Home / Testimonies / Douglas J. Henderson

I am writing this at the invitation of Dan Peterson. Evidently, he has had contact with “cultured” gentlemen, and ladies, who regard the Gospel and all religions as “cults.” I find this attitude to be amusing since the words cultured and cult have the same root.

I testify that the Gospel is true. This is not because God or Jesus have visited me but because I have had some powerful experiences that have testified this to me.

But what is truth? Because of Newton’s work, scientists originally thought that everything was determined by the initial positions and velocities of a system. As a result, some thought that we had no free will. Our life was determined by the solution of a complex set of second order differential equations. Such thoughts were overturned a century ago by quantum theory and the uncertainty principle. Einstein was repelled by the uncertainty principle, saying that God did not play dice with the universe. However, dice or no dice, the uncertainty principle is still with us. Einstein talked about “God,” but there is no evidence that he was thinking in terms of a personal God. Rather, he meant the essence of the universe.

Most early scientists thought of the universe as an infinitely divisible continuum. The rules of chemistry suggested otherwise but it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that all scientists accepted the existence of atoms. Atoms were first thought to be hard billiard balls that were indivisible. Shortly thereafter, it was decided that atoms were composed of “elementary” particles—electrons and protons and then neutrons and then a large family of elementary particles—and that these were the building blocks of the universe. More recently, the elementary particles have come to be believed to consist of even more “elementary” particles: the, as yet, unobserved quarks. Will this analysis go on, perhaps infinitely? This would not surprise me.

I do not doubt that the universe and the earth are billions of years old. Life is very old. Man is a primate and evolved over millions of years. Where does Adam fit into this picture? Perhaps he was the first man to whom God revealed Himself. In any case, the book of Genesis is not a manual for creating worlds or life. I accept that there was a flood. The story of the flood persists in too many cultures to be dismissed. But is there enough water to flood the entire earth? Can all the species of life (or at least those that would drown) be placed in a relatively small vessel? On the other hand, can life be explained by a random process? I think not. If the universe is, as I believe, infinitely complex, could it develop in a finite length of time unless creation were guided by an infinite personage? I do not believe that life is possible without God.

Can science, as practiced by humans, find the truth? I believe that science finds only an approximation to the truth that needs continual refinement. The scientific method gives us a self-correcting method of seeking the truth. I believe that scientists observe what can be thought of as an exceedingly complex multi-dimensional chess game, whose rules are unknown to them. A subset of the rules must be determined by observation of the game and are continually subject to revision. How closely these empirically determined rules correspond to the actual rules is really not known.

One might think that since it is a human construct, mathematics is fully understandable. Unfortunately, this is not so. Gödel showed that logically undecidable propositions exist. One might say “Fine, but let us stick to numbers. They, at least, are clear.” Well yes, if we stick to a finite set of numbers. However, numbers are infinite. The counting numbers, or integers, continue indefinitely. Whatever the value of the integer that we create, we can always add one more. Mathematicians say that the integers are infinite but countable. The total number of integers is given a name, aleph-null (aleph is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet). What about rational numbers, or fractions? Rather obviously, there are more rational numbers than integers. Yet Cantor showed that the rational numbers can be ordered in a one-to-one relation to the integers and the rational numbers are still countable. This sounds strange but this is so because the integers and rational numbers are infinite sets. However, the real numbers (integers, fractions, square and higher order roots, transcendental numbers, such as pi, …) are not countable. Amusingly, the source of this uncountability seems to be the set of numbers for which an algorithm to create such numbers cannot be given. Is there a relation between aleph-null and the number of real numbers? Probably there is, but it has not been established although the relation is believed to be exponential. The integers and real numbers are but two of an infinite set of infinities. Is the set of all infinities countable? Mathematicians seem to think so as they index the set of infinities, aleph-n with an integer, n. However, the countability of the alephs is not known, at least not by me. It is claimed that thinking about infinities drove Cantor insane. He died in a sanatorium. Do you understand this? I don’t. An infinite mind is required.

I subscribe to the view of my friend and mentor, Henry Eyring, that the Gospel is the totality (countable?) of truth. Whatever is true is part of the Gospel. However, it will take us a very long (infinite?) period of time to know all the truth. Is it even possible to know all (infinite) truth? The Gospel gives us the portion of the truth that is sufficient to bring us to God. That is sufficient for me.

Let me close by relating an experience of mine that occurred not quite twenty years ago. I was sitting in the chapel of the Lomas Ward of our Church in Mexico City. The young man in the row in front of me had a recently inflicted wound in the lower part of the back of his skull that had been closed with many stitches and that literally extended from ear to ear. He was a missionary for our Church. A stranger had come behind him with a machete and attempted to decapitate the missionary. However, the man’s aim was poor and he struck the missionary’s skull, not his neck. The combination of this poor aim, the presumably blunt machete and insufficient force, and the Lord’s protection left the young man with a huge scar but with his head attached. The missionary might have said that enough is enough and he wanted to return home. Instead, he said that he would remain and complete his mission. If the missionary’s name was Elder Superman this would not be remarkable. However, he is typical of the young missionaries who are sent out by our Church. The faith and courage of these young men is what is remarkable. What is the source of this faith and courage?

Recently, I saw a sign on the internet, “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season (Christmas), Celebrate REASON.” Unfortunately, reason is insufficient.

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Douglas Henderson was born in Calgary, Alberta, and grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia (both in Canada). He obtained a BA in mathematics from the University of British Columbia and a PhD in physics from the University of Utah under the direction of Henry Eyring. An Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow (1964-69); a visiting scientist at the CSIRO Chemical Research Laboratories in Melbourne, Australia (1966-67); a visiting professor at the Universidad de la Plata in Argentina (1973) and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science (1974); Manual Sandoval Vallarta Professor of Physics at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, in Mexico City (1988); and honorary professor of chemistry at the University of Hong Kong (1992-present), he has also taught physics and mathematics at the University of Idaho, Arizona State University, and the University of Waterloo (in Canada). The bulk of his career (twenty-six years) was spent at the IBM Research Laboratory in San Jose, California. The final two years of his tenure at IBM were spent on leave, teaching physics as the Juan de Oyarzabal Professor at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (Iztapalapa campus) in Mexico City. After retiring from IBM, he taught chemistry at Brigham Young University for ten years, during which time he received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. He won the Joel Henry Hildebrand Award for Contributions to the Theory of Liquids and Liquid Mixtures from the American Chemical Society in 1999. Dr. Henderson is now nominally retired, but he continues to be active in research. Most recently, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (2009) and awarded an honorary doctorate in Condensed Matter Physics by the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (2010).

Posted January 2011