Townes Remains True Believer
This week's announcement that Greenville native and Furman graduate
Charles Townes is the recipient of the $1.5 million Templeton Prize for
advances in science and religion is extraordinary news. Townes has
become the city's most illustrious citizen. He won the Nobel Prize in
1964 for research that led to the invention of the laser beam. Laser
technology, of course, has since transformed and enhanced our lives in
manifold ways. Compact discs, photography, microsurgery, computers and
modern communication devices have all resulted from an epiphany that Dr.
Townes experienced while sitting on a Washington, D.C., park bench in
April 1951. A bronze statue memorializing that moment of scientific
inspiration will soon be placed on Main Street in Greenville.
years ago, at the end of the 20th century, Charles Townes was listed
among the 1,000 most important people in the past thousand years. During
a much-celebrated scholarly career that has spanned seven decades, he
has been a distinguished research professor at Columbia University and
the University of California at Berkeley, and provost at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has counseled American
presidents and the Vatican, served as science adviser for the Apollo
mission to the moon, and holds more that two dozen honorary doctoral
Now Charles Townes has won the largest annual cash prize
in the world. He will receive the Templeton Prize from Prince Philip,
the Duke of Edinburgh, on May 4 at a private ceremony at Buckingham
Palace in London. Mother Teresa and Charles Townes are the only people
to have won a Nobel Prize and the Templeton Prize.
Yet for all of
the deserved international acclaim that Charles Townes has received,
his most remarkable characteristic may be the quality of his character.
He remains a refreshingly humble man fascinated by the intersection of
his spiritual beliefs with his commitment to scientific inquiry. Today,
at age 89, he is an unpretentious and gracious exemplar of Christian
virtues informed by a singular curiosity about the cosmos.
Hard Townes was born in 1915, the fourth child of Ellen Hard Townes, a
1902 graduate of Greenville Woman's College. His father, Henry, was an
attorney and member of the Furman class of 1897. The Townes children
grew up in a progressive Baptist household that celebrated intellectual
pursuits and encouraged open-minded discussions of the Bible.
Townes excelled at Greenville High School and then studied physics,
mathematics and biology at Furman, where he graduated summa cum laude .
After earning a master's degree in physics from Duke University in
1936, he rode a bus cross-country to Pasadena where he enrolled at the
California Institute of Technology and later earned a doctoral degree.
In 1940, Townes went to work for Bell Laboratories in New York.
World War II he helped develop radar bombing systems that could operate
effectively in the high humidity of the South Pacific. After the war,
Townes began his academic career at Columbia University. He was later
appointed provost and professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. In 1967, he became professor at the University of
California, where he continues to supervise research projects in
astrophysics. Throughout his distinguished professional career, Charles
Townes has retained deeply felt religious beliefs that have set him
apart from many of the world's leading scientists. In the 1950s, he
embarked on a lifelong quest to integrate the insights of faith and
reason, religious belief and scientific inquiry. This quest, amplified
by his personal experiences and scholarly reflections, convinced him
that the realms of religion and science must eventually converge and
their convergence will lead to deeper insights into God's purposes. In
his view, religion is not a realm outside of reality but an effort
better to understand reality and all that surrounds it.
believes that both scientists and theologians seek truth that transcends
current human understanding, and both perspectives are fraught with
uncertainty. He shares with the British writer, G.K. Chesterton, an
awareness that "we do not know enough about the unknown to know that it
is unknowable." Scientists, Townes explains, do not always build their
inquiries upon facts. They often must propose hypotheses from
postulates, thereby basing their investigations on a form of faith. His
emphasis on the affinities between science and religion has made the
dialogue between people of faith and people of science less
confrontational and more constructive.
Today Charles Townes
serves as a model of rationality informed by faith. In a convocation
address last spring at Furman, Dr. Townes, now a Furman trustee,
stressed that his unplanned flash of insight on the Washington, D.C.,
park bench illustrates how topics associated with religion or science
revelation, intuition, observation, faith and aesthetics can apply to
both areas of thought.
One of the hallmarks of genius is the
ability to ask the right questions. Charlie Townes struggles with big
issues and perplexing mysteries. He truly is an extraordinary man whose
brilliance, insight and ingenuity have helped enrich and inform modern
On the verge of his 90th birthday, he still displays an
awe-inspiring energy. His career has demonstrated that the most
sophisticated scientific research can be exercised with Christian
humility and benevolence. He has made profound contributions to the
progress of exploring, discovering, and embracing the power of God's
All the while, he has remained an uncommon man with a
common touch. And he is ours, a Greenville treasure; indeed, he is our