The paradoxes of faith and science

Megan Engel has been awarded a Rhodes scholarship.

January 21, 2013

Two stars dance together. Electromagnetic fields undulate in invisible light waves forging their silent way through the vacuum of space. When they reach Earth, the same waves become discrete particles and violently eject electrons in atoms inside a camera, recording telescope images like those I have analyzed.

Through photosynthesis, humans owe their bodily existence to this paradox: light existing simultaneously as a particle and as a wave. My faith teaches that humans owe their spiritual existence to seeming paradox, as well: leadership through servitude. Themes of paradox captivated, then drew me to physics and prompted an exploration of my reason for being through art.

The beauty of the Christian paradox called me to service. My driving ambitions are to fuse the divergent pursuits of scientific excellence and artistic passion and to direct the result to better those around me.

I studied paradox in seemingly serene, but chaotically burning, heavenly bodies during my undergraduate years in astrophysics. These years galvanized my desire for an academic career.

During my forays into research, a passion for charting the Unknown entrenched itself. Using computational physics to study quantum effects solidified my love of problem solving. Controlling an atomic force microscope kindled my zeal for using intelligent technology to defy human sensory limitations.

Determining how long a "year" is for a system of two stars thousands of light-years away and pulling apart a single molecule held in the vise of a beam of light reinforced my awe of the universe and my faith in God.

Beyond engendering my thirst for discovery, contributing publications to the scientific community demonstrated the possibility of serving through science: bettering the world - the goal of my faith - by illuminating it. Light is a particle.

My discoveries were not only scientific. I composed original music and gravitated to the philosophy and beauty of J.R.R. Tolkien's works, co-founding a society dedicated to their exploration. I hoped to sound out the part of my nature ignited by art and fit it into my vision for a life of service.


Our society blossomed; philanthropy and generosity, virtues in Tolkien's mythos, were exemplified through a campaign for literacy to read to elementary school children. Media outlets, impressed by our initiative, featured us on television and in newspapers, and I realized that our group has the capacity to effect change.

Embracing my talents led to transformative moments: the moment my piano student, who is mentally disabled, exceeded expectation and performed at our year-end recital; the moment my Tolkien Society gifted me a book inscribed, "through you great beauty has been wakened into song" (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion); the moment, during my volunteering as an "Artist on the Ward," a man undergoing dialysis sang Hey Jude with me because he "simply had to."

My artistic expression serves others by inspiring them to create and improve. Light is a wave.

I hope to obtain a faculty position in condensed matter physics at a university. There, I would fuse abstract theory and living nature to serve humanity. The mechanism of photosynthesis is not yet well understood, yet few physics groups are investigating it.

Demystifying the process using powerful quantum mechanical tools could begin for me at Oxford. Guided by Professor Ian Walmsley and postdoctoral researcher Animesh Datta, I can examine energy transfer in quantum networks within photosynthesis, which would revolutionize renewable energy production if controlled and understood.

Oxford has released three publications on this critical topic in recent years. Coupled with strong connections between the theoretical condensed matter and biophysical groups, this renders Oxford fertile ground for interdisciplinary studies rooted in physics that could reduce humanity's environmental footprint while solving energy crises.

Further, Oxford is not a series of coexistent departments; it is a single, vibrant entity, where Eucharist and Evensong are essential threads in the world's most elite academic community; where I can sing in Exeter's active choir, pray and share the joy of knowledge through outreach like Stargazing Oxford; where I can read volumes Tolkien himself read and walk the paths he trod.


Disparate elements of the human experience become a coherent whole at Oxford. Where better to become a microcosmic Oxford than Oxford itself? At Oxford, I can strengthen and blend my own diverse gifts into a whole, fervently directed to service: in the laboratory, with the piano, and at the altar.

Tolkien believed that art is an act of discovery, not creation. I have lived this, having no sooner breathed life into lyrics and notes than observed them hanging palpable in the air before me as if I stumbled upon a song. The same thrill of discovery envelops me while reconstructing light curves of distant stars.

Art and science are the same in essence, each testifying to the wonder of creation, and they merge in "a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality" (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).


I seek to live within this duality and through the example of my life, draw others into it; to serve others with art, through my scientific career and by drawing forth the best from every person I encounter.

Living in the beautiful tension of a universe rooted in apparent paradox is a constant invitation to erase boundaries. Learning about black holes is both an exercise in tensor mathematics and an experience with philosophical and spiritual significance.

I am a physicist and a musician, a scientist and a Christian. Light is a particle and a wave.