April 1, 2004

Townes Speaks on Religion, Science

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If you have ever put a compact disc into your home or car stereo, you owe some debt to 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics co-recipient and inventor of the laser, Charles Townes. In a speech titled “Logic and Uncertainties in Science and Religion” given yesterday in Rockefeller Hall, Townes elaborated less about his work on the laser and more about one of his other interests — the harmonious coexistence of science and religion.

As a religious man and a scientist, Townes has given much thought to the topic, and has published several articles on it. “My topic today is one which will have some controversy,” Townes began, “There is more similarity between [religion and science] than is generally recognized.”

Religion largely serves as a vehicle by which people attempt to understand their place within the universe, while science deals with how the universe and people actually work. The two functions are closely related, Townes said.

Townes added that the Western world saw a split between science and religion when Galileo defied the Catholic Church. But what caused the major philosophical debate between science and religion, at least in modern history, was Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“That really broke things apart emotionally and intellectually in many ways,” he said.

The history of the universe has also been a contentious point of debate between scientific and religious factions. When scientists finally accepted that galaxies are expanding and are actively changing, they began to consider the theory of the Big Bang.

Modern science and religion are compatible because they use many of the same methods. For science and religion, “we make assumptions and we take those assumptions and make decisions.”

Science and religion also rely greatly upon observation. Astronomy, for instance, relies heavily upon observation “You just watch and see” to draw its conclusions, Townes said. And like astronomy, religion deals with the observation of people and societies.

Townes credited religion with helping him to complete any gaps that arise in science. While working on the laser, Townes and his assistants found themselves stuck on the concept of oscillating short waves. While sitting on a park bench one day, the answer struck him, and the laser was subsequently invented.

“Where do revelations come from?” he asked.

“We recognize there are things we don’t understand,” such as miracles in religion, and that there are things in the universe and science that are not compatible, Townes said.

“There are inconsistencies which we know are there,” such as those between the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, Townes said. “We just accept them.”

New ways of viewing science have also contributed to its compatibility with religion. While religion has always said human beings are special, science has not until recently acknowledged that our universe is unique.

“To me, at least, the fact that our universe is special is quite convincing,” Townes said.

In addition, the general public has recently interpreted the Bible less literally, Townes said.

He reiterated that each person must make their own choices concerning the interaction of religion and science. Some may ultimately decide that there is no meaning to this world, that it is entirely an accident, he said.

“I don’t think anything in science can be done to prove or disprove God,” said Sergey Moldavskiy ’04, vice president of the Atheism and Agnosticism Awareness Society, although he is no longer an atheist.

“If there is no God then science is the highest explanation of everything,” he added.

Townes was born in Greenville, NC in 1915. After graduating from California Institute of Technology, he joined Bell Labs in 1938. In 1948, Townes joined the staff at Columbia where he began his seminal work on the laser. Over his life he has worked with many influential scientists, including Albert Einstein.

Archived article by Clarke Merrefield
Sun Staff Writer