A universe of fireworks

The following is a guest post by Dr. Elizabeth Fernandez, who is both a friend and colleague of Dr. Salviander. Dr. Fernandez is a Catholic, an astrophysicist, and a freelance journalist. She is interested how science affects society, interfaith dialog, and the overlap of science with ethics, philosophy, and religion. Dr. Fernandez’s participation in interfaith dialog has included radio and television appearances, and organizing panel discussions, lectures, and field trips. You can follow her on Twitter at @sparkdialog.


Is it possible to be devoted to religion, yet come up with cutting edge science? Georges Lemaître thought so.

Lemaître. Probably the greatest scientist you’ve never heard of. He hung out with the likes of Hoyle, Eddington, and Einstein. And he came up with one of the most controversial ideas of modern cosmology, an idea that fundamentally changed how we looked at the universe.

Oh, yeah. And he was a Catholic priest.

Georges Lemaître always had two passions in life: science and religion. He knew he wanted to be a priest when he was 10 years old. While he served in WWI with the Belgian army, he read the Bible alongside physics textbooks while huddled in the trenches. He earned two bachelor’s degrees — one in math, and one in philosophy. He attended graduate school at the same time he was in the seminary, and is one of those rare, very dedicated people who earned not one but two PhDs — one in math and one in physics. He was one of the first people to suggest that computers could be used to solve complex problems, and was one of the inventors of the Fast Fourier Transform, an often-used tool in mathematics and computing.

At the time Lemaître started his research, around the beginning of the 1920s, the preferred view of the universe was Albert Einstein’s static universe. In this universe, galaxies hang in a fixed constellation with respect to one another, unmoving through the eons. Of course, physics tells us that gravity should draw all of these galaxies towards one another, and, if you wait long enough, everything would come together in a catastrophic collapse. In order to keep this from occurring, Einstein added a “cosmological constant” to counteract gravity: some mysterious outward force that would exactly balance the inward pull of gravity. This universe has no beginning; in fact, it’s ageless — quite possibly always existing in the same configuration we see today.

But Lemaître had a different idea. Since 1912, another astronomer named Vesto Slipher noticed in his observations that many galaxies were receding from Earth quite quickly. This didn’t quite fit into the concept of a static universe. Some scientists thought this was just a fluke, and others thought of it as one of the great cosmological puzzles of the time. It was Lemaître who figured it out. After delving into relativity, he came up with a new model of the universe – a model where space itself was expanding. This expanding space had the ability to whisk galaxies along with it, which explained the recessional velocities measured by Slipher. It was revolutionary. According to Lemaître’s model, the universe could change.

A changing universe… it was an incredible idea, but most scientists didn’t pay much attention. Einstein, even though he respected Lemaître greatly, didn’t believe his hypothesis, saying to Lemaître, Vos calculs sont corrects, mais votre physique est abominable. (“Your calculations are correct, but your physics is abominable.”) Lemaître’s own PhD advisor, Arthur Eddington, left Lemaître’s paper sitting on his desk, either unread or forgotten.

But Lemaître did not stop there. Three years later, he proposed an even more radical idea. He extrapolated the motions of the expanding galaxies backwards, predicting that at some time in the far distant past, all matter was compressed to one single point, what Lemaître called the “primeval atom.” Not only was the universe evolving, but it had a beginning.

Just as when Copernicus proposed that the earth went around the sun rather than the other way around, Lemaître’s idea was not met with accolades. Eddington didn’t like the idea of the primeval atom. Einstein thought it was unphysical. Lemaître’s own friend, astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, was a big opponent of the theory, explaining its shortcomings on public radio.

But, contrary to what most physicists of the day believed, Lemaître ended up being right. A couple of years after Lemaître made his prediction about the expansion of the universe, Edwin Hubble observationally confirmed Slipher’s discovery that galaxies are in fact moving away from one another. (Hubble is commonly credited for discovering the expanding universe because of these observations, even though Lemaître made his prediction years earlier. Oddly enough, when Hubble first observed these galaxies moving away from Earth, he vehemently stated these motions had nothing to do with an expanding universe, but rather should somehow fit into the static universe model.) And shortly before Lemaître died, he heard the final confirmation of his primeval atom hypothesis when astrophysicists, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson, announced their discovery of the cosmic microwave background — the leftover radiation from the fireball of the universe’s creation. Now, Lemaître’s theory is so well known that it’s a household name — the big bang theory.

I wonder what many people would think if they knew one of the most well known scientific theories of our day was developed by a Catholic priest. Today, there is considerable debate if science and religion are compatible. Lemaître faced some of this controversy, but it did not distract him. To put it simply, he was in search for the truth: a truth that could be accessed through science, but also through religion. In the words of Lemaître:

Man’s highest activity is searching for the truth. It is the factor which distinguishes us from animals, and our specific activity is to grasp the truth in all its forms.

Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes . . . The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses . . . As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.

The universe is an amazing, complex place. Georges Lemaître, in his quest for the truth, saw past the prevailing theories of the day to discover something fascinating and beautiful, a universe with a beginning, with galaxies constantly in motion, a universe that is, in the words of Lemaître, the “ashes and smoke of bright but very rapid fireworks”.

The path to delusion — redux

Several readers have asked me about the purported new evidence for multiple universes, and what truth there is in the claim:

Have scientists discovered a parallel universe? Bright spots from after Big Bang may be another universe bumping into our own

In response, I’m reposting this article from last year. It links to a must-read interview with physicist, George F. R. Ellis, who offers sobering commentary on a growing tendency to mistake good theory for reality.

Update: A friend of mine encapsulates the goofiness this way:

Yesterday I was eating my Wheaties, and I noticed that my cereal pieces were smaller on average than than the Wheaties I’d eaten the day before. Now, there are alternative explanations that some have given, like maybe my Wheaties box is almost empty now so I’m getting down to the crumbs at the bottom, but my experience is also consistent with the possibility that my Wheaties box switched places with a Wheaties box from a parallel universe where Wheaties are smaller. If so, this would be the first time we’ve directly observed Wheaties from another universe. We can’t rule this out at this time.

In this excellent interview, eminent physicist George F. R. Ellis discusses the ill-advised direction in which some scientists are going:

Horgan: Physicist Sean Carroll has argued that falsifiability is overrated as a criterion for judging whether theories should be taken seriously. Do you agree?

Ellis: This is a major step backwards to before the evidence-based scientific revolution initiated by Galileo and Newton. The basic idea is that our speculative theories, extrapolating into the unknown and into untestable areas from well-tested areas of physics, are so good they have to be true. History proves that is the path to delusion: just because you have a good theory does not prove it is true. The other defence is that there is no other game in town. But there may not be any such game.

Scientists should strongly resist such an attack on the very foundations of its own success. Luckily it is a very small subset of scientists who are making this proposal.

It is indeed a very small subset, but it is also a very vocal and visible subset–many of these scientists are in the popular media as representatives of science. Ellis also takes them to task for formally rejecting philosophy while unwittingly engaging in a weak form of it.

The great irony here is that any atheists who claim to champion evidence and reason are abandoning both if they claim that the multiverse hypothesis, or any other fundamentally untestable idea put forth by scientists, is very likely true, because it’s elegant or the math is convincing or it’s beautifully consistent with what we believe, and so on. I have to check myself here, too, because I find some of these untestable ideas compelling for the same reasons. But, in terms of the irony, as Ellis points out, it was Galileo and Newton—both Christians—who revolutionized science by making it primarily an experimental, evidence-based endeavor, and now this is being dismissed by those who also ostensibly dismiss faith; they have abandoned evidence and reason in favor of what may only be a beautiful delusion.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire interview with Ellis (who is himself a Christian, incidentally) for an engaging discussion of what’s going awry on the modern scientific landscape.

Newton’s magic vs. Hawking’s science

Stephen Hawking is back in the news making a fool out of himself. In an interview with a Spanish newspaper, Hawking is quoted as saying, “The laws of science are sufficient to explain the origin of the universe. It is not necessary to invoke God.”

Hawking could only be referring to the multiverse as this explanation, as there are no other “scientific” explanations for the origin of the universe. The problem is, as eminent physicist George F. R. Ellis puts it, the multiverse is just “scientifically based philosophical speculation.” Or, as I like to say, the multiverse isn’t science, it’s merely science flavored.

Surak dismantled Hawking’s specious argument the last time he claimed science had usurped God, so I won’t rehash that. What I want to do, is take this opportunity to contrast the modern, secular scientism so evident in Hawking’s claim with the classical, Newtonian view of science. Consider the following, written by John Maynard Keynes in his essay, “Newton, the Man”:

Because he [Isaac Newton] looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood. He believed that these clues were to be found partly in the evidence of the heavens and in the constitution of elements … but also partly in certain papers and traditions handed down by the brethren in an unbroken chain back to the original cryptic revelation in Babylonia. He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty—just as he himself wrapt the discovery of the calculus in a cryptogram when he communicated with Leibniz. By pure thought, by concentration of mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate.

In his biography of Newton, Mitch Stokes commented further:

Most modern scientists pride themselves on having purged themselves of thoughts of mystery and magic, while unwittingly using theories that are as mystical as they are “scientific.” Newton, believing that the world is full of magic, found that it *is* full of magic. He, in turn, revealed some of his discoveries to us.

If you take the particular atheistic view of the universe that there is no God and that only science can reveal the true nature of the universe, then it is one of the great ironies of the world that a classical mystic who thought he was working magic ended up being the greatest practitioner of science who ever lived, while a modern secular hero of science who thinks he’s practicing science is really just working magic.

Darwin’s junk science

One of our readers, Russell, is studying Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and finding it less than compelling:

I’m halfway through “On the Origin of Species” So far, it’s been junk science. I’m serious, multiple times now he’s said something along of the lines of “I totally have super-solid proof, but I don’t have room in the book to share it. Any of it. Ever. But believe me, it’s totes awesome.” And “Let’s say evolution could possibly do X.” Then a few sentences later, “Since evolution does X, it does Y.” No proof offered, nothing but assertions and denial of actual data.

So far, he’s done one experiment with bees, gave up in the middle of it, and then declared it was a success!

How this became as popular as it did baffles me. How it became a cornerstone of scientific thought confuses me to no end.

If people, especially scientists, actually read his book with the same skepticism they use for just about anything else, I’m sure they’d toss out Darwin’s evolution and start over.

For me, as a believing Christian, Darwin’s book has only strengthen my conviction that the Bible’s account of creation is more accurate in description than the theory of evolution.

This is why you should always go to the source, and not take anyone’s word for what an author said or meant.

As for why the book became so popular, my guess is that it’s mostly to do with Thomas Huxley, aka Darwin’s Bulldog. Huxley latched onto Darwinian evolution as a way to undermine Christianity, even though he was aware of its scientific shortcomings. It’d be difficult to quantify, but he was at least modestly successful in that regard. Huxley’s most profound achievement, however, was to undermine scientific advancement in the field of biology and to erode public trust in science in general. If he had known that this would be the cost of attacking Christianity, I wonder if he still would have promoted Darwin’s idea.


Scientific revenge poetry

There are few things more annoying for a scientist presenting at a conference than to be scheduled as the last presenter. A lot of attendees have lost interest by then or have left the conference, leaving you with a sparse and worn-out audience. When Australian astrophysicist, J. W. V. Storey, found himself in this unenviable situation in the 1980s, he got his revenge by presenting his research in the form of a poem and then later submitting his paper to the conference proceedings in poem-form.

Here is a sample:

I wrote my abstract, sent it in,
With words that don’t offend.
Imagine my horror to find that I
Am scheduled at the end.

Let me say, to be last speaker,
There are very few things worse.
And so this talk, to get revenge,
Will be entirely in verse.

The subject I address today
Is that of star formation.
And what we’ve found out recently
About the situation.

Stars start out as clouds of gas and
Dust and bits of spinning stuff.
Collapsing gravitationally
Until they’re dense enough.

They form themselves in little lumps,
(Or so says this bloke Jeans).
‘Dynamic Instabilities’
Whatever that term means.

It goes on for quite a while and includes figures, some of them charmingly hand-drawn. But the story doesn’t end there.

Last year, Storey’s family shared the following with one of my colleagues, which shows that the referee assigned to review Storey’s paper — who can now be identified as John Whiteoak — responded in kind, by producing his own poem to express his commentary (“Dick-Ed” is Richard McGee, the proceedings editor):

Whiteoak review


The path to delusion

In this excellent interview, eminent physicist George F. R. Ellis discusses the ill-advised direction in which some scientists are going:

Horgan: Physicist Sean Carroll has argued that falsifiability is overrated as a criterion for judging whether theories should be taken seriously. Do you agree?

Ellis: This is a major step backwards to before the evidence-based scientific revolution initiated by Galileo and Newton. The basic idea is that our speculative theories, extrapolating into the unknown and into untestable areas from well-tested areas of physics, are so good they have to be true. History proves that is the path to delusion: just because you have a good theory does not prove it is true. The other defence is that there is no other game in town. But there may not be any such game.

Scientists should strongly resist such an attack on the very foundations of its own success. Luckily it is a very small subset of scientists who are making this proposal.

It is indeed a very small subset, but it is also a very vocal and visible subset–many of these scientists are in the popular media as representatives of science. Ellis also takes them to task for formally rejecting philosophy while unwittingly engaging in a weak form of it.

The great irony here is that many of the atheists who are self-styled champions of evidence and reason are abandoning both when they claim that the multiverse hypothesis, or any other fundamentally untestable idea put forth by scientists, is very likely true, because it’s elegant or the math is convincing or it’s beautifully consistent with what we believe, and so on. I have to check myself here, too, because I find some of these untestable ideas compelling for the same reasons. But, in terms of the irony, as Ellis points out, it was Galileo and Newton—both Christians—who revolutionized science by making it primarily an experimental, evidence-based endeavor, and now this is being dismissed by those who also ostensibly dismiss faith; they have abandoned evidence and reason in favor of what may only be a beautiful delusion.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire interview with Ellis (who is himself a Christian, incidentally) for an engaging discussion of what’s going awry on the modern scientific landscape.

Replay: “All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning”

Traffic’s up after the announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers. This article was originally posted on February 21, 2012

So says Tufts University physicist, Alexander Vilenkin, who made this statement at a meeting in January in honor of Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday. (I’m a little late getting around to this, but it’s worth commenting on.)

To fully appreciate the magnitude of this statement, consider that the prevailing view of cosmology for more than two thousand years was that of an eternal universe. This view began to change in the 1920s, when astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that the spectra of most galaxies are redshifted, and the further away a galaxy is from the Milky Way, the more its spectrum is redshifted. What this means in plain English is that almost all of the galaxies he observed are rushing away from each other, and those that were further away are rushing away faster. Incredibly, it appeared the universe was not only changing, but expanding. If you imagine running the expansion in reverse, so that galaxies rush toward one another as you go back in time, you end up with a point at which the expansion started — a beginning in time and space.

Belgian physicist and priest, Georges Lemaître, anticipated this discovery with what he called the “hypothesis of the primeval atom,” based on his solution to the Einstein field equations. The universe’s beginning was predicted to have been very energetic and violent, and was therefore dubbed as the “big bang.” Four decades later, physicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the predicted afterglow of this big bang, which eventually earned them Nobel prizes. By the late 1980s, sophisticated satellites were mapping the tiny fluctuations in the intensity of the big bang afterglow, which allowed physicists to calculate an age for the universe. By the end of the 20th century, there was near-consensus that the universe had a beginning that occurred some 11-17 billion years ago. (The cosmological model-based number is ~14 billion years.)

The big bang has had its detractors. It was astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, out of deep skepticism for the idea, who sarcastically applied the term “big bang” to this cosmological model. (Let it not be said that physicists are overly sensitive — the term stuck and has been used in all seriousness ever since.) Hoyle’s collaborator, astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge, famously ridiculed physicists who had hopped on the big bang bandwagon as “rushing off to join the First Church of Christ of the Big Bang.” There were two reasons scientists reacted this way. First, some scientists found the idea of a universe with a beginning uncomfortably close to the Genesis account of creation. Second, from the point of view of physics, mathematics, and philosophy, a universe with a beginning is far more messy to deal with than an eternal universe, which requires no explanation. Even still, the evidence for a beginning is now so overwhelming that most physicists have come to accept it, and the big bang has become the prevailing paradigm governing all of physics.

Nevertheless, some physicists had not given up on the idea of an eternal universe, but the focus changed to devising sophisticated models for an eternal universe that fit the observed data — in other words, an eternal universe that incorporated key features of the big bang model. Some of these features are explainable by invoking what’s called inflation, which refers to an early period of exceedingly rapid expansion. This idea was proposed by Alan Guth in the 1980s, and it can also be applied to an eternally inflating universe in which regions of the universe undergo localized inflation, creating “pocket universes.” This inflation continues forever, both in the past and into the future, and so in a sense it represents an eternal universe. Another idea was the cyclical universe, which posited that the universe is eternally expanding and contracting. In this way, the big bang that occurred 14 billion years ago would be just one of an infinite number of big bangs followed by ‘big crunches.’

All of the evidence indicates ours is a universe undergoing perpetual change. To replace Aristotle’s age-old idea of an eternal, unchanging universe, physicists came up with hypothetical eternal universes that were perpetually changing. This was an ingenius approach, but as Vilenkin announced last month, they just don’t work. Guth’s idea turns out to predict eternal inflation in the future, but not in the past. The cyclical model of the universe predicts that with each big bang, the universe becomes more and more chaotic. An eternity of big bangs and big crunches would lead to a universe of maximum disorder with no galaxies, stars, or planets — clearly at odds with what we observe.

As the journal New Scientist reports, physicists can’t avoid a creation event. Vilenkin’s admission exemplifies the reason physics is the king of all the sciences — physicists are generally willing to admit when their cherished ideas don’t work, and they eventually go where the data and logic lead them. Whether this particular realization will pave the way to serious discussion of God and consistency with the Genesis account of creation remains to be seen. Physicists can be a stubborn bunch. As Nobel laureate George P. Thomson observed, “Probably every physicist would believe in a creation if the Bible had not unfortunately said something about it many years ago and made it seem old-fashioned.” Still, some physicists are open to the idea. Gerald Schroeder, who is also an applied theologian, has written profoundly on the subject. His book, The Science of God, is an illuminating discussion of how the Bible and biblical commentary relate to the creation of the universe.

Replay: An invalid equation

Traffic’s up after the announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers. This article was originally posted on January 23, 2012

Scientists working in the Netherlands and the U.S. who developed a more transmissible strain of the deadly bird flu have temporarily suspended their work to allow governments around the world time to assess the risks to “biosecurity.” The Dutch and American scientists, who produced their work separately, have submitted their results for publication. The National Institutes of Health, which funded the research, has requested the omission of important details over fears that the information could be used by terrorists to unleash a potentially genocidal attack in the future.

Keep this in mind as you consider what atheist writer and neuroscientist, Sam Harris, says about his “extinction equation”:

religion + science = human extinction.

He argues that religion is the source of all great conflict. Continued conflict with the destructive tools provided by science will result in the destruction of humankind. Therefore, all those who are dedicated to science must work to eliminate religion if humankind is to avoid extinction.

Yet as Christian writer, Vox Day, stated in his book, The Irrational Atheist, if we take Sam Harris’ Extinction Equation seriously, historical evidence shows that the most prudent action we can take is to eliminate science. As a professional astrophysicist who has dedicated her life to science, I must grudgingly concede that Day is correct if we are limited to an either/or choice between religion and science.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, it’s not difficult to choose which variable to set equal to 0 in Harris’ Extinction Equation. It would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate religion, which has existed in myriad forms for at least several thousands of years. Even religion’s greatest opponents, secular humanists devoted to Darwinism, recognize that the human species demonstrates a deep and enduring need for religion, so much so that even today as much as 90% of people in the world claim to be religious in some form or fashion.

Science by comparison has only been around in its modern form since the time of Galileo. It is understood, supported, and practiced by vastly fewer people around the world than religion is. The scientific method does not come easily to most people, which is why it takes many years of education and training to effectively instill it even in the small minority of humans who are predisposed to it. Science would simply be much easier to eliminate from humankind than religion.

Historical evidence also shows that religion, all by itself, poses far less of a threat to humankind than science does. It is true that throughout history religious groups have made war against each other. But the whole truth is that humans have always fought one another for territory and dominance beginning long before the appearance of modern religions. There is little or no evidence of peaceful coexistence on Earth at any time or place with or without religion. Monotheistic religion is therefore not a basic cause of conflict, but rather a relatively recently added element in the ongoing chaos and conflict of human affairs.

During the thousands of years that religion has existed, the human population has risen from a few million to almost seven billion. Since the time of the Reformation, human prosperity has improved to the point where 75% of humankind has risen out of its natural state of poverty, and there is a well-founded hope that the remaining 25% will follow in the next 50 years. The only threats to human survival during the time of religion were the possibility of an errant asteroid, such as the one that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs, and naturally-arising contagious diseases that periodically ravaged civilizations.

Science and technology has changed all of that — there can be no doubt that they’ve had a much greater and more negative impact on human violence than religion ever had. An explosion of technology beginning in the 15th century made it possible for the ongoing conflict to enter the era of modern warfare resulting in new levels of slaughter which eventually led to the horrors of the First World War. The determination of the Nazis to use science to destroy its enemies in World War II rushed humankind to the point where scientific knowledge could result in its utter destruction.

Realistically speaking, and regardless of the dangers, we can’t put the scientific genie back in the bottle. Nor can humans live without some spiritual/moral system. As the world seems on the brink of a preemptive attack (possibly nuclear in nature) to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability, there is good reason to be pessimistic about the future of humankind. Some kind of moral system must function to prevent scientific knowledge from causing the end of conscious life on Earth. As Vox Day observes, “the more pressing question facing the technologically advanced societies today is Quis eprocuratiet ipsos scientodes? Who will supervise the scientists?”

Does such a moral system exist? Yes, and that’s why I don’t think we face Harris’ either/or choice. Surak explains why here.

How the Christian view of time led to modern science

People in the modern West take for granted that events proceed in a line stretching from the past through the present and into the future. They also believe that each point in time is unique—two events can be very similar, but no event or chain of events is ever exactly repeated. This view of time is called linear time, and it is so deeply ingrained in Westerners from birth that it is difficult for them to imagine any other view of time. However, the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived have had a very different view of this fundamental aspect of existence.

Cyclical Time

Non-linear time

The alternative to linear time is a belief that time endlessly repeats cycles. I have great difficulty convincing my astronomy students that, from an observational point of view, cyclical time makes much more sense than linear time. I ask them to place themselves in the ancient world with no clocks or telescopes or computers, but only their senses to guide them and imagine what they would be capable of understanding about time. The days would be marked by the daily motions of the Sun and other celestial objects rising and setting in the sky, the months would be marked by repeated phases of the Moon, and the years would be marked by the reappearance of certain constellations in the sky. Other cycles in nature, such as the seasons, tides, menstrual cycles, birth-life-death, and the rise and fall of dynasties and civilizations, would dominate ancient life.

It should therefore be no surprise that the religion and worldview of many cultures were based on a belief in cyclical time. Among them were the Babylonians, ancient Chinese Buddhists, ancient Greeks and Romans, Native Americans, Aztecs, Mayans, and the Old Norse. These societies practiced an ancient astronomy called astrology which had as its chief function the charting of the motions of heavenly objects to predict where people were in some current cycle. It was a complicated process, because there are multiple cycles occurring in the heavens at any time, and ancient beliefs were based on the idea that human fate was determined by cycles working within other cycles. As a result, ancient calendars, such as the Hindu and Mayan, were very elaborate with a sophistication that surpasses those of the modern West. The idea of cyclical time continues in the present day with Hindu tradition and native European tradition such as that of the Sami people of northern Scandinavia.

Mayan Calendar

Mayan calendar

Not only does cyclical time make sense in terms of what people observe in nature, but it also satisfies a deep emotional need for predictability and some degree of control over events that the idea of linear time can’t. If time flows inexorably in one direction, then people are helplessly pulled along, as though by a powerful river current, toward unpredictable events and inevitable death. Cyclical time gives the promise of eternal rebirth and renewal, just as spring always follows winter. These pagan beliefs were so powerful that they continue to influence all of us today; for example, the celebration of the belief in the constant process of renewal is the basis for the New Year holiday.

Obviously, all people have thought in terms of linear time on a daily level, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to function. But on the larger scale of months, years, and lifetimes, the notion of linear time was viewed as vulgar and irreverent. A cyclical view of time was a way for people to elevate themselves above the common and vulgar and become connected to that which appeared heavenly, eternal, and sacred. This view also offered a form of salvation in the hope that no matter how bad things are in the world at the moment, the world will inevitably return to some mythical ideal time and offer an escape from the terror of linear time. You and I would consider this ideal time to be in the past, but in cyclical cultures, the past, the present, and the future are one.

Primitive cultures, like the Australian aborigines, had no word for time in the abstract sense—that is, a concept of time that exists apart from people and the world. For them, time was concretely linked to events in their lives—the past, the present, and the future formed an indistinguishable whole as the great cycles determined everything. The ancient Hebrews also had no word for and therefore no concept of abstract time, yet their concept of time was a linear one in which events occurred sequentially. These events formed the basis for their concrete notion of time. Except for the first six days of creation, time as described in the Old Testament was completely tied to earthly events like seasons, harvest, and, most importantly, God’s interaction with the world.

The ancient Greeks also believed the universe was cyclical in nature, but unlike other ancient cultures they also believed in an abstract notion of time that exists separately from events. They had two words for time—chronos and kairos—representing quantitative/sequential time and qualitative/non-sequential time respectively. From chronos we derive familiar time-related words such as chronological, chronic, and anachronism. In order to appreciate the Greek concept of time, one has to understand that to the Greeks time was motion. It’s not difficult to envision since the length of a day is measured by tracing the path of the sun and stars across the sky. When Plato spoke of time, he described an “image of eternity … moving according to number.” His student, Aristotle, said that time is “the number of motion in respect of before and after.”

Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle from the fresco “The School of Athens” by Raffaello (1510)

The Judeo-Christian beliefs about time that emerged during the time from Moses to that of Jesus mark a profound break with the thinking of the ancient past. Events of the Bible clearly indicate a unidirectional, sequential, notion of time that is utterly counter-intuitive to what the senses observe in nature. Time is not discussed directly in the Old Testament, but we can gain an understanding of the ancient Hebrew notion of time from the language. The ancient Hebrew root words for time were related to distance and direction: the root word for “past” and “east” (qedem, the direction of the rising Sun) is the same; the root word for the very far distant in time (olam), past or future, is also used for very far distant in space.

Perhaps the ancient Hebrews anticipated the early 20th century mathematician Hermann Minkowski, who postulated that space and time are two aspects of a single entity called spacetime.  In any case, the Hebrew practice of viewing time from a perspective that looked backward was eventually adopted by modern astrophysics. The Judeo-Christian concept of linear time developed into our modern view of time and became one of the great foundations of modern science.

Something very powerful was required to overcome the ancient perceptions of and feelings about time.  Though the concept of linear time started with Judaism, it took hold and was spread throughout the Western world by the rise of Christianity. In the fifth century, Augustine noted that the Bible is full of one-time events that do not recur, beginning with the creation of the universe, culminating with the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and ending with the Second Coming and Judgment Day. He realized that Christian time is therefore linear rather than cyclical. The desire for some sense of control and the hope for eternal renewal became better satisfied by a belief in a loving Creator and the resurrection of his Son who was sacrificed on the cross. (It is interesting to note, however, that cyclicality does have some place in Christianity—we are born when we leave the womb and we are reborn when we go to heaven.)

Nearly a thousand years after Augustine made his pronouncement, the era of clock time emerged. Clock time is measured by mechanical apparatuses rather than by natural events, and marks the final triumph of abstract linear time over concrete, cyclical, event-driven time. Mechanical clocks were invented in Europe in the 14th century, followed by spring-driven clocks in the 15th century. Refinements to spring-driven clocks in the 16th century enabled Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe to make his famously accurate celestial observations, which were used by Johannes Kepler to formulate the laws of planetary motion.

Tycho Brahe and his quadrant

Tycho Brahe and his quadrant

However, the motivation for increasing precision in time-keeping was not motivated by pure science, but rather by the application of science in the quest for accurate navigation. Sea-faring navigators required precise measurements of time so that they could use the positions of star-patterns to determine longitude. With these highly precise clocks, it was possible to keep excellent time. It is interesting to note in the phrase “keeping time” the abstract notion, meaning we keep up with the external flow time rather than events defining the concrete notion of time.

It is not a coincidence that the era of modern science began after the invention of high-precision time-keeping devices. Modern science began with the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries, starting with the Copernican Revolution, but it progressed slowly because of a lack of necessary technology. Galileo, for instance, was forced to time some of his experiments by using his own heartbeat. By the late 17th century, Newton had formulated the branch of mathematics now referred to as calculus and published his laws of gravity and motion. His work was based on his belief in a flow of time that was both linear and absolute. Absolute time means that it always takes place at a rate that never changes.

Remember that the ancient Greeks viewed time and motion as one. This is important because the scientific study of motion based on the principle of cause and effect requires linear time. Newton’s laws and his view of time as absolute held sway for almost two hundred years. But Newton suffered from limited perspective just as the ancients had—humans perceive time on Earth as always taking place at the same rate, but that isn’t true. Newton is still considered the greatest scientist who ever lived, but we know now that he did not have the full picture.

Isaac Newton performing an experiment

It was Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity that gave humankind the strange truth about time. By the early 20th century Einstein had succeeded in demolishing Newton’s notion of absolute time, showing instead that time is flexible, it goes by at a rate that is different in different places in the universe, and it is really dependent on the location and movement of the observer of time. It is interesting that the Bible anticipated this in Psalms 90:4, “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.”

The current scientific view of time is a combination of the ancient Greek abstract notion of time, the Judeo-Christian notion of linear time, and Einstein’s relative time. Cosmology, the branch of physics that deals with the overall structure and evolution of the universe, works with two times: local time, governed by the principles of relativity, and cosmic time, governed by the expansion of the universe. In local time, events occur in the medium of spacetime as opposed to being the cause of time. Time is motion, motion is time, and objects may freely move in any direction in space.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

But the next big scientific question is, can objects also move in any direction in time? Physicists have determined that the arrow of time points in one direction. But how can we determine that direction? Biblically, we understand that time flows from the creation to Judgment Day. Scientifically, it has been less clear.

Ultimately, physicists determined that the arrow of time points in the direction of increasing disorder. A branch of physics known as thermodynamics, the study of how energy is converted into different forms, quantifies disorder using a concept called entropy. The second law of thermodynamics states that in a closed system, entropy (the amount of disorder) never decreases. This means the universe will never spontaneously move back in the direction of increasing order. It is the progression of the universe from order to disorder that provides the direction for the arrow of time.

The linearity and direction of time determined by thermodynamics seemed clear until physicist and mathematician Henri Poincaré showed mathematically that the second law of thermodynamics is not completely true. The Poincaré recurrence theorem proved that entropy could theoretically decrease spontaneously (the universe could go back in the direction of increased order). But, the timescale necessary to give this spontaneous decrease any significant chance of happening is so inconceivably long, much longer than the current age of the universe, there is little probability that it will happen before the universe could reach maximum entropy.

Nevertheless, some Western thinkers mistakenly took Poincaré’s theorem to mean that reality is cyclical in a way that does not provide the ancient escape from the profane to the sacred. This led these thinkers to despair about the possibility that human existence is nothing more than the pointless repetition of all events for all of eternity. Nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one who took the Poincaré recurrence theorem to the hasty and illogical conclusion that there was no purpose or meaning to existence. On the other hand, there is little comfort to be gained from contemplating an endlessly expanding universe in which everything becomes hopelessly separated from everything else. One may well wonder if there is no escape from time.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche — contemplating the Poincaré recurrence theorem?

Christians need not despair. The Bible tells us that the universe in its present form will cease to exist on Judgment Day, which will presumably occur long before there is any significant probability of a Poincaré recurrence, and will certainly make the notion of an endless expansion moot. If that is true, we inhabit a universe that is for all purposes linear and finite in time, and we have a much happier fate than being condemned to a never-ending repetition of meaningless events or a universe that expands forever and ever.

While it is important that Christians understand that modern science confirms the biblical view of time, it is also important that Christians understand the role of biblical belief in shaping modern science. Modern science developed only after the biblical concept of linear time spread through the World as a result of Christianity. True science, which at its root is the study of cause and effect, absolutely requires linear time.

The Bible

Fertile ground for modern science

The foundation of 21st century astronomy and physics is the big bang theory—the “orthodoxy of cosmology” as physicist Paul Davies describes it—which relies on linear time with a definite beginning. The false cyclical view was perpetuated by two human limitations: limited perspective and misleading emotions. It took faith in the Word of God enshrined in the Bible and trust in the scientific method to overcome these limitations so that humankind could understand the true nature of time.

Replay: Politics, science, and a false dichotomy

Traffic’s up after the announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers.

** Written by “Surak” **

There was a political confrontation last Thursday [August 2011] in New Hampshire between conservative politician, Rick Perry, and a liberal woman protestor. The dispute concerned Perry’s views about evolution and creationism, and it demonstrated why we need to be concerned about the future of science in America. Governor Perry spoke to the woman’s young son in front of the usual swarm of reporters eager for a headline. Perry gave them one by telling the boy that evolution was a theory with gaps in it. In an obvious attempt to contrive an unflattering media incident to hurt the Texas governor’s campaign, the mother could be heard urging the child to ask Perry why he didn’t believe in science. Perry ignored the mother and told the boy that in Texas both evolution and creationism are taught, “… because I figured you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” I am appalled by what the mother did and troubled by the implications of Perry’s response.

The mother undoubtedly thinks of herself as a defender of ‘science,’ by which I guess she means the usual vague understanding of the currently popular but failed mid-20th century version of evolution. Whatever her beliefs, it was an abuse of science to pull a cheap political trick like this. And, it was a disturbing corruption of her child’s innocence by putting words in his mouth he couldn’t possibly have understood. She obviously thought she was protecting him and other children from false ideas, but her actions amount to nothing more than a crude form of indoctrination based on the prevailing conviction that any questioning of ‘evolution’ is an intellectual sin.

I do not endorse Rick Perry or his political viewpoints. Having said that, I do agree with two important things he said. First, evolution theory, even in its best, most current form, does have serious gaps. For instance, it cannot explain how life began, the incredible explosion of animal life in the Cambrian, the fossil record that shows the sudden appearance of a multitude of new organ, limbs and species with no apparent transition stages, or the very recent appearance and mysterious nature of human consciousness. One cannot defend science by becoming indignant when someone else points out the obvious.

More importantly, I hope Governor Perry was sincere about trusting students to get it right. Science education in America should be based on that trust in (and challenge for) young minds. The foundation of modern science, as well as the basis of genius, is the ability to ask good questions, usually in the form of ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘what if.’ Einstein’s thought experiments are a famous example. Scientific questioning, if it is to continue to lead to amazing and useful new answers, should never be shackled by politics, religion, or philosophy. Children must be taught and encouraged to ask their own questions no matter how strange, silly, or politically incorrect they might seem to parents and teachers.

Years ago, my high school science classes consisted mostly of rote memorization of facts and stale reenactments of old experiments. We were forced to think about other people’s questions (including a lot of mind-numbing ‘who’, ‘when’, and ‘where’) rather than our own questions. The whole process was as divorced from real life concerns, important philosophical questions, and religious beliefs as possible, and therefore totally irrelevant and boring. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the wonders and power of real science.

I have a deep commitment to the scientific method. But, that commitment is tempered by an understanding that science is a tool that has limitations which must be acknowledged. Science cannot continue its positive role in society by becoming some kind of false idol, something created by humans but worshiped as infallible. Scientists and science teachers need to model a necessary and healthy humility that includes the need to state up front that science can only deal with our material world and can have nothing legitimate to say about anything that might lie outside our universe, such as God or heaven. Then maybe we’d get fewer annoying distractions at political events, and politicians could focus more on what they really need to do.

But humility is not happening. Science is being promoted by some as the complete, unerring, and only way to arrive at the truth. So, instead of being a good example for others, we witness more than a few scientists make the grave mistake of denigrating other people’s deepest beliefs and alienating them from science. Look up the latest silly musings of the great scientist Stephen Hawking to see a sad and disturbing example of this. If humility fails on a large enough scale, science can’t help but slide in the direction of political correctness and eventually petrify as dogma.

We won’t be able to avoid this fate if protecting science comes to mean putting young people like the woman’s son in an educational bubble to protect them from philosophy and religion under the guise of separation of church and state. Remember that science started as something called natural philosophy and was given its modern form by its devoutly Christian founders. You cannot separate these three things without damaging science. If our current generation of students is to become the next generation of effective scientists, they must be given the opportunity to understand how science relates to and differs from religion and philosophy objectively without the biases and fears that currently stifle our schools and rupture our communities.

So, Governor Perry is right about teaching creationism, because it is a powerful force in American history and culture that needs to be studied not just in social studies classes but also in science classes. Even young-Earth creationism, which I view as sadly non-scientific, should be squarely presented to high school students. Students need to understand what science is not in order to understand what it is. They will benefit from understanding young-Earth creationism, have fun debating it, and discover the truth for themselves if given the necessary tools, opportunity, and encouragement.

My challenge to the mother and all others on the left of the political spectrum is ‘what are you afraid of?’ If all the variations of creationism are so totally wrong, if the science you believe in is so strong, won’t it be obvious to the vast majority of students by the time they finish high school? Allow creationism, intelligent design, and the various forms of evolutionary theory to contend with one another in an honest competition of ideas, and then trust students to get it right. One can only object to this if his or her real goal is indoctrination.

This open approach to science education would include a spirited defense of Darwinism in the schools, because Darwin is a prime example of a great scientist asking important questions and coming up with an original and compelling answer. But evolutionary theory must be presented truthfully and fully, including not only its strengths, but also its many weaknesses. In the spirit of an open and effective science curriculum, would the liberal mother from New Hampshire be willing to have science teachers discuss the totally unexpected results of evolutionary development (Evo Devo)? Is this ‘defender of science’ even aware that the findings of biologists in this new field have turned evolutionary thought on its head in the last few years? (I refer the reader to Sean B. Carroll’s excellent book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom). Would she be willing to have students informed that the three great enduring mysteries of biology – the origins of life, the inexplicable explosion of animal life in the Cambrian, and the sudden development and mysterious nature of human consciousness – correspond to the three instance in Genesis that the word ‘creation’ is used to describe how things came about? (As an agnostic about religion, I’m not sure what this means, but it is really interesting.) Or, would she insist that young people be kept ignorant of all this in defense of some quasi-sacred belief she calls evolution?

To be fair, it is likely and terribly unfortunate that most people on the political right and the Christian side of the science/religion debate don’t trust young people either. As the religious and political conflict continues to intensify, which it seems to be doing, each side will probably do all it can to indoctrinate and control children. I fear that, as a result of this irresolvable conflict, science as the search for truth will eventually be fatally corrupted and seriously diminished as a force for good in people’s lives.

So, I want to say this to people on the left who declare their desire to protect science: you don’t protect science by sanitizing education and excluding other ways of thinking. You must look at yourselves in the mirror and realize that you are just as susceptible to political dogma and metaphysical prejudice as the people you oppose. Quit trying to use science to score political points and undercut Christian influence. In other words, if you have to fight, fight fair and leave science out of it.

To the people on the religious right who want to protect their faith: you can’t protect it by rejecting science or promoting false scientific views, because it will only make you look foolish and alienate your children in this age of science. Young-Earth creationism in particular is self-defeating because it leaves Christian youth vulnerable to the powerful (but false) scientific arguments of prominent atheists who are increasingly successful in turning young people away from faith. You believe, or at least many of you say you believe, that the Bible is true. You also understand that God gave us minds capable of comprehending his works. Won’t both paths, scripture and science, eventually lead to the same truth?

If you doubt this, consider the following quote from Gerald L. Schroeder’s bestselling book, The Science of God:

At the briefest instant following creation all the matter of the universe was concentrated in a very small place, no larger than a grain of mustard. The matter at this time was so thin, so intangible, that it did not have real substance. It did have, however, a potential to gain substance and form and to become tangible matter. From the initial concentration of this intangible substance in its minute location, the substance expanded, expanding the universe as it did so. As the expansion progressed, a change in the substance occurred. This initially thin noncorporeal substance took on the tangible aspects of matter as we know it. From this initial act of creation, from this ethereally thin pseudosubstance, everything that has existed, or will ever exist, was, is and will be formed.

As Dr. Schroeder points out (p. 56), “This … could be a quote from a modern physics textbook.” But in fact it comes from the 13th century biblical scholar, Nahmanides (1194-1270), who was able to anticipate modern science by 700 years using nothing more than a literal interpretation of the Bible. It’s true that the best scientists in the world were not capable of this level of understanding of our universe until after 1965, but science did finally catch up with scripture. Christians must have faith that scripture and science are two paths to the one and only truth, and God intended us to use both. (See Psalms 19:1 and Romans 1:20.)

This is why I am concerned about Governor Perry’s statement. His indirect response to the mother’s attack assumes that either science (in this case, evolution) or Christian scripture (in this case, creationism) is right, that they can’t both be right. Christians must not buy into the imagined conflict between science and faith — there is no inherent schism. I believe both the scientific view of our universe (effectively understood) and the Genesis account of creation (properly understood) are entirely compatible.

You don’t have to be a believer in scripture to accept the possibility there can be more than one path to the truth. It would be wonderful if we could all wish each other well on whichever path each of us chooses and help one another in the search for truth. If we can’t manage that level of good will, then we should at least accept, in the American spirit of freedom, that no one has a right to tell anyone else what to believe. I hope that all Americans will embrace science as the objective search for truth and keep it above the fray, that Christians will not see science as the enemy but will once again become fully involved in the scientific adventure, and that our brothers and sisters on the left will refrain, even if they must see religion as the enemy, from using science as a weapon. Otherwise we will all lose so much.