Einstein famously searched for a general principle of nature, a theory of everything. He even regarded his own theories of relativity modestly as he continued to search for even deeper answers to questions. As well as questions about space, motion and time, which had preoccupied many before him like Newton and Faraday, he was preoccupied by an enigma about reality and the universe that took him, as he acknowledged, beyond physics into metaphysics.
It was the question that forms the subtitle to Leon Lederman's 2012 book in this field The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?
Others have asked the same questions. Two of them, both physicists keen to think outside the box (Michio Kaku to metaphysics, Frank Wilczek to aesthetics), have also probed into the enigmas 'why something and not nothing' and tried to find ways of explaining what, why and how.
The 'God' question and the 'God particle' haunt the first of these books – Michio Kaku's The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything
(Doubleday and Allen Lane, 2021), a clear-sighted survey of the ever-changing field of physics. He is a born communicator, a professor of physics at the City University in New York, and author of several specialist texts on parallel worlds (such as his journey through creation, higher dimensions and the future of the cosmos, published earlier by Random House in 2006). Even though his own focus has been string theory – which forms an elegantly convincing climax on his journey – Kaku aims to take the generally informed scientific reader through the critical stages of physics inquiry and illuminate our knowledge of how we got here now.
The information is neatly explained without condescension. As a book for the general reader, the complexities of the mathematics themselves are nicely tucked away in a short section of notes, and specialists can follow them up along with citations in a well-pruned list of further reading. The God Question
is one of many arresting titles – investigations, introductions – to the sciences to have appeared in recent years, and rightly it well illustrates two useful trends in such publishing: the desire to explain complexity to everyone, and the way such explanations both draw on and demonstrate how disciplines feed off each other – in this case physics and theology.
Sensibly avoiding the illusion that we get cleverer as time passes, Kaku opens up the research outcomes and explains the intellectual paradigms of Newton and Faraday before describing the unification of space and time, motion and energy in the ideas of Einstein. On then rapidly to the quantum theories 'discovered' (do scientists discover realities like Columbus 'discovered' America?) that arose from his search for a unified field theory and from the work of Schrodinger. And then, drawing on Dirac (on electrons) and Maxwell (on light), the work of Feynman. Throughout Kaku highlights the scientific ideas so this is not merely an urbane list of interesting biographies (although there are several memorable anecdotes).
It is all too easy to slip into the Hitchhiker
lingo of Douglas Adams in speaking about a general theory of everything. Yet Kaku's central theme is the way in which physics has confronted what at the time it regarded as unanswerable questions about matter, motion, energy, reality, nature and life itself. Inevitably Kaku's survey leads the reader towards the nuclear force, the DNA double helix, and the cosmos, and the challenges of trying to find out what holds all the various particles (atoms, molecules, electrons, protons, quarks, neutrinos, and the rest) together – the so-called standard theory. At this stage, as readers we are ready for string theory and membranes (think of the topology of a burst balloon) and, if we wish, the equations in the notes.
In 'uniting' inquiry into gravity with the quantum theory, string theory claims to have shifted physics research closer to a general theory of everything. At every stage – Newton, Einstein, today – it has been believed that we have got there. For all his transparent expertise and optimism, Kaku is sceptical, noting how controversial string theory remains, and how much more there is to be done, above all to find ways to test it using gigantic collider technologies. Further, then, to travel for physics, beyond Hawking's black holes and beyond truly knowing what dark matter actually is.
Frank Wilczek, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, continues the journey he started in The Longing for the Harmonies and The Lightness of Being
in his A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design
(Penguin Press and Allen Lane, 2015). Another born communicator, he asks two simple yet profound questions: 'does the world embody beautiful ideas?' and 'is the world a work of art?' To both he finds the answer 'yes'. Getting there is an exciting and contentious voyage of discovery both for him and his reader, for he blends an eclectic history of physics and physicists (from Pythagoras to Newton and on beyond Einstein) with research into human perception, the physics of sound and music, and the experimental similarities they have with quantum theory.
In a way, Wilczek uses aesthetics and art as metaphors for physics; in another way, the other way round. He is as much interested in the architecture of Bruneleschi and Blake's concept of Urizen as in searching for the symmetries in matter as posited by core theory, as much in the natural vibrations of guitar strings as the ever-changing positionalities of quarks and gluons. He explains how Newton's and Maxwell's models of matter, motion and light have been changed by physics, drilling into the paradox of things that change but do not change, and how we visualise forms of reality that may be unreliable – how all this and more brings us nearer to understanding the 'riddle of existence', how modern physics can 'rewrite the rainbow'.
Wilczek turns to aesthetics rather than to theology or metaphysics for help in both understanding and explaining what is taking place in physics. He demonstrates the elegance inherent in equations that explain wave functions, but also sees unexpected harmonies and proportionalities in simple musical sounds and even in natural objects (like colour patterns on a spice stall in the market). He suggests that there is an anthropic principle at work by which 'the world must be as it is, in order for me to exist', a neat version of the Cartesian cogito, ergo sum
. 'I think, therefore I am.' Cleanly presented colour plates enhance the book.
God sneaks in when Wilczek concedes that thinking of God as an artisanal artist might make good sense, but that's as far as it goes. Both Wilczek and Kaku seem to be saying that, if there is such an entity as 'God', then he/she/it is too subtle for their own good. Faced with challenge and disappointment, Einstein wondered whether 'God' (an entity he seems to have been tolerant with) was 'subtle' (in withholding the secrets of the universe from human inquiry) or 'malicious' (in designing, if he or she or it actually did this, a universe so deviously complex as to bamboozle anyone however clever). For well over 20 years in debate between scientists and theologians there has been a stark polarity between believers and sceptics. It has been turbo-charged by the New Sceptics.
Today the debate has grown up (at least a bit) into one where scientific (physics- and evolution-based explanations of the universe and life on Earth) models are more-or-less uncontentiously presented as 'fact', and (a sign of their maturity) admit to not needing (as early Christopher Hitchens and others used to rant) to demolish 'religion' and 'faith' as forms of medieval superstition and indoctrination. The effect of this, interestingly enough, is to transform any conception we have of a 'traditional God' into a useful device for describing something (indeed anything) that is both ultimate and unifying.
This comprehensively secularises 'God' and God. Kaku admits in his last chapter (finding meaning in the universe) that he is an agnostic, in the sense that agnostics go on investigating the facts and looking for truthful and testable explanations. He is no religion-basher and his arguments are all the stronger for that. He goes (because he knows he has no choice) from physics to metaphysics at this final point, admitting the limits to current scientific inquiry, acknowledging the 'magisteria' distinctions between 'how' and 'why'.
Wilczek's inquiry takes him to metaphysics of what is real and unreal, an edge of empirical knowledge where unexpected symmetries like the dodecahedronal structures of Kroto's buckyballs might be explained and hydrogen atoms have musical qualities, and where 'beautiful answers' to questions about change-and-no-change and determined-or-free can be addressed.
Kaku's and Wilczek's comments on current anthropic claims for Earth are timely and imply that conventional Christian ideas about 'creation' are themselves both being superseded by current scientific questions and leaving science with aporia. Perhaps 'God', if there is one, has been so subtle as to encourage human beings to develop so far, the arrogance of Prometheus notwithstanding, that they no longer need him/her/it. So the God question is really worth asking, even as we go on searching for what we call the God particle, wonder about the consequences of genetic sequencing and ponder the existence of multiverses.
Both authors have created exciting topographies of the border-lands where science, metaphysics and theology meet, a duel at 20 yards perhaps with standard theory on one side and standard belief on the other.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland