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June 16, 2005

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Townes, Moran
Nobel laureate Charles Townes (left), the inventor of the laser, talks with Donald H. Menzel Professor of Astrophysics James Moran before Townes gives a lecture on science and religion. Staff photos Jon Chase/Harvard News Office

Laser's inventor predicts meeting of science, religion

Townes sees more parallels than disparities

By Alvin Powell
Harvard News Office

Nobel laureate and laser inventor Charles H. Townes told a packed Science Center lecture hall Monday (June 13) that science and religion are parallel, rather than antagonistic, disciplines and that he sees them ultimately coming together.

"I look at science and religion as quite parallel, much more similar than most people think and that in the long run, they must converge," Townes said in his 40-minute talk.

Townes' speech, "Logic and Mystery in Science and Religion," coincided with a weeklong conference at Harvard on recent advances by a new astronomical facility, the Submillimeter Array on the slopes of Hawaii's highest volcano, Mauna Kea.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) Director Charles Alcock said that Townes was in Cambridge to deliver technical talks for the conference and was asked to address the more general topic in a public lecture.

The Submillimeter Array examines light at wavelengths invisible to the human eye, combining signals from eight 6-meter antennas to gather very high-resolution images of the universe.

The array has been able to observe objects billions of light years away, allowing it to essentially look back in time. It has already helped identify distant, dusty galaxies too faint for the Hubble Space Telescope to see clearly, and to show that they are undergoing bursts of star formation.

Townes: "It's a fantastically specialized universe..."

The talk was sponsored by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and by the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

In describing religion and science as parallel, Townes rejected the often hostile relationship between the two, evidenced today in the ongoing battle over teaching evolution in schools and by religious objections to certain scientific procedures, such as stem cell research.

Instead, Townes said, science and religion are both efforts to understand the universe. Science seeks to understand how the universe works and how humans work, while religion is an attempt to understand the meaning and purpose of the universe and of humankind, which requires an understanding of their workings.

Both deal with large, unproved mysteries, and operate on the best knowledge available today. Faith is a central tenet of religion, but Townes said a certain amount of faith is also shown by scientists, applying theories that they know have shortcomings in an effort to understand the vast amount of the universe that remains unknown.

"We accept that we just don't understand at this moment and that we'll figure it out some day," Townes said, adding that we shouldn't be afraid of new ideas to explain the things we don't understand. "I think it's important for us to recognize that we don't understand everything."

Townes won the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) "for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle."

Born in 1915, Townes was described as "one of the founding fathers of radio-astronomy" by Donald H. Menzel Professor of Astrophysics James Moran, who introduced the talk. Townes also pushed to have investigators explore the interstellar medium, looking for molecules floating between stars. Today, Moran said, more than 128 molecules have been identified.

Townes first addressed the topic of science and religion in the 1950s, when he moved from Bell Labs to Columbia University and delivered a talk on the subject at a local church. The text of the talk was published by publications at IBM and MIT, gaining widespread attention.

Townes said at the beginning of his speech that it presented his own views and that not everyone would agree with them. He focused his attention on how little is known about the physical world, saying that among the unknowns it is possible that science and religion are describing the same thing.

Among the parallels cited in his talk, Townes said that science has proven that in the big bang, there was a "creation," though not one described in creation stories such as the Bible. He also said that there's very little wiggle room in the laws of nature in order to allow life to arise, which prompts questions of why they are the way they are. Questions about free will, the nature of consciousness, the forces that caused the big bang - or even what came before the big bang, highlight the vastness of what humans don't know about the universe - whether from a religious or scientific standpoint, Townes said.

"Scientists, especially physicists, recognize that this is a very special world. Things have to be almost exactly as they are in order for us to exist," Townes said. "It's a fantastically specialized universe, but how in the world did it happen?"


Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College