March 9, 2005


Co-Inventor of Laser Wins $1.5M Prize (RICHARD N. OSTLING, March 9, 2005, AP)

Charles Townes, co-inventor of the laser and a Nobel Prize-winner in physics, was named Wednesday as the recipient of a religion award billed as the world's richest annual prize.

Townes, 89, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, won the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. The award is worth 795,000 British pounds — more than $1.5 million — and Townes was honored for talks and writings about the importance of relating science and religion.

He first addressed that topic in 1964, the same year he shared the Nobel with two Russians for research on principles underlying the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

Townes said in remarks prepared for the announcement that his first talk about religion, to the men's Bible class of New York City's Riverside Church, was later published in IBM's Think magazine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni magazine.

After the second article, a prominent alumnus threatened to cease all involvement with MIT if anything like it were ever published again, Townes said. He also recalled that, years before, his doctoral adviser at California Institute of Technology "jumped on me for being religiously oriented."

"Many people don't realize that science basically involves assumptions and faith. But nothing is absolutely proved," Townes said. "Wonderful things in both science and religion come from our efforts based on observations, thoughtful assumptions, faith and logic."

-A life where science and faith coexist (Robert Tuttle, 3/10/05, The Christian Science Monitor)
Physicist Wins Spirituality Prize: Nobel recipient's belief that religion and science were converging raised hackles in the 1960s. (Larry B. Stammer, March 10, 2005, LA Times)
Spirituality and the fine-tuned cosmos (Rich Heffern, 12/12/03, National Catholic Reporter)

Science, once seen as the enemy of spirituality, is now making common cause with it in one area, in a search for meaning and purpose.

It seems absurb to think of humans influencing distant stars, but science tells us now that the simple fact of our existence does turn out to have profound implications for the ultimate questions. According to a growing number of hard-nosed physicists, the laws of nature are so finely tuned, and so many "coincidences" have occurred to allow for the possibility of life, the universe must have come into existence through intentional planning and intelligence.

Twenty or 30 years ago, science had closed the door on spiritual speculation. The divine was seen as wishful projection, existence as only an interaction between chance and necessity, and human behavior as inexorably determined by fixed variables. That has all changed in recent years. Charles Townes, the Nobel-winning co-inventor of the laser, said two years ago that the discoveries of physics "seem to reflect intelligence at work in natural law." And Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Research Institute, declared: "A lot of scientists really don't know what they are missing by not exploring their spiritual feelings."

This sea change results from a number of factors, including breathtaking discoveries in quantum physics, psychology and biology. A major influence has been scientific speculation about what is called the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, a summary of observations from the ongoing effort to solve the puzzles of the universe.

The cosmic fine-tuning described by the Anthropic Principle works something like this:

Mornings we all get out of bed, and it's a matter of putting your feet on the floor then standing up. Yet the prerequisites for this act are complex, including parents and a line of ancestors stretching back. An ultimate condition is the existence of sentient life in the universe.

We know of at least one instance us. We also know, thanks to 20th-century scientific discoveries, that the development of sentient life depends on a complex sequence of events. Stars and then planets must have formed, then those first generation stars made of simple elements like hydrogen and helium must have forged in their fiery furnaces more complex elements like carbon, zinc and iron. Then those stars needed to age and explode, thereby releasing those complex elements to be folded into the mix that formed second- and third-generation stars like our sun. Planets heavy in those elements must have also developed, where biological evolution can take place.

This is our story: We are literally made of fossilized stars.

We used to think that we humans were at the center of the universe. The light-giving sun and stars circled around us--or so it seemed--so obviously we were important, living at the center of things. Copernicus' discovery in the 16th century that, counter to appearances, the earth rotated while circling the sun began a revolution that gradually but inexorably dethroned humanity as the center of the universe. The idea we were specially created yielded to evolution's explanation.

It sank in gradually, with one new scientific discovery after another, that we're not privileged characters, just inhabitants of a garden-variety planet circling a run-of-the-mill sun in our galaxy's backwater, sentient and aware but certainly not at the center of things.

Surprisingly, this view has yielded in turn recently.

Many scientists suggest now that all the basic characteristics of the observable universe--the strength of its main forces like gravity, the masses of its particles, the rest mass of its electrons--are in a delicate balance that has allowed for the development and evolution over time of life, folks like us, who get out of bed mornings, think and contemplate the world around us.

Science & religion: blurring the boundaries (Margaret Wertheim, October 1994, Omni)
Historically, the separation or competition between science and religion is a rather recent phenomenon. In the thirteenth century when Europeans rediscovered the science of the Greeks, theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and Robert Grosseteste enthusiastically co-opted the ancients' knowledge of nature for religious purposes. Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln and first chancellor of Oxford University, used the newly revived science of geometric optics as the basis for his metaphysics of light, in which he proposed that light was the medium by which God spreads his divine grace throughout the universe. Under the influence of Aquinas, science and theology in the late Middle Ages were woven into a harmonious synthesis wherein science's first duty was to serve Christianity. Indeed, the belief that science should serve faith endured till the eighteenth century. Copernicus and Kepler both saw their cosmology as an anagogical pursuit; and Galileo notwithstanding, Newton himself once wrote that nothing could "rejoice" him more than that his science should be used for the purpose of demonstrating the existence of a deity.

However, since Newton, the relationship between the two cultures has seriously disintegrated. Contrary to what many popular histories would have us believe, the split between science and the church does not date to Galileo but to the Enlightenment. Nancey Murphy, chair of the CTNS board and associate professor of Christian philosophy at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, explains that in order to keep religion respectable in the scientific age "liberal theologians redescribed theology in such a way that science became irrelevant to it." From the late eighteenth century, religion was reformulated so that rather than having "cognitive content" it merely "had to do with symbolic expressions of human values and that sort of thing." In other words, religion was disconnected from the domain of empirical knowledge, and conversely, science was disconnected from the domain of morality and spirituality. That split has not only proved psychologically dissatisfying to many people, according to Murphy it is philosophically insupportable. Now however, she says, "we're at a position where we've got the intellectual tools to argue that theology and science should not be kept in watertight compartments, and in fact that they really can't be."

The incompatibility between science and religion is belied by the impressive array of Christian scientists (in the literal sense of that phrase), who have been attracted to the CTNS since its inception. On the board of directors is Charles Townes, who in 1964 won the Nobel prize for physics for his contributions to the development of the laser and maser. Another board member is the respected particle physicist Carl York, and this year's visiting research fellow is George Ellis--a world expert on space-time. Ellis, professor of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town and a visiting professor of astronomy at Queen Mary College, London University, was president of the International Society of General Relativity and Gravitation from 1988 to 1992. He is also co-author with Stephen Hawking of the forbiddingly titled text, The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime.

Yet where Hawking seems to relish the chance to highlight God's irrelevance--if there is no moment of creation, there is no need for a Creator--Ellis is a Quaker who sees in the foundations of the latest physics manifest signs of a providential deity. Rather than being an oddity, however, Ellis tells me he is following in a noble tradition. He points out that Arthur Eddington, the first champion of general relativity after Einstein, was also a Quaker. It was Eddington who organized the famous 1919 test of general relativity which corroborated Einstein's prediction that light bends as it passes by the sun--thereby demonstrating the inherent curvature of space-time. Similarly Georges Lemaitre, the first physicist to take seriously relativity's prediction of an expanding universe, was a Catholic priest. Clearly then, front-line physics and faith are far from incompatible.

One of the Center's most fruitful relationships is its ongoing partnership with the Vatican Observatory in Rome, with whom they hold joint biannual conferences under the rubric of "Divine Action in the World." Each conference brings together scientists, theologians, and philosophers to talk about a particular aspect of science and its implications for theology. Last year's topic, for instance, was chaos and complexity, while the 1991 conference was centered around quantum cosmology and the laws of nature. In addition to the Divine Action conferences, the CTNS is currently undertaking a major project to look at the theological implications of the Human Genome Project--the international effort to decode the set of genes contained in human chromosomes. Although many groups are now studying the ethical and social implications of this seminal endeavor, the CTNS is the only organization which has received National Institutes of Health funding to look at the theological issues. On top of these academic activities, the Center offers public lectures by its visiting fellows and also provides training and guidance for Christian ministers of all denominations in the form of workshops and seminars about science and its interaction with Christian faith. CTNS, which also publishes both a quarterly scholarly journal, The CTNS Bulletin, and a monthly newsletter, has over 500 members from all over the world.

From the point of view of faith, Russell says, there is an urgent need "to empower the church to take seriously its own message" in the age of science. In other words, theology must be kept relevant to the times. That point was also stressed by William Stoeger, a Jesuit priest, astrophysicist at the Vatican Observatory, and member of the Board at CTNS, who has been one of the chief organizers of the Divine Action conferences. "No religion which is enculturated into the Western world can afford to ignore science," he tells me. "It plays such a major role in our culture today." Stoeger points out that much of the language we now use, and even the very terms in which we think, are deeply influenced by science, so if religious people ignore this fact and "continue to rely on categories of thought from the Renaissance or the Middle Ages, then religion comes to be seen as an anachronism." Stoeger believes that if concepts such as God as Creator are going to continue to make sense in the late twentieth century, then it needs to be articulated within the larger cultural context, a significant part of which is modern science and cosmology. We need to be able to see specifically just "how God could be working within the natural processes revealed by contemporary science."

For this reason one of the CTNS's primary strategies has been to take on highly theoretical topics like quantum cosmology and show how they can be relevant to traditional Christian concerns. For instance Russell has shown that Hawking's "no boundary" cosmology has indirect but important relevance to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Being of service to the faithful was hardly Hawking's intention--despite his muchquoted closing line about knowing "the mind of God," the famed British physicist's stance is deeply antireligious. Yet Russell believes Hawking's cosmology resolves a long-standing theological dilemma: How could a temporal universe have been created by a timeless deity? By offering a model of the universe which has no definitive beginning and where time gradually emerges as a distinct phenomenon, Russell says Hawking has provided a scientific analog for the Augustinian view that God created the universe with time rather than in time. Since in Hawking's model time arises out of something ontologically prior, it in itself becomes part of creation, just as Augustine suggested in the fifth century.

Similarly George Ellis has used physicists' knowledge of the fundamental constants of nature as evidence for a providential designer. According to contemporary physics, many of the basic constants of nature, such as the fine-structure constant and the protonneutron mass difference, appear to have highly providential values; if these values were even slightly different, it seems unlikely that a universe compatible with the biological evolution of life would have formed at all. Ellis employs this as the basis for an updated version of the old "argument from design"--the idea that the apparent purposefulness in the construction of nature points to the hand of a purposeful "Designer," emphasizing the importance of ethical issue which, he claims," cannot be meaningfully included in a world view based solely on physics." Though their work differs significantly, both Russell and Ellis argue that physics has "both criticized and restructured" traditional theological positions. Far from making religion seem redundant, Russell says contemporary science can provide "scope and insight for faith."

Science Finds God - scientific discovery leads to faith for some (Sharon Begley, January 1999, Saturday Evening Post)
The achievements of modern science seem to contradict religion and undermine faith. But for a growing number of scientists, the same discoveries offer support for spirituality and hints of the very nature of God.

The more deeply scientists see into the secrets of the universe, you'd expect, the more God would fade away from their hearts and minds. But that's not how it went for Allan Sandage. Now slightly stooped and white-haired at 72, Sandage has spent a professional lifetime coaxing secrets out of the stars, peering through telescopes from Chile to California in the hope of spying nothing less than the origins and destiny of the universe. As much as any other 20th-century astronomer, Sandage actually figured it out: his observations of distant stars showed how fast the universe is expanding and how old it is (15 billion years or so). But through it all, Sandage, who says he was "almost a practicing atheist as a boy," was nagged by mysteries whose answers were not to be found in the glittering panoply of supernovas. Among them: Why is there something rather than nothing? Sandage began to despair of answering such questions through reason alone, and so, at 50, he willed himself to accept God.

"It was my science that drove me to the conclusion that the world is much more complicated than can be explained by science," he says. "It is only through the supernatural that I can understand the mystery of existence."

Something surprising is happening between those two old warhorses science and religion.

Historically, they have alternated between mutual support and bitter enmity. Although religious doctrine midwifed the birth of the experimental method centuries ago, faith and reason soon parted ways. Galileo, Darwin, and others whose research challenged church dogma were branded heretics, and the polite way to reconcile science and theology was to simply agree that each would keep to its own realm: Science would ask, and answer, empirical questions like "what" and "how"; religion would confront the spiritual, wondering "why." But as science grew in authority and power beginning with the Enlightenment, this detente broke down. Some of its greatest minds dismissed God as an unnecessary hypothesis, one they didn't need to explain how galaxies came to shine or how life grew so complex. Since the birth of the universe could now be explained by the laws of physics alone, the late astronomer and atheist Carl Sagan concluded, there was "nothing for a Creator to do," and every thinking person was therefore forced to admit "the absence of God." Today the scientific community so scorns faith, says Sandage, that "there is a reluctance to reveal yourself as a believer, the opprobrium is so severe."

Some clergy are no more tolerant of scientists. A fellow researcher and friend of Sandage's was told by a pastor, "Unless you accept and believe that the earth and universe are only 6,000 years old [as a literal reading of the Bible implies], you cannot be a Christian." It is little wonder that people of faith resent science: by reducing the miracle of life to a series of biochemical reactions, by explaining Creation as a hiccup in space-time, science seems to undermine belief, render existence meaningless, and rob the world of spiritual wonder.

But now "theology and science are entering into a new relationship," says physicist turned theologian Robert John Russell, who in 1980 founded the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Rather than undercutting faith and a sense of the spiritual, scientific discoveries are offering support for them, at least in the minds of people of faith. Big bang cosmology, for instance, once read as leaving no room for a Creator, now implies to some scientists that there is a design and purpose behind the universe. Evolution, say some scientist-theologians, provides clues to the very nature of God. And chaos theory, which describes such mundane processes as the patterns of weather and the dripping of faucets, is being interpreted as opening a door for God to act in the world.

From Georgetown to Berkeley, theologians who embrace science, and scientists who cannot abide the spiritual emptiness of empiricism, are establishing institutes integrating the two.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 9, 2005 2:12 PM

But nothing is absolutely proved

But some things are more proved than others. Should I treat my belief that the sun exists and my belief that invisible gnomes hide my keys and glasses as equally valid?

Orrin would say yes. It is a curious position for someone who argues for absolute truth. How do you manage to marry moral absolutism with epistemological relativism?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 9, 2005 2:34 PM

Sharks with lasers!

Posted by: pchuck at March 9, 2005 2:37 PM

A very smart friend once relayed to me that he had Prof Townes for for physics and stumped him with a question. I asked for details. It turned out he just got an answer that was too simplistic for him. Surprisingly, my limited laser knowledge led me to provide the same answer Townes had provided. Amazingly it still rattling around in my head though I mispronounced Plancks name.

The gist of it was that my friend, perhaps not coincidentally an atheist, couldn't just accept an elegant explanation.

Posted by: JAB at March 9, 2005 2:44 PM

Honestly, I'm more surprised there's actually a men's Bible class at Riverside Church.

Posted by: John at March 9, 2005 2:50 PM


Read more carefully. There WAS a men's Bible class at Riverside in 1964. :)

Posted by: Dan at March 9, 2005 2:55 PM

Except your belief that the sun exists can be easily confirmed by others, without instruments, even by people who are blind, for example. Your belief in the Underpants Gnomes can't be confirmed until you provide a reproducable case which doesn't depend on your presence. Until then, I'll still have to go with another hypothesis— incipient senility. (That's the explanation I use when I'm standing in front of a bookcase and have fogotten why I went there.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 9, 2005 2:56 PM

Raoul: Nothing can be proven, it's just that some things react more violently than others to being disproven.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 9, 2005 3:37 PM

Townes, by the way, was the chair of my dissertation committee. I was his last grad student. A very pleasant man, very hard working.

Posted by: pj at March 9, 2005 4:40 PM

JAB - I don't know the context, but it's foolish of your smart friend to think he outsmarted Townes. On my qualifying exam, Townes asked a question I thought was straightforward. Only after the exam did I realize my answer was incomplete and that there was a subtlety in the theory (about quantum statistical mechanics) that he was hinting at.

Townes was a very straightforward man, very willing to ask a dumb question when he didn't know something. He also had a lot of great stories. The group had lunch most days, and he always had an orange, and spent much of it telling us stories. He had known all of the top physicists for forty years, and many top government officials through his service on the Defense review board and various National Academy of Science panels.

Posted by: pj at March 9, 2005 4:46 PM


Your belief in yourself can't be confirmed.

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2005 5:31 PM


No they aren't equal. We know what's true and what isn't by faith alone. No proof is necessary.

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2005 5:33 PM

Robert - Surely you don't have as much faith in the gnomes as the sun? That would be like having as much faith in Ba'al as the God of Israel.

Posted by: pj at March 9, 2005 6:22 PM

I'm pretty sure my friend just didn't get it and received a dismissive answer after overcomplicating the quesiton. This anecdote came after reading this article to mind more because this friend is a committed atheist not unlike those who were so critical of a Townes.

Posted by: JAB at March 9, 2005 7:00 PM

Speak for yourself. I know I exist, but you are just a bit stream of characters coming out of the wall that appears on my screen, little more than a high-tech hallucination.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 9, 2005 7:16 PM


Wrong. Usually whenever I'm sitting here pondering whether I exist or not, my wife calls up and tells me to stop wasting time and do something useful. Thus she confirms I exist. Damn.

Posted by: Peter B at March 9, 2005 7:44 PM


What kind of fool answers the phone?

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2005 8:42 PM

If not the gnomes, then who took my keys? Show me the keys!!!

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 9, 2005 9:27 PM

Robert --

I've always blamed the Martians for unexplained key thefts, and when NASA finishes analyizing all that data from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers they're going to prove I'm right, dagnabit...

Posted by: John at March 9, 2005 10:05 PM


They speciated into lint.

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2005 10:06 PM


I won't lower myself into your ontological dialogue. I'm more impressed that a few of your commenters knew or worked with Mr. Townes.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at March 10, 2005 1:57 AM

Raoul: Amen. And congratulations. You may just have proven that you exist, unless this is a particularly fiendish Turing test.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 10, 2005 9:29 AM

Thanks, David.

Have I ever told you that, after the near-deity Orrin, you're my second favorite Brother?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 10, 2005 9:40 AM

I am surprised.

All I knew about Townes until now was that he was a dangerous leftist whose notes on his laser work were seized by the Department of Defense and he was not given access to them for about 20 years.

I remember when they were returned to him. I think I recall he got some sort of financial settlement, too.

[Editor's Note: Speaking of incoherent sputtering. Harry is actually referring to Gordon Gould, an entirely different laser scientist.]

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 10, 2005 5:37 PM
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