I am a Christian and a physics professor, and I want to talk to you about things I do not know. Now this might come as a surprise. When one thinks about groups of people who readily acknowledge that they don’t know things, Christians and physicists are probably not two groups that jump straight to the top of the list! But if you scratch the surface, people like me will tell you that there is much we don’t know, and, in fact, far from being something to sweep under the rug, these things help motivate our work and faith and give our lives purpose.
Mysteries of the Universe
“First we learned that the universe does not revolve around us. Now we find that we are no more representative of the entire universe than the letter ‘h’ is representative of the entire alphabet.”
That there are things we do not know is perhaps nowhere more obvious than when we consider our current scientific understanding of our place in the universe. For millennia, it seemed obvious that the Earth was at the center. Then there was the Copernican revolution, replacing the Earth with the Sun. Now we know that our Sun is just one of billions in our galaxy, and that our galaxy is just one of billions in the universe.
Our understanding of time has similarly been completely transformed. Up to the early 20th century, the scientific consensus was that the universe had always existed. Now we know, thanks in part to the work of Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic priest and physicist, that the universe and time itself can have a beginning.
In the last few years, we have learned more counterintuitive things. In my field – the interface of particle physics and cosmology – we have learned that the standard model of particle physics that describes all known particles accounts for only about 5% of the energy and mass of the universe. The rest is composed of “dark matter” (27%) and “dark energy” (68%). In other words, 95% of the universe is in a form we don’t understand.
All of this is humbling. First we learned that the universe does not revolve around us. Now we find that we are no more representative of the entire universe than the letter “h” is representative of the entire alphabet. As far as we’ve come, we have no brighter prospects for a “theory of everything” than Isaac Newton, who said, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore,…whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
But, of course, this state of affairs is also very exciting: it implies that we have new vistas to explore that may lead us to whole new worlds of particles and forces and more fundamental laws of nature. This is one aspect of the gift of not knowing things. In this case, it instills a feeling of wonder and a larger purpose as we join the great minds of the past and present, working with scientists all around the world to solve some of the profound mysteries of our time.
Beauty in Science
“Our current scientific understanding is remarkably simple, elegant, ordered, and beautiful. Why is this? This is something we do not know.”
But it goes deeper than that.
In fundamental science, beauty plays a significant role. It is hard to define beauty in science. But other words used to describe this concept are “symmetry,” “simplicity,” “elegance,” and “order.” Let me try to explain it using symmetry.
Consider two shapes – one a circle, and the other a squiggly line that meanders around and eventually closes back on itself. Which one is more beautiful? To a physicist, it’s the circle: the circle has the beauty of symmetry.
Now consider the four known forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. These forces are very different. We learn about gravity before we learn to walk and about electromagnetism when we first see lightning or are given refrigerator magnets to play with. In contrast, the strong and weak forces are completely hidden in everyday life.
Amazingly, however, these are now all explained in essentially the same ways by theories with great symmetry. In the case of electromagnetism, the symmetry is mathematically equivalent to the symmetry of a circle. In the cases of gravity and the strong and weak forces, it’s more subtle, but they are also described by similar symmetries. Our current scientific understanding is remarkably simple, elegant, ordered, and beautiful. Why is this? This is something we do not know.
The Most Incomprehensible Thing About the Universe
“For Maxwell, the beauty of the natural world that he observed and the fact that he could discover it filled him with wonder, and it gave credence to the idea that there is a Creator who created an ordered universe and created us to inhabit and explore it.”
Even more remarkable is that we are able to discover these theories at all. This fact has puzzled physicists through the ages. Eugene Wigner wondered about this in 1960 in a famous essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” Einstein, in his inimitable style, said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” It would seem to go well beyond natural explanations: there is no evolutionary advantage to understanding the mathematics of symmetries and quantum field theory. Perhaps these are side benefits of being able to track the motion of a rock or a spear, but it seems like a stretch to me.
An alternative, and in many ways more compelling, explanation was expressed in the life and writings of James Clerk Maxwell, one of Einstein’s scientific heroes. Maxwell, in his famous equations, found a single description for electricity and magnetism, a remarkable feat. But he also showed that his equations predicted waves that traveled at the speed of light, showing that visible light, radio waves, microwaves, and X-rays, were also all part of the same phenomenon. Surely this was one of the most wonder-inducing Eureka moments in the history of human thought.
What was Maxwell’s response? Maxwell was a devout Christian, who wrote frequently about his faith. In one letter, he wrote, “I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable.” For Maxwell, the beauty of the natural world that he observed and the fact that he could discover it filled him with wonder, and it gave credence to the idea that there is a Creator who created an ordered universe and created us to inhabit and explore it.
Purpose and Meaning
“But for all, lasting meaning, great consonance, and joy can be found in a life in science coupled to a life of faith.”
How do all these observations impact the big questions in life: What is the purpose of life? What is the meaning of life? People are motivated by many things: to become happy, to become rich, to become famous, to help others, to improve themselves, or to satisfy their curiosity. There is good in many of these, and many of them motivate me, too. But for me, they are not lasting: without an overarching rationale, they crumble in the face of serious setbacks, whether failure, illness, the death of loved ones, heartbreak, or simply the recognition of one’s own limitations and mortality.For me, it is wonderful to go to work every day and explore the things we do not know. This is, in a way, getting a glimpse of God and being a small part of a plan much bigger than myself. This is what Maxwell was getting at, I think, and there is a long and glorious tradition of scientists with the same perspective, from Newton, to Lemaitre, to many in the present day. Some come from Christian backgrounds and have always found the Christian faith compelling; others have discovered the Christian faith later in life. But for all, lasting meaning, great consonance, and joy can be found in a life in science coupled to a life of faith.
“For me, what is truly amazing is the idea that the God who made the universe, from quarks to galaxies, also cared enough for the people in it to be born as a human being and to suffer and die in the person of Jesus, and to bring forgiveness and new life to broken people.”
Of course, the Christian faith goes further. Wonder itself is not the end, but in wondering, we can experience the presence of a God who loves us. For me, what is truly amazing is the idea that the God who made the universe, from quarks to galaxies, also cared enough for the people in it to be born as a human being and to suffer and die in the person of Jesus, and to bring forgiveness and new life to broken people. A poem written thousands of years ago and recorded in the Bible expresses this beautifully:
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”
This, too, I do not know, but it fills me with wonder and is perhaps the greatest gift of all.
Jonathan Feng is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UC Irvine, a 2015 Simons Investigator and a Veritas Riff Fellow.