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Ethics and Nuclear Physics

Inspired by the intersection of science and its real-world implications, Aidan Tollefson ’19 lands a prestigious job at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

March 21, 2019 | 3 p.m.

Aidan Tollefson '19

Aidan Tollefson '19, who will work at Los Alamos National Laboratory after graduation this spring

The oldest child of two Bethel Royals, Aidan Tollefson ’19 wasn’t convinced that Bethel was for him at first. He considered a number of private schools across the Midwest, and it took a conversation over coffee with Professor of Physics Keith Stein to realize that “Bethel had far and away the best physics program,” he recalls. He began working in the department before he even started as a student, doing research pro bono because his non-student status prevented him from being paid for it.

Tollefson’s homeschool background had encouraged a deep curiosity and independence, so as a freshman, he dove into Bethel’s broad opportunities head-first. He joined cross-country and track and the Society of Physics Students. He got involved at his church, Catalyst Covenant. Even after dropping his music minor, he practiced piano and guitar regularly, journaling and reading and dabbling in camera reconstruction in his spare time. On a whim, he enrolled in an Introduction to Philosophy course that opened his eyes to studying the humanities formally. He fell in love with the discipline of philosophy—and how it intersected with his love of science.

“God wants us to be creative and study His creation. Physics is about discovering the fundamental components of the world, the rules He’s set about,” Tollefson says. “But God also cares about people and our connections. Ethics and morality deal with how we interact with one another—and even how we pursue science—in a God-honoring way.”

"Physics is a fundamental science and philosophy is fundamental in the humanities. They come around and connect to each other well. Every day, the fog clears a little bit."

— Aidan Tollefson ’19, physics and philosophy double-major

Tollefson took an honors course with University Professor of Physics Emeritus “Dick” Peterson, where the connections between physics and ethics came into greater focus. Peterson has taught the popular general education course, nicknamed the “bombs class,” for decades, focusing on the development of nuclear energy in the 20th century. 

“There is an emphasis on the difficult scientific and ethical decisions that furthered this work in the midst of World War II and after. It is crucial that Bethel students see science and technology as a very human endeavor, and a course such as this is a natural step in that direction,” Peterson explains, noting his own connections to Los Alamos National Lab (LANL), which was central to the pursuit of atomic weapons. “When starting a post-doctoral position at Los Alamos in 1969, I very much wish I had the background of those who have taken this Bethel class.”

"Closely encountering the history of difficult ethical decisions of the WWII period can directly impact any student's preparation for their own career and personal life. C.P. Snow warned of the real dangers of a world in which we are not prepared to bring the ‘two cultures’ (humanities/arts into a complementarity relationship with the sciences) together in a substantial way."

— University Professor of Physics Emeritus “Dick” Peterson

Seeing his unique combination of interests and aptitudes, Peterson put Tollefson in touch with his former student, Dr. Randall Erickson, a global security programs leader and nuclear engineer at Los Alamos, about potential career paths there. Certain he needed a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) or two under his belt, by that time Tollefson had applied to 12 of the paid positions at labs across the country. So although he was offered an interview for an REU at Los Alamos almost on the spot, he had already accepted a summer position in nuclear physics at the University of Notre Dame. That experience, paired with extensive research at Bethel, made him an appealing candidate for a longer-term, post-bachelor position at Los Alamos, which he was offered early his senior year.  

“Aidan is inspiring to work with because he is not deterred in the least by adversity,” says Associate Professor Nathan Lemke ‘06, who worked with Tollefson on his senior research project, optimizing laser cooling and trapping of a gas of lithium atoms. “We've had several parts fail, including a water chiller that quite literally overheated and exploded—and been thwarted by other pieces of equipment. The fact is that progress in experimental science is always slow, and the work always appears too daunting. But through all that, Aidan has never expressed any doubt that this is what he wants to do and that he will reach the finish line. He is passionately curious, which is why I truly believe he will succeed as a scientist after leaving Bethel.”

Aidan Tollefson '19 works in the "AMO Lab" in the Department of Physics and Engineering

Aidan Tollefson '19 works in the "AMO Lab" in the Department of Physics and Engineering

Tollefson becomes the sixth Bethel physics alumnus to be selected for a position at LANL, and he’ll be developing atomic detectors, which could help identify enriched uranium for the Department of Defense at international border crossings. After his position at LANL, Tollefson hopes to pursue graduate school, develop quantum-type technologies in a lab setting, and perhaps pursue diplomacy.

“My time at Bethel was really quite transformative,” Tollefson says. “The faculty here really invest in students. That sounds cliché, but they’re here late. They help you study for your exams. It’s encouraging to have professors who want to know who you are. This environment creates students who are excited, rather than just blindly hoping that this field will provide an opportunity they find exciting. We’ve been given the foresight to know there’s exciting things going on in the industry—and we’ve been able to taste that here at Bethel. And there’s the background of sharing a faith-inspired worldview. At Bethel, students and faculty truly feel they have a higher calling.”

Physics and engineering students presenting research at the University of Arizona.

Aidan Tollefson ’19, Kallai Hokanson '20 and Daniel Upcraft '19 presenting research at the University of Arizona.

Pursue Physics and Engineering at Bethel

There has never been a better time to begin studying physics or engineering at Bethel. The department—which ranks in the top 15 undergraduate departments by size nationally—underwent an expansion and renovation in 2017. Significant funding from the National Science Foundation and other major partners supports student-faculty research, and Bethel has become a leader in the use of advanced labs nationally. New majors include Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Software Engineering—with more on the horizon.

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