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The Religious Affiliation of Nobel Prize-winning physicist
Charles Townes

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles Hard Townes is notable as the inventor of the maser and for his important research in lasers and quantum electronics.

From "Charles Hard Townes" article on Wikipedia.com (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Hard_Townes; viewed 19 April 2007):

Charles Hard Townes... Personal Details... He was born in Greenville, South Carolina to Baptist parents... He is a Protestant Christian, and is a member of the United Church of Christ...

Townes identifies himself as a progressive liberal Protestant Christian. From: Bonnie Azab Powell (NewsCenter), "'Explore as much as we can': Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes on evolution, intelligent design, and the meaning of life", published 17 June 2005 in UC Berkeley News (http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2005/06/17_townes.shtml; viewed 19 April 2007):

Q. How do you categorize your religious beliefs?

I'm a Protestant Christian, I would say a very progressive one. This has different meanings for different people. But I'm quite open minded and willing to consider all kinds of new ideas and to look at new things. At the same time it has a very deep meaning for me: I feel the presence of God. I feel it in my own life as a spirit that is somehow with me all the time.

Townes further illuminates his religious beliefs in his 2005 U.S. Berkeley interview. From Powell:

Q. How do you categorize your religious beliefs?

Religion and science, faith and empirical experiment... according to Charles Hard Townes, winner of a Nobel Prize in Physics and a UC Berkeley professor in the Graduate School, they are united by similar goals: science seeks to discern the laws and order of our universe; religion, to understand the universe's purpose and meaning, and how humankind fits into both.

Where these areas intersect is territory that Townes has been exploring for many of his 89 years, and in March his insights were honored with the 2005 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. Worth about $1.5 million, the Templeton Prize recognizes those who, throughout their lives, have sought to advance ideas and/or institutions that will deepen the world's understanding of God and of spiritual realities.

Townes first wrote about the parallels between religion and science in IBM's Think magazine in 1966, two years after he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his groundbreaking work in quantum electronics: in 1953, thanks in part to what Townes calls a "revelation" experienced on a park bench, he invented the maser (his acronym for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission), which amplifies microwaves to produce an intense beam. By building on this work, he achieved similar amplification using visible light, resulting in the laser (whose name he also coined).

Even as his research interests have segued from microwave physics to astrophysics, Townes has continued to explore topics such as "Science, values, and beyond," in Synthesis of Science and Religion (1987), "On Science, and what it may suggest about us," in Theological Education (1988), and "Why are we here; where are we going?" in The International Community of Physics, Essays on Physics (1997).

Townes sat down one morning recently to discuss how these and other weighty questions have shaped his own life, and their role in current controversies over public education.

Q. If science and religion share a common purpose, why have their proponents tended to be at loggerheads throughout history?

Science and religion have had a long interaction: some of it has been good and some of it hasn't. As Western science grew, Newtonian mechanics had scientists thinking that everything is predictable, meaning there's no room for God -- so-called determinism. Religious people didn't want to agree with that. Then Darwin came along, and they really didn't want to agree with what he was saying, because it seemed to negate the idea of a creator. So there was a real clash for a while between science and religions.

But science has been digging deeper and deeper, and as it has done so, particularly in the basic sciences like physics and astronomy, we have begun to understand more. We have found that the world is not deterministic: quantum mechanics has revolutionized physics by showing that things are not completely predictable. That doesn't mean that we've found just where God comes in, but we know now that things are not as predictable as we thought and that there are things we don't understand. For example, we don't know what some 95 percent of the matter in the universe is: we can't see it -- it's neither atom nor molecule, apparently. We think we can prove it's there, we see its effect on gravity, but we don't know what and where it is, other than broadly scattered around the universe. And that's very strange.

So as science encounters mysteries, it is starting to recognize its limitations and become somewhat more open. There are still scientists who differ strongly with religion and vice versa. But I think people are being more open-minded about recognizing the limitations in our frame of understanding.

Q. You've said "I believe there is no long-range question more important than the purpose and meaning of our lives and our universe." How have you attempted to answer that question?

Even as a youngster, you're usually taught that there's some purpose you'll try to do, how you are going to live. But that's a very localized thing, about what you want with your life. The broader question is, "What are humans all about in general, and what is this universe all about?" That comes as one tries to understand what is this beautiful world that we're in, that's so special: "Why has it come out this way? What is free will and why do we have it? What is a being? What is consciousness?" We can't even define consciousness. As one thinks about these broader problems, then one becomes more and more challenged by the question of what is the aim and purpose and meaning of this universe and of our lives.

Those aren't easy questions to answer, of course, but they're important and they're what religion is all about. I maintain that science is closely related to that, because science tries to understand how the universe is constructed and why it does what it does, including human life. If one understands the structure of the universe, maybe the purpose of man becomes a little clearer. I think maybe the best answer to that is that somehow, we humans were created somewhat in the likeness of God. We have free will. We have independence, we can do and create things, and that's amazing. And as we learn more and more -- why, we become even more that way. What kind of a life will we build? That's what the universe is open about. The purpose of the universe, I think, is to see this develop and to allow humans the freedom to do the things that hopefully will work out well for them and for the rest of the world...

Q. You've described your inspiration for the maser as a moment of revelation, more spiritual than what we think of as inspiration. Do you believe that God takes such an active interest in humankind?

[The maser] was a new idea, a sudden visualization I had of what might be done to produce electromagnetic waves, so it's somewhat parallel to what we normally call revelation in religion. Whether the inspiration for the maser and the laser was God's gift to me is something one can argue about. The real question should be, where do brand-new human ideas come from anyway? To what extent does God help us? I think he's been helping me all along. I think he helps all of us -- that there's a direction in our universe and it has been determined and is being determined. How? We don't know these things. There are many questions in both science and religion and we have to make our best judgment. But I think spirituality has a continuous effect on me and on other people.

Q. That sounds like you agree with the "intelligent design" movement, the latest framing of creationism, which argues that the complexity of the universe proves it must have been created by a guiding force.

I do believe in both a creation and a continuous effect on this universe and our lives, that God has a continuing influence -- certainly his laws guide how the universe was built. But the Bible's description of creation occurring over a week's time is just an analogy, as I see it. The Jews couldn't know very much at that time about the lifetime of the universe or how old it was. They were visualizing it as best they could and I think they did remarkably well, but it's just an analogy.

Q. Should intelligent design be taught alongside Darwinian evolution in schools as religious legislators have decided in Pennsylvania and Kansas?

I think it's very unfortunate that this kind of discussion has come up. People are misusing the term intelligent design to think that everything is frozen by that one act of creation and that there's no evolution, no changes. It's totally illogical in my view. Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real. This is a very special universe: it's remarkable that it came out just this way. If the laws of physics weren't just the way they are, we couldn't be here at all. The sun couldn't be there, the laws of gravity and nuclear laws and magnetic theory, quantum mechanics, and so on have to be just the way they are for us to be here.

Some scientists argue that "well, there's an enormous number of universes and each one is a little different. This one just happened to turn out right." Well, that's a postulate, and it's a pretty fantastic postulate -- it assumes there really are an enormous number of universes and that the laws could be different for each of them. The other possibility is that ours was planned, and that's why it has come out so specially. Now, that design could include evolution perfectly well. It's very clear that there is evolution, and it's important. Evolution is here, and intelligent design is here, and they're both consistent.

Q. They don't have to negate each other, you're saying. God could have created the universe, set the parameters for the laws of physics and chemistry and biology, and set the evolutionary process in motion, But that's not what the Christian fundamentalists are arguing should be taught in Kansas.

People who want to exclude evolution on the basis of intelligent design, I guess they're saying, "Everything is made at once and then nothing can change." But there's no reason the universe can't allow for changes and plan for them, too. People who are anti-evolution are working very hard for some excuse to be against it. I think that whole argument is a stupid one. Maybe that's a bad word to use in public, but it's just a shame that the argument is coming up that way, because it's very misleading.

Q. That seems to come up when religion seeks to control or limit the scope of science. We're seeing that with the regulation of research into stem cells and cloning. Should there be areas of scientific inquiry that are off-limits due to a culture's prevailing religious principles?

My answer to that is, we should explore as much as we can. We should think about everything, try to explore everything, and question things. That's part of our human characteristic in nature that has made us so great and able to achieve so much. Of course there are problems if we do scientific experiments on people that involve killing them -- that's a scientific experiment sure, but ethically it has problems. There are ethical issues with certain kinds of scientific experimentation. But outside of the ethical issues, I think we should try very hard to understand everything we can and to question things.

Q. I think it's settling those ethical issues that's the problem. Who decides what differentiates a "person" from a collection of cells, for example?

That's very difficult. What is a person? We don't know. Where is this thing, me -- where am I really in this body? Up here in the top of the head somewhere? What is personality? What is consciousness? We don't know. The same thing is true once the body is dead: where is this person? Is it still there? Has it gone somewhere else? If you don't know what it is, it's hard to say what it's doing next. We have to be open-minded about that. The best we can do is try to find ways of answering those questions.

Charles Townes, writing in "The Convergence of Science and Religion," IBM's Think magazine, March-April 1966, as quoted alongside Powell's 2005 U.S. Berkeley interview (http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2005/06/17_townes.shtml; viewed 19 April 2007):

Faith is necessary for the scientist even to get started, and deep faith is necessary for him to carry out his tougher tasks. Why? Because he must have confidence that there is order in the universe and that the human mind -- in fact his own mind -- has a good chance of understanding this order.

From: "STATEMENT BY CHARLES HARD TOWNES At The Templeton Prize News Conference, March 9, 2005", posted on Templeton Prize official website, The Templeton Prize Canyon Institute for Advanced Studies, 3300 West Camelback Road, Phoenix, Arizona 85017 (http://www.templetonprize.org/townes_statement.html; viewed 19 April 2007):

I feel very humble at being thought to have contributed to such critically important fields as spirituality and the purpose of life. I am enormously honored by this award, and deeply thank the Templeton Foundation. I want to thank even more Sir John Templeton for his work and emphasis on better understanding spirituality and religion, and towards bringing science and religion into productive interactions. His efforts have in recent years indeed produced an atmosphere of open and helpful discussions between scientists and theologians. I believe there is no long-range question more important than the purpose and meaning of our lives and our universe, and Sir John has very much stimulated its thoughtful consideration, particularly encouraging open and useful discussion of spirituality and the meaning of life by scientists.

Science and religion have had a long history of interesting interaction. But when I was younger, that interaction did not seem like a very healthy one. For example, when I was a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, even my professor who was directing my research jumped on me for being religiously oriented. I myself have always thought that science and religion are not unrelated, and should be honestly and openly interacting. Later, in the early 1960s, I was at Columbia University and the men's group of Riverside Church, near Columbia, asked if I would talk to them about my views, since I was one of few scientists they knew who attended church. Surprisingly, a week after my talk someone telephoned to ask if he could publish my talk he had heard on the relation between science and religion. Of all things, he wanted to publish it in THINK magazine of IBM, of which he was editor. Shortly after that, the editor of the MIT Alumni Journal read it and also wanted to publish it in his journal, and did. But a prominent MIT alumnus wrote him that if he ever published anything like it again on religion, he would never have anything more to do with MIT. This of course only encouraged me to provide many other talks and articles on the subject as I was invited, but it reflected a common view at the time among many scientists that one could not be a scientist and religiously oriented. There was an antipathy towards discussion of spirituality.

Not long afterwards, Templeton began his creative and constructive emphasis on better understanding of religion and by now I believe has made a major change in openness of the public and of scientists to such discussions.

My own view is that, while science and religion may seem different, they have many similarities, and should interact and enlighten each other. They certainly can appear quite different, but basically I believe are closely related. Science tries to understand what our universe is like and how it works, including us humans. Religion is aimed at understanding the purpose and meaning of our universe, including our own lives. If the universe has a purpose or meaning, this must be reflected in its structure and functioning, and hence in science. In addition, to best understand either science or religion, we must use all of our human resources -- logic, evidence (observations or experiment), carefully chosen assumptions, intuition, and faith. A former scientist-philosopher, when asked to define the "scientific method," said, "It's to work like the devil to get the answer, with no holds barred." I believe the same is true for our understanding of spirituality.

Many people don't realize that science basically involves assumptions and faith. But nothing is absolutely proved. For example, the mathematician Godel showed logically that to prove something, there must be an overall set of assumptions, but that we can never prove that the assumptions are even self-consistent. We must make the best assumptions we can envisage, and have faith. And wonderful things in both science and religion come from our efforts based on observations, thoughtful assumptions, faith, and logic.

There are many mysteries in science. We seem to know only about five percent of the matter in our universe -- this is such a small fraction, and what is the remainder? We are convinced the other matter is there, but it's not stars, light, or gas. What is it? It's clearly there according to cosmological behavior, but we don't know what in the world it is.

We assume the laws of physics are constant, and have faith in that, but could they suddenly change? And if not, why not?

Quantum mechanics and general relativity are wonderful, and tell us a lot. But it appears they are not consistent with each other. What is it we are missing?

Science is so successful we are enthralled and believe it, but there are profound mysteries. Another mystery facing us in human life is free will. According to present science, we individuals really can have no freedom of choice, yet we think we do. And there is the question as to what really is consciousness, or a conscious being. Intuitively we think we can make some free choices, and know what consciousness is, but our present science and logic simply do not fit our ideas very well. Are there completely new phenomena and laws of science to be discovered, or can we never understand fully?

Recently, scientists have become more and more aware of the special nature of our universe, a special nature which allows us to exist, and we are wondering more and more about why. If relations between electromagnetic and nuclear forces were not very close to what they actually are, then the wealth of chemical elements, including carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen which humans depend on so much could not exist. If the gravitational and nuclear forces were not very close to what they are, the generation of heat by stars and our long-lasting and steady solar source of energy could not be.

Why did the laws of physics turn out to be so special that we can be here? We can assume it was just accidental, but that seems extremely unlikely. Another possibility is that there are an almost infinite number of universes, each with different laws and ours turned out to be just the right one. But we can't test this assumption, and even if there are a multitude of universes we do not know why the laws of physics would vary in such a way from one universe to another.

Increasingly, science is showing how special our universe and we are, which has raised questions about whether it was indeed planned or influenced -- one of many examples where science and religion naturally interact. The British physicist, Fred Hoyle, who was skeptical that there was any creation of the universe, nevertheless wrote, after he discovered how remarkable nuclear properties produced important chemical elements, "Would you not say to yourself, 'some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom?' Of course you would. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that some super intellect has monkeyed with physics -- and there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature."

We must continuously pay deep attention to such basic questions -- the meaning of our universe, of life, and how to fulfill it. And we need to be open minded. I believe our present views have an important reality. But they may be modified, just as classical or Newtonian physics was radically modified in principle by the advent of quantum mechanics. And yet, classical physics is still remarkably close to many realities, and we rely on it in many ways. As we progress, I'm hopeful that new understandings will deepen our perceptions. And they may well change our views, but I believe present understandings will still be important.

The Templeton Foundation has been creative and importantly helpful in stimulating new thoughts, efforts, and insights towards our understanding, in particular towards open and useful discussion between science and spirituality, which I deeply appreciate. And I am hopeful we will in time understand much more.

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Webpage created 19 April 2007. Last modified 19 April 2007.
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