When less means more

20 September 2019

At Harvest, Albert Radcliffe reflects on the hidden mysteries of creation

Science Photo Library/Alamy

A conceptual depiction of the Big Bang as an infinity torus knot, where the galaxies are moving away from each other

A conceptual depiction of the Big Bang as an infinity torus knot, where the galaxies are moving away from each other

THERE is more to harvest festivals than thanking God for the beauty of nature and its provision for our needs, and remembering the hungry — although that is the focus in most churches. There is also all that science reminds us that our festivals omit. Harvest celebrates God as Creator — and so much of nature is hidden.

Take those two mysteries in today’s physics: dark energy and dark matter. At the beginning of the last century, a crucial question was whether gravity would collapse the universe. Because Einstein calculated that it could, but believed that it wouldn’t, he added a constant to his equations to keep it stable. When, in 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered that galaxies were flying apart, Einstein’s fudge-factor became redundant.

Then, in 1998, Saul Perlmutter discovered that the expansion was even greater than Hubble had calculated, and the extra but unknown energy needed for this was called “dark energy”. In that case, however, galaxies should be flying even further apart; the unknown, gravity-producing matter needed to prevent them from doing so was termed “dark matter”.

This twin mystery deepened still further when it was calculated that dark energy made up 70 per cent of the universe, and dark matter 26 per cent, leaving only four per cent for ordinary, “baryonic” stuff, out of which everything else — the beautiful cosmos, its harvests, and Church Times readers — is made. This four per cent is less meaning more.

And there is more still. According to the “standard model” of the atom, at creation — the “Big Bang” — matter and anti-matter should have been created in equal amounts. Electrons would then have collided with positrons, and so on, until all was mutually annihilated. But, for some unknown reason, more matter was created than antimatter, with the result that this article’s writer, and readers, are made from the left-overs.

The success of science has been in uncovering these hidden workings of nature, although in doing so it demonstrates that more of the cosmos is hidden than is revealed. Isaiah’s assertion that God is a God who hides himself (45.15) means that the Creator’s creation is largely hidden, as well.

To do its job, science uses mathematics — and that also turns out to be a complicating factor in physics. For example, there is a great deal of scientific debate today on the reality of Time. Does time — like Harvest-time — exist? The human experience of time as past (which we can’t get back to), present (which is gone in an instant), and future (which, for the most part, we can only guess at) disappears at the macro-level, cosmic scale as well as at the ultimately small, micro-quantum level.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity disposed of Isaac Newton’s idea that space was like a stage on which events happened, while time was an absolute, independent reality that determined their order. Instead, Einstein rid science of the occult force of gravity by combining Newton’s absolutes into the flexible relativity of “space-time”, with its new insights, such as “mass tells space-time how to bend, and space-time tells matter how to move.”


QUANTUM theory, the 20th century’s other great extension in the theory of physics, explores the ultra-small aspects of creation where the clear-cut, predictable maths that we learned at school gives way to probability and randomness. Einstein did not like it. “God doesn’t play dice,” he wrote.

At the quantum level, physical laws appear time-symmetric: the same going forwards as backwards. One solution was to suppose that we lived in a timeless cosmos called the Block Universe. The trouble was that, mathematically speaking, no way has been found to combine the physics of relativity with quantum theory. There is, then, maths that maths cannot do — a problem that crops up in many places in modern science.

So creation, and God, its Creator, are hidden; and so, too, are we who struggle to understand them. Artificial Intelligence, with its self-improving algorithms that appear to threaten human creativity, as well as every job and profession, still leaves humankind wrestling with its own hidden side, which includes our unconscious. We — the third hidden reality, after God, and nature — are largely hidden from ourselves.

In his book The Grand Design, written with Leonard Mlodinow, Stephen Hawking attempts to prove that, because of its laws, the universe created itself out of nothing. “Philosophy is dead,” he argues; but he’s left with the problem of where this supposed potential for spontaneous creation came from. Atheists are good at exposing the flaws in much theism, but atheism has its own problems, too.

The most important thing in science is what is not known because it is hidden. At Harvest, we — who are largely hidden from ourselves — remember the hungry, and give thanks for God the Creator and God’s creation, so largely hidden from us. At Harvest, so much less means so much more.

Canon Albert Radcliffe is a retired priest in the Manchester diocese.

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