Objects in Motion
The Sense of the Mysterious
In pursuing my education I specialized in Chemistry, specifically Organic Chemistry. Words that terrify some, but still excite me to this day. I knew early on that I did not wish to spend my life in a laboratory, but that hasn’t kept me from the greatest experiment of all. Each day of my working life I develop, interact, engage, enrich, and at times cause mental anguish. I teach.
My name is Jim Miller and for over a quarter of a century I have been teaching young adults Chemistry at Bishop Brady High School in Concord, N.H. I did not leave college and become a teacher. I chose instead to serve my country for four years in the United States Navy and then had the wonderful fortune of meeting my wife in Norfolk, Virginia. She was finishing her medical residency and I was finishing my commitment to our country. When we first arrived in New Hampshire in 1989, I tried my hand at being a scientist and discovered that my talents were better utilized serving what I believe is my calling; educating young people.
There is amazement and wonder at watching someone discover something new, and a special enjoyment in the workings of the adolescent mind. Adolescents demonstrate dogged determination, testing the positions of authority with youthful exuberance. They long for freedom and autonomy. I smile as I type this remembering the words attributed to Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Teenagers are naturally programmed to question. They tug persistently on any restraints, questioning everything, doubting, probing, and looking for answers. They rush towards responsibility without necessarily wanting accountability. They can wear down the patience of people who fail to remember that not all that long ago we all passed through this struggle.
At times my students’ large and small questions can be demanding. Surfing through the world of technological solutions, where the answer to a myriad of questions is only a quick search away on their mighty smart phones, they demand immediate proof and simple answers to sometimes very complex questions. What is a teacher to do? Well, one blessing I have that my peers in public schools do not is that I am allowed and encouraged to discuss and embrace my faith with my students.
As I engage my students in the classroom, I can relate the magnitude and beauty of the human condition to the teachings of the Church. Jesus was the masterful teacher and a pedagogy firmly founded in his model is the one for which I strive. When I am searching for an analogy to represent a topic in chemistry, I often look through the parables of Jesus. I enjoy finding the simple, and oftentimes not so simple, lesson that is provided. The analogies that I use depend upon metaphorical reference to human attributes. Most students welcome this approach as they are able to relate abstract concepts to actual human behavior.
Despite what many people may think, science and religion are not two paths that diverge in a wood, nor are they independent and separate parallel paths. Religion and science are really two entangled pathways with needed intersection and interdependence upon one another. These two pathways are sometimes overgrown with “vegetation” that can make the clear path harder to differentiate and follow. Science has the capacity to bring us to many answers about our world, but can offer us only a very limited and unsatisfying understanding of the ultimate meaning of our existence. Here many of us turn from the laboratory to our faith for guidance.
Pope John Paul II argued eloquently that science does not require a separation from God to explain or clarify the mysteries of the universe. We can rely on our faith each and every day as the solid foundation to help us move forward. Like all those who practice science, I rely on the powers of observation. In teaching I rely on the tenet of “What Would Jesus Do?” As we move forward as scientists our research needs to be grounded morally in these guiding words.
So while I spend my life working in the fields represented by the popular acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), I would emphasize that in my life the STEM is rooted in faith. I will use this column to illustrate as best as I can the connections between these two intertwined paths. At the same time I will speak as a teacher of the challenges, successes, and occasional disappointments in helping my students recognize and appreciate these connections as they chart out the paths before them.
As I persist in my vocation as a teacher, I am afforded an opportunity that many people miss in their professional as well as personal lives. I am treated on a daily basis to the perplexing and sometimes maddening world of teenagers. At the same time, though, I get to explore and witness the wonders of youth. These young people help me to always feel younger than I am, so that often I do not recognize my own aging reflection in the mirror. And, believe it or not, my students help me to not be cynical. They are the future, my future and yours, the people we will rely upon to lead us, and for that reason it is imperative that they find faith in science and science in faith.
In the autumn of 1932, just a few years before the worst atrocities of the 20th century would engulf his country, Albert Einstein spoke to the German League of Human Rights in Berlin. He told them: “The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavor in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind.” I look forward in this column to walking down the intertwined paths of faith and science with you, and to helping you better appreciate the connections between the mysteries of science and the mysteries of faith, and oh yes, the wonderful and enduring mysteries of the teenage world.
Jim Miller is a Chemistry teacher at Bishop Brady High School in Concord, N.H.