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.

Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
Neil deGrasse Tyson Shows Why Small-Minded Religious Fundamentalists Are Threatened by Wonders of Universe
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
Rosetta’s Comet Rendezvous
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Salim Nair

    I have not read the book yet, so this is just a comment on what is mentioned in the review. I am an engineer and probably have a better understanding of the technical terms. So, the paragraph was not completely impenetrable to me. However, I have seen much more dense paragraphs in philosophy and literary criticism works, not to mention postmodern writing.

    I argue that it is necessary that more popular science writers write in precise language instead of using pained analogies. I believe the large majority of new-age science gobblegook uses these analogies from popular science books and consider them as the actual effect. Think of Deepak Chopra and his non-locality BS. I don’t think there can be too many spiritual interpretations of the quoted paragraph from Stenger. There is a growing market for science and technology writing. If more science writers use the correct language and use minimal amounts of flowery analogies, maybe more people will come to understand the real science better.

  • Infophile

    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.

    Probably “only” an undergraduate university education in mathematical physics is necessary. I work in astrophysics, and everything in that paragraph I covered in my undergrad program. In fact, this might be a problem: To a working scientist, this is simple stuff. Stenger might feel that he’s simplifying it enough for a general audience, but he’s not going quite far enough.

    Then again, there is the problem that physics gets quite mathy past the high school level. You can use analogies to explain a lot of it, but as Salim mentions, this raises the threat that someone might interpret those analogies as being true-to-life, or at least valid for more than limited cases. But it does pay to try, I think.

    For instance, one analogy for the quoted paragraph would be to imagine a woman tossing a ball up into the air, over and over again. You can walk around her and watch her toss the ball from any angle, and you can even run by her and watch her toss it as she’s moving relative to you. No matter how you look at her, the laws of physics describing the ball’s motion will be exactly the same. You can write down the same equations in each case (with just different starting coordinates and velocities), and they’ll be obeyed. That is, the laws of physics are invariant under rotation (moving around to look at her from a different angle), translation (moving away from or toward her), and motion (moving relative to her).

    However, if you run at an ever-increasing speed while you look at her, it won’t look like the laws of physics are being obeyed. She’ll catch the ball, but it will trace out a path in the air that makes it look like an unseen force is acting on it. You can make the equations of motion work, but you need to change them to do so (adding an extra acceleration term to everything). You can’t just change the starting conditions; you have to change the nature of the equations themselves. The end result is that the laws of physics aren’t invariant under acceleration.

  • Izkata

    Not even a full undergrad. He’s using a lot of big words to make it sound more complex than it is, but once that’s decoded, he’s talking about stuff I learned in AP physics back in highschool – equivalent to the introductory physics courses in college.

  • Loren Petrich

    I had no trouble understanding Adam Lee’s quoted paragraph, but I agree that it will go far over the heads of many of the book’s readers. I’ve known people who cringe in fear of even the simplest mathematics.

    As to atomism and atheism, there’s nothing that rules out a deist sort of god who creates a Universe in some simple state and lets it run. However, that’s not the sort of god that most believers and theologians want to believe in.

  • David Simon

    Correctness, comprehensibility: just one or the other isn’t good enough, you need both.

  • MNb

    “This validates ….”
    No. The concept of fields used for energy and particles does not postulate a void.

    “I think the success of modern physics is a valid argument for atheism”
    I am not so sure. Modern physics by definition only researches the material universe and has nothing to say about a metaphysical or transcendental reality. Not that I buy it as a proof that the latter has meaning, but I don’t think modern physics provides arguments against it.

  • JonJ

    The question is: where is the proof that there is a “metaphysical or transcendental reality”? That is: who needs it?

  • JonJ

    As Lee says, it’s precise language, and science is built on precise language. The words aren’t any bigger than they need to be to state exactly what the author is talking about. One could argue that Stenger didn’t have to be so precise but in his earlier books, especially God: The Failed Hypothesis, he used much more “layperson’s” language.

    I’m not very well trained in physics at all, either (not trained at all, in fact, but have worked my way through a few books on quantum theory) but I really didn’t have trouble understanding the quoted paragraph. In fact, I think it is clearer than a lot of writing on quantum theory I have read. I think I’ll give this book a closer look.