Richard Jastrow on the Big Bang

December 11, 2012

Big Bang

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The Big Bang Theory

Given that yesterday we touched on the question of what happened before the Big Bang, I thought I’d share the thoughts of one Astronomer on the subject – a physicist named Robert Jastrow. It is noteworthy to see how he struggles with the implications of the Big Bang theory as well as some of his thoughts on the matter.

Struggling with Scientific Materialism

First, let’s note the struggle:

Who Got Their First

And now for some of his thoughts on the matter. First, we’ll start with one of his more famous quotes from his book G-d and the Astronomers:

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.

What I find most interesting about this quote is the recognition that the theologians got there first (so to speak). Now, I’m not 100% what Professor Jastrow had in mind when making this statement, but I take it as a recognition that there is more than one path to the truth. What’s more, it may be that the path of reason takes longer and goes on a more circuitous route.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that one should abandon reason. Just that we should note its inherent limitations.

Scientists Are People Too

And here is another quote that I find particular interesting:

There is a strange ring of feeling and emotion in these reactions [of scientists to evidence that the universe had a sudden beginning]. They come from the heart whereas you would expect the judgments to come from the brain. Why? I think part of the answer is that scientists cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon which cannot be explained, even with unlimited time and money.

There is a kind of religion in science; it is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the Universe. Every event can be explained in a rational way as the product of some previous event; every effect must have its cause, there is no First Cause…

This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control.

If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized.

I think this line is rather insightful and explains a lot of the emotion today in discussions about religion and science. People like control and they hate giving it up. To give up the notion that science can explain or understand it all means to give up the respect that comes with such a perspective. It means turning to others for answers that they can’t provide. It means entertaining notions and ideas that run counter to a scientific-materialistic world view.

Of course, scientific-materialism can somewhat come to grips with the Big Bang if we push G-d’s involvement back to simply getting the Big Bang banging (so to speak). We can then have a nice, neat split. The world as a whole can still run totally according to the laws of nature, with only the moment of creation out of scientific reach (although Stephen Hawking may disagree with that last point).

But when faced with questions about the origin and development of life – such a neat split isn’t possible. Perhaps that is why there is a much fiercer battle with regards to the origin of life and the theory of evolution than there is with the origin of the universe as a whole – it violates this neat little intellectual divide.

Either way, it’s worth noting that scientists are humans too. They, like all of us, like control. They, like all of us, have philosophical paradigms from which they view the world. And they, like all of us, do not like having that control rested from them or their paradigms shifting from under them.

A Couple More Quotes to Think About

And finally, a few more choice quotes from Professor Jastrow:

Now we see how the astronomical evidence supports the biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.

Consider the enormity of the problem. Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks: What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter or energy into the universe? And science cannot answer these questions, because, according to the astronomers, in the first moments of its existence the Universe was compressed to an extraordinary degree, and consumed by the heat of a fire beyond human imagination. The shock of that instant must have destroyed every particle of evidence that could have yielded a clue to the cause of the great explosion.

Note the phrase ‘Who or what put the matter or energy into the universe’. It sounds as if Professor Jastrow thinks that before the Big Bang there was no energy – interesting indeed. Or, put otherwise, where did that singularity come from? That infinitely hot, infinitely dense point of energy?

It seems, according to Professor Jastrow, science can’t really know – it simply doesn’t have the tools to go there. But the implication is that it was somehow or other ‘placed’ here. How? Science can’t know, but as we noted yesterday – one option was that before the Big Bang there was nothing – no matter, no energy, no space and no time.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other speculative ideas. There are (as we also saw yesterday in the Professor Levin’s video). But speculative theories need not concern us now. If the astronomical view changes at some point we’ll deal with that fact then.

All we need to do is note (as Professor Jastrow noted) is that the ‘astronomical evidence supports the biblical view of the origin of the world’. Supports is not the same as proves or provides evidence for. But it is noteworthy. For thousands of years philosophers followed by scientists rejected and fought against the idea of a beginning to the universe. And during that time the Torah (and those who believed in it) have stood in stark contrast and insisted on a beginning.

With that historical perspective in mind, it is certainly striking that there is a scientific theory that in its ‘essential elements’ accounts for the origin of the universe in a manner that accords with the first line of Genesis. And that is something worth thinking about.

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About Moshe

Moshe is the founder, researcher, writer, and all-around fix-it guy for MoreThinking.com

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  • http://decor.blogbox.be/ Lenny W. Singleton

    Though God and the Astronomers leaves something to be desired as a commentary on the relation of theology to natural science, many readers will doubtless enjoy it as a popular history of cosmological speculation in this century. The simple text is very short (less than a third as long as the combined articles and features in an average issue of this magazine), and there are many pictures. Readers unfamiliar with the concept of an expanding universe and with the astronomers who brought us to an understanding of it will doubtless find the book an instructive one. As an historical work, however, Jastrow’s book cannot match such recent efforts as Man Discovers the Galaxies, by Richard Berendzen, Richard Hart, and Daniel Seeley, or The Red Limit: The Search for the Edge of the Universe, by Timothy Ferris.