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Robert Kaita, Ph. D.
Plasma Physics Laboratory
The year 2005 is the international year of physics. It commemorates the one
hundredth anniversary of Albert Einstein's papers that changed the way we see
the world. These papers included evidence for why everything is made up of
atoms and an explanation of phenomena on that very small scale in terms of what
eventually became quantum mechanics. One of the papers also introduced the
world to the special theory of relativity.
Einstein posed a question that scientists, as scientists, still cannot
answer. He asked why the universe is comprehensible. We do not know, for
example, why there are only a few laws of physics. The same law of gravity can
be used to describe how we are held to the earth, but also how immense galaxies
are attracted to each other to form clusters.
We know that the universe is very old but that it is not infinitely old. We
do not know why it had a moment of origin, which is now commonly called the
"Big Bang." This frivolous name was invented by adherents to a "steady-state"
universe, and was meant to reflect their contempt for a universe with a
beginning. However, astronomers found evidence for the "Big Bang" by looking at
the way distant galaxies were moving away from us. As the theory predicts,
those farthest away also had the fastest velocities.
We think that carbon was made inside stars long ago. However, we do not know
why enough of it was created in this process, relative to heavier elements, to
make life possible on Earth. The carbon is believed to have been released when
the stars exploded, and enough eventually coalesced on our planet during its
formation to become a part of every living organism.
Some scientists explain all of this by saying that it is just the way it has
to be. In other words, if the universe were different, we would not be around
to ask why things are the way they are. This "explanation" actually has a
formal label. It is the "Anthropic Cosmological Principle," and the first word
in the name reflects its emphasis on the existence of human beings as the
reason for everything we observe.
Other scientists, like myself, are perfectly comfortable in saying that our
universe is all the work of a creator. Everyone would have to agree, however,
that a person can hold either position and still be a good scientist. It takes
just as much faith to claim that there is no creator behind what I just
described as to believe that there is one.
Without going to the extreme of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, many
envision a creator who had the very limited role of just "getting the ball
rolling." People might be familiar with those who take great pains in setting
up a huge number of dominoes, perhaps to get into the Guinness Book of
World Records. The role of the creator of the universe, in crude analogy,
would be to knock down the first domino, and watch the rest fall down.
Somehow, we have a sense that such a picture is not very satisfying. Why
would some entity go through the trouble of creating the universe as we know
it, and simply sit back and see "how things work out?" But an even more
fundamental question for the scientist is this: Does the universe really "work"
like a set of dominoes falling, one inexorably after another, without any
There is a riddle that goes like this. "How many software engineers does it
take to change a lightbulb?" The answer is, "None. It's a hardware problem."
Whether you laugh or groan, the basis behind this joke is easy to understand.
In our common experience, lightbulbs and every other contrivance of human
ingenuity do not last forever.
As an experimental physicist, I sometimes pause to marvel at the miracle of
my car starting after I've had a hard day in the lab struggling to make some
balky apparatus work. There is no question about the need for an experimenter
to take an active role to make experiments succeed. Similarly, everyone knows
what happens if the "interventions" specified in a car service schedule are too
long neglected. The phrase "driving your car into the ground" has a good
Even leaving equipment "on the shelf" is no guarantee that it will work when
you need it. My research focuses on developing nuclear fusion (which is the
process that powers the sun) as a safe and clean energy source. Part of my work
involves evacuating chambers which contain the hot, ionized gases, or plasmas,
which must be created for fusion reactions to occur. For this purpose, we use
high-speed pumps with carefully manufactured bearings. Just letting the
bearings sit for a seemingly modest length of time will deform them enough to
make the pumps fail.
Given my intimate familiarity with "hardware problems," occasional envy of
my colleagues in theoretical physics may not be surprising. Their codes run
even after they have been set aside for some time. If they don't, the cause can
usually be traced to tangible equipment that can "wear out." The solution for
code developers is then to get someone else to fix the hardware. But can they
be absolutely certain that this will cure the problem? This bears on a deeper
question regarding the physical laws that govern the operation of chips at the
heart of modern computers. Why should these laws stay the same from one day to
the next? We can imagine hardware wearing out with time, but there is no
fundamental reason why the software that runs on them should be as
For me, I find the answer at the end of the eighth chapter of Genesis.
There, God makes the following sacred promise to humanity.
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.
There is no a priori reason that season should follow season, so that the
seeds we plant will lead to the harvests that are necessary for our survival.
Rather, it is God who insures this regularity "as long as the earth
Of course, not everyone needs the answer Genesis provides for why science
will "work" tomorrow. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle could be invoked to
"explain" the persistent patterns we see in our universe by asserting that if
it were not the case, we could not exist. Such an approach reflects, once
again, a focus primarily on ourselves in the here and now. It begs, however,
the deeper question of why we are here in the first place, and belies an
egocentrism that has existed since the dawn of humanity.
The point is illustrated in the following event during the ministry of Jesus
Christ two millenia ago. In the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we
read the story of Jesus encountering ten men who had leprosy. He told them to
go show themselves to the priests, and they were cured. However, only one came
back and threw himself at the feet of Jesus with thankfulness and praises to
God. While the miraculous cure is important in this story, there is an equally
significant lesson in the differing reactions of those who were cured.
The miraculous in modern science ultimately has nothing to do with the fact
that we now have medical treatments for leprosy, or how many songs you can
stuff into an iPOD for that matter. Instead, it is that we can do, and can
continue to do, science at all. In that sense, all scientists tacitly believe
in this "miracle" to perform their work.
The validity of such an assertion should not be in question. Rather, it is
how we react to this reality that is the key issue. The responses of the men
Jesus cured thus continue to inform us today. We can focus "anthropically" on
ourselves, and run off with blithe disregard of what a blessing our very
existence represents. Or, we can turn with thankfulness to God who created us
and sustains all of creation.
Biosketch: Dr. Robert Kaita is a physicist with Princeton University's Plasma
Physics Laboratory, where he heads a major facility for fusion energy research.
He has supervised the research of almost two dozen graduate students in the
Program in Plasma Physics in Princeton's Department of Astrophysical Sciences.
His work has been presented in lectures around the world, and recorded in
nearly 300 publications. Dr. Kaita is a member of the American Association for
the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the American Physical Society, and a
past president of the Princeton Chapter of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research
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