"Great Gravity" is featured every edition of God & Nature Magazine, and tells the story of BNL physicist Bill Morse's journey through the world of muons and quarks, colliders and bubble chambers, with the light touch of a distinguished scientist still mightily in touch with his inner child, and with the heart of a committed Catholic and longtime-teacher of Sunday school. Read the first post in this series here.
Dissertations and Revelations
An angel feeds Elijah in the wilderness
by Bill Morse
I finished my PhD thesis in December 1975. Virgil wanted me to give a talk at the American Physical Society meeting in late January in New York City. I said I couldn’t go, because Sara and I were expecting our first child in February. Virgil said I should make the arrangements, and if Sara hadn't delivered by the meeting, he would go. Sara didn't and he did.
When he came back he said he saw an old friend, Larry Leipuner from BNL, at the meeting and he was looking for a postdoc, so I should write him a letter, which I did. After Andrew was born in February, I flew out to BNL for a job interview. This was just what I was looking for; they were at the forefront of the newest electronic detectors, and were studying the weak interaction, which I decided was much more interesting than the strong interaction.
Larry is a colorful character. He once pulled into a parking spot that said “No Parking.” I told him that it said No Parking, so he opened his glove compartment. It was full of parking tickets! He took one and put it under his windshield wiper blade.
I told Larry that I had another job offer which I had to respond to within one week. I didn't know then that Larry never does paperwork on time! The morning after one week had passed, I called University of Michigan to tell them I would accept their job offer. No one was there, so I left a message to call back. I put down the phone, and five minutes later it rang. It was Larry offering me a job at BNL. I told him I accepted. I put down the phone and five minutes later it rang again. It was Michigan returning my call. I said that I wanted to thank them for their offer, but I had accepted a job at BNL. They asked me if they could ask a personal question. I said sure. They asked what the salary offer was at BNL. I told them that I had forgotten to ask. There was an awkward silence. They told me that I really should ask. The next time I talked with Larry, I asked him what the salary would be. He said he didn't know, but he would find out. It turned out to be thirteen thousand dollars a year, which was much more than my grad student salary of four thousand dollars a year. I had really enjoyed my stay at Purdue, and had learned a lot, but now we were off to BNL.
Religion 1954 - 1998
I had to memorize the Catechism for my First Communion in 1954. There were 49 questions. We were told that the Bishop would ask us the questions, and I didn't want to let down my church in front of the Bishop! I memorized all 49. The big day came. The Bishop stopped in front of the biggest boy in the class — the class clown. I just knew this was going to be a disaster. Luckily he asked him the first Catechism question: "What is the purpose of life?" He didn't know! You could hear a pin drop. Then our priest bent down and whispered something in his ear. The boy said "The purpose of life is to know, love, and serve God." The bishop said with a big smile "Right." He didn't ask any more questions.
I always enjoyed going to mass when I was growing up. However, when I was around seventeen, I decided that the purpose of life was actually quite complicated, so why should I believe the Catechism? Perhaps God was a myth the priest and bishop made up just to make me behave. Anyway, I wanted to be a scientist, so how could I believe in miracles, Genesis 1, etc.? This began my time as an agnostic. However, I often still went to mass; I just liked it. It was a time when I could think, and no one would interrupt my thoughts.
My first personal encounter with God was on that ill-fated trip from Indiana to California in February, 1972. I stopped at a motel in Nebraska after the second day of driving. I hadn't made as good time as I had hoped, due to the pheasant incident. I looked at the map. I wasn't even close to halfway. I was very discouraged, and suddenly very lonely. Then I heard a voice saying it will be OK, and I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of well being, even joy. It was very similar to what C.S. Lewis described in his autobiography Surprised by Joy. My Sunday School students ask me what the voice sounded like. I tell them it's like in the story from the Book of Kings when Elijah fled from Queen Jezebel for forty days and forty nights into the desert to Mt. Horeb, and then the Lord said to him in a small, still voice, "Elijah, go back to Israel, I'm not done with you yet."
Towards the end of my stay at Purdue, I needed a measuring stick in our apartment, which I kept forgetting to buy. However, I had a meter stick in my office. I "borrowed" it, and "forgot" to take it back. After that, I kept looking at what other stuff I could "borrow." However, I had an experience where I realized that God wanted me to follow the Ten Commandments to protect me, ie. for my own good, and one of the commandments is "Thou shall not steal." I brought the "borrowed" meter stick back to my office. It felt great as I took it back, as if a load was lifted off my shoulders.
My sister Wendy died in 1990 from lung cancer when she was 28 years old. This was a tough time. My sister Sue's husband Steve had recently become a Methodist minister and spoke at the funeral. It was very touching. Before Wendy died, when I heard that someone had lost a loved one, I would actually avoid mentioning it, because I didn't want to make them cry, or remind them of the loss. However, after Wendy died, I realized that this is actually quite hurtful. It's nearly impossible to say the wrong thing to them, and if they cry, that's OK. My folks, Dave, Sue, Rick, and I did a lot of crying when Wendy died. About a year and a half after she died, after we had sung one of those great Easter hymns, I said to myself: "Wendy is dead, and it's OK." I realized that I could not have said that the day before, and I just somehow knew that it really was OK.
Then in 1991 everything changed: the Lord decided that I had been a “pew sitter” long enough and he was ready to put me to work. Sara was the Sunday School Superintendent at our church: the Bellport United Methodist Church. We had a wonderful woman, Ruth Lombardy, who was teaching the High School Sunday School class. However, she went into the hospital. It turned out that she had cancer, and she died several months later. Anyway, when she went into the hospital, Sara said "I don't know who I can get to take over the High School Sunday School class." I told her that I would do it until she found someone else to take it.
The first two classes went fine. I was really excited about the third class; the message was exactly what they needed to hear. After the initial presentation, they asked me if they could break into small groups to discuss the Bible reading. This was exactly what the curriculum suggested! Then they asked if they could have paper to take notes. This was going great. Then I noticed that, in reality, they were making paper airplanes and sailing them out the open window (we were on the third floor). There was a very large number of paper airplanes in the road in front of Wesley House.
I decided that obviously I wasn't cut out to be a Sunday School teacher, and I would tell Sara. For some reason, I decided to pray about it first. The answer I got, to my amazement, was "You're doing a fine job, just give them my word and enjoy them, because they are precious to me." Before praying, I wanted to wring their necks, but after praying I really felt that they were precious. I asked how I could change them, because they had not gotten the message at all. The answer was "Don't try to change them, just enjoy them, I will change them." This advice has worked great. When the curriculum isn't working, and I have given them the word, I just put the curriculum down and ask them how school or sports or something else they are involved in is going. It's amazing how sometimes they just open up, and we discuss the real issues in their lives.
Of course, anyone's first response to this is that Bill's right side of his brain said, "You're doing a fine job, just give them my word and enjoy them, because they are precious to me" to the left side of Bill's brain. I don't think so because I know how powerful the experience was, and also, I had really already made up my mind that I was quitting. Also, the advice to simply enjoy them and stop trying to change them was not at all what I was thinking about, and yet it was exactly the advice I needed.
One more Sunday School related story: My son Andrew asked me if his best friend Jake could come to our Sunday School class. I said, "Of course, that would be wonderful." My class size would increase by 20 percent! However, he said we would have to pick Jake up. I said, "No way!" We had four children to get up and ready for church, and we were often late already and Jake lived in the opposite direction from the church. Andrew said, "But, Dad, you could go get him first, and then come back and pick us up." I said only if he was always ready. Jake's mother, Rachael, always had him ready. After about a year of this, Rachel asked me if I knew why Jake wanted to go to Sunday School. I said I knew exactly why. I said that during Sunday School Andrew and Jake would plan their day's adventures, and then as soon as it was over, they were off. Rachel said, "Right, as long as you know." However, about one year after Jake went off to college, Rachel showed up in church! Then she joined the choir and then a Bible Study class I was giving. I asked her why she started going to church all of a sudden. She said one Sunday morning she got up and went into her kitchen. Suddenly, she had an overwhelming experience of God's love for her. She said it was very intense. Afterwards, she thought she was going crazy, but then she realized she wasn't, and one year later started going to our church. I told her that she was going crazy — crazy with the love of Jesus. Her face was just radiant as she told her story.
Read the next post in the series here.