Program Particulars: Quarks and Creation

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to web version of audio

(01:15) Professor of Physics

Polkinghorne was appointed a lecturer in Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University in 1958, and later promoted to full professor in 1968. Polkinghorne resigned his professorship to train for the Anglican priesthood in 1979. He returned to Cambridge and served as President of Queen's College from 1988 to 1996.

(01:25) Reference to The Royal Society

The Royal Society is the independent scientific academy of the United Kingdom that was established in 1660 under the guidance of Sir Christopher Wren. All Fellows are nominated and elected by members of the Society. By the mid-1800s, all Fellows were elected solely on the merit of their scientific work. The Royal Society continues to play an influential role in national and international science policy and recognizes those scholars who advance the development of science.

In 1974, the Royal Society bestowed the honor of Fellow on Polkinghorne, along with the preeminent physicist Stephen Hawking. In the accompanying letter, the Royal Society noted that Polkinghorne was being:

Distinguished for his work on the analytic properties of scattering amplitudes, fundamental to the use of relativistic quantum mechanics in subnuclear refraction theory. He has contributed substantially to the study of the singularities of Feynman integrals, giving an early demonstration of the existence of Regge poles in relativistic quantum mechanics and making a series of important contributions to the theory of Regge cuts. He has also made many contributions to S-matrix theory, including the first derivation of the Landau equations in that context and a complete analysis of physical region singularity structure.

In the last three years his work has been concerned with the construction of general covariant models corresponding to the parton picture of hadronic structure, together with the development of a quantitative theory based on more detailed dynamical assumptions. This has resulted in a model giving good agreement with experiment in the recent extremely important fields of deep inelastic lepton scattering and of hadronic processes at large transverse momentum.

(02:06) Knight of the British Empire

Polkinghorne was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1997 for distinguished service to science, religion, learning, and medical ethics. Although most knights may use the honorifc "Sir" or "Dame" as a prefix to their forenames, clergy of the Church of England do not use the title and are not dubbed knight with a sword, as the use of a sword is thought inappropriate for their calling. They do affix the letters of the order (e.g., "KBE" for Knights Commander) after their full names.

(03:34) Mathematical Beauty

Philosophers and scientists have discussed the poetic beauty of mathematics. In Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity, Polkinghorne emphasizes that it is mathematics that provides human beings the ability and the power to understand the physical universe:

Paul Dirac

Paul Dirac
(Photo: AIP Emilio Sergrè Visual Archives)

I suppose one of the greatest scientists I've ever known was Paul Dirac, who, for more than thirty years, occupied Newton's old professorship in Cambridge [Lucasian Chair of Mathematics]. He was one of the founding fathers of quantum theory, and he spent his life looking for beautiful equations. You might find this a rather odd idea, but mathematical beauty is something that those with an eye for such matters can recognize quite easily. Dirac looked for beautiful equations because, time and again, we've found that they're ones that describe the physical world. Dirac once said that it was more important to have beauty in your equations than to have them agree with experiment! Of course, he didn't mean that it didn't matter whether or not the equations fitted the facts, but if there was a discrepancy it might be due to not solving the equations correctly, or, even, that the experiments might be wrong. At least, there was a chance that it would all work out in the end, but, if the equations were ugly … , well, then there was no chance at all.

When we use mathematics in this way—as the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe—something very strange is happening. Mathematics is pure thought. Our mathematical friends sit in their studies and they dream up, out of their heads, the beautiful patterns of pure mathematics (that's what mathematics is really about, making and analyzing patterns). What I'm saying is that some of the most beautiful of these patterns are actually found to occur, out there, in the structure of the physical world around us. So, what ties together reason within (the mathematics in our heads), and the reason without (the structure of the physical world)? Remember, it's a very deep connection, going far beyond anything we need for everyday survival. Why is the world so understandable?

The First Omega-Minus. On February 11, 1964, a team from the Brookhaven National Laboratory announced the discovery of the omega-minus particle that Gell-Mann had predicted. In the diagram on the right, solid lines show tracks formed by electrically charged particles in the liquid hydrogen in the bubble chamber; dotted lines show where neutral particles have passed (being uncharged they leave no track). A magnetic field bends the tracks of negative particles to the right and positive particles to the left. This discovery helped scientists to understand the underlying structure in the form of quarks. Courtesy: Brookhaven National Laboratory

The First Omega-Minus. On February 11, 1964, a team from the Brookhaven National Laboratory announced the discovery of the omega-minus particle that Gell-Mann had predicted. In the diagram on the right, solid lines show tracks formed by electrically charged particles in the liquid hydrogen in the bubble chamber; dotted lines show where neutral particles have passed (being uncharged they leave no track). A magnetic field bends the tracks of negative particles to the right and positive particles to the left. This discovery helped scientists to understand the underlying structure in the form of quarks. Courtesy: Brookhaven National Laboratory
(Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory)

(06:29) Explanation of Quarks

Quarks are the most basic known component of matter. They constitute the fundamental elementary particles, protons and neutrons, that compose the nucleus of an atom. There are six "flavors" of quarks, but physicists often refer to them in pairs: up/down, charm/strange, and top/bottom.

Unlike protons and electrons that carry charges of +1 and -1, respectively, quarks have fractional electric charges. Therefore, quarks are never found separately, but only inside composite particles called hadrons. Interestingly, physicists had mathematically predicted the existence of the top quark for nearly 20 years before it was discovered in 1995. Explore annotated images (Flash required) from atom smashers that have captured particles in the act of being created or destroyed.

In 1964, the American physicists Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig independently proposed that hundreds of the particles known at the time could be explained as combinations of just three fundamental particles. Gell-Mann described how he chose the nonsense word "quarks" used by James Joyce in the novel Finnegans Wake:

In 1963, when I assigned the name "quark" to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been "kwork." Then, in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word "quark" in the phrase "Three quarks for Muster Mark." Since "quark" (meaning, for one thing, the cry of a gull) was clearly intended to rhyme with "Mark," as well as "bark" and other such words, I had to find an excuse to pronounce it as "kwork." But the book represents the dreams of a publican named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Words in the text are typically drawn from several sources at once, like the "portmanteau words" in Through the Looking Glass. From time to time, phrases occur in the book that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar. I argued, therefore, that perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry "Three quarks for Muster Mark" might be "Three quarts for Mister Mark," in which case the pronunciation "kwork" would not be totally unjustified. In any case, the number three fitted perfectly the way quarks occur in nature.

Three quarks for Muster Mark!  Sure he hasn't got much of a bark  And sure any he has it's all beside the mark.  But O, Wreneagle Almighty, wouldn't un be a sky of a lark  To see that old buzzard whooping about for uns shirt in the dark  And he hunting round for uns speckled trousers around by Palmer-       stown Park?  Hohohoho, moulty Mark!  You're the rummest old rooster ever flopped out of a Noah's ark  And you think you're cock of the wark.  Fowls, up! Tristy's the spry young spark  That'll tread her and wed her and bed her and red her  Without ever winking the tail of a feather  And that's how that chap's going to make his money and mark!

— from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake
Lowlights From the Past and Future by Lawrence

(08:52) Music Element

"Untitled" from Lowlights From the Past and Future, performed by Lawrence


(10:15) The Wave-Particle Duality of Light

As early as 1803, experiments by the scientist Thomas Young gave credence to the idea that light possessed wave properties in addition to the particle characteristics established by Isaac Newton. Newton argued that when an object casts a shadow, it was because of the particle nature of light. But the particle theory failed to explain why the edge of the shadows are diffuse and not sharp. It's the wave character of light that causes the diffuse edge. The illustration to the right demonstrates the wave behavior of light. It was not an either-or postulation but a both-and solution.

Thomas Young's experiment with two narrow slits inserted between the light source (here a laser) and the detector (here a screen). Waves emerging from one slit are superimposed on waves from the other slit, producing the observed interference pattern with alternate dark and bright lines on the screen.

Thomas Young's experiment with two narrow slits inserted between the light source (here a laser) and the detector (here a screen). Waves emerging from one slit are superimposed on waves from the other slit, producing the observed interference pattern with alternate dark and bright lines on the screen.
(Credit: Gösta Ekspong / Forskning och Framsteg)

In 1928, Paul Dirac published a paper on quantum field theory that contained the breakthrough Dirac equation, which united Einstein's theory of special relativity and quantum mechanics. Dirac's equation, demonstrating the spin and magnetic properties of an electron, provided two solutions — an electron and a particle of opposite charge: anti-matter. Once asked how he had found the equation, Dirac responded, "I found it beautiful."

Polkinghorne describes the impact and consequences of Dirac's discovery in Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity:

In Cambridge in the late 1920s, Paul Dirac was able to invent something called quantum field theory, which explained how light could give a wave-like answer if you asked a wave-like question, or a particle-like answer if you asked a particle-like question. Nature was not irrational after all, but it had a deeper rationality than we could ever have guessed beforehand.

If science teaches you anything, it is that the world is full of surprises. Common sense is not the measure of everything. Quantum theory tells us that the way things behave on the scale of atoms or smaller is totally different to the way that 'large' objects behave in our everyday world. There is a price to be paid for the clever trick of being able to be sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle. The cost is a lack of precise information about what is exactly going on. If you have something like an electron, then, if you know where it is, you can't know what it's doing; if you know what it's doing, you can't know where it is. That's Heisenberg's celebrated Uncertainty Principle in a nutshell. This strange quantum world is unpicturable for us, but, nevertheless, we find that, in the end, we can understand it. We learn to respect its strange ways, and see that they make their own kind of sense.

(12:50) The Dual Nature of Christ

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity holds that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons in one God. Most Christians believe that when the Son became incarnate in Jesus Christ, he possessed both a divine and human nature that took form in the body of a single person. Jesus Christ is considered to be fully God and fully human.

Debates within the Christian church ensued after his death, but in 451 CE the Council of Chalcedon officially declared:

We all unanimously teach … one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, perfect in deity and perfect in humanity … in two natures, without being mixed, transmuted, divided, or separated. The distinction between the natures is by no means done away with through the union, but rather the identity of each nature is preserved and concurs into one person and being.

(13:58) The "God of the Gaps" Argument

In "E.T. and God" — published in the September 2003 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, Paul Davies, a former Templeton Prize winner, explains the meaning of the phrase and argues why it is inadequate:

The trouble with the old arguments was that they were trying to give theological answers to what were actually scientific questions. We've learned that these scientific questions can be expected to receive scientific answers. Science can get on with its own task without needing a kind of spurious help from religion. To claim otherwise would be to make the mistake of the God of the gaps, where he popped up as the 'explanation' of what was currently scientifically unknown. The trouble was that, like the Cheshire Cat, he tended to fade away. The advance of knowledge made him redundant. We've learned not to make rash statements like, "Only God's direct action could bring life out of inanimate matter! In fact, we don't yet understand scientifically how life arose, but we've no reason to think that one day we won't find out.

The God of the gaps was actually a theological mistake. If God's the Creator, he's somehow connected with the whole show, not just the difficult or murky bits of what's going on.

(14:40) Mention of Darwin on the Eye

In the sixth chapter of Charles Darwin's seminal work On the Origin of Species (1859), he discusses the complex and perfection of human organs, including the workings of the human eye:

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself originated; but I may remark that, as some of the lowest organisms, in which nerves cannot be detected, are capable of perceiving light, it does not seem impossible that certain sensitive elements in their sarcode should become aggregated and developed into nerves, endowed with this special sensibility.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

(15:44) Citation of Bonhoeffer

Krista cites a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his good friend Eberhard Bethge on May 29, 1944:

Weizsäcker's book The World-View of Physics is still keeping me very busy. It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved. That is true of the relationship between God and scientific knowledge, but it is also true of the wider human problems of death, suffering, and guilt. It is now possible to find, even for these questions, human answers that take no account whatever of God. In point of fact, people deal with these questions without God (it has always been so), and it is simply not true to say that only Christianity has the answers to them.As to the idea of "solving" problems, it may be that the Christian answers are just as unconvincing — or convincing — as any others. Here again, God is no stop-gap; he must be recognized at the center of life, not when we are at the end of our resources; it is his will to be recognized in life, and not only when death comes; in health and vigor, and not only in suffering; in our activities, and not only in sin. The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He is the center of life, and he certainly didn't "come" to answer our unsolved problems. From the center of life certain questions, and their answers, are seen to be wholly irrelevant (I'm thinking of the judgment pronounced by Job's friends). In Christ there are no "Christian problems."

— from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison

Cheshire Cat

Lewis Carrol's Cheshire Cat

(16:00) Carroll's Cheshire Cat

The Cheshire Cat is a fictional cat that appeared in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. It appears and disappears at will, engaging Alice in amusing but sometimes vexing conversation. The cat often points out philosophical points that annoy Alice. At one point, the cat disappears gradually until nothing is left but its grin, prompting Alice to remark that she had often seen a cat without a grin but never a grin without a cat.

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(16:15) Music Element

"Grand Pianola Music 1st/2nd Movement" from Grand Pianola Music, peformed by John Adams


(17:35) Polkinghorne on Petitionary Prayer

The extended passage from Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity was excerpted from the chapter, "Can a Scientist Pray?":

A scientist can pray. We can take with absolute seriousness all that science can tell us and still believe that there is room left over for our action in the world, and for God's action, too. Of course, this does not mean that prayer is just filling in a series of blank cheques given us by a heavenly Father Christmas. This is why I could not expect all those patients I prayed for simply to recover, much as I hoped they would. Prayer is not magic. It is something much more personal, for it is an interaction between humanity and God.

(18:18) Chaos Theory

Simply put, chaos theory is the science that deals with the underlying order of seemingly random events occurring in the physical universe. A technical example of this idea is illustrated in the "butterfly effect." The meteorologist Edward Lorenz showed in "Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow" that complex systems neither settle in to a repeating pattern of behavior or come to a complete stop because minor events often go unaccounted for and result in large variations — but it always stays within certain bounds. Lorenz's model (known as the Lorenz Attractor) traced a strange double spiral shape resembling butterfly wings.

(20:48) Reference to Origen

Origen (ca. 185 – ca. 254 CE) was a Christian theologian and preacher who was probably born in Alexandria, Egypt. He is heralded by many Christians as one of the great Fathers of the Christian church and Christian doctrine.

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(23:40) Music Element

"Tromba Lontana" from John Adams: Tromba Lontana, performed by John Adams and the BBC Symphony Orchestra


(27:17) Reference to Intelligent Design

Proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) contend that natural selection can't explain the "irreducible complexity" of molecular mechanisms or the "specified complexity" of certain biological systems that cannot be a product of chance or natural law. For these proponents, the only remaining option is an intelligent designer. These ideas became the cornerstones of ID, leading one of the founders of ID, Michael Behe, to proclaim the evidence for design to be "one of the greatest achievements in the history of science."

An April 2002 report in Natural History magazine features a report in which three intelligent design advocates and three evolution advocates present their views on the continuing debate in American society. The contributors include Michael Behe, Kenneth Miller, William Dembski, Robert Pennock, Jonathan Wells, and Eugenie C. Scott.

(29:40) Kenosis

In Greek, kenosis means "to empty oneself." Essential elements of the idea of kenosis play themselves out in personal and communal relationships, in the act of forgiveness, and in self-sacrifice. At its extreme, it may involve sacrificing one's own life. In the New Testament of the Bible, it is used to describe the ethic of Jesus' willingness to sacrifice his power and his life for the freedom of others.

In the On Being program, "Science and Hope," listen to Quaker cosmologist George Ellis describe his belief that the ethic of kenosis is built-in to the universe and how he finds its expression in all the major religions.

(31:27) The Shadow Side of Things

Polkinghorne's belief that pain and suffering in the world are a necessary complement to all the good that happens echoes the ideas of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In an interview with Krista for On Being, Thich Nhat Hanh likens it to growing lotus flowers, "You cannot grow lotus flowers on marble. You have to grow them on the mud. Without mud, you cannot have a lotus flower." One must understand suffering, Thich Nhat Hanh says, in order to attain peace and happiness.

In addressing the idea of the role God's hand plays in natural disasters, Polkinghorne cites an 18th century theologian's response to a terrible earthquake, which has been excerpted from Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity:

A world in which God perpetually intervened in this magical way would also not be a creation that he would be allowing freely to be itself. An Oxford theologian, Austin Farrer, once asked himself what was God's will in the Lisbon earthquake? This terrible disaster took place on All Saints Day in 1755. The churches were full and they all collapsed, killing 50,000 people. It was a most bitter example of natural evil. Farrer's answer was hard, but true. God's will was that the elements of the Earth's crust should behave in accordance with their nature. In other words, they are allowed to be in their own way, just as we are allowed to be in ours.

To understand more about how tectonic plates function and the consequences of the 2004 tsunami disaster, see the The New York Times interactive graphic Asia's Deadly Waves.

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(35:13) Music Element

"Thomas Albert: Thirteen Ways - IV. (Sensuous, Relaxed)" from Thirteen Ways, performed by Eighth Blackbird


(35:56) Idea of Theodicy

The term theodicy derives from two Greek words, théos and diké, meaning "the justice of God." The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz coined the word in 1710 to demonstrate God's goodness and justice despite the existence of evil in the world.

(37:05) Calvary and the Cross

Polkinghorne cites an example in the passion narratives of Mark and Matthew that allude to an Old Testament passage, Psalm 22:

Mark 15:34
At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Matthew 27:46
And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Psalm 22:1
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?


(38:10) Book by Berger

Polkinghorne cites the phrase "signals of transcendence" from Peter L. Berger's A Rumor of Angels

(39:35) Reading from Genesis, Chapter 1

The reading from the first chapter of Genesis was translated by Everett Fox and appears in The Five Books of Moses: The Schocken Bible, Volume I, which can be read in its entirety:

At the beginning of God's creating  of the heavens and earth,  when the earth was wild and waste,  darkness over the face of Ocean,  rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—    God said: Let there be light! And there was light.  God saw the light: that it was good.  God separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light: Day! and the darkness he called: Night!  There was setting, there was dawning: one day.
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(44:32) Music Element

"(Ask the) Sphinx" from Air and Ground, performed by Los Angeles Guitar Quarted (LAGQ)


(45:25) Definition of Eschatology

Eschatology is the doctrine of last things that commonly refers to Jewish and Christian beliefs about the end of the world and humankind. Often associated with this ending is resurrection of the dead, the destiny of humanity, the Second Coming, or the Last Judgment. The term has been extended to canvas similar themes and ideas in various religions around the world. Eschatology is the subject of one of John Polkinghorne's most recent books, The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Theology on Eschatology.

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(47:03) Music Element

"Farewell to Stromness" from Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, performed by Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ)


The Duke of Edinburgh presents the 2002 Templeton Prize to the Rev. Dr. John C. Polkinghorne, with John M. Templeton, Jr., M.D., president of the John Templeton Foundation. Buckingham Palace, London, April 29, 2002.

The Duke of Edinburgh presents the 2002 Templeton Prize to the Rev. Dr. John C. Polkinghorne, with John M. Templeton, Jr., M.D., president of the John Templeton Foundation. Buckingham Palace, London, April 29, 2002.
(Photo credit: Clifford Shirley / The Templeton Prize)

(47:20) Awarded Templeton Prize

Polkinghorne was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2002. Other notable recipients include writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, humanitarian Mother Teresa, journalist Michael Novak, physicist Paul Davies, and cosmologist George Ellis.

(47:28) Author of Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity

The following extended passage comes from Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity:

I hardly need to labor the moral of this theology. If the unpicturable world of electrons gives us some surprises, we shouldn't be too amazed if the unpicturable God has some surprises in store for us also. If, as a Christian believer, I find—as I do, and as millions have done before me—that when I talk of Jesus Christ I can't just talk about him in human terms, but I'm also driven to use divine language, then I have to accept the reality of this experience, however difficult it is to understand how the infinite God and a finite man in first-century Palestine can, in some mysterious way, be joined together.

I'm not saying anything as ridiculous as, "Quantum theory is odd, so after it anything goes." I am saying "We cannot decide beforehand what the nature of reality (whether God or the physical world) is going to turn out to be." This can only be discovered by submitting ourselves to actual experience. So, you see, it's not a case of scientific fact versus religious opinion. It's a case, with both science and religion of trying to interpret and understand the rich, varied, and surprising way the world actually is.

A Man About a Horse by Steve Tibbetts

(48:55) Music Element

"Koshala" from A Man About a Horse, performed by Steve Tibbetts


Voices on the Radio

is Canon Theologian of Liverpool Cathedral in England and author of many books, including Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity. He served as Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, and is a Fellow of The Royal Society.

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