Paul Dirac: God in the beauty of Quantum Physics

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      Let us see today’s question. What does quantum physics tell us about God? What does quantum physics tell us about God? That’s an excellent question. Quantum theory is full of surprises. But Mathematics guides us even into quantum realms. Physicist John von Neumann wrote a book titled The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics. That title says it all. The Mathematical foundations of Quantum mechanics. So, Quantum mechanics too, as bewildering as it has been, still has to rely on mathematical foundations. 

    For our purposes, we are going to focus on one physicist, Paul Dirac. First, let me give you a brief introduction to the history of quantum physics. At the beginning of the twentieth century, two discoveries completely transformed the way we see the world. The Theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity revolutionized our understanding of space and time, while quantum theory revolutionized our understanding of atomic and subatomic worlds. Even if you ignore their science, you cannot ignore the technological products of these two theories. For example, your cell phone will not work without using these two theories. 

   You might ask, what about Newton? Yes, we got classical physics from Newton. On very large scales, Newtonian mechanics still works. But on very small scales, it fails. But Quantum mechanics works for both very small and very large scales. 

   The first decade in quantum mechanics was dominated by German theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947), who can be called the father of quantum theory. His 1900 theory of black-body radiation brought a revolution into the scientific world. He thought of light as a smooth continuous flow. But his mathematics led him to conclude that light came in packets, which he called quanta. Albert Einstein had to use Planck’s quantum hypothesis to explain the photoelectric effect. So, even Einstein, a fierce critic of quantum theory, had to rely on quantum theory to explain his Nobel Prize winning work in photoelectric effect. 

   The second decade in quantum mechanics was dominated by Niels Bohr. He was a Danish physicist. His genius was to apply quantum theory to the theory of atomic structure. He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Bohr was able to predict the hydrogen spectrum based on mathematics. The influence of his ideas later developed the so-called ‘Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics’. 

   The third decade in quantum mechanics was dominated by two physicists. Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger. Heisenberg was a German physicist while Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian theoretical physicist. Heisenberg and Schrodinger developed two different versions of quantum theory. Heisenberg developed the matrix version of quantum mechanics. He discovered a highly abstract version of quantum mechanics called ‘matrix mechanics’ while Schrodinger developed the wave mechanics version. Both versions gave similar results. How to bring these two versions together? 

   The fourth decade in quantum mechanics was dominated by Paul Dirac. Let us focus on his life to understand the brilliance of quantum physics. Paul Dirac was a British mathematical physicist. Dirac’s theory brought Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics and Schrodinger’s wave mechanics together. He showed that they were mathematically equivalent. 

       Dirac shared the 1933 Nobel Prize for physics with Schrodinger. We don’t hear much about him because throughout his life he kept a low profile. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, he wanted to decline it because he thought it would unnecessarily draw attention to him. But his friends warned him, ‘You would draw more attention by declining it than by accepting it’. So, he accepted it when he was just 31 years old. The founders of quantum mechanics like Dirac, Heisenberg, Schrodinger were in their 20s while they were making extraordinary contributions to physics. They were often called Quantum Boys. 

   He was born in Bristol on August 8, 1902. He graduated as an electrical engineer from the University of Bristol. In 1923, he went to Cambridge University and started his journey in quantum physics. He befriended other quantum physicists like Niels Bohr and Heisenberg. He attended famous Solvay Conferences. In the 1927 Solvay Conference, you can see him standing behind Einstein. In 1932, he was elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge University. This chair was once held by Sir Isaac Newton. So, in Dirac, you see a beautiful interaction between Newtonian Physics, theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Dirac brought a great revolution in the modern world. Let us talk about a few things. 

Dirac Equation: First let us talk about Dirac Equation, inscribed on his memorial at Westminster Abbey. In 1928, Paul Dirac presented ‘The Quantum Theory of the Electron’. This new mathematical equation could be used to calculate the quantum behavior of electrons. It described the interaction of electrons with magnetic and electric fields.  It correctly predicted the magnetic moment of the electron. The expected value from Dirac’s equation matched the measured value. 

     Dirac’s equation also explained the spin of electrons, that is their angular momentum. It explained mathematically why the electron had spin ½, why they behave like tiny magnets, with north and south poles. More fascinating things followed. 

Antimatter: Dirac’s equation predicted the existence of antimatter. It predicted that electron should have a partner: an anti-electron. Everybody was shocked and surprised. Anti-electron? Are you kidding me? This got to be a joke. Even Paul Dirac had difficulty accepting this proposition. Carl Anderson, a physicist at California Institute of Technology was reading Dirac’s work. Those days they did not have particle accelerators. So, Anderson could only use cosmic rays to study particle physics. After one experiment he was looking at cloud chamber photographs and was amazed to see the track of a particle with the same mass as the electron but with opposite electrical charge. Antielectron, also called Positron, was no longer an imaginary particle. It was discovered by Carl Anderson. The discovery of positron in 1932 confirmed Dirac’s theory, Dirac was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933. Carl Anderson was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936 for the discovery of positron. 

    Dirac’s prediction of positron was one of the greatest achievements in science and technology. A trillion dollar nanotechnology was born out of that. In his memorial address for Dirac, Stephen Hawking said, “If Dirac had patented his equation, like some people are now patenting human genes, he would have become one of the richest men in the world. Every television set or computer would have paid him royalties” 

So, this is not science fiction. Consider how the discovery of positrons has changed medical science. Positron Emission Tomography, PET Scans. You can detect signs of early disease at cellular level. PET scans are diagnosing cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, brain tumors long before you could see them on other scans. In a PET Scan, we are seeing a beautiful fusion of human anatomy, physiology with quantum mechanics. 

Theory of Relativity:

   Einstein profoundly influenced young Dirac. When he was growing up in Bristol, it was Einstein’s theory of relativity that inspired Dirac to become a physicist. When Einstein died in 1955, Dirac openly cried. His wife Manci said that it was the only time she ever saw Dirac weeping. 

    Dirac would spend hundreds of hours on the publications of Einstein. Similarly, Einstein used to carry Dirac’s The Principles of Quantum Mechanics with him, even to his vacations. 

   In 1905, Einstein wrote four papers that shook the foundations of modern physics. Space and time are not independent of each other and they collectively influence matter. As John Wheeler put it, ‘Matter tells spacetime how to curve, spacetime tells matter how to move’.  Those 4 papers laid the foundations of relativity and quantum mechanics.Twenty-three years later, Dirac unified the special theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Dirac’s theory was the first of its kind, in 1928, he proposed a new form of quantum theory compatible with Einstein’s special theory of relativity. 

By using relativity, Dirac was able to explain the angular momentum of electrons. Like Einstein’s equation (E = mc2), Dirac’s equation is simple, yet profound. Dirac’s theory showed that when an electron and a positron meet, they annihilate each other and release energy. From energy, you can also create electrons and positrons. That is mass-energy equivalence. In that way, Dirac’s theory proved Einstein’s theory. 

Nuclear Technology: 

  Dirac’s quantum theory also led to a new understanding of atomic structure. He was awarded the Nobel Prize ‘for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory’. As you know, nuclear technology first brings the memories of atom bombs thrown on Japanese cities. But it is more than atom bombs and hydrogen bombs. Nuclear power is providing electricity to millions of homes around the world,  curing cancers through radiation therapy, improving agricultural output through pest control, decreasing pollution and dating ancient artifacts etc. 

   Some of the Quantum physicists were drawn into the development of nuclear weapons. United States recruited Robert Oppenheimer to lead Manhattan Project to produce atom bomb. Hitler drafted Werner Heisenberg to run his nuclear weapons program. Paul Dirac was friends with both Oppenheimer and Heisenberg. Dirac invented a new way of separating different isotopes of a chemical element.         

    Oppenheimer could see the implication of Dirac’s theory: two oppositely charged particles could come together, annihilate and release energy. If he could replicate this process on a massive scale, he would be able to produce an atom bomb.  It seems Dirac initially worked on Britain’s nuclear weapons program in 1942 and 1943 and later abandoned it. 

     Who wins the atomic race? That would depend on who would do the right math.  Heisenberg miscalculated that too much uranium would be needed to construct a nuclear weapon. His math was wrong and the Nazis lost. Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (1909 – 1984) did the right math and the United States won the nuclear race. That’s the power of mathematics, folks. 

   Quantum physics also influenced string theory, nanotechnology, particle physics. CERN in Geneva discovered Higgs’ Boson using the Large Hadron Collider. These particle accelerators are the largest machines human beings ever built. Dirac’s theories form the foundation of these great machines. Then the Spintronics, which helped build quantum computers. 

    That’s just a brief description of quantum theory through the life of one scientist, Paul Dirac. Now, we should look at the influence of quantum theory on Christian thought. I see four things. 

Orderliness of the Universe: 

    Quantum physics zooms us into the precise orderliness of our universe. This orderliness enabled us to reduce all matter into simple categories. Quantum chromodynamics reduces all matter in the universe into one of two elementary types, bosons and fermions.  

    Thousands of years ago, early human beings saw order in the seasons and thought of a creator. This orderliness in the universe helped us make predictions and realize them in eventual discoveries. Mendelev assumed orderliness in the universe and predicted the existence of unknown elements based on the gaps in his periodic table. Murray Gell-Man predicted the existence of top quark based on the orderliness in the quantum world. Paul Dirac predicted the existence of positrons based on this orderliness in the quantum world. 

      It is not like the Dewey decimal system you see in the public library. You can’t predict the next book based on the Dewey decimal system. But in the book of nature, you can predict hitherto unknown things based on mathematics. 

     During his years at Cambridge, Dirac started a life long friendship with two missionaries to India. Right Reverend Henry Whitehead and his wife Isabel. The couple were Oxford-educated mathematicians and spent twenty years in India as missionaries. Gandhi spent one week in their home in Madras. Isabel Whitehead, being a mathematician herself, used to describe God as a mathematician. She believed that God created the universe in the language of mathematics and challenged Dirac to see for himself the power of mathematics to unravel the mysteries of nature. 

Dirac concluded that the best way of understanding nature’s regularities was through mathematics. 

     In 1963 Dirac described God as a mathematician of a very high order in scientific journals. In May 1963 edition of Scientific American he wrote an article titled, The Evolution of the Physicist’s Picture of Nature, he wrote 

It seems to be one of the fundamental features of nature that fundamental physical laws are described in terms of mathematical theory of great beauty and power, needing quite a high standard of mathematics for one to understand it. You may wonder: Why is nature constructed along these lines? One can only answer that our present knowledge seems to show that nature is so constructed. We simply have to accept it. One could perhaps describe the situation by saying that God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe. 

    How could you describe this situation? Note those words: God is a mathematician of a very high order and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe. The precise orderliness of the universe we see through quantum theory shows God as a mathematician of a very high order. 

Creation of the Universe: 

    Quantum physics also changed our cosmology. Let us call it Quantum Cosmology. Dirac was the first to introduce mathematics of creation and annihilation into quantum theory. He was the first person to predict the existence of antimatter entirely through the power of mathematics. He had glimpsed a universe made from equal amounts of matter and anti-matter. He did not look through a telescope, he did not look through a microscope, he did not build a million dollar laboratory or a billion dollar particle accelerator. Using mathematical calculations, he predicted the existence of antimatter. The early universe started with almost equal amounts of matter and antimatter. Because matter and antimatter annihilate each other, some physicists saw creation ex nihilo in this phenomenon. Creation ex nihilo: A Universe created out of nothing which we see in Genesis 1:1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  

    When Dirac was working at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study he befriended Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest and physicist. Lemaitre inspired Dirac to study cosmology. Lemaitre studied both Einstein’s relativity theory and Dirac’s quantum theory.  Einstein’s theory of relativity suggested an expanding universe while Dirac’s quantum theory suggested a creation out of nothing. Those insights helped him towards a cosmology in which the universe has a beginning. 

   Lot of great minds came together –    Dirac’s equation, Einstein’s relativity, Friedman’s mathematics, Hubble’s astronomical observations – they all came together to give us a universe with a beginning, which is consistent with what the Bible teaches. So, cosmological implications of quantum theory only confirmed what the Bible teaches. 

Structure of the Universe: 

   Dirac laid the groundwork for the quantum theory of fields. Quantum theory says that the world at a fundamental level is made of fields, such as electric field, magnetic field, and gravitational field. When we look at those fields, we see them as particles. The visible matter is springing out of invisible fields. We can relate to that concept from  a Biblical viewpoint. We read in Hebrews chapter 11:1-3. Things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. What is seen was not made out of what was visible. The world which we can see has come into being through principles which are invisible. 

      Everything we see – galaxies, stars, blackholes, planets, oceans, dinosaurs, dolphins, trees and flowers, human beings, we all came from those invisible fields. Things seen came from fields unseen. This concept takes us to the Bible. 

Complexity of the Universe: 

   Quantum physics also unveils a highly complex universe before us. It humbles us.  If a quantum physicist describes his theory on a blackboard, how many of us can understand his or her equations? Very few. I heard a hilarious story about Dirac. One day Dirac was giving a lecture on quantum mechanics. After the lecture he sat down. Moderator said, ‘Does anyone have questions?’ Someone got up and asked, ‘I don’t understand the equation on the top-right-hand corner of the blackboard’. Dirac was silent. Everyone looked at Dirac for a response. After long silence, the moderator prompted Dirac for an answer, ‘Professor Dirac, are you not going to answer Dr.X’s question?’ Dirac replied, ‘That was not a question, it was a comment’. ‘That was not a question, it was a comment’. 

      Even someone like Dirac with his profound insight into nature can humble us. Many people think they had cornered God. God says to them, ‘that was not a question, it was just a comment’. How do you feel when you stand before God who is immensely wiser than all of us? How do you feel when you stand before God who created the quantum world? Quantum world points us to a God, who is incredibly wise and intelligent than all of us put together. 

Our place in the Universe: 

   Quantum physics also fills us with deep emotions like beauty and pleasure. In October 1956 Dirac was giving lectures at Moscow University. He was asked, ‘what is your philosophy of physics?’ Dirac wrote on the blackboard: PHYSICAL LAWS SHOULD HAVE MATHEMATICAL BEAUTY.    

   Dirac relied on beauty and pleasure while doing his math. He went as far as to suggest that mathematical beauty takes precedence to experimental data.

   In an interview in 1979, Dirac said, “The beauty of the equations provided by nature….gives one a strong emotional reaction”. He went on, “Mathematical beauty is a quality which cannot be defined, any more than beauty in art can be defined, but which people who study mathematics usually have no difficulty appreciating”. It was not just Dirac who was fascinated by the mathematical beauty of his equations. English physicist Arthur Eddington described Dirac’s symbolic version of quantum mechanics as ‘highly transcendental , almost mystical’. So, Quantum physics presents a highly transcendental and mystical universe before us. 

Because God said it should be so: 

     Dirac regularly attended church services with his wife. He entertained atheistic ideas in his youth but in his older years, he became a theist. Heisenberg once said, ‘the first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you’. Those words ring true in the life of Dirac. He died on October 20, 1984 at the age of 82 due to cardiac arrest. He was buried in Roselawn Cemetery, Tallahassee, Florida. The rector Dr.W.Robert Abstein read from the Bible as Dirac’s casket lowered into the ground. On the white marble stone, some words spoken by Dirac were engraved ’because God said it should be so’. On Monday, 13 November 1995 there was a memorial to Dirac in Westminster Abbey. Stephen Hawking gave the final address and called Paul Dirac ‘the greatest theoretical physicist since Newton’. The congregation sang the hymn, Lord of Beauty, Thine the Splendor.  Lord of beauty, thine the splendor.  So, in quantum physics, we clearly see the beauty and splendor of God and His great mind. We can clearly see the great mind of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

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