[Paleopsych] Physics Today: God's Rays Physics Today

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Articles - God's Rays Physics Today - Physics Today January 2005
Published: January 2005

    The physicist's quest for understanding is not the only way to raise
    the level of our existence and give our lives meaning.

    [1]Bryce DeWitt

    Editor's Note: Bryce DeWitt wrote this personal essay for Physics
    Today before he died on 23 September 2004. With it, Physics Today
    begins its celebration of the World Year of Physics 2005.

    A vacant lot sprinkled with puncture vines spread westward, and the
    Sun was setting over the coast ranges. It must have been near the end
    of school for I was already walking barefoot, something that my
    father, the local country doctor, looked on with disfavor. There were
    clouds in the west, left over from a late spring rain, and the sun was
    sending shafts of golden rays earthward. "God's rays," said my
    companion, aged six, and we kneeled in obeisance until they

    Beauty we took for granted, and we responded accordingly. Our vacant
    lot was in a small village on the east side of the San Joaquin valley
    [in central California]. The puncture vines were hazards to bare feet,
    as they were to our bicycle tires, and we had to give attention to
    both as we crossed over. In 1930 there were many vacant lots. This one
    was close to where we parted ways, he to his home down the street and
    I to my maternal grandparents' farm down a country road.

    Even though my grandparents were terribly pious, it was always a treat
    for me to visit them at the farm. Before sitting down to supper, we
    had to kneel, with our elbows on the chair seat, and listen to
    Grandfather give a long prayer. This was repeated after supper. In
    addition, Grandfather read a chapter or two from the King James Bible.
    He was working his way straight through the volume, chapter by
    chapter, book by book. (He had already gone through it twice before,
    although how he made it through the book of Numbers, I have never
    understood.) I remember absorbing nothing from these readings. What I
    got came from Grandmother, who plied me lovingly with Bible stories:
    The young Samuel and Eli, the high priest. The sword of the Lord and
    of Gideon. Daniel, Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego (the original
    wholesome-food cranks). Moses and Pharaoh's daughter. . . .
    Grandmother also sang to me many religious hymns. What I got of
    Protestantism I got mainly from her. And I got it in a particularly
    evangelical form.

    Grandfather was a failure as a farmer. For example, the farm had no
    electricity, and to my delight, we had to use coal-oil lamps inside.
    What he had always wanted to be was an astronomer. He built amateur
    telescopes, the lens of one of which is in the Harvard College
    Observatory to this day. His family was too poor to send him to
    university. But his heart was in science. Naturally Grandmother
    hounded him to his deathbed, trying to make him give up believing in
    Darwinian evolution. In later years she and I too had our arguments.
    For example, according to her the world was made in 4004 BC. Counting
    forward 6000 years from that date and taking into account the fact
    that there was no year 0, that would bring us to 1997 AD, sometime in
    the summer according to Grandmother. Armageddon would then begin and
    would last for 3½ years. In 2001 AD, the "Son of man" would come "in
    the clouds of heaven with power and great glory," and the seventh
    millennium would be the great one. Grandmother always said that
    although she would be dead by then, I should live to see it. I
    confessed that it would be delightful to see such a phenomenon in the
    sky (I was already planning to become a physicist), but I pointed out
    to her that Jesus said, "Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not
    the angels of heaven." She would merely hang her head a bit.

    It is amazing to me that when I tell this story today, I get quite a
    few responses to the effect that Grandmother just had her dates wrong.
    How depressing.

    After the evening Bible reading, I was sent to bed with a big old
    alarm clock having a luminous dial. I loved to hold its face close to
    mine in the dark and watch the scintillations produced every time a
    radium nucleus decayed. It was better than a Teddy bear.

    A few years later I was old enough (around 10) to go to Daily Vacation
    Bible School. It was organized by two energetic ministers in town, and
    even though it occurred during the summer vacation I was happy to go
    to it because it was fun, and it only lasted for about three weeks. It
    was held in the junior high school building, which had facilities such
    as a woodworking shop, a basketball court, and a baseball diamond. But
    the most exciting facility for me was the auditorium, where we had
    competitions. These were of two sorts. First, the student body was
    divided into teams, and once a week each team was asked to recite
    aloud the Bible verses they had memorized during the preceding week.
    Points were given for the number of verses memorized. Only the number
    mattered, not their length, so we quickly discovered where the
    shortest verses in the Bible were to be found.

    The second competition involved speed. The two ministers had somehow
    acquired a supply of Bibles, which they passed out to the youngsters.
    One of them would call out a verse--for example Proverbs 4:7--and the
    first youngster to locate it and read it out was the winner. Since the
    Bibles were from a cheap edition and had no page tabs to help in the
    search, we had to learn the names of all the books in the Bible--in
    proper order. As a result we effortlessly acquired a command of all
    those great lines in the Bible that, up until the middle of the 20th
    century, could be assumed by English authors to be part of a common
    European cultural heritage. Nowadays, when I am reading a 19th- or
    early 20th-century novel, I find myself wondering how many readers
    catch the biblical allusions. Since Shakespeare is still taught in our
    schools, I imagine that his lines do not go unnoticed. But what a pity
    it is to have lost the ability to make use of such great lines as

      * Gird up now thy loins like a man.
      * Where wast thou . . . when the morning stars sang together?
      * Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained
      * The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth
        his handiwork.
      * Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.
      * They that wait upon the Lord . . . shall mount up with wings as
      * We hanged our harps upon the willows.
      * Cast thy bread upon the waters.
      * Their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
      * Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his
        savour, wherewith shall it be salted?
      * For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
      * For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.
      * Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and
        have not charity, I am nothing.

    And on and on.

Amateur theologians

    I have never felt a conflict between my sensitivity to the King James
    Bible and my beliefs as a physicist. I am a theoretical physicist, and
    it is common knowledge that theoretical physicists often start out as
    amateur theologians. They want to understand the whole of reality, and
    they begin by studying cosmology--the obvious starting point. Nowhere
    does a physicist's religious or philosophical preferences (one should
    really say prejudices) show up more clearly than in his approach to
    cosmology. In the early days of the so-called steady-state theory of
    the universe, everyone knew (though no one ever said so in print) that
    the model was motivated by antireligious sentiment. When evidence for
    the Big Bang began to accumulate, the steady-state theory nearly
    collapsed (a mutilated version of it has been kept alive) and the
    Vatican became ecstatic. Independent of the early history of the
    universe, there remains the question of its topology. Some
    cosmologists are convinced that the total volume of the universe must
    be finite, others that it must be infinite--in both cases without a
    shred of physical evidence. Usually these beliefs stem from a feeling
    that the structure of the universe should be describable in a neat
    compact form.

    Once again I can only say, "How depressing." Albert Einstein said,
    "The Lord God is subtle but He is not malicious." I like to turn this
    around by saying, "The Lord God is not malicious, but He is subtle." I
    have never believed that reality could turn out to be fixed by an
    unimaginative initial condition. Fortunately, some cosmologists have
    lately begun to consider models in which the "initial conditions" are
    aleatoric and hence far from simple. They even envisage infinite
    numbers of simultaneous universes, as well as possible behaviors
    before the Big Bang. For some reason, however, all their proposals
    ignore one of the most obvious.

    At the time of Isaac Newton, the formalism of classical mechanics
    (laws of motion, gravitational forces, and the like) was regarded as
    providing a direct representation of reality. The formalism of quantum
    mechanics, on the other hand, has almost never been regarded as
    providing a direct representation of reality. Physicists seem to be
    scared by it. Those few who do envisage a direct connection between
    formalism and reality are, for some reason, more often from Europe
    than America.

    The Europeans are braver than the Americans, because if one accepts
    the view that formalism and reality are isomorphic, then in the
    quantum theory one is obliged to accept a stupendous number of
    simultaneous realities, namely, all the possible outcomes of quantum
    measurements as well as all the possible "classical" worlds that
    emerge spontaneously from the wavefunction of the universe through the
    phenomenon of decoherence. The notion of a wavefunction for the whole
    universe is not ridiculous. Cosmologists who worry about quantum
    effects in the early universe (for example, in galaxy formation) use
    it all the time.

    Among those who deal with such heady intellectual problems, use of the
    word "God" is not uncommon. It is used in some of the popularizations
    that physicists have written, which attempt to convey to the general
    reader some of the glory of physics, particularly cosmology. I am
    occasionally tempted to try writing such a book myself, but I know
    that it would be terribly one-sided. I know some physics, but there is
    much more to "reality" than physics, and of that I am largely
    ignorant. So I wind up instead writing a physics treatise for

    The trouble with writing a popularization is that one has to be
    absolutely honest. There is a photograph taken from one of the early
    interplanetary probes, looking back toward Earth. Earth appears as a
    tiny blue sphere surrounded by an immensity of blackness. It is a
    photograph that makes tears flow. There is no sharper visual statement
    of the loneliness of our planet. Earth is an insignificant speck in a
    vast and overwhelmingly hostile universe. There is nothing to suggest
    that human beings have a special role to play in this universe. Steven
    Weinberg is
    absolutely right when he says, "The more the universe is
    comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."^1

Lifting human life

    So where does that leave the amateur theologian, the young and eager
    theoretical physicist? Weinberg says, "The effort to understand the
    universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little
    above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy."
    It surely does that. But are there no other bright spots? For not
    everyone is a theoretical physicist.

    Many years ago I had a postdoctoral assistant named Heinz Pagels, a
    very nice young man and very bright. Unfortunately he died in a
    mountain accident before he could display his full potential. He left
    a wife, Elaine, whom I have met only once, years ago, but who has
    meant a lot to me through her writings. She is a religious historian
    specializing in the first three centuries of the Christian era and in
    particular in the so-called Gnostic Gospels, several manuscripts of
    which were discovered in a cave in Egypt in the middle of the 20th

    The period before 300 AD is a very difficult one to write about; the
    evidence is so fragmentary. The historian has to present every scrap
    of speculation about this period that has been put forward by dozens
    of other historians, and then answer those with whom she disagrees.
    Nevertheless, after all preliminaries have been cleared away, one
    message comes through loud and clear. Many Jesus cults arose around
    the Mediterranean basin in those years. Some believed that Jesus was
    divine, others that he was just a man. Some had their own gospels,
    with stories and sayings of Jesus. Some had their own
    bishops--intellectual types who couldn't resist trying to propose
    frameworks for belief. But the cults themselves typically arose among
    the lowest social strata (slaves, beggars, convicts) who were coming
    into contact, for the first time, with a "religion" very different
    from those they already knew about. This new religion touched such a
    deep chord in them that many were willing to oppose the authorities on
    its behalf even if that opposition meant death. And all these
    developments took place before Constantine co-opted the political
    power inherent in the new religion by setting up the Council of Nicaea
    in 325 AD.

    What was the new element in this new religion that had such an
    overwhelming impact? In a word, love. That is the key word, for
    believers and nonbelievers alike, that raises our existence above the
    level of farce. And it needs no religious framework whatever to exert
    its power.

    Bryce DeWitt was the Jane and Roland Blumberg Professor Emeritus in
    Physics at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of
    numerous books, most recently The Global Approach to Quantum Field
    Theory (Oxford U. Press, 2003).


    1. Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the
    Origin of the Universe, Basic Books, New York (1977).

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