Rational Religion

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In the Beginning:  BANG!

Then, again; maybe not.


The current conceit of cosmologists -- astronomers, physicists, pure mathematicians and the like -- is that the Universe "began" about 13 billion years ago (give or take a billion) from an incompletely defined "seed."



It "exploded" -- not in any sense we have ever seen or measured an explosion -- but at any rate in a definable "event" it expanded so rapidly that in its first few milliseconds it violated most of the accepted laws of physics; including the familiar ban upon anything traveling faster than the speed of light.


The idea is that the laws of physics, as we know them, didn't apply; yet.  Physics is a way to explain the workings of the Universe, and the Universe  -- space, matter, ways to measure time -- did not exist.


For a short while (seconds, microseconds, whole minutes or eons - it really doesn't matter) as the Universe was coming into being it expanded to a measurable fraction of its current observable size; the roiling soup of absolutely elementary particles - given room to maneuver and a sufficient drop in temperature (temperature was being invented at the same time) - started obeying the rules we know, now.  They combined, or repelled each other, and started forming the "primitive" elements; the simplest ones:  Hydrogen, helium and lithium.


Another entity was born in the bang, or perhaps "released."  Gravity, which we don't understand a great deal better than the Natal Explosion, itself, began to clump certain of the random aggregations of hydrogen, helium and lithium into more compact clouds of still-rarified gas.  They were all still moving at pretty high speed, though by now they were dutifully obeying the "no faster than light" prohibition.   Under the influence of gravity and their own velocity, they began to coil and curl in upon themselves and one another until the biggest and densest ones fairly rapidly coalesced into stars.


We have a pretty good idea, or at least some very plausible theories, about what happened next; and up until now. 


Some of these primal stars; perhaps most of them; were huge.  Huge stars (obeying the newly formed laws of Universal Physics) heat up in a hurry and burn themselves out in a cosmic instant (a few hundred thousand or even a few million years, perhaps, but compared to 13 billion???) 


When big stars die they do so spectacularly and in complicated stages.  If they are really big enough, a lot of their mass seems often to wind up as a "black hole" - which is a theoretical point in space called a "singularity."   A black hole doesn't have any space, time or even matter any more (in spite of the great quantities of junk that collapsed into it).   Maybe the best way to think of it is as "pure gravity."  Nothing can escape it, not even light; which is why we call it a black hole.


According to current cosmology, an awful lot of the original mass of the universe which was "created" in the Big Bang has by now disappeared into black holes.


But not all of a dying star goes down the singularity drain.  A dying star first explodes; often several times and in complicated ways.  It throws off a tremendous amount of itself into surrounding space; and a good deal of this stuff, because of the process of "stellar burning" combined with the shock waves produced by the explosions, is no longer just hydrogen, helium and lithium.  Most of it still is, sure, but a nice fraction is carbon, oxygen, iron and the rest of the familiar elements which make up the crust of our own little earth; and us, as well.


It's a nice metaphor, and not at all inaccurate, (though perhaps somewhat trite) to say that we are all made of stardust.


How all this stellar debris is organized into other stars and solar systems and galaxies is fairly well "understood."   Which is to say we have a set of plausible scenarios which do not contradict the laws of physics, as we have come to understand them.  We don't agree very well on which one of these scenarios is the closest to actual history, but they are all in the same "family.."  We generally agree they are related to the BIG BANG and derive from that. 


The BANG, itself, is of course a ridiculous leap of faith not all that removed from the kind of thinking that produced the biblical Genesis stories.


Note: A physicist named Steinhardt and some of his colleagues and students, messing around with something called “string theory,”  have recently (early 2004) come up with some mathematical formulae which would indicate that the Big Bang scenario is all wet.   Most cosmologists still think they are all wet, but the relative dampness of such difficult and rarified speculations has a way of wringing itself out as the new theory begins to explain more and more of what we previously found unexplainable.

One hallmark of science is that its answers keep shifting around.  It takes a good deal of specialized training to keep this disconcerting trait from turning the scientific community into a mass of babbling paranoiacs. 


We have a great deal more data than the old Prophets did, and we understand the Physical Laws a great deal better, so that we can smirkingly dismiss those religious fundamentalists who so steadfastly believe in the literal truth of the biblical tales and still insist - in the face of insuperable evidence - that the whole thing is only a few thousand years old and "God Made It."


These people are most likely kidding themselves on a grand scale; but in a very simple and uncomplicated manner.


They are not swayed when confronted with such realities as the fact that the Bible they regard as infallible they are reading in a language which had not even been invented when it was originally written down; that it existed for thousands of years in poorly provenanced scraps and gouts of oral and scribbled tradition before that; and that the final product that they cleave to so frantically has been translated out of four or five ancient and semi-modern languages and actually represents a consensus of what some other human  beings, now long dead, thought ought to be included in it. 


 The chances of its resembling its original forms, events, and even lessons, by more than a tiny percentage are vanishingly small.


Believers have a logical and unassailable answer to all that.   God, you see, guided the whole process.  They now read in English or Parsi precisely what was originally recorded in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Minoan, Aramaic or Sanskrit because God's Word is as incorruptible as the Creator, himself. 


End of argument. 


As a matter of fact, there is no point in the argument.  There is not even grounds for an argument, because - although they may be speaking a sophisticated modern language - what they are saying with it does not mean to us anything resembling what it means to them.


Except that it seems to distress these people no end that we can ignore them, that is the best course to take.   (But politely!  These are the potential terrorists.)


So, dismissing the simplistic thinkers and the terminally deluded,  we who "understand" the Laws of Physics and the vastness of Universal cosmology, do we believe in the Big Bang?


If we want to; for the moment. 


...Remembering, always, that the more we learn the more sophisticated and complicated become the techniques by which we can kid ourselves.


We have some cautionary tales to remind us of this; most notably the history of the (Second Century) Greco-Roman-Egyptian philosopher and mathematician, Claudius Ptolemy.   This man of prodigious intellect was far ahead of his time in both insight and understanding, as well as erudition.  Combining all the known astronomical observations - plus some of his own - he came up with an almanac of projections of celestial events which was a scientific marvel.  He was able to forecast not only the phases of the moon, and seasons of the sun, but the nightly "wanderings" of the 5 (visible) planets across the skies. 


The brilliant Ptolemy did this so well that his predictions of the positions of heavenly bodies obtained, dependably within a few degrees, for hundreds of years after his death.  Because he was so smart, and so meticulous, it was about 1400 years before any serious thinker even suspected that his cosmology was wrong!


Wrong it was, of course:  resoundingly wrong!  The great thinker made the anthropocentric assumption that because he lived on the Earth, the Earth must be the center of the Universe - as just about everyone had done before him, and most people continue to do well after Copernicus and Galileo.  Ptolemy devised an elaborate and convoluted celestial mechanism to account for the fact that the planets do seem to wander through the "fixed" stars in the zodiacal band of the sky  -- sometimes appearing to move West; sometimes East; sometimes for a fair amount of time standing still or moving only slightly from week to week.


The implausibility of this complicated and strictly imaginary orrery probably didn't occur to Ptolemy.  He could see it happening; he could figure it out, mathematically; he had no doubt that God (?the gods?) could make such a machine work, whether Ptolemy understood exactly how, or not. 


The putative gear work and mechanical interfaces that he imagined may have materially contributed to the invention of the mechanical clocks which were constructed in Europe a thousand years later. 


"If God can make so sophisticated a machine as the Heavens, maybe poor Man can construct a simple version of it, to keep track of the hours."


 I suspect it was no afterthought or simple ornamentation that made the great clockmakers include the phases of the moon and even the motions of the planets in some of their more complex mechanisms.

               They were only following Ptolemy's lead.


I imagine that a number of thinkers questioned the elaborate tortuousness of Ptolemy's Universe, down through the years.  There are quite a few things about it that are counter-intuitive, should one just happen to question the notion that the Earth is the Center of Everything.  Human thinkers being the cantankerous sorts that they are, I doubt if Nikolas Kopernik was the first person; or even the first Pole, to pose that question.


But Copernicus (they Latinized EVERYthing in those days, since it was the language of The Church and the educated elite) was the first one who compiled the requisite observations and did the mathematics to give birth to the heliocentric solar system. 


Since this revelation was counter to not only the wisdom but the theology and even the politics of his time, Copernicus avoided getting himself into a sea of difficulty by keeping fairly quiet about his discoveries.  He did circulate them privately, which carried a number of other people - including the even more observant and cantankerous Galileo Galilei (since he was Italian, it was easier to Latinize him) - along with him. 


We attach a great deal of irony, and fun, to the fact that the Catholic church only in the late 19th century "pardoned" Galileo for his "heresy;" some 500 years after his and Copernicus' view of the Universe had come to be accepted by nearly everyone who could read and write. 


But, here, another cautionary tale! 


 The late Steven Jay Gould, in his Natural History magazine column, made some note of the fact that the great Galileo - placing too much trust in his empirical observations  - came to the conclusion that the planet Saturn --viewed through his imperfect early telescope -- appeared to be in triplicate!    Misled by his first view of the now-famous rings, he deduced that the disc of the planet, itself - plainly identifiable - was accompanied by smaller bodies, one on either side. 


In Galileo's world, and in his personal observations, he had never seen  -- nor conceived of -- a planet with equatorial rings. 


And in truth, this great man -- so influential in the history of science and even the invention of Scientific Method -- never did so conceive.  He died without understanding what he had seen.   


But not without questioning it! 


This is the vindication of his personal philosophy of science, and Dr. Gould - I feel - did not make enough of the fact that Galileo at least partially redeemed his impetuous mistake about Saturn with his comments upon his final observations of that troublesome body. 


Thinking he had figured Saturn out, the Great Man turned his telescope to other mysteries.  Saturn looked to him like a large ball, accompanied or closely orbited by two identical smaller bodies.  It was an odd arrangement, but he probably didn't even question it too strenuously.  One of his first discoveries through his long lens, and amply documented by other observers as correct, was that Jupiter has four prominent satellites.  True, they orbit somewhat more predictably in eccentric ellipses and at a greater distance from the parent body, but obviously "other planets have moons."


But one day, shortly before his death, Galileo again turned his instrument towards Saturn; and was dumbfounded!  The two satellite entities had disappeared!  Try as he might, he could not resolve a trace of them in his field of view.


We know, now, of course  -- as Galileo's successors observed only a dozen years later -- that the misleading rings, exceedingly thin, were simply in a phase which rendered them dead edge-on to the earth and therefore invisible to the instruments of the time.


If Galileo had lived another dozen years, himself, I have no doubt that he would have made the correct revision.  Not granted that time, he could only profess his mystification. 


And profess it he did, making note of the new observations; or non-observations; and refusing to draw any conclusion from them, except that his previous conclusion may have been in error.


This is good science!


The Big Bang may prove to be nothing more than another sophisticated Ptolemaic boondoggle; a fantasy which seems to "work" because we don't know enough to question it properly; or because we don't know how to formulate any questions that it can't answer.    We must factor that possibility into all our observations and future theories. 


Hopefully, it won't take us another thousand years to come up with the next Kopernik.


But it might, and he might in turn be as ultimately misled as Galileo was about the nature of Saturn. 


This is also what we mean by "science."


At any rate, until we have better information...

Bang! You're Alive!