A Hobbit’s Tale: a Testimonial to Fr. Daniel J. McNamara, S.J.

Fr. Daniel J. McNamara, S.J. was transferred to Ateneo de Davao University last summer 2008 after spending decades at the Ateneo de Manila University and the Manila Observatory. He celebrated his 50 years as Jesuit last 23 Nov 2007. A tribute was given to him in his 69th birthday last 23 June 2008 and an endowment fund was launched in his honor to fund the studies of a physics major from the province (see p. 14 of the Loyola Schools Bulletin 2008, June-July, vol. 4, no. 1).

To commemorate his departure, I wrote last 12 June 2008 the following piece:

I.  Gandalf

I first met Fr. Dan during the summer of my senior year in physics. It was a cool afternoon but I am sweating. It was difficult to follow his footsteps because he walked in yardsteps. But I caught up with him, at last, in the corner corridor of third floor of Padre Faura Hall.

“Father,” I said, while trying to catch my breath. “I want to learn geometric algebra.”

Fr. Dan looked down at the wide-eyed hobbit awaiting his word. He took a doctor’s prescription paper from his pocket and began his lecture.

“The number i,” he said, “is both an imaginary number and a vector rotator.”  He drew a cross, a direction, and an i. He then gave me the paper and left.

The next morning he gave me a book: “Multivectors to Clifford Algebra in Electrodynamics” by Jancewicz.

“This is a good introduction,” he said.

Indeed it is. It took me an hour to understand each equation, a day to read each page, and a month to finish Chapter 0. I skimmed through the other chapters: they are too advanced for me. So I closed the book. With my little background, I then began to read other books and articles on geometric algebra, reading only what I can understand—an equation here, a paragraph there. Tolle lege. Take up and read, as the little angel advised St. Augustine. I toiled. After a year, I finished my thesis on electromagnetic energy-momentum, written in courier font by hand and inserted in a maroon slide folder—there were no binding rules then. That was in 1997.

After college, I don’t know what to do. I was thinking of going to Los Banos to do research in Dr. Muriel’s Institute on Microphysical Fluid Dynamics. When I told Fr. Dan about my plan, he told me that I may learn many things there, but in two years I may not get a degree. He accompanied me to the third floor of Faura—the research office used to be there—and gave me application forms for the Philippine Council for Advanced Science and Technology Research and Development (PCASTRD) scholarship. I was accepted. In two years, I finished my thesis on polarized light—typewritten, double-spaced. But because I did not follow the graduate school style, my manuscript was returned. And from that time I learned how to turn on the computer. That was in 1999.

II. Cambridge Tales

In January of 2001, while I was still teaching at the University of St. La Salle in my hometown in Bacolod City, Fr. Dan emailed me that there is a geometric algebra conference in Cambridge University, England. I sent my manuscript on the Hestenes spacetime algebra for polarized light to the organizers in Cavendish Laboratory. It was accepted.

Fr. Dan sponsored my trip. It was my first international flight, my first international conference. I took a train from the London airport and passed by some square patches of green fields and yellow grain amidst rolling mounds and hills.

“Hobbiton Station,” the train announcer said.

I looked at the window, but I saw no hobbits.

“Maybe they are hiding in holes,” I thought.

I left the train at Cambridge Station and set my first foot on medieval soil. I saw distant castles enshrouded in mist. I passed by King’s College. I walked on Silver Street. I saw churches, lots of churches—strong as stone, tall as towers—glories of once Catholic England. I bumped into one of them, but the sign in the big black door reads: Anglican. I walked farther and found another one: it’s a pub. Across its large glass window stood a statue of an angel holding an empty font, while white men tasted spirits and drained draught. The last church I went to was old and weathered, yet stands still as a proud witness to the centuries past: the Church of St. Mary and the English Martyrs. (Is it the same as the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs?) I entered. It was dark and empty.

In the conference I met many creatures great and small. There was Hestenes himself, a large man with full gray beard.

“Are you the guy from the Philippines,” he asked in a deep, gruff voice.

“Yes,” I said. And I shook hands with the giant of geometric algebra.

He was glad that I came. I sent him my M.S. thesis before for his comment and he suggested that I attend this meeting.

There was Baylis of Canada, a thin old man, smaller than I.

“Are you Baylis of Pauli algebra and polarized light?,” I asked.

“O,” he gasped, and his surprised eyes sparkled. “That’s right. That’s right,” he said, and laughed like a little old elf.

And there was Sommen of Belgium, bearded and stocky—strong enough to wield an axe .

“You know,” he said, as he brandished his mug over his protruding belly, “I love to give lectures that make my students sleep.”

In the last evening of the conference, I did not join the farewell party. I felt sleepy. Cambridge summer chilled my bones and British humors cracked my lips. I went to my room and covered myself with four furry blankets. My watch said it’s 8:00 p.m. but the sun refused to sleep. I longed for home.

III.  Monk Hobbit

In Summer of 2002, I went back to Ateneo, upon Fr. Dan’s advice. A new Ph.D. in Physics program had just been opened. I entered the doctorate, thinking I will be headed for cloud studies. I worked as graduate assistant for two years, a faculty for three years, a graduate assistant again for another year, and a consultant for a summer to support myself. Under Fr. Dan’s supervision, I was able to write some conference papers, journal articles, and book chapters. But I am not still done with my dissertation. This is already my seventh year. It’s now 2008.

To help me finish fast, Fr. Dan directed me a month ago to my monastery: a bare brick building amidst a field of flowering grass, beside a forest of undying trees, under the loving gaze of heaven, in full view of the setting sun. It is the Manila Observatory’s Ionosphere building, the former office of Fr. Badillo, the little prince of Philippine physics with an asteroid named after him. I now sit on his swivel chair as I count sunrises and sunsets through a lone open window. Behind my desk are stacked some remnants of the bygone years: a large magnifying glass, an aircon turned icemaker, and a 386 computer with 5 ¼ inch floppy drive. A wooden crucifix hangs near the window, on top a dusty portrait of the Sacred Heart. When the window darkens, I know it is night. And I leave.

Fr. Dan is leaving. To where he is going I cannot follow. Hobbits have holes, birds have boughs, but the son of Ignatius has no place to call his home. Forever he is a pilgrim and a priest, in the Company of Jesus, in obedience to the Pope. His mission is universal as the Church is Universal: all peoples, all places, all times. How can the halls of Faura hold him? How can the grass of M. O. bind him? The rule of realms is not his, but worthy souls that are in peril as the world now stands, those are his care. And he shall not wholly fail in his task if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair and bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For he is a steward, too. He is Gandalf. He is Fr. Dan.

Farewell Fr. Dan. You will surely be missed.

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About Quirino M. Sugon Jr
Theoretical Physicist in Manila Observatory

2 Responses to A Hobbit’s Tale: a Testimonial to Fr. Daniel J. McNamara, S.J.

  1. Bea Lumanas says:

    Hi Sir Sugon,

    I used to be your student in Analytical Physics. I enjoyed your class even though your exams gave me unthinkable headaches. Hehe.

    I will surely miss Fr. Dan too. He was my retreat guide during the 8-day retreat in Mirador Jesuit Villa. It was a very beautiful experience.

  2. Wants to be Anonymous says:

    It would be very interesting if you expound on your memorabilia some more. I am very happy for you that you are getting very wonderful opportunities as a theorist!

    On a more practical note, some of your comments seem to imply that the Manila Observatory that used to be a premier research institution way ahead of similar functioning labs in pagasa / phivolcs / dost / denr seems to have been lost many years in the past.

    I hope and pray that the Manila Observatory and the Ateneo could be restored to its former glory… I guess this is slightly related to the post about Fr. Reuter that got me to your blog in the first place :)

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