A Force Beyond Our Understanding

A Force Beyond Our Understanding

Theoretical physicist Stephen M. Barr insists that science and faith can coexist.

Professor Stephen M. Barr

That day in 1963, 10-year-old Stephen returns from school to his family’s Manhattan apartment, and before long is squabbling with his older brother.

“Why are you spouting this garbage?” his brother snaps. Little Stephen speaks up. “’Cause they told us in science class. You can’t create something outta nothing. So how could God make the universe? You just think that ’cause you’re a dummy.”

“Stephen, come here,” his father calls from the bedroom.

Stephen’s father puts down the book he’s been reading and tells his son to take a seat. An assistant dean at Columbia University’s engineering school, he’s a man of science. That’s why Stephen is surprised by what his father says next.

“Many smart people in history have looked at the beauty and order of the universe and have believed there must be a mind behind it. What made the law that matter can’t be created or destroyed? If there’s a law, why can’t there be a lawgiver?”

And in that instant, with that single question, the cosmos opened up for Stephen M. Barr.

Today, Stephen is a professor of theoretical physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware; a researcher into grand unified theories, CP violation and baryogenesis; and well known among his colleagues as one of the discoverers of the Flipped SU(5) scheme of unification.

If you’re not sure what any of that is, you’re not alone. Stephen works in one of the most rarefied fields of science, picking up where Einstein left off in the quest for a “theory of everything.”

But Stephen is also the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, which argues that modern scientific discoveries not only are compatible with religious beliefs, but help us understand some of the great mysteries of faith. He agreed to answer our questions about the nature of the universe.

Why do many people believe science and faith can’t get along?

Some people have the false idea that God is in competition with nature. If something can be explained naturally, then God had nothing to do with it, and if God did, then it must be supernatural. That’s completely wrong.

There’s a wonderful quote from the theologian John Calvin: “Whithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory.”

Monotheism cleared the way for scientific discovery. The Bible taught that the sun, the forces of nature, living things, weren’t gods themselves, but masterworks of God. The universe thus came to be seen as a great work of engineering.

But don’t modern scientific discoveries weaken the argument for a creator?

Let’s take the big bang. Up until about a hundred years ago, all the evidence seemed to point to the universe having had no beginning.

As I once argued to my brother, the amount of energy in the world never changes. If it never changes, then whatever energy is here now must have always been here, so the universe couldn’t have “started.”

In the twentieth century, along came Einstein’s theory of gravity, and astronomers found that the universe is expanding. That led to the big bang theory, proposed by a physicist who was also a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître.

None of this is to say that the big bang proves the strict biblical doctrine of creation, but the fact that the universe had a beginning in time does kind of make one think.

Is there anything in the big bang theory that defies the laws of physics?

No. The second law of thermodynamics says that “entropy,” or disorder, increases with time. That is why things grow old, wear out, run down, decay, fall apart. It is why– from a physics point of view–we all must eventually die. It is also why it is regarded as impossible to build a “perpetual-motion machine.”

No machine can run forever without breaking down in some way. But a universe that had no beginning would be, in effect, a perpetual-motion machine. That’s a problem that afflicts all attempts to construct theories of a universe with no beginning.

Couldn’t all this be random? Just a lucky combination of things that led to the universe we live in?

What physicists have discovered in the last 40 years or so is that there are what we call anthropic coincidences. If you take the laws of physics as we know them and the structure of the universe and you try to make certain minor modifications to them, then the universe would be sterile. There wouldn’t be different kinds of life–there’d be no life at all.

What are some of these anthropic coincidences?

The classic example is one of the forces of nature, the “strong force.” It holds the nuclei of atoms together.

If that strong force were only a little bit weaker, most of the elements would not have formed. Had it been only a few percent stronger, stars would burn out too quickly to support life. There are many others. I wrote a very important paper on one of them...

About the Higgs boson and the Higgs field…

The Higgs field is responsible for giving most particles their mass. Now, if that field were stronger or weaker by just a tiny amount, the masses of particles would have been such as to make it impossible to have life.

The whole possible range that the Higgs field could have is only a narrow window if you’re going to have a universe with life; and of course it does fall in that window. That’s a remarkable coincidence. It strongly suggests that the universe was constructed in order to have life arise in it.

Now, there is something called the multiverse idea, which hypothesizes that the laws of physics take a huge number of different forms in different parts of the universe . Then there would almost have to be some places where the laws are “just right” to allow life. You could call this the Goldilocks universe.

About Adam Hunter

Modern Physics and Ancient FaithOrder a copy of Stephen’s book, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith  (2006, University of Notre Dame Press).

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