During the first few decades of the twentieth century, physicists began to probe into the structure of the atom and unlock the secrets of the subatomic world.
Their discoveries revealed that our everyday perception of how things “should be” didn’t really operate at very small distances. The theory that emerged, quantum mechanics, perfectly describes the universe at distances about the size of an atom and smaller, yet it defies our common logic.
I first encountered this strange quantum mechanical world while studying physics as an undergraduate student and found the predictions of quantum mechanics hard to understand and harder to believe. Yet every one of these predictions has been verified in the laboratory and been shown to be true. If you or I were able to shrink to the size of an atom, we would encounter a very unfamiliar world. For one thing, we could be in two places at one time. I could be at home mowing the lawn at the same time I was lying on the beach in the Bahamas. Doesn’t that sound great! Unfortunately, I can only be in two places at one time as long as no one sees me. As soon as a neighbor sees me mowing, then I cease to exist in the Bahamas and exist only in my yard. How disappointing!
In our subatomic world, objects often pop into existence out of nowhere, then quickly disappear. It’s as if two pieces of cherry pie appear on your table, but before you can eat them, they disappear. Then two golf balls appear and disappear, and so forth. These things always appear and disappear in pairs because one of the objects is made of matter and the other object is made of anti-matter. So you really would get one piece of pie and one piece of anti-pie.
In the quantum mechanical world, it is impossible to simultaneously know the exact position and momentum of an object. This makes it very difficult to throw a baseball back and forth with someone. If I know where the baseball is, I don’t know how fast it is moving, so I can’t tell when it will get to my baseball glove. If I know how fast it is moving, then I can’t know exactly where the ball will be or where I should place my glove. There are many more examples of how strange and mystifying our universe is when we shrink to the size of an atom, but I’m sure you get the picture.
Maybe the most remarkable aspect of quantum mechanics is that all of these bizarre properties are mandatory if we are to exist. Quantum mechanical features make the chemistry of life possible and fine-tune the fundamental constants of nature. Without quantum mechanics, there would be no life. I am truly amazed at this. The Creator of the universe is so imaginative that he designed a subatomic world totally different than anything we normally experience, yet if it were any different, we couldn’t even exist.
The prophet Isaiah writes, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’?” (Isaiah 55:8-9). When I can’t figure out what God is doing in my life, or when the world around me just doesn’t seem to make sense, I remember the lessons from quantum mechanics: The God of the universe often does things quite differently than I would ever imagine, but his ways are always perfect and masterfully designed to accomplish his divine plan.
For reflection and discussion
This seems odd, humorous, and mind-boggling, almost as if God could never be reduced to a predictable formula (even though quantum mechanics has some good formulas). Perhaps it’s because he, the Creator, is in real time holding the universe together, and that without his present love and control it would all fall apart. “Mystery,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, “is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” Things aren’t always figurable.
• How do you read and make sense of quantum mechanics from this entry?
• Does it connect in some way to your own life?
• How might this give you peace in what at times seems to be a chaotic world?
• Let’s thank God for holding the universe, and us, all together. (...and for humor, the Bahamas, golf balls, and cherry pie.)
Michael G. Strauss, PhD is an experimental high energy and particle physicist currently teaching at the University of Oklahoma. He was an academic guide at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
This article is an excerpt from A Faith and Culture Devotional, edited by Kelly Monroe Kullburg and Lael Arrington, Zondervan, 2008. Used with permission.
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