Einstein’s theory of relativity. These tests and others that will follow hold
the potential to change how we describe the universe, and thus, how we perceive
the nature of creation and humanity’s place in it. It’s no less revolutionary
than when Copernicus proved the earth rotates around the sun.
Four experiments designed to test Einstein’s theory of relativity are reported by Amanda Gefter in this month’s Sky and Telescope. I make no claim to understand even the most elemental of these tests, but they raise a deeply important challenge to those would seek to understand the human community and the universe through the lenses of faith and science.
The tests attempt to confirm or challenge Einstein’s explanation of gravity as warps in space and time. Einstein’s theory is based in mathematics.
Important as general relativity is, scientists have also probed deeper into subatomic structure using a different theoretical construct, quantum mechanics. “Quantum theory describes the interaction of matter and energy at subatomic scales with extraordinary accuracy,” writes Gefter.
While both describe the universe, if there is to be a consistent theory of everything by which we can enlarge our knowledge, the two have to be brought into harmony, or one has to be discounted.
Are you as lost as I am?
So, comes string theory which envisions the most basic particles of the universe as infinitesimally small vibrating strings of energy in 11 dimensions of space time. To strings, atoms look like beachballs. But even if we could see them, that is not what would attract our eyes to strings. What is important conceptually to those of us who don’t understand this incredibly sophisticated theoretical physics is that, if true, string theory offers a fundamentally new description of the physics of the universe.
From four dimensions to eleven!
Einstein was so assured of his theory, according to Gefter, that when asked how he would feel if it were proven wrong, he replied, “I would feel sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct.”
Never the less, we are at the doorway to a new understanding of the universe. It is a time like those in the past when new frontiers were opened by pioneering thinkers. Ptolemy, Copernicus, Gallileo. Times when the old order was intransigent but ultimately had to yield to the acquisition of new knowledge and new understanding.
Goethe said it most articulately, “Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind – for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic – religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of.” [Goethe.]
Copernicus set the stage for a whole new cosmology, a way of describing the universe, and humanity’s place in it. It was too radical. It upset the established order. He paid for it with his life. But knowldege advanced and life changed anyway. I suspect that whatever is finally proven about the correctness of Einstein’s work, human knowledge is in for a breath-taking, topsy-turvy ride.
Imagine, if you can, what it might mean to theology, cosmology and astronomy, not to mention physics and any number of other disciplines, to understand life in a universe of eleven dimensions.