This Holy Week, Christians worldwide are celebrating the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom they believe is fully man and fully God. It’s a conviction that appears to flout logic but, amazingly, is wholly in line with the revelations of modern science.
Scientists used to believe that waves and particles were opposite phenomena, each obeying a different set of rules. A stone, for instance, is particle-like; its shape and size remain the same whether it exists in outer space, water, or molasses. By contrast, ripples are wave-like; their shape and size depend critically on the medium through which they move.
According to this past belief, if something were particle-like, it couldn’t possibly be wave-like. The two were mutually incompatible, calling to mind Rudyard Kipling’s famous quote about the clashing cultures of India and Britain: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.”
For a very long time, scientists disagreed about how to classify light. In the early 18th century, Isaac Newton clung to the opinion that light was comprised of tiny, luminous particles. But a century later, English physicist Thomas Young produced evidence strongly suggesting that light was made up of waves.
In the early 20th century, Albert Einstein settled the argument in a most unexpected way. Based on the discovery of what is now known as the Photoelectric Effect, he concluded that light is both a particle and a wave!
This pronouncement defied everything science had thought was beyond questioning. It was as if Einstein were declaring that odd could be even, right could be left, white could be black. In the history of modern thought, no one had ever spoken such seeming contradictory nonsense.
But Einstein’s insight turned out to be the opening salvo of a scientific revolution that gave birth to quantum theory, which broke nearly every rule in the book and painted the picture of a reality far more bizarre than anything we had ever imagined. Niels Bohr, co-author of the brave new physics, reportedly said, “If anybody says he can think about quantum theory without getting giddy, it merely shows that he hasn’t understood the first thing about it.”
According to quantum theory, there are aspects of reality that defy logic and even our age-old vocabularies. In particular, it explains, particles and waves are actually two outward manifestations of one hard-to-name, hard-to-comprehend thing —quanta, Einstein called them, whose weird behavior has been verified in the lab countless times.
Please understand these so-called quanta are not half one thing and half a completely opposite thing. Each is fully a wave and fully a particle.
In the Bible, the gospel of Mark recounts that “Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi.” On the way, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say I am?”.
Was he a man? Or was he God? It was like scientists once asking whether light was a wave or a particle.
As a physicist and Christian, I find it remarkable that science and Scripture have landed on the same, seemingly preposterous truth – that a single, coherent entity can be the embodiment of a fundamental contradiction.
For that reason, this Easter Christians can feel confident intellectually as well as spiritually in their belief that Jesus is both fully man and fully God. And they can truly rejoice in his revolutionary message, which, like quantum theory, crucified conventional wisdom and opened our eyes to a breathtaking new reality.
Michael Guillen earned his B.S. from UCLA, his M.S. and Ph.D. from Cornell University in physics, mathematics and astronomy. For 14 years he was the Emmy-award-winning science correspondent for ABC News.