encouraging them and all sorts of things like that as well.
And had you been involved in Christian group here on campus as well?
A little bit. I’m naturally an introvert, and I was very fringey. So certainly not in first year. First year I – no, I had been part of one group for a bit in first year, but I was a bit uneasy around that, because I hadn’t worked out my own faith I think. Even after that, after second year I was standoffish a bit. I still hadn’t worked out my place, I wasn’t entirely at ease with faith and life and how those things meshed. Because I’d spent the last 7 years or something like that keeping faith off to the side and just enjoying life to some extent. And so it took a long time to begin to unpick that. And I think part of that unease came from… I’d been through the Christian school system, at least year 11 and 12, so I hadn’t really been shown or worked out how to live or seen other people live as Christians in a non-Christian context. So that took a long time to work through, actually.
So that’s really – partly – what this podcast is about. Which leads me very nicely to my next question: how do you live your faith in this non-Christian context?
The first thing I had to get over was actually letting people know I was a Christian. And when you’ve kept that from people or not really been a Christian for a while, there’s a certain sort of awkwardness around that. And that took a bit of time, but ultimately it just takes some boldness to just go ‘Well, let me invite you to something’ and they go ‘Huh?’ And then it becomes a bit clearer that something’s going on. So I think removing the mystery that you are a Christian, and I never had any substantial opposition in an academic environment to being a Christian. People I’m sure though that was odd. I caught whispers of people being aware I was a Christian, so clearly people were talking about that in some way. But I also tried quite a bit to open my life to people. We’d try and have work colleagues and PhD colleagues over for meals, that sort of thing, just so they could see something more of my life than just work. I think I could have done more of that, and still could do more, but I think that’s an important thing to break down, and let people see that actually you live a genuine life. It’s not just work, but actually work and faith are part of the same life, not two different lives that you live. And so it’s good for my colleagues to come to my place and see that we say grace, even though it’s a bit awkward for them sometimes. I think it sort of blows their mind in all sorts of interesting ways, but it’s good for them to see that that is how we live, you know? That when they see me at work it’s very much only a small part of my life.
Have you ever found yourself having deeper conversations with people hearing this?
Yeah, so over my career I’ve had some really great deep conversations with people, I’ve taken people along to Christianity explored type events from work in the past. From time to time, there’s an interesting conversation with someone who’s been to a Catholic school and has some baggage around that but is still interested and engaged in those ideas. Even just a couple months ago I was talking to one of the senior academic staff here about those type of issues in a very surprising way: I didn’t expect to walk into the tea room and have that conversation, but there it was before me. And I think that’s one of the advantages of people knowing you’re a Christian and prepared to talk about it, is that people sometimes are prepared to talk or ask questions or raise issues.
Absolutely. So how do you balance your work life and your home life and your ministry life? Because I know you do some ministry at church as well.
Yeah. That’s right. So I’m an Elder in my local church, and lead a sort of home group Bible study as well, and my wife’s busy because she’s the women’s ministry worker at our church as well, so that makes our lives fairly ministry-focused with 3 children in senior primary school through to early high school.
I want to say too, because I’ve come out of this culture at uni that maybe people aren’t aware, but there’s a lot of pressure at uni to make this your entire life, and to work 80 hour weeks and to do whatever, so this is why I’m asking the question.
Yeah, because I don’t know anyone with a sort of ironic title of ‘balanced academic life’, which is used inside the university, which is meant to suggest that you’re doing some teaching, you’re doing some research, you’re doing some service to the discipline, but the result of all of that is that a balanced academic life is never balanced, because no academic doing that role ever does 40 hours a week. They’re all doing 50 or 60 hours, normally in the evening, sometimes at the weekend. I’ve certainly been blessed and had the good opportunity to avoid that for much of my career, because I’ve had largely a research-only focus. So I’ve had a great deal of flexibility which has been great for ministry if I needed to very occasionally meet with a pastor or something during the day, rather than at night, I could do that. Or with a friend who wanted to talk about faith or something. I wouldn’t do that a lot, but given the flexibility to do that because I knew I could make up the hours another time. It also meant there wasn’t the deadline pressures of teaching and marking and assessments and exams and those sorts of things. So I was able for the last part of my career to keep a lid on that, and I probably worked close to 40 hours a week. Maybe a bit more, but not much more. Now that I’m in a – I have a teaching role, I have a substantial leadership and management role as well – I’ve tried to keep it broadly like that. Quite a few of the evenings I’ll be doing a little bit of something, whether it’s checking emails or reading a student’s paper or something like that. So it does get into my evenings, but often my wife’s also doing something or out or whatever. So sort of preserves family life a little bit.
But I generally never work weekends, and I’d prefer for some parts of my career to be diminished than just to keep on going and respond to the pressure of more and more and more, because I don’t think that’s sustainable long term, nor is it good for my family and my faith. So at the moment, I’d say that my personal research is taking a hit, but that’s okay because family and being involved in church and ministry is more important.
So it’s really about priorities.
Yeah, that’s right. And you can get sucked into thinking you’ve got the right priorities, then you actually take stocktake of it on your life, and you realise ‘Hang on a minute – I’m actually making a lot of compromises in the things that I think actually should be the priorities.’ And that’s something I have to really watch on. I think we’re all subject to not being present with our families, because there’s stuff going on with work that we’re thinking about, or we’re on our phone. That’s something I definitely struggle with, and I need to make sure that even though I don’t work at weekends formally, that I’m not informally working at weekends at well, so that’s one of the things I definitely need to grow in.
I’ve got a question here – I don’t know whether it’ll be easy to answer – what do you like best about your job?
I like, and I’ve always been blessed to work with people who are great. People who are keen to do their job, not let the team down, make sure things happen, and are fun to be with. They like stopping for coffee and talking as well, having a joke, a lot of social interaction outside of work as well. So I guess I’d bring that into the sense of teamwork: whether it’s collaborations with people on research, or working with people in leadership teams, I’ve always enjoyed working in those relationships. And even though I’m an introvert, that’s actually the highlight I think. Being able to work with really good people to solve important problems, or to present a solution that works really well for teaching or for someone’s career. That’s the thing that I think gives me the greatest joy, yeah. Probably the second thing that I think motivates me as a Christian – because I’ve worked in that broad area of climate science, sea level, ice sheets, those sorts of things – I am mindful that climate change will hit the poorest of the world disproportionately. They’ll have the least capacity to adapt, and they’ll have the disproportionate higher impacts of climate change in the first place. If you’re thinking about sea level, you’re thinking about Pacific Islands, Solomon Islands and so on, et cetera et cetera. You’re thinking about Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Delta, tens of millions of people there who don’t really have a great capacity to adapt like those of us in the west. So it’s really important that they get the best information they possibly can – they and their governments – so they can adapt, because in general they haven’t actually driven any of the climate change we’re seeing. So there’s that second aspect as well, that I really enjoy.
Yeah, and that’s really interesting I think, because a lot of times if you’re a person of faith and you think ‘How can I best serve the world?’ you sort of think ‘Well, I need to go to those places and I need to, you know, whatever – build houses, or serve them, Mother Theresa, and do the thing’ – but you’re using the gifts that God’s given you in a completely – you know, beautiful white office in a lovely Western country with good money, and what you can do is serve these people in a way that someone on the ground can’t actually serve them.
Yeah, that’s right. And it’s good to know that, it is good to know that. And of course a non-Christian can do that just as well, but I certainly come at it with a – certainly as a Christian scientist I’m compelled to think about my neighbour, whether my neighbour is in the Solomon Islands, or Papua New Guinea, or not so far away in Bangladesh. And if I don’t do that, then there’s something missing in my thinking. So it is important, and it’s good to be able to – the academic life, as you know Ruth, can be very competitive sometimes, and so academics can lose track of… the end goal isn’t me getting the first or the best paper out, the end goal in this regard is actually getting the best information in the hands of the people who need to get that information, so that good and wise decisions can hopefully be made, and suffering can be diminished or reduced, and not exacerbated. And so I think that being reminded of that, the love your neighbour angle, to Jesus’ teaching is really important.
Absolutely. So when do you feel close to God?
This is a great question. So I think there’s one regular thing, and then there’s a time in my past where I think ‘Oh, that was a striking moment’. So I’ll talk about the second one first. Just over 20 years ago I had the privilege of spending 5 months in Antarctica. I haven’t been back since, but it was a really tremendous time, because we walked around the hills, and got to sit and watch icebergs on the horizon, and beautiful white snow petrels surfing the breeze, and flying around in helicopters for 40 hours doing work, and seeing parts of creation that are effectively untouched by humans, human hands. And it was strikingly beautiful, yeah. And you know the scriptures talk about the heavens declaring the glory of God, and there’s the part in Romans we were talking about, that God has revealed Himself through creation and leaves us without excuse. But both of those things remind me that this does speak to me a little bit in a profound way of God’s greatness and His glory. Especially when you see something that’s not modified by human hands in an obvious way, it’s quite striking. But the more and substantial thing is really just getting down into God’s word, and reading through – I’m reading through Colossians at the moment. You know that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, that type of – you read those things, and I’ve read that passage many times over, but each time it strikes me that what we have in Jesus, in the revelation of Jesus, is just so compelling. That we can actually see something of the invisible God as we look at Jesus and His character and what He’s like. So I think that, to me, is closeness. I enjoy being with Christian friends, and gathering together, and having fun. You know, there’s something about that fellowship also, but I think God’s word is really the heart of it.
Are you a regular quiet time person?
I attempt to be a regular quiet time person. I’m an imperfect quiet time person, but before work – before I come to work every day, that’s when I intend to do it. But that’s something – discipline on that area I need to work on as well.
I didn’t mean to put you under the spotlight there!
No no no, but aren’t we all? I mean, there’s very few people who can finish their life saying ‘Seven days a week, for all of life I did quiet times’. So we’re all imperfect and needing to grow in that. But devotion to that is a good thing to work on.
Absolutely. Gives God the chance to speak into your life.
So what’s one thing about God or Christianity that you wish everyone knew?
I think that I would love for non-Christians, actually, to be aware that Christians are not generally offended by their questions. Often non-Christians might say ‘Oh look, I don’t mean to offend you, but… what about suffering in the world?’ And as the case is that many thinking Christians have actually put a load more time into thinking about those questions, from a Christian viewpoint, than the non-Christian. So we’d love to actually answer, or at least have a stab at answering those questions. Show that we don’t have it all, but we’ve actually got the beginnings of something, or we’ve got – when we can point to Jesus – something very very clear. And so I think that’s what I’d love for people to know, is that Christians – well, Christians shouldn’t be afraid of questions. We should be thinking about things, and working on our own faith and thinking. But I’d love for non-Christians to know that they can actually come and ask us stuff, and they’ll probably get a well-thought-through response that might surprise them.
Yeah, that’s true. I remember somebody saying one of the curly questions, and I can’t remember which one it is, but I thought: ‘There are libraries full of books that from a Christian point of view have struggled with this question. Whole libraries, and yet, you know…’
That’s right. For 2000 years now, some of the best minds in the world have been thinking about these big questions with the education of those Scriptures, and there’s very little surprising left to be done in terms of questions you can ask a Christian.
Yeah, exactly. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us today?
I think I’ve actually run out of my – I didn’t have a pre-prepared script, so I don’t think there’s anything else Ruth, no. But it’s really been great to talk to you.
Yeah, thank you so much for sharing with us.