A scientist who has faith

Chemistry was one of my favorite subjects in high school. There's just something about discussing the periodic table of elements that makes you feel like Bill Nye the Science Guy. Thus, I was delighted to read this Houston Chronicle profile on James Tour, a successful chemist at Rice University. Okay, I've lost some of my chemistry enthusiasm because I forgot most of it, but this profile by Eric Berger is compelling. Tour is among the 10 most-cited authors in the world, and the reporter could have easily focused on his scientific achievements alone. But he doesn't stop there and weaves in details about how Tour's faith impacts his science.

But it's not all about the chemistry. Though Tour is clearly passionate about chemistry, he is passionate about God. In a world that increasingly associates scientists with atheism or agnosticism, Tour derives his inspiration from deep faith.

He wakes up each morning at 3:30 a.m., he says, to spend his first two hours with his Bible. "I read the Bible from Genesis Chapter 1 to Revelation Chapter 22, and when I'm done I start again," Tour said. "I've been doing this for over 30 years. There is this amazing richness. I take a passage and I say, 'Lord speak to me.' And then it just comes alive."

He spends two hours with his Bible every day? This is a fabulous way of detailing just how serious Tour is about his faith. Perhaps more religion reporters should ask people about their personal devotions. Don't go overboard--it's just a thought. The article then talks about his success and students and comes back to the faith elements.

And, finally, Tour credits his success to his faith. When he speaks about this, Tour's angular features sharpen. He closes his eyes. His voice becomes more emotive. "I believe, fundamentally, that God creates us all," he said.

Colleagues say that Tour, a Messianic Jew who attends West University Baptist Church, does not wear his religion on his sleeve, but that he will bring it up if asked. And if asked, he does not hold back.

This is where I wish the reporter had explained a bit more. How did he become a Messianic Jew? How does that impact him differently than, say a Presbyterian scientist? What does it mean that he does not hold back if asked about religion? Does he evangelize or does he merely explain what he believes?

Of course, Tour's faith probably impacts how he understands science.

As part of those views, Tour says he neither understands nor accepts the notion of macroevolution, that new species evolve on their own.

"I've asked people to explain it to me, and I still don't understand it," he said. "I hear their explanations and I don't understand it. I understand better than most people how molecules come together, what they can and cannot do. ... And I don't understand how macroevolution occurs."

Tour does not espouse "intelligent design," which holds that certain features of living things are best explained by God, but he says not accepting macroevolution has caused problems for him in academia.

"When appointments are not made, when fellowships are not granted on this basis, that hurts," he said. "I'm willing to stand up and say I don't see any clothes on that emperor. I'm being very open. That bothers a lot of people. I don't know why. I'm telling you it's just been in the recent past. I've been a professor now for more than 20 years. I never saw it before."

Okay so he doesn't believe in macroevolution, but what does he believe? For example, when does he believe that God created the earth? Also, it's not that I don't trust Tour, but I'd love hear more from within the science community about how your beliefs about evolution can impact your career. Is there bias in the scientific community more than other sectors?

The only quote about Tour's faith comes from a student, who merely says he's probably more hospitable because he has faith. Okay, that's fine. But how does it change the way he does science? The end of the article explores a little bit of that.

It's his faith that also has probably allowed Tour to take chances as a researcher, to not be afraid to fail.

That's led to some successes and failures. After Smalley, Robert Curl and Harold Kroto did their Nobel Prize-winning work to synthesize buckyballs, spherical arrays of 60 carbon molecules, it was Tour's lab that found a way to produce buckyballs in large quantities.

On the other hand, his lab then failed in its efforts to produce diamonds, another form of carbon, by crushing buckyballs.

"We've done some pretty wild things," Tour said. "But once in awhile you win. Once in awhile you hit something and the world says, 'How did you think of that?'

This is great detail, but I'm curious whether Tour would attribute his impulse to take chances to faith. Otherwise, it sort of comes across as, well of course, religion simply convinces people to do crazy things. Perhaps Tour would say that. But let's not assume.

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