Merry Christmas, Albert Einstein

Einstein3

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
– Albert Einstein, 1940

As the skydiving school’s plane climbed toward the setting sun, I nervously checked my 16 year old brother’s antique, rented parachute and groaned, “Do you realize that when this plane lands, we’re not going to be on it?” We both turned a whiter shade of pale, and I wondered again what I’d tell my parents if anything happened to him.

Almost 20, I’d fallen for a girl like a safe out of a 5 story window. Desperate to regain control and stop thinking about her , I figured plummeting from 5,000 feet just might do it.

A mile up, I shuffled slowly to the open cargo door. Staring down into grinning death, my fingers dug into the doorframe like a bulldog’s teeth into a T-bone. Our “instructor” yelled something unintelligible in my ear, scowled, grabbed the back of my pants, and hurled me out of the plane.

Spread-eagled, screaming, and accelerating toward sure annihilation, I consoled myself with the thought that at least I’d stopped thinking about her… which, of course, amounted to thinking about her. (Thirty-two years of marriage later, and I still can’t get her off my mind.) Just then, the static line popped my chute open, and with a savage jolt I was jerked back among the living.

My brother and I whooped to each other as we swirled happily back to earth; right up until we realized we were headed for a hard landing on the asphalt runway. We both yanked on our steering cords, which our “instructor” had neglected to mention causes you to fall much faster, and crashed into the weeds. My brother badly sprained his ankle, but we’d survived. All in all, yet another convincing demonstration of the reliability of Newton’s gravitational equations.

In high school, we tested those equations by dropping balls off tables and rolling them down inclined planes. We learned that just as they predicted the motion of the balls, they could also predict the orbits of the planets around the sun. It all made for an orderly, predictable universe that left no room for parting the Red Sea or walking on water. My scanty science education left me with that signature gift of the Enlightenment: disbelief in the possibility of miracles.

But several years ago I learned that my Newtonian universe had become a quaint anachronism. Trying to find equations that accurately describe everything from the Big Bang to the behavior of subatomic particles, many eminent physicists now conclude that our universe has not three, but ten spatial dimensions, and that there are many, perhaps even an infinite number of, parallel universes. Also, in order to make their equations work, 96% of the universe must consist of dark matter and energy, which no one has even detected yet. (For a good summary of the science, watch The Elegant Universe at PBS.com)

My belief in the universe as an elaborate clockwork was blown to bits. And with all those dimensions, universes, and quantities of dark matter and energy out there, about which we know virtually nothing, there is no way science could plausibly deny the possibility of miracles. And for me, Enlightenment cynicism gave way to the possibility of faith.

Weirdly enough though, there have been several recent bestsellers questioning the existence of God and the intelligence of those who believe in miracles. Christopher Hitchens, the deceased author of one such book and a certifiably brilliant guy, in an attempt to explain Mother Theresa’s long dark night of the soul, wrote, ”Now it might seem glib of me to say that this is all rather unsurprising, and that it is the inevitable result of a dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and then makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels.” Impossible things? It’s hard to imagine how someone so well informed could roll out that old Newtonian canard. But he can -if he chooses- ignore the scientific progress of the last 30 years; he can take his leap of faith, and I’ll take mine.

Face it, Einstein was usually right. So, next Thursday give your heart a little rest: Have a Merry Christmas.

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