by Kayt Frisch, engineering professor at Dordt College
The Holy Grail for early 21st century physics is “a grand unified theory of everything.” Far from being a pipe-dream, in the last 50 years physicists have made remarkable strides in uniting our understanding of how matter interacts at both macroscopic and microscopic scales. Indeed, it turns out that the model that best describes our current understanding of how the universe works has only four forces (unless the temperature is very high, in which case there are only three) and twelve fundamental particles (the most recently discovered one being the Higgs Boson). According to the model these 12 particles and 4 forces make up everything we call matter and govern all known interactions between types of matter. To add to the level of simplicity and elegance, the relationship between most of these sixteen quantities can be related by a (relatively) simple equation, the “master equation” for the Standard Model (of particle physics, which is short enough to be written on the back of an envelope. However, this equation does not mean that physics has arrived achieved its Quest, because the present form of the equation does not describe one of the known interactions of matter: gravity.
If you stop to think about it for a moment, the relationship described by this equation, even in the sans-gravity state, is astounding. In their book “Why does E=m*c2?” physicists Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw guide the reader through a discussion of modern physics, explaining both Einstein’s famous equation and the components of the “master equation.” Over and over they remind the reader that the equations that physicists use are really descriptions of our understanding of how nature works, and it is clear that they are in awe of the elegant simplicity of nature. “One of the true joys of physics,” they observe, “[is] that laws discovered in tabletop experiments in a darkened laboratory on earth pertain throughout the universe” (167). At the same time, they recognize that “there is absolutely no reason why nature should work according to our common sense rules” (191). The inexplicably simple description for seemingly complex nature clearly astonishes these two particle physicists, and their quest for deeper understanding leads them to a deeper sense of wonder.
As I read the chapter discussing particle physics I was struck again by how the sustaining grace of God is evident at all scales of his creation. As Cox and Forshaw observe this beautiful simplicity they note that the natural world could be far more complex (185). This is true. Nature could be far more complex, and (as Cox and Forshaw also observe) these elegant models may someday be replaced by less elegant ones, but I am awed by the observation that the more we understand about nature, the more it seems to follow predictable patterns. While these evidences of faithfulness in Creation cannot prove God, they do suggest brushstrokes, signs in the book of general revelation that point to a faithful God who created and sustains the universe He created. Observing and remembering these things leads me to join the psalmist in praise of our Creator:
When I consider the heavens / the moon and the stars which you have put in place / what is man that you are mindful of him? / The son of man that you visit him / you made him a little lower than the angels / and put all things under his feet
And to consider what he might have written if he had known a little bit about particle physics:
When I consider the sub-atomic particles / the quarks and the leptons which you have put in place / what is mankind that you are mindful of them? / The children of men that you visit them? / You made them a little lower than the angels / and gave them a structured universe to discover.
Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8)
Quotes are from the hardcover edition of “Why does E=m*c2?” by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (ISBN 0306817586)