Last night I went to the Fermilab Physics Slam. I had missed a few years, not out of wanting, but because the program was sold out.
You might think it odd that a physics show would be sold out. You might think it odd that kids were present in abundance. This isn’t some physics demonstration pretending to be a magic act, it is real physics science distilled into its essence. Simplified, but not dumbed down. World class physicists, each given 10 minutes to explain incredibly complex topics.
There were retirees in the audience. There were single people and families too. I loved the fact that there were young adults and children there. About a quarter of the audience stood when the MC asked for those 18 and younger. Among them two rows from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, my daughter Kathryn’s former high school.
All of this on a Friday night before the Thanksgiving holiday. There were so many other things that they could have been doing: hanging out with friends, playing video games, snapchatting… but they were at the Physics Slam.
I was there with my wife and my son Will. My daughter Grace had elected to go to a dance instead. A dance sponsored by the Latin (as in ancient language) club that she belongs to. As I write this I realize how bookish my family sounds. If that is the case, so be it. We are who we are, and hopefully there is a place at the table for all of us, no matter how superficially different we appear from each others.
Along for the ride was my friend Tom, his 8 year old son and his son’s friend. I wasn’t so worried about Tom, but I was a bit concerned if talks on particle physics could hold the attention of two young kids. They did fine, they even appeared interested.
For those of you who don’t know it, Fermilab is the largest particle accelerator in the United States. At one time it was the largest particle accelerator in the world. Particle physics explores the tiny particles that make up the most elementary parts of matter. Molecules like water are formed by elements, stuff like hydrogen and oxygen. Elements consist of unique atoms (like an oxygen atom or carbon atom), and atoms are formed by subatomic particles (like electrons, neutrons and protons). You may recall this from school. However, there are other subatomic particles that you may not have heard about, some proven just a few years ago. These tiny units of matter can be formed in an endless series of ways, and create everything physical, including us!
As the brilliant physicists talked it became clear how much they understood, but it was even clearer how much they didn’t know. For example we still don’t understand what gravity is, something that we encounter every second of every day.
The bulk of the universe is not made of the materials that we see around us, it is made up of dark matter and dark energy. We have very little knowledge of these things, but they are slowly taking over our universe.
One scientist talked about a project designed to capture a tiny particle called a neutrino, and to see if that particle would decay into a different type of neutrino. If successful it may show that the model, called the standard model, that we use to understand all of the physical properties of the universe may be incorrect. In other words, if the experiment is successful it will thrown the physics world on its head. We know so much, yet we know so little.
When I was younger I did well with my studies. I scored high on my tests. I thought I knew everything that was important to know. I thought I knew all of the basic information necessary to explain everything. That security didn’t last.
I kept on learning. I kept on thinking. I kept on exploring. The more I did this, the more I realized how little I understood. There were always new ways to think about things. There were always new things to learn. There were always new problems to solve.
What about the complex interplay between physical science and everything else. What is life? Why are somethings living and some not? What is death? Do we have a purpose, a reason for being? Everything that we learn about seems to have an order, a set of rules, a purpose. The universe leaves nothing to chance, why would we be left to chance? Are we part of something greater than ourselves? If so, what is it?
This, of course, brings up the topic of God. A topic that seems safer to discuss on a little read blog like this one.
Our solar system and planet are young in universe time. We have had at least 5 mass extinctions on this planet. The reign of the mammal, and consequently the reign of the human has been incredibly short. Think about the advancement that we have made in the last 200 years. Think about the exponential increase in knowledge that we have had in the last 20 years. Ever escalating, ever moving forward. Things that were unimaginable when I was born are in everyday use today. A young planet, a very young species, and a few accomplishments.
It is popular to be an atheist nowadays. I always ask new patients if they have any religious or spiritual beliefs. As the years go by more say, “No.” I felt similarly when I thought I knew everything, when I thought science was the true god. I think differently now.
In our short time existing in this universe we have made great strides. Think of the vast number of galaxies in our universe, and the even larger number of solar systems, stars and planets. Is it possible that life exists elsewhere? To think otherwise seems ludicrous. Is it possible that that some life could be so much more advanced than ours as to have godlike powers? Although theoretical, I would certainly say yes. Let’s be honest, there is no way that we are top dog in the universe. Could an advanced intelligence exist before our universe? Why not. We know that the universe was born out of a small singularity almost 14 billion years ago. What existed before that?
Does that intelligence(s) have a vested interest in us? Now we are talking about faith. My life’s course has led me to believe that it does. You are left to your own beliefs.
There are many religions on this planet, and in the name of God many terrible crimes have been committed. Humans have the ability to subvert, and that subversion uses whatever is available to achieve an end. The name of God has been used to control behavior, hate others and start wars. Subversion.
Although I feel religion can be helpful to focus on a Spiritual life, it is a tool not an end to itself.
What I am talking about is my acceptance that there are powers much greater than me, and that those powers have an interest in me as an individual. It is a wonderfully comforting thought that holds reality for me. For me, God is not an “opium for the masses,” God is a reality, just like gravity is a reality. Gravity exists despite the fact that the greatest minds on the planet can’t explain it.
The Fermilab Physics Slam impressed me with the genius of humankind. It showed me how much we know, and it also demonstrated how little we know. Our minds are limited but ever expanding. Today I will celebrate this truth. I will also find comfort in the knowledge that I’m not alone. A matter of faith perhaps, but isn’t most of life that?