Potato and peas: our understanding of reality
As far as we can tell there are about a hundred billion galaxies, each one containing roughly about a hundred billion stars. That makes some 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, give or take a few. Quite a lot really.
I’ve always been fascinated by cosmology, defined by NASA as "the scientific study of the large-scale properties of the universe as a whole." I try to keep up-to-date by reading regular articles in the New York Times while recently there was a great series in my BRF Guidelines on ‘Our Creator God.’
The fact that I cannot understand the underlying science does not deter me, for the simple reason that few people can. In fact, my only qualification for blogging on the subject is that Jacqui and I once had a leading cosmologist, John Polkinghorne, for tea.
In fact, John once commented: “God didn’t produce a ready-made world. The Creator has done something cleverer than this, making a world able to make itself.”
First of all, cosmology is awesome. To quote the Psalmist: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4f)
The fact is that the very substance of our being, the material that is me, is formed from the atoms forged in the furnace of the stars, even under the sovereignty of Christ, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, . .all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16)
And more: we are made for a relationship with our Creator, not just to serve him but far more significantly, to love him – the one attribute which separates us from everything else (as far as we can see) in the entire created order.
For this is the rub, the challenge – so to speak – facing God as he speaks creation into being. How can he make us so that we have genuine choice, for love requires undisputable freedom to choose? It is essential that human beings made in the image of God are not simply programmed to love, as in a Newtonian universe where everything runs like clockwork. There has to be indeterminacy.
And this is where modern cosmology comes in, as demonstrated in the uncertainty principle. Here we now enter the bizarre world of quantum physics, the non-intuitive rules that inject randomness into the world. It’s totally weird in which a subatomic particle like an electron can be anywhere and everywhere at once, and a cat can be both alive and dead until it is observed.
As Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), who introduced us to this uncertainty, once observed, “Not only is the universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.”
The dichotomy between the study of the very big and the very small is best described by Stephen Hawking’s wife, Jane, in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything.
Over dinner she uses peas and potatoes to make her point: “The two great pillars of physics are Quantum Theory (the peas), the laws that govern the very small electrons particles and so on and General Relativity (the potatoes) which govern the very large, planets and such.
“They don't remotely play by the same rules. Peas are chaotic, and don't behave predictably at all. If the world were all potatoes, easy: you could trace a precise beginning. But if you want to incorporate peas into the menu, then it all goes!”
As you can imagine a lot of effort has been made to try and make sense of the peas and potatoes which make up reality. The latest it seems is that, according to the most recent articles in the NYT is the possibility that our three-dimensional universe - and we ourselves -may be holograms, when a flat object appears to exhibit an extra dimension. Weird.
There’s no point going any further – it’s beyond me and I’m running out of space. But the essential point is that God has made this amazing universe and what is just as amazing is that he has made self-aware creatures who would seek to understand his handiwork, us.
And as ever in knowledge, the more you know the more you realise how very little we know – in fact, just 0.5% of reality (although estimates vary). According to Britannica: “Dark matter makes up 30.1% of the matter-energy composition of the universe; the rest is dark energy (69.4%) and ‘ordinary’ visible matter (0.5%).” Dark, in that we have no idea what it is.
All this is mind-blasting, and above all an irrefutable argument for humility before our Creator.
And so the psalmist summons all creation to worship our creator. “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!” (All ten billion trillion of them). Also “mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!”( (Psalm 148:3,9f)
As Paul Ewart writes in his BRF notes: “ So with vision enhanced also by science, seeing God is his artwork and action in creation, we see what praise is. Praise is not limited to singing complimentary songs about God or acknowledging his character; it is also what creation does simply by existing. If you want to see what praise is, look around you.” (page 46)
As I have just read in this morning’s Psalm: “How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep!” (Psalm 92:5)