Sunday, August 09, 2009

When the morning stars sang together

And God answered Job out of the whirlwind:
Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations?
Tell me, since you are so well-informed!
Who decided the dimensions of it, do you know?
Or who stretched the measuring line across it?
What supports the pillars at their bases?
Who laid its cornerstone
when all the stars of the morning were singing with joy?
We wait, for the technicians at CERN to repair the Large Hadron Collider. When it is up and running we will inch closer to the morning of the world, or to what in out supreme confidence we imagine to be The Beginning. We are promised the Higgs boson, the "God particle" that holds the ultimate explanation for the origin of matter. The machine we have built to do this is the most complex and expensive contrivance ever constructed on Earth. The achievement, when it happens, will be Promethean -- the human mind wresting from darkness the final secret of how it all came to be.

Or so we are told.

The achievement will be undeniable. But, please, let's have no more talk of God particles, or ultimate explanations, or final theories. Every advance in science has led to deeper mysteries. Did the telescope and microscope lessen or deepen the mystery of the world? Knowledge is an island in a sea of infinite mystery (if not truly infinite, at least effectively so). As we build up the island of reliable knowledge, we do not significantly diminish the sea; rather, we extend the shoreline where we encounter what we do not know.

As the Large Hadron Collider cranks up, let's keep in mind William Blake's illustration of the passage from Job I quoted above -- God rebuking Job's hubris. Under God's right arm, Apollo/Helios (science, if you will) pushes back the clouds of ignorance. Under his left arm, Diana/Selene delicately controls the passions. Job, his wife , and friends crouch below in their cavelike darkness (note that Job's God is a mirror image of himself). And above -- above God even -- the Morning Stars sing for joy.

God's arms are spread as if to say, "This far and no farther. Push back the clouds of ignorance, learn to live in peace and joy, but do not presume to exhaust the Mystery that sings in the morning stars, in every cell of your bodies, in every grain of sand. Tell me, since you are so well-informed, where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?"

Where, indeed?

(I wrote on Blake's illustrations for the Book of Job in a different context some time ago. You can find it here.)