Transcript of an interview by Steve Inskeep of NPR Radio with physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Charles Townes, March 10, 2005

Steve Inskeep: Even as some Americans debate teaching evolution or creationism in schools, one scientist says religion and science do not have to disagree. Charles Townes is a Nobel Prize winner and co-inventor of the laser, and in 1966, he wrote that religion and science should converge. Yesterday, he was awarded $1.5 million, the annual Templeton Prize, for work in the field of religion.

Charles Townes: Let's consider what religion is. Religion is an attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe. What is science? It's an attempt to understand how our universe works. Well, if there's a purpose and meaning, that must have something to do with how it works. So those two must be related. In addition, we use all of our human abilities to understand both. Science has faith. We call them postulates and we believe in them but we can't prove them. And sometimes these postulates are wrong. For example, most scientists in the past thought, well, the universe could not have had a beginning. It had to always be here, always be the same; Einstein felt that very strongly. And now scientists discovered, yes, there was a beginning to our universe, of all things.

SI: You also write about the fact that it's presumed that religious knowledge is revealed as opposed to unearthed in an experiment. Scientific knowledge, you think, is sometimes revealed in a similar process.

CT: Yes. I think there are even revelations in science. We don't generally call them that, but as I think of my own recognition of how to amplify light and microwaves, discovery of the maser and the laser, I'd been working on this some time. I sat on a park bench and thought and suddenly I had the idea. A lot of it was a revelation. I say it's a little bit like Moses wondering about how to help his people and so on. Then in front of a burning bush one time, he suddenly said, "This is what ought to be done."

SI: As you've been trying to figure out the way the universe works, do you find yourself sometimes wondering about the nature of G‑d?

CT: Yes, certainly. I have a very personal feeling that, yes, there's a spiritual being there and it interacts with me and that's important for me and so on. On the other hand, exactly what it is, I don't know. I don't picture him as some old man with a long white beard. I can't describe it. I don't think anyone can appropriately.

SI: In this famous essay, Charles Townes, in 1966, you wrote that science and religion should at some time clearly converge. It's been almost 40 years since you wrote that.

CT: Yes.

SI: Seen much sign of convergence?

CT: I think there has been, yes. Within the last few decades in particular, I think more and more science has noted the really very special nature of our universe. The laws of physics have to be certain particular ways in order for us to be here at all. And if it changed just a little bit, then we couldn't be here. Unfortunately, if we start labeling that intelligent design, then that kind of a label is just fundamentalist or something like that, but many scientists recognize, "Well, gee, maybe there's been some systematic thing here that's been affecting us and planned and so on," and it is very suggestive.

SI: If we were just going to give a thumbnail definition of intelligent design, we might say it's the idea that the universe is so complicated that somebody must have designed it, it couldn't have happened by chance.

CT: It's not just that it's complicated, but, in fact, that it comes out in just such a way that we can be here.

SI: It sounds like you're deeply skeptical of the debate over intelligent design as it's been presented in the public. But when it gets right down to the way that things have worked out, you really are filled with a sense of wonder.

CT: There is a sense of wonder, and it's very peculiar that we come out this very special way and what did it. And maybe there was something that kept directing us or planned it or something, and that's very striking. And many scientists are impressed with that now.

SI: Charles H. Townes, congratulations, and thanks very much.

CT: Thank you.