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In Memoriam

In Memoriam: Charles Hard Townes
Buckingham Palace, May 4, 2005
Credit: Templeton Prize / Clifford Shirley

The John Templeton Foundation mourns the death of Charles Hard Townes, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, on Tuesday, January 27 at the age of 99. Professor Townes was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2005 and shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the laser.

Townes often cited his discovery of the principles of the maser—an insight that suddenly occurred to him as he sat on a park bench in Washington, D.C. in 1951—as a “revelation” as real as any revelation described in the scriptures, and as a striking example of the interplay of the “how” and “why” that both science and religion must recognize.

It was the 1966 publication of his article, “The Convergence of Science and Religion,” in the IBM journal THINK, that established Townes as a unique voice, especially among scientists, that sought commonality between the two disciplines. Long before the concept of a relationship between scientific and theological inquiry became an arena of investigation, his nonconformist viewpoint jumpstarted a movement that until then few had considered. Townes admitted in the paper that his position would be considered by many in both camps to be “extreme.” Nonetheless, he proposed, “their differences are largely superficial, and…the two become almost indistinguishable if we look at the real nature of each.”

In his remarks at the Templeton Prize news conference, Townes said, “Science and religion have had a long history of interesting interaction. But when I was younger, that interaction did not seem like a very healthy one.”

“I believe there is no long-range question more important than the purpose and meaning of our lives and our universe,” he continued, noting that the Prize founder had been particularly instrumental in that work. “Sir John has very much stimulated its thoughtful consideration, particularly encouraging open and useful discussion of spirituality and the meaning of life by scientists.”

In nominating Townes for the Prize, David Shi, then president of his alma mater Furman University, wrote, “Charles Townes helped to create and sustain the dialogue between science and theology. Thus he has made a profound contribution to the world’s progress in understanding—and embracing—the wonder of God’s creation.”

The Los Angeles Times, in its January 27 obituary, noted: “Fearlessness combined with Townes’ deep skepticism of conventional wisdom—a quality that helped him overcome critics who initially dismissed his ideas.”

At the time of its awarding, Townes joined Mother Teresa and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as the only people to have been awarded the Nobel Prize and the Templeton Prize. Since then, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have joined that group.

He donated half of the proceeds from the Prize, then valued at £795,000, to Furman University and the remainder to various church-based charities.

Speaking at a campus-wide Berkeley celebration honoring Townes’ 99th birthday last July, Dr. John Seel, the Foundation’s director of cultural engagement, said: “Dr. Townes, we thank you for your life, for your accomplishments, but mostly for the stance you have taken before the complexities of reality and human nature. In your now famous 1966 THINK article, you concluded, ‘For ourselves and for mankind, we must use our best wisdom and instincts, the evidence of history and the wisdom of the ages, the experience and revelations of our friends, saints, and heroes in order to get as close as possible to truth and meaning.’ Dr. Townes, you are our friend, saint, and hero. We see farther standing on your shoulders.”

Professor Townes was a member of the John Templeton Foundation since 2005, served several terms on the board of advisors, and participated in many Foundation conferences and symposia. In October 2005, he was honored by the Foundation and by more than 100 research leaders in physics and technology—including 16 Nobel Prize Laureates—at the “Amazing Light: Visions for Discovery” symposium at UC Berkeley.

We remember him and his wife, Frances, with love and respect and extend our deepest condolences to Frances and their four daughters, the Townes family, the Department of Physics, and the entire community of the University of California, Berkeley.

UC Berkeley News Center: Nobel laureate and laser inventor Charles Townes dies at 99
Los Angeles Times: Charles Townes, physicist who invented the laser, dies at 99


John Templeton Foundation
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