Call me Sheldon, but Particle Fever is one of the coolest films I’ve seen in a while.
Particle Fever tells the human story behind the recent discovery of the Higgs boson (aka “the God particle”).
My understanding of particle physics is about on the level of the intended audience of Chad Orzel’s book How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, but briefly:
The Higgs boson had been predicted for decades, but never found. For years, theoretical physicists based theories on it and experimental physicists designed machines and experiments to look for it.
Anticipation in the movie builds: If the Higgs boson is found and it has a small numerical value on the scale of The Way Physicists Measure Stuff, this would indicate that matter is organized according to a model called “supersymmetry”. And if the supersymmetry model is true, then physicists know where the Higgs boson fits into the model and can go from there to discover all the other parts and pieces of the model. Yay for science! Things are waiting to be discovered!
BUT if the numerical value for the Higgs boson is large, this would indicate no symmetry in matter – a chaotic, unknowable model with unknowable laws called the “multiverse” model.
Although intrigued by the concept of a multiverse, the young physicists in the film were pulling for supersymmetry. The complete randomness and unknowable-ness of a multiverse was depressing. If the multiverse is true, there would be no reason to continue research and experimentation, no reason to carry on their work, just no reason.
We don’t like random. It depresses us. Evolution-deniers have long defined evolution as a “random” or an “accidental” process. If that’s true, then we are not special, we are just sophisticated animals that accidentally obtained consciousness. We are depressed and deflated, with no hope for the future.
Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator and presidential hopeful said this in a nationally broadcast interview:
It [evolution] has huge consequences for society. I mean, it’s where we come from. Does man have purpose? Is there a purpose for our lives? Or are we just simply, you know, the result of chance? If we are the result of chance, if we’re simply a mistake of nature, then that puts a different moral demand on us – in fact, it doesn’t put a moral demand on us….
Unpredictable VS Random
The process of evolution is unpredictable, but it is not random.
You cannot predict who will win the next Texas Mega-Gazillionaire Lottery. But the winner will not be me – I’ve never bought a ticket. The lottery is unpredictable but it is not random.
The genes passed down from parents to offspring are unpredictable, but human parents will not produce a kitten or a starfish.
Human genetics are unpredictable, but are not random.
In the case of evolution, changes that occur in living things are not predictable, but neither are they random. Changes in living things are driven in a direction that benefits the evolution of the organism.
If we rewound the clock of evolution and set it out to run again, would we end up with the exact same natural history of life on earth? Is the process of evolution a contingent process – change one event and the whole picture changes? For example, if the asteroid missed the earth on that fateful day and the dinosaurs survived, would mammals have proliferated and advanced as they did, eventually resulting in humans?
The answer is yes and no.
What if your life was rewound back to the moment when your parents’ chromosomes were being shuffled about just before the fertilization occurred that resulted in you?
You would not be the exact person you are today. But – the same genetic constraints that were in place the first time around would still be in place in the rewind. You would still be your parents’ child.
Our universe and our planet are constrained by natural laws of physics and chemistry:
How strong are the constraints imposed by those conditions? To what degree do they guide and determine the course of evolution? (Only a Theory, p. 147).
In simpler words, did the world know that we (in one form or another) were coming?
Visualize a watery space where animals might live – an ocean or a lake. Slow moving animals, whether large or small, can be almost any shape. But large, fast-moving animals living in the water tend to have a streamlined shape.
Think about a dolphin (mammal), a tuna (fish), and an ichthyosaur (extinct marine reptile) – all three very different animals. But all three are amazingly similar in shape:
This concept is called convergence: organisms that evolve in a particular space will adapt to that space. Organisms evolve features that allow them to live and thrive in a particular environment. As a result, very different and unrelated organisms may look quite similar.
…evolution essentially “explores” any given adaptive space. It pokes and probes the multidimensional landscape of adaptation, and when two or more organisms arrive in a particular niche on that landscape, they are subject to the same physical constraints. (Only a Theory, p. 148)
Koalas, Kangaroos, Eyes, and Convergence
Do You Come From the Land Down Under? When the Australian landmass separated from the rest of the world (about 100 million years ago), it was home to both marsupial mammals (mammals that give birth to very underdeveloped young and carry them in pouches) and placental mammals (mammals that give birth to more developed young). In the newly isolated Australia, only the marsupials survived. In the rest of the world, however, the placentals were champions.
Outside Australia, placental mammals evolved and adapted to a variety of niches. Hunter/predator mammals evolved, as did burrowing mammals and tree-dwelling mammals. The same types of niches found throughout the world were also found in Australia, but only marsupials were around to fill them. In Australia, evolution also produced hunter/predators (the tiger quoll), burrowers (marsupial moles), and tree-dwellers (marsupial flying squirrels).
In Australia, evolution filled the very same spaces with marsupials that it had filled elsewhere with placental mammals.
Eyes Everywhere. Separated by a span of 400 million years, several groups of organisms faced the challenge of vision. Vertebrates, worms, and cephalopod mollusks (squids, octopi, nautilus) all evolved a camera-like eye. These three eyes did not evolve in the same way or from the same structures and are not the same biochemically.
BUT – all three types of eyes are constrained by the same physics of light and geometric principles of optics.
Were We Inevitable?
Again and again, life explores and fills adaptive spaces. Whether separated by oceans or millions of years, the same physical constraints of chemistry and physics are at work, solving problems in similar ways.
Is it reasonable, then, to believe that due to these constraints, the process of evolution would eventually and inevitably lead to us?
…it’s perfectly reasonable to maintain that evolution as we know and understand it was almost certain to produce a species like ours under conditions that prevail on Planet Earth (Only a Theory, p.153).
Life is possible only because of the precise and balanced fundamental constants of our universe. Exact outcomes of the evolutionary process might be unpredictable, but they are not random.
Accident of Nature or Willed by God?
To opponents of evolution, unpredictable is equated with random, and randomness is called God-less.
If God is the cause of causes, people of faith can accept evolution and still believe the universe was willed by God and our presence in it is God’s plan and purpose. The natural processes that brought about life on earth are no more God-less than the natural processes that maintain and propagate life.
This ad ran on the Answers in Genesis website following a rash of school shootings in 2006:
The script reads:
As a society, we reap the consequences of the unquestioned acceptance of the belief in evolution every day. It diminishes your worth and reduces human beings from being made “in the image of God” to being mere players in the game of survival of the fittest.
Evolution makes some people nervous because of the whole connection-to-animals thing. Here’s the thought: how can we be “made in God’s image” if we are just animals?
Peter Enns is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University and former senior fellow of biblical studies for The BioLogos Foundation. In his book The Evolution of Adam, Dr. Enns explored what the Bible says and does not say about human origins.
In Genesis, the phrase “image of God” does not refer to a characteristic that separates us from all other animals. The “image of God” does not refer to biology or a soul or a spiritual quality that makes us special.
Instead, the term “image of God” describes humans as God’s representatives in ruling creation. The original readers of Genesis would have understood this – ancient Near-Eastern kings declared themselves to be the gods’ image on earth. Kings liked to set up statues of themselves across the kingdom to remind their subjects that they were in charge and appointed by the gods.
In Genesis, “image of God” means that humans have been tasked with representing God in the world.
That is a daunting task, and it certainly makes us special.
This series is a chapter by chapter overview of Kenneth R. Miller’s Only a Theory, with my discussion and commentary.
I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.