Science and Spirituality

Even the way he answers the phone is awash in understatement.  “Goodenough,” he says clearly into the receiver.  Good enough.  The restraint inherent in his family name makes me want to giggle.

If you don’t know John B. Goodenough, you confirm my thesis of his subtle greatness.  Our lives would be unimaginably different without him:  it is because of Dr. Goodenough that most of our “electronicals” enjoy portable power.  He is the man who brought us the rechargeable lithium-ion battery.  If the idea of a “battery” doesn’t thrill you, consider how frequently/incessantly we recharge our phones (and completely depend on them keeping a charge!), watch movies on our device in a plane, or drive a car without gas.  See?  Unimaginably different.

Yet for all his work’s outrageous ubiquity, he remains largely unfettered by press and paparazzi (though if you spend time in his office, you will hear his name whispered frequently—and reverently—in the halls).  In this era of major image management, John B. Goodenough inhabits a rare and beautiful humbleness.  The limelight holds no sparkle in his world view.  

A delightful woman taking my mindfulness class suggested I meet this amazing man of science who has taught classes at her church.  He also happens to be, impressively, 94 years old and still productively inventing (he just shocked the world with an upgraded version of his battery from several decades ago, making it less expensive, safer, and more environmentally friendly), and, he lets off the best laugh in the history of joy.  I knew this was someone I had to meet.  So I invited myself to his office, and commenced to question him on science and spirituality. 

I was not disappointed.  The scientists I find most inspiring—from biologists to astrophysicists—are all (coincidentally?) deeply grounded in their faith.  They are brave enough to ask “different” questions, and not fear what that might do to their core beliefs.  Professor Goodenough follows that tradition, telling me, “A scientist is only an explorer...In your religious life, too, you’ve got to be an explorer.”

“Exploring” isn’t something we take very seriously these days, which is why I think the science and spirituality class I lead is so popular with attendees.  The class challenges people to explore—to “re-think”—what we accept as “true,” and explains how new technologies help us better understand our connection to the infinite, rather than argue against it.  People love discovering how science “backs up” so much of what we know about prayer and connectedness. 

I also think people feel a sense of relief, correcting the misconception that what we call “scientific” and what we call “spiritual” are in opposition.  John B. Goodenough sees no opposition: “Science is morally neutral,” he states.  “Understanding moral truth requires a different perception than that used in scientific argument.  It is communicated in metaphor and parable rather than argued from defined concepts.”  He goes on to explain that, “A scientist can show respect for the Creator by learning to live in harmony with nature.  He can show love for his neighbor by working to improve the life of mankind.”

Many other famous scientific powerhouses saw no conflict in exploring.  Mostly, they, too, were looking for answers to the Big Picture when they discovered something that would improve the world. 

  • Galileo, The Father of Modern Science, said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
  • Isaac Newton found re-thinking essential to finding God: “He who thinks half-heartedly will not believe in God; but he who really thinks has to believe in God.”
  •  Max Planck, who earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, stated, “Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: ‘Ye must have faith.’”
  • Sir Arthur Eddington was an active and devout Quaker, who believed, “In science as in religion the truth shines ahead as a beacon showing us the path; we do not ask to attain it; it is better far that we be permitted to seek.”
  •  Carl Sagan believed “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”

So…is being open to revelation as well as discovery, what leads us to deeper, better ideas and insights (and not just about science)?  I believe that is the only thing that can and does.  My meeting with the laudable Dr. Goodenough reminded me of that…and I am inspired to explore more in that direction.  Thank you, Dr. Goodenough, thank you!