Q&A: Physicist Aron Wall
This month, physicist Aron Wall shared a two part essay on the fascinating quantum properties of black holes. We sat down with him to learn a bit more about how his work as a scientist and how he felt led to a career in physics.
Black holes are a fascinating enigma in the field of physics, as your recent essay for the Forum explains. What led you to make them the focus of your studies?
My field---quantum gravity---is extremely speculative, because of the lack of experimental evidence. There are lots of rival viewpoints about how to do it (string theory, loop quantum gravity, etc.). You can't work in this area unless you're comfortable with the idea that you might die without knowing whether any of it was right. I choose to focus on black holes, because we can learn a lot about them using theories we already believe in, like Einstein's theory of general relativity. On the other hand, they offer clues about the microscopic nature of reality, so maybe I can learn something important without committing to a specific approach.
How did you first become interested in physics?
When I was 7, I read in a children's book about physics that subatomic particles were made of smaller particles called quarks. It said that the quarks come in 3 "colors", and that each particle was made of "one quark of each color". I asked my Dad if the book meant at least one, or exactly one. He took me to the grownup section of the library and showed me the pop-science books about particle physics. That's how it got started.
What was the relationship between your faith and your scientific curiosity growing up? Did you struggle to harmonize the two, or did you find they fit together perfectly?
My family strongly encouraged learning about both Science and the Bible. When I was very young, I remember reading Genesis and thinking it was literally true, even though I <i>also</i> accepted all the things I was taught scientifically. But pretty soon I had to think about how it all fit together. Since my parents were critical thinkers who already believed that God created using evolution, I didn't have to struggle too hard---unlike my father, who was raised to believe in Young Earth Creationism, and had to deal with the realization that he'd been misled.
For the most part, it's seemed pretty silly to me to think that scientific discoveries somehow invalidate religion. Leaving aside issues related to specific biblical interpretations, a lot of people feel like Science as a whole supports an atheistic or naturalistic view of the world. But obviously you can't deduce that from Keplerian orbits, Maxwell's equations, Bournoulli's principle, or anything like that. I think the pressure really comes from some imaginary completed version of Science which somehow "explains everything".
I used to worry about that sometimes when I was growing up, but I don't really anymore. That's because, as a professional physicist, I've learned that all physical theories are in one way or another approximate. If you have a theory which works amazingly well in one context, but spectacularly fails in other contexts, that isn't actually all that unusual. It just means there's something you've left out. Naturalism is like that.
Why do you think it’s important for Christians to study science?
From an evangelistic perspective, it's obviously really important for people to have examples of scientifically-minded people who find Christianity credible. People are more influenced by seeing intelligent people who believe than they are by hearing specific arguments. But I don't think anyone goes into Science for that reason---you have to do it because you find it fascinating and interesting! In that respect one is just the same as a non-Christian. But for Christians, our vocation is ultimately a matter of what God is calling us to do---some people he makes into scientists, others he has different plans for.
Do you have any parting advice for young people interested in pursuing physics research?
The most important thing is who you will be working with. When you apply to graduate programs, you should be able to already identify researchers whose work you know about and respect---someone who could become your Ph.D. advisor.
But no matter what stage you're at, don't be afraid to ask the experts lots and lots of questions!