Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Professor, Priest, and Proud

In a blog concerned with history there can be no more distant events to cover than those around the time of the Big Bang. Today I’m looking at an event that occurred just afterwards and the role a gay physicist is playing in understanding it.

The debate between science and religion and the existence of God is one I’ve been avoiding deliberately throughout my year of science – so far. In the ancient world there was no debate because science and religion were the same. Philosophers used their limited knowledge of the universe to discuss the meaning and origin of life. Modern science is much the same. Scientific theories are based on what we know, we just know more than the ancients did and can explain the universe better.

There is, of course, a religious group who have adopted the word “science” in their denomination name – the Christian Scientists. Their doctrine regarding faith and science is worthy of a separate article, and their opinion of homosexuality is much like that of other denominations – some worshippers accept it, others condemn it. Christian Scientists acknowledge that there are worshippers who are lgbt, and in 1979 they formed a group called Emergence International to support lgbt Christian Scientists.

My own views on the specific debate between science and religion aren’t important at the moment, but I can mention someone who is an ordained minister and at the forefront of research into discovering the secret of “Life, the Universe, and Everything”. He is successfully combining three areas in his life which some may find puzzling. He’s a scientist, a priest, and openly gay, and his name is Michael J. Ramsey-Musolf, until recently Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Many people are confused about ordained priests becoming scientists, or even vice versa. So it may confuse some people even more to learn that Michael Ramsey-Musolf’s specialist research area is the creation of matter. The Bible states that this was the action of God. Science states that this was the action of baryogensis.

Baryogensis, which deals with theoretical events shortly after the Big Bang, is thought to be the result of an imbalance of quark particles and anti-quark particles. That didn’t mean anything to me at first, so I spoke to an ex-partner who happens to be a physicist. He explained it in simple terms, so I hope I’ve grasped the basics.

Protons and neutrons are sub-atomic particles called baryons, and they make up most of the matter in the universe that we can see and feel around us. These protons and neutrons are made of even smaller particles called quarks. My friend then mentioned antimatter. I’ve heard of antimatter – it crops up in science fiction a lot, but it also occurs in physics. All matter in the universe should balance with the antimatter and, therefore, the quarks should have an equal number of anti-quarks. But that’s the problem.

Think of a quark as the simple number +1, and an anti-quark as -1. Together they cancel each other out and matter wouldn’t be created. So some baryons must have more quarks than antiquarks because matter WAS created. Without quarks, there would be no baryons, and without baryons there would be no protons or neutrons to create the matter to see and feel.

That’s the problem being investigated by physicists like Michael Ramsey-Mudolf – how do we exist? From a theological point of view he has one answer, but Michael is also interested in the scientific answer. At first Michael went through the process of deciding if science and religion were compatible, and which direction to take in life. Eventually he decided on both and studied for his PhD before entering the Episcopal Divinity School. During the whole time he had another decision to make – did his sexuality conflict with his religious beliefs? Again, he decided not.

In 1994 Michael was ordained into the Episcopal church of America. The diocese in which he works, Los Angeles, is already known as a progressive church when it comes to lgbt clergy. In 2010 the diocese consecrated Mary Glasspool, an open lesbian, as a bishop.

But Michael’s work as a theoretical physicist has not been without its problems. At the University of Wisconsis-Madison he experienced continual hostility from some colleagues purely based on his sexuality. He admitted during the first session which centred on lgbt issues to be held during a major physics conference last year that there were times when he thought of leaving his post at the university. It was support from a few colleagues outside the lgbt community who convinced him to stay on, at least for the time being.

And that time being came to an end this year. This month Michael left Wisconsin-Madison to become director of the University of Massachusetts High Energy Theory Group.

Michael’s participation in that conference session, organised by the American Physical Society, was just part of his personal outreach activities. These activities have ranged from something as simple as putting the Rainbow Pride flag on the first slide of his scientific presentations to being a member of several committees. He served as Chair of the Wisconsin-Madison Faculty Senate GLBT Issues Committee and on the Office of Equality and Diversity Advisory Committee.

No doubt the debate among some scientists on the compatibility of science with religion will continue until there is nothing left to discover. Hopefully the debate on the compatibility of being openly gay in science will end a lot sooner.

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