My father is a physicist

My father is a physicist. He has a master’s degree in Physics, a PhD in Engineering, and an abiding trust in the ability of science, logic, and measurement to explain the world. At the same time, he has a deep fascination with European history and culture, often manifested in a love of the continent’s cathedrals, those embodiments of religious fervor, of all that is not scientific, logical, or measurable. His unshakeable faith in the life of the rational mind is matched by his profound wonder at the power of the ineffable, the territory of religious belief and cultural experience, that which is beyond the intellect.

I grew up in the space between these worlds. This gave me an instinctive understanding that two things that appear paradoxical, like these beliefs, can be both totally opposed and utterly intertwined. From my father I learned that at the outmost limits of science, where the world and its phenomena can be understood and categorized with equations and with right and wrong answers, there flits the existence of something more intangible, less distinct, discernible. The finite and the infinite are not as distinct as we might think, and the way they bleed together enriches them both.

My Dad, who has a three-ring binder full of mathematical derivations he has done for fun (in fountain pen), has also stood next to me in cathedrals in Italy, looking up at stained glass rose windows with frank reverence on his face. For all of his stubborn rationality and fierce belief that everything can be explained, he has also always suspected, I think, that some things could not. In fact I think for my father, despite how trained and steeped he is in the language of equations, proofs and derivations, the parts of the human experience – often expressed and experienced (for him) through great cultural gestures – that cannot be captured in by the empirical are the most meaningful.

He introduced me – never explicitly, but through the example of his passions – to the fact that something can be true and its opposite can also be true. Dad was the one who taught me about life’s ability to hold two poles in one hand; in fact, he taught me about the way life insisted on that. His deep but deeply buried spirituality underlies all of his adamant belief in the concrete and scientific, and from him I learned that these two ways of being in the world could – even, should – coexist. This is what I was expressing when I called him an engineer with the heart of a poet.

This contradiction exists in how he thinks about sailing, too, I think. He adores sailing, and always has. For him it is in many ways an exercise of careful navigation, of measurement, of the angles between the water, the sail, the wind. There is so much about sailing that is precise and careful. And yet at the same time it is about something far less tangible, a fleeting and effervescent way of being in nature, an ability to sense and feel the boat and to make infinitessimal adjustments that make everything smoother and faster. There is precision, and physics, and then there is something greater, finer, deeper guiding my Dad’s hand on the tiller.

I am still sifting through the ways that this lesson has informed my choices and echoed through me. I sense that it has contributed enormously to the contours of my life, and believe that this is my father’s greatest gift to me: the belief that there is meaning beyond that which we can prove, and that a life of celebrating that can be a rich one indeed. Thank you, Dad. I love you.

13 thoughts on “My father is a physicist”

  1. What a gift, this post. Personally, I’ve always found it difficult to fully articulate these concepts, to capture their breadth and depth, but in this post you’ve done just that – perfectly and beautifully. thank you.

  2. Sounds like he’s been a great captain in your life, preparing you to take the helm of your own ship. (And that binder! Wow!)

  3. Your description of your dad was so familiar to me. My late father was a scientist, a pilot and had a huge appreciation for human creativity and innovation of all sorts. But it makes sense. Scientists are always questioning, always seeking. I like to think that I carry this legacy of his, in a small way. Thank you for this sprinkle of brilliance in my morning! 🙂

  4. I’ve read that, counterintuitively, physicists and mathmeticians are some of the most spiritual people on earth. They spend their lives interacting with phenomena that they can’t entirely understand. In that regard, science bears much in common with faith.

    This is a lovely tribute to your father, and an inspiring read this morning.

  5. I love this, not only as an homage to your father, but for the opposites that coexist in him as you describe them.

    I believe this kind of interplay of seeming contradictions lives happily in many of us. We should savor it. How fortunate you are to have your father, and how beautifully you’ve captured his gifts to you.

  6. I think that it is entirely possible to love that which we do not, and perhaps cannot, understand; to love the very source of us is to swim upstream against the flow of symbols (phonemes, shapes, zero and one) toward a unity toward which both physics and cathedrals point while neither can contain. If any “symbol” represents the impossible interplay of the opposites it just might be the human being, contemplating the world while at the same time being one and the same with that world.

    Your dad sounds great. I would intuit that he would hope that you realize that his wisdom and sailing prowess are to be found both with yourself and between us all.


  7. Wonderfully written and a delight that you’ve shared it! It seems that this came easily to him, this marriage of seemingly opposing ideas. In me, there is still a struggle – a desire to not learn too much about the mechanics of photo-taking, so I don’t lose the magic that finds itself through my camera…..

    oh, to be at peace with every contradiction inside!

    Hugs and butterflies,

  8. SO…are you working on a book now? Or are you waiting til the kiddos grow a bit?

    You have SUCH a gift. The way you string words together…oh my…they are felt! And they are proof of the exact thing you speak of here-that words. Just these concrete letters from the English language, when combined in a certain way…spiritual!

    Love you.

  9. What a striking portrait you paint of your father in this post.

    “Dad was the one who taught me about life’s ability to hold two poles in one hand; in fact, he taught me about the way life insisted on that.”

    Oh, Lindsey, your words encapsulate so much.

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