Theory of Everything, Theory of Nothing: On Physics and Other Profanities

Joshua Roebke Wonders Why We Believe in the Unseen

One of the principal attributes of God, other than being the supreme know-it-all, is omnipresence. She is everywhere, every time. Yet adherents of the Abrahamic faiths still bless distinct spaces in which to commune with Her. To consecrate a synagogue, congregants circle a platform, sing a few psalms, and place the Torah in its ark. In a church, a bishop might lay hands on a pulpit, intone a prayer, sprinkle water, and swing open the doors.

There is no prescribed rite to undo this benediction, to deconsecrate a holy place. So when a friend of mine bought a derelict church on the east side of Austin this past May, to realize her dream of a communal art space, she decided to host a deconsecration disco. In the collective exhalation after our long confinement she not only wanted to celebrate impiously, she wanted to dance.

That evening, for the first time since the vaccines had (however briefly) liberated us, my wife and I hired a babysitter, dined as a couple (albeit outdoors), bought some bubbly, and headed to church. It was dusky and moonless when we arrived, but the bright ochre building was lit up like a macaron on display. We pranced into the vestibule, sauntered past the pews, and stood in awe before the glimmering congregation. On a screen behind the altar, beneath the dizzying revolutions of a disco ball, Don Cornelius preached to us from Soul Train.

Only a dozen or so friends and secular acquaintances were unmasked in the nave, but I was still apprehensive about our mingling breaths. I took swigs of wine straight from the bottle, to relax but also to render the evening more profane.

At first, no one swayed to the grooves on the uneven floor. We beamed at each other, we touched and hugged. We were intoxicated by the smiles on live faces, dazzled by lips and teeth and jawlines, overcome by the glamour of inoculated strangers. They were architects, artists, academics, even a pair of Italians. That evening, that space remained divine.

Should it exist, a theory of everything would be a theory of nothing you truly care about.

Anxiety nearly desecrated my joy. I was chatting with a stranger, a disheveled sculptor, for the first time in 14 months. After we acknowledged our luck but also our privilege in having survived the previous year, during the lull that follows such pleasantries, the sculptor broached the subject that I dreaded most.

“So what do you do?”

He must have lived in New York or Los Angeles, where the question is requisite.

“I’m a writer,” I said and then stopped. I was so out of practice that I had forgotten my spiel.

“Oh really? What kind of stuff do you write?”

“Nonfiction, mostly about science. Physics, actually. I’m finishing a book about the invisible. I’m trying to explain why people believe in atoms and particles and other things we can’t see. And I’m telling the stories of people whose work was often unseen.”

My answer must have intrigued him: “Oh, cool. You mean, you’re a science writer? Do you write about ideas and stuff like Malcolm Gladwell does?”

“No.”

I negated him so quickly, so emphatically, that he apologized for having asked. I then struggled for a few minutes to distinguish myself before we settled on the most innocuous topic there is: our kids.

*

Before the second year of our Hell, 2021, I had not read what anyone might call a popular book about science in more than a decade. Two weeks after profaning a church, I read three. Each one, whether by coincidence or divine intervention, was written by a bestselling physicist in contemplation of God: Genesis by Guido Tonelli, The God Equation by Michio Kaku, and Light in the Darkness by Heino Falcke.

I had intended to review these books and classify their different approaches to popularizing science. One was a personal tale of scientific discovery, another recounted everything that physicists know about the universe, and a third pretended to omniscience. One concerned the past, one narrated the present, another divined the future. I was likely going to denounce their wayward prose and insist that there was a more melodious, perhaps even literary, approach to writing about science.

Crucifying such books without offering them salvation no longer appealed to me. After my own catholic evening, I wanted to inspire hope and joy. So, I blunted my critical faculties and yielded to the three physicists and their faiths. As I was reading, I experienced a revelation.

But first, I felt nostalgia. I had once sanctified my writing, too. When I was in college, my first term paper had asked what particle physics and the Big Bang portended for a deity (yeah, I was that guy). In red pen, the professor encouraged me to keep pondering these topics and even to keep writing about them, once I learned enough mathematics to bolster my juvenile arguments. In the meantime, until I was conversant in physics, the professor suggested that I read as many popular accounts of the subject as I could.

This is just one problem with the idea of scientific progress; even if it is asymptotic, we never reach its limit.

So I did, starting with the most popular book about physics, the one that everyone owns but no one reads, A Brief History of Time. Stephen Hawking was hardly the first to relate what modern physics insinuated about God, but he was the most succinct. In less than 200 pages, he introduced the known particles, the four basic forces, the evolution of the universe, quantum mechanics, black holes, and the idea that a single mathematical theory could encompass them all. In other words, Hawking was peddling a theory of everything.

Should it exist, a theory of everything would be a theory of nothing you truly care about. It cannot predict the weather. It will not suggest which shows you should watch on Netflix. It does not instill mindfulness. It shan’t forestall racism or hunger. It might, if you’re into this sort of thing, offer a self-contained set of laws and equations with which to describe the fundamental elements of the universe, whether they be particles or fields or strings.

When I was in graduate school, one of my chucklesome professors often said: “The universe is like an onion, not just because she makes you cry” (he was the type not only to gender the universe but also to call her coy for refusing his entreaties to know her better). The physical world, in other words, is layered. There is a layer on which particles move and interact, one on which molecules commingle, one on which humans prevail, another on which galaxies revolve.

Thankfully, each layer is distinct from all the others, even if one layer stacks atop another outside the inner core. We need not account for the orbits of planets or the emissions of atoms or the whims of electrons on our daily travails. It is not impossible to do so; it is pointless.

So, physicists peel away the extraneous. A theory of everything is what remains after they shuck the outer layers—a framework to describe all the objects and forces within the universe’s core. The theory would not mean all that much to us on the larger, outer layers of the universe, the ones that make us cry. The theory would mean everything to the primordial bulb, the seedling from which the universe grew.

A theory of everything should not only reveal the divine cultivation, it should also codify the physical laws that arise from the basic forces. Even now, these forces and those laws dictate how matter moves throughout the universe. They can, for example, explain the thrusts of inanimate objects, even though what impels animate matter and how it becomes animate they do not say. The enactment of these laws, most physicists believe, afforded God a lengthysabbatical.

I do not know any physicists who worship an interventionist God, one who regularly subverts the laws that She created. Even pious scientists are more likely to attribute such behavior to politicians rather than infallible beings. Despitethe indeterminacy and chaos lurking within the physical laws, they remain the clockwork of the universe. The universe evolved from them and objects still move to them, deliberately but unawares (ignoring quantum whims, which are beneath us). The existence of miracles would merely violate Her inviolate laws and defy Her omniscient will. So, the only tasks for which most physicists retain God is to create the universe and enact its laws.

Natural laws reign supreme, managing the tasks that worshippers once foisted upon God. The laws keep the planets revolving, the sun burning, the people moving. Only at the moment of creation, as Stephen Hawking wrote, might God have wielded her powers, when “all the laws would have broken down, so God would still have complete freedom to choose what happened and how the universe began.” Afterwards, God was as superfluous to the universe as an architect is to a building once built.

Stephen Hawking was unsatisfied even with ceding God the task of drafting a universe and embellishing space and time with laws. He preferred to imagine a design that was “completely self-contained, with no singularities or boundaries,” one that was “completely described by a unified theory.” He wanted, in other words, to unite the four known forces into one prime mover, so the universe could create itself.

Hawking believed only one set of laws could be consistent with the theory of everything. There was thus no choice when designing a universe, because only one universe was possible. God was neither a creator nor a designer. The universe was enough. To wonder what happened before the Big Bang, Hawking famously said, was as ridiculous as asking what lay north of the north pole.

Hawking long insisted on the proximity of the final theory. In every insistence, he was right. Every second of every day, physicists are, tautologically, nearer the moment when they will ascertain the final theory, should it exist. It is, however, impossible to know that such a theory exists until physicists reveal it. And it is impossible to know that they can reveal it until they do. The obtusity of modern physics hardly bodes well for anyone understanding the theory of everything, should it even exist. But this is just one problem with the idea of scientific progress; even if it is asymptotic, we never reach its limit.

I do not know any physicists who worship an interventionist God.

Yet Hawking made a bolder claim, much as Einstein did, about the theory of everything. He insisted that everyone be able to understand the theory and argue its meaning once physicists discovered it. The universe and its math, ultimately, had to be simple enough for dullards. In fact, that was one of the primary reasons for writing books about physics—to inform the masses about the universe and prepare them for the theory of everything.

*

Mathematics is the mother tongue of physics. Every book about the subject is a translation, not only from another language but a different culture. Popular physics thus suffers from the same predicaments of transliteration and interpretation that all foreign works do. So, too, does the Bible. But such limitations have never stopped devotees from claims of inerrancy.

Guido Tonelli wrote his book, Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began, to inform il popolo about the universe. That was not, however, the original impetus.

As Tonelli explained, in a preface that appeared in the original Italian, one summer afternoon he was having lunch at a restaurant near the headquarters of Ferrari, chatting with his hosts about Formula One and electric cars. He received a phone call from Sergio Marchionne, the director of Ferrari, inviting him to stop by Marchionne’s office for a chat.

Tonelli is a Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, owing to his leadership on one of the two teams of thousands of people that discovered the Higgs particle, yet he expected a perfunctory introduction to a harried businessman. Instead, Marchionne welcomed him to sit and asked: “Professor, do you believe in God?”

Tonelli spoke about the Big Bang while Marchionne smoked and asked so many giddy questions that Tonelli nearly missed his flight. A few months later, Marchionne invited Tonelli to the annual dinner for Ferrari executives. They spent the evening talking about black holes and Steven Hawking. Before dessert, Marchionne hushed his subordinates and asked Tonelli to speak.

Tonelli extemporized on the full life of the universe, from its birth to the discovery of the Higgs. Afterwards, Marchionne grabbed Tonelli by the arm and promised that, once he retired (Marchionne that is), the CEO would dedicate himself to physics. He died in July of 2018, days after he had resigned. Less than a year later, Tonelli published the book from which he had intended to teach physics to the retiree.

*

In the first chapter of the Torah and the Bible, creation was neither a moment in time nor a single event but six days of mental labor followed by a full day of rest (Allah did not need the break). In the original Hebrew, the Earth was tohu wabohu, a demi-nonce phrase usually translated as “without form, and void.” God seemingly happened on the place, flipped on the lights, and then Her spirit or breath or a rustle of wind (depending on the translation) endowed the Earth with form.

God further divided the light from the dark, although turning on the lights had seemingly accomplished that, and then She created the days without creating the sun. On the second day, She made the heavens. After gathering land and planting the grass and fruit-bearing trees, She strung lights across the heavens and fixed the years and months. She then bred sea creatures, birds, cows, and animals that either creep or crawl (again, depending on the translation), before she let there be humans. In the second chapter of the Hebrew scriptures, after She rested, there is a second account of creation by a God of a different name, who is more artisan than sage. That God fashioned a human, an adam, from the soil or dust (again, depending on the translation) and blew life up humanity’s nose.

Guido Tonelli modeled his book so closely after the biblical Genesis, with chapters for each of the first seven “days”—in truth, eras of wildly varying lengths—that he included a second account of the creation of his own book, in an epilogue.

In 2018, in Sicily, Tonelli conversed with a Rabbi and a theologian about the story of Genesis. After learning thatthe Torah had preserved Judaism against dispersal and calamity, Tonelli thought the world needed a more modern creation story to help us recover once catastrophe befalls us all.

On the second day, She made the heavens.

Tonelli’s book is nearly as brief as Hawking’s. The authors of short books must make harder decisions about what to include than do writers who go long. Tonelli excludes almost nothing. After all, this is the foundational text he intends to leave the world. Thankfully, his book is exhaustive, not exhausting.

Tonelli’s Genesis opens much as the scriptures do: “In the beginning was the void.” Tonelli, however, is hawking a physicist’s idea of tohu wabohu. The universe created itself from nought, much as Hawking believed, because a physical void is not actually nothing. Even in the absence of all matter and light, the world cannot be empty. There is always a something in the nothing—this is not The NeverEnding Story. In physics, that something is called a field.

A field is an abstraction, a mathematical quantity that describes the infinite potential at every place at every time. Yet a field represents the real and is always imbued with real energy, however small. That energy can fluctuate and even froth, owing to quantum mechanics, and Tonelli describes the process with bombast: “The void is a living thing, a dynamic and constantly changing substance, full of potential, pregnant with opposites.”

Sometimes, enough energy shifts for the void to gurgle up matter serendipitously, according to the equivalence of matter and energy. Tonelli and Hawking believe that whole universes form in such burbles. The creation of our universe was thus the original twitch of energy in the void. Such a fluctuation even permits physicists to elude the problem of first cause (although we are left with the questions of original energy and why our universe has not been born again). That evening and morning—the twitch lasting billionths of a billionth of one second—was the universe’s first day.

On day two, in Tonelli’s telling, “an unstoppable breath” inflated the universe, whose original beauty was spoiled while the Higgs particle went extinct. On the third day, and still only a minute or two after the Big Bang, quarks coalesced into immortal protons. On the fourth day (actually, the 138 millionth day, give or take a million), the universe cooled enough to let there be light apart from the atoms. Days then passed as quickly as childhood summers. The fifth day ignited the stars after a half billion years, the sixth day collected their after burn into galaxies, and the seventh day welcomed life.

Tonelli does not rest after describing creation. He appends a revelation. He writes passionately of the wonder and fear that humans experience when we look up to the sky on a clear night and realize we are but one minor light in the universe. Culture, he believes, in a reference to the film Melancholia, is a magic tent that humans have pitched as a shelter against that fear and our inevitable demise.

For a book modeled after the scriptures, there is one surprising exclusion in Genesis. Despite some Catholic imagery, Tonelli says nothing about God. And he has nothing to say for Her absence. He much prefers to speak of the gods of Greek mythology, whose exploits he overworks as metaphors for cosmic processes.

I read Genesis, first, in the original Italian because I did not want to contend with a double translation of the physics. The English translation does insert a few infelicities and flamboyance to the romantic language, but the greatest lapse is Tonelli’s. He wants us to imagine the birth of the universe as “the ideal representation of Parmenidean being,” and “the reign of uniformity and perfection.” It is not. Later, he corrects his mistake: tiny imperfections in the early universe grew to become the stars and galaxies and planets and, ultimately, us.

*

The scriptures do not endure owing to their authenticity. They simply relate human allegories in majestic prose. The theories of physics that persist are often inhuman, garnering permanence from their fidelity to nature. So the stories crafted from physics do not usually attain the symbolizing power of literature. The authors of physics are, however, just as human as the authors of the Gospels.

All stars have biographies; they are born of dust and return to dust, and in their death all life is possible.

In Light in the Darkness: Black Holes, the Universe, and Us, Heino Falcke narrates one of the grandest scientific discoveries in recent years. On April 10, 2019, Falcke and his collaborators hosted six press conferences simultaneously on four continents to reveal a false-color image of a blazing ring of light from more than 500 quintillion kilometers away. This was the first visual evidence for the existence of a black hole.

In the days afterward, leading up to the holy week of Easter, the photograph appeared in so many tweets and under so many headlines that an estimated 4.5 billion people observed it. The witnessing was nearly as great as the 5 billion copies of the Bible printed since the Gutenbergs’ first.

In 1992, the cosmologist George Smoot and his collaborators released the first photograph of a primordial radiation that permeates all space—the afterglow of the Big Bang. “If you’re religious,” Smoot said, “it’s like looking at God.” Falcke, who is religious, told reporters that seeing his image of a black hole, “feels like looking at the gates of hell.” Black holes “are quintessential, merciless machines of destruction.” They are the beyond, the abyss, the darkness that is forever outside our powers of observation. Capturing one, Falcke believes, allows humanity to confront its greatest fear of the unknown, its fear of inevitable demise.

Falcke models his book after a spaceship rather than the Bible. He begins on Earth, launches into space, sails to the black hole, and returns home. But, throughout, Falcke infuses his science with faith; his liberal Protestantism is indistinguishable from his liberal scientism. The idea for capturing a black hole “grew from a tiny mustard seed into a large-scale experiment,” as in the parable of Mark. He even convinced physicists to join his collaboration by allowing them to see evidence with their own eyes, as Jesus did for doubting Thomas.

Falcke is lyrical when describing celestial bodies. All stars have biographies; they are born of dust and return to dust, and in their death all life is possible. Black holes are single points with infinite room and boundless time. An event horizon is a waterfall around a black hole, and the space outside is a river that runs faster and faster before it cascades. Light, Falcke suggests, defines all space and time, because it is the one substance constant enough to construct reality. As Falcke writes: “We always measure with light—and only what I can measure exists for me.” For someone who believes only what he can measure, God is the light.

Falcke chastely describes the long exposure of the first image of a black hole. But afterward, the reader bears witness to a real conflict, his reconciliation of God with science. He succeeds by acknowledging the duality of his ignorance. Religious doubt is equivalent to scientific skepticism. So, in asking questions about the universe, we not only do science, “we rattle the gates of heaven.” Falcke thus praises Georges Lemaître, a physicist and priest, who calculated how the universe hatched from a cosmic egg but never claimed to know which chicken laid it.

Humans may never know God directly, Falcke says, but they can see Her handiwork everywhere. His faith, however, is not pantheism. His God lives in “the gap of unknowing.” She is bound by a nutshell, yet he counts Her the Queen of an infinite space—she is what humans will never know and our ignorance is infinite. Falcke’s religion, then, is incomprehensionism. “Maybe the next big discovery,” he writes, “is that we can’t discover everything.”

Ignorance, however, can be abetted by imagination. Falcke imagines God as an abstraction, similar to those described by mathematics. We can calculate what happens inside a black hole, even though we can never know one intimately through observation. And since God hides where we cannot know Her, perhaps She is the singularity lurking inside every black hole. Mathematics, then, is just another way to commune with Her.

The false-color photograph that Falcke and his colleagues made would depict little more than a smudge were it not for the meaning with which they endow it, for the story that humans tell with it. Such meaning, however, is not fixed. The photograph reveals both the gates of hell and the triumph of science. And yet, without mathematics the image would not have been possible. Math, too, is an ancient language through which humans communicate myths.

*

Heino Falcke venerates what physicists cannot know. Michio Kaku, in The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything, not only believes, as Hawking did, that physicists will know it all, but everything they will ever know derives from a single equation. That equation he ordains God.

Michio Kaku is one of the leading proponents of string theory, the aspirational theory of everything in which rigid particles are rather like balls of lint, because strings are the most basic constituents of the universe. It has been nearly 50 years since Kaku published the article on which he still dines out, about a field theory of strings, and in the years since he has become a prolific author, a television personality, and a futurist, the now cultivated name for a prophet. Above all, Kaku is a hypeman, one who thrills an audience with braggadocio. He is the Flava Flav of physics.

When Kaku was eight years old, he read an obituary of Albert Einstein and learned that the great man had died on the quest for a single equation to describe the entire universe. That equation, Kaku remembered, might only be one inch long. The length of an equation is about as meaningful as the volume of a heart is to love, but such an idea appealed to the child. Kaku joined the quest to find the one equation to rule them all.

Kaku promises “a balanced, objective analysis of string theory’s breakthroughs and limitations.” But he does not reveal any ideas that did not already break through decades ago, and one of the few limitations he admits was that the theory was founded on too many equations. Thankfully, in 1974, he and his collaborator Keiji Kikkawa derived “a field theory equation just one inch long.” In an endnote, Kaku even includes this formula in small font. I took out my ruler: the equation is an inch and three quarters long. That length and that equation reveal little, however, even to those who understand it. I could write a shorter one, a theory of everything that subsumes his, based on the principle of least action. It would mean even less.

For Kaku, the beauty of string theory is enough to render it divine. And in the final twenty pages of his book, he considers what such a divine theory bodes for humanity. Like Hawking, Kaku argues that its single equation will describe our universe uniquely, so God had no choice in Her creation. Equations can be unique, however, and their solutions not. Kaku explains: “There might be an infinite number of solutions of this master equation, giving us a landscape of solutions.”

Neither he nor any other physicist knows how to spot the appropriate solution for our universe within this landscape. But God could have chosen the one. Perhaps She even realized each solution as its own universe. Kaku grew up Presbyterian and his parents were Buddhists, so he approves: “the multiverse idea allows one to combine both the creation mythology of Christianity with the Nirvana of Buddhism into a single theory that is compatible with known physical laws.” This reconciliation is no more ridiculous than the idea of parallel universes.

When physicists finally derive the theory of everything, will the rest of us order some pizza and throw a party? Will we take a collective vacation? Kaku doubts it: “As far as a direct impact on our immediate lives, it probably will be minimal.” Eventually, however, we will rummage the theory for meaning.

Kaku evangelizes for the God equation but declares himself agnostic in the end. The final theory will have no meaning greater than the ones we give it. “It is too simple and easy to have some guru come down from the mountaintop, bearing the meaning of the universe. The meaning of life is something that we have to struggle to understand and appreciate.”

Yet Kaku locates an escape hatch. All humans, all life are destined to expire. The entire universe will end. The God equation, however, will show us how to wormhole our way into another universe. “One day,” the futurist writes, “our descendants will master the Planck energy, the energy at which space and time become unstable, and use their powerful technology to escape our dying universe.” In other words, “the theory of everything is more than just a beautiful mathematical theory. Ultimately, it could be our only salvation.”

*

Heino Falcke asked difficult questions when he was a boy. What lies beyond the sky? What is space? Where is Heaven? “I’m happy,” he wrote, “to remain childishly curious and to never stop asking questions.”

The three books that I read after deconsecrating a church were juvenile. I do not intend this merely as criticism. They were three bears and none was just right, but they did transport me to childhood. They returned me to an age when I asked impractical questions, to the college term paper when I still believed that, with enough physics, I could know it all. The books gave me something greater than knowledge. They reverted my ignorance to innocence. They made my unknowing feel vital again. My thoughts moved as if alive.

Popular books render a service. They excite knowledge. But physicists are accustomed to formulas and, too often, they write formulaic books. They draft lectures that prefer facts to profundity, that favor details to feelings. Such books inspired when I was younger, when I knew and experienced little. In fact, no genre is finer when learning about the world in the privilege of innocence.

But such books are not art. I do not wish to criticize them for what they are not, but books about science can be artful. Primo Levi wrote one about chemistry. Helen MacDonald composed one about birds. Barry Alvarez wrote more than one about the poles. Weike Wang, Brandon Taylor, Richard Powers, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Ted Chiang, Tom Stoppard, Andrea Barrett, Alan Lightman, Robert Macfarlane have written them, too.

We need more adult books about physics. We need a greater literature of science, one with complexity and sentiment, one as expansive, provocative, and humane as the endeavor of science itself.

Those of us who write about the subject must narrate the struggles and misdemeanors of scientists. We must admit their limitations, confess what humans can and cannot know. We should be rational, but we should also let our passion consume us and write with the ashes that remain.

Michio Kaku is amazed that the physical laws that describe our universe can be written on a college-ruled piece of paper. Such concision staggers him because those laws and that physics are all there seemingly are to him, or at least all that he admits.

Just as staggering, to me, is a short story, a world of sensation and love and fear and inchoate thought as large as our universe in just a few pages. We should have books about science without equations, stories that ask questions without pretending to answers, tales that move us as they inform.

What I should have said to the sculptor on that divine evening in church was that I want to deconsecrate science writing.

*

We experience awe when we behold what we cannot fathom. That awe is the flintstone of reverence, both in religion and physics.

When I was young, I was sparked by physics rather than religion. But reading three popular books about the subjects now, I had a revelation. There was one convenience that science never taught, that religion did. I had never needed a God to learn how I should live properly. But I had never learned how to live properly knowing that I and everyone whom I love will die.

I have stood bedside to death. The pandemic has taken so much life from me. But one morning, as I began writing this essay, I realized the paucity of such lessons.

That morning, my two-year-old son slept in, for perhaps the first time since birth. I reveled in the extra time that I had to write before I went to wake him. That luminous chatterbox, that merry hellion, that ineffable child who had multiplied my love beyond all reasonable bounds, did not stir when I entered his room. He did not laugh, he did not cry, he did not sing, he did not speak as I called his name. He did not move when I nudged him. He had a fever 103.1º and I knew, immediately, the reason for faith.

We need the powerful when we are powerless. We need a benevolent design to the scalding pit of despair inside us. We need a strength greater than human fraility. We need a reason why the world is irrational.

My child was fine. We diagnosed his common illness and he recovered within days. I then contracted his illness, read St. Augustine’s Confessions, and spent a week writing this essay, wishing for books about science as brilliant and modern as that religious text, written more than 1600 years ago. I was high on dextromethorphan but, like St. Augustine: “My mind was on fire to solve this most intricate enigma.”

Those of us who write about science must set more fires.

*

God is a fascinating question, but I doubt that God is an answer. When we answer our juvenile questions with God we eliminate the other, harder solutions. The ones that are more humane.

When I quit studying physics in graduate school, when I gave up on a theory of everything to become a writer, I coined an aphorism to comfort myself: “It is impossible to know all the answers because the question of what to do with them will always remain.”

The universe is enough for some people. Religion is enough for others. For the rest of us, there is humanity. It, too, is enough. We all search for meaning. Some of us ordain this God. But no matter our beliefs, we must take comfort in each other, in the now, while we live and breathe, freely and unmasked, for however long we have.

Since writing my first term paper in college, I had not pondered God and physics much, if at all. After I finished writing this essay, I reached out to the professor who had once encouraged me to write about those subjects. I planned to let her know that I did not yet know enough physics to write about God, but I was still learning about the world as I wrote.

I did not reach her. I never would. She had died shortly before the pandemic took so much from all of us.

Joshua Roebke
Joshua Roebke
Joshua Roebke is a writer, critic, and historian. He is finishing his first book, a social and cultural history of particle physics titled The Invisible World. The book will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and it won a Whiting Foundation Creative Nonfiction Grant. His writing has appeared at The Best American Science and Nature Writing, Los Angeles Review of Books, Joyland, Kenyon Review, Scientific American, Quanta, Wired, and elsewhere. He teaches courses on literature, science, and equity at the University of Texas at Austin.





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