21 April 2008

Katarina Pajchel

Nationality: Polish

Katarina Pajchel

Polish-born PhD student Katarina Pajchel moved to Norway when she was very young. She studied physics in Bergen and went on to complete a Master’s degree there too, analysing DELPHI data coming off LEP. Now part of the University of Oslo’s experimental HEP group, she has spent the last three years involved in developing Grid computing for ATLAS.

If Katarina sounds to you like your typical PhD student, then you would be mistaken. Because as well as working on computing tools, software preparation, production systems for the Grid, distributed analysis, and more recently moving into SUSY searches, Katarina is a nun of the Dominican Order.

“Statistically it is maybe unusual,” she concedes, “but it’s not such a strange combination. The Catholic Church has a very long history of being involved in academia. From the Middle Ages it was involved in establishing universities as institutions, and the Dominican Order was instrumental in that process.”

“At that point, theology was the main science, but some of the philosophy and theology developed in the Middle Ages actually made the ground for things like natural sciences to become independent,” she explains.

Katarina lives in an open community in Oslo, where she and nine other sisters run a student house and guest house. She does most of her ATLAS work remotely, but visits Geneva periodically to get involved on the ground. “This is very much the idea of distributed computing; that you can sit anywhere in the world and do your stuff,” she says. “But it is nice to be here now during the last preparations. I came here for M5 and M6 too, and I’m just starting to get involved in experimental work with the SCT.”

Combining the time and commitment pressures of living life as both a scientist and a nun, for example spending up to an hour in prayer each morning and evening, may sound a world away from the lifestyle of the majority of ATLAS physicists, but in fact Katarina has noticed plenty of parallels.

“I feel like I have lots in common with my colleagues: They have to run home to pick up their children from kindergarten; I have to run home for Vespers, and to fulfil my practical responsibilities with the guest house,” she explains. Just like families do, the sisters try to eat daily meals together and spend time together at weekends, because they’re all out working on different things during the week. “It’s just another life situation where you live in a community and you have commitments to other people,” Katarina reasons.

Of course, the big question which can’t be ignored is how, as a deeply religious physicist, Katarina reconciles the ideas of Creation and the Big Bang. “I guess you could say I believe in both,” she considers. “I say ‘believe’, but what makes you believe in science is that you’ve seen or read evidence. Religious belief is different, but what’s important for me is that in both you ask the question about truth; you seek answers.”

Katarina is very clear that the questions which people seek answers to via religious and scientific means are different, however. She insists that religious questions cannot be answered scientifically; and similarly that religious answers should not be offered to satisfy scientific questions. “You need to distinguish between a problem and a mystery,” she explains. “In science we tackle problems.”

It might be argued that the two types of belief system are almost polar opposites: A scientist believes only something that has been tested through accepted scientific procedure; whereas a religious belief, although you can question it within yourself, has at its heart a faith – something which you believe unquestioningly. But Katarina challenges this notion of unquestioning faith:

“From my Catholic point of view, belief is not blind; it is a rational process. Theology – which is a more scientific formulation of this process – is a science in its own right, with its own scientific methodology. Of course, at some point you have to accept and acknowledge the ingredients of revelation, but you also have to be able to express what you believe in a rational, logical way. It is not mystical.”

Crucially, it is this rational approach which Katarina credits for allowing her to consider side-by-side these two questions of religion and science, and, as she puts it: “make them interact – not mix, but interact.” Her private, religious life plays an important role in informing and motivating her activities in physics, being as she is a strong proponent of the Dominican life based on contemplation and study followed by the passing on and sharing of information and understanding. “If you lose this moment of rationality – of trying to express things in a common human language – you lose the ground for contact with your culture, with other cultures, with other religions,” she explains.

She has played a part in both the youth movement of the Catholic Church, and in outreach activities in physics and science in general, as well as undertaking teaching duties as part of her PhD. “It’s a very important part of being a physicist – passing on what you get,” she says. Indeed, science would be nothing without it.

“But I also see it as a service to society,” she goes on. “I think it is essential for our society not to lose the understanding of what’s going on in science. There is an alienation nowadays; we use computers and mobile phones, but we don’t know how they work. A lot of people don’t even care how they work. As soon as someone starts to explain, it all sounds very mystical. It’s not!” she argues. “You can learn, and you can understand.”

The Dominican Order to which Katarina belongs was established as a preacher order, but preaching today is understood in a very open-minded way. “Just being present, actually quite anonymously, as a quiet witness in this scientific community, is enough,” she explains. “I wouldn’t want to answer people’s questions for them. I may share my answers, but nothing more than that. This is how I define preaching – it’s not about banging people on the head with a Bible!”

In Katarina’s eyes, all scientists – religious or not – have an obligation to share and pass on some of the fascination which drives them to do what they do. “It is really a privilege to have the opportunity to study nature in the way that we do,” she says. “We need to infect people with that fascination. In the same way, my faith is about passing on and sharing a fascination with a God who is the creator of this nature which is so fascinating.”

“You don’t need to agree with me,” she adds, “but it is important that what I am saying makes sense. It is important to keep this line of communication with our time and our society, and with other religions and other cultures. I am an advocate of fundamental openness and fairness.”

Colin Barras


    Ceri Perkins