Science as Christian Vocation

January 1st, 2011

Dr. William Phillips, a scientist and a United Methodist, received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in the field of laser cooling. Dr. Phillips assembled his first chemistry set as a child, composed of a collection of bottles and household substances. During his teenage years, he had a laboratory in the basement of his family home where he experimented with fire, explosives, rockets and carbon arcs. Although his parents were not directly involved with his youthful scientific interests, Phillips credits his parents with tolerating his exploits even when circuit breakers tripped in the home because of overloads. Phillips is a graduate of Juniata College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is married to the former Jane Van Wynen and they have two daughters Catherine and Christine. William Phillips believes that science and faith are not as different as most people think, and he discusses his work and his faith as a scientist.

Who has been your greatest inspiration for your work in science?

There are so many people who have inspired me-teachers and mentors I had as a student, great scientists whose work I studied and whose lives I read about, and colleagues who taught me so many things. My thesis advisor, Dan Kleppner was, and continues to be, a great inspiration to me because he is a constant reminder that one can be a great scientist, while also being a warm and caring human being, a devoted spouse and parent, and an engaged and responsible citizen.

Tell me about your church.

Fairhaven United Methodist Church in Darnestown, Maryland. We are a small church, with a congregation that is diverse in many ways. Fairhaven was formed in the late 1960s as a merger of black and white congregations. I think of the people who brought about that merger as being heroes and saints. They gave us a wonderful gift of different kinds of worship experience, and a church whose atmosphere is attractive and welcoming to people from many different backgrounds and traditions. The richness of the religious experience we have available at Fairhaven is something I value greatly.

Tell me about some of your participation in the church.

As is common in small churches, people tend to do a lot of different things. Over the years I've been the chairperson of the Worship Committee, served on the Council Planning and Administration (our combined church council) and the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. I'm usually the one who replaces the high lights in the sanctuary because I've got the tallest ladder. I've taught or convened Bible study classes, taught Sunday School classes for senior highs, organized the children's sermons during worship, preached a few times on laity Sunday, and performed in church skits and pageants. It sounds like a lot, but it wasn't all at once, and it was over the course of 22 years. For many years I've been a member of our Gospel Choir, which sings music in the African American tradition.

How has being a Christian affected your work as a scientist?

Being a Christian carries a commitment to try to live a life according to the principles that Jesus established. I try to carry out my professional activities with concern for the well being of all the people I encounter-colleagues, students, competitors, whomever. I don't think that science is any different from any other profession in this regard.

How do you see science as a Christian vocation?

I believe that God wants us, his children, to learn as much as we can about the universe in which we live, and to use that understanding to do his work. I believe that God wants us to use our talents as best we can. Doing physics is what I'm best at, and I believe I'm doing what God wants me to do.

What would you tell young Christians who are thinking of pursuing science as a career?

I would emphasize that contrary to what some would have us believe, there does not need to be any conflict between religion and science. As Howard Van Till, an astronomer at Calvin College, says: you can be serious about your faith and serious about your science. I would also tell them that if they have a passion and a talent for science, it is the best job imaginable-it's like getting paid to work at your hobby.

How did you feel when you found out you received the Nobel Prize for Science?

In 1997, the Nobel Prize for Physics was announced at about 12:00 noon, in Stockholm on October 15th. I was attending a scientific meeting in Long Beach, Calif., so it was 3:00 am. I got a phone call from Stockholm in the middle of the night, telling me that I had been awarded the Nobel Prize along with two other scientists. I was flabbergasted. I truly had no inkling that something like this was in the works or any expectation that I would ever get a Nobel Prize. It is the sort of thing that I dreamed of when I was younger, but that I never thought was realistic as I got older. So many great scientists have done so many wonderful things and have never been recognized in this way-I was completely surprised, elated, incredulous, and thankful.

Did you know the persons with whom you were awarded the Nobel Prize?

I did. We had been friends for many years, and I am still in close contact with them. While we did most of our work separately, we were always in communication with each other. With one of the other scientist, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, I had an even closer relationship. I spent a year working in his laboratory in Paris in 1989-90. Some of the things that came from that collaboration were among those recognized by the 1997 Nobel prize. This communication and sharing of information over the years is one of the characteristics of science and one of its joys. I have people who are friends and scientific colleagues all over the world, and that is a wonderful thing.

What would you tell people who perceive there is a conflict between science and faith?

I believe that for the most part science and religion are concerned with different kinds of questions. Apparent conflicts arise when one or the other of these disciplines tries to address questions that are the proper concern of the other. For example, the famous case of Galileo and the Catholic Church was a case of the Church trying to make the motion of the earth, the sun and the planets a religious question when it is in fact a scientific question. Similar trouble occurs when atheist scientist try to make the existence of God a scientific question, when it is in fact a religious questions. If we pay attention to what kinds of questions we are dealing with, we will have a lot less conflict.

Many efforts of physics research lead to reducing the mystery of the natural world to a predictive equation. This could be seen as reducing the mystery to “mathematics.” Often our Christian faith calls us to stand in the mystery of life before the mystery of God. How do you integrate these two ways of being with mystery into your living?

Science has been incredibly successful at organizing our knowledge about how things work. We can predict at least some, relatively simple things with incredible accuracy. But the more I study physics, the more I realize that there are things that cannot be understood. For one thing, science tells us nothing about ultimate causes-why is there a universe at all? Why is the universe the way it is? Furthermore, science teaches us that there are some things that we cannot know even in principle. These realizations make me more comfortable with the mysteries of religion, with the idea that there are some things about God that we are not going to understand in this earthly existence.

As a Christian, how do you balance the absolutes of science and the unknown or faith that is part of Christianity?

There are a number of ways of answering that question. On the one hand, I don't think that science and faith are as different as you might think. In religion we take as a given that there is a God, that there is a transcendence to life and that it all matters. In science we assume that the world is orderly and consistent, that is has a real existence and is not just an illusion, and that we can use logic and experiment to understand it. On the other hand, science and religion ask very different questions and use very different methods to answer those questions. Freeman Dyson, a great physicist, and a recent recipient of the Templeton Prize for progress in religion has said that science and religion are two different windows through which we can see the same reality.


Larry Hygh, Jr. is Associate Director of Communications for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church.

About the Author

Larry Hygh, Jr

Larry Hygh, Jr. is Associate Director of Communications for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist read more…
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