The Common Good
January-February 2003

The Cold Reaches of Heaven

by Julie Polter | January-February 2003

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Bill Phillips talks about his faith

William Phillips, 54, a research physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is friendly and casual—with a beard, jeans, running shoes, and a ready smile. He walks quickly, talks quickly, and by all evidence thinks very quickly. All this might be expected from a world-class scientist who has a lot to do, but still it seems a small irony: This man in a hurry has spent more than two decades pursuing the physics of slow.

Phillips' field of expertise is called laser cooling, which involves using lasers to drastically slow the movement of atoms. Slower atoms are cooler atoms. How cool? Phillips and his fellow researchers have gotten down to temperatures a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero: the coldest temperatures in the universe. For this work Phillips and two others received the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics.

One of Phillips' first public acts after hearing the news was to thank God for "giving us such a wonderful and interesting universe to explore." Some were surprised to hear such a spiritual sentiment from a physicist. But Phillips, an active member of a multiracial Methodist church for more than 20 years, is fully at ease with being both a scientist and a person of faith.

"I'm not an anomaly," he says emphatically. "In fact, I would say that if you were to ask, the majority of physicists would answer that they believe in God in one form or another. Maybe not in exactly the same way that I do, because I believe in a personal God, but God in one form or another." Since his Nobel-inspired public acknowledgement of God, Phillips has become involved with the science and religion movement, which seeks to confront the perception that the two are intrinsically incompatible. A 2001 "Science and the Spiritual Quest" conference at Harvard University featured many scientists, including Phillips, speaking about their own beliefs and religious questions.

"One of the things we do as physicists," says Phillips, "is measure what we call ‘fundamental constants of nature'—things that determine numerically how things work. Life wouldn't have been possible if those constants had been a little different—and I mean infinitesimally different. The Earth wouldn't be here. The sun never would have formed. Stars never would have come into being. Plenty of scientists have come up with alternative arguments for why things are. One of the most popular ones at the moment is that there are a gazillion universes, and we just happen to be in the one with the right constants. But it's a completely unsupported hypothesis—perfectly reasonable, but unsupported."

So what about the hypothesis that the reason we're the way we are is because God wanted a universe in which people would develop who could have meaningful relationships with each other, and with God? "Well, for me," Phillips is convinced, "that's a perfectly reasonable hypothesis too."

Phillips' office, shared with another researcher, is down a long hallway in the NIST physics building. The decor is familiar to anyone who has passed through a university science or engineering building: Echoing tile, no-nonsense neutral walls, labs on one side of the hall, offices on the other, frequent postings of "Far Side" cartoons featuring scientists and mad professors. Three tall liquid nitrogen tanks sit in the hall outside Phillips' office. The hallway walls around his door are crowded with posters and clippings about the Nobel-winning research. In the middle, mounted on fading construction paper, is artwork from a child: a "#1" prize ribbon with "congratulations Bill" written above it in bright markers.

"One of the first things I did after I learned that I had gotten the Nobel Prize was to get down on my knees and talk to God about it. I knew my life was going to change a lot; I was in need of some support." It's been several years now, but Phillips' voice still breaks as he quotes the Bible verse on the congratulations card his church community gave him. It said, "When one is honored, all rejoice" (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Phillips and his wife, Jane, have been members of Fairhaven United Methodist Church in Darnestown, Maryland, since 1979. The ethnic and racial diversity of Fairhaven UMC was part of their decision to commit. "Physics is not one of those areas of science where diversity has made great inroads," Phillips notes. "So my church gives me an opportunity for meeting people who come from different backgrounds who can enrich my life in ways that wouldn't happen otherwise." The couple also wanted to raise their children in an environment where it was perfectly natural for all different kinds of people to be friends and to interact in a close and personal way. "It's just hard to do that in our society, unless you make an effort," says Phillips.

"The expansion of the worship experience that comes from being in a church that honors a number of different of traditions—I had no idea how wonderful it would be," continues Phillips, who sings in Fairhaven's gospel choir. But he also acknowledges that it is an ongoing struggle to combine and honor all of these traditions. "You have to constantly come to terms with the fact that it's people from different backgrounds, different cultures, and different spiritual needs trying to operate within the same church." The congregation finds this effort worthwhile, but does struggle to maintain its strength in numbers and in financial solvency. "Church growth people will tell you that homogeneous churches grow faster," says Phillips. "We're not that."

LIKE PHILLIPS' LOVE of science, both his faith and his openness to a variety of people seem to have roots in his childhood. Both of his parents were social workers in Pennsylvania's coal country, who by example and in dinner table conversations taught their children respect for people of all cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds and actively nurtured lively thinking and discussion. Science and religion were not seen as contradictory, but complimentary.

"If I want to know how the universe went through its stages of development, I ask observational astronomy and theoretical cosmology," says Phillips. "If I want to know why are we here, why is there a universe in the first place, or what is the nature of my relationship to my Creator, I turn to the Bible. But when I study cosmology as a science, when I study physics, one of the things that I learn is that there are very clear, beautifully simple laws that describe almost everything that I observe. I see that kind of simplicity and beauty, and I think, this is a put-up job, this didn't happen by chance." Phillips laughs.

"That's a way in which science informs my faith. I don't want to compartmentalize them, but I am clear that there are questions that are well-posed to science and questions that are well-posed to religion. But they're not completely separate entities."

Values might be another way in which Phillips' faith and work lives meet. He has written that a guiding principle throughout his career has been that "one can do physics at the frontiers, competing with the best of the world, and do it with openness, humanity, and cooperation." He credits Daniel Kleppner, a mentor during his graduate study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with teaching this principle by example. MIT was Phillips' first experience of being in a world-class research group, the first opportunity, he says, to think, "‘Am I going to play fair, or am I going to play dirty?' It was clear from the very start, working with Dan, that things were going to be done honestly and openly and fairly, there was going to be no attempt to hide what we were doing from somebody who might be able to do it as well."

The temptation is real, admits Phillips, to keep a great idea under wraps, but in the end he feels it's not only a matter of ethics, it's a matter of effectiveness. "Science is about openness," says Phillips. "And you're going to make more progress being open than you are being secret.

"It's not as if we're not under pressure. The people who we compete with internationally are the best. Competition is one of the things that leads to progress. But we try to do it in a way that is very collegial." Laughing, Phillips adds, "I think this is the way it so often is: The right thing to do is also the best thing to do."

Phillips' descriptions of the beauty, simplicity, and wonder he sees through his work are not merely platitudes. His excitement is palpable when, describing the behavior of a super-cooled atom, he says, "Amazing things happen." Even a listener whose physics education ended with flinging ball bearings across labs as a college freshman can glimpse the beauty.

"Atoms behave like waves," Phillips describes, "but the heavier something is, the harder it is to see that wave nature. By these techniques of making atoms go more slowly, we get to see their wave nature in a way that just was not evident earlier."

"You can see in the ocean that two sets of waves can come together and interfere with each other, so that the troughs of the waves intersect with the troughs of other waves, and you get deeper troughs. Light does that, and people have made instruments for centuries that use that interference of light. Now we're making these kind of instruments using atoms as waves."

Yet even with this intense passion for his research, Phillips finds it easy to keep a wider perspective. "The truths that are in the Bible are far deeper truths than the kinds of truths that I read in a physics textbook," he says. "A quantum mechanics professor once said that someone asked him ‘Is such and such a theorem in quantum mechanics a deep truth?' He said, ‘No, that's a simple truth. No man is an island—that is a deep truth. Every man is an island. That is also a deep truth.' Scripture doesn't tell us about the wave nature of particles; scripture tells us about really deep things."

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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