Book Review: God and the Atom

(Author’s Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Written at an expert level; ordinary readers won’t be able to keep up.

Victor Stenger is a professor of physics and the author of many atheist books such as God: The Failed Hypothesis. His new book God and the Atom brings these domains together by arguing for the importance of atomic theory in disproving theism.

Stenger’s aim is to show that scientists have successfully explained the workings of the world at the most basic level as the interaction of material particles and forces. They’ve been so successful, in fact, that there’s no room left over for spirits or supernatural beings – there’s no remaining gap large enough where any such entities could hide. This validates the worldview of Democritus and Epicurus that only atoms and the void are fundamentally real.

I dove in thinking this book would be a good companion to The Swerve, except covering the same material from a mainly scientific perspective rather than a mainly historical one. And that’s what it sets out to do, recapping the experiments and the evidence that demonstrated the existence of atoms, then detailing how further exploration led to the discovery of subatomic particles, then quantum theory, and finally the modern Standard Model of particle physics. Stenger closes with a discussion of the discovery of the Higgs boson and the ongoing attempts at grand unification. But in my opinion, his enthusiasm and grasp of the material outreaches his ability to explain all these concepts at the level of a lay audience.

I’m not a physicist or a mathematician, but I’ve read books like A Brief History of Time and The Elegant Universe and I feel confident that I have at least a decent grasp of the concepts. I’m not afraid of a book that talks about baryon number conservation, CP violation, or supersymmetry. Even so, this book left me in the dust. Stenger fills the entire middle section with complex mathematical equations and diagrams, making virtually no effort to simplify any of it. Here’s a not-atypical passage:

Earlier, I likened a gauge transformation to a rotation of a coordinate system in an abstract space. In the case of quantum mechanics, the state of a system is specified by a state vector in such a space. In the simplest case, the space is the two-dimensional complex plane and the state vector is represented by the wave function, which is a complex number having a magnitude and a phase. A rotation in the complex plane changes the phase but not the magnitude of the wave function, so the probability of the state, given by the square of the magnitude, is unchanged. That is, the probability calculated in quantum mechanics is invariant to the rotation of the complex plane… [p.220]

Now, I know this isn’t gibberish – far from it. It’s highly technical and precise language, and that’s the problem: it’s likely to be comprehensible only to specialists. I feel as if only people who already have an advanced education in particle physics could keep up with this, and those people probably already know it. I gave it my best effort, but I felt my eyes glazing over through a lot of this.

Without overreaching and putting the conclusion too strongly, I think the success of modern physics is a valid argument for atheism. Religious people and churches denounced atomic theory as a godless doctrine for centuries; we shouldn’t allow them to back away from that just because we now know it’s actually true. We’re entitled to draw conclusions from the fact that we’ve catalogued the building blocks of reality in such exacting detail and found nothing that even resembles the spirit or soul. But I think there are books that put this message in more comprehensible, if less explicitly atheistic, terms.

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