Thursday, September 11, 2014

God and the Astronomers by Robert Jastrow

My favorite thinker, Dennis Prager, has recommended God and the Astronomers by Robert Jastrow multiple times as a book that had a profound impact on him. So of course I had to read it.

This short book, written in 1978, is so clear and concise and such an easy read for anyone concerned with a supposed Religion vs. Science dilemma. 

Robert Jastrow was a world-renown astronomer, the one-time head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Professor of Astronomy and Geology at Columbia, and Professor of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth. He begins his book by stating, “When an astronomer writes about God, his colleagues assume he is either over the hill or going bonkers. In my case it should be understood from the start that I am an agnostic in religious matters. However, I am fascinated by some strange developments going on in astronomy – partly because of their religious implications and partly because of the peculiar reactions of my colleagues.” 

He is particularly curious about his fellow scientists who claim to follow the evidence wherever it leads in an unbiased manner. Yet when the evidence begins to line up with a Biblical viewpoint, suddenly the “unbiased, evidence-following” becomes unhinged. The burgeoning acceptance of the Big Bang Theory, in direct contradiction to the eternal universe theory, made scientist, inexplicably, angry. Where was the anger coming from? It seemed an odd response.

In his understated humor, he states, “It turns out that the scientist behaves the way the rest of us do when our beliefs are in conflict with the evidence. We become irritated, we pretend the conflict does not exist, or we paper it over with meaningless phrases.”

The first time the Genesis story began find scientific backing came with the discovery in 1913 that the universe was expanding. Even Einstein was disturbed by an expanding universe because it implied a beginning – a time when the expansion started.

Then Hubble came along and his telescope showed the universe to be of an unimaginable size. Hubble postulated and Hubble’s law: “the faster away a galaxy is, the faster it moves.” So not only was the universe expanding, it wasn’t slowing down! Therefore, based on the theories and the evidence, the universe definitely had a beginning.  Like Genesis says, “In the beginning...”

Scientist began to theorize that while the universe had a beginning, it was not THE beginning. Perhaps the universe began with a Big Bang, expanded until it exhausted itself, and then collapsed back on itself to begin again with another Big Bang. The fatal flaw to this argument is the lack of fresh hydrogen needed to restart the process. Hydrogen is turned into heavier elements within stars. The process cannot be reversed. 

Faced with the evidence for beginning, scientist responded with statements such as, “the notion of a beginning is repugnant to me... I simply do not believe [it].” Or, “I would like to reject it.” Or, “It cannot really be true.” It seems that science had become a religion itself, complete with its own dogmas.

And with the idea of a beginning, science hits a wall. It cannot and never will be able to answer the question, “What came before the Big Bang?” “Who or what put the matter and energy into the Universe? Was the Universe created out of nothing, or was it gathered together out of pre-existing materials?” And when science reaches its limits, “the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized.”

He ends the book with this wonderful metaphor, “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 mountains 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.”

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