Ateneo Physics Alumni Fr. Oliver Dy, SJ: Bridging Science and Theology

College physics classmates Dr. Quirino Sugon Jr. (left) and Fr. Oliver Dy, SJ (right) at the Manila Observatory

College physics classmates Dr. Quirino Sugon Jr. (left) and Fr. Oliver Dy, SJ (right) at the Manila Observatory

by Quirino Sugon Jr.

Fr. Oliver Dy, SJ finished his BS Physics in Ateneo de Manila University last 1997. He entered the Jesuits in 1998 and was ordained a priest in 2009. He spent two years serving in the prisoners in Muntinlupa and their families. At present, he is pursuing a Doctorate in Theology at the University of Leuven in Belgium. Below is an interview with Fr. Oliver Dy, SJ by the Ateneo Physics News.

Question 1. Can you share to us your vocation story?

All my life I always think of myself as a scholar in one way or another. In grade school my father worked for an international company. The tuition was Php 20 every month, salary deductible. You can only enter that school if your parents are in a certain position in the company in South Cotabato. In high school I was in Philippine Science-Diliman for three years. My last year was in Philippine Science-Davao. And then I took up one year college in Electronics and Communications Engineering in San Carlos University-Cebu. It was in Cebu I met the Jesuits. They convinced me to finish my education in Ateneo. So I took up BS Physics in Ateneo de Manila University. As you can see from this simple life history, it is as if I have been a pilgrim in search for the truth. It is as if my vocation has been to be a mediator between different worlds.

Being brought up in an international company, I was exposed to realities—more of the American kind of upbringing in a very Filipino culture. The cultural hybridity was there with all the politics attached to it. And then in Philippine Science, again the relationship between faith and reason devotion as expressions of religious and scientific worldviews were prominent questions in my mind. So in college I was a part of a socially oriented religious group, the Ateneo Student Catholic Action or AtSCA. At the same time I was taking up physics. I was somehow caught between the scientific world and the world of the poor. I seem like a man placed in the middle of things—bridging the different worlds and allowing them to interrelate, so that I can infuse inspiration for the future generations. So now I am a priest.

I finished BS in Physics in1997. It was the old Ateneo then. I taught one semester in Mindanao State University in Gen. Santos City. Then I taught a summer course in Notre Dame of Marbel. One of my colleagues there was Mr. Rudy Dorado, a mathematician. In Marbel also was his wife, Susan Dorado. Susan and I discussed the necessity of religion, educational formation, and things like that. In a way science has always been connected in my life. Susan was connected to Manila Observatory before.

I entered the Jesuits in 1998, a year after I graduated in college. I was ordained in 2009. I spent 2 years working with prisoners and their families in Muntinlupa and Mandaluyong. Muntinlupa is for men; Mandaluyong is for women. And now I am pursuing a Doctorate in Theology degree, particularly in the Historical Theology at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. And I hope to teach Historical Theology and Systematic Theology—or at least make myself available to teach these subjects, probably first at the Philippine Loyola School of Theology. Also, I think I have the gift of education and my work is part of the mediatorship part–trying to communicate information that are not easily digestible to an ordinary audience in more presentable or understandable way. Education means to lead people. I would like to be that bridge that allows the access communication of the truth. That is my vocation both as mediator and an educator.

In the future, I hope to be a chaplain to the science community in the Philippines. I feel that Faith can provide the inspiration for scientists: to add value and energy for them to pursue their scientific research and lines of inquiry, and at the same time giving them the opportunity to work within the religious contexts, especially in Asia where religion is still a cultural phenomenon. I am against the idea of a total conflict between science and religion. I see them more partners in search for common life-giving truth. So I am happy. My point here is that I wish to use my background to develop scientific talent human resources in the Philippines. If people are simply inspired by a life committed to a transcendent goal that is rooted in the truth, then I think they can do wonders in life.

Question 2. What are you studying in Theology?

One of my interests is approaching theology via history. You can apply that historical methodology to science in the history of thought. Science is also epistemological enterprise, a kind of knowing about the world which has changed. My training in the history of science makes me rethink scientific thought. So I also keep in touch with the developments in science by following the writings of Leonard Susskind in Stanford University. He is a cosmologist who challenged and won over Stephen Hawking in the debate regarding the information loss of the universe. Susskind believes in the conservation of information. This idea is against that of Stephen Hawking. Hawking is an inspirational figure because of his health (he is paralyzed and can barely speak). Susskind, on the other hand, was a plumber. I see also the possibilities of science fiction. It gives us the ability to re-imagine life. One science fiction novel is the Dune series by Frank Herbert. It has something to do with politics, environment, truth, and power. I am also a literature guy, too. Literature provides some foil to scientific empiricism.

One of the things I learn in prison is this: we do not realize the significance of the freedoms by which we operate in ordinary society. I wish we could use those freedoms well. In prison the people are living in difficult situations of deprivation of freedom. We must cherish, develop, and use our freedom in the common search for truth and in our common dialogue inquiry. It is very important both for the church ans secular society to keep on talking.

In the Philippines, I feel that both religion and science will need more of each other because our people have religious ethos like the rest of Asia generally, unlike now in Europe. We have to respect that historical development and implement science projects accordingly. This ethos is not simply Catholicism, but also of Philippine indigenous religious subgroups. For science to have an impact, we need to capitalize on these religious dynamics, energies, and world views. For science to develop in the Philippines, we need to learn to translate science in the language of the common life of the people, which includes their religious perspectives.

Question 3. Is there a connection between Physics and Theology?

In my own religious s thinking the concepts of physics have been really helpful in imagining things. For example, in classical physics, we use imaginary models for magnetism, such as flux lines. The imaginary worlds and models science became pedagogical tools for me, helping me to communicate religious thoughts better. At the same time, science has also given me a certain ability to criticize unhealthy forms of religion like fundamentalism which leads to religious violence. As a mediator, I wish to thrust religion more into a rational discourse. This demands that I know much about both the history of science and of religion as histories of human thought. This is my key to bridging science and religion.

I believe that some scientist have—what we could call in Christian language—a vocation to be scientists, even though they do not explicitly recognize a god of some sort, as long as they have an implicit drive to know more about transcendent truth. Scientists pursue truth along scientific lines. But this pursuit is at the same a movement towards transcendence. For example, people who read the biographies of Richard Feynman, Fr. Georges Lemaitre, Richard Dawkins are people who sincerely seek for the truth. And I feel that if they could continue along these path, then this itself is a noble enterprise, even though they have not conclusively found the truth, because truth involves a never-ending search. There is no point in the history of science we have found the truth. Decades ago there is no such thing as dark matter. But now there is a possibility that such matter exist. Indeed, there is always something new to discover in this universe. I draw inspiration from scientists who are dedicated to their craft. They inspire me also to pursue the truth. They are my as walking partners and interlocutors, even though officially they seem to be more agnostic and atheistic.

I feel that there is a big gap between what scientists do and how they are perceived by the public. But as the world become more technological, the scientific discourse will enter into ordinary discourse. And so it is the function of the scientist to actually elevate the ordinary public’s level of discourse, by communicating science in such a way that ordinary people will appreciate its value, and more young people will be inspired to be scientists in the future.

I thrive on conversation and dialogue, because I want to know where other people are coming from. These are people who inspire me to search more to with a sincere heart. In a way I salute all the Filipino scientist who have dedicated their lives to science, even if their contributions remain unrecognized. Somehow I feel that their work will lead to a tipping point to a more new humane and a just Philippine society. All scientists of good will are seekers for the truth.

Question 4. For all your work, do you still have time to pray?

Because I am influenced by many factors in life, I always bring my work into prayer and let if flow from prayer—devotional prayer. Even in secular society like Belgium, I maintain my devotions. My devotions provide me with the energy to dialogue with men with all sorts of convictions. But it is such a private and solitary devotion that sometimes it is something like religious mysticism, something very Ignatian. So I thank St. Ignatius for introducing this kind of spiritually for the life of the church and the world. Probably if there is no St. Ignatius of this world, a person like me would have difficulty finding redemption.

Question 5. What happened to your thesis work on sonoluminuscence?

My sonoluminescence work is a failed experiment. I feel I am not called to be a researcher in physics. I now see myself as a Jesuit recruiting and empowering others to enter the scientific enterprise. This is where the lay people can make a contribution to the Church and the world we needs more scientists. If we need find a dedicated Catholic layperson doing science, he is a living gem, for in the local and global context, so much science is needed to shape political policies in environmental education and in many aspects of Philippine society in general.

One time I was still teaching in Zamboanga as part of my training priesthood. In my first class early in the morning, I was still groggy and I teach religion. In my second class after lunch when it was hot, I teach physics. So I gave my students heaven and hell. Then I remember one of my fun times when I gave an oral exam for the 15 top students in a special science class in Zamboanga. I posted at the door a quote from Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” That was a fun oral exam. To draw out the best in promising students, you have to given them enough challenges suited to their ability. And with a little bit of humor.

Question 6. What are some memorable things that happened to you while you were studying Physics in Ateneo de Manila University?

I thank Ateneo for giving me a good education in physics that is challenging enough to be an adventure. I would like to thank my for intellectual formators in Ateneo, especially Sir Norberto Tecson whose subject mastery and pedagogy is one of a kind. His educational training and mentoring really brought physics to life.

Here are some of my quotable quotes in physics:

My fellow physics students Kenneth and Kath were working on a breadboard for a common project. Every time it would not work, you hear someone saying,“You know what? We did something wrong.” If the experiment would go right, you hear instead, “Yes, I did it!” The nice thing about having a laboratory partner is that you have someone else to blame if something goes wrong.

One memorable line is what I read in a poster in our laboratory: “Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. They are better than stupid mistakes.” The equipment in laboratories are expensive, and a stupid mistake costs a lot. If your laboratory is too neat and tidy, I think it is better to ask whether people are doing any work there at all.

I was asked once looking at the gauge for Dr. John Holdsworth. He used to be our Department Chairman. Now he is in University of Newcastle in Australia. “Oliver, what is the reading of the gauge?” he asked. “The gauge reads ‘oxygen’, sir.”

One time because I do not know how to prove an equation, I skipped a very big chunk of the steps and placed the immediate conclusion on the board. “Magic!” Mr. Patricio Dailisan cried. “Science is not about magic!”

Question 7. Any parting message to Ateneo Physics students?

Two of my favorite movies was Contact starring Jodi Foster and Twister starring Helen Hunt. These are two female scientists driven by their life issues to search for the truth. I guess if a person is internally driven with passion for the truth, then his life would be such a great adventure.

I know the place where Albert Einstein stayed in Belgium for sometime. He met there Fr. George Lemaitre, SJ. He was the one who discovered the Big Bang model, though the credit went to Hubble. Fr. Lemaitre is quite a figure. When Lemaitre presented to Einstein the conclusions based on Einstein’s own equations, Einstein did not believe him. “Vos calculus sont corrects, mais votre physique est abominable,” Einstein said. Fr. Lemaitre showed that there is the possibility of a primordial egg which he calls as the “Primeval Atom”. Because he had written his work in French, and there were some important omissions during the translations, the credit was given to other people. Fr. Lemaitre is not really after credit. He only wants to elevate the discourse and contribute something to the scientific enterprise whether or not there is credit. Many more things can be done if people are not after credit.

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About ateneophysicsnews
Physics News and Features from Ateneo de Manila University

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