Science in Christian Perspective
HOW AND WHY DID IT ALL BEGIN?
CHARLES H. TOWNES
Department of Physics University of California Berkeley, California 94720
From: JASA 24 (March 1972): 1-4.
Two Views of Creation
There have been two distinct, long-standing views of creation-that is, the origin of our universe and of life in it. The first view makes each the result of a unique and special event. The second assumes that the universe and life are more continuous and commonplace events, with no unique moment of origin. These two possibilities do not represent simply the difference between a religious view and a secular view, though they may affect profoundly an individual's outlook. Nor do they correspond to a scientific versus a non-scientific view. Assumptions of a unique and special creation on the one hand, or an inevitable arid more commonplace one on the other have been a continuing theme through a great deal of man's thought.
During much of human history, it has been normal to believe that life was created from time to time spontaneously from materials of nature, or perhaps by some more or less capricious supernatural event. A recipe for creating mice during the Middle Ages advises taking an old shirt and putting some grain in it. When stuffed into the corner of a room for a few weeks, mice were sure to he found, created according to the recipe. Such ideas as the commonplace spontaneous creation of life persisted into the nineteenth century and were only disproved after much labor and considerable argument within the scientific community by the great scientist Pasteur. By aseptic techniques, he showed conclusively that all life as we know it comes from other life.
While science was thus on the one hand making the creation of life seem rather special, on the other hand it was also busy during the same period detracting from ideas about the unique character of man's existence. Copernicus and Galileo had already removed man from the center of the universe. The study of the vast collections of stars called galaxies, and then of cosmology, extended our view of the universe so enormously that man's being important in it seemed almost unthinkable. Darwin's ideas on evolution, and now modern biochemistry, go a long way towards indicating that life itself was generated by random processes, some might say rather casually and accidentally, on the basis of physical laws which we largely know.
This general view of random creation is, however, by no means a product of recent thought. Lucretius, the Roman poet and a proponent of an atomic theory of matter, made the following remarkably modern
sounding statement more than 2000 years ago:
Our world has been made by nature through the spontaneous and casual collision and the random and purposeless congregation and eoaleseense of atoms where combinations could serve on each occasion as the starting point of substantial constructions-earth and sea and sky and the races of living creatures. You have the same natural force to congregate them in any place precisely as they have been congregated here. You are hound, therefore, to acknowledge that in other regions there are other earths and various races of men and breeds of beasts.
I believe it was Julian Huxley who first used the example of a hundred monkeys
peeking randomly at a hundred typewriters in order to suggest We randomness and
lack of mystery even in man's intelligence. He noted that the monkeys would in
time, entirely by chance, type out all of Shakespeare's works and The
These ideas are certainly cogent to our problem. However, to put this randomness in a little more perspective, we must note the results of quantitative calculation. While it is true that monkeys may randomly turn out The Encyclopedia Britannica, a simple calculation shows that one billion monkeys typing randomly as fast as they can 24 hours a day on one billion typewriters for the entire lifetime of the universe as we know it would probably not yet have typed out the correct sequence of letters in the title the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Thus, while randomness must have had an important and powerful effect, something other than the simple random juxtaposition of atoms must have been important its the formation of complex life. We seem to need something more systematic, some mold from uhieb the complex patterns of creation could develop. The scientist would assume these patterns have been guided by aspects of the laws of physics and chemistry which we simply have not vet quite grasped; others may assume the hand of God. As our insight becomes more penetrating, how different will these two views really seem?
Insights from Astronomy
Much of the modest amount we know as scientists about our origins comes from astronomy, as guessed by Alexander Pope when he wrote, somewhat overhopefully, of the astronomer:
He who through vast immensity can pierce
See worlds on worlds compose one universe
Observe how system into systens cons
What other planets circle other sons
What varied being peoples every star
May tell why Heav'n has made us as we are.
Within the last decade there has been a remarkable discovery of microwaves-that
is, short radio-like waves -which uniformly pervade all space. We can presently
understand their existence only if they represent radiation left over
for us from
an initial enormous explosion of the universe. This radiation, more
than any other
one piece of evidence, seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion
that the universe
did indeed have a unique moment when it was small, enormously hot,
rapidly-the so called "big bang". Some scientists still doubt such a
conclusion, and continue to look for an explanation in terms of an
never changing universe. But so far they have been unsuccessful. The microwave
radiation we now see
must have been created during the first one hundredth
of 1% of the lifetime of our universe-a lifetime which from this origin until
now must be about fifteen billion years. Thus we have remarkable
that there was indeed a unique moment in the creation of the
universe. In addition,
our most powerful telescopes seem recently to have penetrated far enough into
our universe to approach its boundaries, and catch a glimpse of how it looked
when much younger.
Why all this lapse of time from the origin of the universe, about fifteen billion years ago, until the creation of man, whose existence on the earth surely isn't much older than a few million years? Are we a random afterthought? Hardly that, for we understand now that before complex life could be created, materials of the universe had to he properly cooked and processed. Stars were formed, and went through their cycle of billions of years of life until, with a majestic display, they exploded and spewed out the heavy chemical elements it was their destiny to produce from the materials available in the new-born universe. Elements which they emitted were gathered together into new stars, the so-called second generation stars of which our sun is one. Thins the sun and its satellite the earth can contain some of the needed heavy chemical elements such as iron for blood, calcium for bones, and iodine for metabolic chemistry, without which our life would be difficult to imagine. just these preparatory processes would require, from the nature of physical laws they followed, almost half the life-span of the universe.
About four and a half billion years ago, shortly after the formation of our second, or possibly thirdgeneration star which is the sun, materials of the earth solidified. One and a half billion years later, that is about three billion years ago, life began on it and we can trace from that time its steady and fairly orderly development.
Are We Alone?
Was this development, eventually producing man, peculiar and unique? Are we alone in the universe, or is our planet one among billions which support sensitive and intelligent life? The total number of stars in our galaxy, each of which might possibly support life around it, is about one hundred billion. But ours is only one of ten billion such galaxies within the universe. Hence, with one hundred billion times ten billions of different stars within the universe, it is natural to conclude that our existence is insignificant, and that life must have developed myriads of times, with some forms much superior to our own. However, as in the case of the monkeys typing randomly, something more may have been needed than just all those random chances.
We do not know just how planets are formed, nor hence the chance of a star having a planet such as ours. Recently geophysicists have discovered that there was an enormous stellar explosion in the immediate vicinity of our star the sun just before the planets were formed. Is some special circumstance like this required? The nature of a planet on which life can begin clearly is rather specific and circumscribed. How likely is it" that conditions as favorable as those on earth occur in other planets? If there did happen to be a planet of the right qualities, would appropriate
A simple calculation shows that one billion monkeys typing randomly as fast as they can 24 hours a day on one billion typewriters for the entire lifetime of the universe as we know it would probably not yet have typed out the correct sequence of letters in the title The Encyclopedia Brittanica.
molecules inevitably come together to form the complex assemblages which life seems to require? What is the nature of the step from apes to man, producing a mind which conceives of astronomy, or of studying its own origins? We know a great deal and yet little of such matters.
Biochemists have made convincing arguments about what kinds of molecules might initiate the life processes. Recently radio astronomers have learned that all of the simple molecules which biochemists believe are needed for a start in the process of building lifeall of those needed for the reproduction of the simplest polypeptides or protein-like substances-can be found in dust clouds in interstellar space, even before these clouds gather into stars and planets. But now, given these materials, scientists are still groping to see how they might have built up the complex forms needed for reproductive life.
What definite hope can we have of knowing whether we are alone, or our civilization is repeated and surpassed billions of times among the stars? Even the possibilities of knowing are impossible to state, because the most important scientific discoveries are frequently unimagined until they surprise us. For the moment, our best hope of knowledge of other life is to leave the laboratory and go exploring. Some civilization, perhaps only a few hundred years more advanced than ours, might have already guessed at our existence and be trying to signal us. What would it mean to mail's perspective if suddenly we received messages and wisdom from other worlds? We've listened very carefully, guessing what kind of signal might he used, and heard nothing.
Advances in Space Work
Advances in space work have considerably enlarged our explorations. It has been commonly thought that on some of our sister planets, such as Mars, Venus, or even the Moon in an early state when it might have had an atmosphere, other life could exist. While the Moon now has no atmosphere, it is marked by rills and valleys which are difficult to explain except as due to a running fluid, such as water, sometime in the past.
Unfortunately, while our explorations there continue to
intrigue us with information about the early history of the moon and the solar
system, the Apollo flights have show that water and organic materials are rare
enough on the lunar surface to dash most hopes of finding traces even of past
life there. Recent measurements also show that the surface of Venus
hot: 600 deg. Fahrenheit and far above the boiling point of water. Such
are quite inimicahle to any form of life we can presently imagine. Could there
he life possibly in the cooler upper atmosphere of its clouds? Just possibly.
Jupiter, Saturn, and the other outer planets are generally too cold
to be likely
supporters of life, Mercury too close to the sun and too hot.
Recent scientific discoveries show us clearly that, at least within our solar system of nine planets, our earth is truly a gem, and its life unique. Perhaps . . . we are indeed alone and unique in our universe.
Mars now seems our only remaining reasonable host of life. Telescopic views of Mars have for some time allowed us glimpses of polar caps on this planet which change with the seasons and are very suggestive of the life-supporting conditions with which we are familiar on earth. However, recent closer views of Mars from spacecraft show that these polar caps are of frozen carbon dioxide rather than friendly ice and water, its atmosphere is exceedingly thin, and its surface pockmarked with craters indicating conditions much more like those on the Moon than on the earth. Further exploration of Mars, or other bodies within our solar system, should give us more perspective on our planet earth, tell us much about its history, and the conditions on earth before life began. Hopefully, we may find on Mars small and primitive forms of life to give us further exciting insight, but we now know not to expect more.
Thus, recent scientific discoveries show us clearly that, at least within our solar system of nine planets, our earth is truly a gem, and its life unique. We know further that it will at least be a long time before man directly encounters any extraterrestial creature remotely like himself; perhaps, contrary to many generations of fiction and to the common expectations of many scientists in recent decades, we are indeed alone and unique in our universe.
How our developing scientific understanding either changes or reinforces religious views is a question each individual will answer for himself. Yet any substantial success in the common search by religious or scientific approaches for the origins and meaning of life must inevitably mold man's view of himself, and recent recognition of the special character of this planet and its life can only heighten man's awe. For the future, human thought and instincts, the innate creators of science, will surely lead us further in exploring our origins and towards understanding man's remarkable situation. If such understanding substantially increases our sensitivity to the wonders we see, and to the sacredness of life, it will serve us well.
Dr. Charles II. Townes, University Professor, University of
California, Berkeley, received world-wide acclaim in 1964
when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the
maser. He was
formerly provost and professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute
professor of physics at Columbia University, and visiting professor
at the Universities
of Paris and Tokyo. He is a past president of the American Physical
paper is a portion of a presentation by Dr. Townes to the General Assembly of
the United Presbyterian Church, as a part of a program entitled,
Creator's Apprentice," Rochester, New York, May 20, 1971.