The scientist who pioneered the ideas and applications that grew into laser technology eventually became infamous as a result of his statements linking faith and science. In a somewhat shocking article that he authored for an industry journal in 1966 titled “The Convergence of Science and Religion,” Nobel laureate Charles H. Townes compares religious faith with scientific inquiry. His effort to find common ground between the two human endeavors that most see as polar opposites was considered scandalous by many people from fields of both religion and science.
Learning From the War Years
During World War II, Townes worked with Bell Laboratories on radar bomb systems development. He earned a Master in Physics from Duke University and a doctorate at the California Institute of Technology. Townes went on to be a leading physicist of the post-war years in America, which saw a boom in research growing out of wartime efforts.
He later applied earlier research on microwaves used in radar studies to focus on spectroscopy, the science of dispersing the component colors of light. The inspiration for the concept that developed into laser technology in the decade following the war originally came to him in a burst of inspiration, he later recalled. He likened the moment of creative inspiration of the new scientific concept to a moment of religious revelation.
Like a Religious Revelation
Throughout the rest of his long life, he remembered the moment when he jotted down the concept for what would become the laser on a piece of paper as he sat on a park bench, waiting for a restaurant to open for breakfast on the morning of April 26, 1951. The inspiration struck him like a bolt out of the heavens, he recalled.
In the early 1950s, he and his students at Colombia University developed the idea, pioneering what was called the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). After his original ideas had been developed and applied widely in industrial uses from metal cutting to medicine and surgery and beyond, Townes said, “I knew there would be many applications for the laser, but it never occurred to me that we’d get such power from it.”
Recognized With a Shared Nobel Prize in Physics
In 1964 Townes shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with two Russian scientists who had done much of the practical development of his theories to develop the laser. A laser operates by regulating the way energized atoms release light particles known as photons. Most astute scientific observers at the time perceived that the new scientific advancement would have diverse applications once it was further refined and developed, but at the time few foresaw the range of uses that the technology would lead to—from eye surgery to dentistry, tattoo removal to playing music, and movies on compact discs.
A Life of Faith
A devout lifetime member of the United Church of Christ, Townes sparked controversy with his comparisons of science and religion, as well as for his ongoing willingness to openly discuss his deep faith. He firmly believed that, while the two pursuits may seem different on the surface, “religious belief and scientific inquiry have many similarities, and they should interact and enlighten each other.”
In 2005 he won the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities. In accepting the prize, he said, “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.”
While typical views hold that religion is best excluded from public affairs ranging from politics to science, some wise individuals see the role of faith within these and other endeavors. Many people of faith use their belief in greater forces beyond human abilities to guide their efforts to live a positive life of achievement by realizing and benefiting from the very real connections between all people on this earth.