Smashing Atoms—and Hubris
What does a giant atomic super collider have in common with a Mayan pyramid?
The multi-billion-dollar super collider project in Switzerland, billed as the most exciting advance in science in centuries, has fallen flat. The giant Hadron Collider, located in a 16-mile tunnel near Geneva, is designed to accelerate subatomic particles to incredibly high speeds, slamming them together to reveal the structure of things like quarks deep inside the atom.
Scientists hope that, by re-creating conditions just after the big bang, they could find an explanation for the origins of the universe.
But the project continues to be beset with problems. Like last fall, when it was switched on with much fanfare, but 10 days later an electrical fault caused a disastrous leak of helium used to cool the machine’s gigantic magnets, which led to a complete shutdown of the collider.
Former physicist James Glanz, in a New York Times article, calls the Collider “another grandiose structure with cosmic aspirations and earthbound problems that could thwart its ambitions.”
Another structure? Glanz might have been referring to the Waxahachie tunnel in Texas, another multi-billion-dollar boondoggle that was supposed to house the Superconducting Super Collider.
But he wasn’t. He was instead referring to another huge project that was never completed: the Xunantunich, a Mayan pyramid built over a period of hundreds of years “until something went wrong—nobody knows exactly what—and the inhabitants simply left,” Glanz writes.
In Xunantunich and today in Geneva, he says, “the vast reaches of cosmic time and space have a way of humbling the puny efforts and resources of mortals who try to figure out the universe.”
Glanz finds the similarities between the two projects—built thousands of years apart—eerily apparent. The Geneva Collider “is a gargantuan structure...built over generations to help [scientists] connect the smallest and largest structures in the universe, and perhaps make sense of why the cosmos is so hospitable to life.”
Xanantunich “was designed to do more or less the same thing.” But “instead of quarks and leptons, the friezes ringing the pyramid depict the gods of heaven, earth and the underworld, and humanity’s place among them.”
Gantz notes that the collider, like Xunantunich, is silent these days, and—like Xunantunich—may ultimately be abandoned.
Gantz’s article reminded me of another effort to reach the heavens: the tower of Babel. Like the Collider and Xunantunich, Babel was an effort to unlock the mystery of heaven. The only Person who can do this, of course, is Christ. But it is in our nature to attempt to accomplish it ourselves. It’s the original sin in the Garden of Eden—to try to become like God.
Albert Einstein—echoing Augustine—said that time is part of the creation. The collider project is an effort to locate the source of time and creation—that is, to try to find God. It was supposed to expose a new dimension to life and reality—to find a natural explanation for supernatural events. What hubris! It’s doomed to fail, no matter how much money is spent.
While Christians have always been the biggest boosters of scientific knowledge—and should continue to be—we also know the source of time and Creation. In the beginning was the Word, the God who spoke into creation the heavens and the earth.
Further Reading and Information
When Mortals Work on Cosmic Time
James Glanz | New York Times | August 8, 2009
Particle Collider Will Operate, but at Half Power
Dennis Overbye | New York Times | August 6, 2009
Cracking the Cosmic Code: The Large Hadron Collider
Regis Nicoll | BreakPoint Online | September 12, 2008