ROCKVILLE, Md. — The dying woman looked up at her physician. "What do you believe?"
The question unsettled Dr. Francis Collins. For days, he had watched the elderly woman serenely endure the pain of a failing heart, certain she was leaving this world for a better one. She talked to him often of her faith. He listened with bemusement.
He was a man of science; he had earned a PhD in physical chemistry at Yale and was completing his medical degree with bedside training at a North Carolina hospital. When his patients talked of God, he pitied them.
Yet confronted with the woman's earnest question, Collins felt not superior, but oddly ashamed. After 30 years, he still remembers how he flushed as he stammered: "I'm not really sure."
The patient died soon after. And Collins embarked on a journey of exploration that took him to the White House to discuss his landmark map of human DNA with President Clinton -- and to a lonely mountain meadow, where he dropped to his knees one bright morning and surrendered himself to Jesus Christ.
A scientist and a believer. A born-again Christian and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, a federal project with 550 employees, a $480 million annual budget and a mandate to explore every twist of the DNA that makes us who we are. The synthesis has brought Collins much joy and intellectual satisfaction. But he's frustrated, too, that he's perceived as such an oddity.
In his new book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," Collins expresses his dismay at what he calls "the chasm between science and faith."
Evolution versus intelligent design. Darwin versus God. Embryonic stem-cell research versus the sanctity of human life.
"We act as though there's a battle going on," Collins said. "An irreconcilable conflict."
He feels no such conflict. He believes in evolution and in the resurrection. He wears a silver ring with a raised cross and works at a dining-room table painted with the double-helix of DNA.
Tall and trim, with gray hair; blue eyes; a relaxed, self-effacing manner; and just the barest hint of a Southern twang, Collins, 56, has set himself up as an emissary between two clashing worldviews.
He urges his fellow scientists to give up the arrogant assumption that the only questions worth asking are those science can answer. He entreats his fellow believers to recognize it's not blasphemous to learn about the world.
One day last summer, in the basement office of his suburban home here, Collins dictated this manifesto into a tape recorder: "Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science; He made it all possible." It became the central thesis of his book -- with this addendum: "Abandon the battlements."
This plea for a truce encourages some veterans of the culture wars.
Polls routinely show that about half of all Americans believe God created man, fully formed, within the last 10,000 years, as the Bible recounts. The vast majority of scientists find that ludicrous, but their account of man evolving from primordial muck does not resonate broadly, especially with Christians who believe in a personal God, deeply concerned about each human life.
Collins, some hope, might bridge this gap by reassuring Christians that they can buy evolution without selling out their faith. Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, called Collins' book "extremely important ... particularly because it was written from a conservative Christian view. This is not some Unitarian speaking."
Some Christians accuse Collins of denying the foundation of faith when he calls the Biblical creation account an allegory.
"Not accepting the history in Genesis undermines the entire gospel," said Ken Ham, president of a ministry called Answers in Genesis, which promotes creationism. "The Bible says from dust we come and to dust we return. We don't return to an ape-man when we die."
From the other camp, some scientists ridicule Collins' effort to find a place for God in the scientific framework.
"I could just as well say that there are 70 pink elephants revolving around the Earth," said Herbert A. Hauptman, a Nobel laureate in chemistry. Science and faith "are simply incompatible," he added. "There's no getting around it."
Collins took a roundabout route to the intersection of faith and science.
His parents both had graduate degrees from Yale but chose to live in the mountains of Virginia on a scruffy farm with no running water. His father traveled the rural South to record and preserve old folk songs; his mother home-schooled their four sons except when a creative fever gripped her and she shut herself in her room for a week at a time, writing plays.
As a boy, Collins attended an Episcopal church -- under orders from his parents to ignore any mumbo-jumbo about God. He was there, they explained, strictly to learn to read music in the choir.