Finding God At
Why Be a Scientist?
by Gregory Hammett, from Finding God at Harvard
“One motivation for going into fusion energy research, was that I felt this would be a way to work out Jesus’ great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
Gregory Hammett is a physicist on the research staff of Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Laboratory, which does research on fusion energy. Hammett traveled frequently in his youth, as his father was in the air force. Greg was born in Japan and went to high school in Georgia. He received his A.B. in physics from Harvard in 1980 and his Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences from Princeton in 1986. He has done research on fusion devices at Princeton and in England. His current research concerns the effects of turbulence on the efficiency of fusion devices, and involves developing theoretical models of plasma turbulence for simulation on the new generation of massively parallel supercomputers. Thankfully, he says, some balance in his life is provided by his wife, Kate, “an artist who does abstracts and stand-up comedy.”
I vividly remember one particular sunny afternoon in 1977 sitting on my neighbor’s floor in my freshman dorm, Wigglesworth, contemplating what field I should major in, what career path I should take, what I wanted to do with my life, and what the purpose of life was, anyway. I eventually became a physicist doing research on fusion energy.
Although I have been happy with my career decision, I still ponder some of the big questions. Part of my reason for going into science was to pursue the inborn curiosity we all have. We feel a sense of awe when we learn how energy can be converted from one form to another or when we see the beautiful patterns of ordered chaos in abstract mathematical equations or their physical realization in waves on the beach, clouds at sunset, or even cream swirling in coffee. But beyond enjoying this exploration of the world, one set of big questions I have as a scientist is the same as I would have in any career—Is my field, science, helpful to other people? And if so, how? And why help other people at all? I would like to tackle some of these issues here. Why be a scientist?
There is wide disagreement on how to answer questions about the benefits of science and technology, and how they fit into the larger scheme of God’s plan for humankind. Many people view science as embodying the greatest achievements of mankind, with which we will someday build utopia. Certain popular science magazines are proponents of this view. At the other extreme are those who blame science for unleashing a Pandora’s box of horrifying capabilities and destroying what had been utopia. (I am reminded of how an empty Coca Cola bottle brought modernity and hence greed and violence to an idyllic bushman tribe in the hilarious comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy.) Both extremes are distortions of the truth. We should, I believe, neither deify nor demonize science. If we are honest, we will not lose perspective of the successes of science, nor will we forget its limitations or, more importantly, the limitations of human nature.
In many ways, the average person today is healthier, safer, and materially more comfortable than even a king was two hundred years ago. His court jesters can be summoned with a push on the remote control of the television. Mass-production techniques have reduced the cost of many products to a tenth or less of their original cost, including the personal computer with which I am writing. Fear of famine is a thing of the past in much of the modern world, thanks to farm technologies involving machinery, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, improved plant varieties, and transportation and storage advances. An abundant food supply, along with basic sanitation and modern medicine, has led to dramatic drops in mortality rates. Thanks largely to drops in infant mortality rates, a person born today in North America has an average life span of over seventy years, compared to thirtyfive to forty years at the end of the eighteenth century or only twenty to twenty-five years in the first century. Although infant mortality is still a serious problem in many parts of the modern world, including even certain urban areas of the United States, in the 1600s two thirds of all infants died in their first year after birth.
Despite all of these technological benefits, twentieth-century people are no happier than first-century folk, and for a variety of reasons: the escalation of expectations, the impermanence of technological fixes, the surprising side effects of certain technological “advances,” and finally the nontechnological nature of humankind’s fundamental problems. All of these represent “hidden costs” that sharply qualify the promise that science and technology hold for human happiness. I’ll discuss each of them briefly.
First, escalating expectations: Expectations can be part of a healthy attitude. It is good for a child to be proud to be able to play a simple tune after a few piano lessons and yet still desire to learn more complicated ones. But I am not sure it is healthy to be so driven that one is dissatisfied even after mastering Liszt and performing to an ovation in Carnegie Hall. Each technological advance provides a temporary thrill, but it soon becomes routine, an old toy. Barely a dozen years ago, PCs were welcomed as a major advance over the old typewriter. But the powerhouse computers of recent years are now viewed as quaint antiques. Curiously, a more powerful computer seems not to have reduced the total time I spend typing: I now type more documents and spend more time revising them. “Timesaving” devices rarely save time.
Rising expectations can be part of a destructive, obsessive perfectionism that is never satisfied. It is possible to satisfy our needs, impossible to satisfy our greeds. As Alan Verhey points out, “If we can travel faster by car than horse, we now want faster cars. If we can have a child when we could not have one before, we now want a particular kind of child, say a bright, blond boy.”1 Verhey fears that this escalation of expectations in the field of genetic engineering will continue “until we have reduced our options to a perfect child or a dead child.” By not providing what it seems to promise— genuine fulfillment—science keeps us yearning for still more thrills, gad- gets, conveniences, and even power. There is no clearly recognizable point at which it becomes enough. This lack of contentment, this sin of insatiable desire in the human race, can be traced all the way back to Adam and Eve. (Their progeny have not evolved very far, if at all.) Though God provided lavishly for them in the Garden of Eden, they wanted more. They wanted to become like God.
The next limitation of science and technology is that technological fixes are impermanent. Cars rust. Moving parts wear out. Hard disks conk out. Penicillin-resistant strains of bacteria develop. The best health system can’t prevent the aging of the body, and eventual death. Sometimes it seems as if everything around us is cursed; as soon as we finish pulling up the weeds in one part of our life, they start coming up in another (Genesis 3:17–19), constant reminders that we live in a fallen world.
Third, new technologies often have surprising side effects. Consider some examples: Chemically, freon is usually very inert, so the discovery of its impact on the ozone layer was quite surprising. There are now so many people burning so much fuel that air pollution is a problem and we are beginning to worry about possible global climate changes. As the Amish point out, technologies can have social side effects as well. Television has drastically undercut family interaction. Modern transportation has aided the dispersion of the once close-knit extended family. Higher-skill technologies have cut the opportunities for stable jobs for some in our society.
But what these unintended consequences often point to is the abuse or selfish use of technology. Like money, technology sometimes merely aggravates preexisting human problems. The true culprit is the fallen human heart, which has the capability of turning virtually everything it invents into a two-edged sword—a blessing or a curse.
For example, computer recognition of the human voice, if and when it is perfected, will probably replace the word processor keyboard with a microphone, doing wonders for sore backs and tired fingers. But it would also enable intelligence agencies or corporate “big brothers” to greatly expand their eavesdropping capabilities. The capacity for evil is in the heart, not in advanced technology.
This brings us to the fourth limitation of technology, which is that many of our main problems are not even technological at all. The United States has the best medical technology in the world, but millions cannot afford it. The technology exists to feed and immunize every child on the planet, yet tens of thousands die each day of hunger and illness. These are complex social problems that cannot be fixed by technology alone. Technology can make the pie bigger, but it cannot guarantee everyone a large enough slice.
The source of much human happiness and despair lies in the social or personal realm—far outside the reach of technological solutions. Many of the same things make twentieth-century people happy as they did in the first century: a loving family, a living wage, a shared meal, good friends, the birth of a child. Despair too has causes which have changed little over the centuries. The complexities of issues such as poverty go far beyond the problem of material resources to issues of skills, family support, discrimination, political gridlock, alcohol and drug abuse, and hopelessness. And yet social institutions are sometimes the problem rather than the solution. Inefficiency and corruption may subvert the best programs. Governments may liberate or oppress. The media and even the universities may enlighten or indoctrinate. Families may build up healthy personalities or deform them through abuse and neglect. Humans are a great paradox, having the potential for wonderful good, but with a terrible propensity for evil (we were made in the image of God, but we have fallen).
Against such a backdrop, it is easy to understand why it has been said that one of the most observably verifiable doctrines of Christianity is the fallen nature of humankind. We have only to look at our own sin to know that the classical problems of mankind—pride, lust, envy, greed—are still with, and within, us. Scientific progress treats some of the symptoms but not the underlying disease. We still search for the meaning of life and struggle with the meaning of death.
“God has not abandoned us,” declared Billy Graham in his 1991 Central Park crusade, “we have abandoned God.” We have tried every kind of substitute for God: science and technology, money, psychologies, philosophies, individual freedom, drugs, sex. Blaise Pascal (the great seventeenth century French scientist and philosopher after whom the computer language is named) reflected on mankind’s fruitless search for happiness without faith and concluded that within every human heart is an infinite “God-shaped void” that only God can fill. In his Pensées, Pascal observes:
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. . . . Some seek good in authority, others in scientific research, others in pleasure. . . . And yet, after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look. All complain, princes and subjects, noblemen and commoners, old and young, strong and weak. . . . A trial so long, so continuous, and so uniform, should certainly convince us of our inability to reach the good by our own efforts. But example teaches us little. . . .
Drawing on his groundbreaking scientific studies of the vacuum to inform his understanding of the human condition, the French philosopher concludes:
What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remains to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.2
We cannot fill our own emptiness; we need help from outside ourselves. God has provided that help through Jesus, the promised Messiah.
Jesus offers escape from the finality of death, the ultimate problem which science can never conquer. (For the reader interested in exploring the evidence for Christianity, I recommend three thoughtful little books.3) Our fundamental problems are spiritual, the corruption of the human heart.
Jesus offers to redeem us and to transform our hearts and lives. This transformation is not instantaneous, and I must confess that there have been many times when I have failed as a Christian and deeply hurt others around me. But God’s forgiveness, and the great sacrifice that made it possible, grant us the grace to keep on trying, to continue on his upward path rather than degenerating further in a downward spiral.
My central point is this: at the heart of many of our problems that we try to fix through technological or social means is the root spiritual problem of our fallen nature, and hence our need for redemption. But a spiritual solution does not mean that we are to abandon all physical and social concerns in favor of a “spiritual” approach. Jesus himself was concerned with the whole person; he healed people both physically and spiritually. He said to the paralytic both, “My son, your sins are forgiven,” and also, “Rise, take up your pallet and go home.” Indeed, knowing that there is an eternity gives new meaning and relevance to this life: death is no longer the end; what we do now can have eternal implications.
Moreover, a spiritual perspective gives the moral framework needed to wisely use the tools of technology, and the motivation to counteract the side effects when necessary. Cultivating a spiritual perspective reins in our greed and puts a healthy damper on the escalation of expectations, helping us to be satisfied with what we have and enabling us to turn our attention to those in greater need. Jesus calls us both to abandon the beguilements of this world and at the same time to be involved in it. The physical takes on new meaning once we recognize the spiritual, with which God has involved his physical creation in many ways. God has given spiritual meaning to physical acts such as caring for those in need. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35–36).
The good which can be done in the physical and social realms is just as real as the evil which can be done. God’s creation is not an illusion: a physician heals the real hurts of a real person. A farmer feeds real people who experience actual hunger. In our modern economy, we do not frequently come face-to-face with the needs we are meeting, but the mechanic who fixed the farmer’s tractor, the garbage collector who disposed of or recycled the mechanic’s trash, and the scientist who invented new recycling methods all play vital roles.
My motivation for going into fusion energy research, apart from enjoying science and math, was that I felt this research would be a way to work out Jesus’ great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. I went to college in the late 1970s, in the middle of the energy crisis. I was quite conscious of the economic disruptions it triggered both worldwide and on the personal level, and of the threats of war over oil supplies. Energy needs are still a long-term problem. Fusion energy has the possibility of being both abundant and environmentally acceptable. It would not produce greenhouse gases which add to the risk of global warming, and its radioactivity would be thousands to millions of times less hazardous than that of fission reactors. Much work remains to make fusion an efficient and practical reality, but we are now fairly confident that we can make fusion work technically. 4 Yet like all other technologies, however worthy, it cannot solve all the problems of the whole person.
As someone who works in the physical sciences and follows developments in various scientific, technological, and public policy areas, I see the valuable contributions that people in various fields—from engineering to economics, from medicine to business, from politics to plasma physics— can make, and have made, to improve the quality of human life. (Often we don’t appreciate the advances that have been made until the car breaks down or the electricity goes out.) However, the solutions to many of our problems do not lie in more knowledge. If that were the case, then we in the twentieth century would be much more content than all who have come before us. The challenge is often whether we can use our knowledge responsibly and whether we can direct it in a caring way toward others. That implicates the human heart, not so much the mind, and points to our need for God’s transforming work in our hearts.
If we are to help the whole person, we must have a proper balance in our approach to physical, social, and spiritual problems. Jesus set an example of caring for both the spiritual and physical needs of people, and he also gave us a reason to follow his example: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10–11). The world needs good doctors and lawyers (seventy-five percent of my freshman class wanted to be one or the other). The world needs good fathers and mothers, teachers and preachers, farmers and cooks, businessmen and politicians, and even scientists. But whatever we do, we should do it out of love for each other, out of a love which springs from the great love of God.
by Gregory Hammett in Finding God at Harvard: Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians, ed. Kelly Monroe, pub. Zondervan, 1996, and Inter Varsity Press, 2006).
1) Alan Verhey, Christianity Today (February 7, 1986), 27.
2) Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. R. M. Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1952), vol. 33, p. 244. From section number 425 of the Brunschvieg edition of the Pensées, or number 148 of the Lafuma edition. This excerpt has been slightly reordered.
3) C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952). Paul Little, Know Why You Believe (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1968). Moishe Rosen, Y’shua (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982).
4) J. G. Cordey, R. J. Goldston, R. R. Parker, “Progress toward a Tokamak Fusion Reactor,” Physics Today (January 1992), 22.