Small Wonder

Nothing makes me feel small like thinking about the universe does. Never a large individual anyway, thinking how this apartment encompasses me and it is dwarfed by the small town in which I reside, it’s only a matter of moments before I become a mere microscope slide. And that’s before I even reach the level of just our planet. I’m sure Neil Shubin didn’t mean to make me feel bad when he wrote The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he intended it to be a book that makes the reader feel connected to life, past and present, as well as to the stars that long ago spewed out the elements that have made such life possible. This is a big picture book. From the perspective of a paleontologist the very rocks that entomb the fossils live. The stream of particles is unbroken from the Big Bang to our little corner of the Orion Spur.

The great orthodoxies of science, however, require faith. No matter how the math works, it seems impossible to the rational mind the the entire universe could fit inside the space of the following period. Then, for some reason not yet known, bursts out to infinite but expanding size. Shubin brings many concepts together here—the effects of Jupiter on bringing earth into the Goldilocks Zone, the impact light and dark have on our bodies, whence the dinosaurs might’ve gone—and weaves a tether through it all that ends up in the hand of humanity. Evolved beings we are, but evolved from stardust as well as primordial soup. And then there’s the fact that the earth itself, as is inevitable, is slowing down. Days are growing longer yet we don’t get any more done. And we have maybe a billion years left before the sun goes Trump on us.

There is a strange comfort in being connected to all of this. And also a sense of shame as well. We are, as far as the fossil record reveals, the only species to initiate a mass extinction single-handedly. We have this whole planet and we want even more. It comes as no surprise that religious language crops up now and again in a treatment like this. After all, words divested of such concepts can take us only so far. The Universe Within is a book with a universal perspective, placing us squarely somewhere within a context that we simply can’t comprehend. And yet, reading it somehow leaves me feeling small.

Religion, Technically

Technology World HistoryOne of the truths of history is that technology has always been with us. Reading Steampunk stories always boosts my historical sense of the interaction of technology and civilization. Civilization, to the best of our knowledge, coalesced around the idea of religion. Kings rule at the behest of gods because, if it came down to just a matter of swords and games of thrones, there’s always somebody who’s willing to die for the sake of challenging authority, or taking it over. Unless the gods give it to someone. With this in mind I read Daniel R. Headrick’s Technology: A World History, a brief exploration into how we progressed to a hive mind (not his word) through smartphones from an initial band of scared apes two-footing it across the savanna with pointy rocks. The whole trip may have taken millennia, but once we reached a couple of flash points (the “Big Bang” of about 70,000 years ago when abstract artifacts began to appear, and then the birth of civilization about the time Sumer was organized) things sped up at a dizzying pace. Despite the anti-science rhetoric of the Religious Right, there’s no denying that we’re not in Eden any more.

We are accustomed to think of technological development as being cold and rational. Trial and error, based on brute mental power willing to bully through the dark forest of superstition, leading us to new heights. But from the early technology that led to Stonehenge and the pyramids to the coded message “What hath God wrought?” religious wonder has stood behind technological development. Indeed, in reading Technology it became clear that up until very recent times scientists got along with god, and sometimes even shared the credit for the devices they created. Reading about the Antikythera mechanism had me thinking along these lines: if someone had invented a kind of computer millennia ago, why didn’t it transform society in the first century before the Common Era? The answer can’t be that it sank beneath the Mediterranean, because other such devices likely existed. Why no Roman Empire Industrial Revolution?

Headrick makes it clear that early societies sometimes did not promote technologies. Technology was not just a matter of what we could do, but it was a means of social control. Those who charted the flow of wealth and power would have interest only in technologies that enabled the continued growth of that system. All the rest was just icing. People knew the basics of electricity long before a practical use was found for it. Petroleum products were known even to the Sumerians. The wheels of industry, however, are greased by more than just oil. We construct worlds, and gods used to direct our efforts. Now we let our technocrats call the shots. We write blogs wondering how religion fits into a nano-tech world. There may be some logic in it, but once we’ve left our footprints on the moon—who used to be a god—we’ve replaced the deities in the celestial sphere with those in our own heads. And there’s no going back.

Science Fiction Double Feature

Two news stories last week—one from the Associated Press and one from the Chronicle of Higher Education—hit upon a common theme: scientific illiteracy. Both articles presented scientists who felt that if they could just reach the (mostly) American public with easily digested facts, then belief in the Big Bang, evolution, and global warming would suddenly make sense to everyone. It may not be my place to say, as I’m not a scientist, but I believe they’re wrong. Don’t misunderstand. I do believe in the Big Bang, evolution, and global warming. In fact, I spent part of last week flagellating myself (metaphorically) for not posting something appropriate on Earth Day. I worry a lot about global warming and what we do to our only planet. What I mean is, these scientists don’t understand religion. People don’t willfully reject the facts. That takes religion.

One of the reasons that I continue my daily efforts on this blog is that our educated elite constantly refuse to acknowledge the blue whale in the room. People are naturally religious. Some grow out of it, some are educated out of it. For most, however, the price to do so is far too high. Science offers little to take the place of faith. For all of its innuendo, the Big Bang tends to leave most of us cold. I don’t support religions spreading ignorance, but even the Bible recognized that it is useless to say to a poor person, “stay warm and well fed” if you don’t offer a blanket and some food as well. It’s chilly in an infinite, yet expanding universe. Why don’t scientist understand that if you give a jacket, maybe people might actually warm up and listen?

hs-2010-13-a-large_web

Religion, however we define it, is a coping mechanism. Even many atheist biologists admit that it has an evolutionary utility, embarrassing as that may be. Evolutionary scientists also tell us that we don’t evolve according to plan. Nature (de-personified, of course) opportunistically uses what’s at hand to help creatures survive. Instead of trying to understand religion, many in the hard sciences think that speaking loudly in single-syllable words will convince those who’ve found meaning in evolution’s solution of religion that somehow evolution was wrong. The worst thing we can do is to waste more money trying to understand religion! I hear it’s very cold in outer space. Still, things seem to be warming up down here. For those who can’t evolve gills, it’s time to learn to swim.

Nothing Unusual

WhyDoestheWorldExist“Is this a world?” Ranger Tom asks seriously, “And if it is, am I in it?” On the lips—or fingertips—of some, this set of questions appears profound. Although I’m not technically a philosopher, I find it impossible to walk by a book with the title Why Does the World Exist? and not pick it up. I am not familiar with Jim Holt’s other work—I engage a little too heavily with books to spend much time with magazines—but the question of the title is one I’ve often pondered. It is right up there with “Why can some people get published and others can’t?” Holt is, however, on a serious quest. Not surprisingly, religion features prominently in the discussion. For the usual existential reasons, including a couple of significant deaths in the family, Holt asks perhaps the most basic of all questions and engages a number of prominent philosophers on the issue. Why is there something rather than nothing? For some in the western world such a question appears a non-starter, because our culture is biblically suffused. Whether we want to admit it or not, our social ocean veritably bobs with the basic belief that God created the world, end of story. We don’t need to ponder it, we just have to accept it. For those who look deeper, however, the answers aren’t that easy.

Holt goes through some serious computation in various forms of logic to try to arrive at a schematic demonstrating that the world is a surprising place. Not trained in such rigorous logic, I was interested to notice how the language occasionally slipped from “world” or “universe” to “reality.” Reality is perhaps the slipperiest concept of them all. Many simply accept their own experience as real, a position known as “naive realism.” Others probe somewhat deeper, seeking to verify reality. How do we know what is really real? It is, however, a different question than the existence of the world. Reality has the distinct ability to haunt with its half-answered questions and surfeit of ambiguity. Every time I wake from a dream I ask myself what is really real.

Once the divine is removed from the equation, why the world is here becomes a much more complex issue. Holt engages the new atheists as well as the neo-orthodox. It turns out that God may not help as much as we generally assume: whence God? Or, in its more childlike version, where did God come from? Once brute fact is ruled out, this becomes a tangled problem indeed. Faced with an endless regression, logic quails. Perhaps, however, we have reached the limits of rationality—even Einsteinian physics breaks down at the Big Bang. No matter what scientists or philosophers may tell us, we will always wonder, “and before that, what?” I put Holt’s book down with a sense that I’d spent a few pleasant hours considering the possibilities, but I still wonder, with Ranger Tom, if this is a world. And if it is, am I in it?

Infinite and Expanding

Show me the birth certificate. Whoa! It seems the universe padded the figures by about 80 million years. To you and me that’s 80 million years. To old universe, it’s merely the blink of a cosmic eye. The news has been humming with the results of the European Space Agency’s Planck Space Telescope picture of the microwave background radiation of the universe. From what I can see, the universe forgot to say cheese. Unless, of course, it’s swiss cheese. Further and further science confirms our big bang of a beginning, and, quite literally, it has been downhill from there.

PLANCK

Cosmology is the most theological of the sciences. I’m sure many cosmologists would demand to differ on that point, but the inexorable draw to find out how it all began had its humble origins in religious thought. The mythologies of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Israelites, among many, many others, explored options for how the universe (as they knew it) might have begun. The curiosity is deeply embedded in the human psyche—we want to know our origins. Physicists, of course, play by the rules. Astrophysicists use incredibly complex formulas that all point to a big bang that nobody has ever heard. The inevitable question is, however, what happened before that? Could it be there was no before? A time before time? It seems to me a religious question.

The Planck telescope tells us that our middle-aged universe also has more girth than it admitted previously. No surprises there, after all the theory of the universe’s growth is called “inflation.” I sympathize. All of this information is wonderful news on an intergalactic scale, but it hasn’t solved many of our problems out here in this corner of the cosmos. Reading the rest of the news headlines, after I wipe away the tears, I see that our universe really is showing its age. We are older than we thought, but are we wiser? Scientists are examining fossilized light with glee, but we still can’t figure out that if a guy loves another guy (or girl another girl) that it’s just another instance of what happens after the big bang. We can’t accept that our industrial greed has messed up the weather—has anybody been outside lately? We know that one percent control almost all the wealth and yet we buy lottery tickets and hope for the best. And these are only a few in a long series of echoes that can’t seem to allow some people to think clearly in this girth-challenged, more-than-ancient universe. It must be a religious issue after all.

Deep Things

Religion concerns itself with the big issues. The biggest. As a child, I remember wondering how anyone could be concerned with less than the ultimate. No, I wasn’t a nascent Tillichian, I was just someone who saw things in what I supposed was a practical light. If you’ve got the temporary, the fleeting, the insubstantial over here, and the permanent, immortal, supreme over there—who wouldn’t go for the gusto? I suppose by my reasoning that all people would end up clergy of some sort, we would all be fixated on why we’re here and what our purpose was. You’ll still find pockets of theologians here and there who debate these kinds of issues, but our existence has grown comfortable enough that, for some people at least, if this ends up being all there is then, gosh, it’s been a fun ride thank you very much. But I don’t want to get out of the train just yet. I wonder if there’s more than the ultimate. It is a religious question.

For a while I grew enamored of the trappings of religion. Ceremony, ritual, strong rhetoric in sermons—these things can move you, and become beguiling. Somehow, knowing there’s an infinite universe just outside the church doors gives me pause for consideration. The ultimate must be very big. Walking through a large city helps to provide some perspective. I find myself next to buildings that cause me to tremble when I consider the implications. Next to those tons and tons of stone, steel, and glass, I am the smallest spark. But those buildings are dwarfed by the city that contains them, and that city a mere pinpoint on a map of the country. Even the planet is less than an atom in the universe of infinite size. Who can help but to be concerned about the scope of it all? Ever since I was a child I’ve worried about this.

In the media today, religion is all about hypocrisy and whose pants are at what latitude vis-a-vis whom. While matters of love are ultimate in their own way, we, as people, have a much larger space with which to concern ourselves. Science has stepped up to the dock when it comes to sworn testimony about the universe we inhabit, but even scientists shrug once we get back before the big bang. Time is even more inexorable than space—there’s always got to be a time before time. Like any child we can always ask, and what happened before that? Perhaps time is the true ultimate. Thank you for spending a bit of your ultimate reading this. It’s time for me to catch the bus, but work will never inspire me the way the rest of the universe does.

Hubble's eye view

Hubble’s eye view

Science Friction

What hath CERN to do with Jerusalem? It might seem that the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology would be a reasonable place to look for members of Congress with a grip on science. But then, I often live in a fantasy world where things make sense. It is with some sadness, but no real surprise, that I read about the words of Georgia Representative Paul Broun, lambasting evolution and the Big Bang as theories from the Devil. Broun is a medical doctor who, under conviction of his Fundamentalist faith, has rejected the basic tenets of science. According to the Associated Press, he told a Baptist church congregation, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” Sounds like Satan had a very busy pre-history.

Anyone who knows me knows that I begrudge no one their personal religious beliefs. Someone who does not believe in embryology, however, might have selected a career more commensurate with his religion than medicine. Election year does tend to bring out the shock value statements in politicians. Having to convince their constituencies that they are just simple folk, they deny what their faith belies every time they accept an inoculation. If evolution is a lie, so is vaccination—something most medical doctors would have to have understood before facing medical school examinations. In the United States, however, such wrong belief is a generally apt qualifier for Congress. Especially among the Tea Party. Broun hails from the ironically named Athens, Georgia.

Over the weekend I watched the Star Trek (original series—please, I’m a connoisseur) episode, “The Mark of Gideon.” It is one of the episodes I don’t recall from childhood, but then, with Kirk and all that “mushy stuff” of being alone on the Enterprise with a woman, well, maybe it just didn’t stick when I was in my tender years. In any case, the symbolically named Gideonites have overpopulated their planet to the point of disaster by good clean living. They attempt to hijack themselves a disease “inadvertently” to reintroduce population control. Captain Kirk asks why they don’t use safe methods of birth control, even volunteering the Enterprise to be a kind of inner-galactic condom-dispenser. The Gideonites explain that they believe all life is sacred, and that preventing life is a great crime—regardless of the misery it causes. I had to smile to myself. Sounds like the people of Gideon may have had been lectured by a Georgia medical doctor who had gone off on a peculiar flight of fancy.