Sunday, March 21, 2021

Scientific Theories and Laws

Some of my Christian brothers and sisters are skeptical of certain scientific theories that they believe somehow challenge the authority or veracity of the Bible. In my previous blog post, I quoted one Christian writer who doubted the scientific theory of quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the theory that describes the strong force that holds quarks together in neutrons and protons and ultimately holds the nucleus together. I stated that "QCD is a complex and tested mathematical theory that describes the strong nuclear force, or simply the strong force" and further remarked that my defense of QCD brings up an additional question of "What do scientists mean when they say that a theory is correct, or accurately describes a phenomena?" I will address questions of this type in this blog post.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Strong Force and Colossians 1:17

When I was in elementary school I went to Cedar Lake Camp in north-central Tennessee every summer. It was an awesome experience where I learned to handle a canoe, shoot rifles and bows, play tennis, do woodworking, and many more things. Maybe the best part was that I could buy chocolate soda for a dime. Cedar Lake was a Christian camp where Christian principles from the Bible were discussed. I vividly remember one lesson that was given by my camp counselor because it had to do with science and I was interested in science even as a kid. The counselor stated that the nucleus of an atom is made of neutrons and protons. He further explained that the protons all had a positive electric charge and that electric charges with the same sign repelled each other. He reasoned that because all the positive protons in the nucleus repelled each other the nucleus should be unstable, flying apart due to this strong repulsive force. But the nucleus doesn't do that. It doesn't fly apart. He claimed there was no explanation for this stable nucleus except the explanation given in the New Testament in Colossians 1:17 where the Apostle Paul writes, "He [Jesus] is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (NIV). The mystery of why the nucleus doesn't fly apart was solved: Jesus held it together. The counselor seemed to be implying that the laws of physics could not explain the stability of the nucleus but that Jesus supernaturally held the nucleus together.

This counselor is not the only one who has interpreted Colossians 1:17 in this manner. I get more emails and letters from people asking me about this verse in the Bible than any other verse. One reader recently quoted an article in an issue of Decision magazine that said, "Science can’t explain the forces that hold an atomic nucleus together—the protons and neutrons should repel each other but don’t. ...Physicists for years have toyed with the quantum chromodynamics theory, the notion that particles are bound with a sort of atomic glue. Jesus Christ is the real powder behind gravity, centrifugal and centripetal force."1 

It is ironic that I remember that incident from my childhood and now as an adult I have spent over 25 years studying the structure of the proton—what it is made of and what holds it together, including how protons are held together in the nucleus. Part of the irony is that I don't know of any conscious connection between what I heard at camp and the later decisions I made in life to become a particle physicist. The latter was simply a result of following my scientific interests.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Gospels, Historians, and Presuppositions

A number of times I have been asked if I would be willing to accept the consensus of the "majority of historians" when it comes to various conclusions about the biblical gospels, including the time of their writing and their claims about the miracles of Jesus. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable request. After all, aren't historians the experts when it comes to understanding history? Shouldn't we accept their conclusions?

When it comes to most subjects of science, I accept the consensus of the majority of scientists. As a scientist myself, I am well aware that the scientific method provides a reliable method for determining the truth about nature. For instance, it is clear from the evidence that the climate on the earth is changing and becoming overall warmer. There are disagreements about the extent to which this is occurring and the role that human activity has contributed to climate change, but the evidence that the climate is changing and warming is strong, accepted by the majority of climate scientists, and accepted by me as a scientist.

Both scientists and historians have ground rules on which the practice of their discipline is based. One of the ground rules that most historians hold to is that miracles cannot be affirmed as historical events. In the lecture series "The Historical Jesus," the historian Bart Ehrman states, "Because historians can only establish what probably happened, and a miracle of this nature is highly improbable, the historian cannot say it probably occurred."1 In a debate with William Lane Craig in 2006, Ehrman said, "Historians cannot establish [a] miracle as the most probable occurrence because miracles, by their very nature are the least probable occurrence."2 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Minimizing Bias in Experimental Particle Physics

The experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN produce a total of about 90 petabytes of data per year. A relatively high-end desktop computer today may have a disk that can store about 1 terabyte of data, which means it takes the disk space of about 100,000 desktop computers to store the annual data collected by the CERN LHC experiments. The physics researchers who work at CERN use powerful computers to analyze this data. The goal of our analysis is always to learn more about the fundamental structure of the universe. We are particularly trying to probe aspects of nature that we do not yet fully understand and discover something that we do not yet know.
In very general terms, the analysis of our data can be divided into two very broad categories. The first category could be labeled "measurements" where we try to more precisely measure the value of some property of nature that we have already observed and for which we have a mathematical model that predicts what the measurement should reveal. If the measurements differ from expectations, then we have indirectly discovered something about nature previously unknown. The second category could be labeled "searches" where we actually search directly for a new undiscovered particle or a new undiscovered phenomena. Often, we are searching for something predicted by some proposed model of physics developed by a theoretical physicist. 

When looking for new phenomena it is vital that we do not introduce presuppositional ideas or bias into our experiments. It is well documented that human bias can subconsciously skew the experimental analysis. In my last blog post I mentioned that, "we go to great lengths to minimize any bias toward one conclusion or another, particularly when looking for some unknown phenomena or particle." A reader of my blog, Keith, asked a number of questions about how we minimize bias in our experiments.  The lengths we go to and the methods we use are quite informative and can have applications to other arenas in life where we want to come to some objective conclusions.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Nature of Evidence

In my daily professional life I am an experimental particle physicist. I currently analyze data taken with the ATLAS detector on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. I probe data that includes collisions of billions of protons to look for patterns that indicate the existence of some unknown phenomena or that measure the properties of a particular physical process. I am currently studying the Higgs Boson that was discovered in 2012 and measuring certain aspects of its character to try to understand if it exactly fits our expectations or whether there may be deviations from our standard model. 

In my personal life I have twice been a member of a jury in both criminal and civil cases. As a juror, I was asked to analyze data presented by witnesses and experts to determine the probability that an event in the past occurred in a certain way. Both my profession as a scientist and my civil duty as a juror required me to examine evidence and draw the most logical and reasonable conclusions based on the evidence. However, the type of evidence available in the different circumstances have very different natures. 

There are some people I talk with, primarily religious skeptics, who don't seem to understand the difference between scientific data and legal/historical evidence; the data from a scientific experiment that allows the investigator to draw reasonable conclusions, and the evidence presented in a courtroom that also leads to reasonable conclusions about what occurred in the past. These data are of a very different type but both lead to reasonably certain conclusions. Scientific data cannot directly tell us what occurred in the past, for direct scientific inquiry requires reproducible experimental results. Past events are not reproducible. Legal historical evidence that is used in a courtroom consists of direct evidence and circumstantial, or indirect, evidence. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Logic of Christianity and Grace

As a professor of physics I will often work with undergraduate students and graduate students who are just learning the process of analyzing complex data from a high energy physics experiment. The students will show me graphs they have made and sometimes, with a relatively brief look at the graphs, I will know that the student has made a mistake somewhere in their analysis. There are a few ways that an obvious mistake may present itself. Some distributions should have a known shape and a major deviation from that expectation indicates a problem. If the results from different plots contradict each other then something must be wrong somewhere. Consistency across different data sets and different parameters is essential for a properly implemented analysis.

As a Christian who wants to know the truth, I have also analyzed the message and worldview of Christianity to see if it is consistent. If Christian doctrine contained actual logical contradictions, that would be an indication that Christianity has problems and is likely not true. Although I sometimes encounter people who think that the message of Christianity is contradictory, I usually find that those people have an incorrect view of the what is actually believed by Christians who are grounded in biblical doctrine.