Science’s Search for a Unified Theory

Who has understood the mind of the Lord, or instructed him as his counselor?” &#0151 Isaiah

Who could have guessed it? By visualizing the universe in four dimensions, Albert Einstein revolutionized the reigning concepts of space, time, matter, and energy. Space and time, long considered independent of each other, were revealed as interconnected threads in the cosmic fabric, spacetime. Not only did movement in space affect movement in time, but spacetime itself was shaped by the presence of matter and energy.

This intimate association convinced Einstein that any final theory of the universe included the union of physical forces as well. While emerging developments would frustrate Einstein in his unification efforts (as we will see), relativity theory was the high water mark of classical science.

Law and Order

Like many ancients, Aristotle believed in an orderly universe discernable through human reason. Confident in a rational world, Aristotle developed scientific teachings that remained virtually unchallenged for nearly two millennia. But derived from logic rather than experimentation, Aristotle’s insights were not always consistent with reality.

One gross error was his teaching that heavy objects fell faster than lighter ones. The Aristotelian view held sway for nineteen centuries until Galileo dropped some weights from a tower in Italy proving that gravitational acceleration was independent of weight.

During the next three hundred years, the marriage of experiment with theory enabled a new breed of investigators to develop models with predictive, as well as descriptive power. Empirical support for Kepler’s planetary orbits, Isaac Newton’s classical laws of motion, and James Clerk Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism bolstered faith in the universe as a comprehensible place. For some, this meant that they could loosen their grip on the God of creation. Others became emboldened to banish Him to an otherworldly hinterland.

Prior to the Scientific Revolution, it was commonly accepted that God worked behind the cosmic curtain to sustain creation. But with each success of science, the need for supernatural attention became less apparent. While most people still believed in a Creator, they were less inclined to consider Him a personally involved superintendent. This was especially true for those who found it difficult to reconcile human want and suffering with a caring and able God.

Those itching to be liberated from their theistic base found a savior in Darwin. With The Origin of Species, man’s hope in himself swelled to that of a prior culture, which supposed it could build “a tower that reaches to the heavens” and make a name for itself.

Today that hope resonates in statements such as Stephen Hawking’s conclusion to his popular book, A Brief History of Time: “[I]f we do discover a complete theory…it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason &#0151 for then we would know the mind of God.” [Emphasis added.] I think Stephen is onto something here. If I knew the mind of God, he’d look a lot like the guy in the mirror. Scary!

On the Pinnacle

Albert Einstein came on the wave of these developments. Like his predecessors, Einstein believed in a cause-and-effect world operating according to physical laws. Not only was Nature comprehensible, but unraveling her mysteries was only a matter of human ingenuity and resolve. At the same time, Einstein was awed by this, remarking, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible.”

His frequent references to God and “the Great One,” have led some to conclude that Einstein was a believer, but at best he was agnostic about a theistic God. At one point he claimed that he believed in the God of Spinoza &#0151 a pantheistic deification of Nature &#0151 which, for Einstein, was a sort of cosmic principle of order, as opposed to a Grand Tinkerer who kept his hands on the dials.

Nevertheless, his theory of relativity placed investigators on the penultimate step toward a Theory of Everything. Or so it seemed.

Without warning, a new wave of researchers arrived with some very unwelcome news: In the innermost regions of nature, the cosmos was not the smooth, quiescent landscape described by Einstein; it was a frothing sea of chaotic activity. And that had monumental implications.

Back to Mystery

The advent of twentieth century saw the birth of quantum theory. Physicists with strange names, like DeBroglie, Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrödinger, told of an even stranger world vastly different from the one described by Einstein and his classical forbearers.

There was talk about a region, beneath the atomic horizon, where physical reality is not actualized until it is “observed.” And what is observed are tiny Lego blocks behaving sometimes like particles and sometimes like waves in a cloudy microcosm. What’s more, these edgy schizophrenics and their murky environment defied all attempts at physical description.

The bad news for unification theorists was that the small-scale structure of the cosmos looked hopelessly concealed. It was like opening a Matryoshka doll only to find a smaller doll, which houses another until the innermost one is reached with nothing deeper to reveal. At the frontier of reality, the pioneers had peeled away the skin of the onion, only to find a sphinx sitting stubbornly silent.

It wasn’t that this “phanta-sphere” was beyond the reach of current science but, rather, that “hiddenness” was an intrinsic feature of it. Of course, that is exactly what one would expect of a divine Agent working in a supernatural realm. As the prophet Habakkuk reveals, “His glory covered the heavens and…rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden.”

Over sixty years ago, C.S. Lewis realized the startling implications of all this. “[I]f this theory is true…,” Lewis wrote in Miracles, “all our confidence that Nature has no doors, and no reality outside herself for doors to open on, would have disappeared.” In other words, quantum theory reveals something beyond Nature and a portal through which “events may be fed into her” by…the Supernatural.

Of course most scientists chafe at such mysti-speak, confident that naturalistic answers await those who refuse to surrender to supernatural dead ends. And, by turning their attention to other aspects of the final theory, they avoid the disquieting implications at the quantum horizon &#0151 at least for a while.

A Merry Merger

Central to a Theory of Everything is an account of the forces of nature &#0151 one that goes beyond identifying and describing the forces, to explaining why they are the way they are. To date, these are gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear forces.

While everyone is familiar with the first two of these, the last two are esoteric to all but the nuclear specialist. Briefly, the “strong” force is responsible for holding the atomic nucleus intact and the “weak” force governs radioactive decay of some atomic nuclei.

Because of the success of relativity in revealing the relationships between space, time, matter, and energy, there was (and is) a strong feeling that these four forces must also be related in some fundamental way. (Indeed. As the Apostle Paul wrote almost two thousand years ago, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”)

By the late 1970s, that hunch proved right; at least for two of the four forces. It was then that a group of researchers received the Nobel Prize for showing that at extremely high temperatures &#0151 like those of the universe within moments of creation &#0151 the electromagnetic and weak forces merge into what has been coined the “electroweak” force.

Later calculations, at even higher temperatures, suggested the unity of the electroweak and strong forces. And although experimental verification is unlikely (particle accelerators with sufficient power to test the theory require a track the size of our Solar System!), there is good reason to believe that at the moment of the Big Bang three of the four known forces were indistinguishable from one another.

The puzzle yet to be solved by theorists is how gravity fits into this merry merger. The answer, which has been either forgotten or ignored, has been, nonetheless, accessible for a long time: “My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they all stand up together.”

Trouble on the Horizon

According to general relativity, gravity is responsible for the shape and texture of the universe at large (that is, visible) scales. And while the theory has been extremely successful in describing what happens in the macroscopic range, at sub-atomic distances the theory self-destructs, yielding meaningless results.

Although speculations abound about black holes, worm holes and time tunnels, the actual effects of gravity at the sub-atomic horizon are unknown. Again, the vexing transition at the classical-quantum divide is proving to be an impassable chasm for scientific frontiersmen.

All of modern physics rests on two pillars scientific achievement: general relativity and quantum theory. Each enjoys a vast amount of experimental validation. Yet, their disjuncture at the quantum threshold indicates there is a problem with one or both of these theories. And that spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E for theorists afflicted with supernatural glaucoma.

For, in the end, what is man in nature? A nothing compared to the infinite, an everything compared to the nothing, a midpoint between nothing and everything, infinitely removed from understanding the extremes: the ends of things and their principles are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret.” &#0151 Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer. His “All Things Examined” column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective.

(This update courtesy of the Breakpoint.)


Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is a frequent contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of “Why There Is a God and Why It Matters," is available from Amazon. 

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