The Genesis Machine

Is a revolution in science and religion underway?

On 30 March 2010, momentous experiments restarted at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. 

In one of the coldest places in the universe -- a liquid hydrogen-cooled tunnel 17 miles in circumference and 300 feet below the French-Swiss border -- things were about to go nuclear and then some. Indeed, by April 2010, scientists had already created ten million mini-Big Bangs.

Scientists at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are smashing bits of atoms to Kingdom Come. Subatomic particles called protons whiz around the tunnel in opposite directions until reaching darn close to nature's speed limit -- 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum. Superconducting magnets guide the little speedsters toward a cataclysmic collision, whereupon they release astonishing amounts of energy. Given the equivalence of mass and energy as represented in the most famous equation ever -- E = mc2 -- the energy from these subatomic fireballs will produce particles that haven't been around since the Big Bang. It will be like looking back in time about 13.7 billion years to the creation of our universe. 

A related experiment will smash electrically charged lead atoms together to create a quark-gluon plasma that mimics conditions shortly after the Big Bang. As the plasma cools, the freestanding quarks and gluons, some of the basic building blocks of matter, will combine, allowing scientists to observe the emergence of particles that make up the matter in our universe.

These experiments carry dramatic theological overtones. Their results may transform our philosophy of life, our conception of our place in the universe.

Have you ever wondered how, or why, we are here? Did you ever ponder the odds of your existence? The laws of nature are uncannily calibrated to make us possible -- minuscule adjustments to forces of gravity or electromagnetism would ruin our day. Matter itself is barely feasible -- tweak the forces that occur within atomic nuclei and we would disintegrate instantly.

Ultimately, we are made of the constituents of atoms that the LHC is now smashing to smithereens. Indeed, one of the most philosophical things I've ever heard is that "The world is made of atoms." That's why 30 March 2010 is one of the most important days in the history of the universe, literally. Physicist Michio Kaku, author of "Physics of the Impossible," said it's "[a] huge step toward unraveling Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 1 -- what happened in the beginning."

It's astonishing that nature tolerates us; there are vastly more ways the laws of physics are configurable to make our existence problematic. There seems to be some intelligent design going on, but some physicists are not comfortable with this, so they offer exotic theories about how and why we are here. One theory gradually becoming vogue postulates that our universe is only one of many. This seems more metaphysics than physics to me, but scientists are generally uncomfortable with creationism, so they offer alternate explanations by proposing alternate universes. The only way they can account for the great improbability of a universe that supports life is if there are multiple universes. The more the merrier, in fact, for that will increase the odds of one of them being amenable to life. If there are an infinite number, then life is bound to occur, randomly, in at least one.

Until there is proof -- which may be tricky, since such universes are cut off from ours so by definition are unknowable -- I'm sticking with the Genesis metaphor. Let me introduce one of its proponents, the intellectual father of what became known as the Big Bang. 

Georges Lemaitre was a brilliant Belgian physicist who in the 1920s hypothesized about a primeval atom that, through a "creation-like" event, expanded into our universe that continues to accelerate even today. Lemaitre provided theoretical underpinnings to renowned astronomer Edwin Hubble's observations. Lemaitre was the first person to explain the expansion of our universe; he was also a Roman Catholic priest and honorary prelate.

There is not yet a verifiable scientific explanation for what set off the Big Bang, but Lemaitre's primeval atom sounds suspiciously like the Big Bang singularity that physicist Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time, made famous. It's a tiny particle with infinite density where the known laws of physics break down; in this mysterious realm, where a "creation-like" event occurred, philosophy and religion hold as much sway as speculative science.

One thing's for sure: There was something miraculous about the conditions within that singularity. For a minuscule period, Lemaitre's primeval atom inflated exponentially before cooling enough to settle down into the more gradual expansion that Lemaitre himself was the first to explain theoretically. The infinitesimally small singularity wrought a Genesis in which nature's forces were exquisitely tuned to allow for a Universe conducive to life, even where inhospitable alternatives were far more likely.

Our universe has been expanding for about 13.7 billion years, and the experiments at CERN are recreating conditions that will help us rewind that history to just after the Big Bang. What came before is a mystery where religion and science converge into the unknown. Perhaps Genesis 1:1 is as good an explanation as any:  "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

It seemed routine in my neck of the woods, but it turns out that 30 March 2010 ushered in what could become the greatest revolution in science. It may also prove to be a watershed in the resurgence of religion, or at least pique your curiosity in why we exist when we really shouldn't.
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