Tuesday, February 12, 2008

SCIENCE- Creation Science

A quick note to say that, while I have been under the weather, the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Lying on the couch and not feeling well leads one to excessive amounts of woolgathering. I’ve been trying to write a science fiction short story. It’s in the sub genre of “hard” SF, which is SF that strives for a certain kind of scientific veracity. Now, if you want to write moderately Hard SF (sort of an Extra-firm SF) and don’t have a sexual relationship with research tools you should start contemplating the inner lives of elves right now. The “real” universe is a moving target.

The thing about research is that you never know what you are going to find. For instance, scientists didn’t really think much about questions of the origin of the universe until about a hundred years ago. Does that sound crazy? You might think that science and religion have been at odds since the Greeks started the whole natural philosophy thing back in 600BC but that actually isn’t the case.

Let’s look at what passed for science in Ancient Greece. You might say that what science shares with the Greeks (the Ionians predominantly) is the idea of naturalistic explanations for everyday events. They didn’t discount gods entirely, but they felt that the world was a machine built on a certain structure and that you could explain that structure using mathematics. They also thought that observation, contemplation and logic were enough to figure things out. They were big on debate but not so much on experimentation. And their schools of natural philosophy were not limited to nature and math. Lifestyle and diet, ethics and politics were intertwined in the teachings. Greek science was more like a religion than anything we have today. On the other hand, Greek religion was a lot more laid back than a lot of what we see nowadays too. Nothing was being blown up and everybody had a right to their own opinion. We’d have a hard time telling science from religion in Ancient Greece.

By the time experimental science as we know it came into vogue it was the renaissance. And it seems that certain branches of science were almost immediately at odds with the church at the time. Popes had no trouble with chemistry or engineering. They liked war machines and castles and had no problem with the search to turn lead into gold. But they didn’t much like people poking into the heavens. Seemed like folks were intruding on their exclusive territory, I guess. So when Galileo Galilei was testing the strength of metals and developing basic motion physics he was fine. But when he famously turned his newly refined telescope to the sky, the trouble started.

Galileo wasn’t trying to upset the natural order of things. He’d heard you could build a tube with a couple of lenses and see far off things better through it. So he built such a thing. His first was probably about 3x magnification- no good for astronomy. But he built more telescopes and better ones. And eventually he pointed one of the better ones up at the sky at night.

And he saw stars. He saw that stars got brighter and there were a lot more than you could see with the naked eye, but they didn’t move against the background of the sky and you couldn’t see a disk. The planets were different. You could see the shape of a disk when you looked at a planet and they moved against the background of the stars. All of this made the planets pretty interesting so he looked at Jupiter and saw that there was a line of small stars near Jupiter that did move. And after watching them every night for a while he figured out that the way they were moving meant that they were three smaller stars going around Jupiter. He later found a fourth, what we call the Galilean satellites, Jupiter’s four largest moons.

Galileo was a proponent of Copernicus’ theory that the sun was at the center of the universe. And that there were independent spheres of influence- such as the moon orbiting the earth. If Galileo had seen moons also orbiting Jupiter this was spectacular evidence that Copernicus was right. Common wisdom and the Catholic Church both said differently. It was obvious that the earth was the center of the universe, a view most right thinking people had held since Aristotle and about 300BC. There was also the bible. Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and Psalm 104:5 all talk about the earth not moving so all this talk of the heavens moving was disturbing to the established order.

The first response of many people was to simply say that Galileo had seen no such thing. Others said that it didn’t matter what he saw, the whole idea was heretical and that was enough. Galileo started to get so much heat for what he was saying that he went to Rome specifically to ask the church not to ban his writing in 1616. He was told not to advocate Copernicus’ theory and for a while he didn’t. But in 1623 a new pope, Urban VIII, was elected. Now, back in the day, Pope Urban had been Cardinal Barbarini who had been against the original ban on Galileo writing about heliocentrism in 1616. So four short years after the new pope took the job, in 1632, Galileo published a book called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, a hypothetical conversation between two gentlemen about the shape of the universe. Since this was hypothetical, the new pope gave his blessing, asking only that the two sides both be presented and that he would be able to add his own comment.

Sound familiar? Basically Galileo can teach science as long as he gives equal time to the church’s view. Renaissance Creation Science. Problem with that is Galileo actually believed heliocentrism was right. And he was a bit of a smart ass. So he takes the Pope’s point of view and puts it into the mouth of a character named Simplicius, the defender of the Aristotelian view. From the name of the character you can see where this is going, can’t you? Simplicius is a bit of a moron. He contradicts himself and ties himself up in logical knots. His opponent, Salviati is logical and concise. And of course, Salviati wins the argument handily.

This is one of those times in history where you wonder what everybody was thinking. Galileo had to know that he was piling it on a little thick. But this was the age of discovery and Galileo wasn’t going to let a bunch of priests tell him what he was or wasn’t seeing in the heavens with his own eyes. On the other hand, most of the priests thought that this was a great indulgence since the book was at least borderline heresy to start with. The Pope had to figure that Galileo wasn’t going to lose his own argument (the Pope being infallible and all) but everybody was still a little bit surprised at Simplicius.

The new pope loved the book so much that he had Galileo back in Rome on charges of heresy the very next year. Galileo was to recant the book and was given a life sentence in prison. Supposedly after publicly recanting his views he muttered “and yet it moves” but this is probably some screenwriters embellishment.

Galileo’s sentence would later be commuted to house arrest. He would spend the rest of his life bared from travel and publishing anything new. His existing books were banned as well. He would eventually go blind in prison and the ban on his writing would remain for almost 75 years after his death. Even then, the ban on publishing Dialogue would remain. Of course, nowadays almost everybody thinks Copernicus was right. Even the Catholic Church admitted it a few years ago.

And remember, this wasn’t the actual existence of God or the beginning of the cosmos or the descent of man they were arguing. It was just if the planets moved around the sun or vice versa. At one point Galileo made the argument that you couldn’t expect a book of hymns and poems (speaking of Psalms particularly) to be astronomically accurate. This is remarkably similar to my own viewpoint about Genesis. How exactly does god explain the origin of the universe to Bedouin on the edge of the desert 5000 years ago. With a scientific theory? These are people who’s version of the internet is that newfangled information technology- paper! Is God going to say photon decoupling or separating the light from the darkness to these people? Genesis HAS TO BE a metaphor. They had no language for Him to explain it any differently.

Funny thing is, just like Galileo sort of opened up a big can of worms by wondering what the stars would look like through his telescope, modern cosmology kinda backed into it’s part of the current origins debate. Until about a hundred years ago, scientists were generally working on more mundane items. A hundred years after Dalton published his New System of Chemical Philosophy, Albert Einstein, who honest to god was working as a patent clerk at the time, published a couple of papers on the nature of matter. In these papers he made a number of revolutionary claims: That nothing could travel faster than the speed of light, that matter and energy were the same thing, that time was dependant on your frame of reference, that gravity slowed time and bent light. Crazy stuff. But none of it was a crazy as the conclusion that the whole thing only worked if the universe was expanding. The idea was so insane that Einstein corrected it in the math by inserting a gravitational constant to balance the equation.

He would later say that it was the worst mistake he had ever made.

It’s easy to see why Einstein shied away from the idea. We take it for granted. But he must have seen the implication. If the universe is expanding, and nothing goes faster than the speed of light, if you could figure out how big the universe was you could figure out when it had started.

A creation moment.

Now science doesn’t look for big truths. Science looks for simple answers. Most scientists in the modern age were tinkerers more than the philosopher-scientists of Ancient Greece. From Galileo to Dalton, the experimental result ruled science and had gone from questions of how fast things fell and whether the earth went round the sun to the properties of atoms. They were thinkers but they were also the “lets fly a kite in a thunderstorm with a Leyden Jar Attached to the string” kind of guys. They wanted to figure out how things worked but they thought the universe was pretty much a given. It had always just existed. Einstein didn’t start out thinking that he was going to figure out the beginning of the universe. He just wondered what the universe would look like to you if you were going almost the speed of light (and about the nature of space, time, matter, and energy in the process).

Einstein might have shied away from his equations but a Russian named Alexander Freidmann didn’t. He saw the implications and wrote the expansion back in as the Friedmann Equations. And within a couple of short years Edmund Hubble would verify that “spiral nebulae” were actually other galaxies and that the further away they were, the greater their redshift. The universe was expanding after all. Einstein’s equations had pointed out that the universe had been born.

About 14 billion years ago, if you were wondering.

Now all this talk of the birth of the universe got the attention of a Roman Catholic Priest who carried on the scientific tradition in the church. (Not everything was like the unpleasantness with Galileo. You just don’t call the Pope a simpleton and make his alter ego look like an ass. That ain’t science, that’s common sense.) Georges LemaĆ®tre put it all together in 1927. He was unaware of Friedmann but independantly derived the math from Einstein’s equations and predicted that the “spiral Nebulae” were moving away from us just as everything else was. He also worked his way back to what he called a “primeval atom”, a birth event for the universe. It’s easy to see why Lemaitre must have liked the idea. I’m sure it dovetailed nicely with some other ideas he already had about the origin of the universe. But many other scientists were appalled. In fact Lemaitre’s theory would only take on it’s popular name when Steady State theorist Fred Hoyle insultingly referred to it as the “big bang idea” on the radio in Britain in the 1950s.

It’s kind of freaky to realize how recently we started understanding this stuff. When we talk about Greece or Renaissance Italy, it’s a sort of imaginary bucolic world where men dressed in bed sheets (Greece) or couch upholstery and curtains from the 1950s (17th century Europe) talk about the structure of the universe and engage in the pursuit of science for the love of learning. When you think of the biblical origin stories it becomes even more prosaic. The bed sheets become wool blankets and sandals, and the men communicate with the almighty under starry night skies. But in all these scenarios, the basics are pretty much the same. If you are any of these men you heat your home by burning something in it. The fastest you can travel is a boat, on the back of some animal on land. Information only travels as fast as somebody can carry it. Your understanding of the universe is limited by the tools you have. There are no cars, telephones, telegraphs, airplanes, internet, television, radio, computers. If you are one of these men you live like men have lived for the history of the world.

But we don’t live that way. And the men responsible for finally settling the question of whether there was a creation event for the universe didn’t live like that either. They were geeks. They lived in a world of cars and planes and television. In fact if Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson walked into Googleplex tomorrow morning looking for a job, wearing what they probably wore to work every day at Bell labs, the only problem they would have would be that they were overdressed.

It was 1965 and Mr. Penzias and Wilson were working at the Crawford Hill facility of Bell Labs. They were fiddling with an antenna used for radio astronomy and satellite communications. But they had a problem. They couldn’t get rid of a spike in the background noise at a particular frequency. They tried everything and they couldn’t figure out why they were getting a spike. It wasn’t the antenna and it wasn’t the radio circuit. They figured that the only thing left was that it was some sort of radiation. It wasn’t anything else they could find. Finally in desperation they called Robert Dicke at Princeton University. Dicke was an expert on radiation and he instantly recognized that it was the background radiation from the actual big bang!

This didn’t exactly surprise Dicke; he had been working for a couple of years with a team at Princeton to build a receiver that could hear the Cosmic Background Radiation left over from the Big Bang. He is famously reported, after the phone call from Wilson and Penzias, to have told the engineers working on the project, David Todd Wilkinson and Peter Roll, that they had been “scooped”. He had only published his work on CMB the year before. But here were two Bell Labs engineers telling him that they had found what he was looking for. And asking him if he knew how they could get rid of it.

He never did tell them how to get rid of it, but they did get the Nobel Prize for their little antenna with the puzzling glitch. They had confirmed the big bang. Penzias and Wilson had heard the echo of the shout that had created the universe. Later experiments would map the Cosmic Background Radiation to increasingly finer degrees. Allowing physicists to actually see the swirls and eddies in the Big Bang that allowed enough non-uniformity for galaxies to form from the detritus.

From the crazy ideas of a patent clerk after the first World War, ideas that even he couldn’t believe, to actually receiving the signal from the Big Bang in about 40 years. A basic revelation of the nature of the universe in a lifetime and in our lifetime. We are the first generation in the history of humanity to have any kind of empirical evidence that the universe had a beginning.

This brings me back to the end of the first installment of this particular look at the history of science. Galileo had visual observations to back him up but that wasn’t good enough. There were too many people who didn’t care what he thought he had seen and didn’t care to look for themselves. He lamented in the forward to his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems that too many people who did not understand his observations had nevertheless commented on the Copernican system. Likewise I commented on why the biblical story could not be considered science while never taking a side on whether it was actually accurate.

The funny thing is that even though if God appeared to migrant workers in the dawn of history, what he said to them was profound and different. At the time of Moses (which is kind of up in the air since there is no historical record of the Jews leaving Egypt under dramatic circumstances) everybody had a pretty linear idea of the universe. It was this way because it had always been this way. In our time we would call this the worst possible justification for anything. But when you’ve run a successful government for a couple of thousand years and everybody is pretty happy with it, things look a little different. (And don’t kid yourself. The Egyptian system was the longest enduring of any we have record of in human history. They must have been doing something right.) Moses had a completely different idea- that the universe had been created in a process, each step leading to a different step, complex structures built on the foundation of simpler creations. And allowing for poetic license, he had a pretty sophisticated view of the process that parallels modern cosmology uncannily. But it wasn’t until Einstein that science actually theoretically posited a beginning for the universe. Just a hundred years ago.

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