Starry Fight

Guillermo Gonzalez was a science whiz, the kind of kid classmates eye with awe — or scorn — as they fumble with their beakers in chemistry class.

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.

Gonzalez went on to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle. Then, in 1995, he traveled to Asia to do postdoctoral research at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore. There he had an encounter that lasted less than a minute but shaped the course of his career.

It began with a train trip to an impoverished village called Neem Ka Thana, in India's northern desert. The morning after his arrival, he and a team of other scientists set up their equipment in the grassy playground of a local school. It was a clear, crisp day. And just after 9:00 a.m., the sun began slinking behind the moon. For a moment its rays shimmered like a cut diamond. Then, for 51 seconds, it disappeared except for a glowing corona. The temperature dropped 21 degrees and distant planets blazed into view.

This was the first and only total solar eclipse Gonzalez had seen, and it dazzled him.

Afterward, he recalls, he began to consider that many of the same factors allowing intelligent life to flourish on Earth — among them the large size of our moon and our distance from the sun — also made these rare astronomical events possible. At the same time, he began thinking about the breakthroughs scientists had made by viewing eclipses — which include discovery of the element helium and confirmation of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. "You can call [all of this] a coincidence," he explains. "But I went further and said, 'Well, what if it's not a coincidence?'"

These musings would evolve into The Privileged Planet, the book that would land Gonzalez on the culture war's front lines.

The year after his India trip, Gonzalez heard about a conference that would bring together a fledgling coalition of scientists and academics who believed life bore the thumbprint of a Creator with a capital C. He decided to attend the event, called Mere Creation, at Biola University in Los Angeles in October 1996.

The gathering came at a key moment. A six-year-old Seattle-based organization called the Discovery Institute had just launched its Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture to support researchers and academics looking for evidence of Creation. And Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe had just published Darwin's Black Box, which introduced "irreducible complexity" — the notion that biological systems are too intricate to be the result of unguided evolution. Both developments helped lay the foundation for the movement that would become known as intelligent design.

Gonzalez left the event feeling as if he had found his niche.

While he once thought the universe was teeming with beings, he was beginning to think mankind might be alone in the cosmos. He also began to believe that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, called SETI by astronomers, was an effort to discredit biblical accounts of creation. "It is no secret that most SETI advocates are also anti-theists," he wrote in a letter to a Website for Christian academics. "Atheists strongly ... support SETI, because the discovery of other intelligent beings in the Milky Way would show once and for all that we are not special.... It is only a small step, then, to discredit the Judeo-Christian worldview."

Gonzalez went public with some of his ideas in a July 1997 op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. In it he argued that the evidence surfacing for life on Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa was flimsy, and the chances of ever finding life on other planets was exceedingly slim. The argument was pure science, except for the closing. It read: "We should not be asking: 'Are we alone?' We should instead be asking: 'Why are we here?'"

Gonzalez, who has published more than 60 peer-reviewed papers, had never before hinted at his belief that the universe might have been created for a purpose. He simply didn't think his fellow scientists would be receptive. "There's almost a complete censorship of that point of view," he says.

The Wall Street Journal editorial caught the eye of Jay Richards, vice president for research at the Discovery Institute. In 1999 Richards contacted Gonzalez, then a 35-year-old assistant professor at UW. Over lunch, Gonzalez told Richards his theory that our planet was designed not only to sustain intelligent life but also to foster scientific discovery. Richards encouraged him to apply for a grant from the John Templeton Foundation — which supports research on the intersection of faith and science — to develop the concept. Gonzalez did, and was awarded $58,000.

Richards eventually began urging Gonzalez to write a book about his design theory. But Gonzalez had trouble, so he asked Richards to sign on as co-author. Richards agreed, and they began working on the project in 2001. By then, Gonzalez had secured a tenure-track position at Iowa State University.

They published The Privileged Planet in March 2004. That September, Illustra Media, which specializes in intelligent design films, produced a documentary based on their work and began airing it on PBS stations. These developments were hailed by intelligent design advocates. "The book and film have expanded the intelligent design debate into a new arena," explains Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman. "Most of the discussion has involved evolution — life on Earth. Gonzalez's work has shifted it into the field of ... how the universe has developed." Before long, the book was being translated into Spanish; the film into Mandarin, Cantonese, and Czech.

Gonzalez's work garnered little attention outside the intelligent design community, though. That is, until May 28, when the New York Times ran a brief story saying that the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History was hosting and cosponsoring the official premiere of the film in exchange for a $16,000 donation from the Discovery Institute. Shortly thereafter, James Randi, a MacArthur Award-winning skeptic from Fort Lauderdale, caught wind of the showing.

Randi, a former magician, debunks supernatural and paranormal claims from his Davie Road headquarters, a hacienda-style building crowded with superstitious trinkets. Among them: statues of Bigfoot, a Scientology "e-meter," and a chunk of slate with a tiny winged skeleton etched into it — "proof," Randi explains, "that fairies existed in prehistoric times." The building also houses an ample library, where books are arranged alphabetically from alien abduction and alchemy to witches. Intelligent design literature is shelved under C for creationism.

Randi dashed off a letter to the Museum of Natural History's director. "That you would sell your integrity for $16,000 is not merely incomprehensible," he seethed, "but also shameful." He also offered to pay the museum $20,000 to drop the film. Then he ran a story on his online newsletter about the showing. It warned that "the creationists are flailing about trying to borrow or steal validation from science" and urged readers to bombard the Smithsonian with e-mails.

Days after Randi posted his missive, the museum began trying to distance itself from the film. Lucy Dorrick, associate director for special events, sent a message to the Discovery Institute, saying, "Upon further review, the Museum has determined that the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution's scientific research." The museum also withdrew cosponsorship and announced it would not accept the Discovery Institute's $16,000 fee. But the film would nevertheless be shown.

Gonzalez and Richards believe the Smithsonian was responding to the e-mail campaign Randi unleashed. "He got people all heated up," Gonzalez grumbles. "His pronouncements were so hysterical; you would think I was saying the Earth didn't revolve around the sun."

The Smithsonian's backpedaling made headlines in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Science Magazine, and Christianity Today, among other publications.

Randi, who was interviewed for several stories, applauded the move, but scientists were vexed that the museum was moving ahead with the showing.

Days before The Privileged Planet was to air, the top brass of the American Institute of Physics and six other major scientific organizations sent a letter urging the Smithsonian to drop the film. The American Geophysical Union, which represents researchers in the earth, space, and atmospheric sciences, went a step further, urging its 43,000 members to write Smithsonian board members directly. "The Smithsonian is a kind of gateway. It's the public's front door into science," explains Martha Heil, a spokesperson for the AIP. "So it's enormously troubling for it to show a film advocating intelligent design, a movement with the stated goal of overthrowing scientific materialism."

Nevertheless, The Privileged Planet aired June 23. Afterward, the 300 attendees — among them National Geographic Television COO Ken Ferguson and U.S. Congressman John Culberson (R-Texas) — crowded into the Smithsonian's Hall of Gems for a reception.

The Smithsonian dustup led some of Gonzalez's colleagues at Iowa State to worry that the university would be seen as a center of intelligent design research. And in late July, three professors drafted a petition urging the university to reject all attempts to represent intelligent design as science. It began circulating August 2, the day after George W. Bush made intelligent design the talk-show topic du jour by declaring it should be given a place alongside evolution in public schools. "Both sides ought to be properly taught," he explained, "so people can understand what the debate is about."

All told, the professors collected some 130 signatures and submitted them to the university president. Gonzalez's name never appears in the document. "We saw this as attacking the idea, not the person," explains Hector Avalos, who helped organize the petition drive. But William Dembski, another senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and perhaps the best-known intelligent design theorist, suggests that the broadside was intended to destroy Gonzalez's career. "What's next? Petitioning Guillermo to turn in his telescope?" he quipped.

In early September, the Discovery Institute issued a scathing press release. It contended that the petition — which it called "a blatant attack on academic freedom" and proof that "the Darwinist inquisition is spreading" — was circulated by "a small group of narrow-minded ... faculty members." A couple weeks later, the American Association of University Professors sent a letter applauding the professors for protecting academic freedom by standing up against intelligent design advocates.

The controversy has continued to dog Gonzalez, even when he's ventured off his home campus. On September 28 he gave a lecture about The Privileged Planet at the University of Northern Iowa. A few days earlier, parents and school board members from Dover, Pennsylvania, began their high-profile court battle over intelligent design. The case has invited comparison to the one that ended in 1987 with a Supreme Court ban on teaching creationism in public-school science classes.

Gonzalez's presentation was sponsored by Sigma Xi, an international science and engineering society, a fact that stirred outrage. In the weeks before Gonzalez's arrival, some faculty members began circulating a petition similar to Iowa State's and collected more than 100 signatures. The day of the event, students distributed anti-intelligent design pamphlets. And Gonzalez's talk, delivered to a standing-room-only crowd, was followed by a heated question-and-answer session. His next presentation, at Truman State University in Missouri this past October 5, also sparked fervent debate.

Gonzalez has done his best to keep the controversy from his mother and sister in Hialeah. "I don't want them to know that my career is in danger," he explains. But privately he worries that the squabbles will jeopardize his chances of receiving tenure. He also puzzles over the firestorm his work has created. "I'm just a regular scientist who believes in God and has remained open to evidence of design in the universe," he says, his voice tinged with exasperation. "It's not like I'm some crazed Bible-thumping, fire-breathing creationist."

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Mariah Blake
Contact: Mariah Blake