Pondering the great beginning


Mystery: Scientists and theologians grappled with `cosmic questions' about God and the origin of the universe in a dialogue at the Smithsonian Institution.

April 22, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As astronomers and physicists close in on the earliest moments of the big bang, many people are asking whether there is room enough at the beginning of the universe to include God and a purposeful Creation.

After all, if the theoretical physicists can't say what came before the big bang to trigger the evolution of the universe, stars, planets and people, doesn't that call for a deity with a big starter pistol?

And as science gets closer to reducing all the forces, motions and matter in the universe to a unified set of laws and mathematical formulas, won't that be evidence enough for an intelligent design, and therefore a Designer?

"I have to admit that when physicists go as far as they can go, there is an irreducible mystery that science will not eliminate," Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg says.

That realization has prompted a lot of writing in recent years by scientists who have considered religious explanations for mysteries that science has been unable to answer: Why does the universe exist? Why has it evolved with conditions that seem so precisely tuned to produce life? Why is its design intelligible to science? Does it have a purpose?

But unlike many other scientists, Weinberg -- an outspoken atheist -- is conceding nothing to theology. He simply means that there are physical limits to what science can know. Even those who insert God at the start of the equation, he says, have to contend with another "irreducible mystery" -- God himself.

As for evidence of "God's design" in the apparent mathematical order of the universe, Weinberg says, "Any possible universe could be understood as a result of a design." A completely chaotic universe might simply have been designed "by an idiot."

Weinberg spoke at a three-day conference at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History. Scientists and theologians gathered to discuss "Cosmic Questions" before a diverse audience of more than 250 people. It was sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science as part of its "Program of Dialogue Between Scientists and Religion."

At first glance, the answer to the conference's first question -- "Did the universe have a beginning?" -- might seem obvious. Since the 1920s, when Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding, astronomers and physicists have been tracing that expansion back to its beginning, to the titanic explosion of a tiny "singularity" some 15 billion years ago that seems to have set it all in motion.

Although the time scales were a surprise, the notion of a single instant when all space, time, energy and matter got their start meshed so well with Judeo-Christian traditions about a Creation out of nothingness that many took it as scientific support for just such a divine Creation.

It was so convenient that scientists such as the English astronomer Fred Hoyle resisted the big-bang theory. In 1948, Hoyle proposed an alternate "steady state" theory that argued for an eternal, unchanging universe.

The crush of evidence for the big bang has since demolished the steady-state idea. It has also bolstered the arguments of those who see an intelligent design in the way an ordered, predictable universe evolved out of the violence and chaos of the big bang.

It's called the "anthropic principal." Some scientists contemplating the accumulating scientific knowledge about the universe are struck by how precisely it seems to have been "tuned" to produce mankind.

A slightly denser universe after the big bang would have collapsed back on itself. Less dense, it would have flown apart without producing stars and planets. Small differences in subatomic forces or the mass of protons would have made it impossible for stars to forge the heavy elements, such as carbon, vital to the evolution of life. A more variable star, a different arrangement of planets or an ill-timed asteroid hit -- any of these might have extinguished life, or cut off human evolution before we had a chance to contemplate the universe.

Some argue that had it been otherwise, we would not have been here to ask the question. But "for believers, it is a substantial confirmation," says Anna Case-Winters, a professor of theology at the McCormick Theological Seminary. "For nonbelievers, it is a source of fascination and wonder. Many, many questions remain."

The greatest scientific threat to the idea of a single, purposeful Creation may lie in the notion of "eternal inflation." The word inflation refers not to the expansion of the universe, but to a specific instant during the big bang.

Modern particle theories predict that at high energies, such as those present in the initial instant of the big bang, there should exist "a state of matter that creates gravitational repulsion," says Alan Guth, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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