We Are God's Creatures
A laser physicist, Nobel laureate, and Christian, William Phillips shares his views on some of the big questions of science and religion.
William Phillips is the leader of the laser cooling and trapping group of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1948 and attended public schools in Pennsylvania. He received his B.S. in physics from Juniata College (a small, church-related, liberal arts college in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania) in 1970 and pursued graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leading to his Ph.D. in 1976. He is a NIST fellow and an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Maryland at College Park.
In 1997 Phillips shared the Nobel Prize in physics for "development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light." Today the research group led by Phillips routinely uses laser light to manipulate matter at the quantum level in efforts to gain a better understanding and mastery of this ultracold and ultrasmall world. Areas of potential application of the research include better atomic clocks, absolutely secure encryption of digital information, and further miniaturization of electronic circuitry.
Married for 30 years and the father of two college-age daughters, Phillips is also active in a small, culturally diverse Christian congregation. He has served in various capacities in the church over the years, including 18 years in the church's gospel choir.
Our interview of Phillips explores the meeting of science and religion in his own life.
The World & I: Dr. Phillips, what is the religious tradition with which you are most closely associated?
William Phillips: I was raised in the Methodist Church (now the United Methodist Church), and I am happy to be a member of Fairhaven United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I don't see Methodism as the "one true faith," but I am comfortable with the traditions and the basic beliefs of this and other Protestant churches. One of the traditions of Methodism is that our understanding is based on the four pillars of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
The World & I: What has been the impact of your scientific and academic training in shaping your religious views?
Phillips: For the most part, I would have to say that my scientific training has not had a great deal of effect on my religious views. As a physicist, I see a tremendous beauty and consistency in nature that reinforces my belief that our universe was created by an intelligent being. The scientific evidence that our universe has certain specific properties and is governed by natural laws that appear to be "fine- tuned" to allow the development of life reinforces my belief that one of God's purposes in creating the universe was to have intelligent creatures with which He could have meaningful relationships. These scientific observations, however, are not the source of my belief. Nor do I believe that these observations represent a "proof" of the existence of God. Furthermore, I think that the important aspects of my religious belief, namely my understanding of the nature of God--God's love for us and God's desire that we love one another--are not beliefs that are much affected by scientific observation and training. St. Paul wrote that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. My religion is based on faith.
With respect to the broader question of academic training, I have had a relatively elementary education in biblical history and the Judeo- Christian heritage. This academic education in religion has to some extent shaped my belief that human creatures should maintain a humble attitude concerning the correctness of one religious viewpoint over another one. The history of how the Bible came to be in its present form, and the history of the variety of religious interpretation, has made me cautious of believing that I or anyone has a monopoly on truth. …