The God of Sci/religion
The world's newest spiritual center is a long way from Mecca or Jerusalem, Vatican City or Lhasa. It lies at the remote summit of Mauna Kea, a million-year-old mountain of lava and ash jutting nearly three miles above the tropical Hawaiian shore. While the old sites still hold a sacred place in the imaginations of countless billions, their spiritual wisdom hasn't changed in centuries. Hearing the latest gospel requires a pilgrimage to the top of this hulking, dormant volcano.
Antiseptic white domed buildings, mysteriously unmarked, interrupt the desolate landscape. There are no spires, no stained glass, no columns or gilded doorways to welcome the visitor. Inside, the high priests of science and their electronic surrogates peer through the dry, rarefied atmosphere into the vastness above. A trek to this remote pinnacle of astronomical power begins on the lightly traveled Saddle Road, which runs between Mauna Kea and its active twin, Mauna Loa, on Hawaii's Big Island. Your rental car is wheezing by the time you reach the stopping point halfway up, at Hale Pohaku. Even after a night of acclimation, your own lungs are working double time when you reach the top, an altitude of just under fourteen thousand feet. At night the stars appear strangely dim, because your retinas are starved for air and unable to pull their normal duty. The sky swims with the blackness of a near faint, similar to the kind of negative rush you see when you stand up too quickly. Take a deep breath of pure oxygen from a tank and all the visual chemistry falls back into place. Then, a revelation: The sky blooms with light, the universe made manifest by a dose of rudimentary medical technology.
The two Keck telescopes are the supreme oracles of Mauna Kea. After a half hour in the dark, a healthy person's pupils open not quite one-third of an inch, and behind them the retinas store about one-tenth of a second of visual information. Keck I and its newer twin, Keck II, maintain an unblinking gaze thirty-three feet across and can hold it for hours. Their thirty-six-piece, segmented mirrors gather billion-year-old light from faraway quasars and galaxies, amassing the raw information to answer questions otherwise unknowable to mere mortals. Photon by photon, the Kecks are validating the new way of understanding the world.
The word coming down from Mauna Kea is not traditional science. It is too grand in scope, embracing all of space out to the edge of the universe and all of time back to the moment of cosmic origin. It is empirical, but it knowingly overreaches, describing particles that have never been detected, fields that have never been felt, and regions of space that have never been seen. It utterly dwarfs human conceptions, much like an omnipotent deity. Yet this celestial form of enlightenment also bears little resemblance to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or any other old-time religion. In place of the unity of God, it seeks out simplicity of explanation. In place of a central dogma, it rests on the falsification of theory through empirical data. It develops its own entrenched doctrines, but it also provides the tools with which to discard them. This new faith has acquired millions of converts and permeated every corner of American culture. It has changed our world, but until now it hasn't had a name.
Call it sci/religion, because it blends elements of the experimental and the mystical. The name also works as a pun on two defin-ing aspects of modern science. In quantum theory, the Greek letter psi represents the fundamental uncertainty of measurement. At any moment, a subatomic particle does not have a single, well-defined position; instead, it has a statistical blur of potential positions. In essence, the uncertainty principle means a particle can be in two places at the same time, allowing interactions that would be forbidden according to classical physics or common sense. This quantum rule bending permits the nuclear reactions that cause stars to shine, and in some current cosmological models it even explains the origin of the universe. So: "psi religion." Sci/religion also evokes scientists' wariness about openly discussing the metaphysical strains that are increasingly obvious in their work. They shy away from questions about their personal faith, fearing that any answer will only make them look foolish or reactionary. When you ask them if they believe in God, they always respond the same way, with a sigh. So: "sigh, religion."
The founder and greatest prophet of sci/religion had no such qualms about finding common ground between the material and the mystical. Albert Einstein recognized the search for truth as an inherently spiritual endeavor. "Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe a spirit vastly superior to that of man," he explained to one of his students in 1936. Explicitly and implicitly in his work, Einstein preached the doctrines of unity, simplicity, and universality. These principles are the guiding lights of sci/religion. Few of his followers speak as openly as he did, but their actions give them away. Just look at the beliefs that motivate their experiments, their equations, and their journal articles. Look at their research on Mauna Kea. They worship in the Church of Einstein.
Like many people of my generation, I grew up immersed in the faith of sci/religion. As a child I marveled at the drawings of swirling nebulae and colliding galaxies in classic books such as The World We Live In. Later I read about quasars in Astronomy magazine and puzzled over descriptions of curved space-time in Scientific American. Imagining the infernal fireball of the big bang sent chills down my spine back then, and it still does so today. Later, digging into the history of science, I learned how these ideas have kept changing as one theory failed a crucial test and a new theory came along. That realization only strengthened my appreciation for the mystical power of science. Each blip of starlight arrives loaded with meaning. The priests of sci/religion steer their telescopes, observe, analyze, and draw up new theories. They know they will never attain full understanding but labor away, confident that they will arrive ever closer toward cosmic enlightenment. That endless pilgrimage gives purpose to life.
Four years ago, I heard that one of Einstein's disciples had experienced a breakthrough in the sci/religious faith. Saul Perlmutter, a hard-driven and deceptively boyish cosmologist at California's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL), had been approaching the Keck Observatory with new versions of some of our oldest queries. Will the universe continue forever, or will it someday come to an end? Do the heavens operate according to the same physical rules as the terrestrial realm? Above all, is there more to the universe than meets the eye? Three thousand miles away, in his spare hilltop office above the San Francisco Bay, Perlmutter pored over his precious data. The answers he sought might already be encoded somewhere in the buckets of starlight gathered by the Kecks.
Perlmutter approached the great telescopes armed with a cunning plan to force those secrets into the open. In the late 1980s he developed a strategy to measure how the expansion of the universe is slowing down one of the fundamental pieces of information sought by modern cosmologists by studying the light from distant exploding stars. Many people had proposed this approach, but Perlmutter was the first to develop the analytical techniques and computerized tools that could translate the brief flaring of those stellar detonations into meaningful messages. The plan worked beyond his wildest imaginings. By early 1998 he had collected enough observations to see signs of wonder.
The universe is not slowing down under the pull of gravity, as astronomers had naively assumed. It appears to be accelerating, galaxies rushing apart faster and faster under a mysterious repulsive influence. Perlmutter's collaborators were understandably skeptical, but they could find no flaw in his work. Neither could his scientific competitors, led by the similarly youthful Brian Schmidt of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University. Schmidt's team got off to a later start but pursued a similar line of attack and arrived at essentially identical results. By the summer of 2000, two balloon-borne instruments called BOOMERANG and MAXIMA added to the stack of supporting evidence in favor of a runaway, accelerating universe.
The oracles had spoken. Haltingly, Perlmutter and the other researchers accepted the message. The visible universe is only one small part of what is out there. Even the invisible material, the eerie "dark matter" that knits together clusters of galaxies, is a secondary element. Every known form of matter produces an attractive gravitational force over large scales. Cosmic acceleration indicates the universe must also contain something that produces a strong repulsion. Albert Einstein considered such a mystery component, which he called "the cosmological constant" and denoted by the Greek letter lambda but later dismissed it as strange and unproven. Perlmutter's findings implied Lambda is real. It is so powerful that it overwhelms the inward pull of all the galaxies and dominates the universe. At face value, this discovery was the astronomical equivalent of learning that the United States is run not by the president and Congress, but by an unsuspected race of elves who hide inside tree stumps. But the reaction to the news was nearly as significant as the result itself. When Perlmutter announced his results, nobody seemed terribly shocked. His colleagues received the word from Mauna Kea calmly and warmly. Soon they had given this antigravity force a nickname, "dark energy," and added it to their regular vocabulary. As I watched this response, I fully appreciated for the first time how thoroughly cosmologists have embraced the faith of sci/religion.
The observers, the folks who spend agonizing nights scrutinizing the faintest flecks in the sky, nodded in encouragement. They agreed that the accelerating universe was a provocative discovery, gently cautioning that measuring the rate of cosmic expansion is difficult research, prone to many possible errors. They had seen plenty of unexpected phenomena before and were always prepared to be caught off guard again. Meanwhile, the theoretical cosmologists the mathematical thinkers who spin physical tales about the origin and fate of the universe responded with an equal mix of enthusiasm and sangfroid. Not only had they already considered the possibility of Lambda, they had gone a step further and assumed something like it had to exist, because Lambda provided crucial symmetry to theories that otherwise appeared out of balance. Even the public took the reports in stride. Writers in the newspapers and popular magazines trumpeted Perlmutter's findings as startling and bizarre, but the coverage quickly returned to a familiar tone of reverent wonder.
There were plenty of follow-up news stories and articles, of course. Science magazine, the leading American general-science journal, touted the finding as its "Breakthrough of the Year" at the end of 1998. "Scientists and philosophers will be grappling with the implications for years to come," the magazine promised in the standard grandiose-yet-deadpan language of academic salesmanship. Cosmologists developed competing theories about the energy behind the runaway expansion. Observers suggested new ways to make sure the supernova results were not flawed. What was missing was a visceral reaction amazement, confusion, perhaps even outrage that the universe had pulled a fast one on us. Earlier trailblazing discoveries, such as Einstein's theory of relativity and the discovery of the expanding universe, engendered fierce scientific debate that spilled over into the public consciousness. Why the great calm this time around?
The simple answer is that science had transformed into sci/religion. Those earlier discoveries were so wrenching precisely because they were the ones that effected the change. Quantum physics introduced the idea that space is never really empty but seethes with potential energy and matter. Most important of all, the general theory of relativity smashed the false idols of classical science. Time, dimension, and mass are not fixed entities, Einstein declared, and must be replaced by new concepts that conform to a deeper reality. Sci/religion unfolded from this prophecy. In the gospel according to Einstein, space can bend and stretch. These improbable ideas soon found validation in the discovery of the expanding universe. In his vision of cosmic unity, Einstein linked all of space through his equations of general relativity and connected every mass with every other mass. A dandelion seed floating over a suburban lawn influences a distant quasar, and vice versa. To make this vision into a coherent picture of the universe, Einstein created the hypothetical propulsive component, Lambda, and folded it into his omnipotent equations.
Scientists accept the nonintuitive notions of modern physics because they match up with experimental data. But scientists embrace these ideas emotionally because they promise a transcendent understanding of the true nature of the universe. Call it prayer in the Church of Einstein. When Perlmutter and Schmidt uncovered evidence of cosmic antigravity, the discovery did not contradict scientific expectation. It affirmed what scientists already believed and what they already felt. Cosmologists had been expecting, even yearning for, something like Lambda to fill in the gaps in their models. Lambda deepened the blissful sensation that sci/religion has transcended the human world.
As the apotheosis of sci/religion, Lambda perfectly illustrates how close science and religion have been all along. In the old-time religions, there is more to the world than matter. There is heaven and hell, there is the immortal soul, and above all there is the unseen and unknowable divine Creator. In science, there has been a parallel search for immaterial forces that animate the world. Religion searches for knowledge about the intangibles through the reading of Scripture. Science carries out its pursuit through the reading of experimental evidence. Both assume that such readings will lead ever closer to an ultimate, but perhaps never fully attainable, truth. In both worlds, the drunken excitement of enlightenment is fundamentally the same.
Claiming parallels between science and religion tends to offend people on both sides of the fence. Scientists disapprove of the implication that their work is guided by dogma rather than data. Theologians fear that attempts to link religion to the empirical study of the world undermines faith. After the church's battle with Galileo in the seventeenth century, the two sides worked out a rough line of demarcation: Science would tackle the material world, while religion would take responsibility for matters moral and spiritual. Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Thomas Aquinas had established the basic argument that the Bible was not intended as a textbook on the physical workings of the world. In essence, the church accepted Galileo's argument voiced originally by a member of the clergy, Cardinal Baronius that Scripture explains "how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go." Yet violations of the borders still occur, mostly carried out by adherents of the old-time religions seeking to defend their turf.
There is, first of all, the drearily familiar battle between biblical literalists and schools that teach evolution. (Big bang cosmology and the geological history of the Earth also contradict Genesis, but they are not as commonly taught, nor are they as emotionally charged as human origins.) This disagreement led to the Scopes trial in 1925 and the 1999 Kansas School Board decision since reversed to strike evolution from the state's science curriculum. In essence, the creationists assert that science has overstepped its boundaries by proposing theories of origin for humans and for the universe, and they seek to reclaim the material world in order to prevent any conflicts with the Bible. The most extreme creationists hold that the Earth is six thousand years old and reject any evidence that could interfere with that belief. In addition to the obvious rebuttals from the fossil record, these creationist arguments disintegrate on their own logic. If you take every word of Scripture at face value, then you have ridiculous situations such as Noah trying to cram thirty million species into his ark. On the other hand, if you accept that some of the Bible is allegorical or metaphorical, why try to make any of it function as a scientific textbook?
Then there is the reverse argument, that modern cosmology actually proves the story of Genesis and, by extension, the existence of God. In his famous book, God and the Astronomers, former NASA director Robert Jastrow helped promote this idea with his much misinterpreted quote, "For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries." Jastrow, a self-professed agnostic, well understood that the similarities between the Bible and the big bang are mostly superficial. Any description of cosmic creation will have a beginning or it will not. Either way, the scientific version would correspond loosely to one of the world's major religions. And as many cosmologists point out, the discovery that the universe evolved from a hot, dense state does not prove a divine agent was responsible for establishing those initial conditions.
Many creationists look past the big bang and make the more subtle argument from design: The cosmic laws are so intricate and perfectly tuned to allow the existence of intelligent life that they must be the handiwork of a divine being an argument also commonly applied to the biological world. The enormous hole in this reasoning is that it depends on a very human, subjective judgment regarding which aspects of the universe are so wonderful that they could only have come directly from God. But as human knowledge progresses, the boundaries change constantly. The circular motion of the heavens no longer seems miraculous once you understand that the Earth rotates. The jagged thrust of the Himalayas seems quite natural once you recognize that continents move and collide. Knowing about DNA instantly takes the mystery out of heredity and mutations. The argument from design is a modern variant of the old ontological argument, which states that God must exist because something had to put the concept of God into our heads. In its contemporary form that God must exist because nature seems so incomprehensibly wonderful to us the reasoning is equally unsatisfying.
These attacks spring from a misguided premise. They assume science has no place for faith, so religion must create one. But sci/religion abounds with faith. It doesn't simply reduce the world to ordinary, material explanations, as many critics of science contend. Sci/religion constantly carves out new space for the extraordinary and the intangible as it proceeds in its relentless search for underlying reality. Its mystical visions are as fantastic as anything in the Bible, but they are fundamentally different. The modern sci/religious liturgy has tremendous credibility because it rests on the same principles testable theories and repeatable observations that have produced so many other tangible scientific and technological advances. That is why more people today probably believe in black holes than believe that Moses literally parted the Red Sea to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
At the same time, old-time religion is losing its grip on its home turf, the realm of ethics and morals. Traditional religious belief is growing increasingly marginal in an age when people look to everything from angels to Oprah to psychotherapists for guidance. Even among many people who maintain the appearance of observance, democracy and capitalism have eaten away at religion's uniform moral authority. Dietary rules fade away; patriarchal practices get watered down or discarded. These days, presidents look to professional ethicists for guidance on questions of biotechnology issues, issues that themselves seem to infringe on God's old creative domain. Creationists don't hate evolution per se. They hate the implied loss of authority of Christian values. The fact that creationists use scientific evidence to support their cause shows how far the balance has shifted. Try to imagine scientists feeling compelled to bolster their position by insisting that schools cite scriptural passages supporting the idea that the universe is governed by empirically knowable laws.
In fact, religion has been in retreat for centuries, both before and after the line of demarcation. Theologians repeatedly set out to define and defend their faith by clarifying the distinction between the earthly and the divine, but in the process they left more and more room for the empirical study of the world. Saint Augustine argued that using the human senses to study nature is a valid way to explore the glory of God. The twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides sought a spiritual system that was compatible with Aristotle's model of the universe, "as a means of removing some of the doubts concerning anything taught in Scripture." In the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas folded Aristotelian physics into Christian belief, showing that the two could peacefully coexist. Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth-century theologian, introduced the radical concept of a God that does not interfere with the operation of the world but is fully defined by His laws of nature.
Sci/religion has advanced to fill the void by offering its own forms of ecstasy. The most intense feelings arise when sci/religion reaches highest and farthest, striving to grasp the most remote workings of the cosmos. Aristotle proposed a fifth element to explain what keeps the sun, moon, and planets circling the Earth on their ceaseless circuit. He assumed that the heavenly element was something perfect and divine, hence removed from our flawed world. Twenty centuries later, Isaac Newton made a huge advance toward bringing the heavens within reach. He explained that all matter has an intrinsic property, inertia, which causes a moving object to keep moving. He recognized gravity as the universal attraction that controls everything from falling apples to the orbiting moon. He tethered us to heaven but still imagined that God was hidden not in rotating spheres but in the fundamental, unmoving structure of space.
Newton's theory of gravity provided a mathematical description of how the attraction works but did not explain what gravity is. The gravitational field seemed almost magical, spreading its influence through empty vacuum. Rival scientists, and Newton himself, expressed philosophical reservations about this process of "action at a distance." More troubling, gravity seemed to be too powerful. If everything pulls on everything else, Newton wondered, what holds the universe up? He tentatively solved the problem by assuming the universe is infinite. This was both a theological and a scientific fix. An unbounded universe could not collapse toward some central point under the spell of gravity, he believed, and the endless expanse of the stars reflected the infinite glory of his God.
Einstein took these ideas a crucial step further. In his general theory of relativity he made space an active partner with matter, giving the intangible equal status with the tangible. Matter curves space-time, and that curvature is what we feel as gravity. One kind of spookiness went away, only to be replaced by another. When he expanded these ideas to cosmic scale, Einstein became convinced that the inertia of every object is linked to the curvature of the entire universe. That linkage made sense only if the universe were finite; otherwise there would be no specific spatial background against which to measure the progress of an apple from its branch to its resting place on the ground. To explain gravity and inertia, Einstein erased Newton's infinity. But all of a sudden, gravity was again out of balance. The intangible wanted to take control, making the universe collapse in on itself. This is why Einstein invented Lambda: to tame the spiritual forces and keep the sky from falling.
In Einstein's finite universe, there is no escaping the authority of science. There is no heaven where miracles can occur, no infinite space to harbor Newton's God. The old-time religions proposed that prayer and ritual observance create a link between the individual and a willful deity. Einstein presented the possibility of a cosmic connection based on an intellectual comprehension of the rules of reality. To him, these rules and God were one and the same. His gospel of sci/religion led him to the same point where Spinoza had made his religious last stand. "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of human beings," Einstein said. Lambda represented his search for a harmonious God in his equations.
Einstein eventually renounced Lambda, but never doubted his faith in a mathematically beautiful, comprehensible universe. Lambda, meanwhile, has resurfaced again and again because of its spiritual power. It bestows exquisite balance onto today's cosmological models and so demonstrates the mystical power of sci/religion: its ability to explain the entire universe in a tidy set of mathematical concepts. Most of those touched by Lambda have probably never even heard of it. The total number of people who understand all the details of modern cosmology is quite small, after all. But the number of people who accept and follow Einstein's gospel is huge. The same empirical methods that conquered the most remote galaxies have also led to electric toasters, computers, and nylon panty hose. Einstein's cosmic religious sense, a feeling of "the nobility and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thought," has triumphed in every aspect of our lives, from the mundane to the sublime. Sci/religion is no longer only about how the heavens go. It is also about our relationship to the heavens.
Lambda expresses the Word from the great white domes on Mauna Kea. It encapsulates cosmologists' wildly optimistic belief that the universe is knowable and that we are right now on the verge of an all-encompassing understanding. Lambda's ethereal nature is integral to its inspirational appeal. The story of Lambda is the story of the secret faith that keeps sci/religion, and the human spirit, pushing ever onward.
Copyright © 2002 by Corey S. Powell