Tuesday, September 9, 2008

With a Bang or a Whimper?

For nine years now, far underground land spanning Switzerland and France, the largest and most powerful particle accelerator ever built has been under construction.

According to the website of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), the purpose of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is “to smash protons moving at 99.999999% of the speed of light into each other and so recreate conditions a fraction of a second after the big bang.” The LHC will begin circulating its first beams tomorrow (Wednesday, September 10, 2008) and the first collisions are anticipated about a month later.

Scientists anticipate that the experiments constructed with the LHC will bring about a new era in the study of particle physics. As the above quote says, scientists hope that the LHC will be able “to recreate conditions a fraction of a second after the big bang.” The Big Bang is the inconceivably large explosion that scientists think lies at the origin of the universe. Needless to say, these experiments stand to enhance tremendously our knowledge of how the universe came to be and of how it works.

Some hope that the LHC experiments will eventually lead to the elusive Theory of Everything—a single theory that would make sense of the workings of the universe and thus reconcile or sort out the various theories of physics currently in play, particularly relativity and quantum physics.

This is exciting stuff. I’m one of those Christians that is disliked by both radical secularists and by radical fundamentalists because I affirm the reality of God and of God’s revelation on the one hand and because I affirm the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise on the other hand; I have faith in God and I’m grateful for science. Perhaps I’m simple-minded, but I still believe what I have said to parishioners and to students for decades now: it is the role of science to teach us the “how” of creation and it is the role of the Bible to teach us the “why” of creation. Frankly, I’m more interested in the “why” than the “how”; thus I am a minister/theologian rather than a scientist/researcher. But I affirm the attitude of UCC pastor Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your World who said, “When I learn of a new fossil discovery, I don’t think to myself as I used to, ‘That doesn’t fit with Genesis.’ I think, ‘Wow, isn’t this cool how God made us’” (Baptists Today, September 2008, p. 6).

So I’m looking forward to seeing where the experiments conducted with the LHC will lead us. New knowledge is a good thing.

There are, though, people who are scared to death about what will happen when the LHC is operational. Some are speculating that the particle collisions could lead to the creation of a black hole into which the earth—and everyone on it—could be sucked. Such fear has even led to death threats against the scientists involved in the project. Most scientists, among them the eminent Stephen Hawking, dismiss such fears, saying that even if a black hole is created, which is not likely, it would be very small and would go away very fast.

Still, I wonder. Even though I appreciate and advocate for scientific advance and even though I have no fear over the LHC (any fear that I did have would be grounded in my ignorance and I try to avoid such wastes of time and energy), I do wonder if and when the time will come when we go too far. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel may speak to this matter. The people in that story wanted to build a tower with its top in the heavens. God judged that it was too much and so he confused their language and scattered them. This etiology of the origin of diverse languages speaks theologically to human hubris and over-reaching. It may be that the LHC will lead to knowledge that could destroy us all. Of course, our discovery of and manipulation of nuclear power has placed similar knowledge in our hands for over sixty years and we’re still here—for now.

It all comes down to eschatology, I suppose. There will be, the Bible teaches, a fulfillment of all things according to the plan of Almighty God and guided by the grace and justice of the God who sent Jesus Christ into God’s creation to begin the process that will lead to its ultimate redemption. I do not know if in God’s plan God will work through the kind of human silliness that could lead to human destruction; given that God has always worked through human instruments it would not surprise me, assuming (probably wrongly) that I will have the opportunity to reflect on the matter, if God did. Again, I’m a simple-minded person, but I affirm what my late friend Rev. Hugh Garner constantly affirmed: “Everything’s going to be all right…some day!” I believe in God’s “some day.” Therefore, I do not fear. Neither should you.

As T. S. Eliot wrote in The Hollow Men (1925),

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

How God chooses to bring it all to its conclusion—whether with a bang or a whimper—is, to state the grossly obvious—up to God. Meanwhile, we should pray and work to share God’s love and to make this old world as habitable and peaceful as we can.

And when the end does come, hopefully we can sing the song of the redeemed, or at least of REM:

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

So tomorrow they’re going to switch on the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. I suspect that all will be well. But whether it’s well or not well---

Even so, come Lord Jesus!


Joshua Ruffin said...

Jen and I were just talking about this a couple of nights ago...yes, we do things on the phone besides giggle and swoon over each other. With regard to the fears surround this device, I think that if Hawking himself is saying "Calm down, ya'll" then we can probably breathe easy.

Personally, I've always been more interested in the how...if makes for some serious mind-screwing...than the why, but I'm MOST concerned with the question of "How can I make the most of my time here?"

johnj said...

As has been pointed out in many comments, naturally occurring cosmic rays can have energies billions of times greater than the particles in the LHC. We're still here.

The particle energy scale of significance to our lives is 1 electron volt "ev" not the energy scale that requires numbers written by 1 followed by so many zeros that they are best written as 10 followed by a double digit exponent or using metric multipliers, G meaning billion, or T for trillion, Gev or Tev.

The LHC is the next step in a progression going on for 75 years. Each new instrument answers some of the questions posed by theory and the data from existing machines but results in more new questions than answers. Perhaps somewhere in this progression some interesting and useful new physics will be discovered.

The world Wide Web that we are using to comment on the LHC (and everything else) is a much better candidate for a modern "Tower of Babel" than high energy physics.