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IMG00361-20100309-1812Theoretical Physics

11:30 a.m. this morning. I’m standing in the airport terminal. My aggravation is growing over delays of my flight. I am half-heartedly looking around for an outlet to charge my laptop and cell phone.

I look up and see a familiar face.

It is a young man I met on the airport shuttle just a few days earlier. Climbing into the van, I asked him if I could sit on the front seat where he was sitting. I heard in his answer an accent that told me he was not from Minnesota. When I buckled in, he gestured to his seat belt and asked if he needed to do the same. I told him “yes, probably a good idea,” and we were off on a twenty minute conversation about theoretical physics and theology.

That’s right theoretical physics. Electrons, mass, energy, and Higgs particles (or Higgs boson), how they work, what they do, if they exist. These concepts and theories are his specialty. To be so young and not a native English speaker, he gave me remarkably easy-to-follow descriptions of his area of expertise. No wonder he is here on a lecture tour.

Now here he is standing in front of me a second time in five days. His flight was also delayed this morning. What are the chances? He might actually be able to calculate them with his math-oriented brain. I cannot fathom exactly.

We shake hands and this time exchange names as well. Grigory Vartanov is a physicist with the Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam, Germany. He looks to be around 14, okay maybe 16. I had already learned that he grew up in Russia and his English is astoundingly good. He is obviously a child genius with PhD in hand and working in his first research appointment in theoretical physics.

He told me with some wisdom as we rode around the Twin Cities, “what I do is far removed from everyday life.” We talked about other kinds of more practical sciences – those that in his estimation could not be allowed much room for speculation or error: biology, medicine, etc. He told me he was free to propose as many theories as he wanted and if they turned out wrong no one would be injured. He also asked me if I knew about the particle collider. And he hinted at hopes of working on something like it someday, but one so large that it might not fit anywhere conceivable on the planet.

With each description of his work I was making metaphorical comparisons with theology. The search for the Higgs particle, the most basic unit of mass/energy in the universe, struck me as not unlike the search human beings have been on throughout civilization into the mystery of God, the underlying force of existence. Turns out I’m not the first to have this thought. His understanding of things as nearer and further from everyday life reminds me of the ongoing debates among those of us doing theology concerning our proximity to everyday life and the kind of implications that our theories and practices have for people and planet. Some theologies are awfully far from everyday life as well. Others have less room for error. Matters of life and death are at stake.

And no matter our theories or practices we are all still finite creatures, and our lives will be over soon. Sometimes sooner than they ought to be. What are the chances? Well no part of my brain can calculate or fathom that. So I’ll try to be glad in the moment for a chance event that gives me a small reason for delight.