I just finished reading what was, for me, a really challenging book: The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything by K. C. Cole (Harcourt, 2001). Ms. Cole is a science columnist for the Los Angeles Times and teaches at UCLA, according to the dust jacket. The book explains how central to both mathematics and physics is the concept of “nothing.” At both the micro (or quantum) level and at the macro (or cosmic) level, “nothing” occupies the vast majority of space (or spacetime, as she prefers to speak of our four dimensions) and is the ultimate source of everything. She is a gifted writer and explainer. At times I barely followed her, but I did follow.
No doubt, the book would be rather basic for a mathematician, theoretical physicist, or cosmologist. And for all I know, much progress and change have eventuated in various subjects (like string theory) that she treats during the two decades since the book was published. Still, Cole’s work reminded me of a thesis that I have long held (though by no means alone, nor original with me): that of all the sciences, it is physics—arguably the “hardest” of the hard sciences—that lies closest to theology.
For someone like Isaac Newton, this assertion would have come across as a firm grasp of the obvious. But for many of his successors, not so much. Arguably the greatest physicist of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein, did speak of “God,” but, as best I can tell, largely as a figure of speech. The two fields differ dramatically, to be sure, in methodology, with physics based in observation, hypothesis, and experiment, while theology is, at base, a function of revelation and reflection thereon.
Nevertheless, it fascinated me throughout Cole’s book to hear her discussing concepts that theologians often confront, albeit in different language. At times, she verges on advocating creatio ex nihilo. There’s no creator, to be sure, and her inspiration for “nothing” as the source of everything she relates most closely to Zen Buddhism, rather than a personal God. At other times, she comes very close to the classic cosmological argument for the existence of God, arguing not from a watch to a necessary watchmaker, but from little rabbits to parent rabbits (so that it is universes that beget universes). Yet in all, she is obsessed with both origins and eschatons.
As she deals also in what sounds very much like the theological concept of “mystery.” For her, these are largely unsolved questions or undemonstrated theses, but she puts great stock by ideas that provide explanatory value, even if they are not (yet) experimentally verifiable. Still, towering over the whole work is what is clearly a haunting question for her:
“So why is it that nature is almost perfectly symmetrical—but not quite? . . . Why did matter nudge ever so slightly ahead of antimatter that reigned in the early years of the universe? . . . What, in other words, is the reason for the pervasive imperfection that makes everything possible?” (pp. 253-4).
Indeed, she speaks at one point of the emergence of the universe as we know it in terms that very nearly recollect Christian reflections on the “Fall” story in Genesis 3, as a besmirching of preceding perfection.
Of course, at the end of the proverbial day, I know that physics is physics and theology is theology. Nevertheless, time and again as I worked through this book, I could hear Anselm of Canterbury whispering in my ear: “And this all humans call God.”