Sunday, February 1, 2015

Charles Townes: Steward of Science & Faith

Men and women of science who profess Christ are often seen as hopelessly handicapped by their outmoded ideas.  Consequently, they are often sent to the corner with “Flat-Earth crowd.”   However, those who have this view of Christians in science would be shocked at how much of our knowledge and how many of the conveniences we now enjoy actually originated from scientists and engineers who were devout Christians.  Consider a case in point.

Blu-ray laser; Charles Townes, discoverer of laser technology
According to NPR News, Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, died Tuesday at the age of 99.  Townes is best known for “thinking up the basic principles of the laser while sitting on a park bench. Later in life he advised the U.S. government and helped uncover the secrets of our Milky Way galaxy.”  Perhaps few would expect a man of such intelligence and creativity to be “hung up with religion,” but let’s look closer at Townes’ biography.

Reinhard Genzel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, was a partner with Charles Townes in studying the Milky Way galaxy for many years.  In 1985, these men discovered the black hole in the center of the Milky Way.   Genzel says of his beloved partner in astronomy,

He was such a wonderful person, always optimistic, and always curious…He really was one of these rare people who could be a deeply thinking research scientist and yet, at the same time, be a deeply devout Christian.

According to NPR, “Through all these scientific adventures, Townes maintained a deep faith in the existence of God. He saw his faith as intertwined with his science.”  In 2005, he told NPR (emphasis mine):
Charles Townes (1915-2015) in his laboratory.
Consider what religion is. Religion is an attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe. What is science?  It's an attempt to understand how our universe works. Well, if there's a purpose and meaning, that must have something to do with how it works, so those two must be related."

Think about it!  Scientists strive to know how the universe (creation) works.  Is it possible that “good science” is advanced by scientists like Charles Townes who understand that there is a connection between the how (process) and the why (purpose) of the universe?  The Spirit-inspired writer of Hebrews 11: 1-3 states:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for,
the evidence of things not seen.
For by it the elders obtained a good report.
Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed
by the word of God, so that things which are seen
were not made of things which do appear.

Max Planck, one of the world’s greatest physicists, and for whom the institute noted above was named, expressed his belief in the importance of religious faith in science when he said,

There can never be any real opposition between religion and science; for the one is the complement of the other. Every serious and reflective person realizes, I think, that the religious element in his nature must be recognized and cultivated if all the powers of the human soul are to act together in perfect balance and harmony. And indeed it was not by accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were deeply religious souls. – Planck (1932), Where Is Science Going?

Charles Townes now belongs in the honor role along with Max Planck and earlier men of faith who studied physics and astronomy, men such as Galileo, Newton, and Kepler. These men had modeled for Townes that science and faith are not at odds; rather, the scientific mind is enlightened by the Truth of the Scriptures which reveal the existence of a purposeful Creator God.  And these scientific heroes could testify of their own “park bench meditations” made possible by “the God Who is there” and Who conceals the mysteries of His creation while also honoring with extraordinary insights those who seek Him (Proverbs 25:2). 

The Scriptures reveal this God of purpose in action when He created Adam and gave him purpose for living.  According to Genesis 2: 15, He took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and to keep it.  But, in order to accomplish the cultivation and conserving of the Garden, Adam had some learning to do.   Genesis 2: 19-20 teaches us that God formed the various kinds of animals and then invited Adam to “label” them; and, also to give names that speak of their “significance” or “role” in relation to the rest of creation including himself—the beginning of the sciences of taxonomy and ecology.  Of course, we, like our father Adam, learn from his first science exercise that none of these “kinds” were suitable for him.  Hence, Adam was prepared for God’s wonderful, special creation of Eve, especially created from the flesh of Adam.  What a blessed purpose for Adam—and for our scientific endeavors down through the centuries!

Charles Townes and wife (Frances) of 73 years at his memorial.
As I finish this writing, I am enjoying in the sound of the piano music of Paul Cardall wafting from our compact disk player, I am thankful for the laser technology discovered by Charles Townes.  So, I offer this “Oikonomia tribute” to him as an example of one who exercised stewardship of the gifts and the faith which God had given him—yet with the grace and humility of Christ.  According to Elsa Garmire, a physicist at Dartmouth, “He was a Southern gentleman. He was just a very nice person.

May the tribe of Charles Townes increase.  And may the world recognize that, as a man of great faith and of science, his tribe is already large—and worthy of respect for its contributions to “good science.”

Related Articles:
“Good Stewardship is About God, Not Us”  Oct. 31, 2011 
“Character Qualities of a Steward-Leader”  May 31, 2012
“Climate Change Debate Demands ‘Good Science’” Nov. 30, 2009
“Max Planck on God” Nov. 28, 2010, Prayson Daniel, “With All I Am” Blog


tammy said...

Truly may his tribe increase. This makes me curious to learn more about this man. I like the image of the serendipity of him thinking up laser technology while sitting on a park bench.

John Silvius said...

Thanks Tammy. The more I read of him, the more fascinating his life and associations are. Serendipity is also interesting from a biblical perspective because I believe the case can be made that God honors the scientific inquiry of minds submitted to His purposes and seeking to "think His thoughts after Him." Do we assign "serendipity" to discoveries of this sort like we propose events are "random" when we simply don't know enough to identify any apparent "pattern."