Monday, December 24, 2012

A scientist reflects on Christmas

The Apostles Creed contains a helpful summary of what I believe about Christmas. It begins:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,       the Creator of heaven and earth,       and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord:Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,   born of the Virgin Mary,
Wow! That sounds strange. Can a scientist really believe that?

Is it hard to believe in the miracles associated with the birth of Jesus Christ?
Was Jesus mother Mary really a virgin?
Was the baby conceived by the Holy Spirit rather than by a human father?
What is the real mystery of Christmas?
Why is Christmas a gift?

In the process of answering these questions I hope to engage you with several ideas.
First, Scientists don't have all the answers. We don't understand everything. There are mysteries in science that are as profound and as difficult to believe as those described in the Apostles Creed. Second, the great mystery of Christmas is the gift from God of Jesus. Emmanuel, God is with us.

So why do I say that scientists struggle to understand some things in science?
A great mystery is why does science work at all? I find it is truly amazing that using our brains we can discover the inner workings of atoms, what happened in the first three minutes of the universe, and the molecular basis of genetics. Furthermore, some of our scientific understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology is so reliable and powerful that we can produce amazing things like laptop computers, GPS, new drugs, and test-tube babies!?

In my field, theoretical physics, a big question, is why can mathematics be used with such success to describe physical laws?

Eugene Wigner received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963. Wigner also wrote a famous essay with the title, ``The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences". The concluding sentences are often quoted. Wigner says,
It is a miracle that mathematics can be used to describe the laws of physics. This is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.
Note Wigner uses the words miracle and gift.

Before discussing the miracles and mystery of Christmas, I want to say a little more about some mysteries in science. I do this because it is common to dismiss out of hand Biblical miracles such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus, claiming that they are scientifically impossible. But is this really justified?
 One thing we have learnt from modern science is that sometimes what we think ``makes sense" or what we may intuitively think is  ``rational" or ``reasonable" can actually be false.

Quantum theory is one of my passions. I have a really fun job where everyday I get to use quantum theory to try to understand  properties of new materials. When I went to university I thought if I understood quantum theory I would understand the meaning of life. Quantum theory is the most successful theory in all of science. It can explain properties of everything from atoms to DNA. It can predict the outcome of experiments to an accuracy of 10 decimal places. It is like if I had a computer program which could tell me what a strangers credit card numbers are. This resounding success shows that scientific truth is not just a matter of personal opinion.

However, you should not think everything in science is certain. Quantum theory raises as many questions as it answers. In spite of the success of the theory, there is no consensus on its interpretation. There more than ten different interpretations of quantum theory. These interpretations are so different that they do not even agree on how many universes there are, nor whether external reality even exists! So we have both certainty and ambiguity in science.

My wife, Robin, does not share my  passion for quantum physics. Yet Robin does like Schrodingers cat! This cat is a logical outcome of the most successful theory in all of science. The cat is in a quantum state such that the cat is dead and alive at the same time. It is not one or the other. It will only be definitely one or the other is you look to see which one it is. So looks can kill!
If you are confused and think this doesn't make sense then you have got the point. If you think you understand it then you don't! This confusion should humble us. Science does not have all the answers.

Given that science involves such strange ideas it is not hard for me to believe in the miracles in the Bible such as the virgin birth. At UQ I am not the only other scientist who believes this. Indeed, each week I meet with several other science professors to read the Bible and pray together.

So what is the significance of the miracles of Christmas?
They actually point to the mystery of Christmas.

In the Old Testament book of Isaiah there was a prophecy
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel [God is with us]
Isaiah 7:14
What is the meaning and significance of God being with us?
Well we all crave empathy for our situation and life experiences. When we have strong life experiences, both good and bad, we love it when another person can come along side us and relate to our experience.
God loves us so much that he wants to completely identify with us; to show perfect empathy with our frail humanity. God is saying, "I am with you. I am there for you. I understand. I have been through this to."

Furthermore, God took the initiative. We did not take the initiative. That is why Jesus was conceived not by a man, but by God.

So God became a human.
Jesus was truly human and truly God.

But how can this be?
This is the real mystery of Christmas. It is a paradox that I don't claim to completely understand. But just as I can accept quantum physics as true, I can accept this tension, that Jesus was fully human and fully God.

But understanding the miracles and mystery of Christmas cannot be separated from the miracle and mystery of Easter.

The baby became a man, Jesus Christ, who taught us who God is and how we can live in relationship to God. Jesus died on the cross to take away the penalty we deserve for our disobedience towards God. How are we disobedient? We ignore God. We do what we want.
Jesus death conquered sin. He rose from the dead to show his power over death and to enable us to rise from the dead to eternal life.

Returning to the Apostle's Creed which summarises this:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
       the Creator of heaven and earth,
       and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
   born of the Virgin Mary,
   suffered under Pontius Pilate,
   was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
To end I want to rephrase the quote I gave earlier from  the theoretical physicist Wigner,
``The miracle of Christmas, of the Immanuel
[God being with us] for our salvation is a wonderful gift
which we neither understand nor deserve.''

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