Imagine: A Lesson from Science Class

atomsThis spring I am teaching an introductory course in quantum mechanics. It’s a tough course. The concepts bely my students’ everyday experience—electrons that can tunnel through space and systems that consume energy only in fixed amounts, no matter how high you turn up the power on the laser. The mathematical apparatus can be equally mysterious. Partial differential equations sprout families of answers, while Hermitian operators somehow wring real information from imaginary functions. The biggest challenge is to find the reality in all of this theory.

“Imagine,” I say. Imagine that you are ascending a staircase, can you choose any height, or does gravity hold you to certain positions in space? Put yourselves into an atom, feel the tug of the other electrons and the nucleus wax and wane. Wend your way through five pages of math, and then tell me what color you think flamingos should be. “It helps,” says Sufi mystic Rabi’a in a poem about contemplation, “putting my hands on a pot, on a broom, in a wash pail.” It helps, I suspect, to think of flamingos when faced with equations.

Theory comes from the Greek theoria, to look, to see. As I sit down to write the final exam, I craft questions to test their mastery of the theories we have studied, the new ways they have learned to look at molecules. But no question gets at what I really hope they take away from this semester. I want them to have learned how to see past the superficial and to grapple deeply with the interior workings of the universe. I want them to be undaunted in the face of the infinite, the ungraspable, and to have the courage not to walk away from what cannot be completely understood.

St. Ignatius might not recognize the traces of his Spiritual Exercises in my course, but each time I say to students, “Feel the forces,” and each time I encourage them to contemplate data that defies common sense, I hear for a moment the instructions of my director during the Exercises to put myself into the contemplations, to put flesh on the bones of the Gospel, and to dig for God with bare hands. For what I desire for my students, I suspect God desires for me as well: the courage to stand before the ineffable, to look and see the world as it is, and to wring the real from what in this moment I can only imagine.

And it helps if I know what it’s like to put my hands in the wash pail.

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Michelle Francl-Donnay
Michelle Francl-Donnay is the mother of two 20-something sons, a professor of chemistry, an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory, and a regular contributor to Philadelphia Archdiocese’s, where she writes about the joys and struggles of trying to live a contemplative life in the midst of everyday chaos. Michelle blogs at Quantum Theology.


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