God and the Atom

God and the Atom

John Dowdle reviews God and the Atom From Democritus to the Higgs Boson: The Story of a Triumphant Idea, by Victor J Stenger, who died in late August this year.

The author was an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and an Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy, which enabled him to bring a combined approach to the subject areas in this publication, which is highly eclectic, informative and well written.

This book is a highly useful tour de force for readers interested in the philosophical and historical origins of modern-day science and the extent to which they provide generally non-religious people with a framework of understanding as to how historically we have gained a knowledge of the world we live in, as well as how it came into being, and where it is going – in scientific terms.

Stenger traces how the basic ideas of atoms and the void have borne up for well for over 2,500 years and are still providing vital underpinning to scientific thinking today. In the process, he provides an extremely useful potted history of the extent to which the Ancients – Greek, Roman and Indian – have all contributed to our modern understanding of our world, and the role of Arabic scholars in conserving and adding to that knowledge.

He continues by outlining contributions made during the Dark Ages and follows all the major discoveries right up to the present day, including information on the Higgs boson, as well as possible future lines of enquiry.  He also provides useful rebuttals of religious and pseudo-scientific/mystical theories, and concludes that the multiverse always was, is and always will be.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants a decent grounding in the way in which scientific knowledge and understanding of our world has developed.  To cite his Preface:

This book starts out mostly historical and philosophical, but as it progresses chronologically, it becomes increasingly scientific. Some of the latter material is somewhat technical with a few equations at the level of high-school algebra, but it still should be accessible to non-scientists who have at least some familiarity with the subjects from reading popular books and articles.

I feel that a minimum amount of technical detail is necessary to establish the validity of my thesis, that modern science has fully confirmed the model of the world first proposed 2,500 years ago.

My background lies in the social sciences and not the natural sciences but I do take an interest in astronomy and scientific theories up to a point, and I found myself able to follow most of what is written in the book – even those sections which deal with the various mysteries of relativity and quantum physics.

If you did not know of these areas before, this book provides a very useful introduction to the subject matter.

Even if you find you do not fully understand all of the material, it is still useful to have an impressionistic understanding as to what he is saying and explaining.  Few of us can actually view in real time the activities of atoms and sub-atomic particles under the scrutiny of a scanning tunnelling microscope so the vast majority have to take the words of experts such as Victor Stenger, anyway.

Stenger nails his colours to his mast when he states “Atomism, after all, is atheism” (page 242). He combines his scientific knowledge in order to provide all non-religious people with an understanding of many aspects of the material world and universe in which we live with which to confound religionists’ and spiritualists’ arguments.  Absolutely well worth a read.

The 13 chapters – “Ancient Atomism”; “Atoms Lost and Found”; “Atomism and the Scientific Revolution”; “The Chemical Atom”; “Atoms Revealed”; “Light and the Aether”; “Inside the Atom”; |Inside the Nucleus”; “Quantum Fields”; “The Rise of Particle Physics”; “The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of”; “Atoms and the Cosmos”; and Summary and Conclusions – run for a little over 250 pages, so it is a fairly light read – and are supplemented with a useful notes section for each chapter, a bibliography for anyone wanting to conduct further studies, as well as a very handy index.

I enjoyed reading this book – and how often is it possible to say that?

Review postscript:

Since completing my overall book review – which still remains largely applicable – I have carried out additional research, through which I have established that while Victor J Stenger was correct in providing World Health Organisation estimates of 1.3 million premature deaths each year from urban air pollution, combined with a further 2 million annual premature deaths from indoor pollution – mainly in developing countries, of which around half of all deaths are due to pneumonia in children under five years of age – his proposed solution to the problem of carbon burning – liquid fluoride thorium reactors – may not be a trouble-free solution.

At present, there is not one working reactor of this type anywhere in the world, which means such a reactor would be highly experimental at this stage. There remain significant technical problems which have to be overcome to get such a system established and there will still remain significant disposal problems for radioactive waste by-products for up to 300,000 years.

This is not to say that such technical problems cannot be overcome but it cannot be perceived as an overnight solution and – at present – it may well be possible that the technical problems associated with nuclear fusion will be solved before those associated with liquid fluoride thorium reactors. Details on the Iter nuclear fusion project can be accessed here.

• John Dowdle is a retired college lecturer in Politics and Business Studies, and a former GCE advanced level examiner for the University of London in Politics and Government.

Since retiring from full-time work, John has been a local Borough Councillor and Manager of a local community centre. John founded and became President of Watford Area Humanists and is currently Chairman of Watford Area Arts Forum.

He is a life member of the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society.  He is also a member of Conway Hall Ethical Society and a Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

John takes a keen interest in scientific advances through watching TV programmes on scientific matters, listening to Radio 4 programmes on similar subjects and reading articles of scientific interest on-line and in printed media.

2 responses to “God and the Atom”

  1. Rob Andrews says:

    Sure. complexity can develope out of simple things given 14 billion years. This book explains it clearly without a lot of scientific language. It’s easyer for me to believe that complex things developed from simple things than the other way around.

    Religions say that there was this highly developed spirit being that was always around-then he made the comparitivly simpler thing called the universe. And why? As some kind of test of our faith. Which we failed (getting kicked out of the garden of eden)

    Is this some kind of sadistic game. god must have known we were going to mess up from the beginning. The ancient greeks said ‘we are playthings of the gods’. Same for the christian god, it seems

    “Science flies you to the moon. religion flies you into buildings”–Victor Stenger.

  2. margaret says:

    Did you know I was bored one day and split the atom in my kitchen