The Genesis Machine: Physics and Creation

Article excerpt

Champagne and strawberries at the headquarters of CERN (1) near Geneva and hyperbole in the media greeted the news at the end of March 2010 that the Large Hadron Collider began to function as expected. Two beams of protons, each with an energy equivalent of 3.5 trillion electric volts, smashed into one another in a tunnel seventeen miles in circumference. Physicists have great hopes that this huge particle accelerator, built three hundred feet underground on the Swiss-French border, will provide new and fascinating insights into what the universe was like shortly after the Big Bang. One goal is to discover elusive Higgs bosons, particles reputedly responsible for the conversion of the energy of the Big Bang into the mass of the nascent universe. Some in the media have already dubbed the accelerator the "Genesis Machine," (2) and it has been easy for them to reach the conclusion that experiments conducted using it will, as one author in Le Monde put it, permit us "d'eclaircir Le mystere de la creation de rUnivers." (3) Almost a decade earlier, a science journalist for the New York Times predicted that high-speed particle accelerators would help scientists to work out "a mechanistic, gears-and-levers theory of the Genesis moment itself--the hows, if not the whys of creation ex nihilo" (4)

Fascination with origins is commonplace in the natural sciences. The cover of the September 2009 issue of Scientific American announced the theme for a wide variety of essays on "Understanding Origins." Topics included: the origins of teeth, of cooking, of chocolate, of paper money, of the internal combustion engine, and of intermittent windshield wipers. Most prominently displayed on the cover, however, were origins of life and of the universe. Michael Turner of the University of Chicago was the author of the essay on the origin of the universe and he optimistically claimed that "cosmologists are closing in on the ultimate processes that created and shaped the universe." Turner drew a compelling picture of the many advances in cosmology over the past one hundred years that have radically transformed our understanding of the universe and its development, from a kind of "formless soup of elementary particles" into "the richly structured cosmos of today."

Developments in cosmology and particle physics have long encouraged flights of fancy about what the natural sciences can discover about the world. Perhaps one of the more extravagant claims about what contemporary science can tell us about the origin and nature of the universe can be found in an essay, "The Limitless Power of Science," written by the Oxford physical chemist, Peter Atkins, several years ago. Atkins claimed that the domain of scientific discourse is truly limitless; there is no corner of the universe, no dimension of reality, no feature of human existence, which is not properly the subject of the modern natural sciences! Atkins has little use for philosophy as a guide to truth, but it is religion that is the special object of his ire:

  Theologians, incidentally, have contributed nothing [to the
  understanding of the Universe]. They have invented a world and
  language of their own ... In so doing they have contaminated truth,
  and wasted the time of those who wish to understand this world.
  Scientists have had and are continuing to have to scrape away the
  detritus of religious obfuscation before they can begin their own
  elucidation.

  Scientists liberate truth from prejudice, and through their work lend
  wings to society's aspirations. While poetry titillates and theology
  obfuscates, science liberates. The grave responsibility of scientists
  is to use their voices to blow back the fog that shrouds the minds
  of those who have not yet seen. (5)

The science embraced by Atkins truly knows no limits. Creation itself falls within its grasp. Science, he writes, must be able to account for the "emergence of everything from absolutely nothing. …