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.