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‘Ordinary person of faith’: Nobel Laureate honored at old stomping grounds of Juniata College

Juniata College alum Dr. William Phillips, right, takes a moment with two mentors from his college years: Berry Ann Cherry and Wilfred Norris, whose images are incorporated into the Alumni Hall lobby mural in recognition of their impact on Phillips’ life and career. The lobby was dedicated in Phillips’ honor Friday.

Dr. William Phillips, Nobel Laureate, was recently honored for his accomplishments in the field of physics but perhaps more so for his dedication to Juniata College, its mission and its students.

Alumni Weekend, the college’s annual gathering that draws Juniatians from all points on the compass, began Thursday and will continue into Sunday morning.

Friday afternoon, the college hosted Dr. Phillips for a talk, “Ordinary Faith, Ordinary Science,” in Alumni Hall, and afterwards dedicated the hall’s refurbished lobby to his accomplishments in the field of physics.

At the start of his talk, Phillips acknowledged his fellow 1970 graduates, who just know him a “Bill” and said he felt it most appropriate they were gathered together once again in Alumni Hall.

Alumni Hall, he said, was brand new when he and his classmates arrived on the Juniata campus as freshmen and it was the space that bookended their Juniata experience — where they gathered for some of the colleges most life-changing courses.

The hall, he said, and the lessons learned there are emblematic of the “sense of community, with our teachers and our fellow students, the history of the place, the ethos and spirit of Juniata.”

Phillips said he was struck by a quote from Fred Rogers, who said ….There will be those “who smile you into smiling, sing you into singing and love you into loving.”

“This community of Juniata,” Philips said, “thought us into thinking and cared us into caring.”

Phillips opened his talk by clarifying he is neither an expert in science nor expert in religion.

“I’m an expert in some small areas of science,” he said. “I experiment, I publish. I’m an ordinary scientist.”

As for religion, Phillips said he attends church, goes to Sunday school and identified as “an ordinary person of faith.”

Phillips shared his thoughts on the apparent conflict between religion and science, saying he ultimately finds there isn’t much of a conflict.

Speaking as a practicing United Methodist and a laser physicist, Phillips said religion and science ask different questions about the life and world around and the universe that envelops us.

He also talked about how science strengthens his faith and, over his lifetime, has shaped his view that the universe “is orderly, logical and beautifully simple.”

Quoting scripture, Phillips shared one of many favorite verses: “The heavens are telling the Glory of God and the firmament declares his handiwork (Psalms 19).”

“There’s lots left to learn,” he said, noting the universe has much to reveal to the curious and the creative, who, made in the image of God, surely earned their passion experimentation and knowledge from above.

Following Phillips talk, alumni, past and current faculty and administrators gathering in the lobby where after words by President Jim Troha, Phillips cut a ceremonial ribbon to officially dedicate the lobby that now bears his name.

Dr. Matthew Beaky, Juniata physics professor, said Phillips has not only distinguished himself on the world stage but as a mentor to so many Juniata students who passed through the college’s halls in the 52 years since his graduation.

The lobby’s display include a replicate of the Nobel medal Phillips and colleagues received in 1997 for the development of methods to cool and trap atoms using laser light, as well as images and his own words, specially those about his alma mater: “What would I tell my undergraduate self? Don’t let anyone sell you short, especially if you are a Juniatian, because we can do anything.”

Phillips grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pittsburgh and the Harrisburg Area, graduating from high school at Camp Hill. He said he had “no choice” but to attend Juniata since his father, mother, aunt and sister before him — and his brother after him — were all Juniatians.

He went on to earn his PhD from MIT and first went to work for the National Institute for Standards and Technology, with a goal to develop a more accurate atomic clock. He is a professor at the University of Maryland, a fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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