Maimonides’ Microscope

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In its purest form, the human spirit of inquiry is a holy thing. According to the renowned 12th century Jewish thinker Maimonides, nothing less than the Biblical commandment to love G-d is fulfilled when a person investigates nature and, struck by its intricacy and beauty, is filled with awe and gratitude to the Divine.

And so it is exciting to ponder the new aspects of physical reality that might be revealed by the Large Hadron Collider – the 17-mile-circumference particle accelerator that, over 15 years and at a cost of some $8 billion, was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) underneath the French-Swiss border.

Subatomic physics is already a wonderland of strange beauty (not to be confused with “strange” and “beauty” – fanciful names physicists have, at one time or another, given to types of quarks), having revealed that the seemingly mechanistic, clockwork universe we experience in daily life hides astonishing oddities, uncertainties and incomprehensibilities.

Those microcosmic bafflements complement the more readily accessible wonder of the world we experience when we simply look up at the stars, or down into the grass, or at a sunrise, or a newborn baby. The Standard Model – the current theory of how subatomic particles interact – reminds us that not only do the “heavens relate the glory of G-d” (Psalms 19:2) but that “to His wisdom there can be no comprehension” (Isaiah, 40:28).

An ultimate understanding of the universe will likely always evade the mortal mind. But new revelations the LHC might yield – when its gargantuan magnets accelerate streams of particles in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light so that they collide and release their until now unexamined innards – make the mammoth machine a most promising engine of scientific advancement.

Some cheerers-on of that advancement, however, are not exactly motivated by the Maimonidean quest to gain inspiration through a new glimpse of G-d’s subtle wisdom. To the contrary, they look to whatever new knowledge the LHC may grant as just further justification for denying the Divine, forklifts with which to pull themselves up onto the pedestal of omniscience. They hope that the LHC will confirm the existence of particles predicted by the latest theories – one such beastie, the Higgs boson, has even been labeled by some the “G-d Particle,” for its potential to lead to a grand unified theory of the universe – and thus show that the human mind can fully grasp the totality of creation, and is thus its intellectual master.

And so, while there are many scientists (like astrophysicists Fred Hoyle, Paul Davies and Arno Penzias, to name a few of the most famous) who maintain their human sense of wonder at the world and see purpose in nature, others, like physicist Steven Weinberg, choose to see the cosmos as fascinating but ultimately meaningless. Commenting on the LHC’s expected informational yield, he opined that “as science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations.”

Such conceit recalls another technological project, one whose promoters’ focus was on the macrocosmic. The builders of the Tower of Babel, the Torah tells us, sought to erect a structure whose top would pierce the heavens, the better to assert their independence from the Divine and “make for ourselves a name.” Their plans, of course, were dashed; their arrogance did them in.

The LHC was supposed to have already yielded its harvest of new particles by now. On September 10, proton beams were successfully circulated in the main ring of the structure. Nine days later, though, operations were halted, as an electrical fault caused liquid helium to leak into the tunnel, damaging dozens of the LHC’s superconducting magnets and contaminating the “collider’s ring. Physicists say it will take until next summer to make the necessary repairs.

“Man contemplates, G-d laughs” goes the Yiddish expression (and in that language it nicely rhymes). I don’t know if G-d laughed as the glitch rained on the LHC parade. I certainly didn’t; I was deeply disappointed. My thoughts, thought, did go back to the builders of Babel, and to how, in monumental projects, success or failure may ultimately hang on intentions.

Will the LHC in fact come to function as planned, and allow us to see deeper into nature? It might just depend on why we’re looking in the first place.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered for publication or sharing without charge,
provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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5 Responses

  1. Charlie Hall says:

    I’ve seen a “Vaoymer HaShem” t-shirt that is as lacosta describes.

  2. Benjamin E. says:

    Lawrence – the equations deal with electric and magnetic fields, and light is an electromagnetic wave (i.e., is comprised of oscillating electric and magnetic wave components that are fields defined by Maxwell’s equations). So indeed, it turns out, Maxwell’s equations are the basis for light!

  3. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Iacosta:

    The shirt with “Vyomer Hashem” does not have Maxwell’s equations. It has Einstein’s special relativity equations and the resulting E=MC2. Look again. There is a sweatshirt with Maxwell’s equations, but it’s in English; its says “and God said” the equations, “and there was light.” All very interesting, since Maxwell’s equations deal with electricity and not light. Oh well.

  4. lacosta says:

    one of my favorite t-shirts is the one with vayomer hashem—
    and then it lists the Maxwell equations— and then continues vayehi ohr.
    hopefully the experiments at CERN will show more charm, beauty, and who knows what other particles, that the RBSO utilized in the yesh meayin process that made the Big Bang….

  5. Charlie Hall says:

    “nothing less than the Biblical commandment to love G-d is fulfilled when a person investigates nature and, struck by its intricacy and beauty, is filled with awe and gratitude to the Divine.”

    I agree. This is one reason why I became a scientist!

    “while there are many scientists (like astrophysicists Fred Hoyle, Paul Davies and Arno Penzias, to name a few of the most famous) who maintain their human sense of wonder at the world and see purpose in nature”

    Interestingly, Hoyle never accepted the “Big Bang” theory that is now supported by overwhelming evidence, the most important of which was Penzias co-discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation.