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Posted: January 3, 2009 4:51 p.m.

If seeing is believing

I’ve never claimed to be a smart man. I tend to view things simply, despite my fascination with how Einstein saw things mathematically and how Flannery O’Connor described things in her unique anagogical style. I love chatting with those knowledgeable about quantum electrodynamics, but if asked to explain what European physicists are doing with their Large Hadron Collider, I just paint it simply and say they’re looking for an elusive, crucial particle that will explain how science works.

Leon Lederman’s book, "The God Particle," explains particle physics to laymen. It’s great material, as is that of the late Stephen Feynman. Feynman, one of the guys who worked on The Manhattan Project in World War II and developed the plutonium trigger for the uranium atomic bomb. Or was it the uranium trigger for the plutonium bomb?

Whatever. Feynman was so brilliant he figured out his own system of symbols for math and physics when he was just a child and had to unlearn his system and replace it with standard terminology before he could work with other physicists.

Feynman’s also the guy who discovered why space shuttle Challenger exploded. The panel had convened and Feynman asked for a glass of ice water. While others postulated, Feynman held a rubber O-ring in the water until the exasperated moderator asked him to quit playing and join the conversation.

Feynman held up the now-brittle O-ring and delivered his theory, subsequently proven correct, that it had been too cold when Challenger launched for the O-rings to properly seal the hot exhaust gasses inside the solid rocket boosters.

And Feynman’s 60-something-year-old drawings in particle physics and quantum electrodynamics theory are still used today in the search for the "God particle," or Higgs Boson.

Just a simple boy, while I appreciate Einstein and Feynman providing the nuts and bolts of how things work, it’s always been a matter of faith to me. Philosophers know the line between the physical and the metaphysical is so thin as to be nearly invisible. Through Pascal’s writings, among others, we find the gigantic "leap of faith" to actually be just a simple, small step. And, interestingly, Feynman, an agnostic most of his life, became a theist, chiefly because of his work in probability theory.

Feynman showed that if Earth orbited one degree closer to the Sun, it’d be too hot for life to develop; if Earth’s orbit were one degree farther away, it’d be too cold. His probability study questioned whether Earth could have been positioned totally by random accident in the one exact place needed to sustain life, and the results convinced Feynman that there was virtually no chance of that happening.

So the question was no longer what placed Earth, but who?

Physicists, then, are straining to find a particle which they already know exists, for if it didn’t, the science used to get this far would not have worked. Still, for some, seeing is believing.

Flannery O’Connor, on the other hand, saw things in a different way. She was a rarity, a Catholic in the overwhelmingly Protestant setting of 1950’s Milledgeville, Georgia. Her bizarre, macabre short stories seemed to be hallucinations of someone "not quite plumb," but they contain some interesting theology.

O’Connor believed that the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified formed the intersection where God and man interact. To her, everything in history prior to Christ’s crucifixion led to it, and everything transpiring since is a result of it.

In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," an old lady and her family are abducted by thugs. After hearing the old lady’s testimony and offer to help save him, one thug shoots her dead. Turning to the others, he says, "She’d have been a good woman if there’d have been someone to shoot her every day."

Think about that, won’t you?

When students struggling to keep up with him complained, Einstein once replied, "I assure you that whatever problems you have with math, those facing me are much more difficult."

In other words, all our difficulties — and our world view — are based on our relative position.

The challenges facing America in 2009 are daunting, to say the least. Personally, I am not enamored with the leadership change embraced recently by this nation and have grave reservations as to where the new president and Congress will try to take us. I am not convinced that any of them believe our government is to be of, for, and by — we, the people.

In my simple world, I want the physicists to discover a particle which will make our Congress work honestly and efficaciously. I want the American people to come back around to realizing, in Feynman fashion, that the question is not what placed us here, but rather, who.

That way, maybe, America won’t need some macabre version of O’Connor’s thug standing by to shoot us every day in order to make us do right.

Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His column appears in The Covington News on Sundays.

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