If we look about the world today, we can see clearly that there are two especially significant factors shaping the future of our civilization: science and religion. Science is placing in our hands the ultimate power of the universe, the power of the atom. Religion, or the lack of it, will decide whether we use this power to build a brave new world of peace and abundance for all mankind, or whether we misuse this power to leave a world utterly destroyed. How can we have the wisdom to meet such a new and difficult challenge?
We may feel pessimistic at the outlook. And yet there is a note of hope, because this same science that is giving us the power of the atom is also giving us atomic vision. We are looking inside the atom and seeing there a universe which is not material but something beyond the material, a universe that in a word is not matter but music. And it is in this new vision of the atom that we find an affirmation and an invigoration of our faith.
To see this vision in perspective, we need first of all a clear idea of the magnitude of this new power from the atom. You know that I could hold right here in my hand the little chunk of uranium metal that was the heart of the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima. It was only about the size of a baseball; but packed in that metallic ball there was the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT. That is enough TNT to fill the tower of the Empire State Building; and with the availability of bombs of that size, war became a new problem.
Now we might have restricted the use of uranium bombs by controlling the sources of uranium because it is found in only a few places in the world. But we had hardly started to adjust our thinking to this new uranium weapon when we were faced with the hydrogen bomb. Hydrogen is just as plentiful as uranium is scarce. We know that we have hydrogen in water; water is H20 and the H stands for hydrogen; there is also hydrogen in wood and hydrogen in our bodies. I have calculated that if I could snap my fingers in one magic gesture to release the power of all the hydrogen in my body, I would explode with the force of a hundred bombs of the kind that fell on Hiroshima. I won’t try the experiment, but I think you can see that if we all knew the secret, and we could all let ourselves go, there would be quite an explosion. And then think how little hydrogen we have in us compared with the hydrogen in Delaware Bay or in the ocean beyond. Salt water is still H20; the same hydrogen is there. And the size of the ocean shows us the magnitude of the destructive power we hold in our hands today. Of course, there is also an optimistic side to the picture. For if I knew the secret of letting this power in my body change directly into electricity, I could rent myself out to the electric light companies and with just the power in my body, I could light all the lights and run all the factories in the entire United States for some days. And think, if we all knew this secret and we could pool our power, what a wonderful public utility company we would make. With just the hydrogen of our bodies, we could run the world for years. Then think of Delaware Bay and the ocean and you see that we have a supply of power for millions of years to come. It is power with which we can literally rebuild the world, provide adequate housing, food, education, abundant living for everyone everywhere.
An Octillion Atoms
Now let us see where this power comes from. To grasp our new view of the atom, we have to appreciate first of all how small the atom is. I have been trying to make this clear to my own class in chemistry. One night there were some dried peas lying on our kitchen table, and these peas looked to me like a little group of atoms; and I asked myself a question. Suppose I had the same number of peas as there are atoms in my body, how large an area would they cover?
I calculated first that there are about an octillion atoms in the average human body; that is a figure one with 27 ciphers, quite a large number. Then I calculated that a million peas would just about fill a household refrigerator; a billion peas would fill a small house from cellar to attic; a trillion peas would fill all the houses in a town of about ten thousand people; and a quadrillion peas would fill all the buildings in the city of Philadelphia.
I saw that I would soon run out of buildings at this rate, so I decided to take another measure—the whole state of Pennsylvania. Imagine that there is a blizzard over Pennsylvania, but instead of snowing snow, it snows peas; so we get the whole state covered with peas, about four feet deep. You can imagine what it would look like going out on the turnpike with the peas banked up against the houses and covering the cars; Pennsylvania thus blanketed would contain about a quintillion peas.
But we still have a long way to go. Next we imagine our blizzard raging over all the land areas of the entire globe—North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, all covered with peas four feet deep; then we have sextillion peas. Next we freeze over the oceans and cover the whole earth with peas, then we go out among the neighboring stars, collect 250 planets each the size of the earth, and also cover each of these with peas four feet deep; and then we have septillion. Finally we go into the farthest reaches of the Milky Way; we get 250,000 planets; we cover each of these with our blanket of peas and then at last we have octillion peas corresponding in number to the atoms in the body. So you see how small an atom is and how complicated you are.
A Speck—and Space
Now although an atom is small, we can still in imagination have a look at it. Let us focus on an atom of calcium from the tip of the bone of my finger and let us suppose that I swallow a magic Alice in Wonderland growing pill. I start growing rapidly and this calcium atom grows along with me. I shoot up through the roof, into the sky, past the clouds, through the stratosphere, out beyond the moon, out among the planets, until I am over a hundred and fifty million miles long. Then this atom of calcium will swell to something like a great balloon a hundred yards across, a balloon big enough to put a football field inside. And if you should step inside of such a magnified atom, according to the physics of forty years ago, you would see circulating over your head, down at the sides, and under your feet, some twenty luminous balls about the size of footballs. These balls are moving in great circles and ellipses, and are of course, the electrons, the particles of negative electricity which by their action create the forces that tie this atom of calcium to the neighboring atoms of oxygen and make up the solid structure of my finger bone.
Since these electrons are moving like planets, you may wonder whether there is an atomic sun at the center of the atom. So you look down there and you see a tiny, whirling point about the size of the head of a pin. This is the atomic sun, the atomic nucleus. Even if the atom were big enough to hold a football field, this nucleus is still only about the size of a pinhead. It is this atomic nucleus that contains the positive charge of electricity holding these negatively charged electrons in their orbits; it also contains nearly all the mass, and the atomic energy.
You may ask what else there is, and the answer is nothing—nothing but empty space. And since you are made of atoms, you are nothing much but empty space, too. If I could put your body in an imaginary atomic press and squeeze you down, squeeze these holes out of you in the way we squeeze the holes out of a sponge, you would get smaller and smaller until finally when the last hole was gone, you would be smaller than the smallest speck of dust that you could see on this piece of paper. Someone has remarked that this is certainly the ultimate in reducing. At any rate, it shows us how immaterial we are.
Music of the Spheres
Now this 1920 view of the atom was on the whole a discouraging picture. For we believed that the electrons obeyed the law of mechanics and electrodynamics; and therefore the atom was really just a little machine; and in mechanics the whole is no more than the sum of the parts. So if you are made of atoms, you are just a big machine; and since the universe is also made of atoms, it is just a super machine. And this would mean that we live in a mechanistic universe, governed by the laws of cause and effect, bound in chains of determinism that hold the universe on a completely predetermined course in which there is not room for soul or spirit or human freedom. And this is why so many scientists a half a century ago were agnostics or atheists.
Then came the scientific revolution in the late 1920′s. A suggestion from Louis de Broglie, a physicist in France, showed us that these electrons are not point particles but waves. And to see the meaning of this new picture, imagine that you can put on more powerful glasses and go back inside the atom and have a look at it in the way we view it today. Now as you step inside, instead of seeing particles orbiting around like planets, you see waves and ripples very much like the ripples that you get on the surface of a pond when you drop a stone into it. These ripples spread out in symmetrical patterns like the rose windows of a great cathedral. And as the waves flow back and forth and merge with the waves from the neighboring atoms, you can put on a magic hearing aid and you hear music. It is a music like the music from a great organ or a vast orchestra playing a symphony. Harmony, melody, counterpoint symphonic structure are there; and as this music ebbs and flows, there is an antiphonal chorus from all the atoms outside, in fact from the atoms of the entire universe. And so today when we examine the structure of our knowledge of the atom and of the universe, we are forced to conclude that the best word to describe our universe is music.
Now this gives us a completely new philosophy. You see, if the universe were just a great machine, then it would be governed by mechanistic determinism and it would yield a hopeless outlook. But in music the whole is more than the sum of the parts. In music it is the aspect of the whole that is significant. Play a single note from a symphony and it may be pleasing or it may be harsh, but by itself it means very little. Only when all the notes are blended in the entire form, in the harmony, the melody, and the counterpoint, do we have the deep significance and power of the symphony. And interpreting life in this new perspective, we see that a human being is not a machine but a symphony.
A Part of the Universe
As you listen now, you don’t hear this music of the spheres all around you; and you may ask why. First, although part of this music does actually consist of sound, it is so inaudible, so slight in energy content, that our ears cannot perceive it. Another part of this music consists of electrodynamic radiation like light; actually at this moment you are filled with a kind of symphonic light. And not only are you filled with it, you are also radiating it, and this can be proved very easily in the laboratory. Of course, if you turn out the lights and stand in the dark, you do not appear to be glowing; yet if you stand in front of an infra-red television camera in complete darkness, the television screen will show you as a glowing form, beaming with light which radiates out from you as a result of the vibration of your atoms. This is an established physical fact.
Far beyond that, in these new waves first discovered by de Broglie, we have a new kind of phenomenon in the universe, a new kind of dynamic form which ties the entire universe together in a new kind of unity. You may think that you are here sitting comfortably and quietly, but actually you are only focused here; you are spread out over the neighboring fields, over the surface of the earth, and throughout the entire universe.
I think that you can see this pattern if you think first of the force of gravity. If I let my hand fall, the reason it falls is not because bodies naturally fall, but because every atom in my hand is tied by the invisible threads of gravity to all the atoms in the trillions of tons of matrix rock which lie in the core of our earth. The reason you are sitting quietly and not floating up around the ceiling is because you also are tied by these invisible threads to the core of the earth beneath. But this is not all. If I wave my hand, these threads of gravity stemming from it not only move the leaves on the trees outside, create ripples down on the water of the bay, but also move the moon; the sun feels this motion, and the stars; even the farthest nebula will tremble because of the motion of my hand. As a famous physicist put it, every heartbeat is felt through the entire universe.
A Unity and Common Focus
And of course, this action is a two-way street. Not only do the forces from our bodies go out throughout the entire universe but the entire universe is feeding back both gravitational and de Broglie waves to us. If I cup my hands, in a very real sense I am holding between them the entire universe. Here between my hands is this fabric of dynamic force, coming here from every atom in the universe. Every one of these atoms is sending its mysterious influence all around us. We see that in this new sense we transcend space. We have to view our universe, not in terms of the location of points, not in terms of being here and not there, but in terms of a unity, a dynamic form in which all action and all reality have common focus. And in these terms, our faith and our religion take on new significance.
We not only have this transcendence of space; we also find that the phenomenon of life transcends time. Today we know very little of the mysteries of the beginning and ending of time, of the creation and the ultimate destiny of the universe. We only begin to see dimly in perspective something of the events that took place billions of years ago when the relations of matter, energy, space, and time were very different from what they are today. We cannot say positively whether the universe was created at a definite point of time. Some physicists believe that there was an act of creation about ten billion years ago. Others say, "If that is so, what was happening before the creation of the universe?" Of course, that is an old question. St. Augustine was once asked, "What was the Lord doing before creation?" and is said to have replied that He was creating a special kind of hell for people who ask such questions.
Today we have to be content with very fragmentary knowledge of these initial cosmic events; but we see enough to realize that time does not go infinitely backward in a kind of stale uniform structure. There is in the origin of time some deeper meaning; and by symmetry we can believe that at the end of time, there is also a deeper meaning. So in this aspect of the whole of life, we perceive a reality that transcends time and merges into eternity.
Transposed Through Time
I think you can see this if you try to look at life in the atomic perspective. As you sit now with your octillion atoms, you are constantly exchanging old atoms for new. Every time you breathe, you breathe in quadrillions of oxygen atoms; you breathe out other quadrillions of molecules of carbon dioxide. It has been estimated that the atomic content of the entire body on the average is renewed about every five years, some parts faster and some parts slower.
Take Julius Caesar, for example, 2,000 years ago. Caesar went through many sets of octillion atoms in the course of his lifetime. And those atoms are now diffused pretty well around the entire surf ace of the earth; so it is an easy calculation to show that there is a high probability that you have in your body right now a thousand atoms that were once in the body of Julius Caesar. Of course, you also have atoms from Caesar’s wife, from Caesar’s dog, from the trees in Imperial Rome, in fact from nearly all the living objects that were here on earth 2,000 years ago.
Science tells us that there is really little significance in our possession of Caesar’s atoms because we have today a new concept of the meaning of atomic individuality, and we believe that we cannot identify individual atoms. Nevertheless, this is a perspective that gives us a sense of unity in time. And speaking very reverently, we believe that Christ lived on earth as a man, that he shared our human lot, that he breathed as we breathe; and in the same perspective we can say that each of us has in his body a thousand atoms that were once in the body of Christ. And beyond this, science says that there is a reality still more significant. Individual atomic content means very little; for in this new perspective, the individual atoms are scarcely more than the shadows of a far deeper reality that we find in this total atomic harmony within us, the spirit of our Creator within us.
The Ultimate Creative Force
One of my friends suggested that human life is like an orchestra. There are octillion musicians on a vast stage; and as the symphony of life is played, many players rise and leave the stage and their places are taken by others; but the symphony goes on without a break and the director remains the same. You see that this perspective is now focusing on the whole which is more than the sum of the parts; and it tells us that there is in each of us an eternal core, call it dynamic force, call it personality, call it spirit or soul or symphony or what you will; there is in us this core, this director of our symphony of life that somehow has an invariance that transcends the changes of space and time. And in this way, we can understand that in mortal life there is this immortal reality that merges with the eternal.
In this perspective we can also see better our relations to our Creator. We are not infinitesimal beings on a small planet in a remote corner of the universe. Somehow the universe merges with us and in this new vision we can understand how there can be a Creator of the universe who holds in his hands the farthest reaches of the stars and at the same time stands close to each of us as a loving Father ready to strengthen and sustain us if we turn to him. We see that literally the kingdom of heaven is around us and within us, that there is a spiritual domain with a reality far deeper and more significant than anything tangible and visible. And we see that this domain is where we live and move and have our being. We see that the ultimate power of the universe is not the shattering power of the atom, but the vitalizing power of love, the love of our Creator for us, the love that we should have for him and for our fellow human beings.
Today we must begin to live our lives in these new terms, living not as machines moving in superficial space, but as children of our Creator, moving in the domain of the spirit, close to our Creator when we turn to him, held ever in his loving hand. Living thus, we can face the vast problems of this new atomic age and can hope to solve them victoriously.
I believe that we can achieve this new faith. I believe that in this faith we can win the victory of this new age. And when that glad day comes, I believe we will understand with new wisdom the meaning of the words, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
The Long Road Toward Knowledge
A man’s education lies not in what is common to all, but in what is special to himself….
But there is no fallacy so universal, and none so dangerous in this world, as the opinion that the man who does not know exactly what we ourselves know is an uneducated and ignorant person. The man who really knows is the man who has discovered truth for himself, and not the man who has been taught results….
We all know that the modern Board-school child can expose the errors and show up the ignorance of the great Greek astronomers and investigators; and, beyond a doubt, children a century hence will marvel at the ignorance of the great physicists and electricians of our day. Children will marvel, because they have only been taught results; but educated men will admire the great discoverers whether of the Greek period or of our own day. They discovered, and therefore they knew, in their own line and their own degree; yet the greatest of them made only a small advance in the long road towards knowledge.
And, further, the educated man has learned that many roads towards many goals of knowledge stretch out before us, and that he who has struggled forward a little distance on any of them has done well, and may take rank among the men who know.
W. M. Ramsay,
The Education of Christ