By James A. Haught
Electrons and quarks, galaxies and black holes, electromagnetic radiation, DNA and cells, gravity, molecular bonds, the speed of light, the power in the nucleus — these contain a gospel more profound than any written by humans.
Did you know that Albert Einstein, although Jewish, went through a brief childhood phase of devout Christianity? In an autobiographical sketch written at age 67, he described his short-lived faith, planted in him by daily indoctrination at a Catholic school to which his parents had sent him:
Thus I came — despite the fact that I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents — to a deep religiosity, which, however, found an abrupt ending at the age of 12. Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the bible could not be true. …
It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the “merely personal,” from an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation.
Commenting on Einstein’s reminiscence, physicist Heinz Pagels wrote:
What this passage reveals is a conversion from personal religion to the “cosmic religion” of science, an experience which changed him for the rest of his life. Einstein saw that the universe is governed by laws that can be known by us but that are independent of our thoughts and feelings.
The existence of this cosmic code — the laws of material reality as confirmed by experience — is the bedrock faith that moves the natural scientist.
Looking into the soul of the universe isn’t just for world-class physicists. It can happen to anyone who ponders the awesome discoveries of science, from quarks to quasars.
When I was a farm boy in rural West Virginia, my grandfather taught me the orbits of Earth and the moon, and I thought it was utterly amazing that these colossal balls weighing quintillions of tons whirled and circled and rolled forever in open space — and that we live on one of them. When I studied chemistry in high school and learned the combining valences of atoms, I thought it was utterly amazing that this hidden code governs virtually all matter — Earth and the moon, our bodies, trees, water, air.
How could atoms lock together into substances because of gaps in their outer layers of electrons — electrons eternally streaking at nearly the speed of light? Why do the mysterious electrical parts of atoms whirl forever, like the planets and stars? Why do electrically neutral atoms seize onto each other, just because their outer electrons lack the magic number of eight?
Why do they turn into remarkably different things as they combine? Hydrogen gas and oxygen gas are nothing like water, yet they constitute it. Some carbon atoms lock in tetrahedrons to become diamonds; others lock in layers of six-sided carbon rings to become graphite pencil lead.
Why do atoms link into carbon-based molecules that link into amino acids that link into proteins that link into living cells as complex as whole cities — and why does all this link into a thinking, feeling, loving, fearing, aging, dying human? How can a combination of amino acids write a symphony or join the Republican Party or commit stock fraud or feel patriotism for a section of Earth likewise composed of molecules?
When I was muddling over the boggling impossibilities that science revealed, I started reading books on Einstein and relativity — and found that his scientific truth was even more astonishing. What our common sense tells us is real can’t be real if space shrinks to nonexistence or time runs slower and stops under some conditions.
I hatched mental experiments that short-circuited my brain. For example, Einstein says the speed of light is the great constant of the universe — nothing can go faster. He also says all speeds are relative between moving objects. Well, if you strike a match, photons of visible light fly out in all directions. If one photon is going west at the speed of light and another is going east at the speed of light, how fast are they separating from each other?
The more I studied, the more I developed an eerie sense that the world we think we inhabit is some sort of fiction.
For example, take steel. It can be a 100-foot bridge girder or it can be the coil of a bass piano string, a long wire spiraled into a hard spring. All the curves of that spring are composed of iron atoms locked rigidly to each other in a strong crystal lattice that is nearly unbreakable. And yet, those atoms are an illusion of emptiness. They are a void of unknowable electrical charges, which don’t actually touch each other. They are virtually a vacuum. They are as empty as the solar system.
If an atom were the size of a 14-story building, the nucleus would be a grain of salt in the middle of the seventh floor, too tiny to be seen. Therefore, heavy, rigid steel doesn’t exist the way we think it does. It’s 99.999999 percent vacuum — as vacant as the night sky.
Atom emptiness is the key to white dwarfs, pulsars and black holes.
At the end of their life cycles, stars explode. Then, what’s left of them collapses, and gravity pulls the collapsing material into incredible density. If the residue is small, compressed electrons in the seething stellar plasma of crushed atoms push back fiercely and resist further collapse. This produces a white dwarf that is nearly impossible to comprehend. The material of a white dwarf weighs around 10 tons per thimbleful. How could something the size of a thimble be so heavy that 100 strong men couldn’t lift it?
But that’s just the first step in removing the empty space inside atoms. A genius, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, computed early on that, if a collapsing star has 1.4 times the mass of our sun, its gravity would be too great to be stopped by the resistance of the electrons. He didn’t know it, but he was predicting pulsars, or neutron stars, which were later discovered. Their enormous gravity squeezes the electrons into the nucleus of each atom, where they merge with protons to form a solid mass of neutrons. This material weighs about 10 million tons per cubic centimeter. A c.c. is the size of a bouillon cube. Can you imagine a bouillon cube weighing more than the Empire State Building? That’s what matter is when the empty space is removed between the nucleus and the electrons of atoms.
If 10 million tons of actual substance is the size of a bouillon cube, how much real material is in a 180-pound man or a 120-pound woman? Not as much as a dust speck.
The nonreality of matter is just one of many enigmas that science reveals. Consider these:
—As we lie “still” in bed, we are flying 67,000 miles an hour around the sun and 600,000 miles an hour around the Milky Way galaxy.
—When we see the North Star, we are looking back in time to the medieval era, because the light we see began traveling 680 years ago.
—Every second, the visible universe expands by a volume as large as the Milky Way.
—Peaceful atoms of rock, lying still for centuries, have a power in their nuclei that is beyond comprehension: Only as much matter as a dime was transformed into the energy that destroyed Hiroshima and killed 140,000 people.
—The smallness of atoms likewise is beyond grasping: A cubic inch of air contains 300 billion billion molecules, all moving at 1,000 miles an hour and hitting each other 5 billion times a second.
—Most life on Earth comes from a tiny electric current: When sunlight hits chlorophyll molecules, excited outer electrons jump through a mosaic of molecules, and this energy drives plant processes.
—As for the DNA that conveys our genetic code, there is 6 feet of it inside each cell or our bodies. The body has many trillions of cells, so every person contains several billion miles of DNA.
—The “spin” of electrons is so powerful it can suspend railway locomotives in the air (in “maglev,” or magnetic levitation, trains). Electrons of most atoms are in balanced pairs with opposite spin, so the atoms have no magnetism. But ferrous atoms have a few electrons that aren’t balanced, giving each atom a magnetic field. When an electrical current induces all the atoms in a piece of iron to align their polarity in unison, a strong electromagnet is created.
If religion and philosophy are attempts to comprehend the universe and the meaning of life, then science is the best portal. Every time I learn another rule of subatomic forces or cell behavior or galactic motion, I get an eerie sense of glimpsing the mysterious code underlying our existence. Physicists often apply the word God to this order, but they don’t mean God in the organized religion sense.
In a world of supernatural religions, mystical religions, guilt-based religions, violent religions, money-collecting religions, social club religions and cult religions, grasping the code of the universe is the most religious experience I know.
FFRF Member James A. Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. He has won two dozen national newswriting awards and is author of 12 books and 150 magazine essays. He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine and was writer-in-residence for the United Coalition of Reason. This article is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in the September-October 1988 issue of The Humanist and reprinted in Haught’s 2007 book, Honest Doubt.