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While a senior at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High, he interned at Cordis Laboratories, where he helped build a device that measures temperature in pacemakers. And he made it to the finals of Westinghouse, the mother of all student science competitions, with a contraption that measured how ice and water conduct electricity.
But his true passion was for the stars.
While other boys played baseball and chased girls, he was reading astronomy books and viewing distant planets from the back yard of his Hialeah home. And it wasn't just comets Gonzalez glimpsed through the lens of his 200-pound telescope. "It was as if, by discovering the universe, I was discovering something about God," he recalls.
Gonzalez's whiz-kid days are now behind him; he is 41 years old and teaches astronomy at Iowa State University. But his life has continued to follow the twin tracks of faith and science. A year ago, those tracks collided in a book called The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery. In it he argues that a supreme being designed our planet to support both human life and scientific inquiry.
While it has received scant attention in his hometown, the book and a documentary based on it has made national headlines and earned Gonzalez one of thirteen senior research fellow spots at the Discovery Institute, the brain center of the intelligent design movement, which argues that Darwin got it wrong. Life is too complex to be an evolutionary fluke.
Gonzalez has expanded the debate out into the cosmos. And his ideas have stirred a controversy that has embroiled the nation's pre-eminent scientific institution and major research universities. The conflict is part of a nationwide struggle over intelligent design that is playing out most visibly before a Pennsylvania judge and may eventually reach the Supreme Court.
The stakes are high. Advocates say intelligent design is science and deserves a spot in our public-school classrooms. Opponents among them most scientists disagree. "They're using semantics and half-truths to paper a wall," says James Randi, a renowned Fort Lauderdale skeptic and one of Gonzalez's most vocal critics. "But it's only cardboard under that paper. Don't lean on it. Intelligent design is not science, it's theology."
Guillermo Gonzalez was only four years old when his family fled Cuba in 1967. The Castro regime had confiscated all of their belongings, so they stepped off the plane in Miami with only the clothes they were wearing. When the clan settled in Opa-locka, it was the early days of space travel and, like many boys his age, Gonzalez became obsessed with the Apollo missions. One of his earliest memories is watching the night launches from his front yard. "The rocket plume was so bright," he recalls, "you could see it hundreds of miles away."
At age seven, Gonzalez received his first telescope as a Christmas present. Not long after that, he and his family moved to the modest home in Hialeah where his mother and sister live to this day. The low-slung building, with its russet trim and a Saltillo-tiled porch, sits on a large corner lot, surrounded by juniper, bougainvillea, and ferns.
Gonzalez dissected lizards and frogs in the back yard and fished water from a nearby canal so he could inspect protozoa and algae under a microscope.
But outer space remained his first love. In his early teens, he saw an eight-inch Newtonian reflector telescope advertised in the Miami Herald and bought it for $350. Then he and his father, an auto mechanic, built an observatory in the back yard using wood scraps they scavenged from local warehouses. It was a boxy frame structure with particle board walls, musty carpeting, and a rollaway metal roof. The telescope sat perched on a concrete pedestal in the middle of the room.
Neighbors remember Gonzalez as a quiet, studious boy. "You hardly knew he was over there," recalls Edith Vargas, who lives next door. "All day he studied like crazy. And he spent his nights staring up at the sky." When he made his presence known, it was by asking Vargas to switch off the lights in her house so he could get a better view of the stars.
Gonzalez was never spoon-fed faith. His parents, while nominally Catholic, rarely attended church. But from the beginning there was a spiritual dimension to his interest in space. "I just had this intuitive sense that there was something behind the universe," he explains. While a student at Hialeah-Miami Lakes, he recalls, he began exploring evangelical Christianity and going to Bible studies organized by one of his teachers. He later began attending a nondenominational evangelical church.
In 1983 Gonzalez graduated from high school and moved to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona. It was the first time he had ever left Florida. "Going away was a big deal," he says. "But the University of Miami didn't have an astronomy program, and Tucson is the astronomy capital of the world." Besides, U. of A. had offered a four-year full-tuition scholarship.