Science and religion are commonly portrayed as adversaries, with rational science always ultimately victorious over the irrational resistance of religion. Yet the actual history of science rarely seems to bear this simplistic picture out.
“The Judeo-Christian philosophical framework has proved to be a particularly fertile ground for the rise of modern science,” writes Owen Gingerich, in his small book God’s Universe (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2006). And Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science in the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University and in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, speaks with considerable authority on his subject.
God’s Universe represents the three William Belden Noble Lectures that the author delivered at Harvard’s Memorial Church in November 2005. As befits good lectures, the chapters of this book are clear, non-technical, and easily accessible to a general audience.
Professor Gingerich is a believer. “To me,” he writes, “belief in a final cause, a Creator-God, gives a coherent understanding of why the universe seems so congenially designed for the existence of intelligent, self-reflective life. It would take only small changes in numerous physical constants to render the universe uninhabitable. Somehow, in the words of [eminent physicist] Freeman Dyson, this is a universe that knew we were coming. I do not claim that these considerations are proof for the existence of a Creator; I claim only that to me, the universe makes more sense with this understanding.”
As an example of “how remarkably hospitable and how suited our universe is to the development of intelligent life,” Gingerich cites elements of the apparent fine-tuning of the physical cosmos that appeared during the very first microseconds of its existence. In the Big Bang with which our universe evidently began, the balance between the outward energy of expansion and the resistant forces of gravitation had to occur within a range of one part in 10 59 (ten to the fifty-ninth power) – that is, a fraction or ratio of one over one followed by fifty-nine zeros (“an unimaginably large number”).
If the energy of that primordial “explosion” had been even slightly less, the universe would have collapsed back upon itself long before it had been able to build the elements required for life; if the energy had been even a tiny fraction greater, the density of the universe’s matter probably would have diminished too rapidly for galaxies, stars, and planets to be able to form.
Many unbelievers have pointed to the sheer vastness and immense age of the universe as evidence for the insignificance of humanity and, rather oddly, for the non-existence of God. And the cosmos is indeed unimaginably enormous: If, for instance, the sun were represented by a marble about an inch in diameter, the next-closest star would be represented, on this scale, by another marble located roughly six hundred miles away.
The numbers are breathtaking. There are approximately two hundred billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy – more than thirty for each and every man, woman, and child living on Planet Earth – and more than a hundred billion additional galaxies are believed to exist beyond the Milky Way. We simply cannot visualize such figures.
But, says Professor Gingerich, the immensity of the universe is scarcely proof of our nothingness. On the contrary, it seems to have been necessary for our existence, since “we would not be found in a smaller, young universe because there would not have been time in it for the slow cooking’ of the elements required for life.”
The laws of nature, Professor Gingerich suggests, are in some sense “rigged” in order to lead to the emergence of mind. And not just on the vast scale of the cosmos as a whole. Earth’s atmosphere is just right, for example, and so are the odd properties of water. Were they much different, we would not be here.
“It was Galileo,” recalls Professor Gingerich, “who wrote that that the reality of the world was dually expressed in the Book of Scripture and in Nature, and these two great books could not contradict each other, because God was the author of both. So, just as I believe that the Book of Scripture illumines the pathway to God, I also believe that the Book of Nature, in all its astonishing detail – the blade of grass, the missing mass five, or the incredible intricacy of DNA – suggests a God of purpose and a God of design. And I think my belief makes me no less a scientist.”