Man of science, man of faith: AP obit reveals both sides of Charles Townes


Whenever we play a DVD, watch a light show or have a clerk scan our groceries, we may not think of a religious thinker. Yet those modern marvels and many others are possible because of Charles H. Townes, inventor of the laser -- and an eloquent believer.

We can thank the Associated Press for its obit reminding us of this man of brilliance and goodwill, who converged both parts of his life as well as he synchronized light beams.

And AP gets to the point right after the lede:

On the tranquil morning of April 26, 1951, Townes scribbled a theory on scrap paper that would lead to the laser, the invention he's known for and which transformed everyday life and led to other scientific discoveries.
Townes, who was also known for his strong spiritual faith, famously compared that moment to a religious revelation.

AP sounds that dual theme of faith and science often in the 800-word obit. It gives a few details on how Townes, who died in Berkeley, Calif., on Jan. 27 at the age of 99, developed the laser and its microwave predecessor, the maser. It reports how his work led to his winning the 1964 Prize in physics along with two Russian physicists.

The article also says much about the concept on which Townes often spoke and wrote, that science and faith could work in tandem -- a belief that earned him another major award:

"Science tries to understand what our universe is like and how it works, including us humans," Townes wrote in 2005 upon being awarded the Templeton Prize for his contributions in "affirming life's spiritual dimension."
"My own view is that, while science and religion may seem different, they have many similarities, and should interact and enlighten each other," he wrote.

Interestingly, Townes was no born-again Christian seeking entry into ivory towers; AP says he was a member of the United Church of Christ, a liberal mainline denomination. Apparently his series of speeches and essays drew interest not only for their reasoning, but for their upbeat tone:

Many people don't realize that science basically involves assumptions and faith. But nothing is absolutely proved. Wonderful things in both science and religion come from our efforts based on observations, thoughtful assumptions, faith and logic.

Among the very few flaws of the AP piece is a repetition, saying twice that Townes won the 2005 Templeton Prize for religion. It would have also helped to place Townes in the context of others who sounded similar themes, both in faith and science.

Those would include Pope John Paul II, who wrote in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio:

When scientists, following their intuition, set out in search of the logical and verifiable explanation of a phenomenon, they are confident from the first that they will find an answer, and they do not give up in the face of setbacks. They do not judge their original intuition useless simply because they have not reached their goal; rightly enough they will say that they have not yet found a satisfactory answer.

I also recall the 2006 book The Language of God, by geneticist Francis Collins: "Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science; he made it all possible. Abandon the battlements."

Finally, the obit lacks pushback. AP says Townes drew "praise and skepticism" for linking science and religion. But it quotes no one saying so, or explaining the basis for that skepticism.  I've often criticized stories that didn't report the conservative side of controversies. For this story, it would be only fair to quote someone arguing that science and faith don’t mix.

None of which detracts from the basic virtue of the AP story: spotting and reporting the spiritual facet of an event. In a news climate where religion angles are increasingly fading like ghosts, the obit on Townes is a solid contribution. It's not every day that you read about someone who sheds two kinds of light.


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