Growing Up With Thunderstorms: A Personal Journey

Growing Up With Thunderstorms: A Personal Journey

by Stephen Friberg

(Sept, 2005)  I liked science before I knew much about religion. I spent my childhood on a college campus (New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, New Mexico) where my father was a professor of mathematics. I remember always being in the library and also thoroughly digesting the Time-Life Series of illustrated books on science when I was seven. Neighbors who were physicists, geophysicists, or geologists took me with them on scientific jaunts to the mountains and the high plateaus. Evenings, I could see into the far reaches of the universe through the clear desert sky. My mother, a mathematics teacher like my father, told me later that I wanted to be a scientist from the age of six.

New Mexico Tech, the college where I grew up, was a science and engineering school specializing in geology, physics, mining and petroleum engineering, geophysics, and similar topics. These specializations brought in a highly diverse student body, and I met Nigerians, Saudi Arabians, Indonesians, Iranians, and others from distant places. Atmospheric physics and electrical processes in thunderstorms was a major area of study.

In my memory, it was an afternoon encounter with a desert thunderstorm that decided me on the path to science. Thunderstorms in New Mexico can combine awesome severity and extraordinary ferocity with magnificent lightning, exploding thunder and towering cumuli clouds amid the mountains and vast expanses of the high desert plateau. In the early summer, they unfold at midday against a radiant blue sky, suddenly shuttering the sun. The cumuli race up past 30,000 feet, crescendos of lightning rip apart the air, and thunder comes crashing down. Torrents of rain, or hail sometimes as large as baseballs, pummel the ground, and floods of water rush down the arroyos, washing away cars and trucks in their path.

During one thunderstorm, I was caught outside our house, which overlooked the college campus and the Rio Grande valley below. Lightning and thunder exploded on all sides and heavy drops of rain kicked up the dust. Terrified, I sprinted to the house and safety, but not before I caught a brief glimpse of the lightning research tower on the campus below. My physicist neighbors were in the glass cupola on top of the research tower, directly in the middle of the thunderstorm’s electrical fury. There, unafraid and protected by science, they mastered the storm – nature at its most ferocious – and studied it. I wanted to do that.

Search, Belief, and Reconciliation

My high school and college years were a time of intense and prolonged search for meaning, purpose, and friends. Socially, I was introverted, bookish, awkward, and shy. Always reading, I imagined life in the great cities to be much better than life in a small town in the desert. My family life had evaporated as my mother had fallen into a black depression when her younger sister had died and my father spent his spare moments as her caregiver. I felt intensely lonely and lived on dreams from the books I read.

It was the sixties. The Vietnam war was raging, the counter-culture loomed large, and the civil rights movement showed racial injustice to be a central part of the fabric of the American life. Physics, my favorite science, seemed a puppet of “the military-industrial complex.” This view was simplistic to be sure, but New Mexico was ground-zero for atomic weapon development and military weapons testing. Los Alamos, the city of physicists on a hill, was near Santa Fe. Albuquerque with its sprawling airbase, its government research labs, and its hollowed-out mountains for nuclear bomb storage, was 70 miles away. Military jets prowled the skies and bomb explosions in the nearby hills punctuated our classes at school. Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated, was visible from my bedroom window. I lost hope in physics.

After high school, I went to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, but had no heart for it. Instead, I studied various things (philosophy of science, sociology), hitchhiked around the country, lived in caves in the mountains, played music in the parks, studied yoga and meditation, read everything (Nietzsche, Joseph Campbell, and D. T. Suzuki were favorites), experimented with drugs, and investigated different religions. I sold my motorcycle, my stereo, and my records, keeping only my back-pack, a sleeping bag, a battered coffee pot for cooking, and some books. Amazingly, I found Nirvana. It was in the beautiful foothills south of the Sandia mountains. The living web of animals, plants, the ebb and flow of the winds, clouds, moon, sun, and rain, the Hispanic gentleness of the older New Mexico culture, the kangaroo mouse who shared my cave, the coyote that sniffed at my sleeping bag – all shared with me a deep and vital life and beauty. But I lacked inner discipline, had no competencies, no profession, and no way to change the world.

In 1972, I met some Bahá’ís. They took me to firesides and on adventures, telling me that work in the spirit of service was service to mankind. Being a physicist was not necessarily being a pawn in the service of the military-industrial complex. Not only were they not angry at my very critical questions – they loved them. If their answers were lacking or incomplete, they still struck me as from a reliable source of understanding and knowledge. When Cedric Conkel – 80 years old, a ranch hand, range cook, and poet – spoke to me of the Faith in his beautiful Irish brogue, the room spun on its axis and a multitude of angels seemed to circle around my head. I understood nothing of what Cedric said, but I knew my period of search was over.

Six months later, deepened by a dedicated Persian Bahá’í teacher and having experienced the heights of spiritual ecstasy, I returned to school to study physics. Soon after, I realized that I believed in God but couldn’t justify my belief. It was then that I began to explore the relationship between science and religion. My central question was whether or not belief in God was valid in light of what I knew from science to be true.

My answer was as follows. Belief in God is true for the same reason that the findings of science are true. Science, drawing from individual experience and experimental tests, searches for universal laws and principles, refining them continuously. It holds that the laws and principles that make up its well-tested theories are true and valid descriptions of reality. The process is one of abstraction. From particular and individual experience, abstract universal truths are hypothesized and tested. True religion follows the same process in the conscious areas of our life. From experience with mind – our own and that of others – and from experience with creativity and the process of understanding, we know that consciousness, creativity, and intelligence are very real things, a part of reality. Because they are part of reality, generalizing from them as particulars to universals – the process of abstraction – is valid. The universals of intelligence, mind, and creativity we have given the name God and we call it the Divine. Or we call it by one of many other names. Sometimes, as in Buddhism, we call it by no-name. In other words, from experience we “abstract” out to the existence of God in the same way that we “abstract” out from experience with material things to the laws of science. If how we do science is valid, and surely it is, then belief in God is also valid.

Physics Studies and Bahá’í Studies

To restart my study of physics, I returned to my hometown and New Mexico Tech. To pay my way, I worked for the thunderstorm research group and the professors whose mastery had impressed me so much when I was young. My summers were spent at the Langmuir Thunderstorm Research Laboratory on South Baldy, a 10,500 foot mountain peak near Socorro. Often, I worked as a lightning spotter in a small metal and glass “spotter shack” on top of one of the laboratory buildings. Occasionally, the radar dish above the shack would be hit by lightning, throwing all of us cowering to the floor.

For my PhD, I went to Rochester, New York and the University of Rochester, doing experimental studies of the quantum mechanical properties of light in lasers and other optical phenomena, a field of research called quantum optics.

While studying, I taught about the Bahá’í Faith at firesides and Bahá’í Club activities. I frequently encountered views about religion that I had grown up with at New Mexico Tech. Religion, those views held, is an antiquated, outmoded, unreasonable, and primitive attempt to understand the world. It was developed by humanity when it was young and immature. Science now answers with facts the questions that religion tried to answer with myths and stories. These views, I think, stem from a confusion between technical knowledge and wisdom, one of the great confusions of the 20th century. Technical knowledge is the knowledge of how things evolve, how they behave, and how they work. It uses explanations of the physical laws underlying evolution, behavior, and things. Wisdom is the understanding of purpose, of human endeavor, of how we should act, and the multiple issues involving people and their relationships. The confusion of the two, often dramatically illustrated by scientists writing for the public, is partly due to a priestly urge to explain and the desire for authority.

In larger part, I think, it is due to the transparent failure of much of religion and many religious leaders to provide good answers and examples of those answers in action to questions about wisdom. Very tellingly for scientists, many in religion fail to use even the simplest of the truth-seeking methods from science – or even common sense. The resulting embrace of superstition, prejudice, and ideology has led to great conflict and misery, causing many to completely reject the claims of religion. Often, those rejecting religion have turned to science as a replacement. This rejection of religion has been buttressed by two centuries of no-holds-barred partisan conflict pitting radical anti-religious political ideologies against conservative religious orthodoxies. One result is that many have become blind to the obvious fact that the answers that scientists give to the public frequently are not answers to the questions being asked – they are technical answers to wisdom questions. The Bahá’í teaching of the unity of science and religion, I believe, addresses the root cause of this and other science and religion problems.

In 1985, after completing my PhD, I did a postdoctorate at Bell Labs, then the world’s premier research laboratory. I had the opportunity to meet and work with some of the world’s leading scientists. In 1987, a Bahá’í friend of mine – Payyam Mavedatt – and I started the Science and Religion Special Interest Group of the Association for Bahá’í Studies with the help of Bill Hatcher, Brian Aull, Courosh Mehanian, Gil Bartholomew and several other. Our first presentations – by Bill Hatcher, Gil Bartholomew, and Brian Aull – were used by the Association for Bahá’í Studies to launch the Journal for Bahá’í Studies.

The Far East and Silicon Valley

I finished my postdoctorate in the fall of 1987 and went to China for three months, visiting and lecturing at a number of universities. I had fallen in love with China at the University of Rochester. Chinese philosophy was especially captivating to me, and seemed to me as if it were my father’s kind wisdom and advice. Two Chinese visitors to the Physics Department influenced me in this. One was Professor Yu Liang of Qingdao Ocean University, a Confucius-quoting visiting physics professor who became a friend and mentor. The other was Deng Zhi Feng, son of Deng Zhao Ping, China’s paramount ruler, a physics classmate and tennis partner. In China, I stayed for a month at Beijing University and visited universities in Tianjin, Qingdao, Qifu (Confucius’ home town), Shanghai, Hangzhou, Changsha, and Harbin (in the far north). The experience gave me a radically new perspective and time frame. Not only did people discuss Confucius and Lao Tzu, thinkers from 2500 years ago, as if they lived yesterday, but I met migrants in Beijing from the north that seemed to be from some vast and unknown empire outside of western time. I came to feel that a thousand years was yesterday, and tomorrow a hundred years in the future.

China and Japan impressed me as being the opposite culturally to the United States and Europe. Living and working there was both a chance to acquire a more universal perspective and an opportunity to escape from blind spots in Western thinking. One blind spot was that the West was superior because of its scientific and technical accomplishments. However, Japanese companies like Toyota and Sony were equally or more accomplished than their Western counterparts and scientific achievement was commonplace, putting that blind spot to rest. Also, China and Japan had religions – Buddhism, Shintoism, and Taoism – distinctly different from western monotheisms. I wanted to understand these religious from inside their culture, not superficially from the outside.

In 1989 China was poor and there was no opportunity to work there as a physicist. Therefore, I took a position as a research physicist at NTT Basic Research Labs in Tokyo, Japan. Working in Japan was to work in a country distinctly different than the US, but equally successful. I stayed at NTT eleven years, met my wife Sodeyo at the Tokyo Bahá’í Center, raised two Japanese-speaking children, and helped start the Association of Bahá’í Studies of Japan. NTT, the Japanese telephone monopoly when I arrived, employed 300,000 people, was very conservative, and had managers very concerned about their employee’s welfare. I was the third foreigner to join as a regular employee. While there, I did studies in quantum optics, optical solitons, and telecommunications.

I retired from NTT in 2000 and moved with my family to Silicon Valley. After spending a year as a visiting scientist at Stanford, I started a company to develop wavelength measurement technology for optical telecommunications. The telecommunications market evaporated soon after, leaving me high and dry. I am now working as a optical engineer at Cymer, the company that builds the lasers that are used as the light source for printing modern semiconductor chips.

Restoring the Unity of Science and Religion

My current view of science and religion is that a healthy relationship between the two is essential for the world to advance. I see science mainly as the way of acquiring practical and technical knowledge and as the engine of technical progress, although I don’t doubt that it can lead some people to wisdom. I see religion – or perhaps I should say true religion – as teaching how to best use science and about purpose and our true nature. It is not that way now. All too frequently, leaders of religion promote their pet superstitions and ideologies, rejecting rational belief and the independent investigation of truth while holding themselves to be speaking for God. All too frequently, scientists arrogantly demean faith and those holding to religion while serving purely materialistic goals. A fractured and dysfunctional world comes from this.

If science and religion are to live up to their potential, they need each other. Religion, if it is to be true, needs the truth-seeking mindset of science. How else will one ascertain the truth? How else will one protect oneself from ideology and dogma? Religion needs the strong connection of “dealing with reality” that science excels at. Science needs to apply itself to ends and uses that benefit everyone, not just powerful marketplace forces or weapons purveyors. Science is not a tool for replacing an old elite with an new elite. It is not a replacement for the knowledge, ethics, morals, and spiritual attainments that the peoples of the world have learned nearly universally from religion. Science should put itself at the service of humanity, rather than promoting materialistic viewpoints that deny the spiritual dimensions of reality.

For this essay, I’ve thought a bit about how to contribute to the restoration of the unity of science and religion. Sincere scientists and believers alike are devoted to truth, so there already is a common bond. Building on this bond, scientists and believers could work together – as indeed they are already starting to do – to dispel the false polarizations of theological, racial, cultural, national, class-based, and financial special interests. A first step is to do a good job of defining the problem. A next step in the right direction is to build an understanding of the historical origins of the split between science and religion, Another step is to detail how science and religion confuse and conflate technical knowledge (what can be learned about how things are constructed, are organized, and how they work) with wisdom (knowledge about people, nature, purpose, and moral and ethical goals). Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá are eloquent and trustworthy voices that can guide us in these and future greater steps.

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16 thoughts on “Growing Up With Thunderstorms: A Personal Journey

  1. I found this a deeply inspiring and thought-provoking essay, taking us far from the fundamentalisms of both science and religion that are increasingly prevalent. I have just begun to read David Bohm’s essay “On Dialogue” and think there may be parallels between Bohm’s views and your account, Stephen. There are certainly parallels between what Bohm says about dialogue, about coherence in our thinking and about “taking part in truth” and the direction the Universal House of Justice is pointing Baha’is – and not just Baha’is – towards.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story.

    1. Thanks! I hope you read – and add comments to – our blogs as well.

      We are looking for guest bloggers on topics such as the one you suggest, and Bohm is easily one of the most respected voices from the sciences on these issues.

      Would you be willing to do either a one-time blog (it could easily be a several time blog) blog on Bohm and his essay, point to these parallels? We could then have a discussion in the comments session. Let me know and when.

      BTW, as this is a multiple-blogger blog, we have a reasonably good possibility of getting it listed on Google, but we need more comments and discussion.

      1. Sorry for the delay in replying. Yes, I’d be happy to do a one-time blog (or a several-time blog, if my thinking runs to it) on the Bohm essay and the parallels between Bohm’s ideas and the direction in which the Baha’i community is travelling vis-à-vis becoming a ‘learning community’ and our increasingly radical openness to the world.

        This won’t be straight away, but I hope that I might be able to do this by the end of November, if that’s OK.

  2. An honest essay containing a fascinating autobiographical story. I think Stephen nails some of the key points in this all-important debate. He is a man who has obviously lived his quest and as a consequence, his wisdom stands in refreshing contrast to the childish superstitions that currently compete for our attention in the science/religion arena. Superb.

  3. Just last night, before I went to sleep, I realized that some of the people I admire most are physicists, even though they may work and serve in another field. I was wondering what it is about physics that made these people so insightful or why these incredibly insightful people chose to study physics.

    I want my grandchildren to study physics.

  4. You bring up a good point sublty about how when science is wrong it has to admit it, there’s no hiding from being wrong in science religion not so much it usually takes religion a lot longer to admit that it’s wrong on the occasions when it is.

    1. Real science has to eventually admit its wrong, although it sometimes takes a generation of scientists to get it done.

      Where it gets tricky – and where it can take a long time – is when science is trying to be religion or vice versa. It took the Catholic church more than 300 years to semi-admit it was wrong about Galileo.

      For science, its even worse. There is nobody who can apologize for it. Nobody has admitted that science was wrong for eugenics or for scientific racism, or for the nuclear bomb, or for DDT.

      So, there is an interesting asymmetry here.

  5. The more we read `Abdu’l-Bahá, and especially the more we see how He modelled the Bahá’í life, the more we see that we cannot chase away the dark. We cannot fight a negative force. All across this website are positive approaches to building a unity betwixt science and religion. How satisfying to the soul is this work! I am grateful to all of you.

    Since the infallible and powerful Sacred Writings of the Faith assure us that science and religion are one, I wonder if more progress might be gained by acting as if the goal were already achieved. After `Abdu’l-Bahá laid the dedication stone of the House of Worship in Wilmette, He announced—and apparently meant it—that the Temple was already built! Astonishing.

    When I think of the debate many people offer about science and religion, I sometimes despair; or I attempt to address individual arguments that people raise; or I somehow react in such a way as to give strength to the reality that science and religion are at odds. I find myself in the analogous situation of arguing the Bible with fundamentalists, which Shoghi Effendi told us was pointless and disunifying. This is when I realize my Faith needs bolstering. After all, science and religion are one.

    Therefore, I propose that, in order to build on the reality that is, we Bahá’ís focus on demonstrating the reality of science and religion. If they are one, then we should be able to show that oneness. If there is one Truth, then science must demonstrate religion and religion must anticipate science. I can think of innumerable instances where Scripture revealed a scientific truth, but we didn’t realize it until science had already discovered it.

    It may be beneficial to focus on these passages, in order to help show how religion and science are two sides of one coin. Even better would be to investigate the Writings in order to scoop scientists. Alas, I am not a scientist. But I got some ideas. 

    For instance, both Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá repeatedly used the analogy of God as the sun, the Manifestation as the rays of the sun and the earth as the recipient of those beneficial rays. What if They really meant it? The Agency created to harness the spiritual rays of the Cause is the Administrative Order. Perhaps an effective alternative energy program must use the same principles as the Assemblies in order to be efficient and economical.

    I will give an example. Bahá’u’lláh has put the power to build His Kingdom in the hands of the general populace. No longer will kings, popes and presidents be effective, except as they comply with Bahá’u’lláh’s Order. But the general populace is ineffective unless some agency gets all the people harmonized as to goals and purpose and programs. Important principles necessary for an effective grass roots movement include such things as consultation; diversity; unity; flexibility; and making full use of the different capacities and capabilities of each member within the general populace.

    Pretending, for the sake of discussion, that we could scoop science by applying the Writings to alternative energy, we then have to figure out how the same principles come into play in an energy harvesting and delivery system. For instance, right now, proponents of wind and solar power are each developing their own fields. In the Mojave Desert can be seen a solar collecting station not far from wind turbines. Do they economically use the same inverters to convert their direct current to alternating current? Do they use the same transmission lines?

    Or again, sunbeams here on earth are much like we people. They go every which way in different frequencies and directions. Only about 30% of the light passing through solar panels is usable (the correct frequency). Sounds like a Bahá’í Community before consultation gets us all pulling together. What is the physical reflection of spiritual consultation?

    I am neither a scientist nor an engineer and I do not know if anything I said here could stimulate a viable path on making alternative energy a reality. I have more ideas to flesh this out, but I have gone on too long as it is. The point, tho’, is that I believe that if science and religion are one, we can practically demonstrate that reality. We do not have to chase the away the dark. We can turn on a light. I believe the Writings are full of scientific applications.

    I often wonder if Bahá’u’lláh laughed when He revealed “So powerful is unity’s light that it can illumine the whole earth.” Did He think, “Wait until they figure this one out?” We have a giant billboard in the sky showing us His Truth so brightly that we can’t even look at it for more than a moment. The sun, which illumines the earth, does so by unifying hydrogen atoms into helium atoms. When the “stars fell from the sky,” they did so first in Fermi’s lab in Chicago, and most violently in Nevada’s atomic testing grounds. Scripture has so much to say beyond its most obvious intent, and much of what it says is science.
    Can we, in practical ways, use the science within Scripture to convince those who are convincible?
    I apologize for not being able to do this myself. I know I am in a Religion where, if one sees something that needs doing, one should do it.

    1. Hi Greg. Thanks for writing. I too am fascinated by the what the Baha’i writings say about the unity of science and religion, and I agree that there are powerful analogies in the writings about the relationship between the two. But I also think that these writings imply that everybody become conversant in the methods and thought processes of science, scientist by training or not.

      We are having a Wilmette Study Institute class on the topic in the fall. Interested in joining?

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