[image from https://mexicoinstitute.files.wordpress.com/ 2013/03/folk-art-community.jpg]

Particles in the universe come in two types, named bosons and fermions, after Satyendra Nath Bose and Enrico Fermi (“boson” is pronounced with a long ‘o’ and a hard ‘z’, to rhyme with “goes on”). Bosons include things like photons (particles of light), which can be absorbed or emitted in large quantities. Fermions include things like electrons and protons which form the building-blocks of matter. The chief distinguishing characteristic of these different types of particle is that bosons can congregate together in the same region of space and state of motion, all moving along together. Fermions, by contrast, only ever exist one at a time in any given place and state of motion. Photons in a laser beam are an example of bosons gathered together in the same motion. Electrons in different orbitals in atoms are an example of fermions avoiding one another. This leads to the fact that atoms with different numbers of electrons behave differently, which is the basis of chemistry.

When fermions bind together to form a composite entity, such as an atom, then if the number of fermions is even, then the composite entity is a boson. That is, the atom as a whole behaves in the way that bosons behave, even though its constituent particles are of the other, fermionic, type. And one of the most interesting behaviours of bosons is the one illustrated by the laser beam. It is the situation where many particles come together in the same place and state of motion. This is also what leads to superconductivity in metals, when the electrical resistance falls to zero and a current can flow for ever, even without any electrical voltage. It also leads to superfluidity in liquids such as helium, where, at low temperatures, a large fraction of the fluid flows without any restricting friction or viscosity. The transition from ordinary flow to superfluid or superconducting flow is called Bose-Einstein condensation. In this transition the motions of the particles overlap and they cease to behave like particles; they behave like waves that can wave in unison.

These observations lead to a lot of interesting science, and some fruitful technological possibilities. It is also possible to appropriate them for metaphors of what goes on in the meetings of people, and for the meeting of people with God. Some of what goes on in such meetings might sound impossible, or it might sound like mystical nonsense. And of course sometimes people do misinterpret their own experience. But the possibility of a profound union between one person and another is a well attested part of the experience of friends and lovers, and it is part of the very nature of deep friendship. It is a depth of mutuality that is uncommon, but it is not unheard of and it is not impossible.

What we dare to seek for in Christian community is this sort of level of connection between just ordinary people, just folks who happen to be living in the same place and time and do not share any links except the ones they build as they meet with each other and with the convener of all meetings.

Here is a poem about this.



When helium atoms look like particles, the integrity
of each is enclosed, is held in, so that
as they bounce off each other

you can, in principle, track them,
and so judge which was which. You can
tell which brought what to the interaction;

which was the gainer, which the loser. If you
cool them down then atoms start
to behave more like waves.

The integrity of each is preserved but extended,
so that when they meet they overlap
and you cannot, even in principle,

track them and so judge which was which. There is
no meaning to the question “which
gained and which lost?” There is only

the meeting. For a moment each is itself and the other.
When the heat is low enough the viscosity
suddenly plummets to zero.

In a congregation which is all meeting,
a magical, impossible fluidity results.
But it is not impossible. It is possible.


Andrew Steane, Oxford 2015