Josiah Lewis: PhD, Meteorite Physicist
- Graduated from Covenant College, GA, with a BA in physics
- Ph.D. in Physics, Washington University in St. Louis
- Taught a Freshman Physics course in my 4thyear as a graduate student
- Post-doctoral research at Washington University in St. Louis
Starting in my undergraduate as a physics major, most of my vocational joy came from activities surrounding science but not as much the core practice. I enjoyed the underlying philosophy, solving math problems set for me, getting my hands dirty in the lab, editing manuscripts with others, and, especially, presenting my work. I felt joy when I got to share anything I had learned with others; however, I took few such opportunities, and it wasn’t until graduate school that I realized I had a strong attraction to teaching. I already knew by then, though, that one of the core aspects of science – a joy from delving ever-deeper into a subfield and asking new and exciting questions – just wasn’t there. Without joy in that core motivation of scientific research, motivation to persist waned over seven years of graduate work.
I’ve had “aha moments” of great delight, but they’ve been few and far between, and the grit and patience required to persevere in the dry times have not prevented deep discouragement, lack of interest, and lack of focus. As my productivity decreased during graduate school, my frustration and discouragement only increased. Many would probably have given up on this career path, citing a lack of vocational fruitfulness, but my personality is focused on faithfulness in the day to day, rather than necessarily considering whether I feel a strong sense of calling or am anticipating great fruit down the road in my vocation.
So I used patience to get through frustrating and sometimes seemingly fruitless seasons. I have observed some fruit as a result of this persistence. For example, through publications and conference talks the scientists in my networks know more about nanodiamonds than we used to, and about some experimental techniques with instruments such as the atom-probe tomograph and the NanoSIMS mass spectrometer. I have had moments to give glory to God for these new insights, and I believe others have, and will continue to do so. In addition, the effects of my presence on my lab, my colleagues, my friends, will hopefully sink deep and bear lasting fruit.
Joy in Teaching
In contrast, I have been motivated and hopeful in most every opportunity I have had to teach, especially when I get to teach physics! After my 4thyear of graduate work I took a break to teach a summer freshman physics course. At the end of 5 weeks of preparing and delivering 3 hours of lecture a day, I was physically and emotionally wiped out, but I would have kept going if I had been given the chance, because I was full of joy.
It surprises me that I find more joy in teaching than in research, because I like the idea of striking out into the physical unknown and asking new questions, doggedly pursuing experimental solutions and following the data where it leads. I admire those I know who have a fresh idea every day, or whip up a new simulation every evening at home to see if it makes any sense. And I never wanted to be a teacher until I was one. The idea of teaching someone else to do the thing surely must be less interesting than doing it myself.
But I was mistaken about what would fill me with joy, and mistaken in devaluing teaching. Given the choice, I am choosing to pursue a career that emphasizes teaching and general mentoring, rather than emphasizing scientific vision-casting.
A Shift in Ideals for a Career in Science
In spite of consistent indications that I find more joy in teaching than in research, I have found it difficult to take teaching physics seriously as a career. Academia, for historic, economic, monetary, and philosophical reasons, holds out the university tenure-track research position as the truest expression of scientific success. Even at primarily undergraduate and liberal arts institutions, research programs that acquire external grants and produce publications are now normally required for tenure. As a laborer in academia, I am therefore encouraged to aim for success – that is, a research position – and not to throw away my career on a lecturer-ship unless I just can’t make it as a researcher. The better salary, pay ceiling, and advancement structure for tenured research jobs compared to teaching jobs further encourages me to view prioritization of teaching as a vocation to be, at best, a back-up plan in case I fail as a scientist.
But with some extra effort I find teaching is still valued in academia. I have found those who choose to be lecturers, who feel they have plenty of job stability without tenure, who still do scientific (pedagogical) research, who left tenure-track positions for prestigious lecturerships, or in order to live in a beloved town or near family.
As I am sanctified away from my and the academy’s ideals of success and freed up to consider pursuing my joy in teaching, I bring with me a deep passion for physics as a field. I believe it is ripe with wonder at God’s handiwork. Physics limits itself in the type of questions it asks and the tools it uses so that through focus it can dig deeper, so there is some danger in the misconception that an overview of physics will tell us holistically what God’s creation is like. On the other hand, physics draws out many truths about what God has done, within its focus. Careful empirical testing has demonstrated ad nauseam that mathematics is an excellent language in which to describe physical interactions – God has created in a wonderful, unexpected way.
One example of many: Strange attractors describe processes that explore a parameter space without ever re-entering the same state. That is to say some systems are not periodic. For example, the earth and other orbiting bodies never pass twice through quite the same state of position and motion relative to the rest of the solar system. If they ever did, the whole system would begin to repeat all of their orbits. And yet, within this infinite variability, there is still predictability. For all of human experience, the earth has moved within such a small range of variability that we can rely on the days, seasons, and years. Together with many other infinitely variable and yet constrained, reliable systems, we are able to know when we get up in the morning that our actions to effect the world have reliable reactions. I do not need to worry that eating cereal will, today, cause starvation instead of sustenance, or that my attempt to pick up my spoon will fail due to a lapse in predictable electromagnetic interactions between the particles in my hand and the spoon. God created a world in which physical phenomena support endless surprise, wonder, and newness, but also stability, reliability, human potential, and hope for the future.
Another example of glory for God in my work is the opportunity to worship him for new knowledge about his creation. When I explain to people that I spend most of my time trying to answer questions about dust grains that drifted into our solar system from other stars, I am often asked “then what do you do when you get that information?” I sometimes respond “I sing the doxology.” Delving into a work of art leads to praise of the artist, and God is a glorious artist. Better yet, I know the artist, and love him, so to see his handiwork and its true grandeur and excellence is doubly sweet.
Called to the Academy and the Body
I consider teaching physics a role I get to play to glorify God, using my gifts for the sake of the church and to do good in the world. Many who take physics are headed for a more applied career and consider math heartless or boring. I commune with God spiritually over math, and love to do this communing in community with students. In a secular context I share truth and invite students into joy in physics that I believe is accessible to all of them. They may not accept that by interacting with the material world they are interacting with the Creator, but God in his mercy causes “the sun to rise on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45), and so too he causes joy in understanding the physics of the sun!
I and many other scientist-Christians I know have been surprised to find that much of our Kingdom work is as scientists reaching out to the church, rather than solely as church-members reaching out to the sciences. As cultural trends progress scientists hear less from the church and feel less threatened by ongoing conflicts between some faith and scientific communities, but the church feels more and more threatened. While I find this understandable, I am disappointed by it as well. Like Captain Kirk asking a false deity “What does God need with a Starship?” my question to the church is often “What does God need with science to protect his powerful gospel?” Do we need to wrestle our culture for control of science, in order to prove that the Bible lines up with scientific authority? Surely our evangelism must be rooted where God the Father rooted it–in His Son–although we certainly must not leave out any part of Biblical truth. For instance, we cannot gloss over the historical evidences for the miracles of Jesus and his resurrection, which was the great signal that the Maker of what we call scientific laws for a moment changed the way in which he sustained creation, to make a point to anyone paying attention–that this must be taken seriously by anyone, scientific minded or not, and that there is something new coming, a New Earth. It is my hope that this message of the power of the Gospel will free many in the church to rejoice in Christ and pursue good in the world through scientific work and support.