Yes Virginia...

  1.   The Bible says “God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son …” But my astronomer friends say that with the universe as old and as vast as it is, there is no way God could care about our dinky little planet going around a minor star in an ordinary galaxy. Can God possible care about people like me?

-- Virginia

Virginia, your learned friends are wrong.

They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Some readers may recognize the above words from an editorial in the New York Sun, written in 1897 by Francis Church. But after a century of astonishing advances in science, of tremendous theories beyond anyone’s imagination back then, these words are equally true today.

We have indeed come a long way over a century, and physicists, chemists and biologists know a lot more than in the past. But the most important thing a physicist learns is about the limits of our knowledge. There are things that scientists do not know and we can be sure that we are not going to know these things via science – human knowledge comes with limitations. One major advance of 20th century science was Quantum Mechanics, which includes the Uncertainty Principle, which sets a limit on how well you can possibly know extremely simple things, like where something is or how fast it’s moving.

A century ago, most scientists believed the entire universe was deterministic, and that if you could only specify all the details at one instant of time, you could calculate what was going to happen, forever. As for God, many scientists believed that he just wound up the clock of the universe and set it in motion, and didn’t do anything after that. Time was considered an absolute quantity that nothing could affect… not even God.

And then along came Albert Einstein, who realized that space and time are not absolute quantities, but are related to each other, forming a space-time continuum. The absolute-ness of time was abandoned, determinism was discarded, and scientists realized they hadn’t dug very deep after all.

With that, our understanding of the universe changed dramatically. The mathematics underlying the universe said to even the most arrogant of scientists: “Hey, fella, somebody a whole lot smarter than you thought all this up!” We gradually realized that our viewpoint is terribly limited – that we can only grasp a small fraction of reality. It was a big dose of humility for scientists, but it was necessary. We understand now that there is a big difference between the very little human mind and “the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.”

Fast-forward over a century of progress: In physics: relativity, quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, quantum chromodynamics. In engineering: airplanes, TV, computers. In biology: antibiotics, recombinant DNA, ways to see inside the human body. The list goes on. Our belief in mathematics and symmetry and the scientific method has served us well. The latest hot topic in physics is superstring theory, which asserts that there are not 3 spatial dimensions but 10, and 6 of them are “rolled up” so you can’t find them or make measurements upon them. All you can have is indirect knowledge, based on trusting theory to carry you many steps forward as strings form quarks which form nucleons which form atoms ….

Francis Church’s editorial of 1897 makes another good point: “You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.” Surprisingly, modern physics has brought us up to that veil, and the greatest atom-smashers in the world can’t get us beyond it. Quantum theory assures us that we can’t know it all.

Through it all, scientists stand open-jawed and in awesome wonder, consider all that lies before us, both known and unknown. On the one hand, we are very impressed with the vastness of the universe; but on the other, we are even more impressed that it all makes sense, that the entire story hangs together. There is a unity that pervades all of science, and that unity points very clearly to the realization that Someone is in charge.

About 1600 years ago, long before anybody heard of the theory of relativity, a learned man (St. Augustine) said that God created space and time together, and sees the entire universe as a unit. God is not  subject to the limitations that encumber human beings; God does not  have to sit around and watch time go by; God is simply present to every point in space and time.

As we progress through school, eventually we learn to read logarithmic graph paper, in which every factor of 10 takes up the same amount of space. Two-cycle logarithmic graph paper covers from 1 to 10 to 100; three cycle from 1 to 1000; and 20-cycle paper would cover 20 orders of magnitude. If time is the variable, we can fit all the times about which we know anything at all onto a single sheet of 60-cycle graph paper -- the age of the universe condensed onto one page.

Well, if mere mortals can comprehend this, surely we’ll agree that God can understand advanced algebra too – probably got an A+ in the course. Is your location at some pinpoint X on a planet 3 x 1011 meters from the center of a galaxy somewhere? Is your time coordinate 4 x 1017 seconds? No problem. It’s all right there in front of God, who is simply present to all different ages and different places. The precise word is omnipresent. Paying attention to one point in space-time (where you are, Virginia) is easy for God.

You will say “that’s mind-boggling” and you’re correct: the very limited, very small human mind boggles at really big numbers. What we really need to appreciate is not how big the numbers are, but how limited the human mind is. All minds, Virginia, are little. It is the small size of the mind, not the large size of the numbers, that leads to the mistake of thinking God can’t handle the job.

As editor Francis Church wrote in 1897, “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.” That point has gradually sunk in with scientists. By accepting with humility that we don’t know it all, and that our scientific instruments only investigate a small slice of the universe, we realize that reality extends far beyond the boundaries of science. “Love and generosity and devotion exist, and we know that they give to life its highest beauty and joy.”

  1.   The Bible says “God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son …” But my astronomer friends say that with the universe as old and as vast as it is, there is no way God could care about our dinky little planet going around a minor star in an ordinary galaxy. Can God possible care about people like me?

-- Virginia

Virginia, your learned friends are wrong.

They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Some readers may recognize the above words from an editorial in the New York Sun, written in 1897 by Francis Church. But after a century of astonishing advances in science, of tremendous theories beyond anyone’s imagination back then, these words are equally true today.

We have indeed come a long way over a century, and physicists, chemists and biologists know a lot more than in the past. But the most important thing a physicist learns is about the limits of our knowledge. There are things that scientists do not know and we can be sure that we are not going to know these things via science – human knowledge comes with limitations. One major advance of 20th century science was Quantum Mechanics, which includes the Uncertainty Principle, which sets a limit on how well you can possibly know extremely simple things, like where something is or how fast it’s moving.

A century ago, most scientists believed the entire universe was deterministic, and that if you could only specify all the details at one instant of time, you could calculate what was going to happen, forever. As for God, many scientists believed that he just wound up the clock of the universe and set it in motion, and didn’t do anything after that. Time was considered an absolute quantity that nothing could affect… not even God.

And then along came Albert Einstein, who realized that space and time are not absolute quantities, but are related to each other, forming a space-time continuum. The absolute-ness of time was abandoned, determinism was discarded, and scientists realized they hadn’t dug very deep after all.

With that, our understanding of the universe changed dramatically. The mathematics underlying the universe said to even the most arrogant of scientists: “Hey, fella, somebody a whole lot smarter than you thought all this up!” We gradually realized that our viewpoint is terribly limited – that we can only grasp a small fraction of reality. It was a big dose of humility for scientists, but it was necessary. We understand now that there is a big difference between the very little human mind and “the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.”

Fast-forward over a century of progress: In physics: relativity, quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, quantum chromodynamics. In engineering: airplanes, TV, computers. In biology: antibiotics, recombinant DNA, ways to see inside the human body. The list goes on. Our belief in mathematics and symmetry and the scientific method has served us well. The latest hot topic in physics is superstring theory, which asserts that there are not 3 spatial dimensions but 10, and 6 of them are “rolled up” so you can’t find them or make measurements upon them. All you can have is indirect knowledge, based on trusting theory to carry you many steps forward as strings form quarks which form nucleons which form atoms ….

Francis Church’s editorial of 1897 makes another good point: “You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.” Surprisingly, modern physics has brought us up to that veil, and the greatest atom-smashers in the world can’t get us beyond it. Quantum theory assures us that we can’t know it all.

Through it all, scientists stand open-jawed and in awesome wonder, consider all that lies before us, both known and unknown. On the one hand, we are very impressed with the vastness of the universe; but on the other, we are even more impressed that it all makes sense, that the entire story hangs together. There is a unity that pervades all of science, and that unity points very clearly to the realization that Someone is in charge.

About 1600 years ago, long before anybody heard of the theory of relativity, a learned man (St. Augustine) said that God created space and time together, and sees the entire universe as a unit. God is not  subject to the limitations that encumber human beings; God does not  have to sit around and watch time go by; God is simply present to every point in space and time.

As we progress through school, eventually we learn to read logarithmic graph paper, in which every factor of 10 takes up the same amount of space. Two-cycle logarithmic graph paper covers from 1 to 10 to 100; three cycle from 1 to 1000; and 20-cycle paper would cover 20 orders of magnitude. If time is the variable, we can fit all the times about which we know anything at all onto a single sheet of 60-cycle graph paper -- the age of the universe condensed onto one page.

Well, if mere mortals can comprehend this, surely we’ll agree that God can understand advanced algebra too – probably got an A+ in the course. Is your location at some pinpoint X on a planet 3 x 1011 meters from the center of a galaxy somewhere? Is your time coordinate 4 x 1017 seconds? No problem. It’s all right there in front of God, who is simply present to all different ages and different places. The precise word is omnipresent. Paying attention to one point in space-time (where you are, Virginia) is easy for God.

You will say “that’s mind-boggling” and you’re correct: the very limited, very small human mind boggles at really big numbers. What we really need to appreciate is not how big the numbers are, but how limited the human mind is. All minds, Virginia, are little. It is the small size of the mind, not the large size of the numbers, that leads to the mistake of thinking God can’t handle the job.

As editor Francis Church wrote in 1897, “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.” That point has gradually sunk in with scientists. By accepting with humility that we don’t know it all, and that our scientific instruments only investigate a small slice of the universe, we realize that reality extends far beyond the boundaries of science. “Love and generosity and devotion exist, and we know that they give to life its highest beauty and joy.”