It was a childhood dream come true. I'd always wanted to be a scientist and here I was learning how to do just that in a university organic chemistry lab, wearing a white lab coat no less, measuring out milligrams of crystals, milliliters of solvent, mixing and cooking, watching and waiting for magical reactions, recording the results that would validate once more the theory of the atom.

Chemistry was about molecules, and molecules are all made of atoms. If you understood how the atoms connected together, you could understand everything because this was reality broken down to its most basic components.

Or so I thought.

"Not now," I pushed him off, almost rudelyIn the middle of this lab session, as literally hundreds of undergraduate students like me were racing against the clock, following highfaluting recipes to manufacture large, complicated molecules from the simplest of parts, I was summoned to the side by one of the dozens of supervisors, a doctoral student in chemistry who wanted to talk.

"Not now," I pushed him off, almost rudely. "I've got to finish this experiment and there's still a lot to do."

"Don't worry about it," he said, "this is important."

"But what about the results?"

"Who do you think is marking you, anyway? Don't you know what results you are supposed to be getting from this experiment?"

"Sure I do. But theory is one thing, practice is something else."

"Actually, that's my point. What mark do you want to get, anyway – an 'A'? I'll give it to you. Just come on over here with these other guys and listen to what I've got to say."

That all sounded pretty weird to me but, hey, if he was willing to give me an A in any case, why not? A group of about six undergrads stood quietly around the grad student as our peers carried on busily with their tasks at hand.

"Basically I just want you to know that atoms aren't real."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

What was the purpose of this special attention to the individual human?"Atomic theory is, well, just that, a theory. We have no clue what's really going on at the submicroscopic level. It's just that when you assume the theory is true, the observations are predictable, but there could be other theories about matter that explain these observations as well. Besides, a lot of atomic theory makes absolutely no sense. The more you study it, the stranger it gets. It doesn't really explain anything. It can just describe our observations with mathematical models. But why should those mathematical models work at all? Nobody really knows."

Frankly, at the time I thought he was nuts—who knows, maybe he was. But I'm thinking about him today as we rewind the Torah scroll back to the beginning and to the creation of man, the first man, Adam.

According to the sages, the creation of man was different than that of any other life form. All other plants and animals were created by species, in vast numbers, whereas man was created singular. Even his mate was created separately a little later. But why so? What was the purpose of this special attention to the individual human?

This, our sages say, is in order to emphasize the immeasurable significance of each individual human being—man, woman or child. Indeed every person is obliged to say, "Bishvili nivra ha'olam—For my sake, was the universe created."

For the Orthodox Jew, this may feel like just another pearl of wisdom from the treasury of the Torah. But for someone like me, who was indoctrinated in the sciences, it's a bombshell, and for two reasons:

First, it flies in the face of the popular notion that everything evolved over billions of years through random events. Of course there's no hard proof for this, and in fact there are very good reasons to doubt it, but it's part of our secular heritage, a remnant from the 19th century materialistic worldview. According to this belief, all meaning is imaginary and the "truth" is that life is but a meaningless hiccup in the grand cosmological scheme of things, and any other belief is unsubstantiated myth. Strike one against "For my sake was the world created."

If I'm so important, what's everything else doing here? Second reason the secular scientist is surprised by such a declaration is the sheer enormity of the universe. All of humanity inhabits a thin biosphere on a miniscule planet in a tiny galaxy in a little family of galaxies floating around in the unimaginable vastness of space. If I'm so important, what's everything else doing here?

Ironically, it is the very rationalistic and materialistic model of things that led to its own disfavor. How do scientists try to explain phenomena? By analysis, that is, taking them apart. Take a system, break it down, look at the parts, break them down into smaller parts until finally you get down to atoms and their component parts, the quanta.

According to this approach, if we understand the quantum building blocks, we will come to understand nature as a whole. But these quanta don't behave like normal building blocks. For one thing, the overwhelming majority of each atom is empty space. Stuff isn't really stuff – it's energy fields. And the electrons that take up most of the atom's volume are unknowable, mysterious entities that do countless odd things like jump from level to level without going through the intervening space.

Perhaps the most surprising property of the quantum is that it cannot be considered objectively real until observed. It seems that how you look at it determines what it is. If you choose to observe it as a wave, it is and always was a wave. If you choose to observe it as a particle, it is and always was a particle. Never mind that something cannot be both a wave and a particle at the same time. For example, a wave can go through two holes at the same time while a particle can only go through one. Suddenly, it no longer seems so farfetched to say "for my sake is the world created."

Physicists refer to this subject-object mixing as observership, and since everything is made up of these quanta, the new physics somehow puts man right back in the middle of physical reality.

A perhaps more radical example of this is non-locality. Since 1982, experiments have been replicated the world over showing that our choice of how to observe reality in one place defines how it unfolds in other places as well. For example, if you fling little alpha particles (helium nuclei) at a block of calcium in just the right way, you will get pairs of photons that fly off in opposite directions. It turns out that you can choose which of two opposite properties one of the pair has, and strangely enough, having done that, its far-away twin will necessarily show only the opposite property.

Each and every one of us has the power to determine physical realityFor example, observing the first photon as "spin up" forces the other one to be "spin down," but you could equally have chosen the first photon to be "spin down" which would have forced the second one to be "spin up." The amazing part of this is that the effect is non-local which means that the observation instantaneously impacts the here and now as well as remote objects and earlier times. And since all quanta in the universe are believed to be linked, or "entangled" as the physicists call it, each observation impacts the world as a whole.

Step by step, "for my sake, the world is created" is sounding more and more feasible.

The upshot is that the same physics that used to teach us that we humans are irrelevant, random assortments of recycled stardust are now coming to tell us the very opposite: That each and every one of us has the power to determine physical reality and even the history of the universe as a whole, all the way back to its origin. And all this just by exercising uniquely human

By exploring the Atom, we have revealed insights into Adam, and mankind's unique and central role in how the universe unfolds. This old/new view of life has such frighteningly enormous existential implications, one could easily get overwhelmed.

By way of an antidote, try the following anecdote, as told by Monty Charness to my son on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. A man gave his son a map of the world, but the map was torn into many small pieces. The father said it's up to him to put the world back together, but it wouldn't be easy. In just a few minutes, the son returned with the thing perfectly assembled.

"How did you do it so fast? Are you such an expert in world geography?"

"Not at all! I saw that on the other side there was picture of a boy. I knew that if I could put the boy back together, the world would be alright, so that's just what I did."

Let us not be daunted by the destiny of the big, complicated world out there that's in our hands. Instead let us focus on restoring our own image, as a happy Jew pursuing goodness and kindness, and then the flip side of the picture will fall into place, a world as ready as we are... for Moshiach now.