Home / Testimonies / Philip D. LaFleur

Ever since my first real science class in primary school I knew I wanted to be a scientist. My first dream was to be a physician, but economics intruded, and I became a chemistry major at Idaho State. It was there that I became infatuated with radioactive materials, and the initial part of my career was spent in nuclear and radiochemistry. (I used to joke that moving into management was no big deal, since I was already used to working with instability). I have never been particularly bothered by seeming disconnects between science and religion. I certainly do not understand the actual creation mechanism(s); when I was teaching at BYU, I used to tell my students that, when I depart this earth, one of my first orders of business is going to be to find the Master Chemist and learn how all this happened.

Although there has been a perceived conflict between science and religion for centuries, the assault on religion has become both louder and more vituperative in the last decade or so. Authors such as Richard Dawkins (see, e.g., The Blind Watchmaker, The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (e.g., god is Not Great, The Portable Atheist) have embarked upon what appear to be personal crusades to “demonstrate” the fallacy and silliness of believers’ understanding of our relationship with deity. Their argument is, unfortunately, bolstered somewhat by the approach of some biblical literalists (e.g., the Creation Museum in Kentucky and the Creation Evidence Museum in Texas, in both of which dinosaurs and humans are shown as contemporaneous) and by religious extremists who perform horrendous acts, ostensibly in the name of deity. Their argument is that no thinking scientist should ever be able to believe in God. Of course, there are many scientists who would disagree with that. An excellent example is Francis Collins, currently the Director of the National Institutes of Health and previously the director of the human genome project, who wrote the book The Language of God. Recently Dawkins was the guest on the program “Radio West” (KUER, 11:00 AM), and Collins drives him a little nuts.

My personal take is that there are too many things that are tailor-made for us to exist for this to be accidental. One of my favorite examples is probably the most important chemical in the universe: water. Since we are surrounded by water, and are largely water ourselves, we too often do not appreciate just how magnificent this little molecule is. I will give just a couple of examples. Water is one of the very few chemicals whose maximum density is at a temperature (4 °C) above its freezing point (0 °C). This means that streams and ponds freeze from the top down, and not from the bottom up, making possible the winter survival of aquatic fauna. Water has a very high heat capacity, meaning that we can walk outside in summer without immediate heat stroke, or in winter without becoming icicles. Water also has a very high heat of vaporization, which makes it possible for us to keep our body temperature down on very hot days as we perspire. Water is a fantastic solvent, which allows the myriad chemical processes in our bodies to occur. The essentiality of water for life is demonstrated by the tons of money spent to discover if water is present on Mars, the moon, etc.

As we read in Moses 1 and Doctrine and Covenants 76, our earth is just one of God’s innumerable creations. Astronomers are now finding that lots of stars have planetary systems. We haven’t, and may never, find which stars have planets hospitable to life but, with our understanding of the scriptures, we know that they’re there.

The bottom line is that understanding science strengthens my testimony rather than weakens it. Knowing that God is our loving Father, who communicates with us through His chosen servants on earth, and that He sent His Son to be an infinite sacrifice for us leaves me much more awe-struck than does science (although I think science is pretty wonderful). In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

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Philip D. LaFleur was born in Anaconda, Montana, but grew up mostly in Idaho. He graduated from Idaho State College (now Idaho State University) with a major in chemistry, and then received an M.S. degree from the University of Idaho (M.S. Thesis: The Determination of Strontium-90 in Soils and Biological Materials) and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. The principal thrust of his dissertation was measuring the distribution of prompt X-rays (emitted in the first 700 nsec) from the slow-neutron fission of uranium-233, uranium-235, and plutonium-239. Secondarily, he developed rapid chemical separation methods (less than one minute) to examine short-lived fission products, primarily molybdenum isotopes. He also developed methodology for the production of sterile, pyrogen-free fluorine-18 in a cooperative research program with orthopedists at the University of Michigan Medical School. During his career he was employed at the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission, the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), and the Eastman Kodak Company. Following retirement, he taught chemistry at Brigham Young University for five years. After a few years as an active researcher, he moved into technical management, becoming the Director of the Center for Analytical Chemistry at NBS and the Director of the Analytical Technology Division in Imaging Research and Advanced Development at Kodak. He is the author or co-author of about 25 publications in learned journals, and is the editor of the book Accuracy in Trace Analysis: Sampling, Sample Handling, and Analysis (NBS Special Publication 422, two volumes, 1976). He received the Department of Commerce Silver (1972) and Gold (1979) medals for his work in the development of natural-matrix Standard Reference Materials and for the development of analytical technology. He has served as a member of the editorial advisory boards for the journals Analytica Chimica Acta and Analytical Chemistry. He delivered plenary lectures during the 1970s at the Inter-American Chemistry Conference in Mexico City and the Analytical Division of the Congress of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry in Tokyo. He has been invited to speak at conferences and universities throughout the world, and has been the organizer and/or program chair of a number of symposia throughout his career.

Posted January 2010