Scientists gathered at Jefferson Lab last month to talk about one of the most provocative arguments in the world of physics.
They jotted down mathematical equations and discussed complex chemical formulas. But it didn't take a doctorate in quantum mechanics to understand they were talking about something much more significant than the mass of atomic particles.
They were talking about God.
In the past decade, an increasing number of physicists have come to believe there is compelling evidence that an intelligent designer created the universe. Theologians and scientists are getting together for conferences that bridge the supernatural and the natural, leading to cover stories like "Science Finds God," in an issue of Newsweek last year.
Likewise, there's an undercurrent of scientists saying it's inappropriate to bring God into scientific theories.
Jefferson Lab is an ideal forum for such a debate. The Newport News facility is used by about 1,500 scientists from around the world who study subatomic particles, which are integral to understanding the origins of the universe.
Victor Stenger, a physics professor at the University of Hawaii, spoke at Jefferson Lab in an attempt to debunk theories that point to God as the spark behind the Big Bang.
"They tend to take a Christian approach while saying they are being open-minded," Stenger says of the scientists with God-related theories. "They promote one side of the story, and the media jumps on it. It results in nonscientific thinking, where people begin to regard as valid arguments that don't hold water."
One controversial theory, called the "intelligent design" concept, asserts that some higher power "fine-tuned" the creation of our universe billions of years ago.
Scientists have discovered that the recipe for the universe is so delicate that if any of its ingredients were changed the slightest bit, the physical world would not exist.
Put a pinch more electromagnetism into the mixing bowl, and we'd have no stars. Add an extra dab of nuclear energy while cooking up the universe, and we'd wash away all the carbon - an essential ingredient for life.
This observation has led some physicists to conclude the universe must have an "intelligent designer" - perhaps God or, in a fringe idea that reads like science fiction, even a supercomputer controlling our world.
Intelligent design is a compelling argument, says Ken Petzinger, a physics professor at The College of William and Mary who attended Stenger's lecture.
"You can't really study advanced physics without coming away with a position of - 'Gee, how clever this is that things turned out the way they did,' " says Petzinger, who believes God is the intelligent designer.
But Petzinger's colleague, Mark Sher, says that science can explain the coincidences of life and the universe without reaching for a spiritual explanation.
"I have no need for an external agency," says Sher, associate professor of physics at William and Mary. "That doesn't mean that an external agency doesn't exist. There's just no need for it, at least in the physical realm."
Stenger says that although there are precise parameters to our universe, there may be other universes with different physical properties and even different forms of life. He even has a game on his Web site called "Monkey God" that allows visitors to create their own universe by adjusting specific atomic measurements.
His point is that if scientists broaden their understanding, they can see many scenarios for the creation of a universe.
The problem with using a spiritual theory to explain the creation of the universe is that there is no objective experiment that can prove or disprove God, Stenger argues.
Mixing religion and science also leads to many unanswered questions, Sher adds.
"If the universe is designed by something, then who made the designer?" he asks.
Petzinger concedes that science will never be able to come up with a mathematical equation or formula for God.
"That's our problem. God can't be put in a box and subjected to scientific experiment," Petzinger says.
But he questions whether Stenger's multiple universe theory could hold up to scrutiny any better than the intelligent design theory.
Stenger says the main reason why the issue is getting so much attention now is because religious groups like the John Templeton Foundation - a nondenominational organization based in Pennsylvania - are funding scientific research that studies the notion of a divine creator.
Stenger says he has no religious beliefs. But it's wrong to assume that all skeptics of the intelligent design theory are nonbelievers.
Joseph Mitchell, an experimental nuclear physicist at Jefferson Lab, says science can't prove the existence of a divine creator. But that doesn't mean that religion has no value, he says.
"Religion has things to say to me about a moral code of conduct and many other things in my life," Mitchell says. "But it doesn't have anything to say to me about observations of the concrete nature of the absolute universe."
Petzinger says he believes God wrote two books.
"One is the book of nature and the other is the testimony I find and believe in the Bible," he says. "I don't try to draw many scientific conclusions from reading the Bible. The origins of things - that's a scientific question."
But sometimes, science and religion agree, Petzinger says.
"In the beginning, God created heaven and earth - that's a faith statement. And in science, we know the universe did have a beginning. There's a basic harmony to those two points."
Submitted: Friday, October 22, 1999 - 11:00pm