A great mystery of modern physics is that the fundamental mathematical description of physical reality (the Standard Model of particle physics) accurately predicts the results of all laboratory measurements and yet is unable to explain basic features of our universe — for example, how a universe made of matter survived annihilation after the Big Bang.
It has been my privilege to work with 50 Harvard and Northwestern doctoral students investigating this mystery. We measure an electron’s magnetism — by suspending a single electron for months using batteries and magnets — to test the most stringent prediction of the Standard Model. We also use lasers to produce molecules within which we probe for lumpiness in the electron charge that would indicate new physics beyond the standard description.
I’m a person of faith, and the Bible gives me a glimpse into what is beyond my science, introducing me to a God who is intensely proud of the reality he wills into being. I believe that there is delight in heaven as my students and I peel back the layers of God’s “onion.” This motivates me and frees me to do curiosity-driven science well before I perceive how the insights to be gained will profit a modern society.
My God — a God worth having — is far beyond description using the language of human experience and the methods of science. There can be no contradiction between what science reveals about the physical reality that such a God sustains, and the peek beyond that reality that God provides in the Bible.
Physicists and Christians seem like natural allies to me. Awed by the vast and intricate universe, both celebrate a reality that is infinitely larger than we are and acknowledge our small place as temporary caretakers of planet Earth. Verification of what is true is intrinsic to the scientific process. My Christian faith also requires truthfulness. I must honestly acknowledge my place in God’s universe, that I am unable to live up to God’s standards, that I need forgiveness, and that I must accept the redemption offered by Jesus Christ.
A troubling feature of our strange times is that oft-repeated false statements are increasingly accepted as alternatives to reality-based findings. False statements about the COVID-19 threat, the number of deaths, the efficacy of face masks, the need and role for testing, bogus therapies, and the timeline for creating and injecting safe vaccines continue to result in much needless death. False claims that our greenhouse gases are not substantial contributions to climate change keep us from preserving the fragile atmosphere and minimizing weather extremes of the planet in our temporary care. The clear correlation between gun availability and homicides, both of which are enormously higher in the U.S. than in other developed countries, is denied. Reality-based truth is ignored as new “rights” to infect or to carry battlefield weapons are promoted.
I feel special pain that evangelical Christians quoted by the news media often espouse “alternative facts.” Identifying with this group is now hard for me. How can those who proclaim the value of life be in denial about COVID-19 deaths or campaign for open access to assault weapons? How can those who realize that we live on God’s Earth deny what the greenhouse gases we could limit are doing to the atmosphere provided for our protection? Is it right or effective to obtain short-term political power to enforce moral standards if the cost is empowering those who egregiously deceive and violate these standards?
To this scientist and person of faith, it seems urgent to reverse the acceptance of “alternative facts” that propagate so rapidly in our strange times. Scientists, people of faith and Northwestern alumni need to speak up. Silence is complicity.
Gerald Gabrielse, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is a Board of Trustees Professor in Physics and director of Northwestern’s Center for Fundamental Physics.