Robert Kaita: PhD, Physicist
- B. Sc. with Honors in Physics, Stony Brook University
- Ph. D. in Nuclear Physics, Rutgers University
- Physicist in Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and Graduate Program in Plasma Physics, Department of Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University
- Elected Fellow of the American Physical Society
- Recipient of the Kaul Prize for Excellence in Plasma Physics
A Journey in Science and Faith:
Many years ago, a camp for leaders of the student organization InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was held at a place called Hudson House in upstate New York. There was a session for InterVarsity chapter presidents. They were all seniors, and each told what they were going to do after graduation. Some were going to seminary, and others were joining InterVarsity staff. Only one rather sheepishly admitted that he was going to graduate school.
You probably figured out that I was that “misfit” among the chapter presidents. Much has changed since then. To have a career in research and teaching is now recognized to be as much of a calling as working for an organization which ministers to its students. The very existence of Graduate and Faculty Ministries as a distinct ministry within InterVarsity reflects the importance of the unique position of those who pursue careers in colleges and universities have to influence future generations for Christ.
I’m glad that we no longer have to explain that we serve God just as much as those in “formal ministry.” As the greatest “academic” in the Old Testament put it,
“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.”
– Ecclesiastes 2:24
Eric Liddell provides a similar but more contemporary perspective. He once said, “God made me fast.” Apparently, Colin Welland added “And when I run, I feel His pleasure” when he wrote the script for the film “Chariots of Fire.” We still appreciate the sentiment, though, and as a Christian in the sciences, I’m as impressed with Liddell’s academic record in science at the University of Edinburgh as his more famous athletic accomplishments. While many know of Liddell’s achievements at the 1924 Summer Olympics, far fewer know of his calling as a missionary chemistry teacher in China.
My own professional journey began simply with a love of science. I saved my allowance money to buy a dissecting kit when I was in elementary school. I was such a regular at the local toy store where it was on order – this was way before Amazon – that the owner would tell me “not today” before I even asked.
Once I received my precious dissecting kit, I pinned the skin of an earthworm down on a piece of paraffin and carefully dissected it. I remember wanted to share my accomplishment with my mother while she was in the kitchen preparing dinner. I proudly pointed out the features of the earthworm’s anatomy, including the five pairs of arched structures it uses to pump blood. To my mother’s credit, this didn’t phase her. When I got older, though, she did tell me that she thought I was definitely weird.
I think this insight helped my mother give me the right advice some years later. When I was in high school, I told her that I wanted to go into the ministry. She replied that I didn’t have to be a minister to serve God, and being a scientist would let me go places and see people I’d never be able to as a “formal” minister. It turned out to be very good advice, as I’ve been blessed with the chance to share my faith in some unusual venues at home and abroad.
To digress a bit from my chronology, I’d like to give a couple of examples. In the mid-1980’s, I had the opportunity to lecture at the Institute of Plasma at the Academia Sinica in Beijing. My wife's parents left Mainland China before she was born, and except for her immediate family, all of her relatives were still living there at the time. They were excited about our visit, and asked us to bring Bibles and hymnals. Their dissemination was no longer restricted in China, but I was still concerned about how to explain the number we brought for “personal use” when we went through customs. Because my visit was by invitation from the Chinese Ministry of Culture, our official guide and interpreter met us at the Beijing Airport. He showed an impressive looking document to the customs official, and we were waived through.
I attended a physics conference in the former Soviet Union a few years later. Here again, I found out there were no longer any restrictions to the dissemination of Christian literature. I did bring some New Testaments along, at the suggestion of the same Faculty Commons staff worker I mentioned before. I offered the Bibles to my colleagues there, as gifts in appreciation of their hospitality as much as for their spiritual content. Much to my surprise, their reactions ranged from great gratitude, since Bibles were very expensive there, to a remark that the “soul” of their country was taken from them during the better part of the twentieth century, and now they could read the book that could give it back to them. I guess my mother was right after all!
Returning to my life story, I still needed a career, so I first looked at my relatives. In keeping with certain stereotypes from my Asian background, a lot of them were in engineering. I liked that fact that it seemed to involve a lot of science, so I figured I should go into the “family business.” They did tell me, though, that the engineering field was changing rapidly. This is why I should study something more basic like physics, and then specialize later.
Armed with this device, I went to the State University of Stony Brook, now Stony Brook University, to major in physics. The price was very attractive – a New York State Regents Scholarship covered all of my tuition. The physics department was also great, with the inspiring presence of the Nobel laureates P. A. M. Dirac and C. N. Yang.
I did well in my studies, so my professors encouraged me to go to grad school. I went to Rutgers University in New Jersey, because its Nuclear Physics Laboratory was run jointly with Bell Labs. At that time, Bell Labs was the premier industrial laboratory in the world, so I thought I might get a job there after I got my doctorate. It also didn’t hurt that I got a nice fellowship that covered all of my expenses.
Around the time I graduated, there was a postdoctoral research fellowship opportunity at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University. The Plasma Physics Lab is devoted to nuclear fusion energy research, and is administered like its own academic department at Princeton. It has a program in plasma physics, which is one of the few purely graduate programs there. Evaluations of performance were based primarily on research, and I figured I could handle that since I liked doing science. I got the job, and did well enough in it to have a career at the Plasma Physics Lab that’s lasted for almost forty years.
I did end up doing a lot of teaching during my time at Princeton. I think I hold the record in having supervised nearly fifty graduate students in pre-generals or master’s level projects and doctoral research. It wasn’t due to any desire for any prestige this might bring. Instead, it may be admittedly due to my reputation that I care for students, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this exceeds their interest in my areas of scientific specialization.
Part of the reason may be that I know I could never pull off the persona of the John Housman character, Professor Kingsfield, who terrorized Harvard Law School students in the film “Paper Chase” from some years ago, or more recently, the martinet Professor Smith in PhD Comics. Rather, my interactions are more along the lines of the kind I had with a student some years ago.
My sister-in-law is a piano teacher, and she gives out stickers to her young students when they have good lessons. I was looking at them, and she asked me if I wanted some for my own students. I took that as a challenge, and I put one on a paper by a student on his pre-generals project. I told him that it was good enough to be published after some minor revisions. When he returned with the changes, I said that his paper is ready to be submitted. He looked dejected, though, so I asked him why. He said I didn’t like it because I didn’t give him a sticker. I then gave him the whole sheet and asked him to pick one. He shook his head and said if it wouldn’t be the same unless I chose! I guess my student proved the wisdom of the psalmist, who wrote “I have more insight than all my teachers!” (Psalm 119:99a).
One thing I do take seriously is the relationship between science and faith. Faith is needed to believe that the “laws of nature” that scientist seek to discover exist in the first place, and will not change from one day to the next. I am neither the first nor anywhere near the most prominent of physicists to believe this. They can serve very much as role models, and the first of them is Isaac Newton. Many people have heard the story of how he figured out his theory of gravity by watching an apple fall. This may not be true, but his “Law of Universal Gravitation” is still valid today. What many people don’t know is what Newton thought about the idea of gravity itself. He said, “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”
Moving forward a couple of centuries, we come to James Maxwell. All physicists know his four famous equations that describe electricity and magnetism. Maxwell also had a sense of humor. There is an experiment you may be familiar with, where you put a copper ring on a coil of wire or a solenoid. When you pass electricity through the solenoid, the copper ring shoots away. This demonstrates two points. The first is the relationship between electricity and magnetism, in that the electric current set up in the copper ring is induced by the changing magnetic field from the solenoid. This is called Faraday’s Law. The second is that the magnetic field set up by the current in the copper ring is in the direction that opposes the changing magnetic field that created it. This is called Lenz’ Law.
Maxwell apparently performed this experiment in a lecture hall with a hidden trapdoor above it. He explained that he would demonstrate the two laws at the same time, and thus “kill two birds with one stone.” When he turned on the current to the solenoid, the copper ring flew up through the trapdoor, and a dead bird fell down. He then repeated that he was “killing two birds with one stone,” and his hidden assistant dropped a second bird!
Maxwell also believed in God. He said, “I think that men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think that Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that this view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of."
It’s hard to imagine modern life without lasers. One of its inventors, Charles Townes said the following about his belief in God. “Faith is necessary for the scientist even to get started, and deep faith is necessary for him to carry out his tougher tasks. Why? Because he must have confidence that there is order in the universe and that the human mind - in fact his own mind - has a good chance of understanding this order.”
Throughout my professional career, I admit I worked hard as a scientist. This wasn’t difficult, since doing something you love isn’t drudgery, and I hope each of you can say the same about your chosen field. This is different from trying hard, where the love of the trappings of your discipline supersedes the love of what motivated you to choose it in the first place. It would be disingenuous to say that I didn’t appreciate the promotions and awards I’ve been blessed with over the years. I could say with equal honesty that if I left my career path at any point in the journey I just described, I would still enjoy science. Many colleagues told me that in retirement, they looked forward to study areas of physics they never had the time to explore while they still had “day jobs.” I know how they feel, and I hope to do the same in a few years.
Let us enjoy, then, the interests and the abilities in science or whatever discipline that excites us as a gift from God. To honor that gift, however, is not to for us to boast, but use it to live in the way He expects. In the familiar words of the prophet Micah,
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8
One of my recent thesis students put it well. In the acknowledgement to his dissertation, before thanking family, friends, advisor, or anyone else, he wrote,
“Hallelujah! All glory and praise be to God! As I reflect on my quarter-century of formal education, I cannot help but marvel at the innumerable blessings God has bestowed on me. Let this dissertation be my prayer of thanksgiving to God, who has granted me the ability to study His Creation these past years. It has been among the most enjoyable pursuits of my life.”