David Kordahl

The New Bible

In Physics, Religion on 2010/12/19 at 10:33 pm

My father, as those who know him will probably agree, is nothing if not long-suffering: a man who not only suffers fools gladly, but who is also willing to invite them into his office for coffee and pastries. I admire this about him. Though mad patience isn’t the kind of thing that gets a person the corner-office power suite, it’s exactly what has allowed him to cope effectively with people like my sister and my mother for years on end, with minimal complaint. But even a man with preternatural patience has to develop coping strategies. When he and I were drug along as unwilling accomplices for the endless shopping trips to Sioux Falls, he would often find a place to sit, pull out a miniature New Testament (courtesy the ubiquitous Gideons International), and begin re-reading—sometimes underlining, sometimes memorizing. “I don’t mind waiting!” he’d tell me with the excited tone of a man who, in speaking, is simultaneously convincing his audience and himself. “I don’t mind waiting when I’ve got a good book. Not when I’ve got the best!” [1]

Attempting emulation, I carried a New Testament with me, too, for a while. Eventually I gave it up—during football games at recess, the book kept falling out, requiring no end of awkward explanations—but the idea of it continued to be pretty alluring. In those pre-iPhone days of yore, what could be better than having the Ultimate Truth Authority in your trousers pocket?

Many years later, while I was actively working on becoming an un-Christian, the loss of a helpful reference guide to the Important Stuff was one of the really sad and destabilizing elements of the whole process. When you’re a Christian, you at very least have some set prescriptions about what you should be doing, even if you aren’t ever doing them. Like, before bed, it’s probably best to get right with God, just in case you die in your sleep and accidentally find yourself in Hell [2]. Up until sometime during the 2nd semester of my freshman year of college, I had the nightly ritual of reading a chapter of something of the Bible (toward the end, it was a lot of minor prophets) and praying myself to sleep. While I know that kind of odd piety isn’t normal, even among the chosen, it seemed like a fine stand-in for counted sheep…until it wasn’t. Then, going to sleep became unexpectedly terrifying; finding something other than the Bible for nighttime reading material was suddenly another of the bazillion choices I had to make, then, for the first time.

Given this background, I suppose it’s only natural that eventually, years later still, I’d go searching for a Replacement Bible [3]. As it happens, I didn’t need to go searching very far at all. A few weeks ago, such a document came in the mail—a document I was assigned to order for a class, no less—and let me tell you: the similarities of the package’s contents to my father’s professional pocket-gear was both eerie and, for me, disquieting.

I should explain. At present, my job is Being a Physics Graduate Student (weird, I know, the things that people get paid to do), and as such I’m taking my share of fairly pointy-headed courses. One of these, in the recently completed semester, was Particle Physics, a subject whose practitioners pride it both for being somehow Fundamental (in the sense that it might deal with Reality at a basic-ish level) and well-tested (in the sense that there are ultra-successful ongoing experiments in the field, unlike, say, in the case of the other supposedly-Fundamental part of physics). As evidence of its well-testedness, everyone in the class was assigned to order the Particle Data Book, the ‘New Bible’ of which this blog’s title speaks. After a few weeks of waiting, my package arrived with the three enclosed objects of my desire: The Official 2010 Review of Particle Physics (a heavy beast, 1340 pg.); the newly revised Particle Physics Booklet (the travel-sized abridgement of the Review, a trim 294 pg.); and the Pocket Diary for Physicists, 2010-2011 (which is what it sounds like: a leaflet that will on the same page remind you about the AAAS meeting, the midweek full moon, and Alessandro Volta‘s 1745 birthday).

Now, I’m not about to argue that the PDB is the only monster technical manual that in its way defines its field—the DSM-IV is probably a helluva lot more important for psychiatry than the ol’ PDB is for particle physics [4]—but what I am willing to argue is that if you ignore a lot of important stuff, this battery looks almost exactly like Dad’s Big Three: The Holy Bible, compleat and unabridged (even w/ an Apocrypha, just for reference); The New Testament w/ Psalms & Proverbs (pocket sized for convenient carry); and the Little Red Book (no Lutheran Pastor’s knowledge of the church calendar is compete without it). At risk of drawing some seriously false equivalences, the comparisons are spooky. It’s hard to enumerate the ways I could explore this for poetic descriptors of how I fear becoming a mimeographed reiteration of my father’s problems [5], but that’s not primarily what interests me about this mashup. What interests me most are the similarities and differences that these texts (the Bible and the PDB) have w/r/t what they require a reader to bring to them to get anything out.

Cosmetically, they have a lot in common. Both are dense books filled with strings of unexplained parallels, significant numbers, and coded language—all high barriers of entry for outsiders that at once add mystery and intellectual cred. Both are thought, by their respective supplicants, to be guidebooks to the universe’s meaning and our current best stab at the Ultimate Truth. If you look hard enough, both have creation stories, tales of how things have come to be the way they are, and vague intimations about How it All Ends. And, ironically enough, both are about the worst source that a newcomer could start with, if she wants to understand what Christians or Physicists [6] are actually up to.

The last point—which I’ll have to stop with, as this post is growing to a length past which I can’t honestly expect casual readers to persevere—is probably at once the bane and glory of any flesh-and-blood system of the world. The Bible, even Believers should agree, was not written at one time with the goal of speaking God’s mind to the 21st Century thinker; there are mitigating historical circumstances have to be excavated before even the literal meanings of these ancient texts can be unearthed. All the theology, inasmuch as it even exists in the anthologised whole, is piecemeal, and to get a sense of how people have interpreted these works, you’d have to consult the works of the Famous Theologians, or a Christianity for Dummies manual—or, heck, go ahead and call my dad. (He’ll be happy to talk.) My point is that although everything in the book has been given meanings by the social order organised around it, most of that information would be impossible for the relentless noob to discover on his own. For me, my scepticism began the day that I began trying to look at the Bible as an outsider and to read it for myself. (Hence my belief that the Reformation, for all its social good, was inevitably a religiously destructive movement.) The problem, when I want to take on the PDB as my New Bible, is that many of these problems exist there, too: it’s not until you marinate your mind for years in the juices of Physics that the book begins to make any sense at all [7].

All this philosophising has probably undermined the rhetorical possibility of my making a definitive claim for the Particle Data Book as a super replacement to the Bible. Most rational Americans might like to interject into this discussion the textural distinctions between apples and oranges, and I get that. But that won’t stop me. Like the man whose mind is captured by theology, the student of physics, too, is interested in a certain kind of magik—the kind that’ll give a person a claim to understanding the whole monstrous universe, if not in the details, then in just enough ontological verity to give him the feeling that he’s close. Way close. Too damned close to quit. It’s the sort of thing, anyway, that might spur him on to keeping a condensed version of the Ultimate Truth Guide in his trousers pocket to pore over during shopping trips.

[1] Disclaimer: I know it’s not nice to turn real people into cartoons, and when I use my family as writing material, this is invariably what happens. My father, whose other appearance in these pages pages was as an outré technophobe, is probably not fairly represented by this anecdote. Per the shared info, however, I doubt that he would mind being well-known and on-record as a patient, Bible-reading Luddite, and even if he would, there’s another thing to keep in mind: as an Internet-hater, there’s very little chance that he’ll read this. Unless someone tells him about it. But you and I can keep a secret, right? [Stage-whispers to crowd:] Right? Up.

[2] Strictly speaking, this doesn’t go along with any respected denomination’s view of how the whole ‘salvation’ thing works. I only tell you this to offer a little insight into the manic neuroticism that can overtake the Serious Believer [e.g., like me, c. 2003]. If you want a particularly cold view of how salvation “really works,” you can look to this guy, who is happy to crush your pleasant dreams of a loving God for free. Up.

[3] I anticipate an argument: why look for a wholesale Replacement Bible when there’s such an astonishing diversity of Bibles as it is? When there’s like 50 legit versions the Real Deal, not to mention the LOLCats and Klingon versions? (Yes, this footnote is a craven excuse to advertise various Internet bizarrities. Did I mention the Technical Slang Bible? The Cockney Bible?) Up.

[4] The way I’m referring to these books is confusing. I use the acronym PDB (‘Particle Data Book’), when none of the books I listed are explicitly entitled this. This is because the research group that puts out said Review is the Particle Data Group, and it’s their book, so as far as the author isn’t yet dead (in whatever sense), we give that collaboration their colloquial credit. I only live here, see. Up.

[5] Actually, it’s not hard…but let’s choose not to anyway. Up.

[6] I’m not trying to pit ‘Christians’ and ‘Physicists’ as opposing groups, necessarily; the Venn diagram of the two groups obviously has plenty of overlap. Up.

[7] Sorry for going a bit crazy with the footnotes, here, but for instance of just how incomplete the PDB is, even in terms of physics: it has no review of Newton’s Laws, no Maxwell’s Equations, no Hamiltonian/Lagrangiann Mechanics, no Quantum Mechanics, no Quantum Field Theory (except in specific cases)—i.e., it gives you none of the stuff you might learn in your first six years or so of studying physics. It starts out with QCD and moves on from there… Up.

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