“To Be, or Not to Be”—An Atomic Physicist
As told by Fred Wilson
“THAT is the question” that confronted me back in the early 1940’s. ‘Not such a difficult question,’ you say. Well, on the surface it appears easy, for the world was just entering the atomic era. For physicists, lucrative jobs were plentiful. And the work was intensely interesting, even absorbing. Why, then, the question?
Basically, because religion was involved. Yes, something even more interesting and more absorbing entered my life. But let us go back a few years and get the background.
Our family lived in a typical small village on the Canadian prairies where everything depended on the wheat crop. At an early age we were taught the value of hard work, and after school we would earn money working in stores, sawing wood, hauling grain or driving horses. At home, we four brothers bemoaned the lack of a sister, for that meant we had to prepare meals, do the dishes and wash and iron clothes. Only years later did I really appreciate the value of what I learned in those earlier days.
EARLY RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND
Religion played a definite part in life, in spite of our efforts not to “get involved.” Mother belonged to a strict “hellfire” group that met in the “Gospel Hall,” the only name we ever knew for our religion. Dad was a Mason and left religion up to mother. How I envied him as he sat at home reading the newspaper while we had to go to Sunday school! My mother and grandfather had daily Bible readings and, if we were careless enough to be around the house at the time, we had to take part.
What turned me against religion, even as a young boy, was something that happened one winter evening. It was my turn to light the fire in the hall for a special meeting with a traveling evangelist. The fire had just got started nicely when who should walk in but the preacher himself! He sat me on a chair and started to preach, wanting me to get down on my knees right there and “get saved.” “If you do not do so,” said he, “it will be the same as calling your mother a liar.” Well, that was the last thing I would have done. But at the same time I could not do as he asked. Finally, he gave up and let me go. From then on my interest in religion waned.
PREPARING FOR A CAREER
In the early 1930’s the economic depression hit the prairies and we were hard pressed to meet the family budget. The climax came in 1937 when all the young men had to leave home to look for work in provinces where disaster had not hit so hard. I, with others, headed for Manitoba. After a few months of work, we mailed our money back and returned home.
This money helped pay tuition fees and lodging during my studies at the University of Saskatchewan. The curriculum covered a variety of courses, among them biology, which included instruction in the basics of evolution. In view of my hellfire religious experience, this theory seemed plausible. To have questioned the theory would have meant to ‘accept the unacceptable,’ that is, creation. So ours was a blind faith in a theory, with no questions asked.
After graduation in 1938, I decided to go on to specialize in atomic physics. Things began to be a little easier financially since we graduates were hired as laboratory instructors for the undergraduate classes. I also worked as a technician in a radon plant operated at the university by the cancer clinic for treatment of surface cancers. As a technician, my job was to pump off the radioactive gas radon and store it in a fine, gold tubing, which, after being cut into small “seeds,” would be injected by the doctor into the tissue surrounding the cancer. The radiation from the radon attacks the cancerous tissues without unduly affecting the healthy tissues. We could determine the strength needed for use in any operation planned for a certain time, since radon decays at a fixed rate. This evidence of design and order in radioactive materials was just one of many facts that made me wonder: How could all of this happen just by chance, as evolution would have us believe?
At that time I was working for my Master of Arts degree under Dr. G. Herzberg (Nobel Prize winner for chemistry in 1971), conducting experiments to determine the distance between the atoms in the silicon sulphide (SiS) molecule. This was done by measuring the wavelength of lines in the absorption spectrum of SiS and by the use of complicated mathematical formulas. Here again was evidence of order and design. Why, it meant that behind all of this there must be a Scientist and Mathematician! But vital questions remained unanswered: Who? How? When?
We graduates all applied for scholarships, and how elated I was to receive offers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University in the United States! However, the world scene was changing at an alarming rate. I remember how we in the physics department felt the day when the newspapers announced ‘The atom has been split!’ Dr. Herzberg’s words carried a sense of doom as he said with great emotion: “What won’t they do next?” As World War II progressed, we wondered how it would affect us. Then Canada closed its borders, so that no science graduates could leave the country. Consequently, I applied for and (in 1941) received a scholarship from the National Research Council so as to continue my studies at the University of Toronto.
There I completed the curriculum for my PhD degree, at the same time working at the university as a civilian instructor for the army in fundamental radar. When these courses ended in 1943, the instructors had to make a choice: either go into industry or into the navy as radar operators along Canada’s vulnerable east coast, until such time as we might be able to continue our studies. However, in 1942 I had married a physiotherapy student and most of Grace’s graduation class were entering the Nursing Corps. Since this meant that we would be separated, we decided against joining the armed forces, and I obtained work as an experimental physicist for an aircraft instruments firm.
THE QUESTION BEGINS TO TAKE FORM
Although neither of us was very religious (in fact, I began to teach Grace the basics of evolution), we did feel that we should belong to some church. So we attended different ones. After each visit we would analyze what we had heard: a book review in one, a sermon for army recruiting in another! With so little to choose from, we decided just to buy a Bible and read it on our own. Some weeks later a lady called and read some Bible texts to my wife, offering to call again. “I told her I was busy studying for my final exams and that she could come back in a couple of months,” Grace told me later. “Oh, well,” I answered, “she probably won’t come back.” But I was mistaken, for she did return. Since we had guests, a visit was arranged for the following evening.
We were quite apprehensive when the woman returned with her husband. One of the first questions I asked was: “What do you believe about hell?” “It really doesn’t matter what we believe,” was the answer. “What is important is what the Bible teaches. Do you have a Bible?” Then we were shown in our own new Bible that in certain places where the text reads “hell,” marginal notes read “or, the grave.” This really set us thinking! Thus began a series of Bible discussions with Teije and Elsie Hoornveld, who devoted all their time to this preaching work. After a few visits, they told us that they, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, were banned in Canada. This did not overly concern us, since we were enjoying what we were learning. In fact, it was not long before my wife and I began to accompany them in declaring the “good news” from house to house. Three months later, on August 22, 1943, we were baptized at a convention in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A.
At that time many of us believed that Armageddon was just around the corner. (Rev. 16:14, 16) So we felt that we should devote more time to the preaching work, as Teije and Elsie were doing. Also, my conscience began to bother me because of my work. Was it consistent with Christian neutrality? We were telling others about the Kingdom, and Jesus Christ had said: “My kingdom is no part of this world.” (John 18:36) So was I part of it as I helped to produce instruments for war planes? (Isa. 2:2-4) On the other hand, in view of my years spent studying to be a physicist, should I give up such work? After much consideration, I handed in my resignation in November 1943 and began working as a full-time proclaimer of the “good news.”
MEETING THE QUESTION HEAD ON
Until that time I had been exempt from military service, since my work was considered essential to the war effort. Then, however, my exemption was canceled and along came my call for military service. In letters to the authorities I explained my desire to continue as a full-time minister and, as such, requested exemption from compulsory service. Their answer came on December 25 in the form of six policemen. Two of them stood at the front door, two at the back door and two entered the home where we were living. And where was I? In the bathtub! It was my last comfortable bath for some time. I was arrested, charged with nonfulfillment of compulsory service, and sentenced to one month in jail at Toronto, after which I would be turned over to the military.
Now I really had time to think about my position. It seemed that the question “‘To be, or not to be,’ an atomic physicist?” was being answered in the negative. But, strangely enough, I was not depressed. ‘Sometime in the future I will be able to continue my studies,’ I thought. More important questions had been answered satisfactorily. I knew that there is a Creator whose name is Jehovah. (Ps. 83:18) Also, I knew of his purpose to establish a new order of peace and righteousness. More than that, we could share in it. I knew where we were going and why. So during that month in jail I used my time wisely, reading through the entire Bible. How this served to strengthen my decision!
However, I was brokenhearted to receive a letter from my religious mother. “I never thought that one of my boys would be a criminal,” it read. Yet, my unreligious father wrote: “Son, if that is what you believe, don’t let anyone, not even [Prime Minister] Mackenzie King change your mind.” The reaction of each parent was just the opposite of what I had expected!
During my first few days in jail, the other prisoners in our cell block ridiculed me. And what a crowd they were—thieves, drug addicts and filthy drunkards! Among them was the then Public Enemy No. 1, Mickey MacDonald, awaiting trial for hijacking a truck loaded with whiskey. One day when the others were heaping abuse on me, he said: “Listen, you guys! We are all here because we broke the law. But this fellow did nothing wrong. Leave him alone or else!” After that, no one bothered me.
After serving my sentence I was handed over for induction into the army. The commanding officer signed all the papers and I was now a soldier. Upon my refusal to obey certain orders, I was remanded for a court-martial. At the trial, I was given full opportunity to present my defense before the three judges. It was a new and thrilling experience for me to feel how ‘the holy spirit teaches you the things you ought to say,’ for it aided me to recall appropriate texts, such as John 17:16 and Daniel 2:44. (Luke 12:11, 12) After the trial, one of the judges took me aside. He could not understand why I did not want to serve, since I had already received a commission in the army through the Officers Training Corps at the university. So he suggested that I enter the army as a chaplain, in which case they would drop the proceedings. The essence of my refusal was: “Who is more reprehensible, the one who blesses the rifle or the one who pulls the trigger?” So I was sentenced to six months in a military detention camp at Niagara-on-the-Lake.
This camp consisted of a small barracks with about a dozen cells and a large, fenced compound. In no uncertain terms, the officer in charge—a short, stocky man with the voice of a bull—let us know what was expected of us. There would be absolutely no talking and everything would be “on the double.” We scrubbed floors until our hands were cracked and blistered. Then it was around the compound on the double in the hot sun until the sweat ran down our backs. If anyone slowed down, the guard was there to give him a boost with the butt of his rifle. Next, we might have to lift a tub of water over our heads, and then, on the double again, we had to run around the compound with this cold water splashing over us. This was the daily routine.
Three of us Witnesses were detained in this camp. But after a short time one decided to join the army. While awaiting his release, he was given freedom to talk with me in an attempt to convince me to follow his course. But I realized that what knowledge I had of God’s purposes had been received in association with Jehovah’s Witnesses. So I was determined to stick with them.
Under the rigorous conditions in the camp, time passed slowly. But finally came my release and transfer back to the army barracks. The procedure was repeated and soon I received notice of a second court-martial.
The next sentence was also for six months, but in a civil work camp at Burwash, in northern Ontario. The trip was unforgettable, for I went as part of a chain gang, handcuffed in pairs and then all joined together by a heavy chain. As we walked through the streets of downtown Toronto to the railroad station and settled in our seats on the train, still chained together, we were the object of many curious stares. I was the only Witness in the gang.
In Burwash, life was better than in the military prison, for we worked outside cutting trees and logging them through the snow during the winter of 1944. In the evenings, we could read and talk. So I was able to do considerable witnessing to other prisoners. After about five months I was on my way out, having been dishonorably discharged from the army. I had been classified as deficient under the PULHEMS health test. In this test each of these letters stands for a part of the human body (U-upper limbs, and so forth) and anyone who received an “8” under any letter would be discharged. I got an “8” under the “S” (Sense perception). Simply put, I was considered mentally unbalanced.
THE QUESTION HAPPILY RESOLVED
Even with that ‘risky recommendation,’ I was invited to help in the printery used by the Watch Tower Society. Grace already was working there. Operating a press was a new experience but enjoyable, and it was a delight to work with a fine group of fellow believers. After four years, in June 1944, the ban was lifted, the Society’s office in Toronto was reopened and soon plans were under way to get the Kingdom-preaching work moving openly.
In December 1945, we were assigned to work in the Society’s literature depot at Vancouver. Two years later, we were participating in the circuit work, visiting the congregations in beautiful Fraser Valley. After a year of this exciting work, we were thrilled to be invited to the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead to receive training as missionaries. How this strengthened our faith in the Source of the “dynamic energy” manifest in the tiny atom! (Isa. 40:26) All too soon, graduation day came and went and we were packing our bags for a foreign assignment. Eliminating the unnecessary items, I hesitated a long time over two books by Dr. Herzberg on atomic and molecular structure, volumes that had served as the basis for my studies. Finally, they were left behind. The question had definitely been resolved.
On December 29, 1949, we reached our assignment in Santiago, Chile. At first, Spanish was a problem. But then we began to see that our labors were producing fruit in the form of productive Bible studies with honest-hearted persons, some of whom had never before seen the Scriptures. Several of these loving Chileans became our spiritual brothers and sisters. How heartwarming it was to see their enthusiasm and zeal for the truth! The Kingdom-preaching work grew by leaps and bounds as more missionaries joined us and congregations were formed throughout the land. Our new vocation truly was rewarding!
With the years came new privileges of service: helping in the Society’s expanded branch office at Santiago, serving as Kingdom Ministry School instructor and visiting branch offices and missionary homes in nine neighboring countries in order to give encouragement and to help to unify the preaching work. What joy and satisfaction to see Jehovah’s blessing as the number of his praisers in these lands continued growing!
April 1969 brought a big change in our lives. We were assigned to the branch office in São Paulo, Brazil. Yes, it was necessary to learn a new language, Portuguese. Leaving Chile was not easy after having seen Jehovah’s people there increase from 200 to 6,000 over a period of 19 years. Among these persons were several of our spiritual children and grandchildren, as well as many of those with whom we had worked for years. However, our motto was, “Here I am! Send me.” (Isa. 6:8) So, with heavy hearts, we said “Hasta luego” to them all, but with many happy memories to cherish in the years ahead.
In Brazil there already were 55,000 persons zealously proclaiming the “good news.” The work was making progress in this Catholic land where so many lean toward spiritism. Yet, here is found the same willing spirit in serving Jehovah, with thousands accepting Bible truths each year and dedicating their lives to God. Through their diligent work there are now over 106,000 Kingdom publishers in 2,012 congregations in Brazil. In São Paulo, the Bethel family, which cares for the needs of these congregations, has grown from 40 to 155. Five years ago, we rejoiced in the dedication of a new factory for printing The Watchtower and Awake! in Portuguese. Now, crowded to overflowing, we are again in the midst of a building program involving a new Bethel home and factory, located in a peaceful setting among Jehovah’s marvelous creations 140 kilometers (87 miles) from São Paulo. And only Jehovah knows what increases are still in store for his people in this land.
So do I ever regret not having answered affirmatively the question: “‘To be, or not to be,’ an atomic physicist?” I still find atomic physics intensely interesting, absorbing. But how could there be regrets over having come to know the great Scientist and Mathematician who designed and created the atom? How can we regret using most of our lives in making him known to others? Can there be regrets over having become part of a worldwide spiritual family dedicated to Jehovah? Far from regrets, I feel just as did Asaph, who declared: “The drawing near to God is good for me. In the Sovereign Lord Jehovah I have placed my refuge, to declare all your works.”—Ps. 73:28.
[Picture of Fred Wilson on page 5]