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story.lead_photo.caption Particle physicist Michael Strauss (left) talks with the Rev. Steven Smith, senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, at the third City Center Conversations: Conversations About God, Life and Faith in the City, on Tuesday. - Photo by Francisca Jones

Particle physicist Michael Strauss was at one time headed to seminary school, or so he thought.

Born while his father was attending Dallas Theological Seminary, he received a letter from the president of the school informing him that he would be admitted automatically should he choose to apply. But when the time came, Strauss -- a "model student" on paper -- found that God had other plans.

"It turns out that ... in [the seminary's] 94 years of history, they had two years where they had this policy that if you weren't certain God was calling you to a professional Christian ministry they'll reject you, and I happened to apply one of those two years," Strauss said. "... I wondered who else did God not want to go to seminary the other year."

Strauss, a physics professor at the University of Oklahoma and a researcher at CERN, the largest particle physics research institute in the world, shared his thoughts about science, faith and life Tuesday at the third "City Center Conversations: Conversations About God, Faith and Life in the City" hosted by Immanuel Baptist Church and its senior pastor, the Rev. Steven Smith, at Little Rock's Statehouse Convention Center.

Strauss has experience in learning lessons about God. His father and grandfather were ministers, and he developed an interest in science during the eight years he spent as a child in Huntsville, Ala., when NASA built the "bottom stage" of the Saturn V rocket in the 1960s.

Later, Strauss was accepted to UCLA's graduate program in physics -- which he was unprepared for -- and ended up taking additional courses to complete his undergraduate foundation in the subject. Strauss "blanked out" on one of the first exams he took while working on those courses, scoring a 19 out of 100.

After the test, confused and "kind of angry" about his circumstances, he prayed to God.

"There's been a few times in my life where I pray to God, and the thought that comes to my mind is so unexpected and so profound ... and this [was] one of those times," Strauss said. "What came to my mind was this: 'Mike, you always attributed your success to your gifts and talents, but you don't succeed because I gave you gifts and talents. You succeed because I give you the grace to use them. And I can take them away any time, like I just did on the test.'

"So this arrogant kid that thought he would never fail at anything got a lesson from God that you can fail at everything, except for His grace."

In explaining his work in particle physics, Strauss gave a breakdown of the structures he studies and likened his work crashing protons together at Switzerland's CERN laboratory to learn about its parts to the crashing of a car.

"So we all know the universe is made of atoms, and I know all about atoms because I've seen them on [The] Magic School Bus," Strauss said to laughter.

At the center of every atom is a nucleus comprised of "tons" of protons, Strauss said. Along with neutrons, protons are made up of quarks.

"Elementary particle physics is to try to understand the fundamental structure of the universe and the forces that hold it together," Strauss said. "Right now we think that fundamental structure is primarily things called quarks and leptons, and we want to understand those particles put together.

"Suppose you want to know what your car was made of [and you can't] take the car apart. Suppose you can't reach in with wrenches and pliers. What do you do to take the car apart? ... You get the car going really, really fast and hit it against a brick wall and see what comes flying out."

The resulting pictures from his work at CERN resemble "a 10-year-old's Spirograph [drawing]," Strauss said. "So I spent seven years in graduate school and seven years as a postdoc to understand Spirograph drawings."

Strauss also addressed Colossians 1:17, a verse which notes that Christ holds all things together, as not being in opposition to the ideas behind particle physics -- that most of what God creates in nature he creates through the laws he makes.

"I don't think Colossians 1:17 is saying God is supernaturally overcoming the laws of physics in order to hold the universe together," Strauss said. "But I do think it's both metaphysical and real in the sense that it is Christ that is the focus of the universe, and this universe, and the history of this universe, and the laws of physics in this universe ... point to a God."

In thinking about virtual particles -- those said to appear from nowhere and then disappear -- Strauss said he has gained an understanding about God's plans.

"There's a verse in Isaiah 55 that says God's ways are not my ways, nor God's plans my plans, for as high as the heavens are from the earth so are God's ways from my ways," Strauss said. "So I look at the subatomic world and I go, 'Who would have ever come up with this? This is so bizarre and so unique ... and yet it's necessary.

"Isn't that what life is like? You're full of these things that [make you say] 'What is this? And why is this happening?' ... And then God just says, 'Don't you get that my ways are not your ways, but they're better, and that they're there for a purpose?"

"When life is not going well, which occasionally happens with me, I look at a subatomic particle and I go, 'I would never make it this way, but any other way doesn't work.' So I can't say that in life I would never have done it this way, but maybe this is the best way."

Photo by Francisca Jones
James Loy (left), executive director of the faith-based nonprofit Renewal Ranch in Conway, shakes hands with Michael Strauss as the Rev. Steven Smith (right) looks on. The nonprofit received the proceeds from the evening’s ticket sales.

Religion on 05/12/2018

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