Richard Reeves

God and Man in the Dark

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- I spent hours in a sealed dark room here last Thursday. It gives you time to think and talk about such things as God and science, politics and war.

I was in a basement room in the physics building of Stevens Institute of Technology, the college I graduated from a long time ago with a degree in mechanical engineering and little scientific distinction. With help from men smarter than me, I was repeating experiments of Ernest Rutherford, the great British physicist who discovered the general shape and aspect of the atom early in the 20th century. It takes a long time for old eyes to adjust to the darkness and be able to see into a vacuum chamber to watch the behavior of alpha particles fired off radioactive material through a bit of gold foil.

Rutherford's "scattering" experiments, as they were called in 1911, showed for the first time that the atom was mostly vacuum with electrons revolving around a tiny, dense, highly charged nucleus. What men had thought of first as a kind of billiard ball, the building block of all matter, was in fact mostly vacuum, looking something like the solar system. The nucleus, the energy of the thing, was, as they said later, like a fly in a cathedral.

The world, however it was made, was never the same once we knew that. Our talk in the dark was, naturally, of that world, its politics and religion. It was a week that education officials in the state of Kansas decided students should be taught "intelligent design," that maybe the world was made by a higher power in seven days, that Rutherford, Bohr, Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein and all those guys had been wasting their time. In Pennsylvania, things went the other way last Tuesday as voters threw out a school board that wanted to tell children to forget physics; the answers were all in the Bible.

Rutherford and the men around him knew all about that. In fact, Rutherford, the man who, it could be said both discovered the atom and a few years later split the thing, was a farm boy from New Zealand who sang, atrociously, "Onward Christian Soldiers" as he worked in the dark of sealed rooms at the University of Manchester in England with a group of brilliant young men who came from around the world to work with him.

But, despite his limited musical repertoire, the master of the Manchester laboratories was indifferent to both religion and politics. Science was simply more compelling --- and more important. As he learned and published more and more about the atom and its power, he said, presciently, "Some fool in a laboratory might blow up the universe unawares." Arriving late for a World War I Allied anti-submarine study group meeting, he said that he believed he had just succeeded in splitting the atom for the first time, saying: "If this were true, its ultimate importance is far greater than that of the war."

In his great mind, World War I was a waste, killing some of his most brilliant students and assistants, wounding others. One of the wounded was a young German fighting for his country in that war, Hans Geiger -- as in "Geiger counter" -- who had been Rutherford's companion in 1911 as they sat in dark rooms waiting for their eyes to adjust. It was Geiger's ability to focus long enough to actually count alpha particles emitted by uranium that led to some of the greatest discoveries of the century.

In the 1930s, as the Nazis took power in Germany, Rutherford urged German scientists, Jewish and Christian, to leave the madness and come to England. He wrote: "This country has always (opposed) any interference with its intellectual freedom, whether with regard to science or learning in general. It believes that science should be international in its outlook and should have no regard to political opinion, creed or race."

Now it's the same old story of trying to understand how to maintain and honor the realms of God, nature and men. They all have to be understood to some extent by people truly educated. I believe it is foolish not to teach religion in public schools. How else can one understand the art in the Louvre or the war in Iraq?

But they are separate things when you are alone in the dark. Science is about what we are. Religion and politics are about who we are. Try to mix and match that formula and then trouble begins -- in laboratories and in Kansas.

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