Science – unifying principles

Are science and religion in conflict?  Far from it! The very concept of  scientific research is very well based on a  subconscious awareness of the G-d-created  order in the universe. This is most evident  in the recent revival of the search for a  “United Field Theory,” otherwise known  as the Theory of Everything, which aims  to discover the basic underpinnings of all  the forces of the universe.

As the Chovos HaLevavos writes in  Sha’ar haYichud, one sign of Hashem’s  unity is how the limitless individual  creatures and forces of the universe gather  into ever narrowing sub-categories and  categories until they can be reduced to  two generalities that include everything  – form and substance. This, he writes,  indicates Hashem’s inscrutable unity that  lies behind them all. Modern science is on  a similar quest in its own terms.

This is the secret behind a giant  “tragedy” of the 20th century. Historians  call 5665/1905 annus mirabilis (the  miracle year), because during this year  Albert Einstein burst into a paroxysm of  intellectual creativity unequaled since the  days of Isaac Newton. This is the year  when he created the quantum theory of  light, suggesting that light pours down in  tiny particles, which nowadays we call  photons. Later that year, he completed his  Special Relativity Theory, which proposes  that energy and matter are actually two  facets of the same thing, or, mathematically  speaking, that E (energy)= m (mass times)  c2(the speed of light multiplied by itself).  This idea that matter and energy are  transposable eventually unleashed the  atom bomb that converts a tiny package of  mass into explosions of energy capable of  destroying the entire planet.

The Special Relativity Theory also  proposes that time and space are relative.  Take two people, one walking along at  a leisurely pace and the other speeding  along at half the speed of light. If the  second person returns to earth after a  week’s excursion, he will find that his slow  moving friend passed away a thousand  years earlier (in earthly time). In other  words, space and time are inexorably  linked. Moving through space changes  one’s experience of time.

Even more amazingly, Einstein  churned out these ideas not while relaxing  in the ivory tower of academia, but while  clocking in forty hours a week at his  humble job in a Swiss patent office.

During the next twenty years he  continued adding revolutionary insights to  science. His claims included that gravity  is an alternate form of acceleration and  that matter exists as particles and waves  simultaneously. His theory of general  relativity suggested that gravity does not  merely pull things through space, but  distorts the fabric of space.

Then came the big “tragedy.” After  about 5687/1927, Einstein’s contribution to  science seemed to dry up – relatively – and  many scientists regarded his last decades  as a stupendous waste of effort. What was  Einstein doing with his enormous talents  during his last thirty years or so? He was  trying to discover a “Unified Field Theory”  that would find a common underpinning  to every force in nature, particularly  electromagnetism and gravity, which seem  totally disconnected from each other. He  felt it inconceivable that “nature” should  prescribe totally unrelated systems for  different forces. What he wanted was a  “theory of everything” that created one  foundation for all the laws of physics. This  conviction was based on his awe of the  universe, because although not religious  in the Jewish sense, he acknowledged the  existence of a Creator.

As he put it, “Religious feeling takes  the form of a rapturous amazement at the  harmony of natural law, which reveals  an intelligence of such superiority that,  compared with it, all the systematic  thinking and acting of human beings is an  utterly insignificant reflection.”      

This is an ancient search. In olden times,  it was easy to imagine that the world was  full of totally disconnected forces vying  for supremacy over each other. This idea  is exemplified in Chazal’s description of  Avraham Avinu with Nimrod after Terach  complained that Avraham had smashed his  idols. Nimrod tried to convince Avraham  that man must figure out the supreme  physical power and make it his object of  worship.

As the Medrash (Medrash Rabba  38:13) says:

“He (Terach) took him and handed him  over to Nimrod.  “He said to him, ‘Worship the fire!’  “Avraham said to him, ‘But I should  serve water that extinguishes fire!’  “Nimrod said to him, ‘Serve water!’  “He said to him, “If so, I should serve  a cloud that carries water!’  “He said to him, ‘Serve the cloud!’  “He said to him, ‘If so I should serve  the wind that scatters the clouds!’  “He said to him, ‘Serve the wind!’  “He said to him, ‘And let us serve man  who withstands the winds!’”

Then mankind began to realize that  everything under the sun is governed by a  system of rules.  For example, over two centuries ago,  Isaac Newton suggested that every object  in creation from the smallest grain of  sand to the gigantic sun is controlled by  the same exact three universal laws of  motion. Briefly these rules are a) that a  resting object stays put until something  external makes it stop; a moving object  goes on moving until something external  stops it. This explains why the moon never  slows its endless circling of the earth. b)  The more force exerted on an object the  faster it accelerates, and the heavier the  object, the slower it accelerates. c) For  every action there is an equal and opposite  reaction – this is why gasses spurting from  the tail end of a rocket shoot it forward.

Simple as these laws seem to us, it  required the brain of the most brilliant  scientist of history to figure them out.  Coupled with Newton’s Law of  Universal Gravitation that can calculate  the gravitational tug between any two  objects, man could now theoretically  plot the course of every particle in the  universe.

Far from making him arrogant, these  discoveries only deepened Newton’s  devout belief in G-d. As he wrote in his  Principia: “This most beautiful system of  the sun, planets, and comets, could only  proceed from the counsel and dominion  of an intelligent Being. … This Being  governs all things, not as the soul of the  world, but as Lord over all; and on account  of his dominion he is wont to be called “L-rd  G-d”… or “Universal Ruler.” … The  Supreme G-d is a Being eternal, infinite,  absolutely perfect.”

Another unification of science was in  5607/1847 when Hermann von Helmhotz  drew on the observations and theories of  earlier scientists to write his work, “On  the Conservation of Force.” Here he  argued that all forms of  energy are interrelated;  energy is never lost but  only transformed. Use  energy to rub your hands  together and they warm  up. As your hands cool,  their dissipating heat  speeds up molecules  in the surrounding air.  Wind or water spin  dynamos that produce  electric power. Oxygen  and glucose combine in  our muscles and give us  energy to move.

This theory, later developed into the  First Law of Thermodynamics, states that  energy is not created or destroyed, but  only changes from one form to another.  Going back to Avraham Avinu’s  argument with Nimrod, it is easy to see  why there is no reason to venerate the  individual powers of fi re, wind, water,  cloud and man. After all, they are all  manifestations of the same thing. Their  powers come from an endless recycling of  the same old energy. 

Einstein developed these ideas further.  By claiming that matter and energy are  interchangeable, the theory of Special  Relativity extended the “conservation  of energy” principle to include not only  energy but matter as well. For example,  during nuclear explosions the mass of  an object decreases as the tiny speck of  its lost mass transforms into a mighty  outburst of energy. By linking time and  space and claiming that every person  experiences time relative to his motion,  Einstein united time and space from two  disparate concepts into a united block of  what is called “space-time.”

With the Theory of General Relatively,  Einstein transformed gravity from a mere  external force into an integral distortion  of space. According to this theory, objects  fall not merely because they are being  tugged by gravity, but because they are  juggled by deformities in space’s fabric.  On top of that, Einstein believed that on  a subatomic level, objects mysteriously  co-exist as particles and waves of energy  simultaneously.

After all that, is it any wonder that  he devoted the rest of his career striving  to locate the “Unified Field Theory” that  would link everything to everything?  Although Einstein’s contemporaries  thought his last decades were wasted as  he failed to discover his elusive goal, his  challenge was picked up again during  the last two decades of the 20th Century  when, in the course of two “superstring  revolutions,” scientists and mathematicians  created insane concepts to unite all the  forces of nature. Firstly, they postulated  that on a super small level, matter consists  of tiny strings. How tiny? As physicist  Brian Greene explains, if a single atom was  the size of our solar system stretching all  the way out to Pluto, a superstring would  be the size of a tree. Just as a guitarist  synthesizes a melody by setting his guitar  strings at varying vibrations, so scientists  claim, each type of superstring creates a  specific sub-atomic particle by vibrating  its particular song.

The second item this theory demands  is hidden dimensions to the universe  – lots of them. Instead of our humdrum  three dimensional world,  the superstring theory  postulates the existence  of 10, 11, or even 26  dimensions.

Although some  scientists complain that  all this speculating is  nonsense because the  superstrings are so tiny  that there is no way of  ever telling whether  they exist or not, there is  hope on the horizon: the  (gigantic) Large Haldron  Collider in Switzerland is  slated for completion in a year or two and  savants dream that high speed collisions  of sub-atomic particles in its caverns may  yield traces of the elusive superstring.

Perhaps unwittingly, scientists  are playing the role of Chanoch who  proclaimed Hashem’s unity with every  stitch he sewed. With test tube and calculus  they are doing much the same.

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