The Doctrine of God’s Word & The Search for Dark Matter
In 1877, a man named George Hearst travelled from California to Lead, South Dakota . Hearst was a “mining genius.” Lead, at the time, was a small mining outpost in which Hearst found great potential. He paid $70,000 for the claim to the land. And it proved to be a very good investment.
The Homestake mine, Hearst’s corporation, was the “longest-listed mining corporation on the New York Stock Exchange.” It yielded what amounts- in today’s dollar-to almost $47 billion worth of gold. As such, it was a shock when the mine suddenly shut down in 2002. The shutdown was a matter of covering costs; by the end of the 1990’s gold was being sold for less than $300 per ounce, which made operating a mine as large as Homestake a financial liability.
Although the mine shut down, its story was hardly over. The mine is a gaping hole in the landscape, diving over 8,000 feet into the earth, with 370 miles of horizontal tunnels or drift- roughly equal in length to the New York City subway system. It’s a strange place -to say the least- to find an astrophysicist intent on studying one of the most elusive aspects of our galaxy. Indeed, the Homestake mine seems like anything but a scientific platform from which researchers might identify the inception of the universe.
The theory of dark matter was first developed by the Swiss Astronomer and Astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky. In 1933, Zwicky was looking at the rotation of galaxies and observed that the outer mass of the galaxies was moving too fast for the amount of visible mass present. Although he couldn’t see it, couldn’t identify it, Zwicky- along with most astrophysicists since- theorized that there had to then be an amount of unseen mass within the universe.
To Fritz, the galaxy as it appeared was obviously impacted by forces which are unseen and undetected. The galaxy, mathematically speaking, can’t be the way it is unless there’s something we humans aren’t seeing. Consider the equation:
If one were using this equation as a description of all the mass in our galaxy, then y is the visible matter in the universe and x is the visible outcome but z is completely unknown, while, at the same time, because x and y are present, it must be also. This unknown z is what is today spoken of as “dark matter,” an invisible force that “has never actually been seen (though) its effects have been observed in (multiple) galaxy rotations.”[i] Although scientists have never been able to identify, see, or hear them, these unidentified forces make up a ginormous amount of the existing cosmos. It is generally believed that at least 90, and perhaps as much as 99 percent, of the universe is made up of Zwicky’s dark matter.
“In the beginning was the word…the word was with God in the beginning.” This is the opening of the Gospel of John, the most unique of the four gospels in the canonical New Testament. This introduction- poetic as it is- also acts as an evident allusion to the first words of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The author of John, however, begins his narrative prior to the beginning of creation, at the time of “absolute pre-existence” before any creation.
The Greek word John uses here is λόγος; a word that is incredibly common, appearing 40 times in John’s gospel and 328 in the entire New Testament. If examined across the entire Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible, λόγος appears nearly 1,200 times. λόγος means, simply translated, word. But, due to its apparent simplicity and it’s exponential employment, there’s some nuance to its English definition. The Hebrew counterpart, for instance, can be translated three different ways into English: “word,” “matter” or “thing,” the latter requiring great translational discretion.
John’s prologue is, however, the first time λόγος is used in direct reference to a person, in this case Jesus Christ. Although the Septuagint translation doesn’t feature λόγος in the creation narrative, other appearances in the Old Testament link it directly to creation. Psalm 33:6, for instance, states: “by the word (λόγος) of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” This is not a unique notion. Across the Psalms, there exists a unanimous acceptance of the divine word having physical, tangible existence, one which created and transcends the cosmos. A force that also holds it together.
Semantic evidence suggest that λόγος is not just a metaphorical or poetic notion. Rather, the idea is that God- who is, by nature, hidden- reveals himself in creation. And the means by which God does this is best described as ‘the word’ which- inarguably- refers to something that is not just a metaphorical notion, but a physical, though inarticulate, reality. And a powerful one at that.
In the 1960s, while the Homestake mine was still in operation, a chemist by the name of Ray Davis installed a 100,000-gallon tank of perchloroethylene — a dry-cleaning fluid — 4,850 feet down in the heart of the mine. Davis intended to use this tank as a means of studying the sun’s neutrinos, or cosmic rays. Davis work found that to a neutrino, our physical, visible reality- what we think of as ‘matter’- is actually transparent; trillions of these tiny cosmic rays pass through each of us every second and continue straight through Earth, straight through millions of miles of solid lead.
Rick Gaitskell is a professor of physics at Brown University and leads a research team that is hunting for direct evidence of dark particle matter. In an interview with NPR’s Chad Abumrad, Gaitskell explained Davis’ discovery as such:
“When…(we) are sitting on the surface of the earth, we’re not aware of it, but we are being hit by cosmic rays at a rate that amazes people. If you simply hold out your hand, three or four times every second a ray is going through your hand. Your body is literally bathed in thousands of these every second.”
What Davis’ work showed is that- contrary to the popular belief that dark matter was something we needed to try and see– it was really something that we should try and hear. Davis’ work “change(d) the methodology of astrophysics from gathering light to eliminating noise, from greater seeing to more sensitive listening.” Trying to identify these infinitude of rays, says Gaitskell, is akin to being at the Super Bowl when every single person is clapping and cheering. “Imagine in the middle of all this chaos there is one person leaning over to their friend and whispering a secret into their friend’s ear.
Dark matter is the whisper.”
The λόγος was not merely existent in the beginning, says biblical commentator John Lagne, but λόγος was also the efficient principle, the beginning of the beginning. Following Christ’s birth, the physical existence of λόγος is unquestionably the person of Jesus Christ, a human being that walks, sweats, eats, sleeps, and has a physical presence. But the eternal reality of the λόγος is- Christian theology confesses- immutable, it never changes. While this sounds elementary on paper, it’s difficult to justify a belief in a transcendent God without slipping into pantheism, a thin line that has been walked- at times better than others- by Christian theologians across the ages. If God is unchanging then where- or perhaps the correct question is ‘what’- is God’s physical presence in the created order? Following Christ’s ascension into heaven, where is the physical presence of λόγος in our world? If the God of Everything is not present as creation (pantheism) then where is he present, not metaphorically, but physically within it?
Consider the following quotation from Swiss theologian Karl Barth:
“…in relation to God man has constantly to let something be said to him, has constantly to listen to something, which he constantly does not know and which in no circumstances and in no sense can he say to himself.”
Humankind, Barth says, must listen to God, must listen to a physical presence of God. But this occurs all the while not knowing what she is listening too except that it is something she cannot comprehend let alone personally create. Barth affirms that λόγος must, theologically speaking, have a physical, literal meaning. Barth believes the λόγος to be something that is active and living. It is not something that was spoken but something that is spoken, that takes place in the now as well as in the past and also will into the future. Says Barth: “The Bible is God’s word to the extent that God causes it to be His Word, to the extent that He speaks through it.”
Barth is not the first to personify God’s word. Christians across the ages, and even Scripture itself, describe God’s word as “active” or “living” (one example being Hebrews 4:12 “the word of God is alive and active.”). But most- if not all- don’t pragmatically treat it as such; no Christian believes that their leather bound holy book takes breaths or has the ability to move. Yet for Barth, the activity of the λόγος as a physical entity that can and does act is something mysterious but nonetheless absolutely and imperatively present. God’s word (the λόγος) must be all around, in and within us. If the λόγος is not moving, if it does not have an omnipresent, transparent existence of which we can be aware, though it also is ever eluding us, then the thing we call “God’s Word” (the Bible) isn’t God’s word at all, because God’s physical (not just metaphorical) action is not immediately present within it.
It was possibly in foreseeing such a conundrum as this, one which cannot be solved from the ivory armchair of theologians, that Barth said: “All sciences might ultimately be theology.”
Back in South Dakota: 4,850 feet down into the mine, in what looks like an enormous cave carved out of the rock, Rick Gaitskell and his team have established a lab that is so impenetrably deep into the earth’s crust such that it is exposed to the least amount of radiation anywhere in the world, about 3 million less cosmic rays that usual, or just one ray over the span of three months passing through the physical matter.
Even if you cut out all the rays from the outside- which these labs have done – human beings still carry within them a certain amount of radioactive elements, just by nature of our physical bodies. Thus, immediately after exiting the elevator, all the scientists who enter the lab have to change clothes, be scrubbed, and sterilized as much as possible so as to remove any rays from their persons that might interfere with the experiment. Then they enter a room that looks like it was built for a science-fiction movie set: it’s all white, steril, bright. In the middle of the room is the 100,000 gallon tank that Ray Davis installed back in the 1960’s. Now filled with nearly 72,000 gallons of deionized water, the tank holds, at its center, a large thermos of liquid Xenon which is stored at -160 degrees Fahrenheit. This is where the search for dark matter comes to a point.
The hope is that the tank of water will further filter cosmic rays, that it will reduce the amount of radiation or- if you will- cosmic noise. In doing so scientists have created, at the center of this whole system, within the thermos of Xenon, the quietest place in the universe. In such an environment, it is theoretically possible to identify a single dark matter particle when it zooms through the thermos. Because it is so quiet, because there is no other interference, if a dark matter particle- even though it’s not supposed to interact with any particles of our known universe – disturbs the Xenon in even the slightest way, scientists will be able to detect it. The first successful detection of a single particle of dark matter.
This, says Kent Myers, is the whisper of the universe:
“What’s it saying in the whisper? If we understand these whispers. We’re very close to understanding gestation, inception, the voice at the center of the universe…which may tell us why the universe even exists at all. ”
It’s been several years of these experiments and, as of yet, Gaitskill and his team have been unable to identify that particle. But what might happen if scientists are one day able to hear dark matter, to reach a point from which they can converse, or at least listen to, this unknown power that lies at the inception and continuation of the universe? One would be hard pressed to find a scientist who claims this as their goal, to reach dark matter and find a way to box it and place in on the shelves of their accomplishments. Hearing dark matter wouldn’t really accomplish anything other than reaching another level in the mysterious and wonderful narrative of the universe. Karl Barth expounded on his theology of the word of God and eventually it became one volume in a massive, ten-volume work on the dogmatics of church theology. In spite of this, Karl Barth claimed to never have finished his dogmatics.
The closer scientists and theologians alike come to reaching the inception of all being, the more they find that the Being Itself is, perhaps closer, but still withdrawn into a cloud of mystery. Consider 1 Kings 19:12 when God speaks to Elijah: “After the earthquake came a fire…but the Lord was not in the fire. But after the fire, the earthquake, the chaos, there came a gentle whisper, one so difficult to detect that Elijah wasn’t even sure he heard it. (Is it possible that Elijah is the only human to have ever heard dark matter?) Elijah’s doubt might be the same reaction the scientists have when- if– they are able ever to detect this dark matter. Gaitskell has been working on this experiment for 27 years. Thus far, they’ve not been able to detect it. Though this hardly means Rick and his team have given up. Dark matter is elusive beyond comprehension though it is sought by many.
Which begs the question: what is it that draws humans to look?
To this, Kent Myers says that dark matter is:
“…so unknown (that) it is only a theory and yet so massive that it may constitute far more of the universe than does matter we can see and touch…(thus, we are) asked to consider that all of us are a minimal presence, wisp and froth passing through a dark sea, sieves made of a rare gossamer- as is Earth, as is the sun, as are the compresses and golden cores of all the stars.”
And, then, Saint Peter: “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off.”
But (and this is most important): “…the word of the Lord endures forever.”