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An Interview with Dr. Fr. Paul Gabor, S.J. (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2016/03/08


An interview with Dr. Fr. Paul Gabor, S.J. He discusses: childhood and adolescence trajectory influence on him, pivotal moments in personal development towards an interest in science and theology, the gains from the research and professional experiences; motivation for interest in philosophy and theology; the way that the priesthood entered and benefits personal life, and the greatest intellectual stimulation from within the Jesuits; origin of interest in physics, the physics of the small scale, and the instrumental side of particle physics; PhD work and entailed work, explanation for the lay person, and the esoteric aspects of this research.

Keywords: CERN, Dr. Fr. Paul Gabor, Košice, Particle Physics, science, Company of Jesus, theology, Vatican Observatory.

An Interview with Dr. Fr. Paul Gabor, S.J. (Part One)[1],[2],[3]

1. You were born and raised in Košice, Slovakia[4]. You studied Particle Physics[5] at Charles University[6] in Prague, Czech Republic[7] from 1988 to 1995[8]. You did instrumental work and participated in the development of the A Toroidal LHC Apparatus[9] (ATLAS) detector of the Large Hadron Collider[10] (LHC) at The European laboratory for Particle Physics[11],[12] (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland[13].[14]  How did childhood and adolescence influence this trajectory?  What pivotal events in personal development lead to an interest in science and theology?  What did you most gain from these research and professional experiences?

I must have had a vocation to priesthood since childhood. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, however, meant that I had a very convenient excuse not to do anything about it. You see, the avenue to public ministry passed through a couple of secret police-controlled seminaries. And so, in 1987, following in the footsteps of the Prophet Jonah, I applied to study particle physics at Charles University in Prague instead of heeding my vocation.

2. Furthermore, and with specifics, how did this interest in physics, physics of the small scale, and the instrumental side of Particle Physics enter your life?

Unlike Jonah whose detour was not very pleasant (he was thrown overboard and swallowed by a sea monster which then took him where the Lord had intended), my sojourn among particle physicists was unexpectedly pleasant. The Iron Curtain fell, and I found myself working in Geneva and Grenoble as well as in Prague among research scientists whom I discovered to be, by and large, very generous and great people.

3. Upon completion of this research and work, you entered the Company of Jesus[15],[16],[17] in 1995.[18] You completed a two-year novitiate in Kolin, Czech Republic[19].[20] You studied Philosophy for two years in Cracow, Poland[21], and taught philosophy for one year in Olomouc, Czech Republic[22].[23],[24] In addition to this extensive training, you studied Theology in Paris, France and had ordination in the Priesthood in 2004.[25] What motivated interest in Philosophy and Theology?

By 1995, however, God’s nagging became so overwhelming that I joined the Jesuits. The moment I stepped foot into the novitiate, the nagging stopped, and I felt a profound peace that comes from knowing that things have fallen into place. The novitiate itself was fairly depressing but, despite the turmoil and frustration of the more superficial strata of my being, there was an underlying peace. As for science, I thought that joining the Jesuits put an end to that. I thought that with my background I might perhaps be suited to do some apostolic work among scientists but that my days in the laboratory were over.

After noviciate, I was sent to Cracow to study philosophy. I spent two years there, 1997/1999. Looking for intellectual stimulation, I soon found a unique seminar, held by Michael Heller (Templeton Prize 2008), a diocesan priest, philosopher and mathematical physicist. The participants were undergraduates as well as professors, from a very broad range of disciplines – from logic and mathematics, through physics to psychology. One spring day in 1999, Professor Heller told me, “The Church needs you at the Vatican Observatory.” It came out of the blue, and I did not really think it realistic, considering the priorities of my immediate superiors.

I returned to Czechia to teach philosophy for a year in Olomouc. After that, in 2000, I went to do my theological studies in Paris. In January 2001, I received an invitation from Fr. George Coyne, Director of the Vatican Observatory, to come for an extended visit in the summer, ostensibly for the 4-week VOSS (Vatican Observatory Summer School; held typically every two years since 1986). I got permission and went. It was a very positive experience. In C. P. Snow’s terms, most Jesuits are firmly attached to the culture of humanities, and Jesuit scientists stand out in our communities as exceptions to the rule.

4. How did the Priesthood enter your life? How does the Priesthood benefit you?  Where do you find the greatest intellectual stimulation within the Jesuits?

During my early years in the Society of Jesus, I had come across a few Jesuit scientists who worked in research institutes while leading somewhat isolated lives in Jesuit communities, with the divide between Snow’s Two Cultures running deep across the common room. The Vatican Observatory, however, represents a Jesuit community where a scientist can feel at home. I saw that these Jesuits did scientific apostolate and had daily support of others sharing their mission.

Back in Prague, when I spoke to my Provincial, I did not tell him that I wanted to join the Vatican Observatory staff but my description of the Observatory’s apostolate must have been so enthusiastic that the Provincial told me straight away to looking into attending some classes in astrophysics during my spare time in Paris. By November 2001, it was decided that my formation will continue under the assumption that I would be joining the Vatican Observatory. That meant going back to Olomouc in 2003, ordination to the priesthood in 2004, exercise of pastoral duties in the University parish, return to Paris in 2005 for a “refresher” in physics which took the form of a second M.Sc. in 2006, and then a doctorate in astrophysics in 2009.

My Jesuit formation was then rounded off by seven months of tertianship (an Ignatian repetition of the novitiate, with another 30-day retreat, lots of prayer and reflection) in Australia in January-August 2010. I joined the Observatory in September 2010 and pronounced my final solemn vows in the presence of Father General Nicolas at the Roman Church of Il Gesu` (the Name of Jesus) where St Ignatius is buried on December 8, 2010.

Speaking of my formation as a member of a religious order, I must touch upon one additional point.  When I was twelve, I went through few very dark months resulting in my first conversion. It was very similar to Pascal’s wager, and as such, it was an intellectual conversion. Fifteen years later, my philosophical studies in Cracow brought about a second dark period when I realized that in spiritual matters, intellect cannot provide the level of certainty which I had attributed to it.  It was not until my theological training in Paris, another five years down the road, that I admitted to myself that my faith had been a form of intellectual conviction. At about the same time, I began to realize that for decades I had been overlooking something precious and important. When I was fifteen, I had a mystical encounter with God’s mercy. It was not until 2010, during my tertianship in Australia, that I started drawing from this source. The moral of the story is that the most important things can take surprising amounts of time, that even decades of formation in a religious order can be a very slowly acting remedy, and that perhaps many people mistake the significance of their various encounters with God’s grace.

5. You entered a PhD program in Astrophysics with Alain Léger[26], the individual that proposed the Darwin space observatory[27], after ordination and earned the PhD in 2009.[28] You chose instrumentation and research at the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale[29],University of Paris XI[30]. You focused on “two optical test beds, SYNAPSE and NULLTIMATE.”  What did this work entail?  How can you explain this for the lay person? (In particular, the two optical test beds.) What count as the more esoteric aspects of this research?

Exoplanets. Astrobiology. Nulling interferometry.

Since the discovery of the first exoplanet (planets orbiting other stars than our Sun) in 1995, thousands have been found. Apart from a handful which are very large and very far from their host star, we cannot take pictures of them. In fact, we only discover them by carefully analyzing the light of their host stars. For instance, if we see that the star grows periodically fainter, it may be an indication that there is a transiting planet and it obscures a part of the star’s light when passing between us and the star.

These indirect methods allow us to learn interesting things about the exoplanets but we would like to learn more. In particular, we would like to be able to measure the chemical composition of atmospheres of Earth-size exoplanets to see whether there is anything hard to explain by pure inorganic chemistry. In other words, to find biosignatures. If alien astronomers are studying the Earth they may wonder why there is water vapour, carbon dioxide, and oxygen in our atmosphere. Oxygen is so highly reactive that it cannot remain in an atmosphere in such abundance without being replenished constantly by some production mechanism. Otherwise, it would form oxides with various minerals on the planet’s surface, and free oxygen would soon disappear from the atmosphere. Therefore, the simultaneous presence of water vapour, carbon dioxide, and oxygen is a biosignature. The alien astronomer could deduce from it the existence of life on Earth. If we find an exoplanet with such biosignatures, then we would have a target that might mobilize enough interest in the world that nations would agree to go to have a closer look.

In order to do that we need to learn how to distinguish the light coming from the exoplanet from the much brighter light coming from its host star. When seen from a distance, say by a hypothetical alien astronomer, the Earth is 10 billion times fainter than the Sun in the visible light. What is more, the Earth would be so close to the Sun that, from the point of view of the alien astronomer, the two would blur into a single point of light. It is like looking at the headlights of a distant vehicle: you cannot tell how many there are; they blur into a single source of light. The huge contrast plus the tiny separation between the planet and its host star represent two of the major obstacles to learning more about exoplanets. It can be done, though. One approach is interferometry.

The idea of “beams of light” focused by the eye’s lens is how geometrical optics describes vision. With this simple model of how lenses work, optical astronomers produce images and work with them. When optical astronomers want to know the size of a galaxy, they take a picture, measure the apparent size and multiply it by the scale factor. Radio astronomers, on the other hand, cannot really obtain classical images in this way. Radio waves and light waves obey the same physics but the wavelengths are very different: radio waves are more than a million times longer. This means that if a radio telescope was to have the same resolving power as your eye it would have to be at least a couple of miles across! So, if radio astronomers want to know the size of a galaxy, instead of taking a picture and measuring it, they use a trick called interferometry. It has to do with comparing the time of arrival of the wave at different locations. Instead of one impossibly large radio telescope, with a dish spanning hundreds of miles, radio astronomers use arrays of small dishes separated by large distances. Then they compare the arrival times and other properties of the wave measured in those separate locations and this allows them to measure properties of radio sources, e.g., sizes of galaxies. In a way, they bypass taking pictures and obtain the desired quantities directly from the properties of the waves.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Vice Director, Vatican Observatory Research Group.

[2] Individual Publication: March 8, 2016 at; Full Issue Publication: May 1, 2016 at

[3] MSc (1988-1994), particle physics, Charles University in prague; BA (1997-1999), philosophy, Ignacjanum; BA (2000-2003), theology, Centre Sèvres; and PhD (2005-2009), Astrophysics, Université Paris Sud (Paris XI).

[4] Please see Kosice. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[5] Please see particle physics. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[6] Please see Charles University (2014). Charles University. Retrieved from

[7] Please see Prague. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[8] Please see LinkedIn (2014). Paul Gabor: Vice Director, Vatican Observatory. Retrieved from

[9] Please see ATLAS Experiment (2014). ATLAS Experiment. Retrieved from

[10] Please see Large Hadron Collider (2014). Large Hadron Collider. Retrieved from

[11] Please see CERN (2014). CERN. Retrieved from

[12] Please see CERN (2014). About CERN. Retrieved from

[13] Please see Geneva. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[14] Please see Vatican Observatory Foundation (2014). Paul Gabor, S.J.. Retrieved from

[15] A religious order founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola given the original appellation “The Company of Jesus.”

[16] Please see Jesuit. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[17] Please see Society of Jesus (2014). The Jesuit Curia in Rome. Retrieved from

[18] Please see Vatican Observatory Foundation (2014). Paul Gabor, S.J.. Retrieved from

[19] Please see Czech Republic. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[20] Please see Czech Republic. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[21] Please see Republic of Cracow. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[22] Please see Olomouc. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[23] Please see Olomouc. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[24] Please see VOS Caritas Olomouc (2014). VOS Caritas Olomouc. Retrieved from

[25] Please see VOS Caritas Olomouc (2014). VOS Caritas Olomouc. Retrieved from

[26] Please see Ollivier, M. & Léger, A. (2006). Darwin: A Space Observatory for the Direct Detection of Exoplanets. Retrieved from

[27] Please see Ollivier, M. & Léger, A. (2006). Darwin: A Space Observatory for the Direct Detection of Exoplanets. Retrieved from

[28] Please see LinkedIn (2014). Paul Gabor: Vice Director, Vatican Observatory. Retrieved from

[29] Please see Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale (2014). Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale. Retrieved from

[30] Please see University of Paris XI (2014). University of Paris XI. Retrieved from


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