My research as a physical chemist involves the analysis of new and advanced materials using a technique called NMR spectroscopy. NMR stands for nuclear magnetic resonance, and is very closely related to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which has become a valuable part of diagnostic medicine. In both techniques, the sample/subject is placed into a strong magnetic field and radio waves are applied. The response of particular atoms can then be measured and analysed to provide useful chemical information. NMR spectroscopy allows a researcher to focus in on specific elements such as hydrogen, carbon, phosphorus and silicon, providing detailed insights into the atomic structures of many different materials.
NMR and MRI have been the subject of several Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine over the last ~70 years. The second Prize in Physics was awarded in 1952, not long after the end of the Second World War, to two scientists working in the United States. In his acceptance speech, one of the recipients, Edward Purcell, remarked that
“Commonplace as such experiments have become in our laboratories, I have not yet lost a feeling of wonder, and of delight, that this delicate motion should reside in all the ordinary things around us, revealing itself only to him who looks for it.”
I feel that this description captures the essence of what makes physical chemistry so rewarding. Molecules and materials have a wealth of information to impart to us, if we know how and where to look for it. The same can be said for scripture – as Christ says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Being a physical chemist has, I think, taught me that the wisdom of biblical texts often lies beneath the first reading. My faith also reminds me of the beauty of our universe, which I think helps me to retain a sense of enthusiasm and wonder about my results and discoveries.
During my PhD, I was often faced with results that were odd or puzzling. Being able to step back and reflect has been very valuable, and is something I feel I owe to my relationship with God. As pioneering physical chemist and devout Christian Michael Faraday said
The important thing is to know how to take all things quietly.