Home / Testimonies / John Howell

John Howell In contemplating the marvelous creations of God, I lend my voice with Alma in saying, “All things denote there is a God” (Alma 30:44). “[His] hand hath laid the foundations of the earth, and [his] right hand hath spanned the heavens. [He calls] them and they stand up together” (Isaiah 48:13). “All things are created and made to bear record of [Him]” (Moses 6:63). I exclaim as Lehi, “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty!” (1 Nephi 1:13)

I chose to study physics because someone shared with me the slightly misquoted statement by Einstein, “I want to know what God knows.” This lofty goal seemed reasonable at the outset of my studies. However, after twenty years of study, it has been tempered by the realization that we know so very little of the world and God’s creations.

I teach and study quantum mechanics and the quantum effects of light. I marvel at the beauty, the symmetries, the asymmetries, the order, the chaos, the uniqueness, the reproducibility, the simplicity, and the complexity of the natural world. I remember one day being almost overwhelmed at a leaf on a tree. I found that this rather mundane object was so complex from a quantum mechanical standpoint that any hopes of writing a mathematical description from a quantum level were far beyond my capabilities.

There are some who would argue that science has all the answers. I would argue that science is about the questions. The questions are manifold more interesting when coupled with theology. I would like to share some of the questions I have that bridge science and theology, especially those related to light.

What if the forces holding together the universe are all divine? What if the gluons are actually god-mediated forces? What if the Big Bang, which is essentially an energy-to-matter conversion, was a means to create matter from God’s great power? What if the biblical account of the creation was simply applying divinely directed forces on the previously created matter? Where does agency end and divine influence start?

Our theology speaks of an all-powerful, all-knowing God who has a universal divine influence. How can this theology be reconciled with the ultimate scientific “theory of everything”? The “theory of everything” is a scientific belief that all of the forces and all seemingly disparate fields of scientific study can be unified. A theory of everything would reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. The theory would have some fundamental axioms and then any predictive outcome could be determined. Many have spent considerable time trying to achieve a theory of everything and there are compelling reasons for it. However, every attempt has been unsuccessful or unverified so far. So how can we reconcile our limited understanding of eternal truth with such a significant scientific theory?

Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants discusses the pervasiveness of divine influence called “light” and hints at an eternal “theory of everything.” I will come back to verse six later. In verse seven, we read, “As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power by which it was made.” In verse eight, “As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made.” We learn that he is the light of the stars and earth and the power thereof. In verse eleven, we learn, “And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light which quickeneth your understandings.” He caps these verses with verse thirteen, “The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God, who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.”

When a physicist considers light, electromagnetic radiation first comes to mind. Every heavenly body emits light in the form of blackbody radiation. However, this narrow interpretation cannot possibly capture the meaning of these verses. The light that we study doesn’t govern all things, and studying it as the power of God is outside the purview of the scientific method. This is a simple example of how current scientific understanding falls short of comprehending eternal truths.

What if the Lord is trying to teach us about an even grander “theory of everything”? The “light” discussed in these verses isn’t just electromagnetic radiation, but a more generalized radiation. This light radiates information, eternal truth, governance, power, force, and life (spiritual and physical). This light proceeds from the presence of God and fills the immensity of space (verse twelve). This light, as a subset of its functionality, fully describes all of the four forces, all the way down to the gluons that keep the elementary particles together and thus sustain us from moment to moment. This gives new meaning to King Benjamin’s thoughts that the Lord is keeping us, preserving us from day to day and lending us breath (Mosiah 2:20,21) or Paul’s statement, “ye are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

What role does the atonement play? In verse six of section 88, we read, “He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth.” Typically, when we talk of the Savior descending below all things, we are discussing the atonement. This passage of scripture invites us to ask several questions. Does the atonement play a role in a universal divine influence? What if the atonement is more than the expiation of all sin and the reconciliation of man across an infinite gulf from a corruptible to an incorruptible state? What if the atonement overcomes space and time, both forward and backward, in such a way that that it allows divine influence in all aspects of creation and existence, so that the Savior’s influence might be in all things? Truly, “great is the mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16) from this perspective.

Let me sum up. There are numerous unanswered scientific and theological questions. However, I believe there is a divine influence in our existence beyond anything we can currently comprehend. Our doctrine denotes a scientific theory of existence and creation, but our powers of comprehension are feeble, at best. I believe God does have a theory of everything that allows perfect understanding of all phenomena and that the axioms of this theory are eternal truth.

Thankfully, we don’t have to have a perfect understanding of these things to find peace in this life and have assurances of a loving God. As a scientist, I find no conflict in believing in God and the endeavors of pursuing scientific truth. I know that He lives and that He loves us and that He has provided a way for us to return to Him. I have experimented upon His word and have tasted of its goodness.


John Howell, Professor of Physics at the University of Rochester in New York, was born in Logan, Utah, in 1971. He was raised in San Diego, California, and Millville, Utah. He served a mission in Jacksonville, Florida, from 1990-1992. He married Heather Mitchell, daughter of James and Terri Mitchell, and together they have five boys. They have lived in Pennsylvania, England, Italy, and Israel with their main residence in Rochester, New York. He enjoys date nights, reading and wrestling with his boys, ultimate Frisbee, scout camps, serving in his callings, languages, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, and studying the scriptures.

Prof. Howell received his B.S. in Physics (1995) with a minor in Mathematics from Utah State University, and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Physics (2000) from Pennsylvania State University. He then took a postdoctoral research position at the Centre for Quantum Computation at the University of Oxford. Prof. Howell joined the University of Rochester in 2002 as Assistant Professor of Physics, and promoted to Associate Professor in 2007 and Professor in 2011. He received a Research Innovation Award from the Research Corporation, a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and the Adolph Lomb Medal from the Optical Society of America “For innovative contributions in quantum optics, particularly aspects of quantum cloning, violations of Bell’s inequalities and maximal photonic entanglement.” He was the Lady Davis Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2011. He is the director for the newly founded Center for Coherence and Quantum Optics at the University of Rochester.

Posted October 2013