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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Copernican Revolution Revisited -- The Goldilocks Enigma

Lately, I have been reading in the subjects of Natural Law and Cosmology (not to mention watching those "science" shows on the History Channel). It always has struck me that when science departs from "description" of how systems operate (be the system a cell, a chemical reaction, or cosmology), and into "prescription" about why things are as they are, that science quickly slips into theology.

The idea of the "Big Bang" developed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Although many in the early 21st century teach and believe that the "Big Bang" is scientific fact, it is really the chief theory proposed by many cosmologists to explain what is physically observed by various telescopes. Ironically, the concept of the "Big Bang" first was conceived by Georges Lemaître, a Belgium Roman Catholic priest, in 1927. Lemaître called his theory, "hypothesis of the primeval atom," while his detractors called it "Big Bang."(Fred Hoyle, who rejected Lemaître's theory, coined the term "Big Bang.")  Lemaître's "hypothesis of the primeval atom" not only argued against the prevalent theories of his day but also was viewed as being too "religious" as Lemaître described the explosion of the "primeval atom" as the moment of Creation. Today, most people view the "Big Bang" as being science and against religion.

Monsignor Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître
At the time Lemaître proposed his "hypothesis of the primeval atom," few scientists accepted it. Albert Einstein said to Lemaître regarding his theory, "Your math is correct, but your physics is abominable." The prevalent theory held that the universe was static, a steady-state. This view of the Universe was first put forth by none other than Aristotle in Ancient Greece.  Favor toward the so-called "Big Bang" theory of the origin of the universe (the universe has a beginning and is perhaps cyclical) over the the steady state view of the universe (the universe is eternal), began to wane when Hubble observed that that the Universe appeared to be expanding in the early 1930s and was more or less defeated with the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964.

Sky Map of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
Since the mid-1960s, nearly all astronomers and cosmologists have accepted the "Big Bang" theory as the origin of the universe. In late 20th and early 21st centuries, a number of cosmologists have begun to ask the question, "What was before the Big Bang?" Since by definition, the "Big Bang" is outside of space and time -- it is, according to the theory, the origin of space and time -- as a statement of causality to speak of "before" the Big Bang makes no sense. Yet cosmologists and physicists are wondering what caused the so-called "Big Bang" and what happened before it. Some have suggested that the universe is the result of multiple Big Bangs  or is a member of a multi-verse," a cyclical process by which the universe is recreated or goes through multiple births and deaths (it is really difficult to keep track of all the variant theories). Recently, Michio Kaku, cosmologist and co-creator of "String Theory," stated that his grandparents were Buddhists while he went to Sunday School, and the multi-verse view of the universe allows him to merge his Buddhist heritage (cyclical) with Christianity (beginning).

As previously stated, when science leaves the realm of description, it enters into theology. Modern cosmology (not as the descriptive science but in prescribing how and why) is a jumble of ideas dating from the earliest philosophizing of man. Is the universe eternal? Did the universe have a beginning or multiple beginnings? Is it cyclical? These ideas whirl in utter confusion.

Nicholas Copernicus
In 1543, Nicholas Copernicus published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) in Nuremberg, Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. His book challenged Ptotlemy's view that the earth was the center of the universe by positing that the sun was the center. The earth went around the sun, rather than the sun around the earth. The Lutherans published his work, even though Luther apparently did not think much of Copernicus' ideas -- Melanchthon and others were intrigued by them.  The main theological concern regarding Copernicus' ideas was that it somehow diminished the earth and more importantly human beings as the special creation of God. Cosmologists today see the Copernican Revolution as pivotal in demonstrating,"It is evident that in the post-Copernican era of human history, no well-informed and rational person can imagine that the Earth occupies a unique position in the universe." (Michael Rowan-Robinson, Cosmology (3rd ed.). Clarendon Press, Oxford. pp. 62.)

Yet despite this "evident" fact that human beings do not occupy a unique position in the universe, cosmologists have noted since the early 1970s that there is a troubling anthropocentric principle in physics and cosmology. If certain physical constants were slightly different, life could not exist. If the earth were slightly closer or slightly further from the sun, life could not exist. If the sun itself were in a different position in the galaxy life could not exist and so on. In fact, the entire universe seems to favor the existence of life on earth. (Of course, some of us know.)

This brings me to the book The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life?


  1. I still find the layman's edition of the Big Bang Theory to be the more satisfying and plausible theory: God spoke, and BANG, it happened. As time goes on, the big bang seems to be losing some of its "shine," as more scientists are recognizing a "multiverse" of problems associated with the big bang. As the inconsistencies mount, it seems to be the imaginations of the theoretical astrophysicists that are expanding, as the hypotheses become more and more whacky in order to make the empirical evidence "fit" - often without a shred of empirical evidence. While it is a worthwhile endeavor to explore God's creation, it seems like we're building our own Tower of Babel by thinking we're going to figure it all out.
    "12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?
    13 Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel?
    14 Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?

  2. Just a thought on Copernicus. Actually, I believe a major problem people had with heliocentrism was that rather than degrade man it seemed to elevate him an unseemly amount. The theory essentially placed earth into the celestial realm. Also, people generally have an idea that the Catholic church was opposed to Copernicus and his work. On the contrary, prominent bishops encouraged Copernicus to publish (Schoenberg and Giese) and the work was dedicated to Paul III. It was a big hit with the Council of Trent. Heliocentrism only became a major problem for the Roman Catholic Church during the wars of religion when it became caught up with various theological associations (and the fact that Galileo wasn't good with tact).

    Also, I greatly enjoyed your review of the Before the Big Bang book.
    Bethany Kilcrease

  3. Galileo's lack of tact probably contributed to his problems with the Roman Church. However what caused Copernicus's book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, to survive for over 70 years before it was banned was the view which all but about ten scientists held during that time that Copernicus was only providing a handy mathematical tool to simplify astronomical calculations (and astrological "predictions"). This was aided by the false Preface added to the book by Andreas Osiander while Copernicus was on his deathbed.

    Galileo was one of those scientists during that time who believed the earth actually did orbit around the sun. But Galileo ran into trouble when he began to use his discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter to promote the heliocentric view over Roman objections. Like the Lutherans and the Calvinists at that time, the Romanists held to Scriptural interpretations that required the Earth to be in the center of the universe orbited by the other heavenly bodies.

    Ironically, while Copernicus's book was published in 1543, another book, De libris revolutionum Copernici narratio prima, containing a brief summary of the heliocentric model, was published in 1540, by Georg Joachim Rheticus, a Lutheran astronomer at Wittenberg, and a friend of Nicolaus Copernicus.