The relationship of Dennis and Patricia Marks had a studious aspect right from the start. They first met when he saw her at an outdoor concert in New York City—where they both grew up—and struck up a conversation about the book she was reading, a volume of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In preparation for their second date, Dennis read the entire trilogy in a week. “The rest, as they say, is history,” he said.

They married in 1968, creating a kind of union of the arts and sciences. Dennis Marks, FCRH ’66, was a physics major who had wanted to be an astrophysicist for as long as he could remember. Patricia, a 1965 graduate of Douglass College, part of Rutgers University, had wanted to be a writer ever since playing with a portable typewriter in her bedroom as a girl.

They pursued their ambitions together, earning doctorates in astronomy and English and later securing faculty positions at Georgia’s Valdosta State University, where they are now professors emeritus.

Strong believers in liberal arts education, they recently set up a bequest to establish an endowed chair in cosmology at Fordham, supporting the University’s $350 million fundraising campaign, Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student, which seeks to enhance the entire student experience.

Students will find plenty of mind-bending questions in cosmology, the science of the origins, structure, and nature of the universe. Dennis Marks, for his part, has focused his research on finding a common mathematical language for Einstein’s theory of relativity and the quantum mechanics of particles too small to be seen. He noted that cosmology is a broad field, encompassing scientific fields but also philosophy.

Patricia Marks, an Episcopal deacon, also deals in the unseen, or at least the little noticed. She built the web page Sisters in Faith to bring attention to the mission work of Episcopal deaconesses between 1885 and 1970. And in the latest of her six books, They All Said Amen: Unheard Voices in the Bible, she writes about the spiritual experience of people in the background during biblical events. Using a modern analogy, she wrote in the book that while those in the limelight are long remembered, “the ones who carry the trays of snacks are there too. The passersby in the hall, the assistants, are there. We are there too, and we are listening.”

Tell me more about cosmology and why you decided on that field for this endowed chair.
Dennis: Cosmology really is the place where you can tackle big questions. My favorite course to teach was titled Cosmology, and I co-taught it with a philosophy professor. It’s not only about the origin of the universe and how the universe grows and how it increases in complexity and consciousness, but also what’s knowable, and how do we know it? One of the breakthroughs in quantum mechanics has to do with the fact that when we measure something, we inevitably bring ourselves into the measurement, so there’s no absolute objectivism, but by the same token, our subjectivism is shaped by what’s outside us and not just what’s inside us. I believe that cosmology has ramifications in all other disciplines, from the origin of the chemicals to quantum theology.

Come again? Quantum theology?
In senior theology at Fordham, I was taught by a priest who proposed, essentially, a scientific experiment—what do different religions say about the mystical experience? He wanted to get something that was not culturally determined. What he found in common across religions was the idea that, essentially, all is one, that there is no separation between the other and the self, and so on. And to some of us, it really sounded like an application of quantum mechanics, in which there’s no separation between here and there. And so quantum theology builds a theology on the interconnectedness of the one and the other.

Patricia, how did you get the idea for writing about bystanders in biblical stories in They All Said Amen?
It probably stems from my coming in contact with students who are basically forgotten by the system. One of my students, an African American girl who was the first in her family to go to college, asked me this question about an assignment: “Would it be all right for me to write about Rosa Parks?” You can imagine that people had said to her, “We cannot talk about African Americans who are heroes.” And a friend of mine who was a very good Baptist used to come to our [Episcopal] Vespers group and join me in special services. She very much wanted to be a deacon in the Baptist church, but couldn’t, as a woman, so she came to a place where women were allowed to do many of the things that she couldn’t.

And so I started to think it would be interesting to take a look at the people in Bible stories who were probably standing on the side—the woman listening and thinking, “Oh, this is wonderful,” but unnoticed by anyone. This, I think, is very much related to what I’ve been doing—visiting people who were basically forgotten in nursing homes or who were having problems at church and personal problems. You listen to them, and it makes a real difference.

Does this kind of theme show up in your other work?
I love researching ideas and stories that were basically forgotten, which is why I’ve done all that research on the deaconesses. It’s very difficult in some cases to uncover any information about these women who went by themselves to foreign countries at a point where women were not supposed to travel by themselves, and yet they went ahead and they set up libraries, they set up hospitals.

You’ve both been affiliated with a number of universities. Why did you choose Fordham for this chair?
We decided on Fordham because of its commitment to undergraduate liberal education, or education for life. One of the delights at Fordham was being in class and hearing resonances of ideas in other disciplines, so that the disciplines were each like a piece of a single cloth. Because of the accelerated physics major, we were block scheduled, and so you had a theology professor trying to prove to 28 physics majors that you can violate the laws of nature and have miracles. It was a challenge for the faculty, as well as for the students, and it was a wonderful experience. I really think that the boundaries between disciplines are just for administrative purposes. There really is, in my mind, only one academic enterprise.

To inquire about giving to any area of the University, please contact Michael Boyd, senior associate vice president for development and university relations, at 212-636-6525 or [email protected]. Learn more about Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student, a campaign to reinvest in every aspect of the Fordham student experience.


Chris Gosier is research news director for Fordham Now. He can be reached at (646) 312-8267 or [email protected].