jennifer hanigan

a pinch of this and a dollop of that

Einstein, Electrons, and God

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Einstein.  It’s hard to think of another word that so succinctly embodies the idea of human genius.  We toss it around as a descriptor (“She’s no Einstein”) and use it to sell things (Baby Einstein, anyone?).  Einstein: the human yardstick used to judge the smartness of every wanna-be smarty-pants.


It’s hard to take a picture of electrons with my cheap Android phone, so here’s a flask of poisonous gas I made.

So you might imagine I was a tad surprised when my introduction to quantum physics included a short segment on how Albert Einstein never could wrap his brain around it. My gosh, if Einstein couldn’t get quantum physics, why is my professor expecting me to?!  Is it too late to switch majors?

But when it came down to it, the problem was not that our old pal Al wasn’t bright enough to understand quantum physics.  It was that he couldn’t force quantum physics to fit into his idea of How Things Are, and more importantly, How God Is.

I’ll try not to bore or confuse you (the truth is, I don’t understand enough to drone on about this…yet), but basically it goes like this: the behavior of electrons can be explained—kind of—by probability.  You know, heads-or-tails, roll-the-dice-in-Vegas, rock-paper-scissors odds.  And this made Einstein deeply uncomfortable.  “God does not play dice,” he protested.

Oh Al, I get it, I really do.  I know you wanted to Explain All The Things, and predict every outcome.  Life’s a lot more comfortable that way, isn’t it?

Electrons move from point A to point B without passing between point A and point B at any time.  Which is impossible, as we know. Except that apparently it’s not, because it’s happening, like, everywhere, all the time.  I mean, on the one hand, this gives me hope that one day Scotty really will be able to beam me up. On the other, it is never, not in a million years, going to make sense to me.

Like electrons, God is something we’re never really going to wrap our brains around.  Oh, we should definitely keep trying, don’t get me wrong.  But too often, we create our own picture of how God is and what He wants, and then discard anything that doesn’t fit.  Like Einstein, our discomfort can halt our understanding, our learning, and our progress.

Quantum physics is so totally going on my Things I Probably Won’t Care About When I Get To Heaven But Just In Case Here Are My Questions For God list.

Einstein died still trying to explain away the probability that unnerved him.  This may be the first time anyone’s said this to you, but: don’t be like Einstein.  Don’t let how you think things are keep you from seeing what really is. And don’t put God—or electrons—in a box.  They don’t tend to stay there.


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