At age 89, Charles Townes is a tall, stately gentleman with white hair and a slight accent that betrays his origins in the South - even after decades spent living in New York and California.
Bridging that geographical gap was a minor accomplishment compared with his efforts to show that religion and science can be compatible. For that work, he has just won the Templeton Prize, a privately-funded, annual award honoring individuals who seek to bridge the gap between religion and science.
Since the 16th century, when Nicolaus Copernicus first put forth his ideas about the revolutions of the heavenly spheres, there has been antagonism between the two realms. Quite a few scientists consider religion to be out of touch and unnecessary. A fair number of religious leaders think science is a blasphemous denial of the power and authority of God.
Charles Townes believes in what he calls the convergence of religion and science.
He says he has seen a lot of changes since he earned his PhD in physics in 1939 and created the theories and experiments that gave the world the laser. Among those changes are the attitudes toward religion within the scientific community. "In the past, when I was younger, many scientists would hesitate to say they were religious," he says. "People would jump on them…other scientists would jump on them. Now, that's still true a bit, but not as much."
Charles Townes says that, for many years, researchers -- especially in the physical sciences -- believed their theories and their experiments were the only way the universe could ever be understood. But recently, he says, scientists have begun to realize there are legitimate questions about the purpose of the universe that cannot be answered simply through science.
He also says scientists are starting to recognize that religion is not the only intellectual pursuit that requires a bit of faith.
"We can never prove anything completely," he contends. "Even our scientific principles we can't prove completely." Instead, people can only be convinced. "We say, 'Well, this looks most probably correct,' and we can use logic and so on to prove one thing from another, but we have to base that on assumptions," Mr. Townes says. "And the assumptions, we can't even prove they're self-consistent. That's been shown mathematically."
The Templeton Prize winner says scientists are not the only ones who have changed their attitudes toward the relationship between religion and science. Although there are still people of faith who feel threatened by scientific discoveries, he says theologians, too, have become more broadminded.
"Religions recognize that we may not know everything exactly, and maybe every word of the Bible isn't necessarily correct, and maybe there's something not only in Christianity, but in the Muslim religion and so on," Professor Townes says. "People don't feel that 'Well, I know exactly what is right, and nobody else is right.' That attitude is, I believe, beginning to fade some. I hope it is."
Charles Townes says it is only when the great ideas of both religion and science merge that true understanding will be achieved. "We want to understand things," he says. "I want to understand things. I want to understand how things fit together. What is our universe like?"
This year's winner of the Templeton Prize says his natural tendency is to say, "let's try to understand as much as we can, and bring it all together."