A Saint Among Scientists; A Scientist Among Saints
by S. D. Muni & Krishna-kripa Dasa
PLEASE CLICK HERE – for full essay with formal citations
Richard L. Thompson [Sadaputa Dasa] (February 4, 1947–September 18, 2008) was a mathematician, scientist, philosopher, researcher of ancient cosmology, author, and devoted practitioner of bhakti-yoga. In 1974, Thompson received his Ph.D. from Cornell University, where he specialized in probability theory and statistical mechanics. During this time he found inspiration in the philosophy of Bhagavad-gita, and became an initiated disciple of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder-Acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement. In his professional career, Thompson pursued research in quantum theory and mathematical biology, as well as NASA-funded research in satellite remote sensing. He produced over two-dozen peer reviewed scientific papers and co-authored a college textbook on computer modeling of biological systems. Thompson also worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, and as a research fellow and staff scientist at the La Jolla Institute, Division of Applied Nonlinear Problems, near San Diego.
Thompson was a founding member of the scientific branch of ISKCON, the Bhaktivedanta Institute, where he published over fourteen technical papers on the study of the relationship between science and Vedanta. He also contributed over forty essays for a broad audience in Back to Godhead (BTG), “the magazine of the Hare Krishna movement.” Thompson extensively investigated ancient Indian astronomy, cosmology, and spirituality, and developed multimedia expositions on these topics. He wrote eight books on subjects ranging from consciousness to archeology and ancient astronomy.
Education and Early Career
Richard Leslie Thompson was born and grew up in Binghamton, New York. In 1969 he received a B.S. in mathematics and physics from the State University of New York at Binghamton. The following year he earned an M.A. in mathematics from Syracuse University, and later received a National Science Fellowship.
In 1974, Thompson completed his Ph.D. at Cornell University, where he specialized in probability theory and statistical mechanics. Thompson’s dissertation, "Equilibrium States of Thin Energy Shells," was published in the Memoirs of the American Mathematical Society, No. 150, for being “correct, new and significant” and “of sufficient interest to a substantial number of mathematicians.” The work included the Hare Krishna mantra printed on the dedication page. Thompson presented a paper on his research, “Information and Random Automata,” at the 85th Annual Meeting of the American Mathematical Society (#763), held in Biloxi, Mississippi, January 24–28, 1979.
In a biographical essay published that year, Thompson wrote that throughout his college studies, he felt struck by the lack of a meaningful foundation to reality in modern scientific theories. He noted his dissatisfaction culminated in 1970, when he studied the reduction of man to a Turing machine, a kind abstract clockwork with a few moving parts, and he felt “the truth must be something different from this.” Consequently, Thompson began to study many different philosophies, with a view to finding a practical route to knowledge. He recalled that in 1972, he discovered some of the books of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in a book store in Ithaca, New York, and was struck by the beauty of their conceptions and the clarity of their presentation. Later he met the disciples of Prabhupada at the Radha-Krishna Temple in New York City. Here, Thompson claimed that he found a deeply meaningful philosophy capable of practical application in day-to-day life. Thompson was formally initiated as a disciple of Srila Prabhupada in 1975.
Thompson was one of the founding charter members of the Bhaktivedanta Institute (BI), and along with A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Swarupa Damodara das, Ravindra Swarupa das, Madhava das, and Rupanupa das, signed the incorporation papers that legally established the Institute in 1976 under the initial directorship of Dr. Thoudam D. Singh (Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Maharaja). Thompson wrote many of the Institute’s early monographs and essays, a number co-authored with Singh, on the topics of consciousness, archeology, and cosmology. He presented papers at the Bhaktivedanta Institute's First International Scientific Conference on Life Comes From Life, held in Vrindavan, India (1977). He also presented a paper, “God and the Laws of Physics” at the Bhaktivedanta Institute’s World Congress of the Synthesis of Science and Religion held in Mumbai (1986), and “A Trans-Temporal Approach to Mind-Brain Interaction,” at the BI’s The First International Conference on the Study of Consciousness Within Science (1990), hosted at the University of San Francisco.
In 1984, Thompson served as senior editor for the first edition of a Bhaktivedanta Institute project titled, Origins: Higher Dimensions in Science. Under his Vaishnava name, Sadaputa dasa, Thompson is also listed as senior researcher, with Madhavendra Puri dasa (Stephen Bernath) as assistant. Drutakarma dasa (Michael Cremo) and Bhutatma dasa (Austin Gordon, Ph.D.), contributed as authors along with Thompson. The editors presented the project as:
a non-technical review of current scientific theories of the origin of the universe, the origin of living organisms, and the nature of the conscious self. Our basic finding is that the reductionistic world view of modern science is by no means solidly established; we therefore outline an alternative view in which the world is understood to be only partially quantifiable and in which both purpose and spiritual qualities are granted existence.
In 1993, Thompson spoke at the 100th anniversary conference of the Chicago Parliament of World’s Religions on "The Relation Between Science and Religion: The Contribution of Gaudiya Vaisnavism." A published version of the presentation appeared in ISKCON Communication Journal v.2 with the title, “Reflections on the Relationship Between Religion and Modern Rationalism.” It was similarly published as “Rational ‘Mythology’” in BTG 28.1 (1994), and as a chapter in God & Science (Thompson, 2004). Thompson presented another paper, “Anomalous Textual Artifacts in Archeo-astronomy,” at the 1996 World Association of Vedic Studies (WAVES) conference held in Atlanta. He also served as a board member.
Thompson published two BI themed papers in peer reviewed alternative science journals: “Numerical Analysis and Theoretical Modeling of Causal Effects of Conscious Intention” (1991) in Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine, and “Planetary Diameters in the Surya-Siddhanta” (1997) in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. Thompson commented that a number of his professional science papers also explored themes in relation to his BI research.
During much of this time, Christopher Beetle (Krishna-kripa dasa), a computer science graduate from Brown University, worked with Thompson as a Bhaktivedanta Institute research associate and production assistant between the years 1988 and 2004.
During the 1980s, Dr. Thompson pursued research in quantum physics and mathematical biology at the State University of New York at Binghamton, publishing numerous papers with Dr. Narendra S. Goel of SUNY’s Department of Systems Science at the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering. Over the next two decades Goel and Thompson also co-authored NASA-funded research papers on satellite remote sensing.
Thompson taught courses in computer programing at SUNY while pursuing research in theoretical biology, the analysis of protein structure, and remote sensing. Thompson subsequently served as a post-doctoral fellow under Brian Josephson at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge investigating quantum theory and theoretical biology, followed by two years as a research fellow and staff scientist at the La Jolla Institute, Division of Applied Nonlinear Problems, in California.
Goel and Thompson’s essay on “Movable Finite Automata: A New Tool for Computer Modeling of Living Systems,” was published in Artificial Life: The Proceedings of an Interdisciplinary Workshop on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems (ALife ’87) held at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The conference was “jointly sponsored by the Center for Nonlinear Studies [at Los Alamos National Laboratory], the Santa Fe Institute, and Apple Computer, Inc.” that “brought together 160 computer scientists, biologists, physicists, anthropologists . . . all of whom shared a common interest in the simulation and synthesis of living systems.” The conference organizers stated that Goel and Thompson’s paper “describes a tool for modeling molecular self-organization” that among other advantages, “can help explain the manner in which the genotype can control the specific sequential developmental history of the phenotype.” Thompson is additionally listed on the Second Artificial Life Workshop (February 5-9, 1990) Tuesday evening schedule as demonstrating “A Self-Assembly Model of a Bacterial Flagella Motor.”
Goel and Thompson also presented two papers for the International Symposium on Organizational Constraints on the Dynamics of Evolution, sponsored by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1987 in Budapest. Under the heading “Biological automata models and evolution”, the papers were individually titled, “I: The role of computer modeling in theories of evolution and the origins of life,” and “II: The evolution of macromolecular machinery.” The celebrated British theoretical evolutionary biologist, John Maynard Smith, who co-edited the published conference proceedings, Organizational Constraints on the Dynamics of Evolution (1990), wrote in his “Concluding Remarks”:
For me, one of the high spots of the conference was the account by Thompson and Goel of their biological automata models. It was not only that I was envious of their skill at programming. More important was their demonstration of the process of “self-organization”. If you can program something, then you can be confident that the mechanisms you propose can actually generate the results you claim, and that is what they have done. Some thirty years ago, I drew a distinction between two kinds of developmental process, which I called “jigsaws” and “penny whistles”. By a molecular jigsaw I had in mind a structure whose final shape depended on the shapes of the molecules that composed it, and which would, in a sense, assemble itself, given that the right molecules were provided (perhaps in the right relative amounts, and in the right order). It is this kind of process that Thompson and Goel have simulated, with triumphant success.
In a personal recollection, Thompson commented that Smith “neglects to mention the anti-evolutionary content of one of these papers, but he commented favorably on this in private conversation. Of course, he continued to champion evolution.”
In 1988, Goel and Thompson published a college textbook, Computer Simulations of Self-Organization in Biological Systems, showing principles and techniques of biological modeling, and examples of biological self-organization and evolution. J. H. Parish, a biochemist at the University of Leeds, wrote in a review in Biochemical Education, “the authors are at their best in various topics from cell biology to evolution. . . . I strongly recommend this book as a novel, instructive, and challenging introduction to MFA [Movable Finite Automata] applications.”
Thompson and Goel continued their productive collaboration during the 1990s. From 2001–2007, Thompson worked with a number of scientists investigating “Radiation Transfer Model Intercomparison” (RAMI) phenomena. Thompson’s final collaborative effort was published in the journal, Remote Sensing of Environment, in 2008.
Mechanistic and Nonmechanistic Science
In 1981, Thompson wrote Mechanistic and Nonmechanistic Science: An Investigation Into the Nature of Consciousness and Form. In the book, Thompson discussed how the mechanistic theories dominating modern science have difficulty explaining phenomena like consciousness, complex biological form, and inspiration, and how these disparate phenomena could be unified through engaging the non-mechanistic analytical paradigms offered in the Bhagavad-gita.
In particular, two Nobel Prize winners offered favorable reviews:
I liked the third chapter of Mechanistic and Nonmechanistic Science very much. In particular it acquainted me some with the Bhagavad-gita. I learned that the basic philosophical ideas of this on ‘existence’ are virtually identical with those which quantum mechanics lead me to. – Eugene Wigner (Physics 1963)
In Mechanistic and Nonmechanistic Science, Dr. Thompson makes a number of cogent arguments against the usual scientific picture of life and evolution (which do not accept the existence of higher or subtler levels of organization). He also presents a clear alternative model. I think it is an important book, which would be of interest to many people. – Brian Josephson (Physics 1973)
The attractive quality of this book is that Thompson writes as a scientist about science with a clarity, accuracy, and objectivity that should engender respect both from scientists and from those whose religious persuasions are other than his own. He presents the philosophical instabilities of contemporary scientific theory in a clear scientific language without recourse to ad hoc religious explanations. . . . He chose instead, to show how one such perspective can act as an explanation without claiming that logic or evidence necessarily drives one to accept just this perspective. Scientists reading the book need not feel betrayed by Thompson, for he shows throughout both a respect and love for good science. Because he loves science, he is pained by its contradictions and seeks its intelligibility in a larger context.
Henry wrote in his conclusion:
On balance, I think this book is a very valuable addition to the current literature in science and religion. Thompson's choice of examples from science that seem to upset contemporary scientific paradigms is superb. They are all relevant. They are carefully explained and in one book. . . . These examples form test cases that must be applied to any philosophy of religion that claims adequacy to represent science. The process theologian or Thomist, for example, can examine how process philosophy or Thomism can handle the puzzles and anomalies arising in science that seem to discredit current scientific explanation, as well as compare the success of such philosophies with one derived from the Bhagavad-gita.
Thompson published Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy in 1990, his first book to address the apparent conflict between a model of the universe presented in the Fifth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, and the universe as understood through the empirical methodology of modern science. In a thorough, straightforward analysis accessible to a broad audience, Thompson explained how “the Fifth Canto’s cosmology and the accounts of the solar system found in the jyotisa-sastras [corresponding to modern astronomy] are not contradictory, but that they in fact represent distinct yet mutually consistent ways of comprehending a universe with important features beyond the range of ordinary sense perception.”
Over the next decade Thompson worked with the Mayapur planetarium project, developing museum concepts and other materials. During this period, Thompson wrote Mysteries of the Sacred Universe (2000) along with an interactive companion CD. Thompson argued that a closer examination of the cosmological descriptions found in the Bhagavata Purana revealed “unexpected depths of knowledge in ancient cosmology,” and a “sophisticated system with multiple levels of meaning that encode at least four different astronomical, geographical, and spiritual world models.” Thompson presented evidence that ancient astronomers “expressed exact knowledge in apparently mythological terms,” and that “the spiritual dimension was integrated into ancient Indian cosmology.” Dr. Subhash Kak, Regents Professor and former Head of the Department of Computer Science at Oklahoma State University, described the work as “a very original book” representing “an important advance in the understanding of the cosmology described in the famed Bhagavata Purana of India.” Thompson further produced two movies containing visual graphics describing the material, on a companion DVD.
During this period, Thompson developed a number of museum exhibit proposals for the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium (TOVP). (For a historical perspective, see BTG 33.06. For a description of Thompson's contributions at that time, click here. For more recent TOVP news updates, click here). He also worked on museum concepts for the New Delhi ISKCON Glory of India project, as well a proposed Vedic Science and Cultural Museum intended for Washington, D.C. Along with developing ideas for planetarium shows, Thompson produced an interactive CD, Journey to the Higher Planets, a proposal for a comprehensive museum experience of 40 panel exhibits, scripts and visual material for 3 kiosk movies, as well as a feature 40 minute integrated movie experience.
As part of these projects, Thompson researched historical evidence indicating that the yojana, the traditional South Asian unit of distance, is based on a degree of the earth’s latitude. He also discovered astronomical evidence confirming the traditional date of the Kali-yuga. Thompson further published a paper in the peer reviewed alternative science journal, Journal of Scientific Exploration, titled “Planetary Diameters in the Surya-Siddhanta,” describing how traditional astronomical texts offered “surprisingly accurate calculations” corresponding to modern norms. The JSE offers downloads of the article at no charge.
In December 2007, Thompson presented a paper analyzing Puranic cosmology titled, “Interpretation and the Srimad-Bhagavatam,” at the Second Annual Conference of the ISKCON Academy of Arts and Sciences (IAAS) held in Moundsville, WV. Participants included Dr. Graham Schweig (Professor of Religion, Christopher Newport University); Dr. William H. Deadwyler, (Religion, Temple University); Dr. Howard Resnick (Sanskrit, Harvard); Dr. Jonathan Edelmann (Assistant Professor of Religion, University of Florida); and Dr. David Buchta (Lecturer in Classics, Brown University). Thompson opened his presentation by noting how Lord Chaitanya was famous for offering sixty-one meanings to the atmarama verse in his discourse with Sanatana Goswami. With that precedent taken from within the tradition, Thompson proposed that the cosmology of the Bhagavatam could be understood from a multiperspectival standpoint that emerges with clarity when the text is seen against the background of deep knowledge. As such, insights on meaning from the Bhagavatam can include information from a scientific background that could be of interest to scholars.
Thompson served as a “key member” of the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium Research & Planning Committee, led by Ravindra Svarupa Prabhu. He brought to the team his extensive experience developing numerous museum proposals since the early 1990s, both for Mayapura and other similarly themed projects. The Chairman of the TOVP, Ambarisa Dasa (Alfred Ford, great grandson of Henry Ford), stated that Thompson “was involved one way or another in the Mayapur Project practically longer than anyone I know. His work was the scientific cornerstone of the exhibits and discourse Srila Prabhupada wanted to be presented by the project . . . and [he] will always hold a pioneering position in the execution of this cherished dream.”
In June 2008, project leaders met for a development session near Thompson’s home in Gainesville, Florida. Included among them were Jayapataka Maharaja, Ravindra Svarupa dasa, Hari Sauri dasa, Drutakarma dasa, Nitya-Tripta devi dasi, Brahmatirtha dasa, and others. At the time, Thompson “was leading the effort in the ‘Chandelier project’” intended to provide a “mechanical model of the heavens” as described in the Puranas and meant to be “hung ‘like a chandelier’” in the planetarium dome. He “completed a proposed design for this cosmological centerpiece” just prior to his passing in September 2008.
In 1993 Thompson and Michael Cremo (Drutakarma das) co-authored Forbidden Archeology, a provocative investigation of anomalous archeological evidence involving human antiquity. The Journal of Field Archeology 21(1) described on page 112 in it "Publications" section, that the work combines “a vast amount of both accepted and controversial evidence from the archaeological record with sociological, philosophical, and historical critiques of the scientific method to challenge existing views and expose the suppression of information concerning history and human origins.”
In a lengthy review in The British Journal of the History of Science 28(3), Tim Murray described Forbidden Archeology as “a book about belief” that “Vedic literature got it right long before the advent of archaeological inquiry.” Murray also suggested the work offered “historian[s] of archaeology with a useful compendium of case studies in the history of sociology of scientific knowledge, which can be used to foster debate within archaeology about how to describe the epistemology of one’s discipline.”
In a severely critical review published in Skeptic magazine 4(1), Bradley Lepper characterized Forbidden Archeology as “frustrating because it mixes together a genuine contribution to our understanding of the history of archaeology and paleoanthropology with a bewildering mass of absurd claims and an audaciously distorted review of the current state of paleoanthropology.” Nonetheless, Lepper admitted, “Cremo and Thompson are quite right about the extreme conservatism of many archaeologists and physical anthropologists.”
Though Meera Nanda, a noted historian and philosopher of science, described Thompson and Cremo as “the intellectual force driving Vedic creationism,” Thompson’s views appear complex. C. Mackenzie Brown, author of an essay in Zygon 37(1) titled, “Hindu and Christian Creationism: 'Transposed Passages' in the Geological Book of Life," referred to correspondence between Thompson and himself that considered if a Vedic analysis
insists upon an anti-Darwinian simultaneous creation of all species is perhaps open to question. . . . Thompson (2000) affirms that Prabhupada [Bhaktivedanta Swami - Iskcon’s founder/acarya] sometimes insisted on simultaneous creation but at other times allowed for "the possibility of successive creations.” . . . Thompson asserts that the Vedic views of creation/development . . . are consequently complex . . .
At times Prabhupada stated Vedic concepts of “species” differed from those of modern science. In addition, a Vedic perspective would not limit itself exclusively to considering living systems on Earth. Prabhupada also emphasized the evolution of consciousness through different bodily forms as the important concern. For these and many reasons, Vedic metaphysics suggests a complexity outside the norm of contemporary “creation/development” debates.
Thompson’s coauthor, Michael Cremo, continues to promote Forbidden Archeology, along with related topics.
In 1994, Thompson published Alien Identities: Ancient Insights into Modern UFO Phenomena (also titled: Parallels: Ancient Insights...), a work Thompson described as “a comparative study of UFO literature and the Vedic literature of India” suggesting surprising parallels lending more credence to both than is usually offered to either. Berthold E. Schwarz, M.D., psychiatrist and author of UFO Dynamics, found the work “stimulating, well organized, and an encyclopedic smorgasbord of UFO data and ancient Indian counterparts.”
Thompson also actively pursued commercial software development. In 2000 he co-founded and served as President of Size8 Software, the developers of ClothFX, “a production proven cloth simulation system for 3ds Max.” The company is noted for its “industry proven technology” that brings “realistic cloth and garment simulation to the computer graphics, apparel and related industries. Its technology is used in applications ranging from virtual garment design to simulation clothing on animated characters for commercials, game cinematics and film effects.”
In 2003, Thompson published Maya, the World As Virtual Reality, where he explored “the idea of virtual reality as a metaphor for our situation as conscious beings . . . provides a framework in which the relation between consciousness and physical reality can be systematically explored.” Thompson argued that in the “Indian tradition, the Sanskrit word maya refers to the power to run vast simulations of virtual worlds. This book can be seen as a preliminary exploration of the idea of maya, or virtual reality, as a scientific hypothesis.” Dr. Gary E. Schwartz, Director of the Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health and professor of Psychology, Medicine, Neurology, Psychiatry, and Surgery at the University of Arizona, described Thompson’s book as weaving “a tapestry of theory and research integrating body, mind, and spirit that can be understood by scientists and laymen alike. A joy to read and ponder.”
In 2004, Thompson published God and Science, a compilation of over twenty articles written between 1986 to 2000 for BTG magazine. Varadaraja V. Raman, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology, considered Thompson’s work
[a] well-written collection of essays, showing the connection between science-and-religion and Hinduism. Through the book, Thompson proves himself to be a thoughtful writer with a solid mathematics and physics background. Further, he shows a clear understanding of Hindu and other religious texts and a devotional sympathy for Vaishnavism, a metaphysically sophisticated form of Hinduism.
Raman concluded his review published in Science and Theology News 6 (25 April 2005), by noting that while “most technical physicists wouldn’t concur with efforts to harness physics into a God-centered worldview,” Thompson’s book “will open readers’ eyes to the richness and multiplicity in human culture. For those who take God as the substratum of the universe, this Vaishnavite version of that conviction will prove both interesting and insightful.”
Thompson introduced his collection of essays with the question,
What is the relationship between science and religion? Some see it as one of inevitable conflict, others see it as harmonious, and still others see differences that they hope to reconcile. For many years, I have been one of the latter. I have felt that science has fundamentally challenged the very roots of religion, but that this challenge can be answered in a way that agrees with basic scientific and religious principles. Framing such answers was the purpose of the essays in this book. However, on reviewing these essays, I have come to realize another potential relationship between religion and science. Both religion and science can cross fertilize one another with inspiring new ideas that may ultimately culminate in a synthesis that goes beyond our understanding of either science or religion.
Sheldon R. Isenberg, associate professor and former chair of the Department of Religion, University of Florida, wrote in his Foreword to the book:
Thompson’s ability to explain clearly very difficult concepts of traditional and contemporary physics and cosmology is extraordinary. ... His erudition, the elegance of his prose, and his deep understanding of traditional and contemporary science give a different kind of credibility to the knowledge and wisdom of our intellectual and spiritual ancestors, east and west, which they encoded into their legends, myths, and rituals. One begins to suspect that we have forgotten at least as much as we’ve discovered.
Thompson passed away at his home in Alachua, Florida, on September 18, 2008. At the time he was working on exhibit proposals for the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium.