God And The Atom by Victor J. Stenger (book review).

Victor J. Stenger’s examination of the atom in this aptly named book, ‘God And The Atom’, begins very much with its history. As I’ve covered the history of science before, I’ll hit the highlights of things that I might have not been aware of or need further note.


Although Stenger admits that the greatest discoveries came in the twentieth century, mostly because of the technology needed to dig that deep, deep thought of it was much, much earlier. Back to Greek times in fact, although they had to fight hard against both the doctrines of Aristotle and religion. Aristotle preferred to think and discuss a problem than prove by experiment and the real problem with looking at what matter was made of was they couldn’t look low enough down to see it. Mind you, if they could and saw nothing but tracks where sub-atomic particle has travelled that would really have given them philosophical questions.

The earliest speculator was Epicurus (341-271BC) and he even questioned the existence of the Greek gods. Amazingly, he lived into old age (such debates often ended in death) but was greatly revered at the time. Although he didn’t know what atoms were, he did determine that they were so small that they would be invisible. There were eight other famous scientists as noted on page 34 from that time period and like Epicurus much of their research was finally hidden by the church. It often makes me wonder if religion hadn’t been so oppressive at that time whether we would be more advanced today.

When we move up to the Middle Ages, Stenger points out that before Galileo who pointed out that the Earth was not the centre of the universe let alone the staggering information that it rotated about the sun, the likes of Bruno were burnt at the stake for such heresy. After him was Pierre Gassendi, who contributed to knowledge of the solar system before getting into what makes matter matter as well.

What I found very significant was on page 62 where Stenger points out how Christianity, by eliminating alternative religions in the Middle Ages, also caused the biggest setback to scientific development by seeing it as the enemy as well. In many respects, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. As I’ve pointed out in the past that even today science is seen as a rival to religion and the latter knows it’s on a losing battle against it.

The description of inertia of an object maintaining a constant velocity relies on another object existing to stop that happening on page 69 has really make me ponder that this is really the source of gravity.

The fact that all early scientists, including the likes of Newton, were also alchemists does go to show how much the truth of the universal laws had to go through before being seen to be correct.

For those who remember my explanation of the probability statistical curve in my story ‘Firing Blanks’, might want to look at an even better example on pages 106-107 and the application to dice odds.

Although it isn’t explicitly given on pages 134-135, the demonstration of time dilation of travelling objects explains why this is needed in having your mobile phones and sat-navs linked to a satellite signal for relative position. This is also magnified in later pages into near light speed travel, something we are familiar with in Science Fiction.

It’s inevitable that with atoms, there is going to be a lot of discussion on quantum mechanics. Don’t let this deter you as Stenger does make this easier to understand by explaining it in historical context. Mind you, I have started to ponder on the relative sizes of protons to electrons and their respective charges.

The statistics and numbers for the size of atomic particles makes for some truly weird thinking. A proton is over 1830 times bigger than an electron yet both have opposite and equal charges. It just goes to show that size doesn’t matter. Stenger points out that instead of gravity, it is strong nuclear force that keeps atoms together. I do wish he had explained the proof of this a bit more. I mean, just how many atoms do you need together before we can start calling it gravity?

If you thought that there were far too many nuclear power stations, then his information on page 177 is very insightful. Only thirty countries have them and they only yield 13.5% of energy requirements. Considering that coal burning reactors put more radioactive particles in the air than nuclear reactors, you would think that this number should be reversed. Stenger points out breeder reactors using thorium for fuel is more economical than uranium because there isn’t enough of the latter to last a century. The choice of uranium and plutonium only came about because of the two World War Two atomic bombs. Interestingly, it is the USA that is dragging its feet when it comes to switching over to thorium. I found this interesting enough to seek out the book from Stenger’s bibliography so expect a review of it shortly.

Just in case you think this book isn’t going to be topical, Stenger brings us quickly up to date on the CERN use for detecting the Higgs Boson atomic particle and reminds us that although it was named after him, that there were five other scientists who also drew the same conclusion at the same time. The building of the USA’s own collider was abolished before the CERN one because it went way over budget.

Rather interestingly, although Stenger identifies the various colours and spins for the variants of many nuclear particles, he still hasn’t really given an explanation for the choice of names, although on page 239 admits that scientists have fun creating their labels. If anything, I think readers would be better off being let in on the joke.

Very interestingly, what has been learnt from CERN could see the end of the super-symmetry theory and Stenger thinks the string theory isn’t worth discussing. With the latter, I somewhat agree as it has so much Aristotle about it in being all talk and maths with no real proof.

If you read this book, you’re going to come away with being very knowledgeable about the atom and a strong dash of quantum mechanics. Stenger explains well and doesn’t bog you down by getting too technical and when he does, explains well. I’ve read a number of his books and the comments above should reflect on just some of the highlights.

Atoms:1 Religion: 0.

GF Willmetts

(pub: Prometheus Books. 332 page hardback. Price: $25.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-753-2)
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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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