In his fantastic little book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a kind of primer on modern physics meant for lay readers, Carlo Rovelli tells the story about how in 1905, a 26-year-old graduate student named Albert Einstein published three short articles that changed the trajectory of modern physics almost overnight. “Each of these,” he writes, “is worthy of a Nobel Prize.”
As it turned out, Einstein would only win one Nobel prize, and not even for the theory for which he has become practically synonymous, that of “general relatively.” He won it for the second paper he published that year, which describes how light sometimes acts more like a particle than a wave (existing in little “quanta” of energy called photons). Rovelli describes this paper as the “birth certificate” of quantum theory, what’s become one of modern physics’ most essential yet mysterious theories.
His attempt to explain this theory is admirable, but it was Rovelli’s commentary on the rhetoric of Einstein’s paper that touched me. He points out that the article’s introduction begins with a disarmingly humble, “It seems to me that …,” and then with a few short sentences Einstein goes on to shake the foundations of modern physics.
Rovelli writes that this “‘It seems to me’… recalls the ‘I think …’ with which Darwin introduces in his notebooks the great idea that species evolve, or the ‘hesitation’ spoken of by Faraday when introducing for the first time the revolutionary idea of magnetic fields.”
“Genius,” he concludes, “hesitates.”
Rovelli’s book has been the inspiration behind a series on “faith and physics” that I’m co-leading this month with a friend and church member. He’s a neurobiologist by training but has much more than a passing interest and knowledge of physics and astronomy, so he’s doing the heavy lifting — so to speak — with the physics. For my part, I’m only now coming to learn of and appreciate the fantastic work being done in modern theology that takes modern physics as its inspiration, which is to say that I feel less and less qualified to lead any kind of study on it.
And yet just as striking as the lessons in physics (or at least what I’ve been able to grasp of it), or the theological musings inspired by them (the deeply relational nature of creation, God and humanity; the ever-evolving God of an ever-evolving cosmos), has been a renewed appreciation for a concept that’s been foundational to both since the beginning: humility.
Genius hesitates, both in science and religion.
Humility, I’ve learned, is perhaps the “core, immutable quality of science.” The scientific process from hypothesis, to experiment, review and replication, is a series of checks and balances. This is entirely its strength. In fact, “Replicability,” or the ability for an experiment or study to be duplicated, is an essential part of the scientific method.
Spiritual humility is also at the heart of biblical religion, perhaps nowhere more powerfully stated than the book of Job, when our hero is relentlessly reminded of the limits of his humanity by none other than God Almighty.
Good theology not only remembers that we “see in a mirror dimly,” it counts on it. As Augustine is said to have put it, “If you understand it, it is not God.” Or Anne Lamott, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” Even Jesus, we’re told, before climbing Calvary’s hill, knelt in the garden and asked if there might be another way.
Of course, the loudest voices from either “side” tend to be anything but humble, and perhaps even intentionally so. If genius hesitates, certainty sells — for any audience, it seems.
And yet, the more I study not only these complex theories of modern physics but the stories of their discovery, I’m also struck by another force that must be equally as necessary as humility to both science and theology (even though I’m told forces don’t really exist): imagination.
In fact, imagination may even come before humility, for how can one be humble without first imagining an alternative? What if light is both a wave and a particle? What if we’re not objects floating around in space but multiple fields of interactive relationships? What if early in the morning on the first day of the week …?
I was struck by Rovelli’s commentary on the widespread dissatisfaction among physicists with the going theory on the structure of subatomic particles, what’s known as the Standard Model. He describes it as wonky and piecemeal and little more than “the best we can do at the moment,” but then considers another possibility:
Perhaps on closer inspection it is not the model that lacks elegance. Perhaps it is we who have not yet learned to look at it from just the right point of view, one that would reveal its hidden simplicity.
I would say faith, but I’m learning to hesitate.