The oxymoron of subatomic particles

Science, like money, is a human invention that is very useful when used properly and very dangerous when misused. Both money and science can be very useful; on the other hand, a lack of either can be very problematic. Neither science nor money has the strength and significance to be the foundation of a person’s life. A human life based only on science, like a human life based only on money, is sadly crippled and unable to handle the crises that can strike a life emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

One of the strengths of science is also one of its weakness: science continually changes. The more effort people put into studying the world, observing the world, experimenting with things in the world, and making predictions based on those experiments and observations, the more likely it becomes that new theories will shape science and direct scientific inquiry on paths that, until that time, were unexpected.

Science was practiced in ancient Egypt, Babylon, India, and China, developing differently in different places. Western science (which drew upon scientific observations and theories from Egypt, Babylon, and India) began roughly twenty-four centuries ago with the philosophers of ancient Greece. Among their efforts was an attempt to determine the basic building blocks of the physical, or observable, world. One early philosopher suggested that everything material is made of water—a reasonable guess, since water can assume so many forms, from ice and snow to liquid water to vapor. Others suggested different basic materials rather than water. Pythagoras and his followers proposed that everything observable consists of numbers. Greek philosophers tended to seek internally consistent explanations of the world, even when those explanations seemed contrary to observation. One group, for example, insisted that motion is logically impossible and is only an illusion—that the true universe is stable and unchanging. Until the invention of calculus many centuries later, scientists and philosophers were not equipped to refute the logic that suggested that motion cannot happen in the world.

A basic teaching of western science since Greek times has been the assumption that all physical items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces. These were named “atoms” from the Greek word for “unbreakable.” For many centuries, most western scientists considered four elements to be represented among the atoms: water, earth, air, and fire. Alchemy—the predecessor to modern chemistry—observed and experimented with physical items with the assumption that all such items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces of water, earth, air, and fire. Modern western science would never have developed without the alchemists of medieval Europe. Far from living in “the dark ages,” the medieval alchemists were at the forefront of science, culture, and civilization.

Chemists eventually demonstrated the existence of far more than four elements—for example, that water is not a basic building block, but water can be divided into hydrogen and oxygen. As they continued to experiment and observe, chemists developed a series of mathematical relationships among the elements, re-suggesting the possibility that number is the most fundamental building block of the universe. Modern physics grew out of modern chemistry; roughly one hundred years ago, western scientists began to find particles that seemed to be building blocks even of atoms.

Understand that subatomic particles are an oxymoron. Atoms are supposed to be unbreakable—the word “atom” was created to communicate that important idea. Finding that atoms contained protons, neutrons, and electrons changed the rules of science; evidence of quarks and other subatomic particles continued the process of demonstrating that atoms, though important, are among the worst-named ideas in all of science.

Huge powerful machines have been built to study the tiny pieces of atoms. Smashing atoms to observe their particles has been compared to smashing an old-fashioned watch to try to guess how it functions. One scientist, Leon Lederer, joked that God “seems to be making it up as we go along,” since every layer of discoveries suggests a new layer of tiny pieces even smaller than those already demonstrated.

Scientists continue to study the world, to try to understand how things work. They observe and experiment, not only with subatomic particles, but with viruses and other disease-causing agents, medicines, genetics, and the climate of the planet. Sometimes most scientists agree with each other about how things work; other times their research seems to contradict the research of their peers. We are all familiar with the constant revision of nutritional studies—first eggs are good for us, then they are bad for us, then they are good for us again. The old tradition of individual scientists plugging away in their laboratories to manage great discoveries has long been supplanted by teams of scientists funded by government grants and by corporate investments. Political agendas and the hope to generate a financial profit inevitably shape the work of today’s scientists. Their work is important and should not be curtailed; but every scientific discovery must also be accepted with the proverbial grain of salt. That salt is as important an ingredient as any other contribution to scientific investigation. J.

11 thoughts on “The oxymoron of subatomic particles

  1. I have a brother who is a geologist. He got hired right out of university by a big oil company out west and has been searching for more oil for them ever since. Science, industry and money are all kinda co-mingled together and there’s really no such thing as “pure” science anymore.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Did “pure” science ever exist? Science began as a branch of philosophy, and fairly early philosophy degenerated into sophism, which is the ability to be convincing to others whether one is right or wrong. J.

      Liked by 1 person

    • @ourladyofblahblahblah

      Pure science is what is supposed to happen primarily at universities. The idea is to study something just for the sake of knowing. The problem is that study costs money. When we invest money, we want some kind of return on our investment. Therefore, when we invest in scientific research, we look for proposals that suggest how something useful might be learned if the research is performed. Cure for cancer. Better light bulb. Energy efficient battery. Cost effective solar power. Perpetual motion machine. That sort of thing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes; most university funding comes from private corporations and from the government. The schools have to compete for the dollars, and tangible results always speak louder than “pure” science. J.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Good post! People make science out to be more than it is, but it really did not take off until some people realized that because God made everything His Creation had to be ordered.

    There are rules we can discover and call scientific laws. Still, what we call laws are just incomplete models describing cause and effect relationships. The more complex the system, the weather as opposed to an automobile engine, for example, the more poorly our models work. So, we don’t blame the weatherman if he seems to be guessing. We know he is.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well said, Salvageable. My dad was a physicist. I come from a long line of scientists. A bit cynical of me perhaps, but science is much like art, you have some incredible creativity, some works of real truth and beauty, and then you have your, “chewed gum on an orange canvas” that sells for 250 thousand.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Reblogged this on MJThompson's Theology Blog and commented:
    Today presidential candidate Joe Biden claimed in a televised interview that he would “follow the science’ [regarding covid-19]. I immediately censured his remark in contemplation of WHICH SCIENCE? Then as irony would have it, I found this worthy post. Well worth the read, it addresses my question perfectly.

    Liked by 1 person

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