Why I Study Physics

written by Taylor Byrum

Have you ever exchanged your money for a different currency?  You give a person your money, only to receive less in a different currency.  Seems inefficient, right?  To me, it seems that what you give, you ought to receive with no loss.  A similar scenario happens to you every day.  It happens every time you plug in your power cord for your hair dryer or electric razor.  You pay for the energy supplied to the wire, but not all of that energy goes to your machine.  Some of it goes to heating up the conducting wires that carry the energy, but you aren’t using that heat.  It’s just energy lost.  But, there is hope.  One hundred years ago, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered that at extremely low temperatures, some materials don’t lose energy to this heating.  In fact, every bit of the energy you put in is converted into current.  This new state of matter is called superconductivity.  There is a catch, though.  These temperatures are extremely cold.  The highest temperature to date that a material becomes superconducting at normal pressure is -216 degree Fahrenheit.  Yes, you read that correctly.  It’s negative and crazy cold.

Let me take you through an experiment to describe what really happens with this type of material.   Take a certain metal you know that is superconducting.  In your lab, you have a fancy refrigerator that can get to these cold temperatures and a device that measures this heat that is simply lost.  You turn on the refrigerator and you tell it to start cooling down to its lowest temperature.  Meanwhile, you constantly measure this heat.  The heat is continuously dropping as the temperature is dropping, but it is still not zero.  All of a sudden, at a certain critical temperature, the heat discontinuously dropped from a number, say 25, to 0.  It didn’t hit 24 or 13 or 9.  It went from 25 to 0.  Now, we say it’s a superconductor.

You can imagine the potential applications for superconductors.  If we could find materials that become superconducting at normal temperatures, things would radically change.  The energy crisis we currently face may cease to exist.  Transformers along the road that solely boost the energy in the cables would be unnecessary.  Your electricity bills would be less.

This is what I study in the Physics Department at the University of Illinois.  I am trying to understand why some materials become superconducting at these “higher” temperatures.  If we can understand why, then our hope is that the answer would lead us to discover or make materials that are superconducting at normal temperatures.

However, my ultimate motivation for studying this phenomenon is not so that we can get more bang for our buck.  At the risk of sounding cheesy, I study this phenomenon because I believe it’s my calling at this stage of life.  In fact, I realized my calling as a scientist when I was working on a paper for a religion class.  For that paper, I spent many hours of research gathering evidence to support my belief that science and theology are not in contradiction regarding creation.  My calling didn’t come from an audible voice or a billboard sign.  No, it was from hours of intense and honest reading of God’s word.

In Matthew 22, Jesus says that one of the two greatest commandments is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  In order to love God, we must know God.  I believe we come to know God when He reveals Himself through His Word, the Holy Spirit, visions, dreams, fellow Christians, prayer, and even His creation.  By studying God’s creation, which includes materials that become superconducting, I can learn of God’s attributes.  I know you may think this is a bit of a stretch, but let me explain this a little more.  The way these materials behave is governed by laws, laws that God has set in place.  When I look under a microscope or study light scattered from these materials, I may not see God, but what I do see is God’s hand at work.  He controls every electron.  I believe He cares and is involved in these small events that happen on the microscopic scale. How much more, then, does He care about what happens on the macroscopic scale, the things that we experience and see?

This provides a Godly calling for my work as a scientist.  The more I learn about the universe and its workings, the more I realize how majestic and awesome He has made it.  Paul says in Romans 1:20 that humans cannot help but see “God’s invisible qualities” in his creation.  Science, then, enables me to understand more about God and love Him with all of my heart, soul, and mind.


Taylor Byrum is a 2nd year graduate student in the UIUC Physics PhD program. Taylor describes his parents as wonderful, Godly people, who raised Taylor and is brother in a Christian home in Bentonville, AR.  He studied Physics and Mathematics at Oklahoma Baptist University, where he met his wife, Jamie Byrum.  They are happily married, attend Windsor Road Christian Church, love the Arkansas Razorbacks, and dread the cold winter.