Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Nuclear Physics And God's Sense Of Humor

A friend and former Sunday School teacher of mine, Jeff, posted on the J93.3 Face Book page and used the phrase, "He held me together when I felt torn apart."  That got me thinking about a topic that's been rattling around in my brain since grammar school science, one that occasionally works its way back to the front of the line of stuff I wonder about when I really ought to be doing something more productive.

Actual X-Ray of the files in my head

It was fourth or fifth grade.  The teacher handed out a bunch of magnets marked with "N" and "S".  She had us hold the north sides together and then the south.  The magnets exerted a force strong enough to push one magnet away from the other.  Then she told us to hold the north side to the south side and the magnets snapped together.  Wonderful way of visually demonstrating the law that states that opposite forces attract and like forces repel. 

Like forces repel, opposite forces attract
A month or so later we had moved on to the atom.  We learned the basic structure and parts of the atom, negatively charged electrons orbiting around the nucleus which is made up of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons.  "Wait a minute," I thought to myself.  "Something doesn't jibe here," remembering our magnet experiment.  I raised my hand.

"So all the protons are positive?"  I asked
"Yes, that 's correct."  The teacher answered
"And they're all in a tight little ball in the middle of the atom in the whatchamacallit..."
"The nucleus, yes that's right." She said.  You could almost feel the excitement welling up inside of her as she thought she had finally gotten through to one of us.
"And like forces repel?" I asked.
"Umm.  Yes, they uh, well what I mean to say is..."  She could feel it coming and she knew she was going to have to pull off some fancy intellectual footwork to dance her way around this one.
"So why don't the protons repel each other and go shooting all over the place?  And if opposite forces attract, then why don't those electrons get attracted to the protons?" I asked.
"Hey yeah.  How come atoms aren't blowing themselves apart all over the place?"  A couple of other kids chimed in.

The oxymoronic atom
She swallowed hard enough that it could be heard out in the hallway.  Then all of the color drained from her face.  She was stymied.  She closed her eyes and, in direct violation of then recent court rulings and school policies, she said a silent prayer, asking the Lord for some escape.  He heard her.  The bell rang and we didn't return to the subject of the atom for the rest of the semester.

Quick disclaimer here:  I am not a nuclear physicist.  I have not studied nuclear physics.

I have done a little research on the subject (the operative term here being "little") and discovered how scientists have attempted to explain what holds the atom together.  The force of the protons is pretty strong, so the force that holds them together must be even stronger.  So they call it "the strong force" or "the strong nuclear force" or "the residual strong force".

Apparently the "strong force" is generated by something called quarks.  There are other particles in the nucleus of the atom, smaller than protons and neutrons.  These include some that exist for about a billionth of a second.  There are leptons, mesons, croutons and bacon bits (which have about the same shelf life at my house).  One scientist, in an attempt to differentiate between atoms with varying degrees of stability came up with the idea of "magic numbers".  Those atoms with the "magic number" of protons are the most stable.

Hmmm.  Now I see why my fifth grade teacher was so shaken up.  

Let me go way out on a limb here.  I know I risk the ridicule of the scientific community, armed with their magical quarks and periodic tables, but here I go.  Do you suppose that the "strong force" may be related to what Paul was talking about when he wrote, "He (Jesus) is before all things, and in Him all things hold together."?

I'm really not one of those either/or type guys.  I'm perfectly happy to allow the scientists their quarks.  But I also believe that the quarks or croutons or whatever you want to call them could very well be God's way of making all things hold together.  And I suspect that He may have done it that way just to confound us.

I imagine the scene in Heaven at the dawn of creation something like this.  The angels are looking over the plans, double checking them against the various laws of nature that God has ordained.  One of them sees the apparent contradiction I discovered in the fifth grade and takes it to the Lord.

"Umm, Lord?  We may have a small problem here."
"What is it Benny?" the Lord answers.
"Well, uh, we have this like forces repel rule, " Benny starts to explain.
"Yes, that's right." the Lord says.
"But this plan for the atom has all of these positively charged protons crowded together in the nucleus."  Benny goes on.
"And the problem is..." the Lord replies.
"How do we keep all of these atoms from exploding all over the place?" Benny blurts out.
"Don't worry Benny, I'll hold it together." The Lord tells him.
"But Lord, won't that cause mankind all kinds of confusion once they discover these rules and the makeup of the atom?" Benny asks.
"Yes, Benny.  Yes it will."  the Lord says with a smile.

The angels working on the atom get God's joke about the nucleus

To some, the thought that God holds the nucleus of atoms together is foolishness.  They neglect another principle though.  That God uses the foolish things to confound the wise.

And if He made and holds together all things, then we can trust Him to hold us together when we feel like we're being torn apart.  Thanks Jeff, for reminding me of that.  Now I really do need to get back to doing something a little more productive.