CCNet 132/2002 - 18 November 2002
"Perhaps someday researchers will find wholly natural explanations
for life and the cosmos. For the moment, though, discoveries about
these two subjects are inspiring awe and wonder, and many scientists
are reaching out to spiritual thinkers to help them comprehend what
they're learning. And as the era of biotechnology dawns, scientists realize
they're stepping into territory best navigated with the aid of
philosophers and theologians. We are entering the greatest era of
science-religion fusion since the Enlightenment last attempted to reconcile
the two, three centuries ago."
--Gregg Easterbrook, Wired Magazine, December 2002
(1) SCIENCE TEAMS AWAIT LEONID STORM
Sky & Telescope, 15 November 2002
(2) STARS IN OUR EYES
Daily Mail, 18 November 2002
(3) LEONID PREDICTIONS
Daniel Fischer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(4) TR/J EJECTA LAYER IN BRITAIN
Hermann Burchard <email@example.com>
(5) AND FINALLY: THE NEW CONVERGENCE
Wired Magazine, December 2002
(1) SCIENCE TEAMS AWAIT LEONID STORM
>From Sky & Telescope, 15 November 2002
By J. Kelly Beatty
November 15, 2002 | For millions of Europeans and North Americans, this
year's Leonid meteor shower will provide a not-to-be-missed treat. But those
brief flashes of incandescence also reveal telltale clues about the Leonids'
parent comet, 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, and how meteoric dust interacts with our
atmosphere. So the pressure is on to maximize the Leonids' scientific
potential, and when this year's display reaches its crescendo, scores of
researchers around the world will likely be concentrating too hard on their
experiments to enjoy the show overhead.
European astronomers are well positioned to study the first of November
19th's two predicted outbursts, which should peak near 4:00 Universal Time.
A team from the European Space Agency is readying equipment on Pico Veleta
near Granada in southern Spain. Led by Detlef Koschny, the researchers will
use ultrasensitive video cameras to record detailed light curves of meteor
flashes. To aid the ESA effort, the nearby 30-meter IRAM radio telescope
will monitor the Leonid shower's intensity using echoes of radio
transmissions mirrored by ionized gas along the meteors' paths.
Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, Noah Brosch (Wise Observatory) has
outfitted the cockpit of a commercial Boeing 757 aircraft with a pair of
intensified video cameras. To help defray the cost of the chartered jet, the
flight will also carry some 200 paying passengers. The plane will depart Tel
Aviv after midnight, then crisscross the Mediterranean between Israel and
Crete several times over five hours. Brosch hopes to be heading westward
during the storm's maximum, which won't be observable from Israel due to
The most concentrated scientific effort, by far, will be the Leonid
Multi-instrument Aircraft Campaign, coordinated by Peter Jenniskens
(NASA/Ames Research Center). This year's effort pairs NASA's DC-8 research
aircraft with the U.S. Air Force's Flying Infrared Signature Technology
Aircraft (FISTA), a heavily instrument KC-135 cargo craft. Flying in tandem
westward over the Atlantic Ocean, the two planes will observe the cascade of
meteors in stereo using sensitive cameras, spectrometers, and specially
trained amateur astronomers who will record the meteors' arrival rates and
Jenniskens, who hopes to find the spectral signature of organic compounds in
the flash spectra, has conducted similar airborne efforts during four of the
past five years. "We are looking for clues about the diversity of comets and
their impact on the chemistry of life's origin on Earth," he explains.
Results from the Leonid MAC mission can be viewed in near-real time on the
"Leonids Live" web site.
Another major scientific effort is taking shape at Kirtland Air Force Base,
not far from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jack D. Drummond and a dozen
colleagues from the Starfire Optical Range (SOR) hope to glean everything
they can from the glowing trains that can linger in the upper stratosphere
for up to an hour after the passage of a Leonid fireball. This time, in
addition to a phalanx of camera and video equipment, the SOR's 3.5-meter
telescope will be paired with a high-resolution, high-sensitivity
spectrophotometer on loan from Sandia National Laboratories. Observers from
the Albuquerque Astronomical Society will help establish the altitudes at
which the trains form. "We intend to answer once and for all what creates
the light in those trains," Drummond vows.
Copyright 2002, Sky & Telescope
(2) STARS IN OUR EYES
>From Daily Mail, 18 November 2002
By Nick Craven
>From the earliest recorded time, man has dreaded comets -seeing their fiery
tails of meteor storms as harbingers of plague, pestilence and disaster.
After all, what could be more terrifying than the sight of fire raining down
from the firmament? Proof surely of the wrath of God.
Four thousand years ago, a Babylonian myth, the Epic of Gilgamesh, put it
like this: "And the seven judges of hell. ..raised their torches, lighting
the, land with their livid name. 'A stupor of despair went up to heaven when
the god of the storm turned daylight into darkness, when he smashed the land
like a cup.'
Hopefully tonight will be rather less cataclysmic, as we are offered a once
in a lifetime chance to see Nature's most spectacular fireworks display. By
4am tomorrow; up to 5,000 meteors an hour will be streaking across the sky,
creating enough light to cast a shadow on the ground behind those insomniac
stargazers who are lucky to witness the display.
The star performers in this celestial light show are known as the Leonid
Meteors. They may sound like a Ukrainian football team, but in fact they are
named after Leo, the constellation from where they appear.
The storm is the result of Earth passing through the debris left by the
Temple-Tuttle comet. It orbits the sun every 33 years and each time it
passes, the intense radiation strips material from the comet's surface
resulting in a huge dust cloud which trails it - in this case the Leonid
As the comet continues, the dust follows the original orbit, but spreads out
like the wake of a boat. It is these particles of meteoric dust which will
hit the Earth's atmosphere at 160,000mph - 70 times faster than a speeding
bullet =- and vaporise high in the sky, causing intense streaks of light.
Each display will last from just a few seconds to up to 30 minutes.
The comet itself was first observed in 1865 by astronomers William Tempel
and Horace Tuttle and every November Earth crosses its orbit. But because
the density of the dust trail varies every year, tonight will probably be
the last chance for almost a century to see the trail of debris left in
Tempel-Tuttle's path over millions of years.
Comets are believed to contain pristine examples of the materials that
coalesced 4.5 billion years ago to form the solar system itself. The frozen
balls of ice and rock are rich with carbon-based molecules. Indeed, some
modern scientists believe that Earth was seeded with the organic compounds
necessary for life when it was repeatedly pelted with comets early in its
Ancient peoples came up with a variety of theories to explain comets and
meteor showers. Many believed they were souls of the dead going to heaven,
others fire dragons in the sky or shots in a war between angels and devils.
Back in November 1833, the skies above America lit up with one of the most
powerful meteor storms in recorded history. Night was transformed into day
and according to Samuel Rodgers, a travelling preacher from Antioch,
Virginia: 'I heard one of the children cry out, in a voice expressive or
alarm, "Come to the door, father, the world is ~ surely coming to an end!"
'Some really thought that Judgment Day was at hand and fell on their knees
in penitence confessing all the sins of their past lives and also I calling
upon God to have mercy.'
The storm was even interpreted by self-styled apocalyptic preacher William
Miller as a sign that his predictions of a Second Coming were spot on.
According to his cult of Millerism (a precursor of the Seventh Day
Adventists), he determined that the Messiah would arrive sometime between
1843 and 1844. His followers waited, in vain, until March 21, 1844, when
Miller's deadline expired. Some agreed to set a new date of October 22,
1844, but this, too passed without incident, leading to the collapse of the
Outlandish as such beliefs might appear today, it would be foolish to assume
that such notions have been entirely swept away with the advance of
astronomical science. For example, in March 1997, 39 members of the Heaven's
Gate cult in California committed mass suicide alter leaving a message
saying that the passing Hale-Bopp comet was a 'marker for them to enter the
Kingdom of Heaven.
Social anthropologist Dr Benny Peiser claims that an obsession with the end
of the world provides the bedrock on which many of the most fanatical
modern-day terrorism movements build their ideas.
They see natural phenomena such as comets and meteors as providing excellent
illustrations of God's power and anger. Leaders of fundamentalist groups
tell their followers that ancient writings foretell the destruction of the
Earth by an avenging God. 'By using such language, radical fundamentalist
leaders instil absolute commitment and fanaticism in their followers,' said
Dr Peiser, of Liverpool's John Moores University.
'Once you believe that the end is imminent and that your direct action will
hasten the coming of the end of time, every atrocity is sanctioned.
Hopefully, as scientists become better at predicting these events, then the
mysticism - and the potential for harm which that can bring - will be
Not that the universe is entirely predictable, though. In 1998, the Leonids
surprised observers with a burst of bright fireballs which were visible over
Europe about 15 hours ahead of the supposed 'peak' time. This led to
astronomers hastily re-adjusting their mathematical models.
Despite the tiny size of the Leonid particles, their speed makes them a
hazard to any equipment such as satellites, which are not protected by the
Earth's atmosphere. The European Space Agency has issued a warning to
satellite operators to manoeuvre their 'birds' to present the narrowest
possible profile to the direction of the shower, and to power down sensitive
The agency has also recommended delaying the launch of any spacecraft during
this period. For the rest of us, capturing the full majesty of the Heavens
will require a little less forethought.
The Leonids will appear to come from within the lion's head shape in the
constellation Leo from 11.30pm, with increasing numbers after 2am until they
reach a peak two hours later. You will improve your chances of seeing them
by continuing to scan the night around the constellation,
rather than focusing on one particular point.
The next comparably dense plume of meteors is not expected to bombard our
atmosphere until 2098 or even 2131, because, say the astronomers, the
gravitational field of Jupiter is set to send tbe streams of debris away
'If it's the one time in your life when you're going to see them. This might
be the year to try,' said Nasa astronomer Don Yeomans.
But equally, the soothsayers could be right about tonight's heavenly display
marking the end of the World. And what better way to witness the Armageddon,
looking out your bedroom window with a cup of cocoa in your hand.
Copyright 2002, Daily Mail
* LETTERS TO THE MODERATOR *
(3) LEONID PREDICTIONS
>From Daniel Fischer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
at http://www.astro.uni-bonn.de/~dfischer/mirror/245.html. I have summarized
the present knowledge about the upcoming final Leonid meteor storms and
provided the - in my opinion - most important links. The "NAMN Notes" are a
particularly good way to start thinking about the topic in earnest.
The last two Leonid meteor storms in our time
(i.e. until the year 2099) are expected to occur on Tuesday morning,
November 19: The first one is best seen from Western Europe and NW Africa,
the other one from Canada, most of the U.S. and Mexico. Again the precise
predictions by the experts differ on when exactly the storms will peak and
what strength they will reach, but the forecasts are much closer together
than they were leading up to the 2001 storms (see Update # 227
[http://www.astro.uni-bonn.de/~dfischer/mirror/227.html] for the confusion
before, 230 [http://www.astro.uni-bonn.de/~dfischer/mirror/230.html] for the
final predictions and early impressions of what happened, and 236 story 5
[http://www.astro.uni-bonn.de/~dfischer/mirror/236.html] for a detailled
analysis). Here is what 5 researchers or groups are expecting for 2002:
ZHR (1st peak) ZHR (2nd peak)
Lyytinen et al. 3500 2600
4:03 (106) 10:40 (122)
& Asher 1000 6000
3:56 ± 5 (105) 10:34 ± 5 (71)
Jenniskens 5900 5400
3:48 (38) 10:23 (36)
& Colas 3400 ± 300 3000 ± 300
4:04 (120) 10:47 (180)
Langbroek 2000 - 5700 2400 - 5200
In bold the maximum zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) is given, sometimes together
with either a range of expected maximum values or error bars: This is the
number of meteors you would see if there were no Moon, the limiting
magnitude in the sky were 6.5 mag. and the radiant would be in the zenith.
Due to the Moon being almost full and the radiant usually sitting at a
less-than-perfect elevation, you can expect to see perhaps a third to a
fourth of the ZHR in reality, i.e. a meteor every two seconds on average or
so, even if the more optimistic models work out. Also given are the peak
times in UTC and the full width half maximum (FWHM) of the ZHR in minutes.
Note that the predictions for the first peak (middle column) differ by a
factor of 6, while for the 2nd peak (right column) they agree much better:
The first peak will be caused by a dust trail that has gone around the Sun 7
times and has suffered from planetary perturbations while the 2nd peak's
dust trail is only 4 revolutions old and probably in better shape. The
modellers differ in their treatment of the perturbations and effects working
on the trails, with McNaught & Asher seeing major 'damage' to the 7-rev.
trail. On the other hand Lyytinen & al. feel that the 4-rev. trail has been
All modellers agree, however, that the older 'European' 7-rev. trail should
contain larger particles, making for brighter meteors: This should help a
bit against the full moon. You should further place yourself in a location
as high as possible (to have less lower atmosphere above you to scatter the
moonlight) and perhaps an even higher mountain shielding off the moon, which
will sink lower while the radiant rises in the morning. While the
predictions for the peak times are pretty close together this time, it
should still be advisable to have about one hour between 'your' peak and
dawn, to be on the safe side and to watch both flanks of the peak.
As these will be the final Leonid meteor storms for almost a century (the
Earth won't pass thru any dust trails before 2099), there is again great
excitement among amateur and professional astronomers alike. In Europe,
e.g., scores of dedicated observers are moving to sites with better weather
forecasts. There will again be an airborne campaign like in 1998, 1999 and
2001, carrying sophisticated equipment above any clouds. And even the
astronauts aboard the ISS should be prepared this time - with the space
station passing over Europe for the 1st and over America for the 2nd peak.
(Table based on Langbroek, MNRAS 334 [Aug. 2002] L16-20, McNaught & Asher,
WGN 30#5 [Okt. 2002] 132-43 and the websites of Lyytinen, Jenniskens and
(4) TR/J EJECTA LAYER IN BRITAIN
>From Hermann Burchard <email@example.com>
the abstracts from the Fall UGA meeting posted on CCNet (Michael Paine), had
many new cases of ejecta layers. Now SCIENCE reports a Tr/J ejecta layer
from SW Britain. This news I first noticed in DER SPIEGEL, who reports the
layer is up to 6 inches thick: "eine bis zu 15 Zentimeter dicke Schicht mit
geschocktem Quarz und smaragdgrünen Sphärulen."
It appears that once people start looking ejecta layers with the classical
indicators [CCNet articles by Andrew Glikson and others] are found to be
Published online November 14, 2002
Submitted on July 17, 2002. Accepted on November 5, 2002
A Late Triassic Impact Ejecta Layer in Southwestern Britain
Gordon Walkden 1*, Julian Parker 1, Simon Kelley 2
1 Department of Geology and Petroleum Geology, Kings College, University of
Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 3UD, UK.
2 Department of Earth Sciences, Open University, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, UK.
* To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:
Despite the 160 or so known terrestrial impact craters of Phanerozoic age,
equivalent ejecta deposits within distal sedimentary successions are rare.
We have recognized a Triassic deposit in southwestern Britain that contains
spherules and shocked quartz, characteristic of an impact ejecta layer.
Inter- and intragranular potassium feldspar from the deposit yields an Ar-Ar
age of 214 ± 2.5 million years old. This is within the age range of several
known Triassic impact craters, the two closest of which, both in age and
location, are Manicouagan in northeastern Canada and Rochechouart in central
France. The ejecta deposit provides an important sedimentary record of an
extraterrestrial impact in the Mesozoic that will help to decipher the
number and effect of impact events, the source and dynamics of the event
that left this distinctive sedimentary marker, and the relation of this
ejecta layer to the timing of extinctions in the fossil record.
Copyright 2002, AAAS
(5) AND FINALLY: THE NEW CONVERGENCE
>From Wired Magazine, December 2002
By Gregg Easterbrook
The ancient covenant is in pieces: Man knows at last that he is alone in the
universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance." So
pronounced the Nobel Prize-winning French biologist Jacques Monod in his
1970 treatise Chance and Necessity, which maintained that God had been
utterly refuted by science. The divine is fiction, faith is hokum, existence
is a matter of heartless probability - and this wasn't just speculation,
Monod maintained, but proven. The essay, which had tremendous influence on
the intellectual world, seemed to conclude a millennia-old debate. Theology
was in retreat, unable to explain away Darwin's observations; intellectual
approval was flowing to thinkers such as the Nobel-winning physicist Steven
Weinberg, who in 1977 pronounced, "The more the universe seems
comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." In 1981, the National
Academy of Sciences declared, "Religion and science are separate and
mutually exclusive realms of human thought." Case closed.
And now reopened. In recent years, Allan Sandage, one of the world's leading
astronomers, has declared that the big bang can be understood only as a
"miracle." Charles Townes, a Nobel-winning physicist and coinventor of the
laser, has said that discoveries of physics "seem to reflect intelligence at
work in natural law." Biologist Christian de Duve, also a Nobel winner,
points out that science argues neither for nor against the existence of a
deity: "There is no sense in which atheism is enforced or established by
science." And biologist Francis Collins, director of the National Human
Genome Research Institute, insists that "a lot of scientists really don't
know what they are missing by not exploring their spiritual feelings."
Ever so gingerly, science has been backing away from its case-closed
attitude toward the transcendent unknown. Conferences that bring together
theologians and physicists are hot, recently taking place at Harvard, the
Smithsonian, and other big-deal institutions. The American Association for
the Advancement of Science now sponsors a "Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and
Religion." Science luminaries who in the '70s shrugged at faith as
gobbledygook - including E. O. Wilson and the late Stephen Jay Gould and
Carl Sagan - have endorsed some form of reconciliation between science and
Why the renewed scientific interest in spiritual thinking? One reason is the
cyclical nature of intellectual fashions. In philosophy, metaphysics is
making a comeback after decades ruled by positivism and analytical theory of
language. These restrained, empirically based ideas have run their course;
now the pendulum is swinging toward the grand vision of metaphysics -
someday, surely, to swing away again. Similarly in science, the pure
materialistic view that reigned through the 20th century, holding that
everything has a natural explanation, couldn't keep other viewpoints at bay
forever. The age-old notion that there is more to existence than meets the
eye suddenly looks like fresh thinking again.
Meanwhile, decades of inconclusive inquiry have left the
science-has-all-the-answers script in tatters. As recently as the '70s,
intellectuals assumed that hard science was on track to resolve the two
Really Big Questions: why life exists and how the universe began. What's
more, both Really Big Answers were assumed to involve strictly deterministic
forces. But things haven't worked out that way. Instead, the more scientists
have learned, the more mysterious the Really Big Questions have become.
Perhaps someday researchers will find wholly natural explanations for life
and the cosmos. For the moment, though, discoveries about these two subjects
are inspiring awe and wonder, and many scientists are reaching out to
spiritual thinkers to help them comprehend what they're learning. And as the
era of biotechnology dawns, scientists realize they're stepping into
territory best navigated with the aid of philosophers and theologians. We
are entering the greatest era of science-religion fusion since the
Enlightenment last attempted to reconcile the two, three centuries ago.
Look up into the night sky and scan for the edge of the cosmos. You won't
find it - nobody has yet. Instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope's
deep-field scanner have detected at least 50 billion galaxies, and every
time the equipment is improved, more galaxies farther away come into focus.
Space may be infinite - not merely vast, but infinite - encompassing an
infinite number of galaxies with an infinite number of stars.
All this stuff - enough to form 50 billion galaxies, maybe fantastically
more - is thought to have emerged roughly 14 billion years ago in less than
a second, from a point with no physical dimensions. Set aside the many
competing explanations of the big bang; something made an entire cosmos out
of nothing. It is this realization - that something transcendent started it
all - which has hard-science types such as Sandage using terms like
Initially, scientists found the big bang's miraculous implications
off-putting. When, in 1927, Catholic abbé and astronomer Georges Lemaître
first hypothesized that existence began with the detonation of a "primordial
atom" of infinite density, the idea was ridiculed as a transparent ploy to
place Genesis on technical grounding. But Lemaître enclosed a testable
prediction - that if there had been a bang, the galaxies would be rushing
away from one another. This idea, too, was ridiculed, until Edwin Hubble
stunned the scientific world by presenting evidence of cosmic expansion.
>From Hubble's 1929 discovery on, science has taken big bang thinking
In 1965, another sort of big bang echo - the cosmic background radiation
-was discovered. Soon, it was assumed, cosmologists would be able to say,
"Here's how everything happened, steps one, two, and three." Today
cosmologists do think they know a fair amount about steps two and three -
what the incipient cosmos was like in the instant after the genesis, how
matter and energy later separated and formed the first galaxies. But as for
step one, no dice. Nobody knows beyond foggy conjecture what caused the big
bang, what (if anything) was present before that event, or how there could
have been a prior condition in which nothing existed.
Explanations of how the mass of an entire universe could pop out of a void
are especially unsatisfying. Experiments announced in July this year by the
Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York measured properties of subatomic
particles known as muons, finding that they behave as though influenced by
other particles that seem to have materialized from nothingness. But no
object larger than the tiniest subatomic particle has been observed to do
this - and these "virtual" particles are volatile entities that exist for
less than a second, while the big bang made a universe that is superbly
stable, perhaps even permanent.
About 10 years ago, just as scientists were becoming confident in big bang
theory, I asked Alan Dressler - one of the world's leading astronomers, and
currently a consultant on the design of the space telescope scheduled to
replace the Hubble - what caused the bang. He scrunched his face and said,
"I can't stand that question!" At the time, cosmologists tended to assert
that the cause and prior condition were unknowable. The bizarre physics of
the singularity that preceded the explosion, they explained, represented an
information wall that blocked (actually, destroyed) all knowledge of the
prior condition and its physical laws. We would never know.
The more scientists testily insisted that the big bang was unfathomable, the
more they sounded like medieval priests saying, "Don't ask me what made
God." Researchers, prominently Alan Guth of MIT, began to assert that the
big bang could be believed only if its mechanics could be explained. Indeed,
Guth went on to propose such an explanation. Suffice it to say that, while
Guth asserts science will eventually figure out the cause, he still invokes
unknown physical laws in the prior condition. And no matter how you slice
it, calling on unknown physical laws sounds awfully like appealing to the
The existence of 50 billion galaxies isn't the only mystery that's prompting
scientists to rethink their attitudes toward the divine. Beyond this is the
puzzle of why the universe is hospitable to living creatures.
In recent years, researchers have calculated that if a value called omega -
the ratio between the average density of the universe and the density that
would halt cosmic expansion - had not been within about one-quadrillionth of
1 percent of its actual value immediately after the big bang, the incipient
universe would have collapsed back on itself or experienced
runaway-relativity effects that would render the fabric of time-space
weirdly distorted. Instead, the firmament is geometrically smooth - rather
than distorted - in the argot of cosmology. If gravity were only slightly
stronger, research shows, stars would flame so fiercely they would burn out
in a single year; the universe would be a kingdom of cinders, devoid of
life. If gravity were only slightly weaker, stars couldn't form and the
cosmos would be a thin, undifferentiated blur. Had the strong force that
binds atomic nuclei been slightly weaker, all atoms would disperse into
These cosmic coincidences were necessary to create a universe capable of
sustaining life. But life itself required an equally unlikely fine-tuning at
the atomic level, yielding vast quantities of carbon. Unlike most elements,
carbon needs little energy to form exceedingly complicated molecules, a
requirement of biology. As it happens, a quirk of carbon chemistry - an
equivalence of nuclear energy levels that allows helium nuclei to meld
within stars - makes this vital element possible.
To the late astronomer Fred Hoyle, who calculated the conditions necessary
to create carbon in 1953, the odds of this match occurring by chance seemed
so phenomenally low that he converted from atheism to a belief that the
universe reflects a "purposeful intelligence." Hoyle declared, "The
probability of life originating at random is so utterly minuscule as to make
the random concept absurd." That is to say, Hoyle's faith in chance was
shaken by evidence of purpose, a reversal of the standard postmodern
experience, and one shared by many of his successors today.
This web of improbable conditions - making not just life but intelligent
life practically inevitable - came to be known as the anthropic principle.
To physicist Charles Townes, an anthropic universe resolves a tension that
has bedeviled physics since the heyday of quantum theory. "When quantum
mechanics overthrew determinism, many scientists, including Einstein, wanted
the universe to be deterministic," he points out. "They didn't like quantum
theory, because it leaves you looking for a spiritual explanation for why
things turned out the way they did. Religion and science are going to be
drawn together for a long time trying to figure out the philosophical
implications of why the universe turned out favorable to us."
Of course, not every scientist is ready to don choir robes. Hard science's
attempt to explain our anthropic universe without any reference to the
divine has led to the emerging theory of the multiverse, or multiple
universes. Andrei Linde, a researcher at Stanford, has argued for a decade
that the big bang wasn't unique. Universes bang into existence all the time,
by the billions. It just happens in dimensions we can't see.
Linde starts from the assumption that if the big bang was a chance event
driven by some natural mechanism, then such events can be expected to happen
repeatedly over eons. Ergo, billions of universes. With each bang, Linde
supposes, physical laws and constants are determined anew by random forces.
Huge numbers of universes end up with excessive gravity and are crushed out
of existence; huge numbers end up with weak gravity and no stars; huge
numbers lack carbon. Once in a while, an anthropic cosmos comes about.
Several variations on the multiverse theory are popular in academia because
they suggest how our universe could have beaten the odds without a guiding
hand. But the multiverse idea rests on assumptions that would be laughed out
of town if they came from a religious text. Townes has said that speculation
about billions of invisible universes "strikes me as much more freewheeling
than any of the church's claims." Tenured professors at Stanford now
casually discuss entire unobservable universes. Compare that to religion's
proposal of a single invisible plane of existence: the spirit.
Linde admits that we can't observe or verify other universes in any way; for
that matter we can't even explain how they might occupy alternate
dimensions. (As a scientific concept, extra dimensions are ambiguous at
best; none beyond the familiar four have ever been observed, and it's far
from clear that a higher number is possible.)
Thus, the multiverse theory requires as much suspension of disbelief as any
religion. Join the church that believes in the existence of invisible
objects 50 billion galaxies wide! To be fair, the dogmas embraced by science
tend to be more flexible than those held by theologians. If empirical
evidence of God were to appear, science probably would accept it eventually,
if grudgingly; while religion, if presented with an empirical disproof of
God, might simply refuse to listen. Nevertheless, while cosmology seems more
and more to have a miraculous aspect, the scientifically approved
alternatives require an article of faith.
Numerous other areas of contemporary science sound like supernaturalism
dressed up. Researchers studying the motions of spiral galaxies have found
that the stars and gas clouds within them behave as though they're subject
to 20 times more force than can be explained by the gravity from observed
matter. This has led to the assumption - now close to a scientific consensus
- that much of the cosmos is bound up in an undetectable substance
provisionally called dark matter. The ratio of dark to regular matter may be
as high as 6 to 1.
Other experiments suggest that as much as two-thirds of the content of the
universe may crackle with an equally mysterious dark energy. In 1998,
astronomers were surprised to discover that, contrary to expectations,
cosmic expansion isn't slowing as the momentum of the big bang peters out.
Instead, it appears to be speeding up. Something very powerful is causing
the galaxies to fly apart faster all the time.
Then there's the Higgs field. In an attempt to explain the ultimate source
of mass, some theorists propose that the universe is permeated by an
undiscovered field that confers mass on what would otherwise be zero-mass
particles. The Superconducting Supercollider project, canceled in 1993, was
intended to test this hypothesis.
These and other mystery forces seem to function based on nothing. That
notion, now a fact of life among physicists and cosmologists, would have
been considered ridiculous just a few generations ago. Yet Judeo-Christian
theology has been teaching for millennia that God made the universe ex
nihilo - out of nothing. Maybe these forces work in a wholly natural manner
that simply hasn't yet been determined. Certainly, there's a better chance
of finding observational evidence for theories of physics than theories of
theology. But for the moment, many believers find physics trending in their
direction, while physicists themselves are left to ponder transcendent
effects they can't explain.
Physicists and theologians hold chummy conferences and drink sherry
together, but most biologists still want little to do with spiritual
thought, and the feeling is mutual on the part of many believers. More than
three-quarters of a century after John Scopes stood trial for teaching
evolution, Darwin's theory remains a flash point. Only in September,
creationists urged Congress to enact legislation supporting the teaching of
alternatives to evolution in public schools.
The battle between evolutionary biology and faith isn't inevitable. As
genome researcher Collins says, "I am unaware of any irreconcilable conflict
between scientific knowledge about evolution and the idea of a creator God.
Why couldn't God use the mechanism of evolution to create?" Mainstream
Protestant denominations and most branches of Judaism accept Darwin, and in
1996, Pope John Paul II called Darwin's work "more than just a hypothesis."
Even Christian fundamentalism wasn't always anti-Darwin. When the American
movement began at the start of the 20th century, its trumpet call was a
popular series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals, which were to the
decade of the 1910s what the Left Behind series of evangelical novels is
today. According to The Fundamentals, evolution illustrated the subtle
beauty of God's creative power.
The tide began to turn a decade later, however, when William Jennings Bryan
began preaching against Darwinism. He was influenced by a 1923 book, The New
Geology, which argued that Earth's apparently ancient age was an artifact
created by God to test people's faith. Moreover, Bryan had just spent a year
in Germany and was horrified by the incipient Nazi movement, which used
social Darwinism - now discredited, but then fashionable on the left as well
as the right - to assert that it was only natural for the strong to kill the
weak. His crusade against evolutionary theory led to the Scopes trial in
1925, which cemented into American culture the notion that Darwin and
religion were opposing forces.
Espousing a theory known as intelligent design, molecular biologist Michael
Behe and others are attempting to forge a synthesis. Often - though
inaccurately - described as creationism lite, intelligent design admits that
evolution operates under current conditions but emphasizes that Darwin is
silent on how those conditions came to be. Science doesn't have the
slightest idea how life began. No generally accepted theory exists, and the
steps leading from a barren primordial world to the fragile chemistry of
life seem imponderable.
The late biologist Gerald Soffen, who oversaw the life-seeking experiments
carried out by NASA's Viking probes to Mars, once outlined the early
milestones in the evolution of living processes: development of organic
compounds, self-replication of those compounds, appearance of cells
isolating the compounds from their environment, photosynthesis enabling
cells to use the sun's energy, and the assembly of DNA. "It's hard to
imagine how these things could have happened," Soffen told me before his
death in 2000. "Once you reach the point of a single-cell organism with
genes, evolution takes command. But the early leaps - they're very
Intelligent design trades on this insight to propose that only a designer
could create life in the first place. The theory is spiritual, but it's not
bound by Scripture, as creationism is. A designer is a nondenominational,
ecumenical possibility, not a dogmatic formula.
Did a designer set Earth's life processes in motion? Few questions are more
interesting or intellectually rich. Because the evolution debate is so
rancorous, however, the how-did-life-begin question is usually lost amid
shouting matches between orthodox Darwinians and hard-line creationists.
The biotech era may change this. Biologists and fundamentalists may still
want to hurl bricks at one another, but there's no dodging the immediate
questions of biological engineering, stem-cell research, transgenic animals,
and so on. What is life? Do individual cells have rights? Do human beings
have the right to alter human DNA? Is it wise to reengineer the biosphere?
The need to grope our collective way through such quandaries may force
theologians, church leaders, biologists, and philosophers to engage one
another. Perhaps this debate will get hopelessly hung up in doctrine, for
instance on the question of whether life begins when sperm meets egg. But
there is at least an equal chance that the pressure of solving biotech
questions will force science and theology to find the reasonable points of
either field. Unlike cosmology, which poses fascinating questions whose
answers have no effect on daily life, biotech will affect almost everyone in
an immediate way. A science-and-religion reconciliation on this subject may
be needed to write research rules, physician ethics, and, ultimately, law.
Oh, and what did Einstein think about this issue? He said, "Science without
religion is lame, religion without science is blind." Einstein was neither
convinced there is a God nor convinced there is not; he sensed that it's far
too early in the human quest for knowledge to do more than speculate on
transcendent questions. Science, which once thought the case for higher
power was closed, is now trending back toward his view.
Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly and
author of the book The Here and Now.
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