When physicists get out the duct tape

Mathematical fumblings behind the campus bikeshed

IMG_3071The great physicist Roger Penrose has written:

‘…The standard model is clearly not the “ultimate answer”, with regard to particle physics, because it contains many unexplained features and “ragged edges”, despite its undoubted success. It involves about 17 unexplained parameters that simply need to be taken from observation.’ 1

Then he talks about quantum field theory and the frequent need to ‘renormalize’ equations. ‘Renormalizing’ means, for example, when the maths yields an infinite negative mass or an infinite negative charge, arbitrarily to add infinite mass or infinite charge so that the problem goes away and you get values that meet experiments. Or to put it another way, the ‘twin criteria of agreement with observation’ and ‘mathematical consistency’ are ‘incompletely fufilled’ (p665) and ‘there is no accepted way of obtaining finite answers without such an “infinite rescaling” procedure applied not necessarily only to charge, or to mass, but to other quantities also’ (p678).

Physicists, possibly, can get away with much in the murky cellars of mathematics because the rest of us are ill-equipped to go down and supervise.

“What are you doing down there?’ we call.

‘Oh, I’m just renormalizing,’ they reply, amid the clink of bottles.

Those of us who are not unsupervised quantum physicists still live under tiresome restrictions: at GCSE, we can’t arbitrarily add numbers to make our equations come out right. In the bank, we find opposition to us renormalizing our overdrafts by suggesing the bank adds an infinite amount of positive-but-theoretical money. So tiresome!

Yet this is not to throw stones at physicists, who in my view have by their mathematical fluency made much more progress on paradoxical issues than (say) theologians (who are usually just restricted to human languages).

But it is to say that physics isn’t quite the purring engine, not quite the lonely pinnacle of rarefied human thought, that we might like to think.

And so, for example, when New Atheists claim that Quantum Field Theory and its like does away with the need for a Creator, since everything just pops spontaneously out of a quantum vacuum, we should remember these arguments are held together, at a fundamental level, by duct tape.

Quotes are from Roger Penrose’s magnificent The Road to Reality, which has sadly reminded me what three years of undergraduate study proved: in physics, I can hum the tunes but can’t do the lyrics.

Slow healing (10): the need to respond inappropriately

Thanksgiving anyway

roterschirm3Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1: 2-4).

It sounds impossible, or at least inappropriate. In the midst of suffering, James tells us to ‘rejoice’, to give thanks, to worship. Do we thank God for the suffering? No. Do we thank God that the suffering is making us a better person? No, I don’t think so.

Instead, in the middle of things–I think it means–we turn to God and thank and worship him for who he is.

He hasn’t stopped being kind, reliable, powerful, purposeful, true. Despite our personal eclipse, the sun still shines. That exercise shapes us in good ways and helps put us on top of our troubles rather than them being on top of us.

Best of all about this verse for me is the phrase ‘of many kinds’. James is telling us how to process trouble and sorrow of every kind whether it’s the small frustration of missing the post with a birthday card or the unhealed pain of a loved one lost.

(Originally written for a series of Lent devotions whose title I have forgotten)

Seasons of the soul

With seasons changing so obviously outside, here’s a good question: does the soul have seasons? I dug out some notes from my friend Susan Sutton who is much better read in this stuff than me.

SeasonWork
WinterPruning, waiting
SpringClearing, cleaning, ploughing, planting
SummerMaintaining. Things are flowing. You know who you are. Not hurried or worried. Life is good
Autumn/FallHarvesting. Busy, fruitful lots to show for your work

 

These can reflect stages in our whole life.

But they can also guide us through loss. A sudden loss of health or a loved one may be like a storm that batters us and takes us in a single day from a harvest season into a bitter winter; but spring returns.

Prayer as resonance

wavesHere’s how prayer works. The overflow from God’s heart spills over into our hearts. The overflow of our hearts pours into his. We are entangled together, God and us, like two quantum particles. What stirs one, stirs the other.

When many people are moved to pray, some great wave of desire is stirring in God’s heart and flowing into many of us.

Or alternatively, something mighty maybe stirring in many hearts and slopping over to God’s heart.

Back and forth the waves flow.

When two or three agree together in prayer it will be done for them. Why? because the act of tuning your hearts so that they resonate together before God necessarily tunes them together into God’s own frequencies.

This has practical uses.

So much of prayer, surely, is scrambling around trying to find out what to believe in for today. Where in the buffeting of desire or longing or fear is the place we can anchor our souls for the day? Tomorrow is another day. But today’s calm place is what resonates with God today and where he wants to lead us today.