Tuesday, October 18, 2005

High school student interested in a career in physics

The following is a submission which the author requested be submitted anonymously. I usually reject submissions that attempt to invite religious discussions on this blog because I believe that the workplace should adhere to the same principals of separation of church and state that was one of the founding precepts of this country. I personally don't care what religion or sect or cult an individual feels strongly about as long as that person does not try to influence me with his beliefs. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that many "true believers" simply can't keep it to themselves, in the work place or out of it.

However, this particular submission request, naive though some of the questions it poses are, seemed somehow to warrant feedback from the "scientific community". Not only that, but it had no misspellings in it (highly unusual for a submission request to LANL, The Real Story).



I am a high school student interested in a career in physics, and I stumbled across the LANL blog some time ago and have been following it for a while. A lot of the discussion of management there has made me question whether I want to go into physics as a career, but I've been told by people who would probably know not to pay too much attention to all of that. What bothers me more is the constant criticism of religion. Are that many scientists really atheists? I'd heard of the stereotype, of course, but in my experience before now I hadn't really found anything to support it-- very smart people seemed to be able to believe, though they usually don't completely agree that all the stories are absolute scientific fact. And that's what I'd say about myself. But when you hear you people talk, it seems like no one believes, at all, and that you hate anyone who does. When you put that on top of the fact that it seems like everyone complains about the things that go on there, it seems like a really horrible place to work. And maybe a really horrible field to work in at all.

Is that right? Will I be told some physics secret in college or graduate school that negates the possibility of God and answers all questions? And if so, why don't y'all just give it to us now? And will college and graduate school turn me into someone who seems to hate the rest of the world? I'm sure not everyone there is like this, but it seems like it sometimes.

Thank you for your time

Dear High School student. Good for you. Keep at it. You are asking the right kind of questions. I can’t give you the answers, but let me make some suggestions about your quest.

First of all, recognize that words have different meaning to different people. “Religion” to some means an organized religion, while to others it simply means a belief in some power or higher-level organizing principle we don’t yet understand. Religious discussions and arguments often founder because the participants mean different things by the same words.

Second, recognize that organized religions are human institutions, with all the strengths and failings of any human institution. They may or may not have much connection with “spirituality” (another word that has different meanings to different people). You can reject one without necessarily rejecting the other. (ie. You can be religious without having to believe the dogma of any organized religion).

Third, science and religion, in their pure form, deal with differing domains of knowledge, and don’t need to conflict. Science deals with the nature of the physical world, using a particular method to help us avoid common problems in human reasoning, such as believing what we would like to believe or what we have been told to believe. Religion deals with philosophical questions such as what is moral and ethical, what is our purpose (if any) in the universe, what are our obligations to other creatures around us, and the like. The problems only come when one field tries to intrude on the other, such as when religions try to dictate the nature of the real world, or when scientists try to “prove” or “disprove” the existence of God.

Fourth, whether in the end you choose to subscribe to a religion or not, never underestimate the power that religious thought has upon people, cultures, and history. A common mistake among scientists is to reject organized religion, and then dismiss the importance of religion. Religions shape the world views and actions and biases and expectations and histories of peoples and cultures, and you will never understand people unless you understand their religions (you don’t have to believe in the religions, just understand them).
Bill's discourse, Dear High School Student, is an excellent one. Read it carefully and thoughtfully.

Remember that no one, whether he's a scientist or a theologian, can give you the final, ultimate answer to the question, "Why are we here?," complete with proofs. Remember, too, that your own ideas about whether or not there is a God will change throughout your life. You may even realize that your view of the very nature of God evolves as you experience more of life. Does that mean that you've gradually become an atheist? No, not necessarily.

A true scientist asks hard questions, of others, and of him- or herself. Cherished assumptions are always vulnerable; no theory worth its salt is untestable, even your own personal favorite theory. To lay people, that may seem like harshness, but it is what you have to do to get at the truth. When confronted with BLIND faith, most scientists react by pushing back with uncommon vigor. I wouldn't categorize that as "hatred." It may seem like "atheism" to non-scientists, but there's really no correlation.

Finally, a career in physics (or chemistry, or biology, or whatever science you prefer) can be very rewarding, as you try to figure out how the Universe works, and as you realize how much more we have to learn. Los Alamos National Laboratory has been a great place to pursue these things, at least until the past few years, when "troubles" were visited upon us, like Pharaoh's plagues. But times have gotten tough for science all over the country, and we can only hope that bright young people will persevere in their studies and come to help us out.

Nothing worth pursuing is on the easy road, I fear. So, roll up your sleeves.
Indeed, there is no contradiction between science and religion. Remember that science as we know it was started by highly religious people because of their religious belief that there was order in the universe. This continues to be a important motivator for many scientists today, but certainly not all. There probably is an excessive emphasis on atheism in universities these days, but it shouldn't be viewed as a limitation on your ability to learn of and practice science.

Remember also that the term "separation of church and state" has no basis in our US Constitution. This has been an opinion promoted fairly recently. The First Amendment is really a restriction for the (federal) government, not a restriction on personal behavior. There is no limitation on the practice of your beliefs in the public marketplace based on the first amendment's freedom of speech and religion other than you own (significant) concern for and respect of the views of others and their own freedom of speech.
The previous two posts were excellent.
My own experience is that more knowledge deepens the mystery of the world around us. Every question answered leads to many more questions. For example, some people seem to think that understanding the physics involved in a thunderstorm takes out the mystery, but my experience is the opposite.
I was a Biochemistry major in college, and I found myself learning all those pathways, and thinking that this is all too perfect to have arisen by random chance. Science has deepened my faith in God.
You will find that there are just as many closed-minded people on all sides of this particular argument, and the challenge is to find your own path for what works for you. Religion brings meaning and purpose to millions of people, so don't lose the beauty of the forest just because some of the trees are ugly or twisted.
I wrote my comment before David's was posted. Indeed all 3 were well written and thoughtful. I wish "High School Student" the best of luck.
Good posts, all of them. Study of the beautiful complexity of the real world does indeed lead one to marvel at it all, and engenders a sensitivity to things spiritual or something certainly very like it.

There is one area in which scientists and followers of some (not all, by any means) religions have difficulty. As Brad says above, to be a scientist in the true sense is to be willing to question anything and everything, whether or not it contradicts what we believe or would like to believe or have been taught to believe. The dogmas of some organized religions forbid such questioning in certain areas. If you belong to or join one of those religions, you will have to come to terms with this conflict for yourself.

Personally, I have always felt that the real theological thrust of almost all religions is to motivate humans to be the best that they can be, and to rise above Hobbsian brutality and greedy self-interest. In that context, humans ought to always be encouraged to question and think for themselves and use their (God given, if you are religious)(marvelously evolved, if you are not) minds to the fullest.
You guys make me glad that I decided on this one exception re: religious discussion on the blog.


Understanding how science works requires the willingness to see beyond the propaganda of infallibility to what are the real capabilities and limitations of the scientific establishment. In general, flawed theories are discarded and correct theories gain consensus acceptance, but there are also social forces and ordinary human failings at work that cause outdated theories to endure for sheer momentum and useful theories to languish for simple prejudice. Raising this issue is certain to draw comparisons to mystics from certain quarters, but history and common sense prove that it is real.

You need only look to the scientific status of eugenics in the 1930s (when US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes wrote, "three generations of idiots is enough," in support for forced sterilization of those with low IQ) or the urgent warnings about global cooling in the 1970s to see that sometimes scientific consensus develops around a falsehood with no clear way to disestablish it. In theory, one can present counter-evidence to falsify a claim, but "evidence" is a notion subject to human interpretation, and the acceptance of such evidence often depends upon the willingness of the very people who invented the old theory to accept that a new theory has displaced it.

Most people have an image of scientists clinically pondering phenomena and dispassionately coming up with systematic explanations for them. What is not widely known is the amount of simple politics that goes on at a science institution. Coming from industry, I was amazed at first by how much and how vigorously scientists fight each other. The tone of this blog is somewhat similar to the tone inside LANL, and probably other institutions as well. Scientists get very invested in their work, and some of them work to destroy "competing" teams of investigators. If you were able to create a map of scientific alliances and rivalries at LANL, I think it would resemble the changing topology of 1990s Yugoslavia.

People are more than happy to acknowledge the misconceptions of prior generations, and even to admit that each generation throughout history has had a lot of misguided notions that were rejected by following generations. What people are less willing to admit is that our generation has a lot of false notions that will be rejected in the future. Speculating that perhaps future technology will eliminate our global warming hysteria is to be accused of wanting to "sit around and do nothing" while the world dies. So, while in theory, scientific beliefs are held tentatively, people will often assert more confidence than they should. Self-questioning is not conducive to scoring grant money.

This is not to say that doing science is not rewarding. Sometimes the answers are clearly right or wrong, as when developing a new semiconductor technology. It will either work or it won't. But when people demand that you accept their speculative theory in deference to their status as an "expert," you need to recognize that you are still free to be skeptical, no matter how many times they call you a flat-earther.
My daughter just graduated in Physics and Applied Math from UC Berkeley. She is working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

She and I have been having long, deep and honest discussions about science, physics, and religion for years. To me, science deepens your understanding of G-d while an understanding of G-d should deepen your science.

Keep at it.
"But when people demand that you accept their speculative theory in deference to their status as an "expert," you need to recognize that you are still free to be skeptical, no matter how many times they call you a flat-earther."

Exactly my response to religious proselytisers whenever I find myself being subjected to their 'expertise'. A surprising number of them take it quite badly when told, "Not interested."

Indeed you should always be skeptical. A very, very, very long time ago when I was a teacher I used to tell my students that at least half of what I was teaching them was wrong, in the details if not wholly, but that I didn’t know which half, and all they needed to do was look at an old textbook in any field to see how much that was accepted fact then is now clearly wrong. The message, of course, was to keep learning and thinking throughout life, or your “knowledge” would soon be obsolete.

The posting by Dug above is quite right. Even in science there are very human foibles at work, so that sometimes the “accepted” theory is wrong, even if the biggest names in the field are sure it is right. In fact, you would be safe to assume that anything we think we know is at best only an approximation to the truth, since the world always turns out to be far, far more complex and interesting and surprising that we like to think it is.

Nevertheless, the excitement in science, and there can be a lot of it, comes from untangling more and more of that complexity, and finding better and better approximations to whatever “truth” really is.
"Exactly my response to religious proselytisers whenever I find myself being subjected to their 'expertise'. A surprising number of them take it quite badly when told, "Not interested.""

This is rude behavior on their part. Respect for what other people do and do not want to talk about seems pretty fundamental to morality and religion. And in my experience, atheists do as much "selling" of their beliefs as the Colorado Springs crowd.

Where it gets scary is when people try to apply political sanctions to those who don't share the same beliefs about Christianity, atheism, George Bush, Darwinism, etc.
Dear student-
Great questions! It is nice to hear some honest, and deep questions forwarded in such a professional way. Let me try to give you some perspective to consider.
First, politics, religion, and science are 3 very different entities. They are not, however, entirely mutually exclusive. Consider the large number of scientists who attend a very wide variety of churches in Los Alamos every week. For me, at least, the two of these three that are in strongest opposition are not science and religion, but science and politics. One of the few things that our former director said that I could agree with is that, "science plus politics = politics."
Please consider that science is the study of things that can be tested usually to advance a state of understanding (e.g. will water boil when heated?), religion is the study of things believed, but which cannot be tested, usually to advance a moral code (e.g. is there life after death?), and politics is the practice of influencing others to accept a point of view usually to expand a power base for an idea or ideas (e.g. should Europe have a common currency?)
One could easily study cosmology and hold both a sound but incomplete scientific understanding and deep but unproven religious beliefs. Neither system has resolved the question of what will happen to the universe? Neither adequately explains gravity for that matter.
My advice to you is to follow those things that you have passion for - scientific, religious, political or whatever. You might find a course in epistomology interesting. In any case, do not take what you see on this blog too seriously. You are young and should try to maintain an open mind!

"In any case, do not take what you see on this blog too seriously."

In the words of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, former publisher of the
New York Times (1935-1961):

"I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall

Following this precept should allow one to incorporate both science and
most religions (but not all!) into one's life.
[The following is a response from the high school student who made the original post submission. --Doug]


I'm sorry, I had homework last night and couldn't get to a computer any earlier today.

Thank you so much for posting my comments and questions. I know it's not the kind of thing that's usually discussed, and so I really appreciate you letting me ask it.

And pass on my thank you to all of the people who responded, as well. What they had to say was extremely insightful, and helpful. I have an older cousin who writes about work at the national labs (the one who told me about the blog), and he told me before that I could expect this kind of answer from thoughtful scientists, but after reading the blog for myself I was skeptical. I still have some of the same fears, but just that so many people have obviously thought about this very question before is reassuring. I don't know how the majority thinks, but if this many people have such thoughtful things to say about it, it must mean that faith of some sort is at the least not as looked down upon as I thought.

From the postings, it almost seems like a better environment than the one I'm in now, actually, which is not what I expected to hear-- I like debate and questions, and a group of people who may or may not have faith but are all at the same time willing to express doubt and ask questions would be a great group to be around, I think. I think I might email all that was said to my pastor, who's not nearly so open-minded about things. He should know that scientists think this way, too. Just the fact that you all took the time to help some unimportant kid says a lot. Thank you again, I mean it.

Now I just hope I am able to stay on track end up there sometime in the next 10 years or so. =)

# posted by Tshirege van Otowi : 10/19/2005 10:44:33 AM [Reposted with compression. -Ed.]

Many great posts here.

If you are religious, Los Alamos has what you need. [Ed. + = Christian, * = Jewish; however, no Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. listed.] Even though many scientists seem to be atheists (and many are), consider the many churches here in small Los Alamos:

+ The United Church (affiliated with ABC, DoC, Moravians, Presbyterian USA, RCA and UCC)
+ New Beginnings Fellowship (AoG)
+ First Baptist (SBC)
+ White Rock Baptist (SBC)
+ Crossroads Bible CHurch (C&MA)
+ Calvary Chapel
+ Immaculate Heart of Mary (Roman Catholic)
+ The Christian Church (non-denom)
+ Christian Science Society
+ Church of Christ
+ Pajarito Church of Christ
+ Los Alamos Latter Day Saints
+ White Rock Latter Day Saints
+ Mountain View Church (EFCA)
+ Trinity on the Hill (Episcopal)
+ Los Alamos Christian Fellowship (independant)
+ Jehova's Witnesses
+ Bethlehem Lutheran
+ Messiah Evangelical Lutheran (Wisconson Synod)
+ First United Methodist
+ White Rock United Methodist
+ La Vista Church (Nazarene)
+ Saint Dimitri Orthodox (OCA)
+ Bryce Avenue Presbyterian
+ White Rock Presbyterian
? Unitarian Universalist Church
+ Grace Vineyard Christan Fellowshp
* Los Alamos Jewish Center

...and probably others that have no established meeting place.

That's a lot of religious establishments for such a small town as ours.
# posted by Tshirege van Otowi : 10/19/2005 10:44:33 AM [Reposted with compression. -Ed.]
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