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We are a worldwide social network of freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

Q & A with Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Charles Townes


Question: Would you like to comment on the limits of scientific knowledge versus the limits of spiritual or religious knowledge?


Townes: “Both are limited. A set of assumptions are made and we use logic to try to derive things from that; but we can never be sure that these assumptions are consistent. Now, in addition we know that there are many puzzles in science. We are finding fantastic things. For example, many scientists, including Einstein, didn’t think the universe could have a beginning. Of course how could it possibly have a beginning; it couldn’t have started from nothing. Now we have the discovery of the “Big Bang.” The universe did indeed have a beginning. That was previously a religious view, but not a scientific view. Now suddenly we learn it had a beginning and this shows that science can shed some light on religion.”


Q: What can science learn from religion and what can religion learn from science?


T: “I think some religious people have been too absolutist. Some scientists are too absolute as well. They think: science really understands that, this is all there is and nothing else. I think in both cases we should recognize that we don’t understand everything and must be ready to change our views to some extent. Maybe in general we know what is approximately right, but we must recognize that we don’t understand everything. Actually, religion has helped science and vice-versa at various times.”


Q: Could you give us some examples from the past about how religion and science interacted?


T: “I would have to say that I believe science was a result of religion, and religion was monotheistic with a single God who created this universe and planned it. This has substantially affected early scientific views. The Greeks, for example, felt they could figure out what the world was like just from logic – they thought that it had to be a certain way and they thought about it using logic, trying to figure out what the world was like. Now, if there’s a God who created the universe, then God created the universe and made it the way He wanted it. so, let’s find our what it’s like; if God created the world, then it should be consistent and reliable. So that, I think, was the background for the beginning of basic science. What is this universe really like and is it consistent, can we rely on it and predict it? So the religious idea of a single God that created the universe was basic to the beginning of science, or at least European science.”


Q: So that’s how religion inspired scientific questions. And how does science shed light on religion?


T: “The Greeks, as I said, thought they could figure out everything form logic, without observations. Now we have observations, we have to see what the world is like. As we learn what it is like this will shed some light on its purpose and meaning. I’ve already mentioned that we have discovered that there was a beginning of all things. We are able to understand more and more over recent years. The laws of science have to be almost exactly as they are if we are to be here. Atomic forces and electromagnetic forces have to be almost exactly the way they are for the chemicals that we need for our bodies to be here. Nuclear forces and gravitation have to be almost exactly the way they are for the stars to be here and to last so long. The sun, for example, is here for billions of years, shining on us and keeping us alive. Our life depends on the laws of science; they have to be almost exactly the way they are. We recognize that now; but why are they this way? Well, that’s the origin of the expression “intelligent planning.” Somehow it was planned to make it come out this way, why else would it be otherwise?”


Q: But still, there are some alternative explanations as well.


T: “Some people think that maybe there are billions and billions of different universes and each one is a little different. Well, that’s a possibility, but why would the laws of science differ from one universe to the other and so on? That’s an arbitrary assumption, but maybe. Otherwise one has to say: gee, maybe it was planned. For everything to come out exactly this way will shed some light; perhaps this was a planned and created universe. Science and religion interact and shed some light on one another; and I think as we learn more about each they will interact more.”


Q: In addition to the Nobel Prize you have also won the prestigious Templeton Award. How did you become interested in this dialogue between science and religion?


T: “Firstly, I’m both religiously oriented and scientifically oriented. In spite of many apparent conflicts between the two, in my mind there is no actual conflict. They are much more consistent with each other than people think; in fact they help each other. Each can learn something about one from the other, and I felt it was time to point this out to people and emphasize it.”


Q: Some people are making the leap, suggesting that because of the laws in quantum mechanics one’s thoughts somehow interact with the macro world. How would you respond to that?


T: “There is no evidence of that at all. I don’t think quantum mechanics allows that. I know people have thought: well maybe this will allow some new things of that type, but it doesn’t. One of the great problems is free will. How can we have free will and what is consciousness and what is free will? Science doesn’t allow free will, but that doesn’t mean that science is complete. Our present science doesn’t allow free will and we should recognize that. if we have free will then there is something new and different that we have yet to understand.”


Q: Well, when you say that science doesn’t allow free will, my first thought is “So what? As a human being can I not decide that I want to live my life this way as opposed to that way?


T: “A present understanding is that science doesn’t allow free will. There has to be some new laws, something new, perhaps a new dimension somehow, a spiritual dimension or some new dimension. Something has to be happening if we have free will. Maybe we don’t have free will; however, if we really believe that we have free will, there must be something completely new that we don’t understand. This is an example of science and religion interacting and shedding light on one another. Our belief that we are able to decide this way or that is just an illusion; we merely think that we’re making a decision. There is also the question of what is it that leads us to make a decision, where is this thing? Where is the human you envision? How do you define a human, where and what is this thing that has free will?”

Charles Hard Townes was born in Greenville, South Carolina, on July 28, 1915. He is the inventor of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) which led to the laser, something that has changed our world in profound ways. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Townes has received the Templeton Award, for contributions to the understanding of religion, and a number of other prizes as well as 27 honorary degrees from various universities

Extracts from an interview conducted by Mustafa Tabanli, for Ebru TV for the Emmy Award winning television series Matter and Beyond. For more information and the full episodes visit Published also by The Fountain magazine, July/August 2010, pages 7–12.

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We discussed this in the past,  if Yahweh wanted to save the most people he should have chosen a tribe in China or India.  He really is a chucklehead of a God - A God Gorilla would have least picked an area of Earth with greenery.

God did not talk about these people because the the person telling these narratives did not know the existence of these people because he would have been lucky to have travelled no further than two hundred kilometres from the place he was born. 

Had he truly been told by god to tell these things, then god, himself would have mentioned by name all the people that lived on this planet.

For a group of people to say they are the chosen people is just one big ego trip for that people!

It's easy for a tribe of shepherds in the desert to think that they are the center of the universe.

Everyone does, shouldn't be a surprise.

Here is me talking to myself, 

A Tube-nosed Bat (Lost Land of the Volcano - BBC)

A Tube-nosed Bat (Lost Land of the Volcano - BBC)

Nope, Not Enough

Some believers accuse skeptics of having nothing left but a dull, cold, scientific world. I am left with only art, music, literature, theater, the magnificence of nature, mathematics, the human spirit, sex, the cosmos, friendship, history, science, imagination, dreams, oceans, mountains, love and the wonder of birth. That’ll do me.”

Lynne Kelly

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” -Stephen Hawking

The Universe is a vast, seemingly unending marvel of existence. Over the past century, we’ve learned that the Universe stretches out beyond the billions of stars in our Milky Way, out across billions of light years, containing close to a trillion galaxies all told.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Image credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team.

And yet, that’s just the observable Universe! There are good reasons to believe that the Universe continues on and on beyond the limits of what we can see; the question is, how far does it go on? Forever? Or does it close back upon itself at some point?

To help us better understand this question, let’s turn to something more familiar (and smaller) that we know how to measure the size of: the Earth.

Sunset from a Hawaiian Astronomer

Image credit: Tom of

From the top of a tall mountain, like Mauna Kea, shown here, you might hope to measure the Earth’s curvature, but your efforts would be in vain. From even 14,000 feet up, the curvature of the Earth is totally indistinguishable from flat.

There are images out there where the Earth appears curved when you look out at the water, and indeed, they’re not hard to find. But is that because of the Earth’s curvature?

Iceberg off of New Zealand

Image credit: James Elders of Flatwoods and Lighterknots.

Not at all; it’s because of atmospheric distortion. If you were to try and calculate the circumference of the Earth from a photo like this, you’d get a world that was smaller than even the Moon is; you cannot measure the curvature of the Earth from any known location on the surface of the planet.

What’s more than that is that, over land, the Universe isn’t perfectly smooth. Some places are curved upwards, others downwards, and any small region visible to you is unlikely to be a fair representation of the entire planet.

Summit of the Weisshorn; Matterhorn in the background

Image credit: Stefan Zenker atop Weisshorn, 1974.

There is a way that you’d be able to tell, though, what the shape and size of the planetactually is. All you’d have to do is take the appropriate measurements and use geometry.

It’s as simple as going to three separate locations on Earth and drawing a triangle to connect those three points.

Triangle on a surface of positive curvature

Image credit: John D. Norton from the University of Pittsburgh.

On a flat sheet of paper, the three angles of any triangle will always add up to 180°, as you well know. But if you’re on the surface of a sphere (or, mathematically, any surface of positive curvature), those angles will add up to more than 180°. Knowing the distance between each of those three points and the measure of all three angles allows you to calculate what the circumference of the Earth is.

And, of course, the farther away your three points are from one another, the less important the mountains, valleys and oceans are, and the more important the overall shape of the Earth is to your measurement. The converse would have been true if the Earth were shaped with negative curvature, like a saddle, as shown below.

Triangle on a saddle, of negative curvature

Image credit: John D. Norton from the University of Pittsburgh.

A surface of negative curvature has any three points form a triangle whose three angles sum toless than 180°, and again, knowing the distances and measurements of all three angles allows you to calculate the radius of curvature.

In practice, the very first calculation of the circumference of the Earth — dating to the 3rd Century B.C. — used a very similar method, again reliant on simple geometry.

Eratosthenes measurement of the Earth's circumference

Image credit: NOAA Ocean Service Education's history of geodesy.

It would not be until the 20th Century that we were actually able to achieve altitudes capable of measuring the curvature of the Earth from space, something we are only able to do because we can step off of the two-dimensional surface of the Earth and look at it from afar.

The Earth from space: 1946

Image credit: Johns Hopkins University & the U.S. Navy.

By 1948, we were creating mosaics of the Earth by stitching together multiple images of the Earth from space, and there could no longer be any doubt as to its circumference.

Panorama of the Earth from 1948.

Image credit: Johns Hopkins / U.S. Navy, from the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

But space itself is a little trickier. Yes, it is just a geometric construct (albeit a slightly more complicated one), but it also has an inherent curvature to it. The amount that the space of our Universe is curved is directly related to the amount of matter and energy that we have in it.

Light bending by a massive object

Image credit: Francesco Iacopino of Learning is Beautiful.

Dense, heavy masses like the Sun cause very large amounts of curvature in very small spaces, significant enough to bend starlight by amounts significant enough you could notice it with 1919′s technology. But that’s local curvature, the same way mountains, valleys and oceans are local curvature here on Earth; what we’re interested in is whether the entire Universe ever closes back in on itself, and if so, how big it is. In other words, these local sources of curvature are things we need to not be fooled by.

The Earth, too, curves the spacetime around it. Remember that we use two dimensions as an illustration, but unlike measuring the curvature of Earth, where we can fly “up” and observe the planet below, there is no extra dimension to move through to step back from the curvature of space.

How mass curves spacetime in 3-D

Image credit: Christopher Vitale of Networkologies and the Pratt Institute.

All of the spatial dimensions are curved. Since stepping back from the Universe and observing it from afar isn’t an option, the only way to get a good handle on its curvature is to examine it on its largest scales, and try to infer its geometry.

Millenium simulation from Volker Springel et al., from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics.

Image credit: V. Springel et al., MPA Garching, and the Millenium Simulation.

In principle, this is pretty straightforward. Just as any three points on a surface can help you calculate that surface’s curvature, you can do the exact same thing with the Universe! Take any three points that are far enough apart, measure the distances between those points and the relative angles between them as well, and you’ll be able to figure out not only how your spacetime is curved, but also what the radius of curvature is!

Shape of spacetime in the Universe

Image credit: Dave Goldberg and Jeff Blomquist.

You can imagine three possible cases, of course. One is where the Universe is positively curved, like a higher-dimensional sphere, one is where the Universe is totally flat, like a higher-dimensional grid, and one where the Universe is negatively curved, like a higher-dimensional saddle. In the context of general relativity, it’s the energy density — the amount of matter and all other forms of energy — that determine this curvature.

Shape of spacetime in the Universe

Image credit: NASA / WMAP science team / Gary Hinshaw.

In real life, we don’t have man-made objects far enough away to communicate with us across the necessary distances to measure curvature. Even if we did, it would take billions of years to do it, which is a disheartening way to attempt to do science. But we have light signals from when the Universe was just 380,000 years old, that tell us what the Universe is like 46 billion light years away.

The fluctuation in the cosmic microwave background — the leftover glow from the big bang — provide a window allowing us to see how our Universe is curved.

Shape of the Universe, as it affects the CMB

Image credit: Smoot Cosmology Group / Lawrence Berkeley Labs.

The first robust measurements of this came from the BOOMERanG experiment in the late 1990s (hearing Paolo de Bernardis talk about this in 2004 was a highlight for me during the early stages of my scientific career), where they first determined that rather than having significant positive or negative curvature, the Universe was indistinguishable from flat.

Curvature of space as measured by Boomerang.

Image credit: A.E. Lange and P. de Bernardis et al. for the Boomerang collaboration.

That doesn’t mean that it is flat, of course. If you walked outside and tried to measure the curvature of the Earth right now, but only within 5 km (or 3 miles) of your current location, you would find that the Earth is consistent with being flat, but it could also be positively or negatively curved on a larger scale than you’re currently measuring.

So it goes with the Universe as well. We were able to measure that the Universe, if it is curved, has a much larger radius of curvature than that of our observable Universe, which is about 46 billion light years. But if we could make that measurement more precise, we could conceivably measure a much smaller curvature than even that. Thanks to the WMAP satellite, we now have the temperature fluctuations over the entire sky measured at a very narrow, less-than-half-a-degree resolution.

CMB from WMAP satellite

Image credit: NASA / WMAP science team.

And what they teach us is that not only is the Universe consistent with being flat, it’s really, really,REALLY flat! If the Universe does curve back and close on itself, its radius of curvature is at least 150 times as large as the part that’s observable to us! Meaning that — even without speculative physics like cosmic inflation — we know that the entire Universe extends for at least 14 trillion light years in diameter, including the part that’s unobservable to us today.

When you can only see a tiny part, you cannot distinguish your Universe from flat

Image credit: Ned Wright's cosmology tutorial.

Just because the part of it we can see is indistinguishable from flat doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically flat in its entirety. But it does mean that the Universe is far larger than we’ll ever see. Even taking the minimum allowable estimate for the size of the Universe means that, at most, less than 0.0001% of the volume of the Universe is presently or will ever be observable to us. Once you put our knowledge about dark matter and dark energy in there, you’ll realize that we’ll never see more of the Universe than we can right now.

So all that we see — the billions of stars in our galaxy, the hundreds of billions of galaxies lighting up the observable Universe — is just a teeny-tiny fraction of what’s actually out there, beyond what we can see. And yet, we can know that it’s there. Isn’t science wonderful?


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