Sunday, 3 June 2012

Physics, faith, and a cartoon

I was interviewed on physics and faith six weeks ago as part of the Melbourne City Bible Forum's Reason for Faith Festival — a kind of pendant to the Global Atheist Convention that was held in the same town the week before.

The mp3 of the interview is now available on the Melbourne CBF website.

The event was called “The Faith of a Physicist”, but we talked more about physics as such, in particular my own field (particle physics), and what it's like to be a physicist ... only then drawing the connections with my being a Christian, and having a degree in theology. So the talk is not itself a confession of faith. (There was some of that later in the day, but that's another story.) We covered a lot of good, scientific ground partly because the interviewer was my old friend Tim Patrick: a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, but by training a geologist, with research experience in the field and the lab. After talking about physics itself we talked about its limits:

People ask ... what the limits of physics are. I don't know what the limits of physics are. I can tell you what the limits of my current experiments are, within a limited time horizon, but not really beyond that ... The questions that you can answer with physics are surprising if you don't have the scientific knowledge yourself, if that makes sense: you need to understand the field to have a sense for what the reach of the field is, and someone outside the field — you can't legislate it. Not just because it's an open enquiry, but because it's non-trivial: there's more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my or your philosophy, and certainly in the philosophy of someone like you or me a hundred years ago. So you just have to run with it.
We also covered the difficulty of interdisciplinary work, what the sciences and theology tell us about each other, a bit of 19th-century scientific history, the difference between scientific and cultural questions, ...

There were questions from the floor at the end of the interview, which for some reason have not made it onto the mp3 ... although my answers have. So that the answers might make more sense, I've done what I can to reconstruct the questions:

  • at 28:22, the question was about divine action: what God's providence in natural (biological) history looks like physically, e.g. do I think God fiddles with DNA, or ...?
  • at 29:58, a question about cosmology: what was happening before the Big Bang?
  • at 31:06, a time-honoured question about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and how it relates to the development of complexity in biology;
  • at 33:21, are physicists mostly unbelievers?
  • at 33:36, are metaphysical or religious motivations important in cosmology? in physics more generally? for me?
  • at 35:31, are ideas about a “multiverse” well-grounded?
At one point, I drew an analogy with chemistry's Periodic Table: how the LHC experiments are looking for missing bits of the “periodic table” of particle physics. A few weeks later, Jorge Chan's PhD Comics posted an eight-minute movie The Higgs Boson Explained, which has an excellent discussion of particle physics in these terms, with a mix of live action, and cartoons being drawn on the fly. Thoroughly recommended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Taking thigns seriously? Now that's my kind of behavior since I made it m ygoal to take everything seriously.