Last week, the headlines were buzzing with news from Fermilab, the huge particle accelerator some 40 miles west of Chicago: “A New Clue To Explain Existence,” read the article by Dennis Overbye, from The New York Times.
Very catchy title. (Too bad he didn’t mention my new book, which is all about the importance of this and other asymmetries. The timing couldn’t have been any better.) However, some of the readers complained of the need to mix up science and religion even when reporting on a particle physics experiment. Case in point, Overbye quotes a (very good) theoretical physicist from Fermilab, Joe Lykken: “So I would not say that this announcement is the equivalent of seeing the face of God, but it might turn out to be the toe of God.” Lykken was referring to the comment Nobel Prize winner George Smoot made when reporting on his team’s findings of the temperature properties of the microwave background radiation, the leftover “light” from the period when the first atoms were made, just some 400,000 years after the Big Bang: “it was like looking at the face of God.” Does the existence of matter and antimatter really have anything to do with God? If so, what? And if not, why is there a need to invoke God when publicizing results in cosmology?
Now, Lykken is a serious physicist and his comment was certainly tongue-in-cheek. What he meant was simply that the results at Fermilab are indeed very important and do have a relationship to our existence. But his use of God, as that of Smoot and many other physicists (e.g. “The God Particle”, the book by Nobel laureate Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi, about the Higgs particle, or Hawking’s famous quote that finding a final theory is like “knowing the mind of God”) does tell us something about not only what the public expects to hear, but of the cultural role modern theoretical physicists—in particular physicists working on “origins” questions—believe they have. I am guilty as charged, since this is the main focus of my own research.
Is physics a new kind of theology?
Hardly. To confuse the practice of science with the tenets of religion is a grave mistake. That said, modern physics is encroaching on territory that for millennia has been the province of religion. The goal of modern cosmology is to construct a narrative of the Universe’s history. This history, it is expected, should start as early as possible, hopefully as early as the very concept of classical time, that is, a time that flows inexorably forward, starts to makes sense. Thus, the goal of modern cosmology is quite ambitious, to explain how the Universe evolved to become what it is now, starting from initial conditions lost in the fog of faraway time.
It’s then clear why God shows up so often in news and explanations of cosmology. After all, isn’t Creation (with a capital C) the biggest of all mysteries? If humans could explain how the Universe came to be, what would be left? Sure, there are other mysteries and wonders, such as the origin of life and of mind. But even these are secondary to the origin of all things: without a cosmos there is no life or mind! (Although it could also be argued that without a mind there is no Universe…something for another day!)
So, if cosmology could explain not just why the Universe is the way it is but why the Universe is, we would be entering a new era in the history of ideas: human reason explains Creation and thus human reason is equated with…yes, the mind of God! No wonder the metaphor is so prevalent. It reveals the ambitions behind the whole enterprise. It also goes to show, as readers of my new book know, that we must seriously exorcize this metaphor from science. It’s damaging to science and simply wrong!
The question of why there is more matter than antimatter in the cosmos is indeed very fundamental. The reason it relates to our existence is the following: according to the laws of particle physics, if matter and antimatter coexisted in equal footing, they’d mostly annihilate into pure radiation. That is, according to our present description of particle physics, unless there is an excess of mater over antimatter during the cosmos’s first moments of existence, space would be filled with radiation and not much else. Clearly, given that we are here, this is not what went on. We can then say that, yes, the fact that the experiments at Fermilab indicate that there is an excess of matter over antimatter is consistent with the fact that we are here. What is needed, of course, is an explanation for this excess. Can the current laws of physics produce it?
The answer is no. We need something else, something new, physics that goes beyond our current understanding. This is why the results are exciting; not because it tells us something we didn’t know—there was plenty of evidence for an excess of matter over antimatter in previous experiments—but because it reinforces that our current picture of physical reality is incomplete, that more is needed.
Exciting as this is, I certainly wouldn’t equate this discovery with the toes of God or, for that matter, with any other part of the divine anatomy. Quite the opposite. This discovery is a triumph of human inventiveness, having really nothing to do with God or theology. Science certainly opens new windows into reality, but these windows don’t let us peer into Heaven with any more clarity.