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A chemist and God

Science | Henry Schaefer sees a natural nexus between faith and science

Which sounds more interesting: a technical talk on "Lesions in DNA Subunits" or one on "The Big Bang, Stephen Hawking and God"?

Henry Schaefer, 64, a long-time University of Georgia professor and a pioneer in theoretical chemistry-he's in the top 10 of all researchers cited in recent years in chemistry publications-gives both. But when organizers of Techfest 2008 asked him to speak at their major technology conference in Mumbai, India, they wanted the Big Bang speech, which Schaefer was happy to give.

People in every land want to hear about God, and Schaefer is willing to speak: He mentions that he has presented over 500 nontechnical talks on the compatibility of Christianity and science at over 300 universities around the world, in the process communicating with "perhaps 100,000 students who would not have been interested in a conventional presentation of the gospel." He's made 20 trips to India and China, "where the harvest is very rich." Typically, he presents a straight chemistry lecture at the same university where he gives these general interest lectures.

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From teaching Molecular Quantum Mechanics at the University of Georgia to studying the Bible during mid-week church fellowships, Schaefer sees cohesion between "secular" science and his Christian faith. He became a Christian as a young professor at the University of California, Berkeley in 1973: He concluded that the historical evidence for belief in Jesus was too compelling to ignore, and that the physical resurrection of Jesus was the most rational way to understand the stories recorded in the Gospels and by ancient historians.

Schaefer never felt that Christianity and science were in opposition to one another, but after becoming a Christian he was surprised to find that many others found science and faith in conflict: "It was a problem for so many people that finally I decided to do a little research on whether it was true that scientists were not Christians. I discovered pretty quickly that essentially all the pioneers of the modern physical sciences were Christians. It was encouraging to me, and I think even more encouraging to others."

On a typical non-travel day earlier this year Schaefer was sitting at his computer at 6 a.m., scrolling through his packed inbox and emailing his students advice and support in their research. "Part of the success in science is to inspire the people around you," he says. "Almost everybody I work with is less than 25 years of age. They're the ones that are really doing the heavy lifting." He enjoys encouraging others: "The greatest professional satisfaction one gets in my business is to see former students doing outstanding science."

In Schaefer's view, a natural nexus exists between Christianity and science: "In many respects [Christians] are not different than anybody else in science, but we do have a deep-seated trust that God is a God of order and that by following rational methods we will find truth in the scientific sense." Those scientists who speak definitively about how the universe began, though, are going beyond science: "When you read or hear anything about the birth of the universe, someone is making it up-we are in the realm of philosophy. Only God knows what happened at the very beginning."

Schaefer has authored over 1,000 peer-reviewed journal articles, but his ultimate pursuit in life has more to do with his faith than it does with solving problems in the world of science: "My passion is to share Jesus with university students and professors. The main issue is Jesus, and what He accomplished."

-S. Joshua Swamidass is a scientist in bioinformatics; Shoba Spencer recently graduated from law school

S. Joshua Swamidass and Shoba Spencer
S. Joshua Swamidass and Shoba Spencer

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