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Anne Arundel 100
The Pull of the Night Sky
Miracles happen every day. Maybe not the big ones, like healing and prevention from disaster, but little ones – ones that, should we blink, we may miss.
A young woman climbs a hill to find the sun sending its rays across valleys, hills, and communities, lighting them with warmth. A father hears his son cry, picks him up, sees the blood, fears for his son’s life more than his own, and is relieved to know that his son will be okay. A traveling couple looking for a place to stay late at night in a foreign city receives a suggestion from a stranger. A young student without grocery money for the week helps a woman from church with her grocery shopping, only to be given all of the groceries after the woman has paid for them.
My story is a story of miracles.
Unlike most college students, I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I became a freshman. I would double major in English and history, earn my teacher’s certification, and teach both subjects until I could support myself as a fulltime author. Like most college students, I changed my mind. In a family where my parents encouraged my siblings and me to plan for the future, this was unusual. My older brother knew he wanted to be an architect as a young child playing with Fisher Price Construx and building models – and he became one. My older sister, who had always shown a flair for the arts, set down the road to become an actress. Even more unusual than my detour from my plan was the nature of the detour I took. To the English major, I added an unlikely companion: physics.
For two years, telling people that I was double majoring in English and physics produced raised eyebrows, dropped jaws, and remarks of “That’s interesting.” In the silence that generally followed such reactions, I typically gave an abridged version of my story. “I took an astronomy course my freshman year, loved it, and decided to try physics, since that is the closest major my school has to astronomy.”
The unabridged version of my story is both simple and complicated. Love and passion often creep up on us unexpectedly, and I certainly didn’t attend my first astronomy class expecting to come out of it with a new passion and new ambitions. I remember starting the class with trepidation because I knew that physics and math were integral to astronomy. A fellow English major and I bonded over our previous non-existent education in physics and our frequent hours spent away from the math world; we both feared that we would not succeed in the course. Somehow, this fear and discomfort changed into a passion that sent me walking back to my dorm with my head raised to the sky and wandering around campus contemplating the layers of Earth’s atmosphere and the greenhouse effect on Venus.
One evening after class, while sitting on my bed, I decided to unleash my imagination and consider possibilities I had heretofore kept under lock and key. What if I majored in physics? What if I tried? Could I do it? Could I survive a course designed for students who played with electronics as children and had posters of Einstein hanging in their bedrooms? Could I survive calculus?
The best way to describe that semester of passion, surprise, doubt, fear, and confusion is to say that I nearly had an identity crisis. I had loved reading and writing ever since I could remember; the only links between my past and physics were winning science fair awards and understanding math in music well enough to play the violin. My past seemed at odds with the path I wanted to pursue. An unknown traveler on the path of life wrote, “I haven’t a clue as to how my story will end. But that’s all right. When you set out on a journey and night covers the road, you don’t conclude that the road has vanished. And how else could we discover the stars?” In the darkness that clouded my uncertain future, miracles were my stars.
During my sophomore year, a poet visited my college, and because I was taking a creative writing course at the time, I attended her reading. She read from the works of her favorite poets, rather than from her own work, and she imparted her belief in coincidences as miracles. Only a handful of students attended the reading, so the visiting poet asked us to introduce ourselves. When she discovered that two of us had the same name, she excitedly exclaimed, “Oh, it’s a miracle!” She left us with the suggestion to be awake to life – to notice these coincidences, these miracles.
In my attempt to wake up to the possibility of pursuing physics, I noticed miracles. In less than a week, mention of physics surfaced in all four of my classes and in extracurricular activities. In my Literature in History I class, while discussing Dr. Faustus, my professor contemplated the location of heaven and mentioned String Theory and its proposal of 10 dimensions. In my reading assignment for Educational Psychology, I came across a reference concerning physicists and cognitive learning. On my way to rehearse church hymns for campus Mass, a coworker saw my violin and remarked, “You play the violin? Einstein played the violin.” During Mass, our priest mentioned Newton’s Third Law in his homily. In astronomy, we learned about the Milky Way. In my Native American Literature course we discussed how Native Americans view the Milky Way. We also learned that Native Americans do not believe in coincidences: wherever there is a coincidence, Native Americans see God. After a week of unprecedented coincidences, I approached my Native American Literature professor and told him what I had seen. “You have a calling,” he said.
I survived my first year of physics, mostly by spending Friday and Saturday nights with my head in a calculus or physics textbook and paper and eraser shavings sprawled out around me. I garnered support from other physics majors by attending Physics Club meetings and events, eventually becoming co-president of the club. I sought help from professors during their office hours, arranged study groups with classmates, and attended physics help sessions. But despite the grades that rewarded my hard work, I continued to battle with doubt and uncertainty.
My career plans changed several times. At the beginning of my first year of physics classes, I had grand plans to become a physics professor and win a Nobel Prize for groundbreaking research. I tried my hand at professional research that summer, and while I found the work interesting, I felt that something was missing – people. I didn’t like the idea of being shut in a lab for 30 years, even if the end result was a Nobel Prize. At this point, I began to consider teaching physics at the high school level, where I might not change the world by winning a Nobel Prize, but where I could mean the world to a student. By the end of my second year, the months of stress had left me hanging onto my physics major by a thin thread, hankering for peace. Because exams in math and physics require on-the-spot problem solving, they were 10 times more difficult for me than English and history exams. With English and history, I knew that a certain amount of studying would guarantee success. With physics and math, I could study for 20 hours and still not perform as well as I had hoped. Because no two problems were alike, exams were always a surprise.
But I am not the type of person to give up. Towards the end of my junior year, I received an offer for a summer astronomy internship at the University of Wyoming’s Red Buttes Observatory. Not only did the prospect of using a telescope 24 inches in diameter thrill me, but the internship would also give me the opportunity to present my findings at a national astronomy conference. The internship offer was enough to make me cling to my physics major. The summer job restored my passion for astronomy, and a co-worker calmed my fears about physics. “You don’t have to always like physics,” she told me. “You’re majoring in physics because of astronomy. So you just have to love astronomy.”
I wish I could say that her advice was enough to get me through five upper-division physics classes my senior year. But, in truth, it wasn’t. In the end, I decided that I couldn’t be passionate about life and passionate about physics at the same time. After a two-year love-hate relationship with physics, however, I had trouble letting go. And, though I decided not to finish the major, I like to think that I didn’t give up physics. When I tearfully told my physics advisor that I was dropping the major, I said, “I don’t want you to see this as losing a physics major. I want you to see an arts and humanities student who decided to try physics and came to appreciate it and even love it. I may not finish out the major, but I will be devoted to physics for the rest of my life.”
At a Catholic retreat I attended my sophomore year of college, a vocations director told us, “You won’t feel content until you are pursuing your calling.” For three years I had waffled between teaching high school or college, and between teaching English, history, or physics. When I realized that I would be content in any career that involved helping people, as long as I could dabble in writing and science on the side, I finally felt at peace. As a friend of mine who is double majoring in English and biology told me, “That’s why we have to take science and English classes. We have to do both, because we wouldn’t be happy doing just one.”
Three years after my initial encounter with astronomy and physics-related miracles, I encountered several more miracles. By then, I had come to the realization that miracles aren’t always signs and coincidences. Sometimes, they are just things that people say and do. I decided to discontinue my physics major on a Monday night. I spent Tuesday in shock, Wednesday in mourning, and Thursday stabilizing. Friday evening, I joined my school’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for its annual progressive dinner. The dinner involved three courses, each one at a different church. At the first church, I spoke to a parishioner about summer constellations as we munched on appetizers. Later that evening, as I sat at a table eating ice cream, a couple joined me, and our conversation wound its way to astronomy. At the church where we ate the main meal, I unknowingly sat beside an engineer and a former math professor. Before they had even mentioned their careers, I found myself wrapped up in conversations about math in nature and quantum physics. When we finished the meal, the former math professor rose to give a devotional. “The two things one needs for redemption,” she said, “are a stable environment and service. We need an environment in which we feel like we belong, and we need to use our talents to feel worthwhile.”
I had always felt that the fine arts building, rather than the science building, was my stable environment. The science building felt like a hospital with its white sterile walls and dry erase boards full of equations and reminders of homework problems I had yet to complete. The fine arts building was older, and it featured softer lighting, carpet, sculptures, and artwork. Whenever I crossed the divide and entered the fine arts building, I felt my shoulders relax. It was in the fine I had always felt that the fine arts building, rather than the science building, was my stable environment. The science building felt like a hospital with its white sterile walls and dry erase boards full of equations and reminders of homework problems I had yet to complete. The fine arts building was older, and it featured softer lighting, carpet, sculptures, and artwork. Whenever I crossed the divide and entered the fine arts building, I felt my shoulders relax. It was in the fine arts building that I felt most at home; it was there that I felt secure and knew my talents were worth something. The former math professor’s words resonated deeply within me, and they helped me relax, too. They reminded me of something my housemate had told me earlier that week: “Your calling is where your talents and passions meet.”
Throughout college, I enjoyed discussing circularity in literature classes and symmetry in math classes. So I guess it is fitting that my final miracle involving physics was part of a homily at campus Mass. It wasn’t the Newton’s Laws priest giving the homily this time, but a new priest who had volunteered to help with campus ministry. “Do you know who proposed the Big Bang theory?” he asked us. I waited for a few seconds to see if anyone would answer, then replied, “It was a Catholic priest.” In my answer to the homilist’s question and in my conversations with church members, I realized that regardless of the words on my diploma and the courses I would not take, physics and astronomy were still a part of me and always would be. If the first set of miracles gave me physics and astronomy, then the second set of miracles gave me peace and affirmation.
H.G. Wells, the father of science fiction, wrote, “We must not allow the clock and the calendar to blind us to the fact that each moment of life is a miracle and mystery.” In the little miracles, in the sunshine behind the clouds and the relief in the father’s heart, in the hospitable stranger and the giving church member, and in the larger things – questioning our purpose, discovering and pursuing a calling, and keeping enough faith to accept our decisions without looking back– we see both the light and the mystery in life. Awakening to life, we venture forth in pursuit of the crossroads between our talents and our passions.
Meghan Sullivan is now working on her M.A. in theological studies at the University of Dayton and often looks to the night sky for inspiration.