Objects in Motion
The Circuitry of Faith
Positive energy and negative forces. You can’t be a scientist or a high school teacher without experiencing both of these realities on a daily basis. For my part, I always try to bring positive energy into my classroom because I believe it is something that students need to experience each and every day of their lives. I know that, given the world in which we live, my students will have plenty of opportunities to encounter negative forces and I strive to make sure I am not one of them.
There is, however, one negative force that captures my imagination, a tiny subatomic particle from which I think we can learn a great deal. On the one hand, it is so elusive that we scarcely know much about it. On the other hand, carrying the load of all modern technology, it is the foundation upon which our modern world has been built. Meet the curious and dynamic electron, whose positive energy has much to teach us about how to live in faith with one another.
It was the ancient Greeks who first discovered the electricity in what we call today “static cling,” and it is to them that we owe the word elektron. Centuries later, our own Benjamin Franklin, who likely never actually did that fabled kite and key experiment, did coin the terms “positive” and “negative” charges and naturally assigned the term “negative” to the charge associated with electrons because of his healthy fear of lightning strikes.
In the early 1800s, Michael Faraday demonstrated that an electric current could be generated by movement between magnetic fields and conductors, and he used this discovery to invent the first electric motor, the basic device still used in electronics today. It wasn’t until 1887, however, that a gentlemen named J. J. Thomson, manipulating the rays in a sealed glass cathode ray tube, discovered that the source of the electrical force he was observing was a tiny particle, smaller even than the atom, a positive force, with a negative designation, the heretofore unknown electron.
We all appreciate just what a powerful force the electron is when the latest Nor’easter rolls through and knocks out our electrical power and we suffer for a few hours or days without heat, light, TV, our phone charger and beloved coffee maker. All of these vital conveniences depend upon a subatomic particle whose mass is approximately 1/2000th of other subatomic particles. This makes it the mustard seed of subatomic particles!
And for all we understand about the force of this little powerhouse, and for all Quantum Physics is helping us to comprehend about unseen attractive and repulsive forces, the electron, like much of nature, is still very much of a mystery. For example, it is so small and moves so easily that it is impossible to ascertain its position and momentum at the same time (The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle). It has, Einstein discovered, the ability to behave both as a wave of energy and a particle.
It is upon confronting these paradoxes that my students begin to express their frustration. How can we know so much about this tiny particle when we use it, but know so much less about its behavior at the atomic level? It is at moments like these that I relish working as a Chemistry teacher in a Catholic school. For here, having imparted all we have learned about electrons, I can invite my students to consider what the electron can teach us about our world, about positive energy, negative forces and about ourselves.
For starters, we should recognize what incredible things can happen when very small things work together. As individuals, each of us is only one of over 7 billion human beings on earth. A single electron cannot be used to accomplish much. But properly directed and aligned, a stream or current of electrons has incredible potential.
Our world today is full of negative forces that cry out for positive energy as equal and opposite power. A quick glimpse shows us forlorn refugees trying to escape the brutalities of war, thousands of people in our own state suffering from addiction, and political rancor wherever we turn. Closer to our homes, we have friends and family members who are confronting major health issues. We worry about young people who don’t seem to have any joy in their lives and we know neighbors who live from paycheck to paycheck trying to survive.
We can choose to ignore these problems, or take a lesson from subatomic particles. In much the same way that a wire can be used to create a circuit for electrons to accomplish great things, our faith can guide us to good and great things as well. The decisions that we reach when dealing with adversity will help make us who we are.
Since it has an equal and opposite charge of the proton, an electron can be easily moved and manipulated to do work. This is not always the case when we attempt to resolve personal conflict. If only dealing with human beings and directing them towards doing the right thing were as easy as constructing a circuit to direct electrons! But alas, we develop our circuitry of faith through God’s gift of free will.
Pope Francis in Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home said, “Any technical solution that science claims to offer will be powerless to solve serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well.” Small as each of us is in the vastness of the universe, may we, like my favorite sub-atomic force, allow our energy to be harnessed to become a force for good, to be guided by the circuitry of faith, and remain an unfailing light in the darkness.
Jim Miller is a Chemistry teacher at Bishop Brady High School in Concord, N.H.