From Myths to Science and Back

Marcelo Gleiser,Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Physics, Dartmouth College

Trinity Episcopal Church, Concord, MA

10 March 1996

Summary by Paul H. Carr, Ph.D.

Prof. Gleiser traced the development of modern "big bang" cosmology from ancient creation myths. Anthropologists tell us that all cultures have a creation myth. They answer the universal human questions: "Where did I come from? Why am I here." Creation myths are of two basic types: those with a beginning or not.

Those with a beginning either

(1) have a positive being or creator who makes "something from nothing" and "light from darkness" or

(2) interpret creation as a struggle between "being and nonbeing" or "good and bad."

Creation myths with no beginning have

(1) a cyclic or rhythmic universe or

(2) an steady-state universe that "always was and will be."

Our Western cosmology started in 600 BC with the pre-Socratic philosophers, who looked for an origin within nature itself. This culminated with Aristotle in 384 BC. His cosmology had two realms:

(1) the changing earth in the center and

(2) the celestial moon, planets, sun, and stars.

The heavenly bodies were perfect spheres moving in circular orbits and composed of an unchanging substance called ether. However, the planetary orbits were not observed as perfect circles. They had reversals or retrograde motion. Ptolemy "fixed" this in 120 AD with epicycles or "wheels within wheels." Each planet moved on a circle whose center rode on the perfect circular orbit. This cosmology was incorporated into Christian theology by St. Augustine, 400 AD, and St. Thomas Aquinas, 1277 AD. Augustine noted however, "If there is a conflict between a literal reading of Scripture and a well-established truth about nature, Scripture should be interpreted metaphorically."

The Aristotelian paradigm was overturned by Copernicus,1473-1542, Kepler, 1571-1630, Galileo, 1564-1642, and Newton, 1642-1727. Their interest in cosmology was motivated by their desire to learn about the Creator from the "goodness" of his creation. The Polish Friar, Copernicus, was persuaded by his friends to publish

"De Revolutinibus Orbium Coelesticum" shortly before his death. His bold hypothesis of having the sun in the center gave a more natural explanation of the retrograde motion of the planets as seen from our earth, which moves in its own orbit about the sun. Copernicus simplified Ptolemaic cosmology be reducing the number of epicycles. Kepler, using the more accurate astronomical observations of Tycho Brahe, concluded that the motion of the planets was elliptical, not circular. He developed new laws of planetary motion. Galileo, using the newly invented telescope, observed the mountains and valleys on the moon and also the phases of Venus. He concluded that Copernicus was right and Aristotle wrong. Newton’s "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica" described his universal theory of gravitation and new laws of motion, which predicted planetary motion with great accuracy.

The paradox of the new cosmology developed by religious scientists was that God was needed only to set things in motion. The astronomer and mathematician, Laplace, extended Newton’s deterministic cosmology. After Napoleon reviewed Laplace’s great work "Celestial Mechanics" in 1825, he asked about the need for a creator. Laplace replied: "I have no need for that hypothesis."

This deterministic cosmology of the solar system is being replaced by the complexity and "uncertainty principle" of modern science. In 1929, the astronomer Hubble discovered (1) the existence of galaxies in addition to our own and

(2) that they were all moving away from us ( from the "red shift" of their light). We have observed the birth and death of stars, and now predict the death of our own sun in 5 billion years. In 1965, Penzias and Wilson discovered microwave radiation, which they observed as "noise" coming from all directions of the universe. The spectrum of this radiation can be fitted by "black body" theory to have a temperature of 3 oK.

  This remnant radiation and the expansion of the universe can be extrapolated back to a "big bang" beginning about 15 billion years ago. All matter was concentrated in a microscopic "singularity" having a temperature of 1032 oK. As the universe expanded and cooled, quarks condensed to form protons and neutrons, and the latter combined with electrons to form atoms, atoms condensed to form galaxies, and galaxies planets. The rate of expansion is extremely critical. If the rate had been slower, the gravitational attraction would have caused the universe to recompress. If it had been faster, the galaxies and planets would not have had time to condense. The "fine tuning" of this expansion rate as well as the evolution of life on our planet can be taken as evidence of a divine plan by the creator. He created (from nothing) the matter in the initial singularity.

Prof. Glasier believes that religion and science are complementary ways of knowing. It is possible for him and many of his friends to be religious scientists. Science does not deal with such issues as our personal grief over the loss of our loved ones. He believes with Einstein, who was "religious in a nonorthodox way," that a "cosmic religious feeling" motivates scientists to study the universe. Einstein also said: "Since without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

Glasier does not agree with Hawking that it is possible to have a reductionistic "theory of everything," which would enable us to know the "mind of God." (Hawking himself admits that even if we had the universal equations, we would most likely able to solve them for only a few simple cases.) Hawking has developed a cosmology, not as well accepted as the "big bang," in which there is no initial singularity and the "need for a creator." Glasier says: "For Hawking to develop this cosmology, he must start with the laws of physics. Where did these come from?"

Glasier quoted a Hindu Myth which describes the impossibility of understanding the creation event. For us to understand, we must use thoughts, which did not exist before the creation. "Since we do not understand our own intelligence, how can we understand the creation completely?" We shall all look forward to reading Glasier’s Book The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang.