Christians in Science: Interview With Particle Physicist Aron Wall
Aron Wall is a theoretical particle physicist who works for the Institute for Advanced Study. His field of study involves quantum gravity – the attempt to plumb the depths of Quantum Physics at the microscopic level and discover how it interacts with the seemingly contradictory General Relativity of the macroscopic. In addition to being a physicist, Wall invents games, writes essays, and sometimes even preaches sermons. That’s correct: this man of science is also a man of God.
This writer recently had the opportunity to discuss with Wall both his science and his faith.
The Making of a Scientist
Wall grew up in a Christian home with a Sunday School Teacher as a mother and a computer programmer for a father. There was no definite moment or period of time that Wall can recall where he “became a Christian.” As far as Wall is concerned, he has always been one.
Wall did have a moment when he most definitely became a scientist, however. For him, that moment was reading a book on physics when he was 7. Wall told this writer:
“It was full of chapters about things like ‘Force’ and ‘Pressure’; which seemed boring at the time. But at the end it said that particle physicists had recently discovered that subatomic particles like protons and neutrons were made of even smaller particles called ‘quarks’. That made me interested since I knew about the atom but I'd never heard about that before.
“The book went on to say that the quarks came in 3 ‘colors’, and that each subatomic particle had to be made of ‘one of each color’. So I went to my Dad and asked him, does it mean at least one, or exactly one? He didn't know how to answer, so he took me to the grown-up section of the library and showed me a bunch of popular books about particle physics. So from then on I started checking those out, and making all sorts of charts of all the elementary particles that were known, and tried to figure out what other particles there ought to be.”
That moment of childish inquiry became the gateway to a lifelong passion, and, coincidentally, a career.
Wall has had what he describes as a “weird” academic path. He entered the undergraduate program at the small liberal arts college of St. John's College where he studied the Great Books of Western Civilization. After that he did his doctoral work in Physics at the University of Maryland, and has been doing postdocs at UC Santa Barabra, the Institute for Advanced Study and the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics. Wall very much enjoys the career his studies have given him, saying, “I love what I do and it still amazes me that people pay me to do it.”
Particle Physics and God
Could particle physics be an avenue to prove or disprove the existence of God?
Aron’s research since grad school has focused on figuring out how and why black holes obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which has to do with irreversible processes in Nature. As it relates to ordinary matter this may be explained in terms of the atomic theory, but black holes are made of pure gravity, that is, distortions of space-time, and it is unknown out of what this is formed.
In the interview, Aron said:
“As a theorist, my job is to think for a living, and sometimes write papers and give talks. (So I don't wear a lab coat!) It isn't really possible to do experiments in my area of physics, so the only tools we have for checking ideas are mathematical consistency, and continuity with previously established rules of physics.”
The Bible and Science: Harmony or Discord?
Wall feels no contradiction between his work as a scientist and his Christian worldview. Accepting that both scripture and science have their origin in a Creator, the two seem in unity to Aron. Possible places of discontinuity are easily put to rest in Aron’s mind.
The first possible contradiction – to Aron – would be how the Bible describes the origin of the universe. Aron told this writer,
“If I thought I had to be a Young Earth Creationist to be a Christian, then I would have to give it up because there is too much scientific evidence for the universe and the earth being old. It would conflict with what I do on a daily basis! But I think that misunderstands the point of Genesis, which was intended to instruct us about God and Mankind, not to be a science textbook.”
The second possible objection Wall anticipates is that of miracles and their apparent violation of natural law. Aron addressed this objection in the interview thusly:
“This was actually more of a problem for me before I became a professional physicist. Now, I'm more fully aware that everything we do is just an approximation to reality, which is valid in some limited set of circumstances. So that makes me more able to accept that the laws of physics might work almost all the time, but still fail when e.g. Jesus walks on the water, because there is something outside of Nature, that changed the rules.”
Besides these two possible objections, Wall finds that science works in harmony with his beliefs rather than against them. In the interview, Wall said:
“I did once write a paper providing some new arguments that there was a beginning of time at the Big Bang. I was aware at the time that some people read a lot of potential philosophical and theological implications into that. But mainly I was just applying some tools to a new situation to see what happened! If you have to turn to something as speculative and uncertain as quantum gravity to prove your faith, something is wrong.”
Wall even sees actual evidence for God’s existence in the work he does. This includes the fact that the constants of Nature take on very special values that permit life to exist (the vast majority of possible laws of physics wouldn't).
The spectacular complexity and simplicity of nature and the laws that govern it are a worshipful experience for Aron in his work. According to Aron in the interview:
“All of Nature reveals something about the Creator's glory, but as a scientist I tend to focus on trying to prove stuff, and it isn't actually all that often I get to step back and say Wow!”
Religion and the Scientific Community
As a scientist, Wall does not meet many in his field who take Christianity seriously (with the exception of noted physicist Don Page). In this respect, this makes Wall kind of an oddity in the field. But, Wall says, in the higher sciences eccentrics are common, and physicists are fairly tolerant of oddities. So far in his career, Wall has not felt persecuted, ostracized, or put at risk career-wise. Said Wall in the interview:
“If, sometime in the future, a conflict arises between my Christian conscience and my academic career, then I pray for the courage to stand with Christ against the temptations of worldly success. This is why I've deliberately made the decision to publicly identify as a Christian now, even before I get a faculty position or tenure. But I don't believe in looking for trouble in advance.”
The one conflict Wall says he finds between his Science and his Christianity is one of time-management. Like most Christians, Wall is still trying to balance the time he devotes to God against the time that he devotes to his job.