From Modern Physics and Christian Faith Edwin N. Hiebert in: Lindberg David, Numbers Ronald (eds.) 1986 God and Nature, Historical Essays on the Encounter between Chrsitianity and Science, Univ. California Pr., Berkeley 424.
Both this worldview and the more widespread mechanical picture suffered substantial demolition at the hands of the new physics between 1895 and the 1930s. The new physics rested on radically modified conceptions of space, time, motion, simultaneity, causality, the dynamics of energy changes, and the wave-particle nature of both matter and radiation. It entirely eliminated the ethers. During this same period the spontaneous and induced transmutation of atoms gave rise to "the new alchemy." The discovery of argon forced chemists to admit into the periodic table new chemical elements that had no chemical properties. Physical scientists also demonstrated that electrons were discrete particles of negative charge and small mass. The discovery of other elementary particles suggested their use as projectiles to study the nucleus and the structural features of molecules, atoms, and nucleons. Refinements in cryogenic techniques allowed scientists to study the strange properties of matter in the vicinity of the absolute zero of temperature. And with the enunciation of a third law of thermodynamics, by Walther Nernst (1864-1941) in 1906, it became possible to calculate theoretically the feasibility of physical and chemical processes.'
By the 1920s Albert Einstein (1879-1955) had eliminated the notions of absolute space, time, and motion, postulated a four-dimensional universe, and laid out the general theory of relativity. He also, along the way, had introduced the equation that gives the magnitude of energy involved in the annihilation of matter. However, his relativity theory attracted little attention until 1919, when a solar eclipse allowed astronomers to confirm his prediction about deflected starlight.
The Irish dramatist and critic George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), in his play Too True to Be Good, greeted the theory of relativity with disillusionment:
"The Universe of Isaac Newton, which has been an impregnable citadel of modern civilization for three hundred years, has crumbled like the walls of Jericho before the criticism of Einstein. Newton's universe was the stronghold of rational Determinism: ... Everything was calculable: every thing happened because it must: the commandments were erased from the tables of the law; and in their place came the cosmic algebra: the equations of the mathematicians. Here was my faith: here I found my dogma of infallibility.... And now-now-what is left of it? All is caprice: the calculable world has become incalculable."
The period beginning in 1895 has been referred to as "the golden age of physics" because of the revolutionary nature of the experimental and theoretical advances associated with the discovery of X rays and radioactivity; the enunciation of relativity, the quantum theory, and the photon theory of light; and the study of the nature and properties of the internally structured atom.
The statement by Niels Bohr (1885-1962) in 1927 of the principle of complementarity, which elucidated the enigma introduced by wave-particle duality, initiated vigorous discussions among both scientists and theologians. As Hans Bethe has indicated, although the thirties were politically anything but happy, for physics they were in fact "the happy thirties. As might be expected, the turn-of-the-century revolution in the physical sciences prompted considerable theological debate, especially in scientific circles. Although some persons were thoroughly confused and deeply disturbed by the apparent need for so radical a conceptual switch to accommodate the new findings and ideas, others gloried in the outcome.
Some writers argued that the hitherto satisfactory conceptual world of nature had been cut loose from age-old and tested moorings, and that henceforth scientists would be set adrift in an uncharted'intellectual sea destined for worlds unknown, in which the average Christian would be hard pressed to survive. Others turned the argument on its head by asserting that the hand of God should be in evidence everywhere in nature, including the very large, in cosmology, and the very small, in the subatomic constituents of matter.
Many scientists, in the process of designing the new physics, came to realize that arrogance about scientific knowledge, assertions about absolute and rock-bottom truths, and talk about having discovered all the great laws of physics had become pass. The new physics, like the classical physics, was invoked both to defend and to attack traditional Christian doctrine. By and large, however, it came to be seen by Christians as an ally of faith, offering freedom from the implied determinism and materialism of the Newtonian worldview. The British physicist James jeans (1877-1946) expressed the joy with which many greeted the new physics:
"The Classical physics seemed to bolt and bar the door leading to all freedom of will; the new physics hardly does this; it almost seems to suggest that the door may be unlocked if we could only find the handle. The old physics showed us a universe which looked more like a prison than a dwelling place. The new physics shows us a universe which looks as though it might conceivably form a suitable dwelling place for free man, and not a mere shelter for him- a home in which it may at least be possible for us to mould events to our desires and live lives of endeavour and achievement."