A front page article in the New York Times today (April 8, 2021) was about the discovery of a subatomic particle called a “muon,” which seems to defy the generally accepted laws of physics known as the Standard Model. It is akin to an electron but much heavier and wobbles when it is not supposed to. The result of experiments announced yesterday confirmed similar experiments conducted in 2001 and is said to have only a 1 in 40,000 chance of being a fluke. More experiments will be required before it can change the Standard Model; but if it becomes accepted by science, the Times reports it will usher in a new understanding of the cosmos and transform physics. The Times article states:
It might also lead in time to explanations of cosmic mysteries that have long preoccupied our lonely species. What exactly is dark matter, the unseen stuff that astronomers say make up one-quarter of the universe by mass? Indeed, why is there matter in the universe at all?
So, what does this have to do with us humans? Why should we care?
Ever since my next door neighbor in Nashville witnessed in the middle of the night a flying saucer land in his backyard and then take off before dawn, I have been fascinated with the cosmos and with extraterrestrials. I was about eight or nine at the time and saw with my own eyes the large, charred area in his backyard, seared by the spaceship. One could argue that it resembled the remnants of leaf burning, which did happen frequently in the fall in Nashville backyards in those days, but no, this happened. My neighbor was three or four years older than me, and I looked up to him and trusted him completely. This was the real thing.
And why shouldn’t it be true? To argue there is no intelligent life out there somewhere? Please.
On a clear night away from ambient light you can see the twinkling of thousands of stars. So far with our powerful new telescopes, astronomers have not found a star without at least one planet circling around it. Experts estimate the maximum number of stars that you can see without a telescope to be about 5,000. This is just a tiny fraction of the 300 billion stars that are estimated to be in our galaxy, which we call the Milky Way. With a small telescope some of the tiny twinkling lights that you can see are actually other galaxies. Of course, no one knows how many galaxies there are, but the latest estimates are that there are around two trillion. Some scientists now believe that our universe may only be one of an infinite number of universes in what they describe as a “multiverse.”
And today we learn in the New York Times that there is a new subatomic particle with strange behavior that if verified by additional experiments could change the whole way we understand the cosmos.
Here is where science and religion intersect. The muon discovery and the vastness and complexity of our universe are beyond the comprehension of us humans on this small, lonely planet. How can we “touching, tasting, hearing, seeing, human merely beings” (in the words of ee cummings) figure this out and what it all means? The world is so complex and the universe so vast, we will never truly understand its ultimate meaning. This leads many to the belief in God. Certainly, there must be a reason for all this, we conclude. Certainly, there must be a meaning. Science deals with facts, not meaning. Religion deals with meaning.
But as one who has lived over 79 years on this planet and who has paid his dues by graduating from seminary, who came perilously close to becoming an Episcopal priest, and who is a regular churchgoer, I am the first to admit that the vastness of the universe and the complexity of all that is in it is not explained by any religion, nor do I believe is intended to be. Certainly, faith is important to how we live our lives and gives us clues (if we are lucky) to deeper understanding, to spiritual connections, and to hope. But the discovery of the “magical muon” underscores that there is so much more that we still do not understand and will never understand about the universe and our place in it. The only words that I can think of that capture our predicament are “wonder” and “awe.”