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Atom HaRishon
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd
"If a century ago, when scientists still spoke in terms of absolute truths, it was "understandable" why a person who wished to adhere to his faith might have been embarrassed to challenge "scientific" claims, this is no longer the case in our day and age. - The Rebbe, Mind Over Matter, Ch.2" 

 
 
Atom HaRishon
 
It was a childhood dream come true. I'd always wanted to be a scientist and here I was learning how to do just that in a university organic chemistry lab, wearing a white lab coat no less, measuring out milligrams of crystals, milliliters of solvent, mixing and cooking, watching and waiting for magical reactions, recording the results that would validate once more the theory of the atom.
 
Chemistry was about molecules and molecules are all made of atoms. If you understood how the atoms connected together, you could understand everything because this was reality broken down to its most basic components.
 
Or so I thought.
 
In the middle of this lab session, as literally hundreds of undergraduate students like me were racing against the clock, following highfaluting recipes to manufacture large, complicated molecules from the simplest of parts, I was summoned to the side by one of the dozens of supervisors, a doctoral student in chemistry who wanted to talk.
 
"Not now," I pushed him off, almost rudely. "I've got to finish this experiment and there's still a lot to do."
 
"Don't worry about it," he said, "this is important."
 
"But what about the results?"
 
"Who do you think is marking you, anyway? Don't you know what results you are supposed to be getting from this experiment?"
 
"Sure I do. But theory is one thing, practice is something else."
 
"Actually, that's my point. What mark do you want to get, anyway, an 'A'? I'll give it to you. Just come on over here with these other guys and listen to what I've got to say."
 
That all sounded pretty weird to me but, hey, if he was willing to give me an 'A' in any case, why not? A group of about six undergrads stood quietly around the grad student as our peers carried on busily with their tasks at hand.
 
"Basically I just want you to know that atoms aren't real."
 
"What's that supposed to mean?"
 
"Atomic theory is, well, just that, a theory. We have no clue what's really going on at the submicroscopic level. It's just that when you assume the theory is true, the observations are predictable, but there could be other theories about matter that explain these observations as well. Besides, a lot of atomic theory makes absolutely no sense. The more you study it, the stranger it gets. It doesn't really explain anything. It can just describe our observations with mathematical models. But why should those mathematical models work at all? Nobody really knows."
 
Frankly at the time I thought he was nuts - who knows, maybe he was. But I'm thinking about him today as we get ready to celebrate Rosh HaShana, which among other things is the birthday of man, the first man, Adam.
 
According to the sages, the creation of man was different than that of any other life form. All other plants and animals were created by species, in vast numbers, whereas as man was created singular. Even his mate was created separately a little later. But why so? What was the purpose of this special attention to the individual human?
 
This, our sages say, is in order to emphasize the immeasurable significance of each individual human being - man, woman or child. Indeed every person is obliged to say, "Bishvili nivra ha'olam - For my sake, was the universe created."
 
For the Orthodox Jew, this may feel like just another pearl of wisdom from the Torah. But for someone indoctrinated in the secular sciences, it's a bombshell, and for two reasons.
 
First is the idea that everything evolved over billions of years through random events. Life is but a meaningless hiccup in the grand cosmological scheme of things. Second is the sheer enormity of the universe. All of humanity is but an insignificant speck in an insignificant galaxy in the unimaginable vastness of space.
 
How did they figure all this out? By analysis. Take a system, break it down, look at the parts, break them down into smaller parts until finally you get down to atoms and their component parts, the quanta.
 
But oddly enough, here's where the rational materialistic model gets turned on its head. According to quantum physics, and there's no better vindicated physical theory than that, each of these quanta exists in a kind of duality, a cloud of possibilities, and it takes nothing less than a conscious observer to determine by his own free will, what physical properties the quantum has both now and retroactively to its origin.
 
Wow! The same physics that used to teach us that we are dumb and irrelevant, random assortments of recycled stardust is now coming to tell us the very opposite: That each and every one of us has the power to determine physical reality and even the history of the universe as a whole all the way back to its origin. And all this just by exercising uniquely human qualities: Free will and conscious observation.
 
Discoveries such as these have led physicists to develop the "Anthropic Cosmological Principle" which is the notion that from its very inception the universe and its laws have been designed in such a way as to necessitate the eventual existence of human beings who in turn, fulfill its destiny and even impart physical reality to it.
 
Cofounder of this principle, John Wheeler, has summarized the situation graphically with his elegant "U and Eye" drawing, depicting the universe starting off and developing for a long while until humans come on the scene and make observations that determine the nature of the quanta that make up the cosmic fabric retroactively back to the beginning of time.
 
Suddenly "bishvili nivra ha'olam" doesn't sound so farfetched any more. 
 
The quantum view also illumines another question - why we say in the Rosh Hashana liturgy, "Zeh hayom techilas maasecha, zecher l'yom rishon" - that Rosh Hashana is the beginning of Hashem's deeds, a remembrance of the first day. How does that work? If it's the beginning shouldn't it also be the first?
 
The answer is that the creation of man signified not only a new beginning, but in a very real sense, a true beginning, since it is he who gives substance not only to his local present but to all points leading up to it, even before he was created.
 
By exploring the Atom, we have revealed insights into Adam, and mankind's unique and central role in how the universe unfolds. This old/new view of life has such frighteningly enormous implications, one could get overwhelmed.
 
By way of an antidote, try the following anecdote, as told by Monty Charness to my son on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. A man gave his son a map of the world, but the map was torn into many small pieces. The father said it's up to him to put the world back together, but it wouldn't be easy. In just a few minutes, the son returned with the thing intact.
 
"How did you do it so fast? Are you such an expert in world geography?"
 
"Not at all! I saw that on the other side it was picture of a boy. I knew that if I could put the boy back together, the world would be alright, so that's just what I did."
 
As the New Year approaches, let's not be daunted by the destiny of the big, complicated world out there that's in our hands. Instead let's focus on restoring our own image, as a happy Jew pursuing goodness and kindness, and then the flip side of the picture will fall into place, a world as ready as we are... for Moshiach NOW!
 

 


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