April 7, 2014 — “Let me show you some of my toys,” the physicist said as he led a visitor through his lab — a mass of microscopes, wires, tanks, tables, tubes, and various contraptions in a science building on the campus of Boston College.
Among the devices is something labeled “Spark Erosion Machine,” which is roughly the shape of a microscope, inside a glass case marked “Danger: High Voltage.” Across the room is an “arc melter,” a black-and-gold apparatus that resembles a microwave oven with a coffee grinder on top, and melts alloys such as iron antimony.
The scene is not usual for a university lab, except that the scientist isn’t wearing a lab coat. He’s donning a black suit and white collar — the way Fr. Cyril Opeil, S.J., usually dresses for work.
The Jesuit is a professor of physics who studies condensed matter — “hard things,” as he explained. One other sign of his vocation is a large poster hanging on a wall, with the words “Vatican Observatory” visible above yellow data charts. Fr. Opeil is working with the Jesuit-run astronomical research institution, based in Rome and Arizona, on a project that involves measuring meteorites.
Referring to both the “toys” and the astronomical data, “Fr. Cy,” as his students call him, was pleased to report, “I could make my own materials. And I could get them from outer space.”
Much of his research has applications for the pursuit of alternative-energy sources such as wind power and solar energy. (It is funded in part by the federal Department of Energy, NASA, and the Department of Defense.) When discussing these solutions, Fr. Opeil mixes the technical with the social and spiritual. He might underscore the need for a “just and equitable distribution of energy sources,” while adding for good measure, “The sun is the Creator’s gift to everyone.”
Fr. Opeil stands in a four-century line of Jesuit scientists. At the start of an interview, he mentioned two of the more illustrious figures: the 16th century Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius, and the 17th century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. They were both Germans. Clavius, who was a mathematician as well, played a pivotal role in the development of the Gregorian calendar. Kircher published influentially on such diverging matters of interest as magnetism, optics, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese monuments, and musical harmony.
“It’s about finding God in all things,” Fr. Opeil said of the Jesuit scientific spirit. “It’s about tracing and teasing out the spirit of God’s creation.” He added, “Physics is about looking at things at a very fundamental level, seeing the beauty of it, and helping others to see it.”
While Clavius saw beauty in the heavens, Fr. Opeil, whose primary field is thermo-electrics, said he is more likely to see it in “electrons that are cold and small.”
Fr. Opeil found those electrons, as a physicist, only after he found the Society of Jesus.
In 1982, the Pennsylvania native graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Scranton, a Jesuit school, and went straight to work at Westinghouse near Baltimore. Fr. Opeil recalls that at the time, his dreams and aspirations were much like those of most people. “I wanted a family. I wanted a good job. I wanted success,” he said.
But he also had a sense of vocation, and came to a realization through intense prayer and self-reflection. “If you really want to be happy,” the Jesuit told himself at the time, “this is the path, through the priesthood.” He entered the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in 1984.
For two years during his Jesuit formation, Fr. Opeil taught physics and chemistry at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C. His fellow Jesuits couldn’t help but notice that he took particular joy in the teaching and the subject matter.
So, in 1995, a year after his priestly ordination, he began graduate work in physics at Boston College. He went from there to a post-doctoral appointment at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the only Jesuit ever to receive an appointment at that famed institution in New Mexico, where he conducted research on uranium (unrelated to arms production). He came back to Boston College as a professor in 2006.
What India and China Want
Often together with graduate students under his supervision, Fr. Opeil publishes academic papers with titles only a physicist could love — such as "Thermoelectric Properties of Bi-FeSb2 Nanocomposites: Evidence for Phonon-drag Effect," and “Role of Phonon Dispersion in Studying Phonon Mean Free Paths in Skutterudites.”
His undergraduate classes are of course more accessible. Fr. Opeil teaches an alternative-energy course that focuses on such sources as wave power (energy from ocean surface waves), geothermal energy, and many others.
“I’ve had quite an awakening in how we use energy,” he said, pointing out that the age of unfettered access to energy resources is over. “India wants air conditioning. China wants hot water, among many other things. That has changed the whole energy picture. It’s not sustainable to continue relying on fossil fuels.”
There’s no doubt, however, about his overriding identity. Fr. Opeil says he wears the collar in class simply because “I’m a priest. It’s a symbol of who I am, why I’m doing this. It says I’m part of the Church in a particular way.”He teaches and runs his bustling lab inside Boston College’s Higgins Hall. Outside of the main entrance, there stands a tall bronze statue of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Fr. Opeil said with a smile, “I walk by Ignatius every day and say, ‘Hello! I’m going to work, pray for me.’”