Blending Faith and Science

Physics doctoral student will be first Jesuit to work at Los Alamos

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Rev. Cyril Opeil, SJ, is prepared to become the first Jesuit physicist ever at Los Alamos National Laboratory, having accepted a two-year post-doctoral appointment at the famed New Mexico atomic lab pending a successful defense of his doctoral dissertation at Boston College.


Rev. Cyril Opeil, SJ. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
An experimental physicist who studies uranium alloys, Fr. Opeil stands in an illustrious four-century line of Jesuit scientists that includes astronomer Christopher Clavius, polymath Athanasius Kircher and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, among many others.

At Los Alamos, known for its secret origins in the Manhattan Project, but where researchers today map chromosomes as well as the national power grid, Fr. Opeil will do spectroscopic readings and electron-structure measurements on uranium to shed light on basic properties of the element.

"My work is pure science," said Fr. Opeil, one of a handful of American Jesuit physicists, several of whom are at the Vatican Observatory. "The aim is a better understanding of the nature of surface electrons in single crystal uranium and its oxides."

The Pennsylvania native took an engineering degree in 1982 from the University of Scranton, and left a job designing jet-fighter radar-controls for Westinghouse outside Baltimore in 1984 to enter the novitiate of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.

During his Jesuit formation he taught physics and chemistry at Gonzaga High School in Washington, DC. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1994, and served for a time as assistant director for novices in the Maryland Province.

His previous provincial, Rev. Edward Glynn, SJ, asked Fr. Opeil to pursue doctoral studies with the the aim of teaching at the college level in the Maryland Province. His current provincial, Rev. Timothy Brown, SJ, has approved the post-doc at Los Alamos.

"I go to Los Alamos National Laboratory because I am missioned there by my provincial to engage in fundamental materials research and to be a pastoral presence to the local Church of which I am a part," said Fr. Opeil.

"Simply put, this mission is a part of that combination of intellectual endeavor and 'care of souls' in the long tradition of the Jesuits. I am sincerely grateful to all those people who have made this possible."

At BC since 1996, he has worked with Prof. Michael Graf (Physics) on low-temperature magnetic measurements of a uranium compound, uranium-platinum3, that, when mixed with other elements, becomes superconducting at extremely cold temperatures.

Superconductivity refers to the ability of electricity to pass through a material without resistance or loss of current.

"Cy has been studying the magnetic properties of an exotic metal, UPt3, which is interesting because it presents one of the most clear-cut examples of 'unconventional' superconductivity at temperatures within a degree of absolute zero," Graf said.

The small radioactive uranium alloys Fr. Opeil uses in his thesis research were made over a period of several months he spent in 2000 working with physicist A. de Visser at the University of Amsterdam.

At Los Alamos, Fr. Opeil's two-year post-doc, akin to a medical student's hospital residency, is to begin in March under physicists James Smith and Roland Schulze.

That Los Alamos would be getting a priest as well as an experimental physicist was evident during the Jesuit's interview trip this past July: Not every visiting interviewee is asked by the local parish, as Fr. Opeil was, to say Mass and also to give Last Rites to a hospital patient who had little chance to survive emergency surgery.

"I am a Jesuit priest who is also a scientist," said Fr. Opeil, who currently helps out at Our Lady of the Annunciation Parish in Danvers and serves as a spiritual director to seminarians, and who said he looks forward especially to parish work in Los Alamos.

The feeling among parishioners in the New Mexico lab community is reported to be mutual.

"It was palpable that the town loved him," said physicist Smith. "The idea of having someone who was a priest and a scientist fascinated them.

"Many people who go to Mass here are given a hard time about what they do, and they welcome a priest working with them," Smith said.

The balance of faith and science is central to his calling as a Jesuit, said Fr. Opeil, who compared his research on electrons to the explorations of 16th-century Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius.

"If Clavius were here today, he would say the heavens are beautiful because God created them," said Fr. Opeil. "I seek an understanding of how God's design is imprinted in the very small.

"Clavius saw beauty in the heavens, the realm of the huge and fiery. I see beauty in electrons that are cold and small."

 

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