Saturday, May 21, 2011

Jellybean . . . boom! (I feel fine.)

So the world didn't end today, with either a bang or a whimper. We can all feel smug and laugh at the poor deluded clowns who were talked into getting rid of all their worldly possessions in anticipation of the Rapture. But are we any less risible in thinking that it began with a bang?
The Big Bang theory, by which most scientists today would explain the origins of the universe, was first proposed in 1927 by a Jesuit priest who taught physics.
That seems more ironic today, when religion and science have become, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, “non-overlapping magisteria,” than it was a century ago. But it really shouldn’t come as such a surprise.
According to current scientific consensus, some 13 billion years ago all of existence consisted of what physicists call a singularity—a state of infinite density, pressure, and temperature in which laws of time and space as we know them did not operate. From that singularity, the matter that we call the universe expanded with incredible force and rapidity, sending what would become the stars, the galaxies, and other stuff that we can’t see or detect whirling outward, faster and faster. It’s a hard concept to wrap your brain around, because answers to the common-sense questions that it occasions seem more like philosophy than physics. (What existed before the singularity? If nothing existed, where did the something come from? If something existed, where did that come from? If the universe is now expanding faster and faster, what lies beyond the zone of expansion? How can matter emitted from a “bang” actually speed up?) The answers call into question basic human concepts of reality such as existence, space, before-and-after, and so forth.
Most contemporary cosmologists, like Stephen Hawking, scoff at the idea of a divine cause for all this, but one can see why a Roman Catholic priest might find it compelling. When you get past the mathematical proofs, the theory appears to leave room for an act of Creation that defies the natural rules we live by. Whether it does or doesn’t is as much a matter of faith for scientific cosmologists as it is for religious believers.
I like to imagine that those who pooh-pooh the idea of any sort of supernatural agency would prefer to rewrite Genesis as a sort of self-executing computer algorithm:
In the beginning when the Program rendered the heaven and the earth, there was a singularity (a One) where before there had been nothing (a Zero). Now since the One was undifferentiated, and the Zero was void, an “on” and “off,” therefore darkness was upon the face of the deep and the face of the waters, which were variables derived from the Zero and the One but had yet to be defined. And calculating that the creation required further definition, the program caused ones and zeros to propagate, and there was light. This was version 1.0, the first day.
Such a digital account of Creation begs the question of where the One comes from, as well as the origins of the Program itself or the reason why it self-executed. Its main difference from the mythological account in Genesis is that it lacks an analog God created in Man’s image. We have a lot more data than did the author of Genesis. I'm not sure we have more answers.

No comments: