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June 26, 2019

5/16/2019 1:58:00 PM
Los Alamos National Laboratory presents local grad with chance to help blaze a trail for science and industry

The prestigious National Laboratory at Los Alamos, in New Mexico, has offered Lindstrom native and Bethel Class of 2019 graduate, Aidan Tollefson,  a post bachelor position.   

Aidan, whose parents are Tom and Sandy,  says he is excited to be part of the “rich nuclear research legacy” of Los Alamos.  He expects to be working  developing atomic detectors. The research outcome could lead to a tool, able to locate enriched uranium with the potential to be transported by clandestine groups.  

Bethel Collge Professor Emeritus of Physics,  Dick Peterson,  who keeps in contact with a former student at Los Alamos,  Dr. Randall Erickson, had suggested Tollefson look into a position there.  

Tollefson had already participated in a summer research experience for undergraduates (REU) through the University of Notre Dame,  which certainly didn’t hurt his resume.

Tollefson was home-schooled, and is a double major in philosophy and physics.  He was quoted in  a Bethel University newsletter piece, saying, “God wants us to be creative and study His creation. Physics is about discovering the fundamental components of the world and the rules He’s set out.”

Not many areas of study could layout a more interesting life for this young man than coming to terms with science and humanity.  

Los Alamos attracts him, Tollefson said,  because researchers there share the conviction that science is to be done for the betterment of the world.

The following is a Q and A by e-mail, as we posed four questions:

Normally I would ask about a school teacher or a class in school-- motivating you to enter the study of physics and philosophy. But you were homeschooled, so in that context was there an incident or something you read. you recall in your young educational life, that turned you towards studying physics and philosophy?

Tollefson: I want to go on record as saying that homeschooling is not an educational concession. I had teachers and classes throughout my educational experience, just like those who were not homeschooled. My wonderful parents provided me with many resources that broadened my horizons, but one of the defining features of my educational development was the philosophy behind it; I was taught that my life and what I do with it matters. Once I understood the profundity of meaning, I took a purpose-driven approach to seeking out my career.
I quickly realized that the questions I asked about reality and existence mostly required seeking fundamental answers. It did not take too long for me to settle on majoring in both physics and philosophy; physics is the most fundamental science and philosophy is the most fundamental of the humanities studies.

You state in the Bethel piece that your professors showed you exciting things taking place in physics. Can you give an example of research or applications that you look forward to being a part of ?

Tollefson: Seeking quantum-related applications of optical physics is a direction that I would like to take with my career. Quantum mechanical technology, specifically quantum computing, has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of science and industry.

At Bethel University I worked on an optical physics research project with my professor Dr. Lemke. In it, we conditioned lasers to cool and trap atoms to temperatures approaching absolute zero. What a concept -- harness the power of light and using it as a tool for science! Not only was this project mind-blowingly fun, but the techniques I learned while working on it have direct applications to nuclear and quantum related technologies.
One reason why I am looking forward to my job at Los Alamos National Laboratory is that I get to employ the specific optical and nuclear related knowledge that I have learned over the past few years at Bethel.

You are quoted as saying you feel that God wants us to study his Creation. At what point did you begin to feel science and Creation did not have to be either/or concepts?

Tollefson: In the realm of philosophy of science, there is constant discussion surrounding whether science is fundamentally based on correlation of data or the mechanisms by which data correlates to an action. More simply put, do physical laws describe an action perfectly, or do they merely predict an outcome accurately?
Most philosophers of science hold that our understanding of physics can always be more fundamental. History speaks to this conviction:  Einstein’s theory of relativity revolutionized newtonian mechanics, and only a few decades later, quantum mechanics revolutionized the theory of relativity! Science is fraught with reform and revision, which is what makes it so powerful.

Every scientist I have ever met has a worldview that educates and colors their interpretation of the world. Science is merely the process of describing observations of the universe, and worldview is intimately involved in this evaluative process. So, I believe worldview and science are inseparably connected. In every worldview, there is an element of faith; it all comes down to what you hold as basic.

Most scientists have faith that the development of the universe was initiated by the Big Bang. They have faith that nothing whatsoever existed before the Big Bang, but everything that currently exists came after it. But what explanation is there for something to come out of absolutely nothing? I have faith that my God could have initiated the Big Bang.

I find,  a belief in an all-powerful God, who harmonizes all aspects of reality contains less of a leap of faith than does a belief in the universe and delicate existence of life coming about through extremely improbable, random, and unguided physical circumstances.

I hold God to be basic. Others hold physics to be basic. But the question that truly got me is, how can one hold a belief in physics to be basic if it is generally agreed upon that one’s understanding of physics is constantly changing.
I believe that God created the physics that I study, and this physics correctly represents the universe He created. Studying the sciences is simply learning about the thoughts of God. In this way, studying science is in fact studying Creation. I cannot point to a specific time when I realized that science and creation were inseparable subjects, but I do know that the more I study science and philosophy, the more I see God.

To older generations, the laboratory at Los Alamos is where scientists created a bomb that annihilated an unfathomable number of people and did extensive property damage -- but the work at the lab also ended a war.
Does the lab still hold that mystique for new up-and-coming researchers -- or is the attraction now the promise of being part of a team involved in a cutting edge facility?

Tollefson: I think the term “mystique” is an incorrect one to use.   Romanticizing the power and destruction that the advent of nuclear weapons brought about is an inappropriate attitude to have. The scientific work pursued at LANL has real consequences; LANL should be approached respectfully.

To be sure, working in a state-of-the-art research laboratory full of modern resources is attractive, but that is not one of the primary draws of LANL. LANL has a body of employees united in their philosophical conviction that science is to be done for the betterment of humanity. History has shown time after time that science is a tool that can be used for benefit or for harm depending on the motives of the user. LANL researchers are committed to doing science for good, to protect humanity, and to prevent evil hands from getting a hold of dangerous physics. A purpose like that cultivates a unity of mind among scientist; a community united around a singular mission is powerfully attractive.

Additionally, for a researcher like myself, LANL possesses a special gravitas due to its history with the Manhattan Project. The project, which was centered at LANL, was directed by some of the world’s most gifted scientific minds (Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, and Leo Szilard to name a few). Their legacy set LANL on its present course and established its position as the world’s premier nuclear research laboratory. To me and many others, the opportunity to be counted as a contributor to the rich LANL nuclear research legacy is uniquely humbling.


After Los Alamos, Tollefson says he might pursue post graduate school, and possibly a profession involving diplomacy.  

He thanks the Bethel community, saying the faculty really invests in their students.  

“That sounds cliche,” he continued, but they’re here late...it’s encouraging to have professors who want to know who you are.”  

The Chisago County Press appreciates permission granted to use some information from the March 2019 on-line Bethel article, written by Monique Kleinhuizen.  

The week of June 24-28 is Private College Week in Minnesota,  and Bethel has a variety of open house and informational events. See the website or contact the school offices.

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