Tag Archives: Italy

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church Part 2: Visions of Truth

In Part 1 of my conversion story I described my atheistic background and how God “tilled the soil” in preparation for my conversion. He wasn’t ready to plant the seed of faith quite yet, however. I think He needed me to see some things for myself first.

There’s Always a Woman

Is there a woman in every story? Well, there is in this one.

In the autumn of my first year of graduate school, I chose the experimental physics group with which I would eventually complete my Ph.D. It was a group doing experimental particle astrophysics – looking for exotic particles in the ubiquitous shower of cosmic rays that constantly bombards the earth. I chose the group both for the grandiosity of the subject as well as for the fact that it would give me a chance to live in Italy. I had been at the school over the summer, so I already felt at home the day I first walked into the lab.

Now, to set the picture, I still looked the part of a hard partying college student in southern California, even though I had recently transformed into a non-partying graduate student in the northeast. I had hair down to my shoulders, a snake earring in my left ear (sometimes it was a dagger or skull), and dark glasses. I wore t-shirts and shorts, but I had given in to wearing shoes again.

I followed my new advisor into a lab where electronics were being prototyped and equipment was being calibrated in hurried preparation for shipment to Italy. The room was full of undergraduate research assistants all working diligently. One stood out.

She stood out in one sense because she was a she, the only she in the lab. But she wasn’t just any she. She sat on a tall stool with a soldering iron in her hand and her long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. We were introduced, and she looked at me with those big brown eyes, and I didn’t think physics students were supposed to be so pretty. I did know that she was way too pretty for a guy like me to be asking out.

It was a year later when we started dating. I’ll skip the details; that’s another story. Suffice to say she gets the credit for getting the ball rolling. It was in the first two weeks when I got a little surprise. I asked her out for dinner on a Sunday night. She agreed, but said she couldn’t go out until after she got out of Mass.

I wanted to impress her. I really wanted to impress her. So I said, “Want me to come with you?” Oh so suave. Oh so debonaire.

Hesitantly, she said yes. So I attended my first Catholic Mass. It was not a conversion experience. I wasn’t reverent. I was just confused. And the crucifix – I had never seen anything like it, and it made me uncomfortable (as well it should).

It would be nice to say that attending Mass with my new girlfriend inspired me to believe in God and to accept Christ, but it didn’t happen. What did happen was that I developed a respect for her faith. I saw she was serious about it and that the people there really believed what they professed. I just didn’t (and couldn’t) share that belief. One very important thing happened: I became aware of the Catholic Church as more than just the caricature we find sprinkled throughout pop culture.


I started going back and forth to Italy, working on a cosmic ray detector deep under a mountain near the town of L’Aquila, and I missed that pretty physics student terribly. The internet was primitive then. No webcams. Not even voice. We could “chat” occasionally when I could get access to the right terminal, but other than that our contact was limited to very expensive weekend phone calls.

On weekends I took the bus to Rome to sightsee. I saw all the ancient sights of both pagan and Catholic Rome, and I barely distinguished between them. The churches I found to be awesomely beautiful, moving in a way I did not understand. Saint Peter’s. Saint Mary Major. Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Saint Peter in Chains. I saw the bones of martyrs and the fragments of the manger of Christ. I saw tombs of popes. I saw Michaelangelos and Caravaggios.

The thing that struck me from all of this was that this church was an ancient church. It was a critical and inescapable factor in history. Again, I was learning to respect the faith, even though I didn’t accept that there was any truth to it.

At that point, I can only surmise that God decided I was ready.

Next: The Seed is Planted