Science in Christian Perspective



The Trauma of the Infinite Universe
Smithsonian Institution
Astrophysical Observatory Cambridge, MA 02138

From: JASA 29 (June 1977): 56-58.

A few years ago there was a world-wide round of celebrations for the 500th anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus, and in a few years hence we will likewise commemorate the birth of Martin Luther. It would be hard to say which of these men most influenced the course of Western civilization. Did the Reformation or the Scientific Revolution have the more profound consequences?

Because man's religious and philosophical outlook is so sharply shaped by his view of his own place within the physical environment, I feel it is worthwhile to examine whether Copernicus' radical cosmology has had any real impact on our view of man himself. I am going to argue that the particular step of removing the earth from the center of the universe and flinging it into motion was not so important as a closely related concept that developed soon after, namely, the idea of the immensity of the universe itself.

Copernicus' book was carefully studied by the astronomers, particularly at the Lutheran universities, and Copernicus' name was known to the students in even comparatively elementary courses. To be sure, there was a certain amount of religious criticism of the new doctrine, and the topic of its "physical truth" was treated with kid gloves. But I feel that the religious resistance to the acceptance of heliocentrism has generally been overemphasized; I believe that the 16th century astronomers honestly felt that it was a physical absurdity to hurl this lazy sluggish earth into motion.

In fact, one of the most interesting questions facing the historian of science is to understand just why Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei adopted the heliocentric viewpoint. But when they did, they aggressively pushed for its acceptance as a physical reality. It was then, and only then, that the Catholic Church reacted violently (and in retrospect ill-advisedly) in trying to suppress the new teaching. The scriptural report of Joshua commanding the sun, not the Earth, to stand still was a particularly crucial issue, and both Kepler and Galileo addressed themselves to it. Galileo remarked that the Scriptures tell how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go. Kepler explained this more fully in his Epitome of Copernican Astronomy: "For astronomy discloses the causes of natural phenomena and takes within its purview the investigation of optical illusions. Much loftier subjects are treated by Holy Writ, which employs popular speech in order to be understood."

Today the view presented by Galileo and Kepler is almost universally accepted. With this interpretation the Church has safely assimilated the Copernican Revolution. We could even argue, along with Kepler, that life on a moving platform gives us a broader vantage point from which to view the glories of Gods heavens.

The real blow to man's ego was, I think, not being displaced from the center of the planetary system, but rather the subsequent reduction in size of the planetary system itself with respect to the starry universe. Copernicus himself placed all the stars at the same finite distance within a great shell. Only later in that century did the Englishman Thomas Digges produce a diagram showing the stars scattered out at various distances toward infinity. By the end of the following century the leading scientists recognized that the stars were in reality other suns at great distances.

Immensity of the Universe

In our century we have become even more acutely aware of the immensity of the universe. First came Harlow Shapley's discovery that the sun is but a peripheral star in our great Milky Way spiral, a mediocre member in an assemblage of 200 billion stars. Soon thereafter astronomers recognized that our own Milky Way galaxy is only one of billions of galaxies, which we now know stretch out to distances exceeding 10 billion light-years. Surrounding many of these billion billion stars must be planets, and a sizable fraction must provide habitable environments.

For centuries man has speculated about life elsewhere, and with the increased understanding of molecular biology and chemical evolution, such speculations have reached a crescendo. Is man cosmically lonely in the vast reaches of space? Or is he surrounded by other civilizations, by incredibly higher intellects? Either prospect is intimidating. Man, when he considers himself within the physical universe, is overwhelmed by his own finiteness-a fragile protoplasm on a small blue planet orbiting a second-rate star. That is the trauma of space, the shock wave inadvertently set in motion by Copernicus.

There are, nevertheless, some alternative views concerning the grandeur of the universe. Freeman Dyson, the philosopher-scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study has written "A naïve person looking at the cosmos has the impression that the whole thing is extravagantly, even irrelevantly, large." He goes on to say that this extravagant size is our primary protection against a variety of catastrophies that would otherwise engulf the universe. Dyson continues, "It would not be surprising if it should turn out that the origin and destiny of the energy in the universe cannot be completely understood in isolation from the phenomenon of life and consciousness."

The Theology of Astrophysics

For many years astronomers have recognized that the universe is expanding and that the galaxies are rushing away from each other at enormous velocities. If the energy of the initial "big bang" had been less, the universe would long ago have reached its maximum size and would have collapsed-presumably long before the tedious force of evolution would have brought forth mankind. On the other hand, if the universe had blown up with more energy, according to the noted Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, its density would have dropped too rapidly for stars and galaxies to form. In this great sea of amorphous gas there would be no planets and presumably no us. This is, I submit, remarkably teleological; I call it the theology of astrophysics.

At the turn of the 19th century, the English natural theologian, William Paley, wrote in his Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature,

My opinion of astronomy has always been, that it is not the best medium through which to prove the agency of an intelligent Creator; but that, this being proved, it shows, beyond all other sciences, the magnificence of his operations. The mind which is once convinced, it raises to sublimer views of the Deity than any other subject affords; but it is not so well adapted, as some other subjects are, to the purpose of argument.

Paley continues,

After all the real subject of admiration is, that we understand so much of astronomy as we do. That an animal confined to the surface of one of the planets; bearing a less proportion to it than the smallest microscopic insect does to the plant it lives upon; that this little, busy, inquisitive creature, by the use of senses which were given to it for its domestic necessities, and by means of these senses should have been enabled to observe the whole system of worlds-all this is wonderful, whether we refer our admiration to the heavenly motions, or to the perspicacity with which they have been noticed by mankind.

I think we must agree with Paley how admirable it is that we can understand so much of the astronomical bodies, bodies so remote and so different from the objects immediately around us. And further, there is much going for Paley's view that astronomy is not the

What if the meaning of the universe is to bring forth life? Could we make the universe more economically, without so many stars and galaxies, so much vastness of space? ... a purported extravagance in our universe is far from obvious.

best medium for proving the agency of an intelligent creator. Nevertheless, if Paley were writing his book today, he would probably want to reconsider the efficacy of those evidences for the existence of Deity collected from the astronomical universe.

Nuclear Structure of Beryllium

My second example concerns the nuclear structure of beryllium, carbon and oxygen. These nuclei can be thought of as combinations of two, three and four alpha particles respectively. Astronomers now believe that most all of the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium were synthesized in cataclysmic supernovae explosions much earlier in the history of the universe. In other words, you and I are made of recycled material-not just the dust of the earth, but the ashes of supernovae. Now it happens that Be8 is not very stable, so that in the supernovae explosion, when two alpha particles collide, they do not stick together very well. However, there just happens to be a resonant state of carbon with almost exactly the same energy as a Be 8 plus an alpha particle, which means that although the Be8 itself is not very stable, there is an easy route to form stable carbon by adding the alpha particle to the beryllium. Now it just happens that the opposite is true with respect to oxygen. When you add an alpha particle to the carbon, there is no resonance level in oxygen that will allow the alpha particle to stick easily and to convert the carbon to oxygen.

I shouldn't really say, "there is no resonance level" because in fact there is-only it just happens to be one half percent too low for the nuclear reaction to take place. What if that resonance level were one half percent higher? Then virtually all carbon would have been converted to oxygen, and carbon would he too rare to permit the development of much organic chemistry. Similarly, if the Be8 had been stable, the helium would have quickly burned to Be8 and perhaps stopped there. Again, carbon would be too rare to permit the formation of any organic compounds. In other words, we wouldn't he here! Sir Fred Hoyle, who originally noticed this, has admitted that nothing has shaken his atheism quite as much as this discovery.

Essential Extravagance?

At a symposium we organized for the Copernican anniversary, the Princeton physicist and cosmologist John Wheeler addressed himself to the paradox of intelligent life on this small corner of such a vast universe. He asked, can science dare to ask the greatest question of all? What role does life and mind play in the structure of the universe? Zero? Or everything? Wheeler asked us to consider a flower-a tiny part of a giant plant-yet the entire purpose for the existence of the plant. What if the meaning of the universe is to bring forth life? Could we make the universe more economically, without so many stars and galaxies, so much vastness of space? Instead of 100 billion galaxies, how about making just one? If we try, the total mass and energy of the universe would be so small that it would expand to a limit, stop, and collapse in just a year, scarcely time for any interesting history on earth! From this point of view, Wheeler concludes, a purported extravagance in our universe is far from obvious.

In describing the nucleochemistry I used the expression "it just happens that . . ." four times. If indeed the meaning of the universe is life, I should perhaps have said, "miraculously ...