Thursday, November 18, 2010

Saadia and the Spectrograph

In the Great Books class I’ve been teaching on Monday mornings, we’re just about to wind up the section of the year devoted to Saadia Gaon, the tenth century rabbi who was in many ways the father of Jewish philosophy. Preparing myself to teach this class has been a very interesting experience for me. For one thing, Saadia’s great book, The Book of Opinions and Beliefs, was one of the books I studied the most intently years ago when I was preparing myself for a career in the rabbinate. But even more to the point is that Saadia’s work is in many ways based on the principle that has come to rest at the center of my own philosophy of Judaism, the notion that, all truth being by definition congruent with all other truth, any effort to insist that some article of religious truth can be just as “true” as its parallel within the world of science without it mattering that they overtly contradict each other is, also by definition, somewhere between bogus and ridiculous. Indeed, the underlying principle that I believe should guide all religious thinking is precisely that things cannot become true because people simply repeat them over and over, that truths must actually be true (and not merely acclaimed as such) for them meaningfully to serve as the foundation of authentic religious life, that there cannot be any such thing as truths which are true within the context of religion but false everywhere else.

I’ve said these things in a dozen different ways from the bimah more times than I can remember. But even I found myself stopping to scratch my head the other day when I read in the newspaper about the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that the space shuttle Endeavor is scheduled to carry off into space next February. Everything about the experiment is larger than life. It has taken about sixteen years to get this one experiment ready. And the undertaking will have cost about one and a half billion dollars by the time the Endeavor takes off. The machine itself—which the reporter described as looking like a huge corrugated rain barrel containing eight tons of magnets, wires, aluminum, silicon, iron, and assorted electronic gizmos—is extraordinarily complex. But what matters any of that? (Besides, what’s a billion and a half bucks anyway? The mayor of New York is about to spend that much over the next two decades to reduce the amount of sewage in the city’s waterways and that planned expenditure didn’t even make the front page of the paper.) On the other hand, what actually is unbelievable is what the spectrometer is intended to do once it gets into outer space.

This is one of those things that people can talk about but not really comprehend. Or maybe there even are people out there who combine the kind of background in physics with the kind of imaginative power it would take to make it possible even to begin to understand what this is all about, but all I can do is try to explain even without any real idea what I’m talking about. The basic concept is that all that stuff they told you in high school about how all things—including the universe itself—are made of molecules composed of atoms, and that those atoms themselves have constituent parts called neutrons and electrons and protons (and maybe some other –ons that even your teacher wasn’t quite sure what they were or did)—it turns out that all that is only partially true. It is true, in the sense that those things really do exist. And it is also true that matter is composed of atoms and molecules just as your physics or chemistry teacher told you. But it is apparently also true—or at least possibly also true—that all that we perceive to exist could just be a kind of opaque scrim covering a universe of dark matter, also called anti-matter, that exerts its own mysterious force on all that exists. The reporter writing in the Times last week, Dennis Overbye, referred to this counter-universe as a “vast shadowy realm of invisible ‘dark matter’ whose gravity determines the architecture of the cosmos.” And that brings us to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrograph, the mission of which is to capture some of the emanations coming from this alleged shadow universe and thus to prove the existence both of dark matter and the anti-universe in which it resides beyond and behind what we perceive as reality. (I told you I don’t really understand this. Who could? I suppose Samuel Chao Chung Ting, the MIT professor behind the experiment, must understand it. At least I hope he does! But he won a Nobel Prize in physics and I took a year of physics in eleventh grade, so we’re not exactly playing on the same team, Professor Ting and myself.) The rest of the story has to do with the Big Bang, another thing I only sort of understand, and the reasonability of imagining any primordial antimatter actually still to exist. What the difference is between finding any of this matter and finding mere intimations of its existence, for example in the form of anti-electrons called positrons, is hard to say. Or at least it’s hard for me to say. But the basic concept—that with one grand experiment humankind will take a quantum leap forward by leaping as far back into the past as it is possible to conceive of anyone ever even imagining it would be possible to go—that, for all my lack of training impedes me really from understanding what Professor Ting is attempting to accomplish, that idea engages me totally.

And so we go back to Saadia. He was a truly amazing man, one of the very few individuals of whom it can be said honestly that he was a true innovator and pioneer in every single field to which he turned his formidable intelligence—not only philosophy and theology, but also linguistics, liturgy, and law. A polymath and a true genius, Saadia understood that the notion that religious faith can only be embraced after checking one’s intellectual integrity at the front door makes a mockery of religion. And so the concept when encountering a world of ideas like the ones connected with Professor Ting’s spectrograph is not to wave the whole thing away as inimical to faith, anti-matter not being mentioned by name in the account of the creation in the Bible, but to embrace the indescribable as a way of reminding ourselves yet again that it is the ideas that rest at the core of the biblical narrative that count, not the ancient garb in which they were presented to ancient readers who hadn’t ever heard of electrons, let alone positrons. The bottom line, as noted, is that all truth must by definition congruent be with all other truth. If the Torah is true and Professor Ting’s theory pans out and appears also to be true, then there therefore must be some way to embrace them both without retreating into illogic or self-referential silliness. To paraphrase the Talmud, if you don’t see how two absolutely true statements can fit together, then the problem probably has a lot more to do with you than with them! I feel that way when I read stories like the one about the spectrograph in the newspaper. Who knows what it’s all about really? But I feel as humbled by my own lack of real scientific education as I feel awed by the possibility that the world we see really is only a thin patina coating an inner core of unseen, unfathomable reality. The author of the 104th psalm clearly had it right when he enthused, “How many are the things You have made, O Lord! Truly, everything that exists somehow suggests Your wisdom.” That seems right to me. And it is surely a notion Saadia easily would have both understood and embraced!

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