Writer shares his love of physics at alma mater


mcevoyatcamdencatholic-webPhoto by Carl Peters

Joe McEvoy, a science writer and graduate of Camden Catholic in 1955, when the high school was in Camden, speaks to a class at his alma mater April 7. This was his first visit to the school’s current location in Cherry Hill.




CHERRY HILL — Science writer Joe McEvoy graduated from Camden Catholic in 1955, when the high school was in Camden, and he had never been to its current location in Cherry Hill. As he faced the students in the auditorium, he said, “This building is 50 years old, but to me it looks new.”

Of course, time is relative, as people like to say since Einstein revolutionized physics a century ago.

McEvoy likes to talk about Einstein and others who have shaped the world of science. He gave the Camden Catholic students a synopsis of the history of the field, from the ancient Greeks to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe — all before second period on April 7. He also spent time in classrooms that day.

McEvoy describes himself as a “champion of science education.” He left research years ago to devote his time to popularizing science, to describing scientific discoveries and those who made them in an accessible way to a broad audience. He is the author of four books, the first of which, “Introducing Stephen Hawking,” was published in 1991.

A lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Hawking is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who has made important contributions to the fields of cosmology and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes. But Hawking, who is almost completely paralyzed and speaks through a voice synthesizer, also has become widely known to the general public through his best-selling book, “A Brief History of Time,” as well as by playing himself in several episodes of “The Simpsons.”

McEvoy spent two weeks in Cambridge with the scientist and persuaded him to come to the Royal Albert Hall in London for the publisher’s launch of “Introducing Stephen Hawking.” At one point Hawking tried to back out of the appearance, worrying that no one would show up. The event drew 6,000 people.

McEvoy, who makes his home in England, went on to write “Introducing Quantum Theory” (1996) and “Eclipse” (1999). His most recent book, “A Brief History of the Universe,” was published last year.

Before he ever thought about explaining quantum theory, black holes or the history of the universe, McEvoy was a teenager living in the Cramer Hill section of Camden, helping his fellow students with their math. In his junior year, his friends began talking about going to college. Should he go to college as well? He still remembers asking one of his teachers, Sister Mary Claver, who told him, “Joe, you are very good at math. Why don’t you study physics?”

And that’s what he did, at St. Joseph’s College (now University) in Philadelphia. McEvoy went on to earn a master’s degree in physics from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate from the University of London.

He returned to St. Joseph’s to speak to science students on April 6, the day before he spoke at Camden Catholic. It was his 74th birthday, and he was doing what he likes to do. McEvoy still sounds like a young man in love when he talks about the surprising work of astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt or Sir Arthur Eddington’s experiment that confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Someone McEvoy admires is Philip Morrison, a distinguished physicist who reached a popular audience through his numerous books and television programs, including “Powers of Ten” (1977) and the 1987 PBS series “The Ring of Truth: An Inquiry into How We Know What We Know.”

For McEvoy, explaining how we know what we know — and separating knowledge from superstition and unfounded ideas — has become his life’s work.

“If anyone tells you the Big Bang is not correct, give them my phone number,” he told his Camden Catholic audience.