Category: Meteorology

The good folks at The Christian Humanist have interviewed me again, this time about meteorology. View the show notes here, and find their feed on iTunes to listen to it! We had a far-ranging discussion about Aristotle, storms in the Bible, the long and cold winter in the eastern U.S., the Polar Vortex, and the supposed dichotomy between scientific and teleological/theological descriptions of weather events. These guys (all three are Ph.D. English professors) are great podcasters (is that a word?) and talk about a lot of interesting stuff that scientists like myself otherwise would rarely think about, and I highly recommend subscribing to their podcast on iTunes.

I had a great time in this interview, but I was a little nervous. This had the effect of causing me to lapse into inanity and general inarticulation from time to time. I obviously need more practice. Specifically, regarding the discussion of the dichotomy between scientific and theological descriptions, I didn’t feel that I explained my point of view very well. When describing the formation of hail from a scientific perspective, and then pointing out that this didn’t preclude the use of hail as punishment on God’s part, I didn’t mean to imply that God used hail for punishment all the time, or that bad weather in general is always punishment by God (I actually don’t think that this is the case). My point was rather that a thoroughgoing scientific explanation does not preclude such a possibility, as these different types of descriptions are looking at the same problem from a different angle. In my view, God is just as much responsible for the everyday natural happenings of the Universe–those very things that are amenable to scientific investigation–as he is for any sort of “true supernatural” miracle. Clearly there is lots more to say on this latter point, which brings me to my big announcement.

The Christian Humanists are enlarging their project, having recently added a new podcast to their repertoire, The Christian Feminist Podcast. Recently, they approached me and two other scientists who are long-time listeners if we would be interested in hosting our own separate podcast discussing all manner of issues of science as it pertains to the Christian faith. We all enthusiastically accepted. The podcast will be called “The Book of Nature“, and will debut sometime this fall. My hope is that being in verbal conversation with other Christian scientists (no, not those kind), will help crystallize my own thinking on this area of inquiry and my writing about such things on this blog. So, stay tuned! I’ll have more information as the debut date nears.

My area of expertise in science, namely the field of Meteorology, is a rather specialized field. It can be viewed as a subset of fluid mechanics, which itself is a subset of classical (or Newtonian) mechanics (or physics). In other words, a meteorologist is a specialized classical physicist, who barely rubs shoulders with that other realm of physics: quantum and particle physics. Indeed, to be perfectly honest, quantum physics is more general, but just because one is a quantum physicist doesn’t mean that one automatically understands all the vagaries of classical physics. What I mean is, classical physics is itself a subset of quantum physics, in that it is an approximation to quantum physics on macroscopic scales, that is the familiar scales of everyday life. But, it is far from obvious how the myriad interactions between particles and forces result in the overwhelming complexity of physical phenomena on macroscopic scales. (It is sometimes said that macroscopic physics “emerges” out of quantum physics). The scales are just so different that it is, at least at the present time, practically (if not theoretically) impossible to fully understand the deep connections between scales, even though we know they are there. It so happens that classical mechanics is an excellent approximation to quantum mechanics (and is rather easier to handle) at macroscopic scales, which is why the exploration of classical physics, without recourse to quantum effects, is still a fruitful scientific enterprise and is likely to be for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, I have always been interested in quantum and particle physics out of pure scientific curiosity, and have always meant to educate myself on it as a side pursuit. I just needed a catalyst. A colleague of mine sent me an email a few months ago regarding a potential discovery of a new particle at the Tevatron particle accelerator at Fermilab. I looked into it, and before I knew it, I was immersed in a Wikipedia link-fest, learning about the fascinating world of particle physics. I stumbled upon several blogs maintained by both experimental and theoretical particle physicists, and frustrated that I didn’t understand the jargon and the various graphical plots they were discussing, I decided to pick up an introductory book on particle physics.

I learned about the elegant beauty of the so-called “Standard Model” of particle physics (see here), how much of it is based on rather simple physical principles which collectively are called “symmetries” of nature, and how the different particles interact with each other through the four fundamental forces of the natural world that have so far been discovered: electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. I learned about unsolved puzzles, such as why the photon, the particle that “carries” the electromagnetic force, has no mass, but the W and Z bosons, the particles that “carry” the weak nuclear force, are quite massive.

Then I learned more about the Higgs boson, that one missing piece of the Standard Model, the one that would explain why all the other particles have the masses they do (or, in the case of the photon, why they do not). All other particles that are predicted by the Standard Model have been discovered just as it predicted they should be, except for the Higgs boson (see here). Without getting into too much detail, this particle interacts with it’s own corresponding “field”, the so-called Higgs field, and with all the other particles in the Standard Model, and in doing so, “endows” them with the masses they have. As we speak, there is an ongoing effort at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe to find the Higgs boson, for while the Standard Model predicts that it should exist, it doesn’t tell us what mass it has. So far, the search has been able to rule out the Higgs boson over a wide range of masses, and it is running out of places to hide, so to speak. If the Higgs boson is *not* found, or if it is found within a particular range of masses, it would mean that the Standard Model of particle physics is not the whole story, and that there is far more to discover about the inner workings of nature. Even if it is found just like the Standard Model says it should be, there is still much more work to do, and there are other areas of physics where we still have many mysteries to solve.

This particle has been dubbed the “God Particle” by the media, probably in no small part due to its elusive status, and yet its central importance to at least one unsolved question in physics, namely, why do the different particles have the masses they do? Why are some more massive than others? For example, the proton is much more massive than its oppositely charged counterpart, the electron. Why do some particles have no mass at all (like the photon)? Why do any of them have any mass at all? What *is* the nature of mass anyway? You get the idea. It’s an important particle. While the name “God Particle” sounds provocative and mysterious, I don’t think the motivation behind naming it that was anything but flippant.

As far as subatomic particles in general are concerned, I think they are all fascinating and display a profound beauty and elegance, and even simplicity (in a sense), in their interactions (as do the mathematical equations that describe them). To me, this underlying symmetry and order is suggestive of a deeper beauty, elegance, and even simplicity (again, in a sense) in the God behind them. So, I propose that they should all be called “God Particles”.