On Scientists and Physicists: Response to questions from students of Mater Ecclesiae School

by Quirino M. Sugon Jr.

Physics Department, Ateneo de Manila University

(Author’s Note:  The first set of questions on science were sent to Manila Observatory and were forwarded to me.  The second set of questions on physics were addressed to me directly.  These questions are from high school students of Mater Ecclesiae School as part of their science project.  I placed their letters in the comment section for reference.)


A.  SCIENCE

1.  What is the most important thing about being a scientist?

Fr. Christopher Clavius, S.J. (1538-1612)

Science comes from the Latin word which is “to know”.  Thus, the most important thing in being a scientist is to know the Truth.  We  measure things because we want to find the truth.  We make theories about the universe because we want to find the truth. No two statements can contradict each other and be true at the same time.  One of them is wrong or both of them are wrong, but both of them cannot be right.  Experiments verify the predictions of theories.  Theories are made to explain the results of the experiments.  And through this process we learn more and more about our world.

Since the most important thing to a scientist is the Truth, then the greatest crime that a scientist can make is to tell a Lie.  One way is to fabricate data to support a theory.  Another way is state another person’s ideas and call it your own. Lies will sooner or later be found out, and the person who commits such lies will be put to shame in the worldwide scientific community.  One cannot be both a scientist and a liar.

2. What things that are important when it comes to research programs?

Research programs require a mission and vision.   In vision we ask what is the most important scientific problem that institution must solve.  In mission we ask what are the milestones that would help us know whether we are close to solving our problem or not.  After formulating the research program’s mission and vision, the institution then aligns its resources to solve the problem: look for money, build buildings and other infrastructure, hire personnel and support staff, and create organizational framework and processes.

Research programs need not be institutional.  A scientist may have his own individual research program, a set of problems that he would wish to devote his entire life.  A full-pledged scientist is married to his research problem for life.  George Hill devoted his entire life computing tables for the position of the moon.  Albert Einstein died while thinking about how to unify electromagnetism and gravitation.

3. Is being a scientist worth it? Why?

Being a scientist is a vocation, a calling.  You are either called to be a scientist or you are not.  If you find happiness in discovering new things about the world, not necessarily because such discovery will bring you fame or money, then you are called to be a scientist.  Meeting Truth face to face is heaven on earth, and very few are privileged to get a glimpse of such encounters.  It may not be as dramatic as Archimedes shouting, “Eureka!”, but you know a change has been wrought on your mind and heart that you will never see the world in the same way again. When you look at the sun, you think of the thermonuclear processes that generate its heat and light.  When you look at the rainbow, you determine how light bends in water depending on the color of light.  When you look at the moon, you give its mass, distance, and orbital radius.  This is conversion.

But for a scientist who is a christian–a Catholic Christian–such conversion does not end there.  Knowing the truth about the universe is an invitation to know more about the Logos, from which we derive the words like Biology, Geology, and Cosmology.  Logos for the Ancient Greeks is the ordering principle of the universe.  Logos for Christians is the Word who gave order to the universe.  He is the Word Made Flesh.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  He is Jesus Christ.  What is it in light that made Jesus compare it to himself: “I am the light of the world”? What is in salt that Jesus compares his disciples to it: “You are the salt of the earth”? And what is in water that God uses it to remove sin in Baptism: “Unless you are born of water and spirit you cannot enter the Kingdom of God”?  Light is an electromagnetic wave. Water is H2O.  Salt is NaCl.  The study of science leads the creature to know the Creator.  When the creature finally meets his Creator, the search for truth ends.  In heaven, science ends.

B.  PHYSICS
1.  Why do you need to study physics?

I am not sure of what you mean by “need”.

First, I need to study physics because I want to be a good physicist.  Physics is a summary of the accumulated human knowledge on the laws that govern the universe.  If I don’t study physics and pretend that I am the only physics thinker in all of history, and rediscover all the laws of physics by myself, a lifetime would not be enough to discover the properties of real numbers by counting sticks or the number of days in a year by looking at the shadow of a stick–the first sundial.  I study physics because I want to learn what other people have thought before, so that I can study their ideas, discard what I think does not correspond to reality, and propose my own view of reality for others to think about. Physics is one long dialogue with the dead and the living.  Through their writings, the dead lives.

Second, I need to study physics because I want to be a good artist.  A good art for me is the one that is based on physics.  This is why I like  classical painters like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and William Bouguereau because their paintings are based on physics: perspective geometry, refraction of light in glass, diffuse reflection on the skin, human body mechanics, blurring of shadows, scattering of blue light by water vapor, the glare of polarized light in shining steel swords, etc.  In 3D movie animations, as in Lord of the Rings, the pictures appear lifelike because the computer programmers or the digital animation artists use physics to model reality.  In my case, I use computers to draw buildings and other objects, and render them in different colors by specifying their physical properties–refractive index, radiosity, scattering, luminosity, etc.  My favorite software is BRL-CAD (Ballistics Research Laboratory-Computer Aided Design), a freely downloadable software by the U.S. Army for designing tanks and airplanes.

And third, I need to study physics because I am interested in philosophy and theology.  I enjoy reading St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, for example, because he uses physics to describe metaphysical and spiritual concepts and argue the correctness of Catholic doctrine.  But before doing so, he makes clear the physics that he knows, for how can one describe the enlightenment of the mind if one do not know what are the nature and properties of light?  How can one understand the potential of a newborn child if one does not know the potential energy of a bent bow?  How can one understand the effects of Baptism if one cannot distinguish water from mud? We may laugh at Aristotelian and Medieval Physics, but without these there would be no Renaissance and Modern Physics.  Without Aristotle and the Medievals, we would still be counting with sticks and stones, and worship the moon, sun, and stars.

2. What made you decide to become a Physicist?

I did not really intend to become a physicist.  My mother was my high school biology teacher in St. Joseph’s High School (now St. Joseph’s School–La Salle) in Bacolod City.  So even before I went to high school, I already read all her books, even the thick teacher’s manuals. I told myself, “I want to be a biologist!” When I reached third year, Chemistry was exciting and I answered all the problems in the book.  “I want to be a Chemist!”.  When I reached fourth year, we have a very good teacher in
Trigonometry from DLSU.  “I want to be a mathematician!”  When I heard that two of my friends two years ahead of me went to study physics in U.P. Diliman and the Philippine Normal College, I realized that there is really a physics course; I thought there was only Engineering.  “I want to be a physicist!”  I applied in Ateneo de Manila University, U.P. Diliman, and De La Salle University–all B.S. Physics or B.S. Applied Physics.  The
first one to respond was Ateneo with full scholarship.  So I went to Ateneo.

I finished my B.S. Physics in 1997, M.S. Physics in 1999, and Ph.D. in Physics in 2010–all in Ateneo de Manila University.

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4 Responses to On Scientists and Physicists: Response to questions from students of Mater Ecclesiae School

  1. Good day sir,

    I would just like to ask questions for our project in Physics. I am a
    fourth year high school student from Mater Ecclesiae School. The questions are
    the following:

    – For you, why do we need to study Physics?
    – What made you make a decision to become a Physicist?

    and sir I would like to ask for your birthday and the year you had graduated in
    college if it is okay because our project needs a background/ profile of the
    physicist. Thank you sir for your great consideration and God bless!

    Patricia Alde, fourth year high school from Mater

  2. Is it okay to ask some questions?
    answers can be brief or short.
    please it’s just a project can’t hurt to try anyway.

    What is the most important thing about being a scientist?
    Things that are important when it comes to research programs?
    Is being a scientist worth it? why?

    thank you very much your answers are of utmost importance to us.
    thank you!

  3. Greetings Dr. Sugon, Could you be of some assistance to a hypothetical case scenario wherein an intensity 8 – 9 earthquake hits Marinduque island such that it would cause a total breakdown of the island’s foundation causing it to sink instantaneously.What would be the case analysis of such event should it happen say sometime the year end.Thanks

    • Hi Arnold,

      I don’t know. I am not a seismologist. I don’t think anybody has made a structural analysis of Marinduque island. It usually done by putting an seismograph in Marinduque and ‘listening’ to the seismic waves from nearby quakes. Their travel speed would give a clue on the structure of Marinduque. This is an inversion problem, so it may be difficult: one has to assume particular layer profile of the island and determine how the seismic waves travel through these layers.

      I don’t know the physics of this, but you may like to simulate a rock model of Marinduque (e.g. plaster of Paris). Chop off its foundations beneath the water and make the whole thing hover a little about the base (though still submerged in water). Release your rock model (you may need some strings tied to your ‘island’) and see how the water waves propagate. The surface waves will generate a tsunami. Look at the height of the waves in relation to the height of your island model above the water level. That may give you an idea of the height of the tsunami in your scenario. Look at also the swirls of the water around your island model as it sinks. Better get a video.

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