Obstacles And Opportunities In Science For Christian Witness

Robert Kaita, Ph.D.

Plasma Physics Laboratory
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey 08543

[From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 45:112-115 (1993)]
©1997 by the American Scientific Affiliation

The topic "Obstacles and Opportunities in Science for Christian Witness" is overwhelming, to say the least, so to keep the scope manageable, I should state at the outset that there will not be much discussion of apologetics as such in this paper. Instead, I will focus on the venues for witnessing themselves, the new opportunities that recent events have created, for example, in areas of the world formerly closed to Christian witness. We also need go no further than our own scientific institutions, where optimism and confidence are giving way to disillusionment, especially among younger researchers.

It is obvious that even this subject cannot be possibly covered comprehensively in the space of a single article, so my remarks will have to be personal and anecdotal. This will be true especially as they concern the second part of the title, the obstacles to witness. There are the external kind, the hostility and discrimination that has been the lot of the believer, in one form or another, from the earliest of times. Christians must be aware of them and respond accordingly, but there are also the internal obstacles, the apprehensions all believers experience as we try to witness. I'll give an example of the latter, at once personal but also related to new global realities. It's painful to recall the circumstances, but I thought it might be helpful to share them in light of God's ultimate sovereignty and our role as His instruments. I will then conclude with a lesson from the Bible about witnessing, a perhaps commonplace but important reminder that its truth is eternal in these rapidly changing times.

Let me proceed with a very brief description of what I do for a living. I am an experimental physicist doing fusion energy research at the Plasma Physics Laboratory of Princeton University. The most promising approach for realizing controlled thermonuclear fusion as an energy source involves the "tokamak" concept. The word itself is a Russian acronym for "doughnut-shaped device," and the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor at Princeton is the largest facility of its kind in the United States. Magnetic field coils create a magnetic "bottle" that contains a hot, ionized hydrogen gas, or plasma. Large particle beams, like those in atom smashers, are used to heat the plasma to temperatures high enough for fusion to occur. So-called "scientific break-even" experiments, where the power output from the fusion reactions equals the power input from these beams and other plasma heating methods, are scheduled for 1993-94.

I spend most of my time on a smaller machine, the Princeton Beta Experiment-Modification (PBX-M). We're using it to see how large we can make a parameter called "beta." This is the ratio of the amount of plasma we can contain to the strength of the magnetic confining field, so the higher the beta, the cheaper a fusion reactor is going to be. In PBX-M, we are able to make discharges with cross sections that look like kidney beans or other odd shapes needed to keep the plasmas stable in low magnetic fields.

The point of all of this is that the former Soviet Union was, until recently, very much in the forefront of fusion research. Not only was the term "tokamak" of Russian origin, as mentioned earlier, but their most recent device, T-15, was in the same class as the largest American, European, or Japanese machines.

The present condition of science in the former Soviet Union, unfortunately, is reflected rather dramatically in the title of an article in a recent issue of Physics Today.1 Entitled "SOS! Save our Science!," it was written by Roald Sagdeev, former director of the Institute for Space Research in the former Soviet Union, and now a professor at the University of Maryland. He goes on to state that "Western nations should not regard aid to science and scientists in the former Soviet Union as charity."2 Instead, this assistance "will return benefits in the form of technology and knowledge, and it will help make democratic changes irreversible."3 The United States has indeed responded, as reflected in the front page New York Times headline "U. S. to Offer Plan to Keep Scientists at Work in Russia" that appeared in early 1992.4 There were two articles underneath it, with the titles, "Agency Seeking Soviet Advances for Star Wars" and "Fears on Weapons: Project's Aim is to Keep Nuclear Experts from Selling Knowledge."5 As they suggest, there is more than a hint of enlightened self-interest.

When I attended a physics conference in the former Soviet Union in mid-1990, the problems for the scientists there were just beginning, but there was already anxiety about their futures. I must confess that I am not one who is comfortable smuggling Bibles. When I learned that there were no longer any restrictions to the dissemination of Christian literature, however, I did bring some New Testaments along. They were provided by Christian Leadership Ministries of Campus Crusade for Christ, so the "four spiritual laws" were also included.6

Because typical responses to the Gospel here in America range from lack of interest to outright hostility, the reactions to it that I observed in the former Soviet Union were a new experience for me. I timidly offered the Bibles to my colleagues there, as gifts in appreciation of their hospitality as much as for their spiritual content. Much to my surprise, their reactions ranged from great gratitude, since Bibles were very expensive there, to a remark that the "soul" of their country was taken from them during the last seventy years, and now they could read the book that could give it back to them.

These attitudes reflect opportunities, indeed, for Christian witness, and clearly not only among scientists. For example, the Moscow News is a weekly journal published in Russia, and its issue around Easter time featured the reflections of a minister on his faith in Christ and his resurrection.7 It was under a front-page headline "Christ has Risen," and such articles would certainly not have been a commonplace there a few short years ago. A short paragraph in a recent issue of Time, however, provides us with a cautionary note. It describes the "newly renovated L. Ron Hubbard Reading Room" at the Moscow State University, and mentions Scientology's plans to start a college of their own in the summer of 1992.8 We should thus all pray with humility that our listeners will be drawn not to novelty from the representatives of a rich nation, but to Christ himself.

In keeping with the global theme of this paper, I'll next describe my experiences in the People's Republic of China. My wife's parents left the mainland before she was born, and except for her immediate family, all of her relatives are still living there. Since she had never met any of them, we decided to visit the country about six years ago, in 1986. It also turned out that the director of the Institute of Plasma Physics at the Academia Sinica in Beijing is an alumnus of our graduate program, so I was able to lecture there and see their facilities.

We brought Christian materials along with us, but here again I made sure that their dissemination was no longer restricted. We found interest in the Bible, but unlike in the former Soviet Union, it wasn't clear whether this was more due to a general curiosity about western things than to its spiritual message. Because my visit was by official invitation, admittedly expedited by my wife's uncle in the Ministry of Foreign Trade, we had an official guide and interpreter. His training was in English literature, and like others with whom I spoke, he was quick to emphasize the need to study the Bible to understand his field in particular and western culture in general. He was reluctant, however, to say much more.

In fairness, I could understand my guide's circumspection, since although there was much evidence for economic reform, signs of the kind of political change that has swept eastern Europe were not so obvious. As we drove by Tienanmen Square in Beijing, my guide pointed out that huge rallies were orchestrated there during the Great Cultural Revolution, with each person assigned a position inscribed in a square on the pavement. With almost a sense of embarrassment, he took great pains to note that such events were a thing of the past. When I asked him if he thought something like the Cultural Revolution could happen again, his formerly gregarious disposition became very subdued, and he answered quietly that he could only hope not. The prescience suggested by his remarks came back to me in a poignant way in June, 1989, as I watched videotapes of tanks driving along the same streets we had driven only a few years before.

The events of 1989 notwithstanding, the leadership of the People's Republic of China recognizes the importance of contact with the West for its continued economic development. The result is an ever increasing number of scholarly exchanges involving the United States and other western countries, especially in science and engineering. American personal computers were in plain sight in Beijing when I was there, and a recent Chinese visitor who spent a year in my laboratory came with a knowledge of VAX/VMS, the operating system for a series of computers manufactured by the Digital Equipment Corporation in Massachusetts. Christians can exploit the contacts they can now make with Chinese colleagues in their areas of expertise, and simple expressions of hospitality can provide rich opportunities for witness.

After a bit of globe-trotting, as it were, we need to examine the plight of the scientific community within the United States. As attractive as this country appears to be relative to other parts of the world, there is a growing sense among many scientists that the future isn't so rosy. An article in Physics Today9 in 1991 describes a recent survey by the American Physical Society, and it "reveals that many of our brightest young physicists are struggling in a research climate that they regard as dismal." Many leading scientists are fond of predicting a "shortage" of scientists, but to young researchers now looking for permanent jobs, such pronouncements about future prospects are a cruel joke. As a personal aside, I heard Proverbs 29:18, "Where there is no vision, the people perish," quoted by then U. S. Secretary of Energy, James Watkins, as he tried to inspire the participants of the 1990 International Atomic Energy Agency conference on nuclear fusion research in Washington. With all due respect to Secretary Watkins' good intentions, many of my younger colleagues might be tempted to add that where there is no funding, people also perish-professionally.

To date, the primary effect of such a grim picture has been to discourage many gifted young people from entering the profession. Concurrently, however, there is a growing concern over ethics and social responsibility in the sciences, and the combination might ultimately bring about the kind of re-examination of values and priorities that would foster an increased receptiveness to the claims of Christ. A few years ago at Princeton, for example, I participated in a conference on Science, Technology, and Responsibility in Society, or STARS. It was wholly run by students, and I was asked to be a panelist by one of the organizers in my department who knew of my strong convictions on ethics and human values in science and engineering.

I felt I could not talk about the topic too abstractly. Instead, I had to start with my own beliefs, and hence, made it an opportunity for witness. In brief, I noted that the "ordinances of the heavens" (as the Book of Job poetically calls the "Laws of Nature") and the "Laws of Morality" come from the same Creator. The Bible, which begins with, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth," and also teaches us "to love your neighbor as yourself," clearly links the "science" and the "ethics." While an earlier speaker decried the loss of what he called "frameworks of responsibility" among contemporary scientists, I cited my faith as providing one for my decisions concerning ethics and human values. Afterwards Dr. Theodore Taylor, a prominent nuclear bomb designer and now solar energy expert, was kind enough to tell me that he was impressed with the convictions of "religious people," as he put it, and of late, he had been inexplicably drawn to the writings of C. S. Lewis and other Christian writers. It was a reminder to me of the folly of pre-judging what sort of circumstances are best for witness.

It is precisely this sort of tendency toward caution that can figure in the internal obstacles that I alluded to at the beginning of this article. To demonstrate this in my final example from experience, we must to return to the former USSR. The conference I described earlier actually took place in Minsk, the capital of what is now Belarus. As you might find in other professional meetings, there was a sightseeing excursion scheduled for a free afternoon, but instead of hiking or snorkeling, we were taken to one of the more stark and dramatic memorials to the victims of World War II. The hour-and-a-half drive took us to Hatyn, a town that was totally destroyed about fifty years ago. When the Nazis arrived there, they crammed all of the inhabitants into a large barn, and set it on fire. The only survivors are immortalized in a huge statue that shows an old man carrying a boy in his arms. It is apparently the tradition that at each anniversary of the event, the boy, who is now as old as the man who saved him, recounts the story of the massacre to the gathered crowd.

The site was chosen as a memorial to all of the Belorussians who died in World War II precisely because of the contrast between its beautiful, pastoral surroundings, with no trace of war left, and the horror that time will not erase. The sites of the destroyed homes are marked with stylized chimneys, as you would find after a fire, with the names of the victims inscribed on them, and it had the same impact on me as the rows of name after name on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. There was also a cluster of three white birch trees, a national symbol of Belarus, with an eternal flame in the space where a fourth would have been. It symbolized the fact that 2.5 million Belorussians, or a quarter of the pre-war population, perished during the conflict.

The context of this trip, needless to say, lent itself to much reflection. I was able to use the drive to and from the memorial to share the Gospel with a young physicist, and I gave him one of my Russian New Testaments. It was easy to befriend him because we were engaged in related research, and he was very proficient in English. There was another physicist sitting near us in the bus, and I didn't know whether he was interested in our conversation, or even understood enough to follow it. Not wanting to impose anything on him, however, I erred on the side of circumspection, and did not talk to him or give him the extra New Testament I had with me.

It turned out that this second fellow was one of the health physicists investigating the effects of the Chernobyl disaster. Shortly after the conference, he was shot and killed. Whether or not it was related to what he uncovered is still unknown, so the circumstances of his murder are at least as mysterious as the death of Karen Silkwood several years ago. To say that I feel that I made a great mistake, then, in not at least trying to tell him the "Good News," is no exaggeration. On the other hand, I've had to remind myself that God is sovereign, and even after we have made terrible mistakes, he expects us to "keep up the good fight" in humble obedience to his perfect will.

In conclusion, new realities, especially in these uncertain times, are changing the details of the challenges we face as Christians, and we should certainly do our best to accommodate them. God's plan of salvation, and what He expects of us, however, are eternal, and it is good to return to His word for perspective. In a passage familiar to most readers, the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John records how Jesus healed a man blind from birth. The Pharisees, knowing that the miracle was performed on the Sabbath, wanted the man to denounce Jesus as a sinner. In the twenty-fourth verse, he replies, "Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see." To tell what we know as plainly and as honestly as we can is a truth that will serve each of us in good stead as we tackle both the opportunities and obstacles as witnesses to God, wherever He might lead us.


1R. Z. Sagdeev, "SOS! Save our Science," Physics Today, May, 1992.
2Ibid., p. 22.
3Ibid., p. 22.
4J. N. Wilford and T. L. Freidman, "U. S. to Offer Plan to Keep Scientists at Work in Russia," New York Times, February 8, 1992.
5Ibid., p. 1
6The New Testament and the Four Spiritual Laws, Russian Translation, Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1986.
7A. Kurayev, "Christ has Risen!," Moscow News, April 26-May 3, 1992.
8"Scientology's Largesse in Russia," Time Magazine, April 13, 1992.
9R. Czujko, D. Kleppner, and S. Rice, "Their Most Productive Years: Young Physics Faculty in 1990," Physics Today, February 1991.