12 September 2010

CSC Ethos Scores Scholarship

I recently got some glad tidings about a scholarship I applied for back in the spring. The award is given in memory of Anne McNair Kumpuris, and in their note her parents told me they thought their deighter "would have appreciated [my] view on life." It's a view that's been largely teased out on this blog, so it seemed appropriate to post the principal essay here. Enjoy:

One important ah-ha moment that came in a very different setting from where I am today but continues to shape my life occurred during my junior year of college. As part of a history of science class, I was reading about Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Bohr was influential in developing what came to be known as quantum mechanics, a subject I studied in some depth as an undergrad and then graduate student in engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But the moment itself came as I worked through a piece on Bohr's philosophy. What I already knew about Bohr was that he'd changed physics through one simple but daring mental leap. Scientists were currently arguing about the nature of light, whether it was a wave or a particle. For decades, they'd been successfully studying it under the assumption that it was a wave. The wave hypothesis had great explanatory power, and there was no real doubt that it was true. However, a series of key experiments then came along and seemed just as unambiguously to show that light is, in fact, a particle. Bohr was the one who forced us to get our heads around the fact that it is both; light behaves as a particle or as a wave depending on the way you observe it, the way your experiment aims to study it. Previously, it hadn't occurred to anyone that this was even an option. The idea is part of what came to be known as the “Copenhagen Interpretation” of quantum mechanics, and Bohr abstracted it into the slogan that would eventually end up on his Coat of Arms: contraria sunt complementa (“opposites are complementary”).

As I read this article on how Bohr applied “a general lesson to be drawn from quantum mechanics” to other fields of study, I noticed a vague but palpable sense of excitement building up inside me. Sitting on a beat-up blue couch in a crummy college apartment, I began reinterpreting whole swathes of my life and studies. I had ideas for research papers, a new understanding of my church and it's dual Catholic-Protestant identity, and some much-needed affirmation that my trying to keep up with honors humanities coursework during engineering school could be fruitful and worthwhile. There were many new facts before me, but the resounding force was more like an emotional understanding: the fact that reality is inherently multifaceted felt right to me, like few things in my life had ever felt. It's an idea that I've in some sense staked my life to, and it's one of the forces that brought my spiritual life into balance with my intellectual life and eventually gave me the courage to leave my Ph.D. program in engineering and head to seminary.

I've learned a few things about the Bohrs of the theological world since coming to Virginia. I've seen contraria sunt complementa at work in the early church rejecting the Diatessaron (the gospel harmony that eliminated the distinct, multifaceted witness of four separate gospels), the Council of Nicea affirming the dual nature of Christ as both fully human and fully divine, and Thomas Aquinas's ingenious philosophical method of engaging the tension between two apparently contradictory truths. Time after time, God prods us into acknowledging that this world we live in is stubbornly resistant to oversimplified or monolithic thinking. It's there in the doctrine of the Trinity and in our Anglican via media and in the sub-microscopic phenomena that I think a little bit less about these days than that morning four years ago. As I reflect on that strange day in my life, I realize the Holy Spirit must really have been with me if today I can sit at my desk at Virginia Theological Seminary and write that—at least in some sense—everything I learned in seminary I learned first from Niels Bohr.

1 comment:

Tony G. said...
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