The Universe in a Grain of Dust

Peter Hodgson FAITH Magazine September-October 2006


The Wonder of Matter

If we knew all there is to know about a piece of dust, we would understand the universe and all the matter in it. We now know that dust is composed of many types of molecules and that these in turn are made of atoms. The atoms themselves are intricate structures comprising a central nucleus made of neutrons and protons, surrounded by electrons. The protons and neutrons are made of quarks and gluons. These elementary particles, as they are called, are the constituents of all matter. In various configurations they form water and acids, bacteria and ants, mice and lupins, lions and elephants and finally our own bodies. All is made of dust and will return to dust. These simple building blocks of nature have the potentiality to form all the wonders of nature that surround us. This leads us toask where it all comes from in the first place, and how it developed into what we see today.

We believe that all matter is created by God, and that He gave matter its properties and potentialities. God "ordered everything by measure, number and weight’ (Wisdom, 11.20), and ‘stretched the measuring line across it" (Job, 38.7). This means that every particle of matter has very definite properties and always behaves in exactly the same way in accord with His design. The techniques of modern physics enable these properties of matter to be measured to high accuracy. The mass of every electron, measured by several different methods, is 9.109381 times ten to the power minus thirty-one kilograms, and so on for the other particles. Matter is not fuzzy or indeterminate as often maintained by adherents of the discredited Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics: it has definite andunchanging properties.

The particles interact among themselves according to forces that are also fixed and determined to high accuracy. There are four types of force, the gravitation, the electromagnetic, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. The velocity of light is 2.99792458 times ten to the power eight metres per second.

The History of Matter

Matter has not always existed; we know from Revelation that it was created at a definite time in the past. Astronomical studies enable us to trace the development of the universe back to a singularity about 13.8 billion years ago. Scientifically, we cannot go further back, but we cannot say that this was the moment of creation because we cannot eliminate the possibility that it was preceded by an earlier collapse. At the singularity, matter had an enormously high density and temperature. It expanded rapidly, cooling all the time. Studies of the properties of the elementary particles enable us to calculate how the undifferentiated matter rapidly separated out into separate particles subjected to the four forces. When the temperature was low enough the protons and neutrons combined to formhelium and other light nuclei. These were blown off into space, and over vast times and distances were gradually drawn together by the gravitational force to form stars. As the stars grew larger, the interiors became hotter, and chains of nuclear reactions took place that formed the heavier elements carbon, oxygen, iron and about ninety other elements. All these processes can be calculated in detail using the results of measurements in physics laboratories. The dust of which everything is made is stardust.

Millions of years passed, and some of the stars somehow acquired planets that revolved around them. This is unlikely enough, but only very rarely does one of these planets have an orbit that allows it to be in the rather narrow range of temperatures that permits life. If it is too near, it is too hot, and if too far away it is too cold. The chemical constituents of the atmosphere must also satisfy very stringent conditions. Detailed studies show that these conditions, taken together with others, are so restricted that it is likely that our own earth is the only one in the whole universe that can support life.

At first the earth was lifeless, and then gradually, perhaps as a result of lightning strikes, some more complicated molecules were formed in rocky pools. By processes still not understood, these molecules combined together to form other molecules and eventually cells and primitive microorganisms. Studies of fossils in rocks, particularly those of the Cambrian era, have shown that there were small organisms that were able to live and reproduce. They are the ancestors of all living things including ourselves.

The Journey of Scientific Discovery

We have come to know all this by a long journey from the speculations of the ancient Greeks to the present day. Thales first had the idea that there is an intelligible simplicity behind the complexity surrounding us. Democritus suggested that everything is made of tiny unbreakable particles called atoms. The Greeks asked many of the right questions but had no means of finding the answers. Euclid consolidated the foundations of geometry and thus the mathematics that is vital for science. But for all its brilliance, the Greeks failed to develop science and a self-sustaining enterprise.

The breakthrough came from an unexpected source, a small tribe called the Israelites wandering in the desert. They believed in one God, who created the universe and gave it its properties. He looked on what He had made, and saw that it was good (Genesis 1.31). It was an exactly ordered world that depends continually on His creating power. He made it freely, so its order is contingent; He could have made it otherwise. He made the universe in such a way that it is to some extent open to the human mind (Genesis 1.28), and He declared that everything we are able to discover about it should be freely published (Wisdomll.20). These beliefs are just the ones necessary for science. The Greeks held some of them, but admixed with many others inimical to science. This is the reason for the failureof science to develop in all the great civilisations of antiquity.

If the world were not good, if we considered it evil, there would be no incentive to study it. If it were not ordered, it would be impossible to build up a body of knowledge that is true for all places and times. If we believed that it is a necessary world so that it could not be otherwise than it is, we might think that we could find out about it by pure thought, as we do for mathematics. As it is contingent, we cannot do this, and so we must make experiments to see how God made it. If we kept our knowledge to ourselves it would be impossible to build up a sophisticated science, that has required the efforts of thousands of men and women for several millennia.

Christianity Encourages the Scientific Endeavour

Science did not spring into being immediately; it required many centuries before these fundamental beliefs permeated the European mind. Furthermore, the material conditions were lacking: a stable society sufficiently developed for there to be people free to spend their time thinking instead of being concerned about the next meal.

The Incarnation of Christ still further prepared the way for the development of science. Matter, the dust of the earth, was deemed worthy to constitute the body of Christ. The Incarnation was a unique event, and so it destroyed the idea of cyclic time that in all ancient cultures hindered the rise of science. Henceforth time is linear, with a beginning and an end, from alpha to omega.

Christians in the early centuries passionately debated the nature of Christ. It eventually became necessary for the Pope to convene Councils of Bishops to define the true faith and exclude the many heretical views that circulated at that time. One of these Councils was held in Nicea in 325 and another in Constantinople in 381, and together they formulated the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that we recite every Sunday.

The Essential Goodness of Matter

It is seldom recognised that this Creed, in addition to defining the essential truths of faith, contains many beliefs necessary for the development of science. First of all there is the affirmation that God created heaven and earth and all that is, the fundamental belief on which all rests. Next it is declared that Christ is the only-begotten Son of the Father. Only Christ is begotten, everything else is made. This excludes pantheism, the belief that the world is some sort of emanation from God, a belief that hindered the development of science in ancient cultures. Christ is the one through whom all things were made so that matter is not only essentially good, but it is all made through Christ, thus excluding any other source and with it the belief that the world is a battleground betweengood and evil forces.

As part of His teaching Christ told us that we have a duty to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. This can be done most efficiently by applying the results of science. As soon as this is realised it provides a further incentive for the whole community to support scientific research.

The Middle Ages: A Time of Technological Progress

During the first millennium Christians were just one of many sects, often persecuted and awaiting the second coming of Christ. They had neither the incentive nor the means to undertake scientific studies. But steadily the beliefs essential for the beginning of science were spreading through the whole Christian community. After the fall of the Roman Empire Europe was in chaos, but gradually it recovered, notably through the Benedictines who did all they could to salvage the ancient learning.

In the early Middle Ages there was great technological progress stimulated by the Christian belief that whenever possible manual work should be replaced by machines. Some key inventions, such as the stirrup, the horse collar and the whipple-tree greatly improved agriculture and enabled the heavy soils of northern Europe to be farmed. The land could now support more people and the population increased. In the high Middle Ages universities were founded in many major cities, and learning flourished. The first chancellor of the university of Oxford, Robert Grosseteste, wrote on optics and is regarded as one of the founders of experimental science. Also at Oxford, the Mertonian school of natural philosophers made important contributions to the study of motion. In Paris, John Buridan wasthinking about motion in the context of the Christian doctrine of creation.

This is the most fundamental problem in physics and hence in all science. Aristotle had asked how a ball that is thrown continues to move after it has left the thrower’s hand. Buridan suggested that at the creation God gave all the particles an impetus that enabled them to keep moving. This was a fundamental insight that later became Newton’s first law of motion and was the beginning of modern science. Scientists were spurred on by the belief that every event is linked to its antecedents in a perfectly define the way following general principles, a belief that is ultimately theological.

The Mind of Man Explores the Whole Universe

Throughout the Middle Ages studies of geometry and astronomy flourished in the universities, and many advances were made that formed the foundation of the developments of the Renaissance. Copernicus revived the idea of some Greeks that the sun is at the centre with the earth revolving around it.

Kepler showed the orbit of the planet Mars is elliptical and not circular as Aristotle had maintained. Galileo studied motions on earth and showed that they follow simple mathematical laws. In particular, a solid body dropped in air falls a distance that is proportional to the square of the time. Finally Newton formulated his three laws of motion and his theory of universal gravitation and showed that it accounted for the celestial motions studied by Kepler and the terrestrial motions studied by Galileo. The Aristotelian distinction between celestial motions and terrestrial motions was broken, and matter was shown to obey the same universal laws.

The success of Newton’s work was so impressive that it became the paradigm of all intellectual endeavour. His astronomical calculations were carried on by Laplace, Lagrange, D’Alembert and many others, giving a very accurate understanding of the motions of the moon and the planets. In the nineteenth century many studies showed that energy can take many forms and that these are accurately related to each other.

Thermodynamics was stimulated by the widespread use of steam engines in industrial processes. Electricity and magnetism were studied by Franklin, Faraday, Ampere, Ohm and Volta, and their results unified by Clerk Maxwell. By the end of that century it looked as if physics was nearly complete.

The Birth of Modern Physics

This expectation was rudely shattered by the discovery of radioactivity by Becquerel and of the quantum by Planck. Classical mechanics was completed by Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Rutherford showed that atoms consist of a central nucleus surrounded by electrons. The attempts to understand the structure of atoms, particularly by Bohr, were only partially successful but in the nineteen twenties quantum mechanics, due mainly to Born, Heisenberg, Schrodinger and Dirac, provided a way to calculate atomic and nuclear phenomena.

Rutherford and his colleagues studied nuclear reactions, at first using natural sources and later a series of electrostatic accelerators. Chadwick discovered the neutron and the atom was split by Cockcroft and Walton. Bethe showed that the sun gets its heat from a series of nuclear reactions that convert hydrogen into helium. Evanescent particles called mesons with masses between that of the electron and the proton were discovered in the cosmic radiation and Yukawa showed that they are responsible for the nuclear forces.

Full Circle

In the subsequent years nuclear structure was explored in detail and many new short-lived particles discovered and their properties measured. Following the pioneer work of Bethe, the new knowledge of nuclear reactions was applied to calculate the processes taking place in the first few minutes of the big bang. The researches of scientists has come full circle, as the knowledge of the very small has enabled us to understand the processes taking place over vast distances and times that have ultimately led to the world we know today.

This is how, over the years, we have come to know a little about the dust of the earth. It is difficult to convey the scale of these particles and their interactions. The nuclei at the centre of atoms are quite small, about a million millionth of a centimeter across. If it were possible to line them up across one of the full stops on this page, like beads on a necklace, and then expand the full stop to the size of Europe, there would still be ten thousand in an inch, far too small to be seen except with a powerful microscope. Some of the nuclear reactions I study take place in a ten thousand million million millionth of a second. Truly dust is wonderful beyond all our imagining.

Further reading

T.A.Brody (1993), The Philosophy behind Physics Ed. Luis de la Pena and Peter E. Hodgson. Springer-Verlag
G.Gonzalez and J.W.Richards (2004), The Privileged Planet Regnery Gateway
P.E.Hodgson (2005), Theology and Modern Physics Ashgate Press
P.E.Hodgson, E.Gadioli and E.Gadioli Erba (1997), Introductory Nuclear Physics Oxford: Oxford University Press.
S.L.Jaki (1974), Science and Creation Scottish Academic Press
S.L.Jaki (1978), The Road of Science and the Ways to God University of Chicago Press.
Simon Conway Morris (2003), Life’s Solution Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
S.Weinberg (1977), The First Three Minutes New York: Basic Books

Faith Magazine

September - October 2006