His Faith Began with Physics

Trained to approach truth scientifically, Tom Ngo studied the gospel using the Book of Mormon index and found some wonderful surprises.

Tom Ngo first received a challenge to read the Book of Mormon from a stranger who was visiting in his dorm at Harvard University. The visitor was there from the Philippines to see his sister. Tom and his new friend stayed up late one night discussing religion, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon. Of particular interest to Tom was the claim that the Book of Mormon came from God. Anyone who wanted that claim confirmed, Tom was told, could ask God directly.

Although active in another Christian congregation at the time, Tom remembers that “to my surprise, I wasn’t suspicious of this person. He simply told me about what he believed and seemed to have asked many of the same questions I was asking.” Another thing that impressed Tom during that discussion was the Book of Mormon promise that if he asked “with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, … [he] may know the truth of all things.” (Moro. 10:4–5.) Tom felt a responsibility to find out if it was true. “It’s on your shoulders,” he remembers hearing.

A biophysicist whose religious journey had so far taken him from early cynicism to a scientific reverence for a genius-creator, Tom seemed ready for what he called “another dimension of faith.” But at this point, Tom wasn’t quite sure what faith, and spiritual promptings, were. Rarely, in religious discussions with friends and teachers, had anyone asked Tom if he had felt the Spirit.

Not one to avoid either a discovery or a challenge, Tom attended the nearby university ward with four Latter-day Saint friends in the dorm, picked up a copy of the Book of Mormon, and began his study—a study that started with the index at the back of the book rather than at the front.

Through his study, Tom researched answers to religious and philosophical questions that had been doing battle with his scientific mind since he was fourteen years old. And even more important, Tom’s study of the Book of Mormon allowed him to understand the workings of the Spirit and how it could influence him and lead him to the truth.

Born in Manhattan, New York, to Chinese parents, John-Thomas Ngo grew up in a home that taught moral values alongside scientific principles. “My parents sparked my interest in science,” he says, relating how his father, Dr. Narciso L. Ngo, used household objects to demonstrate medical principles. His mother, Mary Calderon Ngo, a homemaker with a C.P.A. and an M.B.A., used her background in finance and business administration to teach problem-solving to Tom.

Both parents frequently discussed moral principles in their home, wary of the school system’s tendency to separate values from the curriculum. When the family moved to the Philippines in 1977 for Tom’s father to practice with the U.S. Air Force, they became active in a Christian congregation at Clark Air Force Base. “That’s when I started really thinking about religion,” says Tom.

By the age of fourteen, he had become a skeptic. “I started keeping a journal for an English class,” Tom recalls. “One entry reads, ‘It’s impossible for human beings to know whether God exists. How arrogant it is for us, with our petty minds, to think we can comprehend God.’ I thought science—physics in particular—could eventually explain everything.”

But as the family became more involved in church activities, and Tom began participating in the choir, his journal entries changed. “The more I wrote and evaluated my feelings,” Tom observes, “the more I could understand the ingredients of my beliefs—an important step for an analytical person. I began to see that my own trust in science itself was based on faith.” Tom’s skepticism gave way to questions about the existence of God, questions that stayed with him for several more years.

Tom’s journey toward belief took several steps forward when he turned seventeen. Accepted to Cambridge University in England on the condition that he first complete a year of university studies elsewhere, Tom enrolled in a Jesuit college in the Philippines. Two priests there deeply influenced him.

“One impressed me just by being what he was: a physics professor and a priest—someone who obviously believed in God,” Tom remembers. “The other helped me realize that science couldn’t explain certain things—that physics could explain the observable side of reality, but not its subjective side.” When Tom finished the school year and went to Cambridge, he left believing he had a soul as well as a body.

Cambridge represented other spiritual milestones for Tom. For three years he participated in Christian groups, sang in the choir, and served in his congregation. Most important, according to Tom, “I started genuinely believing in a creator.” While working on his physics degree, he came across equations he described as “so elegant and even beautiful, I came to see a great artist behind them, behind the universe. The more I studied physics, the more I felt a kinship with this being. Science itself was filled with God.”

When he reached that conclusion, Tom decided to do graduate work in physics. He admits, however, that up to this point, “my belief was purely cerebral. When a friend at Cambridge converted from atheism to Christianity, I grilled him for converting for the wrong reasons, still not trusting feelings as a basis for making decisions.”

Tom met the LDS students in his dorm during his first year of working toward a Ph.D. in biophysics. He was actively, and happily, participating in his own congregation at the time, but the more he studied the Book of Mormon through the scriptural references in its index, the more it pointed him in a new direction.

“What I would do was sit down with all my questions,” Tom explained, “and try to find answers one by one.” He took especially seriously his questions dealing with faith, the Atonement, and the Spirit. He asked himself what the Spirit could mean to him, where it came from, and how he could feel it. He marked pertinent scriptures in yellow.

“Looking back,” said Tom, “I now realize that I was reading all the theoretical chapters in the Book of Mormon, those that summarized the most important doctrines and ideas. Those scriptures, the ones marked in yellow, I remember reading over and over again.”

It was Alma 32 that motivated Tom to start praying every night: “Faith as a seed that must be planted, not examined from afar as I had always done—that scripture gave me the impetus to not only pray consistently, but to attend all three LDS Church meetings and take an institute class.”

Tom noticed as he began planting this seed of faith that “for the first time I was understanding quite a bit of what I had read in the Bible but had previously found to be abstruse. Now it was starting to make sense.”

Still, Tom felt that his increased intellectual grasp of the Bible that came from reading the Book of Mormon could not account for the transformations that began occurring in his life. “A close LDS friend explained that the Holy Spirit teaches us by quickening our minds and helping us to recognize the truth when we see it,” he said. “This quickening of mind influenced much of my thought. For example, it was in springtime that much of this was happening, and I found my appreciation for the beauty of that season accentuated.” He also noticed more of the positive in other people’s personalities.

Certain scriptures, too, seemed to quicken his mind and make an impact both intellectually and spiritually. When Tom came across Mosiah 5:2, in which King Benjamin’s sermon so touched its listeners to the extent that they had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually,” he realized that the Spirit “was there not just for convincing us, but also for motivating us and changing us. I cannot begin to say how much I loved reading about that experience.”

He reread the passage nightly for weeks and referred to it constantly in religious discussions. King Benjamin’s words transformed Tom’s view of ethical behavior. He had always thought that to do the right thing was our human obligation and that it must be done by will power alone. “I suddenly began to realize that I could get help with righteous behavior and that the Spirit of the Lord could purge my disposition to do evil.”

Tom continued his investigation of the Church while still attending his other congregation, going to both churches on Sunday, then analyzing the differences. That approach didn’t help much, he recalls. “All of the analysis I went through when comparing the services killed my sense of worship.” He returned to Alma 32 and discovered that “you can’t plant two seeds at once—that’s not the way to immerse yourself and experiment upon the word.”

At that point in his life, Tom wanted to get on with life. “I knew that, at twenty-two, I was at a crossroads.” He realized that conversion would determine obvious future decisions such as marriage, family, and his entire way of living in and viewing the world. He knew that once he publicly declared his faith and conversion, “it would be hard to back out gracefully.”

These concerns humbled Tom and made him painfully aware of his “inadequacy as a human knower.” He began to pray, not out of curiosity or self-imposed obligation but out of genuine concern for his soul. After “praying thirstily,” he began receiving manifestations of the Spirit—answers from God that, at first, occurred several times before Tom could believe them.

“The first time I realized the Spirit might be testifying to me, my mind raced and I had a physical, burning sensation in my heart that caused my whole person to tingle,” Tom remembers.

As the experience kept repeating itself over the next few weeks, Tom was left with a peaceful, confident sense of resolve that let him know that his testimony “didn’t come from an unusual physical sensation. The burning I had in my heart was a natural reaction to the sheer love that I felt from God through the Holy Spirit.” Later, while kneeling in worship at his other congregation, the Spirit confirmed that Tom should be baptized a Latter-day Saint.

On 6 June 1987, Tom was baptized. His parents, still actively involved in the church in which Tom had been reared, were upset when their only child told them of his conversion to the LDS faith. But Tom feels their “Christian love and unwavering commitment” led to his conversion to Christ. “Even when they were least happy with my decision,” he says, “they still showed me unconditional love. That was how I knew that their attempts to talk me out of being baptized were rooted in love.”

Another new LDS friend Tom met at church the day after his baptism helped ease his transition. Erika Matkin, a North Carolina native who, after graduating from Boston’s Simmons College, now worked at the city’s Eye Research Institute, shared Tom’s interest in science. Struck by Erika’s “spiritual sensitivity, reverence for others, and absolute consistency in her Church-related service,” Tom pursued the relationship. He and Erika were married in the St. George Temple on 20 August 1988, and according to Tom, she has continued to be an example ever since.

“She doesn’t nag or make me feel guilty,” Tom says. “But, for example, after we had been in England one semester, I neglected to regain contact with my home-teaching families when we returned. She just mentioned that she was concerned about my home teaching, which reminded me of my responsibility. It was not long before I was doing my home teaching regularly again.” A calling as ward elders quorum president gave him further impetus as well.

Tom no longer distrusts spiritual experiences. Learning to “give way to the Spirit,” he has found, helps to bring them on. He counts the birth of his and Erika’s first child, Philip, in January 1990, among the greatest spiritual experiences he has had. “I had never really had contact with babies,” Tom says of the experience. “I was stiff when the nurses placed him in my arms. He was so tiny and helpless, and I was overcome with gratitude that God had trusted me to be a parent to him. I felt so close to Philip and our Heavenly Father at that time.”

One month later, while blessing Philip, Tom wept openly with joy. “I felt connected—to Philip, to Erika, to the assisting priesthood holders who had helped me to grow in faith, and to our Heavenly Father,” he remembers. In August 1991, Tom and Erika had a second child, Sarah, who brings an added dimension of joy into their lives.

Blessings have also come to Tom as he progresses in his seventh year of a doctoral program in biophysics at Harvard, working in the subdiscipline of computational chemistry. He uses computers to calculate the physics of biologically significant molecules and has published papers in scientific journals. At age twenty-eight, he has a promising academic future ahead.

In addition to his fascination with physics, Tom’s study of the scriptures through topics listed in the topical guide and the index continues. Social pressure against religion from colleagues in his profession hasn’t deterred him from either his studies or his commitment to the Church. Continuing to cultivate the seed of faith, Tom Ngo finds that it grows well under the supervision of a Creator who rewards those willing to “experiment upon [his] words” (Alma 32:27).

[photo] Photo by Jed VanDenBerghe

[illustrations] Illustrated by David Linn

Elizabeth VanDenBerghe serves as the Primary nursery leader in the Holladay Eighth Ward, Salt Lake Holladay South Stake.