by Becky Sindelar
April 11, 2014 — As a Jesuit with a Ph.D. in physics, Brother Jonathan Stott is used to being asked if his work in science and his religious vocation ever conflict. His answer: “In all honesty no" – which always surprises people.
“Science and faith are not in conflict, and if they are it usually means you have either a bad image of God or a bad image of science,” says Br. Stott.
He points out that Catholic theology is actually quite comfortable with science. “God created the world around us and there is nothing to fear of it,” Br. Stott explains. “This is God’s handiwork. It’s not going to challenge your faith.”
Br. Stott, who is currently in his first year as a physics professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, was focused on science before religion. He grew up in central Connecticut outside of Hartford and received his bachelor's degree in physics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts in 1993. He went straight to doctoral studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, receiving his Ph.D. in physics in 1998.
Next he took a post-doctoral position at Northeastern University in Boston, where he worked for two years on remote sensing — trying to measure things at a distance. “In my case, we were doing medical imaging, so we were trying to image what’s inside the body from outside, so you don’t have to cut anything open.”
That work, he says, had nothing to do with his Ph.D., titled “Theoretical Studies of Dendrimeric and Heliclinic Liquid Crystals." He notes wryly that “the theory of phase transitions in liquid crystals is not a good way to get a job.”
Br. Stott continued his medical imaging research next at Massachusetts General Hospital, and it was during his years in Boston that he discovered his religious vocation. He found himself getting more and more involved with his parish, St. Ignatius in Chestnut Hill.
“I reached a point where I realized my personal fulfillment was coming from the work I was doing at the parish, while I was becoming increasingly less happy with the work I was doing that was paying me,” Br. Stott says. “So that was the club God was beating me over the head with to tell me that perhaps I should be looking somewhere else.”
A priest at St. Ignatius put Br. Stott in contact with Jesuit Father Jim Hayes, a vocation director, and Br. Stott began thinking seriously about becoming a Jesuit. He joined the Society of Jesus in 2004.
From the start, Br. Stott felt strongly called to be a Jesuit brother, and he spent two years in the novitiate and then three years studying philosophy at Regis College in Toronto. He knew that formation would mean putting his scientific research on hold for a few years, but he expected to eventually get back to it.
The opportunity arose during his regency period of formation, when Br. Stott was assigned to work at the Vatican Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., for two years. Because he was never trained in astronomy, Br. Stott spent time learning so that he could make a productive contribution. “As Jesuit life would have it, just when I started to feel comfortable I was assigned to theology,” he says.
After completing his theology studies at Boston College, Br. Stott began his current position as a physics professor at Fairfield University, where he’s enjoying the challenges of teaching for the first time.
“I’ve been up late at night preparing lectures. I’m also trying to figure out what the students’ strengths are and how to teach effectively. It’s been a learning experience for both of us,” says Br. Stott.
Most of the work he does is teaching required physics courses for programs like engineering, chemistry and pre-med that need a year of physics to graduate. He also teaches a physics course on music and sound for non-science majors. “My father was a music teacher, so I come from a musical family, and I thought it would be fun to teach. I’m teaching students how musical instruments work and how things make sounds,” Br. Stott explains.
When he’s not teaching, Br. Stott finds time to analyze data between classes, much of it medical imaging and optical work related to the post-doctoral research he did at the Vatican Observatory.
He says his favorite part of the job is working with the students. “They’re mostly freshmen and sophomores, so they’re still excited and have enthusiasm. They still enjoy learning — they haven’t had that beaten out of them yet. You can have a lot of fun with them,” he says.
“There’s an idea that we do science because it gives us mastery over the world,” Br. Stott says. “The reason I do physics is because it’s beautiful. And I can’t imagine living in a world where you aren't allowed to appreciate that kind of beauty. So that’s one of the things I’m trying to communicate to my students.”
Br. Stott says science is beautiful and should be appreciated for that. “We don’t just look at a sunset and appreciate it because the blue light has been scattered out by Rayleigh scattering. We appreciate it because the sunset is beautiful. To turn physics into something where that’s not true, you’ve really lost something.”
He reconsiders the original question about whether there is a conflict between faith and science. “It becomes a conflict when the sunset stops being beautiful,” he says.
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuits.org/become for more information.