This is part 1 of a debate.
Yes – Fred Heeren
No–Bernard J Leikind
From the editor
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This is ScienceDiscussion.com’s first debate (earlier published in Cosmic Pursuit magazine) in a series between a Christian (me) and an atheist (physicist Bernard Leikind). In subsequent debates in this series you’ll hear similar questions debated, particularly as they pertain to the latest findings in cosmology, paleontology, biology, history, and archaeology.
One debate is not likely to persuade people to change their firmly held beliefs, but I hope it will persuade readers of one great truth: namely, that it’s possible for people with opposing life-views to sit down together and have a lively discussion without resorting to calling each other unkind names or wringing each other’s necks.
Perhaps we can even learn from one another. When I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Leikind for the first time, I’d like to think he learned that we Christians aren’t necessarily the irrational herd-followers we’re cracked up to be. For my part, I certainly learned that atheists can make great dinner guests.
Unlike my recent conversations with several American Atheist Inc. leaders (who were too emotionally-charged to maintain a rational conversation), Dr. Leikind proved himself a cordial listener, an obliging physics tutor, and an entertaining spinner of tales (especially about his personal experiences as a debunker of fire-walking and Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality). The lesson for Christians (since, as everyone knows, we Christians must find a moral lesson in just about everything) is: For a fun evening, invite an atheist over to dinner.
For this debate (which, to be clear, was carried out in writing, not in a dinner conversation), each contestant first wrote an article giving arguments for his position on the question, and then each wrote a rebuttal after reading the other’s first piece.
Science writer Fred Heeren is in a position to know the arguments for his position from his seven-year search for evidence both for and against God’s existence, a quest that involved picking the brains of today’s great discoverers in science: Nobel prize-winning astronomers, NASA team leaders, and today’s leading theoretical physicists. He founded the Day Star Network to provide the best information possible to aid others who wish to make this quest.
As a physicist, columnist, and editor for Skeptic magazine, Dr. Bernard Leikind is in a position to know the arguments for his position. He received training in plasma physics and fusion energy at Cornell University and the University of Maryland, and his work has involved laser, accelerator, and nuclear energy projects. He has become known for his investigations into the paranormal – and for his debunking of them – while guesting on such popular venues as The Tonight Show.
|Science writer Fred Heeren has devoted seven years to a full-time quest to get to the bottom of life’s big questions. His research included relevant data from science, history, and philosophy. Not content with written information on recent scientific discoveries, he has often gone directly to the discoverers themselves: Nobel prize-winning astronomers, NASA team leaders, paleontologists, and theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking and Alan Guth. Now working for The Day Star Network as “the world’s only cosmic reporter,” his quest has turned into a mission “to encourage people who are caught in a rat-race world to do something uniquely human, to stop and think about life’s big questions.” |
Fred Heeren’s recent projects include the launching ofCosmic Pursuit magazine and the production of several audiotape dramas, including The Adventures of Leon the Cynic. He is working on the completion of a four-book series titled Wonders, of which Show Me God is the first volume. Heeren writes for many publications, including The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal. He speaks at astronomy and physics conventions, participates in debates, and talks to groups that are interested in hearing more about the latest evidence for the intelligent design of our cosmos. He lives with his wife and five children in Wheeling, Illinois.
by Fred Heeren
Because of a series of scientific discoveries made in recent years, modern cosmology has finally caught up to what the Bible has taught all along. Though ultimate questions must remain forever outside the domain of science, today’s cosmologists are finding God hard to avoid. In fact, as astronomer Allan Sandage recently told me: “We can’t understand the universe in any clear way without the supernatural.”
Whether or not agnostics or atheists who read Sandage’s statement can be led to agree with it by the end of this article, I hope they will see that this belief is a reasonable one. As a Christian, I have learned that many skeptics lump my kind of faith together with paranormal beliefs of all sorts: astrology, alien abductions, out-of-body experiences, and especially psychic healing and clairvoyance (since many professed Christians have their own versions of these).
I am a believer in the astonishing power of certain faith healers, such as Benny Hinn and Rodney Howard-Browne; after all, I have personally witnessed them exercise their powers to relieve people of tremendous sums of money. Such powers, of course, can only work their charms on the gullible. Skepticism, I believe, is a useful and uniquely human quality, clearly separating us from animals and soap opera viewers.
In short, I’m as skeptical as Dr. Leikind when it comes to paranormal claims, but I have a good reason for putting the Bible’s claims about God in a radically different category. Science itself now raises questions that naturally bring us to consider the Creator hypothesis, while these other supernatural claims have become increasingly fatuous in a scientific age. Because of my respect for science, I have devoted over twelve years of my life to studying the recent findings and picking the brains of this century’s greatest discoverers – trying to get as close to the evidence as possible – in order to learn how science can aid us in answering life’s big questions.
As I will show, the two greatest scientific discoveries of our century have given us answers to questions that any atheist would prefer to have answered very differently.
Discovery #1: the universe had a beginning
In order to appreciate this discovery, we must first try to forget the Bible. It’s not easy for us Westerners to empty our heads of the idea that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. But human tradition has always assumed that the universe had no particular beginning (the sole exception being the Bible and those religions influenced by it). The ancients didn’t believe that the gods created the universe out of nothing, but that the gods formed it out of an eternal, watery mush that existed before them. And from Aristotle to Einstein, the scientific view was that the universe has simply always been here, thus relieving scientists of the burden of having to deal with the question of ultimate origins.
Scientists today can no longer be so complacent. In his foreword to my book, Show Me God, George Smoot (head of the NASA COBE satellite team that discovered cosmic “seeds”) says: “Until the late 1910s, humans were as ignorant of cosmic origins as they had ever been. Those who didn’t take Genesis literally had no reason to believe there had been a beginning.”
Evidences for a beginning
Relativity. Strong evidence for a creation event in this century began with Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicted the universe’s expansion. Einstein himself refused to believe it for years. Expansion implied a beginning and a beginning implied a Beginner.
Hubble Expansion. The evidence became undeniable, however, when Edwin Hubble used the largest telescope of his time to discover that all the galaxies are rushing away from us, and that there was a precise, linear relationship between the galaxies’ distance and their velocity, as Einstein’s equations had predicted.
Abundance of Helium. Later discoveries continued to confirm the “big bang,” as Fred Hoyle jokingly first called it. While Hoyle was trying to prove his steady state theory of an eternal universe, he instead proved that only an incredibly hot, condensed beginning for the universe could explain the abundance of helium in the universe.
Remnant Radiation. Early big bang theorists predicted that we should be able to detect left-over radiation from the heat of this early dense state, since there is nowhere “outside” the universe for it to escape. Bell Lab’s Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson won the Nobel prize for their accidental discovery of this radiation with the world’s most sensitive low-temperature radio telescope.
“What we found,” Penzias told me, “was radiation for which there is no known source in the universe.” And this pointed the two discoverers away from their previously held belief that the universe was eternal to belief in what Penzias calls “a creation out of nothing.”
Since then, NASA’s COBE satellite measured the precise signature of what’s known as the ‘blackbody’ radiation formed by this microwave background, the spectrum of an event too powerful to be explained by anything in this universe, but expected to characterize the entire universe at its creation. Recognizing this precise curve on his monitor during the first COBE measurement, Richard Isaacman said, “I felt like I was looking God in the face.”
“Fingerprints from the Maker.” George Smoot’s discovery of the predicted ripples in this microwave background yielded still more evidence for the modern theory of a creation event. “It’s really like looking back at creation,” says Smoot, “and seeing the creation of space and time and the universe and everything in it, but also the fingerprints from the Maker, and those very neatly turn out to be the things that caused the universe to be very interesting to us: namely, creating galaxies and stars.” Slightly larger or smaller ripples, he points out, would result in a universe filled with black holes or thin soup, rather than stars and planets.
Baby Galaxies. The latest discovery is something astronomers have long sought as their “holy grail”: primeval galaxies. Finding them would be the most direct evidence possible to show that our universe has truly changed with time. If the Hubble expansion truly implies a creation event, then looking back in time far enough should show us an epoch when all the galaxies were forming, and before that, an epoch when the galaxies had not yet begun to light up at all. But until very recently, astronomers saw fairly normal looking galaxies as far back in time (and distance) as they observed.
All this has changed in 1996, when a team led by Caltech astronomer Chuck Steidel used his ultraviolet dropout technique to find many galaxies beyond a redshift of 2. “We’re seeing the central bulge regions of galaxies forming,” he told me, “where you expect all of the star formation to be happening in a relatively small region.” Moreover, beyond a redshift of 4, he finds he has suddenly entered an era where galaxies have not yet formed at all.
An outside job
The great quest of science is to find the cause for every effect. But as we trace the cause-effect chain back through time, we come to a scientifically embarrassing moment at the beginning where cause-effect relationships simply stop.
Arno Penzias told me: “So what we find – the simplest theory – the one that the astronomers normally espouse, is a creation out of nothing, the appearance out of nothing of a universe.” And in my most recent interview with Robert Jastrow, he said, “It’s a curiously theological result to come out of science.”
It’s “theological” because the Bible also teaches creation out of nothing (creation ex nihilo, Hebrews 11:3). I can’t stress enough, however, that it’s not the theology of any of the other world’s religions coming to us from ancient times. No other culture – Egyptian, Babylonian, Sumerian, etc., can be said to have influenced the Hebrews in this regard. Many modern scientists have come to recognize that, in George Smoot’s words, “there is no doubt that a parallel exists between the big bang as an event and the Christian notion of creation from nothing.”
Einstein first taught us that space, time, and matter are inextricably linked. The expansion of the universe is not a matter of galaxies being flung out into a larger void, but of space itself stretching and taking galaxies along for the ride. This means that if our backward journey through time ends with the disappearance of matter, then time and space must disappear too.
Logic tells us that causes must precede their effects. So what should we think about the cause for this universe when there is no time before the beginning? A cause must beseparate from its effect, meaning that the cause of our universe must be placed squarely outside of it. And this is the first thing these discoveries in cosmology suggest about the universe’s greatest mystery, the greatest whodunit of all time: it was an outside job.
A Creator outside of space
Once again, only the ancient Hebrews got their cosmology right. British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle recognized this when he wrote: “The general concept of gods located fairly and squarely within the Universe was common in ancient times throughout the Near East. The Hebrew departure from this position was evidently very great.”
The Bible proclaims a God who is non-physical. Unlike every other ancient deity, the God of the Hebrews didn’t permit images to be made of Himself, as if He were merely a physical God. Moses reminded the people that, even in their closest contact with God, “you saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you…. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape” (Deut. 4:15-16).
This God could not be contained by the universe. King Solomon prayed: “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). Obviously, the concept was very different from the picture of physical gods held by others in the ancient world: sun gods, moon gods, star gods, river gods, animal-headed gods and goddesses, etc.
And today, if science points to a Creator who must be separate from the physical universe, then pantheistic ideas of God appear to be as misconstrued as polytheistic ones. The Eastern notion of a “Star Wars” God, a God who is a mere “Force” that is one with or part of the universe, is seriously challenged by modern cosmology.
A Creator outside of time
Nothing that is confined to time could have created the cosmos. The Creator must have existed “before” the beginning of time, and from His perspective, He exists in our past, present, and future simultaneously. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). Three times in the New Testament, the Bible speaks of what God purposed to do “before the beginning of time” (1 Cor. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2). The Bible tells us that time is a relative thing to God: “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4). “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8).
The Biblical God’s years are not just infinitely long; He is outside of time altogether. In the verses above, time itself is said to have a beginning. The kind of everlastingness attributed to God in the Bible is not the kind that treats God as someone who lasts as long as time lasts; it’s the kind that treats time as a thing created by God. As Augustine interpreted the Bible (long before he could have been influenced by modern cosmologists), God made the world “with time and not in time.”
Comparing this message with all others coming to us from ancient times, it’s reasonable to think that, if ever God revealed himself to our ancestors, it was through this inexplicably unique revelation to the Hebrews.
Alternatives to a Creator
An oscillating universe. Atheists and agnostics will not sit still for such conclusions, of course. Earlier, they had the steady state theory and plasma cosmology to give them an eternal universe, but these are nearly dead theories today. Cyclic cosmology is also a thing of the past, but judging by the frequency with which armchair cosmologists continue to bring it up on call-in talk-shows, many still don’t know it. The hypothesis proposes that the universe continually bounces back and forth between expansion and collapse. In the last twenty years, all scientists who have done so seriously studied the idea have also abandoned it.
British physicist Richard Morris calculated that, because of an unavoidable increase in entropy, the universe could have had no more than a hundred bounces. He writes: “We are thus led back to the ‘problem’ of creation out of nothing that the oscillating universe was designed to avoid in the first place.” Alan Guth, father of inflationary cosmology, also explored the problem in 1983. The title of his paper for Nature announced his conclusions: “The Impossibility of a Bouncing Universe.”
Most important, cyclic cosmology offers no explanation for how the process began. Though some might use it to postpone the question of beginnings, they still can’t avoid the need for an ultimate cause.
The quantum fluctuation universe. Others have admitted a beginning, but have tried to explain it as a random event, drawing an analogy between the origin of the universe and quantum events. Quantum theory says that space, though it appears to be empty, is actually filled with virtual particle pairs which may “fluctuate” or appear for extremely short periods of time. Perhaps the universe itself came into being via such a quantum fluctuation. But even Ed Tryon, who first proposed the idea in 1973, has recognized the difficulty of trying to explain quantum creation from true nothingness, since the quantum effects he describes require something more than nothing – they require space, something all physicists now carefully distinguish from “nothing.”
Fred Hoyle writes, “The physical properties of the vacuum would still be needed, and this would be something.” The space in our universe is called a “false vacuum” because it contains properties that make it much more than “nothing” – it contains quantum particles and is not truly empty. Thus a false vacuum also demands a cause.
When I asked John Mather (NASA’s COBE satellite chief scientist) if he was aware of any recent theories that might explain how something could come out of nothing by natural means, he told me: “We have equations that describe the transformation of one thing into another, but we have no equations whatever for creating space and time. And the concept doesn’t even make any sense, in English.”
Robert Wilson, co-winner of the Nobel prize for his discovery of the microwave background, told me: “Certainly there was something that set it all off. Certainly, if you are religious, I can’t think of a better theory of the origin of the universe to match with Genesis.”
Hawking’s no-boundary proposal. Others point to Stephen Hawking’s no-boundary proposal for space-time as an alternative to a beginning and a Beginner. Carl Sagan said that Hawking’s proposal is about “the absence of God.” But when I asked Stephen Hawking himself about it, he told me: “I do not believe the no-boundary proposal proves the nonexistence of God, but it may affect our ideas of the nature of God.” The question Hawking raises is this: Is God’s nature such that He is merely related to the beginning of the universe? Or is He related to the universe as a whole?
The “imaginary time” of Hawking’s proposal would not eliminate God, but only the deist’s weak notion of a God who winds up the universe and then lets it go. In his no-boundary model, Hawking told me, “We do not need someone to light the blue touch paper of the universe.” But even a universe without a hard beginning does not necessarily result in a universe with nothing for a Creator to do, for there is apparently more to running our universe than merely igniting it in a big bang.
From a biblical perspective, Christians agree that it is even more in God’s nature to be the ruler of the universe than to be the mere initiator of it. The Bible tells us that everything in the universe is subject to the upholding power of God and could not exist on its own (Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 1:15-17). Physicist Robert Gange says that, according to quantum physics, any universe that lasts more than a Planck time (10-43 seconds) requires more than chance to explain it. Gange believes that quantum physics points to an outside sustainer, not merely an outside initiator.
How to test for God
Scientists can’t observe God, but the universe they observe can certainly yield evidence of either being the handiwork of a purposeful designer or an accidental, self-contained system that has no need of outside agency. The greatest scientific finding of this century, the discovery of a cosmic creation event, points to such an outside need. But another fundamental discovery – one that scientists run up against in fields as diverse as particle physics, microbiology, and astronomy – points to such a need too.
Some time ago, I decided that there is a simple test we can run to see if God is really there. If there is no God, then science should be accumulating evidence for the arbitrariness of nature’s initial conditions; each new constant it discovers should add to a growing picture of a universe that developed according to random laws. We should be learning more and more about the arbitrary nature of nature, the lack of direction behind the forces that happened to result in a life-producing universe.
To find evidence for God, on the other hand, we would need to find clear evidence of care and precision, for our benefit, in the way the universe is set up. We should notice carefully chosen values for these constants, numbers that are obviously adjusted within parameters too narrow, against odds too great, to be explained by chance.
Now if the chances are one in two, or even one in ten, that the universe could happen this way by chance, then we could say that it was an accident that turned out to be fortunate for us. But what if physicists tell us the chances are one in thousands, or billions, or more? What if they call it “fine-tuning”?
Discovery #2: the universe has been fine-tuned
Berkeley astronomer Mark Davis told me: “The universe is an amazingly fine-tuned environment, and physicists are very keen to understand how it came to be this way.” As an example, he described the critical density of the universe that allowed it to expand at a rate just right for the formation of galaxies, rather than to result in an early collapse or a too-quick dispersion. Physicists agree that the expansion rate at the beginning had to be fine-tuned to one part in 10 to the 60th power – that’s 1 with 60 zeros after it – a level of precision that Davis calls “crazy.” Stephen Hawking referred to this critical balance when he said: “The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the big bang are enormous.”
George Smoot describes the big bang as “finely orchestrated.” Astronomer Eric Carlson told me: “This is an incredibly, highly ordered event, extremely highly ordered – it’s just the opposite of a chaotic event.”
Hawking also cites the ratio between the masses of the proton and the electron as one of many critical numbers precisely met in nature. “The remarkable fact,” he says, “is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”
Such fine-tuning for life’s benefit defies natural explanation. When British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle calculated the likelihood that carbon would have precisely the required resonance by chance, he said that his atheism was greatly shaken, adding: “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics.”
Each of nature’s four fundamental forces are also tuned with precision, so that the ratios between them cannot be varied without destroying the possibility of life. If the strong nuclear force were slightly weaker, the universe would consist of nothing but hydrogen; if slightly stronger, the universe would be without any hydrogen at all (and, of course, without stars). Stronger or weaker electromagnetic forces, or a different value for the gravitational constant, would also result in a universe without stars.
Physicist Edward Kolb of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory concludes: “It turns out that ‘constants of nature,’ such as the strength of gravity, have exactly the values that allow stars and planets to form …. The universe, it seems, is fine-tuned to let life and consciousness flower.” Science, he admits, may never be able to tell us why this should be. Berkeley Lab’s George Smoot also tells me that science gives us “no fundamental reason why it has to be that way.”
Which takes more faith?
The theist has a supernatural explanation for the results of our test. Does the non-theist have a natural one? Given the fact that our existence clearly results from an initial fine-tuning that is “just the opposite of a chaotic event,” the non-theist is left with explanations that require greater faith than belief in a purposeful God. Atheists accuse Bible believers of superstitious belief. But perhaps the ultimate superstition is to believe that this physical universe is itself imbued with purpose and with mystical powers that enable it to bring itself into existence – and then to fine tune itself against incredible odds – in order to create conscious persons who could wonder about it.
Science, after all, has delivered us from a belief in mystical powers possessed by nature (or by physical objects like broomsticks and amulets). Like science, the Bible informs us that this physical world is merely a created thing. The prophets specifically condemned superstition, astrology, etc., during a time when these were an integral part of every other belief system. And the reformers nearer to our own time, taking the Bible seriously, helped lead the scientific revolution in its work to de-mystify nature so that it could be studied, bringing it back to its rightful place as the handiwork of God without power of its own.
And so I conclude that, in this century, science is finally catching up to what the Bible has taught us all along. The two most fundamental discoveries of 20th-century science – that the universe had a beginning and that it has been finely tuned for life’s good – are also the two primary teachings of Genesis 1. Here the Bible starts with the declaration, contrary to all contemporary beliefs, that the heavens and the earth had a beginning. And here we learn, as the key feature of each stage of creation, that “it was good.” And when all parts were completed and working together in preparation for conscious life, “it was very good” – just as cosmologists and particle physicists who wrestle with the fine-tuning problems have discovered.
No matter what my readers’ conclusions may be, faith must be involved. Scientists and lay people alike must ask themselves: Which takes more faith to believe? That the creation and fine-tuning of the universe point to some means by which the universe created the universe, or that we created the universe, or that God created the universe? These are our only options.
|Educated at Cornell University and the University of Maryland, physicist Bernard J Leikind has researched and taught at the Universities of California in Los Angeles and San Diego, and at San Diego University, and has worked at General Atomics. His training is in plasma physics and fusion energy, but he has worked on laser, accelerator, and nuclear energy projects. Since the outbreak of peace and the shrinkage of funds for fusion research, he has worked for Wheb Systems, a software company in San Diego. |
Dr. Leikind enjoys the science of everyday life and the scientific investigation of the paranormal. His studies of fire-walking led to him to appearances on The Tonight Showwith Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show. Bill Nye the Science Guy featured him as the Way Cool Scientist in a show on the paranormal. He writes a humorous science column, “The Question All Skeptics Are Asking:” forSkeptic magazine.
by Bernard J. Leikind
Modern science offers scant comfort for those who believe that God plays an active role in the physical operations of the universe. Beginning some three centuries ago, researchers have gradually extended the realm of natural law and simultaneously reduced the kingdom of supernatural powers. Today even the beginnings of life and the beginnings of the universe, God’s traditional domains, are subjects of scientific study.
One result of this extension of natural law is that some believers no longer claim that God rules nature. God’s manifestations, they might say, are not the forces and materials upon which we may all stub our toes. God exists as spiritual ideas and feelings within our minds and hearts and appears to us through our thoughts and actions. This makes God responsible for the good and the bad in human behavior. I have no quarrel with these believers, although I see no way to tell if their views are true or false. To me these ideas seem an unneeded metaphor for the source of human character and behavior.
How many still adhere to more traditional views? There must be many. In various forms, these traditional believers hold that God created the universe, as in the Genesis stories; or that God runs the universe, minding every sparrow fluttering in a tree; or that God intervenes in the natural world to adjust the otherwise smooth operation of natural law, saving this baby here and striking that plane from the sky there. They believe that the world expresses God’s inscrutable purposes.
These believers find that scientific knowledge, cosmology, fundamental physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, and psychology, undermines their views on every front. Religious knowledge, which professes absolute truth, fails while science, which professes fallibility, succeeds. Any open-minded seeker must agree that tradition and revelation cannot provide us with reliable guides to the natural world.
Physics and biology take over God’s jobs
Until the rise of science in the eighteenth century, Westerners believed the Biblical accounts of God’s creation and operation of the world. They believed that God was in the details. Newton, an eccentrically religious man, taught us that the heavens and the earth were one, governed by a single, marvelous, all-embracing law. God no longer managed the flight of every butterfly. Instead, he established a law of beautiful simplicity and set the world free to run its course. To many believers and to most scientists of Newton’s time, God had created and energized the world’s marvelous mechanism but did not involve himself in its daily operations. This clockwork universe was and still is profoundly unsatisfactory to those who prefer an interventionist god who can be induced to watch over and protect them.
In any case, most thought that life fundamentally differed from the world’s gears, axles, pulleys, and grease. God, they believed, had instilled a spiritual essence in humans that distinguished their substances and souls from lower lifeforms and from inanimate matter. The collapse of this élan vital doctrine began in the nineteenth century. Let us date this event to the 1820’s with Wohler’s synthesis of urea. Life’s chemicals were just chemicals. Believers retreated again. If God used the laws of physics and chemistry when he created life, at least he must have designed its many forms. Ignoring our appendixes, our bad backs, and my tendency to baldness, believers now asserted that the perfection of natural design reflected God’s all-embracing purposes and the perfection of his methods. He chose to make the okapi and the platypus, the mudfish and the bumblebee just so. How else could it have happened?
Darwin taught us how. His theory of natural selection explained the mysterious fact of evolution and the riotous variety of life. Subsequent developments in biology have confirmed and extended the truths that Darwin proposed. Unknown and perhaps even unimaginable to Darwin, discoveries such as classical genetics and the genetic code have corroborated his proclamation of the unity of life. We now know that humans barely differ from chimpanzees and that our most prized accomplishments, such as language and culture, are merely one end of a continuum that extends from animals to us.
Natural law rules everywhere and has done so for all time
Physics and astronomy, in the meantime, were expanding their territory. Einstein’s theories extended Newton’s laws to universal scales while quantum mechanics brought the reach of scientific law to the tiniest objects. Let us consider one of the amazing recent developments in astrophysics, cosmology, and fundamental physics that assure us of the universal reach of scientific knowledge.
Using quantum theory, relativity, fluid dynamics, and other sciences, astrophysicists study the structure of stars. Unfortunately, we have only one relatively nearby example, if you consider 100 million miles nearby, and we can only see its surface. Astronomy is an observational science, and the time scales over which stars change are millions of times longer than the lives of astronomers and even of astronomy. Astronomers are like naturalists studying a forest and imagining from a week’s observations of trees, young and old, the life cycles of trees. Unlike the woodsmen, who can chop down the trees to look inside and can climb over them looking at the leaves and seeds, astronomers can only look at stars from a distance. Connecting their ideas with experiments and observations when they could, modern researchers now understand the composition and life history of stars.
Recently a supernova appeared in the Magellanic Clouds, smallish galaxies near our Milky Way. Although astronomers see a few supernovas each year in distant galaxies, this was the first nearby one since 1572. A supernova is the death of a large star. Its nuclear fuel exhausted, the star no longer resists the inward pull of gravity with thermal energy and radiation pressure. According to theory, in amazing and rapid sequence the core collapses and explodes. An outward bound shock wave blasts away the now unsupported outer layers. Rebounding inward, the shock wave crushes the interior, which may collapse to form a neutron star or a black hole. The entire event may last only minutes. This star-stuff maelstrom radiates immense quantities of energy. For a few days or weeks, a supernova may give off as much energy as an entire galaxy of 10 billion normal stars.
No astronomer was lucky enough to have been looking at this star at the moment its light began to brighten. An observant astronomical observatory technician in Chile noticed the new star while stepping outside, perhaps for a smoke.
Astrophysicists predict that a supernova’s tremendous burst of light accompanies an even larger burst of neutrinos, physics’ ghost particles. These particles, which have hardly any properties at all and which barely interact with anything, must have zoomed off in all directions with nearly the speed of light early in the immense collapse.
The astrophysicists’ calculations about collapsing stars showed that the supernova must have emitted its neutrino blast before its light reached its brightest. They called their colleagues at neutrino observatories deep below the earth’s surface in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Neutrinos are so elusive that these massive detectors, huge tanks of cleaning fluid or water, must collect neutrino evidence for months. “Look in your tanks,” the astrophysicists said. “You have already made a great discovery.” They were right. Each of the observatories had detected a few tens of neutrinos at about the same time.
Consider this achievement. Using theories from nearly every part of physics, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, nuclear physics, atomic physics, and elementary particles, scientists had predicted the events in a star’s death throes. The stuff of the star transformed itself under extreme conditions and complexity never duplicated on earth. If any of these theories had been in error by much, this prediction would have failed. The supernova explosion provided us with a test of virtually all of physics. (I guess that it did not check the theory of superconductivity.) This property of our theories, that evidence from many sources combines and confirms itself, is a major reason why working scientists believe that they are approaching the truth about nature. This also shows us that the laws of nature known to us on earth must be the same hundreds of thousands of light years away and must have been the same when that star exploded hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Science pushes God’s tasks into the distant past
Beginning with the discovery of deep time by early nineteenth century geologists, scientists have pushed to successively earlier epochs the moment when, as in the Sidney Harris cartoon about a complicated mathematics proof, “… a miracle occurs.”
In biology, this miraculous moment is the time, billions of years ago, when chemicals somehow crossed the line from just chemicals to living chemicals. In this matter lack of evidence hampers us, and it may be that our evidence of this imperceptible and distant event will never be sufficient to eliminate all but one theory. Even if we were there, we might not have been able to notice the slight difference between definitely dead chemicals and definitely alive chemicals. We would not have seen anything spectacular enough to class as a miracle.
Our problem is not that we have no ideas and so need a miracle. Our problem is that we have too many good ideas and the right one may still not be among them. Even if, through hard thinking and good experiments, we succeed in creating life from inanimate chemicals, how could we confirm that we had found what had happened on the early earth?
In a sense, the creation of life may be easy. We now have evidence of ancient algae from more than three-and-a-half billion years ago. The earth had become cool enough for liquid water to exist only a few hundred million years before. So, to reach the stage of algae in the allotted time, life’s most primitive forms must have begun about as soon as possible. Doing better than pond scum, on the other hand, must be difficult. It took more than two billion years for more complicated life to appear.
In physics, the miraculous moment is The Big Bang. The entire universe, all of everything, even space and time themselves, appeared from nothing. How could this be? No one knows. Will we ever know? Until recently, most physicists thought not. The very conditions at the beginning, the so-called singularity, seemed to destroy the validity of the known laws of physics. Not only were physicists resigned to failure, they were distressed by the idea of a creation. It smelled too much like the Garden of Eden.
In his book, God and the Astronomers, Dr. Robert Jastrow cites distinguished physicists expressing their discomfort at the thought that the universe had somehow sprung into existence. Although The Big Bang differed from the biblical story in every detail but the critical one of creation itself, the religious took solace and some scientists despaired. Dr. Jastrow pictures the scientists climbing the mountain of nature’s truths. Exhausted, they barely crawl to the top. They are surprised to find a convention of theologians. “What took you so long? We have been here all along.”
What is The Big Bang and what is the evidence for it? In the 1920s astronomers discovered that the color of the light sent to us from distant galaxies was redder than the light from nearer ones. The more distant the galaxy the more the shift of light from short wavelengths to longer wavelengths. The astronomers tried many ways to account for this reddening. For example, intergalactic dust can redden star light in the same way that the eruptions of Mt. St. Helen’s and Mt. Pinatubo reddened sunsets. After the astronomers accounted for all known reddening causes one remained: the distant galaxies were moving away from us. This recession velocity lowers the light’s frequency in the same way that the pitch of a car horn sounds lower when the car moves away from us than it does when it stands next to us.
Like raisins in bread baking in an oven, the galaxies are sailing apart from each other, and the further apart they are the faster they are separating. Running the film backwards, so to speak, astronomers calculate that 10 or 20 billion years ago everything was in the same place. Distance measurements are among the most difficult and controversial in astronomy. That is why age estimates for the universe have only one significant figure and the range covers a factor of two. To be brief, astronomers have had to adjust their time scales every decade or so. At first, the adjustments made the universe older. You may have read the recent newspaper accounts to the effect that new measurements of the universe’s age show that the universe is younger than its oldest stars. Whatever the actual age turns out to be, this controversy does not contradict the idea that everything was once in one place, or, put another way, that every place was one place. The dispute has to do with how fast to run the film backwards.
By the 1960s, not long before Dr. Jastrow wrote his book, two other powerful lines of evidence had persuaded astronomers that The Big Bang was real and that various proposals for an eternal universe were unworthy. One of these lines of evidence was the discovery of the so-called three degree blackbody radiation. This faint microwave radiation, which comes to us from intergalactic space, finds its only natural explanation as the remnant radiation from the exceedingly hot, dense early universe cooled by the expansion. A third line of evidence that supports The Big Bang idea is that astronomers can calculate from supposed conditions of the earliest state the amount of primordial helium, lithium, and a few other light elements.
These three pillars, cosmic expansion, remnant background radiation, and primordial elements, form the foundation of what is now a massively supported structure called The Big Bang theory. During the past thirty years, The Big Bang theory has passed many scientific tests. Like carpenters laying in additional crossbracing, astronomers have solved problems posed by the theory, and they have made predictions subsequently confirmed. Over the years the Big Bang theory has withstood many storms. And yet, from clouds looming over this triumph of natural, universal law a mocking voice still calls out, “Where did it all come from? Explain that!”
Is supernatural intervention necessary to create the universe?
The remnant three degree microwave radiation comes to us equally from all directions. This tells us that when the radiation last hit something, a few hundred thousand years after the beginning, the things that it hit were uniformly distributed throughout the young universe. If this last opaque material were uniform then astronomers could not explain how gravitation could have produced the clumps that later formed galaxies. They have been looking for nonuniformities in the radiation.
Recently, they found them. Professor George Smoot, from Berkeley, announced that, after many years of searching, his detectors had measured tiny variations, less than one hundredth of one per cent, in the microwave background. He proclaimed “We have seen the mind of God!” With this overblown metaphor, Professor Smoot, who probably does not believe that God created the universe, sent physicists’ eyes rolling. For at almost the same time other physicists have begun to find the tools and the language to ponder the uncaused formation of the universe from nothing.
This extraordinary advance arises from a startling confluence of our theories of the microscopic world, quantum mechanics and elementary particle theory, and our theory of the universe as a whole, general relativity. The ideas involved are speculative. This area of investigation is still an exciting melee where imagination counts as much as careful calculation and observation.
I will try to explain some of these ideas to you, but do not quote me about this. Everyone’s ideas might be completely different next year. The significance of these ideas is not whether they are right or wrong, but that the realm of the last miracle now seems within the reach of science.
Quantum mechanics is our most fundamental theory about the microscopic world. This powerful, deep, accurate, and beautiful theory teaches us that the world of the tiny is radically different from the world of our everyday experience. One remarkable difference is that tiny things have vague properties. Usually scientists explain the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which embodies this vagueness, by saying that you cannot measure a particle’s position and velocity at the same time as accurately as you wish. Measuring one very carefully will disturb the measurement of the other. This leaves readers with the view that the particle has a particular position and velocity, but that the scientists cannot measure it. A more truthful statement of the Uncertainty Principle would be that a particle does not have a position or velocity. The scientist and the particle together create the fuzzy position or velocity that the measuring instrument reports.
Forgive me for not going into the details. The upshot of this microworldly vagueness is that nothing itself has properties. For if nothing were exactly zero it would violate the Uncertainty Principle, that every tiny thing is vague. Physicists call this nothing the vacuum and the vacuum has ghostly properties. Particles and their antiparticle brethren spring into existence and vanish again. They have to do this so quickly that we cannot directly see them. If we could see them, it would not be a vacuum, but if they were not there the vacuum would be exactly nothing and it would violate the vagueness rule.
Some of you may think that this is worse than theologians considering whether an omnipotent God can move an immovable object. The difference is that this fuzzy nothing has effects that we can compute and measure. A few decades ago, in a theoretical and experimental tour de force, physicists calculated and observed the Lamb shift, as it is called. The properties of atoms are different by a tiny amount because of the fuzzy vacuum, so we know that quantum things pop in and out of existence.
General relativity is our most fundamental theory about the entire universe, about gravitation, and about space and time. Einstein taught us that these things inextricably entwine. General relativity is not a quantum theory, and physicists believe that every theory at its base has to be a quantum theory. What happens when you apply quantum mechanics to general relativity? No one today knows, but we can make some guesses.
Space and time themselves must come in tiny indivisible chunks. Professor John Wheeler, a famous relativist, illustrated one of his papers with a close-up of a sponge. “This is a picture of space-time at the smallest scales,” he wrote.
In popular speech the shortest possible time is a New York minute. It is the time that elapses between a stoplight turning green and the cabby behind you honking his horn. This time is 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000005 seconds. Physicists call this the Planck time. What is a New York inch? It is the distance light travels in a New York minute, which is a number with ten more zeros. If space and time come in chunks, the chunks are tiny.
What happens to matter when it squeezes into such tiny spaces and when things happen at such short times? No one knows very much about this, but we think that it must happen to the stuff inside a black hole, and we guess that the universe must have been that small once. Students of quantum gravity think that, just as quantum particles flicker in and out of existence from nothingness, so must quantum time and space. What does it mean for a tiny bubble of space and time to come into existence? The nothingof quantum relativity produces universes. It’s a little hard to talk about how big these bubbles are, since everything, including space and time are inside them, but most are tiny and short lived. Some, however, in the fuzzy way of quantum theories, are bigger and last longer. The laws of physics themselves appear within the bubbles and may differ from one bubble to the next. Do not forget that we are engaging in informed speculation.
Even now, within black holes, irresistible gravitation is crushing matter to the quantum nothingness from which universes can appear. Perhaps, some physicists have guessed, universes themselves evolve. Those that have the right laws and properties to produce new universes remain. We are here because this particular universe has the right properties to produce black holes and so must its ancestor universes. Evidently, to produce many black holes a universe must be big enough and powerful enough to last long enough for it to be possible that life can evolve somewhere within it.
These wonderful speculations are different from metaphysics. They stand upon strong theories and solid knowledge, but they are at the frontiers of human knowledge. Are they true even there? No one knows, but unlike revelation, these ideas are subject to critical tests – experimental and observational confirmation.
One brief matter remains. Would a quantum relativistic bubble universe have a cause? It would not. Quantum events, such as the decay of a radioactive nucleus, the spontaneous creation of elementary particles, or the measurement of a fuzzy quantum property, have no causes. The doctrine that quantum events have causes yet unknown to us, is called the theory of hidden variables. My hero, Albert Einstein, acknowledged the accuracy of quantum mechanics, but hoped someone would clear up the quantum world’s fuzziness. Amazingly, in the last decade, experiments, done first in France, have shown us in a powerful and general way that to wish for hidden variables is a forlorn hope.
The uncaused universe
Dear reader, you have followed me a long way. I have suggested to you that the last miracle, the creation of the universe, may not remain a supernatural event for long. When science finally solves the origin of the universe, the last reason for belief in the supernatural will vanish, but the mystery will remain. Let us face the facts with courage. The universe is without cause and without purpose. This assertion throws many believers into a black funk. “What is life for?” they ask. “How can I live without knowing that my life has a purpose?” Cause and purpose are not properties of the universe like mass and momentum. They are creations of the human mind. That fact is the source of our glory and of our despair. We are responsible to ourselves, to our peers, and to future generations for the consequences of our actions, insofar as we can foresee them.
Author: Fred Heeren & Bernard J Leikind