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Laser's co-inventor affirms intersections of faith, science
Physicist Charles Townes wins Templeton Prize, preaches at Cambridge parish

By Phina Borgeson
6/16/2005
[Episcopal News Service]  Not only is reliance on the scientific method compatible with Christian faith, faith can provide an impetus for scientific exploration and shape the career of a scientist.

That was the message of Charles Townes, this year's Templeton Prize winner, when he made his preaching debut at Christ Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Sunday, June 12.

Townes, who turns 90 next month, based his remarks on the epistle passage from Romans. He reflected on his own career. "Suffering has good results sometimes," he said. "When things do not turn out as we wish in life, very often something happens that is better than we'd planned."

For example, while he was a graduate student in physics at Cal Tech, his eyesight began to fail. The doctor told him that the reading load was too much and he would have to give it up. "Give up physics? Give up physics? That just can't be," he said. "And then I made the decision to become an experimentalist rather than a theoretician. It was best decision I could have made for my career. I became an experimental physicist with a solid background in theory."

Townes went on to invent the maser and co-invent the laser, work for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1964.

Twists and turns in life's journey are evidence of God's unfolding care, he said.

Biologist Tom Montagno, a parishioner at Christ Church, was glad to hear Townes affirm "that belief in God in no way precludes belief in the scientific method." Montagno said he appreciated Townes's witness to turning-points that confirmed his faith in a loving God, "the times in his career where he acted basically only on faith and God provided."

Betsy Schulz, parishioner and a librarian, said she "was glad to hear him talking about the importance of embracing our beautiful natural world and taking the time to revel in God's creation."

Townes emphasized: "Through science and technology, humans have more and more responsibility all the time. God gives it to us. We're affecting the surface of the planet, and we're getting the point of affecting human genetics." Townes expressed his hope that we will use this responsibility well, in accordance with what we perceive to be God's intentions and purpose for the whole of humanity, learned through studying the scriptures.

The Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities honors those working at the interface of science and religion. Townes's 1966 article in the IBM journal THINK, "The Convergence of Science and Religion," is recognized as a pioneering contribution to the field. Townes is currently a member of the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California. He continues his involvement in scientific research and in advising graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley.