Sabrina Nguyen | News Reporter

“Science & Creation,” “The Creator and the Cosmos,” and “The Church and Contemporary Cosmology” are among the titles  featured in the “New Books” display at the Saint Albert Hall Library. With them are a near-two dozen other similar books, all coming from a single source.

Professor Ron Olowin passed away on Aug. 5, 2017. The books were donated to the library after his death. They are now available to any student, staff, and faculty member who, like Olowin, might be consumed with wonder as to how Science and Faith might walk together towards a single truth.

“I still have the copy of The Phenomenon of Man that Ron Olowin gave me…he liked to give me essays and things: Ron was always eager to share what he loved, whether in faith or in science,” said Professor Anne Carpenter. Carpenter was a friend of Olowin’s who spoke with him often about topics on science and theology.

Olowin was hired into Saint Mary’s Physics Department in 1987 along with Dean Wensley in 1989. As the two only faculty members of the physics department, they taught physics courses, established a physics major at the college, and helped build the program, which now has six faculty members and graduates 5-10 majors on average per year.

“He was a new beginning for physics at Saint Mary’s. He had a lot of vision and he thought big, not only because he was an astrophysicist, but also because he thought big about building things for students and for faculty,” said Dean Wensley.   

Olowin conceived of the Geissberger Observatory at Saint Mary’s. Beside the dome is a platform where students could set up telescopes on as needed. He would bring students from his introductory astrophysics course to this hill to conduct observatory sessions.

Wensley said that Olowin’s favorite thing to do was get students to comprehend

“where are we [in this universe] and trying to get across the immensity of that idea and trying to picture where we are at and what it means.”

Guy Whittal Scherfee ‘17, a former student,  said, “He loved to discuss space and astronomy. Conversations could go for hours, and often did, regarding how the planets formed and moved.”

Olowin was Scherfee’s academic and research adviser and oversaw his research during the summer after his sophomore year.

“After this summer, I continued to work with Olowin until I decided to pursue research in the quantum field rather than astro,” Scherfee said. “Oddly enough, my current work in graduate school is focused in space physics so I didn’t get as far away as I thought I might.”

“He was sort of a stargazer, a dreamer…he loved ideas, he loved talking about all kinds of things, seminar texts, scientific texts, religious texts…he was someone who was interested in the world, interested in life, interested in friendships, in relationships…” said Father David Gentry-Akin who collaborated with Professor Ron Olowin on a series of lectures at St. Perpetua Church discussing the relationship between science and faith.

Students of diverse disciplines would flock to Olowin’s class because he had a reputation for being able to teach science to nonscientists, and he did it well. During his time at the college, he taught over 2000 non-majors. He was known as a gifted communicator and teacher who made daunting science topics accessible to anyone on campus. Dean Wensley had collaborated with Olowin on a lot of teaching and even learned how to teach astronomy from Olowin.

“He made people feel at ease…he had a way of diffusing that anxiety and opening up a world of knowledge that was very foreign for a lot of those students,” said Fr. Gentry-Akin, who had invited Olowin to teach at several of his lectures on religion and science.

Olowin was a man of deep and profound Catholic faith and stood in a long line of catholic intellectuals. He understood that real wisdom is about bringing faith and science together. Olowin believed there was room for God and science, sharing his vision and love for “big ideas” with the students he taught and other faculty members. He often held lectures on the dialectical relationship between science and faith and how these different patterns of logic inform one another. Olowin received a grant from the Templeton Foundation during his time at Saint Mary’s to teach a course on science and religion.

“I occasionally had him lecture in my faith and science class…he would talk about God in his lectures, the role that god played in his life. He was very subtle with the students that these two things were not opposed,” said Fr. Gentry-Akin. “The contribution that Professor Olowin made to Saint Mary’s, which to me is his singularly most important contribution, was that he showed students that faith and science are not in opposition to one another.”

“When he visited my theology classes to talk about faith and science, he would point out how – just as faith has analogies – so also science is made up of analogies. ‘We talk about wavelengths,’ he would say. ‘And where does that come from? Waves in the sea.’ His point was that we think of science as precise, but in fact science is precise in an entirely different way than we assume,” said Professor Anne Carpenter.

One of her favorite memories of Olowin is something he expressed to her frequently: “when you say ‘cosmos’ you mean one thing.” Then he’d smile and say, “When I say ‘cosmos,’ I mean something else.” Olowin was precise with how he used language and paid attention to the shifting of meanings between theology and science. To Anne Carpenter, caring about the precision of language together was one of his immense gifts to her.

Dr. Ron Olowin was a proponent of sharing knowledge, and the book shelf decorated with a wide range of readings he had collected is emblematic of the continuation of his dialogue on the world.

The books that were donated to the library after Ron Olowin’s death are no longer featured in the “New Books” display. However, they are still available for students, staff, and faulty to check out. 

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