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If you like Charles Townes's story, you might also like:
Francis Collins,
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Charles Townes
Charles Townes
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Charles Townes Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Inventor of the Maser & Laser

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  Charles Townes

You've talked about a connection that you perceive between religious belief and scientific faith. You see some similarities there. That's very provocative, since science and religion have been at odds in many people's eyes. Can you tell us how they come together for you?

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Charles Townes: Yes, there was a time when many scientists, particularly back in the 19th century, felt that science proved things. It proves that everything is mechanistic and predictable, there's no room for any free will, we're not making any choices, we're just automatons of the whole business. We're started off, and we're just running, and we have no control and there's no room for anything else but that mechanistic kind of universe. Now, that was so deeply ingrained, and science was so successful in that viewpoint for a long time, many scientists felt there was no escape from that.

In this century, we started examining new things. For example, the very small things, atoms. We couldn't examine them back in the 19th century very well. We have progressed enough that we can look at atoms. We find things which are very strange there, contrary to all of our intuitions and expectations. And quite contrary to the idea that everything is predictable. Things are not predictable. And people are beginning to be a little more conscious that, well, there are a lot of things going on that we don't understand yet. Science may eventually understand them, but there are surprises and things which are counter-intuitive. They're very hard to believe.

Einstein never really completely believed quantum mechanics. He said, "The Lord God doesn't throw dice!" There are not chances in things, things are predictable. It was completely against his grain. And yet, it seems to be absolutely true, that things are not completely predictable. And we can say in what degree they're predictable or not, and we find more and more strange things that are counterintuitive to us. Now, my general view is that science really has many broad similarities to religion. We don't know that our science is right, completely. We don't know that our assumptions are correct. Mathematicians have shown, again only in this century, that you can never prove anything mathematically, really. You make a set of assumptions, and if those assumptions are consistent and right, then you can make some conclusions. But you don't know whether those assumptions are consistent and right. You have to make another set of assumptions in order to check them, and you don't know whether those are right. So we now know that our logic is not so complete. We're really living on faith in science, faith that our assumptions are right. They seem remarkably right, and we can check them against everyday experience and so on. And to me, religion, I think I like to treat them in the same way. Religion involves assumptions of faith that, yes, there is a structure, a faith that you have that this is the way things are. And you check it against life. Say, "Well, does life really work that way?" And that's a question of experience. We can't do experiments in the same way we can do in science, and yet, we're experimenting all the time, in the sense we're living life and experiencing and we're observing. We know past history and past life, and that does seem to correspond to our religious faith.

Of course there's room for various varieties of religious faith. Religious faith in many ways is the same kind of structure as scientific faith. You believe something may be true, it's the basis on which you reason and think, and you check against the world and observe. So the process is similar. Very different in the precision with which one can check things, but broadly, philosophically I think, very similar.

They both involve a search for a greater truth.

Charles Townes: They both really are trying to understand our universe. They're both attempts to understand our universe. And in the case of religion, one might say, they're trying also to understand the purpose of the universe. But basically it's an attempt for humans to grasp what is the meaning of our universe, and what is it like, how does it work. They're both aimed at the same thing, and my feeling is that eventually, if they develop well, they will come together, much more closely. Because they're both trying to understand the universe around us, and if we make progress, there's bound to be more and more contact.

Religion has been an important factor in your own life, hasn't it?

Charles Townes: Yes, it certainly has. I rely on it very much.

And you've never felt a conflict with your work?

Charles Townes: No, no. I don't feel a conflict with my work at all. I can understand how some scientists, particularly in the 19th century could.

Pasteur was a very religious person, and a very good scientist. He was asked, "How can you be religious and still a scientist?" And he said, "Well, science is in my laboratory. My religion and my family are different. It's a different domain." That's the only way he could solve it. Today, I think, we understand enough that we have a very different way of solving it. In fact, there's not necessarily any inconsistencies. Now one may or may not believe in religion. You may or may not believe in the logic of science. You may or may not believe in religion. I wouldn't insist that one has to believe in religion, because I can't really prove it. But on the other hand, my own experience and observation is that it's real, and it's affected me in my own life a great deal.

Do science and religion afford a similar feeling of fulfillment, a sense of revelation?

Charles Townes: Oh yes. Both science and religion have these aspects of revelation. And that too is something that I think most people don't quite recognize. They think of religion as involving revelation, science involves logic and proof and so on, but science involves revelation also. There are suddenly new things that come about, new ideas, new constructs. You can test them, but then religious revelation you can think about as to whether it's real also.

You've taken time away from the lab to serve on government committees. That's precious time for a scientist. Why have you devoted so much time to these pursuits?

Charles Townes: I have worked for the government, and in society, simply because I think that's a duty of everyone to participate and try to contribute to the welfare of others and to the working of society. That's not my hobby, let me say, the way science is. Science, I'm intensely interested and I enjoy doing it. In the case of working for the government, I don't mind it, I don't find it objectionable. On the other hand, it's not what I would choose to do. I do it simply because I think it's important and I want to be helpful and participate. In fact, there was a time, just when we were trying to make a laser, the laser had not been yet made. We were trying to make a laser, I had a really fairly difficult decision. Some people came from Washington, wanted me to come down and try to help them, advising the government, at the time when our space program was in the works. Missiles were a big issue, and we didn't know exactly what the Soviets had. There weren't many scientists in Washington, and the argument was that they badly needed somebody to help out. And I just felt I should do it. And so I left the laboratory at that point, and went down to Washington for two years. That's the time that I worked most intensively in that area, trying to be of help. I thought I could stand it for a couple of years, and that was about right. Two years was enough. I didn't really object to Washington, I just much preferred to be in the laboratory.

And since that time, I have tried to be helpful on various committees and served in a variety of ways, as I think most people would be inclined to do.

What kinds of problems did you work on for the government?

Charles Townes: In the case of the government, we worked on a variety of things, including problems of space science, space technology, missile science, missile technology. Arms control, how to regulate these things. I worked some with the State Department, some with the Defense Department. And just the general issues of our time in the areas of technology and technological policy. Now, since that time, I have continued to work in that area, some directly with government, some in other organizations. I was for some time, for example, active on a committee on the National Academy of Sciences, that went back and forth to the Soviet Union, met with a similar committee over there.

There was a time when the community of science was a very important link between the Soviet Union and the United States. Scientists can talk to each other, and enjoy talking to each other, in a way people in other fields don't. A scientist in the Soviet Union wants to be thought well of by scientists in the United States, and vice versa. A politician in the Soviet Union wants to be thought well of in the Soviet Union, a politician here wants to be thought well of here. But scientists like to get together, and want to be thought well of, and they will generally be franker and easier to talk to, and interested in each other's work more. So it was a natural communication link, which we did not have for a while with the Soviet Union. And it's helped develop a kind of rapport and understanding, mainly our discussions which centered around arms control, and problems that tied to international science. And I think when we saw this recent change, those scientists in the Soviet Union who were familiar with the west were very important in helping those changes, and advising Gorbachev. Because they knew the West, the intellectual community in the Soviet Union knew the West in a way that other people didn't. And Gorbachev called on them a great deal for that reason. So that liaison back and forth between the scientific communities, I think, has been a very important one.

Your work has led to some tremendous advances in military technology. Have you ever had any qualms about that?

Charles Townes: Many people have asked me, "What about the laser? It's an instrument that kills people! It's the death ray!" I'm sorry for them to think of it as a death ray.

Technology can do evil things as well as good things. But that's true of any technology, essentially any technology. You know, if we make a knife, a knife was useful, but a knife can also kill people. It's what you do with it that is most important. In the case of the laser, it happens that it really isn't a very good death ray. It will burn you. It can kill people. But a pistol is much simpler and quicker and cheaper. I don't think the laser will ever be really used as a death ray. Even though people think about it, they work on it. They think particularly about using the laser to shoot down missiles. It doesn't work very well that way either. There are some cases where it will destroy, for example, a spacecraft. I think a laser beam can effectively destroy a spacecraft, unless the spacecraft is specially protected. But on the other hand, the most important military uses for lasers, very few people quite recognize. It's in guidance. For example, it helps a tank cannon to see that the bullet hits another tank rather than something else. Even more important, it helps bombs dropped from aircraft hit the target. If the aircraft is aimed at a bridge across the river, it will really hit the bridge, and you can hit the bridge right in the middle, rather than scattering the bombs around the town and killing a lot of people, and so on. So overall, I think the extra technology the laser has given us has been very helpful militarily, and I'm very pleased with it. I'm sorry not so many people recognize that, but that's a property of popular imagination and the newspapers, and I suppose Zeus's thunderbolts, or something like that, has attracted everybody. But the laser really has very little importance in that direction. Very little actual importance.

You've worked a lot with defense technology. Is that something you feel is a very important priority for this country?

Charles Townes: I think not only that we must have a good defense, but also we have to manage it well, to see that it's not threatening. We have to work on how to control it. And arms control, and so on. How to see that the situation isn't unstable. To see that we're protected, the Soviet Union is also protected, but not producing an unstable situation. Particularly in the missile world, that's been very important. Now, I was asked to be chairman of a committee to examine how a particular missile should be deployed. And particularly, we were interested in how it could be deployed in a way which would be very stable, so it could not be attacked and we wouldn't be tempted to shoot it off quickly so it wouldn't be destroyed by the enemy and so on. Those problems are highly technical, very important to stability. Now, it would be best if we could get rid of all of them, but considering the present nature of the world, we do have to have some weapons, we have to have some protection. And we've got to manage them well and think them through well, and those are the places where scientists, many scientists, have worked on that kind of problem. To see that we have a stable situation, rather than one that is going to tempt people to burst out into all-out attacks.

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