Remembering the Energetic Contributions of Templeton Prize Winner Charles Townes, 1915-2015

Buckingham Palace, May 4, 2005. Photo credit: Templeton Prize / Clifford Shirley
Buckingham Palace, May 4, 2005. Photo credit: Templeton Prize / Clifford Shirley

Charles Townes, the Nobel laureate best known for his work on the invention of the laser, died on January 27, 2015 at the age of 99. “Wonderful things in both science and religion come from our efforts based on observations, thoughtful assumptions, faith, and logic,” he explained when he received the Templeton Prize in 2005 for his contribution in the field of science and religion. “I feel very humble at being thought to have contributed to such critically important fields as spirituality and the purpose of life.”

His interest in promoting open and useful discussion between science and religion took root at an early stage of a highly distinguished career. As a graduate student, he described how the professor who was directing his research reprimanded him for being “religiously orientated.” Then, in 1966, he gave a talk on points of convergence between science and religion, which was later published in the IBM journal THINK. This was also met with disapproval, which Townes reported only encouraged him “to provide many other talks and articles on the subject as I was invited.”

He felt that science and religion were related and should dialogue honestly so as to “interact and enlighten each other.” He pointed out that scientific ideas often stem from theological insights. “Many people don’t realize that science basically involves assumptions and faith,” he said, “but nothing is absolutely proved.”

“They certainly can appear quite different, but basically I believe they are closely related,” Townes continued in his Templeton Prize speech. “Science tries to understand what our universe is like and how it works, including us humans. Religion is aimed at understanding the purpose and meaning of our universe, including our own lives. If the universe has a purpose or meaning, this must be reflected in its structure and functioning, and hence in science.” Townes also believed that science and religion must both deploy all the investigative faculties at our disposal in order to make progress: logic, observations, experiment, intuition, and trust.

The big questions in science were another permanent interest, and Townes often highlighted the less commonly addressed questions. For example, it is assumed that the laws of physics are constant, but could they suddenly change, and if so, why? “We must continuously pay deep attention to such basic questions – the meaning of our universe, of life, and how to fulfill it,” he urged. “And we need to be open-minded.”

That last point is no incidental quality. In a 1997 essay, “Why Are We Here; Where Are We Going?“, Townes noted that the scientific community is “in general instinctively opposed” to investigating why the cosmos appears to be fine-tuned to develop in the way it has. “Such a sense of uniqueness is against the instincts of most scientists, because it seems so highly improbable,” he wrote. Many would prefer to follow a “great detour around the special character of a Big Bang”—for example, by postulating the existence of many universes. Distinguished theologian Hans Küng wrote of his gratitude to Townes for highlighting such attitudes and the role they play in shaping scientific interests.

The world’s press published many obituaries commemorating Townes’ life and achievements. The New York Times celebrated him as a “visionary physicist,” and the Guardian described how he became “the undisputed world leader in the design of molecular oscillators”—the technology behind the laser—calling him “a creative polymath.” In addition to his scientific achievements, the Associated Press remembered him for his “strong spiritual faith.”

When commending Townes for the Templeton Prize in 2005, David Shi commented on Townes’ awe-inspiring energy—an energy that stayed with Townes all his life. Just last year, the MIT Technology Review announced that at the age of 99, Townes had decided that it was time to close his office at UC Berkeley’s physics department. “But he insists he will continue to make daily visits to the University’s Space Sciences Laboratory,” the article added.

The John Templeton Foundation remembers with love, respect, and thanks all that Professor Townes contributed to the Foundation as a member since 2005, including several terms on the board of advisors. It extends its deepest condolences to his wife, Frances, the Townes family, the Department of Physics, and the entire community of the University of California, Berkeley.