Monthly Archives: April 2008

The Big Bang and the Mind of God

Phew, that’s over. Contrary to expectations, we got a very good turnout for last night’s seminar ‘The Big Bang and the Mind of God’ (I got the title from the last line of A Brief History of Time). Many thanks to those of you who came along, a good crowd always makes for a good atmosphere…

I probably let the science part of the talk go on a bit long, but I wanted to give a decent overview of the evidence for the Bang, and the theory behind it, before tackling the theology side of things. I’ve left the slides I used for the talk on the My Files page of this blog in case anybody’s interested (just click on the My Files tab at the top of this page and select the file from the list) or here

The discussion session afterwards was great – absolutely loads of questions, from all parts of the religious spectrum. For the discussion, I was joined by the chair Dr Micheal Howlett, who is both a scientist and a theologian and between our different answers to questions there was probably a good balance. A good representation of what the SopiaEuropa project is all about, I suspect. In any event, the discussion continued until the porters threw us out, a good sign.

A couple of interesting points came up – a colleague had a problem with my take on the Church of England (I referred to it being founded on the principle that Henry VIII wanted to get his leg over!) and he made some fair points concerning the English reformation. However, I still feel good ol’ Henry took opportunistic advantage of the upheavals in the Church in his attempts to sire a legitimite son, a good example of how a whole new Church can arise for no good reason….must look up more on this…


Another speaker felt that arguments concerning evolution were weakened by constant reference to Darwin! Of course science has moved on, but, as far as I know, despite some gaps, the theory of natural selection, as proposed by Darwin, is in very good health indeed, and is regarded as one of the fundamental mechanisms for evolution, resulting in the complexity we see (certainly not chance!).

We managed to record the discussion session, I’ll try and upload it later…..there will be a lot more on the topic of science and religion at next week’s SopiaEuropa conference at WIT…Cormac



There is a very good overview of evolution in last week’s edition of New Scientist. It’s a nice succinct account and explains how Darwin’s model has stood firm as the bedrock of today’s theory and evidence.

Re the convergence of science and religion, another point struck me during the talk. I was describing how the major religions not only differ, but are mutually exclusive, and how this position has remained essentially unchanged for millenia. It ocurred to me that this is another major obstacle for convergence; how can science converge with religion, if different religions diverge from one another?

Finally, Micheal H commented that I used the phrase ‘scientists believe’ a few times during the lecture, pointing out the similarity with religious phraseology! However, I think the similarity is only superficial – in fact, scientists use the word belief in the opposite sense to that of the devout. When scientists say “such-and-such looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, therefore we believe it to be a duck…”, we use the word ‘believe’ to soften the statement. The word conveys the idea that this is the current thinking, which could one day change should new evidence emerge…
By contrast, the devout use the word ‘belief’ in the opposite sense…e.g. “it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, but we believe it to be a rhinocerous”, means that the observer will stick to this belief, irrespective of what evidence emerges…and that is the point of faith. A legitimate viewpoint, you might argue…but what happens when this viewpoint collides with known fact, or indeed with contrasting religions?


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One world

In preparation for tommorow’s talk on science and religion, I went looking for notes I took at the One-World Conference, a conference on Art, Religion and Science at University College Cork last summer. I wasn’t expecting that much at the time, I really only went along because John Polkinghorne, a well-known particle physicist and theologian who had known my father, was giving a talk on science and religion.

In the event, Polkinghore gave a cracking talk on particle physics, clear and precise. I no longer remember the details (one reason for this blog), but I remember that although I didn’t agree with his conclusions on the implications for religion, it was a very enjoyable talk. We had arranged to meet for coffee afterwards and I thoroughly enjoyed his memories of meeting Lochlainn at conferences…

The philosopher Jim Mackey of Edinburgh University was also at the conference. He too gave a great talk, in his typical blunt style, on the misrepresentation of scripture in art. (I remembered Jim from before, with good reason – once while I was attempting to give a seminar on the philosophy of quantum theory, Jim asked all sorts of difficult questions on the Hesienberg Uncertainty Principle!). There were a couple of other good talks afterwards, but I don’t remember the rest…

At the end of the conference, I gave Jim a lift home – nothing like a 2-hour car journey with a distinguished philosopher! All in all, ‘One-World’ was a very pleasant experience as my first theology conference…hope next week’s SopiaEuropa conference at WIT is of similar standard


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More on God

A third argument postulated by theologians is the ‘something from nothing’ argument; Dawkins doesn’t say much about the physics of this this in his book, but modern physics certainly has an answer. Put simply, the total energy content of the universe may well be zero – if so, it is entirely possible that the universe arose as a quantum fluctuation (see earlier post).

A more serious problem between religion and science is of course scripture – there is quite strong disagreement between several passages in the Book of Genesis and scientific fact e.g.

Earth is not stationary
Sun does not orbit the earth
Age of earth is wrong
Age of sun is wrong
Timeframe of creation is wrong
One solution is to take a non-literal interpretation of the Bible, as suggestioned by Augustine. However, this raises 2 problems
(i) as hardliners point out, where does the slide stop?
(ii) many Christians insist on a literal interpretation, resuting in statements like
Any theory of origins that is contrary to the early chapters
of Genesis is not true and will not stand the test of time’

…not so reasonable


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The Mind of God

Ok, so from the point of view of modern cosmology, we can postulate a beginning without the need for a creator [in a nutshell, although our best theory of gravity cannot give a successful description of the universe when it was of atomic dimensions, quantum physics predicts that the universe could in principle have arisen out of nothing, see posts below].

It is interesting to turn the problem around, and look at it from the point of religion. The most famous arguments concerning the origin of the universe were first put by St Thomas of Aquinas

His main arguments were basically

1. Everything observable has a cause outside itself, therefore the universe must have a cause outside itself – by a process of regression this can only be God.

2. The natural world is much too complicated not to have been designed by deity.

it is often pointed out that the problem with the first argument is that it is not entirely self-consistent – it assumes God does not have a cause. Also, it is not clear that God should be omnipotent etc

The second argument seems to me to be a perfectly valid and powerful argument for a 10th century philosopher. It is not so valid for modern philosophers. For example, Darwin’s theory of evolution provides a powerful explanation of how complex organisms arise from simple origins – certainly not by chance, but by a process of natural selection (the theory is of course backed up by extensive fossil evidence). In modern cosmology, a similar argument applies – much of the apparent fine-tuning is not independent, but deeply inter-related (see below).

The complexity argument for the existence of God has become very popular recently, especially in the US – this is the famous Intelligent Design (ID) argument (see the Answers in Genesis website) . it seems to me that the argument has progressed v little beyond the Aquinas argument: except that St Thomas did not know what we know now, whether it is evidence from the fossil record of mammals, or evidence from the sub-atomic world of particle physics.

This raises a tricky point for religion. Since the time of Galileo, the Church has learnt that religion should provide an explanation for our existence that does not contradict known facts – otherwise it becomes enforced dogma, not personal faith (blind faith rather than faith). As science progresses, this task does not become easier, but more difficult…Richard Dawkins has a good discussion on this in chapter 4 of his recent book ‘The God Delusion’


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The Big Bang and the Mind of God

I agreed to give a public lecture on science and religion here at WIT next week, as part of the SophiaEuropa Research Project on Culture, Technology and Religion. I’ve decided to talk about the Big Bang model – after all, the origin of the universe is a topic of interest to most people, and it’s interesting to consider whether science and religion converge or diverge in their approach to the topic.

How to go about it? I think I’ll start with an overview of the physical evidence for the Big Bang model, and touch on the theoretical framework in which it rests. Then it’ll be fun to consider how the singularity problem fits with models of Christianity. A few points I’ve noticed in my reading around I think I’ll touch on…

1. Philosophers and theologians tend to consider scientific models as if they were pure theory, ready to be overturned at any moment. I don’t think this is right as it ignores the role of evidence in the scientific method. Modern science is often incomplete, but rarely downright wrong (for example, the evidence suggests that general relativity is a more accurate theory of gravity than Newton’s Universal Law, but we send men to the moon using Newtonian gravity and it works fine). Because the scientific method is based on evidence that doesn’t go away, new theories do not ‘overturn’ old ones, they broaden and deepen them.

2. Another common misconception is the ‘fine-tuning’ of nature: it is amazing that all the various constants of nature are so suitable for the universe and life on earth to have evolved as it did. But this should never be stated without some reference to ‘unification’ – as physics progresses, we discover more and more arbitrary parameters turn out not to be independent, but deeply related to a tiny number of fundamental parameters (for example, where we once thought there were four fundamental ‘forces ‘of nature, each with it’s own coupling constant, modern theory predicts that there was probably one fundamental force, that gradually split off into four..)

3. You might think the’singularity’ fits very well with the Christian view of a creation and a creator – and so it does at first sight. But one must consider the predicitions of modern theory carefully..

(i) The ‘before’ problem’: according to the modern theory of gravity, classical general relativity (no allowance for quantum), there is no ‘before’ the bang. This is because space and time , matter and energy, all began at a singularity (Hawking /Hartle theorems show unequivocally that relativity implies that an expanding universe began as a singularity). If there is no ‘before’, it’s hard to see how the creator creates. (Don’t forget there is an awful lot of experimental evidence that relativity is correct, if incomplete)

(ii) However, there is a get-out clause – once the universe shrinks within the size of an atom, quantum physics will come into play, and physics simply doesn’t don’t have a good description of what happens to gravity at these scales

(iii) The ‘first-cause’ problem: on the other hand, quantum theory creates it’s own problem for the ‘first-cause’ argument – it is simply not true in quantum physics that everything has a cause. Tiny particles of matter/antimatter routinely spontaneously appear and annihilate without any cause, so long as the time interval is short enough (it’s a consequence of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and there is v strong evidence form particle physics that this effect really exists).

(iv) The ‘something from nothing’ argument: where did all the energy come from? My favourite answer to this is that it didn’t – for all we know, it’s possible the total energy of our universe could add up to zero, if we include the effects of negative potential energy or vacuum energy.

Indeed, putting relativity and quantum together, one has the modern theory that the birth of the universe may have been a quantum fluctuation, inflated to the size of the universe. This idea must must be taken seriously as more and more evidence for inflation is becoming available!In summary, I think I’ll try the tack ‘let’s see how far we can push science without invoking a creator’, and conclude with Hawking’s observation…” God might be like the Queen and parliament – you can have royalty if you like, but it’s not strictly necessary!…”


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Euclid and the Renaissance

Prof. Paddy Barry of University College Cork gave the weekly WIT maths/physics seminar today, entitled ‘School Geometry in Modern Times’. During the seminar, Prof Barry touched on that familiar theme, the loss and eventual recovery of Greek maths and science.

It was interesting to hear this story from the perspective of maths rather than science. Euclid’s Elements date from about 300BC, and the productive period of Greek geometry lasted until about 400 AD. Following the collapse of the Roman empire, Europe lapsed into the Dark Ages, throughout which learning and scholarship were minimal. Thanks to the conservation of classical scholarship by Islamic scholars, a gradual recovery began in Europe about 1000 AD, culminating in the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries (all this is of course true for Greek science as well as maths).

The strange aspect of the story is that the painstaking recovery of classical maths and science made it appear sacred. In fact, we now know much of Aristotlean science was wrong (due to lack of experimentation), but it was only against the greatest resistance that reformists such as Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo gradually made headway. For example, it is a well-known fact that many of Galileo’s main opponents were in the universities, not in the Church. Still, the scientific method won out in the end…

And what of Greek maths? Euclidean geometry was at first embraced throughout Europe. Around the 1500s, reformists such as Petrus Ramus got to work in France, and the French approach to geometry was followed in most continental European countries. However, England was more conservative. Thanks to Oxford and Cambridge, Euclid’s Elements remained the dominant treatment until 1903. There followed then an adaptation of the Elements, exemplified in A School Geometry by Hall and Stevens. ..

So, given the different treament of Greek maths and science, it could be said that in England at least, there was a decisive split between maths and science right from the time of Galileo! I can’t help wondering if this split might why English science played quite a small role in the early 20th century revolutions in theoretical physics – there’s no question that quantum theory (QT) and general relativity (GR) were dominated by German-speaking countries in the early years. I guess it’s a coincidence as GR invoves curvilinear geometry, and QT involves none at all..


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The last lecture

I read somewhere that a new trend in American colleges is for academics to be asked to give ‘the last lecture’, i.e. the lecture they would give if this was to be their last.

It’s a very interesting idea – I suspect a lot of academics might give talks on subjects that they are truly interested in, not necessarily than their own area of specialization! In my case, I find myself giving quite a few public talks on cosmology recently, mainly because there is such public interest in the topic, and we are seeing such exciting results the last few years.

You can see clips from a recent cosmology talkof mine here, though I’m told you can’t really see the overheads. Next week, I’m giving a public talk on cosmology and religion ( ‘The Big Bang and the Mind of God’) – the things I get into…

Getting back to the last lecture, there is also a very nice book on the topic here – in this case, the academic (Randy Pausch) was diagnosed with a terminal disease, but decided to go ahead with the lecture anyway. A lovely book, and you can see recordings of the lecture itself on u-tube here


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Ireland and CERN

There is an article in yesterday’s Irish Times on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the massive new particle accelerator at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.

Long the jewel in the crown of European science, CERN will truly become the undisputed world leader in the field of sub-atomic physics when the LHC, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator is switched on. The experiments at the new accelerator will be watched with intense interest by scientists the world over, for information on the fundamental structure of matter, and on the evolution of our early universe

Unfortunately, journalist Derek Scally repeats the concern that the experiments might create a giant black hole that will swallow the earth, a concern that is completely unfounded.

More sensibly, Mr Scally points out that the participation of Irish scientists in the historic LHC experiments will be severely limited by the fact that Ireland, almost uniquely among 20 major European nations, is not a member of CERN. For decades now, Ireland has baulked at joining this most successful of European scientific collaborations. The omission has decimated Irish research in elementary particle physics, a field of fundamental importance in science, and sits awkwardly with our efforts to become a world leader in science and technology. It has also cost us financially, with Irish engineers and scientists unable to bid for large international contracts in high-tech software and hardware projects.
All this from a country whose only Nobel Prize in science was for splitting the atom!


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More on inflation

Reading back over this morning’s post, I see I should have emphasised that cosmic inflation is not an alternative to the Big bang theory; it is simply a modification of the conventional big bang model.

What is the physical cause of the initial exponential expansion of the universe? Guth proposed that the expansion was propelled by a repulsive gravitational force generated by an exotic form of matter. Although this proposal was slightly flawed, the flaw was soon overcome by the invention of “new inflation” by Andrei Linde in the Soviet Union and independently by Andreas Albrecht and Paul Steinhardt in the US. (New inflation posits that the early universe went through the stage of exponentially rapid expansion in a kind of unstable vacuum state – a state with large energy density, but without elementary particles).

Nowadays, the evidence for the inflationary universe model is very strong. One of the coolest aspects of the theory inflation is an explanation for the large scale structure of the universe (galaxies etc.) Basically, the idea is that quantum fluctuations in the early universe could have been stretched by inflation to astronomical proportions, providing the seeds for galaxy formation. The predicted spectrum of these fluctuations was calculated by Guth and others in 1982.

These fluctuations can be seen today as ripples in the cosmic background radiation, although the amplitude of these faint ripples is only about one part in 100,000. The ripples were detected by the COBE satellite in 1992, and they have now been measured to much higher precision by the WMAP satellite and other experiments. The properties of the radiation are found to be in excellent agreement with the predictions of the simplest models of inflation [image].


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Cosmic inflation

So back to the Horizon Problem: how can it be that regions of the universe that are further away than light could have travelled during the finite age of the universe, have the same temperature and other physical properties?

The modern answer to this question is the theory of inflation. Basically, inflation suggests that the initial expansion of the universe did not look at all like the Hubble graph (previous post): instead the very early universe underwent an unimaginably large hyper-expansion right at the beginning. (Doesn’t this violate relativity, since nothing can travel faster than the speed of light? No, because relativity sets no constraints on space-time itself).

Inflation offers a simple solution to the Horizon problem – if the universe expanded arbitrarily fast, even the farthest flung points could once have been in thermal contact. Actually, inflation also offers a neat solution to the flatness problem: the maths shows that an inflationary universe would be driven towards flatness naturally (not unlike a balloon of unimaginable large suface area).

Of course, the above is a simplified overview of the theory of inflation – the main point is that if inflation is right, the universe was driven towards the critical value of flatness/ critical mass density that exists today (far from lucky coincidence). It’s also impressive that the theory was not posited to address the particular problems above, but rose in a completely different area of physics, namely Alan Guth’s attempt to address problems in Grand Unified Theory, a branch of particle physics


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