The Strong Force

By March 16, 2020 No Comments

Of the four fundamental forces – gravity, electromagnetic, weak nuclear and strong nuclear – the strong nuclear force is the big man on campus.  It’s the strongest, the most influential, and the most esoteric.  All four of the forces are essential to our survival and very important, but the strong force is a majestic force to behold.  It ensures the integrity of all matter and under its influence atoms are lighter than they would be if you added up the mass of their individual parts.  How can this be?

Early on in science class you learned that opposite charges attract and like charges repel each other so why do protons in a nucleus stick together?  Shouldn’t they fly apart?  If one proton escaped, carbon would become boron and oxygen would become nitrogen.  The very fabric of the universe depends on those little protons staying put. When I was a kid in school, I was told neutrons acted sort of like glue to hold everything together, but that was wrong.  Scientists didn’t really understand what was holding protons together until the 1960s and whatever that mysterious binding force was, they named the strong force.  And strong it is, about 137 times stronger than the electromagnetic force which continually pushes those protons apart.  The strong force is so much stronger than gravity that if strength were measured in size, gravity would be a basketball and the strong force would be 500 million suns!  What’s fascinating though is while gravity’s range is infinite, the strong force acts over a range of only about one femtometer, one millionth of one billionth of a meter, or about the diameter of an ordinary atomic nucleus.  Some larger elements are radioactive because their atomic nuclei are larger than the range of the strong force and the electromagnetic force becomes dominant, finally succeeding in pushing protons apart.

In the quest to find ever smaller sub-atomic particles, scientists discovered the quark and gluon which comprise protons and it is the gluon which mediates the strong force.  Hebrews 1:3 tells us God upholds all things by the power His word and the interaction of gluons is the means by which God maintains the order of matter.  Gazing deeper into space reveals ever more celestial bodies, and particle accelerators smashing atoms in search of a fundamental particle reveal yet smaller particles.  Whether infinite or infinitesimal, God’s attributes are on display.  His infinitude, His omnipotence, and His sovereignty.  No matter big or small, God is in control here, there, and everywhere.

The strong force is finely tuned for life.  If it were even stronger, hydrogen’s single proton would have fused with other hydrogens forming helium, depriving the interstellar medium of hydrogen gas necessary for the formation of stars and, without hydrogen, there’s no water (H2O), which is a non-starter for life on earth.  If the force were weaker, smaller atoms, like oxygen, could become unstable.

What happens if God stops mediating the strong force and suddenly releases control?  2 Peter 3:10-12 tells us that someday the elements will melt with fervent heat.  That’s a pretty good first century A.D. description of what would happen should nuclear binding energy be released.  In nature, all matter seeks the lowest energy state and achieves it in particular atomic or molecular configurations.  In the nucleus of an atom, achieving the lowest energy state means the mass of the nucleus is less than the sum of the masses of the individual protons and neutrons.  Einstein equated energy and mass in his famous equation E = mc2, and the binding energy released when the elements melt with fervent heat is the difference between the rest mass of an atom and the summed masses of its constituent particles multiplied by the speed of light squared!  The atomic bomb demonstrated the catastrophic consequences of releasing nuclear binding energy when uranium-235 was bombarded with neutrons, leading to an uncontrolled nuclear fission reaction.  That bomb used about 140 pounds of U-235, but imagine if God suddenly removed His sustaining hand, releasing the binding energy of all matter in the universe!

Until a little over fifty years ago, we couldn’t explain the essence of matter.  That fact is quite humbling and perhaps the depth of man’s ignorance was never taught to you in school.  If you dismiss Jesus because you believe in science, please understand that science can only be practiced precisely because Jesus is sovereignly upholding all things by the power of His command.  He is a God of order and the laws of physics reflect His nature.  God authored the laws of physics and science codifies the principles He established.  Therefore, you can trust the sovereign Savior, not only to keep protons together and uphold the integrity of matter, but with your very life!  Today is the day of salvation.