Approximating closer

Physics was one of my favorite classes in high school. Especially physics lab. I remember simulating transverse waves using an extra-long Slinky stretched 30 or 40 feet down the hallway between classrooms. Of course, we made it a contest to see who could keep the most waves in motion at the same time, but it was hard to keep an accurate count of waves moving in both directions simultaneously. Curious students walked past as we were wave making and asked, “What classes are you in and how do I get to play with a Slinky at school?” When we answered, “Physics,” they shook their heads and kept walking.

This was decades before geeky became cool. Even so, I was always surprised that everyone didn’t consider physics fun.

In physics, you have to be OK with not knowing everything you want to know. The first step in solving any problem was to disregard the factors we weren’t smart enough to calculate, like friction or wind resistance or static electricity effects. The standard joke, funny to all us baby physicists, was, “Why don’t we just disregard the whole problem and go to lunch?”

The thing is, physics is only a tool; it isn’t the whole truth. Physics, as with all the sciences, is only an approximation of how the world really behaves. When an experiment finds disagreement between theory and the world, the theory has to go. It is the true behavior of nature that matters, not our approximation of it.

Yet, it spite of so many questions we cannot answer, we know enough, or approximate close enough, to put men on the moon six different times, and enough to send two Voyager spacecraft on 35-year missions that are still ongoing and are approaching the edges of our own Solar System.

Last month I read a book about one of my heroes, physicist Richard Feynman, titled Quantum Man, by Lawrence M. Krauss. Krauss quoted Feynman, “People say to me, ‘Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?’ No, I’m not. I’m just looking to find out more about the world.”

I like this quote because Feynman is so grounded. For him, it wasn’t the abstract study of physics that really mattered, but the study of the world.

It was easy for physicists chasing the Nobel Prize to be captured by the search for a Unified Theory - one theory that tied together all the competing and conflicting ideas - gravity, electromagnetism, quantum forces. Feynman said he wasn’t after one theory that ruled them all. He just wanted to know more about the world.

Krauss wrote, “Nature, like life, takes all sorts of stray twists and turns, and most important, it is largely insensitive to one’s likes and dislikes.”

He was reminding us that nature doesn’t care about our physics. It is up to us to get it correct, not up to nature to conform to something we can easily understand. For physicists, that can be disappointing when they have a beautiful idea that nature chooses not to exploit.

I can understand all that, even as a Bible teacher. It’s easy to be captured by the search for a Unified Theory - one theology that ties together all the competing and conflicting ideas - grace and judgment, free will and sovereignty, even creation and end times. Like Feynman, I don’t want to chase after all that. I just want to know more about living God’s life today.

As Bible students, we have to be comfortable not knowing everything we want to know: not because we aren’t smart enough, but because that’s how God intends it. In the Bible God never revealed everything about himself. Even when he agreed to show himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, he only showed his back. Full knowledge of God was too much for a human to handle, even for a superhero like Moses.

It took me a long time to settle with partial knowledge. I kept waiting for secret memo to show up, tucked in some obscure part of my Bible, the memo that spelled out everything. Instead, all I got were more questions.

Maybe all we know about God is an approximation, but the more we study and experience him, the closer our approximations can become to the God who really is. And learning about things we’ll never fully understand, like physics, like God, can be the best part of the journey.


“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

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