Friday, October 06, 2006

The Face of God

As a youth, my favorite activity was to lay on the trampoline at night, whether alone or with friends, and fall asleep watching the sky while pondering space and eternity. I was (am?) a nerd. Being well versed in astronomy and physics, I would spend hours laying there with friends explaining how relativity worked, why most galaxies were moving away from us, why the more distant ones looked redder, and how you look back in time as you peer deeper into space. Despite my unnaturally strong interest in science and astronomy, I was also intensely religious, and this activity was one of my sacraments- I and my friends communing and partaking of the wondrous works of the Creator. Looking into deep space one literally sees the creation itself. Over time however, like most people, my testimony of an actual God has ebbed and flowed.

This year's Nobel prize winners were announced this week. The physics prize winner, George Smoot, once *said of his discovery, "Its like seeing the face of God". What exactly did he discover? Take a look for yourself.

Wow. What am I looking at? you ask.

That, my friend, is a map of the minute variations in temperature of the cosmic background radiation of the entire observable universe.

Its a map of how hot space is.

I didn't know space had a temperature.

It does. Its about 3 Kelvin, or 270 degrees below zero Celsius, or 454 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Oh.... Why is that even remotely important?

This map, and newer, more detailed maps can tell us exactly how old the universe is, why we have matter clumped in some places with empty space in others, what will eventually happen to the universe, how much of the universe is matter, among other interesting tidbits of information.

Cool. Can I go now?

As it turns out, the data obtained from this type of experiment tells us that the universe is just about 13.7 billion years old. That would make our universe approximately.....wait a sec, let me do the math.....13.7 billion light-years across. It also tells us that the geometry of the universe is flat, meaning that straight lines will never intersect, that the universe is only 4% matter (that includes all forms of matter and energy we are familiar with), and that the universe will keep expanding forever until it dies a cold, silent death.

Now, a word about expanding universes. When most people hear about the big bang, they think about this tiny, nearly infinitely massive particle that blows up, sending all its contents hurtling through space. That is incorrect. Unfortunately, the correct way to think about it is rather difficult. What is really happening is that the entire universe- space itself, is a tiny point, that blows up, causing space itself to expand. What is it expanding into?- is the usual question. Well, you can't really ask that question, since you can't be outside of space. Space, and time, turn out to be things that change and move and expand and compress, much like matter. If you think about it, every point in space then becomes the center of the universe, such that as you look out, it appears that everything is flying away from you.
Tricky, isn't it?

So where is this "face of God"?

One of my pet peeves is hearing people say- "Oh, what a big mountain range! There MUST be a God!" or, "Life is so complex that the only explanation is that there is a God".


There is a big mountain range because of tectonic forces. Life is complex because the less complex lifeforms could not compete with the newer, better ones. Yet I still find myself on my trampoline looking up at the sky wondering, "Why does the universe exist? Why 3 spatial dimensions? Why are spatial dimensions reversible, but time is not? Why isn't there just ....nothing? Why? Why? I realize that all this cool science is able to answer more and more questions of how, and what, and when- questions that my faith cannot answer and that most **"religionists" get wrong. In turn, science cannot begin to approach the everpresent... why.

I do not claim to see God's face in that picture. That experiment does not prove the existance of God, nor can any experiment. But, to my small mind trying to comprehend eternal things, it feels a lot like his fingerprint. And that to me is a sacrament- the physical intertwined with the eternal; as we probe that incomprehensible singularity from which our universe sprung and which our physics fails to describe, the hows and whys merge, and I become still- and know that He is God.

*He claims he actually said "If you're religious, this is like looking at God."
**I define a religionist as a person who is dedicated to their religion instead of to their God. They will use their interpretation of texts like the Bible to dictate what science can and cannot say.


Jenny said...

I think this is my favorite post that you have written. I like how precise you are in your definitions and the rigor you apply to your thoughts, both scientific and spiritual. And the map was pretty cool too ...

morgan said...

I really enjoyed this post.

You've talked before Nick about science and religion and I think you bring up some good points. Science will never be able to prove that there is a God, and the scriptures don't provide a proof for relativity. One of the great questions is one you brought up...why is there anything at all?

Although science and religion are two different spheres, they are searching for the same thing. Truth. And I believe true religion and complete science will in the end merge (although not in this life). So, even though our science can not, in itself bring us closer to God, I don't think it's necessary in our lives to completely seperate the two. I think the more we learn the more reasonable it becomes to believe in God. It seems to me it takes a lot more faith to be an atheist in the face of all the order, beauty, and harmony that is in the universe (and that there is even a universe at all) than to believe that there is a Supreme Being at all.

I think it's moments like you described, when we actually take time to ponder on the beauty of creation (and I think it's dissappointing that we don't take the time to do that more often) that we can appreciate God's handiwork, and in turn, Him.

Nick said...

I guess my problem with many who try to "merge" the two are when people bend over backwards trying to fit them together so there is no perceived conflict (mutilating both, in my opinion), when what I say is that is not even necessary. Science is only a tool. Its a rigorous system for arriving at physical facts, whereas true religion is what will save our (intangible (for now)) souls; it involves faith, which is completely foreign to science. It means that the scientist who claims that evolution means that there is no God, and the religionist who claims that the bible says that God created the Earth therefore darwinism is evil are both wrong, simply because science by nature CAN'T say anything about God, and neither can (I should say 'does') the bible say anything rigorous about science.

Anyway, we don't disagree. Its just that I listened to this really annoying program of Talk of the Nation on Friday where they had this "scientist" on who claimed that science teaches that there is no God. It was the first time I emailed a radio program- I was mad that that they even had him on. Not that I have a problem with him being an atheist, or that he tries to get others to follow him, but that he does it in the name of science, which is 100% silent on the issue.

As a sidenote, I find it interesting that science in one sense has come full circle from the days of Aristotle, and later the catholic church. The Earth started out at the center of the universe, and it has now returned (since every point by definition is now the "center").

morgan said...

I think you've right, we do agree (that is the same as, not disagreeing, isn't it?). I think extremes on both ends need to be avoided.

Have you heard of Francis Collins? He wrote a book called "The Language of God" which was featured on NPR a couple of times, so you might have heard of it. He is the head of the Human Genome Project, and a devote christian. It's an interesting book, he echos a lot of the same sentiment we've been talking about. I've got it here if you want to read it.

Nick said...

Yeah, I'd like to read that.

Also if you (or anyone) wants, I have the book that George Smoot wrote right after his group's discovery. Its actually an easy read for the non-scientist, but still very informative about the science. In it, he talks a little about the relationship between religion and science that I went into- in fact, after writing this post, I re-read the book and found he used lots of the same language; science answers the how, religion answers the why, at the point where the laws of physics break down, the two questions merge. That means I'm nobel material, right?

Nick said...

By the way, here is the latest, more detailed picture of the big bang sky. Ignore the white lines.

JonnyF said...

So, does this mean that my math professors were wrong when they said that the universe is the surface of a four-dimensional torus?
I too get uncomfortable when people use somewhat random observations as evidence that God exists. Nick's example, "Oh, what a big mountain range! There MUST be a God!" is not a valid argument, i.e. the premise does not (necessarily) imply the conclusion.
I will probably have more to say on this matter when I think about it some more...

Cabeza said...

While the beautiful mountain range and the canvas of stars certainly do not prove the existence of God, I think it's important to note that they still do witness that God exists and that He created all things (Alma 30:44). I think you did say that in your post, Nick, but not so directly.

I just wanted to be sure to throw that in; I think it would be inappropriate to look at those things and not understand that they do constitute part of the case for God and his work, even though they do not prove it on their own.

morgan said...

I think that's a good point. I think most people admiring mountain ranges and concluding there is a god aren't really trying to set forth a valid, solid proof. The majority of the people probably don't look on it as trying to provide a proof. They're just admiring the handiwork of God and are loose in their language.

Nick said...

Yeah, that was just a little "side-rant" in my post about people who treat the Bible like a science textbook. Using physical things to "prove" the existence of God just seems to me to be antithetical to both science and religion. If God exists because we can physically prove it, then there would be no need for faith- which is necessary for our spiritual growth.

Using physical/natural things as a witness for God is something else- I think of it as a spiritual witness kind of like hearing someone's testimony. Who hasn't felt the spirit while deep in pristine wilderness or on a mountaintop? That was what I was trying to get at, though in talking about the singularity from which the big bang supposedly came, it is interesting to think about that as more of a "proof" of God than anything else in nature, since the laws of physics and science don't apply there, and won't, ever. If you ever read a scientific paper on cosmological history, whenever you get back to the instant of the big bang, the writer often takes great liberties with his writing and usually adds in either his religious beliefs, or a lot of metaphysical speculation. So while we can't use it as a scientific proof in the strictest sense of the word, it seems to be the closest thing we have to "proof" (observable be all) of God's actual, direct, physical influence in the universe. Or so I believe.

erin said...

Beautiful post, Nick. In fact, I muttered "Amen" before I could stop myself. I think this is a really interesting issue, and I hope you'll all forgive the comments of someone completely ignorant in the realm of physics and astronomy and such. Still, in this question of proof, it seems to me that proof is only acepted as such if it is understood...if that makes sense. For example, suppose you work up a comlicated problem and I say that the answer you arrived at isn't so. You know it IS so and you show me your calculations, which I don't understand or believe, true as they may be. To me, you're not proving it to me. This may be stretching things a little far, but I think that either proof exists beyond understanding, like truth, or proof is really just a meaningless word that could be substituted with "an argument for..." or maybe "evidence." This is kind of just a silly semantical point, except that I think that all things do prove that there is a God...after all, I think he said that himself somewhere. I think God intended that. I don't think it takes away from the need for faith to know that there is concrete proof, any more than I think that knowing more about both God and science diminishes the role of either or the cooperation of both. I am probably misunderstanding the case, but it seems that God is only credited with things we don't understand. I don't see why God can't do things we understand also. Maybe I'd feel differently if I was an expert in some field...I'm not an expert in anything, but as I learn more about just about anything--especially complicated things and things related to nature and biology and natural laws I can't change--I keep thinking, "Clever. That was pretty clever." Maybe that's why Darwin never bothered me too much...short of the apes. It seems like a good idea to me. I have probably just succeeded in convincing everyone that I don't know what I'm talking about...and I think you're right, but there it is anyway.

I also think it's cool to know something, like the fact that God somehow created those mountains, and then it's really cool to be there and feel it.

Jenny said...

Erin, this is entirely unrelated to this post, but after reading your comment I just had a psuedo-vision of premortal life where you were this curly haired little spirit and you were walking up to God, who had had a bit of a bad day, and you were saying all sorts of encouraging things like "I'm sure those molecular compounds will work themselves out by morning ... you're doing a great job!" I bet he liked having you around.

erin said...

Jenny, you just made my day. I had a rough one with terrible children at this after school program I just started--terrible children. I'm sure it'll be better tomorrow because it just couldn't be worse (oh, please, heaven forbid), but thanks Jenny. I wish we could have gotten together sometime last week. Now that I've finally read Lord of the Rings, we should get together for a LOR film festival sometime. You're such a builder, Jenny.

Nick said...

you say:
"it seems that God is only credited with things we don't understand. I don't see why God can't do things we understand also."

I say amen- as a religious man.
As a scientist, I say science doesn't care about who gets the credit, it only cares about how it happened. But your pithy statement is a reminder to both the people who make atheistic science their religion (by definition, science IS atheistic- it doesn't require either the existance or the non-existance of a god), and the religious who lose faith in God because of advances in scientific knowledge.

Jenny said...

Sorry you had a rough day Erin—and next time you're in town and I'm not packing to leave town the next day, I'm so getting together with you :)