Sunday, July 01, 2012
The Prophet and the Astronomer
By Marcelo Gleiser
By Richard E. Noble
“In this book I explore religion’s assimilation of cataclysmic cosmic phenomena and its influence on scientific thought through the ages from the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece to modern day cosmology … Indeed, I will argue that we create a scientific world as we do a spiritual one – in order to overcome fear, to defy time, to understand our place in the world, and to justify our lives … Drawing on the Book of Danial, the Book of Revelation, and an investigation of apocalyptic sects, art and literature we will examine the formation and evolution of the solar system, the extinction of dinosaurs, Einstein’s general theory of relativity, pulsars and black holes, the big bang and the inflationary universe, all the way to the latest ideas on cosmology.”
Reading the above, a curious reader who is not familiar with Marcelo Gleiser might conclude that this is a book by some right wing religious preacher type who is going to do a mystical tap dance on the science of the Universe.
Marcelo Gleiser is the real thing. He is a professor of Natural Philosophy, physics, astronomy at Dartmouth College. If you are like me and found your way to an interest in the origins of the Universe and science in general via early religious training followed by studies of early Greek and Roman philosophers, then you will enjoy reading this book.
This author keeps it as simple and understandable as could be expected while dealing with highly complicated cosmological theory and speculative particle physics.
The first part of the book was right up my alley. The reader is taken back to before the time of Christ and the Christian era. The author links the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and philosophies to the heavens.
We learn about Zoroaster and other pre-Christian like tales. We see how the heavens have always played their part in the hopes and fears of humans. We see the connection between astrology, astronomy, religions and their holy books.
We delve into comets and asteroids make connections between then and now.
The old superstitions are constantly being updated to our present day superstitions and similarly cultish ideas.
The author continually attempts to explain to the reader the difference between religious superstition and science.
This is easier said than done.
As the author delves more and more deeply into speculative cosmology and particle physics, the Big Bang, black holes and whatnot, the line between the fantasies of the superstitious and the scientific get more and more blurred.
The bottom line:
“First and foremost, science does not promise redemption. Science is a human invention preoccupied with understanding the workings of nature ... Science may not offer eternal salvation, but it offers the possibility of a life free from the spiritual slavery caused by the irrational fear of the unknown ... Thales of Miletus during the sixth century B.C.E. tried to understand the workings of nature, without invoking the actions of gods or God.”
Despite Thales the author points out repeatedly the many geniuses of science who specifically sought science as their means to establish the truth of their religious beliefs.
Isaac Newton stands out among these.
Isaac actually gave up his endeavors in science as a waste of his time to delve more deeply into what really mattered … the Bible and God’s revelations.
But as the author attempts to assuage our fears with the wonders of science, he exposes us to new real fears.
“The conclusion is clear: Earth has been bombarded by large objects in the past and not so distant past, just like all other bodies of the solar system. Scientists use terms like ‘cosmic pinball’, ‘cosmic shooting gallery’, ‘target earth’ and so forth to illustrate the fact that collisions are an integral part of life in the solar system.”
So the end of our world may still be just around the corner, Big bang or no Big bang and whether there is a God around that corner or not.
The point being that science may not eradicate all our fears but it may provide a rational explanation.
That could be considered helpful; then on the other hand, maybe not.
“If the history of life on earth, in all its myriad forms, can be understood as an experiment in evolutionary genetics orchestrated by natural selection, the emergence of intelligent life seems to be the result of a chance occurrence, an odd event that would be extremely hard to duplicate elsewhere. The long reign of the dinosaurs … success and longevity as a species makes it hard to argue for the necessity of intelligent life at the top of the evolutionary chain … it is much easier to argue for extraterrestrial life than for extraterrestrial intelligent life.”
We are all aware via Einstein and his famous theory of relativity that matter can be turned into energy but what about the reverse?
“The converse is also true, energy can turn to matter; it is possible for highly energetic photons … to spontaneously create particles of matter.”
Now this is my theory and not the authors.
For years I have been reading about a lack of matter in the universe and how nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. It seems that when something (for lack of a more scientific word) approaches the speed of light it gains in mass and consequently slows down. As it continues to slowdown and gains in mass, could it not then turn back into matter at some point along the way?
If the answer is yes, then are we not back to the possibility of a steady state universe with matter transforming into energy and energy reforming into matter according and in concordance with the laws concerning the conservation of energy and matter?
In which case there is not a lack of matter in the universe. What has always been there, is always there in one form or the other … and in balance.
A few pages later in this book the author criticizes scientific thinkers like Hoyle because their steady state notions suggest that matter must be created ex nihilo (from nothing) to sustain the steady state notion.
No, not from nothing does the necessary matter come, but from the energy (light) gaining mass and transforming back into matter.
The author is an avid Big Bang supporter. I am not.
I try my best to follow along but much of what the author explores in this regard, I feel will all be scrapped as time rolls on.
I’m referring to background noise, time having a beginning and ending, that time did not exist prior to the Big Bang, cosmological constants and the super inflationary early universe. All this I find dubious and compensating along with much else that Marcello hypothesizes and speculates upon.
But Professor Gleiser’s theorizing won’t be scrapped by the likes of me. And I intend to keep reading this author.
I know one thing for sure. If the science changes, so will Marcelo Gleiser. Because he is a scientist and not a dogmatist … or a theologian for that matter.