Editor’s note: This story appeared in the October 2021 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine.
BYU chemistry professor Brian F. Woodfield has been teaching at BYU for over 25 years and has taught thousands of students over the years. Woodfield leads a graduate research group called the Woodfield Lab Group which focuses on studying industrially and technologically important materials. Woodfield is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and reconciles science with faith.
Q: What made you interested in studying and pursuing a lifelong career with chemistry?
A: I grew up in a home where we wanted to understand how everything worked. My father was a pioneer in computers and he would tear things apart and put it back together. He fixed all of our cars, appliances and other things. I had a similar mindset of looking at the world and trying to understand it. This understanding wasn’t limited to just computers. I’m the youngest child in my family and my older brother was studying chemistry in high school and he was telling me about chemistry. It sounded really interesting and so I got hooked to chemistry.
My father was always involved in NASA and military projects. He was a chief software engineer for Apollo, so we were always interested in the space industry. He would explain how rockets worked and I became interested in low temperature physics.
Q: How is science compatible with religion?
A: It’s surprising how much people misconstrue what science is about. Many people think science is the enemy. Parley P. Pratt wrote a book titled the “Key to the Science of Theology” in 1850. At the time, he was an apostle and had the insight that all academic fields of study are just subsets of theology of the gospel. When you take a perspective that there’s religion and then you put a barrier between religion and academics, that sets up conflict. But you can take the viewpoint that the Church and religion in general, is after the truth in trying to understand the nature of God and how he interacts with us and how he is involved in our lives.
In the science field, we are trained to take theories, understand them and understand models as a matter of that discipline. If the models work, we keep it, but when it doesn’t work, we then make a better model that helps us understand it even better. In the end, we are looking for truth. All these processes — including looking for truth, sit under the religion and are not opposed to it.
Just because a model doesn’t work right does not mean that it still isn’t useful. If a model is useful and it helps us predict or understand, it doesn’t have to be eternally fundamentally true but it is still considered useful.
My approach is that instead of looking for reasons of why not, I look for reasons why. Why is it consistent, how does it fit? Sometimes, that understanding can take decades to come to grips with.
Q: What are some theories that are taught in a typical scientific curriculum that are seen conventionally as incompatible with religion?
A: The classic one is evolution. I’m not an expert — I’m not an evolutionary biologist. However, I think you’ll find that there isn’t a single professor in biology or the BYU Life Sciences department that has a problem with evolution, because it is a model that works. It isn’t inconsistent with God because it is only a mechanism by which God can do His creation and create the diversity of the world that we see.
The problem occurs when well-meaning people look at God and think they know how He did everything. Our approach in science is to discover how He did things. If we’re in the search of how He did things, then models don’t become incompatible. They just become a way around trying to understand the truth of God and His nature. Therefore, evolution in my mind is not incompatible at all.
In my discipline of quantum mechanics, some of the fundamental principles is that there is uncertainty. We can’t know exactly where the electron is, and many students will say that can’t be compatible with God because God knows all things. However, I turn it around and say there are many examples of where the fundamental principle is allowing people to have choice. In the pre-existence, we fought for the ability to choose instead of being mandated to having no choice. We chose and pre-determined that we wanted to have a choice — to have uncertainty. With quantum mechanics, it is not contrary, it is another example of God and the role of Jesus Christ.
Q: What are some aspects of science that people don’t typically have a good understanding of that provides enlightenment rather than diminishes faith?
A: It’s super relevant that in the time of COVID-19, science has taken somewhat of a beating. People think that there are ulterior motives to science, that there are conspiracy theories and that science wants a certain outcome. Science is geared around doing measurements, gathering data, explaining the data, admitting if the models are incorrect and developing new models. This is where I think people misunderstand how science works. There is no other agenda than understanding. Science does not try to support someone’s agenda.
In the Church, you ask questions, then you contemplate and when it makes sense, your trust in it grows. When it doesn’t work, then you work it out by trying to find another path that does work. We are an experienced Church. We don’t believe other people, we’re supposed to find out things ourselves. This is exactly how science works.
Q: Has studying science strengthened your testimony and your understanding of God?
A: There is no question that studying science and being a temple worker for the last seven years has done more to help me understand God and Christ and their roles and about the world than anything else. I can just see the hand of God in science.
Q: As a professor at BYU, one of your main goals is to strengthen the faith of the students you teach. What do you teach to your students specifically that help strengthen their faith and their understanding of God?
A: If there’s a principle I want my students to learn, I want them to learn that it is okay not to understand something. You don’t have to have the answers to everything right away. The journey is not about knowing the answers, it’s about learning how to get the answers. It’s learning how to solve your own problems. I hope that what they walk away with is not how to be a chemist, but how to apply the skills we taught them using chemistry and how to apply them to any aspect of their lives, whether it’s being in the Church, a leader, a parent or a doctor.
Eugene England, a BYU professor who passed away about 20 years ago, said religion is a laboratory where we learn how to apply the principles of the gospel. By teaching principles of chemistry, I am hoping to teach the students how to better understand what they observe, not just in the chemistry but also in the world around them and how to apply those principles in our laboratory of our families and in the laboratory of our religion, to be better people.