The Higgs Boson, the God particle, the Christ

by Sam Candler

The naming of the Nobel Prize for physics is always cool. But it is especially cool this year, because the winners were involved in the conceptualization and discovery of the Higgs Boson, a particle so tantalizing and theoretically necessary that it came to be called the “God Particle.” Congratulations to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, winners of 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics!

The Higgs Boson, a sub-atomic particle, was theorized many years ago as the particle which allows other particles to have mass. (Higgs and Englert were the first to document its possible existence, way back in the 1960’s.) I make no claim to know theoretical physics, but the Higgs Boson is apparently the reason other particles in our universe cohere together instead of simply flying off in a hundred million different tiny directions (okay: many more than a hundred million). If your physics knowledge is as shallow as mine, you might enjoy the short and delightful explanation in this video: “The Higgs Boson Explained.”

But I was going to talk about God. Since it was theorized so long before its actually detection (detection came in July of 2012, at the Large Hadron Collider), the Higgs Boson came to be called the “God Particle.” It was the reason every other particle had mass. It was the reason every other particle came to be created; it was, and maybe is, the “God Particle.”

Well, I like that name: the “God Particle.” Yes, God is someone I talk about a lot. God is someone I have theorized about, though I have sure had a hard time detecting God sometimes. Yes, God is someone I have spent a large part of my life trying to discover. My understanding is that many, many other people have been trying to discover God, too!

It used to be that we thought the “atom” was the smallest indivisible particle of the universe. Over two thousand years ago, the very word was formed from “-a,” meaning “not,” and “temno,” meaning “cut.” An “atom” is uncuttable, indivisible. As recently as the nineteenth century, we considered the “atom” the smallest indivisible part of creation.

But we’ve come a long way in a hundred years. We human beings have discovered that atoms consist of protons and electrons and neutrons, and then they consist of leptons and quarks and muons and charms and stranges and who knows what else. And it goes on and on. I am convinced that it goes on and on. I want our discovery to go on and on. The world is a better place when we make scientific theories and discoveries and confirmations.

However, I have another hypothesis for what we might truly call the “God Particle.” I discovered an energy long ago, which I believe is responsible for life and growth and energy at all levels of existence. It goes by many names, but I have come to call it the “Christ Particle.” And it is not restricted to Christians (Raimundo Pannikar writes about The Unknown Christ of Hinduism).

It is the Christ Particle which creates life and makes things hold together. From primal elements, creation is formed; the Christ is the power of that creation. From dismal misery, love explodes; the Christ is that power of love. Even in times of destruction and betrayal, the Christ brings forgiveness and reconciliation. That power is massive and incredible. It is also the Christ energy which inspires learning and discovery!

The Christ Particle will never be measured by our technology and machines. It is undiscoverable by empirical or scientific means. I have nothing against science. We need empiricism and science; in fact, we need more of it! But science will never discover this particular God Particle. This Christ Particle is what we are looking for, the energy point of creation. It is why other particles attract to each other. One might even claim that the true Christ particle is the opposite of entropy. It is the energy particle, the ultimate force that loves us together.

Yes, it is the smallest particle in the universe. But, it is also the largest. It is the most mysterious, and it is right before us every day. Blessings to all who seek the seemingly impenetrable secrets of the universe; I am pulling for you, and you will go on and on! But blessings, too, to who all who seek the mystery of Christ, who is the image of God, and in whom all things hold together. “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through Christ and for Christ. Christ himself is before all things, and in Christ all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17).

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. His sermons and reflections can be found at his blog, “Good Faith and the Common Good”.

Human science

by Marshall Scott

Some years ago – at least 20, and possibly more – I attended a conference in Chicago on neuroscience. I don’t remember a whole lot about the conference, but I do remember one thing. The keynote speaker on the first night said something like this: “The goal of the neurosciences is to understand how all human behavior is a function of the biochemistry of the human brain.” Now, I’ll admit that’s not an exact quote; but that is what I remember: “All human behavior is a function of the biochemistry of the human brain.”

That incident returned to me as a read a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times. In it Brooks writes about the recent publication of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (known in health care, sometimes affectionately, as DSM V). The gist of Brooks’ column is to note that in fact the categories of the behavioral sciences are not nearly as specific as those of, say, geology or physics. As Brooks put it, “The problem is that the behavioral sciences like psychiatry are not really sciences; they are semi-sciences. The underlying reality they describe is just not as regularized as the underlying reality of, say, a solar system.”

I had my own experience of that in my first clinical pastoral education residency. I was sitting with a psychiatric nurse and he said, “Let me show you something.” He opened up the DSM – I think it was DSM III, with DSM III R (as in Revised) about to come out. He opened to one diagnosis that showed symptoms A, B, C, D, and E. He opened to a second diagnosis that showed the same symptoms, but listed in order of B, A, D, E, and C. Finally, he turned to a third diagnosis that listed the same symptoms as C, B, A, E, and D, and had this footnote: “This diagnosis is appropriate for adults but not for adolescents, for whom these behaviors may be considered normal.” So, I would agree with Brooks that the categories in the behavioral sciences are neither as discreet nor as subject to verification as those of other disciplines.

At the same time, I wouldn’t say that they are not really sciences. First, all these disciplines (and I have my vocation in one of them) are trying to be just that: disciplined about their study of their fields and about their areas of expertise. Chaplains do research, and we have our own studies in which we try to narrow our questions to identify a specific, verifiable, reproducible result. When Brooks writes, “Mental diseases are not really understood the way, say, liver diseases are understood, as a pathology of the body and its tissues and cells,” he is both understating what we do know about, say, brain chemistry, and also, I think, overstating what we know about liver chemistry. He can say, “What psychiatrists call a disease is usually just a label for a group of symptoms;” but that’s also true of a number of conditions that we do not attribute either to brain chemistry or to attitude, like many of the immune disorders. We might know that Symptom A is caused by Biological Change B, and have no idea what has caused Biological Change B – whether the subject is dementia or diabetes.

Indeed, I think Brooks buys too easily into the belief that the “hard sciences” are really all that firm. I would argue (in fact have argued) that the material sciences come again and again to faith statements (have you ever really seen a quark? Or even an electron?) propounded as facts because they make sense in the language of the faith (which is the language of mathematics). Indeed, most folks in those fields admit this. They don’t necessarily use religious language for that, or refer to metaphysics. Instead, they talk about their wonder and the sense of discovery about what they don’t know and want badly to know; and about what they believe to be because it makes sense in light of what they already believe and know, even though they can’t verify it (at all, much less to a lay community).

In any case, Brooks is really positive in his column. The very uncertainty of the behavioral sciences doesn’t discount the importance of the practitioners; it ennobles them: “I just wish they would portray themselves as they really are. Psychiatrists are not heroes of science. They are heroes of uncertainty, using improvisation, knowledge and artistry to improve people’s lives.”

I do, of course, agree with him, and not just about folks in psychiatry and psychology. The same is true of the pastoral care and spiritual direction provided by congregational clergy, chaplains, and volunteers. “They are combining an awareness of common patterns with an acute attention to the specific circumstances of a unique human being.” In my business we call that “studying the living human document” of the person in front of us. It’s also true, really, of “scientific” medicine, whose practitioners also know that each patient is unique. The study of what it means to be human, and the application of that knowledge to benefit specific humans, is an ancient practice that has always sought to organize the process of care in the face of the uncertainty inherent in any human encounter.

Which brings me to the most important thing that I think Brooks has forgotten: that “science” is about knowing; and that different sciences bring to bear different ways of knowing. Some of those are experiential and experimental, even if not terribly sophisticated. You know quickly that poison ivy isn’t good for you, without knowing the specific irritating oils it produces or the particular characteristics of human skin. Some of those are social, and even quite personal – experiential certainly, but not amenable to verification or reproducibility. Some of them are matters of insight, and even – dare I say it? - of revelation! So it is that until the Enlightenment, and for some time after, theology was understood as “queen of the sciences.” That wasn’t to deny the value of examining the material world around us and learning from it. Rather, it was to appreciate that there were other ways of knowing (“sciences”), and that simply appreciating the material wasn’t complete.

And so it is in understanding the human person. We’ve learned a lot since Augustine wrote, “I became a question to myself;” but we haven’t gotten an answer to the question that we could call enough. In an NPR news story also about DSM V the reporter comes back to the observation that “the human brain is the most complicated thing in the universe” (a faith statement if ever I heard one). I would go farther to say that about the human person, which I certainly do not believe is simply encompassed in the biology, or that we will “understand how all human behavior is a function of the biochemistry of the human brain.” In that article, psychiatrist Michael First commented, "When people walk into our offices they come for help, not some explanation of the neurobiology of what's going on.” The “queen of the sciences,” and the behavioral sciences, and, really, all of the sciences have their uses in that quest: to provide help. Or to paraphrase John 9, it’s not nearly as important to know what caused a condition as it is to reflect God’s activity in the world by responding. Knowing the mechanism may well be useful to that end; but it’s not enough.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

A God of patterned chaos

By Adrian Worsfold

On March 2 at the University of Surrey Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey, will be interviewing the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at the University.

This should be interesting, because as Professor of Public Engagement in Science Jim Al-Khalili holds to an entirely self-organising view of the universe and its activity, equal to that of Professor Dawkins of the University of Oxford, who was previously Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. One wonders how Rowan Williams's apparent place among the intellectual leaders of Britain will demonstrate itself, or whether his subject of theology as it exists will tie itself in knots in comparison to the explanatory narrative of science today.

Jim Al-Khalili is one of those gifted communicators who can transmit in modern media the important headlining findings of contemporary science, perhaps with one or two more adjectives than necessary. His presentations are about the recent history of mathematics and science.

A recent programme is relevant regarding recent events in our world. In The Secret Life of Chaos (2010) he describes key figures who have helped overturn key Newtonian assumptions when it comes to fundamentals of physics, biology and chemistry. There are also some lessons in two biographies.

First lesson is the treatment of gay people. Alan Turing is the parent of modern computers. During the war the authorities knew he was gay, but he was too valuable in his code-breaking to touch. In the 1950s his ex-lover burgled his flat and Turing contacted the police. They ended up arresting Turing, accused him of leading the burglar astray because he was gay, and the judge offered him either imprisonment or sessions of female hormones treatment to cure him. The result was he became depressed and killed himself aged 41 by eating an arsenic laced apple. The loss to science is immeasurable. However, he left us with a ground breaking suggestion that simple mathematics could demonstrate dynamic patterning self-organisation.

The second lesson is dogma. About the same time, Boris Belusov was carrying out experiments regarding how the body extracts sugars. He created a chemical mix. The mixture oscillated between becoming colourful and going clear again. This seemed to violate the laws of nature. Belusov repeated the experiment many times, but the journal told him his experiment was not fit to publish because of the current dogma of science. As a result, Belusov abandoned this line of experimentation and soon withdrew from science. Indeed the dogma of the Iron Curtain meant he was also unable to see that Turing had produced the abstraction for what Belusov had demonstrated.

Other scientists went on to discover a bland chemical mix in a petri dish could produce and move waves, scrolls and spirals.

Then in the early 1960s Edward Lorenz hoped that computing power would allow prediction of the weather through equations. He could not. From him came the now well known phrase, 'The Butterly Effect'. In the early 1970s Robert May discovered that tiny changes in the birth rate had unpredictable consequences in the populations of animals.

What was clear was that pattern formation and unpredictability went hand in hand: one works with the other. The system is such that the tiniest variation in the starting point leads to familiar patterns but never quite the same outcome, and the result is unpredictable. Then Benoit Mandelbrot used computing power and included the simplest feedback equation of Z+(Z*Z)+C to produce the Mandelbrot fractal (that looks like a Buddha), to produce self-similarity at level after level within complex patterns.

Evolution is also a feedback mechanism that works on the pattern forming feedback systems, to refine what fits best environmentally. Torsten Reil has looked at such order in systems. Today massive computer power with tiny rules have mimicked the three and a half billion years it has taken to produce the refined intelligence of us: a hundred very wobbly leg walking examples were bred to allow them to walk, producing eventually a self-programmed set of highly refined real-time reactive virtual men. No programmer could have produced these.

There are a number of points from all this, I think. First is the chaotic side. The fact is that the patterns of activity on earth: from us in the environment, to the crashing economy, being within the awful recent weather, and sitting on top of devastating earthquakes, are all self-generating chaotic systems. They are patterned activity, and chaos means tipping points where an old equilibrium collapses and is replaced by another. That's what happened with the banks, what happened with the extended snow, and what has happened in Haiti.

Secondly is the pattern side, including the relative stability still for our lives at present, and the beauty of nature, the sunsets, or the flocks of birds moving in the sky for which there is no overall driving mechanism. Simplicity and feedback is these need. The artist drawing a rounded tree knows that the twigs go outwards but the leaves are dotted in using semi-circular waves.

For me, all this ought to involve a revolution in theology. God is not some sort of intervening being, poking the system from without, or with historical moments of intevention, but is of the meaning of it all. I don't go along with a deistic argument: it used to be that God set up a steady state universe and withdrew, or set the universe off with a bang and withdrew, and now would be a simple feedback maths rule-setter. That still relies on an intelligence producing complexity argument, whereas the whole point of this is that simplicity produces complexity and intelligence. The computer power iteration shows that: the universe's thirteen billion years allows that; the three and a half billion years of life on earth allows that.

What we are is part of the self-generating pattern making, and we'll be around until we pattern ourselves out of existence or a catastrophe does it for us (for as yet unknown patterns to grow and replace us). The theological questions now are how we behave as intelligences within the systems and these are going to be ethical questions.

I bet the Archbishop of Canterbury says nothing like this to his interviewer in March. He'll still be on about an interventionist God with lots of don't knows and caveats, and narratives as if historical facts; he will still dealing in the kind of dogma that finished Belusov, and we wonder whether he has forgotten about employing ethics, given that some Anglican Churches would still have their countries treat an Alan Turning like the British did in the 1950s.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.


Khalili, J. (2010), 'The Secret Life of Chaos', BBC 4, [Television], [Transmitted: Thursday January 14 2010, 21:00-22:00]

Khalili, J. (2010), the Official Website of Jim al-Khalili, University of Surrey, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed: Friday January 15 2010, 18:10]

Something incredibly wonderful happens Part two

The second of a two-part essay. Read Part One here.

By Donald Schell

In the late 1960’s, Frank Oppenheimer quit university teaching and moved to San Francisco to launch an inter-generational learning community of wonder, trial-and-error, discovery, “kindness,” nurturing others, and celebration: the Exploratorium, the world’s first interactive science museum. Here’s how interactive: K.C. Cole who writes about him in Something Wonderful Happens was a successful young journalist (a New York Times Magazine cover story to her credit) when the Saturday Review sent her to write about Oppenheimer’s offbeat new museum. Oppenheimer’s joy in discovery was a conversion experience for Cole that began her significant career as a science writer.

I understand her response. I took my kids to the Exploratorium starting in 1980. In 1981 when my wife began working night shift at a hospital near us, I spent a lot of Saturdays in the Exploratorium keeping the house quiet so she could sleep. I thought it was a great way to spend time with my two kids. The science learning was fascinating, and we talked about all kinds of other things too. What I see now in Cole’s description of the Exploratorium is work I hope the church could do, not science experiments, but community and compassion experiments, and not teaching science, but open learning and discovery. I’m looking forward to returning on my own this month and spending a day in hands-on meditation.

And this brings me back to Lizzie’s reflection on being in church with people her own age. Until we begin doing Gospel-shaped work with our younger peers, until we share leadership and unadulterated Gospel practice with them, our congregations will continue aging faster than the general population. If we don’t share real leadership with them, those who don’t simply abandon the church will gather apart from us and find their own ways to do what Jesus did (and greater works than he did).

Lizzie is in her thirties. With an American mother and an English father (both devout, committed Anglicans, and open Christian people) Lizzie grew up knowing both the C. of E. and the American Episcopal Church. She’s a regular participant now in a very good congregation near my home. She can describe how she continues to grow as professional actor, a mother of two, and spouse and soul-mate to a visionary Ph.D. candidate who travels to dangerous, burgeoning cities to re-vision city planning for the developing world. I work with Lizzie regularly under All Saints Company’s banner leading readers’ workshops, work-shopping Christmas Pageant direction and production, and trying to make safe, open space for clergy to explore their presence and communication when they’re preaching or presiding.

The amazement Lizzie felt at worshiping with people her own age came from a visit to St. Lydia’s Church in New York City, the year old ‘dinner church’ that Emily Scott and others started to gather young adult professionals and artists who are leery of church. St. Lydia’s meets weekly on Sunday evening for a Eucharist/supper based on the Didache’s early Second Century liturgy.

Emily founded St. Lydia’s after spending her life going to church with people a generation older. In social gatherings with friends doing good work in New York City, Emily kept hearing how amazed those friends were that she even attended church, let alone worked in one. Still something told her some of them would welcome the chance to go to a church that was serious enough about hospitality and community to hear their voice, offer an understanding ear, and put them to work.

With her degrees from Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Sacred Music Emily got day jobs as a church musician in big steeple churches. And that work supports her passion, gathering friends to found a church where people her age (and some older too) can welcome strangers on the Lower East Side of New York to share Eucharist within a weekly practice of cooking a meal, learning music and singing it together, reflecting, and sharing the a full, sit-down meal. Out of respect for the Episcopal and Lutheran churches that are fostering this new church, St. Lydia’s brings in ordained clergy to preside at their Eucharist. I know them from praying the Eucharist prayer as their visiting priest.

I just broke from writing this for lunch with James, a friend of Emily’s from Yale Divinity School. In his senior year of seminary, James was back home to the West Coast for Thanksgiving. James is looking for seeking people to help him shape his dream and vision to launch and lead a religious foundation that would train, encourage, and support people starting house churches and meal churches. Emily sent him to talk with me about my experience founding St. Gregory’s thirty years ago and talk together about what All Saints Company is learning now working with churches, church founders, and other clergy and lay leaders. Where is the church ready to embrace ministry innovation and mission?

Starting something new.

Young leaders taking big responsibility.

After lunch with James, I got to thinking about my younger daughter Maria who was four when we moved to San Francisco to help found St. Gregory’s Church in 1980.

When Maria was in high school our diocese tried to launch a deanery-wide youth group. She was initially excited, and kept going to the group until her growing frustration finally moved her to quit. “I was tired of playing games and discussing people’s favorite rappers.” Where church made sense to Maria was at St. Dorothy’s Rest summer camp. At St. Dorothy’s Maria worked a couple of summers as a camp counselor and then in college and for a year after she served as summer camp director. St. Dorothy’s year-round adult staff structured the summer to give huge authority (and necessary support when needed) to their young summer staff, so by her early twenties, Maria held summer-long responsibility for 15 camp staffers and supervised their work with sixty campers a session.

When he’d been Maria’s age her grandfather was flying his B-17 bomber on daylight bombing runs on German munitions factories and serving not only as a pilot for his own plane and crew of eight, but as Wing Commander, making life and death choices for his own and the crews of the cluster of planes he guided in tight formation. Dad returned form the war resolved to use his G.I. bill to pay for medical school so he could spend the rest of his own life healing other people and saving their lives.

Maria’s responsibility for the health and well-being of all those kids all summer long changed her life too. Now a bit older than Emily and a bit younger than Lizzie, she directs program year-round for Project AVARY, a support program for kids who have a parent in prison. In addition its year-round mentorship, adventure days and school enrichment programs, Maria hires and directs AVARY kids as staff and counselors for AVARY’s summer camp program. The younger kids say of Camp AVARY, “When I come to camp I feel like an ordinary person who can talk about my whole life.” And the older kids who have come up through the program and get hired as counselors say, “You’ve trusted me with big responsibility, so I know I CAN live my dreams and have a real future.”

I would love to have introduced Maria, James, Emily, and Lizzie to three young people I met this October traveling with my wife (International Programs Director for Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance) in Malawi. Near Nkhata Bay, we visited Maggy Keets from Connecticut and her husband Andy and good friend Emily from the U.K. to see the massive participation and support they’ve gathered from eighteen Malawian villages to build a birthing clinic, Healthy Mother Project] a shelter where expectant mothers can stay as they await the onset of labor, and staff house in a rural center. The clinic is sorely needed in Malawi, a country with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

Maggy, Andy, and Emily began raising money for the project with bake sales and getting donor sponsors for running marathons. They quickly realized they needed bigger donors and contacted individuals and wrote grants, and when they had raised 2/3 of the needed funds, they contacted GAIA for help.

From its inception the Healthy Mother project has built partnerships and community, and they continued that approach when they were funded and ready to take the work to Malawi too. Villagers molded and fired the thousands of bricks needed for the clinic. Chiefs from the most distant village raised $200 cash that they walked to deliver while we were there. $200 is about three times the average annual income in Malawi. As I write, villagers ten time zones away are volunteering their labor along side the Malawian contractor and his handful of paid workers.

Healthy Mother Project bought the three ton supply truck (which will belong to the Ministry of Health when the clinic is finished), bought whatever building supplies the villagers couldn’t make, and hired the contractor and his laborers with money raised back home in the Connecticut and in the U.K. Maggy, Andy, and Emily work alongside the local crew, but their priority is to keep enough building materials on hand to keep the project moving forward.

Tribal culture in northern Malawi is heavily patriarchal which brings additional challenges and good learning for the villagers working with this woman-led team of three. Drawing on Maggy’s previous building work in Africa and her training in international development, women and men from the villages and these three foreigners work side-by-side from sunrise to sunset, breaking to share lunch and tea together.

At the end of next month when the clinic is completed, Malawi’s Ministry of Health will equip and staff it. Maggy, Andy, Emily and the villagers are proud that they’ve enabled local people to do something many said was impossible, including bring the project in ahead of schedule and under budget.

Frank Oppenheimer’s joy in learning does remind me of church, but too often we see a church cordoned off into age cohorts and not giving real collaborative responsibility to young leaders. They’re ready to make a lasting contribution and along the way to take risks big enough that real failure is possible. Too often all we think about is ‘giving them something to do.’

I’m grateful that there are people like Lizzie and Emily, like James, and like Maggy, Andy, and Emily who have found a way to do their work, but in our church setting they are few. They are so few that I wonder whether our desire to hold on to the church we know, and our fear of our children’s passion has made others of them so impatient with church that they simply took their vision elsewhere. What will it take us to make our church’s story more like the story of Frank Oppenheimer and the Exploratorium?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Something incredibly wonderful happens Part one

By Donald Schell

“It was so amazing being in church with people my own age.”

I’m reading K.C. Cole’s Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up .

Would “something incredibly wonderful happens” be our first description of Sunday gatherings in our church? Not so often, I think. Cole’s heart-breaking, inspiring, book raises questions of how we live into vision, how we work together, who gets to share authority, and how traditions renew themselves in generations learning together side by side, but K.C. Cole isn’t writing about church. Something Incredibly Wonderful is about a young scientist who was denied the opportunity to make his contribution. It’s about his discovering vocation through loss, and it’s about the genesis of a science museum.

Cole’s story of atheist Frank Oppenheimer’s vocation and learning and community in a setting wholly outside the church keeps reminding me of my friend Lizzie’s reflection on her visit to St. Lydia’s, a new church start in Manhattan, “It was so amazing being in church with people my own age.” I’ll come back to Lydia’s and other places where something incredibly wonderful is happening in church, but first Cole’s book.

Frank Oppenheimer was a gifted theoretical physicist. He went directly from graduate school to working in the Manhattan Project alongside his brother Robert Oppenheimer, so as a young scientist Frank helped develop the first atom bomb. Yes, that troubled me too. With all the optimism and idealism of youth Frank was convinced that the bomb’s very existence (not dropping it on a civilian target) would force the end of all war. When President Truman made a different choice and bombed Hiroshima, Frank began arguing publicly (joining other scientists who’d worked making the bomb) that the U.S. should immediately make our nuclear discoveries available to the whole world.

I certainly didn’t know that some of our pioneers in making the first real weapon of mass destruction were advocating for open source technology. What were they thinking?

As a scientist Frank Oppenheimer knew the ‘secrets’ of the atom bomb would fairly quickly be available to patient physics researchers across the globe. So, Frank knew the U.S. would only for a moment in history own the only atom bombs. What would we do with that advantage? Frank believed that by simply sharing everything we’d learned making the first bomb (and our subsequent discoveries in nuclear fusion), we could avert a dangerous arms race and catalyze a global consciousness that war was untenable. He believed that telling the truths all would soon discover would engender the political will to work for peace. Frank said he thought the strength of democracy was precisely that citizens talking openly about what we faced in any situation would prove wiser than experts, if everyone know the facts. The U.S. military and the F.B.I. decided that everything Frank said proved this smart scientist was a dangerous incompetent (or worse) in matters of national security.

For a little while after World War II ended, Frank managed to continue his work as a research physicist, and while keeping his mouth shut about ‘secrets’ but noisily lobbying to share broadly everything the Manhattan project had learned, his new physics research demonstrated that the cosmic radiation bombarding the earth was broken nuclei from what we would learn to call the Big Bang. His peers in physics expected Frank would lead his generation’s discoveries in particle physics and the bridge between particles and astrophysics.

But while he was still in graduate school Frank had joined the Communist Party. As an atheist, somewhere in the progressive to radical range politically, and an inveterate optimist, Frank thought Communism made sense, at least it did until he’d experienced a year of party membership in Pasadena. He found the Party unimaginatively rigid, doctrinaire, and humorless, so he quit. Despite his one time party membership, as long as he was working developing the bomb, our president and military made the F.B.I. leave him alone, but after the war, after we’d defeated fascism, as we embraced our new national identity as the bulwark against Communism, Frank’s brief pre-war Communist Party membership and his noisy advocacy that America share what our politicians imagined were ‘secrets’ with ‘our enemies’ marked him for the dogged FBI scrutiny and investigation.

Eventually (despite a huge outcry from his faculty colleagues and physicists around the country) Frank was fired from his teaching post and blacklisted from any other research or university teaching job. He was too good-natured and optimistic to grasp the full dimensions of what had happened. It only gradually dawned on him as university after university offered him a research post and then mysteriously revoked the offer. Each time the F.B.I. would contact him and ask if he was finally ready to name others who’d been in the party with him. “You know the names as well as I do,” Frank said. “Ask the people themselves what they thought of the party then and now.” When a university in India offered him a research position, our government revoked his passport. When his research earned him a Scandinavian science award and an invitation to lecture to an international gathering of the world’s best physicists, his request to have his passport renewed was turned down. He was judged a security risk.

With the work he loved closed to him wherever he looked, Frank moved his wife and two children to southern Colorado to an old ranch they’d bought a couple of summers earlier, thinking to make it a great summer place for the kids and eventually somewhere the two of them would retire. Now with all other work options closed, Jackie and Frank Oppenheimer became ranchers, sending their children to Pagosa Spring’s rural elementary school. When Frank and Jackie’s children reached high school age, this ex-communist, big-hearted, wildly imaginative, Socratic, curious, compassionate atheist became a high school science teacher teaching ranch kids who (like his own two) traveled long distances to school and could only do homework after dark when their ranch chores were done.

Because Frank believed questions were the heart of good science, he welcomed all questions. Frank’s class students’ experiments were real experiments. When something “didn’t work” Frank and his students were as interested in what actually happened in their “failure” as they were when they could duplicate other scientists’ successful results. The big schools in Denver wondered what was going on when Pagosa Springs students won the state science fair. And then they came to expect it.

Teaching high school science Frank became as passionate about teaching and learning with his students as he’d been passionate about finding the atom’s smallest particles and studying the debris of the Big Bang. Frank Oppenheimer was committed to learning with his students rather than teaching them what he knew. “Invariably, as I build these experiments,” he said, “I observe some phenomena which I have not observed before and which I do not understand, or I find some deviation from the expected result which requires further investigation.” As Cole says, “The attempt to teach something almost always teaches the teacher something new. Sometimes these new things are new not just to the teacher; they have never been thoroughly explored by anyone.”

Reading about Frank Oppenheimer, I’m thinking about the pictures give us of Jesus as a teacher. In the face of later, theologically conceived ‘know-it-all’ interpretations of him, the Gospel writers (particularly the synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke) offer a Jesus who is intensely curious and full of wonder and sometimes as surprised as he is surprising.

Frank’s students went on to become distinguished scientists, teachers, and artists around the country. A Nobel Laureate in physics credits Frank’s class as the beginning of that lifetime work.

With the waning of McCarthyism, Oppenheimer got a university post, but both the man and academia had changed. As he saw it research physicists had become superstars not collaborators and fellow learners, and the secretiveness of the military had taught them to be proprietary about discoveries. Frank felt crowded and uninspired. Frank felt academia had lost its nerve and killed the joy in learning. He ached for the unfettered curiosity and shared surprise at constant discoveries he’d once known. Missing his high school students fired a new passion to keep learning and to provoke people of all ages to discover and joy in learning.

How would he do it?

(Find out tomorrow.)

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Galileo, Darwin and Lent

By Sam Candler

This week, I will be glad to remember the birthdays of Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei, Darwin born on February 12 (1809), and Galileo born on February 15 (1564). It so happens that their birthdays occur during the Christian season of Lent this year. We all know how much controversy their work caused the Christian Church (and society!), but Christians should be forever grateful for their courage and their wisdom. In fact, Galileo, Darwin, and Lent have something in common.

Both Galileo and Darwin actually set out to be friends of the Christian Church. Educated in an Italian monastery, Galileo intended to join the Camaldolese Order of the Church; but his father had already decided that he would be a medical doctor. Galileo’s interests, of course, turned from medicine to mathematics and the natural world. With the use of the newly developed telescope, Galileo recorded wonders of the natural world – the stars and the heavens—that no one had ever seen. Of course, these were the observations and interpretations that would also change the world.

Galileo would finally be charged with heresy, for adopting the Copernican view that the earth revolved around the sun. After all, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30 all say something like "the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved." Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that "the sun rises and sets and returns to its place, etc." Was Galileo denying the Bible? Galileo apparently believed in some form of biblical inerrancy, but he struggled with interpretation. He wrote to a friend that the Bible should always be interpreted in the light of what science had shown to be true.

Charles Darwin, at one time, studied to become an Anglican priest. He, too, was in love with the natural world and was convinced at one time in the naturalist William Paley’s argument that design in nature proved the existence of God. Later Christians objected to several elements of On the Origin of Species; the book refuted the notion that creatures had been individually designed by God, it claimed that the Earth was much older than the literal biblical account, and in claiming a common ancestor for apes and human, it denied a certain uniqueness to humanity.

How strangely ironic that many in the Church should be blinded to the truth that these two gentlemen showed the world. For, in essence, both Galileo and Darwin were using science to claim that humankind is not at the center of everything. Our earth is not at the center of God’s creation, and our species is not at the center of God’s creation.

Isn’t this what Lent is supposed to teach us? “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” many of us heard on Ash Wednesday. Lent is supposed to remind us of humility. The opposite of humility is hubris, to be so self-obsessed as to think we are at the center of everything.

Galileo, Darwin, and Lent all teach us about truth and humility. A holy Lent is about acknowledging the truth of ourselves, and the truth of this beautiful world, no matter how uncomfortable that truth might be. A holy Lent is also about acknowledging our own humility. No matter who we are, we are not at the center of everything, and we are not at the beginning of everything. May God bless the memories of both Galileo and Darwin, and all who lead us in the paths of truth and humility this Lent.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

The limits of our knowledge

By Greg Jones

A tad over a century ago, the great British scientist Lord Kelvin (a 'father' of the science of thermodynamics) made some very hasty prophecies. In the 1890's, Kelvin said variously that "radio has no future" and "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." In his most famous line, he told fellow scientists in 1900 that there remain only "a couple of small clouds" obscuring our understanding of the physical universe. As it would turn out, those two "small clouds" or "gaps" in the extent of human understanding were the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – the two most important developments in science in the 20th century.

One lifetime after Kelvin's gaffe, a radical new understanding of the Universe had evolved. By the early 1960's, the Big Bang theory had been put forth and partially verified by radio-telescopes.

Furthermore, in 1979, the contemporary physicist Alan Guth told the world what he thought happened in a fraction of a second after the Universe began – in the split second before the Big Bang banged. He proposed the theory that 14 billion years ago, the entire universe existed in a point a billion billion billion times smaller than a proton. All of a sudden, within a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, that tiny speck grew to the size of a grapefruit while maintaining all of its density. In other words, a universe of mass and energy appeared out of nowhere, instantly. Or, in what most of us would call no time at all, everything began out of nothing. Guth's famous line is "the Universe might be the ultimate free lunch." It just began. It just started. Out of nothing. And, it seems, that recent discoveries by the telescopes in space are confirming Guth's theories to a tee.

The fool is the person who thinks he knows more than he does. The fool is the person who thinks he is wise. Conversely, the wise person is the one who knows he knows little. Why do I bring this up? Because the Bible tells us primarily that God is the source of truth and wisdom, not us. God's word is light – not ours. We may know more than we did a century ago – but the more we know, the more we know we don't know much.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") is rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at

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