Would Dr. Arno Penzias, Nobel Laureate in Physics, Be Blacklisted at Iowa State?

Michael Egnor

Guillermo Gonzalez is the outstanding astronomer who was blacklisted from tenure at Iowa State University because of his support for intelligent design. As my colleagues here on ENV have pointed out, Dr. Gonzalez’ academic record is superb. Since his arrival in 2001, Dr. Gonzalez has been the most productive astronomer in his department, judged by the impact factor of his publications.
It’s clear that Dr. Gonzalez was denied tenure for only one reason: he stated publicly that he believes there is evidence for design in the universe. As I observed in a previous post about Georges Lemaître, the Catholic priest who is the father of the Big Bang theory, many of the most prominent astronomers in history have shared Dr. Gonzalez’s opinion about the evidence for design in the universe. Nowadays, it is very dangerous to state such beliefs in science departments of many universities, including Iowa State University.
Who else, besides Dr. Gonzalez and Dr. Lemaître, would qualify for Iowa State’s blacklist? Nobel laureate Dr. Arno Penzias (photo) meets Iowa State’s implicit criteria for denial of tenure. He has discussed his opinions regarding the philosophical ramifications of his discovery quite openly, and, in many ways, has done so in a way that was more explicitly religious than Dr. Gonzalez.

Penzias, along with his colleague Robert Wilson, worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey. In 1964, they detected diffuse isotropic radio noise of very low energy. After ruling out terrestrial sources, they realized that the noise was the cosmic microwave background radiation, a remnant of the Big Bang. They shared the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for their seminal discovery.
Penzias stated to the New York Times on March 12, 1978:

The best data we have [concerning the Big Bang] are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the bible as a whole.

In a subsequent radio interview, Penzias was asked what there was before the Big Bang:

“We don’t know, but we can reasonably say that there was nothing.” An upset listener called immediately, accusing Penzias of being an atheist. He wisely replied: “Madame, I believe you are not aware of the consequences of what I just said. Before the Big Bang there was nothing of what now exists. Had there been something, the question could be: where did it come from?” He continued commenting that if there was nothing and suddenly things began to appear, that was sign that Somebody had taken them from nothing, and concluded saying that his discovery could bring about the overcoming of the historic enmity between science and religion.

Dr. Penzias, like Dr. Gonzalez, thought deeply and has spoken quite publicly about the philosophical and theological implications of 20th century discoveries in astronomy. Fortunately for Penzias, his scientific accomplishments were evaluated by the Nobel Prize Committee, not the tenure committee at Iowa State University.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.