Physicist Charles Townes had a significant problem.
He’d been trying to figure out a solution to a long-standing conundrum of how to create a pure beam of light—one that’s short in wavelength and high in frequency. More than three decades earlier, the great Albert Einstein had in fact theorized that it could be done. But no one had yet managed the feat. And despite Townes’s best efforts, this brilliant young professor hadn’t figured it out either.
It was 1951, and Townes was in Washington, DC waiting for a breakfast restaurant to open. He sat down on a park bench.
I’ve read this story numerous times, and it seems that this brilliant future Nobel Laureate let his mind wander. That morning, he said No to trying and took a moment to pause.
The Yes Just Beyond Our Nos
Last week, I looked at the process of quieting ourselves, of taking Sabbaths as a way to renew ourselves. We need to slow down and stop striving. Not only Scripture, but science teaches us that this changes our brain chemistry in ways that allow for new insights.
That’s the practice of saying No. And this week I want to emphasize the Yes. Scripture also tells that No is never the final word. Instead, God wants us to hear a Yes because in Christ “every one of God’s promises is a “‘Yes’” (2 Cor 1: 20). And so when we wait for answers, we wait with expectation. As Psalm 130:5-6 phrases it, “I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word, I put my hope. I wait for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.”
In Townes’s case, God had a profound Yes for this young Christian physics professor as he waited for an answer. In fact, something happened on that park bench fifty-eight years ago—I would say, Townes heard God’s Yes. Here’s how it was reported:
“On that bench, surrounded by blooming azaleas, the solution came to Townes, then a 35-year-old Columbia University researcher. It involved a flash of bright light, a population of excited ammonia molecules and a mechanism for limiting the wavelengths they could then emit. On the back of an old envelope, he ‘just scratched it out,’ he said of his brainstorm.”
That solution led first to the development of the maser and then the laser, and ultimately Townes’s 1964 Nobel Prize. Few other modern inventions have had the wide-ranging effect of the laser. They are at the core of home DVD players, military rangefinders and altimeters, grocery store bar-code scanner, and police speed detectors, to name just a few applications.
Many people know the Nobel Prize, but not as many are aware of a second honor awarded to Townes: The 2005 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. It’s worth about $1.5 million and recognizes those who have advanced the world’s understanding of God and of spiritual realities. Townes was the third person to receive both a Nobel and a Templeton after Mother Theresa and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, subsequently joined by The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Still none of the others won their Nobel in science. That makes him unique in holding these elite prizes, one in science and another in religion.
- A U.C. Berkeley physics department video interview with Townes on science and religion.
- Townes’s reflections on science and faith way back in 1966.
- U.C. Berkeley physics students dedicate a park bench on Cal’s campus in Townes’s honor.
- Christian spirituality writer Marjorie Thompson’s “Exercise in listening to God.”
- From the Magis Center on the brain science of contemplative prayer.
- A Stanford anthropologist has studied how we hear God’s voice.
When God Reveals a Yes
Of course, this event also tells us something about bringing together our faith with science. When telling the story years later, Townes would often recall how he was struck with a solution even calling it a religious experience. In a 2005 interview with UC Berkeley News (where he taught for most of his career), he drew parallels with “revelation.”
Townes listened to the God who can speak a Yes and who guides our lives… especially when we’re listening. For Townes, God was present in everything he did: “I feel the presence of God. I feel it in my own life as a spirit that is somehow with me all the time.” May we take his words to heart as we begin this new year.