By Robert Kaita, Ph. D.
Albert Einstein’s writing helped changed the way we see the world. His papers included evidence for why everything is made up of atoms and an explanation of phenomena on that very small scale in terms of what eventually became quantum mechanics. One of the papers also introduced the world to the special theory of relativity.
Einstein posed a question that scientists, as scientists, still cannot answer. He asked why the universe is comprehensible. We do not know, for example, why there are only a few laws of physics. The same law of gravity can be used to describe how we are held to the earth, but also how immense galaxies are attracted to each other to form clusters.
We know that the universe is very old but that it is not infinitely old. We do not know why it had a moment of origin, which is now commonly called the “Big Bang.” This frivolous name was invented by adherents to a “steady-state” universe, and was meant to reflect their contempt for a universe with a beginning. However, astronomers found evidence for the “Big Bang” by looking at the way distant galaxies were moving away from us. As the theory predicts, those farthest away also had the fastest velocities.
We think that carbon was made inside stars long ago. However, we do not know why enough of it was created in this process, relative to heavier elements, to make life possible on Earth. The carbon is believed to have been released when the stars exploded, and enough eventually coalesced on our planet during its formation to become a part of every living organism.
Some scientists explain all of this by saying that it is just the way it has to be. In other words, if the universe were different, we would not be around to ask why things are the way they are. This “explanation” actually has a formal label. It is the “Anthropic Cosmological Principle,” and the first word in the name reflects its emphasis on the existence of human beings as the reason for everything we observe.
Other scientists, like myself, are perfectly comfortable in saying that our universe is all the work of a creator. Everyone would have to agree, however, that a person can hold either position and still be a good scientist. It takes just as much faith to claim that there is no creator behind what I just described as to believe that there is one.
Without going to the extreme of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, many envision a creator who had the very limited role of just “getting the ball rolling.” People might be familiar with those who take great pains in setting up a huge number of dominoes, perhaps to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. The role of the creator of the universe, in crude analogy, would be to knock down the first domino, and watch the rest fall down.
Somehow, we have a sense that such a picture is not very satisfying. Why would some entity go through the trouble of creating the universe as we know it, and simply sit back and see “how things work out?” But an even more fundamental question for the scientist is this: Does the universe really “work” like a set of dominoes falling, one inexorably after another, without any intervention?
There is a riddle that goes like this. “How many software engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer is, “None. It’s a hardware problem.” Whether you laugh or groan, the basis behind this joke is easy to understand. In our common experience, lightbulbs and every other contrivance of human ingenuity do not last forever.
As an experimental physicist, I sometimes pause to marvel at the miracle of my car starting after I’ve had a hard day in the lab struggling to make some balky apparatus work. There is no question about the need for an experimenter to take an active role to make experiments succeed. Similarly, everyone knows what happens if the “interventions” specified in a car service schedule are too long neglected. The phrase “driving your car into the ground” has a good empirical basis.
Even leaving equipment “on the shelf” is no guarantee that it will work when you need it. My research focuses on developing nuclear fusion (which is the process that powers the sun) as a safe and clean energy source. Part of my work involves evacuating chambers which contain the hot, ionized gases, or plasmas, which must be created for fusion reactions to occur. For this purpose, we use high-speed pumps with carefully manufactured bearings. Just letting the bearings sit for a seemingly modest length of time will deform them enough to make the pumps fail.
Given my intimate familiarity with “hardware problems,” occasional envy of my colleagues in theoretical physics may not be surprising. Their codes run even after they have been set aside for some time. If they don’t, the cause can usually be traced to tangible equipment that can “wear out.” The solution for code developers is then to get someone else to fix the hardware. But can they be absolutely certain that this will cure the problem? This bears on a deeper question regarding the physical laws that govern the operation of chips at the heart of modern computers. Why should these laws stay the same from one day to the next? We can imagine hardware wearing out with time, but there is no fundamental reason why the software that runs on them should be as “immutable.”
For me, I find the answer at the end of the eighth chapter of Genesis. There, God makes the following sacred promise to humanity.
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.
There is no a priori reason that season should follow season, so that the seeds we plant will lead to the harvests that are necessary for our survival. Rather, it is God who insures this regularity “as long as the earth endures.”
Of course, not everyone needs the answer Genesis provides for why science will “work” tomorrow. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle could be invoked to “explain” the persistent patterns we see in our universe by asserting that if it were not the case, we could not exist. Such an approach reflects, once again, a focus primarily on ourselves in the here and now. It begs, however, the deeper question of why we are here in the first place, and belies an egocentrism that has existed since the dawn of humanity.
The point is illustrated in the following event during the ministry of Jesus Christ two millenia ago. In the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we read the story of Jesus encountering ten men who had leprosy. He told them to go show themselves to the priests, and they were cured. However, only one came back and threw himself at the feet of Jesus with thankfulness and praises to God. While the miraculous cure is important in this story, there is an equally significant lesson in the differing reactions of those who were cured.
The miraculous in modern science ultimately has nothing to do with the fact that we now have medical treatments for leprosy, or how many songs you can stuff into an iPOD for that matter. Instead, it is that we can do, and can continue to do, science at all. In that sense, all scientists tacitly believe in this “miracle” to perform their work.
The validity of such an assertion should not be in question. Rather, it is how we react to this reality that is the key issue. The responses of the men Jesus cured thus continue to inform us today. We can focus “anthropically” on ourselves, and run off with blithe disregard of what a blessing our very existence represents. Or, we can turn with thankfulness to God who created us and sustains all of creation.
Published March 30, 2016