A Universal Debate
ISU astronomy professor finds himself at the center of a controversy over science and religion
Des Moines Register
August 31, 2005
Ames, Ia. - Guillermo Gonzalez answers the ringing telephone in his darkened office.
He listens, smiles, sighs and talks about his exhausting summer.
"I've gotten a lot of public support, people who are cheering for me,"
Gonzalez tells the caller. "But just reading the newspapers and such, it just feels like the world is against me."
Bookshelves full of astronomy texts — "Stellar Structure," "Radiative Transfer," "Physics and Chemistry of the Solar System" — surround him. A handful of photos he's taken of the cosmos are pinned to a wall. On another wall is a poster highlighting the solar habitable zone. Four empty cans of Mountain Dew sit on the floor.
On his face rests a wearied expression. It's the face of a 41-year-old man fighting for his reputation as a legitimate scientist.
Why would the world care about a little-known astronomy professor at a public university in Iowa? It's because of the 2004 book he co-authored with theologian Jay W. Richards called "The Privileged Planet."
The book claims that Earth is so unique, it must have been created by an "intelligent designer." Most scientists say there's no way to test that theory — as opposed to Darwin's theory of natural selection — so it belongs in religion or philosophy courses, not in science classes.
Fearing ISU's reputation was at stake, more than 120 faculty members signed a petition this month against representing intelligent design as science. The petition doesn't mention him by name, but Gonzalez believes it's a threat to his place among the Ames intelligentsia.
Gonzalez now finds himself at the center of a debate that even President Bush has stepped into - a debate about whether God belongs in the laboratory.
One Iowa State professor, Hector Avalos, accused Gonzalez of having a hidden religious agenda. A former student and close friend stopped returning his e-mails and calls. Opponents have charged him with forcing his scientific evidence into a religious prism, fingering him as an academic fraud.
The phone rings again: another former colleague, another message of support.
"I didn't expect this level of vitriol," he says after hanging up. "This level of intense hostility, just knee-jerk emotional response from people.
People have strong convictions that you can't bring God into science. But I don't bring God into science. I've looked out at nature and discovered this pattern, based on empirical evidence. . . . It obviously calls for a different explanation."
And it's an explanation this Cuban defector has been searching for since he was a kid.
Inspired by an eclipse
Gonzalez was a scared 4-year-old in 1967 when his family joined in the first wave of Cuban immigrants to settle in Florida.
He flew into Miami with his parents and sister. The Castro regime confiscated their belongings, so the family only had the clothes on their backs.
His father became a machinery mechanic in the factories, his mother a seamstress.
The boy's first love was science. He dissected frogs and lizards in his backyard. At age 10, his family saw an ad in the Miami Herald and bought an 8-inch Newtonian reflector telescope. They built a backyard astronomy observatory on their roll-off roof.
Gonzalez made a filter out of welder's glass so he could observe the sun.
"People who are into astronomy get into it very early," he says. "It's such a beautiful science. A lot of people have a deep sense of the infinite and the grandness of the universe."
Into his years as a graduate student at the University of Washington, he always believed in a galaxy teeming with life.
But then came a moment - Oct. 24, 1995, shortly after 9 a.m. - that shifted his views on the cosmos.
Still as a graduate student, he traveled by train to Neem Ka Thana, a tiny town in the desert of northern India, with a dozen of scientists from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore.
They awoke early that morning and set up their telescopes in a schoolyard.
Indian television crews pointed their cameras at the scientists, then at the sky, then at the scientists.
A perfect solar eclipse: The sun crept behind the moon and shimmered like a diamond ring, its corona glowing around the moon's edge, its flares streaming from the moon.
The sun disappeared behind the moon for 51 seconds. The temperature, according to Gonzalez's experiment, dipped 20 degrees. He snapped 30 photos with his telephoto lens.
Something larger began forming in his mind that day, something he would develop over the years. Now a researcher at the University of Washington, Gonzalez had been reading about circumstellar habitable zones, the circular swath surrounding stars where complex life is possible.
People have observed for centuries that the moon and sun often appear the same size in the sky. How is the ability to view eclipses connected to the ability to support life?
"It occurred to me - the best place in the solar system to view a solar eclipse is also the best place in the solar system to support complex life," Gonzalez says. "Is that just a coincidence?"
It's the first connection Gonzalez had made between the ability of a planet to sustain life and the ability of a planet to have optimal conditions for scientific discovery.
He noticed more connections between measurability and habitability. Our location in the Milky Way. A clear atmosphere rich in oxygen. The relatively thin crust of this planet that functions as a vast scientific archive.
Years of research followed and became the hypothesis of his book: "The same narrow circumstances that allow us to exist also provide us with the best overall setting for making scientific discovery."
And that hypothesis threw him into this intellectual firestorm.
The origin of existence
Two sides butt heads in this battle of the minds. One is Gonzalez, who is also a senior fellow in the conservative Discovery Institute think tank that's brought intelligent design into the nationwide dialogue.
But the other side - those who call intelligent design "creationism in a tuxedo" - holds more sway in the scientific community.
Gonzalez's academic archenemy at Iowa State is Hector Avalos, an associate professor of religious studies at Iowa State who is also the faculty adviser for the ISU Atheist and Agnostic Society.
Avalos, who helped draft the faculty petition that says intelligent design abandons the basic tenets of science, doesn't dispute there's plenty of legitimate scientific data in Gonzalez's book. But the data are buttressed by a decidedly unscientific argument, Avalos says - that an intelligent designer must have intended Earth just so human life could arise and so humans could observe the universe.
Supposing the intention of a higher power is where the theory goes awry, Avalos says.
"Even cockroaches can make that assumption (that Earth was intended to support cockroach life)," Avalos says. "Just because life is important to you as a human being doesn't mean that's what is important to a designer.
. . . You have to differentiate what you can prove and what's a claim of faith.
"You can believe in God, but you can't present that as science. That's what's wrong with intelligent design."
This summer, the Smithsonian Institution screened a one-hour film based on "The Privileged Planet." The publicity increased awareness about Gonzalez's book.
Shortly afterward, Avalos circulated the petition to Iowa State faculty, he says, "because it's becoming increasingly clear to some of us that Iowa State University is being marketed as an intelligent design research center."
No matter anyone's religious views, critics say, intelligent design simply doesn't fall within the realm of science.
"Anytime you incorporate the possibility of a supernatural explanation, you can't accumulate any evidence," said Jim Colbert, an associate professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology at ISU and another drafter of the petition.
"We're not saying no one should believe in intelligent design. It's just that you can't accumulate evidence, so it's not science," he said.
Avalos, Colbert and a third drafter of the petition do not believe intelligent design has merit. But the more relevant question, they say, is whether studying and researching it can be a valid scientific endeavor.
The answer, they say, is a resounding no.
"It's not whether there is a God or not a God," Avalos said. "It's whether you can prove it or not."
'Not a crackpot'
Gonzalez rushes from his office to the printer down the hall, grabs another stack of papers for the manuscript for the upper-level graduate astronomy textbook he's writing, and shuffles them together.
The manuscript for the section he wrote for the "Observational Astronomy"
textbook needs to be mailed to the publisher later this afternoon. He's running a bit late.
"This one is a bit less controversial, I promise," he says. "I really didn't think it would get this ugly. Kind of stressful."
Gonzalez calls his wife and asks her to mail the manuscript.
The phone rings again: a local TV reporter.
"I've been interviewed by so many people lately, my head is spinning," he tells the reporter.
Gonzalez says he doesn't teach intelligent design in class. It's a new theory, and it's controversial, therefore not yet appropriate for the classroom. He says he would only teach it if he had the support of his astronomy colleagues.
"But I do think it properly falls within science," Gonzalez says. "The methods are scientific, and they don't start with a religious assumption.
It's not religion, therefore it should not be taught in a religion or philosophy class."
He points out that he thinks science is part of the designer's plan. "The designer intended science to be an important part of our existence.
Science is built into the universe from the beginning."
The book doesn't discuss evolution; though most intelligent design theoreticians refute Darwinism, Gonzalez's book only discusses physical sciences. He calls himself a "Darwin skeptic," not convinced Darwinism fully accounts for the life's biological complexities.
His critics claim he forces the scientific evidence to comply with his faith. He says it's among the worst allegations that could be leveled against him, amounting to academic fraud.
"I distinguish my science from my faith because intelligent design doesn't start with any religious assumptions," Gonzalez says. "Science is the search for objective truth."
What he wants is a fair shake. He says he just wants tolerance for opposing viewpoints, and he believes his viewpoint is effectively getting censored by the faculty petition.
He believes too many people are vehemently against intelligent design but haven't read up on it.
"If they take time to read my book, they'll see I'm not a crackpot,"
Gonzalez says. "They'll see I present a very sober theory in the book. You can't know what people's arguments are like until you read it for yourself. And I claim that's to my advantage."
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