Michael Gerson: Physics is experiencing a “golden age”
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“My escape from a political world” that’s tainted by pettiness and worse, wrote Michael Gerson in his 25 February Washington Post column, “is to read books on cosmology and quantum theory and then bore my family with scientific trivia.” Then he demolished the notion that the great questions of physics involve any trivia, whatever his kids may presume.
Gerson has engaged science before. Last August his column praised, and explained in much detail, an effort at the National Institutes of Health to develop a malaria vaccine. He has defended the Common Core educational standards for mathematics and English. A paragraph from a 2011 physics column shows his nonscientist’s sense of the enterprise:
Dr. Ard Louis, a young physicist teaching at the University of Oxford, recalls his first encounter with Dirac’s equation. “How can mathematics demand something so fantastical from nature? I was sure it couldn’t be true and spent many hours trying to find a way out. When I finally gave up and saw that there was no way around Dirac’s result, it gave me goose bumps. I remember thinking that even if I never used my years of physics training again, it would have been worth it just to see something so spectacularly beautiful.”
Gerson’s “golden age” physics column begins by examining global positioning and relativity to show “the oddness of modern physics invading the everyday world.” It addresses the cosmic microwave background, particle colliders, the accelerating expansion of the universe, dark energy, dark matter, uncertainty, and the relation of mathematics to reality.
Gerson declares that at “every level, from top to bottom, we gain knowledge of the world only by cutting our ties to common sense and intuition. The largest things are hidden from our view. The smallest things defy any coherent mental picture. There is, in fact, a strangeness at the heart of all things.” Then he asks, “What are the philosophic implications?”
His ending paragraph offers this answer:
Physics has seen the return of the unseen—parallel universes, infinitesimal strings, floating and colliding branes—that are reasonably inferred without being physically observed. I can think of other creative forces in that category. Not for centuries has physics been so open to metaphysics, or more amenable to an ancient attitude: a sense of wonder about things above and within.
Things above and within? Other creative forces in the category of the unobservable? That hinted-at religious framing isn’t surprising from Gerson, whose multiple columns about the new pope have matched his physics columns in moral seriousness.
Nor is the framing new. It’s said that some physicists found Leon Lederman’s phrase “the God particle” irritating, for alluding to religion. Gerson’s 2011 physics column, referring again to Ard Louis, introduced more than a hint of intelligent design:
Louis describes a cumulative case for wonder. Not only does the universe unexpectedly correspond to mathematical theories, it is self-organizing—from biology to astrophysics—in unlikely ways. The physical constants of the universe seem finely tuned for the emergence of complexity and life. Slightly modify the strength of gravity, or the chemistry of carbon, or the ratio of the mass of protons and electrons, and biological systems become impossible. The universe-ending Big Crunch comes too soon, or carbon isn’t produced, or suns explode.
In ending that earlier column, Gerson reasserted his philosophical perspective on physics:
Our response to nature’s astounding symmetries is not only rational but aesthetic. Some, like Louis, feel goose bumps and thankfulness. Others are angered by such sentimentalism. Yet this would be a sad epitaph for modern science: It revealed wonders but was numb to wonder.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.